Thursday, 27 October 2011

Creating SciFi Battle Scenes

For Book 3 of my trilogy, I needed to start with a space battle scene, so I asked a lot of readers about cool scifi weapons, good battle scenes, and studied specialist SF writers etc. (e.g. Excession, by Iain Banks; The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell).

I applied the following 'rules' for creating a science fiction battle scene:

1. The reader needs to be able to 'see' it.
2. Space is limitless, not the size of a TV or cinema screen, so ships don't have to attack from close up or in formation, but if they are very far apart, then lightspeed effects have to be taken into consideration
3. The hero has to be someone we care about (preferably not relishing battle)
4. He or she has to be at personal risk
5. There has to be a lot at stake.
6. There should be some new weapons...

Here's a sample of what I came up with:

If Q’Tor had still been human he’d have shaken himself. The Q’Roth had been his sworn enemy; he’d fought against them and killed thousands of them in the last days of the battle for Earth. But he’d been captured, and offered a stark choice – join forces or die. He’d spat at his captors, told them where to go, and they'd obliged him by venting him into space. But they'd downloaded his memories beforehand, and taken enough DNA to produce a hybrid clone. He learned the hard way that the Q’Roth leaders usually got what they wanted – in this case his intuitive battle strategies. Initially they’d tested the clone without his memories, but its performance had been rudimentary. So they’d uploaded his personality, and he’d woken, surprised to be alive, and then disgusted at what they’d turned him into – a six-legged, three metre tall Q’Roth warrior.
            For eight years he’d refused to cooperate. But they kept taking him on missions. He witnessed the inexorable slaughter as the invader Qorall slashed and burned his way across the galaxy, and he knew where the remnants of humanity were – right in Qorall’s path. They wouldn’t last a second. Four ships full of human cargo had fled the Q’Roth’s culling of Earth fifteen years earlier, and without doubt still saw the Q'Roth as their prime enemy. But Q’Tor had seen many species far worse, and knew just how brutal the galaxy could be. And Qorall put even those alien races to shame.
So, here he was, fighting alongside the species who’d nearly erased humanity. He even had command of a battleship, and if he’d wanted to, he could cause it to self-destruct, or fire on the other Q’Roth ships and take out as many as possible. He had enough command overrides on the Bridge, and was alone – his lieutenants worked a deck below in Tactical. But futile bravado had never been his style.
He knew the other commanders never fully trusted him, despite his strong performance in the last dozen battles – he’d gotten this fleet out of a sticky mess in the Ossyrian sector less than a week ago, seconds after Qorall fired an anti-matter bomb into its sun, triggering a supernova, engulfing four defending fleets and two of Q’Tor’s destroyer squadrons unable to jump fast enough. Still, to his colleagues, Q’Tor was an aberration. One of them had even fired on his flagship a month earlier during a fire fight when Qorall had surprised them by launching planets through a wormhole at the third largest Q’Roth shipyard, after destabilising their cores to turn them into planet-sized grenades. None of them, even the oldest Q’Roth warriors from the Anlechratian Campaign five centuries earlier, had ever seen anything like this level of carnage or firepower. The errant commander had confessed his misdemeanour and taken the honourable way out, piloting a Hunter vessel stacked with atomics deep into Qorall space, taking out one of Qorall’s supply convoys.
But Q’Tor understood the Q’Roth’s sense of frustration – they were warriors, foot-soldiers of the highest calibre, space dog fighters extraordinaire, but such skills were completely irrelevant against Inferno Class weaponry. Moreover, Qorall’s strategy eluded the galaxy’s indigenous species – he did not seem interested in the spoils of war, whether worlds, technologies, or resources, except for swelling the ranks of his armies and navies. Instead, he spread inexorably across the galaxy like a cancer. What perplexed Q’Tor in particular, was that the arrowhead of Qorall’s general sweep had from the start charted a course towards the new home world of humanity. It didn’t make sense: mankind – what was left of it – was as much a threat to Qorall as an ant was to a Q’Roth warrior. And yet through fifteen years, despite brief deviations, his forces held this course. Perhaps that was one reason the Q’Roth High Guard wanted to keep Q’Tor alive.
Q’Tor’s ex-humanity gave him a poor standing amongst the commanders’ ranks. He lived with it. As with all front-line commanders, his nights were numbered. Yet the Q’Roth High Guard were increasingly desperate – they had lost thirty-three battles in a row, and more than eight hundred ships; they couldn’t keep taking those kinds of losses. And so this mission was different. Q’Tor had outlined a new strategy, enlisting the aid of the mysterious Tla Beth, bringing one of them out from their hyper-dimensional safe havens where they strategized, moving ships and inter-stellar counter-measures on trans-dimensional maps that no species below Level 15 understood. The Q’Roth all but worshipped the Tla Beth, and so if anything happened to one of them… But that was why they’d recruited him into their ranks in the first place: to think outside the cube. He prayed his gambit would work.
His upper claw hovered above the ‘fire’ button during the extended jump into Qorall-controlled space. His fleet re-materialised as planned, the enemy’s flotilla dead ahead, and he and fifty other commanders unleashed the planet-breakers. Waves of energy whipped like fluorescent barbed wire at the bubble-shaped shield protecting the ships. Secondary artillery fired automatically, spewing volleys of pulses and anti-matter torpedoes, which crashed into the energy barrier like silent psychedelic hail on glass. He hated using anti-matter weapons, as they tended to rip the space-time fabric, leaving jagged potholes for any traffic transiting through the affected sector, but as they were in permanent retreat that hardly mattered. In any case, as had happened the last three times he’d encountered this enemy formation, their shield remained intact. Their strategy was simple – they would wait until the Q’Roth forces had expended considerable firepower, then lower the shield and attack faster than exploding shrapnel. Q’Tor would have bitten his lip if he’d had one.
            As planned, five Hunter Class ships broke formation and hurtled toward the sphere. Ten other Q’Roth ships vectored particle weapons around the tightly-packed quintet toward a single point on the barrier, inflicting the heat of a hundred suns. In fifteen years of warfare, no one had successfully breached one of these shields, and Qorall’s army had remained unstoppable, conquering more than half the known galaxy, laying waste to any sector refusing to surrender.
Q’Tor’s claw squeezed hard as the glare of the beams blotted out all the stars. Now would be good… On cue, a small Tla Beth single-occupant ship, iridescent and shaped like a gyroscope, popped into existence behind the five Q’Roth Hunters, sucked along in their wake. Steady… He’d not been able to ‘talk’ with these creatures directly, having instead to explain his strategy through several layers of intermediaries. He accepted this state of affairs – after all, he was a mere Q’Roth, Level Six intelligence standard, and the Tla Beth were Level Seventeen. He’d never even seen one up close. He hoped the upward briefings had been effective.
            Q’Tor scanned the intel on the holo dashboard: nothing but bad news, the barrier was holding. Their attack was looking increasingly like a suicide run. If any more Q’Roth ships joined in with their weapons, the radiation backlash would fry their compatriots.
            He signalled “Break off” to the Q’Roth admiral, but already knew the answer, which remained unspoken. His suggestion was broadcast to all commanders simultaneously, using a mind-plexing system the Tla Beth had taught them, enabling them to communicate and react as one. Humans could never use such augments, it would sound like a deafening cacophony and paralyse them; one of the advantages of being Level Six.
Still, he imagined his own standing amongst his commanders had dropped a notch for even suggesting to abort the suicide run.
Space appeared to ignite as the ships pummelled into the shield. It would have burned out his retinas if he’d had any, but instead the six slits on his trapezoidal head oozed a little more vermillion than usual, rending the scene blood red. He missed his human vision, but then his Q’Roth senses allowed him to see what no human eye could have. Amidst the searing flash, the small Tla Beth craft launched a black hole torpedo at the glowing area of the barrier wall, which turned electric blue and shattered as the toy-like Tla Beth ship rammed it. Fire and ice – smart bastards.
Q’Tor wasted no time. His flagship and four other battleships supported by ten destroyers jumped according to a pre-ordered pattern, and punched their way through the fissure.
            As soon as he was inside, he knew something was wrong. His battleship stuttered, its engines faltered, and they lost speed. Black ships shaped like sea urchins approached, but the beam weapons he fired dispersed like a lamp in fog; letting loose the planet-breaker would simply backfire on his own ships. It took him a second to recognise what was happening: they weren’t in open space anymore – it looked like space but it had density.
He ignored the storm of comms from other commanders; instinctively he knew what it was – he’d been a Perisher, a submarine commander back on Earth a lifetime ago. They were in a transparent liquid. Some of the Grid Alliance scientists had conjectured this possibility, how some form of unknown ‘liquid space’, presumably from Qorall’s galaxy, could make the shield more resilient, offering internal pressure, and dampening any energy-based attack on it.
“Torpedoes!” he barked in Largyl 6, the formal command language. His own battleship drenched the nearest ship, and he saw hundreds of other missiles to port and starboard snake their way through the invisible medium, homing onto their targets. He recognised the enemy ships’ design: Mannekhi. So, they’d joined ranks with Qorall. Not surprising, they’d been treated like dirt by Grid Society for centuries. But such defections bled away effort that should have been targeted at the real foe.
            The Mannekhi ships returned fire, purple pulses spitting from their spines, unaffected by the fluid. He ignored the battering as the energy bursts slammed into his battleship, keeping one sensory slit focused on the damage indicator, which was dropping slowly from ninety-three per cent. At fifteen per cent, his ship would implode. He leaned forward, two of his six slits trying to see the dark shape behind the walls of Mannekhi vessels.
            The enemy sea urchin in front of him ignited, a third of its spines flaring before melting. Something nagged at him, but he and the other commanders drove on. This was the first time they were actually winning; for fifteen years it had been a cycle of defeat, retreat, re-group, attack, defeat. He checked that the other ships outside the sphere had installed a stent to ensure the hole didn’t close; he didn’t want to be trapped inside a galactic pitcher plant.
            His battleship forged through three layers of Mannekhi ships, decimating dozens. Fifty-three per cent integrity left. That meant casualties. Connection broke with three destroyers whose hulls were less protected. They were winning, but the attrition rate was punishing. He sent a coded message up the chain to the Tla Beth: . He knew how many Q’Roth were perishing in this battle, but that would pale into insignificance against a single Tla Beth.
            Out of the blue, amidst the fire and flare of battle – his lieutenants and the automatic systems handling the Mannekhi ships – his age old rage surfaced. He recalled watching as the Q’Roth purged a dying Earth of its atmosphere and all its water, all its life. When he’d first emerged as a Q’Roth clone, he’d promised himself one day that he would exact revenge, seizing an opportunity to eradicate a large number of Q’Roth. And here it was. If he turned and opened fire on the other battleships, the Mannekhi would not stop to question, and together they would annihilate the Seventh Fleet. He’d promised himself that he’d never empathize with his blood enemy, the Q’Roth, no matter what. Billions of people wiped out, he reminded himself.
But he didn’t know anymore; didn’t know himself anymore. What he did know was that against all odds thousands of other humans had survived, safely quarantined on Ourshiwann, the so-called spider planet. The quarantine would come down soon, and he wanted to ensure that he held off Qorall as long as possible. If they had any sense, as soon as quarantine ended, mankind’s refugees would run like hell to the far end of the galaxy. And if he somehow met them one day, he wouldn’t expect anyone to understand. He’d be quite happy if they dealt out rough justice, court-martialled him for treason and executed him. That would be more than okay. The one thing he wished he could remember, though, but couldn’t, was his original human name. They'd carved it out of his memory for some reason.
            The Tla Beth ship, buzzing about like a mosquito, occasionally visible, then moving too fast for even Q’Roth vision to keep up, brought his attention back to the battle. What was it doing? Why hadn’t it left? But he knew why: curiosity. Like him, it was trying to determine what was lurking in the background. The Mannekhi ships had given up firing at the Tla Beth ship, after even a coordinated beam-lattice sweeping up and down failed to touch it.
            Q’Tor’s ship nudged through the wrecked sea urchins, and dispatched Hunter Class vessels from his bays to clean up the mess – just as well, since his ship had run out of torpedoes. He ignored the charred corpses drifting around cracked hulls – the Mannekhi were humanoid in shape, the only species he’d seen that resembled humanity. He’d more than once wondered if they were distant cousins. Too bad, they’d chosen the wrong side.
The last row of sea-urchin ships was white, burning bright, masking whatever lay behind. Seven Q’Roth ships remained active inside the shield-bubble, five others including two battleships were now debris; three destroyers limped back to the stent – they would have preferred to fight to the death, but the Q’Roth ship-yards were finding it hard to keep up with daily losses, so any ship not obliterated was towed back for re-conditioning.
The tiny Tla Beth ship spun into view ahead of Q’Tor, and fired a metastaser – a weapon he’d only heard vague rumours about until now. An orange light bathed one of the sea urchins and then it leapt across to adjacent ships, spreading outwards to the entire array, latching onto any material with a Mannekhi signature, ignoring Q’Roth ships. The sea urchins shimmered then exploded one by one, opening up a gap in the last defence perimeter.
That was when he saw it. He resisted the urge to take a step backwards.
It was darker than anything around it, like a slug-shaped hole in space. Except it moved. One of the fabled dark worms. As he tried to take it in, to see any features, a priority message plexed into his mind: the stent was collapsing. His gun turrets trained on the worm, fifty times the size of his four hundred crew battleship, but he didn’t fire – he’d read the reports. One of the other commanders lit it up with focused particle beams, but as Q’Tor had heard before, no sooner had the beams touched the worm’s ‘flesh’, than black tendrils traced their way back to the firing ship – as if they could latch onto light – and yanked the ship towards the worm with alarming speed – enveloping it inside its obsidian folds.
He now knew why the Mannekhi and the liquid space had been present: to exhaust their supply of torpedoes, though he wasn’t sure they could really have inflicted much damage on these mythical creatures that existed in the null-space between galaxies, surviving on dark energy seepage and any vessel foolish enough to attempt such a voyage. Qorall had used them in the first battle to defeat the galactic barrier, but they’d not been since, and most in the Alliance had hoped they had returned ‘home’. Q’Tor sent a priority message back to those outside the stent, to dispatch one ship back immediately back to the High Guard with news of this new development.
The worm writhed towards the Tla Beth ship. Why wasn’t the Tla Beth running? The other commanders were eerily silent. He broke protocol and tried contacting it directly on the emergency channel, but there was not even a transponder response.
He skimmed through sensor readings and then his mind snagged on one: the worm had emitted a dark energy spike that had been off the scale, directed at the Tla Beth ship. No one knew much about Tla Beth tech or physiology, but Qorall must have known somehow what one of their weak spots was.
Qorall’s tactic was suddenly clear to him: all of this, all this slaughter had been a ploy with a single objective, to destroy – or more likely capture – a Tla Beth, the highest level of intelligence in the galaxy. Qorall wanted one, presumably alive, to study. The Tla Beth were the only species of any real threat to him, and Qorall didn’t know enough about them, coming as he did from the Silverback galaxy. Q’Tor understood the importance of military intelligence. If Qorall captured a Tla Beth…
He used the mindplex to tell the other commanders. He didn’t bother to say he was sorry to have involved the Tla Beth in the first place; that was in the past now, and regret wasn’t in the Q’Roth psychological lexicon.
Immediately two battleships lurched forward to place themselves between the worm and the Tla Beth ship. He received a message . The other commanders appended a codicil which translated as “Sir”. It was the first time in all his years serving with them that they’d used it. They were respecting his overall command of this mission. He understood why – for the first time they’d penetrated the sphere and had gained valuable intelligence, even if they now risked losing one of their masters. He had an instinct to salute them and their imminent sacrifice, but his Q’Roth anatomy wouldn’t do it justice. Nor did he return with a “Good luck” or any such aphorism – Q’Roth culture stated that such things should be understood.
Instead he spun his ship into action, plotting a loop-and-catch manoeuvre that would push more ‘G’s than a human would have been able to handle. Using a gravity field he snatched the inert craft into the main hold. As he raced back toward the collapsing stent, the liquid space increased its density, slowing his ship down. That made him realise something else too, about the sphere – it had intelligence. He wondered if it was alive in some rudimentary way; so much of Qorall’s arsenal was organic, compared to this galaxy’s focus on techware. Instinct could react faster than intelligence. He wanted to think this through but he had other priorities: his ship’s integrity was at twenty-one per cent and falling. Two destroyers paved a way before him, attracting space mines which hadn’t been there on their way in. The two battleships behind him went silent. He gunned all engines and thrusters, ordering his faster Hunter craft to fend for themselves. Instead, they turned and made suicide runs on the worm, trying to buy him some time.
But he knew he wasn’t going to make it. The stent was already too small. One of the outside commanders informed him the whole sphere was shimmering, and believed it was about to jump, probably away from the front, back deep inside Qorall space. The destroyer to port exploded, and two seconds later the one to starboard peeled off, its drives heavily damaged, and made a run at the worm. 
Q'Tor and his surviving crew were alone now.
His sensors told him the worm was chasing him, increasing its speed as it swam through the same medium which was like treacle to his ship. He had twenty seconds before it would leach the energy from his battleship, including all Q’Roth life, and capture its prize.
Q’Tor considered his options, and decided that there were only two. He set the self-destruct timer for ten seconds and then broadcast a message to the commanders outside. “They won’t get the Tla Beth. Take the intel back to Ch’Hrach so you can prepare better next time.” He didn’t add what he thought: that it had been an honour serving with them, that they were the most impressive, fearless soldiers he’d ever seen.

to be continued...

The Eden Trilogy:
The Eden Paradox - available on Amazon in paperback and ebook (also Barnes & Noble)
Eden's Trial - available December 2011 as ebook, March 2012 in paperback
Eden's Revenge - coming September 2012

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

How to Get the Most out of Writing Conferences - Guest Blog by Harry Bingham

When I was setting up our first Festival of Writing, I had a sneaking feeling that the whole thing was a fraud. After all, I’d long told authors that all they had to do was write a wonderful book, send it off to literary agents, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Sure, there were some basic things you could do to ensure that your submission was likely to be looked at more positively. You needed to pick agents in a half-sensible way and write a covering letter that wasn’t awful, but that was it. Write a wonderful book. Don’t be an idiot when approaching the industry. Everything else was guff.

I still half-believe something similar now. Or rather: if you hate conferences and don’t want to network, you can still succeed. The quality of your manuscript remains by far the most important thing. Get that right and the rest won’t matter.

On the other hand, having now organised two massive writing conferences, I realise that for countless people our Festival of Writing has acted like an epiphany. More precisely, it can set in place a series of detonations that propel you forward, changing how you think about yourself, the industry and your book. More about that in a moment, but first a word about what a conference actually involves.

Our Festival of Writing, like most other writing conferences, offers a mixture of workshops, talks, seminars and one-to-one pitch sessions with literary agents, or one-to-one editorial sessions with book doctors. Ours is an ‘on-campus’ event, meaning that accommodation and food is all provided on the same college campus, which means you may find yourself sharing breakfast with a bestselling author or sitting up boozing with a well-known literary agent.

Those chance encounters are as important to the overall experience as the workshops and seminars themselves. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself encountering some critical and essential plotting point in a seminar, getting feedback from a publisher that really heartens you, hearing some words of advice from a boozy agent that give you a flash of illumination as to why your chapter two still feels a little dead. The sequence and propinquity of these things can make for an incredibly intense, nervy, but uplifting event. I also know that we get far more writer-agent connections established at our Festival than you’d expect from simply popping your manuscript in an envelope and getting it out to agents that way. In the last ten days alone, I’ve heard of one writer whose book has just been sold to Random House, via an agent he met at the Festival. Another writer has just had his book optioned for film, again from a Festival-forged connection.

The writers who do best at these things are the writers who have done the most preparation. First, if you are coming to a conference hoping to get taken on by a literary agent, your manuscript must be agent-ready. No one will want to represent you just because you’re charming, or buy lots of drinks, or have a great idea. You have to have a wonderful manuscript, well presented. In an ideal world, you’ll get there all by yourself. In the world most of us live in, you’ll probably want to get professional feedback and advice on your writing somewhere along the way.

If you do decide that professional feedback is worth it, then you should schedule it in early. Most festivals will probably need agent submissions a month or so beforehand (so agents have time to read your work). An editorial assessment will take a few weeks – allow a month – and you should give yourself a good few weeks to respond to any advice and feedback you’re given. That means that, at the latest, you should be sending your manuscript out for feedback three months before the event. And, of course, it makes no sense to solicit feedback until you’ve edited your manuscript as hard as you can first, which pushes the timeline back further still.

All that sounds arduous – and it is – but agents can easily tell which manuscripts have been loved and worked at and which ones are simply underripe. No prizes for guessing which one they’ll be most interested in.

Secondly, you should come to a conference with notes about who you want to talk to, what their background is, which authors they represent – anything that means you’ll get the very most from the encounters you have. I know one author who came to the Festival with a colour-coded list of all the people she wanted to talk to, with short notes on each one. That was a brilliant piece of preparation – and she ended the Festival with a couple of literary agents eager to read her completed manuscript.

And finally, a couple of social points. It makes no sense to be too pushy with agents. They’re there to work, sure, but they’re also there to have fun. If you are pleasant, tactful and responsive when talking to agents, you’ll do a lot better than if you’re not. If you start talking to an agent and you see they’re tired or just not in a place to chat, then leave it. They’ll thank you for it – and you’ll have other chances to make those connections.

Additionally, if you don’t like turning up to these events knowing no one, then go along with some of your friends from your local writing circle, or join an online community (like the Word Cloud) so you don’t feel isolated. These events are fun, but they can also be quite high pressure. Having some friends there with you is a good way to share the load. (Oh, and our conference, like most others, can probably be persuaded into offering discounts for multiple bookings, so it’s well worth calling up and seeing what you can haggle.)

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help with literary agents and feedback on your writing. It also organises an annual Festival of Writing – scheduled for September 7-9, 2012.

Monday, 24 October 2011

My path to publication

At the launch of my book in paperback a week ago, Harry Bingham, who runs the Writers Workshop, asked me to write  about how I got published, and I agreed. It's published on their website, and the link is here. In it are some tough lessons I learned: mainly on what not to do, but then a few more positive suggestions!

And here's a photo of me and my rapidly decreasing pile of books :-) I always think I have more hair than I do...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Making Cyberpunk a reality

A comment I got from a major SF imprint when touting my book around was that Cyberpunk was dead - been there, done that. I disagreed for two reasons - first, it's not the major part of my book anyway (now published) and second, surely we're getting closer and closer to it becoming a reality? Neuromancer was phenomenal; don't we need a lot more like it to see what comes next?

We live in a 'connected world' with IPhones, data-sharing on a global scale, drone warfare, and cyber-terrorist threats, which are definitely not fictional (the Chinese government, incidentally, see cyberterrorism as a form of strategic defense, a way to even up the odds against other military options).

One of the problems is that it is hard to keep track/awareness of all these data sources, which are so rich in their variety, fertile ground for viruses and hackers. But people are excellent pattern recognizers, still way beyond machines, able to sift out noise and see what is going on. So, what if we could translate data into visual images, enabling analysts to see anything wrong, anything which didn't fit? Remember Matrix, when Nero sees a cat twice? Straight away the rest of the gang know they've just been screwed over...

In my book (The Eden Paradox), two analysts (cyberpunks?) are analyzing telemetry slip-streaming back from the Ulysses, but someone is tampering with the data, suggesting that all is well, when it is not. Earthbound protagonist Micah uses a device called the Optron to analyze the data, transforming it into a virtual landscape. In his landscape, everything looks fine. Then he enter's his colleague Rudi's 'data-world'...

Micah tensed as soon as he entered, completely unprepared for what he saw. He didn’t know if his physical body recoiled or not, but as soon as he arrived in Rudi’s world, as usual from a medium height above the landscape, he shot back upwards, away from the scene. The sky was a swirling mess of fierce blue and purple, streaks of scarlet zipping from one horizon to another. But that was not the worst. Beneath him was a charred city, bodies strewn amongst the ruins. Mutated human figures staggered amongst the carnage. Micah had difficulty controlling his breathing, and then realised why: a stench of burnt flesh. His own landscape was visual, but some analysts also used taste and smell.
Micah had never seen anything so apocalyptic – or had he? He remembered in training, once, the professor had briefly shown his students a landscape that had been used to develop a highly resilient and aggressive computer virus. 
He thought about it: a virus, but not a normal one that just destroys. What had been done had been subtle, an "Emperor’s Cloak" virus. It prevented real data getting through and supplanted it with fake data, what you wanted to be seen. But this was also a virus in the more conventional sense, eviscerating a vast data-stream. Micah pulled back and gazed towards the horizon. Flames billowed in the distant sky; voluminous clouds of grey-black smoke drifted across the land. He flew, increasingly fast, to see how far it extended, whether the whole landscape was the same, and whether the virus had affected everything.
He covered a dozen kilometers surveying the devastation below, everything dying or dead. Raven-like creatures tore strips of flesh from corpses; it meant non-recoverable data deletion. Although it was sickening to watch, he was impressed – data streams were highly protected by security protocols – to do this inside the Optron environment must have taken immense skill on Rudi’s part. He saw a green flash down below, the colour catching his eye. He dropped down. It seemed to be a figure, hiding behind the large stump of a tree. He was stunned when he got close enough. It was Katrina, the astronaut. Micah had never met her, but ten minutes ago he had been looking at her on the poster, even if she now had a jade green body. The simulacrum beckoned to him. He drew closer, at first reluctantly, and then he chided himself – nothing physical could happen to him here.
"Take me to the South river," she said. Her voice was scratchy, synthetic, she clearly had problems speaking. Micah knew that it meant her programme was degrading. Yet there was desperation in her voice.  He had no real plan in any case, so he nodded, and moved behind Katrina. Then he realised he did not know where South was, so he asked. She pointed to the right.
Weight wasn’t a problem in the Optron landscape, so he picked her up, holding her by her waist as they flew. There was little sensation of touch, Micah noted – presumably Rudi had toned down that particular sense – not surprising given the violence all around.
Carrion birds flocked in the distance. "Higher. Go higher," she gurgled.
Micah complied and whooshed above the birds. They were now so high it grew dark, though there were no stars. Katrina coughed. He knew the simulated air rarity affected her programming, and he made to descend, but she shook her head vehemently.
"Not yet."
After five minutes that included gut-wrenching coughing on her part, she pointed down to the right, and Micah swooped below. He saw green in the distance. He accelerated. With a sense of exhilaration he realised that it was his own landscape: beyond a boundary of red-soaked earth, lay green hills and trees, and a river winding toward the horizon.
"Stop!" she screamed, coughing in spasms that juddered Micah. He slowed down, intending to land on his own territory.
"NO! Stop NOW!" Lime green blood sprayed from her mouth.
Micah stopped dead, and they hung for a moment. Her body relaxed, though the coughing continued. Slowly he descended to the ground. She was a mess. She curled up in a foetal position on the damp red heather, and pointed to the other side, a few meters away.
"Walk," she croaked, and then resumed coughing.
Micah looked from her to the green lawn, and walked towards it. As he made to step onto cool grass, he collided with an invisible wall; it connected with his foot, knee and head, and he bounced off, falling back onto the turf. It hadn’t hurt him, just been a surprise. He got up again and tested the barrier. He could barely see it, but it was impenetrable. No wonder she’d screamed at him to stop. He glanced back to her to check Katrina wasn’t going anywhere, then shot straight upwards at high velocity to find the top edge of the wall. About a kilometre above the ground, the glass curved backward behind him. A dome. No way through or out.
"You should go now," Katrina said, her voice a thin scratch across his ears.
"What about you?"
"You can only help me from the outside. Or maybe from in there." She pointed to Micah’s world. He stared through the glass to note certain landmarks in his landscape to find the border again. He wondered if the Katrina simulacrum would remain there. He doubted it. The carrion birds would erase her first chance they got.
He gave the mental command to exit, and changed the setting on the Optron to his own landscape. In that brief instant he thought maybe he heard a small noise in the real world, but he didn’t have time to check it out; and there was no sign of Rudi.
It was refreshing to be back in his world. Rudi’s had been so stressful. He headed to the far North of his landscape. After some minutes, he saw the landmarks: a telegraph line, a deserted stone farm building, and the river. But he could see nothing of Rudi’s world. He slowed down. In the distance, a similar telegraph line and a deserted stone farm building. He stopped and looked back, then forward. Idiot! He glided down and stood at the bank of the river. He saw in front of him, his reflection; a mirror, the perfect metaphor for reflecting a data-stream back on itself, and one difficult to spot given his chosen landscape format.
He tried to reason it out: Rudi’s landscape was chewing up the real incoming data from Ulysses, and feeding his with false data. But where did the false data come from? Later. He needed to get out before Rudi returned.
He imaged the exit symbol, rubbing his eyes, and removed the headset. He pinched the bridge of his nose between fore-finger and thumb. As he opened his eyes, about to get out of the chair, he stopped dead. Rudi stood before him, aiming a pulse pistol at his face.
"Hello, Mikey, been anywhere interesting?"

The Eden Paradox, available on Amazon in Ebook & Paperback, also Barnes & Noble (Nook).

Friday, 21 October 2011

Anatomy of a Book Launch

I had my first book launch last Saturday in London - it was on the back of a Writers Workshop event in a fabulous old colonial building (the Royal Overseas League, behind the Ritz), and there were already about 90 people there (would-be writers and writing coaches, plus some friends (two of whom came all the way from Paris). Three of us who had been published were asked to say a few words, which we did - mainly about the importance of writing the best novel you can, since most people present were unpublished writers. I then had a table with my books stacked up in several piles facing away from me, and nabbed any passers-by.

People were genuinely impressed by the book cover (jacket), and I had some same-design bookmarks made up for the event which went down very well. I tried to keep my signature stable, and made sure people spelled out names for all the dedications (the most frequent of which was simply  "Hope you enjoy it"). About a third of the books were being bought for people not present whom the people there knew liked SF, for gifts and as Christmas presents. In the end I sold 30 books, which was nice, and then another ten in the couple of days which followed.

I had one unusual moment, when a book doctor (a published writer who advises other writers on their manuscripts) stopped at my desk. She said: "I read the first page and straight away knew that this was good enough to be published." Not knowing what to say, I simply said "Thank you", all the time thinking of the many, many rejection slips I'd had from agents and publishers who said it wasn't good enough. I'm not sure what the opposite of a Faustian moment is, but this was it.

That left me with three books in my stockpile, that went straight into WHSmith bookshop in Paris. Interestingly, it was their buyer who asked me to make a pitch in just three sentences, which I had prepared for the official launch but not used. The shop, which is right near Concorde, went a bit quiet and the manager and assistants all turned to listen... I said:

"Fifty years from now we discover a new habitable planet called Eden. It seems perfect, but the first two missions there have failed to return. This book is about the third mission."

They took the books. Again, the buyer seemed happy with the design and quality of the cover, and went to place it on their Science Fiction & Fantasy central table. I pointed to a gap next to a Peter F. Hamilton tome and said "there's a space there."

I realized two things during the book launches. First, as I said at the launch, despite it taking seven years from its first inklings as a short story to having the paperback version in my hands, that it was worth it, holding it in my hands with a cover I love and text I'm happy with. Second, people who like books like to buy them from an author if they get the chance. There is something about the exchange which I can't quite put my finger on, but it's a nice feeling both ways.

Now comes the hard part of selling on Amazon, etc. Oddly enough, the event has triggered some sales of the Ebook. In any case, I'm going to plan some more launches...

Photos from the launch are available on:

The Eden Paradox is available as an Ebook and as a Paperback on Amazon, Barnes & Noble,  Waterstones, and in WHSmith in Paris (see my 'Books' page for links).

Friday, 14 October 2011

Why novelists should write short stories

Short story writing teaches economy of writing, and how to get across what matters in the least time. You can't bloat or get carried away in a short story, particularly for a magazine which pays by the word. You have to quickly let the reader know what is going on and make them root for one character who you're going to challenge so the reader can see what this person is really made of: listen to Kurt Vonnegut on Youtube (short stories).

So, most writers start in short stories then move onto novels. Often they stop writing 'shorts', which is a mistake. Don't take it from me, check out Stephen King on Youtube (sorry, you have to paste this one in). 

For scifi writers the short story form prevents the writer waxing about clever (and boring) technical stuff, you have to say what the tech does and rapidly move back to the characters (or better, just let the readers see them using it, and they will figure it out).

If a novel (or a series like a trilogy) is a relationship, then a short story is like flirting, or at most a fling. Short stories can be fun, and as long as they're just stories, there's no downside afterwards, and you can end up thinking about possibilities a long time afterwards.

The master of short stories is of course Raymond Carver who famously said, "No tricks, just tell the story."

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The importance of the first line...

"This one might be trouble."            Iain Banks, Surface Detail.

A good first line hooks readers, tells them this is going to be good, that they are in safe hands. It is particularly impottant for new writers, since established ones can take their time because their fans already trust them. In scifi, it can also give the reader a good idea of the 'register' of the writing, whether it is going to be 'hard' scifi, cyberpunk, or just a rollicking good thriller, or all of these:

Meteorites fell through the night sky like a gentle sleet of icefire, their sharp scintillations slashing ebony overload streaks across the image Greg Mandel's photon amp was feeding into his optic nerves.
Peter F. Hamilton, Mindstar rising.

If a book is really about one person, the first line can set that up with the reader (like a 'writer-reader contract'):

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."
Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game.

The first line should always strive for originality, a fresh voice, telling the reader 'this is going to be new, different, a novel perspective'; in the next example, an alien one:

Fins had been making wisecracks about humans for thousands of years.
David Brin, Startide rising.

The one above also indicates the writer has some humor, and shows from the very outset that the book is set probably thousands of years in the future, and humanity is not the dominant species. Not bad for a first line!

Sometimes, however, we just want to know it's going to be a good thriller, with plenty of suspense, and some wonder thrown in along the way:

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.
Arthur C Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama

Action in an alien setting can be an effective way to start a scifi novel...

The three people running northward through moon shadows in the Forbidden Forest were strung out along almost half a kilometre.
Frank Herbert, God emperor of Dune

And then there's dark side... Here's a golden oldie:

It was a pleasure to burn.
Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

Last, here's my own contributions...

People rarely search for bodies in ceilings, Gabriel O'Donnell reminded himself.
The Eden Paradox

General William Kilaney awoke, disappointed to find he was still alive.
Eden's Trial (due out December)

If Q’Tor had still been human he’d have shaken himself.
Eden's Revenge (due out September 2012)

Feel free to add your own...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How to write a page-turner

A couple of days ago a reader put  review of my book on titled 'Better than Dan Brown...' Well, obviously I was chuffed, but it was partly because I read the Da Vinci Code while I was writing my book The Eden Paradox, and did borrow a few tricks from the much-celebrated (by readers) and much berated (by writers) author. It was also an interesting comment because although my book is a science fiction thriller, unusually it has an ancient religious sect (the Alicians) as a main player in its theme.

Since many other readers have told me (a) they don't normally read SF but liked this book, and (b) it's a real page-turner / can't put it down, I figured I must be doing something right. So, here is what I do, with some examples from the book and its sequel (Eden's Trial, due out before Xmas). All of them occur at the end of chapters, since that is the point at which a reader is most likely to put a book down.

Basically, a page-turner requires suspense, which must eventually be satisfied for the reader. For example:

As he crossed one of the myriad pedestrian bridges in underground Sylmar, Micah felt his neck prickling. He spun around, sure someone was behind him in the shadows, watching him. It wasn’t that late, and usually there were more people around, but not tonight. The lights were dim, and all he saw was a stray cat; but the cat was looking in the same direction as Micah, towards a closed street booth that sold coffee and snacks in the daytime. Micah waited half a minute to see if anyone emerged. No one did. He carried on, quickening his pace till he arrived at his door. Some distance behind him, a cat shrieked as if in pain. He had the prickling feeling again, but didn’t turn around. He fumbled with the lock, slipped inside his apartment, and double-locked the door. 

So, given that the first chapter is called 'Assassin', you get the idea: Micah is in trouble.

But you have to care about the characters, too, otherwise who cares if he get's whacked or not? Besides, maybe something good is about to start on the TV... The easiest way to do this is to have 'sympathetic characters', who are basically unassuming, modest, faulted characters (aka known as 'like us' normal people), who find themselves in difficult situations. Add to this some secondary interest, say, a love interest which is a one-way street and the other person doesn't even see you, and the reader can be hooked by both the plot and wanting to know if 'he's gonna get the girl...' Here's an example of just that: four astronauts (one female, Kat) are on their way to Eden, but they've just found out there is a stowaway on board: a legendary genetically-engineered warrior known as a ghoster. This excerpt is in Pierre's point of view - note that the POV chosen is neither the Captain's (Blake) who is heroic, nor Zack's, who is stoic and very tough; instead Pierre's head is the reader's reference point: Pierre is the slightly nerdy science officer who had a domineering father and has a terrible record with women.

Blake got up and ripped the seal off the weapons locker at the back of the cockpit, grabbed a pulse pistol and checked its charge. He passed one to each of the others.
Pierre felt his own fear rising. "You killed one, in Kurana Bay, though the records are vague."
Kat cradled her pistol. "How many were you when you met the ghoster?"
"Twenty," Zack answered, priming his pistol. It emitted a low start-up hum. "A full platoon of experienced soldiers."
Pierre swallowed. He was a scientist, he’d never seen any actual combat. He thought the next question, even as Kat asked it.
"How many of you came out?"
"Let’s go," Blake said, heading out, Zack right behind him.
Kat fumbled with her pistol, arming it. She glanced up at Pierre. "We’re so screwed." 
If he’d been someone else, he’d have held her, comforted her in some way. He glanced down at his own pistol – he wasn’t much of a soldier, certainly no match for a ghoster. His brain – that was the only weapon he had that could be of any use right now. He hurried after Blake and Zack. Think, he heard his father say, smacking the dining room table, think fast!

Notice also the dialogue, how the characters don't quite answer each other - something we do in real life all the time, by the way, but the reader can fill in the blanks (only Blake and Zack survived the ghoster attack in Kurana Bay), but this engages the reader, making her/him part of the crew, about to survive or die trying.

The reader can also sympathise with bad characters - up to a point. The one in the following section from Eden's Trial is a real bad-ass, out to kill the hero, but she has troubles of her own, namely an alien artifact called a Hohash which keeps attacking her on the gigantic ship which she pilots alone, having just lost her lover. The Hohash is banging on the metal shield door.

“More hide and seek?” She shouted through the door. “Okay, we’ll play again soon.” She recalled how it had chased her, she moving wildly to avoid its savage side-on thrusts, until she managed to reach the Regen-lab where she’d been reborn. By that time she’d been crawling, with a broken femur and fractured arm, not to mention concussion and haemorrhaging inside her leg. She didn’t know why it hadn’t taken its opportunity there and then to crush her neck or head, but the ship had intervened, extruding a metal skin door in a millisecond, sealing her safe in the lab.
Two weeks of accelerated healing. During which time Micah had eluded her again. She’d not seen the Hohash since that day, but she heard it haunting the corridors often enough.
Where are you headed, Micah? She called up the nav-charts, and located the nearest Grid Station. Too close, and too small – they’d need anonymity now. She picked a minor hub, six transits from Micah’s previous location. She zoomed in to the hub’s alien manifest. She smiled. Perfect.
The door bashing intensified, like a drum beating out a dervish. She heaved her hand-made high intensity thermal cannon onto her good hip. She aimed it at the door, and flicked the ignition on. Molten flame dripped from the tip of the muzzle. “Coming.” She slammed her good hand down on the door release.

Bad characters can be sympathetic if they have difficulties they overcome through sheer will of resolve (her injuries, her loss earlier in this chapter), and if they have style (in this case through her dialogue to the artifact, whose intentions are uncertain - e.g. why didn't it kill her when it had the chance?). Will she find Micah and kill him (she thinks he killed her lover, which is untrue)? Will she outwit the Hohash? Will it kill her? 

The 'cliffhanger' is the most obvious device for a page-turner but can't be used too often (as I felt it was in the Da Vinci Code) as otherwise the reader feels (rightly) manipulated. Here's a literal cliffhanger moment from The Eden Paradox, again in Pierre's point of view. He is about to abseil down a cliff, following Blake, inside a massive cave. There is no lighting as their torches have run out, and he has goggles which recorded the geography of the cliff and cave in the last moments of light - which means he cannot see anything which changes, and an alien has just entered the cave:

Pierre counted to twenty, attached his own auto-descent system to the wire, and replaced his goggles. He backed toward the edge. He thought he heard something, a distant rumbling, coming from the entrance. Uselessly, he looked toward it, but of course the goggles could show no movement. He leant back, bent his knees, and kicked off, propelling himself away and down the cliff-face.
            A shrill electronic whine, rising in tone, made him misjudge his descent, and his knees smashed into the cliff face, stinging with pain – the motion detector had sensed something approaching, fast. The whine was drowned out by the creature’s roar, and it felt to Pierre as if the whole chamber vibrated. He pressed the freefall button on his harness and dropped faster, but was suddenly yanked upwards. Pebble-sized rocks pummelled his head and shoulders.  
            "Cut the line!" Blake shouted from below.
            In disbelief Pierre looked upward and saw nothing, then raked his goggles down and managed to switch on his torch – the creature was hauling him up. He could see its trapezoidal head, the blood red breathing slits writhing on its black-blue face. The creature’s  roar made Pierre’s hands freeze, clinging to the cord.
            "Pierre! CUT – THE – LINE!"
            He rose rapidly in jerks, a metre at a time, the creature’s forelegs feverishly pulling up the line, like a spider reeling in a fly. Pierre could hardly breathe, as his right hand flailed behind him groping for the knife. His head bashed against the cliff face knocking his torch from his left hand as he tried to protect himself. He knew he had only a few more seconds. His outstretched right hand fingers brushed across the hilt and he gripped it with all his might. Another yank pulled him up almost to the ledge. With a yell not far short of a scream, he whipped the knife above his head and severed the line, feeling a gust of air as a claw lashed past his face. He freefell, hurling the knife sideways so he could lock his elbows around his neck and head, the creature’s howl of fury chasing him as he tumbled into the darkness below.

Note how Blake shouts what the reader wants to: "Cut the line!" But Pierre freezes, as we probably would too, then manages to do it just in time - but even before we can breathe a sigh of relief, we realize that he is now falling...

Of course it could have been written like this:

Pierre was abseiling down a cliff when the alien started reeling him upwards. He was very afraid. Blake told him to cut the line. What a really good idea, thought Pierre. He did so. Oops, he thought - now I'm a bit screwed.

You'd put the book down, right? I would.

Killing off a hero is a difficult thing to bring off as a cliffhanger or page turner, because there is sadness, and the reader wants to put the book down to come to terms with it. It is a dangerous device for a writer. But it can be turned around. Here is an excerpt from the prologue of Eden's Trial. One of the heroes of Book One (yep, a trilogy is also a form of page-turner, let's call it a 'book-turner') has just been vented into space by one of the female baddies trying to kill off humanity. For sure he's going to die this time. But I don't waste it, or make it sentimental, and nor does he (which is true to his character).

As he tumbled into space, he knew he had only a few remaining seconds of consciousness. As the minute quantity of air in his lungs expanded to bursting, he let out a space-silent yell of rage. He squeezed his eyes shut to protect them as long as he could, suppressing needle-like pains as nitrogen flashed out of his bloodstream into his joints, competing with the grinding ache from his bloating limbs. The naked glare of the sun slammed into him, searing his face like a whip with each turn of his somersault. None of it mattered anymore. As his body convulsed, venting blood at every orifice, he choked off the idea that she might be right about humanity. Instead, he willed his last thought out into the void: Prove her wrong, Blake. You and Micah can do this. Wherever you are, for God’s sake, prove –

He's not thinking about his wife or his life (in fact he does this earlier in the chapter when he realizes she is going to kill him). It makes the reader think what they might have thought in such a moment, but whatever that may be, the reader recognizes the sacrifice this man has made, and wants Micah and Blake to fulfill his last wishes.

Notice the details in all of these end passages from chapters. These particular details are based on NASA's website about what happens to a human body in space. For any page-turner passage, there should be sharp details - visual, aural, tactile - so the reader is brought sharply onto the surface of the scene.

A shift in a character (good or bad) we know can also be a compelling and more subtle page-turner, because we want to know what they are going to do next. In fact, a book in which characters do not change at all is usually not a page-turner. We often wish we could change in some way, and so we like to read fiction where people are pushed enough that they finally do. In this scene from The Eden Paradox, near the end of the book, Jennifer, who has stayed in the shadows, supporting others, sits with  one of her mentors as he slowly asphyxiates, having been poisoned. Gabriel is her dead brother - she always looked up to him and followed him (a pattern which she repeated throughout her life with lovers/mentors until now).

           "Jennifer, you stay too much in the shadows. Now is your time. Hendriks will try to take control of the ship, but he is not a leader, and will vacillate. You must take charge. Take the data crystal from my neck, and the nano-sword." There was no breath left. He mouthed his last words silently. "You said you wanted it."
            His eyes glazed, and his neck went slack.
            She reached forward and closed his eyes. "And I was just getting to like you. Do you know how rare that is?" She took a deep breath. "Tell Gabriel I miss him, but I’m still in the fight." She snatched the data crystal from his neck, grabbed the nano-sword, and sprinted toward the ship.

We know she's going to confront Hendriks, and for the first time she will not be standing behind anyone else or acting indirectly. Isn't that something most of us dream about (usually someone at work or in some other social situation)?

Here's a good rule for writing a page-turner:

You don't write about an explosion. Instead, you show someone in the dark lighting a fuse, their shadowy features - someone the reader recognizes - lit by the crackling flame of the ignited match. You let the reader hear the sizzle as it takes fire, smell the acrid smoke, and see up ahead people laughing and joking at a party, oblivious to the bomb as the fuse snakes its way towards them...

Page-turners at the end of chapters are most important at the beginning of the book, and then the middle, and then the end (I'm not joking). I use alternating chapters - e.g. in The Eden Paradox, one chapter is on Earth, the next is on the spaceship bound for Eden. This allows for cliffhangers, e.g. in the excerpt above with Pierre ("Cut the line!"), there would be little point in stopping where it does if on the very next page it said: And then Pierre... So instead, the reader gets a chapter about Micah or Gabriel or Jennifer, and has to wait until the chapter afterwards to find out what happens to Pierre.

This means a complex plot, but then that is often the way of thrillers. As said earlier, however, the plot must be credible, or else the reader will feel manipulated and will disengage, often without knowing why (readers are not stupid or gullible). This means a lot of work up front by the writer on the plot and basic storyline, and then a lot of head-scratching about sequencing the chapters and events and story 'arcs' (sub-plots within the overall story).

There are other methods, some deeper and more subtle, like ellipses, echoes and resonance, and usage of chapter titles and first lines of chapters.

But I'll save these for another time...

The Eden Paradox is available digitally (Kindle, Nook, IPAD, I-Phone) and in paperback on,, and other outlets. Official paperback launch October 15th in London (see home page).
© Barry Kirwan |
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