Friday, 27 July 2012

An Inside View from the Paris Writers Workshop 2012 - Writing the Novel

A fellow Parisian writer (Dimitri Keramitas) attended this year's Paris Writer's Workshop (PWW 2012), participating in the 'Writing the Novel' sessions led by Samantha Chang. I asked Dimitri to do a guest blog on the week long course on novel-writing, and below is what he has to say...

A writing workshop is an essential way for the budding or even veteran writer to ramp up his skills to a whole new level. Creative writing classes and writers groups are valuable tools, but don’t compare with the concentrated energy of a good workshop, with its many diverse participants, seminars, and panel discussions. They’re an excellent way as well to make contacts among professionals and other writers.

I recently attended the Paris Writers Workshop, which was excellent this year, and couldn’t help noting some ideas about what we should put into workshops, and get out of them. I’ve attended the PWW before, usually with a fairly finished piece of work. This year I decided to bring a novel that I’d just started, of which I’d completed only a handful of chapters, and was interested to see how that would work. The PWW was held at the American University’s site in a Left Bank (but plush) neighborhood in the 7th Arrondissement. Scores of participants (all English-speakers) came from the world over, with a wide variety of age and experience. (In the novel class the range in age was from 30 to a very youthful 77!)

The seminars at the PWW run for an entire week: three hours a day, every day. The format is ideal for writers who want to have their work discussed in depth. On the other hand, scheduling only allows for one seminar to be chosen. Other workshops permit several classes, but each may last only one session. That may be congenial for the beginner who wants to discover several genres. The first method is more appropriate for someone with experience or who has already written something substantial. This difference must be considered by the would-be workshopper if she wants to avoid disappointment. At this year’s novel seminar, no one seemed to have a finished manuscript, but most had written a good part of the novel, in addition to having a fairly detailed synopsis.

While the format of a seminar can be found on the workshop’s site, it’s not as easy to evaluate the person leading the seminar. Seminar leaders tend to be writers as well as instructors, but often the writers are not household names. Even if the writer is well-known, even if he or she is a genuinely brilliant writer, that doesn’t make for a good writing teacher. The only way to know for sure is to get the opinion of someone who’s already taken a class with the person. The novel seminar at this year’s PWW was taught by Lan Samantha Chang, who is not only a distinguished writer (Inheritance, All is Forgotten: Nothing is Lost) but director of the Iowa Workshop. The heavyweight credentials were persuasive, and happily everyone in the class was delighted with her teaching abilities and warm personality.

There was some discussion in our class about what exactly we wanted from the workshop. It came down to three approaches: fiction theory; classroom brainstorming and discussion; and guided discussion and close analysis by the instructor. Certain participants were forthright about communicating their preferences to each other and to the instructor. (Why not—you’re paying for it.) Theory about technique and form can help give writers a clearer, less impressionistic grasp of what they’re doing. As a lit major and long-time student of literature, this didn’t interest me too much. As for classroom discussion, listening to the feedback of intelligent writers is invaluable. I once attended a workshop where an uncommunicative instructor left the bulk of the input in the hands of the students (not the most desirable situation). But even in the best of cases, too much diverse amateur opinion won’t give a writer the boost she needs.

Samantha Chang had a balanced approach, combining all three approaches. She covered aspects of theory (for example, linear vs. non-linear narrative), and used an essay on fiction by Elizabeth Bowen to bounce off ideas. There was a lot of spirited, but always civil, class discussion as well. But it was Samantha’s guided analysis that was most useful (even when analyzing someone else—one colleague said she’d learned most from the comments on my piece). I found her stress on dramatizing scenes very helpful, as well as the idea that every scene must contain some sort of significant action (not limited to a physical deed), that the scenes must advance the story.

Aside from the format and instructor, there is what you bring to the seminar. I have three novel projects in varying stages of development. One novel is finished and has been workshopped before. It may still need tweaking, but I’m already shopping it around. I considered bringing this novel to the PWW, but decided that I wanted more out of the workshop than fine-tuning. (One can risk over-editing a finished novel, or even worse having the work called into question.) My second novel hadn’t reached the end of its draft and earlier sections needed extensive re-writing. I felt that it wasn’t presentable enough. In the end, I chose a project that I’d started only recently. I was able to deal with certain issues and make key decisions, before it was “too late”. For example, I’d planned on changing the P.O.V. from 3d person to 1st with the idea of making the narration more personal. Samantha and my co-workshoppers agreed that the 3d person narration was so close it was tantamount to the 1st person, and that an outright 1st-person narration might have complicated the social dimension of the novel, among other things. Better to realize that early on, rather than after completing a problematic draft!

In addition to the choice of manuscripts, this year at the PWW I made sure to think hard about my project and come up with a list of specific questions I wanted to ask the instructor and fellow workshoppers. In the past I’ve gone into workshops with a more passive approach, waiting for comments on my work. The first approach is, in my opinion, the more intelligent one. The PWW novel seminar also includes a one-on-one session with the instructor. It’s especially important to have precise questions prepared for such sessions. The instructor is typically pro-active during the session, but you can’t expect her to anticipate everything. It’s a shame to waste such an opportunity, and I made sure that I didn’t. 

For more info on PWW, here's the link:

Dimitri Keramitas is film critic at Originally from Connecticut, USA, he has lived in Paris for several years. His short fiction has been published in numerous literary journals. His story “The Art of Flight” won the Paynton Scholarship at the 2010 Paris Writers Workshop, and another, "The Grave Within", won a story competition at Strange Circle magazine. In addition, he  is a contributing editor to Movies in American History (ABC-CLIO). He has completed his first novel, In the Name of Destiny, which takes place in the world of Native-American casinos.

[I'll add that he's a damned good writer, especially for witty insights into contemporary society and its fringe institutions, and his neo-fictional characters' duplicitous behavior... Really hoping to see one of his novels in print soon!]

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Guest Blog - Designing Alien Cultures

I've just done a guest blog on Mike Formichelli's excellent blog Nero's Niche, in a series he is hosting on writing alien cultures. You can read it here, and check it for related posts.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Writers and social media - what the publishers won't tell you

A few weeks ago I attended an open session on authors and social media as part of the Paris Writers Workshop. Here’s a summary of what I learned, expanded upon below, with some 'guidance' at the end of this blog:

  1. Apply the ‘Delta’ approach
  2. Don’t force it – it won’t work – find the social media that work for you, that bring out your voice, and ignore the rest
  3. Social media isn’t the future, it’s the present, and offers fantastic opportunities (ironically) particularly for anti-social writers
  4. Social media can boost sales, but what works for some won’t work for others
  5. Social media can swallow ALL your time, often with very little return, so remember what a writer does, and what being a writer is about. Disconnect from the internet sometimes to write
  6. Generosity gets noticed

1. The Delta Approach
The Delta approach was mentioned by author Stephen Clarke (author of ‘A Year in the Merde’). Consider it like this: an author is like a river, who wants to flow into the sea, and make it big time. The ‘Delta’ represents all the social media avenues for doing this: Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Websites, Newsletters, Blog Tours, etc. He advised initially pushing hard down all these avenues, and then seeing which led to payback, and which led to nowhere except lost time. When one of them seems to flow, channel more energy down that pathway, maxing it out, stabilising it, making it work (e.g. getting a fan-base going). Others agreed, saying for example that they always responded to comments and queries to blogs or web-pages, particularly at the start. When the audience starts to respond, the author must be there to reciprocate.

Incidentally, this has been my own experience. I focus on one main blog a week linked to my website, then I tweet it just a few times, and that’s all. I have a full-on day job, and novels and stories to write. I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family, LinkedIn for professional (non-writing) links, Goodreads to keep up with Scifi rather than push my books, and don’t have time to do a Blog Tour. However, I am experimenting with a new Facebook page for my novel series (Eden Paradox), and will try the newsletter thing over the summer.

2. Don’t force it
Writing is a creative art, a form of expression. If you don’t want to do something, e.g. push your books on Facebook, or write a weekly blog, or tweet every fifteen minutes about what you ate for breakfast etc., then don’t do it! It will come across as forced, that your heart is not in it. It will be dull, flat, uninspiring writing, just adding to the noise and dross that already exists on social media. Find a social media approach that suits you, and tell your publisher, or others pushing you to do things you don’t want to do, to go to hell for the rest, or better still, to send you on a country-wide book promotion tour (that’s usually a conversation-killer with a publisher these days) like they should…

3. Social media is a fact of life
Social media is a fact of life, especially for the younger generation, but also for many older people too. It can seem bewildering, but actually once you start, it is pretty intuitive, and there are a lot of people out there who are generous. There are of course a lot of people trying to sell you something, too, especially selling to writers on ‘how to sell a million books, etc.’ Trouble is, such approaches are usually one or two-trick ponies – they work for a few people, then the world moves on and others who try to replicate their success fail.

Many recoil from social media, seeing all the bland or pure-hype tweets, some people tweeting every 15 minutes all day long, just adding to a (thankfully virtual) mountain of meaningless self-absorbed dross (noise). However, rather than complain about it and ignoring it, why not take responsibility, and add something good? Have something meaningful to say, and say it? The ‘blogosphere’ or ‘twittersphere’ defines us, so it is up to us to define it. The youth of today in particular is led by social media, so why not try and get your message across to reach them, because if you don’t, someone else will (and they do), and may influence them in a bad way.

It is ironic that social media can work for very anti-social people. You don’t have to go to cocktail parties or receptions to socialise and try and get people interested in your book. You can sit in bed in your pyjamas at 11am or 3am and write a blog, or tweet, or post messages on Facebook, from the comfort of your home or an internet cafe. Many writers are introverted – it is not a hugely social activity writing a book, with long hours alone, just you and a laptop. With social media you get to choose who and how and how long you communicate and about what.

You do not have to give any details about your personal life, either. This was a hot discussion topic at the workshop, some saying you needed to give a little away, so that readers could identify with you as a real person, others saying no, to hell with that, they can like or hate my writing, but I’m not going to tell people about my personal life, my kids, etc. The conclusion was that it is a personal choice, although with Facebook in particular you need to be careful, as once you divulge personal information it is difficult to take it back, even if you ‘leave’ Facebook (which seems to be effectively impossible unless you change your hotmail account). So, make a conscious decision and then stick with it. Personally, I  never, ever blog about my personal life outside writing (except maybe my insomnia, which is when I get to write).  

The real reason for doing social media is that it can help raise your visibility above the ‘noise’, and you can get people who like what you write to tell others about it. The real way to sell books has always been ‘word of mouth’, and these social media can amplify that process. Of course, if your writing is no good in the first place, you can also guess the outcome. Similarly, if it is evident that you are only using social media to sell your wares, then that will not attract a loyal following (unless you’re a great writer). Bottom line: explore social media, find those media you like, and embrace the present!

4. “How I sold 1 million copies but you won’t…”
No, before you ask, I haven’t sold more than 4 figures of my books. You will come across ‘wonder-guides’ or ebooks on how to maximise your opportunities and sell vast quantities of books, or SEO (Search Optimisation Engine) optimisation for only $250 a month, or how to make Twitter really work for you as it did help someone sell half a million books, etc.  Some people have made it big time, and can tell you how they did it. But as soon as these things happen, the industry tries to replicate it, and everything changes, including the very conditions that led to such successes. The reality is that for every such success story there are nearly a million much more dismal stories, of people who never even sold a hundred copies despite all the advertising and promotion they personally paid for. Even publishers make wrong calls and end up pulping unsold books returned from bookstores, because the big ‘splash’ they hoped for and tried to engineer simply never happened. 

The return on investment (your time) using social media will probably in most cases mean you are earning less than minimum wage, and putting more and more time in doesn’t necessarily increase your sales. One speaker commented at the workshop that there was no point having a well-defined strategy, because things keep changing so fast. The best approach is to set up the ‘normal’ channels, like a blog and/or website, twitter, a Facebook page for your book(s), and then keep writing and publishing. One effect I’ve noticed with myself and others, is that it is hard to get your first book noticed, but once there are two or more, there is significantly more chance of one of them taking off, and then the others do too. This appears to hold for current legends like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and the current sensation that is ’50 shades of grey’ and other ‘grey’ books. The lesson appears to be to spend some time setting up your social media landscape, and then keep on writing. Readers are more interested in a writer who is not just a tourist or a flash in the pan, and want to know if you are worth investing in long term.

5. Social media is there to make money out of you, not for you
Let’s get real for a moment. All these social media are about profit, they are there to get paid by advertisers to be in front of you. Advertising on these sites is big business, as witnessed by the recent multi-billion dollar sale of Facebook, and the current downward slide of Yahoo as it is losing out on advertising revenues. They ALL have an angle to make money, that is why they exist, not to be nice to you. The fact that they can be a nice experience is a bonus, and a good one of course. The point is that they want you to be online all the time, and it is sometimes easier to be doing these social media things than editing a difficult chapter. But if you are a writer, you must write. A publisher might tell you to spend 80% of your time doing social media, once you have your first novel out. My advice is to flip that figure around: spend 20% maximum, and ideally 10% on social media, and spend the rest writing. At the beginning, to set things up, you might spend 80% for a few weeks. Also, if (back to the Delta approach) things suddenly take off, then you can be flexible and divert energy to social media, e.g. if you decide to do a virtual blog tour, or a real one, and want to maximise the splash and see if you can make it go viral. But generally, when things are ticking over, 80-90% of your available time is writing time.

Once your ‘base’ is built, which can take an initial set-up time and then several months before you have a fan-base, then you shift gear and ‘manage the traffic’.

In practical terms, writer Sion Dayson who was on the panel for social media said she would be online arounf four times a day for 20-30 minutes each time, as her work sells in different time zones around the world. She also said she had a ‘dumb phone’, so that if she was out with friends, she was not online, and could pay attention to them. Bravo! I wish I could say the same… She advocated doing only what you enjoy / love with respect to social media, as that way you get energy back from it and can carry on writing, rather than getting burned out.

6. Generosity gets noticed
As mentioned above, people notice if all you do is relentless self-promotion, most often seen on Twitter. However, if you give away information, or are just honest about things, that gets noticed too. The word ‘social’ media is not an abstract adjective, many people use social media to socialise, to have good connections with other people, so generosity of spirit and genuineness get noticed, and are liked. Of course, you can’t fake this, because people will see through it. So write and tweet about things you care about, and don’t simply say, gosh, it’s been four hours since I tweeted anything, what shall I say? Because that’s sad. Twitter will never tell you that silence is golden.

At the workshop, performance artist and writer Aja Monet recalled George Orwell’s 1984, and the ‘Feed’, a constant stream of propaganda fed to every household. Her point was that we now have this ‘feed’, but rather than being run by a nasty government agency, it is run by ourselves, a kind of liberalised virtual social democracy. Young people are being shaped by this feed, and live in this realm. We should engage in it; maybe think of it as the right to ‘vote’, the right to reply, the right to have our voice heard, and to listen to others. If this seems over the top, consider some other countries where such rights do not truly exist.

At the end of this particular PWW session, the speakers were asked for their top tips, and this is what they said:

  • It’s the quality of your writing that will be the deciding factor
  • It’s your online ‘voice’ that matters, find this first
  • Be really interested in what you are writing about on social media – people can tell if you really care, or have simply been told to do it

In summary, there are no steadfast rules, but here are some ideas:

  • Explore social media, there are some fantastic tools out there
  • Decide which you want to invest time and energy in – you can’t do everything!
  • Determine your boundaries between personal and professional use of social media
  • See which ones work for you and adapt appropriately; don’t get bogged down
  • Find your online voice, and if you are writing a series, develop a ‘brand’
  • Let your writing speak for itself, put samples out there
  • Build up a ‘base’ of readers or followers or ‘traffic’ to your blog/website etc.
  • Manage the traffic, always respond courteously, remember this is social media
  • Be genuine throughout, do what you enjoy, don’t force anything, be generous
  • Keep on writing

Saturday, 14 July 2012

How to write alien characters (3)

I’ve done a couple of blogs on this already, but the other day some of my readers commented that the new species I’d invented, called the Shrell, were pretty convincing. That of course got me thinking – what was working this time?

Like a normal character in fiction, one of the best ways to introduce a new alien species is to have others talking about them first, before they actually ‘appear’ in the novel. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Eden’s Revenge, the third book in the Eden Paradox series:

“The Shrell are already en route, they will poison space around Esperia. You must stop them.” The avatar’s eyes flared. “You must hold Esperia till the very end, whatever the cost. Qorall will come to you.”
            Kilaney stared at the space where the avatar had been a second ago. While he chewed it over, he set the navigation controls, and then powered up the engines for the first jump. A low bass rumble vibrated the soles of his feet.
            He looked at his Ngank companion. “Tell me, who are the Shrell?”
            The squid did the head pirouette thing again. “Space-dwellers, born in outer edge of gas giants.” Its tentacles coiled, pulled at each other. “This bad news. Shrell are space-fixers. Patch space after too many high energy transits bruise subspace. Care about their habitat.”
            For some reason Kilaney imagined dolphins, swimming through space. But he’d seen how wars could twist allegiances, particularly on sides that tried to stay ‘neutral’. When a war went global, or in this case galactic, there was no neutral party, everyone took sides sooner or later, out of choice or coercion.
            The engines reached mid-pitch. “What did he mean, ‘poison space’?” 
            “Fracture subspace harmonics. Stops transits, creates eddies and vortices.”
Kilaney pictured ships heading full speed then slamming into a lattice of supercharged exotic particles, like a giant cheese-grater, shredding vessels and occupants, leaving their fragments to drift forever in quickspace. Qorall would send in the worms later to mop everything up. Bad news indeed.

The Shrell are mentioned once in one line in chapter 8, but they don’t appear until Chapter 12. This time there is no introduction, you simply get to know them. Here’s how Chapter 12 starts:

The Shrell leader Genaspa, at the front of six phalanxes of her most trusted warriors, stared ahead with all six eyes through the eddies of Transpace to the Quintara sector, where the spider world lay. She already knew all the details, but wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to train her protégé, Nasjana.
            She thought-directed “Tell. What you see. What you propose.”
            Nasjana shifted up a gear, flapping her long wings faster, and moved forward from her phalanx of fifty, her Second taking her place. She drew alongside and slightly behind Genaspa. “I see the one-mooned Katha-class planet whose natives call Ourshiwann and the new ones call Esperia. I see two other planets, one further in to its Giver and so too hot to sustain life, the other further out and too cold, a thin asteroid belt from a former planet, and the ice-scratch of a past comet with a return cycle of two thousand years. I propose standard treatment: three opposing pairs at right angles to the Giver, twenty light minutes apart before we commence the cross-run.”
            Genaspa sent a sinusoidal frisson down her right wing, a sign of approval.
So, they have wings and six eyes, and they manoeuvre through space. Otherwise they are not described – how big they are, their exact shape, colour; I leave all these things to the reader’s imagination. I use ‘dialogue tags’ but let the reader know that maybe they don’t actually ‘speak’ as we do (Genaspa ‘thought-directed’ to Nasjana). The way they speak is different, but this is clearly a hierarchical society or a military or religious order, and the way they talk about the ‘Giver’ is an honorific, they are environmentalists, as was stated in the earlier passage. Then I go deeper, into their value structure:

Nasjana did not return to her team.
            “You have a question?”
            Nasjana dropped slightly behind. “I have a doubt.”
            Genaspa’s wings took on a more rigid motion. She’d been expecting this from at least one of her team leaders, though not Nasjana, her Second. Or maybe, she reflected, that was why she had chosen her as Second.
“Where you lead I follow. What you tell, I do, as do we all. But this… We only poison space when absolutely necessary, to avoid rift expansion.”
Nasjana’s thought stream had come out fast, urgent, and Genaspa realised Nasjana was worried. But they were short on time. They must be ready, in formation, in every sense of that word.
“Tell true, Second.” She had to wait a full flap-beat for the response.
“Why do we follow the orders of Qorall? He has brought … the Xenshra inside the galaxy, those despicable worms. I fear we will never get them out. And Qorall has caused more space damage than in recorded Grid history.”
It was a good question, but not the whole reason Nasjana must be daring to doubt her First’s judgement.
“Tell deeper. All.”
Nasjana wings trembled, slowing her slightly until with an effort she caught up. “My husbands. I fear many will perish today.”
Genaspa forced herself to concentrate on the flight, to keep it steady. A First must always be sure, never waver. Tell true, she had instructed, and yet she had not told her team leaders the whole. None of the husbands would survive the day. She and three hundred Shrell would enter the system, she and fifty would return, all female. This was a high price. But only Genaspa knew that Qorall held fifty thousand Shrell – a tenth of their entire population – hostage in a far away quadrant, lured there to try and shore up the damage done when he and his worms breached the galactic barrier eighteen years earlier...

So, the reader now gets that this is a matriarchal society, where the females run things, but care deeply for their husbands, and the stakes are clearly laid out – these aliens are not just there to mix things up in the plot, they are players, their stake is important to them, and the reader maybe begins to care about them too. To make sure, a bit further in the section, I go further into Genaspa’s character, making it personal:

“Second, You will signal to the other leaders, and instruct your own husbands, that what we do today is of the utmost importance for the survival of the galaxy.”
Nasjana blinked all six eyes at once, for a full flapbeat. “Such a message should come from the First, not me.”
No, Genaspa thought, not this time. I may not survive this run. They must begin to hear from you as a Leader.
Nasjana hesitated, then fell back.
As the thought streams rippled through the ranks, Genaspa felt their swarm’s wing pulse harmonic grow stronger. But she herself did waver. She thought of her own husbands, lost during a similar run two thousand years earlier. It was why she was First, because she had paid the price, knew that the husbands’ life force would be bled away from them as they ripped spacetime; that was the energy exchange needed to inflict such damage. She had cherished each of her six males, and had not taken a husband since.
Abruptly she made the decision. She slowed down, decelerating at a breathtaking pace, as if rearing up against a sudden wall. With no small pride she observed and felt all six phalanxes stay in formation, even the husbands. The entire swarm stopped and hung, panting. The eddies of Transpace scattered around them like columns of orange steam blown away into wispy nothingness.
She addressed them all. “We will pay a heavy price today.” Her thought-stream flickered for a moment, then regained its true. “You are the best. That is why you were chosen, why you are here. But many of us will not return today.” She let here eyes swivel to take in every individual Shrell, even the males, who bowed and blinked all eyes in return. “And so I wish you to say your goodbyes properly, as you see fit. You have one hour.” She turned her back on them, quietened her form-sensors so they could have their privacy.
A single ship threaded above her, the Mannekhi one she had overtaken earlier. She watched its trail, its ripples flourish then diminish, eddies whirling in its wake then dissipating. Go ahead, she thought, do whatever it is you have to do, you have little time. She spied another ship on the other side of the Quintara sector, a Q’Roth Marauder, also heading in at unbecoming speed towards Esperia. She reflected that so many beings rushed around in their short life-spans, generally making things worse. Shrell were different, they were gardeners, conserving natural space.
Genaspa heard the cries of ecstasy behind her. Good, she thought, in a year there will be new Shrell to replace those we lose today. Her eyes fixed hard on the distant planet, the object of so much sudden attention, while a dozen planets fell every week during this war. She hoped that whatever lay on Esperia was worth the sacrifice.

I give Genaspa compassion, and make her a sympathetic character through her former loss, and she deserves respect because she is willing to make hard decisions. But I try to keep the Shrell’s emotions and values different enough that they are still alien, not ‘anthopomorphized’ characters (humans wearing some extra deep ridges on their foreheads), and underline this when she watches with disdain as other ships tearing through space on their business, whatever that may be.

The Shrell next appear in Chapter 17, making their ‘run’, and the reader will be conflicted because what the Shrell do will damage mankind’s chances of survival, but at the same time the reader will hopefully also be sympathetic to the plight of these winged, six-eyed aliens…

In summary, here are 7 off the cuff ‘rules’ I have used with the Shrell:

  1. Introduce them first through other characters discussing them – that’s how we often get to hear about interesting people
  2. Don’t over-describe, let the reader’s imagination have a light work-out
  3. Make their dialogue different in its lexicon and rhythms
  4. Show how their society works (e.g. hierarchy, dominant sex, etc.)
  5. Show their value structure through cultural references (‘Giver’; ‘its true’ etc.)
  6. Make the reader care about the aliens, rather than them just being there as a prop (this can include making the reader hate the aliens)
  7. Remind the reader that these beings are not human, they really are alien
To be fair, I do have an image in my mind of what the Shrell look like. I'm a scuba diver, and I love rays, for example Eagle rays, who I've seen swim in formation quite recently (January in Mauritius). They are incredibly graceful, as are Mantas. From a Scifi purist point of view, some might complain that no animals could live in space, but I think we have to wait and see - we are only just learning about dark matter and Higgs-Boson, there is so much we don't know, and that is where Scifi comes in, to explore possibilities.

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

Eden’s Trial is available in ebook from Amazon and in paperback September 2012

Eden’s Revenge is coming out Xmas 2012 in ebook, paperback April 2013.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Guest Blog by Michael Formichelli: My path to publication

[I'm currently reading and enjoying Michael Formichelli's first Science Fiction book 'Blood Siren', and we 'know' each other through Goodreads, so I asked him to describe his 'path to publication': how he got started, how he learned the writing craft, and how he decided he was ready to publish, and the resources he used along the way. It's all below - Thanks Mike!]

Guest Blog: Michael Formichelli, Author of Blood Siren

My personal journey to publication took about 4 years from the time I decided I wanted to be a serious author until the present.  I wouldn't exactly say that I am done walking this path either, but I'll try and outline the journey.

In 2008 I was at a crossroads in my life.  I was at the end of a bad relationship which had the very good consequence of teaching me that I wanted more out of life than what I had.  I came up with a list of ways in which my life could be better if only I put some effort into it.  Becoming a serious writer was at the top.

Although I'd written some novellas and a couple of novels mostly for my own entertainment - one of which was on a bet with a friend in college - I needed a little confidence booster before plunging headlong into the book world.

I decided to start with short stories.  I subscribed to Asimov's and bought a copy of the Writer's Digest Writer's Market to find magazines willing to take submissions from unknowns.  The first story I got paid for was called "Perfectly Safe."  It appeared in the January edition of Alien Skin Magazine- a now defunct online publication (  Getting that first check was what really told me people were willing to pay to read the stories I wanted to tell.

Not being someone who wanted to start collecting rejection letters that may have been fatal to my early motivation, I started buying books on how to write, edit, and construct fully fleshed out plots.  I already knew how to do a lot of it from years of reading stories along with some good classes in college, but getting technical books about these topics served me better than I could have imagined.  First, as much as I thought I knew about telling stories and writing, they showed me I had a lot to learn about the intricacies of plot and characterization.  Second, they helped shore up my knowledge in the areas where my writing was weakest.  I really can't stress this enough, there were all kinds of tips and techniques I learned from reading about writing that I never would have thought of on my own.  Getting these books is already becoming a regular habit.  I have 2 more sitting on my desk that I will be digging into soon.

I started with The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, and Story Structure Architect, also by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.  These gave me what I think is a pretty strong basis on which to build my stories.  The most helpful was 45 Master Characters.  Ms. Schmidt does a very practical and easy to understand breakdown of how to write fully fleshed out beings into your stories, and how to blend traditional archetypes to create involving stories.  I've referred to that book so much I have already had to rebind it.  I added quite a few books on the specialty areas as well, like designing fully fleshed out villains, psychology for writers, and even how to write steamy scenes -which in my opinion is the hardest of them all.

After reading all of that I thought it was time to start testing my writing.  I joined the Science Fiction Writers of America's critique group, Critters (  If you're a short story writer within the genre, the group is great for getting feedback.  It operates on a credit system, in order to be able to submit work you have to develop credits by critiquing the work of others.  It taught me a lot about receiving criticism and editing by finding patterns in my writing.  Although it was great for these things, it wasn't the best group for what I wanted.  The turnaround time between submission and critique was so long, because the group is so large, that it really wasn't practical for me in writing my novel.

I searched for groups in my area, but none of them seemed right.  There were a few groups around the town I lived in, but I couldn't find one that specialized in science fiction or even the broader category of speculative fiction.  What I didn't want to have happen was get into an argument over a technical detail that existed in sci-fi, but not in other genres.  For example, someone unfamiliar with science fiction might wonder why one is spending so much time on the description of how an item works without realizing that the story is intimately intertwined with its environment.

My quest for a group moved on to Facebook where I found a few friends, all writers, willing to join me once a week via the old Google Wave.  That first group lasted only a few months.  All of us had jobs and lives outside of writing so there were weeks that not everyone had something to share.

By this time I was already through a draft of Blood Siren, and was determined to see it in print with or without a group.  I started talking to other friends and soliciting their advice on various topics.  I was eventually able to build up a mixed group of a professional writer and editor, a game designer, a fan of sci-fi who also was involved in the tech field, and my wife - who always gets to read anything I write first.  She lets me know if something I put to paper doesn't make sense.  With this group as my readers and editors, and after about a year of going through drafts with them, I finally had a product that all of them said was good.  Even then, I did one more edit and ran it past them again to make sure things were up to my own standards of smoothness and continuity.

Twelve drafts later, when I got comments like "it reads very easily, I flew through it" I knew it would probably be good enough to sell.  Then the really hard part started, doing research on the state of the publishing industry, what market would be best for the story I had, and making the decision about which way to go.

I didn't have a lot of writing credits under my belt.  In fact, most of what I've been published for, with the exception of Perfectly Safe, wasn't actually in my chosen genre.  I knew that would be an obstacle to obtaining an agent.  A friend of mine who worked in the publishing industry at the time started pushing me to self-publish. After deciding that the odds of my seeing Blood Siren on a store shelf anytime soon were fairly remote given what's going on in the industry, I decided to go ahead and put out my own book.  Ultimately I hope to build enough of a following that I will look attractive to an agent or publishing house and get some mainstream success.

Did I make the right decision?  I still am not sure about it.  Learning how to market- well, let's just say I had an easier time learning the basics of quantum physics, but it is turning into a rather exciting adventure.  Taking this road is not for everyone, and it is full of pitfalls, but it just happens to fit my personality and level of drive.  I am someone who really enjoys doing things on my own first, even if all I achieve is a learning experience.  I still intend to get involved in the mainstream world in the future, but for now the frustration and excitement of being an independent author is keeping me happy.  More importantly, it's keeping me motivated.

Below is an excerpt from Blood Siren Book One, available for Kindle and Nook from my website:

“I am my father’s daughter.”  Sophi met her mother’s gaze with pride.
The words caused Aurora to jerk back as if she’d been slapped.  She blinked several times.  “Are you so determined to be?  He doesn’t want you, Sophi.  The moment he realized you were a threat to him he disowned you.  I left him over it-”
“You left him because he asked you to break with your political party and pass his bill.  I checked the records, mother.  He disowned me months before that vote and it was only after you decided not to support him that you left.”  Sophi’s voice quivered.
Cylus’ mouth dropped open.
Aurora scanned the face of her daughter for several long minutes.  “You think I should have voted with him?  He was trying to make it easier to take people’s livelihoods.  You think I should’ve thrown all of the struggling people to the Wolf?”
Sophi licked her lips.  “If they aren’t strong enough to survive on their own-”
Aurora was on her feet and across the room in a second.  She smacked Sophi across the face so hard the sound echoed off of the wall behind Cylus.  Sophi bent her body with the blow, letting her face turn towards the floor as her mother followed through.  After a moment she slowly righted herself and met her mother’s eyes.  Her cheek was bright red.
“-then they don’t deserve to survive at all.  That’s the doctrine we are to live by.  It is the one we have to live by or the ones that do will destroy us.  Wolves eat sheep mother.  It’s just the way it is.  You’ve been living in denial, sheltered by Aunt Hephestia’s power, but things are changing and you have to wake up or father will devour you along with the rest of the flock.”

Friday, 6 July 2012

Who are the gate-keepers in publishing today?

The Paris Writers Workshop 2102
A couple of weeks ago the Paris Writers Workshop (PWW 2012) was held in the 7th arrondissement, a couple of blocks back from the Seine, in the middle of a sweltering Parisian summer in a city yet to discover serious air conditioning. I wasn’t well, so missed almost all of it, except armed with some morphine managed to make it to two one hour lectures when I had medical appointments in Paris the same day anyway. I’m a fan of these and other Writing Conferences, because they can be instructive and inspirational, can tell you when you’re going right, and when you’re wasting your (and everyone else's) time. I had the honour of going to one about six years back with Michael C Curtis, Atlantic Fiction Editor, and it led to my first book being published.

There was an interesting discussion on publishing, self-publishing and ‘gate-keepers’. A gate-keeper is someone there to assure the quality of what is out there in retail and online bookstores. It means you don’t pay for something (or simply download something free) and then realise it is badly written, so it’s for all readers.

The Traditional Model
Not that long ago, to get published you had to spend years learning the craft, slogging over a manuscript, sending out letters to agents and getting rejected, finally getting an agent, then spend another year hearing from publishers saying it wasn’t quite for them, then finally one would take it, you’d have to make major changes and agree to a front cover you hated, and then it would be published with a champagne book launch and much publicity, and in the haze of the next morning you’d realise that you had to write the next book pretty quickly to maintain the momentum.

The gatekeepers in this model are the agents in particular, who act as filters, determining if someone can write, and if what has been written has market potential. The editors and others at the publishing houses are also gate-keepers, and will add in the cost projections which can also unfortunately prevent a really well-written book from ever seeing the light of day.

The Dream, and the Reality
Of course there are success stories, overnight sensations, and seven figure advances for people whose first book, which took six months to write (we are told), sells millions of copies. But the reality is that this remains extremely rare, and often the ‘overnight sensations’ are in fact people who struggled for years trying to get anything published, and had to persevere through piles of rejection letters. Often, even those talented writers who flare so brightly at this stage, then find it difficult to repeat the performance, and become mid-list writers who after a few years cannot survive purely on a mid-list writer’s salary, and so start doing other jobs, preferably linked to writing, but maybe not.

How self-publishing is changing all that
Things have changed incredibly in the past few years, with Print-on-Demand, Ebooks, Amazon, and the economic crisis. First, a lot of publishers have lost a lot of money with the rise of online marketing and e-distribution, and a lot of editors have lost their jobs. The big publishers are understandably risk-averse, and so tend to rely on ‘stable’ authors who already have a huge following, so printing another book of theirs is guaranteed to make money. With the reading market so unpredictable these days, the big publishers are hesitant about trying somebody new, knowing that perhaps after an investment of $10,000 - $50,000, they may fail to recoup half of it.

Hocking and Locke – busting the traditional model
Meanwhile, some people have self-published and used social media to catapult their books to millions of readers, Amanda Hocking and John Locke being two of the most obvious examples. But bear in mind that these also were not ‘overnight successes’; John Locke spent $27,000 on various forms of advertising, getting nowhere, and only took off after having already produced five books, and came up with a blog/twitter formula called the ‘loyalty blog’. But the trend continues, with ’50 Shades of Grey’ tearing through the charts at the moment, and such successes often lead to contracts with big publishers who know a good thing when Amazon finally brings it to their attention.

Self-publishing is not a bad thing, right?
The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can now get published. We might as well write it into a global constitution as a basic right. There are companies who will help you get published, see your work in press, for a price which is often commensurate with a person’s dream to be published. But here is where you need to decide what that dream is, exactly.

If, like a friend of mine, you just want to publish something for your friends and family, and have in mind selling a hundred copies in total, and it is just something you want to do in your lifetime, then great, go for it. You can either do it yourself on Smashwords or other similar media sites, or else go to a vanity press and get them to set it up for you. By the way, I hate the term ‘vanity press’, and hope it will disappear in time; we should accept it as a valued service. Just one thing, though; if you are doing this, printing your dream, please don’t afterwards call yourself a ‘writer’. That’s unfair to those who dedicate their lives to this ill-rewarded passion.

Some good writers feel locked out…
There are many writers who have good manuscripts and who cannot get an agent, because the industry is ‘locked down’ right now. A friend of mine has a brilliant novel, and actually has a good agent, but still can’t get a publisher, and they are slowly lowering their sights from the big ones to the medium-sized publishers, then to university presses, and eventually independent small publishers. I know this path well, having had an American agent and an almost-contract with Harper Collins, but then we fell foul of economic predictions for the book just as the global economy began to crash July 2008, and we slowly spiralled our targets down until I went for a small independent publisher in 2011, because I wanted to get off that particularly painful merry-go-round and get back to writing book 2.      

So, go it alone..?
So now, and I saw this at PWW, people are starting to say “well just self-publish, put it on Amazon using CreateSpace and get 80% of the profits in stead of 10%. It’s tempting, right, particularly if people keep telling you how good your work is, and you see other self-published books making six figures when it’s not that well-written in the first place?

Before you do that…
Here is where you need to stop and pause for thought, and here is where we come back to gate-keepers, and what you want out of life. If you go the self-publishing (Print-on-Demand and/or ebook being the most viable options) and Amazon route (okay, Barnes and Noble, Omnilit and a few others are in there, too), who are your gate-keepers? Who will assure you that what you produce – because it will be linked to you forever (even if you use a pseudonym, you’ll know) – is quality material, good writing? Does it matter to you? Do you want to produce the best book you can, or just get something out there? Are you going to write one book, or would you like to write more, become a writer, even if not full-time (very few can afford to be full-time writers)?

Noise and visibility
Roughly half a million books are produced each year. How will your book get visibility amongst all that noise? People will tell you that you can make it work with social media and twitter etc., but everybody is already doing that, so it doesn’t get any easier. Once there is a sensation like Hocking or Locke, within months thousands are doing everything they did, but of course do not ‘make it’. What works once doesn’t necessarily work twice, especially in connection with creative arts.

Fake it till you make it?
At PWW 2012 Stephen Clarke who wrote the ‘Year in the Merde’ series of books, amongst others, was jovially advocating the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ approach, saying that people often fake reviews and put a lot of positive spin on things, so just do whatever it takes to get your book noticed. I actually enjoyed his first book immensely, so am glad he ‘made it’. But I can’t personally agree with that approach, even if it means I’ll never ‘make it’.

Write the best novel you can, then edit, edit, edit…
The general advice that kept coming out from PWW, and of course it would since they are mainly writers talking to writers, is to make sure your manuscript is the best you can produce. My own book was ‘ready’ in 2008 (by which I mean the chief buyer for science fiction at Harper Collins wrote to us that she liked it and would table it to the team), but as the contract didn’t materialise, I inevitably carried on editing it. It had a total of 20 revisions in five years, I’m not joking (version #1 back in 2006 was pretty awful writing, I still have it…).

Many writers, most I know, already do this. They spend about five years on their first book, learning the craft, going to courses, joining writing groups, getting their work critiqued, polishing it, hurling it into a drawer at some low point and starting something else, coming back to it, editing, editing, editing, and finally saying ‘it’s done’ more out of despair than conviction, and then sending it off to agents. We drink a fair amount of wine at our writing group meetings (called Men with Pens, incidentally, though we’re evenly split gender-wise)…

The gate-keepers for would-be self-published writers
But at PWW, new writers wanted to know how they could be sure they are ready. So, here is the answer. There are literary consultancies who can tell you. They cost money, but they are not going to rip you off. They have either anonymous readers who have worked in the industry as agents, or published writers, or editors who know what it takes to be a writer, and know what the required standard is. I’ve used three of these, plus a ‘writing doctor’ earlier on, and they work. Typically for a novel, you might pay £500 for a review, which will take a few weeks to complete. You’ll typically get an eight page report back on your manuscript (you can also send the first few chapters for a quicker and cheaper review, or get a more in-depth editorial review where they will do line corrections etc.). What you will get back is a judgement about whether your writing is up to scratch or not. The first two times I did this, the clear answer was no, which was tough medicine because my writers group loved it, and already a few people had read and loved the draft mnuscript. But I took the advice on board (well, most of it), and produced a much better book, and my writing improved. At my paperback launch in October last year, I told a bunch of writers that not getting the Harper Collins contract had led to me becoming a better writer, with a better book as a result. They didn’t look convinced, I have to say.

Will your writing improve after your first book is published?
One of my favourite authors is Iain Banks. Like a number of authors I like, it took him a long, long time to get published. His writing is sublime, I just read some of his Science Fiction last night and it almost makes me think of giving up, except of course I don’t, instead I just try harder. I’m reading one book by a friend right now, and it’s not bad, but I can’t help think he published too early – another few rounds of edits would have made it a much better book, one that would have ultimately gotten more notice.

So, if you just want to see your name in print, then go for it. If you want to be a writer, and if you’ve been going to courses, maybe even done an MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing etc.), belong to an established writing group where people tell you when your writing sucks, and have finished your manuscript and edited it at least six times, then you can try these gate-keepers, or try getting an agent, or do both at the same time. 

Agent or Gate-keeper first? A salutary lesson…
I sent around my query letter, synopsis and first three chapters to all the SF agents in the UK, and got rejected by all of them, some were quite nice about it, most it was a ‘form’ response. It’s okay, they’re busy, I know. Then I contacted one of these literary consultancies (Cornerstones, actually), and sent them what I had been sending the agents. They said the three chapters were pretty good, and had market potential, but they’d be surprised if any of the agents got that far, as my query letter and synopsis were unnatural disasters. I couldn’t go back to the UK agents, because you can only really apply once. I made the changes requested, and within one week I had two US agents interested, and chose one. Not that it got me a big publisher in the long run, but I felt I’d crossed a threshold and was now being professional about the writing; after all, it’s an industry.

Here are links to the UK ones I’ve used personally, as I know them and trust them. There are doubtless similar services in the US and elsewhere. There are also book doctors galore, especially since so many editors have lost their jobs in the past few years, and such people can really help you.

Reading has always been a passion for me. Our fantastically diverse literature defines us, and we as writers define our literature. So, tell me, tell me you get it, tell me who are the ultimate gate-keepers?

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

Eden’s Trial is available on Amazon as ebook, and will be in paperback in Fall 2012.

Eden’s Revenge is coming out in ebook Xmas 2012, paperback Easter 2013.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Tips for the first scene in a book

The first scene in a book is incredibly important. Many people will read the first line, paragraph, page or few pages, to see if they like a new author. Your strongest writing must be right up front. When I hear would-be writers say that some of their later chapters are better, well, dammit, put them first somehow.

Here are a bunch of rules I’ve borrowed from Nancy Kress’s various works on writing. It’s a list, which makes it sound simple, but of course it isn’t. If you like this list, it’s mainly from her book ‘Beginnings, Middles and Ends’, my bible for several years.

Notes from Nancy Kress – Beginnings, Middles, Ends

Must be interesting in its own right, separated from first scene in time or place
A Prologue doubles the reader’s chances of saying ‘no’.

First Scene
1. Does the first sentence hint at some (future) conflict?
2. First paragraphs – an individualised character, with fresh, specific details, in conflict? Telling details, telling us about the character.
• Not the first details that come to mind; not more of the same old thing
• Specificity (the reflected police lights on Lily’s hands)
• Reveal that the writer has a fresh and meticulous eye
• Details that convince the reader/editor you know what you’re talking about
• Details anchor your story in concrete reality
• Good (fresh, assures) diction, no clichés
• Would 9 out of 10 people behave like this?
• What’s interesting about this person?
3. Last paragraphs of first scene – evoking an emotion relevant to what the book is about, through detail or dialogue?
4. Hold the first scene to three named people
5. End of scene – something changed from the beginning?
• A character discovers something is more complicated than he’d hoped
• A character learns a disturbing piece of information
• A character arrives some place new
• A character meets someone who will significantly alter his life
• An event occurs that will lead to a significant change
6. What kind of book does this first scene promise?
7. Do you set the tone for the rest of the book, and stay true to that tone?

8. Write economically – show you are in control
9. Credible prose varies sentence length
10. Don’t overload with adjectives and adverbs – strong nouns and verbs instead – adverbs are the hallmark of an amateur
11. Show the emotion in the dialogue, so don’t need qualifier (adverb)
12. Resist the temptation to overwrite through clever asides, grandiose language, overdoing the punctuation!!!
13. Tell the story in a straightforward way, keep yourself out of it

Here's the Prologue from my second book, Eden's Trial. UK SciFi Agent John Jarrold reviewed it for me. The book wasn't quite his style, but he did comment that this was a strong first scene. I'll let you be the judge.

General William Kilaney awoke, disappointed to find he was still alive. He tried to raise his head, but a metal rod pressed the back of his skull, forcing his gaze to the floor. He knew this interrogator’s trick – bend the body as a prelude to breaking the spirit. He willed his arms and legs to tug against the restraints, but whatever had stunned him on the space station had his limbs locked down cold. He’d seen his crew killed, and he had no false hopes about his own fate. He listened to his captor’s footsteps. He had a hunch who it was.

“Why am I here, Sister Esma? That is you, isn’t it?” The Alician High Priestess herself. He prayed the four transports off Earth had escaped. He’d told Micah to leave just before they’d lost communications. If the ships hadn’t left in time, it had all been for nothing.

“If you’re after their flight plan, I never saw it. Torture me if you like, but it won’t get you anywhere.” It should be over quicker if he pushed her, if she lived up to the reputation she’d gained during the four-day assault on Earth.

He heard a faucet, the rinsing of hands: blood, probably his own. Steel boots clacked across the metal floor towards him. He glimpsed them underneath drug-heavy eyelids: blue flow-metal with steel stilettos. So, not above vanity. Life held so few surprises.

Icy water drenched his head and neck. He gasped, shaking off as much as he could, squeezing it out of his eyes.

“Your battle tactics were quite unorthodox, General.”

Her voice carried all the arrogance he’d imagined from the leader of the terrorist sect who’d plagued Earth for the last decade. But he allowed himself a smile.

“Gave your Q’Roth locust friends a run for their money, did we?” While the rest of the world had been frozen by fear and panic, his forces had accounted for a quarter of a million Q’Roth dead in five separate hits. It paled in comparison to humanity being all but wiped out, but it was something. He’d put up a fight and – he hoped – four ships had escaped with their precious human cargo.

“What do you want, Esma?”

Her cool fingertips anchored themselves on the back of his neck. Pain punched through his head as something was wrenched from the base of his skull. He blinked hard. A wave of nausea gripped him, then flattened out, dissipating. The skin on his hands and feet prickled as his muscle control returned. He flexed stiff fingers. Curiosity got the better of him. “What was that?”

“A device to download your recent memories, in case you were lying about their flight plan.”

They made it. He hadn’t admitted how much he’d needed to hear this sliver of good news, and let out a long breath. He hadn’t been lying about not knowing their destination. When Micah had almost told him, he’d cut him off immediately. Twelve thousand had escaped. He drew comfort from that. But he’d been in pain from cancer for years. Truth was, he couldn’t face any more.

“You have what you want. Let’s get it over with, shall we?” He waited. She reminded him of a cat playing with a mouse.

“The Q’Roth Supreme Commander wants you.”

Kilaney wished he’d gone down with his men. He’d damned well tried to. “For torture or a light snack?”

She snorted. “You should have worked it out by now, General. They do not eat human flesh – they feed on bio-psychic energy. It is a critical part of their maturation process. But to answer your question, neither. She wishes to recruit you.” Esma sounded bemused.

He laughed; life held a few surprises after all. “Let me get this straight: I just nuked five of her ships and she wants to offer me a job?”

“She said you showed potential. The Q’Roth are consummate soldiers, like you, General. They respect your tactical ability.”

The disdain in her voice didn’t go amiss. He knew now, between the Q’Roth aliens and the genetically-altered Alicians, who his worst enemy was.

“Well, Esma, I’m Stage Four. The cancer’s all that’s holding this sad bag of bones together. Can’t blow my nose without a transfusion. I have a couple of weeks, max. Anyhow, not sure it would look good on my resume.” He wanted this over. He’d done his part.

“They can cure your cancer, extend your lifetime by decades.”

She said it matter-of-fact, and he realised she wasn’t lying. They could cure cancer. He felt as if she’d kicked him in the stomach. The disease had eaten away at him for four years, robbing him of everything he once was. Being offered a cure now was the worst torture he could imagine. He clamped his lips.

Her voice became earnest. “You have seen the Q’Roth in action, but that is nothing compared to what they can do. All you have witnessed are freshly hatched warriors – newborns, primal rage instilled into their genes. But now they have fed, they will mature into the most potent armed force you could envisage. They are the foot-soldiers of the galaxy, General, respected by hundreds of races.”

And feared by most of them, he supposed. But despite himself he had been impressed. He’d seen them tear down a whole planet in a matter of days: shock troops, destroying infrastructure in the first wave, dismantling communications, reacting so damned fast to every counter-measure; all of this immediately after being hatched. He jammed his lips tighter and thought of his wife, taken by cancer four years earlier, of the thousands of soldiers who’d served under him over the years, all killed in the last days’ carnage. All except Blake.

So there was still a chance.

“General,” she continued, pacing in front of him, “A war is coming. Not like the one you have just fought and lost, barely a campaign in Q’Roth terms. The Commander assures me it poses a threat to hundreds of races, maybe even the galaxy itself. She is interested in the creative tactics you demonstrated. She feels they could be developed. You are a soldier, General, and –”

He had to stop this. “The answer’s ‘no’, Esma. That’s final. Now, I’ve shown you respect, you show me some.”

The boots disappeared from view. Involuntarily, he tensed. A section of the metal floor beneath him receded to reveal a window. The sight unpeeling before him snatched his breath away. Earth hung below, a dull orange ball speckled with boiling clouds and glowing embers where the nukes had gouged his planet’s flesh. Even the oceans had taken on a sickened pallor.

His muscles fought against the restraints. He was furious to have even listened to her poison. Eden, he reminded himself. This had all been about Eden, and where there’s the promise of paradise, there’s always a snake.

“One day they’ll find you, Esma; Blake, Micah and the others. And when they do, they’ll shoot you like a rabid dog.”

She walked in front of him, so that her boots appeared to be standing on top of Earth. Her tone sharpened. “A task force is already hunting them down and will destroy them. But even if they do escape, General, humanity will perish.” She bent forward, her cheek level with his. “Do you know why?”

He preferred it this way, niceties and bullshit expended.

She whispered. “If humanity escapes – a very small if – they will undo themselves.” She stood up, grinding her heel against the glass, as if she was stubbing out his native North America. “It is only a matter of time before your valiant refugees do something wrong, and are cut down like the weeds they are. Galactic Society values intelligence above all else, General. I do not mean the odd genius here and there, but coherent intelligence at the species level. Now, does that description fit humanity’s resumé?”

He bristled. “If we’d known there was sentient life out there – especially a society – it could have changed everything.”

She tapped her toes on the glass. “I told them you would say ‘no’.”

He was about to respond when he noticed something. It was as if the world was changing colour, morphing into grey sepia. “What’s happening, Esma?”

“The Q’Roth have finished. They do not believe in leaving loose ends. It is one of the galactic rules. After an incursion, the planet’s atmosphere is removed. It is for the best, especially following nuclear detonations on this scale.”

His eyes widened as whirlpools of smoke, like massive hurricanes, mushroomed around the globe. Glittering nuclear sparks snuffed out one by one, deprived of oxygen. The last whorls of atmosphere lost cohesion and flashed into space in a series of bursts which pricked his retinas. When the blotches in his vision faded, he saw Earth as no one ever had, as no one ever should. The oceans had boiled off into space, leaving smooth basins bordered by stark continental ridges. The planet was barren, dark, moonlike. Earth was… he didn’t even want to think the word.

“Earth must lay fallow for ten thousand years. No race will be allowed into this system during that period. Which is why humanity never encountered anyone from Grid Society – Mars was also culled, not that long ago by Galactic standards. The ban on entering the sector was lifted only a thousand years ago, and the Q’Roth were first to stake a claim on Earth.”

He heard a click, and the metal rod behind his head eased back. He raised his chin despite the stiffness in his neck. She was tall and long-necked, wearing a simple grey robe with the hood down. Her skin was pale, framed by jet black hair pulled back into a tightly braided ponytail. Broad, menacing eyes stabbed down at him over a hooked nose.

She spoke slowly. “You should thank me, General. You should actually thank all Alicians.”

The conviction in her voice almost made him retch. He tried to gather enough saliva for the only fitting response he could think of, but his mouth was dry. He watched her strut in front of him. What he wouldn’t give right now for a grenade.

“The Q’Roth first visited Earth a millennium ago on a scouting mission. Their intent was to return and harvest all of humanity, after their long hibernation period. But they needed an ally to fine-tune the attack nearer their waking period. They found my ancestor, Alessia, and the Alician order was born. The Q’Roth re-engineered a few of us, and then left. We patiently awaited their return, and now we will have a new home, taking our place amongst Grid Society. We are humanity’s evolution, General.”

He took one last look at Earth, then faced her, speaking on behalf of his dead world. “You’re an abomination, Esma, and Alicians are humanity’s bastards. What’s to stop the Q’Roth feeding on you and your sect, now you’ve helped them?”

She looked away. “We have an agreement, a contract, you might say.”

He scrutinised her – there was something she didn’t want to admit, a secret too important to confess even to a dying man. He shrugged. “Watch out for the small print, Esma. In my limited experience, deals with the devil go south sooner rather than later.”

A bell chimed somewhere deep in the ship, and she glanced at her wristcom.

“Your time is up, General. As you do not wish to come with us, I am going to send you home.” She touched a panel and a glistening shroud ballooned around him. The glass beneath his feet slid away. His feet didn’t fall, supported by some kind of force-field. But a savage, biting cold gripped his soles, coiling around his ankles, drilling into his bones. He cried out with pain.

“It will actually feel warmer outside, believe it or not. Right now the field in contact with your feet is conducting your body heat to the outer hull, which is in darkness, fractionally above absolute zero.”

A steady hiss forewarned him of the dizziness he began to feel. His thighs and arms struggled against the restraints, trying to lift his feet. Her voice sounded fuzzy.

“You see, General, even if humanity escapes, the only way they can hope to survive is to evolve beyond what they are. And the sad truth is that humanity would choose to die as they are, rather than evolve.”

His eyes fogged as their water vapour evaporated. He closed his mouth. She touched another panel and his leg and arm straps released. He fell forward, the skin of his palms and outstretched fingers welding to the freezing layer separating him from hard vacuum.

His body wracked with shivering, knocking his teeth together. When he spoke, it sounded like he was underwater. He shouted to compensate. “They’ll… survive.” His arms were numb. Through slitted eyes he watched his hands turn a sickly wax colour. His breath ran out, his throat asteroid-dry. He hunted the last oxygen molecules inside his shroud. Her voice was distant, fading.

“I can see why the Commander was interested in you. Goodbye, General. Oh, and a word of advice: do not hold your breath.”

Out of the corner of a frosting eye, he saw her hand, as if in slow motion, move to activate another control. He had no doubt what it would do. The force-field cracked apart beneath him like an eggshell.

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

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