Friday, 28 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

My friend and former Clarion West classmate Ibi Zoboi tagged me for The Next Big Thing thingy that's been going around. Hey, why not? I figured. Then, of course, I'm faced with the questions, and my brain goes numb.

 I have to tell you that I may have the worst memory in the world. Ask me what I did last week, and I'll just stare blankly at you. On the other hand, Steph complains jealously when we re-watch TV shows or movies together that she always knows what's coming up and it's always a surprise to me.

Anyway, let's give this a go and see if I can dredge up anything...

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Okay, so I can do this one. The working title is Secrets of the Dragon Tomb. Yeah, I realise that titles often change before publication, and the title is the publisher's choice, and publishers are often way better at coming up with good titles than authors are, but I really do like this, so here's hoping it actually stays.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Oh. Good. A memory question...

I don't actually know where the original idea came from. I suspect I have notebooks somewhere in the piles of junk -- er, valuable, important documents -- that lie around our house with my original ideas in, but what I do recall is that Steph and I were watching Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and somehow that combined with the kind of adventures I really wanted to write (part Indiana Jones, part Doctor Who) and this idea for a computer that worked using water and pipes and valves instead of electricity and wires and capacitors and diodes and the like that I came up with when I was a Physics PhD student. (Although my friend, John, who was doing an electronics PhD at the same time will no doubt tell you that I was never much good at electronics and so probably have no idea how computers actually work).

Out of all that came Secrets of the Dragon Tomb.

That doesn't really answer the question.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Let's say middle grade. (That's the fantastic thing about middle grade -- you don't have to pin books down into little boxes (huzzah for mixed metaphors...). Middle grade is much more free.)

If I had to get out my pins, I'd say adventure-science-fiction-fantasy-steampunk-humor. Er. Is that a genre? It is now. Come join me in my corner...

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love casting my stories. I really do. I can procrastinate for hours this way. But here's the problem with books that have mainly children as lead characters: you cast them in your mind when you're writing them (everyone does that, right?), but by the time you've finished, they're all too old. Bah.

So, I don't know who I'd cast in the roles of the children, but I can cast a few people. I'm going to choose Richard Armitage as my main villain, Sir Titus Dane (although I want him more as Guy of Gisborne in the BBC Robin Hood series rather than the grumpy dwarf in The Hobbit). Oh, and while we're at it, I'll have Martin Freeman as Dr. Octavius Blood, and Lucy Griffiths as my hero's older sister, Olivia.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Seriously? One sentence?

Mars in 1816 is a world of high Society, thrilling adventure, and strange clockwork machines; when the villainous archaeologist, Sir Titus Dane, kidnaps Edward Sullivan's parents as part of as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb, Edward and his sisters must pursue across the Martian wilderness, evading Sir Titus's minions, fighting desperate battles with mechanical nasties, and escaping deadly Martian hunting machines on the way.

All right, that was a total cheat, but what else can you do?

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is the wonderful Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary. Secrets of the Dragon Tomb will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (an imprint of Henry Holt / Macmillan).

So, no and yes.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I have absolutely no idea! Too long. A couple of hundred years?

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Authors are generally completely rubbish at this. What we think our books are like is entirely different from what readers think. But let's have a go.

Take a cup of Mortal Engines, lightly fry in a tablespoon of Percy Jackson, season with a teaspoon of Kat, Incorrigible, then just before it's done mix in some Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, and Jeeves and Wooster. Then serve on a bed of Tintin, Skulduggery Pleasant, and Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, and then you'll, well, probably be confused.

Oh, just read it when it comes out. :)

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I read a lot of middle grade fiction (as well as adult fiction, of course) and I love it. I love the freedom and honesty it allows you as a writer, and it's a type of fiction that allows you to completely shed the cynicism and self-critique that seems to accompany adult fiction. I wanted to write about adventure and madcap schemes and crazy inventions and dastardly villains. I wanted to make it funny and exciting and filled with a sense of wonder, because those are the books I love to read.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

What? That's not enough?

Okay, here is my complete pitch for the book, as opposed to the one-liner above:

Mars in 1816 is a world of high Society, deadly danger, and strange clockwork machines. Pterodactyls glide through the sky, automatic servants hand out sandwiches at elegant garden parties, and in the north, the great dragon tombs hide marvels of Ancient Martian technology.

Fourteen-year-old Edward Sullivan has always dreamed of becoming a spy like the ones he reads of in his favorite magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. Instead, he spends his days keeping his eccentric family from complete disaster … that is, until the villainous archeologist, Sir Titus Dane, kidnaps Edward’s parents as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb.

Edward sets off in pursuit across the Martian wilderness. With him are his brilliant and outrageous little sister, Putty, his impossibly starchy older sister, Olivia, and his secretive cousin, Freddie. Together they must evade Sir Titus’s minions, battle mechanical nasties, and escape deadly Martian hunting machines. If they can’t, they will never uncover the secrets of the dragon tomb and rescue Edward’s family.

Here's the book's (rather empty so far) goodreads page.

I don't explicitly tag anyone on these things, but if you fancy doing it, consider yourself officially tagged right ... NOW!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bone Roads: free ebook for Christmas

For those of you who have Kindles, my short story collection, Bone Roads: Nine Stories of Magic and Wonder will be free from Amazon on Christmas day (apparently timed according to PST).

I'm not sure if this is just Amazon in the US or all Amazon stores, but check it out if you're looking for some reading on your shiny new (or old) Kindle or Kindle app on Christmas.

There's no DRM, so feel free to convert to other formats if you prefer!

Bone Roads on: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Here's the blurb:

A ghost searches for revenge in ancient Egypt.
A girl risks awakening a dark god to save her dog.
A boy unearths the bones of a dragon…

These fantasy stories were previously published in magazines including Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Black Static.

The Nine Stories:

When the Dragon Falls
A Field Guide to Ugly Places
The Frog King
Five Things of Beauty
Dawn, by the Light of a Barrow Fire
The Sea Beyond Thule
The Land of Reeds
The Western Front
At the Gates

Reviews of stories in this collection:

"This is the first story I've read this year that I'd consider a masterpiece. It's rare for a story to move me to tears, but this one did."
- John Dodds, The Fix, on 'The Western Front'.

"Marvelous."
- Colin Harvey, Suite101, on 'At the Gates'

"This one kept me turning the page without pause, with its natural pace and flow of words, good characterization, and skillful plot build-up. Samphire's writing skill is matched only by his knowledge of Ancient Egyptian culture and mythology."
- Scott M. Sandridge, Tangent Online, on 'The Land of Reeds'.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

My precious, and heads-up

You know you married the absolutely right person when they spontaneously buy you this:



Apparently, I am supposed to write my next novel in it, but it's way too precious. I am keeping it next to my bed and stroking it repeatedly. So totally gorgeous!

Heads-up

(I've realised I have no idea how to punctuate 'heads-up'. I feel there should be an apostrophe after that 's', but it just looks weird with the hyphen. Oh well.

My friend Ari Goelman has just revealed the cover of his debut middle grade novel, Path of Names. Here's the cover. Isn't it awesome?


The Path of Names is out from Scholastic in 2013. You can find out more about the book over at Icey Books, where he did the cover reveal.

Swiftly following that...

If you read horror, fantasy or science fiction short stories, you've almost certainly come across editor Ellen Datlow, whose magazines and anthologies have published some of the best short stories in the last few decades. Well, now Ellen is doing a kickstarter for a brand new anthology of original horror stories. Here's a video about it:


Full details on the kickstarter, the rewards, and how to pledge to support the project are here.

And, finally, if middle grade or horror aren't your thing, how about a romance / detective book (suitable for young adults, too)? Emily Mah, writing as EM Tippetts, is releasing her latest novel, Nobody's Damsel in January, but it's available for pre-order at a very low price right now.



Here's the goodreads description:

Chloe has finished her masters degree and taken a job as a forensic scientist back in her home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, only the press will not leave her alone. They follow her to crime scenes and report on her every move, eager to show that her marriage to Hollywood A-lister, Jason Vanderholt, is on the brink of collapse. Millions of fans who dream of their own celebrity romance with him want this more than anything. This scrutiny comes at a particularly bad time as Chloe's first case is a crime against a child roughly the same age that Chloe was when she survived a homicide attempt.

Now that she sees the case from an adult's perspective, she realizes it's much harder than she ever dreamed. It's even worse for Jason, who is two steps removed from the crime. He must watch and try to support his wife as she battles with past demons and tries to keep up with a nameless suspect who evades identification and capture. Never has Jason been more frustrated with his job, its frivolities, and its lack of connection to the real world. When he storms off the set of his latest movie, the press goes wild with conjecture. While he says he wants to work on a project that means something, his agent and manager fear this may be the end of his time in the spotlight. Perhaps he never was anything more than a pretty face after all.

Together, Chloe and Jason must find their way past all the popping flashbulbs and through the dark maze of the criminal investigation to discover whether they can balance their professional goals with the demands of a celebrity marriage. The odds are entirely against them.
You can also read the opening on her website.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Author Interview: Kiini Ibura Salaam

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a poet and artist, as well as a writer of non-fiction and some of the most unusual fantasy and science fiction you'll read. Her first collection of short stories, Ancient, Ancient is out now from Aquaduct Press.

Award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson said about Kiini, “Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty.”

And, according to Jack Womack, Kiini “deserves to be considered as one of today’s most promising contemporary genre writers. With writing that challenges assumptions on gender, the nature of fantasy, the uses of myth and much more, she offers the readers stories that they will not soon forget. [Ancient, Ancient is] a marvelous introduction to a marvelous writer.”

1. Ancient, Ancient is your first collection of short stories. Now that you've gathered them in one place, have you noticed any particular themes in your writing, and have those themes changed over time?

When I did a mini-book tour for Ancient, Ancient, I invited other writers to take part in my readings. I found I enjoyed a live exchange with another writer more than I enjoyed standing up there and solely reading my work. Consequently, I got to hear quite a few interpretations about what my work was about: it's about possession; it's about community; it's about displacement.

For me, I'm less interested in the themes and more interested in how I'm characterizing people and how I'm structuring conflict. I think initially most of my stories were a young character against unjust communal responsibilities--mostly they were burdened by an expectation or a role that they didn't want to comply with. I think over time, I've begun to use more actual characters to animate the conflict not just faceless traditional or cultural edicts, and I've began have the main characters do more than just put up with unjustness but try to do something about it--to act and or to transform their own thought process. And I think that signifies growth on my part.

2. You're not just a short story writer, you're also a poet, an artist, and a writer of non-fiction. How do these different creative activities interact with each other, and do you think they've been a big influence on your prose?

I'm fascinated with poetry. I don't read it very often and I don't write it nearly as often as I used to, but I am fascinated with word choice and imagery. I think that definitely comes through in my prose.

Regarding the non-fiction, I have been writing a blog about the writing life (kislist.blogspot.com) for over ten years, and during a period when I was not writing fiction, I truly believed it sustained my development as a writer. Even though I was not practicing fiction writing, I was still working on stringing together sentences and ideas, editing text, and--perhaps most importantly, sharing the writing with others. When I finally got back to fiction writing, I found that my craft had developed, and I credit my blog for that.

As for painting, I recently had an interesting experience in which I had my novel manuscript and a canvas literally on the table at the same time, and I'd switch back and forth between the two. What's interesting is when I sit down to write--if I'm challenged or there's something unresolved--I can suddenly feel sleepy, very sleepy (I know this occurs for many other writers). It's a highly effective method of self sabotage because it's next to impossible to write when you're sleepy. Well this time, when I felt sleepy, I turned to painting. The act of painting woke me up, and while I painted, my mind worked out some of the challenges with the novel. I never thought that painting could literally be a help to my writing in that way. That it could help me skirt around whatever is triggering me to sleep and allow me to continue to advance in the story development.

3. You didn't start out writing speculative fiction, but say you stumbled upon it as a means of bringing new life to your stories. What do you think speculative fiction offers to you as a writer, and have you found the genre limiting or frustrating in any way?

I think speculative fiction offers me the ability to use the full stretch of my imagination. All writing relies on imagination, speculative fiction just takes it further. While I like literature that comments on human nature and human relationships, I also like my sense of life to be challenged and disturbed a bit and I think science fiction does that. I believe that when we stretch our minds beyond what we already know, then we create space for something new to be possible.

Reading and writing spec fic brings me all kinds of ideas about lifestyle, relationships, communication, and expression that I might not have had otherwise. I don't think I feel any limitations in the genre because I don't feel like I have to write in the genre. The limitations I feel are more from the outside. I have two novels going--neither of which were originally spec fic. Now one is and one isn't. And I feel some paranoia about which novel I complete first and if readers will be confused or dissapointed depending on which novel I publish. There are people who don't read spec fic and people who only read spec fic. Either way, I feel like there's a box I will be stepping into that doesn't reflect the multifaceted nature of life.

It's great that spec fic is a huge growth market for young adult books. It suggests to me that imagination is being allowed to stretch further into adulthood from childhood. In children's literature talking animals, weird worlds and nonsensical happenings are a given. That given is now being extended to the young adult market, and many adults are reading those books. I look forward to the day when "literature" has space for all of us and the average reader is happy to switch from reality-based fiction to speculative fiction and back again.

4. What's coming up for you next in terms of your writing? Are you planning another short story collection, or are you working on something different?

I'm working on a novel. I have basically been trying to crack the code of novel writing since 1991. I remember coming to Clarion [Patrick's note: Kiini, Steph and I were all at the Clarion West writers' workshop in Seattle in 2001] and being shocked that your wife, Stephanie, had written three novels. I couldn't write anything longer than a short story. She laughed and said she couldn't write stories, she only really felt comfortable in the novel form.

For me, novel writing is like stumbling around in the dark, and knowing that everywhere I step--there will be a solid floor, but if I walk too far in the wrong direction, I could find myself on the edge of a cliff or on the side of a building at a dead-end plot-wise.

However, even as it is a foreign form to me, it's something I must do to continue to develop as a writer. Though some people do it, I feel like I can't just write stories forever. People want novels, if they like your characters, if they like the worlds you write about, they want to go deeper and to know more. That was a complicated answer to a simple question. A novel is next!

5. If you were only able to give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Keep writing. That is all. There is so much to discover in terms of a writer's individual voice, a writer's themes, a writer's craft, and of course, a writer's ideas. There's a quote that says something like you arrive at mastery by making the same choice over and over again. In the case of writing, you arrive at mastery by making the choice to sit down and write: again, again, and again.

This is not to say it will be easy or fun or predictable. It's just to say if you keep doing it you will improve and you will discover more about what you have come here to offer to the world. Keep writing.

Thanks, Kiini!

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. The middle child of five, she grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood with oak and fig trees, locusts and mosquitoes, cousins and neighbors. The house no longer exists, having been reduced to rubble along with almost all of the houses in a six-block radius after the 2005 levee break in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Growing up with creative parents who charted an independent cultural and intellectual path, Kiini’s childhood was rich with art, music, and books. As a student, she naturally gravitated toward reading and writing, and wrote her first professional story as a first-year student at Spelman College. After being paid $100 for the publication of that story, her identity as a writer was buoyed and she proclaimed herself a “serious” author.

Kiini’s work encompasses speculative fiction, erotica, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

If you want to find out more about Kiini and her work, you can read her blog at kislist.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Really, this was just an excuse for a toy...

It's not really a secret that I am not a character-driven writer. When I sit down to write, the story, ideas, and setting come to me before the characters do. Steph is the opposite. When she sits down, it's the characters that come to her first and foremost, and she figures out the story afterwards.

Now, I don't think it matters which way around you come up with stuff. Characters, story, setting, idea, whatever. What does matter is that you figure out all the aspects sooner rather than later.

In some previous books, I haven't really figured out the characters early enough, and that's meant an awful lot of difficult rewriting later on.

So, for the last novel I decided to turn things upside down and figure out the characters right from the beginning.

After the necessary brainstorming and the exploratory writing that I always do (normally 10 - 15k of 'opening', to figure out the style, who needs to be involved, and to know the world, and, well, just because I can), I bought a giant whiteboard, wasted a good day attaching it to the wall (no DIY is not my strength...), and then started figuring everything out, starting with the characters.

Characters

First up, I drew a grid with the characters across the top and the following five questions down the side that I had to answer for every single character who has any kind of role in the book:

1. What do they want and what do they desperately need? (Generally, these things should be in opposition; where they are massively in opposition, I write INTERNAL CONFLICT, to remind myself how important it is to their story. I should probably write it for every character.)

2. What are they doing to get it?

3. What is stopping them from getting it?

4. What do they stand to lose if they don't get it?

5. Where do they end up?

It doesn't take long before the conflicts between the characters start to emerge. In my old way of writing, these conflicts didn't always become apparent until I'd written a lot of the book, causing lots of rewriting and frustration.

After I'd come up with these character sheets, which basically show the arc of each character over the entire book, and added any specific background or character traits the individual characters needed, I started to break it down.

The Acts

I tend to write three-act books, but obviously they don't have to be. After the character sheets I drew another grid, this time with 'Opening', 'End of Act 1', 'End of Act 2', and 'End of Act 3' across the top, and each character name down the side, along with a general 'What is happening?' section.

This basically allowed me to outline the overall plot AND the arcs of each character over each of the three acts.

After that (...) I went back in and broke it down further into 'sequences'. These are groups of scenes or chapters. I figure about 4 - 7 scenes make a sequence (although that just happens to meet my style; none of this is rules). For every sequence, for each of the major characters (who appeared in that sequence) I wrote down the starting and ending point, and the change that had occurred for them.

Later in the process I did a similar thing for each individual scene.

Now, some of you are probably thinking I'm crazy at this point. I know a lot of people just write from beginning to end without any of this, and I used to, but this is what worked for me.

The point is not that you have to outline, or that the outline you come up with this way is in any way set in stone, or that the characters have to stay the way you originally conceive them.

But if you find that your stories tend to be driven rather too much by events and the characters just chase the events around, then this can be a pretty useful technique.

I know I'm not going to have any trouble coming up with the plot, the ideas, or the setting for a story. But using this technique, I've made myself know how the characters would interact before I've even set them off running, and I discovered some pretty neat subplots I would otherwise have had to lever in at a later point.

So, does anyone else do anything like this? And do you have a giant whiteboard to do it on? And do you only do it this way because once you'd bought a giant whiteboard, you have to do something with it...?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Author Interview: Raymund Eich

I first met science fiction author Raymund Eich all the way back in 2001, when we both attended the Clarion West writers' workshop in Seattle. Back then, Raymund was already writing smart, original science fiction with more than half an eye on the science. Now, with the release of his fourth novel, I figured it was time to catch up.

Raymund's latest novel is "Take the Shilling". Here's the Goodreads description:
The Confederated Worlds implanted in his brain the skills to make him a soldier. He had to learn for himself how to survive interstellar war.

Tomas Neumann enlists to escape his widowed mother's strict religious household. Implanted skills ready him for combat against the Unity forces on New Liberty, but leave him unprepared for scornful comrades, inept leaders, and interservice rivalries. Guerrilla resistance sparks a spiral of atrocities, wounding him in body and in spirit. To survive the war and pursue his destiny, Tomas must learn the toughest lesson of all.
1. "Take the Shilling" is the fourth novel that you've decided to publish independently. You previously had some success selling your short stories to traditional magazines. What made you choose the independent route for your novels?

I envision an optimistic future of "yeoman capitalism." Thomas Jefferson advocated an agrarian republic, where everyone was a self-employed, middle class smallholder. Computers, the internet, just-in-time manufacturing, and supply chain management make possible a high-tech version of Jefferson's dream society. Recent advances in ebooks, print-on-demand, and their related infrastructure now allow a writer to enter the publishing industry, so I decided to put my money where my mouth is.

2. In "Take the Shilling", your hero Tomas Neumann becomes a soldier to escape his strict upbringing, but it doesn't turn out to be quite what he was expecting. What inspired his story?

If you'll pardon a chemistry metaphor, a lot of elements of the story were in solution in my subconscious for a long time. I read the military sf classics, "Starship Troopers", "The Forever War", "Ender's Game", etc. a long time ago. Lodged in my mind for a while has been the phrase, "The purpose of all other combat arms is to put the infantryman in sole possession of the battlefield." Following Bruce Sterling and others, I knew space settlements will never pay for themselves, so it occurred to me the only ones will be religious or ideological communities. From Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book "On Killing", I took the lesson that for a normal person, killing another is a harrowing experience.

Continuing the metaphor, the seed that crystallized those elements was the birth of my son. He got me thinking about what it means to be a man and how to be a role model. Tomas' father died years before the novel opens, and Tomas enlists in search of the masculine mentoring he never received. Of course, it isn't as simple as he expects!

3. It's been observed that the golden age of science fiction is twelve years old. What books were you reading when you were 12, and do you think they've influenced your writing since?

When I was 12, I first read Clarke's "Childhood's End", and it turned me into a lifelong sf fan. Clarke's depiction of a world of peace, order, and good government, where everyone was free to pursue their happiness, was and is very attractive; and the final chapters were the first taste of sense of wonder I ever received. My prose style is somewhat Clarkean--fairly unadorned, with emotional depths lurking beneath a stiff-upper-lip, northwest-European reserve.

The only other book I can recall reading at that age was Ben Bova's "Exiled from Earth". It's nerd-porn: the best and brightest are not welcome in an overcrowded, crime-ridden future Earth, so when they are exiled to a space station, they make a better society than the one that expelled them. I don't think it's influenced me--I hadn't thought about it for years, until you asked the question--except maybe in a negative way. While my good guys usually win, their victories come with costs, and their triumphs are local and, in historical time, temporary.

4. What's coming up for you next in terms of your writing? Are you working on a new novel?

In a change of pace, I've nearly finished my first fantasy novel. Entitled "A Prince of the Blood," it's set in a secondary world with a renaissance/ancien regime feel transformed by the recent rediscovery of ancient magic. The story itself is inspired by a theory of the Man in the Iron Mask, that he was Louis XIV's biological father. It should be published by CV-2 Books under the byline "Eric H. Munday" sometime in Spring 2013.

After that, I'll be working on a sequel to "Take the Shilling", with the working title "Operation Iago." It's set in a hot peace following the armistice ending the war taking place in the first novel. I'm targeting publication for late 2013.

5. If you were only able to give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Assuming he/she knows Heinlein's Rules, understands what good storytelling is and that it covers a multitude of sins, and that Browne and King's "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" covers most of the sins remaining, my one piece of advice would be: Stick to your vision. You can't please everyone, so don't try. Don't force in a sex scene, don't delete one, don't force a story to pass or fail the Bechdel test, don't make all your non-straight white male characters into saintly exemplars of the virtues political correctness says they must express, don't connect the dots according to a Hollywood screenwriting formula, etc. A story can only inspire a reader if the writer was inspired to write it, and that inspiration only comes from your unique vision. Your unique vision comes from your subconscious, not from a minister's pulpit, a professor's Powerpoint slides, or the state of the art in your genre. Better half the readers hate your work than all the readers say "meh."

If you think you have to please everyone to be a bestseller, well, are you doing this for fame, or because you love telling stories? If the former, quit now, and save yourself a lot of time and heartache. And if you publish independently, you don't have to be a bestseller to make a living writing. If you write consistently and sell 10,000 copies of a novel worldwide, you could earn a middle class income. It may take decades, but again, are you doing this to make a quick buck, or because you love telling stories?

6. What five science fiction novels do you think every SF fan and every SF writer should read?

Other than "Take the Shilling"? :) Here's a quick list.

"Childhood's End", by Arthur C. Clarke. For reasons I gave a few answers ago.

"Hyperion" & "The Fall of Hyperion", by Dan Simmons. Technically two novels, but the first ends in a throw-across-the-room way that will annoy you if you don't have the sequel ready at hand. Treat them as one and you'll be much happier. It's space opera, not hard sf.

"Schismatrix", by Bruce Sterling. You might as well pick up "Schismatrix Plus", an omnibus of this novel with five other stories set in the same universe, because that will give you a copy of "Swarm," one of the best short stories in the history of sf. This universe of Sterling's is the second best example of "stick to your vision" on this list.

"Aristoi", by Walter Jon Williams. It's got space opera, sense of wonder, utopia and its underside, and psychological depth. The daimones, subpersonalities of the human galaxy's philosopher kings, are the best embodiment of full, healthy integration of conscious and subconscious minds I've ever seen in, not just sf, but any work of fiction. This is the best example of "stick to your vision."

"The Book of the New Sun", by Gene Wolfe. Technically four novels, with a fairly simple plot of exile and return, set in a densely imagined dying Earth and stuffed full of unreliable narration, rich language, and deep themes. Plus, I live five blocks from Wolfe's childhood home.

Thanks Raymund!

"Take the Shilling" is available from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, and a bunch of other places.

Raymund Eich has written patent applications, herded cattle, delivered pizzas, researched reactions between nitric oxide and myoglobin, won a national championship in a collegiate quiz bowl competition, built furniture, changed oil, smoked a brisket, written code, circled the world, read widely, thought deeply, and affirmed Robert Heinlein's dictum that specialization is for insects.

He lives with his wife and son about thirty miles from Johnson Space Center.

For more information about Raymund's novels and short stories, visit http://raymundeich.com/.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Wonderful, exciting news!

Okay, I've held off on this for most of a week, but that's the extent of my self-discipline, so here goes:

My middle grade novel Secrets of the Dragon Tomb is going to be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (an imprint of Henry Holt / Macmillan) in the US and Canada!!!

My wonderful-fantastic agent, Jenn Laughran, gave me the news last week, and the announcement was in Publishers Marketplace over the weekend.

A few of you might remember Secrets of the Dragon Tomb from when I was writing it a few years ago. It's steampunk! It's a thrilling adventure! It's set in the Regency. On Mars. It's full of despicable villains, deadly clockwork machines, unlikely spies, and terrible peril. And it has pterodactyls. Of course.

If I can be slightly immodest, I absolutely love this world. I don't think I've ever had so much fun coming up with ideas and writing the characters as I did for this, and I'm so excited that I'll get to share it with other people.

I can trace this book all the way back to when I was about 16 years old. (I am now *ahem* 41 years old, so, you know, that's an awful long time...) My parents gave me a fantastic book, called The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams, by David Kyle.


It's a wonderful book. I still own this book (I actually now have two copies), and am known to wave it around frequently, most recently at a steampunk panel at Bristolcon. (I was on the panel, not waving it from the audience. I'm not that crazy...)

The book gives a history of science fiction writing and art from its earliest origins right through to the mid-70s. The bits that really wowed me most of all were the stuff on early pulp, and the stuff on Victorian science fiction, particularly the work of the French artist, Albert Robida, whose fantastic flying machines and elaborate futuristic ideas were an enormous influence on me.


(You can see a bunch more of his work here, or, you know, on the internet...)

Add a touch of Jane Austen, some Indiana Jones, and some sub-Wodehouse humour, and, well, you're probably going to just end up confused. (Yes, I will have to come up with a better elevator pitch than this...)

Right now, I know absolutely no other details about the publication. I don't know when the book will come out. I don't even know if it'll keep the same title. I do know that it's going to have internal illustrations (*faints with excitement*; I love books with illustrations), and that it's part of a two-book deal, but I don't yet know what the second book will be.

But right now, who cares!?! Right???

YAY! *Lies down again in excitement* (This is the lazy person's version of excitement; you may jump up and down in excitement. I lie down. With chocolate. And green tea.)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday Links

Science

I'm not sure whether a fluffy T. rex would be more or less scary than a scaly one, but this is a fascinating article.

The planned badger cull in England has zero scientific basis and is entirely designed to placate one of the Conservative's vested interest groups.

This is how vampires began.

Writing and publishing

John Scalzi on Amazon's new ranking of authors by sales.

The Seven Stages of Publishing Grief (or Hello Darkness, My Old Friend)
Robin LaFevers spins off from the new Amazon rankings to talk about 'the soul sucking land of Major Disappointment' of publishing. Brilliant, and well worth reading for any writer.

Guest Post: Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book
A guest post by Nicola Morgan over on Writer Beware about how to create a great query letter for your novel.

The 11 Ingredients of a Sizzling Book Description
In a similar vein, from a couple of weeks back, Mark Edwards has a guest post on Catherine, Caffeinated on writing a book description.

Best Practices For Amazon Ebook Sales
While we're on the topic, have this one as well. I don't agree 100% with it, but it's all worth thinking about when you're putting your book description together.

A helping of just too cute...

ATE team rescue another baby elephant from a well
Video of the Amboseli Team for Elephants rescuing a baby elephant that had fallen into a well. A mixture of 'Was that really the best way you could think to rescue it?', cheering the triumph, and a complete tear-jerker of an ending. Watch it.

Monday, 15 October 2012

What does an author website need? Your input.

It's an unfortunate truth that a lot (maybe most) writers' websites tend to be rather awful. Not necessarily in their appearance (although many do look bad), but in the way they function and what they contain.

This isn't a surprise and it's not the fault of the writers, because getting a professional website can be a really expensive option, far beyond what most writers can justify paying. That leaves writers with three real options:
  1. Build it yourself
    Which is great if you're a web designer. Which most writers, of course, are not. If you're not a pro and you build the site for yourself anyway, it may be okay, but it won't be working for you in the way you might want.
  2. Pay someone cheap to do it for you
    Cheap is generally not great. Seriously. Even with the best intentions, someone who is only charging you a few hundred dollars just isn't going to be able to put in the time to make the website as good as you need it to be, not unless they intend to go out of business or starve within the year. 
  3. Use an existing template or theme
    If you sign up with wordpress.com, you can choose a professionally-designed template (theme), change certain elements, and create your website there. For free. You can even have your own web address showing on it. You can do a similar thing on blogspot (although the result won't be as good). But your choices will be limited, and none are set up with the needs of writers in mind. They are generic, and they mostly designed to be blogs, with a few pages attached.
None of these are at all satisfactory, in my opinion. They're not going to get you readers or promote you.

As a writer, having an effective way to present your books, build an audience, and sell what you've written is absolutely essential.

So, I've decided to start a project. I'm going to build a WordPress template / theme that is designed specifically for writers to use. Something simple, that can be 'branded' to match the needs of the individual writer. I'm going to make it free to use, modify, hack apart and reassemble, or (almost) whatever else you might want to do with it.

Before I do, though, I want to be sure I'm including everything important.

A while back, I wrote a post called '10 Things Every Author's Website Should Include'. But I want to know what you think.

If you're an author, what do you want in a website?

If you're a reader, what do you expect or want to find on your favourite writer's website?

I'm going to try to include all the important things I can. So, what would you want to see?

By the way, if you want to keep on the progress of this project and find out when it's released, I'll post updates here or you can follow me on twitter.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Friday Links

So, I could write a new blog post, or I could just SHARE THE TOTAL AWESOME that other people have written or created.

Oh, okay, you've convinced me. Let's do the latter.

Writing and books

Tips on how to handle your author reading without coming off as a complete fool.

JK Rowling: 'The worst that can happen is that everyone says, That's shockingly bad'
A few weeks old, this one, but still a really interesting interview with JK Rowling about writing, her life, and her new book.

BristolCon
The one day science fiction and fantasy convention is on Saturday week (October 20th). Steph and I will both be there.

The (literary) heroes who saved me - Booktrust blog
Stephanie Burgis writes a powerful and personal guest blog entry on how heroes in books helped her through a very difficult period in her life.

Tools

If you ever upload images to your website or blog, it's a good idea to crop them to size first. You can do this on your computer, using something like a photoshop or whatever photo utility you use, but cropp.me makes it way easier to do it in the browser, while you're doing your blog post. It's free.

Need to sell books, ebooks, or pretty much anything else through your website but don't want to go to the effort and expense of setting up your own shop? Gumroad will allow you do to this. They charge a small commission, and handle the payments, gathering of delivery address, and hosting of ebooks. I've bought through them, and it worked well.

Only need to sell ebooks and don't want to pay any commission? Payhip lets you upload and sell ebooks and they don't take a penny of your money. You still have to pay whatever charges PayPal makes when they transfer your money, but that's all. They seem to intend to make money by offering premium, charged services, but the ebook side (they say) will always be free. This is a new service. I've not used it, so I can't vouch for it.

Science

Ben Goldacre explains how pharmaceutical companies distort medical trials and hide results they don't like. It's pretty scandalous, and worrying if you rely on medication.

If you're in the UK, you'll be able to send letters to space. Actually, no you won't. But these space-themed stamps are gorgeous and very cool.

Web and Design

So true! If you want any design work done (book/web/whatever) this let's you know your options. (Humor!)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Five favourite books

Choosing favourite books is like choosing your favourite children; you really can't have more than five of them.

Er. Or something like that.

I've been thinking about what makes a favourite book, because one of the books I think of as a favourite, I just can't read. (More on that later.) I think, for me, a favourite book is one that involves me totally and at which I look and think, There is no way in the world I could ever write a book like that.

So, in no particular order, here are my five favourite books right now.

1. Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock


Holdstock's first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, was a revelation, but this one was even better. In some ways, this may be the most perfect book I've ever read.

What Holdstock does better than anyone else is evoke the real feel of mythology, where things can be real and unreal at the same time, and where there can be multiple truths.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the series, the basic premise is that ancient, untouched woodlands are capable of bringing to life the myths that exist inside humanity's collective unconscious, and inside the woodlands, where time and space are warped, these myths live on.

In this book, Tallis Keeton journeys into Ryhope Wood in search of her lost brother, making her way to the realm in the center of the woods where all myths begin.

I've always been drawn to woodlands and mystery, and to stories with ambiguous endings, and this book has all of that. It's enormously perceptive and affecting, and it's one of the most convincing demonstrations of non-rational (which is not the same as irrational) fantasy around.

I found Mythago Wood occasionally a bit dry, but Lavondyss certainly isn't. Much recommended. 

Robert Holdstock was one of the authors I would most like to have met, but he died in 2009, far too young, and I never got the chance.

Mythago Wood won the World Fantasy Award, and I think Lavondyss should have too.

2. Dune, by Frank Herbert


I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction (although there are plenty of SF books I love), and Dune has more than a little in common with fantasy, with its feudal society, its low-tech universe and powers of prophecy, but it's science fiction nonetheless.

I'm not sure there's much I can say about Dune that hasn't been said many times before. It is, after all, one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written. In fact, I'd like to cheat a bit here and nominate the whole Dune series for this 'favourite novel' selection.

The whole Dune series, that is, by Frank Herbert. Not the unending series of Dune-books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, where they attempt to turn every slight hint of backstory into a whole novel by itself (without seeming to realise that backstory and world-building are what give life to a story, and that if every last bit is explicated in detail, then the depth and colour are sucked out of the story; but I digress).

There was certainly a drop in quality with the first two sequels by Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but by the end of the series, I think it was developing into something quite interesting again. Sadly, like Holdstock, Herbert died before he was finished with the series, leaving his son and his son's collaborator to exploit and degrade it. (Okay, getting bitter again...)

Brief summary, for anyone who has managed to have their head in a sandworm since 1965:

Dune (or Arrakis) is a desert world whose value comes from the 'spice' melange which increases mental powers, allows some limited glimpses of the future, and which allows navigators to guide their ships through space. This is a universe in which computers have been outlawed and in which dominant, feudal houses contend with each other for power. The imperial emperor has decided that House Atreides have become too powerful, and although he can't move against them himself, he gives them Arrakis and leads them into a trap.

This is a book about politics, power, ecology, religion, personal struggle and a whole let else. It really is a remarkable achievement.

Dune was turned down by every major publisher it was sent to, and eventually was published by a house that specialised in auto books and technology magazines. So, yah, boo, sucks to foolish publishers.

3. Passage, by Connie Willis


Can you actually have a favourite book that you can't read? I do, and this is it.

The first time I read Passage I was absolutely blown away by how Connie constructed this novel, how the structure and theme and style fit together so unexpectedly and so perfectly to produce something that is so much more. I'm struggling to say much here, because I don't want to give anything away to anyone who hasn't read it yet. But it is very unusual to have a book where the whole structure and action parallel the ideas so effectively.

Passage is funny and tragic and painful and brilliant. 

Joanna Lander is a psychologist investigating near-death experiences in a research hospital, desperately trying to get good data before people's experiences are contaminated by the fraudulent Maurice Mandrake, who takes advantage of the patients to sell his vision of the afterlife to gullible people.

This is about death and honesty and the lies that people tell each other about death.

Connie Willis's book fall into two rough categories: comedies, and comedies that turn into tragedies. Passage is one of the latter, like the more famous Doomsday Book before it. For myself, I've always preferred these to the comedies, because they have more emotional depth and stronger storylines.

My problem with Passage, and the reason I can't read it anymore, is that the emotion is simply too powerful. This is a book about death, and since I've read it, I've had too many people close to me die. If I hadn't read Passage before and I didn't know how it ended, I think I would be able to manage, but I have, and I simply can't put myself through this anymore.

Passage will always be one of my favourite books, but I think it'll be a long time before I can actually read it again. And that is probably a mark of how brilliant it is.

4. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien


Okay, I'm not going to insult anyone by giving a plot summary of this book. You know what it's about. You've almost certainly seen the movies, and you've probably read the books.

The Lord of the Rings has been imitated many, many times, but no one else has managed anything comparable. 

In the various tales of Middle Earth, Tolkien was attempting to construct a possible root mythology for the northern European myths that remain. (He wasn't, as some unperceptive critics have suggested, simply retelling Norse mythology.) These are the stories of the ages before this one, imagined in an incredible depth, with a vast history, languages, cultures and legends of their own.

In fact, The Lord of the Rings is a book written about one tiny part of the history and world that Tolkien had constructed. 

When you read The Lord of the Rings, you can't help but feel that you're entering a world that has been imagined in the every last detail over periods of thousands of years. It is this depth, along with the warmth of the storytelling, that make it much more than any other high fantasy around.

Really, you either already like this or you don't. Nothing I say will make a difference.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin


This one really is cheating, because we're at five books and counting in this series (more if you're in the US, where some of the books were split in two). If anyone can make claim to a fantasy world as rich as Tolkien's, it's George Martin. 

This is an enormous story, full of rich, believable characters, compelling storytelling, and a vast scope. There's political intrigue, war, love, death, and betrayal, and characters who seem to be competing to be the most vile.

Yet one of the big achievements of Martin's series is that none of the characters are wholly good or wholly bad. There's no black and white here, and even the most vicious and cruel characters can be sympathetic, because they genuinely are the heroes of their own individual stories. These aren't the kind of baddies who think they're being bad. They think they are doing the right thing, by their own priorities and moralities.

A Song of Ice and Fire has been described as a fantasy version of the War of the Roses, but actually it encompasses a lot more, over a larger area and with more protagonists. In some ways, it's the history of Europe, in particular Britain, re-imagined in a fantastical alternate world.

But all of that is really besides the point, because the thing that makes A Song of Ice and Fire such a great series is that Martin is a remarkably compelling storyteller. Even though he jumps from place to place and character to character, the reader is pulled, sometimes against their will, with an inevitable force into the stories.

The other books

An awful lot of other books could have made it into this list, if I'd made it on another day or week. Excession, Feersum Endjinn and Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks. A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. The Malazan series by Steven Erikson and the one by Ian C. Esslemont. The last two Harry Potter books. The Kat Incorrigible books, by Stephanie Burgis (omitted purely to avoid the appearance of nepotism). Stephen King's Dark Tower books. And so on.

At various points, these have all been favourites of mine, and I won't hesitate to recommend them to anyone.

So, what are your recommendations or your favourite books?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Passion

Today, I am going to talk to you about passion. The passion that dare not speak its name. Hot, steamy—

No, wait, wrong blog entry. This one's much more wholesome.

Last night, Steph and I watched the J.K Rowling - A Year in the Life documentary that aired a few years ago. (You can see the whole thing on YouTube.)

Now, watching this kind of thing with me is not — how shall we put it — the easiest experience in the world, but luckily my wife is tolerant and also used to it. Every couple of minutes, I had to pause the show and start ranting. This is the kind of thing I do.

Don't get me wrong. Rowling is articulate, intelligent and inspiring. Which could not be said of the narrator / interviewer in the documentary, who kept making the most trite observations in a tone that implied he thought he was saying something profound.

To the point!

The thing that most leapt out to me in the documentary was just how much Rowling cared about the characters in Harry Potter. Not just the heroes or the major characters, but all of them. She knew them. She knew about their lives and their passions and their fears and she cared. She felt with them.

Not only that, the story meant something to her. It was important and she cared about it. It was imbued and brought to life by things she really believed in. She wrote it with the passion flowing through her. You don't have to like Harry Potter or Rowling's writing to appreciate how important that is in writing.

Okay, this isn't an original observation. I expect some of you, if you got this far, are rolling your eyes at virtual me and going, yeah, whatever, I knew that when I was, like, 12. (In my head, you always say 'like' when you're rolling your eyes.)

Well, the truth is, so did I. Well, maybe not when I was 12. When I was 12, I was more interested in explosions and dinosaurs and lots and lots of blood. (Coming to think of it, not much has changed there…)

But it's easy to forget these things. For the last week or two, I've been feeling that my WIP has been going a bit flat. It had become very mechanistic. 

I've got an outline for this story, for the first time ever in something I've written, and for the most part, this has been fantastic for the story and my ability to write it when I'm tired and busy, but the last couple of weeks, I've fallen into just thinking, This has to happen next, and then this, and I have to get characters X, Y, and Z to A, B, and C by this scene. I'd forgotten that the story is about the characters. It's about what matters to them, and their emotions and reactions and actions, and the outline is there to help that only.

So, today, I went back and started to try to put myself in that mode that Rowling was so obviously in with her characters, making myself think about what matters to them and feeling what they think.

And I think it worked. The mechanistic turning of the wheel has gone, and the life is coming back.

Obviously, I'll forgotten this again in a couple of months, and you can roll your eyes at me again when I remember. Just try not to say 'like' when you do. It makes you sound like a teenager.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Geek swoon

I am in total geekgasm.

Yes, those of you who know me will have guessed that Steph and I have just watched the new trailer for The Hobbit. Twice. If you fell off the planet and have just landed back, here it is:



Watched it? Okay, now go watch it again.

That's better.

I've heard a fair bit of mumbling in fandom about the fact that The Hobbit is going to be three movies now. Some people didn't even like that it was going to be two movies. (On the other hand, most of these 'fans' didn't like the Lord of the Rings movies, either, so I say ... well, I don't actually say anything to them. I'm too busy watching that trailer. Again.)

I loved the LotR movies. I can't see them enough. I even watch the extended editions, even the long version of The Return of the King with the unnecessary pirates and the camp Mouth of Sauron criticising their clothes and threatening them with a handbag (or whatever). I didn't think there were enough different endings on The Return of the King.

You couldn't extend The Hobbit enough for me. Hell, I say make it ten movies. Extended versions.

I'll watch them all.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Book Review: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda


Note: in the US, this book is just called "The Savage Fortress"


When Ashoka (Ash) Mistry and his little sister, Lucky, take their first trip to India to stay with their aunt and uncle, they soon find themselves caught up in a struggle between demons and gods from Hindu mythology.

To be honest, if I hadn't been stuck in the Accident and Emergency Department at my local hospital for three and half hours, I would probably have given up on this book fairly quickly.

There's a particular type of British middle grade fantasy where everything feels generic: generic characters, generic problems, generic settings... You get the picture. There's no emotional engagement, other than on a superficial level, and you can't help but feel that you've read it all before.

In the early chapters, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress seems to fall into this category. Other than the actual setting, in Varanasi, India this could be dozens of other books.

Luckily (kinda), I was stuck in the hospital, unable to move, with a badly sprained ankle and nothing else to do, and so I kept going.

Which was lucky, because around page eighty, this book suddenly kicks into life, and becomes a fascinating, rich, exciting adventure, full of characters with real problems and real emotions. From that point, the book is relentless, and you won't want to put it down. (It also has probably the highest body count I've read in a middle grade novel.)

That's not to say that there are no problems with the book for an adult reader. The plot developments are predictable and everything is heavily telegraphed. But this is a book for 9-12 year olds, and they certainly won't feel the same way.

It's great to find a middle grade fantasy with non-white protagonists in non-European/American setting, especially one that is as good as this.

Once you get past the slow opening, I highly recommend this book, and I'm looking forward to any sequels.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

My eyes, my eyes!

Someone pointed me (via Twitter) to this blog post:

http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/whats-the-point-of-publishers-in-a-digital-age/

It is quite possible this is an interesting, fascinating article. I wouldn't know. I haven't read it. The text is absolutely tiny. Miniature. Unreadable.

Seriously, I do not want to have to squint at the screen to try and figure out what it says.

There are a lot of websites like this around, ones where the text is so small that's it's just not worth the bother of trying to read them. Most of these websites were designed in an unfortunate period in web design just before iPhones and laptops with high-density screens became popular, and when there was a fashion for tiny text.

Back then most people were still using low-resolution monitors, and the text was just about readable. Not anymore. Now, though, on most screens, this text is horrible.

Okay, I know I can zoom. I do that with some sites. But they are sites I already know and am interested in. A new link that I come across on Twitter? No. One look, and I'm out of there.

Do yourself a favour, and make sure your text is readable. Otherwise people aren't going to stick around to read whatever great wisdom you're so desperate to share.

/end of rant. Thank you.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

4 Brief Book Reviews

It occurs to me that I've been pretty bad about reviewing books that I've liked, which was one of the things I'd intended to do with this blog (the reviewing that is, not the being bad at doing it; that's just my natural default, not my intention).

So, here are brief reviews of four books that I've really liked over the last couple of months. I've read a bunch of other books too, of course, but who wants to waste pixels talking about books that I didn't really love?

Onwards!

The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss



Those of you who remember me talking about the first of Patrick Rothfuss's high fantasy novels, The Name of the Wind, might remember that I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of it. I knew I must have liked it, because I couldn't wait to read the second novel, but even so, I wasn't quite sure. Not a lot happened in it, and not a lot of that seemed of great significance.

I'm pleased to say that all my reservations have gone in this second book of the Kingkiller Chronicle. I think I was in the process of adapting in the first book, because Patrick Rothfuss is not your average high fantasy writer.

As in The Name of the Wind, for a good part of this book, not a lot actually happens. Kvothe (the hero) tootles around the university, feuding with rivals, impressing attractive women, and generally figuring out how to get by day-by-day with not enough money and the enmity of several powerful people.

But there's stuff building here. Atmosphere, in-depth characters, a rich world, and we know, as Kvothe tells us in the framing story, that this is not a tale with a happy ending.

Far more importantly, though, Rothfuss is a compelling writer. He could spend a thousand pages writing about Kvothe painting his toenails, and I would still want to read it. (Luckily, he doesn't...) Rothfuss doesn't need to throw in a battle every other page, or a bunch gratuitous shock scenes, in order to keep us wanting to read. And because of that, once again, I can't wait to read the next volume. (Hear that, Rothfuss? Get writin'!)

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway



A little while back, I talked about the cover of this book as an example of a cover that doesn't actually illustrate any particular scene from a book, but which still represents the book perfectly. It's only fair now to talk about the book itself, seeing the book is every bit as good as the cover.

Ordinary Magic is kind of the anti-Harry Potter. Which isn't to say that I've got anything against Harry Potter (I think it's brilliant), nor that the author has (for the record, I have no idea what Rubino-Bradway's opinion is of Harry Potter). It's simply that if you imagined the set-up for Harry Potter and completely reversed it, you might have the set up of Ordinary Magic.

In this world, just about everyone is born with magical talent, and magic permeates everything in the world. But there are a few people -- shunned, ignored, or treated as sub-human -- who are born without a single bit of magical talent. These are the Ords. Ords are useful, though, because while they can't do magic, magic also doesn't affect them. Unscrupulous magicians with an ord as a slave can get past magical wards and defenses.

The hero of the book, Abby, is one of these ords. When her lack of magical talent is revealed, she is sent away to a secretive school for ords, where she can learn how to get by and survive in a world ruled by magic. That's if she can avoid kidnap by those who want to exploit her and the hazards presented by magical creatures.

If that makes it sound like a dark, grim book, it isn't. It's a book that sparkles with life and wit, with a high-spirited heroine and plenty of adventure.

I've taken off half a star from my rating, because I had a few issues with the world-building, and by the end, I was wishing that someone would rise up and depose the supposedly wonderful king and do away with his arbitrary abuses of power. But maybe that's just me.

This is a middle-grade book, but it's perfectly good for older readers too.

The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King



Stephen King can be a little mixed as a writer. I tend to think that he puts out a little too much. There are definitely books that feel to me like fillers, books where he seems to be running on autopilot (to be fair, other people think these are some of his best books, so...). Then, there are his other books. The really good ones. Because when King is at his best, he is quite brilliant.

The opening of Dreamcatcher, for example, completely blew me away. Bag of Bones, Gerald's Game, almost of his short fiction (add your own favorites) are impecable.

And then, of course, there are the Dark Tower books. In the Dark Tower, Stephen King seemed to find something extra, something quite extraordinary. Perhaps it was because he couldn't fall back to his stock characters and settings. Perhaps it was because the story itself was a far a greater, more mythic story. Whatever, The Dark Tower was a series on quite a different level to the rest of his work.

Which was why I was so delighted to see that he'd added a new book to the series. The Wind Through the Keyhole comes after Wizard and Glass but before Wolves of the Calla. It sees Roland and his ka-tet forced to shelter from a sudden, Arctic storm, called a starkblast. While sheltering, Roland tells a story of his youth, and within that story, the young Roland tells a story called The Wind Through the Keyhole.

This is undoubtedly a complicated conceit: three stories within each other: the framing story, the hunting of a shapeshifting 'skinchanger', and the story young Roland tells to a scared boy about another boy who set out on a dangerous quest for magic to restore his mother's sight.

There aren't many writers who could pull this structure off convincingly and involve you so intimately and viscerally in each of the three stories, but King is at his best here, and he doesn't falter.

Strongly recommended.

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter



Finally, we have The Long Earth, the first of a planned trilogy by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. If you were looking for two of the most unlikely authors to collaborate, you'd be hard pressed to choose better candidates than these.

Pratchett, as pretty much the entire world knows, predominantly writes humorous fantasy, and while it's true that his work has evolved from its beginnings as pure humor to take a much deeper, more profound look at the world through the medium of fantasy, his major appeal is still the humor.

Baxter, on the other hand, is the hardest of hard science fiction authors. His books are meticulously researched, and his speculation is firmly rooted in bleeding edge science. Like Pratchett, Baxter has evolved, in his case to include more believable, rounded characters with real stories. But when you approach a Baxter book you do so for the science fiction. (Even in his alternate history Northland series, Baxter follows the logic of his premise with a sharp, unyielding, scientific focus.)

If you approach The Long Earth expecting to find something matching either Pratchett's or Baxter's usual output, you are going to be coming at it all wrong. This is a genuine collaboration, and between them they have produced something quite different from their normal works.

In the year 2015, mankind suddenly discovers the existence of possibly infinite alternate worlds, differing only marginally (but progressively, the further out they are) from our own, which can be reached by the means of an electronic device that anyone can easily assemble. But there is one thing that is different about all of these worlds: humanity hasn't evolved on any of them.

The Long Earth explores the consequences of this discovery, and follows the exploration by Joshua Valienté, a "natural stepper", who can cross rapidly between worlds without aid of a device, and Lobsang, an AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

The thing The Long Earth most reminded me of was Philip José Farmer's Riverworld, with its exploration of the unknown, mysterious new world the characters now find themselves in, and the overarching questions of what it all means and what it's for. And that's pretty good company for the book to find itself in.

There are one or two places where it seemed clear to me that either Pratchett or Baxter was responsible for a passage, but remarkably, in most of the book, you really couldn't tell, and that's a pretty impressive achievement for two such distinctive writers.

Most of the criticism I've seen about this book seems to come down to people expecting to read something just like Discworld and then being unhappy that it wasn't. It isn't supposed to be. It's very much its own book, and it's all the better for it.

Expect imaginative, accessible science fiction with a sense of wonder and a light touch, and that's exactly what you'll get in The Long Earth.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

New Ebook Design: The Tyranny of Heroes, by Terry England

My latest ebook cover is for Terry England's novel The Tyranny of Heroes, which is now up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I'll talk about how I designed the cover, but before I do, here is the final cover:


Here's where you can buy the ebook:

Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Barnes and Noble

Terry had already worked on a cover concept with an artist friend, and he sent it through to me for inspiration. (There's certainly no need to do this with your cover designer!) But he was very clear that I should produce the best cover I could, whether I used the concept for inspiration or not. Here was the sketch he sent me (sorry, I don't know the artist's name):


The sketch shows a statue of one of the superheroes in the book. Terry particularly wanted the anger of the hero to show through (it doesn't really in this sketch).

The first thing for me to do was to find a piece of stock art to work with. I almost always start with a piece of stock art and then embellish and alter it. This isn't unusual; even the big six publishers often use stock art, and commissioning original art is usually out of the budget of independent publishers.

This was the piece I ended up buying. The pose works, and I think there is clear anger in the hero's eyes:


The first problem with this image is that it's far too clean for what I want. It gets nothing of the dark undertones of the tyranny of the superheroes. The first thing I did was to add some texture to it.

I found an image of an old sheet of paper from wegraphics.net. Then, in Photoshop, I placed it over the top of the superhero image. I desaturated the paper using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer clipped to the paper with saturation set at -100. (Techie details alert...) I changed the blending mode to Hard Light to emphasise the texture and reduced the opacity of the layer to 84%. This is what I get:


We're getting somewhere with the texture now, but I don't like the texture on top of the superhero. He doesn't "pop" enough to stand out. I duplicated the original image, extracted the superhero, and placed that extracted superhero in a layer above the paper layer.


That's better, but it's still not quite there. We still haven't got that full impression of the effect of the superheroes. We decided to try to add some ruined buildings behind the superhero. Now, we have to be careful here. Ebook covers have to work really well at thumbnail size, and if we add too much to the image, we'll confuse it and make it messy at small size.

I went looking at flickr, and I managed to find this image of Toronto Fire ruins. It's released under a Creative Commons 2.0 license, which means that I can use it as long as I give attribution (which I have done in the ebook).

It was really important in choosing an image of ruins to find one that fitted the shape of the superhero, both to ensure that the image was well-balanced and retained its focus, but also so it didn't distract at thumbnail size.

I removed the text at the bottom of the photo, then placed it beneath the original image layer. I reduced the opacity of the ruins to 95% and changed the blend mode of the original image to Multiply. This is now what I have:


This is my cover image. I've left the bottom of the picture relatively clear, because I'm going to use it for the text.

And so onto the text. I have quite a lot of text to include and I don't have a particularly clear space to put it in. I needed a compact, strong display font. I chose a font called Bebas. I wanted the word "Tyranny" to really stand out. At the smallest thumbnail, you're just not going to be able to read everything on the cover, so having "Tyranny" and the picture prominent gives a really clear idea of the book.

Which brings us back to the final cover:


I've used a gradient overlay, drop shadows, and a black stroke on the text to make it stand out, and I've given the author's name a very faint white outer glow, to help it stand out against the black ruins behind it.

And that's how you can go about designing a cover.

Let me know if you have any questions about the process.

(I should add that I also formatted the ebook, which was a fairly complex process, but I'm still intending to talk about ebook formatting in a future blog entry, so I'll won't talk about that here.)

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Social media buttons on your blog or website

You're probably familiar with social media buttons on websites. You know the kind of things: 'Share this on Twitter / Facebook / some network you've never heard of'.

These buttons seem to be everywhere these days. Every news item. Every blog post. Every web page. Shouting at you to (please) share! Share! Share!

Recently, there's been a lot of debate in the web design community about these social media buttons and whether they are really a good thing.

Here's one enormous problem with these social media buttons: they slow down your website.

Every social media button you have downloads a bunch of crap from Twitter or Facebook or that-network-you've-never-heard-of. Your website has to contact Twitter / Facebook / etc. and download a file.

The combined effect of this can be to add two or three seconds to how long it takes your website to display, and this is at best irritating to users, and at worst, if your visitors have a slow web connection, it might make them give up altogether.

Add this to an experiment carried out by the large website Smashing Magazine. They removed their twitter button, and found that this actually increased the number of times their articles were shared on twitter.

And, because these buttons are so widespread, most of us have become accustomed to ignoring them, in much the same way that our eyes skate past banner ads.

On the other hand, I don't know about you, but I do sometimes find myself clicking on those share buttons. But I only really do it on a few, limited websites. I do it on the BBC news site, sometimes, and on one or two campaign websites (you know the kind of sites; the ones that allow you to sign a petition or send an email to some politician). Otherwise, I tend to just copy the web address and tweet it if I want to share something.

If you do have social media buttons on your website or blog, think carefully if you should remove them. If your content is very shareable (and you'll know that, because people will be sharing it a lot), then keep them, or at least a couple of them. 

If not, get rid of them, speed up your website, and maybe even find that you get more or at least better-quality shares.

Because if someone has actually bothered to copy the web address and post it on Twitter or Facebook, that may mean they really think their readers will be interested. And one good share is worth a dozen pointless ones.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Web Design from Scratch: Secondary Characters

Yesterday, I started a new blog series on planning, designing, and building your website. I asked you to think of your website as a novel or short story, and I started outlining how you could use the model of a story like this to plan your website.

I suggested that you put yourself, as the website owner, in the position of the protagonist in the story, and I came up with personal character motivations as the protagonist in the story I was planning.

Today, I'm moving on to the supporting cast of characters.

Secondary Character Motivations

The supporting cast in this story are the visitors to the website. They are the people I'm trying to interact with through my website, and I'm only going to reach my character goals through my interactions with them.

Here's the thing: much as in any good story, the secondary characters really don't much care what the motivation of the protagonist is, except inasmuch as it impacts on their own lives. My visitors don't care if I meet my goals. They have their own goals.

As George R.R. Martin put it, every character is the hero of their own story. Your visitors are following their own stories as they visit your website, and you need to know those stories if you want to be part of them.

There are three important questions to ask about every supporting character in a scene:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist? (Hint: it's almost never the same as what the protagonist — you — wants out of it.)
  3. Where are they going to?
If you don't know those things, your supporting cast will be cardboard cut-outs; if you don't know these things for your website, those visitors won't be hanging about for long.

Okay, so I'm hoping my visitors will be:
  1. People who love reading fantasy short stories (particularly, but not exclusively, contemporary fantasy stories)
  2. Editors, publishers and other professionals in the field of middle grade fiction (particularly those with an interest in fantasy and steampunk middle grade fiction)
  3. In the future, middle grade readers, librarians, parents and so on.
You'll have your own potential visitors, and you should try to get as good an idea of them as possible. Once you know who they are, ask yourself the three questions above. It can be good to brainstorm these with someone else if you can.

Let's look at the first of my groups and try to understand them.

Fantasy Short Story Readers


1. Where are they coming from?
You can interpret this question in two ways: Physically, where are they coming from? And, what is their background?

(Jenny Crusie recently had an interesting blog entry where she asked herself the same question about the characters in the novel she's currently writing. Check it out if you want more inspiration to answer this question.)

"Physically", these readers are likely to come to my website because they've either:
  1. read one of my stories somewhere else (in a magazine, an online publication, or, conceivably having read one of my ebooks), 
  2. they've come across me elsewhere and I've seemed interesting (...), 
  3. they've read a review of one of my stories, 
  4. because someone has linked to me, or 
  5. because they've come across me in another context entirely and saw that I write fantasy short stories.
In terms of their background, this group of people already like fantasy. They probably know the genre reasonably well. Short stories are, generally, a smaller and more specialized part of the genre than novels; they're harder to come across and discover than fantasy novels.

Because my short stories range from YA to much older fiction, I don't think my readers are restricted in age, although I suspect most are adults, and probably in their thirties and forties. From what I can tell, both men and women read my stories.

Because of who these people are, I'm not going to have to sell the idea of fantasy, or the idea of these type of stories, to the readers. I'm having to sell them on the idea that my stories are interesting and exciting enough to read.

2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction?
Clearly, people come to your website for a reason. They have to click on a link to get there. They have something in mind. Even if they are randomly surfing out of boredom, they want something as a result of visiting your website. So, what do these readers want? I think there are three reasons that this group of people would visit my website.

  1. To read one or more of my short stories.
  2. To find out if any of my short stories seem interesting enough to actually read.
  3. To find out something about me (for whatever reason). We could drill down further on this to try to work out what they might want to know about me.
If I don't satisfy these desires of my subsidiary characters, they're not going to stay in the story I'm creating here. They'll decide it's not their story, and they'll head off elsewhere, never to return.

3. Where are they going?
This one is a bit more tricky.

What we're essentially asking, in the context of a story, is 'Where were they heading to after this interaction, and how have they been changed by the experience?'

This is the nature of interactions in stories; they cause changes of direction for someone (probably for everyone, although I'm only focusing on the secondary characters, right here).

We can ask the same questions for visitors to the website. Where were they heading next? For the most part, visitors will either be intending to go to another website (often to one of their usual haunts, like blogs or twitter or facebook, or, if they came looking for something to read, to another author website) or they are intending to go offline.

I want to interrupt this progress to another destination, or, if I can't interrupt it, then I want to create the desire in my visitors to come back. I want visitors to read my stories, so I want my stories to be a step on the visitor's path. They may still be going to their eventual destination, but I want them changed by the journey, in such a way that they'll read and enjoy my stories.

Likewise, if they came to read one of my stories in particular, I want them to go on to read others, and maybe even buy my ebooks. I want them to remember me as a writer for that possible future when I have a book or more stories to share.

Let's take a real life example for this particular question. A couple of years ago, my wife, Stephanie Burgis, visited Nalini Singh's website. She was only intending to visit quickly to find out when Singh's next book was out. But while she was there, she noticed that there were 'extras' available: free short stories, deleted scenes, behind the scenes stuff. She stuck around to read them.

As Singh keeps adding more, Steph goes back to read them. And, as a result, she's bought several novellas set in Singh's worlds. She became involved in the worlds, and Singh changed her as a result of the interaction.

This is what we're going to be aiming for in building the new website: A change in the subsidiary character (the visitor), so that their arc includes doing whatever it is we want them to do, while still satisfying the desires they had when they visited.

If you can answer these three questions for each of your groups of visitors:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist?
  3. Where are they going to?
Then you will know what you need your website to do.

The next stage will be figuring out exactly how to do it, and that's what we'll be looking at next time on the blog (although sadly not this week...).

(Unless people particularly want me to, I won't blog the answers to the above questions for my other two groups of visitors, but the principle is the same.)

Note
There are, of course, plenty of other ways you can look at your characters in a story. For example, by asking, What do they want? What are they doing to get it? What is standing in their way? And where do they end up? But I like the approach above because it allows me to focus on the interaction of the characters (visitors) with the protagonist (me) through the medium of the website. Use whichever works for you.

As always, feel free to leave comments, questions, or requests for anything you'd particularly like covered in this series.

If you want to follow along with this series but you're not interested in the rest of the blog, you'll be able to see all the entries under the web design from scratch tag.