Science Fiction

Science Fiction is my favourite genre. I’d love to write a really good SF novel. Better still, I am going to write a brilliant SF novel, you just wait and see.

As a child, I would be taken to Tyldesley library every Saturday morning where I would gather my stock of books to last me a whole week. I can’t remember how many I was allowed to borrow at a time but however many it was, it was never enough. Which meant that I had to read everything I borrowed. This was a very good discipline because it prevented me from falling into the habit of abandoning books without giving them a chance. Just like my Friday evening visits to the cinema, I made the best of what was on offer.

My go to books were the bright yellow sleeved Gollancz ones. I worked my way through them from Aldiss to Zelazny. Two particular favourites that I remember were Samuel R Delany and Theodore Sturgeon. Happy days.

I also like Fantasy. Traditionally, Fantasy involves swords, elves, dragons and similar things whereas SF has spaceships, robots and technology. Many of these are interchangeable but the defining element is often said to be magic.

The problem with magic is that it has to be carefully defined for it to be a useful plot element. It’s too tempting for a writer to suddenly conjure up a new piece of magic to help his protagonist out of a tight spot. That kind of behaviour plays havoc with dramatic tension and has the reader relaxed and waiting for a new miracle at every crisis point.

The SF equivalent is, of course, technology. Star Trek provides plenty of wonderful example of how not to use technology in a story. Suddenly deciding that reversing the dilithium crystal polarity to  save the Enterprise from doom can be a bit weak unless you’ve tried it at least once before and shown the reader or viewer some potential negative consequences.

It’s easy to be lazy when you’re inventing your own technology or dreaming up magic spells. That’s why I think that the very best of both genres ranks with the very best writing ever. I also recognise that the opposite is undoubtedly true.

The most recent SF book I read was Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s superb. Highly recommended, as is his Nebula Award winning Children of Time. One of my all time favourite SF reads is the Algebraist by Iain M Banks, though every book he wrote contains much to savour.

As for Fantasy, it’s hard to look beyond the Hobbit. Some might say this is the book that shaped the genre for all time. However, I can’t not mention Joe Abercrombie and the First Law series. Joe is in a different class entirely to every other Fantasy author.

So, one day I’ll have my own masterpiece to add to the pantheon of SF. All I have to do now is to write it and convince Gollancz to publish it.

Watch this space.

photo credit: jaci XIII New family via photopin (license)

Advertisements

Taking Stock

On the day that my second Jenny Parker crime thriller is published by Endeavour Media, I am taking stock of where my writing is up to.

The third Jenny Parker, Limited Liability, is scheduled for publication in October. The fourth, Exit Strategy, is done and dusted. Written, revised (many times), edited, rewritten, edited, finalised and copy-edited. Polished to a burnished hue. Ready to go.

I’m currently writing a fantasy series. Three books. The first two are drafted. I’ve already completely re-written the first after feedback from an agent and it’s much better. The third Tyrant book is well under way.

The rest of my recent output is looking for an agent that can get the best out of it.

A stand alone novel about a father-daughter dysfunctional relationship.

A novel based on the early years of my waste management consultancy.

Two Palmer and Jones books (humorous crime novels).

A childrens book, Unipig.

A toddlers book (Not for Bedtime).

A book about the ancients gods of Sumeria (in process).

Then there’s my SF trilogy, Technical Difficulties. I wrote these around ten years ago. All I can say about them is that they were good practice for the discipline of writing. They will never see the light of day. At least not in their present form. I’ve started a rewrite, of course I have, but it’s got bogged down in 1977 Las Vegas. Not the best place to leave your characters.

Now I need someone to look at all this stuff and help me decide where to concentrate my efforts. Meanwhile, I write what comes up and there’s plenty that is.

Ten Minute Rule

Give it ten minutes.

It’s a symptom of the modern age that we have less and less attention span. The situation hasn’t been helped by the advent of streaming. We can get movies and books instantly. If we don’t like the one we’re watching or reading, we can change at the prod of a finger.

Once upon a time, I used to have to go down to the local Blockbuster video store and physically borrow a copy of a film. An even longer time ago, I would go to the library every Saturday morning for my weekly ration of reading matter.

Either way, movies or books, I was stuck with the selection I’d made. If the film was rubbish, I’d watch it anyway because I’d taken ages to choose it, queued up to rent it, paid for it and driven there and back. And there wasn’t anything else for us to watch. If the book I’d borrowed was a bit dry, I’d read it anyway.

Now I have Netflix and Amazon and iPlayer and Kindle and iBooks. If what I’m reading or watching isn’t doing it for me, it’s liable to get replaced by something else. Instantly.

That’s what I call the ten minute rule. Sometimes ten minutes is being over-generous with my time. A good film has me forgetting that I’d decided to give it ten minutes because I get absorbed.

As a writer, I feel compelled to give books a bit more room to impress me. A slow start doesn’t necessarily mean a bad book. However, I’m conscious that many readers these days aren’t so patient. Books are chosen on the basis of the cover and then the first few sentences. Quite honestly, I’d be happy if readers would give my books a whole ten minutes.

Which makes it incredibly satisfying when people do read my books from cover to cover. My publishers recently promoted my first Jenny Parker thriller in Australia and we sold lots of copies. What was most exciting, though, was the number of people that bought and read the other two in the series. Unless I’m deluding myself, these wonderfully astute readers must have enjoyed their first taste of Jenny Parker to be willing to pay for more. Nothing could be more satisfying for an author like me.

Having said that, I’m constantly aware of the need to make my books as instantly compelling as possible. There’s no room for shilly-shallying about in the modern novel.

The ten minute rule sees to that.

photo credit: marcoverch In letzter Minute via photopin (license)

Violence

I love a good thriller and thrillers usually involve violence. What I don’t like is the portrayal of violence as the universal answer to any problem. If I read a book or watch a film that uses violence to sort the job out, I feel cheated. I think of it as lazy and unimaginative writing.

Violence creates problems, it doesn’t solve them.

Take a comment I once saw posted on the Glock website. (For those of you who don’t have an interest in handguns, I will explain. Glock make pistols that are the weapon of choice for many law enforcement agencies. British police use them, for example.) A customer asked why the Glock 19 only held fifteen bullets in its magazine. The answer was a good one. If fifteen rounds from a Glock hasn’t solved your problem then maybe you chose the wrong solution.

My complaint is that books and films choose the Glock solution too often when it is inappropriate and unsatisfactory.

Most of us don’t have the option to visit violent retribution on evildoers. As any sane American will testify, nor does having a gun protect you. (Unless someone shoots you and the bullet hits your gun and bounces off, I suppose)

My protagonist in Due Diligence, Jenny Parker, is an ordinary person. She’s just like you and I. Vulnerable. No institution to back her up. She doesn’t have the option to fight fire with fire. That would not only get her arrested. It would be also be pointless and ineffective. She has to find other ways to survive. She has to use her wits.

I find that so much more satisfying to write and to read.

As for the magazine capacity of a Glock 19, I find it hard to stuff more than ten rounds into the magazine before the spring gets too stiff for my thumb.

(I hasten to add that my experience of handguns has been limited to a legal range in the US while conducting research. Sometimes it’s necessary to obtain first hand experience even if you disapprove of what you’re trying out.)

photo credit: subtlemd CZ 85B 9mm via photopin (license)

You’re a Writer, So Admit It!

Patrick

 

I know that this blog is supposed to be about writing but the film ‘Patrick’ does have some relevance, so bear with me.

While on the subject of Patrick, I urge you to watch it. Take the whole family. Believe me you’ll enjoy it, perhaps in spite of many misgivings. It’s a brilliantly gentle British comedy in the best tradition of all that’s good in that genre. The sort of film that amuses, entertains and leaves you feeling uplifted.

As I said though, this isn’t a film review column, it’s about writing. So where’s the relevance?

Here it is.

I have found that I possess an inherent reluctance to admit that I’m a writer. I don’t think that I’m alone in this feeling. Perhaps it’s a fear of being harshly judged. The response to an admission is usually something along the lines of ‘Oh, really? Have I heard of you?’ or ‘Are you as good as Stephen King and have you sold as many books as J K Rowling?’ At least that’s what I hear, even if the actual words are less specific.

While on holiday in cloudy Dorset, escaping the rigours of the harsh Lancashire sunshine, I met a lady who said she was a writer. I plucked up the courage to admit that I was also a writer. She told me she wrote films. I said I wrote crime thrillers. I told her my name and she went away and bought Due Diligence, the first Jenny Parker book. Next time I saw her, she told me she was reading it and enjoying it. Then she invited my wife and I to a special showing of her latest film, Patrick, where she introduced the leading lady to an audience of her friends. It was a very good evening and talking to her has given me a valuable insight into the film world.

I’m not implying that Jenny Parker is going to be gracing the silver screen any time soon but I’m very glad I admitted I was a writer because otherwise I wouldn’t have made this exciting connection.

It takes courage to admit you’re a writer, I know it does. It takes even more courage to engage with other writers but I strongly advise you to do it. I’m a member of my local writers’ group and this has been an enormous support to me from my first tentative attempts at writing to becoming published.

Meanwhile, enjoy the movie.

An Elephant with two Trunks

Let’s have a referendum.

I think that all elephants should have two trunks. How about you? Wouldn’t that be a really cool thing. Good for the elephant, I bet. And good for the zoo visitor who will be able to see something different. Imagine the benefits of two trunks. Breathing while drinking. The ability to pick up two things at a time. It seems a shame that they have been denied the extra trunk for so long.

I’m convinced that having two trunks would be a major benefit for both elephants and humans. Don’t you agree?

So, let’s vote on it. We can have a referendum. Sort this out once and for all.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The idea that just because people vote for something then it has to be like that. You and I know perfectly well that no matter how overwhelming the vote might be, elephants only have one trunk and that’s that. The vote changes nothing. All it does is make us look stupid and ill-informed for bothering.

The Brexit referendum is pretty much the same. People (narrowly) voted for two trunks. They were promised two trunks by politicians who didn’t have any prospect of delivering.

Now, the reality of EU membership is starting to become clear. It’s a club we can’t leave. We are in Europe and, no matter how many people vote to be somewhere else, that’s where we stay. Our major trading partners are European. Our food supplies come from Europe. Our defence strategy is European. And so on.

The big shout from the Leave campaigners is that the people have spoken The will of the people must be done. We have to leave the EU. Elephants must have two trunks.

The Government has recently realised that elephants only have one trunk and that there’s nothing they can do to change it.  Two isn’t possible but none certainly is. If they can chop off the trunk of every elephant then at least they will have done something in response to the referendum.The elephants will all die but that’s merely the consequence of holding a referendum that demands a change in the number of trunks an elephant should have.

It’s the will of the people that elephants must have two trunks. They voted for something that isn’t possible. Even another vote that promises three extra trunks per animal wouldn’t change the facts.

It’s the same with the EU. Voting for things to be different doesn’t change the fact that we rely on our EU membership for our livelihoods.

But, the people have spoken and cutting off our only trunk might be the only alternative to leaving things as they are.

photo credit: marfis75 Elefantastisch. via photopin (license)

Writing Tips

27247614189_57a45349aa_b

 

 

Someone has asked me to write down my writing tips. So I have.

My first tip is: Write

This is so bloody obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it does. It took me ages to realise that’s what I needed to do.

For years, I wrote very little, preferring instead to prepare for that wonderful day when I would be free from all encumbrances, released form inhibitions and have the swathes of time I needed to write.

Poppycock. Baloney.

This was self-sabotage of the worst kind.

A writer needs to write. The thing that has helped me more than anything has been the development of a writing habit. This began when I managed to persuade myself that writing was more important than watching Coronation Street. As soon as the theme music started, I left the room, went to my quiet place and sat down to write. My wife and family became used to it. They were distracted by the TV and I claimed an hour or so of peace. This was my big breakthrough. I ‘came out’ as a writer as a result. I became a writer at last.

Now, my practice has shifted to early morning but remains an overt one. My wife doesn’t expect to see or hear from me until about 11am. By which time I have done my writing for the day.

Writing every day is good for my soul. It provides me with nourishment and contentment. On days when I can’t write, the ensuing day seems to have less sparkle.

However, if I don’t write, I’m gentle with myself.

Writing every day (or most of them) brings another benefit. Productivity. A morning’s writing can produce a thousand words. If I do that every day, we’re talking about three hundred thousand words in a year. Five hundred words a day would still produce the raw material for two or three novels.

The maths are compelling if you write every day. Two hundred and fifty words, a page, accumulate nicely to a novel a year proportions.

It’s doing it every day that makes this possible.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t write any more than I do. Writing is hard work. Exhausting work, physically, mentally and, if you’re having a good day, emotionally.

My advice is to write, then. Whatever you’re writing, write until you’ve finished it. Don’t look back. Don’t try to judge it. Resist the urge to throw it all in the bin.

Put it away for a while. Some like a month, me, I prefer a year.

photo credit: Brett Jordan Word (lock) via photopin (license)

Nowt on Telly

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a fair amount of time watching things on TV that, in hindsight, seem a complete waste of time. Then you watch the next instalment if only to see if this one’s any better than the last. Perhaps, as I have, you’ve become inexplicably hooked by a couple with more money than sense being filmed looking for a property in the country.

If I see one more undercooked rack of lamb on Masterchef I may throw up.

There’s an antidote to the hollow feeling that comes from wasting an evening in front of the box. It might be hard to swallow for the first few attempts but it’s well worth persevering. If you do, a whole new richness will enter your life. Every day will hold the promise of discovery and excitement. Life will feel that much more worthwhile.

There’s a magical effect produced when a TV is switched off. Your attention becomes your property again. You can do with it whatever you wish without it being constantly dragged to the screen.

Then there’s the silence. Opportunity for stillness. Your mind relaxes, free from a constant bombardment of images and sounds.

So what do you do instead? What’s this magical alternative to relaxing in front of the telly?

Read a book.

It’s the best antidote to boredom and that empty feeling of having wasted time.

Ok, I’m an author so I would say that, you might think. There he goes, trying to peddle his books, you might say.

In response, I admit that I’m as affected by TV in all its forms as anyone. I waste vast amounts of precious time slumped on a sofa in a semi-comatose state.

As soon as I pick up a book and start reading, I feel so much better. Reading is a much richer experience than TV can ever be.

I’ll prove it to you, if you have any doubts. Read any book that has been adapted for TV, then watch the program or film. It’s become a cliche that the book is always better than the film but this just isn’t fair. A book is a book and a film is a film. They’re different media. You can do things in books that films, even using the most sophisticated computer generated imagery, can’t possibly display. The greatest actor on the planet can’t hope to communicate feelings with the same intensity that living inside the character’s head can.

Try Lord of the Rings, even if you’ve seen all the films.

Read The Handmaid’s Tale, even if you saw the TV programme.

Read The Shining, then watch the film.

Read anything by Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson.

Why not try the greatest crime writer in the history of the world, Raymond Chandler? His books have been made into films again and again. The Big Sleep is a particular favourite of mine.

You don’t even have to buy a book. We have a brilliant library service in Lancashire.

If you do want to make a purchase, support an independent book shop.

By the way, there’s a TV adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and the City coming on the BBC. Get the book. Immerse yourself. Then enjoy the program in a very different way.

Freefall Writing

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Without-Parachute-Barbara-Turner-Vesselago/dp/1785921711/

No matter how long I’ve been writing, there’s always more for me to learn. Reading other writer’s work is a brilliant way to do that. Writing itself, just putting words on paper is also recommended. However, a school teacher once told me that practice did NOT make perfect. ‘If you carry on making the same basic errors, you’ll never improve. CORRECT PRACTICE makes perfect’ is how he expressed it.

With that in mind, though they say you shouldn’t take any notice of school teachers because ‘those who can, do and those that can’t, teach,’ I try to take every opportunity to improve my writing technique.

Content isn’t a problem for me. I’m blessed with a very inventive mind that is harder to rein back than it is to get going. Getting it down on paper in a manner that will keep a reader engeged is the trick as far as I’m concerned.

Many years ago, I was introduced to Barbara Turner-Vessalago’s Freefall writing method and I’ve been attending her two UK workshops every year since.

My first attempts at novel writing are the stuff of legend. I wrote a SF trilogy with a casual, stand-offish point of view that was packed with self-conscious humour that didn’t work and served only to dissipate what little dramatic tension I’d created.

Barbara taught me to write from a more authentic place. To embody what I was saying. To feel in to the characters and the situation. To drop into a place, look around, see what was happening, smell the air, listen to the wind in the trees, watch my characters react to their surroundings.

Her workshops are wonderfully transformative. She is a supremely gifted mentor and the feedback she gives is always exactly what is needed. Unfortunately, there are only two courses per year in the UK and only twelve writers per workshop. Of the twenty four potential places, though, at least half are taken up by gluttons like myself. So the opportunities to attend are very limited. If you ever get a chance, I advise you to take it because you won’t regret it.

After much heart-searching, Barbara distilled her teaching into a book which provides a very cost-effective alternative to her workshops and is the next best thing.

With Barbara’s blessing, I’m going to be giving a short introductory workshop to Chorley and District Writers’ Circle on February 27th. Check out  http://www.chorleywriters.org.uk/ if you’re interested.

If you can’t make it, get the book.

Chekhov’s Gun

My wife had trouble sleeping and discovered that not watching the TV (or any other kind of screen) in the evening made a positive difference. It has also helped me.

In the absence of television to amuse us, we turned to reading together. A good book is a very rewarding shared experience. Even better, we find, is reading aloud. Most nights, therefore, I read to my wife who sits on the sofa in front of the fire with her knitting. We started with my books. It’s important for me to hear what I’ve written because it helps me eliminate clunky bits and also adjust the rhythm of the sentences. Reading to someone else also has the advantage of giving the opportunity for feedback, a valuable resource for any writer.

My wife is particularly good at picking up things that don’t work. Awkward sentences, inadequate explanations, lack of detail, that kind of thing. There’s a good adage when it comes to feedback:

If someone tells you that a piece doesn’t work they’re almost always right.

My wife is getting very good at helping me put things right.

Reading makes me a better writer. Writing makes me a better reader. I think it works for everyone.

In the days before television, books were the main source of entertainment and delight. There was a time, not so long ago, where not everyone could read and being read to was a valuable experience. Before that, storytelling was a purely verbal craft. I find that reading to my wife is wonderfully intimate and connective. It’s a joyful and rewarding experience that nothing televisual could ever match.

My wife doesn’t only have to listen to my books, though. We both delight in reading other things. Recently we’ve completed Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect and Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Currently we’re getting on well with The Paranormal Policeman by D J Harrison (which is yet another one of mine).

As a writer, I can appreciate the craft that goes into a good book. One of the things that I particularly watch out for is the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. This convention insists that something introduced into a story, such as a gun, must be used. Otherwise there is an element of dissatisfaction for the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of. In the Susan Effect there’s an actual gun hanging on the wall which is taken down, examined and put carefully back onto position. My experience tells me to watch out for it later on and sure enough, there it is, popping up at the end in a very satisfying conclusion. A popgun, you might say if you were a humorous writer.  I told my wife about Chekhov’s gun. She’s now on the lookout for more examples and says it makes reading (or listening) to stories even more enjoyable.

My editor once pointed out the way I was dangling items in front of my readers then never mentioning them ever again. She told me to cut it out, that it wasn’t something a good writer ever did. I had to mention the Sternwood chauffeur in The Big Sleep (Marlowe never finds out who murdered him) but her justifiable reply was to the effect that if I ever became as proficient as Raymond Chandler then I could please myself. Until then, I’d be best advised to knuckle down and learn my craft.

That’s what I’m doing and reading to my wife is a big part of that.