Book of the year 2018

DTRH 2

Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

QoaC

Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

the-wasp-factory

Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

Embers of War.jpg

Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

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Sledge-Lit 2018

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Sledge-Lit

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

  • It’s great. Okay, this is definitely not advice, but I had a great time and am already planning my trip to Edge-Lit in the summer
  • Plan ahead. I made a big mistake in not properly scoping out the programme beforehand. I hadn’t realised all the information was available ahead of the day – which I guess shows my naivety – and this meant that I was immediately confronted by hard choices. The sign-ups for various workshops had to be completed straight through the door and I panicked and signed up for pretty much everything. This was not necessarily a mistake, but…
  • I found some workshops a bit basic
  • However, the workshops are still worth doing, if only to have a better chance of chatting with new people. Lectures, panels and talks aren’t so connective
  • I didn’t have the best morning because I failed to make the most of this, mostly because…
  • I’m a bit shy. I mean, you might not believe this because I work hard to appear outgoing. But come lunchtime I’m feeling all down because I’d not learnt much and because I was sitting alone whilst all around me everyone else (it seems) was having fun with friends
  • It follows that if you can find someone to drag along, do. It makes everything easier
  • HOWEVER I didn’t meet anyone – not a single person – who wasn’t happy to talk and wasn’t really nice. The people are what makes an event a success. If you are one of those lucky people who can talk to strangers as if you’ve known them all your life you’ll have an absolute blast
  • I was lucky because I had an ‘in’. I’m a Twitter-friend of Rod Duncan – we’ve met once previously in person – and I got chatting to him after a panel he was chairing. I managed inveigle myself into the company of himself and his colleagues Siobhan Logan and Penny Reeve. I had a great time chatting with them. Almost like I was a real human being
  • Remember a lot of people will want to talk to your hero. Talk don’t stalk
  • Sarah Pinsborough hosted the sweariest raffle in the history of conventions. Or swearing. Or raffles

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At this point I will step out of list mode momentarily because I’m kind of doing this chronologically and here I left the convention to go and check into my room. I’d booked an AirBnB near the station, about ten minutes’ walk away.

All my ‘friends’ had left. I’d eaten only a sausage roll and a slice of tiffin all days. I was seriously contemplating calling it a moderately-successful night (the chat with Rod and Penny was lovely; the only negative was sitting with Dave Hutchinson in absolute silence for ten minutes because I could think of not a single thing to say to him. I mean, I’d love to read his books – they’re on my mental TBR-shelf – but you can hardly start a conversation with ‘hey, I haven’t got round to you yet; what’s it all about, then?’ can you?), getting a curry and having an early bed.

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I checked in then strolled back to the venue just because it was a nice night and just on the off-chance that someone might approach me to chat. I got a beer and sat on my own; there were maybe a dozen people from the convention still hanging around.

After a drink and maybe another twenty minutes’ silence I finally found a way to sneak into a conversation. And so back to bullet-points:

  • Be patient. Don’t be in a rush to do things
  • Eat more regularly than I did
  • Be prepared to spend a little money. I know, this isn’t easy for everyone. But try and treat yourself to at least one drink – it doesn’t have to be alcoholic; no-one will judge you. Buy books. Enter the raffle. Come ready to have fun and hang your worries on the shelf for a little while
  • You will meet interesting people if you stick around long enough
  • There is no better place to network than the bar/pub…
  • …to which we thence repaired
  • …and it was at this point that the business cards I’d prepared in a last-minute panic came in most handy. See, I’d expected to be handing them out to indie publishers and lost-looking writers and all that. I did give out the odd couple like that, but I found them most useful in the bar afterwards. For although I’d managed to send the printers the draft without my blog or Twitter-handle on it, they proved really useful in getting my name across. We’d chat a bit, do introductions, and I’d whip it out – so to speak – so next morning they’d be able to link to me
  • Don’t stay longer than you feel comfortable. Don’t make yourself ill; if crowds aren’t your thing, don’t feel like you have to drag yourself to the dirty club. You’re not going to make a good impression if you’re asleep on your feet. Most publishers don’t take too kindly to being vomited on
  • Follow up on any contacts you’ve made. If you’ve got an email address just send a quick hello. I’m chronically shy and fearful of this sort of thing; social media makes it all so much easier. Connect on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the cool kids are on nowadays
  • It’s all about making friends. And girls just wanna have fun

And that’s it. I reckon I spent approximately £130 on the entrance fee, accommodation, train-fares, books, and sustenance. Was it worth it? Financially, probably not; maybe some of the people I met will offer me work in the future. I can’t count on that.

But I had a great time. I met a lot of fun, interesting people that I otherwise would have missed. And yes, there are other ways of having fun and other ways of meeting people (and yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white). I don’t want you to leave this post with the impression that you must go to Sledge-Lit, or any of the other conventions that are sprinkled through the calendar. There are other ways to do it.

But I had a great time. I’m already starting to plan my trip to Edge-Lit 2019.

Edge-Lit

Night Shift

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0

Well, here it is: the cover for my novel. It’s due out on November 6th and you can order your copy right now!

Excitement! Excitement and thrills!

Hopefully I’ll be doing some events around the time of the release – I’ll let you know as soon as I can. But in the meantime please just bask in the magnificence of that artwork and allow me to shove more info in your direction:

Night Shift

Antarctica. A mining base at the edge of the world. Anders Nordvelt, last-minute replacement as head of security, has no time to integrate himself into the crew before an act of sabotage threatens the project. Then a body is found in the ice. Now Anders must do more than find a murderer: he must find a way to survive.

Will anyone endure the night shift, or will ice and frozen corpses be all that remains?

It’s being published by Flame Tree Press (who publish many wonderful books by authors other than me) and will initially be launched in the UK and US. Feel free to go harass your local bookshop/library/online supermarket for your copy. Remember – every copy pre-ordered saves one book-sprite from Brit Gringo’s Pixie-Parts Emporium (LLC), so there’s moral reward as well as the opportunity to get your grubby little mitts on a pretty tolerably adequate read.

I’m serious about the library thing. If you’re poor, or if you’ve already pre-ordered and want the joy of seeing other people spending money, most library services have electronic forms for the requesting of stock. It’d help me out and cost you almost nothing.

I’m also really happy to do events, signings or meet with your local book group for a chat. Drop me a line (my details are in that ‘contact’ tab above) and we’ll see what we can do. And yes, I am aware that this paragraph is inherently arrogant and that no-one has heard of me or my work. A boy can dream.

Right, back to the latest round of copy-edits. No rest for the pixie-dissector writer.

The darling books of May

Bookstairs.jpg

Photo from this Buzzfeed article

In the absence of anything more interesting to ramble about, I’ve decided to share a few quick thoughts about last month’s reading; not so much a review, more a quick recap of sentiments that might – yes – might just include the odd recommendation. All these are listed in my book log if you want an at-a-glance account of those listed below.

Belle Sauvage

So, without further ado, let me begin with La Belle Sauvage, the first in the new (planned) trilogy of Philip Pullman. Of course I am somewhat biased because my daughter’s named after the lead character in the His Dark Materials series. But this was, in anything, better that the latter. The writing was just a little clearer, a little cleaner, and the main character is a delight.

The only negative I have is that the whole novel reads like an adventure – except for one small episode two-thirds of the way through where fantasy intrudes. Of course I know the series is a fantasy, but after the mood being resolutely realistic thereunto, it jars – especially as we have no real sense of resolution.

Freakonomics

Freakonomics (Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt) is another book I am well and truly behind the times with. It’s economics with a hand grenade, and whilst it’s fascinating and paradigm-shifting, I have slight reservations about some of the preconceptions the authors introduce into their findings: the value of exam results in determining success and failure, for example. Still, anything that makes you think is precious.

The Honours.jpg

You might by now be sick of my new obsession with Tim Clare: I promise I’ll stop going on about him shortly – just not before I rave again about his novel The Honours. It’s not only the best book I’ve read this month, It’s also my favourite so far this year. I can’t say too much about it because I think anything I can tell you will detract from the pleasure.

Part of the joy in the novel is determining whether we’re dealing with a coming-of-age story, an upstairs-downstairs tale of the aristocracy, a spy thriller or a fantasy. So I’m not going to spoil that for you; don’t read the blurb, don’t read reviews, just start on page one and go from there.

Lock In.jpg

John Scalzi’s Lock In is entirely different; resolutely sci-fi and highlighted by the wonderful writing that makes Scalzi a joy to read. If anyone wants to learn how to write fast-paced stories that you just fly through then study Scalzi. This isn’t his best, though, not because there’s anything wrong with it but because nothing’s really stayed with me. Fun but ultimately forgettable.

the-zealots-bones-d-m-mark-163x250

The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark) was a surprise. I picked it up on spec because I liked the cover and because that’s what libraries are for (all these books bar four were sourced from my local library) and was fully prepared to dislike it. But I didn’t. A murder mystery set in Victorian Hull scores points for originality, though at first I was a little uncertain because the story feels medieval, not nineteenth-century. But the quality of writing pulled me through. And maybe that’s what life was like for the common man: half primitive, half bang up to date. (And is the way we live now any different?) So this is a surprise recommendation from me.

Good story.jpg

The Good Story, by contrast, was a disappointment. It’s a epistolic discussion between JM Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz on the nature of psychotherapy and story. But it is, frankly, hard work; and the format – neither essay nor discussion – does it no favours, and neither does the over-literary tone invite the reader to share in their profundity. There are moments of interest and revelation but I don’t think it’s worth the effort and, if anything, serves to steer me away from Coetzee’s novels.

the-wasp-factory.jpg

The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks), on the other hand, drew me right in. This has been on my shelf for years, always deferred because I had a terrible foreboding that this would be really, really sad and I don’t like sad stories. Sorry. A personal failing, I know, but there it is.

And sad it was, but also somehow wonderful. The main character is a monster and a victim and sometimes it’s hard to share their head. But the writing pulls you along, drip-feeding you revelation. This, I feel, is a novel I’ll never forget. Sometimes I’ll wish I could, but that doesn’t stop me recommending it here.

Thornhill

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, is magical. Sold as YA, it’s two stories in one: the diary entries from a girl who lived in the Thornhill children’s home thirty or so years ago, and the ‘silent’ graphic tale of a lonely girl who discovers her story. The art (also by Smy) is wonderful and evocative, the wordlessness perfect for the tale its telling; the diary entries are haunting and tell the tale so well. I read the whole thing in a day.

Silver Locusts

I’ve read a few Ray Bradbury’s before and loved the lyricism in the prose, so The Silver Locusts – a boot-sale bargain at 20p – came as a disappointment. It’s not the writing that was disappointing, simply that the story was so completely out of date.

I can cope with the bad science (Mars having a breathable atmosphere; there being ‘Martians’); it’s the social changes that really grate. It’s not that everyone smokes – hell, every novel written in the fifties is full of cigarettes and cigars – but that, aside from a very few minor (and barely significant) characters, everyone is male. Bradbury never even considers that women might have an active part to play in the story.

Similarly, whilst I can cope with a racist character using the ‘n’-word, the description of the Jim Crow-era South went over my head. The depiction of the black population came close to the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, and an interesting idea (what happens to a land when the ‘workers’ leave en masse) got subsumed by the distance between the writing and the reading. The book is interesting, but more for the historian than the SF fan.

King of Dreams

Phew. On to The Sandman: King of Dreams. This is a companion/hagiography of Neil Gaiman’s graphic series and Kwitney’s book was a fine, fun read. There wasn’t that much to it, though, and all it really did was made me want to re-read the source material again.

Smoke Eaters.jpg

Speaking of fun reads, Sean Grigsby’s Smoke Eaters is a great little high-concept adventure. Here firemen don’t put out blazes – they fight dragons. What Grigsby does really well is convey the mundanity of life post-cataclysm (the catastrophe has passed and normal life is normal again) – and also the great wasteland that much of the planet has become.

If I have a criticism it’s that we don’t see enough of the world, and that there’s so much that’s left unexplained (where did the dragons come from?). But that just means there’s loads to look forwards to in the promised sequel.

The Liar

Finally: The Liar by Stephen Fry. This is… curious. It is good. It was a pleasure to read, and yet… it’s so damn elitist. It’s the story of a public schoolboy going on to a top university to meet over-privileged professors and their circles. I take a look at the cover-quotes and review-samples and I wonder: how many of them went to fee-paying schools?

I felt alienated. I felt angry at the arrogance of the class represented in this novel. The references and classical allusions left me on the outside looking in. It made me wonder if this is true of all novels: if every ‘target audience’ has this sort of jargon that excludes outsiders. Why shouldn’t public schoolboys have their moment too? There is a future blog-post on this, once I’ve managed to untangle my own feelings.

Anyhoo, Fry kind of won me over in the end. I enjoyed The Liar, though it’s a hard novel for me to recommend

And that’s all. If I repeat this round-up I’m going to have to read less books; this has been a marathon. In summary:

Book of the Month: The Honours – Tim Clare
Book to Avoid: The Good Story – JM Coetzee & Arabella Kurtz
Biggest Surprise: a tie between Thornhill (Pam Smy) and The Zealot’s Bones (DM Mark)

Happy reading, y’all

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

On the cusp

balance

So far I have sent out two* submissions for Oneiromancer and I have had two rejections. At least I’m consistent.

This is not a big deal. Agents – I’ve not gone direct to publishers yet – receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions each week and take on maybe three new clients a year. Even if they love your writing the stars still have to align for them to offer to take you on.

What makes things different this time is that I feel uniquely close to actually breaking through. Rejection one: ‘I admire your writing’. Rejection two: ‘Better than a lot of submissions’. I feel like I am on the cusp; on the cusp of what I am not exactly sure, but something.

I have felt like this before. Night Shift received a lot of full-manuscript requests and ultimately got nowhere. I started this blog because I felt like my writing career was about to take off. Three years later and I’ve barely moved.

Not true, of course. I’ve moved huge distances. It’s just that these distances are very difficult to see from the outside.

Back to rejections. It’s interesting to look at the reasons I was, ultimately, rejected:

  • Submission One: ‘I don’t know the Urban Fantasy market.’

Even genre specialists do not know all aspects of every sub-genre. Agency is about having relationships with editors and publishers; having contacts and avenues in a specific field. If they don’t have that then they won’t be the best representative for your work.

  • Submission Two: ‘…Don’t currently have room on my list’.

Agenting takes a huge amount of time and effort: first the editing, the licking of the work into publishable shape. Then the hawking of the work around editors, representatives and publishers’ readers. Finally the negotiations, the financial play, the business side of the industry. All this takes time and there’s a limited amount of that for each author. Of course their lists get full. Even agents are allowed a day off every so often.

Of course it could be that these compliments are just sweet words; a sop to their conscience and my ego. They could be lies. But you always hear that agents don’t have time for slushpile critiques and anything they say should be taken at face value. So I choose to be complimented. I choose to believe that I am close.

This doesn’t actually help me at all. I’m still unpublished and unagented. But the world at the moment looks bright and positive. It is an inspiration to push on; to get another batch of submissions out there. And, when they’re on the way, to write more. That’s the way to get better. Maybe a stroke of luck is what it’ll take, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of your fortune.

I am on the cusp. It’s down to me to make the most of any opportunities that come my way.

*Three now. Three rejections. That is fine

World-building 101

wb2

There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.