It’s the end of the world as we know it…

There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.

 

Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?

 

I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.

 

So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.

 

Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.

 

Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.

 

Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.

 

These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?

 

One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.

 

For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.

 

I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.

 

Maybe my history books will provide the answer.

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The modern writer

I am a writer. I write, right?

I’m not too sure that the novelists of a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago would recognise the job as it is now.

The clue is in the word ‘job’. In the current day and the current environment, writing is a job, a profession like any other. The days of an author producing his work and then returning quietly to his desk to crack on with his (or her – please excuse any lapses of this kind) writing are gone.

Once upon a time a writer could expect their work on a particular novel to end after delivery of the final manuscript to his or her editor. Maybe not quite end: there are always decisions to be made and publicity to attend, but they could rely on the publishing house to at least organise anything. The author might even get paid expenses.

Things are very different now. It’s not the publishing houses fault, more a condition of the industry. But these days the author is now expected to be an equal partner – if not more – in pushing their own work. The author’s job has changed. Now they not only have to produce a quality piece of writing, they’re expected to sell it too; to drum up their own audience.

So a writer has to produce their work and promote it. They also have to manage finances in a way they never had to before; writers are mostly self-employed, so they have to do their tax self-assessments and find their own expenses. And, unless they’re very lucky or very well established, they have to do all this whilst working a normal, paid job as well.

So why should we go through publishing companies at all? If we’re doing all the hard work anyway, why not just cut out the middle man and do it all ourselves?

It’s getting increasingly hard to give a convincing answer to that. Part of it, of course, is that there’s still a tremendous cachet to be published via the traditional routes, especially by one of the big houses. Another reason is that, although the editor’s role on individual projects may have slackened, they still do have many skills that most people – especially first-time authors – lack. The big publishers have copy-editors, art departments, legal teams, marketing and publicity sections who know who to go to in order to get good press. They can make it all happen in the way a lone individual simply can’t.

But how long will that last? In an era when you can pay $5 and get 1,000 Facebook friends, or where I could subcontract a stranger to write this blog, isn’t self-publishing the road to go down?

Hold on there, youngster. If you thought you had to do a lot for the traditional publishers, that’s nothing on what you have to do if you go it alone.

Okay, setting up internet payment systems is (probably – I don’t actually know) straightforward these days. Building a website won’t break the bank. Yeah, you can get open-copyright artwork fairly easily and you can find free software to format your book so it appears ‘right’ on the page. But are you prepared to phone up all the local bookshops in the area (or country) to get them to stock your book? That’s assuming you get physical paper copies at all: first you had to make the decision to trust a self-publishing or print-on-demand company with what, to me, would be a huge amount of money. Even here you have to know what you’re doing as the horror-stories, even with the most reputable self-publishing companies, are still doing the rounds. Make sure you know what you’re paying for. And whatever you do, don’t cough up extra for ‘publicity’.

As an aside, I’m aware of authors whose sales have mostly come from car boot sales, conventions, craft fairs and the like. Are you prepared to give up all that time to flog your masterpiece? Or would you prefer to be working on the follow-up?

So are e-books the answer? Well, I don’t know of any author who’d say they’d not prefer to have a physical copy in their hands, but, leaving that aside, the main problem with e-books is their invisibility. Do you know how many e-books are released each year? I don’t (and I did just try and check – honest – but my mammoth 5-minute search failed to reveal anything easily digestible). But it’s a lot. And believe me when I tell you that the big success stories (I’m looking at you, EL James) are very much the exception.

So you still have to do the work – you still have to do the publicity, to write your press release, to push your blog – whether with a publisher or not. This is where the publisher has the advantage, as their publicity departments will have the names and numbers of people in the media, the right contacts for endorsements… And they should be able to compensate for/work around/train you in any skills you lack.

So I’m a writer. I write. I’m also financier, lawyer, accountant, art director, publicity agent, relentless self-promoter, ego-maniac, schizophrenic.

Don’t call me an artist. I’m an entrepreneur. I am the brand.

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.

The Problem with Blogs

In my very first post I said that the purpose of this blog was mainly for self-promotion. That’s fine, and true, but it also brings with it certain problems. Or one problem in particular. That problem is called perfection.

 

I was having a chat with some of my colleagues in Abingdon Writers’ Group in a local pub a few nights ago. We were discussing typos, and in particular the difficulty of hunting down typos in self-published work. Tim Arnot has just recently released his first book on FeedARead (http://www.feedaread.com/search/books.aspx?phrase=tim%20arnot) and was going through his proof copy at the time. He said – quite correctly – that the standards expected of a self-published author are actually much higher than that of a traditionally published work.

 

Everybody hates typos. Every author does, especially. And yet I’m willing to bet that you’ve found errors in almost every single book you’ve read. They creep in everywhere, and no matter how thoroughly you trawl your work, there’s almost inevitably a mistake or two that’s going to slip the net. In a traditionally produced book – where they have copy-editors and you can reasonably expect the novel to have been read by dozens of people before it hits the shelves – you might notice these errors, but you barely think of them at all.

 

In a self-published novel, however, these typos seem to be much more important. They become, without any real logic, a sign that the writer is a fool. That the book is hastily produced and thus not worth reading.

 

Why is this? Surely it should be the other way round? A self-published author doesn’t necessarily have the resources to pay a commercial service to proof-read his/her work, and even if they do there’s no guarantee that the manuscript will come back ready to print.

 

It’s especially hard to take when people such as Steve Bohme are saying that the vast majority of self-published books are ‘unutterable rubbish’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/11/self-published-ebooks-20-per-cent-genre?INTCMP=SRCH) and that publishers are needed to act as gatekeepers against the tides of trash that are spreading across the digital waves.

 

The problem with that, of course, is that most writers see publishers and agents not as gatekeepers but as riot police.

 

But I digress.

 

The point is that I have to work very very hard to make this blog perfect. I’ve adopted a policy of writing it a few days before I publish, so I can make sure I’m saying what I actually mean, and that my prose is as clear and error-free as humanly possible. I’m trying to attract agents and publishers to this page, and should they find a single clumsy phrase, a stray Oxford comma (I think there may have been one of those in last week’s post), one measly typo, they will think that I can’t write and will blacklist me forever.

 

That’s the fear, at least. I’m sure that’s not actually really true, but that’s the ever-present fear. I work in words. If I fail to find the right one then I can’t be trusted to write a saleable novel.

 

And that’s a bit of a bugger.