Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Me Talking About Stuff

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Answering Questions: Part the Second

Only one question this time around, but it's a 'can o' worms' question, so lots of meat on its bones: What's My Advice on How to Get Published? To which my answer is ... well, not much, beyond: write the best book you can, submit it to the people who make decisions about such things (agents and/or editors, generally speaking) and cross your fingers.

There's a bit more to it than that, obviously, and I've been asked about various related issues over the last couple of years. Fortunately, others more focused and organised than me have provided many of the answers out there in internetland, so rather than spouting detailed thoughts on all aspects of the 'getting published' craziness, I thought I'd just offer a few briefish comments and point you elsewhere for more intelligent commentary.

First, an important caveat: we're really talking here only about getting picked up by one of the biggish commercial publishers of speculative fiction in print form, since that's the only thing I know much about and it's the only thing I really get asked about. One other important cautionary note: the surveys and information I'll be linking to below has a pretty heavy emphasis on the situation in the USA. I think some aspects of the situation may be slightly different for aspiring authors chasing UK publication. But it probably is only slightly. That said, onward!

Do I need to get an agent first? Not necessarily, since there are a handful of thoroughly respectable publishers of sf/f who are prepared to consider unagented manuscripts (at least in the States, I think the numbers are even more limited in the UK but I could be wrong). But you probably want an agent, for three main reasons: (a) there are many more thoroughly respectable publishers who will only seriously consider manuscripts brought to them by agents, (b) there is plausible evidence, selflessly collected and analysed by Tobias Buckell, that agented writers get higher advances than unagented ones, and (c) if you're highly motivated, smart, outgoing and time-rich, you could probably do for yourself much of what an agent can do in terms of figuring out what all the details in that 15+ page publishing contract actually mean, whether the terms are industry standard or not, chasing your publisher to make sure you're getting paid the right amount at the right time, trying to sell foreign translation rights etc. etc. But maybe you can't, particularly at the start of your career. And even if you can, is it really a sensible or enjoyable use of your precious time?

As can be seen in the results of Jim C Hines' survey of published novelists (we'll be linking to this more than once, trust me!), submitting first to an agent and then leaving the publisher-hunting up to them is still the commonest route to first publication amongst authors.

How do I get an agent? Well the way I did it was by identifying agents who appeared to represent genre fiction in one of the many available comprehensive guides to such folk, and making a few phone calls (and then submitting my work, obviously). Interestingly, those phone calls revealed that quite a few of the agents concerned didn't in fact want to see any fiction of the sort I was trying to sell - some ever, some just not at that particular time - so it just goes to show you can't entirely rely on the guide books.

But you can also be a bit smarter and more organised about it than I was. Check out the websites and books of writers working in a similar genre/style to your own. They often reveal who their agent is on the website or in the acknowledgements in their books. At least then you can be certain those agents sometimes represent (and more importantly sell) the kind of stuff you're producing.

Should I write short stories before trying a novel? Depends. If your expectation is that getting some short stories published is going to significantly enhance your chances of then selling a novel to a big publisher, I'd probably say don't bother. It might help, but the days when it was almost the expected route to publication, at least in the sf field, are long gone I think. (and Mr Hines' survey would seem to confirm it's not at all necessary). BUT ... I'm personally fairly convinced that writing short stories made me a somewhat better writer. It can be fun, challenging and educational (which is sort of code for 'difficult, but in a good way'). It's also less of a mountain to climb: I've heard from one or two people really struggling to start, progress and finish what are intended to be great big long novels, for whatever reason, and in such cases there might be something said for turning to the short stuff just to get into the habit (and the discipline) of getting words down on the page in sufficient quantity to be able to the type 'The End'.

Do I think xxx sub-genre is a good or bad bet for getting published? [Shrugs]. These things change more or less unpredictably and sometimes quite fast. The sub-genre towards which the aspiring writer should be bending all their will and effort is that of 'fiction of a commercially publishable standard'. If you hit that target, you're halfway there. Considerably more than halfway, in fact, given the gloomy reports agents give regarding the average quality of the submissions they receive.

As far as I know, fantasy in general still tends to outsell most other varieties of speculative fiction (there are exceptions, of course - individual sf writers who have sales many fantasy authors, including yours truly, can only dream of). Within fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance or whatever its being called today, has been doing gangbusters in terms of sales and new authors in recent years. How long that'll last, I don't suppose anyone knows, but I suspect it's a trend that's got a lot of mileage left in it. Does that mean every apsiring author should be writing in that sub-genre? Well, it probably wouldn't do your chances any harm, but at the end of the day I imagine the best idea is just to write whatever comes most naturally to you, and whatever enthuses you. The results are likely to be better than if you try to shoehorn yourself into a genre that doesn't instinctively appeal.

How not to get published. Rather than say anything about this, I'll just point to an interesting site that contains much sensible commentary on how to avoid the numerous traps, scams and cruel delusions that afflict so many as yet unpublished writers: the Absolute Write forums. It's an intimidatingly vast site, and it might take a lot of time to find your way through to the most useful or relevant bits of info and advice, but one place to start might be the How Real Publishing Works thread. Again, there's a USA focus to much of the discussion there, so bear that in mind if you're geographically elsewhere.

And that's enough of my waffle for now. The full results of Jom C Hines' survey come in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III. All interesting, and recommended reading.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Guest Posting Elsewhere

I am not here. I am over at the jolly good Orbit blog posting on the subject of the short life expectancy of characters in The Godless World.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Answering Questions: Part the First

People ask me questions. Which is nice. I try to answer them if I've got the time, but that's a commodity that's in rather short supply these days so I can't always be as volubly responsive as I'd like. As a fair proportion of those questions tend to congregate around certain topics, I thought I'd try the bulk purchase approach, and offer up some answers to some of the more frequent queries here. We're starting with some housekeeping-type questions today, but I promise to get to (possibly) more interesting writing-related stuff in a future episode. Onward!

The Social Networking Question. No, I'm not a member of the Twitterati, so you can't follow me there. No, I don't frequent LinkedIn or Myspace or a. n. other social network of your chocie, so you can't connect with me there. Sorry. All that stuff is appealing, but it's a prodiguous time sink which feels dangerously like doing real work without actually falling into that category. For now my social networking energies (not vast at the best of times, being the dour and reclusive soul that I quite obviously am) are fully occupied by this here blog and by Facebook. On the latter you are welcome to befriend me or befan the Godless World trilogy, the latter perhaps being the more highly recommended option since (a) the books are arguably more interesting and deserving of your affections than I am, and (b) you might benefit from one of the occasional giveaways hosted there (of which more might be in the imminent offing - I'm toying with some options for next month at the moment).

Will I Answer your Interview Questions? If you want to publish the interview in a blog, magazine, whatever, the answer is probably yes. Like most newish writers, anonymity is my deadliest foe, so I crave attention with much the same desperation as a starving man craves chocolate cake. If you can offer me eyeballs I will endeavour to offer you some answers. Can't guarantee it, but if time permits I'll certainly try. If you want to interview me for a school or college project (I never knew asking writers questions was such a popular project activity for students!) - the answer's still probably yes, but that 'probably' is starting to take on strong 'possibly'-like characteristics. It'd help if (a) there aren't too many questions, and (b) they indicate that you actually know who I am and what I write and that you've put some thought into them. Even then, I might sometimes have to say no if my to-do list is getting ugly. Don't hold it against me.

Will I Read Your Manuscript? That's a very flattering question, given the implication that I might have something sensible to say about your book/story/whatever. I never object to being asked it. But the answer's no. (Unless you're an old and dear friend friend of mine in which case: maybe, if there's a beer or two in it for me). There's a whole unruly host of reasons why I must decline, of which that bugbear of ambition, time, is by far the most important. I mean, manuscript's are big, you know? And my not exactly impregnable finances are dependent on me producing my own, not reading other folk's.

Also, consider: You are no doubt a thoroughly pleasant, grounded, sensible sort who genuinely wants constructive criticism with a view to improving your manuscript. There is another sort - a very small minority, occasionally seen frequenting discussion boards here and there - who may think that's what they want, but are actually in search of praise and validation above all else (such people, I'd suggest, are not the most likely candidates for future publication, but you already knew that, right?). They might not appreciate being told their manuscript is less than perfect (which it is - believe me, I know from personal experience that virtually no manuscript, including those that end up being published, qualifies for the description 'perfect'). So although you're not going to bite my head off, take a look at that person behind you in the queue for my notional free manuscript review service: don't they look just a little wild-eyed, a little feverish, a little ... too keen?

And honestly, what I think of your manuscript wouldn't matter all that much. I like to think I can broadly tell the difference between technically competent and incompetent writing, but beyond that my opinion isn't the one that counts to an aspiring writer. I'll certainly have one, but like everyone, I read plenty of highly successful published books that leave me mystified as to what their appeal is, so what I think really doesn't amount to a reliable guide to anything much. The opinions that matter are those of the agents, editors and publishers who control access to the sunlit uplands of commercial publication, and the only way to get their feedback is by submitting stuff to them (after you've revised said stuff to death, of course). You have to develop your own ability to assess your work, and getting rejected - or, joy of joys! - accepted by those people is, IMHO, while not the only way, certainly the most reliable way to sharpen that ability.

Here endeth the Q&A for today. More to follow in due course, including a brief meditation on one of the more interesting questions I've ever been asked: What Lies East of Anlane? On the off-chance anyone has specific questions they'd like to see me fumble around with, feel free to e-mail me, and if they're of possibly wider interest, I'll see if I can work them in to a future blog post.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

A Kerfuffle Aspiring Writers Might Want to Pay Attention To

Not for the first time the inimitable John Scalzi kicked off a bit of an internet fuss recently. The particular feline lobbed unceremoniously into the pigeon house on this occasion was this post laying into a new short story publisher for offering dismally tiny payments to writers. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in various bits of the internet (both for and against his views), a nice sample of which can be found in this post, and particularly the lengthy comments thread attached thereunto.

Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of the whole kerfuffle - that I've seen, anyway - is a couple of livejournal posts by Anne Leckie that are, I think, well worth the attention of any aspiring writers out there. Especially writers of short fiction, but wannabe novelists as well. The first explains why getting your short stories published in certain types of venues will not help your nascent writing career, is such a thing is your goal; the second delves into the much more nebulous question of what makes for good fiction. Both are worth a read: there is a good deal of stuff in there that I think aspiring authors (and published ones like yours truly, too) could profitably ponder, whether they agree with it or not.

Much of what's discussed in the links above made me think about where my head was at when I was actively writing and submitting short stories to magazines (note that what follows is decidedly not advice; my route through the thicket of obstacles facing the aspiring writer was my own, and does not remotely constitute a generally applicable map).

Back then, I was just starting to take the idea of one day being a professional writer seriously - i.e. thinking about what was involved in getting there, rather than just daydreaming about it. The crux of it, to my simple and innocent brain, seemed straightforward: if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to be able to write to a professional standard.

So I worked on some stories - most of which were never submitted anywhere because I was never quite satisfied with them - and sent a few out to magazines. I only sent them to what I thought of as professional-standard magazines, i.e. those paying towards the upper end of the general scale for stories, or those that were clearly high profile and respectable and publishing stories of a certain quality.

I didn't try to place stories with non-paying markets, or obscure magazines making token payments; not because I've got anything in particular against such publications, but because I had a project, and it wasn't a 'get a story published anywhere' project. It was a 'learn how to write to a professional standard' project. So I was only interested in the judgement of those - the editors and publishers - who set that standard by their acquisition decisions. To paraphrase Anne Leckie: I was interested in being a pro, so I aimed for the pros. Aiming lower, I reasoned, would only teach me how to miss my chosen target, not how to hit it.

Now things worked out OK for me, because I did sell a couple of stories in the 90s (which sounds hopeless, but actually wasn't a bad hit rate, because I only ever sent out a handful). But just to prove that mine is not necessarily the example to follow, having tasted that tiny little bit of success, I stopped trying to write and sell the things entirely. Why? Because I'm nuts? Not entirely, though it's arguable. (As it happens, I do often wish I'd held onto the short story habit a bit more firmly. It's got a lot to recommend it.).

No, I stopped for my own, possibly rather eccentric, reasons. The second story I sold (to what was then called The Third Alternative and is now Black Static), was one that, before I sent it out, I was pretty sure was good enough to be publishable in the kind of markets I was interested in. For the first time, I felt I could instinctively identify a piece of my own writing as meeting a basic professional standard. Turned out, I was right.

More importantly, if I'm remembering things rightly, I submitted one further story after that sale. And it was rejected. At which point I basically stopped writing and submitting short stories. Not because I was discouraged, but because I had known, in my heart of hearts, before I sent it out, that that last story was not quite up to the necessary standard. It was OK, with some nice ideas and passages, but it didn't have that feel. Turned out, once again, that I was right.

That was good enough for me. I'd more or less learned what I wanted to. I could, at least on occasion, write to a professionally publishable standard; and I could identify the necessary quality - and its absence - in my stories before the editors passed their own judgement. (Yes, two is a ridiculously small sample size to base such sweeping conclusions on, and I was building on some very dodgy foundations there, but I did say mine wasn't an example to follow). What does that quality consist of? Ah, well ... that's a whole other, decidedly complicated story, and one I'd need a whole other post to even start picking away at. But I do think Anne Leckie's second post offers much food for thought on the subject.

And I will say this - and I guess this, despite what I said earlier about not giving advice, is advice of a sort: irrespective of what mysterious bricks that 'quality' is built from, one of the most important skills anyone who wants to turn their writing into a career can acquire is that of recognising its presence, or absence, in their own work. And the only way you do that is by writing for, submitting to, and probably being rejected by, the markets which define the level of quality you aspire to.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

A Random Name Generator in Disguise

One of the things I occasionally get asked is how I make up names for my characters. To which the answer, if you're talking about secondary world fantasy like The Godless World, is: mostly I just make them up, playing around with sounds and letters in my head until something vaguely plausible (and roughly consistent with the other names I've already used) volunteers itself.

Generally speaking, I reckon it's worth sticking with the idea of inventing your own names, even when the creative juices are flowing sluggishly, just because names are - or should be - a pretty important element of a story. They're more than just badges: they can convey mood and character and cultural affiliation; they can create expectations in the reader's mind that you can then confirm or subvert; they can carry symbolic and metaphorical weight.

Sometimes, though, I guess a little bit of external inspiration might help, and there's a ridiculously large amount of it available.

You can just go the direct route and press a few buttons on a purpose-designed fantasy name generator (though with this, and all other methods I'll mention, I'd suggest still tweaking any results to take proper 'ownership' of the names and make sure they fit your setting and story and intent).

Or if you're looting real world cultures for a fantasy milieu, you can mine the rich and varied strata of baby name lists. They come in all flavours, whether you're looking for Celtic influenced names, or Native American.

Or you could make the quest for names a rewarding and educational process in itself and immerse yourself in some weighty historical tomes. Personally, I'd recommend trying some Byzantine history, since it covers in excess of a thousand years and a whole load of different cultures, from Roman and Greek through Turkish and Armenian and Arabic. There're some very fine names buried in there, let me tell you.

Or, and here we get to the thing that made me think about all this in the first place, you could put your faith in a weirder approach. I noticed a while back that the anti-spam comment filtering process on this, and presumably all other Blogger blogs, had subtly changed (unless it was always like this and I'd never noticed). When the software shows you some wobbly letters and asks you to repeat them back to it, those letters have started displaying a strange and appealing coherence. They are no longer random; instead, they're clearly psuedo-words. Or, more relevantly, wannabe names.

Just by hitting the refresh button repeatedly, I harvested (amongst a few clearly unuseable tongue-twisters) the following list of what looks to me a lot like name seeds for fantasy characters: phathea, miculap, porev, potlycos, sches, speres, cysedi, incia. Now these are weird fantasy names, admittedly, but there's potential there. I particularly like Porev, Sches and Cysedi as starting points for some name play, myself.

Not what the designers had in mind, obviously, but I've no doubt the cockles of their heart are warmed by the thought that they might unintentionally offer aid to the desperate and despairing fantasy writer in his or her hour of name-blocked need.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

MPoaF: On the Subject of Writing

Earlier this week I spent a pleasant hour or two in the company of the students who make up Strathclyde University's Writers' Society, inflicting upon them some of my experiences, views and prejudices regarding the whole writing thing. I've done this kind of thing a handful of times now, and so far it's always proved enjoyable. I can report that our nation's students - at least the aspiring writers amongst them - are a fine body of folk. (But when did they get to be so young? More to the point, when did I get to be so old? Surely it was only a year or two ago that I was a student myself ... oh, wait. Maybe it was rather longer than that ... don't think about it. Ignore the harsh realities of time's passing. If you don't pay it any attention, it's not really happening ...)

Some universities, it has to be said, benefit from the wisdom of writers rather more ... well, rather more consequential than me. Here, for your Friday viewing pleasure is a whole half hour of a speculative fiction legend talking about his craft at Point Loma Nazarene University. Take it away, Ray Bradbury:

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

What I'm Writing

As promised in the last post here, some brief details on the new book I'm writing. Yes, the fine folks at Orbit, in their infinite wisdom, seem to feel that the world could withstand further literary output by yours truly. (I say wisdom, but it might just be some ghastly administrative error on their part, of course. No matter. They signed the contract, so they're stuck with me now).

The working title (and so far everyone, including me, seems to quite like it, so I imagine it'll probably survive all the way through to publication) is The Edinburgh Dead. The setting is, as you might guess, Edinburgh; specifically, Edinburgh in the first half of the 19th century. Since I write fantasy rather than history, though, it's not quite as simple as that.

I'm taking some gruesome and rather famous aspects of Edinburgh's past and spicing them up a bit with veteran warriors, magical conspiracies, killers both human and decidedly not, desperate combat and sinister goings-on in general. In short, it's a dark, heroic fantasy set in 19th century Edinburgh. With swords and gaslamps.

As for publication date - because I know someone will ask about that sooner rather than later - I can't say exactly, but I'll be delivering the manuscript next year and barring exceptional circumstances it takes at least nine months, more likely something approaching twelve, to go from that point to publication. So you can do the math yourselves.

I'm having a lot of fun working on this so far. It's a stand alone novel, and that makes a very pleasant change after turning out a hefty trilogy like The Godless World. I'll no doubt report back here on the creative process and progress (watch out for that mid-book slump of despair and self-doubt!), but I'll leave it there for now. Got stuff to write.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nothing to See Here. Move Along.

There is, however, something to see over at Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews, where I've hijacked the blog briefly to make a guest post.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Trio of Trifles

So there's this book tournament going on see, over at bookspotcentral. It's a knockout deal, and Bloodheir's in the first round - but going no further unless it gets the votes! So should anyone happen to be a member over there, maybe voting for Bloodheir might be a possibility? Not saying you have to, just saying ... you could. You know. If you wanted. If you've nothing better to do.

Arguably better to do would be browsing a fun website for writers, aspiring or otherwise, and readers and viewers come to that: tv tropes. It's got seriously extensive lists and descriptions for all kinds of themes and conventions that show up in fiction of all sorts, not just TV writing. Handily organised into sub-categories, too, including one devoted to speculative fiction. Hours of diverting browsing. Plus it's a wiki, so the whole thing's user generated and edited.

And many a true word is spoken in jest. In support of which contention I direct you towards this instalment of Penny Arcade.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Please Don't Do It, Hollywood plus Any Questions

Call me a grumpy, glass-half-empty, misanthrope of a worrier, but I fear, in my bones, that the Hollywood machine is about to chew up one of my (and a great many other people's) favourite ever sf books, Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

Little snippets of info about the planned film adaptation have been turning up here and there for quite a while, with the most recent batch - which plunged me into my current gloomy apprehension - showing up on the invaluable sf signal blog.

It's not so much the naming of the potential director that alarms (I've never heard of him, my movie director geek fu being much shrivelled in recent years - although a quick check of the IMDb doesn't suggest my ignorance is exactly appalling). It's the distant sound of the butcher's knives being unsheathed as another genre classic heads into the studio slaughterhouse. It's The Dark is Rising all over again. (And we all know how that turned out, right?).

It would take, I suspect, a genius to cram Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion into a single movie without pounding into a homogenous pulp much of what is distinctive and accomplished about them as novels: the Canterbury Tales mosaic of overlapping stories that flesh out the world and the characters, the literary allusions, the wanton firework display of exotic ideas and images, the balancing of extreme violence with much more personal, somewhat philosophical and existential, struggles. Seems pretty probable that the worries expressed over at sf signal - that the Hollywood instinct will be to excise much of the subtlety and elegance to turn it into a more accessible, action-packed event movie - will prove accurate. And I love me some accessible, action-packed event movie fun, it's just I don't particularly want it marching under the Hyperion banner.

I guess it's the nature of things, given the huge cost of getting this stuff to the screen, but it always makes me wonder why the movie moguls don't just go for more of the (equally high-selling, surely) flash-bang-wallop type of books in the first place. You'd think the less reductive surgery required to turn the original text into a movie, the greater the chance of a positive outcome. That's probably my hopeless naivety talking, though. It likes to make itself heard now again. Shameless, it is.

On any entirely different subject, I'm going to work up a couple of blog posts in the not too distant future talking about writing-, book- and getting published-related stuff, taking as a starting point some of the questions folks have asked me by e-mail, over on Facebook, or in person (poor misguided souls, asking questions of me, but there you are). So just in case anyone's got any questions of that ilk, now's your chance to send me an e-mail, or ask it in the comments to this post, or head on over to the Facebook discussion board and ask it there; I'll add anything new into the pot and stir it around for a while. Like porridge.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Currently ...

... breaking blog silence, briefly, for this update.

... writing! Fall of Thanes is making its way through the publication process (still seems to be on course for a summer 2009 release date - early summer, at that), so my attention turns elsewhere: to short stories, specifically. One of 2008's nicer surprises was being invited to contribute stories to a couple of upcoming anthologies. Nice, but a bit scary. Writing short stories is hard.

...reading!

Books:
Infoquake by David Louis Edelman. First sf book I've read that's essentially a corporate boardroom thriller. Only about halfway through it, but so far it's interesting and feels at least somewhat original, which is (almost) always a good thing.

World War Z by Max Brooks. Subtitle is an 'Oral History of the Zombie War'. Seriously clever idea: the story of the zombie apocalypse, told as if it's non-fiction through transcripts of interviews with those who witnessed and survived the struggle.

Comics:
Or graphic novels, I suppose, since I only ever read this stuff in collected trade paperback format nowadays.

Umbrella Academy is an sfnal superhero romp, with robots, apocalyptic music, time travel, sentient chimps and a hero whose head has been grafted onto the body of a space gorilla. Very well written (despite the fact its author is considerably better known as a musician), and with great art. It feels full of excitement at the freedom offered by the medium, and is positively wanton in its flinging about of crazy ideas and striking images.

Scalped is quite a contrast. A crime story set in a modern day Native American community, it's stuffed with brutal violence, spectacularly bad language, sex, drugs, local and cultural politics and messed up relationships. Very definitely not for kids (or easily offended adults). The characters, setting and tone are interesting enough to make me want to read more.

One thing about both these comics that appeals to me is that they keep their plot and character cards quite close to their chest. They both very deliberately create the sense that they have a hinterland, as yet unrevealed, of plot and history and setting, and there is an implied promise that we will be digging deeper, peeling back layers, in future volumes. I like that.

... listening!

To tales of financial armaggedon on the NPR Planet Money podcast. An accessible, often illuminating and occasionally even amusing, guide to the ongoing implosion of the world's financial system. It's like watching/listening to a slow motion car crash in which an endless succession of security vans laden with our money plough into one another and explode, incinerating their contents. Boom! There goes another billion. Smash! Yes, that's your pension turning to ash ...

...admiring Julian Beever's 3D pavement drawing!

Go check out his remarkable online gallery. Seems ludicrously, almost indecently, clever to me.

... in awe of the ruthlessness and efficiency of Nature!

A sparrowhawk killed a pigeon in the back garden not so long ago, and spent close to an hour sitting on the grass right outside the window methodically dismantling its victim. The pigeon was plucked and devoured with awesome precision, and its remains were then carried off, leaving just a near-perfect circle of feathers, a few strands of gut and a bizareely neat and tidy little pile of corn, presumable decanted from its crop. The corn was soon gone, eaten by other birds - pigeons, as likely as not - picking it out from amongst the remains of their late colleague. That's recycling for you. No room for sentiment out there in Red-in-Tooth-and-Claw World.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

How Many Fantasy Authors Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Took a break earlier, away from the computer, with a nice cup of tea and some biscuits (fig rolls - some of the world's finest biscuits, if you ask me). The mind tends to wander at such times. The results of that wandering, on this occasion: bad jokes. So. Bad jokes:

Q. How many fantasy authors does it take to change a light bulb?

A1. Only one. But it'll take a long time. They have to prepare an obsessively and redundantly detailed map of the whole room first.

A2. Fantasy authors can't change light bulbs. Only orphaned farmboys, destined from birth to change the light bulb in accordance with ancient prophecy can do it.

A3. Dozens. JRR Tolkien has to go first, to show everyone how to do it right, and then all the rest take turns removing and replacing the light bulb, in very slightly different and generally inferior ways.

A4. One, but they need an agent to hold the ladder. And then the agent is entitled to 15% of the resultant light.

Needless to say, I don't necessarily subscribe to any of the pejudicial preconceptions implied herein. Except for A4. That's not a preconception, that's a truth.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

On the Placing of Product

Saw a piece the other day about the efforts ITV (Britain's main non-BBC terrestrial TV network, for anyone who doesn't know) are making to get our broadcasting rules changed so they can do product placement in their shows. I don't mind a bit of subtle product placement in my movies, or even non-subtle stuff when it's an accepted and loved tradition in a particular franchise - as the chap from ITV pointed out, a Bond movie wouldn't be quite a Bond movie if you didn't know precisely what make of car he was merrily thrashing around the streets of that European metropolis.

But product placement does bug me if it bounces me out of a movie's narrative thread, i.e. whenever I consciously think: 'Oh, look. They're trying to sell me something.' As it did, I regret to report, in Iron Man, when Tony Stark's most fervent wish upon returning from his Afghan captivity was to get an American burger down his neck. And not just any American burger. Oh no. They make sure you know who makes - in the opinion of one mega-wealthy arms dealer at least - the best American burgers.

But then it occured to me: perhaps I'm just jealous. I'm bitter because books don't offer quite the same scope for a lucrative sideline in product placement. Not fantasy, anyway. Quite aside for the pitifully small audience size compared to your average blockbuster movie, at first glance there's a distinct shortage of brands that could fit into your average tale of sword-and-sorcery hi-jinks in an imagined world. Never one to trust a first glance, though, I could try, if there were any companies out there willing to fund my descent into tawdry commercialism.

There are a few mentions of apples and orchards in the trilogy. Who's to say they couldn't be apples of a breed that coincidentally shares a name with those appearing on our own supermarket shelves? This is fantasy, after all. I can call my apples anything I like. In Bloodheir, Lheanor mentions to Orisian that he plans to plant some trees. This, I now realise, is a missed opportunity. He could have been much more specific: 'Apple trees, perhaps. Golden Delicious. Oh, how my beloved wife adores their sweet and crunchy charms.'

Or agricultural suppliers. I could have the invading host of the Black Road stumbling across an abandoned barn full of seedcorn bred by that famed farmer Monsanto, and falling into paroxysms of joy at their good fortune. Kanin: 'It yields twice the crop of old-fashioned varieties, you know.' Wain: 'Really? I heard thrice.'

The payments involved might be individually modest, but they'd add up if I could cram enough in. Of course, in hindsight what I should have done was approach the whole story with a much more science fictional bent. A few inter-dimensional rifts or trans-temporal ruptures would have opened up a host of possibilities:

"The flickering rift spat out a lean, sleek iron carriage that dropped down onto the grass with a satisfyingly well-crafted thump. It rocked, for a moment, on its fat black, strangely grooved wheels, then settled into elegant repose, its sweeping form speaking eloquently of leashed power.

Orisian leaned close and brushed aside some of the inter-dimensional dust that had accumulated upon its glittering metallic skin.

'What does this say?' he murmured, squinting at the words he had undercovered. 'Aston ... Aston Martin.' "

Works for me. If the price is right, of course.

NOTE: None of the above should be taken as my personal endorsement of any product or brand. As it happens, I feel Tony Stark could have made worse choices as far as burgers are concerned, but I'm not a particular advocate of Golden Delicious apples or Monsanto anything. I would, however, be simperingly grateful if any Aston Martin executive happens to read this and feels like offering me a free sample of their wares, in which unlikely event I can guarantee my endorsement would be unreserved and heartfelt to a frankly pathetic extent ...

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Friday, March 21, 2008

The Tomb of Beledon

It's a bit disconcerting when forgotten relics of your distant past unexpectedly resurface from the bottom of dusty drawers - stuff you'd forgotten, which abruptly reconnects you with the child you once were.

In this case, I got my hands on some stories I wrote in my pre-teen years. Clearly, I was doomed to plough the fantasy furrow from an early age, since I evidently had a thing about maps of imaginary places even then:


This is from The Tomb of Beledon (a title which I think only really works if you imagine it being spoken by James Earl Jones). The plot concerns a chap called Michael who survives a plane crash only to find himself on a strange island full of tunnels and villages, hostile and out of place wildlife, malign and possibly supernatural forces ... yes, if only I'd had some contacts in the TV industry at the age of 12 or 13 or however old I was, Lost could've been on your TV screens a whole lot sooner.

I wonder what the me of all those years ago would think if I could reach back and say 'Keep at it, kid. All this scribbling will pay off one day. Maybe hold off on the exclamation marks a bit, though.' (The thing's got a rash of exclamations all through it, like some unfortunate skin condition. Even some of the chapter titles are exclamation marked.)

The thing is, I suspect mini-me would not be particularly surprised to hear he was going to get stuff published one day. At that tender age we - those of us lucky enough to have safe and stable and comfortable upbringings, anyway - tend to live in worlds of possibilities and imagination; the barriers and the obstacles and limitations and difficulties, not just in writing but life as a whole, tend only to become apparent as we climb the ladder of years. Still, it'd be nice to whisper a few words of encouragement in the junior me's ear. It's all you can say, really, to any aspiring writer, whatever their age: Keep at it. Get better. Try. And go easy on the exclamation marks.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A Whole Mess of Links

Alt.Fiction is a one day spec fic jamboree in Derby on Saturday, April 26th. Sort of a mini-convention. I will be there, but fortunately so will a whole host of much more interesting and famous folk. Those who have been in previous years tell me it's a good day. If you like the look of that list of attendees, why not come along?

Here's one of the most deserved blog-to-book deals I've ever heard of: Strange Maps is to be immortalised in print. I predict a big success, especially if the publisher's got the muscle to get some offline publicity going.

Advance notice of a potentially cool addition to the podcasting world: the long-delayed PodCastle will finally be starting April. If the quality matches that of its stablemates PseudoPod and Escape Pod, it should be good.

This here is a pretty good comic. Just saying.

I mentioned Public Lending Right a few posts ago, and Lo! It is under attack. Not life-threatening attack, but erosive 'if we make lots of little cuts maybe they won't notice' kind of attack. In government terms the amounts of money involved are microscopic, but for many authors and illustrators (not me at the moment, but one day who knows?) PLR income is a big chunk of their total earnings from their creative work. If you're a UK citizen, and happen to think PLR cuts are a bad idea, there's an online petition you could sign. Only if you feel like it, obviously.

I know 2007 feels like a long time ago already, but here's Locus' summary of the sf/f books that appeared on the most Best of 2007 lists. That'll be the 'best of the best ofs' or something, then. I have read precisely one of the books mentioned, which is clearly a pathetic effort of which I should be ashamed, but hopefully it doesn't make me a bad person. The one I have read is The Terror, which is very good in all sorts of ways.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

A pre-Christmas Miscellany

Chances are, things will be quiet around here for the next week or more (not that they're exactly a hive of frenzied activity the rest of the time), while I concentrate on eating, drinking, caressing the many books I'll no doubt be given on the 25th (people know how to please me), wishing it would snow, and - because you can't let a little thing like a festive season get in the way - writing.

In the meantime, a little selection of treats and trifles:

For Movie Fans, the newly-arrived Hellboy II trailer:



I was a big fan of the first movie - plain old fun almost from beginning to end, I thought, and that's something not many movies can claim - and this one looks like it might be a worthy successor.

For Zombie Comic Fans (that's fans of zombie comics, rather than comic fans who are zombies), a tip: I'm way behind on this, since it's been going for ages, but this year I discovered The Walking Dead. I've only read the first collected volume so far, but it was up there amongst my favourite reading experiences of 2007.

It's the homely tale of a small group of ordinary people trying to survive in a world over-run by flesh-eating zombies. Good writing, good characters and the occasional gory zombie attack: what more could you ask? Recommended for those with post-Christmas book tokens to spend and an affection for quality comics. Or for zombies.

For Aspiring Writers, this is pretty old stuff, but it's well worth a read if you haven't seen it before: from the Australian fantasy author Ian Irvine, who's sold enough books to know what he's talking about, Writing Tips, Guide to Success, and easily the best of the lot, The Truth About Publishing. Not everything in there accords perfectly with my own experience, but that's no surprise as (a) Ian's writing from an Australian perspective, and (b) these things are bound to vary on a case-by-case basis. The important thing is that in broad terms there's a huge amount of good advice, truth and common sense in there.

For Anyone who ever wondered what a nuclear detonation at sunset looks like (likely a small subset of the global population, I realise):

Okay, so it's actually just the Sun going down behind a power station just outside Edinburgh, but it looked a bit like the Apocalypse to me.

For Those Who Care About Such Things, the latest version of the Bloodheir cover. It makes me feel cold just looking at it, which in this case is a good thing.

Last I heard, UK, US and Australian publication remains on schedule for June 2008, by the way.

And since it's the season for Giving Gifts, go test your vocabulary - and marvel at the plethora of obscurities lurking like unexploded bombs in the dark recesses of the English language - while simultaneously donating (at no cost to you!) rice to those who need it: FreeRice, which I found via Patrick Rothfuss' blog.

Finally, For Music Fans, especially those who like a bit of acoustic guitar action, what I think is one of the nicest sounds to be found on YouTube:


There're plenty of other clips of him on YouTube, all equally pleasing, and his website's here: Andy McKee. Sadly, no signs of any plans to play in Scotland as far as I can see, otherwise I'd probably be busy buying tickets instead of writing this post ...

And that's it. Whatever festivities you're engaged in over the next week or two, I hope you have an outrageously happy time of it.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

A Blog Action Day Post

So, today is Blog Action Day, meaning that in theory bloggers around the world are talking about environmental stuff. Here comes my token gesture in that direction: a bit of a ramble about writing, influences and wildlife.

Every writer's a stew of conscious and unconscious influences that shape what they write. They're like a host of semi-visible fingerprints that the author leaves all over the text, some of which only he or she can see, some of which he or she will probably be the last one to recognise. In its own small way, the natural environment is one of the very faint, smudged fingerprints I left on Winterbirth. My preoccupation with natural landscapes and wildlife just kind of crept into the book along the way. I imagine it's not something that most readers register, and nor should they since it's mostly just minor background details, although one or two have mentioned it in reviews or suchlike.

Behind all the in-focus stuff in Winterbirth to do with battles, conspiracies and general strife, there are buzzards circling above forests, bears snuffling around in the undergrowth, geese flying south for the winter. It's just the way my mind works: the sound and sight of vast flocks of geese overhead is as much a sign of impending winter to me as are the shortening days and the increasing prevalence of miserable weather (mind you, this year the weather actually improved once September got going, which tells you something about the damp squib that was summer). So you get geese flying down the Glas Valley as winter closes in, just as they're flying south over my house this month.

The natural world that features in Winterbirth and the rest of the trilogy isn't really drawn from the present day, though. It's based on a long lost Britain of hundreds or even thousands of years ago: it's a richer, wilder and more dangerous kind of Nature than what we've got now. There are still bears and wolves, both long gone in the real world; there are even - to judge by the names I gave the Kyrinin clans - wild boar, wild horses, and gigantic wild cattle, all of which were once British citizens but no longer. (Although to be strictly accurate there are wild boar lurking in some corners of the island again, much to the consternation of some observers.)

I can't really have the kind of wilderness experience that the Godless World would offer to a visitor here in the UK any more, but there's still plenty of stuff that gives me great pleasure and enriches my life, some of which has turned up on this blog. Since we're in Blog Action Day mode, it's worth remembering how fragile these things are. I posted some photos from the Isle of May a few months ago - a place that possesses a kind of natural magic. But all the hundreds of thousands of seabirds that throng that island, and the rest of the Scottish coastline, are facing potential disaster as the food chain collapses under the influence of overfishing and warming seas. I also posted photos from the Isle of Mull, but unfortunately didn't have one of the golden eagle that we watched patiently quartering the slopes in search of prey. Every time that eagle swoops down on some carrion, it's running the risk of being poisoned. I posted a photo of a poplar hawk moth, a chance discovery in the Edinburgh grass. And ... you're probably detecting a pattern by now ... sure enough, Britain's moths are in trouble, too. Many of them seem to be spiralling towards rarity, or even extinction.

Sometimes I kind of regret that I can't share this island with the wolves and bears I populated the Godless World with, but there'd be no 'sometimes' about the regret I'd feel if we lost what we've managed to hang on to by way of wildlife. My life will be that tiny little bit poorer if one year there are no more puffins nesting on the Isle of May: it might sound silly, but it's true. And in this modern, crowded world, the only way we're going to hang on to it is if at least some of us are paying attention, and making an effort to keep it. All it takes to lose a species nowadays is indifference. So for that reason if for no other, seeing thousands of bloggers take the trouble to talk about environmental issues is kind of cool.

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