Saturday, 29 September 2012

How to end a book

Ending a book is as important and as difficult as beginning it. I have spent the past month trying to get the last chapter of Eden’s Revenge right. But what does ‘right’ mean? For me it means several things:
  • It must conclude the story
  • It must tie up loose ends
  • It must be satisfying
  • At least some characters must have changed
  • There should be some form of ‘resonance’ with the rest of the book
  • If it is part of a series, it must make the reader want to read more
There are also some things the last chapter must avoid:
  • It shouldn’t be longer than it needs to be
  • It shouldn’t be rushed
  • There should be no tricks, no ‘deus ex machina
  • Characters should not change in ways that don't make sense given what has happened to them and their choices
  • It shouldn’t have a different tone to the rest of the book
  • It shouldn’t get sentimental or maudlin
  • It shouldn’t end in the middle of a scene
In a thriller or traditional conflict-based story, the action climaxes and concludes in the penultimate chapter: there is a physical or metaphorical battle, and the protagonist must overcome their enemy and/or their own inner fears. This was pushed to its extreme in the final Harry Potter book/film, where Harry realises that he must die to kill Voldemort. After Harry has defeated his enemy, the final scene (more of an epilogue) is brilliantly concise. We see Harry and his friends grown up and married with kids, Harry’s son about to go off to Hogwarts for the first time. The key resonance in this piece is the son’s name, and what Harry says about it. The son’s forenames are Albus, after Harry’s mentor and hero Professor Dumbledore, and Severus, after Professor Snape who until the very end had appeared to be Harry’s enemy throughout all seven books. Harry says they were the two bravest men he ever knew. Nice ending, Ms. Rowling!

It is not always done so well. Often books finish in a rushed fashion, particularly in contemporary science fiction, as if the writer is happiest when steeped in conflict and space battles, and leaves the reader hanging emotionally at the final page, unsure how to ‘put the story to bed’ in a satisfactory way. In films this can result in crude final scenes (consider the ending of the original third Star Wars film) where everyone is standing around smiling and looking happy. Yuk, doesn’t work. No wonder most people’s favoured choice of best Star Wars film is The Empire Strikes Back, which ends on a pure note of Luke Skywalker’s sadder-but-wiser resolution toward future conflict with his father, Darth Vader.

Sometimes the writer achieves ‘perfect pitch’ at the end, my favourite Iain Banks ending being Player of Games, where the last two lines caused a physical tremor of emotion down my spine, and I closed the book for a moment, then opened it at the first page, immediately wanting to read it again. Masterful. Other good endings include for example Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld, and Greg Bear’s Eon, and more recently Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns.

Eden’s Revenge was originally meant to be the end of a trilogy, after The Eden Paradox and Eden’s Trial. In the first book humanity finds out it is not alone, and just how hostile it is ‘out there’. In the second book humanity ventures out into the galaxy, where there is an inkling of a Galactic War that will eventually impinge on mankind. In Eden’s Revenge, set eighteen years after the first two books, the War is in full flood. But about three quarters of the way through writing it, I had a small epiphany about what the War could really be about, and it meant that I had to write a fourth book, which will be called Return to Eden. This made writing the end of Eden’s Revenge tricky, because I wanted it to be satisfying but also to act as a lead in to the finale. I don’t want to write ‘soaps’ where the same characters go from one book to the next doing similar things in different settings – the Eden Paradox series is a single story in four parts, each one entertaining a wider Galactic scope, exploring how humanity might develop and evolve.

Mark Twain famously referred to final chapters as the marryin’ and the buryin’, meaning that there was a sort of ‘accounting’ of what happened to all the characters, those no longer around and those whose lives would continue afterwards. Since Eden’s Revenge culminates in a battle that rages across six chapters, and there are casualties on both sides including major players, my final chapter does actually start with the protagonists standing over graves, because that is what they would do in ‘reality.’ But this scene is short, and thanks to my writers’ group I’ve avoided it being sentimental or maudlin. Staying instead with the tone of the rest of the book, there is drama even in the last chapter. And there are revelations which hopefully answer some questions that have been around since the first book (e.g. what is the significance of the ankh symbol?) and the second book (e.g. what is the role of the spiders? What does Qorall really want?). But the revelations are ‘big’, triggering a change in strategy by the remaining protagonists, and I hope the readers will agree that the plot necessarily spills over to a fourth book where everything will conclude.

On a more personal note, the person who Eden’s Revenge will be dedicated to had an ‘issue’ with the end of book two, Eden’s Trial. She read the last ‘official’ chapter, which was very much a marryin’ and buryin’ chapter, and was fine with that, but when she was reading (on her Ipod) the final, short epilogue, which is really a hook into the next book, she kept trying to turn the last page to see what happened next. Of course, there was no next page. She thought her Ipod was broken and so switched it off and on again. Now, normally, as a reader, if you have a question about a book, you can’t phone the author and ask him or her about it. But you can if it’s your brother! So, I promised to do something different this time, and so there is a very short Epilogue in Eden’s Revenge, where I have tried to emulate the feeling I had when finishing Iain Banks’ Player of Games, and also Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns. I doubt I have succeeded as well as these two geniuses, but hope at least not to get an ear-bashing when my sister reads the final page.        

Eden’s Revenge in my mind has a similar feel to it as Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back, or Tolkein’s The Two Towers from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The tone is serious, sometimes heavy, there are tough, gritty battles whether in space or in face-to-face mortal combat, testing the characters to the limit, the high stakes being both personal and epic.

One of my readers asked me a simple question a few months ago – will the series have a happy ending? It was such an obvious question it floored me. But I answered that it will have a positive ending. The title of the last book, Return to Eden, is ambiguous (in the series, Eden is not what it seems), but implies a return to something better. The tone of Eden’s Revenge is ‘character under pressure’, of strife in a time of War. The tone of the last book, by the end, will be of redemption. But along the way expect cool ships, character conflict, and plenty of action, including the Level Nineteen Kalarash doing battle with Qorall and his legions. And there will also be, of course, the final showdown between the Alicians and humanity, and a revelation to close the series. As in my favourite line from the entire J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, ‘I open at the end.’

Now I just have to write it…

The Eden Paradox series:

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

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

Eden’s Revenge will be available early 2013

Return to Eden will be available early 2014.  

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Is Cyberpunk already here?

Cyberpunk focuses on ‘high-tech’ and ‘low life’ according to Wikipedia, featuring information technology and cybernetics, coupled with radical change in social order. It considers technology used in ways never anticipated by its creators. 

But hang on, that sounds like today, doesn’t it? Let’s see: for example, Facebook underpinning the ‘Arab Spring’; Blackberry mobile phones being used by London and Manchester rioters to stay one step ahead of the police; the current global furore over a certain video posted on YouTube…

Is cyberpunk here already?

William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer is often seen as the founding novel of the ‘cyberpunk’ tradition in science fiction, with other more recent authors following in his footsteps such as Richard Morgan, Neal Asher and Greg Egan. All such authors show a glimpse of where such ‘personal’ technology might take us, and how it could change society.

Authors in cyberpunk science fiction have often assumed there would need to be considerable ‘tech’ to lead to social change, whether via cybernetic implants or hormonal control, but perhaps we don’t need such intimacy with data, the ‘consensual reality’ fed directly into human consciousness by vast computers foreseen by Gibson and most famously in the film Matrix. Perhaps all we need is the latest IPhone or Samsung and a hunger for social contact with people we will never meet.

Last night I re-watched a film called ‘The Queen’, about how the British Royal Family reacted to Princess Diana’s death, and the huge outcry of support, verging on national hysteria. Imagine if Facebook had been around then. But even without that medium and its mate Twitter, the British public, fuelled by the media and television, triggered a radical shift in British society which lingered for years.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first science fiction books I ever read, featured Hari Seldon, a mathematician who worked out how to predict mass social shifts and patterns using an approach he called Psychohistory. Maybe it is time someone developed such a method. With personal gadgetry affecting people and changing the world we live in so fast in so many unpredictable ways (not all of them bad!), and little means to regulate such devices or their usage, it may be that science fiction writers for once will end up as historical commentators rather than the dreamers of the future.

In my own novels set fifty years in the future, I’ve tried to extrapolate from today’s technology, but also considered some of the psychological implications. For example, there is the ‘node’, basically an input device embedded in the parietal lobe of the brain allowing anything from the web to be downloaded directly into the mind. The node, however, has become illegal, the reason explained by Blake, one of the characters in The Eden Paradox, just after he has watched Kat have a node experience on the planet Eden:

Blake knew the reality of it all was only now catching up with Kat. That was partly why nodes had been banned on Earth three years earlier, and surgically removed from anyone who had one. They allowed direct communication, whether from phones, computers or vids, to the mind. The attraction had been immediate, but very quickly had come the brain damage cases, the psychoses, the addictions, and the associated "detachment" murders, caused by a temporary suppression of emotional connection. A mother who interrupted her son in the middle of a node experience might find herself being calmly strangled by him while he was meanwhile enjoying a node-based vid or sex scene, or even exploring h-mails. The more the node was used, the more the user became detached from emotions and reality. Nodal schizophrenia, the shrinks called it.

Another ‘invention’ is the ‘Optron’. People are better at pattern matching than computers – we ‘chunk’ information and are remarkably flexible about it. So in the future I envisaged people, as well as machines, interrogating the vast data-streams of telemetry from an interstellar space mission. But rather than poring over sheets of print-out, these analysts use a virtual reality landscape that translates the data into recognisable patterns, so that the analyst can see if anything is going wrong. Here’s another scene from The Eden Paradox, where Micah knows something is amiss aboard the space-ship Ulysses, but he can’t find out what. In his own Optron landscape, data are coded into something approaching an archaic English countryside. Finding no clues there, he (illegally) invades another analyst’s landscape, shocked by what he finds:

Micah tensed, completely unprepared for what he saw. He didn’t know if his physical body recoiled or not, but as soon as he arrived, as usual from a medium height above the landscape, he shot back upwards away from the scene. The sky was a swirling mess of fierce blue and purple, streaks of scarlet zipping from one horizon to another. Beneath him was a charred city, bodies strewn amongst the ruins. Mutated human figures staggered amongst the carnage. Micah had difficulty controlling his breathing, and then realised why: a stench of burnt flesh. His own landscape was visual, but some analysts also used taste and smell.
He had never seen anything so apocalyptic – or had he? He remembered in training, once, the professor had briefly shown his students a landscape that had been used to develop a highly resilient and aggressive computer virus. 
He thought about it: a virus, but not a normal one that just destroys. What had been done had been subtle, an "Emperor’s Cloak" virus. It prevented real data getting through and supplanted it with fake data, what you wanted to be seen. But this was also a virus in the more conventional sense, eviscerating a vast data-stream. Micah pulled back and gazed towards the horizon. Flames billowed in the distant sky; voluminous clouds of grey-black smoke drifted across the land. He flew, increasingly fast, to see how far it extended, whether the whole landscape was the same, and whether the virus had affected everything.
He covered a dozen kilometres surveying the devastation below, everything dying or dead. Raven-like creatures tore strips of flesh from corpses; it meant non-recoverable data deletion. Although it was sickening to watch, he was impressed – data streams were highly protected by security protocols – to do this inside the Optron environment must have taken immense skill. 
Micah saw a green figure hiding then running. He chased after it…

Technology in the future may become more ‘invasive’, closer to our minds, and hence more directly influencing our ‘reality’. Advertising agencies and others would be very interested in such a capability, as would government agencies and others. Such direct advertising would work far better than the ads on social media that most of us ignore. As a case in point, later in my first book even the ‘good guys’ use the Optron to convince a politician of their cause – the images are so directly perceived that the politician cannot ignore them, even when he knows they have been planted there.

Alternatively, we may skip the need for cybernetic implants. Smarter and smarter I-Phones, probably with virtual reality sunglasses and head phones would be enough. Imagine people sitting on a train staring vacantly ahead behind dark glasses, smiling or laughing occasionally, looking stressed, murmuring to themselves, as if they are in another world.

Is it that hard to imagine? No. Fifty years? Think ten. What about the social implications? Well, that’s another story…

The Eden Paradox Series charts humanity’s progress fifty years from now. A new habitable planet is found, but the first two missions don’t come return...

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

Eden’s Trial is also available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

Eden’s Revenge is coming soon…

For cyberpunk enthusiasts, also see Executive Decision – free short story on my website, taking cyberpunk to its limits four hundred years into the future. Read it here.

Friday, 14 September 2012

When the Prose Flows...

It doesn’t happen too often, but once in a while a chapter writes itself. This happened the other day while penning the final chapter and epilogue for Eden’s Revenge. I’d just finished the second draft of the big climax chapter, and had to write the ‘denouement’ – what Mark Twain famously called ‘marryin and buryin’, meaning it’s the chapter that ties up the loose ends and brings things to a close. I’d re-read my writer’s bible, ‘Beginnings, Middles and Ends’ by Nancy Kress, and had a rough idea of what I wanted to write.

So I sat (actually I was lying down on a sofa) with my Sony laptop propped up on my knees and started typing, thinking this was going to be a tough one. But the words just kept coming out. I was thinking two lines ahead of my fingers, like a driver racing along at night in fog, only able to see as far as his headlamps permit, but going fast anyway. In the zone. I got interrupted and had to go out for an hour, thinking oh well, that was nice, but when I got back I lay down again and more words poured out. The chapter was done in two hours. I ate, wondering if I’d just written pure rubbish, then wondered if the magic spell would get me through the epilogue, which was to be three very short scenes, a page each really, with a couple of revelations and a hook to book 4 in the series. I finished it in an hour. Two completely new revelations came to me so I stuck them in.

I watched Babylon 5, had supper, went to bed, assuming that the next day I’d look at it again and say, oh well, and start massive editing. In fact I changed about ten words, corrected a few typos, and sent it off to my readers for feedback this Sunday.

I’ve had times like this before where an idea grabs me, and I type it as fast as I can, knowing I’ve ‘discovered’ something that could make a good chapter. This happened during the writing of Eden's Trial, particularly the galactic trial scene which is the basis of the front cover, when fab scenes just came to me (the vortex and the three planets; Sister Esma's head in a fist of fire, etc.) Afterwards I'd stare at it and think 'where the hell did that come from?' But this time with Eden's Revenge it was different, more measured, more even, no frenzy of creativity, just downloading from brain to computer, with me watching it happen and trying to get the syntax right without disrupting the flow!

So, as I sometimes write about creativity and inspiration in my blogs, I thought I should try and explain it. I don’t think I’d been ‘subconsciously’ thinking of these scenes, but I had been working pretty furiously over the past few months to get the first draft finished. There were six straight chapters relating to battle scenes and conflicts both in space, and on the human home-world Esperia. The final two ‘action’ chapters see several key characters, good and bad, lose their lives. Somehow all this stewed inside me so that when it came to write the final chapter, called Cracked Sky, it just flooded out. Given the characters and everything else that had happened in the book, there seemed only one possible way to end it.

I used to write ‘flash fiction’, which is the writer’s equivalent of jazz improvisation, writing on the spot, a few hundred words. I think that training also helped. It’s like surfing, staying just ahead of the breaking wave…

Nancy says you have to take a lot of time over the ending and the beginning, and the previous two books I did, spending weeks on the endings, with lots of re-writes. This time it feels different, the endings seem right. Well, I’ll see what feedback I get from my writer-readers.

In the meantime, I presume other writers experience this sometimes. Quite a rush. Enjoy it when it happens, and just make sure you’ve got your pen&paper, computer, or smart-phone handy!

Epilogue: I'm currently reading Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (the sequel to Hyperion), and in it (spoiler coming - don't read any further if you intend to read this book) there is a writer called Martin Silenus who is trying to finish a massive opus he has been working on for two hundred years Just as he is finally inspired, in frenzied fashion, and within sight of the last few pages, he is torn away screaming and killed, his psychological pain all the worse because he cannot finish his work. 

Well, maybe I wouldn't go that far...:-)

More info on books and free stories my site

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Authors' Inspiration, Harry Potter and the Room of Requirement

I recently watched (3rd time) the final episode of the Harry Potter film series. I’ve seen all the films and have read all the books, though I enjoyed the books less after about book 4. Still, there was something compelling about the entire series and the world of wizardry JK Rowling created. Near the very end, Harry is unsure how he is going to find the last Horcrux, and is told he will find it in the room of requirement, a vast store-room where things can be found for those truly in need.

Recently I presented chapter 21 of Eden’s Revenge to my two main readers, who have helped with feedback (constructive and occasionally destructive) on all three books so far. One of them said – “I wanted some kind of epiphany in this chapter, between Gabriel and Jennifer.” That was all. “Okay,” I replied. Some kind of epiphany... I wandered around my head, my own room of requirement, and had an idea. As with Harry, when he spotted the last Horcrux in amongst the vast array of loosely stacked furniture, I knew it was right. I put it in, made sure it fit with the entire chapter, and sent it back to them.

A week later, he said “Well, okay, that’s better, but I expected more of an epiphany, something between him and his father.” I stared a while, then said, “Okay.”

The next day I was somewhat rushed into hospital – actually I went to see a surgeon for an operation I knew I had to have in the next few weeks, and he looked at the latest scan and said “Go home and get your things, we operate tomorrow.” One of the things I grabbed was my small DVD player, some Babylon 5 DVDs and the last Harry Potter DVD. The day after the (successful) operation I watched the final episode. Harry realises there is one last Horcrux, Voldemort’s snake, but has no way to kill it. Dumbledore says that things will come to those in true need. What is needed is duly found (Gryffindor’s sword), and well, it’s a pretty good last film to round off the series. I take my hat off to JKR.

A few days later (yesterday) I found Gabriel’s ‘deeper’ epiphany, it came to me, and it did the job. I re-edited the chapter, and am happy with it. But I’m a writer living in the real workd, there is no room of requirement, and we can’t rely on things coming to us when we need them. Yet happily, they sometimes do. So, how does this process of inspiration work, and how (as an author) can you increase its chances of happening?

As some of you who read my blogs regularly may know, I’m a psychologist by training (it never goes away…). When doing my university degree at Southampton University on the English coastline, I studied creativity. Maybe I should say why I did so. I’ve always been fascinated by scientists, they were my boyhood heroes, whether Louis Pasteur or Marie Curie or a host of others, and that love of science is how I got into science fiction.

Most true creativity involves incubation: a process of pondering a problem over a long period of time, whether days, weeks, or years, until one day the mind cracks and the answer is blindingly obvious, as if it has been lying there all that time in plain view. Of course it is not just theoretical – scientists do countless experiments,  ruling out variables until they get close to the true characters of the problem they are focusing on. It is no coincidence that one of the key characters in my books is a scientist (Pierre), and one of the main protagonists (Micah) has a very analytical mind.

But the room of requirement is important. It is like the attic of the mind, but it is not random. The furniture and items scattered about in it relate to the world the author has created. JKR created a rich world, spanning seven on-the-whole long books, and so had a lot of ‘baggage’ to draw from. This means that when the sword of Gryffindor is found, it does not seem to the reader like ‘deus ex machina’, a cheap trick the author produced out of a hat to get himself out of a nasty plot twist (although ironically, and perhaps JKR intended this, the sword does literally come out of a hat, the so-called 'sorting hat').

The room of requirement is therefore in the author’s head, it is as large and varied as the complexity and richness of the world he or she has created. Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, originally seven books, but so rich that after his death his son Brian Herbert, aided by Kevin Anderson, was able to write more than ten sequels, some of which (e.g. the Titans) were brilliant expansions of concepts merely hinted at in Frank Herbert’s original novels. Brain did his father proud!

But there is a danger. The larger the room of requirement, or the wider the landscape the author paints, the more unruly it can get, and the author risks losing control. Here is where Rowling brilliantly kept control by having one key thread in the last four novels – the battle to the death between Harry and Voldemort. Similarly in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, in my view the best fantasy ever written, an incredibly rich and compelling landscape is created, but the central plot is always there – Frodo must destroy the ring so that it never falls into the hands of Sauron. But so that the story does not remain simplistic, in the final book the battle is more between Frodo and himself, as the ring’s seductive power overtakes him. Brilliantly, it is Smeagol that saves the day, a pure stroke of genius, straight out of the room of requirement. On reflection, no other ending – e.g. Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf or any other character destroying the ring – would have been as satisfying.

So, the challenge for a writer, whether science fiction or fantasy, is to build a convincing world that is complex, and then at key points to search their room of requirement for answers which will neither seem obvious (I saw that one coming a long way off) artificial (er, what? Where did that come from?), serendipitous (nobody is that lucky), or ‘deus ex machina’ (oh, come on!). This is not by any means easy, and can’t necessarily be done to a deadline, though time pressure helps - you have to truly 'need' it. That is part of the 'incubation' or room of requirement process. The good news is that, as with Harry, you will know it when you find it. And when you do, it will make all the difference.

The Eden Paradox science fiction thriller series is set 50 years from now, when mankind desperately needs a new home, but the planet dubbed Eden is not what it appears to be...

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

Eden's Trial is available in ebook and paperback from Amazon.

Eden's Revenge is coming soon...
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