Tag Archives: writing craft

Just out: Story Behind the Book, Volume 3 (Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction)

Story Behind the Book, volume threeAnother of these excellent volumes collecting nearly 40 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Offering an unique insight into the creative and publishing process, these essay reveal all the beauty, effort and frustration that inevitable comes hand in hand with the urge to write, edit or illustrate.

Contributors include Steven Erikson, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Hugh Howey, Richard Kadrey, Christopher Fowler, Gary Gibson, Eric Brown, Garry Kilworth, Steve Rasnic Tem, Ian R. MacLeod, Cat Sparks, James Everington, Pat Cadigan, Freda Warrington, Nick Mamatas, Robert Reed and many more.

And what’s more, like the earlier volumes editors Kristijan Meic and Ivana Steiner are donating all proceeds to the charity Epilepsy Action, who have been hugely supportive of my daughter Molly (to whom this book is dedicated).

Lots of good reasons to grab a copy!

Buying at Amazon.com in the US
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Buying at Amazon.co.uk in the UK
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New: Story Behind the Book, Volume 2

Just out from the team behind the fabulous upcoming4.me:

Story Behind the Book - Volume 2Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 collects over 30 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Chronicling the process of writing and editing speculative fiction, these essays provide a unique glimpse behind the scenes.

Contributors include Ellen Ullman, S.M. Wheeler, Laurie Frankel, Paul McAuley, Marcus Sakey, Neal Asher, Ian Tregillis, Edward M. Lerner, Will McIntosh, Madeline Ashby, Nina Allan, Ken Scholes, Keith Brooke, Jasper Kent, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Kosmatka, Daniel Abraham, Erin Hoffman, Samuel Sattin, Jack Skillingstead, Douglas Nicholas, Paul Tobin, Jill Shultz, Jay Posey, Eric Brown, Samit Basu, Gina X. Grant, Elizabeth Massie, Tom Vater, Django Wexler, Bradley Beaulieu, Jason M. Hough, Lou Morgan, Paul S. Kemp.

Cover art: a photograph of Hoechst stained non-small cell lung cancer cell. Finding cure for cancer is part of daily work for one of our journalists but similarly to Volume 1, all proceeds from Volume 2 will be donated to Epilepsy Action, in our opinion an equally important cause.

Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 is available from:

Contents:

  • Story behind “By Blood” by Ellen Ullman
  • Story behind “Sea Change” by S.M. Wheeler
  • Story behind “Goodbye for Now” by Laurie Frankel
  • Story behind “Quiet War” – “How I wrote the Quiet War novels and stories” by Paul McAuley
  • Story behind “Brilliance”– “Autism, Bourbon and Lies” by Marcus Sakey
  • Story behind “Zero Point” by Neal Asher
  • Story behind “Necessary Evil” by Ian Tregillis
  • Story behind “Fate of Worlds” – “Forty-two years in the making” by Edward M. Lerner
  • Story behind Love Minus Eighty” by Will McIntosh
  • Story behind “iD” by Madeline Ashby
  • Story behind “Stardust” by Nina Allan
  • Story behind “Requiem” by Ken Scholes
  • Story behind “Lord of Stone” by Keith Brooke
  • Story behind “The People’s Will” by Jasper Kent
  • Story behind “Conservation of Shadows” by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Story behind “Prophet of Bones” – “A World Where Creationists Were Right” by Ted Kosmatka
  • Story behind “The Dagger and the Coin” by Daniel Abraham
  • Story behind “Shield of Sea and Space” by Erin Hoffman
  • Story behind “League of Somebodies” by Samuel Sattin
  • Story behind “Life on the Preservation” by Jack Skillingstead
  • Story behind “Something Red” by Douglas Nicholas
  • Story behind “Prepare to Die” by Paul Tobin
  • Story behind “Angel on the Ropes” by Jill Shultz
  • Story behind “Three” by Jay Posey
  • Story behind “Satan’s Reach” by Eric Brown
  • Story behind “Turbulence” by Samit Basu
  • Story behind “The Reluctant Reaper” by Gina X. Grant
  • Story behind “Desper Hollow” by Elizabeth Massie
  • Story behind “The Cambodian Book of the Dead” by Tom Vater
  • Story behind “The Thousand Names” by Django Wexler
  • Story behind “The Flames of Shadam Khoreh” by Bradley Beaulieu
  • Story behind “The Darwin Elevator” by Jason M. Hough
  • Story behind “Blood and Feathers: Rebellion” by Lou Morgan
  • Story behind “A Discourse in Steel” by Paul S. Kemp

Snapshots: Kim Lakin-Smith interviewed

[Kim Lakin-Smith’s Autodrome is reviewed by Keith Brooke in today’s Guardian]

Autodrome by Kim Lakin-Smith

How would you describe your latest novel, Autodrome?
Death Race with a soul. Autodrome is my wink to the gear-nut and the petrol-head, from rusting rat rods to caterpillar-tread wheelchairs to howling V8s. Its action-adventure with a hefty dose of Indiana-style questing. It’s also a story of survival against the odds and trying to not just beat but better the system.

On one level, it’s a fairly straightforward quest story, what makes it stand out for me is the lovingly detailed backdrop. Tell us a bit about the city of Autodrome.
Everything I write has a strong basis in fact; for me, it is what makes a story engaging and, ultimately, believable. While researching Autodrome I read up on MotorCity, a retail, sporting, recreational and residential development in Dubai. (Incidentally, this was prior to the evolution of the ‘Autodrome’ that now takes pride of place in the development – science fiction becoming science fact, god damn it!) I wondered what would happen if race fans and vehicle enthusiasts flocked to MotorCity in droves; it would soon outgrow itself and be forced to relocate.

At the same time, I needed to consider the geography of a new UAE redevelopment. Given the arid climate, the siting of the city next to a water source – Lady Luck Lough – was essential, as was keeping it in a country rich in oil.  Next came the inner workings of the city, and this was where I really got to have fun just imagining all of the out-there possibilities for a future world dedicated to racing. Equally, I wanted the environment to have its roots in real-world commerce, for instance advertising revenue comes from MasterCard, Antram, et al.

For me, cities are characters in their own right.  If characters are to come to life for the reader, they have to live in a world that feels gritty and all-encompassing and tangible. This meant giving Autodrome a seedy side; while the west of the city revels in the spoils of the sport, the east is drug-addled and desperately poor, its young people siphoned off to race for cash and perpetuate the dream.

The novel’s protagonists are mostly 15 to 18 years old, and so could the book be read as a young adult novel; but then it’s equally easy as an adult novel and it’d be a shame if it was overlooked by anyone not wanting to read “kids’ stuff”. Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Autodrome exists very much in the ‘crossover’ between YA and adult. The decision to focus on teens was based on some early feedback which suggested the story would have more punch with a younger cast of characters.  I really hope that readers who have enjoyed my work in the past will agree that, stylistically, Autodrome stays firmly in my ballpark. I haven’t indulged my characters’ youth; rather, they are expected to earn a crust from an early age, and they have the pride, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep going when older competitors end up dead or jaded.

Something that is always really important to me is to retain my political stance as a writer. The crossover potential of Autodrome allowed me to feature a multicultural society and explore gender, disability and sexuality as part of the natural human condition rather than makes them the sole focus of the plot.

Your research and knowledge show through in the best possible ways – was it an easy book to write, or tough to hit that level of verisimilitude?
I did a lot of research before and during the writing of Autodrome. The race scenes were intrinsic to the book’s success, of course, and I did get carried away with the numbers of those, eventually cutting a few scenes that had taken a fair amount of time to write. I was also very conscious that not everyone shares my love of mechanical detail, but I figured there had to be a balance. This was, after all, my ode to the hotrodder scene and I wanted there to be a level of retro-cool and gear-geek self-indulgence. I had the added bonus of being friends with Lee Whitmore, petrol-head and rodder, who didn’t seem to object to spending many an evening drinking beer and talking shop.

My real hope with Autodrome is that it fires the imagination of readers, even if they don’t have a vested interest in vehicles. I also wanted to create a world where girls race just as hard as boys and on an even playing field.

What are you working on now?
I am working on my next adult book with the provisional title of Curtain Falls, but I’m sure that will change. It is a challenging book to write because it will cross time periods and has its roots in the notion of man as animal, the value of the written word, and fascism. Some pretty heavy subjects which make my head spin! Its early days so I don’t know how the book will pan out, but it feels like a book I should push myself to write, no matter how terrifying the prospect.

What have you recently finished?
I have just completed two children’s books, The Mouse Morrow Map and The Wylde Witches. They are part of a six part fantasy series featuring 12 year old Scarlet White and her adventures next door in Lone Hall, home to sorcerers, elder spirits, boggles, ghouls, sprites and meddlesome mice. I love writing the series between my adult stories; it is freeing to let the imagination flow, no holds barred.

What’s recently or soon out?
My debut novel, Tourniquet, is being released as a limited edition by Jurassic London in 2014. I am very excited to see what Jurassic are going to do with Tourniquet; there is talk of including artist plates and the cover art is a striking take on the religious iconography which features in the book.

Newcon Press recently launched Looking Landwards, an anthology commissioned by The Institution of Agricultural Engineers and which includes my short story, ‘Soul Food.’ This is a prequel piece to my novel, Cyber Circus.

Describe your typical writing day.
After the school run, breakfast and a stalk over the fields with Drake, our fat lab, my writing day starts at 10.00am. I write long-hand, in notebooks or on scraps of paper, and go through a lot of pens. If I am writing a new story, I sit in my ‘writing chair’ beside a window that looks out over the garden and some gorgeous old trees in nearby gardens and I think or write. The best stories flow very quickly, and I research extra details as I go. Other days, I’m in the office trying to make sense of my scrawls and typing up on the laptop. I’d like to say I break for lunch – more like I eat at my desk while catching up on news.

By 4.00pm my daughter Scarlet is back from school and it is time for homework, housework and slaving over a hot stove. Work begins again at 7.00pm until 9.00pm, at which point I pour a large wine or several, listen to music and chat over plot ideas with my husband, Del, or collapse on the sofa to watch some spectacularly bad sci-fi.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
I really liked the idea of packaging my novel, Cyber Circus, with a sister novella, Black Sunday; there are overlapping themes and, while both are stand alone, this lent an extra dimension to both stories. I would like to publish Black Sunday in its own right in the future as it garnered good reviews and it is my personal favourite of my stories.

My short story, The Island of Peter Pandora, is a steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I think Peter is one of my most disturbed characters to date! The story first appeared in Resurrection Engines (Snowbooks, 2012) and was selected for The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2013).

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I am overwhelmed that I get to meet so many incredibly talented writers, editors, publishers, marketers and artists. Everyone works so hard and I am always amazed by how supportive the writing community really is.

To highlight a few real contemporary gems, I’d say authors Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nina Allen, Gareth L Powell, and Den Patrick are among my favourites. I am a huge fan of Philip Reeve’s YA series, Mortal Engines, and I can never get enough of Diana Wynne Jones’s mischievous fantasies.

I would also like to give a special mention to Ian Whates (writer, editor, publisher and all round talent) of Newcon Press, and Jared and Anne Shurin of Jurassic London. Both small presses are doing amazing work with both established authors and exciting new talent.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Just the one? 😉

Plot is everything.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
This is such a difficult question. In terms of large publishers, commerciality is key, which means, more than ever, the independents are home to books which push boundaries or fall just outside of the traditional remit.  Authors need to have lots of fingers in lots of pies if they are to make any kind of a living out of writing; the majority have daytime jobs and write when they can. I like the idea that publishing will evolve into a far more autonomous model where writers are solely responsible for their output, but, at the same time, this is already a solitary profession.

I am horrified by the return percentages from the behemoth which is Amazon – if ever there was a science fiction horror in the making, it is the story of Amazon’s monopoly over book consumerism. But I am a realist, and I am excited by the evolution of publishing in one of two directions. The first will be a much more stripped back art form. Gone the palpability of book production; instead the sole focus will be the consumption of words. The second will be the enrichment of the eBook format through reader interaction and all manner of artistic content.

As for what readers will be reading, I’m hoping that teenage boys will find a voice and either refute the belief they don’t read or find a renewed interest in books. I think this is where the virtual format may come into its own.

More…
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-SmithKim Lakin-Smith is the author of Tourniquet, Cyber Circus – shortlisted for the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel – the YA novella, Queen Rat, and Autodrome. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Interzone, Black Static, and Celebration: 50 years of the BSFA.  2014 sees the release of Tourniquet as a limited edition run from Jurassic London.

More:


The story behind… authors on writing their books

Story Behind the BookThe guys over at the excellent Upcoming4.me website have just published a book of essays by speculative fiction authors about the writing of their books, and it’s a book I’m delighted to be a part of, with my own entry about the writing of Genetopia

What’s more, it’s not only a great book for anyone interested in what goes into producing SF and fantasy novels, all proceeds are going to Epilepsy Action, a cause particularly close to my own heart, as EA have been fantastic in supporting my daughter Molly as she faces the challenges presented by the condition.

The ebook is a bargain (I just picked one up from Amazon for less than £2), and a paperback will follow very soon, so why not pick up a copy or two?

Story Behind the Book: Volume 1 collects nearly 40 non-fiction essays on writing and editing speculative fiction written by some of the most exciting authors and editors. Essays cover everything from getting an initial creative burst, worldbuilding, tackling writer’s block, to the final process of publication. Some of the essays are personal, some rather technical but all of them, without an exception, provide an unique and fascinating insight into the mind of an author.

Contributors include Ian Whates, Michael Logan, Mathieu Blais and Joel Casseus, Mark T. Barnes, Lisa Jensen, Lee Battersby, L. E. Modesitt Jr., Keith Brooke, Joanne Anderton, Jo Walton, F.R. Tallis, Ian R. MacLeod, Guy Haley, Gavin Smith, Francis Knight, Eric Brown, Clifford Beal, Susan Palwick, Rhiannon Held, Ben Jeapes, Nina Allan, Mike Shevdon, Mur Lafferty, Norman Lock, Seth Patrick, Gemma Malley, Freda Warrington, Freya Robertson and more.

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action.


Stickatitivity – a key part of the writer’s toolkit

Someone once said that aspiring writers are easily discouraged, and and followed up by saying “and they should be”. There’s a lot of bitter truth in that: writing is a very up and down business, and it’s certainly not a happy environment for the easily discouraged or the thin-skinned.

There’s also a sad truth in that observation: a lot of writers who have plenty of talent fall by the wayside just because they don’t have the resilience that this business needs.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of work with new writers, and one of the messages I hammer home (perhaps too much) is that stubbornness is a key part of a writer’s toolkit. We’ve all heard the stories of now-bestselling authors whose first novels were rejected dozens of times before finding a home. I’m not in that league, but my own first novel accumulated those rejections until the point where I had the choice of either consigning it to experience and a dusty box in the attic, or sending it to the last publisher on my list, one that really didn’t publish that kind of thing very often at all. I ended up with a three-book deal.

I was struck by this today, when I came across a piece on resilience on the excellent marketing blog, Wordofmouth. Yes, it’s about marketing and business, but the principles are the same. In the blog post, Mitch Joel argues that it’s not about winning or losing, but about resilience; in my experience, and the point I drum home when I’m teaching, it’s not about winning or losing, but about increasing your chances of getting that one victory that makes the big difference.

Pitching a novel isn’t about winning every time, it’s about winning once and resilience/stubbornness is a key part of how you can improve your chances of hitting that one victory that makes the difference between your book appearing, or it being consigned to the attic.


Snapshots: Frank Chadwick interviewed

How Dark the World Becomes by Frank ChadwickWhy science fiction?
I think science fiction is the most optimistic genre of writing, because it is about what is possible. Even when it deals with dystopic futures, as it often does, it’s essentially optimistic because, as Marx said, “Everything seems pregnant with its contrary.” The writer would not bother telling a tale of an unavoidable future, so stories about how bad things can become are incantations against their realization. Even that famous pessimist, H.G. Wells, must have had hope that his stories would deflect our trajectory somewhat. Otherwise it’s all just howling in the night. The simple notion there will be human beings centuries – even millennia – from now, recognizable to us as of the same spirit, with similar values, similar emotional needs, is itself a proposition engorged with optimism.

Why fiction at all? What do you think it is that makes a person have to make up stories and write them down?
My formal higher education was first speech and rhetoric, and then later communication, so my earliest serious academic grounding involved Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Since I have a wandering mind, I read the rest of Aristotle, and that was many decades ago so much of it is lost now. But something which stuck with me was Aristotle’s disdain for the study of history, but his deep appreciation for poetry, which for him included drama and what we would call historical fiction. History, he said, was simply a recounting of what “had happened,” a meaningless listing of “what Alcibiades did, and what he suffered.” Poetry, on the other hand, dealt with what was possible, and when it recounted historical events, it did so to reveal what the gods expected of us – what constituted right acts.

I have a better opinion of history than did Aristotle, but in part that’s because we expect more from its study these days than he did. But I’m still with him in believing fiction is a better vehicle for exploring what is possible, and what constitutes right acts. Why? Because it enables readers to put themselves in the place of the hero or heroine, live their struggles and learn their lessons, in a more intimate way than they can with historical figures already passed from the scene. We can imagine knowing Voltaire, but we cannot as easily imagine being Voltaire.

Describe your typical writing day. 
I prefer to write in the morning. I’m much more productive if I can start my day with writing, when my mind is still uncluttered. Later in the day it’s harder for me to tune out the distractions, so that’s when I do the more mundane stuff.

When I’m working on a project, I usually start writing in the morning as soon as I’ve showered and have a cup of coffee in front of me. I like to get about 250-300 words down before I stop and have breakfast. Then I spend the rest of the morning trying to hit or exceed my daily target of 1500 words. I’ll do some revision and rewriting as I go, but my target is 1500 net words: today’s final tally minus yesterday’s final tally. If I’m on a roll I’ll keep rolling until noon, but I always like to quit while I still know what’s coming next. That way when I sit down the next morning I can pitch right in, not sit there looking at a blank screen as if I’m hypnotized. If I’m being very good, I’ll write a short synopsis of what I’ll do the next day. I’ve found that writing a synopsis of what I’m going to write next pays off in greatly increased daily word count.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Write simple stories about unforgettable characters.

Do you think writing can be taught?
The craft of writing can absolutely be taught. I don’t think the artistry of writing can be, nor can inspiration be taught, nor can you teach someone, by the numbers, to have a unique writer’s voice. Genius cannot be taught, and genius is what separates truly great writers from most of the rest of us, but there are some wonderful writers among “the rest of us.” I think you can learn to be an accomplished writer who reliably produces stories with compelling characters and intriguing worlds, stories which satisfy and enlighten readers, and that’s something worth aspiring to. I don’t think you can learn to be Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemmingway.

How did you learn to write?
Here’s how you learn to write (or at least how I did):

First, read. Read a lot and read the best writers you can find, but make it a joy, not a burden. Find good writers whose words you enjoy. Read different writers in different genres, with different strengths and with distinctly different “voices.” Pay attention to what works in their writing and what doesn’t, and think about why that is.

Second, write. Write a lot, write poorly, but write.

Third, read about writing. There are some excellent books on writing. None of them are gospel, but many of them will help. They aren’t magic doorways to success, but they can make the lessons you are learning slowly, as you write, come more quickly and in sharper focus.

Fourth, keep writing until you write better. Eventually you will – some people say about a million words down the road. I don’t know that there’s a magic number. Just write a lot, and then write a lot more.

Some people can write timeless prose their first time at bat. You are not one of those people. Accept it, and don’t beat yourself up over it.

You’ve collaborated on a few books, particularly in your gaming-related work. How does collaboration work for you?
I’ve collaborated on a couple ebooks in Untreed Reads’ “Space 1889 And Beyond” series as well as the game books, and those ebooks are probably closer to what you’re after here. One of those, “Dark Side of Luna,” was a sort of collaboration-after-the-fact with J.T. Wilson, but “Conspiracy of Silence” was a true collaboration, planned from the start,  with Andy Frankham-Allen. What made that an easy collaboration was there were two distinct plot threads, with two principal protagonists, which finally met late in the second act. After we roughed out the plot, Andy wrote the Nathanial thread and I wrote the Annabelle thread, and then I wrapped things up after the two thread merged. I did an edit on his chapters and he did an edit on mine, but both of us had written in the series before and so we were already on the same page with respect to style and tone, and we both knew the characters quite well.

One of the things which made the collaboration go so smoothly is that Andy and I write the same sort of stories, what I call (for lack of a better term) “shipwreck” stories. In a shipwreck story, everything starts out on an even keel, then things happen to upset that. There follows an escalating cascade of disasters which the characters are always caught off guard by until, finally, they manage to get mentally out in front of what’s going on, and come to grips with it. The suspense lies in the fact that, for most of the story, neither the readers nor the protagonists know what’s coming next.

I contrast that with what I call “mountain climbing” stories. In this sort of story the challenge facing the protagonists is enormous, but fairly clearly known at the start of the story–this looming mountain facing them which they must climb. From the start the readers and protagonists have a clear idea where everything’s going and (usually) not much question about the story ending successfully. The protagonists usually know how they will accomplish this from the start, but they don’t let the reader in on their thinking. Instead the suspense lies in how the protagonists manage the climb, revealed gradually, ledge by ledge.

By way of classical analogy, Xenophon’s “Anabasis” is a shipwreck story. Arian’s “The Anabasis of Alexander” is a mountain climbing story. A more modern analogy would be “Die Hard” as shipwreck story, and almost any episode of the old TV series “Mission Impossible” as mountain climbing story.

If you could pick one dream collaborator for a story, who would it be?
I think if I answered that right now, it would sound too much like ass kissing. Ask me again when I have a few more books in print.

I will say I think it would be harder for me to collaborate with someone who prefers mountain climbing stories to shipwreck stories, but if it worked, it might make for a pretty good read.

More…

This interview is a companion piece to my interview with Frank over at SF Signal.

How Dark the World Becomes by Frank ChadwickFrank Chadwick has designed or written over one hundred games and game–related books. In the science fiction field he is probably best remembered for his work on Traveller and Space: 1889. He also writes military history and his Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) reached number one on the New York Times best–seller list. His debut print novel, How Dark The World Becomes, was released by Baen Books in January of 2013, The Forever Engine, will appear in January of 2014, and he is currently working on the sequel to How Dark The World Becomes. He lives in east–central Illinois.

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Work in progress

So I’m back in the thick of it and loving it: working on the final edits for the serial I’ve written for Aethernet, the magazine of serial fiction.

It’s the story of colonists on an incredibly placid planet. Getting on for a century since colonisation, the biggest upheaval encountered in that time was a storm, about forty years ago. Not much of a storm, even, but it was notable because, otherwise, the place has been so welcoming.

So when a wall of storm clouds stretching from horizon to horizon approaches Edge City one morning, people are slow to catch on, and even slower to take it seriously. Even Greta Arbonne, a trained scientist researching possible reasons for the planet’s environmental placidity, can’t really grasp the devastating scale of the approaching storm until it strikes; meanwhile, runaway rebel Shenita gets caught up in the novelty and excitement of raindrops the size of her fist and winds you have to lean into just to stay on your feet. But when the storm intensifies, ripping off roofs and destroying buildings, plucking people up into the air and away… Greta and Shenita are faced with their own journeys through the devastation and the horrors of past and present.

And then there is Luther. A man who regains consciousness in the ruins of a flattened building as the storm wreaks havoc all around. A man who has woken with recollections of distant Earth when no-one on Domus could possibly have such memories. A man who could be the answer to questions neither Greta nor Shenita have yet realised they need to ask.

The stories in this serial are:

Memento 1: From Out of a Blue, Blue Sky
Memento 2: There Came a Storm
Memento 3: To End All Storms
Memento 4: A Cleansing

It’s great to be working on big SF ideas again, lovely to be writing in a form I’ve not tackled before, the serial. My first reader loved it, providing only a fairly brief list of line-edit queries. And ever since I got to work on this set of stories, my head has been buzzing with what comes next, as the story continues and becomes novel-length…


Writer’s block, or wooing that errant muse

We’ve all had it (or, at least, those writers among us have). Those days when the words just don’t come, whatever you try; days that turn into a week, two weeks, and suddenly the pressure to write is adding to the problem, weighing you down with a sense of failure, of literary impotence.

It just won’t happen, and you know you’ve got it: writer’s block.

Okay, so let’s break that down a bit. What do we mean by writer’s block? What exactly is it that’s just not happening?

Starting blocks

The image that comes to mind straight away when you mention the dreaded WB is that blank page: either fed into the maw of a lovely old Corona typewriter, or the blank screen, a new Word file with that blinking line, just waiting for your words. Come on, type something, dammit!

That blank white canvas is pretty scary, isn’t it? It certainly is for me, particularly if I know I have something like a mere hundred thousand words to go. So skip that stage. Just as a sprinter’s starting block (see what I did there?) is a launch pad, so too should a writer use all the aids necessary to make that blank canvas less daunting, and more inviting.

A simple thing: my manuscript template has dummy text in the header (‘title goes here’ by Keith Brooke, and then the page number), and the opening page has my contact details at the top, and then a nice big bit of dummy text where the title will go. If you have a title already that’s great: put it in here. Your blank canvas is now the structure that will hold your story. If you don’t have a title, it doesn’t matter: look at that blank canvas and there are words on it, it’s not just a white void.

Another thing I do is have some working notes in my manuscript, even if it’s just a couple of lines about the scene I’m currently writing (but usually it’s more). So, right from the outset, I’m almost never faced with a blank page: it’s busy, it’s full of words, and that makes it so much easier to write yet more words. It sounds silly, but it works.

The opening sentence

I try to know the opening sentence before I open that new file with the not-blank first page. Then, even if I’ve written it down in my notes, I won’t copy and paste: I’ll type it afresh when I start the story. Sometimes it’ll be the same, sometimes I’ll tweak. But nearly always, the act of typing invites more words to follow: another sentence, the second paragraph, more.

Still no opening sentence? Who cares? Write what you do know: don’t worry if the opening sentence sucks, just start writing the scene. You can always return and fix the opening later; what matters is getting those words down.

Arse (aka ass) to seat

How awful is it to be sitting in your writing chair and not writing? If you know you’re struggling, it feels far better to just not sit there so you’re not confronted with it. After all, the grass needs cutting, the dinner needs preparing, the stairs need vacuuming the spare room needs painting the kettle needs descaling the gutters need clearing the car needs washing the aardvark needs…

There are so many ways to scratch that ugly arse rather than just applying it to your seat and writing.

But you’re waiting for your muse! Of course you are. I remember at one of my first ever science-fiction conventions, standing at the bar with Kim Newman as he advised the then-newby Nicola Griffith that professional writers never have that luxury: we sit down, we write. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it doesn’t, and often on those extra-sucky days we suddenly hit our stride and do some good stuff.

Hey, maybe the way to track down that errant muse is to sit down where it expects to find you and start doing what it’s supposed to influence! Just a thought.

The business of writing

So many things get in the way, right? Every writer is running a business, and that involves a lot of things that aren’t actually writing.

All that promotional tweeting, all the networking with authors and editors on Facebook and Google Plus, the pictures you really need to post for your follower on Pinterest. The blogging…

Oh, hang on: we’re talking distractions here, not blocks. I know all this stuff can get in the way, but when I’m writing I try to treat social media like the office water cooler: take a break, have a chat with someone, catch up on the gossip, then back to my desk. If you can’t do that, then how about, you know, switching the fuckers off for an hour or two? The world won’t stop.

Research

That’s a good one. How could anyone question the assertion that you need to do just a bit more research before you start writing? Hell, even you believe it sometimes, don’t you?

Putting a block to writer’s block

We all love that whole suffering artist thing. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s a bit annoying sometimes.

Yes, writing is creative, it’s artistic, and sometimes it’s harder than others. Maybe the more artsy among you might not like what comes next, but really, have you ever heard of plumber’s block? Or nurse’s block? Or teacher’s block?

Calling it a block might make it sound more arty; it might make you feel like you’re living the life of an artist, suffering for your work. But call it procrastination or distraction and suddenly it sounds more like work avoidance than anything remotely artsy.

Yes I’ve had times when I’ve been unable to write. There have been times when I’ve been on medications that just slow everything down and remove the urge to be creative; times when I’ve been so stressed by stuff going on elsewhere in my life that writing has fallen down the priorities list; times when I just can’t be arsed.

And I’ve had times when it would be very easy to say that I’ve been blocked, but I’ve always tried not to fall back on that. To me, it’s a cop-out. At times like that I’m not blocked, I’m choosing not to write, for whatever reasons. And when you get like that, there are lots of things you can do to try to get the words flowing again. Unless, of course, that seems too much like treating writing as a job and you’re too arty for that, darling, and you prefer to sit back and woo your errant muse.

So: you’ve got writer’s block? Well it’s time for some tough love. So sit down, and bloody well write, and then you can complain about how you suffer for your art and it’ll sound a whole lot more authentic.


Snapshots: Stephen Volk interviewed

Whitstable by Stephen VolkQ: Just published by Spectral Press is your new novella, Whitstable, a creepily disturbing mixing of fact and fiction that pays homage to the Hammer House of Horror and the Gentle Man of Horror, Peter Cushing. Why Hammer? Why Cushing?

Because the idea centres around a young boy who needs a monster-hunter, and to me a monster-hunter is Van Helsing – and Van Helsing is Peter Cushing! It’s really as simple as that. The idea of the boy came first, a boy who is the victim of harm of the most despicable kind, and the only way he can assimilate it and deal with it is through the metaphor of fiction. Of the horror films he watches. The only kind of evil he understands is the vampire and the only hope he can expect is that of a vampire-hunter. The surface lore of the story is all about the horror genre I love – but underneath that, it is about real horror, the horrors of real life.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have become so excited about the story if it wasn’t about my favourite actor and my favourite film company. I grew up on Hammer films, and in many ways their mythos has informed everything I’ve wanted to write since – it certainly contributed to my wanting to become a horror movie writer. When I saw names such as Tudor Gates or Jimmy Sangster on the screen, I always thought: how brilliant would it to be to have that job, to dream up stories like this and be paid for it? So I was happy that my idea for “Whitstable” allowed me to indulge in my passion for the films of that era and, more importantly (if I got it right) pay an incalculable debt of gratitude to Peter Cushing, the actor who made many of those films so vivid and unforgettable.

Q: Given that this story centres around a rather well-known actor, did you feel constrained by needing to stick to the facts and the desire to pay tribute to Cushing, or was it more the case that fiction freed you to do so?

I knew I had to go as far as possible to get it to feel right. I knew I was putting him in a fictional situation, so there was a point where research runs out and my imagination or skill has to take over – and that is the fun of it, and the challenge. To worry about whether people might pick holes in this or that detail would completely stymie me, so I tried to forget about that. First of all I had to please myself and feel I’d done a good job. A case in point (spoiler!) is that I was wondering how Cushing could defeat his nemesis. I found it impossible that he would kill or be violent to the antagonist: it simply didn’t feel in character, even in fiction, to do that – and I felt desperately that even though this is fiction, it had to be plausible. The good thing is that the solution to this was much more fitting to the story – it really added another layer, which is that Cushing finds the strength to stand up to this monster, and in doing so, destiny takes over. Fate takes a hand. He doesn’t cause the ending physically, but somehow that seemed better, to me. Like his moral strength had nevertheless vanquished the enemy.

Q: How important is sense of place to you in your work?

I think in most stories specificity is important. Well, authenticity is important. If you are trying to convince the reader or viewer that something weird or outlandish really happened, the trappings of real life are often useful to give a feeling of realism, in a way. If somebody lights a Silk Cut rather than a cigarette. All those touches – not to belabour them, obviously – add to the feeling this could happen.

Beyond that a sense of place also helps with the symbolism and theme. I’ve always found off-season seaside towns evocative, even ghostly, in their dry, slumbery atmosphere. This was excellent in Don’t Look Now, of course – somehow making the place itself otherworldly. And in “Whitstable” – look, the place is the title, even! – the image of the bereaved man looking out to sea seemed fundamental. There’s something about the constant nature of the sea and our fickle, fragile lives. And then, of course, I thought about the industry there of fishing and fishermen. I didn’t want my “vampire” to be a nobleman or toff, or office worker, or weirdo with pervy glasses – I didn’t know what he could be without it being a cliché. Then I described him as a hippie, very much of 1971, in contrast with the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned Cushing, and I thought Cushing would probably observe that he looked like Jesus Christ (as people often said of John Lennon). Then, bingo – the connection with being a fisherman was complete. Les Gledhill became the exact reversal of the Saviour that Cushing felt had abandoned him. The themes all came together, largely by thinking about the place.

Q: Official publication date is 26th May, but I believe the hardcover edition has already sold out. What kind of response has Whitstable received?

To be honest it has been beyond my wildest dreams. It got 5 out of 5 stars in SFX magazine and an amazing review in Starburst. I’ve girded my loins for a bad one but there simply hasn’t been, touch wood! I’ve even had some tremendous feedback from people who knew Cushing and are experts on his work – David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, to name a few. They’ve all been massively encouraging. But of course it was vital for me to get input from people like that to reassure me I’d “caught” the great actor convincingly. I’m happy to report that, to a man, they reported I had. Director Mick Garris and critic Kim Newman have also said they love it. I feel a bit humbled by the positive response, to be absolutely truthful.

Q: What brought you to horror fiction?

Growing up with Hammer, with comics, with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gravitating to Pan and Poe and Stephen King. I think it is a familiar route, except for some bizarre reason I didn’t particularly want to be a novelist, I wanted to write movies. I picked up a paperback of the screenplay of Westworld just after it came out, and that was my Bible. I actually loved the screenplay form. I loved seeing films in my head. The only way to do it.

Q: As well as prose fiction, you’re a successful scriptwriter for TV and film. What makes an idea a book or short story, rather than a TV or film proposal and script?

A short story is a succinct idea with a definite voice that you can bite off as whole, I find. You know how to do it. A film is simply a drama of definite length with dramatisable action and good roles. A TV show is a proposition – a set-up with open-ended possibilities: an engine that can run and run. The format, the way it works as a drama, is everything – and that can take months or years to work out. Even Call the Midwife, which you’d think would be a no-brainer, was in development at the BBC for ages. That’s what people don’t realise about TV when they watch it, and it works or it doesn’t work. It takes bloody forever!

Of course, some ideas are perfectly suitable as a film or a novel, so there’s malleability sometimes. One idea that I’ve just had turned down by a broadcaster I might turn into a proposal for a series of books – I don’t know. You can waste an awful lot of time re-circulating ideas and sometimes it’s better just to ramp up new ones. But you don’t want to waste that perfectly good idea just because that one person didn’t get, either.

Short stories for me are “instant gratification” – and I do it for love, certainly not money. I can tell a story exactly as I want it, and it gets in a book. That is a very welcome contrast to films, which take five, ten years to get into production – if they get produced at all. I can spend a year on a TV script and even then only six people will ever read it before it’s rejected and that’s that. So it’s very soul-destroying at times. I write short fiction because I’ve got to write stories and I have to get them out there, and getting a story accepted in an anthology, as happened today, can be just as much of a thrill as having a big screen movie released. It sounds insane – but it’s true!

Q: What has scriptwriting brought to your prose fiction?

Planning. And not planning! I’m punctilious about organising my thoughts on a screenplay because a script is about concision – less is more. It’s about structuring the scenes and what happens within the scenes, and that is 99% of the work. Thinking, not typing. So I bring a sense of structure to story writing, I think, and a sense of dialogue and subtext, which you would expect.

Paradoxically, though, what I like in writing fiction is what you don’t do in screenplays which is the voice, the voice of the story or the tone of the narrator, be it first or third person. I also enjoy that fiction can meander – you can go “off piste” with little thoughts or big thoughts, but in film it is all about the spine and forward motion. Then again the reverse is true and I like to think that the freedom I have in fiction filters back in to my scripts, and I’ve learnt there are no rules – break them, divert, do whatever the hell you like. They can’t shoot you for it.

AfterlifeQ: What are the highlights of your writing career to date?

Wow. Tough one. Most enjoyable moments? Walking along the South Bank after the premiere of Gothic at the old NFT. Felt I was walking on air that night. Felt like it was all taking off (…but of course it wasn’t!). Being with Lesley Sharp and everyone at the Royal Television Society Awards when she picked up Best Actress for Afterlife. That was very special. And of course, the night I collected a BAFTA for writing the short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. I stood on stage between Sean Connery and Sigourney Weaver. I’ve never been so excited in my life! Unless you count going to a party at Carrie Fisher’s house in LA and lining up for barbecue chicken next to Harrison Ford, Danny De Vito and Jack Nicolson! That was pretty nuts!

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m head down in a new series for BBCTV. Early days yet. But I’m very excited about it. And quite a few spinning plates with TV and film companies, including Playtime, a script I’ve written with Tim Lebbon, and Telepathy – which I hope will get its financing confirmed at Cannes and be filming later this year. On the fiction front I’ve stories coming out in a Professor Challenger anthology soon, in Beyond Rue Morgue (Titan), in Terror Tales of the Seaside (Gray Friar) and in The Burning Circus (BFS Publications). I’m also hoping to hear news soon about a second collection, my follow-up to Dark Corners. Which is very exciting.

Q: Describe your typical writing day.

Yikes. Must I? I’m a chronically slow starter and mornings are useless (unless I’m on a deadline) – paperwork, noodling, the inevitable emails, and coffee. Afternoons, I get stuck in, but I’m at my most productive in the evening and night time. If I had no family or social life I’d probably work from 4pm to 2am. But a lot of writing happens when you’re not writing. You’re never off work because problems and ideas are always percolating. They come together when they need to. I get panicky if I haven’t sat at my desk for a certain number of hours, but the work always gets done. Though doing 10 pages a day on a script is different kind of work than working on a treatment or outline, which is different from rewriting, which is different from writing memos or notes or having meetings, or pitching. There is no typical day!

Q: What would you draw attention to from your back-list?

The best of my drama is probably Afterlife. The best of my fiction is possibly “Whitstable”. But others might tell me differently. In terms of “back-back” list I’d like the old BBC series Ghosts to be released on DVD – I wrote two of those, and they weren’t bad. Is Network TV listening?

Q: Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?

I’ve just read Joel Lane’s collection Where Furnaces Burn, which is marvellous. I loved Mark Morris’s latest collection from PS too. And of course Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairytale. And Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective. One of the joys of joining the community of writers in the independent genre press or via the BFS (British Fantasy Society) is that I now count all the above people as my friends. I’d also like to plug Pain Cages, a great collection by Paul Kane, for which wrote the introduction.  And for no personal reason other than it’s brilliant, I’d recommend Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson.

Q: If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?

First of all, if you are a genre writer interested in Horror, SF or Fantasy, join the British Fantasy Society. Then, I’d say:

Perseverance + Talent = Luck

You can’t do anything about your innate Talent (you’re either a storyteller or you aren’t) but you can work on the Perseverance part. And make sure when Luck comes along you are ready for it because you’ve been working your arse off!

Whitstable by Stephen VolkMore…

Stephen Volk is best known as the creator of the TV drama series Afterlife and the notorious 1992 BBC “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch. His screenplays include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, Ken Russell’s Gothic and The Guardian directed by William Friedkin. He has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and his short fiction has been selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror and Best British Mysteries

And more:

 


By the seat of my pants…

So, Aethernet, the self-billed magazine of serial fiction. Great idea, great execution, great line-up (for starters they’re running the sequel to Chris Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, long before its book publication).

So, me: taking a self-proclaimed from science fiction, sick of being messed around by the business side of things in particular, dealing with lots of other shit in the meantime.

Those two… well, they just don’t fit, do they?

Particularly when the lovely people at Aethernet kept reminding me about my invitation to contribute. And when the spec fic part of my imagination has been all fired up again by my Philip K Dick Award shortlisting earlier this year.

So, Memento: a set of four stories about one cataclysmic event on an alien planet. An idea that came pretty much fully-formed in a dream, although now it’s finding its own path in the writing.

Serial fiction: adventure, cliffhangers, real seat of the pants stuff. Which is exactly how I’m writing it: I know where I’m heading, but Hell there’s a lot to fill in! I’m digging myself deep, setting myself – and my characters – challenges and cliffhangers, and working it out with them as I go along.

I rarely write like this; I usually need to know more. But this is fun, it’s exhilarating.

And I hope it will be for readers, too.


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