Wednesday, 30 April 2014

When Worlds Collide

So in a previous blog I railed against 'weird for the sake of weird' so this time I'm going to go in the opposite direction and ask; what do you do when reality itself turns out to be weirder than we imagined?

The realization that the sun was just one average star amongst many seems to have led to an assumption that the planets orbiting were also average and mundane, and that the nice neat arrangement with rocky bodies  close to the sun and gas giants in the outer was typical of the way in which solar systems form. Models were developed that described the mechanics of planetary formation and it wasn't just scientists who bought into this nice orderly image; writers of imaginative fiction were happy to go along with it.

Even where worlds were superficially exotic there was often that assumption of nice neat system mechanics overall; gas giants and rocky bodies knew their place and even if a world only saw night every thousand years (Nightfall) it was still relatively 'normal' in terms of the solar system it inhabited. The fundamental problem with all of this was it worked off a sample size of one; our own little solar system was the only one we could see. The best efforts of astronomers to find other solar systems met with no success; until 1992. Pulsar PSR 1257+12 was about the last place any one would have expected to find a planet since it was the remnant of a star that had long since vanished in a supernova. As it turned out this first discovery set something of a trend; what was a trickle of discoveries turned into a flood as we entered the 21st century and the Kepler space telescope added almost 3000 candidates and hundreds of confirmed new planets.

What became increasingly clear was that the nice neat ideas of planetary formation went out of the window almost overnight. Planets were found in all manner of bizarre orbits; worlds larger than Jupiter orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does to ours. Some planets in fact orbiting so close that they are being slowly vaporized by their parent star; there's even a planet doing a fair impression of Tatooine out there.

So where does the dividing line lie between our bizarre universe and 'weird for the sake of weird'? Well the answer is that if you are adding something exotic and strange to give your story texture then that;s good; if you are adding it simply because you want to stuff in every cool idea that passes through your head or just to look 'cutting edge' then that's probably just WFTSOFW...

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Story so Far

So instead of pontificating tonight I'm just going to explain where I'm up to with my writing projects. Since I've posted up cover designs you can probably guess the 'Pioneer Wars: Secession Campaign' still hasn't reached a state fit to publish; or maybe it has but I don't quite know since the people who offered to proof read it never followed through. I've even started on the sequel 'Bridgehead Campaign'. This is not as dumb as it might sound; its helped me sharpen a couple of points in SC and it doesn't hurt to have the second book in a trilogy started just in case, you know, anyone ever reads the first one.

The first draft of 'Fourth Planet Problem' is finished. Only real snag in completing that was I chose a real island for the climax and got rather hung up on the geography so I had to rewrite a couple of scenes. Probably came together more readily because it had been so many stages of evolution before I started on the novel version. Now looking at some fairly painless revisions that are more about tidying up some elements that changed as the writing went along and then its just a matter of finding someone to proof read it and designing a cover; How hard can that be? Oh, right...

Friday, 18 April 2014

More Cover Art

So a lot of people deem to have problems with the plate/flag so I've done versions with and without. Comments appreciated as always.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Happy Endings

Once upon a time I was 13 (around about 1978 if you must know) and I started reading the 'Lensman' series by EE 'Doc' Smith. It was my first introduction to the big galaxy spanning space opera style of novels and being honest its shaped my tastes to this day. The worst moment of reading it was when I finished the last book and I had to face the awful fact that I would never know what came next; that I would have to part company with the characters who had come to mean so much to me. There have been other series I've been immersed in since but I was braced for the inevitable with those and of course from a certain perspective its a triumph for the author to have drawn in the reader and leave them wanting more. Alas these days it seems all too many authors in science fiction and fantasy can't bring themselves to leave that demand unfulfilled; they will give the readers more, and more, and more, until far from fearing the end of a series the reader is yearning for it.

The classic version of this is the series where the heroes have to beat some terrible enemy and after several volumes they triumph; except of course they don't. Soon enough there's a new book with a more powerful enemy, and then another, and another seemingly ad infinitum in some cases. If you want a good example try the 'Lost Regiment' series by William R. Forstchen; lovely books but with a massive power creep among the villains. By the last book it transpires that the monstrous but essentially nomadic and non-technological enemy  happen to have fully industrialized cousins on another continent who never came up in any of the EIGHT previous volumes.

Now this unwillingness to bring a series to an end is understandable sometimes; what starts out as a simple idea steadily expands and plans change. My own 'Fourth Planet Problem' story was exactly like that; it started as a short story and mutated into a full fledged novel. Where it becomes an issue that frustrates me as both a reader and a writer is where the books start to include great tracts of padding to spin out what might have one book in a series into two, or even three. This doesn't even address the current trend for branching off; that is where you have a main sequence of books and a veritable blizzard of off shoots focusing on minor characters or elements of the background of the universe but sufficiently entangled that missing one leaves you struggling to make sense of the rest, or worse they go over the same ground multiple times so the reader gets the same material again and again.

A writer has to care about the universe they are creating when writing science-fiction but there has to come a time when you write the last chapter and let it go; preferably before your readers die of old age.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Weird for the sake of weird

For those who don't recognize it the above is a quote from Mo the bartender in 'The Simpsons'. He explains that the new look of his bar is postmodern, and when this naturally draws a blank look from Homer he explains it as 'weird for the sake of weird'. This came to mind after reading a Jack Campbell short story the structure of which is a singe short scene constantly rewritten at the behest of a agent to make it more 'futuristic'. The effect is that a paragraph long lunch invitation becomes a page plus of impenetrable technobabble. So the question is when does 'futuristic' become 'weird for the sake of weird'?

Obviously when dealing with futuristic technology you need to offer up some explanation and a few made up words perhaps to describe it; you can't just have your spacecraft vanish from one star system and appear another with giving the process a name at least. The keyword here though is futuristic; do you really need to offer up and elaborate explanation of how a future phone works? Or a future gun? If you write 'the bolt of energy from the gun burned a neat whole through Smith's chest' would it really be better to offer a three paragraph explanation of the faux physics of the weapon. Sure you establish its futuristic credentials but by the time you reach the bottom of the page the reader may have forgotten that Smith was shot in the first place.

Language is another area where it seems some authors delight in inserting weirdness for the sake of it; one good example is in David Weber's 'Safehold' series. Set on a future colony long isolated from Earth everything is still described with nice comprehensible terms except for names; names use an odd spelling pattern that makes them very hard to read until you figure the scheme out. When you do you discover they are perfectly ordinary English names, now did this little conceit add anything to the book? I really don't think so. The focus needs to be the story and the characters, not having the reader trying to figure out why the author has used 'z' instead of 'j'.

Probably the worst example of 'weird for the sake of weird' is when an author changes human behaviour for their future society; often in the shape of some idyllic utopia where everyone lives in harmony, or in pursuit of some perfect society based on their particularly political ideals. The fundamental issue here is that people just don;t change. Their language and society may change but people remain the same. Archaeologists working at a fort called Vindolanda along Hardian's wall found what amounted to a collection of Roman postcards written by people at the fort. When these were translated did they reveal an alien, incomprehensible mindset? No; one of the best known turns out to be an invitation to a birthday party. There's also shopping lists and even a letter from a merchant complaining about the terrible state of the local roads. The better part of 2000 years later those Romans still come across as people like us and I don't seen any reason to pretend they will be 200 or 2000 years in the future. The author who writes his characters as 'utopian' or 'metahuman' is risking losing the suspension of disbelief needed for the reader to enjoy a story simply because they don't ring true.

So I suppose if there's a moral here its use your 'futuristic' elements sparingly and don't try to inject them into the human psyche.

Sunday, 6 April 2014


I've talked about this before but I'm coming back to it because it's of the great challenges of turning a piece of writing into a publishable manuscript and that's proofreading. Now there are basically three ways of approaching this; you can pay a professional to do it, you can get someone to do it for free, or you cant try to DIY.

Now I freely admit I have no experience of the first option for the simple reason that I haven't really had the cash to spare to do so, which I suspect is true of many aspiring authors. That being said if you can afford to spend a few pounds check out local writers groups or the various Google+ communities/forums that provide resources to writers and can help you make sure you are spending your money on the right person.

Option two may sound like a better bet; find someone whose willing to help out for free or maybe do a trade where you provide them with help on some aspect of their writing projects in exchange for a little proofreading. This has the potential to turn into a trap; if someone is prepared to volunteer to proof read your work then you can't really impose a clear cut schedule and time frame on what is after all a favour. This means that you are dealing with end dates like 'soon' and 'If I can find the time, maybe next week' and suddenly its months later and instead of a proof read manuscript you have an ex-friend or a family member who is no longer on speaking terms with you.

The simple truth is that most of your volunteers however enthusiastic they may be at the beginning of the process and insist that they know what they are doing really don't understand the tedium of literally making sure someone else has crossed every t and dotted every i and the process slowly grinds to a halt as the enthusiasm bleeds away. This doesn't necessarily make finding a volunteer a bad way to do things, especially if you can find someone to trade tasks with, but you need to be prepared for it to take a long time and involve a lot of prodding before its done.

Now you may by this point be thinking that the best solution is just do it yourself, you have plenty of motivation and you know how to write after all; so why not? BECAUSE IT WILL NOT WORK. I put that in capitals just to make it clear that this is a terrible idea. I've mentioned before that a common complaint about Kindle books is that they haven't been proofread properly and are riddled with typographical errors. I would be willing to place a small wager that if you could approach the author of one of those volumes they would swear that they had gone over every single line and correct every mistake in syntax, every spelling error and every missing word; and yet the errors are still there. This isn't because the author was sloppy or lazy; it's because they literally can't see the mistakes.

It's easy to illustrate the problem; your significant other gets their haircut and you don't notice for days or you can't find your keys only for them to turn up in plain sight on the table you had checked twice already. What's going on is that your brain is somewhat lazy when it comes to seeing; when dealing with the familiar it simply fills in details from memory rather than actually observing the world around you. Your brain knows the table is empty; it knows what your significant other's hair looks like so you see what you expect to see rather than what's actually there.

The same effect makes trying to proofread your own work an uphill struggle; you know what you meant to write and so more often than not that's what you see on the page rather than the errors and omissions that are actually there. One trick to get round this is to change the typeface and font size of your text if you are working on a computer but there really is no substitute for that second pair of eyes so really it comes down to either breaking out the cheque book or having a lot of patience and a talent for arm twisting.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Cull

And to mark my return here's a short story that really came out of left field and has no connection to any of my other work. It was inspired by this rather surreal claim:

Badgers moved the goalposts

and listening to another writer reading their children's tale of talking animals; not to mention Die Hard and Wind in the  Willows...


The Cull

 The sight of a group of weasels in suits wandering through Whitehall might have been expected to draw attention but in truth one group of shifty, devious looking characters was much the same as another so security took them for a committee of MPs and let them go on unmolested, no point risking another ‘Plebgate’ after all. 

Fortunately the weasels in question were all supposed to be in this particular suite of offices. Whilst the prospect of lording it over humans, and the fantastic pension scheme, normally made the weasels feel as if they had found the keys to a Bernard Matthews poultry farm at this moment they were all reconsidering their collective decision to seek employment in the corridors of power, well in truth given the location of the offices the sewers of power might have been more accurate. With some trepidation they approached the door of the meeting room they were looking for and knocked softly; hoping that the party inside wouldn’t hear and they could scurry away. Their luck wasn’t in and a shrill voice called out “Come in!”

Waiting inside was another weasel; this one somewhat bigger in height and girth as well as being attired in a much more expensive suit. He was sat at one end of a long oak conference table and he looked even more vicious than weasels usually do. He sat silently glaring as the others took their seats; each trying to avoid the chairs next to the head of the table without being too obvious about doing so; paste experience had taught them that their superior’s bite was far worse than his bark. Finally the manoeuvring was done with and the unlucky losers took their place within arm’s reach (and claws and teeth) of their unhappy chief.

When the last sounds of shuffling and creaking chairs had died down the senior weasel spoke once more, “I take it you have this week’s badger cull update?”

More nervous glances were exchanged before the weasel at the far end of the table opened a briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers that were passed paw to paw until they reached the head of the table. Again silence descended as the head weasel read through them without any sign or reaction. It was an act of deliberate provocation and finally one of the more junior weasels lost his nerve, “As you can see sir it’s a big improvement on last week.”

The other weasels around the table leant back to avoid the heat of the glare the head weasel was focusing on the unfortunate junior, “An improvement how how exactly?”

Somehow the junior found the nerve to answer, or perhaps he was more afraid of staying silent, “Well sir the hunters did shoot a badger this week.”

The head weasel glanced at the papers, “Yes they did and included in this report is a strongly worded letter from the Natural History museum and a bill for the display case.”

“But it is sort of an improvement.” The junior weasel squeaked; too deep in it now to back out, “At least there was no repeat of that incident with the Newcastle United fans.”

“I am seeing one report of a civilian casualty.” The head badger tapped one of the pages ominously.

“Well sir he was wandering around Hampstead Heath in a badger costume at midnight so frankly he was asking for it.”

The head weasel almost asked why the man had been there but decided there were some things a weasel was better off not knowing, “So besides those what do we have? More unfortunate zebra crossings filled with potholes by and a number of the posters of badgers we put up to try and improve results blasted to shreds. It’s just not good enough gentlemen; questions will be asked in parliament.”

“We’re still making more progress than HS2.” One of the mid-level weasels pointed out; and immediately regretted it.

“Everybody is making more progress than HS2.” The head weasel snapped, “and in the long run the high speed rail link will probably kill more badgers!”

He was prevented from launching into a full scale tirade by the door of the meeting room crashing open and a very un-weasel like character stormed in. The senior weasel looked from the figure to the papers, which contained one of the recognition posters, and back again just to be sure, “A badger !” He cried.

The badge drew himself up; he was clad in combat pants and a vest; his face was streaked with some rather redundant camouflage paint and he was clutching a pump action shotgun, “So you’re the weasels behind the badger cull eh?”

The head weasel managed to respond while trying to slide slowly from his seat and under the table, “How did you find out? How did you get in here?”

“Let’s just say you really shouldn’t have hired two individuals called mole and ratty to work for you if you wanted to preserve your secrets.”

“What are you going to do?” The junior weasel squeaked; trying to slide under the table and being unable to do so owing to the crowd already there.

The badger smiled, “let me answer you with an old joke; what’s black and white and red all over?”
“A sunburnt penguin?” The junior weasel suggested feebly.

“No, a badger with a shotgun.”

The junior weasel looked puzzled, “But you’re not…” were the last words he spoke before he was drowned out by the repeated boom and click of the shotgun…


BTW if anyone can think of anywhere else I could submit/post this story I'd love to hear about it...

It Never Rains...

...But it turns into a biblical downpour. Yes I have been gone for a long time and the explanation is fairly simple. Lost my job last Autumn, creating major financial issues and at the same time various parties who were supposed to be helping me out with proof reading let me down, and to cap it all I decided I hated the cover designs I had been doing for Pioneer Worlds. Suffice to say I wasn't really inclined to do a lot of blogging and if I had I would probably have been banned for use of profanity.

Anyway things have taken a turn for the better and so I have returned and hopefully will be able to find the time to post at least a couple of times a week.