Monthly Archives: July 2011

Another one for August

Circus of the Grand Design by Robert Freeman WexlerAnother of the four titles we have lined up for August is Robert Freeman Wexler’s wonderfully strange Bradbury-esque carnival novel, Circus of the Grand Design:

When a man named Lewis rents a vacation house on Long Island for a few days, he doesn’t expect to end up on a crazy circus train ride to nowhere.

His one night in the house, he burns it down. Then he meets charismatic Joseph Dillon, manager of the Circus of the Grand Design. Knowing he needs to leave the area in a hurry. Lewis agrees to join the circus as a publicist, despite Dillon’s warning that he might not be able to return to the place he began. The circus’s private train travels an infinite dream-loop to unknown lands, and Lewis becomes lost amongst crazy acrobats, sexy elephant riders, a magical mechanical horse, a giant woman and her savage, prehistoric rodent bears, an egotistical juggler, and…a fertility goddess who takes exceptional interest in him.

The train, its residents, and the places they visit form a complex puzzle that Lewis feels compelled to solve.

“Robert Wexler is an author who walks between the sea and the sand.  He has a genius for configuring the state between waking and dreaming, and the delicious anxiety of never confirming which of these states presides.  It’s a superb trick, used to brilliant effect in Circus Of The Grand Design.” Graham Joyce

Circus of the Grand Design belongs up there with Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell and Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man. A swell, almost-hallucinated novel that moves with a logic all its own.”  Howard Waldrop

“In the great tradition of the Fabulists, Wexler has found a path that is totally original and unforgettable. Circus of the Grand Design is a journey of self discovery in which no twist is familiar, no turn anticipated.” Richard Bowes

“Robert Wexler works without a net in Circus of the Grand Design. Smooth writing, a vibrant vision, and beautifully rendered characters makes this show well worth the price of admission.” Jeffrey Ford


Four infinity plus ebooks for August

That’s the intention.

We launched infinity plus ebooks with sixteen full-length titles in late 2010 and the first few months of 2011, but recently we’ve taken a bit of a break from it so I can concentrate on my new novel. Our current plan is to hit twenty titles by the end of August, with one a week during that month.

The first of the titles we have lined up is Meridian Days by Eric Brown. This was Eric’s first novel and it’s great to be making it available again.  Once again, we have a lovely cover by Dominic Harman.

Here’s a bit more blurb about the novel:

‘ I survive. I live from day to day – a Meridian day which humanity has created from one eternal stretch of daylight.’Meridian Days by Eric Brown

Meridian, twenty light years from Earth and with just a tiny scattering of inhabitable islands, seems the perfect place for Bob Benedict to escape the tragedy of his past.

Here he can live out his days in drug abuse, despised by and despising the self-obsessed community of artists who make up the population of the colony planet: the Altereds who have swapped human form for animal, and the Augmenteds who have boosted their minds with computers.

But when Bob meets Fire, the daughter of the formidable Tamara Trevellion, the most ruthlessly ambitious of the artists, he is drawn into a world of corruption and murder that is far darker than his past.

Soon it’s all he can do just to survive…

“British writing with a deft, understated touch: wonderful” – New Scientist

“SF infused with a cosmopolitan and literary sensibility… accomplished and
affecting” – Paul McAuley

“One of the very best of the new generation of British SF writers” – Vector

“Eric Brown has an enviable talent for writing stories which are the essence
of modern science fiction and yet show a passionate concern for the human
predicament and human values” – Bob Shaw

Later in August we’ll be publishing:

  • the first ebook edition of Robert Freeman Wexler’s Circus of the Grand Design (“Wexler excels at lucid prose and provocative ideas, giving the Bradbury-ish carnival-comes-to-town theme a new twist and showing promise as an original fantasist” – Booklist)
  • John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, a bumper collection ‑ over 150,000 words! ‑ of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.
  • and another one from Eric Brown, Approaching Omega, described by SF Site as “an action packed novella of humans vs. cyborgs”.

Trust your characters

I’ve been doing this writing thing at a professional level for twenty-plus years; I’ve been teaching it to masters level at university; I even have a PhD in it (stop tittering at the back, there). And still… I’m learning as I go along.

What’s the most recent lesson I’ve learned? (Hint: the clue’s in the title of this post.)

I’m halfway through my current novel. I’m wrestling with lots of story threads and there are lots of things I know need to happen. I’m struggling to hold it all in my head and find a way through. Halfway through a novel is probably the most difficult time for me.

How do I cope with this?

Well I just worked it out a few days ago. What I do is step back and stop stressing. Trust my characters to sort it all out.

In his much cited book on writing, called, erm, On Writing, Stephen King explains that he doesn’t like to laboriously plot a story out in advance. Instead he talks about putting his characters in a predicament and then watching to see how they get out.

In my novel, each of my characters is in a predicament I’ve created. They want to survive. They want to achieve whatever goals and targets they have. There are other things they want too.

So what would they do?

They respond to their immediate challenges; they push towards their long-term goals; and others around them respond, push, adapt as a result. Story happens.

Put like that, it seems simple: just let them do it and write it as it happens before you.

Hang on … it is. It really is that simple. So why was I finding it so hard?


Blurbing

I hate writing outlines.

Sometimes you write an outline of a finished book, part of the package you submit to potential publishers. But how do you boil a hundred thousand words down to three or four sides of A4 and do it justice? There’s a reason for the story needing a hundred thousand words. Of course, there are excellent reasons for providing this kind of outline, but it seems so harsh after you’ve spent a year or more working on your novel.

Sometimes you write an outline before you’ve even written the book, this time as part of the package you submit to a publisher you hope will commission the book. For me, this is even worse. The outline needs to be more substantial, effectively a compressed novel. Writing your story like this runs the risk of killing the story spark; alternatively, if you’re the kind of writer who likes to develop story as you write, this kind of outline is likely to be quite unlike what you finally deliver. Thankfully, most publishers understand this, and as long as you don’t stray too far they’re happy with it.

Not nearly so difficult to do, but still tough for me, is writing a blurb – the text you’d find on the finished book’s back cover. Usually the publisher writes this, but it’s quite common for the author to do it. The good thing is that a blurb doesn’t aim to encapsulate the entire book; it’s more about giving a few details and a flavour of the book. It’s all about hooking the reader in: the blurb should make them want to read the opening paragraph, which should make them want to read the rest of the opening page, the opening chapter… and then they’re hooked.

This morning my publishers asked for a blurb for the novel I’m writing. Natural enough for them to ask me to do it: it’s a work-in-progress, so nobody else could really write the blurb at this stage.

Here’s what I wrote:

alt.human by Keith Brooke (Solaris, 2012)The aliens are here, all around us. They always have been. And now, one by one, they’re destroying our cities.

Dodge Mercer deals in identities, which is fine until the day he deals the wrong identity and clan war breaks out. Hope Burren has no identity and no past, but she does have a multitude of voices filling her head.

In a world where nothing is as it seems, where humans are segregated and aliens can sing realities and tear worlds apart, Dodge and Hope lead a ragged band of survivors on a search for sanctuary in what may be the only hope for humankind.

What do you think? Does that make you want to open the book, read that first paragraph?


Guilt, and the writer

There’s a bit of a recurring theme here: writing is a demanding activity; most writers have day jobs, families, responsibilities, etc; so how do we fit it all in and what’s the price we pay?

Related to this is how we feel about the sacrifices we – and those around us – make. Like teenagers hiding away and doing teenager things, we feel guilty. Or I do, at least.

All those times when I choose to open the laptop and do some writing, while those around me are being sociable. The family times when your kids are growing up, times you’ll never get back. The times when you realise your partner has done the cooking, the washing, the sorting, again. The household jobs that need doing. The grass doesn’t get any shorter by itself. Unless you have rabbits, but I digress.

(At this point I would like to stress that this is entirely about my own perception of what I do: my partner is hugely supportive and proud of my writing!)

To complicate matters further, so much of a writer’s professional activity isn’t actually writing. We correspond with colleagues, deal with accounts, work on publicity, have to do a lot of research.

But we’re very aware that to the untrained eye that all looks very much like we’re On Facebook Again.

And some of the time that’s exactly what we’re doing. Like any job, the time you spend chatting with colleagues can be invaluable. For most writers, much of our research is carried out online, so looking at all kinds of odd sites on the web is part of how we do what we do.

I’m not so much concerned with how people perceive our activities here, though. As I say, I’m concerned with how we, the writers, feel about them. How many people have a job where an important element involves spending time surfing the web and talking about what we do on social media? That’s where the guilt comes in: it’s not as if we’re working these hours just to pay the bills. We’re doing it so we can indulge ourselves in something we love doing, where we get to interact with lots of cool and fascinating people; we get all this time to make up stories and play all kinds of games with our characters. We do it so we can dream.

Now we get to the real indulgence, the real guilt. Me? The bits I feel worst about are the bits where I’m spending my writing time not writing. Day-dreaming. Going for a walk. Reading magazines or watching TV to prompt my mind to make connections and ask what-ifs.

Writers need time to stare into space.

And my, but that feels indulgent!


Hold the front page: Eric Brown featured on Amazon UK’s Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page, July 2011

Nice to see Eric Brown’s excellent collection of short stories Angels of Life and Death included in the selection of featured titles displayed on Amazon UK’s Kindle ebooks home page. This has been our best-selling title, and getting this kind of presence on Amazon’s site is yet another indication that our books are having an impact.

Recently, while I’ve been working on my current novel, I’ve stepped back from a lot of the active marketing for infinity plus ebooks. Partly this was to let me concentrate on the novel, and partly an experiment to see what impact shouting – and not shouting – about our books has. Sales have definitely eased off during this period, and I think this confirms for me that it’s all very well producing high-quality books, but  the big challenge is to make readers aware that they exist. Hopefully this kind of thing will pick up momentum, band one part of this that’s especially rewarding to see is where our readers help to spread the word too, with retweets, reviews, blog posts and so on. We’re already seeing reviews build up on Amazon and Smashwords for books like Iain Rowan’s Nowhere To Go, and hopefully this is a sign that we’re continuing to steadily build.

In the next couple of months we have another batch of ebooks to release, including our first non-fiction title. More on these soon.

But in the mean time, thanks for helping us to get established and grow. It’s great to see what progress we’ve made.


Scientifiction, and other mislabels

“By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”
(Hugo Gernsback, in a 1926 Amazing Stories editorial )

Liberty SpinA lot of science fiction, in the form it has taken over the last several decades, has stuck fairly closely to this definition.

  • A “charming romance”: I’m not so sure about charming, but dictionary.com’s definition of a romance as “a novel or other prose narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic  exploits, etc, usually in a historical or imaginary setting” embraces a lot of SF.
  • “scientific fact “: good SF has to either employ good science, or must provide enough credibility to allow the reader to suspend disbelief for the duration of the story. Of course, what’s acceptable here varies by writer, by story and by reader. Many readers and writers are able to suspend disbelief in faster than light travel and time travel, for example, while others regard this as fantasy.
  • “prophetic vision”: this works if you take prophetic to mean “this could happen, or have happened” rather than “this will happen, or has…”

Okay, so the definition struggles a little under the weight of decades of accumulated literature, but for me it still has a certain charm. I used the term “scientifiction” as part of the subtitle for one of my recent collections of short fiction, partly as a nod to the genre’s origins and partly to indicate the kind of stories included. I was particularly pleased when a recent Amazon review highlighted the term:

‘Scientifiction’ is used boldly in this collection, and it’s a good thing that this term has been brought back to life.

Liberty Spin: tales of scientifiction pulls together nine of my more overtly science-fictional stories, previously published in magazines and anthologies. I don’t really do heroes, as such, but these stories do set out to depict heroic and marvelous deeds, are grounded in science (or what I hope is at least credibly extrapolated science), and are set in futures, or in one case a present day, that could come to exist. And the stories pretty much run the gamut of what we generally think of as science fiction: near-space colonisation, space war, the wonders of the solar system, alien cultures, galaxy-spanning civilisations, near-future thriller and more. MemesisIt was a fun book to compile. Inspired by this, when I also put together a collection of stories loosely grouped around ideas of transformation, I coined the term modifiction for the subtitle: Memesis: modifiction and other strange changes.

Definitions… how much time have we spent debating the precise boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, etc? What’s the difference between science fiction and sci fi? And what about speculative fiction? In my mind, what I write is extrapolative fiction (but then when it comes to it, what fiction isn’t extrapolative?). By this I mean that almost every story I write takes a point of divergence from the real we know and follows it to a logical conclusion. Some tales of extrapolative fiction could be classified as SF, others as fantasy or horror; the term covers most of what appeals to me as a writer. It’s a label that works for me, and helps me make sense of why it is that I write stories that fit so many different categories rather than sticking to a single field.

But try as I might, extrapolative fiction – or good old XF to those in the know – just doesn’t have the charm that scientifiction has, does it?


The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie – new ebook edition

The Unlikely World of Faraway FrankieI was delighted earlier this year when Ian Whates of Newcon Press approached me about producing an ebook edition of The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie, which I regard as one of the best things I’ve written. Newcon did a superb job with the paperback and hardback editions, so naturally I didn’t hesitate to say yes to the e-version.

And this week it came out (just in time for Newcon’s 5th anniversary party):

This is what it’s all about:

Frankie Finnegan, or Faraway Frankie as he is sometimes known, is a boy who retreats from the harsh struggles of day-to-day life into daydreaming, adept at turning the bullies’ insults and cruelty into a joke so that he can laugh along.

To cope with the pressure, he turns inwards: he has a most vivid — and sometimes disturbing — imagination, and telling tall tales is one of his ways of coping. Everyone is accustomed to his flights of fancy, and his occasional lapses when he forgets the boundaries between his dream world and the real one. But then… as Frankie’s humiliations mount up, more and more elements from his faraway fantasy world start to appear in the real one. Can he use his imaginary world to escape? Can he learn how to construct the world around him from his dreams, and so get some kind of control over his life?

But when power goes to your head, and your head is where the world comes from, that’s a very dangerous mix.

“A masterclass in how to transcend labels. It is wiser about youth and imagination than most other novels published today; and everybody, of whatever age, should read it.” – Adam Roberts

“An accomplished coming-of-age story that balances the real and the surreal to great effect.” — The Guardian

“One of the best short novels of childhood you will read this year.” — SF Site

“It will stay in my mind for a long time” — Science Fiction & Fantasy

“This is an elegant little gem of a book: unsettling, funny and exciting in equal measure… Recommended.” – Tony Ballantyne


How to fit writing into a busy life (writing strategies, part two)

My last post here was all about strategies for keeping going with a novel, even when life gets in the way. But more generally, how does a writer fit the act of actual writing in when s/he has any of the following: family, day job, friends, day to day commitments, a life? [delete as appropriate]

What I talked about in my earlier post was developing the knack for making the most of every opportunity: journeys, waiting for meetings, lunchbreaks, etc. You can add the following to that list:

  • Getting up early. This is an approach I’ve used at various times. Right now it would be difficult to do: I start work at the day job at 7.30 in the morning, so to get any useful writing time before then I’d need to be getting up at around 5am, I reckon. In the past I’ve had spells of getting up at 6.30am, writing for a couple of hours and getting in to work for 9. It’s been very productive, but wasn’t sustainable for more than a few weeks at a time. It’s great when you need a burst of productivity and evenings and weekends just don’t allow that.
  • Grab an hour after work. If you finish work at 5.30pm, why not stay in the office until 6.30 and write for an hour? Or stop off at a coffee shop or a scenic parking place on the way home to write for an hour? Or grab that hour as soon as you get home? Then by 6.30 you still have the evening ahead of you. Really, if you did a long commute instead, you’d have less of an evening than this.
  • Carve out some time late at night – those midnight to 3am stretches. Lots of writers are at their best writing late, so why not give it a go? I chatted to one writer about this recently and this is his preferred way of working, but I’ve only rarely worked like this myself: it’s not my best time, and I do try to have a life, but when I’ve done it it’s worked well.
  • When you actually manage to get a good long writing day, make the most of it. When my partner was away for the weekend recently, I did exactly this. I had a good writing session in the morning, then took a break for lunch. Then another good session in the afternoon and I was well past my word-count target for the day. It would have been so easy to pour myself a glass of 25 year-old Linkwood and called it a day. Instead, I had something to eat and then sat down to write again. Any words I wrote during that session would be a bonus. In the end I added another 1500 words – almost as good as squeezing another writing day in.
  • One of the loveliest presents I’ve received was a long writing weekend: my partner and I went to a bed and breakfast in north Norfolk; I wrote for a few hours in the mornings and then we did holiday things for the afternoons and evenings. That’s such a chilled way to work and I was incredibly productive.

In a perfect world, when I’m writing first draft I like to write intensely: write every day until it’s finished, then fix it later (and believe me, it always needs a lot of fixing). I think my record is to write a complete novel draft in 16 days, although normally it takes much longer (and it took me several years to sell that particular novel).

Nowadays I don’t have the luxury of long blocks of writing time, so I have to compromise. One thing I’m toying with is trying to combine the intense approach with all the techniques above for my next novel.

Purely by coincidence I should be ready to start looking seriously at my next novel by November – National Novel-Writing Month. I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, but it fits in perfectly: do you think it’s possible for me to combine a day job, having a life, etc, with being as productive as a full-time writer and get that first draft down in a month? I’m not anal about getting it done in a month: I accept that 3,300 words a day for a 100k word novel is ambitious even for most full-time writers. I wouldn’t mind if it took a few days longer.

But… what do you think? Am I mad?


Writing strategies in difficult times

I’m loving working on my current novel, alt.human. It’s what I’m thinking of as extreme trad SF, a gritty story crammed full of aliens and big ideas, and quite unlike anything I’ve written before.

But it ain’t exactly coming easily…

In real life, my day job consists of five days’ worth of hours crammed into four long days. The job is demanding at the best of times, but right now we’ve been put under ridiculous pressure and the cracks are starting to show. It’s incredibly hard to step away from it and switch off: I’m stressed and angry, I’m not sleeping, and instead I lie there with my head full of day-job crap. When I manage to get a writing day, it’s hard to immerse myself in the novel and forget about all the other stuff. The novel itself isn’t helping: by its nature it’s full of ideas and multiple strands and characters and species that I need to hold in my head. It’s possibly the hardest novel I’ve ever tried to write.

And this isn’t unusual: most writers have other jobs too. Most of them have lives. I’m not pleading a special case: “Look at how hard it is for me to be creative, dahling!”

So how do we do it? What’s the secret of juggling it all?

The answer, of course, is that there is no secret. It’s more a case of having a toolkit, a portfolio of strategies and tricks that can help you get on and write, even under the most trying of circumstances. Other writers have it much harder than I do.

I had it easy when I started out. I went straight from university to writing full-time. I had the luxury that I could shut myself away in complete peace and quiet, for hours on end, and just write. I acquired such bad habits from that! If I didn’t have at least two or three hours free for it I didn’t feel I could write. If I couldn’t find absolute peace and quiet, I couldn’t write. I didn’t quite reach the stage of being unable to perform unless I had a bowl of orange M&Ms, but it wasn’t far off.

I had to learn it all over again when circumstances forced me to find a day job.

I had to learn that even if my head was full of crap, when I sat down at my computer I could force myself to lose myself in the world of my story, and everything else would recede. I had to learn that two or more hours free was a luxury, not a necessity: you can do a lot in half an hour; if I’m in full flow, I can sit down for half an hour and produce 500 words; if I’m not in full flow I can do some editing, make some notes, anything to help lodge the story in my head again.

If I have ten minutes while I’m waiting for other people to turn up for a meeting, I can get my phone out and start making notes on my work in progress. If I don’t have anything to make notes about? I ask myself questions. How well do I know my protagonist? That scene I’ve just written: how can I go back into it and twist the perspective, make it sharper, make it different and deeper?

On lunchbreaks, with the wonders of high-speed internet and cloud computing I can open up my work in progress and write a couple of hundred more words. Or fifty more words. Sometimes just re-reading and adding a sentence or two can make all the difference in keeping the story in my head for when I can come back for a longer writing session.

Right now I’m at the halfway point in alt.human and I’m stepping back from it. Because of the bitty nature of my writing sessions over the past few months I know there are lots of loose threads, lots of sparks of ideas that I’ve made a note to go back and further develop. So before my ragged band of protagonists set off into part two I’m going right back to the start to work on all the bits that would benefit from enriching, pushing harder, digging deeper. And as I go, I’m making notes for part two.

I’m a word counter. On a full writing day I’m disappointed if I don’t get well past 2000 words of new material. So spending writing time on this revisiting – fixing and researching my own material – seems incredibly unproductive. At the end of the day my word count might be minus 200, or zero, or six. It doesn’t exactly feel like progress.

But it is: the story’s in my head again. All the little details in part one that might flourish into sub-plots in part two; all the deepening of what’s gone before, making what’s to come all the more vivid even before I’ve written it.

Apart from anything else: it’s one hell of a confidence boost. Writing in difficult times, when life’s knocking the stuffing out of you, isn’t easy; it makes it hard to believe in what you’re doing. There’s one scene I’ve just edited that has done me a world of good: a kaleidoscope of the alien, a bombardment of images and impressions. When I reached that scene I started to believe in the world of my story again.

There are lots of ways to keep momentum going in a long piece of work, but sometimes stepping back from it is more effective than plunging ever onwards.

I’ve now posted a follow-up to this: How to fit writing into a busy life (writing strategies, part two) [Added, 6 July]


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