Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Update on Eden's Revenge - First Review

At the moment I’m awaiting a number of reviews of the latest version of Eden’s Revenge, after some serious editing following the last two professional editorial reviews back in November. A month or so ago I sent it out to no less than five ‘readers’, one of whom is a British science fiction author via the Writers Workshop literary agency. It’s a waiting game, and I feel somewhere between an expectant father and a man awaiting sentencing…

So, the first review arrived. The headline read: “Bravo! Best one of the three by far!”

Phew! Of course, the picture might change with the other reviews, and there are bound to be edits and suggestions, but this was one of my ‘touchstone’ readers, who was not afraid to give me some sterner feedback some time ago on Eden’s Trial, which he didn’t like as much as The Eden Paradox. So, if for him this is the best by far, then I think the book is now on the right track.

It might sound strange to non-writers that an author isn’t sure of his or her work. But for me Eden’s Revenge was a special case. Last year was a very difficult year for me personally, and some of that ‘darkness’ definitely fed into the book. I was reminded of Tolkein’s second book of the Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers), which was pretty dark, due to Tolkein having been confronted with the horrors of the First World War. Nothing so global for me, but a very difficult year nonetheless.

Two of my writing colleagues, mid-way through last year, took me to one side and told me that some of the battle scenes made for pretty tough reading (imagine the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as a space battle, and you might have an idea). I eased back a little – half of the third book is about a war, so some death and tragedy is inevitable – but it was still a bit too grim for one of the reviewers back in November.

One of the best suggestions I had (from Science Fiction author Sophia McDougall) was to create a new prologue, going back in time. I did this, focusing on Sister Esma and the Alicians in 1563 AD, and how they came to be as they were. I now know that four of the five current readers like this prologue a lot, and I think it will be good for 'fans' of the first two books to see Sister Esma’s development. Sophia said I should also bring out the ‘Genners’ more – a new evolutionary stage for humanity hinted at near the end of Eden’s Trial – and I did this, which also seems to be working. It raises more than a few questions over how we might advance in the future, and the price we might have to pay.

So, I’m over the first hurdle. Now I await the other reviews, three of which I will have by Sunday. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’ll pace up and down a little more, though after this first review, it will be with a lighter step.  

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Social media and selling books - the disappointing truth...

For a long time now I've not been convinced that social media sell books. Mainly for four reasons: it hasn't sold many of mine (I've had sales, but not much due to social media); the success stories are very few and far between, and most of them seem to have sold books for other reasons, or only really 'made it' when picked up by a traditional publisher; social media seems to be there to increase the use of (and hence the monetized value of) ... social media; and last, it's simply not how I'd personally like to buy books.

A few people have really made it, and I'm thrilled for them, but if they're say, a thousand, and there are currently around a million new authors, that's a pretty poor success rate (one in a thousand).

But it is very difficult to get any hard evidence either way, since most pundits are people on social media trying to sell their own wares - they tell you they 'made it', and then try and sell you something to help you make it. But there are a million new ebooks hitting the market every year, and everyone of those authors is trying to use social media, so, go figure...

So, I was intrigued by the Guardian's lowdown on social media and ebooks. This author tells it like it is, much better than I can, so here it is. Read his review here.

For me, I'll keep on writing, and I'll use social media from time to time, but I don't count on it to make a real difference, and I won't sign up for expensive promises.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Escaping the grid

Recently I went on holiday. I needed a break. A friend of mine says life is like breathing: you have to breathe in occasionally. What he means, applied to writing, is that you must read as well. I’d been slogging away on the most recent manuscript for Edens Revenge, and had just sent it off to an editor/reviewer, so I decided to go off-grid for ten days. The only electronic gadget I took with me was my toothbrush. No smart-phone, no laptop, no IPad. I took six books with me and managed to finish three and start a fourth (I'm not that slow a reader; there was other stuff to do on the holiday, LOL).

I started by reading two in parallel. Jack McDevitt’s Firebird, and Ben Bova’s guide for Scifi writers. Since one was fiction and the other non-fiction, they didn’t interfere with each other in my head.

I picked Jack to go on holiday with me because I’d had a comment from a reader of my first two books that I write like him. I wish. I’d read Deepsix, and loved it. It is a brilliant example of people in a hazardous environment, getting picked off one by one on a planet in self-destruct mode, as successive rescue attempts try to save some of them. Jack’s not afraid to kill off excellent characters, and knows how to make the reader root for otherwise unlikeable characters. The people you meet in this book are truly ‘dimensional’, real flesh and blood; I can still conjure up six of them with ease, two years after having read it.

Firebird is a quite different setting, somewhere in humanity’s future, where life is relatively easy-going. This suited my holiday-mode. The story is mystery, about a physicist who disappeared forty-one years earlier. The physicist was into ‘multispheres’, i.e. the idea of parallel universes. This is called ‘slipstream’ scifi, and it’s not something I’m personally ‘into’, but I wanted to see how Jack tackled it.

The writing is very fluid, smooth, and it’s an easy read. The main character is Alex Benedict, but the point of view is from Chase, his partner, who is someone most readers would want to know and have as a friend. However, I’ll be honest, after 70 pages, I was still wanting some action, and thought about switching to another book. I wanted to see the end, so I jumped to the last thirty pages and read them non-stop. I couldn’t put it down. When I finished the Epilogue, there were tears in my eyes. I had a beer, and went back to page 71 and started where I left off. Sure enough it ramped up shortly after that and I read and enjoyed the book despite knowing exactly how it ended. I read all the way to the end and the Epilogue still had the same emotional impact as when I’d read it a few days earlier. Bravo, Jack.

There’s not much ‘slipstream’ in it, much to my relief. What impressed me was the way he can introduce ‘walk-in, walk-off’ characters in a couple of lines and really ‘nail’ them for the reader. As with Deepsix, Jack understands human nature and is skilful at depicting not so much the dark side of people, but rather the depressingly grey aspects of some of us; in particular, what happened to one of the characters is sad but all too likely, a kind of passive murder. But the ending is uplifting.

Although Ben Bova’s book is relatively old now and science has moved on, most of what is between the covers holds true. It was nice to get certain facts straightened out in my head, e.g. the difference between a quasar and a pulsar; or between white, red and brown dwarf stars; definitions from a Parsec to Perihelion; etc. The main feeling it impressed upon me was just how impossibly big the galaxy is, and how unimaginably powerful stars are. Scifi on film always gives the impression that space is small and manageable, but the facts prove very different.

Ben has a great style for making ‘knowledge-dump’ fun, and I enjoyed every page of it. I’m not sure how much of it will enter my writing, but hopefully it will stop me from writing some ‘boo-boos’ in my own science fiction. Funnily enough, the last book I started reading (still reading it) is Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels by Iain Banks. The writing, as always, is sublime. However, early on, the main character makes an observation that a Culture ship could hit an enemy vessel a trillion kilometres away. Having just read Ben’s book, this stopped me. A trillion? Really? Isn’t that like several light-days distant? Having just read that Earth is one AU (Astronomical Unit) from the sun, equal to 149 million kilometres, and Pluto is 39 AU or roughly 6 billion kilometres away... So, it would be like shooting from the sun at an object 160 times further away than Pluto. When you factor in time-dilation effects and the fact that everything is moving anyway (the galaxy rotates), well, that is some pretty impressive shooting. In my books I limit my battle distances to a couple of million kilometres, so it is a matter of hitting a target less than a light minute away, which I still consider to be extremely advanced, given the power requirements to do any damage to an enemy ship, and given likely target acquisition capability. Here’s a brief excerpt from forthcoming Eden’s Revenge, for example:

Blake was about to ask when the Transpar, Zack, broke in. “We are not alone. A Q’Roth warship, range two million kilometres, stealth mode. I cannot yet tell the vessel’s class.”
            “Marcus, relay it to Gabriel now!”
            Marcus stuttered the message in Hremsta as fast as he could.
            “Blake, this is Micah. We aren’t picking up any vessel other than yours.”
            Blake frowned. Since when did Micah speak Hremsta? “Micah, Zack’s at the controls, patched into the Hunter’s sensor arrays. I don’t doubt him – if he says it’s there, it’s there.”
            Micah continued. “Okay, Blake – Gabriel is going to deploy one of the mines as a missile, please relay us some telemetry – ship codes – anything – so we can target the ship.”
            “Roger.” He turned to watch Zack’s crystal fingers blur over the controls.
Marcus nodded. “Co-ordinates sent.”
Blake was thrown sideways out of his chair as their ship lurched to one side. He clawed his way back, struggling against the G-force of intense acceleration, noting that Marcus had managed to stay with his console. “Report,” he barked.
The Transpar responded with its cool, tinkling voice. “The warship fired on us and the Ossyrian pyramid-ship, too. We took minor damage, and I am executing a fractal defence pattern so they cannot get a fix on us. The inertial dampers will protect you now – my first evasive manoeuvre was a little extreme.”
Blake regained his chair. “Show me the Ossyrian vessel, split screen.”
The pyramid spun slowly, punched by pulse beams from the warship. Stealth mode had failed, and the pyramid hung like a spinning sapphire in space, bleeding gas and occupants into the void. Hell’s teeth! How could they detect and target it so accurately from so far away?

Anyway, Iain Banks knows megatons more than I do about Scifi, LOL.

The third book I read was The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, a classic. The intro where a stranger meets the illustrated man is captivating. Bradbury has a very concise, hard-hitting style that thrusts you into the moment, and the concept is enthralling. I then read some of the ‘stories’ that are the essence of the man’s tattoos. I found them enticing but also dispiriting; his view of human nature is not exactly optimistic, this set of stories tending towards the bleak. I didn’t much like the one about the witches and novelists, as it was more fantasy, but read the others. I just needed a drink after the last one.

By the end of the holiday I had settled into Banks’ sure-footed style and depiction of a war between two mega-civilisations, with his own brand of ‘gnarly’ humour. I’ve already read about half the Culture novels, so it is about time I read this one.  

I have to say it was pleasant being off-grid for 10 days: no sms, phone calls, emails, facebook, goodreads, twitter, or checking the latest sales figures on Amazon or how many people are reading my blog posts (sad but true). And it was very nice to immerse myself in other people’s writing and, after a while, stop thinking “that that’s a cool turn of phrase, I should borrow it,” or “that’s a cool way to describe people/asteroids/whatever,” and just enjoy reading. By the end of the holiday I could tell I’d relaxed, as I had to ask someone what day it was.

Now I'm waiting for the report on Eden's Revenge, the official one, and those from five separate readers. I hope to finish Consider Phlebas before then, as once the reports arrive I'll probably disappear into an editing black hole...

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Write what you don't know

There is a well-known author’s maxim to “write what you know”. For example, I get very fed up when reading some article about scuba diving where the journalist starts talking about how she went diving to thirty metres with her oxygen tank… because if it was pure oxygen rather than air, she’d most probably be dead. Such errors are a failure by the writer to do the basic research, or in such a case, base it on very limited experience, literally a dip in the ocean. (That's me in the photo, by the way, just before a 57m dive in Mauritius last year).

The simple solution is to write what you know, the most straightforward (in theory) being to write a memoir. But this would lead to a very limited range of fiction if that was all authors ever did. And what about thrillers? Are we to assume that authors such as the deservedly successful thriller writer Lee Child used to be a military policeman habitually killing people? And what about science fiction and fantasy? By definition we don’t know what will happen in the future or in a parallel universe, what jobs and technology and magical artefacts people will have. The counter-argument of course is that neither does the reader, and so if the author can make it all seem convincing, then the reader will ‘suspend disbelief’ and enjoy the story set in apace or in a magical realm. What makes something sound convincing?

For much of fiction, the author can do some research to gain facts, to garner snippets of information that will give the writing a sense of authenticity. But to give it real ‘street-cred’, the author has to dig deeper than textbooks or Wikipedia, and find the tricks of the trade. For example, I am working on a diving thriller. Now, most books on diving will tell you not to rise too fast, in fact, no faster than the small bubbles leaving your mouthpiece exhaust (regulator), to avoid getting decompression sickness (the ‘bends’). But if you are diving deep, really deep, you can ascend faster (and might have to), as long as you slow down in the last thirty metres. I have had to do it twice for real, both in emergencies, once because my buddy and I were running low on air, having been cornered at depth by a school of hammerhead sharks...

But an author can also lie. After all, this is fiction we’re talking about, right? But the lie has to be good, it has to sound credible, and in fact it has to sound ‘smart’. Here’s an extract from something I’m working on, to show what I mean (a ‘glock’ is a make of pistol). Lazarus is interrogating Bill Danton, and has taken Bill’s own gun in order to threaten him:

Lazarus sat down, the glock pointing at Danton. “I’d rather not call in the others, we’ve known each other a long time, They’re young, eager, like we used to be – they don’t know shit, don’t show any respect.”
            Danton had often wondered what his own victims thought about once they knew what was going down. Did their lives flash before their eyes? His didn’t. He watched the glock.
            “I need a name, Bill.” Lazarus fished out a small pad with a pencil attached, and offered it.
            Danton almost laughed, in these days of smart phones and IPads; a fucking pencil and paper. He took it, wrote her name, handed it back to Lazarus, who glanced at the name once then pocketed it away, not meeting Danton’s eyes anymore.
Lazarus walked around behind him, picking up a cheap cushion on the way. Danton knew the glock made no sound before it fired, no giveaway click that the end was coming now.
            “What about you, Bill? Anyone special in all your years?”
Lazarus was right behind him. Danton could almost sense the short barrel aiming toward the back of his head, behind the cushion that would act as a crude silencer. He’d loaded the gun himself with dum-dums. At this range it would blow his face off. All that money spent on facial reconstruction, all for nothing.

Does the glock make a sound before it fires, a click? I don’t know, I’ve never even seen one up close. Would it blow his face off if loaded with dum-dums? According to a paramedic friend who worked in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, yes, and he showed me pictures I wish I’d never seen to prove it (this was twenty years ago, and I still remember them). As a reader, did the info about the glock make it seem real, credible, and add to the tension? If it did, then it worked. If it didn’t, read Lee Child, as he makes the point better!

For authors, however, the most challenging aspect of ‘writing what you don’t know’, is with characters. Each major character, and even some more minor ones, must have their own ‘voice’. If they don’t, then to the reader they will all seem the same, and in particular their dialogue will ‘sound’ the same. If an author is writing a lot of characters, they may begin to ‘blur’ for the reader unless they all have distinctive voices. But it is not easy to write completely different characters, because to make them convincing, the author has to get inside their heads and values and attitudes.

For example, in my SF trilogy, I have two females who are bisexual. So, obviously I cannot ever really know what it is like to be (a) a woman, and (b) a bisexual one. In book two, Eden’s Trial, a female editor pulled me up on some of these aspects, and I had to do some re-writing, and cut a scene. In the forthcoming book (Eden’s Revenge), however, it seems to be okay, as another female editor was happy with them, to the extent she thought one of these characters (Kat) was one of the strongest in the book. After all, Steig Larsson’s Millennium series did extremely well, and his principal character is also a bisexual female.
One way I try to ‘learn’ different characters, is with short stories. I usually write these for fun, as a relief from writing novels which take far longer, but also as ‘practice’ in exploring new characters or genres. So, recently, I wrote from a middle-aged woman’s perspective. The context could be mystery scifi or fantasy, I leave that interpretation up to the reader. For me it was an exercise in ‘voice’, in writing from the perspective of someone who does not think logically, and who is not particularly intelligent (though is by no means dumb). Some readers might see her as a ‘loser’. But as I wrote and worked on the piece, I really got to like her. So in the end, in a twisted kind of way, she ‘wins’.

The story got published a week ago and can be read here. For me, it only works because of her character, her voice. The rest is interesting, intriguing maybe, but for me the story is not only about her, it is her.

For beginning authors, here’s a suggestion: start off by writing what you know, and learn how to make the points that make the writing feel authentic. Having learned that trick, graduate to what you don’t know. It’s a lot more scary, but also more fun.
© Barry Kirwan |
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