In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Playing Froggit

 Time to be honest, cos God hates a coward, right? OK. My publishing career has not been a success.

 I'm of a generation which doesn't have an instinctive grasp of the internet. I didn't grow up with it. When I were a lad (thanks Monty Python) the cutting edge of the home PC was the ZX Spectrum, or the Commodore 64. Games came on cassette tapes which screeched for ages and then crashed, so you had to load them again. I was very good at playing Froggit but I'm not great online today.

 The result is that I don't know how to market. I miss changes in how indie writing works, the changes come too fast and too quietly. It's like trying to nail smoke to a wall. As soon as I get hold of an idea (which is unusual) it morphs into something else. I think I have a good product. certainly the reviews of my work, few as they are, have been very good. But I haven't been able to translate that into a significant number of sales.

 I'm going to try something different.

 I'm going to publish chapter by chapter, through an author website. Readers can pay 50 cents, or 10, whatever they want, depending on how much they enjoyed the chapter. Some of that will go to my marketing guru, Josh, who used to run a company doing exactly this. He'll organise the whole commercial side of things, leaving me to write like a bastard.

 This means I can rapid release, which is a key facet of indie publishing these days. But I won't have to produce a novel every four or five weeks, as some writers do. I can't help thinking, however talented they are, that such speed must reduce the quality of their work. (See my blog post "You'd have to be Hemingway".) Doing it chapter by chapter gets around the problem. I can release say two chapters a week, working out at a novel every five months or so, and then have a four week break for advertising before the next one makes its debut. Or three chapters a week, if I prefer; it's all good. See what works best.

 I like this idea. Josh knows his onions and I know mine. It's very much worth a try.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Fire in the Hole

 My current WIP is a bit noir, a bit mad, a rock and roller of a story that runs at breakneck speed. It's utterly different to anything I've done before, and it'll need a lot of editing once it's done. It's really fun to write though, I'm bursting with it, so I thought I'd share a sample with you.

 This is the opening of the story, in which we meet the MC Trist and his peculiar companion;


       The tall man stepped over a smouldering rug. Around him fires flickered and bodies lay on the carpet, in the chairs, one even half out of the window.
Might have been a bit over the top,” he said.
You do the sword, I do the fire.”
Yes,” Trist said, looking around. “I just hadn’t expected quite that much fire.”
They’re down, aren’t they?”
The problem, Feng, is that not many of them are likely to get up again.”
He found a little blaze that was feeling its way towards the curtains, and stamped it out in a billow of sparks and ash. Next to it was the man in the window. Trist pulled him away. Glass crackled and fell to the floor. A shard six inches long was lodged in the man’s throat, and Trist grimaced.
Looking out, he saw the garden below was deserted. Well, not quite. A lone gardener fled for his life and vanished as Trist watched.
Trouble?” Feng asked.
There will be. The servants will go straight to the Watch. We’ll have company very soon.”
We knew that would happen.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not so fast.”
Lucky you’ve got me then,” Feng said.
Movement drew Trist’s eye. One of the slumped figures had begun to stir. A young man, hair singed and clothes sooty, his back turned. He pushed up on his hands and then froze as Trist’s blade kissed the skin under his throat.
Had a nice rest?” Trist asked. “I’m so glad. Fresh minds find answers so quickly, don’t you think?”
The man was young, probably a few years short of twenty. A fold at the outside of his eyes, which swivelled around the room. When they fell on Feng he gave a little whimper.
Let’s start with some easy questions,” Trist said. “What’s your name?”
My – my name?”
Don’t you have one?”
Uh… Anterl.”
Well, good evening, Anterl. I trust you’ve had a good day? Up until the last few minutes, anyway. No? Well, here’s another question. How do you like working for Margon Sleeth?”
It’s all right,” the youth said.
You like working for Sleeth,” Trist said. “The drug dealer. The man who brings waste and death to hundreds. You like it.”
No answer. The youth trembled.


 The scene goes on, but that's enough for now. The story seems to have more dialogue and less narrative than usual for me, which wasn't a conscious choice (well, not at first). It also has a proper anti-hero, and later a strange lot of characters, some human and some not so much. And it's really huge fun.


 Hope you liked the taster. If you see anything obviously wrong or clanky, please let me know. I reckon I can take it y'know. Come to that, let me know if you enjoyed it, the old ego could always use a stroke...

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Bad for Good

 A lot of the time in Fantasy, the main character is a Good Guy. Not just good, but Good. He's the epitome of noble niceness. Like Rand in Wheel of Time, who to some extent is an avatar of the Creator himself. Or Frodo in LOTR, honourably ignoring his own fears in order to Do Good for the world. Or like pretty much any main character from David Gemmell's books, who often add to it by spouting little homilies about what it means to be Good.

 I don't think I've ever known someone as pure as that. One person in a million is awake enough for the spiritual or divine life, as Thoreau said, and he'd never met one ("How could I have looked him in the face?") People just don't work that way, not even in Hollywood - well, mostly. It doesn't ring true to me.

 I've tried to make my MC's a bit more nuanced. Kai in Blessed Land doesn't even know what good is, or what's right; he's tormented by doubts all the time. In Songs of Sorrow Calesh does know, but he's clever enough to realise that his certainty might be based on a flawed faith. But I think with the new novel that I've found an MC who's more complex, more of an anti-hero, than anyone I've written of before.

 Trist has a terrible backstory, one in which he did something awful out of rage and grief. It was revenge, though not undeserved by the victim. He then left home before retribution came, and in the years since has won the companionship of a phoenix, an intrinsically Good creature drawn to Trist because of the extremes of light and dark within him. This empathetic bond pushes Trist to do only good things, though he can sometimes be violent or cruel in pursuit of them. The greater good is what matters.

 Now Trist has been called home, and of course he encounters all the bitterness of past events and his own memories. He's given every reason to commit violence for its own sake, to give as good as he gets. Whether he does so... I'm not even sure myself, yet. The book is quite noir in places, though the mood is changed by the hope and brightness of the phoenix, so it's never quite as dark as The Big Sleep, for example. But I think Trist will find that the darkness inside has never entirely gone away, whatever layers of light have been laid over it.

 This has got me thinking about myself. A lifelong loner, watching society from the outside. At a party you can find me off to the side watching other people have fun. (Typical writer, eh?) Except that 5 years ago I met Caz, and we're now married with two wonderful daughters, and I find myself...not so dark anymore.Not so gloomy. And yet there are times, moments when I'm alone, when I can still feel the old dark inside, and I know it will never quite go away.

 Write what you know, eh?

Saturday, 22 December 2018

The Damage We've Done

 We need to go to Mars. Not for a footprints-and-flags mission, to take some photos and return with a few Mars rocks, but to colonise, and to stay. It won't even be as expensive as most people think. The SpaceX company can launch a normal satellite today for ten times less than NASA did it with the Shuttle. It's possible and affordable.

 Still, it's a big project. People will probably die to achieve it. So why bother?

 For me, the main reason is that we can't save Earth's environment. That should be obvious by now. For all the international deals, right back to Rio in 1992, the ecosystem is still being destroyed. Forget climate change, even. The bigger problem is the simple destruction of species and habitats, and we can't stop it. Even when we try we just cause a new disaster. Bio-fuel was meant to reduce fossil fuel use, but instead it only smashed the forests where orang-utans live, as land was converted to farms to grow the bio-crops. Now orangs face extinction. We tried to be good, and instead just shifted the disaster to another place.

 The problem is too many people. Everyone born needs - at a minimum - water, food, clothes and a roof. That's before we think about jobs, or cars, or healthcare and all the other basic needs. All of that means humans have to exploit the Earth a little bit more. Globally we now use more than 50% of the fresh water first, before any other species. That means everything else put together has less water than humans, which is a recipe for catastrophe. We make 100 million new pieces of clothing every year, which works out at a bit more than 12 per person - not a huge amount, but the total is enormous. It's very hard to see how these numbers can be reduced without a population drop.

 But that's not going to happen. Nobody will vote for a government that plans to limit births. Even people who know the risks won't. I know a man who understands the risks of over-population, is dedicated to Green issues - and has 4 children. That's how the world reacts to this; they agree we need to reduce human numbers, but then assume the need doesn't apply to them. And the result? The UN used to say world population would be 9.5 billion by 2100. Then 10.2 billion. Now it's 11.1 billion, because birth rates are just not dropping very fast. And remember, we need population not to stabilise, but to go DOWN, or sheer pressure of numbers will see the world driven to ecological disaster.

 And so, Mars. It's so far away that large numbers of people will never be able to move there, however advanced technology might become. But we can move trees there, and animals, and build copies of the habitats on Earth. The various species will survive, and perhaps in a thousand years we could re-seed the Earth, and repair some of the horrendous damage we've done.

 Humans don't learn. Sumerians, early Chinese, Maya, the first peoples of North America... they all pillaged their environment until it collapsed. This time we're doing it world wide, but we have a way to save something from the wreck. In doing so, we can save ourselves too.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Cards in the Dark

 Last time I talked about how not having time to actually write has meant lots of new ideas shooting about in my head. And guess what? Got another one.

 This time I have a chap named Trist, who left his home city years ago and has since travelled around becoming an expert swordsman and do-gooder. His companion is a phoenix called Feng, who insists he uses minimum force and always tries to do the right thing. He's in the middle of dealing with a drug dealer when his ring glows, which means his old girlfriend is in trouble and he has to keep a promise to go home and help her.

 I started writing it! Yes, I've snatched time on my breaks at work, a few minutes when I get home, anything to get words on the page. I'm fed up of not writing, and this idea has caught me the way few do. So I'm suddenly writing longhand, which I haven't done for decades. So far I've got one chapter done and am starting on the second. It's quite weird, because the tone is sort of half noir and half tongue in cheek, which is new for me.

 It's also weird because I can't recall ever reading a noir book, so I'm sorta playing cards in the dark here. I'm getting The Big Sleep for Christmas. That should get me in the right place, quite apart from being a bloody good read.

 There are interesting themes, too. Homecoming is one of them, parents another. In the book all phoenixes are female and they're born pregnant, though can choose when to let the eggs develop. Of course they immolate themselves to hatch the eggs, so no phoenix ever knows its mother. Trist had a tough childhood and at one point Feng says she sometimes envies humans their parents... and sometimes doesn't.

 Writing is fun. I'm so glad to be back.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Hunting Rabbits

 You've probably seen all those posts on Facebook and Twitter that go, "You know you're a writer when...". They end with something ironic like "when your best ideas come just as you're dropping off to sleep." Well, here's mine.

 You know you're writer when your brain just will not stop working out ideas and problems, even when you have almost no time to write.

 With my shift pattern at the moment, and with two small children, my time is tight. For the first time I'm not writing every day. I'm doing an edit/rewrite, but even that is catch-as-catch-can, an hour one day and ten minutes the next. So I'm not actually creating new work... and my mind won't shut up.

 I've got a new idea for a story set in a growing empire, one just realising that the old government systems aren't capable of managing the new, larger realm. Blocked that out yesterday. I've got an idea for a trilogy set in a place like ancient Egypt, where a band of adventurers set out to find the source of a foundation myth. There's the Heikegani crab idea, where crabs with shells like human faces turn out to be the carriers of wronged souls. Also I've thought of a story for a tribe of plains folk, who've heard rumours of a new people to the east and who then begin to die of a disease they've never seen before. Ideas all over the place, and no time to write.

 I think the two things are linked. Because my mind isn't occupied with the tangles and plots of a novel, it's spending all that nervous (creative?) energy on ideas. It's better than spinning its wheels to no purpose, isn't it? But it's frustrating as all hell. I'm really keen on the Crabs, that's a great idea, and the Egypt story just bursts with potential. And all I can do is block them out for the future. It's like being a cyclist with no bike, his legs pumping on pedals that don't exist. A dog hunting rabbits in his sleep.

 (Hmm. Saying "I'm really keen on the crabs" could be taken the wrong way.)

 Now, as of this morning, I have an idea for a prodigal son who left the city years ago, but promised to return if the girl he loved (and married someone else) needed help. Now he gets the call and returns, laden with knowledge gained in the world, and finds things are not at all as he thought they'd be. I can juxtapose a normal, humdrum city (sorta) with the mysteries and wonders - and even fantastic beasts - of the wider world. Cracking idea, simple as you like but teeming with possibilities. So it's back to blocking out, even though I won't be able to start it until New Year at the very least, and probably spring.

 Bugger.

 But... the old mill is still churning, eh?

Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Weird Ones

There's an advert on TV at the moment which says there are 3.5 billion women in the world, and no two are the same.

 The truth is that almost all of them are exactly the same, in every way that matters. All people are. They want the same things, dream the same dreams, eat the same foods. They fit into society as though moulded to it, which of course they are. Governments spend a lot of time and money teaching children to be good little adults, so we grow up to pay our taxes and not cause trouble. And so we're all made to be the same.

 Strangely, small societies tolerate differences better than large ones. A hunter-gatherer clan of 200 people will accept little Bobby's weird habits, because someday he might see something everyone else missed. But a nation of 65 million is harder to manage, the leaders don't want people shooting off on their own all the time, so they tell Bobby to stop it and be quiet. We're taught to conform. Fit in and don't make a fuss, right?

 But you know, the people who do make a fuss, who shoot off sideways the moment they see something interesting... those are the fun ones.

 They're the ones we write about. JK Rowling once said she stopped the Potter books because nobody wants to read about Ron, Harry and Hermione playing bingo at Hogwarts when they're 60 years old. What's interesting about that? Nobody would read the story of Anna Smith, a Hufflepuff in Harry's year who isn't mentioned because she never does anything. And the truth is we're nearly all like Anna. We're here, but we make up the ranks. The faceless extras of life, filling the background and no more unique than a sardine in a can.

 (Yes, I include myself in this. Henry David Thoreau once said only one man in a million was truly awake, and he'd never met one. Neither have I. And I think one in a billion might be a closer estimate.)

 But the most interesting of all? The ordinary person who is thrown into something big, and finds out he/she isn't ordinary after all. Like Harry Potter, who's just an ordinary wizard (yes, I know), quite talented but no genius, with nothing to make him stand out except Voldemort. These are the people we write about, or read about. They're the ones I like in life too - the wounded, the misfits, people with stories written on their faces and told in the things they do.

 Most of the time they're called the weird ones. You know, the people who make us say, "everyone's got one friend like that." But I like 'em.

 Keep not fitting in, folks. It would be boring without you.