In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Monday, 30 December 2013

2013: The Best and the Worst

  It's the end of the year, and so we often look back and think about our successes and failures, don't we? Well, I do. 2013 was a big one for me. I moved out of Wales and into south-west England, and for the first time in ages have been (broadly) healthy throughout the year. I published the two volumes of Songs of Sorrow, to good reviews if not high sales. And I took part in NaNoWriMo, a new experience for me, and an enlightening one.

  But here, I thought I'd talk about the books and films that have impressed me this year, for good or bad. Let's begin with the good.

  The best film I saw all year was Oz the Great and Powerful. I expected something awkward and stilted, but the film captured the whimsy of the original and added modern effects and an updated feel. It's no small feat; huge credit goes to the writers, especially (Betraying my biases there... writers are great). The best new book I read - new to me, anyway - was The Player of Games by Iain M Banks, who sadly died of cancer in 2013. The novel actually dates to 1988, I think, but I'd never read it before, and I include it because Banks' death is such a severe loss to SF writing. If you haven't read his Culture novels, I recommend any of them.

  The worst? In films there's no contest: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Much of the story has been invented just for the film, it isn't original to Tolkien. That would be OK, except the extras don't actually add anything worth the time, they just make the story flabby and dull. I'm amazed that Star Trek: Into Darkness didn't end up being my worst film of 2013, because boy that's dreadful, but Smaug is even worse. As for books, if I've encountered a bad writer I avoid him thereafter, so I managed not to read Inferno by Dan Brown, which to judge by his previous work would have been utterly appalling. And if I'm struggling with a novel I tend to just put it aside: life's too short to waste on rubbish, and there are always more books. But I did read A Memory of Light, the long-overdue conclusion to the monster Wheel of Time series, and thought it was atrocious. Robert Jordan always wrote as though turning out a manual; he had all the deftness of touch of a drunken hippo, and Brandon Sanderson mimicked his style, unfortunately. But also the story was too rushed, which is weird for the 14th volume of a series, and in places was plain preposterous. A bitter disappointment after so long.

  Of course, most books and films were somewhere between all this - tolerably good, not too bad. But the ones we remember are the ones at the extremes, aren't they? Those are the ones which make an impression on us, one way or the other. I'm sure you readers will have your own best and worst of 2013, and some of the time you'll wish you could have broken a leg on the way to the bookstore so you'd have been spared the absolute cacky you just read.

  Usually I avoid New Year Resolutions, but I do hope in 2014 to find more good new books, whether SF and Fantasy or not. If you want to do the same, then good luck to you... and maybe you could try one of mine, eh? Meantime, Happy New Year to you all, I hope 2014 brings you lots of what you want and little or no back pain. Take care.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Ego and Belief

  I had a new review a few days ago, of Blood and Gold. The full text is on Amazon, but here's an excerpt;

  "... it read like poetry. The book was painted into my mind's eye... flowing art forms and beautiful people. There has only been one other book like this book, and it was beautiful... a flowing song of beauty. It reads like an elegant thought." (Jennifer Elizabeth Hyndman)

  That, right there, is why I write. I'd like to make money from it, of course, enough to live on. That's incidental: if you want to be rich, don't become a writer, because most of them aren't. But to touch someone, to leave a reader affected by the story, the characters... that's the payoff. That, surely, is what writing is for.

  Stephen King says he was forty before he stopped feeling ashamed of what he wrote. Too many people had told him he was wasting his talent and ought to do something more serious, more worthy and worthwhile. (I'm reading On Writing again at the moment, can you tell?) I expect we've all heard something similar, but I don't understand it. No genre is automatically less valuable than another. All that matters is whether the story is well-told, whether it elicits an emotional response of some kind from the reader. It won't always do so, and when it does it won't always be the one the author aimed at. But sometimes, hopefully quite often, we can hit the mark.

  When we do, maybe we'll get reviews like the one above, which make all the effort worthwhile. It's validation. I read it and think I must be at least tolerably good, I can't be entirely talentless, if I can touch a reader like that.

  We have weak egos, we writers. We need the reinforcement of support, of enthusiasm for what we do and have done. It's hard to believe in yourself and the tale you're writing if people are just bashing your published work, and without belief... I'm sure that thousands of writers quit because they listen to the negative criticism and let it get under their skin. This isn't to say I've had such experiences myself, necessarily, but the positive feedback still matters to me.

  So on I go, into a new year and with plans for it. Probably Troy: A Brand of Fire will be my next published novel, though I'll have to do some work on volume two of the trilogy before I take the plunge. With luck you'll be able to look for the first book around February. I'll keep knocking on the doors of publishers and agents, keep blathering away here in my blog and on other social media, and above all I'll keep writing. I sometimes doubt my own qualities, but I'm not ashamed of what I do, and I intend to keep doing it.

  Meanwhile, best wishes to everyone for Christmas, or whatever mid-winter festival you might be celebrating. Best for the New Year too. Turn the page, and start a new chapter.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Joy of Success

  I won NaNoWriMo! And I'm surprised, to be honest, how much that matters to me.

  I did think it was a silly idea, at the start. Write 50,000 words in 30 days? Pfft. Just about possible, I suppose, but why bother? I decided to do it anyway because I've been a bit becalmed, unable to make a couple of story ideas quite work and slowly gnawing off my own fingers in frustration. (I'm typing this with my nose, it's really hard). I thought the deadline, however artificial, might serve to galvanise me into sustained action.

  And it did. Just goes to show, there's more than one way to do this writing thing. It really is an art, not a science. Everyone has their own approach; some plan every detail before they begin the story, some draw extensive character lists, some write in the mornings, some in silence... and others don't. It's fine. If it works for you, don't worry about anyone else. The strange thing about NaNo is that I've had to write in a much more direct, almost banzai way than I usually do, very headlong, and somehow it's worked. I've got the first draft of a novel 65,000 words long, all done in 25 days.

  OK, it will need a lot of revision and editing, there's a lot to change and check. But still, I tried a different approach and it worked, and I would not have bet a bent penny on that happening. Once more I've discovered that I don't know half what I thought I knew. It happens quite a lot, does that. If it keeps happening I might one day learn that I really don't know very much, but don't count on it anytime soon.

  In my last post I said that perhaps the best thing about NaNoWriMo is the number of fellow authors I've met, most of them in my local area of Devon. More than that, they're people I'm comfortable talking with, they're just nice folks, and it's been a genuine pleasure spending time in their company. I really hope to stay in touch with them when November is over - I said that before, too, so forgive me the repetition. It's just that I've had bags of fun. There's been a lot of work, my eyes have ached from strain and I really need a rest, but mostly it's just been a pleasure. And sometimes, when we writers struggle to pull words out of the air or our minds and string them together, that can slip our minds. We forget that it's our passion for words which got us into this writing gig in the first place.

  I have been reminded, so thank you NaNoWriMo, and thank you to everyone in the forums and chat rooms, it's been a blast.

  POSTSCRIPT - the novel is called "Troy - A Brand of Fire". Depending on a few other things - not least how the editing goes - it might be my next novel to be published, in the New Year. Thought I should probably mention that at some point.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

NaNo and the Muse

  Slightly to my surprise, NaNoWriMo is still going well. I've put out 31,000 words now, so I'm ahead of the target. More, I think the text is OK - not great, but it's a decent first draft, and I'll take that.

  A couple of days ago I deleted some narrative I wasn't happy with, and other NaNoes (other writers in the challenge) were shocked by that. They couldn't understand why I deleted text that counts towards my word total. And that got me thinking (i.e. sidetracked me) about what NaNoWriMo is actually about. What is its aim?

  50,000 words in a month? Not really. That's just the headline, the target. I could write "wibble wibble blah" thousands of times and make that amount of words, but it wouldn't be a novel.

  I think NaNo is about getting people to write. Reminding them that it's possible to prioritise writing, even when your life is full of work stress, or children to take care of, putting the laundry out, walking the dog, cooking dinner, and finally collapsing on the sofa because you're too bushed to do any more. Except... you're not. November reminds us that we can dredge up that little bit of extra energy, we can fit in half an hour of writing between hoovering downstairs and picking up the kids. It motivates us, and it helps us prove to ourselves that we can actually do this.

  So who cares if we make 50,000 words? It's nice if we do, but doesn't matter if we don't. What matters is that we found time to write. We sat at our desks and gave the muse a chance to come visit us. We thought about what we wanted to say, and how we could say it, and we put words on the page (and maybe deleted them again) and cursed and muttered and finally found a way.

  Just as importantly, we met a whole bunch of interesting people who also write - and who live in our area! People we can talk to, lean on when we need to, and offer a shoulder to when they're the ones struggling. Writing is such a solitary task that it's nearly always good to find like-minded folk to share experiences with. I've found a good few: Colin and Sue, Tonia and Jasmine, Michelle, Stephanie, Rosie, and all the people in the chat room. I'd like to stay in touch when November is done, to see if we all keep making time to write even when the NaNo challenge is over.

  I will, and I hope my new friends do too.

Monday, 4 November 2013

NaNoWriMo: The Story So Far

  NaNoWriMo has begun, and you know what? It's going pretty well.

  A reminder for those who don't know - NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write a full novel of at least 50,000 words in November. Have a look at my last blog for details.

  This is day 4, and I've done just over 15,000 words. In four days! OK, in a way it's a bit of a cheat, because I spent October plotting everything out to the last detail, at least for the first several chapters. I even had snatches of narrative written, so all I actually had to do at first was stitch them together into a coherent sequence. I don't think I'll be able to maintain this pace throughout the month, and I'll have to do a lot of editing afterwards anyway.

  But you know, NaNo has actually got me writing with an intensity and focus I usually lack. Maybe it's the deadline, which is inexorable and very, very tough. Maybe too it's the community which gathers around the event. I'm talking to writers in a chatroom, I've been to a meeting at the library, and I'll soon join another at a coffee shop - where I may indulge in a cake. Or two. Put me near cake and all my good work in the gym tends to be wasted.

  But anyway, I'm really enjoying NaNoWriMo. There's always something new with this writing game, always another surprise. Hemingway said "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master", and he's right - though he was pretty close. And like apprentices, we're still learning the tricks of the trade. I doubted NaNo would work, it seemed too artificial and forced, but it's going well and I've met some good new people.

  Perhaps my next post will be full of why it's become so much harder, but if so that's OK. I've already got a lot out of this, and that'll do for now.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Positive Thinking and the Impossible

  So, big month coming up, I've entered NaNoWriMo.

  For those who don't know, that's National Novel Writing Month. It started in the USA but is global now, so I suppose it should be called InNoWriMo, but that's even worse. Anyway, it's a challenge to write a novel in one month, November, of at least 50,000 words.

  It's impossible, really. Occasionally a blitz writer might be able to do it, but nobody else: all we mortals can manage is to put together a decent first draft, and go over the edit later. But that's OK, because the point is just to motivate authors into spending time at the writing desk instead of getting distracted all the time. Finding the space to write can be difficult because life keeps getting in the way. NaNoWriMo gives you a reason to push all that aside, just for a month, and get a good chunk of work done instead of just dribs and drabs.

  So I'm doing my Troy story that I mentioned last time. The amount of research and background work has been astonishing: I have dozens of pages of notes now. I also have the basis for how I want to tell the story. Partly that will involve ordinary people, not just the heroes and kings who dominate the Homeric myth. I'm going to add in a chariot builder in Troy, and a painter who came to the city to make his fortune. From Greece there will be a farmer caught up in the war too. All these guys just want to live through it, but they suffer loss and hope as the struggle goes on.

  Can I do 50,000 words in a month? Probably not, and even if I do it won't finish the story: I'll need 80,000 at least, and that's too many. But I'll give it a bash. Besides the discipline, there's another advantage to NaNo, which is the community of writers who are involved. People in the Devon area meet up sometimes in Barnstaple, which I'm looking forward to already. A chance to exchange troubles and triumphs is always good, and we can discuss the relative merits of similes and metaphors over a mug of mocha too.

  Yes, I know, my idea of fun is dreadfully sad.

  At any rate, this means my blogs might come a bit more often in November, as I post updates on how things are going. I have a horrible feeling I may have bitten off more than I can chew here, but we'll see. Positive thinking, that's the trick. Wish me luck!

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Best Fantasy Ever Written

  I recently had a bit of a setback. Having rewritten Starfire, I published chapter one in a couple of my circles on Google+, only to be told by a few people that it read like an info dump. Which is a wee problem, because that was my way of getting around other tricksy bits in the story. So now Starfire is on the back burner again (i.e. I'm flummoxed and my poor weary brain needs pondering time).

  Normally 'pondering time' means me sitting at my desk and staring out of the window, thinking vaguely about this and that before popping down the pub for a soother. I get a lot of good thinking done at the pub, don'cha know. But not this time.

   I'm taking on a large project indeed, one that other writers have tackled but none to my own satisfaction. It's the Trojan War, to my mind not just the best fantasy tale but the finest story ever told. It has everything; love and revenge, pride, honour, and broader ideas like the clash and change of cultures. We see the idealised warriors fall, while less martial but more thoughtful men triumph, as Odysseus does. It's just a hypnotic saga, so brilliantly brought to life by Homer that it still fascinates us three thousand years on.

  It presents challenges I've never faced. One is that we all know what happens at Troy, we know the fate of the main players. The interest has to lie not in 'what happens next?' but in how it happens, and why. I think I'll also introduce lesser characters, people not mentioned in The Iliad at all - a farmer from Sparta maybe, sucked into a war he doesn't understand or care about: and a horse whisperer who came to Troy to make his fortune and instead has found conflict. There'll be others too, I'm sure. Troy isn't a new story so I have to make it feel new, and this might be how I can.

  Another challenge is the sheer scale of the story. Google 'The Catalogue of Ships' if you like, and look at the sheer number of captains, kings and countries involved. And that's just the Greek side! So far I've got nearly 30 sheets of typed notes, and I'm not nearly done; I'm still reading two different reference books and one other fictional version of the war. To be honest it's pretty scary. I've no idea whether I have the skills to manage a novel (or trilogy, most likely) of this size. But you know, that's part of writing. The day it no longer excites you, it's time to stop.

  So here it goes. Volume one is tentatively called The Long-Haired Kings, by the way, meaning the Greeks, but I have no real idea what to put on the cover except vague thoughts about Greek art. If you know of any painting or fresco that might suit, or where I can see a selection of such art, let me know, eh? I could just do with a bit more research to tackle,

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Questions and Reflections

  Recently I filled out a set questionnaire on Smashwords, a site which publishes e-books at various sites around the web. I even added a question of my own at the end (I was feeling brave). So I thought I'd use this blog to show you some of them, as a sort of insight into how my mind works, how I write and why. The questions are below, and if you want to read the full interview you can do so at

How do you approach cover design?
I have a friend, Mark Watts, who's a graphic artist. He and I have a chat about the book and come up with an idea, which Mark then creates.

The only time I've decided on my own was for Blood and Gold, which most people seem to think is the worst of the covers so far. So I'll take a hint and stick to the writing from now on, and let Mark do the covers.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
"IT" (Stephen King) - the best evocation of childhood I've ever read.
"The Awakeners" (Sheri S Tepper) - a brilliant critique of zealotry, told in a thrilling Fantasy tale.
"The Lions of al-Rassan" (Guy Gavriel Kay) - friendship between supposed enemies, in the midst of war.
"Against a Dark Background" (Iain M Banks) - an SF carnival of hopes in a disintegrating world.
"The Silence of the Lambs" (Thomas Harris) - just a fabulous thriller.

Sorry there's no Tolkien here. Don't hold it against me.
What do you read for pleasure?
Anything. I have books on SF&F, thrillers and horror. I have some on alternate history, scientific inquiry, philosophy, climate change, religion, authorship, and of course a stack of dictionaries and thesauri. I've also got a lot on history and myth, as reference books for my own writing.

If it's made of paper I'll probably try to read it. But I don't usually stick with a novel unless it catches my attention: I don't see the point. There are so many books; why would I waste time finishing one I don't like?

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was raised in Somerset, England, in a tiny village miles from the nearest shop. My school friends all lived miles away too, which probably helped push me towards books. There's only so much fun you can have playing frisbee on your own.

I didn't enjoy my childhood much, in many ways. That might be why I write Fantasy - if reading is an escape into another world, then Fantasy is the same thing with bells on.
When did you first start writing?
I can't remember, I've always written. I know I first finished a novel when I was 10. It was rubbish - some old toot set in ancient Greece - but still it was finished, and that's no small feat for a child.

What is your writing process?
My process is simple - get an idea, flesh it out, start writing.

That's really it. I'm sure a lot of people will talk about preparation and habit, but the best habit of all is to write. Just sit down and write. You can't learn your craft by plotting a story, or drawing a map, or producing reams of detail on every character. You learn the craft by writing. That's all.

  I think every writer has a different way of doing things. What I've said here - or on the other questions at Smashwords - is just mine: I'm not suggesting anyone else follows the same path. All that matters is your path works for you.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Romance of Shining Armour

  In my novel Black Lord of Eagles, as yet unpublished, I try to show war as realistically as I can. Fantasy often shows it as an idealised thing, all shining swords and noble combat, and sometimes that annoys me. War is not a game. It's brutal, and ugly, and good people are killed and maimed for a cause they hardly care about.

  No author can show war in all its horror. We only have to look at Syria to realise that. But writers and film makers so often portray warfare as a heroic thing that it's easy for politicians, and the public, to believe it. The French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery said "War is not an adventure. It is a disease", and he's right.

  We need to intervene in Syria, we're told, because Assad has used chemical weapons, which is illegal under international law. And yet the USA, Britain, and others openly state that if attacked, they reserve the right to retaliate with nuclear warheads. I can't understand why one of these weapons is illegal and the other not. Is it more horrible to be gassed than irradiated?

  We make all these rules - you can't attack without declaring war, can't use chemical or biological weapons, can't use landmines or cluster bombs - when we know perfectly well that when someone is driven into a corner, he'll break them. And besides, the deadliest weapons ever made are rifles, swords and spears. Over a million people were killed in Rwanda in the 1990's with blades and clubs. Twice as many - at least - have been killed across the border in DR Congo, almost all of them with nothing more complex than a bullet. And yet somehow we see this as being acceptable, a agreed-upon method of waging war, so we send a couple of peacekeepers (maybe) and then think about other things.

  Authors aren't to blame for this. But we can help to change perceptions, to take the romance out of war, if we stop portraying it as something romantic. We need to get away from the idea of the knight in shining armour, and see him instead smeared with mud and the blood of his friends and foes alike. No more female warriors in moulded breastplates, who look so sexy and imply that battle is the same.

  I know, I know - in Fantasy, people want escapism, not hard reality. Which is why I said at the top that I've tried to show war "as realistically as I can." I have to balance it within the story, and not nauseate people so badly that they stop reading. I don't, by the way, it isn't that graphic. But I did want to show that people die in war, some of them in ugly ways. I can say it no better than William T Sherman;

  "I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine... war is hell."

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On a Moonlit Night

  You'll know, I hope, that I recently put all my books on a free offer from Kindle for three days. I'm happy to say that hundreds were taken in that time, of all three novels, so it went quite well. Of course I get no money for any of them, but with any luck it will raise awareness, bring in more reviews and so on, so in time it should work out. Big thanks to everyone who picked up a copy, then, and one more request; please, if you can, leave a review on my Amazon author page!

  Social media work is taking up as much time as writing itself does, now. I've always tried to write for a minimum of an hour a day, at the least, though on some days that's mostly spent staring out of the window and thinking. Sometimes even about whatever it is I'm writing. But that's working too, so it's OK. Now though, it's harder to find that time because I have to check my blog, and review a piece or two on the Google+ author pages, and check my Facebook page, and the Kindle store, and CreateSpace and Book Blogs and Feed-A-Read and....

  I'm not really au fait with social media. For all I know I might be going about this all wrong. Writers are sometimes quite introverted people, you might catch a glimpse of one on a moonlit night if you're very, very quiet, but you likely won't spot us chuntering away on social media sites, or playing MMORPG's ten hours a day. So we don't know how to use the online system properly - or I don't, anyway: I might be over-generalising here. For me, it means I spend two hours doing what might take someone else thirty minutes, and with the best will in the world, it cuts into my writing time.

  I'm starting to think that mastery of social media might be as unlikely as mastery of writing. Hemingway once said that every writer is an apprentice in a craft in which no one ever becomes a master, and with the way internet sites change and evolve, the web is probably the same. That's why computer wizards are always young; by the time they hit thirty, everything's changed and they're old news. But writers start later (usually) and have a longer career arc, so we're inevitably going to spend time goggling at the screen while spluttering, "What the hell is that?"

  Well, nothing worth having ever comes easy, or so I'm told. Still, if anyone has any advice, I'm listening.


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Utterly Alien

  I've been thinking recently (for some reason) about the writing tips that we bump into every few days. You know the sort of thing: Show, Don't Tell is a common one, and Avoid Adverbs pops up all the time. It seems as though half the authors and most of the critics in the world just can't wait to share their wisdom in yet another Top 10 Hints.

  The one I've been thinking about is Write What You Know.

  There's truth in it, of course. Every author draws on his or her own experiences, the things we've done and felt and seen. Otherwise our work would be no more involving than a shopping list. But there are limits. This is Fantasy, after all. Robert Jordan never travelled with Loial in Andor, and I'm very nearly certain that JRR Tolkien didn't stop by Bag End for a crumpet and tea with Bilbo Baggins. Part of Fantasy is writing about things we don't know.

  It's also about things we've invented, preferably ourselves, rather than borrowed wholesale from someone else's work (see my blog Ditching the Light Sabres for a rant about that, if you like). Our job is to create and invent a new world, people it with strange and wonderful beings, and then take the reader by the hand and lead him to explore. None of that can possibly come from writing what we know.

  I suspect this is why so many aliens aren't alien at all, but humans in different skin. Star Trek is especially guilty on this - again, see an earlier blog - because it takes humans and gives them pointy ears, or ridged brows, and calls them alien. It's very hard to conceive of a non-human species which thinks in a different way to us. It's then even harder to convey that to the reader in an interesting and engaging way. How can we empathise with a species that doesn't have the concept of love? Or a race that has no children, no young, but like Celtic elves builds bodies out of forest matter and quickens them with life?

  That's utterly alien, a people with which we struggle to find a common frame of reference. In writing I think it's very nearly impossible to do. The closest I can think of would be the Martians in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", or perhaps the Fithp in Niven and Pournelle's "Footfall". Both are SF books, not Fantasy, but the principle is the same. I'm sure there are others, and if so I'd like to take a look at them, so suggestions are more than welcome.

  I might be thinking about all this because I'm writing Starfire, which depends heavily on several different patterns of thought. Mostly that's indirect, but it's still tricky. I feel as though I'm wrestling with an oiled snake in a mudbath. But it's working, slowly - at least I think it is - I hope it is. And perhaps I'll be a little slower to criticise in future, when someone chooses to go for funny-looking humans again, because trying the other way is really hard.

PS - all my books are FREE from August 20th to 22nd on Amazon Kindle. Two are also free via coupon on Smashwords; the codes are SX99K for Risen King, and SU58A for Blood and Gold. Pick them up, hope you enjoy them, and spread the word!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Apologies and a New Story

  Well, apologies first of all, because it's been over a month since my last blog. I moved house and found the wifi at my new place was down, so I've been running back and forth to the library to use the PCs there, getting the new novel published and trying to keep up with emails and so on without paying so much that I can't afford biscuits (a disaster, that). So I'm sorry I've been missing, I'll try not to let it happen again.

  The good news is that The Gate of Angels is now published, available on Kindle as an e-book and soon in print via CreateSpace too. This finishes the Songs of Sorrow duology, picking up where Blood and Gold left off and taking the story to its conclusion. It's a story I needed to tell, I think. Religion was a large factor in ancient societies, so it's hard for a Fantasy author to ignore the subject. My problem was that I kept returning to a sort of quasi-Christian belief system - one God, one Heaven and so on - even in stories that didn't need it.

  So I decided to deal with that by writing a story that was all about such a belief system. I hoped doing so would scratch my itch, if you like, and mean the theme would stop worming its way into other things; which it has, now. I don't know - it's a guess - but I think a lot of writers probably encounter something like this, a topic that lodges in their mind and won't be shaken loose. People often say they have a story that they need to tell, and maybe this is what they mean. Anyway, it's done, so I hope you enjoy the book.

  I'm now back writing Starfire, which has given me such trouble before, but I think I might have cracked it now (famous last words, eh?). I've shuffled the events around so they're told in a different order, and I've expanded the early sub-plot until it fills almost the whole of volume one. I think it'll work. And wondering about it's half the fun, after all. Probably the story will wriggle about as I write it, wanting to take a different shape to the one I had in mind... and that's good, it shows the tale has some life in it, and isn't just a cardboard pastiche.

  That's it for now. I just hope when I do the next blog, I'm not muttering about how Starfire doesn't want to be written.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Ditching the Light Sabres

  A couple of nights ago I saw the film District 9, for the first time. Without wanting to give away spoilers, I can still say that this is what Sci-Fi can be when it grows up and ditches the light swords and aliens who are just pointy-eared humans.

  What is it that SF and Fantasy allow a writer to do, that other genres don't?

  The simple answer is: create a whole world. A whole culture, with its own history and beliefs, its own superstitions and folk tales, all the million little things we hardly think of but which children absorb as they grow. This is what Tolkien said he set out to do: create a complete, internally consistent mythos for the British people. So it drives me mad when Fantasy authors just spout ripoffs of Tolkien - worlds under threat from (another) returning Dark Lord; Elves living in deep forests and Dwarves under deep mountains, wearing leather and carrying heavy axes everywhere. Terry Pratchett has spoofed this unthinking repetition in the Discworld books, but it's a shame he has to.

  Because really, the advantage of writing F & SF is that you can imagine. You can create elves more like the Norse ones, all dark magic and bitterness; or you can invent your own people from scratch, as Robert Jordan (to his credit) did in The Wheel of Time. And then in your next book you can invent it all anew, imagine a different world with different peoples and cultures, different beliefs, and so on. You could create a world with different gravity, for god's sake, or some sort of raptor animal that means humans are not top of the food chain, or whatever you like. I have an idea for a future novel which includes some of these ideas, by the way, so we'll see where that one goes.

  But I don't see the point of retelling the same story all over again. It isn't just that some authors copy Tolkien. It's that they then retell the same story again, and again, using the same world/ kingdom/ culture as a background to the tale. I can name two Fantasy writers who have, essentially, repeated the same story over and over now for 30 years, and they're not the only ones.

  Why? Why does someone who wants to write Fantasy then not imagine his own world, but borrow someone else's? Why do the fighter-craft in Star Wars perform dogfights that could be right out of World War I? Why are nearly all Star Trek aliens not alien at all, but just humans with one weird feature, like ears or ridged foreheads? It's a failure of imagination, a failure of nerve I think. It's no good saying "This is what sells", because of course it will sell if it's what people have become accustomed to. The trick, surely, is to show the reader or viewer something fresh, something more creative, and do so in such an enticing way that they come into that strange land with you.

  I'm not at all sure I'm a gifted enough writer to do that. But I'll bloody well try, because I don't have the slightest interest in adding my name to the long list of dreary copyists who churn out the same old cack over and again. Better to explore those strange lands, and hope some of you stay with me while I do.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Inca Roads, and a Bicycle

  Well, I made my long-planned expedition onto Exmoor last weekend, intending to cycle across the whole National Park. I managed 45 miles, hit a pothole and broke my back wheel, and had to abandon. All day I'd seemed to be riding a yard out from the road edge because the tarmac there was crumbling away. So of course this got me thinking - once the cursing had stopped - about how ancient cultures maintained their roads.

  See the way my mind works?

  So when I got home, I researched it. Turns out a lot of ancient peoples didn't really have many proper roads. Even Greece didn't: mostly they were content with dirt tracks that baked solid in summer and turned to mud every winter. The Egyptians were a bit like that too, except they built great causeways high above the plain, so they stayed dry when the Nile flooded. I'm sure they needed a lot of work to keep them intact, but they managed. The Romans built legendary roads, of course, engineering marvels, and so did the Inca. In South America the main north-south road was the Qhapac Nan, and ran nearly 4,000 miles along the Andes Mountains.

  4,000 miles, across one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, spanning deep ravines and boring through rock at times. And the Inca worked almost entirely with stone tools! But they could build and maintain a road like that, and many others besides, while in Britain we can't properly repair a road over a moor less than two thousand feet high.

  All this indicates two things. Firstly, I'm still rather vexed that my long weekend was ruined by a hole in the road. Secondly, doing the sort of writing I do requires a hell of a lot of research. This interest in roads likely won't matter much: I don't want to bore readers with endless minor details like that. But it might supply a line of prose, once or twice, and add a little to the feel and sense of the book. If I do that with ten different things I'll have quite a different story.

  Reviewers of my work constantly ask about the research I do. I take it as a compliment, because it means they've realised the background work that goes into each project. But I usually don't have to bust a wheel and skid halfway across the road in order to get there.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Flabby Perils of Star Trek

  So I watched Star Trek: Into Darkness last night. I've always liked Star Trek, despite its sometimes cheesiness. Like a lot of sci-fi/fan, when it gets it right it really does get it right. The first J J Abrams/Chris Pine/ Zachary Quinto film was very good, not only decent cinema but a good plot too, and well told.

  Sadly the sequel isn't. It's still a decent film, but the 3D gimmicks are annoying me now, they're pointless and sometimes distort a film just so the director can fit in that really great shot with bits flying towards the audience... but mostly the story is just poor. The idea is good, but it isn't well told. There are too many knowing nods to the earlier Star Trek, that of Shatner and Nimoy et al, and the last hour (or nearly) of the film is just one flash-bang-scream piled on the last, which just made my eyes ache.

  A peril of being an author: you notice when a story is flabby, or when it wanders, or when something has been stuck in just because it goes wheeee but it doesn't help the story at all. There's an old saying; kill your darlings, which means that any writer has to be able to review his own work and cut out this, trim that, skip that whole scene... However good it is, or however keen on it you are, you have to cut. (Spoiler alert) An online reviewer called Caroline Sheehan said of The Risen King that there were scenes she'd have liked to see, rather than just hear about, for example the fall of Gailhom and the deaths of the king and Stefan, but I just couldn't fit it in. The novel is nearly 140,000 words long anyway, I had to cut like a madman just to keep it down to that.

  It's a shame J J Abrams doesn't seem to have done that with Into Darkness. It's the same malaise that ruined the latter three Star Wars films, when nobody was close enough to George Lucas to say No, stop, that bit of dialogue clunks like a wooden leg and by the way, Jar-Jar Binks is a REALLY bad idea. I'm not sure anyone can be trusted to do this editing all alone. Everyone needs a reader who can tell them where the clunks are, when the story waffles and grows fat without going anywhere, and so on. I can see it with Into Darkness, but I know from experience that it often takes someone else's eyes to see it in my own writing.

  And on that note I'll quit, before this blog post also becomes flabby.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Free Books, Contests and Getting Wet

  Well, first things first - Blood and Gold e-book will be free at Amazon Kindle on Monday 13th/Tuesday 14th of May. Feel free to pick it up, and please tell people about it, the more freebies the better.

  So, on to other things. I'm going to enter Black Lord of Eagles for the Yeovil Prize - that's a writing competition here in the South-West of England. I decided to do so after attending an event at the Barnstaple library on World Book Day, including an address by the author Sophie Duffy, so thanks to her and to the staff as well. Black Lord... has also just gone off to an agent for the first time; fingers crossed that someone will pick up on it.

  I can't get Starfire written though. I hit walls all the time: solve one problem and another pops up. I think there must be something wrong with the structure of the story, or the basic execution, but I can't put my finger on what it is. So that will have to be shelved until I can work it out (probably about 2019, the speed my brain chugs along at). On the brighter side, I've finished volume one of Chained Dragon, a book called The Bone-Smile, and I'm just starting on volume two. And I still have the ideas for The Pyramids of Saqoma, and The Cross-Tree, and also The Rainbow Bridge. Plus I've done some outlines for a series called The Playground of Fawns, which is very ambitious and just a bit scary, to be honest. I'm not ready to tackle that yet, but there's plenty to be going on with.

  Quite a lot of titles beginning with The, now I look at that. Maybe one or two will change as I go. Ho hum.

  Now spring has finally arrived, I'm looking forward to hiking up onto Exmoor at some point, to spend a few days with zero connection to the outside world at all. It's astonishingly liberating to do - blimey, I sound like a self-help manual - and if I take a few pens and some paper, I might get some good thoughts down. Of course I might also get very wet, and end up eating half-cold beans out of the tin because the fire won't light properly, but that will just make it easier for me to imagine the characters in my books.

  I'll keep telling myself that, anyway. And who knows, I might even get a handle on how to fix the problems with Starfire.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

One at a Time

  I've been wondering. In this e-book age, why are we still writing novels the same way?

  We could publish one chapter at a time if we wanted to, and price each at ten pence. Or ten thousand words at a time, and twenty pence. When the story adds up to 80,000 words we could package it all together, stick a cover on and call it volume one, and publish it as a print copy.

  I got to thinking about this with a future book of mine, The Blessed Land, which is about 190,000 words long. I rewrote it into two volumes, but I thought; why not three? Or four, and give the first one away free as an e-book, to draw readers in? Why not do that as my standard approach, with Blessed Land and everything else too?

  People may already have done this, for all I know. But if so I haven't heard of it, and I'm not honestly sure if it would work anyway. Maybe oui, maybe non. It's just that we ought at least to be experimenting, trying new things, now publishing is so different to how it's ever been before. Though having said that, what I'm suggesting isn't so different from 19th century publishing, when Dickens and Collins et al published their novels as serials in newspapers. There really isn't much that's new under the sun, eh?

  Anyhow, that's what I'm pondering at the moment. Blessed Land would fit a four-part series well, with the first free, and in future I might write with that in mind. Divide the novel differently. Or perhaps there are other, better ideas, things I haven't thought of. If any occur be sure to let me know, won't you?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Plunge

  Well, today's big news is that I finally decided to establish a website. I've been dithering over it, mostly because social media work for the books now seems to take up as much time as writing does, which seems a bit counter-productive really. But one thing and another have added up and so I took the plunge, using a company called Wix - silly name, but a pretty good system. I set it up in less than 2 hours, which means it must be so easy that a one-eyed budgie could manage it.

  The website's at by the way. I'm sure I've made mistakes, so if you spot any please use the Contact page to get in touch and point them out. And let me know what you think generally, I have no idea how these things are supposed to look.

  Anyway, I'm also preparing to publish The Gate of Angels, volume two of Songs of Sorrow. It won't be until July, but I want to get ahead of the curve this time, and put out one or two previews and tasters before then. Very likely I'll try to set up some author events too, at the local library or maybe a bookstore, just to let people know about me. I expect the turnout will be tiny, but that's OK, it's not like I'm in the Rolling Stones or anything.

  Meanwhile I'm writing Starfire. I'm about 60,000 words in at the moment, so well into volume one. It's a much more mainstream Fantasy than my other work, with magic (or starfire) front and centre of the story, so it presents different challenges and will probably feel very different to the reader. That's OK too, because I don't want to write the same story over and over, as some authors do. Besides, it's fun to write, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Just One Review

  Well, it's only a week since my last blog, which is short for me. But a lot's happened, so here I am again.

  First up, my second novel Blood and Gold is now out on Amazon Kindle and as a print book, via CreateSpace, It's another Fantasy, if somewhat different to The Risen King. Secondly, Risen King itself is now on Smashwords, so it either is or soon will be available on mobile phones and suchlike which use different platforms: Android, Apple and so on.

  (It's actually amazing that although I've published before, putting out Blood and Gold still gave me a secret sort of thrill. I sort of suspect I'll still get that in 30 years)

  Anyway, the other big thing that happened is I picked up my first official review, from someone on the Amazon list of indie reviewers. This woman's name is Jennifer Hyndman, and after reading Risen King she was kind enough to say this;

   I have found a new passion and it is discovering indie author treasures. This is one of those. Immediately I was taken with the beauty of this authors writing... which draws the suspense in such as way as the intrigue kept me reading for two solid hours. What a great ability to define such nature and character within a story with mere words.
   I was very much surprised to find a new and original story line to immerse myself in. It is a personal adventure, and as I read on the author leads you into his world by attaching your mind to the characters. You live their world and their thoughts. You bond with them which seems and develop an emotional attachment... when you find an indie author with fluid prose and the ability to capture you into the tale, you should pass it on. (5 stars)

  I can't believe I was given such a review as that, especially as it was my first. Right away thanks are due to Jennifer Hyndman, who like most online reviewers is snowed under, and who took the time to read my book and offer her opinion. I know reviewers do it for the joy of reading as much as anything, but it must still be a brain-numbing task sometimes, so I'm grateful to anyone who makes the effort, whatever they say in review.

  But when someone says that... wow. It's a single review, that's all, but to we insecure, doubt-gnawed writers something like this is precious indeed. I've said it once, but again won't hurt: thank you, to Ms Hyndman and to all the reviewers, because you do an important job and if we're not grateful to you, we should be.