Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Science Fiction and Dreams (2)

One of the most interesting devices used with respect to dreams, or altered realities, is how we know whether we are in a dream or awake. This has been used in a number TV series, notably Star Trek Next Generation and Voyager - in the former, the 'Moriarty' episodes neatly covered this dilemma when a holo-character began tricking the crew into believing they were in reality when in fact they were trapped inside s holo-program. Similarly, a Voyager episode covered a species that attacked people in their sleep, keeping them trapped there. Only one person, Chakotay, could determine if he was in a dream or not, by seeing if Earth's moon was in the sky (given that they were 80,000 light years away, this was a good motif to choose).

In the heady days of the drug-exploring sixties and early seventies, dream exploration was in vogue. In particular books by Carlos Castaneda (e.g. The Teachings of Don Juan and Tales of Power both published by Penguin, interestingly enough in their Psychology/Philosophy division) explored lucid dreaming with the assistance of drugs like peyote, found in the Mexican desert. Dream control (I tried it) entails first paying more attention to your dreams - e.g. by writing them down upon waking, since they are gone within seconds. As the practice continues, it is possible to become aware you are in a dream. The question is whether you can then influence it. I used to wake up. Sometimes i'd go back to sleep and the dream would continue, but I never had any control over it. To have control, according to Castaneda's writings, you just had to hold your hand up in front of your face, and look at your palm. The very few times I got close, back in the seventies, something would happen in the dream that would distract me. After about a year I gave up.

Back to science fiction. Ever since William Gibson's Neuromancer and cyberpunk science fiction, and now more reinforced as we move ever closer to immersive technologies and media, and battle simulations that become more and more real, it becomes possible to envisage total immersion approaches, where it might be possible for someone to be unsure whether they are in the real world or not. This, after all, was the basis of the hugely successful Matrix series of films.

The question I've been exploring in two novels is how aliens might use this with humans (in the first blog on this subject, as an interrogation device). For example, rather than an alien race coming with ships and slogging it out in a big sub-orbital battle, what if they could simply shove us all into a mental simulation, and move in while we lay inert, comatose, at their mercy? How would we know? As in the previous blog, the film Inception offers a glimmer of hope, in that certain details might give the game away (near the start of the film, someone who is in a dream-like reality recognizes that the carpet is wrong). In dreams, our subconscious often 'papers over the cracks' such that we seem to accept bizarre events as if they were completely ordinary, and upon waking, think, good grief, how did I not know I was dreaming? One hopes, therefore, that if we were in some kind of perfect simulation, that the subconscious might rebel (as in my previous blog story excerpt).

Anyhow, here's a dream excerpt from The Eden Paradox, chapter 2, where I borrowed a bit of dream psychology from Castaneda.

Kat heard the footfalls pounding behind her, getting louder, closing. She sprinted towards the Lander, cropped black hair glistening with sweat, muscular arms punching through the gritty breeze. Her slate-grey eyes remained locked onto the desert terrain five metres ahead, like she’d learned in the Falklands. She dared not look back, partly because she might trip, but more because she would freeze if she saw it bearing down on her. Two hundred metres. The open hatch promised sanctuary. Zack – be there!

She ran full throttle, clutching her helmet in her right hand. She’d seen the scalpel-sharp claws: one slash and she was history. She flung the helmet over her right shoulder, and counted. One – Two ... She winced at the crunching noise. As if it was egg-shell, not carbo-titanium, for God’s sake! How far behind? She couldn’t work it out. It didn’t matter; the hatch was barely a hundred and fifty metres away. She raced, ignoring the muscle-lock cramping her lungs, the strain in her thighs begging her to slow down. Go to hell!

Pumping her arms harder, she drew in a breath, and vaulted a table-height rock, grazing her left knee and almost losing footing as she landed hard on the other side, arms flailing to maintain balance. As she got back into her stride, the ground shook as the creature hit the deck behind her without missing a beat. Her legs finally got the message – she increased her speed.


"Now would be good, Pierre," Zack bellowed. He watched Kat’s mouth twitch, her thin lips pull back in fear, eyes darting wildly beneath pale eye-lids. His instinct was to place one of his stocky black hands on Kat’s shoulder to comfort her, or else shake her to bring her out of it, but he stopped short – they’d agreed not to wake her. Pierre strode in as fast as the synth-grav would allow, deftly manoeuvring between the stasis cots in the cramped second compartment, pianist-length fingers meshed in a tangle of short black hair even a crew-cut couldn’t subdue. "About time," Zack said.

Pierre primed a contact syringe, and in one smooth movement flicked it switchblade-style towards the side of Kat’s neck. There was a hiss, like a sharp intake of breath. A wash of deep red crawled across her face then vanished.

"Will it calm her down?" Zack frowned at her normally smooth, fine-featured face, now crumpled like a piece of paper, slick with sweat.

"No, but she’ll realise she’s in a dream. If she remembers, she can control it."

Zack looked down at their youngest crew member. Yeah, if she ain’t too shit- scared. Her chest rose and fell with increasing speed. "Her vitals okay?"

Pierre tapped the holopad next to the cot – several red spikes radiated outward, but none pierced the edge of the surrounding green hexagon. "Tolerable. In the dream she’s running, so her lungs work faster."

Zack chewed his lower lip. The nightmare was coming more regularly the closer they got to Eden, and Kat reckoned it wasn’t a normal dream, always exactly the same. So they’d decided to try a lucid dreaming technique, injecting a stim during the nightmare, so she could maybe control it, and recall what was chasing her.

Pierre gazed into the mid-distance as he discarded the syringe. "Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?" He said it as if reciting, a hint of his Parisian accent lingering.

Zack sighed, wondering for the hundredth time why Pierre wasn’t back in MIT, surrounded by his best friends – equations and a muon-scope. "Spare me the psy-crap, Pierre." He glared at him. They both knew why she was running.

"I have to go. I’m finishing some tests. There’s a strange variance –" 

"Whatever." Zack gave him a sideways look. "I thought you liked Kat?" Pierre hung there for a moment, then spun on his heel, and retreated to the cockpit. Zack re-focused his attention on Kat, planted himself on a mag-stool, and leant back against the graphite-grey inner hull. "Take it from me, kid, sometimes it’s okay to run. You run as fast as you damned well can."


Kat felt a pricking on the side of her neck, like an insect bite. Her cheeks and scalp burned. It was the signal she’d rehearsed, so she knew she was in the nightmare again – the same one she’d had every night for the past week – injected with the stim as planned. But it didn’t help – just because she knew she was in a nightmare didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified. Yet she needed to see the creature, to bring back details that would be flushed away as always, moments after waking. She knew what she had to do to control the dream: hold her hand up in front of her face and see her palm. That was all.

Even as she began to raise her right arm, a bone-shaking roar erupted from the creature. Her ears shrivelled in pain. The wake of the primal howl hit the back of her head. Though she didn’t think it possible, she increased her pace one final time, as if her transition from mortal fear to pure panic allowed one last gear-shift. But it was right behind her. She wasn’t going to make it. She tried to believe it was just a dream, telling herself: Look around! See it before you wake up! But she couldn’t – she imagined its claws raising, ready to strike.

For the first time she noticed that although she was in a desert, the light was a ghostly green, like an old radar screen. Why? No time to figure it out. Zack was at the hatch, beckoning wildly with one hand, levelling the shoulder-mounted cannon with the other. She tried one last time to turn to see the creature, but her neck refused. "Get down!" she heard Zack shout, just as the creature swiped her feet from under her, and she fell, flying through the air like a high diver in slow motion, before sprawling downwards, crashing through the desert floor into blackness.

Kat sat up sharply and hit the rubber pad above her cot with her head. "Shit! Every – bloody – time!" She collapsed back, breathing hard. She drove her fingers through wet, matted hair, and laid her forearm over closed eyes, waiting for the tremors to subside. She was safe, back on the Ulysses. Not that she’d left it in the past three months since they’d departed Zeus Orbital. She breathed out slowly to bring her pulse under control, and tried to recall. What had been chasing her? What had been so important, aside from the obvious – to escape? She couldn’t remember. Vague, receding thoughts uttered muffled cries through a thick fog in her mind – something about colour – something was green. But what? And why did it matter? By the time the mist had dissipated there was nothing but the distant low grumble of Ulysses’ engines, cushioned by the susurration of the aircon, with its attendant hospital-like smell. The nightmare, along with all its secrets, was gone, as usual. Her shoulder and neck muscles unwrapped, and she let out a long sigh. She wanted to sleep more, but not at the risk of nightmaring again. She heard the scrape of a mag-stool and left her forearm in place. "You babysitting me again, Zack?"

Without giving away a 'spoiler', there's a lot more to this dream than meets the eye. 

One word of advice if you are a Scifi writer - if you ever have a dream and think it might make a great story, you have about thirty seconds to find a piece of paper and a pen and write it down before it starts to fade. 

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstones.
Eden's Trial is available from Amazon (free for a limited period if you have Amazon Prime)
Eden's Revenge is due out December 2012.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Science Fiction and Dreams (1)

I’ve always had a fascination with dreams, especially since I’ve died in three of them. So, I was enthralled when I watched the film Inception, with its ‘dream within a dream’ premise. I’d been planning a novel where aliens would use dreams as interrogation techniques. Why? Because (a) truth drugs are too easy, and make for boring fiction, (b) telepathy also means no tension, since an interrogator simply reads your mind, and (c) when dreaming, and when remembering dreams, we try to rationalise even if what is happening is not rational, and (d) it is a space where we can access our so-called subconscious.

Dreams tend to be the province of fantasy more than science fiction, but then maybe Scifi is missing a trick – a dream is an altered reality, and if it can be manipulated then Scifi can play with it (as in Cyberpunk Scifi). It becomes less fantasy, and more an exploration of ‘inner’ space. Ever since the classic film Forbidden Planet, I realised that the biggest, scariest monsters are those hiding in our minds (in the ‘Id’). 

I didn’t want to use an old cliché where somebody sees something in a dream, has a revelation, all that stuff which has been done to death already. I wanted an alien mind using it to probe one of ours. But to make it more interesting, what the alien is looking for is buried in the subconscious mind. To get at it would not be easy.

The story is as follows (it is chapter 7 in the novel at the moment): A female character (Kat) knows something, but doesn’t know she knows it – an alien (Kalarash) has planted it in her mind. It is an image of something left hidden on a planet, that the Kalarash is going to come back for. It is a weapon of awful magnitude. Another alien (Qorall) wants the information, and tries interrogating Kat, but she can’t tell him even if she wanted to. Qorall isn’t telepathic, and even if he was, he could only access her conscious mind. So, he sends her into a dream. In fact, I used the Inception approach, and she is inside a dream within a dream. As in Inception, the first or upper dream layer doesn't yield results, so he sends her deeper. 

Kat only trusts one person, her sister, who died when Kat was a kid. They used to go surfing together, she and her older sister Angelica (‘Angel’). In both dream layers, it is Angelica who is trying to get the information out of her, but in the layer I’ll show you in a minute, Kat is a teenager again. This is because as an adult, Kat is very tough and a bit of a kick-ass character, and so is giving away nothing in the ‘upper’ dream layer.

The dream starts off ‘normal’, but Angel (Qorall) slowly twists the scenario, putting emotional pressure on Kat. Angel brings up characters (Micah, Pierre, Louise) who are people in Kat’s adult life, further confusing Kat-the-teenager, and playing on human psychology to bring the hidden piece of information to the surface. Kat’s own physiology is resisting in the form of a headache that worsens as Qorall gets closer to finding what he is looking for, as the dream slowly but surely transforms into a nightmare…

Kat lay face-down on the beach, the sound of the surf roaring in the background. She wiggled her toes, trying to dislodge the wet sand stuck between them, towel damp underneath her tummy after the last frolic in the waves surfing with her sister. When she was on the long board behind Angel, nothing else mattered, not her damned exams, not even her uncle’s odd behaviour toward her; the way she caught him staring at her when she was bending.
Some boys played football close by; there were always boys close by when Angel was around. Kat had zero interest in boys, and looked the other way whenever her sis kissed one of her boyfriends. Angel said Kat’s time would come, but she was already fifteen, and reckoned her hormones had other plans.
Kat was starting to burn; she knew she should really turn over, or get into the shade. But she wanted a deep tan like her sister. Besides, the sun could block out all kinds of things, bake them out. She heard Angel stir, and teased open an eye, squinting in the blazing sun, to see the silhouette of her sister standing above her, squirting sunscreen into the palms of her hand. Angel promptly straddled Kat’s back, and began rubbing oil into her.
            Kat moaned as Angel’s hands repeatedly pressed the grooves on either side of her spine, up and over her shoulders. “Oh God, Angie, that feels good!”
Angel varied her massage routine, eliciting more groans from Kat. The boys stopped their football. She leaned forward, close to Kat’s ear, lingering for effect. “I’m giving them some wet dream material.” They both burst out laughing. Angel dismounted, and sat next to her.
Kat turned over, propped up on her elbows, letting her head roll back, feeling the sun beat down against her small breasts, and her throat. “You’re killing them, sis.”
Angel lay a hand on Kat’s stomach, and drew circles with her finger. “But what a way to go, eh?”
They both laughed again. Kat lay down flat, feeling as light as the cirrus clouds wisping across the azure sky. She shaded her eyes to spy a gull soaring overhead, crying out for its mate somewhere.
“You miss Pierre, don’t you?” Angel said.
Kat did. She hadn’t talked about it, not to anyone else. “Like hell,” she said. She turned toward Angel, saw the frown. The boys were calling lewdly to Angel, but she never took her eyes off Kat. Abruptly Angel’s head turned to face the sea.
“He had no right to just dump you like that.”
Kat’s lips tightened. She didn’t like to talk about it; but she’d never seen her sister so concerned before. Their whole family was pretty stunted on the emotional register. She’d not even talked about it to her new best friend at school, Louise. “He had to go, you know that.”
Angel turned back, a flash of anger, opened her mouth as if to say something, then shook her head. “I know, but I’ve just never understood.”
Kat sat up, moved closer. Angel had always comforted her, been the big sister, stood in for their mother who’d died when Kat was barely two, and had protected her from her Goddam-awful uncle when their father had gone completely off the rails and drunk himself into oblivion. But now Angel was in pain. Kat stretched out her arm and, hesitatingly, placed it over Angel’s shoulders. Angel folded into Kat’s embrace, the first time their caring relationship had ever reversed direction. Kat felt her eyes water. The boys quietened, and moved further towards the breaching waves.
Kat needed to talk about it; had needed to for a long time. She drew in a breath. “Micah said Pierre’s gone to get help.” Her head started to ache; she should get out of the sun; it was so damned hot. She picked up her straw hat and put it on.
“Where on Earth is he going to get help, given the storm that’s coming. Don’t be naïve, Kat, he’s dumped you, that’s all there is to it.”
Kat felt as if she’d been slapped. What had gotten into Angel? “I don’t know any more than what Micah said, I’m not even sure he knows, but –”
“Listen to yourself, Kat. It’s pathetic. Men stick together, cover for each other. Micah, Pierre, they’re all the bloody same. Christ, I should know.” Angel broke free of the embrace, sat apart, dug into her bag and fished out a cigarette, lighting it with a fluency that looked so adult. But Kat hated it when Angel smoked. She only smoked when she was angry – no, when she’d been let down by somebody.
Kat looked away. The boys had moved closer again, yelling something. Suddenly the ball landed right next to Angel, showering them both with a hiss of sand.
Angel was on her feet in a second, shouting. “For God’s sake piss off and leave us alone.” She picked up the ball and gave it a mighty drop-kick toward the ocean. She took a long drag, staring at the boys till they ran off to retrieve their ball, looked down at Kat, and then dropped the cigarette into the sand, burying it.
She knelt down next to Kat and put her arms around her. “Sorry, Sis, I’m being a real bitch today. Forget about it, just forget the whole damned thing.”    
Kat shook; if Angel wasn’t there for her, she wouldn’t – couldn’t – cope. But Angel hugged her tight, rocking her. She thought of Pierre, how he’d left, deserted her. But she couldn’t be angry with him anymore; he wasn’t the first to leave her, everyone did sooner or later. But she believed he would come back. Why? She tried to focus. Why would he come back? She flinched at a stabbing pain behind her eyes. God, not another migraine!
Angel released her from the embrace. “I hope he does come back, Kat. For you.”
Something clicked in her mind. “Not for me.”
Angel opened her palms upwards. “Meaning what? Don’t tell me he’s got a crush on me, I couldn’t –”
“No, no,” Kat said, with an urgency to verbalise the revelation while it loitered in her mind. “Something else! The Kalarash were here for half a million years.”
Angel rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows that, Kat. But Louise told me that Micah searched all the caves, the oceans even. Nothing. Gone, the same as Pierre.”
Kat gave her a quizzical look. “How does Louise know Micah?”
Angel put on her cynical face.
“Oh, I see.” Kat felt her face flush. “Well, anyway. The Kalarash did leave something behind.”
“Besides a few Hohash, you mean?”
Kat nodded, just as pain lanced through her left eye. She cried out, cupping a hand over her face, squeezing both eyes closed. Angel moved toward her.
“Come here, let me see.” She pushed Kat’s hand aside. “Open your eye.”
Kat tried, but couldn’t open the left one.
“Open it!” Angel shouted, her voice sounding odd, distorted.
Through her right eye, Kat saw dark shadows as the boys gathered around them. The pain grew, as if someone was pulling a needle through her eye-ball. “Angel, help me, please! Call an ambulance!” The boys hands reached out, pinned Kat to the sand.
Angel’s voice hardened. “OPEN YOUR EYE!”
Kat squirmed, trying to escape the boys’ grip and the blinding pain; she felt her left eye was boiling inside its socket. Angel’s fingers became talons, trying to tear open Kat’s eyelids, but they were glued shut. Through her other eye she saw the gull circling above, framed against a sky of pure fire. It dropped down, wings fluttering, until just above the boys’ heads. It landed on her chest.
“Get it off me! What the fuck is going on? Angel!” She glanced at Angel, but she was busy clawing at Kat’s left eyelids, teeth bared with the effort. The gull leaned closer, its own blood red eyes peering into Kat’s. One of the boys behind the bird unsheathed a knife, and passed it blade-first to Angel, who loomed closer.
“Now we’ll see what you’re hiding, Katrina.” Angel raised the knife high above her in a closed fist...

Does Qorall get the information? You'll have to wait and see. But in my novels, at least people don't die in dreams. Kat will still get to kick some more ass before this is over. 

The greatest potential for dramatic tension with dreams or altered realities in science fiction is when characters are not sure if they are in a dream or reality. But that's for another blog...

This is an excerpt from Eden’s Revenge, in progress, the third and final part of the Eden Trilogy:

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook and Barnes and Noble in ebook, and Waterstones in paperback.
Eden’s Trial is available in ebook on Amazon, currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers for a short period.
Eden's Revenge, the finale, is due out December 2012.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

On Writing Groups

For an unpublished writer, writing groups can be an essential process whereby you learn or hone your craft, gaining critical feedback that corrects common mistakes, as well as getting new ideas on how to make your words lift off the page and leave indelible footprints in a reader’s imagination. But they can also be brutal, unfair, and even catastrophic for an inexperienced writer, resulting in a poor or emasculated style, loss of motivation, and giving up that dream of getting published. I’ve been in various groups over the past ten years, and thought I’d share some perceptions (aka opinions) on what is good and bad about them.

I’m going to cover the following:

  1. Why writers need them
  2. How they work
  3. Why and how they go wrong
  4. Different ‘levels’ of writing groups
  5. Alternatives to writing groups

I’m only going to focus on physical (face-to-face) groups, not virtual (online) ones, since I’ve never been involved in the latter, and some or all of what I say below may not apply.

Why writers need them
Not every successful writer has been through the ‘writing group’ process. A few may be talented enough to write brilliant, captivating prose in perfect contemporary English, the first time we set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But, let’s face it, most of us aren’t that good! It used to be the case that agents and publishing houses would search for raw talent, and then the agent or more likely a publishing house editor would hack it into shape, sometimes remodelling it completely, killing off redundant characters, shifting tense and point of view, deleting certain chapters and demanding new ones. Such a process can radically change the original manuscript. But a lot of publishing houses have lost editors in today’s financially lean, streamlined business processes. They are more than ever looking for a better standard of writing, also because more and more people are writing. So they look for ways to reject work, and what better way than to look for common mistakes, indicative of poor writing?

Writing groups contain writers. There is a key difference between a reader and a writer (or critic or book doctor). A reader will generally tell you whether they liked what you wrote or not. It’s that simple. They might say they loved a particular character, a scene, something witty the heroine said. Alternatively, they might tell you (usually way too politely) it didn’t quite work for them. But they won’t say why they liked it or failed to. The average reader is not going to point out that there were too many point-of-view shifts, that sentence structures were too invariant, language too complex, pace was jagged, characters were ciphers, and similes were clichéd: because they don’t know this meta-language that sits underneath the writing, they haven’t learned the craft. Readers can give you general feedback, and it is important, but only other writers can give you constructive feedback. As a beginning writer, you need to know what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong. Otherwise you are at sea without a compass…

Here’s an abbreviated, composite example from one of my early writing groups, a particularly seminal one etched into my memory, after the other writers present had all read my very first science fiction short story:

            “The plot is too clichéd, it will never sell. You may not have read it before, but trust me, this story has been done to death.” [My grip on my sheets of paper tightens.] “You need to read more science fiction if you’re going to publish in this genre. Also, all the sentences start ‘He’. It’s repetitive – read it aloud and see if you can try not to slip into a trance.” [Group laughs, I brave a smile.] “Your dialogue tags are a mess, it’s hard to work out who is speaking, and they sound like comic strip heroes – why are there no women in your story, by the way, and why are they all caucasian with English names, and all heterosexual?” [Other members nod assiduously. I stare at the offending piece in my hand. Was it really that bad? Aren’t I supposed to write what I know?] “However…” [I hold my breath.] “The characters are interesting.” [I dare to look up: a few nods. I sense a lifeline in the offing.] Someone else chips in. “Yes, I agree. I normally hate science fiction, but I found this Blake character interesting; something broken inside him.” [My grip on my pride-and-joy loosens, so I can pick up my pen, write down the possible salvation of three months work.] “So, my advice, take these characters, and change the story. There’s something there.”

The person speaking, by the way, a guest at a week-long writers’ workshop in Paris, was the editor Michael C Curtis of Atlantic Fiction, hence I took every word seriously. Five years later it got published, not as a short story, but as a novel, and writing groups helped me navigate every step of the way.

How they work
Usually they are led by one person and the group as a whole has less than ten people. The more people there are, the less time for each person’s work to be reviewed. Three is an absolute minimum, four to six is a nice number. Each writer sends out a piece of work (usually 2-3000 words in length, 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, numbered – getting into such a discipline is important for later, when you start to submit to agents) at least a week before the meeting to give people time to read it and comment on it.

The group leader is usually the most experienced, and ideally is published herself. She (okay, obviously it can be a guy, right?) will say “Let’s start with [insert name]’s piece, and give her overall comments, some good things, some things to work on or change, and then go through it page by page in 5-10 minutes. Others who have read it may chip in if they agree with a point, but generally wait their turn, particularly if they have a different opinion. Here is an important rule, which not all writing groups follow:

The writer says nothing during the feedback process

There are two main reasons for this. First, we are all naturally defensive. We want to say “Ah, that’s not what the character meant/thought.” But the point is, that when it is published, most readers will not pick up the phone and call the author about page 23 where it doesn’t seem to make sense. Rather they will simply put the book down and switch on the television, your book will get poor or no reviews, and your dreams of being a famous writer will get pulped along with the remainders and returns that cannot be sold by the publisher. Second reason is that you have to listen carefully: sometimes feedback is gold, but if we jump into a conversation the feedback may be cut short, and later more important points lost. Most people don’t like giving tough feedback, and will abort if you are defensive, or worse, argumentative about it.

In any case, soon it will be your turn to give feedback, though it often happens that someone whose piece you really liked ‘hated’ yours. It’s good to have alcohol at these groups, to oil the egos, which is why the ones I go to are always in the evenings.

At the end of the review of your work, they will all hand back to you their print-outs with hand-written notes scrawled all over it: ticks, smilies, comments, question marks, words highlighted, entire passages with a line through them, etc.

Now, the hard part: what to do with them. The next morning or whenever you can get back to it, you look through the comments and the notes you made at the meeting. I usually do the small stuff first, the minor edits and typos and grammar, then look at the larger comments, the ones that may mean a lot of work or a total re-write. There are four scenarios:

(a)   One or more people made comments or edits that you straightaway agree with, and you have either that ‘Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?’ reaction, or the ‘Hey that’s a great idea!’ reaction. Do the edits.
(b)  One person had a problem with your writing which the others did not, and you still don’t. So, give yourself a break, and ignore it.
(c)   Two or more people had the same problem with your writing and you don’t agree with it. Tough one. You need to change something, even if you don’t do their proposed correction. Consider taking the changed piece back to the group later on (not straight away, as they will still remember it too well and will need to come at it fresh).
(d)  They all have the same problem with your writing, but you know deep inside you they are all terribly, unjustifiably wrong. You may need to change writing group, because maybe they are wrong. But if people in the new one tell you the same thing, accept where the problem really lies.

Why and how they go wrong
If everyone in the group is inexperienced, including the group leader, then it will be a case of ‘blind leading the blind’, and can be a nice social event, but at best won’t be effective in improving your writing, and at worst, because people in such an environment often try to be nice to each other, will reinforce bad styles and habits.

Even if there is a good group leader, things can go wrong, because people often act differently when in groups, depending who is in the group; it’s called group dynamics. As an example, perhaps the leader decides a particular writer needs a bit of a talking to because she keeps making the same mistake and ignoring feedback week after week (it happens), and attacks her piece. Others, who originally might have thought it was okay, can be drawn into the fray, and make their criticism harsher. You can see when this happens by watching if other writers ‘update’ their comments while listening to your piece being critiqued/torn apart. If you are lucky, it’s in a different ink and you can work out what they originally thought and what they later thought. The reverse can happen (the so-called 'halo effect', whereby all get carried away and think your piece is great and you know it isn't really, though is less common).

Sometimes we haven’t made the time to read all the pieces properly, and our comments are superficial, or for example, stating ‘didn’t get this’ or ‘what happened to the gun mentioned on page 4, why wasn’t it fired by the end?’ Maybe it was fired, but we skim-read the text. In this case the writer of the piece will go back and over-write, emphasising (and ruining) text which was fine to begin with. In a good writers group, other writers will call you out and say ‘you didn’t read it, dummie, it’s on page 7!’ and then pass you some more wine. If you’re in this position (and it can happen to anyone), it’s best to say you haven’t had time to read it properly and sit there quietly (passing the wine around).

Another problem is over-editing. Some people will fancy themselves as great editors, and may say ‘Great piece, really liked it,” and then hand you your work buried under a forest of critical comments and lines where they have suggested you delete text. They may have re-written parts for you. Well, take a look, because if nothing else they spent a good deal of time on it, but feel free to ignore the comments. Look for those which sound right. It is your writing. Often if words are crossed out, especially adverbs, it will sound better, and read more smoothly. But moving paragraphs around, blocks of text re-written, etc. – take it with a pinch of salt. If it works, include it, if not, bin it. Don’t just hone your craft, hone your judgement about who makes good criticism of your work: whose comments make it better?

Different levels of writing groups
By now it should be clear that the benefits and hazards are most acute for the beginning writer, who doesn’t know whose judgement to trust, least of all his or her own. Such a writer should not rely solely on the writing group. There are writers’ courses and conferences, and thousands of books on how to write, how to improve in areas such as plotting, dialogue, voice, etc.

There are also different levels of writing groups. Beginners’ groups are there for people to ‘try it out’, to see if it is ‘for them’. They may do short exercises just to get people into the habit of writing anything at all, and discuss concepts such as point of view, voice, dialogue tags, etc. Often people in such groups end up reviewing contemporary texts (best-sellers), or talking about films. In such groups there is almost no criticism, because the group leaders are trying to usher them into the world of writing, and don’t want to scare them off.

The next level of writing’ group is for unpublished writers, and maybe one or two in the group have gotten their first short story published in some obscure magazine, but they all know most of the basics of writing, and can learn from each other whatever else they need to know. This group contains people who have decided they want to be writers, but are not yet sure of their genre or how to break out of short story into novel, for example. This can actually be a really happy time for a writer, because there is a lot of hope and creative exploration. But a lot of work done at this level will remain unpublished, unless it is dusted off later when the craft has been mastered to a sufficient degree.

The third level is more serious, and probably at least some of the people at this level     
are already published, maybe writing their second or third book. The craft is well-known by all, and critiques are often at a higher level, e.g. how does this chapter relate to the one we read a month ago? The pace seem wrong, the character has shifted.’ Etc. There will still be small edits and big ones too, and occasionally even good writers will turn in a lousy chapter, but the group is mature, people take criticism on the chin, and then get down to fixing any problems raised.

Of course, there is little point in going to the wrong level of group. A beginner surrounded by honed writers won’t be able to follow the discussion or feedback, and a seasoned author attending a beginners’ group, aside from having a social evening and maybe an ego trip, won’t gain much out of it.

My golden rule for writers’ groups is simple:

Find people whose comments improve your work, and stick with them.

I’ve been attending various writers’ groups for ten years now. About three years ago, one of our favourite group leaders (Jen Dick, a poet, incidentally, and a damned good prose editor), left Paris. Within three months, three of us set up a small group, which now has a membership of six. We don’t have a leader, but we meet on a Sunday night roughly every three weeks, have a meal and some wine in a brasserie near Montparnasse in Paris, and then get down to serious criticism.
Alternatives to writing groups
If this is not for you, or you can’t find a group, there are alternatives. Online groups are popular, though I’ve never tried one. Book doctors also exist (either alone or through literary consultancies) whereby someone (usually a published author) will (for a fee) review your work and tell you how to improve it. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for. I usually take my work to a lit consultancy after it has been through the wringer with my fellow trusted writers several times. Courses exist on self-editing, and on almost any aspect of writing, and as previously mentioned, there are books galore on how to write.

But all in all, I’m in favour of writing groups, despite their potential downsides. Writing is a craft, it’s never learned in one go or one crash course, and the learning never stops. It’s best done over time, with good company, good food, and… did I already mention the wine?  

Barry Kirwan is author of science fiction novels The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial, both available on Amazon.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Anatomy of a Book Signing

I've done some book signings recently and thought I'd jot down some observations on how to make them work (and fail), with the benefit of hindsight. I'm going to cover the following ten aspects:

Set-up & 'equipment'
Customer behaviour
The 'pitch'
Expectations, financial and personal

Up front advertising can make a huge difference. Ideally you want to use social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, the former to get friends there, the latter to get anyone else who might be interested. The bookstore can advertise it on their website, and we (my sister and I) made up posters and flyers and put these up about two weeks before the date; too early and people forget, too late and they have something else to do that day. Two weeks worked for us. Newspaper articles and radio interviews in the same week are excellent ways to advertise an event, unfortunately we didn't get any takers.

We did it on a Saturday, between 10:30am and 4pm, the day after World Book Day. Saturday is good for business, and also there is more chance for support (see later). 'Traffic' dropped off around 1:30 so I grabbed a quick lunch then, and by 4pm it was starting to tail off.

Location was Waterstones in a shopping centre in Camberley, a provincial town 30 miles from London. I did it there because my family is in the area. I did another one in London, and sold twice as many books. But I have to say I enjoyed the Camberley one more, after all, it was where I grew up (I now live just outside of Paris).

The 'set-up' is pretty much all in the picture, with the table in clear view as you entered the shop. 'Equipment' was as follows:

A table and chair
A poster outside the store, inside the store, and in the main adverstising area of the shopping centre
Around 200 A5 flyers on quality paper
Copies of the book in various appealing arrangements on the table
Print-outs of reviews of the book
Business cards of the book(s) showing the front cover with details on the reverse side
Bookmarks for the book based on the front cover
Two nice pens for signing
It also helps to have an eye-catching front cover!

Support was mainly my family, particularly my sister, who stood outside the shop with flyers, trying to get people to come inside and take a look. This accounted for about half the sales - the rest were people in the shop who took an interest. The bookstore staff were great, but it was a busy Saturday (nice to see as an author).

My genre is science fiction rather than mainstream. One slight inconsistency was that the science fiction and fantasy section in the bookstore was at the back, and I was at the front, but I don't think that mattered too much in this case. However, it is not the easiest genre to sell, since not everyone likes SF. A couple of people did talk to me about the book, and stated they preferred fantasy. I wasn't going to mislead them, and made it clear that it was SF. Others however, said they liked thrillers, and my book certainly falls into that category, albeit it is a thriller set in 2065, and has SF feel.

Genre is something you have to be clear about in your own mind. Someone asked me if it was Steampunk, and I said no, but that if anything, it had cyberpunk elements (it does, influenced as I was by William Gibson's Neuromancer). It also helps to say which authors it resembles and who my favourite authors are (these are not necessarily the same). But in short, you need to know your own genre and sub-genres, adjacent genres, and other genres. It helps if you are well-read.

Customer behaviour is intersting (well, I'm a psychologist, so what else am I going to say!). Many people would enter the shop and see me sitting there, and then avoid all eye contact. To make it easier on them (and me) I picked up a book by Mike Reynolds (a bit like Lee Child - I was sitting in the 'Crime' section), read a chapter, and then picked up a Philip Kerr novel (better writing, I'd have to say). I'd glance up occassionally, maybe catch someone's eye, smile as if to say 'I don't bite', then carry on reading. Most smiled back.

Most people then carried on their normal business, took a quick glance at the poster, then went ahead to buy the book they came for. Others, however, would drift closer to the desk and maybe pick up the flyer. I'd lower what I was reading, wait a few seconds, and then say something, usually "Do you like science fiction?" If yes, then I'd ask who they liked, and draw comparisons if there were any. If they liked someone I'd read, I could say what my favourite book by that author was. If not, I'd be honest and say I hadn't read that author. They'd then ask me what my book is about, and I'd give them my pitch, which I came up with about six months ago when I had to pitch the book to WHSmith in Paris:

"It's set fifty years in the future, Earth is pretty much an environmental mess, and a new planet is discovered which appears to be perfect. However, the first two missions there fail to return. This book is about the third mission."

I don't think of this pitch as a hook, by the way - it is more the bait on the hook. I'd wait to see what they said, maybe adding 'It's basically a thriller set in the future." Since SF people like trilogies, and most readers want to know if you're a 'one-book wonder' or a serious professional writer (someone worth investing time and money in), they'd often ask if there was another book in the making. I could then show them the card for book 2 (only on ebook at the moment), but could say it was coming out in paperback in September, and that I was currently writing book 3.

People would then look at the back of the book, maybe open and read something inside (mostly not). Then, they'd say something like 'Well, why not," and buy the book, and I'd ask who to dedicate it to, and check how they spelled their name. And I'd genuinely smile, and shake their hand, because as an author these little three minute transactions are important.

About a third who bought it weren't normal SF readers, but liked the look of the book, the fact that it was a thriller, and probably it was also simply the chance to get a signed copy of a book.

Some people politely declined, or said it wasn't their thing. I'd smile and say that's okay (because it is). One guy overheard my pitch to someone else (who declined), and then said "I've never heard of you, but I liked what you just said, so I'm going to buy it for my sister who likes this sort of stuff." Great.

So, my attitude was that I was happy to be there, because I was: it took me years to get published, and my family and friends came to see and support me, and it was a real pleasure to see so many people buying books, and to meet people and make the occasional sale.

In the end we sold fifteen books; not that many, but apparently about average, and not bad for a genre like SF. The bookstore's record was 95. In the London one I sold 30 and would have sold more if I hadn't have run out of stock.

Is it worth it? Financially, no. Posters and flyers cost money, and the profit for say 30 books probably won't cover it, although in the few days following there was a spike in sales via Amazon both for hard copy and ebook, a delayed effect probably due to the flyers distributed. But it can be good for 'word of mouth' after-selling, especially as some people who bought it probably never would have otherwise.

Personally, it was definitely worth it, especially as it was my old home territory. I've always loved books and reading, and bookstores, particularly Waterstones, and it was just nice and down-to-Earth to meet complete strangers and see them get interested in my book, something I miss with Amazon, for example. For me, it has been a final 'right of passage' as a beginning writer.

So, it is often said that writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration. But the inspiration part is important and necessary. Book signings can be inspirational to an author, not in the sense of generating ideas, but in the sense of being motivational, that what you are doing is real and worth the effort.

I'd like to give a special thanks to my sis, Janice, for making it happen :-)

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, OmniLit and Ampichellis.

Eden's Trial, the sequel, is available in ebook on Amazon, paperback due out Autumn 2012.

The finale, Eden's Revenge, is due out in ebook Xmas 2012, paperback Spring 2013.
© Barry Kirwan |
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