Category Archives: Blog

Manifesto

(I read the following at the launch party for Dream Paris, 11th Sept 2015)

It’s a common question asked of all authors: why did you write this book?

So when I finished Dream Paris, just like when I finished all my other books, I sat down and thought about what my answer would be when asked that question.

It was only than that it occurred to me how odd this was. I’d just spent 381 hours or 15 and a bit days (I timed myself, see my website) writing a novel over the course of a year, and I hadn’t once stopped to think why.

Why am I doing this? Why write at all?

There’s a very easy answer to this. That great writer about writing, Sol Stein said that a writer was someone who couldn’t not write. But perfect though that answer is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why write at all?

I spent a lot of time over the summer, wondering just that. I spend a lot of my time writing, my family put up with it, they’ve rearranged their lives to a certain extent to let me spend my time sitting at keyboard.

Why do I write? I could say it’s because I’m a story teller, but every human is a story teller. The first story we tell ourselves is the story of who we are. We make up the story of what sort of a person we are: happy or sad or popular or deserving or hard done by. We make up stories about other people, our friends and acquaintances, and our stories about them never match their stories of themselves. We put ourselves in their shoes so we can try and understand their motives and actions. This is what scientists call a theory of mind, some say this is the dawn of intelligence.

So I don’t think it’s enough to say that I’m a story teller, because everyone is.

I could point out that like many people in this room I’m a professional story teller, what’s called a teacher, and have been since I taught fencing on a children’s camp in America and discovered to my surprise that I enjoyed it. All teaching is story telling, teaching is taking the real world in all its splendid, unknowable complexity and reducing it to a story that a child can understand. Not only understand, but believe. And any teacher will tell you that the student doesn’t always believe what you’re saying.

So I’m a teacher and a writer. I don’t know which of those things come first, I know that they’re both linked. Incidentally, my wife often points out that those are two things nearly everyone thinks they can do until they try it…

Now, I don’t know if the above explains why I’m a writer. I know it leaves me thinking who wouldn’t want to be a writer?

But that still doesn’t explain why I write what I write.

There’s a certain cachet in being a writer, and whilst I’m delighted with this, it’s a sign of our society that someone who has written an impenetrable 80 000 word novel about the pain of being middle class is generally held in higher esteem than someone who gives up all their free time to run a Scout Troop or a Brownie Pack.

It’s also true that there is less cachet in writing SF. Indeed it’s not uncommon for people to ask me if I ever intend to write a ‘proper’ book. And yes, that is as rude as it sounds.

Well, I believe that SF is the only truly original form of literature of the past 100 years. SF encompasses everything from the mainstream but adds its own unique sensibility. I believe that SF is read by people who appreciate the beauty in Euler’s Identity just as readily as they appreciate the beauty in the St Matthew Passion, and if they don’t understand either of those things then they don’t scoff at them, they don’t say they are boring they are pretentious, they set off to learn about them. SF recognises that there is as much beauty in maths and science as there is in the arts, and that all these things make humans what they are. In my opinion, to try and explore the human condition without acknowledging the cold equations is to fail as a writer.

I believe what I just said to be true, and I could say that’s why I’m an SF writer, but it’s not.

The truth is, I’m an SF writer because when I write, I write SF. That’s the way that I think. SF isn’t about the robots and spaceships and rayguns – I rarely write about those things anyway – it’s about the way you look at the world, it’s the way that the stories are told. I can’t write a story without extrapolating, without asking what if, without acknowledging the fact that there is a cold, impersonal but ultimately wonderful universe out there.

I want to explain the world, I want to find wonder in the everyday. Ultimately, I think that the fact of the evolution of the horse is more wonderful than any unicorn and I can’t pretend otherwise. That really would be selling out.
This is why I write
This why I write what I write.
I can’t help it, I have no choice

Hiroshima

2014-08-01 11.43.26The picture shows the Peace Dome in Hiroshima.  The bomb exploded almost directly above the building, it was the only structure left standing in the area afterwards.

It’s very quiet around the dome, nobody has a lot to say.  They all look to a point above the building and imagine.

 

 

 

I took the picture below in the Peace Museum, just around the corner from the dome.  The red ball hangs over the map: it represents the point of detonation.  There is a model of the dome beneath the ball.

2014-08-01 13.05.51The picture in the Peace Museum that upset me the most  was of two children playing with kittens.  Despite the fact they were in the middle of a war, despite the fact rations were tight and they expected to be firebombed at any time, the children were laughing and smiling.  They looked just like any kids anywhere, anytime.

The picture was taken three days before the bomb.

Six Little Masterpieces of Economy

Armistead Maupin has been described as the master of coincidence.  He’s also a master of economy.  Look how captures the essence of his characters in a just a few words in the following chapter openers…
  • ‘Well,’ boomed Arnold Littlefield, dousing his scrambled eggs with ketchup, ‘the hubby stood you up, huh?’
  • MANUEL THE GARDENER was grumpy, so DeDe didn’t have the nerve to ask him to clean the yucky things out of the swimming pool at Halcyon Hill.
  • MONA WAS WASHING dishes with a vengeance when Mrs Madrigal walked into the kitchen.
  • BURKE, OF COURSE, was the hardest one to convince.
  • MARY ANN SPENT her lunch hour at Hastings, picking out just the right tie for Norman.
  • THE DISCOTHEQUE WAS called Dance Your Ass Off. Mary Ann thought that was gross, but didn’t tell Connie so

See Also

Six Useful Websites for Writers

1) Etomyonline – Etymological Dictionary

See the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. Keep your language of its time with this site and the next:

2) Google ngrams – frequencies of short sentences found in sources printed between 1800 and 2012

3) Behind the name – etymology of first names

Very useful when used in conjunction with the next site:

4) Fake Name Generator – not just names but biographies

Ideal when you’re stuck for background characters. Characters like

Amanda Castro Carvalho. Born and raised in Switzerland of Brazillian parents. She was born on October 19, 1987, making her 27 years old and a Libra

5) Inflation Calculator

Was £20 a week a good wage back in 1960? How much would Mr Darcy’s 10000 a year be in today’s money? The Bank’s Inflation Calculator shows how the cost of goods and services changes over time as prices change. You can check the effect of price changes over any period from 1750 to 2013.

6) Wolfram Alpha

Unlike search engines, which merely return documents, Wolfram Alpha tries to work out answers from questions. To get an idea of how Wolfram Alpha differs from Google, say, try asking them both how far away the moon is, then compare the answers.

See Also

Story Behind the Book Volume 4

Volume 4 of the “Story Behind the Book” series of charity anthologies, edited by Kristijan Meic and Ivana Steiner is out now.  It features a brief essay by me about the story behind Dream London.

As always, all proceeds go to Epilepsy Action, UK registered charity, so spread the word

Similarly to previous instalments, the cover image was taken by Ivana Steiner in her genetics lab while working hard on finding the cure for lung cancer. This time it’s an image of Transfected HEK-293 cells.

Currently the book is available as e-book and print on demand paperback on Amazon. In the next few days it will appear elsewhere…

Links are:
Amazon.com
E-book:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VPK1WBA
Paperback:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/1511602473/

Amazon.co.uk
E-book:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00VPK1WBA/
Paperback:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1511602473

How Long does it Take to Write a Novel?

The answer? Fifteen days, twenty hours and fifty five minutes.

I know that because I finished Dream Paris yesterday and I’ve been clocking the time I spent working on the novel.

The time includes the writing of the first draft of the novel and three redrafts: first redraft, the second following feedback from my wife and a third following feedback from other readers. The novel is now with my editor awaiting his feedback and will probably undergo at least two further redrafts.

I’ve not counted time spent planning the novel or the notes I made prior to embarking on the writing. As some of the ideas, scenes and dialog that appear in the novel have been collected over several years, it was difficult to measure this.

Some statistics you might find interesting:

I started on the 18th February, 2014 at 9:58am
I finished on the 20th February, 2015 at 3:00pm exactly

If I’d been writing an 8 hour day the novel would have taken around 48 days to complete.

The book is almost exactly 100 000 words as it stands, given that it took just short of 381 hours to write that gives an average word rate of a rather pitiful 262 words an hour. Given that the first draft took around half the total time to complete, that makes the word rate a more respectable 524 words an hour. As I normally average around 850 words an hour, the missing words are partially accounted for by the fact that I cut around 60 000 words from the novel due to mistakes, changing my mind or no good reason.

If you’re interested how I collected this data, well, have I mentioned Emacs? I recorded the time taken using org-mode. You can find out more by reading this post on My Emacs Writing Setup.

​10 Books I Couldn’t Put Down

I don’t know what my favourite book is, but the following are books I read at various times of my life that, at the time, I couldn’t put down. Most of them I finished in maybe one sitting – definitely no more than two or three – perhaps whilst lying ill in bed or on holiday.

Some of them I’ve read over and over again, two of them I’ve only read once (one of those because it’s not yet available on Kindle and I don’t buy paper books any more)

Most of them are expertly crafted, one of them is appallingly written. All but two have very good stories, half of them are strongly plotted, three of them are character driven, three of them made me laugh out loud, three of them made me smile, four of them had me on the edge of my seat, none of them made me cry. Maybe three of them would get into my top ten books ever.

In no particular order…

  • Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keys
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  • The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • Complicity by Iain Banks
  • A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
  • The Rainmaker by John Grisham
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Six Ways to Stay Sane as a Writer

  1. Don’t place too high a value on your reviews (there’ll always be good and bad ones).
  2. Don’t place too high a value on your Amazon Sales Position (no matter how high it is, it will go down eventually).
  3. When it comes to you writing, the only people whose opinions really matter are your editor and those you’ve chosen to be your alpha and beta readers. (And you should really listen to them!)
  4. Remember that you got into this to be a writer. If you’re writing, you’re doing what you wanted to do (and what you have to do).
  5. Always be working on your next story (that way you won’t feel so bad if the last one is rejected).
  6. Remember that being a writer is only part of who you are. You’re also a wife/husband/partner/mother/father/son/daughter/friend/colleague…  (in fact, you spend more of your time being those things).

See Also

Why the Last Series of Dr Who was Badly Written, and Why it Matters

It’s not often that a TV show makes me angry, find but the last series of Doctor Who did. It made me really angry.

Why? Because it was badly written. Very badly written. I’ve read many articles to the contrary and, patient somewhat confusingly, there I agree with them. How can that be?

Because I do agree that the writing for the series was superb, but I also think that some of the episodes with the best writing in them were also the worst written overall.

So where’s the contradiction? It lies in the writers’ almost total disregard for the science in the Science Fiction.

Does it matter? After all, this is a show that features a character who can travel in time. Time travel is impossible, surely that shows a complete disregard for science. Well, yes, but that’s not the problem. In Science Fiction you can have one impossible thing, you can maybe have two or three impossible things that you build your story around. That’s the nature of the genre, but there’s a caveat: you have to maintain internal consistency. If you accept your two or three impossible things and then continue to go trampling over the science just for the sake of the plot, then that’s just bad writing. Full stop. And that’s what happened in the last series of Dr Who.

Does it matter?

If you want to write SF, yes it does. If you care about SF, it does. Because this sort of bad writing cheapens what the rest of us SF writers are trying to do. It falls in with the received wisdom of the Literary Establishment that these things don’t really matter, that ignorance of Maths and Science is nothing to be ashamed of.

No one would dream of writing a detective show without consulting basic police procedure. I read somewhere that the BBC is always careful to make sure that the steam engines it includes in period dramas are correct because so many people write in to complain when they get it wrong. So why is it okay to ignore bad science? A dragon hatching and laying an egg straight away? Trees suddenly appearing to save us from a solar flare? These were well written episodes with bad explanations just tacked on. They could have been much better. Are the writers really going to claim failure of the imagination?

Yes, it’s nice that the BBC include this sort of drama in their mainstream schedules, it’s great that they throw money and actors at it to produce a quality product. But if they ignore the science, then they’re saying that it doesn’t matter, that when in it comes down to it, the S in SF doesn’t matter. It’s the only the F that counts.

Well, I think they’re wrong, and unlike some of the other reviewers, I’m not going to pretend otherwise.