Year's reading, 2016

Some weeks since my last post, mostly because I've been busy with a rush load of book doctoring work pre-Christmas, along with some more agent-suggested edits on what I'm hoping will be my next book: but I do hate to let a year go without giving at least some recommendations, and especially if you're a working writer, book recommendations are the main way by which you can pay it forward, so to speak.

So, a little analysis of my reading over the last year first.

I read 52 books in 2016. Of these, perhaps just five or six were published in 2016: I rarely read books in the year they’re published.

All of the books were read on my Kindle Paperwhite, and occasionally on my iPad Air, which makes for an excellent e-reader in its own right.

Of those 52, about 22 were non-fiction. Nearly ten of the fiction books I had read before (bit more than I realised, actually), but it had been so long since I last read them it felt like coming to them for the first time; either they’d turned up cheap on Kindle, or I'd bought them in e-format years before and just hadn’t got around to reading them until now.

I re-read Joe Haldeman's Forever War, partly because I've had a vague notion for an anti-war story floating around in my head for some time now. I've been looking for years for a way to write some kind of military sf that doesn't require me to throw my personal morals out the window, and the only way it could possibly work is if it came from a strongly anti- perspective.

With that in mind, I recently read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time, and was thoroughly appalled. It made sense to follow that up with the Haldeman, since many people see it a direct response to the Heinlein.

I also re-read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac soon after finishing his Seveneves this summer, for reasons below.

I re-read another ageing classic, Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, mainly because I wanted to explore any potential similarities it bore to a story I’ve been working on. Fun, but light.

I re-read Lev Grossman's much more recent - and excellent - The Magicians, in order to finally read the other two books in the trilogy.

I re-read City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings, partly because the first time I read it, back in the 90s, I’d been impressed by the way it subverted certain fantasy tropes.

The most significant re-read of the year for me, however, was Jack Womack's hugely, gigantically impressive Random Acts of Senseless Violence, of which I only retained vague memories of reading, again in the mid-90s. Less a post-apocalypse, more of a pre-apocalypse, it charts the crumbling of society under economic and political pressures in an America ruled by a President who bears some very, very unfortunate similarities to Donald Trump.

The story is seen through the eyes of a young girl, trapped in the failing city with her parents, and as the city crumbles and distorts, so does she, her language and mind shifting and changing with each passing page. One of those books that very deservedly can be regarded as a genuine classic.

I didn't exactly re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, but instead picked it up again after having bought it, started it and then abandoned it a few years back. That's a very typical pattern for me where Pynchon is concerned; read a few chapters and then put it down, baffled. Indeed, the only reason I picked up Inherent Vice was I'd heard it was a little more…accessible than his other works.

Weirdly enough, it was the recent film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, that brought me back to the book. I figured if I couldn't make sense of the book, maybe I could make sense of that. And I could: after watching it, on a whim I found the book and glanced again at its opening lines - and suddenly, the dialogue made sense in a way it hadn't before. I finally finished the book in less than a week.

What did I think of it? Well, with some books, it feels like going on an enjoyable ride, but there's no there, there, if you follow me: it's like you heard about this great place I ought to go to, except I turn up and there's nothing there but an empty lot.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. But for all that, the book felt like a slightly hollow experience. If there was a theme in there or a message or some particular thought the author wanted to impart, I clearly missed it.

On the non-fiction front, the ones that stood out for me were The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, a biography of Nikola Tesla by Robert Lomas; Debt by David Graeber; Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford; and Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

The Marshall is particularly fascinating because it delineates clearly the relationship between borders, geography and the wealth of nations. It seeks to explain the geopolitical underpinnings of modern conflicts and the ways in which geography influences the relationship between nations and why some are rich and some will always be poor. It’s in light of that latter point that the meaning of the title, Prisoners of Geography, becomes particularly apposite. It details the genuinely fascinating relationship between the USSR's expansion into Eastern Europe and its lack of any year-round naval ports due to its geography, and the ways in which the types of terrain to be found in Africa and South America have affected the economic development of nations there.

Economics is a subject about which I feel I should have a grasp, but it's a slippery subject, I find. Still, I try, and I've read enough David Graeber in The Guardian to know I like the cut of his anarchist jib. It's long, and complex, but Debt is ultimately worth it. Certain key concepts such as fractional reserve banking are clearly and succinctly explained, and if ever you wanted a more expert understanding of the true horror of austerity, it’s a good place to start.

I don’t usually talk about books I didn’t like too much, because being a writer, I know just how much hard and difficult work goes into writing one. So it is with some trepidation I find myself forced to admit I felt a little…disappointed with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves this summer.

I've loved every other single thing Stephenson’s done until now, consider myself a major Stephenson fanboy, ever since I stumbled across a review of Snow Crash in the back pages of Mondo 2000 (no, really) a loooong time ago. I recall I spent the next two years demanding everyone I knew read the book so I could monologue at them about its inherent joys. Seveneves ultimately proved to be just too heavy and frustrating and overly didactic, determined to cross every t and identify, name, tag and describe every nut and every bolt. God knows it's a massive achievement, as every one of his books are, but that's the last time I want to read a hundred page description of how someone's flying suit works.

And what perhaps also gives me pause is that the plot is based on the moon exploding for no good reason (no spoilers, it’s right there in the first paragraph), something that is, quite literally, impossible. Really, he could have written 'a giant space rat ate it' and it would probably have made as much sense. Granted, it allowed him to describe how the human race might just save itself from an apparently inescapable doom using almost-current levels of technology, but at the cost, metaphorically and story-wise, of having an ant dance on the head of a pin swivelling on a toothpick gripped by an angel on a unicycle.

All this prompted me to re-read Zodiac, a much earlier work about environmentalists battling Big Industry. It feels almost sparse compared to his later work, but for all that, ultimately it felt more satisfying.

I finally, at last, got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and found it...okay. A common reaction I have on encountering, or re-encountering, the 'classics' of science fiction.

I was aware, going in, that much of its reputation revolves around its depiction of an essentially bisexual society, almost but not quite standard-human and able to change sex effectively at will. This, however, proved to have really not much impact on the story, so far as I could see, and the only time it was clearly addressed was in a kind of epilogue which, unfortunately, I gave up on quite quickly. It felt less like fiction and more like the author showing her homework.

I finally got around to reading some David Mitchell. Well, I had read something before, except I can't remember one damn thing about it, except it was set in Japan. And now I think about it, I can't remember the title either: that's how much it stuck in my head.

So I approached David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I must admit, with a hint of trepidation, especially given the reputation it seems to have as a beloved work. It proved to be enjoyable, and more memorable, certainly, than that other, less memorable book...but like the Pynchon, I came away with the distinct sense that there's no there, there.

I thought the structure of the interlinked novellas was all very nice, but I could see no real purpose to it, or at least none that in any way enhanced either my enjoyment or understanding of the story. Indeed, I watched an interview in which Mitchell mentioned he can't really write books, and instead writes novellas and essentially glues them together. If that's not proving my point that there's no there, there, then I don't know what is.

I also read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, partly because it's massive in China and partly because, living in Taipei just across the Formosa Straits from the Chinese mainland, I sort of feel like I ought to. And God knows I do like my hard sf.

The results were...variable? I was perhaps less than enthused by the prose, but I don't know whether that's down to the original text or Ken Liu's translation. There was also some, let's be frank, slightly dodgy characterisation, including a, I suspect, unintentionally hilarious world-weary detective whose dialogue sounded like it had been ripped straight from some straight-to-video production sometime in the mid-80s.

But for all that, there were some fascinating moments, most especially the glimpse of life during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. There were some nicely eye-popping scenes with some full-on sensawunda, and it's clear there's a great deal of intelligence going on here. But for all that, I can't feel any great enthusiasm for reading the subsequent volumes.

But what about books you actually liked, Gary?

I thought very highly of Experimental Film by Gemma Files, a kind-of-fantasy/weird fiction take revolving around the world of Canadian arthouse cinema of all things, and which was filled with fascinating detail by an author with a great deal of inside knowledge. It feels almost like a companion piece to that other work of fantasy organised around the history of the film industry, Flicker by Theodore Roszak.

I also thought a lot of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, first published a few years back. I thought it might make the top of my list, but the reason it doesn’t is simply the way it ends. I don’t think this qualifies as a spoiler, but essentially rather than having an actual ending, we instead get a kind of cliffhanger and a ‘to be continued’ in books two and three.

I’ve got no problem with trilogies, but I believe it’s quite possible to write a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end and still have sequels. I’ve certainly always tried to write complete novels, even when I know there are further volumes coming. Outside of that, however, it’s a terrific piece of writing.

In all honesty, I’d avoided it until now, mainly because the idea of a near-future Europe broken up into tiny warring statelets struck me as faintly ridiculous. But it was (again) on sale cheap on Kindle, so I took a chance. I’m glad I did, and it turned out the explanation for Europe winding up this way made legitimate sense.

In the end, I had a hard time deciding which would be my recommended book of the year, but in the end I've decided to give that honour to two books: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and The Peripheral by William Gibson.

I’ve read a few of Gibson’s post-Sprawl novels such as Spook Country and generally found them disappointing, enough so I stopped buying his books. The Peripheral is, however, both a return to science fiction and a superb piece of writing, which suggests to me Gibson works best within the genre that birthed him.

Lovecraft Country was a supremely clever and modern take both on Lovecraftian fiction, while also addressing the racism of Lovecraft himself, from the perspective of a black family in the US in the early sixties for whom occult threats sometimes aren’t nearly so scary as the white authorities they sometimes encounter in those pre-civil march days.

Close runner-ups include The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, an author I have a lot of time for. Also excellent was Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson, a kinda/sorta space opera about a contemporary games programmer who, in the days after first contact with a whole panoply of alien civilisations, finds himself blogging about alien video games, some of which are tens of millions of years old. Silly, intriguing, involving and extremely worth your time and money.

And that’s it! I’d go into more detail, but that’s just how busy I’ve been in the run-up to the end of this year. And before I forget, fuck you, 2016! Here’s to a hopefully better year next year.


Thirty Years of Rain, Elements of Time, and a new story.

As is often the case when I'm close to finishing a manuscript, certain things worthy of my attention get passed over, or are blogged about later than I intended. So let's fix that with mention of two new books that just came out, and which I have some connection with: Duncan Lunan's Elements of Time, and the anthology Thirty Years of Rain, which collects stories by numerous authors who have attended the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle over the last three decades.

A few years back I carried out an experiment called Brain in a Jar Books, having realised I knew numerous authors who had work languishing unseen on their hard drives. Often these works had been previously published in some professional capacity, but not in ebook form. I chose to put a number of these out on Kindle to see if anyone noticed and bought them with minimal - and by minimal, I mean zero - advertising.

The experiment was variable in its success, and had unexpected consequences. In most cases, the books sold very little, despite at times having a considerable pedigree behind them or receiving a few (a very few) rhapsodic reviews. I wanted to see if such books would sink or swim if thrown bodily into the proverbial ocean of ebooks, or if their inherent quality, having in some cases been nominated for awards or even won awards, would allow them to swim.

Unfortunately, almost to a man, they sank. There are endless  accounts regarding the golden opportunities afforded writers by self-publishing on Amazon, but my own experience as a publisher didn't appear to bear that out at all. Maybe it's the covers of the books. Maybe it's something else: I'm not quite expert enough to say.

However, for some reason the name Brain in a Jar Books became a force in and of itself: people knew I had something to do with it, and it seemed to get a lot of attention...without anyone actually buying the bloody books. I saw my name and Brain in a Jar mentioned in some of the bigger media-oriented sf magazines, and was startled to find that Brain in a Jar formed part of an exhibition in the National Library of Scotland.

Again, none of this translated into sales. But it appeared to be wonderful advertising from me, which I hadn't expected.

Anyway, one of those books was a collection of time travel stories by Duncan Lunan, several of which had first appeared as cover stories in Asimovs, and at least one or two of which  were nominated for a Nebula. You'd think that would be worth a punt of a quid or two, wouldn't you? Apparently not.

Fortunately, the collection has now been taken over and republished and even put out in a printed edition by the people behind Shoreline of Infinity, the magazine that published my recent story 'Senseless'. It had a small launch just the last week, and you can buy it now. It's called Elements of Time.

I also have a story called The Ranch in Thirty Years of Rain, the aforementioned writer's anthology, which comes both in a print edition and a pleasantly light on the pocket e-edition. This also had a launch - twice - first at a convention, and then at the Glasgow Waterstones.

Other authors featured in the anthology include William King of Warhammer fame, Louise Welsh the crime writer (and whom I never realised had attended the group at any point), Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Mike Cobley and so on, and so forth. Here's the Amazon link.


Flagrant Podcastry

A couple of months ago I committed a flagrant act of podcastry with the kind aid of Mr Rob Paterson of The Department of Nerdly Affairs. I apologise for inflicting my whiny nasal voice on you all. However, even though I literally can't stand to listen to my own voice, I encourage you to listen to me be very rude about Robert Heinlein, with the proviso that I know how to write a whole lot better than I know how to speak in a coherent manner.


Five Questions and an Excerpt

I've been so deep in working on the manuscript I'm trying to finish that I failed to post about a couple of things.

First up is a 'Five Questions' piece posed by Tor Books, in which I answer five questions about writing the new book. I also wrote an article for them on personal early influences called 'Here's to the Late Show,' which I hope you'll get a kick out of. And finally, there's an excerpt from Survival Game itself - the complete first chapter. Go read!


Survival Game is released this Thursday

That's right, I have a new book out. You didn't know? CLEARLY I WASN'T TALKING LOUDLY ENOUGH. Survival Game is the sequel to my very well-received (starred review in Publisher's Weekly!) Extinction Game, which came out in 2014. Both books are published in the UK by Tor and you can get it here.

I recently did a quick 'five questions' piece for Tor's UK website for you to take a look at, and there'll be another short article coming up very soon. In the meantime, if you buy the book (which I'd hugely appreciate) I hope you enjoy it, because it's been a long time coming. 


What is this new hardback novel that stands before me?

Here it is, handsome devil that it is. The new hardback of Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game that came out just two years ago. I know! Two whole years you've had to wait before you get this in your hands.

Well, I feel your pain, so here's a handy preorder link if you just can't bear to wait until the day of actual publication.

And hot on its heels, here's another sexy little number that sashayed its way into my hands: a physical copy of Scottish sf magazine Shoreline of Infinity, and a proper luxurious little number it is, especially given it contains my most recently published short story, Senseless. You can of course get it here at Amazon, or direct from the publishers if you prefer, in ebook as well as paperback format. 


Scrivener for iPad and iPhone, or: Scrivener Über Alles

Well, it's finally here. They said it would never happen, but Scrivener for iPad and iPhone is finally being released to the Apple App Store on July 20th, priced at twenty US dollars.

I've written extensively about the differences between different pieces of writing software for both the Mac and iPad over the last year, in blog articles that brought me a fairly enormous number of hits (start here, then go here, then here, then here and, lastly here). The ghost hanging over all of those discussions, primarily focusing on the desktop version of Scrivener and its nearest rival, Ulysses, was the long-awaited Scrivener for phone and tablet. It seemed for a long time as if Scrivener had been long overtaken and even superseded in the mobile market by Ulysses and Storify, which each synced between their desktop and mobile versions via iCloud.

Scrivener was  still the acknowledged King of writing software on the laptop and desktop, both PC and Mac, but there was a constant demand for a mobile version that some came to believe would never appear as year passed after year. Even just two days ago, I received an email from someone asking about alternatives to Scrivener they could use on a mobile device. They hardly believed me when I told them a mobile version of Scrivener was, at last, imminent. I explained I had in fact been beta-testing Scrivener on my iPad for the last two months.

I'm not going to go very in depth regarding the specific workings of Scrivener for iOS, because there are already a whole screed of blog posts and reviews detailing them, and you can get more of a downlow on what it looks like and how it works direct from Scrivener's makers. Instead, I'm going to talk about how it compares to what else is out there, and how it's affected my own workflow as a working writer and writing teacher.

So please don't think I'm being bombastic when I declare that Scrivener for iOS is, quite simply, a game-changer. In those two months, I've written the entirety of a second draft of a novel on my iPad. In some respects, Scrivener for iOS is even better than the desktop equivalent.

The reason for this goes back to what some perceive as the relative complexity of desktop Scrivener. It has a lot of bells and whistles, although rather than being bloat, these are absolutely necessary features. However, not everybody needs all those bells and whistles, and some people, coming fresh to Scrivener, can apparently feel a touch overwhelmed by it. I think that's a shame, because at heart it's a beautifully simple concept: you can have a page of text to be written or edited, and around that page you can arrange as much ancillary information as you need, from moment to moment: character and story outlines, illustrations, story notes, rough ideas, other parts of the same novel-or-work-in-progress for reference, sheets of reference material, and so on.

It also still carries at its heart the basic principle that unlike the 'What You See Is What You Get' principle of programs like Microsoft Word, which present you with a representation of an actual printed page, Scrivener (and other programs like it) take a more pragmatic approach where the     appearance of the text is set only at the final output stage when you create either a text or ebook file or PDF. Until then, you have absolute control over the colours of the screen, the different windows, and the text. You can have inline annotations that print or don't print, and so forth. But at the heart of it, what you get is whatever piece of text you're working with, plus a few notes in little windows you can move here and there around the screen and arrange any way you like, along with an outline or two, a reference picture in one corner, perhaps, so that as your  eyes flick between the work in progress and all that ancillary information ,you get to see exactly what you need from moment to moment.

Contrast that with, say, Microsoft Word, where you might have to endlessly scroll through several different documents, switching between different programs and so forth to find  the information you need from moment to moment. Microsoft Word was built for writing business letters, not novels, and it shows.
Image 1

Image 1 here shows you Scrivener on an iPad Air: the  opening of my new book is on the right, while a list of chapters is on the left. Image 2 is the same, with one change: I can view, edit and scroll through the following chapter (or any other) in the bar on the left (which can, if necessary, be expanded). It could also be notes, or expanded information about the chapter, and so forth.

Scrivener for iOS, however, by necessity, is a more stripped-down affair. In that respect, it answers the need by some for a simpler approach. Indeed, I noticed while reading through comments on a beta-testers thread that some liked the idea of being able to use Scrivener for iOS on their desktops, seeing it, essentially, as a 'Scrivener Lite'.
Image 2

Although there are good reasons why that isn't possible, it's been clear to me over the last couple of years that laptop computers may eventually give way to tablets equipped with keyboards. Indeed, I find my iPad Air and Microsoft Universal Keyboard exceptionally easy to work with - I'm writing this blog post on it at the moment. Scrivener for iOS may offer that "non-threatening" alternative that might draw new users in.

What really matters, however, is that it's essentially impossible to fault Scrivener for iOS. There are a couple of things it can't do the desktop version can, and while it's worth remembering that this is only the 1.0 version of the software, meaning future iterations may be able to do more, at the moment those areas in which it might be perceived as lacking are areas most users aren't likely to have much use for.

It offers the perfect paradigm for writing in. The right of the screen is occupied by text being worked on. The left contains a wide bar in which can be viewed a list of chapters inside a draft, or the contents of each of those chapters, or indeed images and notes from other parts of the "project" within which you're working.

When I first started comparing Scrivener with Storyist and Ulysses, the field of combat, as it were, was much more even, although Scrivener ultimately always proved to have the edge, particularly when it came to novel writing. Now, however, Scrivener, with its new incarnation for iPhone and iPad, has pulled far, far ahead of the competition. It is, simply, unrivalled. I am not joking when I say I find the process of writing on my iPad, using Scrivener, quite addictive. It is as near to a perfect writing tool as I've yet encountered.

If you have a desperate need to write in Markup, then Ulysses remains your tool of choice, and it syncs well on both Mac and iOS via iCloud as well as having an excellent interface.

However, in direct comparison, the limitations of Ulysses for iPad, compared to Scrivener for iPad, become obvious. In Ulysses, it's possible, but more difficult, to see information related to the main text you're working on. Notes are always linked to a specific document, meaning if you're working on some other document and went to see those notes, you either have to copy them over to the current document or keep going back to that other document, which is terribly aggravating. Similarly, even if a note is to hand, viewing it pulls out a window that obscures the main text window on the iPad. That makes it impossible, say, to work on one text document, while glancing to the side to compare what you're writing with your notes.

This, by contrast, is stupendously easy to do on Scrivener.

So if markup text isn't of overwhelming importance to you, and you like the idea of using your iPad or even your iphone as an actual work tool, then Scrivener, for the great majority of writers, is indeed an absolute game changer. Really, I don't think it could get better than this.

So my final, final, final, final word on writing software, in the specific context of the iPad is: forget the rest. Scrivener is now, officially, the two-ton King of writing software on the iPad, and very probably on the desktop as well. 


Is it easier to sell short stories if you're a published novelist?

In short, God, no.

I haven't ever really submitted that many short stories since I started getting serious about writing way back at the start of the Nineties. But of those I did submit, I sold a few - a very few - to professional markets. Between 1990 and up to the present, I've sold a grand total of six stories - and three of them were placed only in the last nine months.

Five were sold to paying markets, and one is going to appear later this year in an unpaid anthology put out by my old writing group in Glasgow. One was reprinted in an Eastern European magazine back in the mid-90s, and then later appeared again, in another writing group anthology, given away free at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow.

I never saw myself as a short story writer, more of a novelist, but something changed last year and I started banging out short fiction for the first time in a long while. I've written four stories, of which two have sold, and the other two are still doing the rounds. Well...I say "short", but some of them are going past eight thousand words. I'm slowly figuring out how to get them down to more manageable levels.

Someone, who just recently made their first professional short story sale, told me they took some hope from the fact that despite having ten novels published, I still got a lot of rejections. Well, everyone does. And it's one of the good things about writing short stories. It doesn't just make you a better writer, it also gets you used to rejection.

Scienceville, which was in Interzone last year, had previously gone to Tor.com and Clarkesworld. Senseless, appearing in the latest issue of Shoreline of Infinity, went to several markets before that. I still have two other stories doing the rounds, one of which has racked up maybe half a dozen rejections.

So what you can you take away from this? Well, if you're a new writer, that rejection isn't about you. I always knew you shouldn't take a story rejection personally, but it's one thing to say it and another for it to be true. If you're thinking, but what if my stuff isn't good enough? Then, well, maybe it isn't, but maybe also it just hasn't landed in front of the right pair of eyes yet.

So take heart that even after working in the field since the early 2000s on a pro level, it doesn't automatically make selling a short story any easier. Nor, I suspect, should it be.


Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

It's been a while since I wrote a post about books I've read recently, and that I'd like to recommend (or, in one case, not recommend), so this is going to be a slightly longer post.

I've long been a fan of William Gibson's writing, but I started to lose interest from about the point he wrote Idoru. I've read several of his books that followed, including, most recently, Spook Country, but they felt terribly ephemeral and lacking in any real substance, certainly compared to his earlier, defining work. I'm aware those later books have numerous fans, but I had more or less reached a point where I thought it unlikely I would read him again.

I therefore only read his latest book, The Peripheral, on the recommendation of a friend who felt much the same way about Gibson's output over the last couple of decades. It's a return to science fiction, and somehow a return to the kind of truly gripping writing and world building with which I most associate William Gibson. If it's not yet quite my book of the year, it's certainly a close contender.

I've tried, and failed, on multiple occasions to read Thomas Pynchon, most recently Inherent Vice, which I picked up and abandoned partway through a couple of years ago. Curiously, it was catching the movie on Netflix that brought me back to the book and gave me a way "in". Once I heard actors portraying the characters, the voices in the book made sense in a way they hadn't before. I can't absolutely say, even now, whether or not I can recommend the book, though, because I came away from it with no clear sense of what Pynchon was trying to say, if anything. An addled, stoned detective in early 70s LA muddles his way through a muddled investigation littered with the broken and the eccentric...and then it ends. Pynchon is highly rated, particularly by writers I admire such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so I came away from the experience still feeling as if I were missing something.

Something I didn't expect to get around to reading was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Like, probably, a fair few of my own readers, Heinlein was part of my introduction to science fiction. I read Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and a pile of short fiction pretty much from the moment I first got my hands on a library card.

Heinlein, unfortunately, doesn't read so well from an adult perspective. Farnham's Freehold proved, on rereading, to be astonishingly racist, and Glory Road is, simply, crude, childish and ultimately unreadable.

The only major Heinlein book I hadn't read back in my youth was Starship Troopers, and I bought it only because the ebook was on sale for a quid, and because as a purported classic of the field I felt I should read it at least once.

What you get is less a science fiction novel than, for the first half at least, a fairly straightforward story about military boot camp, with the addendum that real boot camps neither have powered suits that can have you leaping around like a super powered grasshopper, nor do they, to my knowledge, regularly whip their soldiers, or have to suffer endless monologues by barely-disguised authorial stand-ins about the horrors of democracy. It's a genuinely and unapologetically fascist piece of writing.

Once the action moved into space, I started skipping pages because there's nothing more boring than reading about people and insects shooting at each other. Is it a classic? Hell, no. Is it a good book? Not that either. But it proved at least a salient reminder that Heinlein was exactly as bonkers as I suspected.

By far my favourite book of the year, however, is a Jack Womack novel I first read way back in the early or mid-Nineties. I already reviewed it earlier this year, and in terms of quality of prose, of characterisation, and of nuance, it's the diametric opposite to juvenile trash like Starship Troopers. Read it, enjoy it, and thank me later.

Sharyn McCrumb's novel, rather than being science fiction, is instead a crime novel set around a science fiction novel: a famous novelist, notorious for his utter contempt for his audience, is brutally murdered at a con. There are endless walk-on parts for pretty much the worst kind of people you can meet at a convention. I've met a lot of terrific people at conventions, and they can be a huge amount of fun, but it would be remiss of me to deny that I'd also met some of the worst people in the world at conventions, and it's clear that McCrumb's knowledge of, and experience of, the world of conventions is both deep and extensive. Like Random Acts, I read this one originally some time ago, but more recently picked it up on Kindle when it was going cheap. Definitely recommended. 


We materialised in another hangar

We materialised in another hangar, apparently identical to the one we’d just departed. In fact, the only hint we had gone anywhere at all was that the stage technician on duty was now a woman, and the sunlight coming through the open hangar doors behind her was of an entirely different hue.

I took a breath. Even through the respirator, the air smelled…strange.

The Pathfinders were the first down from the stage, and we followed them out through the hangar doors in a group.

Outside, I saw an unearthly blue and yellow forest spreading towards distant hills beneath a pink sky. Although when I say forest, these organisms bore an at best tangential relationship to any tree I had ever seen; instead of branches, they had long, whip-like fronds that spiralled up and around broad, twisting trunks. There were also preposterous growths like huge sea anemones, swaying in the breeze.

All of this riotous, alien flora came to a precise halt at the edge of the paved area, as if it had been neatly trimmed back that very morning. For all I knew, it had.

I turned to look behind me, and saw that the hangar was at one end of a huge, paved expanse perhaps a kilometre in length and half as wide, and scattered across which were about a dozen gargantuan metal-walled sheds, huge compared even to the hangar.

A dandelion seed drifted past me, except that no dandelion seed I had ever seen moved in sudden, sweeping motions with hummingbird rapidity. I caught a brief glimpse, there and gone, of a pale, grub-like body at the heart of a feathery cloud. In the next instant it had zipped away from me, almost too fast to follow.

Then I spied what at first appeared to be an enormous spider, several inches in diameter, wobbling on spindly legs in the shade of one of the anemone-like trees. A whiplike stalk extended upwards from its body, and it had something very like an eye on top. The creature rushed towards me, then fell back in a shower of sparks the moment it tried to cross onto the pavement.

I watched, stupefied, as it leapt back in amongst the anemone trees, screeching a flurry of bird-like notes as it fled out of sight. There must, I thought, be some kind of field separating the paved area from the surrounding forest.

The Soviets all had stunned expressions. Most likely I did too.

'Are we…are we still on Earth?' Boris asked plaintively. All that morning, his hand had constantly twitched towards his neck, until he finally had the good sense to take his crucifix off and simply carry it in one hand.

‘Sure,’ said Chloe. ‘Just one where evolution took a very different path.’ She spread her arms. ‘Welcome to Site A, Alternate Delta Twenty-Five.’


It lives, I tell you...it lives! Full wraparound cover for Survival Game

Well, it's only been two damn years since my last book came out in hardback, so it's good to know the release of SURVIVAL GAME, the sequel to EXTINCTION GAME is just a very few months away. I just got the full wraparound cover from the publisher, and here it is in all it's glory. You can click on it to see the small print, as it were.

Got to be said, a very nice collection of reviews there, and it behooves me to remind you that the one from Publisher's Weekly is the much-covered starred review.

Anyway, a truly stupid amount of work went into this book, and I really hope you like it. It'll be hitting your bookshops, e-readers and tablet-like objects of your choice some time in August.

You can pre-order it here.


Shoreline of Infinity

Shoreline of Infinity is a new-ish print and ebook science fiction magazine published out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and their fourth issue has a new short story by me running in it. The magazine looks smarter and slicker with every new issue, and the art for the forthcoming issue is downright spectacular, as you can see here.

My story is called Senseless, runs to about five thousand words, and opens like this:
Bill tasted the sweet, sharp scent of violence in the back of his throat just a moment before the fight broke out - although calling it a fight was stretching it, given O’Hare was a notorious sociopath from Hut Thirteen and Ade, the object of his ire, was a skinny little guy on crutches who could hardly stand straight, let alone defend himself. 
Bill heard O’Hare’s guttural roar as he grabbed hold of Ade and sent him tumbling to the canteen floor, his crutches clattering down beside him. 
Bill reacted without thinking. He threw his tin tray to one side and shoved O’Hare in the back as hard as he could with both hands. 
O’Hare lost his balance, his cheap prison-issue boots performing a complicated shuffle as he tried to stay upright. He collided with a kitchen trolley, sending dishes scattering across the tiles with a noise like cymbals thrown down a stairwell. 
Number Four is now available for pre-order and you can get it here. Or, you can check out previous issues


Free ebook and mailing list

I said a while back I was going to try and build one of those mailing lists everyone and their Uncle is saying writers need these days, and I finally did it. I tested it on a couple of people and, so far, it works. Hopefully that'll be the case for many more of you as well if you choose to sign up.

As mailing lists go, it's going to be pretty darn low key, meaning you'll get very, very occasional newsletters from me. And since I like to think you might get something out of it, when you sign up, one of the confirmation emails you receive will have links to download a novelette first published in Interzone magazine last year. You have the choice of downloading in either Kindle/mobi or ePub format.

All you need to do is click on the link at the top of the sidebar on the right, and that'll take you to a form where you can enter your email address.

EDIT: Some people are having trouble seeing the sidebar. If you can't see it, click on "contact/mailing list" in the menu bar (hopefully you can see that) and that'll take you to another version of the signup page. Alternatively, click here.

Note that, outside of buying the relevant issue of Interzone (which I also highly recommend, because it's Britain's oldest and best science fiction magazine and helped launch the careers of dozens of well-known writers), this is the only way you're going to be able to get hold of that story. For now, anyway.

Once you've entered your email address, you should get a confirmation containing links to the ebook emailed to you. I'm new to this, so any problems, let me know!



I suppose platforming could be seen as a variety of performing: creating a "platform" for your writing career and using it to reach out to an audience.

I mention this because Chuck Wending wrote a very good piece on his blog on the subject of whether or not it's worth it for a writer to have a "platform". His prognosis is it's nice, but it doesn't really make much difference, if any. I'd already come to that conclusion since I knew of a good number of writers, old and new, who were very successful despite, essentially, never blogging, face-booking or tweeting. On the other hand, someone like Nick Mamatas does quite a good job at promoting himself simply because he remains his typical acerbic yet entertaining self throughout. According to him, anyway, it gets results.

I only ever started this blog as a way to embarrass myself into getting a book finished. I figured if I started a blog about writing what came to be my first published novel and didn't finish that novel, I'd look like an idiot. So, essentially, writing the blog was a way of keeping me in line. This was long, long before anyone every talked about online activity as some kind of "platform".

Even so, I'm game for new tactics. I've redesigned the website and now I'm going to set up a mailing list through MailChimp. There: now I've said it, I'll look like an idiot if I don't do it. See how it works? God knows everyone else appears to have one, so I might as well get with the program.

But you need an enticement, apparently, something to make people willing to sign up. To that end, I'll most likely make Scienceville, the eight-thousand word story that appeared in Interzone last year, into a freebie giveaway. The intention is to get that all set up within the next month (he said) and in plenty of time for the release of Survival Game in August. More details soon.


New story in Shoreline of Infinity

I'm back! Well, I was never away, just indulging in my favourite pastime of not getting around to the blog.

As you'll see, the whole place has been reorganised a little and - hopefully - is both more logical and a tiny bit smarter-looking. Like that box with Survival Game inside it over there on the far right. That's my new book! Go click on the link and pre-order it, why won't you? Me? Don't worry about me. I'll be right here and waiting. Only a couple of months to go before it's in your sticky, sticky hands!

Glad to say I've sold another short story, called Senseless, to a newish UK science fiction (print and ebook) magazine called Shoreline of Infinity. Even better, it's a Scottish science fiction magazine, based out of Edinburgh. Senseless will be in their fourth issue, coming out in June. Go check out the link and buy a copy.

This last year has definitely been a relatively productive year for me, in terms of short fiction. Two other stories are doing the rounds of different markets, and a few more are lurking in the back of my head waiting to be written.


In Progress

I think that's at least the majority of the website tinkering done, although there's still lots of links to be fixed and the like. I've also decided to set up a mailing list, which is the next big thing I have to take care of.

I liked the way the website before, but it had two big problems: the way I'd set it up, for various under-the-hood reasons, was very hard to update outside of blog posts, which is why so much of it is still somewhat out of date. That had to change. The other big problem, at least to me, is that as much as I liked the static landing page with its artwork, it introduced an extra click for a user to make. I wanted them to get as much relevant information about me and the books as possible, which meant going straight to that information. That's going to mean another static landing page, probably combining the 'About Me' page with current news and forthcoming work. Hopefully I'll get to that in the next week.

In the meantime, the Work in Progress continues: the current word count is about seventy thousand words, and I can figure on getting this first draft finished, probably, sometime in early April. The working title is Field of Bones, but it doesn't exactly suggest a Hard SF planetary adventure, at least not to me. Probably I'm going to have some hard thinking on the title.

And it really is a rough draft. I'm not quite sure why, but for just about the first time in my life I've ploughed straight through the story without stopping to tinker and fix things. I've not gone back to rewrite anything, and instead of spending countless hours online trying to find some minute piece of information, I'm making use of textual placeholders and, basically, not worrying about it. This is good, I think, because that tendency towards tinkering is perhaps better suited to the editing process. And, in the past, I've spent inordinate times tinkering only to realise the section I was tinkering with had to be chopped.

So in terms of how I approach writing a novel, I think we can consider this an improvement. 



Temporary post: If things are looking a bit skewiffy around here, it's because I'm making some under-the-hood changes to the webpage. All back to normal soon.

UPDATE: Still fiddling, and probably will be for another couple of days at least. 


Quick review - Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

Books: way back in the mid-90s, I read Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence not long after it was published. I can't remember it made any particular impact on me, although I had already brought other books in his Dryco series (Random Acts is, I think, the third book written in that particular setting, but in terms of the story chronology sets out the path by which we got from here to there). Perhaps it didn't entirely stick with me because I had other stuff on my mind, which happens, but more recently I saw some commentary, possibly on Twitter, by people describing it as one of their favourite books. I'd meant to get around to rereading some of the DryCo books, and that seemed as good an excuse as any.

Random Acts turns out to be an astonishing piece of work, so astonishing I'm not quite sure how it skirted past my attention at the time I first read it. In fact, it's an outright classic. If you're not familiar with Womack's books, they're set in an increasingly hyper-violent, hyper-capitalist near-future USA. Later on, apparently, Womack went to visit Russia and realised everything he'd written about in the DryCo books had already happened, but in Russia. He went on to write another, non-genre novel based on those experiences, which I can equally recommend, called Let's Put the Future Behind Us. I liked it so much I stole the main character's name, Borodin, and used it for the antagonist in my next novel Survival Game.

What may have given Random Acts... a particular resonance is that it's set in an America that feels much like the America that might come about under a Trump presidency. It's also the story of an America on the verge of imminent social collapse. There's what I guess you could call a cyberpunkish sensibility to the books, partly because of the unique language Womack employs, a kind of street patois that might or might not be invented - I couldn't say.

I could say more, but it's easier to just point you to Jo Walton's detailed assessment over at Tor.com. I'm very glad I rediscovered it.


How I Write, Part Zillion, and Secret Project

What surprised me when I started doing this shit professionally was how often people genuinely asked me where I got my ideas from. Except I decided, unlike, apparently, every other writer on the face of the planet, that it was not in fact an unreasonable question and deserved more than an eye-roll. Obviously there's some kind of underlying psychological process, and how that process works for, say, someone who gets paid to write books or stories is to some extent different from how it works for most people sitting down to make stuff up for quite possibly the first time. 

The bad news is that it's all down to practise and persistence. That's it, no great secret. I also don't believe in writer's block. The real Jack Torrance wouldn't have sat there all day writing nothing but ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY. Noooo, he'd have carefully constructed a step-by-step description of precisely how he was going to slaughter his entire family in intricate detail about the same length as, say, a novel about a crazy person locked up in a hotel with his family who he's going to try and slaughter. 

Don't believe any one would actually be crazy enough to do exactly that? Here's an example from real life

When it comes to ideas, I just start writing whatever daft shit wanders into my head. I essentially talk to myself on the page, which has the advantage of not making people shy away from you in public or look up Wikipedia articles on how to get someone sectioned. Like this:

3 February
I like the idea that electronics - high-end stuff - doesn’t function well or at all on the island due to “interference”. This has three advantages: 1 - it means in many ways they’re pretty isolated. 2 - their cars have to be relatively low-tech without much in the way of fancy electronics. 3 - it explains how people don’t have much luck sending teams into the island because they find it hard to remain in contact.
Disadvantage: if there’s an international audience for this stuff, how do they get to watch it live? Maybe specially adapted low-tech cameras that can nonetheless upload? How?
Okay, I _like_ the idea of electronics not working well there. But people being able to watch the action is where I trip up. Could you build devices like, say, semi-autonomous camera drones that don’t require that same kind of electronics?
Perhaps it’s a distance thing. The cameras don’t work except on the coast, at a certain distance from the ‘rift’. Any closer, they fail. Okay, so it’s a gradation - that works!

What is this? Random unedited text from the "work diary" for an outline I'm putting together. I couldn't figure out how to get something in the plot to work, so instead of staring at the screen, as some people imagine writers do, I wrote that shit out. Once you get it down on the page and out of your head things can start to become a lot more clearer.

As I say, that above text is completely unedited - it's not actually intended to be seen, ever, by anyone but me. The last half dozen books I've written each have tens upon tens of thousands of words of notes like this where I try and work out, sentence by sentence, how something works, why somebody is doing something, how it'll affect the overarching plot, and so on and on.

So the lesson for today is: write it down. It doesn't matter if it's utter gibberish, because typing it up, spelling mistakes, dodgy grammar and all, will fire up the logic-driven part of your wet squishy brain until it wants to make sense of it.

As for where these notes come from, that's the SECRET PROJECT I'm working on. I've had SECRET PROJECT in my head for a good long time now, in one form or another, and I'm finally putting together a tentative synopsis. What's it about? Well...you'll have to wait. All I can tell you is that it just might be simultaneously the greatest and the stupidest idea for a book I've ever had. 


That book of mine

Did I mention that book I have coming out? Did I? Did I? The one called Survival Game? The sequel to Extinction Game, that got stellar reviews in The Guardian and other places, as well as a starred review in Publisher's Weekly? What's it about, you may ask? Well, it's sequel to Extinction Game, duh, so you know, more of the same.

Well, kinda, sorta. You didn't think I'd actually do what's expected of me, do you?

Here's a tiny wee snippet:

"The streets were still busy even at this late hour. N’Djamena, on this alternate at least, was a frontier town. Mosques and churches stood side-by-side with bars, tobacco shops and trading posts. From time to time a few people approached us from out of the gloom, looking for easy pickings, but Tomas warded them off by showing them his pistol. Instead of jeering at us and snatching his weapon from his grasp, as I half-expected them to do, they instead vanished back into the shadows. 
‘Wait,’ Tomas croaked, still leaning on me heavily. With a nod of his head, he indicated a blocky whitewashed building with smoky dark windows and a twisted neon sign in one window. ‘We can try in there. It’s as good as anywhere else we’ve seen.’ 
Despite my trepidation, I helped him inside the bar and into a booth. There were perhaps three or four customers at most, but I felt the eyes of every one of them following us as we entered. A broken screen above the bar ghosted fuzzy holographic images: a news report about General Yakov, leading the Tsar’s imperial forces against the rebels on this alternate. 
The bartender was a gangly Sudanese with tribal scars on his cheeks. I bought something to drink and asked him how I might go about buying a vehicle, without specifying exactly how far I intended to go and in what direction. As I did so, I drew out the small metal token I had been given by a contact at the Khartoum inter-parallel transfer facility: an imperial coin, with the symbol of the revolution stamped over the Tsar’s face. 
The bartender gave me a knowing look, and I listened to the sound of my heart thud, unsure how he might react. But then he directed me in halting Russian to speak to a man sitting in a shadowed corner, and twenty minutes later, at the cost of all our remaining money, I had somehow managed to negotiate the purchase of an all-terrain vehicle that had once, apparently, belonged to a goat-herder."

Book is coming out in hardback in August. I know! So far away! But you can preorder right now.  


Scrivener or Ulysses? The absolutely, positively, final verdict. Really. UPDATED.

(Brief note: this article was written some time before the release, at long last, of Scrivener for iPad. You can read what I have to say about it here.)

In my mind, you're letting out a little silent groan: what, he's on about writing software again?

I swear, this is the last time.

A quick recap: last year, I wrote a post about different bits of software you could use to write books on a Mac, and it got the most hits of any single post I've written on my blog, ever. I wrote several follow-up posts here, here, and here. I was particularly interested in the ability to write on an iPad. Most of my writing takes place in a room where I sit, on my own, with a Macbook, but occasionally I like to venture out, perhaps to a cafe or the park; and, if the ability is there, it's nice to whip out the tablet while on the subway or waiting at the doctors and maybe read over what I wrote earlier that day and edit it a little.

You can't do that with Scrivener. There was talk of an iPad app last year, but they're back to not making any promises. If it comes out - if it ever comes out - I'll buy it. But I'm not holding my breath.

Why is it important? Because a lot of people want to be able to synch their writing across multiple platforms. A lot of people have iPads or similar, and want to be able to use them for writing, usually with a bluetooth keyboard.

Last year I bought Ulysses for both my iPad and Macbook (it's Mac-specific). It's a really terrific little piece of software that syncs very adequately and speedily between the two devices. In that respect, it's everything I'd been hoping to get from an iPad version of Scrivener.

But there are differences. Ulysses in its desktop incarnation is, relative to Scrivener, a much simpler program. Some people prefer Ulysses to Scrivener for that reason, since it lacks the bells and whistles of the latter. I never quite understood that myself, because over the years I've had many occasions (not necessarily out of choice) to use Microsoft Word for nothing more complicated than writing a letter or an invoice or perhaps following tracked edits from an editor, yet the fact it can do a whole bunch of  highly complicated things beyond just typing text doesn't fill me with fear. I simply don't use them.

It's the same with Scrivener. The program has functions I've never used because I can't see a need for them. That's not the same for everyone - non-fiction writers, in particular, would probably get a lot of use out of those functions.

Since I got Ulysses, I've used it for a variety of tasks: writing outlines for new books, averaging roughly ten thousand words each; writing reports on unpublished manuscripts for a manuscript agency; several short stories, and ideas for more stories as well.

But the one thing I haven't yet tried to use it for is writing a full-length book. Nearly all of my books have been written in Scrivener. Would I be able to write one in Ulysses? I knew writers who have and still do. I figured I could at least try and see how Ulysses worked out in that respect.

But I was barely three thousand words into Field of Bones before I exported the text and notes, and imported it all into a new Scrivener document.

So why did I give up on writing a novel in Ulysses so quickly? A book is a huge and complex project that requires constant reference to character lists, invented history (in a science fiction novel), an outline so events being written about can be related to events already written or soon to be written, and also notes of moment-of-inspiration ideas for the next draft. I need to be able to see as much of that as possible, all at once, so I can literally see both the forest and the tree in front of me at one and the same time. I can do that easily in Scrivener; in Ulysses, it's a more difficult and considerably less intuitive process. Ulysses lends itself to a much simpler form of writing, one that has little to do with the workaday reality of plot construction and character arcs.

Writing a novel, for me at least, is not simple. It's huge and messy and tangled and difficult. I wrote my last book, Survival Game (due in August) in Scrivener, before I bought Ulysses. I hadn't yet tried a whole novel in Ulysses, and Field of Bones was to be my first attempt.

Now that I've imported it into Scrivener, this is what I see when I'm working on it:

On the left, in Scrivener's main window, is some of the text from the rough first draft of the first chapter. On the right is a series of stacked windows I can rearrange and move about and change the colours of and essentially do whatever the hell I like with: there's a scratch pad in which I can write multiple on-the-fly rough notes, a 'quick reference' window that allows me to open up multiple other documents to float over or next to the text, and an 'inspector' that again allows me to access a synopsis, multiple project-wide notes, chapter-specific notes, keywords, external online references, and on, and on, and on. I can move it all around and rearrange and close it and reopen it and resize it all just about any damn way I like.

For a writer, being able to do and see all of this at once is hugely empowering. It's like being a pilot and having the ability to glance at the cockpit dashboard and see exactly the information you need with minimal effort. In this respect, trying to use Ulysses to write a book reminded me of just how powerful Scrivener really is. It's the Godzilla of word processors, the all-time heavyweight champion; sometimes a bit fugly, but brutally powerful and easily adaptable to a multitude of personal preferences and habits.

Try as I might - and I have tried -  I just can't do that with Ulysses, at least not with a novel. Ulysses is fine for shorter works, reports, short stories, ideas, outlines and all the rest of it: but as soon as I was ready to do something more ambitious, like a book, suddenly the only thing left to do was go back to Scrivener.

And that's despite its lack of an iPad app. Probably it helps that it's winter here in Taiwan right now, and it's chilly outside, so I'm more inclined to stay indoors and work at my desk. Maybe in a few months I'll yearn to work on the book outdoors. I could take the Macbook out, but it's heavy and the keys are buggered, necessitating a stand and an external keyboard. Or maybe I'll save those days for working on book reports, short stories and outlines with Ulysses.

So, then, let me offer my absolutely final, if personal verdict on Ulysses vs Scrivener, within the specific context of writing a novel. If you absolutely, positively, must have a writing program that syncs easily and smoothly with its desktop version, and you're okay with it being Mac-specific, Ulysses is a terrific little program.

But in all other respects, not to mention the fact it's available on multiple desktop OS's, I'm going to have to declare Scrivener the all-time champion for writing a novel. For the way I write, and for what it can do, it simply can't be beaten. Therefore if being able to write on the iPad isn't a major priority, buying Scrivener is the best thing you can do for your workflow as a working writer if what you're writing is a book. The end.

And I promise, no more posts on the subject. Ever. Err...probably.

*****UPDATE*****. Because putting an update in here is less embarrassing than actually writing another blog post on the subject when I promised no more blog posts on the subject.

Back when I started playing around with alternative word processors (as in, alternatives to Scrivener) like Ulysses, I also tried the iPad version of a program called Storyist and found it wanting.  Like Ulysses, it has both a desktop and a tablet version, but although I tried a demo of the desktop Storyist I only actually shelled out for the iPad version. I used it a few times, but that was it.

The one big change between now and then is that Storyist will now allow you to edit Scrivener projects. That is huge. It's not a perfect solution by any means, but it's a damn sight better than any of the other attempts at linking Scrivener on the desktop to other word processors on the iPad. Usually, when you use other programs to open a Scrivener project, you're faced with a bunch of randomly named files with no clue as to which is the chapter you were last working on.

Storyist doesn't do that. I gave it a quick test run the other day on my iPad and it syncs very well indeed over iCloud - I usually store my working files on Dropbox, which I prefer to iCloud, but opening a Scrivener project stored in Dropbox in iPad Storyist, while feasible, isn't nearly as smooth. This apparently is partly down to the way Dropbox works.

But what really matters - and what you should take away from this - is that while there may not be a Scrivener iPad app yet, opening Scrivener projects on an iPad using Storyist seems so far like a very acceptable halfway solution. This, of course, puts Scrivener even higher above the competition like Ulysses. 


Outlines and World Building

Back last year, I wrote a couple of outlines for new novels, one of which I started, very tentatively, in late November. I only got to work on it for a couple of days before I had to spend all of December working on the final, final edits on Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. At the same time, I had some freelance editing/book doctoring to do, so it's only in the last week I've managed to get back to that novel.

It's been just about bang on two years since I last started work on a book. This one's got the working title of 'Field of Bones'. It might just turn out to be the single most hard-sf book I've done yet, in that it's a science fiction novel featuring space travel of the non-FTL variety. Which isn't to say, of course, that it doesn't have some pretty far-out speculative ideas tucked in there as well.

I say 'working title', by the way, since although I actually quite like 'Field of Bones', it's not a title that suggests a science fiction novel. If anything, it sounds like a horror novel. But for now it'll do.

As usual, I wrote an outline of the novel first, and that took me about a month last summer. It's seven thousand words long.  Now, the outline describes the plot. But it doesn't completely explain why these things happen.

That's the difference between a plot (a sequence of events) and a story (why those events happen, and why the characters do what they do). Major background events are described in the lightest of detail - events that took place before the time at which the story will start. These events, even though they're likely only to be hinted at in the finished novel itself, are important because they provide motivation for the characters.

So what I'm doing at the moment is working out all that background detail in considerably more depth than I had time to last year, which is why I've spent the past week researching corporate black-ops. environmental tragedies, and the potential for toxic algal blooms to threaten the existence of humanity. Needless to say, I'm the kind of writer who likes to have as much of the story nailed down before I even begin writing.

(In the middle of all this, I learned that somewhere between fifty and seventy per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans. Anything happens to that phytoplankton,  we are seriously screwed. Kind of wish I'd known that back when I wrote Extinction Game...)

All this work is necessary, because even if all this detail doesn't end up appearing on the pages of the book itself, it explains why certain characters do the things they do, both before we meet them and after. Further, these events, and their relationship to them, help define what kind of people they are.

I should probably give Aeon Timeline a shout-out here. It's timeline software (obviously), and very good for figuring out who does what, where, and when, with a very fine degree of control. Right now I'm loading all the story details into Aeon to make sure the order of events makes logical sense. Including all the stuff that happens before the story begins.

Most of which you will never see.

A lot of unpublished writers don't realise their world building should mainly stay off the page. When I've got my book doctoring hat on, I often find the manuscripts I'm sent are filled with page after page of intricate detail regarding the customs, language and history of cultures and places that don't exist. Don't get me wrong - that kind of intricate world building is fun, but it's usually only of interest to the person who came up with it. Show it to anyone else, they're going to fall asleep from sheer boredom after five minutes.

So if you're writing a novel for the first time and doing a lot of world building, take my advice. Leave about 95% of it out of the final book.

People don't care about the six thousand year history of your invented magical city state. They do (hopefully) care about whether or not the apprentice wizard will get to save the princess from being poisoned by the evil Queen before she can take the throne and prevent a war that no one can win.  They don't want a seventeen-page essay on the history of the city gardens plunk in the middle of the action, just because you mentioned the princess likes to take an occasional rose cutting.

Sure, you have to have some idea of the setting and the background. But you know, you can say a lot in just a few words, and beyond that the reader's imagination takes over. In fact, the reader's own interpretation of the action and setting counts for a lot more than you think. You don't need to explain literally everything, down to the significance of the sigils etched into the apprentice wizard's coat buttons.  Unless, that is, it directly and significantly impinges on either our understanding of the characters or contributes to the plot in some significant way.

But if you can cut it out without affecting the story, then out it goes. So do as I do, and come up with a story background that makes your story plausible - but leave it off the page unless it definitely contributes to the story.

(And no, that example isn't drawn from one of the unpublished novels I get to edit. But it could be.)