Friday, 27 January 2012

How I write short stories - beginnings

People ask me how I write stories, so here's a Scifi one I'm working on. Like all short stories it should have a fresh, catchy first line, one that grabs the reader's attention, sets the tone and tells the reader what it's about. So, it starts like this. 

First Contact hadn’t been a problem; fifth was catastrophic.

Like it? It's about an invasion, but not the normal run of the mill type. But it is aggressive. First I show it  as seen externally:

The Krilleyan ships decelerated so hard from faster-than-light speed as they reached the solar system that they triggered massive EM spikes. Ninety-eight per cent of Solar and planetary defence techware was fried in less than a second. By the time Pluto Delta’s detection grid had relayed the inbound swarm, the first of the five thousand starfish-shaped ships had already breached Earth’s atmosphere. Orbital missile stations, the few that had the latest EM-proof bioware borrowed from a friendlier species, had no chance to lock target. At least one general ordered panic-fire; the last order he gave, as one of the inbounds edged its descent vector, the kinetic impact obliterating the station while leaving the starfish unscathed.

So, the writing will be smoothed out later, but I'm happy with the name (Krilleya), and there's enough peppering of SF words in there (bioware, faster-than light) to set a SF tone, but not so much that it seems like 'hard' Science Fiction. I use imagery that people can imagine easily (starfish-shaped craft). But on the first page I also want to introduce the protagonist, and make the invasion more palpable, which I do in the next paragraph:

At ground level, Salak couldn’t run for the grinding pain from the screeching hailstorm of ships. Kneeling, hands plastered over his ears to escape the crushing din, he raised his head just enough to see the coral-coloured ships as they tore through the sky, pink and black whorls trailing behind them. They didn’t seem interested in braking. He staggered to his feet, just as three mil jets, in what must surely have been a suicide chase, fired on one of them. Flames billowed on one of its fingers, stretched behind it like a ragged flag, and were left behind. It pummelled into San Francisco Bay, the jets following it, and with horror he realized what was coming next. 

The name Salak is a bit 'Vulcan', but it's easy enough on the mental tongue. The main senses here are sound and vision. We've slipped into Salak's point of view, though it could still be the narrator's, but the key sentence that begins to set the tone of Salak's personality is 'They didn't seem interested in braking.' This will become important later, because his state of mind is what resolves the story later on. The end of  the para is a challenge to the reader - what does he realize is coming next? 

He turned and ran through the crowd behind him, sprinting up San Fran’s notorious stepped lanes, dodging the stalled cars and dazed people. The concrete underneath him shook, knocking him off his feet. It was hard to hear people’s screams above the hammering bass shock waves that segued into a sizzling hiss as four more ships struck the water. A friend, Sarah, stood nearby, willow-like, transfixed, watching the show. He shouted to her but his voice sounded muted in his ears, just as he saw blood trickling from hers. Salak touched his own lobes and felt the wetness there, too. He grabbed her by the shoulders, but she didn’t react, didn’t see him. At first he pulled her by the wrist, but she was dead weight, so he picked her up in a fireman’s lift and ran again, trying to take two steps at a time. As his hearing failed, each ship’s impact sounded like a distant gunshot, and then stopped; no more ships. He kept running, and didn’t turn around, didn’t need to. Each time he passed somebody he saw their eyes grow wider; some fell down in panic, and he felt bad that he couldn’t stop to help them, but it was just him and Sarah now. A sound of thunder – more like a feeling in his bones – grew behind him, and the afternoon city was plunged into shade by the wave about to engulf it. Salak stared ahead, focused on the steps, careful not to fall, and ran as fast as his legs could carry them, always upwards.

So, from here on it stays with Salak. I've introduced Sarah, a more normal contemporary name which together with 'Salak' gives the impression this is in the future but not so far, and Sarah is a possible future love interest, or counterpoint. Salak is set up as a sympathetic character, but also pragmatic - he knows he can save Sarah, but if he tries to save any more, he'll save no one; yet still he feels guilt. But also he acts, focusing on one simple thing, climbing to beat the tsunami wave.

From here there is a section break and the story shifts to several days later, having mentioned Salak's background - he is in the new exo-diplomatic corps, an alien comms expert - when mankind tries to retaliate. I skip a few paragraphs ahead, to where the ships have settled to the bottom of the oceans:

But the ships just sat there. That was fine with the Generals, except that none of their weapons managed to damage or dent the starfish hulls. Salak and others the world over tried to communicate with the ships, even using dolphin proto-language and whale-song, and the four new alien dialects, but silence was the only response.

Inevitably, the US President took the tactical lead and agreed to deploy a nuke against a cluster of the ships deep in the Solomon Trench – the Solomon Islands had long since acceded to global warming. It worked, one of the ships was damaged, three of its five fingers broken off and melted, the central husk smashed and scorched.
The reprisal was terrible. Within thirty minutes, tsunamis occurred at fifty coastal locations worldwide. Severe weather patterns erupted worldwide: cyclones, hurricanes, floods, and three days of black cloud obscured the sun and plunged Earth into darkness.
There were no more tac-nuke strikes.
And so the ships just sat there, inert.
Except they weren’t, of course. They were incubating. On the first full moon, almost a month after their arrival, billions of Krilleya larvae left their egg-ships and headed upwards.

That's the set-up of the story. Hopefully, if you've got this far, you'd want to know more. The story's working title at the moment is Diplomatic Solution, and it takes a few different angles on conventional themes like invasion, what an alien race might want from Earth, the difficulties of communication when there is no common frame of reference, and how far diplomacy might go for the sake of peace.

What I've shown here is second draft, and it will be about draft six by the time I send it anywhere. In any case, it will end up in my 'Stories' section of this website sometime this year. Stay tuned...

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook
Eden's Trial is available on Amazon in ebook
Edens Revenge is coming end 2012...

Monday, 23 January 2012

Waterstones Book launch event, Camberley, Surrey, UK, 3rd March

First 'official' book launch at a bookshop in my home town (more or less) is scheduled for Saturday March 3rd at Waterstones at 11am. Hope some of you reading this can make it, even if you already have the book, would be nice to meet some (more) of my readers!

Friday, 20 January 2012

How to create tension: arrive late, leave early. Eden's Trial - Teaser

A thriller requires tension. One of the rules for tension is 'arrive late, leave early.' What this means is the reader is thrown into a scene which has already started, rather than seeing it build up and develop, and then the scene is cut close to the end, so the reader knows what happens without going through all its motions. The phrase is about going to a party - do you want to be the first to arrive? It can be quite boring and a little uncomfortable. Similarly, if you are last to leave, it can be bittersweet, maybe because you have nowhere else to go. This approach respects the intelligence of the readers - they can work it out, and feel better for having done so.

A conundrum with this approach can be scene set-up. The reader mustn't be confused, so there is need for some narative to bring the reader directly into the scene. A key is verb usage - strong verbs and nouns which subliminally suggest tension and action, even when nothing is actually happening. E.g. read the following paragraph:

Rashid rammed the ankh key into the slot for the third time, but it was no use, the ship refused to move. He and two other crew members huddled in the mould-coloured control room whose curved walls made him feel like he was trapped inside the labyrinthine intestines of some giant monstrous being: dead, just not yet digested. They tried to make the Q’Roth vessel controls work, but everything was inert. Rashid bit hard on his lower lip. They’d already executed twelve perfect jumps, with the required twenty-four hour intervals to recharge the engines. Something else was wrong, and meanwhile, they dangled in space like bait on a hook.

Verbs/participles: rammed, refused, huddled, trapped, digested, bit, executed, dangled.
Nouns/adjectives: walls; labyrinthine, intestines, monstrous, inert, hard, bait.

Some of these are employed 'subliminally', e.g. 'executed', which in this case just means 'did', however, the reader's brain also registers the other meaning of this verb, as in to kill. One ot two of these alone would give a hint, but the density of them packed into a single paragraph creates a cumulative effect of foreboding - the reader knows this is going to be bad.

The piece can now ease off the tension a bit, letting the reader meet some of the others at the party. This starts as narrative, but has to launch into dialogue soon - a party where no one talks is dead...

He’d planned to move closer to the storm-shrouded planet Pierre and Katrina were surveying in the Hohash scout vessel, when he discovered the mother ship had slipped into sleep mode. At least the two thousand human refugees aboard were unaware of their predicament – tensions since they’d fled a burning Earth two weeks ago had meant he might just as well have a manifest of gunpowder rather than people, a tinderbox ready to ignite at the mere hint of a spark. He glanced at Axel and Sofia, but their furrowed brows, reflected in the jungle green lighting from the consoles, told him they were just as confused and apprehensive. He hoped his own concern was better masked than theirs. On impulse, and because they’d exhausted all other options, he kicked the stand of the extruded grey console with his boot, which did nothing whatsoever for the controls. However, a voice lanced across the room from behind him.

“Engine trouble?”

He spun around to see the upper half of a woman, honey-blonde hair strained back in a ponytail, rending her eyes – which could otherwise have been considered beautiful – too elfin-like to trust. Her crystal-clear image, sliced off at the waist, stared back at him with an equivocal expression, hovering in the middle of the room. A hologram, he assumed, though not like any he’d ever seen, and without any obvious source of projection.

“I wish to speak to Vince. Or Micah. Or even the legendary Blake Alexander.”

Rashid jutted his chin at the seated woman. “All dead, killed on Eden,” he lied. “And – you must excuse me – but we have not been introduced.”

A smile flickered like a nascent flame, and was gone. “Louise.”

He narrowed his eyes. He’d heard enough about Louise – an Alician assassin – from Micah and Vince – to presume that he, his ship and its two thousand frightened souls were in grave trouble. Yet she was supposed to be dead. He decided not to question the obvious, but she must have read his expression.

“Vince gave me a headache, but I’m all better now,” she said, mock sweetness.

He knew Vince had in fact put a hole clean through her skull. He brushed it aside: it didn’t matter how she was here. He rebuffed the idea of asking the clichéd question of what she wanted. As he suspected, he didn’t have to wait for her to get to the point.

“I’ve taken remote control of your ship. Perhaps that possibility didn’t occur to you when you stole it?”
He grimaced. Of course it had, which is why each of the four ships fleeing Earth and Eden had taken separate, fractally-coded pathways to the Ourshiwann home world, transiting to distant jump points, only entering each destination just before the next jump. He glanced over to the empty wall-space where the Hohash mirror-device normally resided. Pierre and Katrina had taken it to the nearby planet, looking for water. It meant he had no way to communicate with the other ships to warn them. Still, at least Pierre and Katrina might survive.

He suppressed his mounting curiosity at how this holographic projection could transmit both ways, if indeed, he wondered, it was a hologram. She looked real enough to touch, except for the obvious fact that the lower half of her body was missing. If she can interact with me – if she can hear my voice and see my actions, maybe this hologram can sense and transmit pain back to the real Louise…

She stifled a yawn. “Give me the coordinates of your final destination and you may live. If not, I will jump your ship into this system’s star.”

Rashid heard Sofia gasp and Axel take a step backwards. Sofia, a dark-skinned woman in her thirties who he’d been getting to know in the two weeks since leaving Eden, touched his arm. “Rashid –”

He tensed his body, standing to attention, and faced Louise. “How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

Louise didn’t answer immediately. Instead, she interlocked her fingers and flexed them outwards. The bone-cracking noise whipped across the control room.

She smiled. “Rashid, is it?”

He nodded, not blinking. He remembered learning as a Rajasthani child how to catch a cobra, or at least to judge when one was going to spit venom. At age nine he’d lost his best friend in that deadly village game. He wondered if there was some way to grab this cobra’s throat before she could strike.

“Well, I’m not after you, or your sorry baggage.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I’m after Vince and Micah. They killed me, and I need –” she leaned forward, “really, I need, to repay the privilege.” She reclined, folding her arms. “Give me your flight plan and I’ll leave you with one jump possibility, following which your ship’s navigation database will corrupt. There’s a planet nearby with oxygen, though it’s a tad heavy on sulphur. You might survive, after a fashion.”

He heard Axel hovering near the doorway, and he understood. The young engineer had married only three weeks ago, and knew where he wanted to be when… Rashid shut out everything except the cobra. “Give us some time to decide, I need to consult with other members of the crew and the council,” he ventured, guessing it would make no difference.

Louise shook her head once. “No, Rashid. You’re Captain, so it’s not a democracy. You have one minute before you get to see the inside of a star.”

Rashid knew it was probably futile, but he’d kick himself if he didn’t at least try. He reached over his shoulder with his right hand, felt inside the back of his collar, and found what he was looking for. In one smooth flowing movement he hurled the stiletto straight at, and through, Louise’s left eye. The knife lodged into the far wall with a thwack. At his side, Sofia gulped.

“Nice aim,” said Louise. She hadn’t even blinked. “Fifty-five seconds.”

He pursed his lips, then moved to the back of the control room. “Move aside,” he said, brushing Axel out of the way so he could access the navigation console. “You’re dismissed ensign.”

‘But Sir, I –’

Rashid seized him by the shoulders, and spoke softly. “Go to her. Now.” He pushed so that Axel half-stumbled backwards, then turned and darted out onto the central ramp. Rashid tapped in a flight plan. Sofia shadowed him, peering over his shoulder as he stooped over the displays and controls. He heard her soft intake of breath as she recognised the decoy flight plan Pierre had created just before he had left. She clutched his forearm as he typed. His fingers chopped at the keyboard as if he was entering their death sentence. She whispered into his ear, her voice unsteady. “You’re doing the right thing.”

He’d have preferred it if she’d started clawing at him, begging him not to lie to Louise. He punched in the transmit command and walked back towards the hologram, steady, setting his jaw. “It is done.”

Louise studied something outside the hologram frame. “I’d warn you that if it’s a trick, I’ll be back.” She cocked her head, elfin eyes gleaming. “But there’s no point, is there, Rashid? Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Say goodbye to your girlfriend.” The hologram dissolved into granules of flickering violet, then vanished.

He knew it would be fast. He met Sofia’s wide, frightened eyes. He reached out to her, stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. Everything froze, and shifted into the familiar mercurial shades that meant that the ship, together with him, Sofia, his crew, and its precious goods – a quarter of surviving humanity – had just jumped.

Rashid had no illusions about the colour he would see next, but its brightness was beyond anything he could ever have imagined.

The tension is maintained and increased by the following:

Rashid and Louise both lie to each other.
Louise's casual brutality. Her tone is mocking, yet she has no qualms about killing two thousand people.

Louise's dialogue: She stifled a yawn. “Give me the coordinates of your final destination and you may live. If not, I will jump your ship into this system’s star.”

And again: "Nice aim. Fifty-five seconds."And again: "Say goodbye to your girlfriend."
Rashid's mind (we're in his Point of View [POV] throughout) doing overtime, trying to figure out what he can do.
The timeframe - the whole scene lasts less than three minutes.
The action - Rashid's desperate knife-throw to kill her, in case the hologram is in some way real.
The sympathetic character - even while trying to figure out how to beat Louise, Rashid is concerned for Axel, and there is unrequited passion for Sofia. Note this is not overplayed - he does not suddenly grab her and kiss her - he is not that kind of guy (making him more sympathetic)
External references - to Pierre and Kat - they at least will escape. This is important because otherwise the reader may wonder why they read this part, if it introuduced then summarily executed a character. This is like saying - the party's not over, it's going to continue over at Pierre & Kat's place (which incidentally, is on the next page in the book).
The ending: this isn't horror fiction. The oblique reference to blinding white is enough for the reader to understand.

For more ideas on how to create tension... read the book :-)

Eden's Trial available on Amazon
The Eden Paradox also available on Amazon as ebook and paperback

Monday, 16 January 2012

Science fiction and scuba diving - are they really far apart?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut; still do, but I recognize it's not goiing to happen. So I read, watch and write science fiction, the next best thing. And I scuba dive. What's the link?

Well, first, astronauts are trained underwater, as it's the closest feeling to the actual weightlessness of space. Second, it's an unforgiving environment - there are serious risks when scuba diving. Third, it's 'tekkie': equipment, computers, dive profiles, deco stops, etc. But mainly, it's adventurous, and every dive is an exploration of another world, and alien life...

Today another instructor and I jumped off the boat, checked our gear was working in-water, gave the thumbs-down signal, and slipped beneath the lapis waves of the Indian Ocean. All I saw was blue as we free fell, parachutist-style, drifting down through shades of blue looking for the reef, equalising my ears every few metres, checking the depth on my dive computer, falling, into space, blue not black, listening to my breathing. Fifteen metres, twenty, twenty-five, still no sign of the reef. I check my buddy is still there, still okay, no nitrogen narcosis. Thirty metres, still blue. At thirty-five the coral reef looms into view, like planet-fall. I squirt air into my stab jacket to slow my descent. I don't use my fins. My arms are folded in front of me, one hand on the air button for my jacket, the other tilting my wrist computer towards me. Forty-five metres. I stabilise, so does my buddy. Forty-six metres.

My Suunto spyder computer tells me I have four minutes before I should ascend to a lesser depth, or else incur a decompression penalty. If I continue to ignore it, then when I finally ascend, or if I ascend too quickly, nitrogen will flash out of my bloodstream forming bubbles that get trapped painfully in the joints (called the Bends, because divers bend their joints to relieve the pain), or worse, a bubble in the heart, brain or spine. I never, ever ignore my computer. If I dive really deep, I carry two.

I look around, and see many huge gorgonian fans at this depth, each one like a slice cut out of a massive orange tree, two metres across. I know how fragile they are - I touched one once and several centimetes snapped off - a year's growth - I've never touched one since. My arms stay folded as I fin slowly and glide half a metre above the coral. A moray eel snakes through the rocks and watches us, opens its mouth showing three white razor teeth. Large outcrops of rock and coral stick up from the floor, called 'bommies', each one a hub of activity, lobsters underneath and some baby catfish, black and white striped, whiskers trailing in the sand, a sea anemone on top, pink tentacles waving in the current, extracting nutrients while its guardian clownfish, a thousandth my size, moves towards me to fend me off.

A caranx - jack, bluefin, there are many local names - silver with an electric blue fin shaped like an arabic dagger, predator's eyes and a muscled jaw, darts around the bommie, looking for smaller fish, prey. Each bommie is like an alien citadel, a market place for trade, black and blue cleaner wrasse going inside the mouths of snapper as well as the gills of a puffer fish, never eaten no matter how tempting. Shrimp and lionfish huddle together in a cubbyhole, the lionfishes' poisonous spines mingling with the blind shrimp's whisker-like antennae, the latter so much more beautiful when not on a dinner plate.

Moving up the slope we come to a desert, a stretch of sand between two strands of coral. The sand isn't flat, small dunes stretching into the blue. We cross it, as if in an aircraft, the desert looks devoid of life, but I know it isn't - eels. crabs, shrimp, sole, and maybe sharks could lie out there. No sharks today, too many are being fished by human invaders.

At the other side, shallower waters at fifteen metres, the colours of the coral are more intense, purple, blue, green, red corals, primary colours, and the fish - no colour clashes, perfectly designed. I see a black surgeon fish with a slash of blue on its tail and a hint of orange around the eyes; picasso triggerfish whose patterns almost suggest something, but I'm not sure what; small purple and yellow neon fish, hundreds of them nestling safe in a mass of stag coral; grey and black feather stars, like silk flowers pouting. I click finger and thumb near one and it vanishes back inside its wormhole.

The fish cohabit with ease, but always wary, awlays aware. A school of yellowtail pass overhead, agitated but moving in unison, turning and darting in perfect choreography. I wait, and then see the caranx, three of them, herding the school out into the depths, looking for any stragglers or weak ones. A game of nerves.

The menagerie of fish and coral is alien, another world, its rules and survival tricks, its hierarchies, alliances, and pack and predator instincts, its vibrancy, makes me wish I could stay longer.

I remember getting narked (nitrogen narcosis) in Sulawesi, while diving with a school of tuna. Sharks were in the area, bullying them. For a while I felt I was part of the tuna school, I swam with them, turned with them, watched for sharks. I went native for a few minutes before my buddy hauled me out of there.

When I try to develop alien species in my science fiction, I often consider undersea life, not only the big stuff like manta rays and whales, but often the smaller species which can look very strange. The really small stuff, which you only see with a microscope, gets really interesting if trying to imagine a new design for a space-ship, for example. One of my nastier species in The Eden Paradox is partly based on the mantis shrimp, a six-inch long creature that sits in a hole in the coral wall, then at an incredible speed attacks a passing fish with its claws, shredding it in a second. Another in Eden's Trial is based on something I saw on Devil's Thumb in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which to this day I have not been able to identify.

Another scifi-like aspect of scuba diving is the technical gear and risks - this is a serious sport, with risks ranging from decompression sickness to oxygen poisoning to getting stung by a camouflaged stonefish that can paralyse your limbs and lungs within minutes. The gear is also a serious consideration, and diving with computers is the norm. But an ever present real risk is running out of air, at which point space and water have a strong similarity - needless to say, you can die quite quickly underwate without air. These risks mean there should be no complacency when diving, and safety is always the priority - which means it is exciting, adventurous. I've done five rescues for real underwater, and been rescued once. After any such event, you develop a healthy respect for the sea.

Maybe in the next few hundred years, many more people will travel to new stars, to new planets. We'll look for new landscapes, animals, sentient life, and may find it thriving, or else find archeological ruins, the latter reminding me of wreck diving. Funny thing about wreck diving - wrecks - particularly in tropical waters - are often rendered stunningly beautiful as they are colonised by coral and become homes to countless fish.

So, if you want to explore another world, there's one not too far away, and the training isn't so tough...

I also wonder about us finding sea-based alien life on other worlds. This hasn't been played with too much in science fiction (a notable exception being the film The Abyss). So I'm writing a short story at the moment (Diplomatic Solution) based on an alien force that invades our oceans, with no interest in land or land-based life-forms.

In any case, I'll keep diving as long as I can.

The Eden Paradox available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.
Eden's Trial available in Ebook from Amazon

Friday, 13 January 2012

Review of three SF books: Hyperion, Deepsix and Timelike Infiniity

I've recently finished reading three SF 'classics': Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Timelike Infinity (Xeelee series) by Stephen Baxter, and Deepsix by Jack McDevitt. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on them, according to the following criteria:
  1. Entertainmanet value (fun to read? good story?)
  2. Prose & Style (well-written? easy to read? literary? page-turner?)
  3. Science Fiction content (credible science? new ideas? hard or soft scifi?)
  4. Plot (clever? predictable? suspension of disbelief?)
  5. Characters (believable? memorable?)
  6. World-Building (convincing? visually clear?)
For fun to read, I guess Hyperion came out top. I felt I was reading a SF equivalent of Lord of the Rings, though I got a bit annoyed when three quarters of the way through the book I realized there was no way the story was going to finish, and I'd have to buy the next one to find out what happened. Deepsix was next in terms of entertainment (a good story) and being fun to read, especially with the character MacAllister and his quips at the start of each chapter. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Timelike Inifinity, too, and would look forward to getting back to it each evening, and as the shorter of the three books, I wished it had been longer.

All three are well-written, and I don't just mean devoid of typos. Hyperion is the most 'literary', having a rich and varied vocabulary fitting for its Chaucer-esque (Canterbury Tales) format of six stories by pilgrims from different walks of life (and planets). Deepsix is the easiest to read, but Baxter's comes close behind, despite a deeper 'scientific' thread throughout Timelike Infinity. For me Timelike Infinity was a page-turner, partly because it was compact. Deepsix had more bite-sized chapters of the three, though I found I could put it down at the end of most chapters and wait till tomorrow. It took me some time to get into Hyperion and its very long chapters (e.g. 70 pages each), though once enmeshed in it I often found it hard to put down. The final 'story' for me was the weakest and I found myself skimming about 30 pages, when it suddenly took hold again.

On scifi, Timelike Infiniity is a clear lead for me, as Baxter clearly knows his stuff, and is dealing with time travel through wormholes and, right towards the end, events of galactic significance. Hyperion was next, with its sprawling humanesque cultures across 150 worlds, using 'farcasters' to deal with the ever-present author's dilemma of how to overcome Einstein's relativity issues in a space opera setting. Deepsix was more 'locally-focused', and therefore required less scientific underpinning, but with McDevitt I felt I was in safe hands whenever a bit of scientific explanation was necessary. None of the authors did any scifi info dumps, they are all too experienced for that. In terms of hard or soft scifi, Baxter was more hard, Hyperion middle, and Deepsix more soft, meaning that a non-SF reader would have no problem reading Deepsix, and would probably enjoy it most. In terms of new ideas, all three had them, but Hyperion probably the most as it had such a variety of ideas, initially seemingly unrelated, but as the book continues, the reader detects the weave linking them; this aspect reminded me of Frank Herbert's Dune series. Timelike Infinity had a well-constructed and convincing threatening alien presence, and its dealings with time travel and temporal conundra were well conceived. Deepsix had me wondering about the lost alien species as much as the crew stranded there, so in all three books there was a satisfactory sense of 'wonder'.

The plot of Timelike Infinity was a litle too clever for me - in fact if someone can explain to me the last two lines of the novel, please do, as I have no idea what they mean. The main story for me ended three quarters into the book, and then shifted into a more hypothetical space (a bit like the film 2001). Deepsix had a good plot, though I had to suspend disbelief a couple of times, as various characters took risks that seemed extreme, and brought them into ever-more danger - but only a couple of times. Hyperion was very much like six tales within a book, each tale strong in itself, but the overall plot was aloof, ephemeral, even at the end, and I'll have to read Fall of Hyperion to know not only what happens, but what has really been going on. For me, Deepsix had the most satisfying end. None of the book were predictable (not for me at any rate).

Deepsix has some enduring characters, one or two I'll probably still  remember in a few years' time. Similarly Timelike Infinity has three characters who will stick in my memory. Hyperion I'm less sure about - mainly because there are basically six protagonists who each get one sixth of the book. But Sol Weintraub's story in Hyperion will probably endure, one of the saddest I've ever read. In terms of believability of the characters' behaviour, MeDevitt's are for me the most realistic and flawed (aka human) people, followed by Baxter's, and last by Simmons', though Hyperion has such a wide scope inevitably the characters are a little 'larger than life'.

In terms of world-building, Hyperion is the most ambitious, and largely brings it off, though Deepsix I found easier to visualize, second being Timelike Infinity. But without doubt Hyperion through its astonishing array of images wins on this criterion, the motile isles of Maui Covenant still sailing in my mind.

Overall, if I could only take one of these books away with me, I'd take Hyperion, due to its richness and variety. If I wanted to hang out with one of the authors, it would be McDevitt. And if I wanted someone to teach me how to write more scientific Scifi, especially when it comes to time travel, it would be Baxter.

P.S> Apparently my own books are like McDevitt's.
The Eden Paradox (kindle and paperback) on Amazon
Eden's Trial (kindle) on Amazon

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Eden's Revenge - Prologue opening

I'm currently working on book 3 of the Eden Trilogy, and thought I'd share some of it. I'm on chapter 6 of 30 at the moment, and the section below is the draft opening of the book (Prologue). It may change, and I hope will improve, but I thought it might be of interest to any readers of the second book (Eden's Trial) in particular, who now have to wait for nine months to find out what happens in the final installment. If you have read Eden's Trial, no prizes for guessing which ship is being referred to...

In the pure darkness of the inter-galactic void, just outside the Hourglass Galaxy, a ruby gash opened up in the fabric of space, as if slashed by a razor. The tear widened to a bloodshot eye, a blacker-than-black pupil irising open at its centre. An aquamarine ship emerged, shaped like an elongated crossbow, its central shaft ten kilometres long. The eye blinked and was gone, starless space snapping closed as if the portal had never existed.

The ship and its four passengers hung outside the shimmering galactic barrier as it rippled slowly, buffeted by dark energy riptides trying to seep in. The three humans in the arrowhead section stared in awe at the broiling tumble of billions of stars speckled with red and violet nebulas, the galaxy’s waist visible as a tightening brightness that hurt the eyes after nine years inside the trans-galactic shunt. The fourth occupant, Kalaran, was elsewhere and everywhere on the ship, his mind long since melded with its organic-metal physiology. He sent the access codes, but the barrier stayed up.

Kalaran set the black hole syringe to work, and checked that the hollow moon they had towed all the way from the Silverback Galaxy – which humans called the ‘Milky Way’ – had made it through. It had, and remained masked in its null entropy field. He hoped he wasn’t going to need it, but it was insurance; he couldn’t come this far for nothing.

After reaching the age of two and a half billion angts, Kalaran had hoped he was done with arguing. But within five human days his erstwhile colleague arrived at the other side of the barrier, and the onslaught began. Kalaran had at least expected a ‘Hello’. Truth was, when there are only seven of your species left in the entire universe, each one in their own adopted galaxy, and all of them leagues ahead of every other species in the known universe, privacy became a premium, irritability a honed reflex.

"Whatever it is you want, Kalaran, the answer's no."

to be continued

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback & ebook from Amazon
Eden's Trial is available in ebook from Amazon and paperback June 2012
Eden's Revenge is due September 2012


Sunday, 8 January 2012

How I write a chapter

People ask me how I write, when I find the time, how I come up with ideas and produce page-turners, etc. Well, here goes… Rudyard Kipling wasn’t only an author, he was principally a journalist, which meant he had to be economical with words, to the point, and interesting. He once famously wrote the following: “Whenever I pick up my pen, I consult my six tried and trusty men: why, what, how, who, where, when.” Good advice for any kind of writing. Let me start with when.

I don’t start a chapter until I have the first line, and it has to be solid, because it’s the launching point. I also don’t begin until the starting scene is clear in my head. I once tried the ‘write five hundred words a day’ rule, but some days I would write uninspired crap, and I didn’t want to get used to writing rubbish and either thinking it was okay, or accepting that writing it was somehow useful. Writing isn’t like drawing or painting – there, you can compare what you draw or paint with the genuine article, say a bowl of fruit, and see if what you did looks good or terrible. There is an external reference, whereas with writing there is none, you only have an internal reference, an internal referee. Why risk confusing this internal judge? I only write when I feel I have something to 'say' – if it doesn’t get me enthused, how on earth will it motivate a reader?

So, some days I write, some days I don’t. Once I feel I have the scene, I wait a bit longer, building up tension in my head, a sense of urgency, of drive, because that is what I want the readers to pick up. I aim to write page-turners. Sometimes when I finally sit down to write, I can’t type fast enough.

The second aspect of when, is when I actually write, and for how long. My favourite time is morning. Since I sometimes get insomnia, this can be anything from 4am onwards. This is without doubt my most lucid time, perfect for creativity, e.g. ‘world-building’ or alien development in science fiction. I never write around lunchtime. Mid-late afternoon works better for dialogue, late evening rarely works for me – I often try and write sex scenes which I invariably cut later (I’ve not learned the art of writing good/credible sex scenes). However, evenings are good for editing.

I write for anything between two and four hours straight. Less than two hours and I’m not going to get through a first draft, and picking it up later will lead to an incoherent chapter, one that will feel like the style shifted somewhere in the middle, because it did. More than four hours and I’m fatigued. During this time I’ll produce between ten and twenty pages of 12 point Times New Roman double-spaced text. This translates to 7-12 book pages, for the first draft. Second drafts will probably expand it, and later drafts will cut it back. I write short ‘bite-sized’ chapters, except toward the end of the book, when they tend to double in size as all the plot strands come together. Usually for the last three chapters I’m into six hour sessions per chapter to get the first draft out. During this time I’m not online, I don’t make phone calls, don’t watch TV or listen to music, and I don’t eat. I drink tea (not coffee), and have been known to grunt occasionally. When I kill off main characters, I usually cry. If I don't, I haven't written it right.

The third aspect of when relates to when the events and scenes in the chapter happen in the book. That’s for another blog, however, also because I sometimes move chapters around later, to have the most dramatic effect.

Every chapter has to earn its place in a book: it needs a reason to be there, to drive both plot and character forward. In theory it can do either, but it won’t be really satisfying unless it does both. I’ll do another blog soon on how I write a book, but in brief, I have the overall structure of the book in my head – at the least the beginning and the endgame, and ideally two other waypoints (I write using the ‘classic’ three-part book structure). The over-riding emphasis in the first draft is on plot – what happens, but even then there must be some character development – seeing the characters struggle, whether with a physical challenge or an emotional one, so we see their ‘mettle’, what they are made of. Since I write science fiction thrillers, there must also be intrigue, a hint at the larger picture, even when this chapter’s characters are dealing with more ‘tactical’ events.
Some chapters will also give information (without using ‘info-dumps’) on the ‘universe’ the characters are in, the worlds, modes of transport, and alien cultures. I don’t write ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ science fiction, which means you don’t have to have taken ‘Astrophysics 101’ in order to read it, nor be intimate with Einstein’s theory of relativity. But as an avid SF reader, I know that people want to be given at least an occasional sense of wonder, of how things might work differently, or what might be in store for us one day (or our great grandchildren). If Kipling had written science fiction, he might have added a seventh question, namely “what if?”
Henry James wrote “character is plot”, and it took me a long time to ‘get’ this. In my first book I would think plot, and then try to decide who it should happen to, to give it most tension, to bring it alive. Now I’m on my third book, I can no longer divorce the two. I write multi-protagonist novels, which means as a reader you get to see through more than one pair of eyes, and wander around in more than one head (so-called Point of View, or POV). But there are main characters, and I tend to use an alternating structure of ‘whose’ chapter it is, whether Micah or Blake or Kat or Pierre, for example. If a character is not key to the plot, I don’t write with them at the centre of a chapter. There are rare exceptions: I had one character in Eden’s Trial who I gave POV to for about a page, early on in the book, and then never again, although the character is sometimes referred to by other characters. Some readers were probably wondering why. Near the end of the book, the character is killed – the shock is palpable, and this ‘walk-on’ character is actually all the more memorable for it, although he only actually appears for a single page in the book. In general, however, each chapter is about the character who has most to lose by the events happening in that chapter.

As I said earlier, I usually have the first few pages in mind when I start. As I write, and as the characters get to grips with the situation I’ve put them in, I let the events unfold. Maybe some writers won’t believe me, but when I sit down I often don’t have a clear idea of how the chapter ends; this is simply great fun as a writer. Yesterday I wrote chapter 5 of my third book, and placed a character in a life-threatening situation. He’s just recovering from extensive surgery and wakes to be asked “Do you think you can run? Can you run now.” Before he can answer, there is an explosive decompression in the medical ship he is on, and he is clawing his way to the safety of another compartment, whose shield door is automatically closing. This happens on page three of the chapter. By page ten, he has managed to escape. But that’s not nearly enough, plot-wise or character-wise, is it?

So, first, character: when he thinks he isn’t going to make it, and is about to be sucked into open space, he feels guilty that he won’t be there to help his friends back on his planet that is going to be attacked. Most of us would be thinking something else... Similarly, when, in order to survive, he gives his word to an alien that he won’t harm the creatures who have just destroyed his ship killing countless defenceless passengers, he keeps his word, even when the alien departs and the creatures are at his mercy. Of course there are other characters in the book who would have broken such a promise in a second (including one who would have killed the alien, too), but not this one.

Then, plot: here is where the plot must not be cliché’d, i.e. there must be credible ‘surprises’ or twists. I often try to use a twist on a twist (which I think of as a tourniquet, since the plot twists and tightens at the same time). This usually happens towards the end of the chapter, because it is there that there must be the need to continue, to turn the page. So, in chapter 5, in order to escape, the protagonist enlists the help of an alien medic, who will never harm another being, under any circumstances, even personal survival. The character’s homeworld is about to be attacked (actually, the space around it is going to be ‘poisoned’ – this is relatively novel, and may resonate with our current world-focus on environmentalism) by another species, and the protagonist cannot stop them alone, needing his alien friend to help. But as he sets the ship for maximum speed to the planet, the alien deserts him, because it knows it will be asked to do harm. This sets up intrigue – the hero has escaped, and although he has personally survived (a ‘tactical victory’), in terms of the overall plot of the book, things are actually worse off than when the chapter began. Then I add one more twist right at the end of the chapter. I move out of his POV, and using a section break and a single paragraph, show the hostile alien species heading toward the planet. They perceive the protagonist’s ship overtake them, and increase their speed to match his velocity, so that they will arrive at exactly the same time he does. And he can’t see them. That’s where the chapter ends.

Incidentally, Chapter six will switch to another character on the planet in question, where people are unaware of the impending attack, and are dealing with local issues, so the tension for chapter 5 will sit there unresolved and gathering momentum (a bit like an extended version of old-style films where the audience used to shout “Look behind you!”), until chapter seven or eight.

By the way, if this sounds a tad too ‘manipulative’, it isn’t (well, maybe a little - writing is after all meant to be entertaining). In my ‘day job’ I sometimes study large-scale accidents, and they are almost always ‘multi-protagonist’ (involving multiple parties) who often aren’t particularly aware of each other or what is developing until right near the end. Some of these accidents have a long ‘latency’ or build-up period lasting months or years before the final trigger events unfold and everything accelerates toward the final outcome, as everything ‘comes together’. That’s how I write my books. No complaints received so far... (except having to wait for book 3 :-)

I don’t use a pen, except to make a few notes while the story is brewing in my head – key points or events or bits of dialogue I want to insert. I use a laptop, a Sony Vaio most of the time, as I travel with it (I travel a lot for work, pretty much each week internationally), and when I have some spare time or insomnia, out it comes. It takes fifteen minutes to warm up – outrageous compared to my Mac, and really infuriating, but useful – it makes me stop and think one last time before I plunge in.
How I actually get the ideas in the first place is something of a mystery to me. I dream a lot, and sometimes wake up with a vivid scene in mind, a few times a complete short story or chapter – which means I will leap out of bed, hoping it’s a Sunday, and be antisocial for four hours while I get it typed. I read plenty of other science fiction, but don’t believe in stealing others’ ideas – not out of morality (because pretty much anything any writer writes is ultimately to an extent ‘derivative’), just that ‘second-hand ideas’ read that way. But other writers might give me a new idea, a twist on an idea or concept they had. I watch news, I watch people, and when I can, I dive; quite a few of my ‘aliens’ are based on sea creatures and underwater behaviour and hierarchies. Other than that, I set up a premise, and then wait. It can take hours, days, weeks, before suddenly I know how the scene will work, usually just the first few pages. Then I start typing. The character is in place, he or she has a sticky problem to deal with. They deal with it based on who they really are, what they would say and do and think (sometimes these conflict, because we’re like that). I have to move inside their head and consider what they would do. If it’s too straightforward, I’ll make it more difficult for them. Writers love their characters, but it’s not necessarily a reciprocal relationship :-)

When I write a first draft of a chapter I know where it is happening, but I’m more obsessed with who/what (character/plot) is happening. In later drafts I add ‘texture’ – details of colour, materials, touch, smell, sound. Some say that place has a massive effect on behaviour, but it’s not my strong point, and I’m not so sure it’s so true with science fiction. So, I add it in, in later drafts. I focus mainly on visual details – readers tell me my books read like films, and I work hard to make every scene ‘see-able’. There are some really good SF writers I admire, but sometimes I just cannot see a scene they’re describing, no matter how many times I read it, and that’s very frustrating as a reader.
In the larger scale of where, I also have in my head a rough map of the galaxy, where different species are, how different alien cultures interact, etc. This is known as ‘world-building’ (or universe-building) and is complicated to manage at the ‘book’ level. I usually pay for professional readers to check the final manuscript, to identify any ‘holes’ in the world-building.

A little more on How
From first to final draft is usually about six drafts, with each chapter being evaluated once or twice by the writer’s group I belong to in Paris, sometimes three times if it’s not working. Only one person in this group is a science fiction writer and reader, which means I have to write ‘accessible’ science fiction, one that has a broader appeal. That’s a good thing. I’ll then get the whole manuscript reviewed professionally at least once, maybe twice (the first book had three complete editorial reviews).

Back to the internal judge I mentioned earlier. If a chapter in its finished form doesn’t move me, it means it isn’t finished, no matter how many times I’ve edited it (maybe too many times). In that case I will carry out surgery and remove the chapter. This is very tough, and can also happen with a good chapter which doesn’t connect enough with the rest of the book. These are like the ‘deleted scenes’ you get on DVDs of TV series or films. Sometimes such deleted scenes look interesting, but usually, on reflection, the producers/directors were right to delete them. One of my favourite scenes from my first book has never seen the light of day. I’ll put it on my website one day. Maybe.
My first book, The Eden Paradox, took me two years to write and three years to edit. The sequel, Eden’s Trial, took one year to write and one year to edit. I’m on a timetable for the finale, Eden’s Revenge, of one year, editing included. I feel like one of my characters, up against the clock. I'm not sure I could write any other way.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, and in ebook from Barnes and Noble, Omnilit and

Eden's Trial is available on Amazon in ebook (paperback due summer 2012)

Monday, 2 January 2012

On writer's block...

People often ask me if I get writer's block. "Never", I normally reply. What I should have said was "Not yet."

So, I had it recently for about a month, when I couldn't seem to write anything. It may have been longer, because during that time I produced a full chapter (for my third book) which I have since completely re-written, wondering what on Earth I was thinking when I wrote it.

Why did it occur? Probably burn-out, plain and simple. I got my first book out in Feb 2011, and the second one by December 10 of the same year. Mixed in with that, I got half a dozen short stories published, and another half-dozen to the first or second draft stage. If there is such a thing as wrtier's diarrhoea, I had it this past year. And then it stopped. It felt like a water pipe that was running all the time, which sudddenly gurgled, sputtered, and then after a few dribbles, quit. Not good.

Writing isn't my day job, and this year has also been off the scale at work, so that was probably part of it. Additionally, getting both books out - the endless proofing, corrections, last minute pre-publication panics, the few-second euphoria before the difficuties of marketing set in - all these activities (which, non-incidentally, we never signed up to when we thought of ourselves as writers) steal your creative energy, and eventually your brain says 'enough'.

Well, I'm writing again, having produced a couple of chapters in the past week while on holiday, so what did I do to unblock it?

First, I went back to some old stories I'd shelved years ago, dusted them off and re-wrote them. My writer's group was surprisingly (to me, that is) appreciative, saying they were good, and curious as to when I wrote them. That helped restore my confidence, which is definitely part of the writer's block experience, whether cause or consequence or both.

Next, I took a break. Not just from work, but from email, from sms, from blogging, from everything. A few days of total shutdown. Reboot.

Then I saw some people I haven't seen for a long time, and some people I'd never seen, and just listened to them, got outside my writer's head, back into the real world, and engaged with it.

I watched a lot of scifi, which is what I write, and started reading two terrific books (Dan Simmons' Hyperion and China Meiville's Embassytown) and said to myself, shit, these guys can write.

And I slept some.

Then I woke up one morning, with a complete scene in my head, and typed it out on a four-hour plane journey. I woke up with another one in my head this morning, which I just finished, so I think I'm through it now.

So, my advice for anyone with writer's block?

1. Don't force it. You'll write rubbish, dent your confidence more, and just deepen the whole thing.
2. Stop writing - not just writing but everything connected to it - marketing, tweeting about writing, hanging out on writer's websites. Stop all of it.
3. Spend time with your loved ones, time on them, or even with complete strangers. Don't ask for anything, just be.
4. Read good writing.
5. Have a holiday if you can, or at least a change of scenery.
6. Relax. It will come back.
7. Soon as it comes back, welcome it like an old friend, and don't look back.

When I was studying psychology at university, I read a lot about creativity. Liam Hudson's 'incubation' theory stuck with me. It means that sometimes you have to think about something a long time before you get the breakthrough. Sometimes it's beyond thinking, it's like having your head against a wall and pushing, maybe for weeks, maybe for months. But when that wall breaks... Holy Moses! So, if you're really worried about writer's block, don't be. Maybe your mind is getting itself ready, building up steam in order to unleash a masterpiece through your finger-tips...
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