Tag Archives: Books

Escaping the rut, a rancorous work, and the world – with writing

It’s been a long time since I posted a personal update. I’ve had a tough year for various reasons, but thankfully my writing has continued unabated. And I am immensely proud to announce I will shortly have finished my second novel, having started it a little over nine months ago, during #NaNoWriMo.

What an invigorating annual challenge National Novel Writing Month is! I was stuck in something of a rut, creatively speaking, before I took part in 2016. I’d been working on Citadel, my after-life fantasy epic, for practically a decade, and it was increasingly clear it would never end.

The story had evolved so much since first embarking upon it – and more importantly I had learned so much in the process – that the themes I had hoped to tackle at the beginning had been masticated and regurgitated, popping out in the narrative in weird morsels that no longer represented my initial vision.

Etch-a-sketch-a-story

For better or worse, I’ve now shelved that project. It was an incredibly hard decision – 10 years of work, for heaven’s sake! – but I am certain it was the right choice. Maybe one day I will return to it, as there are certainly some scenes in that hot mess of which I am proud.

But setting it aside cleared the path for more focused work. Where Citadel had become my practice clay, upon which I tested new techniques of storytelling, it was nevertheless just that: practice. Now I’m using what I learned messing about with that hunk of mud, but on some new fancy material.

What have I learned, specifically? Well, it includes, but by no means is limited to:

  • Concept of agency (I hadn’t heard of this until long after I started writing)
  • Perspective focus
  • Importance of diversity
  • How to lace backstory into action and dialogue
  • How to skip journeys
  • How to build tension in action scenes
  • How to construct a character arc
  • Importance of arcs for all characters, not just the protagonist
  • How to ruthlessly murder your darlings
  • How to reach the end

My new novel, prospectively titled Peace & Quietus, has been my most ambitious project since starting to write – but not due to its potential length, or number of characters, or exhaustive worldbuilding. On the contrary, the story looks to be about two thirds the size of Citadel, has only a handful of characters, and is set in London, rather than a fantastical reimagining of Hell.

The reason it has been ambitious is because P&Q is a much more emotionally driven piece than I have previously attempted. It was borne of my own despair watching the western world kowtow to fascism, nationalism and isolationism, with the Brexit vote and the election of that racist neon beanbag in the US. It grew out of anxiety attacks on the London underground, out of visibly increasing homelessness in the world’s sixth largest economy, out of the frustrations of a much-derided generation left with the carcass of a free-market economy picked clean by their parents.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “If you can identify what your story is about, and are able to express it in a single sentence, everything in the story will inform that central proposition”

The story tackles body shame, social media anxiety, racism, the political shift to the right, the hopelessness among so-called Millennials, and the ever-present attraction of just giving up and abandoning the rat race. It’s escapism, in a word.

Yes, it has a science fiction element – the story concerns an apocalypse of sorts – and that’s because I wanted to describe a character who, when the end of civilisation came, would find solace in its blessed relief from modern life.

That’s another thing I learned: the importance of comprehending what your story is about, and being able to express it in a single sentence. If you know that, everything in the story will inform that central proposition.

Helpful hiatus

So, I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the week, and then? Well, then I’m going to set it aside for a while; I’ve a couple of short story ideas I’ve been stewing away in the back of my mind that need fleshing out, plus it would be good to start thinking about my next #NaNoWriMo project. Either way, edits for P&Q can wait.

How I will broadcast any achievements is anyone’s guess, though. In a fit of reactionary paranoia, I deleted my Facebook account, severing the ties I had made with hundreds of people around the world. What was I thinking? I could have sold stuff at them!

Yeah, but no, delete your account. It’s great.
(But don’t forget to subscribe to Right Place, Right Tim first!)

Cheers!

(cover image by Linh Nguyen)

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – Rod Duncan – [Book Review]

Bought on a whim in an International Book Day promotion for 50p from Angry Robot, Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was a very pleasant surprise indeed. The steampunk mystery is set in a parallel-universe England around the turn of the century. Britain is divided between an aristocratic Kingdom that extends from the Midlands to the English Channel, and the sober Republic to the north.

Told through the eyes of cross-dressing private investigator Elizabeth Barnabus and her “brother”, the story weaves a rich and absorbing world through glorious Victorian language and sensibilities, while drip-feeding us the setting’s history as and when we need it. This is the correct way to give the reader the information they require – on a need-to-know basis, allowing us to enjoy the characters, the action and the peril without unnecessary distraction.

Much to my delight, my fears of an unresolved storyline left open to reel the reader in to an entire series were unfounded. The story is complete in itself, with the merest hint of a wider narrative to come sprinkled into the glossary appendix, with talk of falling empires and the involvement of our humble heroine. Again, this is how it should be: entice readers back with a good story, not unanswered cliff-hangers.

Having said that, I have bought the second book in the series – which is unusual for me. With so many stories out there in the market, I try to keep my choices eclectic, and seldom return to a world, even if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (Hyperion being an exception – both books are essential reading). So to have drawn me back for another episode in high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of the steampunk genre.

——

[For larks – here’s a couple of pictures of me in a costume I made for Bestival 2010 of a steampunk time-traveller I made up, named Dr Heimlich Spoading. The backpack was designed to carry two bags of space wine (those silver bags inside boxes of wine), and had a latch for the tap to poke out. I don’t think I’ve ever been as drunk as the night I wore that little number – and it unfortunately did not survive the muddy night.

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35 #2

Handy links!

You can buy Rod Duncan’s first book in the Gas-Lit Empire series here: The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.

Rod is also quite active on Twitter, and seems a nice chap; so here’s his Twitter handle: Rod Duncan

The end is nigh, and other novel-writing revelations

A few weeks ago, the latest draft of Citadel tipped over the 100,000 words mark. It’s drawing closer to an end, when I can finally put this project to bed. I’ve spent the best part of 10 years on this story – though most of that time was spent learning how to tell it, rather than writing it, if that makes any sense.

That’s the nature of writing, I think. You can smash something out, but unless you study the craft and hone your talent, it is guaranteed to be a waffling mess. I look back at my early drafts, and they are practically instruments of torture – I cringe so hard reading them I give myself cramp. A lot of that was down to ignorance – ignorance of deep POV, narrative arcs, scene structure, character agency and the other mechanics of the trade.

But I’ve also learned to find the theme of a piece – the answer to the question: What am I writing about? If the answer is, “Radical battles and death and gore and political intrigue and titties!” you’re not quite there yet.

If your answer is actually another question, you’re getting closer.

But the biggest reason I’m excited to finish the story is that I want to do something else for a change. I want to write something new, something different and exciting. Something that I haven’t been mulling over for a decade. I can’t wait!

Why don’t I just sack off this project and do precisely that? Well, there are a few reasons: firstly, stubbornness is a factor. I said I’d do it, and I will, and not even me can persuade me otherwise!

Secondly, I don’t want the last decade to feel like a waste of time. I know it’s been a learning process – and that in itself is valuable – but to go so long without something complete and whole at the end of it would be pretty demoralising.

But thirdly, I’m not entirely without hope that Citadel is, in fact, a good story. I’ve no doubt I can do better, knowing what I know now, but there are scenes and characters in Citadel that I come across in the draft and think, “What the…? Who wrote this? It’s good.” There are moments that make my skin tingle, dialogue that’s witty and insightful (sometimes I don’t know if it’s me or the characters that came up with it), and tragic events that shake the very fabric of the world I’ve created.

So, I have to finish. And maybe an editor will say, “You need to cut out this entire sub-plot,” or “Do we need to see the antagonist in this light, or can we just leave him evil?” or “Have you considered doing away with description?”.

But that’s OK. It’ll be done. Finito. Complete.

A long, winding road leading to two words:

The End.

I can’t wait.

The Stars Are Legion – Kameron Hurley – [Book Review]

Kameron Hurley’s biopunk sci-fi adventure The Star Are Legion is as unique as it is bizarre. Hurtling through the cosmos in an organic starship, space-faring women wage war with the other world-ships in the cluster, en route to some long-forgotten destination, while birthing ship components and murdering mutants.

The story revolves around two main characters, one with amnesia, who spends the book trying to discover who she is and what she has done; and her handler, who tries to enact some gradually revealed master plan.

It’s a tricky prospect in first person present tense. Although the mind-wiped Zan discovers the world with the same curiosity as us, the cunning Jayd must keep her goals from the reader, which can get a little frustrating at times. It was a brave move to adopt her perspective, and is admittedly well-handled, but the risk is always of making the reader want to shake the narrator by the neck to spill the beans. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW, DAMNIT – WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?

It’s hard to know who to trust with all these unreliable narrators, but gleaning the evidence with Zan is a compelling way to reveal the backstory. The twist did not smash me in the face, though, which I had hoped; but I’m not sure how else it could have been delivered. Elements of the mystery sprinkled throughout perhaps gave too much away, or maybe it was the choice of using both POVs that softened the punch.

However, the visceral descriptions of the world-ships, the ubiquitous imagery of birth and pregnancy, and the ignorant civilisations that inhabit their rotting worlds all make for a powerful read. It’s bleak – hideously so, at times – all oozing membranes and cancerous cityscapes, pointless conflict and maniacal despots, who dismember dissidents and drive their civilisations into oblivion.

It wasn’t until I read an interview with the author that I grasped the concept – the ships are colony vessels, whose inhabitants have evolved while in space on their way to some destination, but the mission has long since been forgotten in the annals of time. It’s a bit like the movie Pandorum, but without non-evolved humans to tie the story to a contemporary foundation (and it’s rather more sophisticated than simple devolution to mindless savagery).

Not that this matters terribly. Characters with clear agency don’t require exhaustive back-stories to be engaging, after all. As long as we know what they want, and perceive their obstacles, we can get behind them, cheer their victories and mourn their losses.

It’s also a very quick read, as first person present tense tends to be. Though I admittedly felt the second act was a little too long in comparison to the end and the beginning, the range of settings, ideas and characters kept me interested. And I’d definitely read more from Hurley. Entertaining, evocative, visceral sc-fi fantasy that recalls 1960s-style bizarre space romps. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Handy links!

Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is available on Kindle here

The author is good on the Twitter too, and worth following for insights into publishing and all things sci-fi. She can be found here: Kameron Hurley

Finally, Hurley often posts candid blogs about her publishing income (among a raft of other things) over at kameronhurley.com

#NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

Yeah, that’s right Inner Demons – you were wrong about me. All that hopelessness and doubt you whispered in my ear was baseless baloney. You’re like the Breitbart of my mind – telling me everything is awful and finding people to blame other than myself.

Well eat this, you Pessimistic Pixies!

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_winner_congrats

Read it and weep, you Imps of Uncertainty. I came at this challenge unprepared and you told me to quit at every turn, telling me “You didn’t have time to prepare!” – “Sack it off and do it properly next year!” – “50,000 words is impossible with a full-time job!”

Continue reading #NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

My book craving has been Kindled

It was my birthday on Monday and, aside from the delicious ninja omelettes my wonderful fiancée made me for breakfast (did I mention I’m THIRTY-FOUR YEARS OF AGE?), she also bought me a Kindle Paperwight.

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That’s right, I have finally joined the ranks of the e-reading cyberpunk revolution, jacking in to my favourite synth-novels with all the other sub-commuting fiction-hackers.

And what a joy it is! A brief gander reveals quirks like the ingeniously simple integrated dictionary, enabling instant vocab expansion as you read; a handy quote-saving mechanic that will prove useful for reviews; and a backlit display that will last for months without recharging.

That’s pretty special – not to mention its lightweight and slender build, particularly in relation to the hulking Medieval tree-mulch we know of as “books”.

Continue reading My book craving has been Kindled