Saturday 22 December 2012

So, I wrote a book

I don't think I actually told you guys, but I'd set the 21st as a deadline for finishing editing. The reasoning being that the world could end if it wanted, so long as I'd finished.

Well, yesterday came, and I did get it finished (!), and went, and the world didn't end. So now I have this novel hanging around that I'm not allowed to do anything to and I have to publish the wretched thing.

I'll let you know how that goes.

I have a little shortlist already of publishers that might be worth a shot. As I've said before, I'm going the traditional publishing route, but I'm going to start by trying some smaller publishers that are accepting unsolicited submissions. If I don't get any interest or don't like the contracts if I do, I'll have a look at agents, and maybe the bigger publishers, but as a starting point the small guys sound like they might be a good middle ground between self-publishing (of which I am not a big fan) and the big traditional publishers.

So I guess the next step is to start writing letters. I hate writing letters.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Fifty Eighteen Ways to Kill Somebody with a Mobile Phone

The other day I came across a file on my computer titled '50 ways to kill someone with a mobile phone'. You'll probably be pleased to know that this isn't the plans for some nefarious act of villainy on my part, or even on the part of one of my characters. It is in fact a creative writing exercise from several months ago that I'd forgotten all about.

I'd signed up to an email course on the basis that it was free, and this was one of the tasks in the first instalment. So I sat down and eventually came up with eighteen. Then I saved the file, and after being unable to think of anything to add to it for a few days, forgot about it. But here's what I got:

1.       Hit them over the head with it
2.       Break the casing to get a sharp edge and stab them
3.       Force it down their throat and choke them
4.       Create a gas leak and then ring it to create a spark (and explosion)
5.       There's got to be something poisonous in there (in the battery maybe?)
6.       Ring them while they're driving, until they have a crash
7.       Send incriminating texts to get them shot (I admit, I got this one off Spooks)
8.       Cyber-bully them to the point of suicide.
9.       Booby-trap their phone with a bomb, poison gas, etc, that goes off when they next use it.
10.   Electrocute them. If the battery doesn't have enough juice, there's always the charger
11.   Speaking of which, garrotte them with the charger cable
12.   Sticking with the charger, introduce some toxic/infectious substance onto the prongs of the plug and leave it on the floor for them to step on
13.   Have your accomplice engage them in a text conversation as they walk down the street. You could then do anything and they wouldn't notice until it was too late.
14.   Set the ring tone to sound like a smoke alarm, hide it in their house and ring it constantly until they disable the alarm. Then arson (optional: refer to 4.)
15.   Leave it at the top of the stairs for them to trip/slip on
16.   Similarly, use the charger cord as a tripwire
17.   Set a building on fire (if you can't find a convenient burning building already) and ring them, pretending to be a relative trapped inside
18.   Conceal a radioactive source inside it so it really will irradiate their brains. For best results ring them a lot over the following days.

Any more ideas? Let's see if we can get all the way to fifty.

Sunday 11 November 2012

My Crazy Overactive Imagination and Me

I can say with complete honesty, that I'm never guilty of being away with the fairies.

I don't do fairies. The vampires, dragons, Roman legionaries, kings, knights, barbarian warriors... that's a different matter. I spend half my time away with them. Possibly a dysfunctional amount of time, but there you go.

I also have a habit of overthinking things - that's why I don't do fairies, really. I have to make things make sense. It's fine in sci-fi. It worked with dragons. Even, to an extent, with wizards. It worked an absolute treat with vampires.

And I have a tendency to lean towards the dark and creepy. Don't look for too many happy-ever-afters from me.

This adds up to quite a bit of self-inflicted cannot unsee. Sometimes I scare myself. A lot of it I'm scared to write down, let alone publish, in case people think I'm weird, and not in a good way - I'm fine with being eccentric, but I don't want to be some kind of depraved crazy psycho.

The end result is an overflowing mental filing cabinet of squick. Which has been getting to me recently, so I finally decided to inflict it on you guys, somewhere I can explain it instead of just putting it in a story as though it's nothing unusual, and where my mum won't end up reading it (hopefully. Weird, isn't it, how it can be so much easier to say something to the world than one person).
This is a sort of experiment, to see if it really is weird-creepy, or just horror story creepy and it's only my usual worrying about what people will think of me that makes me scared to show it.
Anyway, here's a little showcase of the kind of stuff that turns up in my head:

Sunday 28 October 2012

A Tangled Web we Weave

I had the most brilliant flash of inspiration. Almost certainly I'm not the first to come up with something similar, but I think it's cool.

You know those stories where you have 140 characters and a ton of plot-lines? Unless you have a trick memory, it can be bl**dy difficult to keep everything straight and not contradict yourself. Events happen at specific locations and times, and letting them move around at all is a big no-no. Characters are even harder, since they can move around, but have to not only to be in exactly one place at any one time, but also to take a reasonable amount of time to get between them. Both can be hard to keep track of in a complicated story.

So here's my idea.

You will need: drawing pins (this kind are probably the best for the purpose, and ideally you want as many colours as possible), thread (again, many colours is helpful but not essential, and fairly coarse thread is best), and a large rectangle of something you can stick pins into nice and firmly without them coming loose.

We're going to make a space-time continuum.

It's helpful to draw grid-lines on your pin-board, or stick a sheet of squared paper over it. Now draw a timeline along one side of the paper, and a list of settings on the other. As far as possible, you're going to want to try to make the distance between places roughly correspond to the actual distance between them, but since you're laying out a two-dimensional world on a one-dimensional line, it's not going to work out perfectly. You could in theory do this with a 3d plot, especially if it was done on a computer instead of a kitchen table, but it would probably just turn into a tangled mess, when the point is to be able to see things at a glance. But the spacing of the locations is not hugely important anyway.

Now, for every event or scene, stick a pin in the appropriate point in spacetime. Some labelling system will be necessary. Different colours are useful to see at a glance which one is which, but not important, and you're unlikely to have enough colours to make them all different anyway.

Now, the characters.  For every character except bit-parts who are only in one scene, tie a length of thread to the pin where they first appeared in the story. Then take the string to the next scene they were in, and wrap it around the pin. And so on. If they die (or in some other way get written out), tie off the thread at their death scene.

And there you have it. I call it a plot-web. You shouldn't have any thread visiting two different pins that are level on the time axis, or two pins a long way apart in space within a very short time, unless they have access to teleportation - that's why it's good to have nearby places close on the location axis, so you can tell by the gradient.

If you don't want to bother with pins and thread, you could just draw dots and lines on a sheet of paper, but the pins are more fun, and you can move them around if you change your mind.


Wednesday 24 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a blog hop where writers can share their work-in-progress or soon-to-be-released books. I was tagged by fellow writer and blogger, Kristina Miranda, who posted about her book last week, here.

Now it's my turn; regular readers may recognise this book as the one I've been talking about for months. For anyone new to my blog, Hi! And this is the book I've been working on for more than half a year now and almost finished. It's about vampires.

Anyhow, the premise of this blog hop is that someone somewhere came up with some questions about books, and we all answer them in turn. So here we go:

What is the working title of your book?

A Lonely Road, though if I use that at all it will be as the overarching title of the trilogy (of which this is the first book). I'm seriously stuck on an individual book title.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I got the idea of writing about vampires, and my speciality is to take something magical or supernatural, or at least pseudosience, and agonise over making it realistic until it turns out to be possible. I've done it with dragons, and even to an extent with wizards. Vampires were surprisingly easy.

What genre does your book fall under?

Tough one. Dark fiction, probably. Horror is a traditional genre for vampire stories, but it really isn't horror. It could be described as science fiction, but I'm not sure if it would appeal to most sci-fi fans.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Even tougher one. I tend not to pay much attention to actors and only to the characters, so I honestly have no idea. I couldn't even go on looks, since I have face-blindness, and wouldn't even recognise my own characters in the street. I'd have to leave it entirely to the director.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Fed up with living in hiding, Alexis decides to reveal vampires to the world, and then discovers why vampires don't do that.

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

By an agency. I had almost decided to self-publish, until I discovered just how much it would cost. Although I could find the money, I couldn't afford to risk losing it.

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

About three months once I properly started; I'd been trying to for the best part of a year before that but I didn't even get beyond the opening scene until I invented my Daily K rule and stuck my nose to the grindstone.

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

Well, if by my genre you mean other vampire stories, probably the nearest to it is Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. The story has similarities, but my version of vampire lore is quite different. In that respect, it's perhaps closer to Darren Shan than to anything else I've read, although I wouldn't call it a similar book.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

My housemates were watching Queen of the Damned on DVD, and I came in half-way through. I didn't have much idea what was going on, but the scene of Lestat's being made a vampire struck me quite heavily. So I started playing with similar ideas and the whole story grew from there.

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

The mix of characters, perhaps. Immortal characters are great, because you can get people from cultures that never coexisted. I've got everything from Spartans to Vikings, and Barbary corsairs to modern Americans. And I hope I've managed to make them all true to their backgrounds.

And as well, every author of vampires, from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer, has portrayed vampires differently, and the style has evolved a lot over the years. There are plenty of readers who insist that this is a bad thing - but whatever incarnation they cling to is invariably different from what came before it and from 'actual' vampire lore. The genre has always been changing and it will keep doing so as long as people write about it, so who knows? This is my take, and if it's successful, maybe it'll influence the next chapter of the vampires' story.

So, I hope that was interesting. And last but certainly not least, the people I'm tagging:

Eliza Stilson

J. C. Martin

Unfortunately, that's all. Seems like nearly everyone I know in the blogosphere is having a break from blogging, or plans all their posts weeks in advance like a sensible, organised person. But these two are great, so get over to their blogs next week, where they'll be answering the same questions about their books.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

How the Lion Got his Job

I don't know if anyone's ever wondered why I have a cuddly lion in my sidebar instead of, say, a picture of me.

If you know me from Twitter, you might recognise it. When I first made a Twitter account, I didn't want to put a picture of myself on it, partly because I don't like most of the pictures I have of me - any that are more than a few years old have a fairly unflattering hairstyle, and the one on my passport has my best attempt at a neutral expression. Slack-jawed and staring-eyed. In other words, I look utterly stoned on the photograph I go through customs with.

But I digress. It's also because I'm shy, and I felt awkward about appearing to the entire world in person. So I looked through the photos I had on my computer - because I'm a mathematician, and we're a lazy breed, and I couldn't be bothered to take and upload a new one - and found one of Simba. I like that picture. It's kind of silly and cute, and it seemed reasonable to use it as my avatar since it's of something that means a lot to me. I've had Simba as long as I can remember, and he's been my 'favourite toy' and shared my bed every night since I was ... not sure, four, maybe? That's seventeen years, which is as long as I've known my little brother. So I uploaded it to Twitter.

Then I started a blog. I wanted a picture in the sidebar, but for all the same reasons (the photo of me I eventually put in the About Me page, which I like, didn't exist at the time) I didn't want it to be of me, and for all the same reasons plus that I liked the idea of using the same picture as my Twitter avatar, I used the same picture as my Twitter avatar.

I've also used it on my brand new (and as yet very empty) Facebook author page. Only by now I've thought up some better excuses. I've decided to make it part of my brand. This is partly for much the same reasons as before: I still prefer to have him as the picture everyone associates with me than a picture of me. Maybe that's weird. Like I said, I'm shy. My secret ambition is to become rich and famous enough as an author that I can become a recluse without ruining my career and consequently starving.

But also I think he's more memorable than a mugshot. That's might be largely just me: I have face-blindness, so a head-and-shoulders photo is, to me, extremely generic and forgettable. Even if it's of me, unless I can see something I recognise like the clothes I'm wearing or the background. If it was of a perfect stranger, they'd have to be very strange indeed before I would remember it.

But then again it's not just me. There's about one in forty people who will struggle to pick my mugshot out of a lineup, and that feels like a fairly reasonable size for a target market. And even for the rest of you, there's a lot of authors' faces out there and not so many stuffed lions.

So Simba is the front-man for my brand. Unless I change my mind. What do you think?

Saturday 8 September 2012

I Think I Want to be Traditionally Published

If you're at all interested in writing and publishing - I expect most of you are, since you're reading a writing blog. Not that you're not very welcome otherwise - you are surely aware of the rise of self-publishing, and the biggest decision writers now face: self-publish, or get traditionally published?

Until pretty recently, traditional publishing was very much the thing. Self-publishing was fairly rare, and perceived as desperate measures by writers who'd failed to attract a publisher. I remember telling a friend about my ambition to become an author: he helpfully mentioned self-publishing and POD, which at that point I knew very little about. I was offended, and coldly told him that I hoped I would be able to get 'actually published'.

But now the self-publishing revolution has happened, and publishing your own work is fast becoming ever easier, and ever less stigmatised. Vive le revolution (or not)! And I've been working for some time now with he assumption that  that is what I will do.

The reasons to do it sound pretty compelling. You don't give up the lion's share of the profits to a publisher and there's no agent to collect ten percent of what remains. You don't give up control of your work: editing, title, cover, timescale. And you will never be rejected. Even the statistics comparing the measly pittance made by the average self-published author to the advance given by a typical publisher are easy to discount: the majority of the authors making practically nothing are the authors who would have made nothing from traditional publishing because they would never have been published at all.


There are a lot of buts.

But I don't know if my book's any good. Now, a lot of people will be scornful of the idea of needing someone else's say-so to feel your work is worth publishing. They have a point: I don't have a great deal of self-confidence. It's a character flaw, and one which I should probably be trying to improve, rather than indulging. And of course if you're professional and diligent about publishing your own stuff, you will have had it edited and read by others.

But still, I'm a new author with no track record, and what I publish now will be out there, under my name, for ever. I don't want to publish rubbish, and I can't, physically can't, be impartial about what I write. If someone who knows what they're talking about, and whose livelihood depends on only accepting books that will be successful, accepts my book, that's a pretty solid endorsement that I am, after all, ready to start publishing my work.

But I don't know how to do it myself. Yes, there are plenty of guides and blogs on the subject out there. But they all say different things. Some, for instance, warn new writers away from self-publishing, and others virtually insist that traditional publishing is a massive no-no if your new to the game. There's very little that they do agree on. And if they do, it's vague, subjective, and broad.

And some seem focussed entirely on writing for profit, counting success purely in dollars and scorning the idea of trying to write the best book you can, or wanting to be read as as well as to be paid. They give what is probably good advice, but it's not advice about what I want to do.

A publisher knows what steps a book needs to go through. They know how they are all done. They either have contacts or in-house staff to get all of them done. I've never published anything, I don't know what to expect, and although I've been trying my best I still only have a vague idea how to go about doing it. To be published, at least the first time, would not only get the job done properly on that occasion, but having seen the process I hope I would then have some concrete, first-hand knowledge if I wanted to self-publish in the future.

But I don't think I have the money to self-publish. It's going to be more expensive than I had realised. With POD you don't need to finance an offset print run, and the setup costs sound pretty reasonable. For instance, £500 seems to be the absolute lower limit for editing, and I would be cautious about hiring someone who charged so much less than what seems to be the average. It looks like I'll be lucky not to have to lay out much more than £1000 for editing alone. There's cover design, and I'm now hearing that things like internal layout design and non-free fonts are highly recommended. And that's before you start on any costs of marketing - although traditional publishing doesn't absolve you from promoting your book. Figures of £5000 and higher are bandied about as typical self-publishing costs.

If I self-publish, I will do it properly and professionally, and produce a book that isn't the worse for not having a publisher's logo on the spine. And if I can't afford that, I won't self-publish. And I don't think I can afford it at this stage.

I'm fairly sure I could scrape together the money. But I could not afford to lose it. I would be relying on at least recovering the costs. If I'm traditionally published, I might still need to hire an editor, but what advice I can find on the subject seems to suggest that it's certainly worth a go without, and to only pay for editing if you're consistently rejected by agents. And I will still need to promote my book, and don't yet have a very clear idea of the costs of that. But the publisher will take a lot of the costs away from me, and if I get an advance that at least covers any editing costs, even if I never earn it out I won't be out of pocket.

But I want to be read, not just to make money. One of the biggest arguments in favour of self-publishing is that you make more profit on each book. But it still seems it won't be an awful lot. And it seems like you will be likely to sell less books, and even if that adds up to more money in total, I write for the love of it more than for the money, and I want my books to be read. And as a new author, I want to be read and recognised and build a following. I would love to be able to give up the day job (assuming I manage to get a day job after I finish uni), but mostly I just want to write and be read. And if I am successful I don't really care whether I make millions, or just enough to give up the day job and still live comfortably.

At least with my first book, I will be measuring success by how many books I sell, not by my bank balance, and I think that traditional publishing is the right option for that. For this one at least, the publisher can have the lion's share of the profit, and I'll take the recognition - assuming there is any of either.

Monday 3 September 2012

Self-Publishing: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I recently bought two books, both books that I'd been wanting to read for a while, both self-published by authors who I know. This was my first experience of  self-published fiction, and I glad to support the authors: it might be presumptuous of me to claim friendship, since we've only met on Twitter, but both are acquaintances and people I like, and I was hoping to write glowing reviews about their books.

The best laid plans of mice...

The Good

The first one I read was Bill the Vampire, by Rick Gualtieri.

he only difference between this and a traditionally published book is the lack of a publisher's logo. The cover is neat and professional - well, alright, it's glossy, unlike most traditionally published covers, but that's not bad, just different - the formatting is just fine, and there is nothing to complain about with respect to the quality of the writing.

It's original, despite being in a rather crowded genre - I won't give specifics, because I loathe spoilers, but Rick's made his vampires his own, and made them funny and convincing and interesting.

I liked the characters (especially James. He's probably not exactly nice, but he's fun.) I liked the plot, which was fast-paced and exciting. I read the whole thing in one day and wanted more. The writing maybe didn't stand out from the crowd, but said crowd is a crowd of good writers who write well and readably. So I enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading the rest of the series and probably the Bigfoot one as well.

The Bad

I'm not telling you what the second one was. As I said, I like the author, and I'm not going to name and shame them.

The cover was ringing alarm bells. In fact, it's a pretty nice cover, but the back and spine are blank. But I try not to judge a book by its cover, and I am aware that e-books are the main focus for a lot of self-publishing authors. So it's understandable, if a bit sloppy, that the e-book cover might be slapped onto the paperback as is. Although you'd think they'd at least put the name on the spine and maybe make the colour blend in with  the front, instead of plain white.

The formatting is ... odd. It's in a sans serif font, which (I've heard it's been scientifically proven) is harder to read than one with serifs. And the paragraphs are separated by double line breaks and not indents. Which is unusual in a fiction book and I at least find it a bit flow-breaking. But maybe it looks better on an e-reader screen and it's another side-effect of the paperback being a second thought. Even so, it's quite poor. Surely it could have been reformatted without that much trouble or expense.

But I tried to ignore all this.

The prologue was incredibly wordy and not very enjoyable to read at all. But that's just the prologue. Maybe it's deliberately meant to sound pompous and formal.

It couldn't possibly be like that all the way through.

If it was like that all the way through it would never have been published by anyone who could write worth a d*mn, because anyone who could write worth a d*mn might possibly have written something like that in a bad first draft. And it would never have been published by anyone at all diligent or professional about their writing, because even if they had produced it, they would have had it edited and listened to the editor, and no editor even capable of writing a decent enough bio to pretend to be worth their salt would have passed something in that state. And although I'd not read anything by this author before, I've encountered their marketing campaign and my impression was that they're pretty diligent and professional about their book.

It was like that all the way through.

I struggled through the whole thing partly for the sake of this post and mainly because I like to finish a book once I've started it.

I could cut it down by at least a tenth just by striking out bits that are entirely unnecessary - never mind restructuring and trimming down clumsy phrases and confusing descriptions - almost every sentence contained lists of three or more adjectives. Whole sentences were simply repeating each other. Dozens of clauses explained in straight terms what was already clearly implied.

And while I'm not exactly an expert on advanced comma placement, the best I could say about the grammar was that it's better than Captain Carrot's.

The characters sounded like they could have been interesting and relatable, if only they had had some semblance of their own voices. Each and every one spoke in the same verbose tones as the narrator.

The plot was pretty plausible and could have been pretty exciting if it had been remotely well handled.

The best I can say about the book is that I have seen worse. But in order not to deceive I would then have to add that I have read a good deal of fanfiction. Including the ones written by ten-year-olds and people writing in second languages.

I had a look for reviews on Amazon. The paperback has none as yet, but the ebook has plenty and they are without exception positive, mostly 5 star, brimming with praise for the brilliant writing, the likable characters, the enthralling plot, and how well it held their interest.

I suppose it's possible that the 11 rave reviews on amazon UK and 3 on the US site were all written or paid for by the author and their mother, although I don't like to think that of them. I'm left wondering, am I that bad a reader, or did the paperback, through some hilarious, hideous mix-up, somehow get made from the very first draft?

I asked my brother to have a look at it, in case I really am that bad. He glanced at one page and said that the book had at least three terrible paragraphs.

The Ugly

Is this it? The self-publishing revolution is in full swing, and is this what we're going to get out of it?

Will choosing a new book in future be as much of a pot-luck as picking a fanfic at random? The shelves bloated with thousands of books that should never, ever, have made it further than the author's BFF. Books whose prose has never seen an editor. Books that could be held up as an example of how not to write.

As I say, I've read fanfic. With nothing approaching editorial control, thousands upon thousands of fics are published that are absolute drivel. And some good ones. A sprinkling of decent ones and a handful of genuinely good ones and there is no way to find them without wading neck-deep in the creek - you know, the one you're up without a paddle.

If that's what reading will be like after the revolution, bring back the feudal system. Bring back the shackles and branding irons. Bring back the gatekeepers. Bring back hundreds of good books never seeing the light of day, and a pittance for the authors of the few that do, because even that is preferable.

One last thing: I said I wouldn't name and shame the author of the second book. But I also don't want to make anyone paranoid. So if you think it might be you, feel free to ask. I won't answer publicly, even to say no, but if that person asks I will tell them privately.

Saturday 18 August 2012


As I mentioned, I've been letting things slide a little and struggling to get on with any writing. But no more. The breakthrough was a resurrection of the old solution of a ban on the things I want to do. My Minecraft shortcut is now titled 'not until you have a title'. And within half a day of the ban being enacted, I have a title. Kinda.

I have an overarching title for the trilogy. A Lonely Road. It's a wee bit clich├ęd and like all titles and names I actually think about instead of coming up with in a flash of blinding inspiration, I alternate between being totally sold on it and convinced it's terrible. It could change, but at least I have something.

I got it from a song lyric (prizes for guessing the song). It's a song I heard for the first time a couple of years ago, when this novel was still in its idea stages - although it wasn't a new song then - and immediately I both liked it and noticed that nearly all of it was remarkably applicable to Alexis, my long-suffering MC. I spent much of last night googling for tips and ideas on how to come up with a title.

There are any number of articles on that subject out there, but sadly most of them say the same thing, which is to not sweat it, a title will probably just come to you, and if all else fails sell it as 'untitled', or 'working title:_', since the publisher will probably end up changing your title anyway.

Perfect. Unless you're planning to self-publish.

If they do have any tips, it's mostly variations on the same thing: write down all the words that are remotely connected to your book, and stare at them until some collection of them turn into a title. This is a more helpful example than most. Well I have a page of that in my writing-things-down book, with nothing to show for it.

And I found this fascinting little app, which looked like a godsend, but after playing about with it for a while, I've come to the realisation that what you type in the box has absolutely no effect on anything except to bring up a little list of vital statistics in case you can't count or recognise letters. You can even put in a single word, and fill in the 'second word' box, and it won't bat an eyelid (although it does smell a rat if you don't type anything). The score seems to be based solely on the boxes ticked. Which means that you could come up with a formula for a best-selling title, if you had the patience. Apparently the highest score available is 83%, and the highest I've been able to find is 69% - A Lonely Road got that, with figurative, adjective with noun, preposition/article, adjective, no. Let me know if you work out the 'winning formula'!

But there are more useful things out there. Once you scroll past the utterly obvious bit, this article does have a list of places whence an idea could spring. This one is quite a nice step-by-step that's unusual in that most of the steps are concrete enough to actually try to follow. And for me, this one was the gold. I'm lucky enough to have a song that I associate with this novel, so once I had the idea of song lyrics, I immediately jumped to that one, and then to one of the most memorable and applicable lyrics and Bob's your uncle. Well, actually Rob's my brother, but close enough.

But unfortunately I'm only halfway there, and that's looking at it optimistically. You could say I'm only one quarter of the way there, since I need four titles in total: one for the trilogy and one for each book. I'm hoping to come up with all three book titles together because I want them to have something to do with each other. but I'll settle for a title for the first one for now.

So I guess it's only a half-mile stone. But still, progress.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

It's Been a While

I have some apologising to do. First, apologies for the long silence. Second, apologies for this post, which is probably going to be rambling and pointless and not terribly interesting, and possibly misspelled because the T on my keyboard is playing up.

I was away without internet access for a week, so I couldn't post, but somehow after that I didn't manage to get a post out and all of a sudden it had been over a week since I meant to get back to blogging. I've been shamefully unproductive since the start of the summer holidays: I got my edited draft finished before than, but since I've done little more than toy with a few ideas for revisions, and I've sadly neglected both this blog and my twitter feed, although I really need to be working on building a platform. I think I'm supposed to have a website as well, and to have worked out how to use Triberr and MYWANA and all of that sort of stuff.

I'm also no further forward with titles, and every time I think I've made a decision about publishing, I hear something else that makes me reconsider, or it turns out that the decision has sired a litter of smaller decisions that all need to be considered and weighed up and finally, painfully, made. Finally decided to definitely self-publish, probably? Fine, now will it be in your own name, or that of a press you will start up? And how exactly does one go about starting up an independent press to publish one's books?

Getting a draft finished, getting through a round of revisions and actually giving the wretched thing to some people to read felt so huge, so very much as though I was nearly there, but now I think I'm sort of lost.

I've also been intending, for a month or two, to rebrand this blog. I was never quite happy with the name - which my brother thought up and talked me into, and which I've steadily alternated between loving and loathing ever since. But however good it was or wasn't for a blog about life, the universe, and everything, the pun is sort of lost on a writing blog. And then the whole thing was started when I didn't know what I was doing, and hasn't been properly sorted out since.

Hopefully, this week or maybe next, I'll finally get around to doing it.

I'm being good now: today I finally started rewriting my opening scene, the only significant change I've decided on yet for my second round of editing. And I recently had an unexpected windfall which ought to take at least a good chunk out of the stuff that costs actual money, like professional editing and websites.

And in less than a month I will be an actual published author! Well, a bit. Remember this? Well, I may have said around the time, but it did get entered into the contest (Eliza, lovely person, said she wanted to make an exception about the length), and it came fourth, and is being published in Open Doors, an anthology by Wayman Publishing, on the fourth of September.

It's only a very short little bit of a story, but check this out:

Monday 9 July 2012

Things I have become an armchair expert on for one story.

I've written before about researching for a novel, and in particular why you shouldn't consider skiving it off.

This is just a flavour, now that I've finished the initial writing (still got plenty of editing to do, which I must start getting on with properly), of how much, and how varied and unexpected the things you have to learn about might be.

The things I have become an armchair expert on, just for this one book, include, but are not limited to, in no particular order:

  • Motorbikes; in particular, different kinds of bikes and how to ride pillion without dying.
  • Hells Angels [sic].
  • American football, including fouls and corresponding penalties, and the Harvard-Yale Game (I lost the game).
  • Train routes in America - top tip: they nearly all go through Chicago. Apparently this is because of Lake Michigan - and the layout of the Texas Eagle and Sunset Something-or-other trains.
  • Domestic flights in America.
  • Fractures of the humerus, and their treatment. Did you know that you aren't allowed to lie down, even to sleep, for the first couple of weeks?
  • Axolotls, turtles, naked mole rats, vampire bats, cats, and probably some other species that I forget. And retroviruses, telomerase (it's an enzyme), and all kinds of other stuff. Do you know, when I was asking people what they thought of the premise of this book, someone actually told me that 'vampires as we fear them are not a scientific or theoretical possibility'! Can you believe that? I'll show him.
  • Ambulance and Emergency Room treatment - with many thanks to Jordyn Redwood.
  • All kinds of stuff about life in America, like apartments and motels, drinking laws and age of consent, and tons more. Some of it I found out just by chance - like the fact that electric kettles are nearly unknown over there (on that point, I could do with knowing, would a room in a very cheap motel have a coffee maker or anything you could use to get water hotter than the hot tap?). There's probably plenty more I didn't figure out.
  • The general layout of quite a few cities in America, from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. Google Maps is very useful for location scouting when you can't run to actually going there. And sometimes amusing.
  • The history of Los Angeles.
  • Names. Ancient Greek names, Viking names, Persian names, Maasai names, and all kinds of other names.
  • Maasai culture.
  • Ancient Greek houses.
  • Ancient Greek funerals.
  • Ancient Greek ports.
  • Ancient Greek wildlife.
  • Ancient Greece in general.
  • Ancient Rome.
  • Barbary corsairs.
  • 'Vampires' - which is to say, people who participate in the vampire lifestyleThis was very helpful and interesting. Also clinical vampirism, but I didn't really need that, I just got wiki-sidetracked.
  • Travelling as a passenger on a container ship.
  • Fake passports.
  • The south-west coast of Spain.
That's not including anything I would have needed to research if I hadn't already known about it or anything I can't remember off the top of my head, and it's only things I needed to find out about for the book I'm currently writing, which is only the first instalment of the story.

So you have been warned. Don't be disheartened though: if you end up with more to research than me I'll be impressed. Any book which is set in several time periods or places (for instance, anything with characters whose lifetime spans centuries) will generate correspondingly more research, and if you're sensible, you won't set the majority of the present-day part in a country you've never been to.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

A Defence of the Singular They

All my life, I've used 'they' as a singular pronoun when talking about some unspecified individual who's gender is unknown and irrelevant. It came as some surprise to me to find out, in recent months, that this is apparently the subject of contention.

But since it appears to be, I thought I'd chip in my two cents on the issue. Without further ado, here's why I say that singular they is a perfectly valid use.

It's better than the alternatives
There are several alternatives for third person singular, gender neutral pronouns. And all but one of them suck.

There's 'it', which is rude and by convention isn't used to refer to humans old enough to distinguish their gender without taking their nappy off.

There are such remedies as 'he or she', which are clumsy and tedious.

There are all kinds of invented pronouns, which most of us don't understand, and even if we did, words forcibly invented and inserted into a living language are as alien and invasive as mink in a British stream. Perhaps eventually they'll become part of the landscape - like rabbits, which were introduced by the invading Romans and are now considered native - but until then don't try and tell me I have to like them.

There's the age old tradition of picking a gender - usually male - and running with it. Which in most situations these days is asking to be shot down in flames. Or similarly to alternate he and she, but referring to the same person by different pronouns has a tendency to be confusing.

Some advocate simply restructuring language to avoid the problem, but the problem will still exist; even if you're willing to put up with the more clumsy sentence which sometimes results, sometimes it's not possible to make a reasonable restructuring.

Or there's the singular they. Which works in nearly all situations where you need a singular, third person, gender neutral pronoun.

There's precedent
You don't object when I call you by that pronoun, I assume?

As anyone who knows a language such as French, Spanish, or German knows, English is unusual in only having one second person pronoun. And strictly speaking we don't. We have two: thou and you, but thou has fallen out of use to the point where it isn't standard English any more and is only used, often incorrectly, by people who want to make the dialogue in their historical story sound more authentically historical.

You was the analogue of the French vous (for example), and thou meant the same as tu.

You, or vous is plural and thou or tu singular, but you/vous is also used as a polite singular pronoun. Tu/thou is insulting, although it may be used informally as well, in much the same way that you might give your best mate a slap on the back where you would shake a stranger's hand. Or occasionally and affectionately refer to your younger brother as 'it'. And in English, for some reason, we stopped using the insulting version entirely and use you as singular whoever we're talking to.

Likewise, we have two gender neutral third person pronouns, singular and plural, it and they. 'It' is insulting, so why shouldn't we use the same solution and say 'they' for all?

It just is
As I say, I've used it all my life, and it's never appeared to be contentious. Certainly, a large proportion of people use it, and have for a long time, and doubtless it's been used in print, and everyone understands it. That's more-or-less the definition of being correct in a living language.

Any thoughts?

Thursday 7 June 2012

The Wrong Side of the Dawn Chorus

Most of the bird song around here could only be called so by the very loosest of definitions. There's the odd crow or similar, but mostly it's gulls. Common gulls, herring gulls, black-headed gulls, and kittiwakes. The most inland breeding colony of kittiwakes in the world, in fact. But that's beside the point.

Gulls' cries can be eerily beautiful, in a lonely, dramatic sort of way. On the sort of overcast night you only get in a big city, when the lights reflect off the thick blanket to bathe everything in a purple glow, and ghosts soar and wheel against that weird smoke, wailing.

It's an odd blessing to light pollution.

Most of the time, though, they're annoying at best and very often alarming, when they catch you off guard and sound exactly like a human scream.

But there's odd blessings to insomnia too.

There is birdsong around here, and it's beautiful. I don't know what bird it is, but it sings so incredibly sweetly. I never wake up early enough to hear it, but occasionally, on summer nights when it gets light in what could still reasonably be called the wee small hours, and when I'm finding it particularly hard to get to sleep, the sky grows bluer outside my window until it's lighter than twilight. And the dawn chorus starts up. It's quite soft, and quite cheerful, and infinitely more musical than the gulls' efforts.

I was still awake after four this morning, and not because I hadn't gone to bed early. But despite hearing it at the wrong end of the day, I count myself pretty lucky for it.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

The Moment of Truth

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was giving up coffee for two weeks, to see if it helped my insomnia. Well, It's now been two weeks, and I haven't noticed anything, so I'm going to see how tonight goes and then finish the experiment.

I guess I ought to be hoping I get the best night's sleep I've had in ages, but part of me is willing it not to make any difference so that I can have coffee tomorrow with a clear conscience.

I don't want to have to make the choice between sleeping better - which would be lovely, but I've managed for nearly twenty-one years without it - and coffee. The responsible choice would be the sleep, of course. But I like coffee.

I'll let you know how it goes. Goodnight.

[UPDATE]: Slept terribly last night. So this morning, coffee.

Friday 1 June 2012

Do You Want to Read the Next Bestseller, Now?

Well, that might be coming it a bit strong, but I hope it's going to be the next bestseller. Aim high, and all that. Also 'now' here means sometime next week, but it'll still be some way earlier than anyone else gets to see it.

I will soon - hopefully in a few days- be looking for beta readers for my novel. As regular readers will know, it's a new take on the vampire genre, and if that sounds up your street and you'd like a preview and the chance to influence the book, apply now!

In return for some feedback, you will not have only my undying gratitude but also a free copy of the book once it's published. As well as feedback, I will be asking for suggestions for a title, so you could end up naming the book!

If you're interested, please email me at (that's not a typo, there are meant to be three z's. Long story). I'll get back to you with some guidance about the kind of feedback I'm after, and a copy of the manuscript once the first round of editing is finished.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Revisions and Revision

I'm in the middle of exam period, and nearly a week ago I finished the first draft of my novel, so today I started editing.

As for the exams, I've once again broken out my trusty three-point plan for revision, and so far it still seems to be working. I had two exams this week, and they both went well enough. They were two of the hardest ones too; the next two are easy and I have a week until the next one and then another week before the last two. Wish me luck!

As for the editing, I'm still very much a noob, and worrying that I'm not being harsh enough as I haven't yet cut much. But I haven't got very far - 15 pages out of 160 - and I'm still in the early parts where I spent more time perfecting each bit rather than just getting on with it. Or so I'm telling myself.

The daily k rule worked fantastically for the writing, so I've made a ten page rule for the editing. Ten pages of edited manuscript before I'm allowed recreational internet, including blogging and social networking. The definition of non-recreational slipped a little over the course of the writing, but seem to have settled down into a happy medium. I'm allowing myself Minecraft after twenty pages.

I'll keep you updated on how it's going, and anything useful I learn from it. I've been writing, more or less and usually less, for years, but as I've never finished a first draft before, this is new ground for me.

In other news, I'm experimenting with giving up caffeine, in the hope that it will help with my insomnia won't help at all so that I can go back to drinking copious amounts of brain juice with a clear conscience. Apparently I need to give it up for two weeks before I'll know if it's working; I'm 48 hours in and I WANT COFFEE!

Sunday 20 May 2012

The Truth About Vampires

Here's a piece of trivia for you: you can tell a real vampire by their teeth. Or rather, you can't which is how you can tell whether they're real or not. Popular culture has vampires with huge fangs for their canine teeth. Bullsh*t, if you'll pardon my French, and one of the things that ticks me off in vampire fiction - that and the way people think of Dracula, as if the poor bloke hasn't had enough bad press.

Most animals with fangs do indeed have them for canines. Indeed, that's where the word canine comes from: teeth like the fangs of a dog. But that's because most most animals with fangs use them for ripping and tearing and doing as much damage as possible. That's really not practical for a vampire; even if they might sometimes tear a throat messily out, vampires want the ability to make neat incisions - and they do, in most fiction, leaving two neat holes, in spite of their wholly unsuitable teeth. And even supposing the vampire was content to simply tear out a throat, he couldn't. An animal with a muzzle can, but with a human-shaped face, you just try bringing your canines to bear on something that won't fit in your mouth.

The clue is in in the word. Which of your teeth would you use for making an incision? How about your incisors? And nature bears me out: the only animal that has teeth and feeds entirely on blood has razor-sharp pointed incisors.

Real vampires bite you with their front teeth.

In fact, a lot of what the stories say about vampires is untrue. Some of it is half-truths and misunderstanding, and much more could reasonably be termed balderdash, or indeed something a little less printable.

To start with, a lot of their powers and strengths are grossly over-exaggerated in popular culture. That's not to say they don't have them - most of them, at least - but just that they aren't the virtually indestructible, godlike superbeings you're probably used to.

But don't be disappointed. Real vampires have plenty of frightening abilities. The ability to exist, for starters. There's no need to believe in magic or the supernatural, or even to suspend disbelief of soft science, to believe in them; they're real. I think one of my housemates might be one, and I'm almost serious about that. The funny (or possibly worrying) thing is, a lot of the things that looked like they might cause problems with the science just fell into place; things I had no idea were the case just turned out to be. With every bit of research I do, vampires as I envisage them seem more and more plausible. And I have a bad track record with this; things I think I've made up nearly always turn out either to have been written about by someone else, or to have happened in real life. And I'm 99.9% sure no-one's written about vampires with a principle similar to mine.

Then, they have the ability to not be bl**dy obvious. Vampires can tell each other, but humans can't. If you knew what to look for, you could at least tell who definitely wasn't, but you could only really be certain who was on a much closer examination than any vampire is likely to allow you. Even their teeth aren't obviously different from a human's; the incisors are sharp, and angled so that they meet in a point, but the angle is slight, and you couldn't be sure they didn't just have slightly crooked teeth. Your best friend could be one, and unless they told you, you'd never know.

Friday 18 May 2012

So I've Written a Story

Yesterday evening, I finished the first draft of that novel I've been going on about for ages. Of course, overall it's far from finished; I haven't even begun the first round of revisions - I'm having a few days off and then I'm planning to start that on Thursday, since I have exams Monday and Wednesday.

But this is a huge milestone for me. I've started working on quite a few stories over the years. One of them - you know the one: the one you write when you're a kid and cringe whenever you reread - I got to about two thirds of the way through. And I've done one or two short stories; one of them is here. But I've never finished a gull-length novel before.

I now have a story. The writing, and maybe a few plot points, will need a lot of revision and polishing, but an uncut diamond is still a diamond, and my story is finished. It exists, in detail and outside of my head.

So I'm pleased as punch and proud as Lucifer, right now. And also enjoying the release from my daily k rule. I like being able to go on Twitter in the mornings, and I played Minecraft this afternoon for the first time in months.

But I'm also aware that I have a lot to do, and from here on I'm in unfamiliar waters. Not entirely uncharted, but many of the charts are quite vague and some contradict each other. I know how to write a story; I've been doing it since I was a kid. But I have to make it good now, and publish it - I'm pretty certain that I'm going to self-publish, for all the reasons everyone else is self-publishing these days - and market it. I don't know how to do that.

I read today that I should start marketing now, or at least very soon. I don't have anything approaching a marketing plan. I don't even have a title, and I don't think I can do that much without one.

I know I need to get it professionally edited. Before that I will have to turn my first draft, which is very first-drafty in places, into a first decent version, and what I've read recently seems to suggest that I should get it beta-read and do more revisions and get it to a state that seems finished to me first and turning it over to an editor should be the last thing I do.

It will need a cover, of course. I know someone who started a design business with a publishing branch, and while I intend to self-publish, I'm hoping he'll be able to give me a good deal on a cover design. And there are plenty of design companies out there if that doesn't work out.

I suppose that when I have all the essentials of a book I will go through Createspace or a similar self-publishing service. I hope it will be easy and obvious how to do that.

And then, in theory, I'll have a book. I will have to sell it. On Amazon, for starters, but whether, and how, I will get it on any other shelves I have no idea.

All in all, daunting is a bit of an understatement. But it will be a learning curve, and with a bit of luck I won't mess it up too badly.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Names, and Pain

This is my personal bugbear.

When you write a story, you have to name all your characters. You have to either decide on real locations or invent place names as well. You have to come up with a title. It's a pain.

Naming characters isn't too difficult, even if you're not so good at names. If you want 'real' names, a quick search will reveal dozens of baby name websites. I like, which seems to be more focussed on researching names: it has less cutesy baby stuff than most, it's easy to find names used in a particular language/culture, and there's a link to a surname site. I generally ask the nearest person to pick a letter, and look for names starting with that letter. If none suit, or if I suspect them of deliberately choosing a difficult letter, I demand a replacement until I find one.

Some people also recommend visiting a graveyard and borrowing names from the headstones. I've never tried this; to be honest it creeps me out a little.

If you want names for a fantasy story or something else where you don't want names that are used in real life, it gets a little harder. But there are some tricks. Spell a name backwards - alter the spelling a little if the result looks clumsy. They often sound very name-like; I discovered this playing a pretend game with my brothers when we were little. It involved creating a 'language' by the simple expedient of spelling everything backwards, and I liked my younger brother's and my resulting monikers so much I used them in a story (you know, the one you wrote when you were a kid that you now cringe when you reread). My older brother unhelpfully turned out to be a brand of mints.

Or, similarly, pick a name that sounds interesting and modify it a bit to make it unique. Another approach is to choose a language quite different from yours and pick names that are real but unfamiliar. Although I can see this having drawbacks if you hope to publish in other languages - specifically, in the one you borrowed the names from.

I find places harder than characters. Again, it's easy enough if you're setting it in the real world. Just pick your locations out on a map. I've done a fair bit of location scouting via Google maps, where Streetview is extremely useful and sometimes funny.

For made-up places, I'm afraid I have very little to offer. I really can't do these well. 'Pick a letter' can help a little, especially if followed by 'and now pick a vowel', etc, until you get a decent first syllable, and analogous techniques to the ones I mentioned for made-up character names.

Then there's the title. This is apparently quite an important feature, something you really need to get right. So far I've only found two approaches:

1. Miraculous burst of inspiration leading to the perfect title. Out of my list of Novels I Plan To Write, three of them have titles resulting from this. The big drawback is that this only happens when it wants to. If it doesn't, I resort to

2. Working title. For example, the vampire story I'm currently working on has from the start been labelled on my computer as Vampire Story. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. To make matters worse, I'm going to need a trilogy title as well as a book title. I'm now in the final scenes of my first draft, and still have absolutely no idea about either.

So, here's a question for you: how do you come up with a good title?

Sunday 29 April 2012

Review: A Song of Ice and Fire

I'm pretty niggardly with new books. This isn't because I'm a tightwad; or at least, it isn't just because I'm a tightwad. Otherwise I'd just get them second hand, or from the library like I do with books I'm probably only going to read once and don't want badly enough to fork out cash. The main reason is so that I don't run out of books I really want to read. In particular, when I find a series I particularly like, I ration myself to one book at Christmas and one for my birthday, which conveniently falls approximately halfway round the year form Christmas. And I stick to this.

So when I finished the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire and within a day was on Amazon ordering the third, you can guess that I was pretty gripped by it.

I have to admit being a little put off George R. R. Martin when I noticed how he styles himself: although it appears that he does indeed have two middle names, both beginning with R, not many authors put middle initials on their cover at all, and it still looks a bit like ripping off Tolkien. But it's the only thing that does.

Ice and Fire gets compared to Lord of the Rings a lot, but I don't think it really should be. Yes, it's a fantasy series set in a world with pre-gunpowder technology and magic, and there's a lot of fighting going on. But it's not really the same kind of story at all. It's on a different level: much more about the people, some of whom are doing what might be termed mighty deeds, than the mighty deeds, which are done by some people since that's the traditional way for deeds of any sort to get done. And about power struggles and politics, petty grudges and love polygons of varying complexity more than about saving the world. Although there are hints of the world possibly needing saving at some point, but we're three books in and the power struggles certainly seem to be the main point.

It's a little like the bastard child of LoTR and Eastenders.

Warning: some spoilers for the first three books (up to the end of A Storm of Swords part 1) ahead

Saturday 21 April 2012

Writing Tips: Concentrate

If you're a writer, and you're like me, you make up stories. A lot. It's what I spend most of my free time doing, as well as a reasonable amount of time that's not exactly free, but I'm bored and struggling to concentrate on what I'm actually doing, and all the time - often upwards of an hour, same again if I wake up in the night - between going to bed and finally getting my insomniac self to sleep.

The net result of this is a head full of stories. Now, the majority of them are my own, personal stories. But a not insignificant number develop into full-blown Novels I Plan To Write. Currently I have six, at least two of which will probably be series, that I seriously, definitely intend to write, and a handful more that I might at some point.

And I'm only allowed to work on one of them for the next three years.

Because that's the thing: you have to focus, and concentrate on one piece of work at a time.
Otherwise, if you do a little of one and a little of another, as and when you feel like them, then at best, you'll spend years and years working on them, and then have a dozen finished at once.
And that's probably what you want. Doing the promotion and marketing as well as all the technical stuff for one book sounds pretty daunting, and even if you could handle all that it sounds like a much better idea to have a steady trickle of books coming out to publish like a shaken ketchup bottle.

But that's at best. I really do think you need to concentrate on one major project at a time to get it finished at all. I know all about wasting time and not getting anywhere with my writing; I did it for years, and the least progress of all, even sum total progress, was made when I just opened whichever file I felt like working on today.

So I'm refusing to work on any novel besides the one about the vampires (as yet untitled. How do people think of titles?) until that's finished. Or rather, until they're finished: it's - I think - going to be a trilogy, so at a rough estimate that's about three years before I can let myself put anything on paper for any of the others. Maybe two and a half, with a following wind, since I'm a good way through the first draft of the first one.

It's not easy. I recently allowed myself a short story (you can find it at the top of the page, if you like), which is part of the world of one of the Novels I Plan To Write: now I keep thinking of the characters and I want to write about them. And I even more recently read The Sword of Senack which reminded me ever so strongly of a sci-fi future universe I have, which I intend to write about, most likely in several novels, and now I want to write that one too, and the sole thing stopping me from doing so is willpower.

But it's worth it. It's so, so worth it, because as long as I keep concentrating, and keep up the willpower, I have a fighting chance of making it as an author. So concentrate.

On a somewhat related note, they do say that you should also pick one genre to concentrate your efforts on.  'They' are people who seem to know what they're talking about, so I'm sure they're right, but I'm trying not to think about that, because the Novels I Plan To Write range from vampires - but scientific vampires - to a brave stab at the supernatural, to historical fiction, to the aforementioned sci-fi.
I have a faint hope that vampires, being traditionally in the realms of the supernatural, will lead on to that one, the sci-fi element will lead on to that one, and the fact that half of it is set in Ancient Greece will lead on to the historical ones, but basically my plan is to put it out of my mind and cross that bridge when I come to it. I would advise you all to at least try and focus on one genre, though.

Friday 20 April 2012

The Sword of Senack: Review

The Mer-sons and The Sword of Senack is a young adult fantasy novel by EC Stilson.
It's set in the future, on another planet which humans have colonised from Earth, but it's definitely fantasy rather than sci-fi. As for the YA part: I think it would be a spectacular book for younger readers, but it's also good enough that the writing style isn't annoying for those who would usually choose something a bit more mature.

The plot is original and dramatic - very dramatic: within the first half-dozen pages we already have magic and a kidnapping, and rumours of hauntings - and keeps going with the action right the way through with plenty of twists and turns. Some of the twists I could see coming - and fictional characters can be frustratingly slow on the uptake sometimes, others were unexpected.

The world and the characters are nicely fleshed out and 3D. I had the feeling right the way through that there was a whole world there, even a whole galaxy, not just the immediate setting, and it's teeming with its own living things - peoples, animals and plants - and cultures and customs and geography and politics and everything a world should have.
Varied, relatable characters, not half! From devious villains, plotting and double-crossing away, with a little light sadism for entertainment, to brave and heroic warriors, and plenty more. There's Vander, for whom the word 'indomitable' might have been designed, and Hivis, whose first impression may be misleading, and he's not the only character who you might get the wrong idea of. I must say, I found myself getting a little exasperated sometimes with the main character, Aliya.

I'd heard about The Sword of Senack from following the author's blog, but I hadn't planned to read it: YA fantasy doesn't have a huge appeal for me these days. A few years ago, back when I was still very much into stuff like the Edge Chronicles, I'd have jumped at it, but now I usually prefer something a little more mature. In fact I only read it because I won a copy, and I'm extremely glad I did! I shall certainly look out fr the sequels promised by the ending, and I'll even go so far as to say I think this will be one of the books I'll reread a lot in the future.

Well worth a read, then: a fast-paced, original and immersive story, well-written, and recommended even if YA isn't really your thing.

Monday 16 April 2012

Please Can You Help?

I'm having one or two research difficulties. Well, one in particular:

I have a rather good character, who plays a pretty crucial role in the early stages of the story. Sadly, though, he is still just a designation in square brackets, because I can't find an appropriate name.

The problem is that he's a Maasai, so I need a Maasai name for him.

I did, in fact, manage to find a list of Maasai names, but I'm reliably informed that  in Maasai culture, meanings of names generally matter, and only a handful of the names listed had meanings listed, and none of those few suited.

So please, if you know any traditional Maasai boys' names, or the meanings to any of the names on the list, please tell me.

(UPDATE: I called him Sabore, though I don't know what it means or how to pronounce it)

Saturday 14 April 2012

Horseracing: Too Cruel?

It's that time of year again: the Grand National happens, and suddenly a lot more people than usual are shouting that horseracing is a bloodsport little better than dogfighting.

Well, I see where they're coming from. But I'm not sure I agree.

First of all, let's get out of the way the idea that horses dying is the big issue. I am not a vegetarian, and no-one who eats meat has any rational grounds to object to the deaths of farm animals. If you are a vegetarian on ethical grounds, and you object to horse racing because horses die, I respect your opinion. But I don't share it, and I have my doubts that all or even most of the people who complain about racing do. For those of us who have questioned eating meat and concluded that it is allowable, it would be hypocritical to raise thoroughbreds above cattle and say you can kill Betsy but not Dobbin.

The issue here is horses suffering.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Blogging About not Blogging

I really ought to write something, but I'm afraid you're going to have to make do with a repost about exactly why you're going to have to make do with a repost. Enjoy.

Rick Gualtieri writes about things like vampires and bigfoot, and his books sound brilliant although I can't honestly recommend them only because I haven't yet gotten around to reading them. He also blogs about writing at The Poptart Manifesto.

The Blogging Doldrums

I’m currently in the middle of writing The Mourning Woods, the third book in my foul-mouthed comedy series about a dorky vampire namedBill who’s been thrust into a world he isn’t ready for, and that definitely isn’t ready for him. Being smack dab in the middle of what I call writing mode definitely has its perks, not the least of which is constantly being able to pull more and more ideas out of the old grey matter. However, there is one definite drawback. For some reason, whenever I am in writing mode, that portion of my brain that comes up with blog post ideas just up and burns out...

Well, Rick's not the only one affected by this phenomenon (see above). But at least the novel's coming on well: the '>' bits of my daily '>1000 words' have just added up to an extra 1000, putting me at just over 68 000 words total, and an estimated two thirds of the way through.
How long is a novel supposed to be, anyway? No two estimates agree. But I digress.

...I could’ve been hit by a bus. But more than likely, barring any obituaries showing up in your local paper regarding bald men with hard to pronounce Italian names, it means that I’m busy killing off my brain cells in the mad pursuit of finishing another book...

Please don't get hit by a bus. It would be a terrible shame if you didn't finish the book, and I never got to find out what happens to Bill.
Funnily enough Gualtieri never struck me as hard to pronounce, which I guess probably means I'm getting it wrong. But I only have to write it, so that's ok.

...No idea why my mind works this way, after all one would think that all of our creative ideas come from one place, and if that lump of cells can spit out a plot point for one thing, then surely it came do so for another...

I always attributed it to that lump of cells only having so much creative juice to go around, so more novelling => less blogging.

..When calls came out for the A-Z Blog Challenge, I was like “yeah right!” I knew I’d be lucky to get out one post, let alone 26... 

I had a pretty similar thought, and I haven't even attempted the challenge. Good luck to those brave souls who are.

The rest is here.

Friday 6 April 2012

At the Bottom of the Garden: Part Two

Last week, I wrote about my recurring battles with the abomination that used to be our garden pond.

Well today my dad and brother finally got around to helping me sort it out properly.

What we removed from the swamp (most quantities estimates):
  • Nearly a mile of marsh marigold stems
  • Two or three pounds of dead leaves
  • Two golf balls
  • An entire rockery
  • One inexplicable Christmas-tree bauble which certainly never belonged to us
  • Four or five pounds of moss
  • At least twelve pounds of silty roots and unidentifiable things
  • About twenty litres of primordial ooze

What is left in the pond:
  • Two marsh marigolds
  • About ten yards of pondweed
  • Enough silt to cover the bottom of the liner
  • A couple of dozen tadpoles
  • A few snails
  • Two swamp beasts (to the uninitiated, they would appear to be mere frogs, but we know better)
So we have tamed the swamp, but I doubt that it will take very long for it to be well-covered with a thick growth of weed, and by next year it will probably be well on its way to being thoroughly choked again.

I also tried to tame our resident triffid (which to the inexperienced eye would seem to be no more than a large and unruly rosebush), but gave up when it bit me painfully in the thumb.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

A Basilisk's Feather: Short Story

Here is a short story I wrote. It belongs to a world I created for a novel I won't be writing until after my vampire trilogy and very likely some others as well. I wrote it for a contest, but it turned out too long for the word-limit, so I just posted it here.

Enjoy, and please do tell me what you think (I don't think you can leave comments on pages, so leave it here instead).

Friday 30 March 2012

Not So Ridiculous After All

Caution: (very minor) spoilers for Dracula and Dracula the Undead.

One thing that always bothered me in Dracula was that Lucy was given three blood transfusions, with the three most convenient people as donors, with no question of matching the blood types, with no ill effects. Of course, Stoker couldn't have known that that was a problem, as blood types were discovered shortly after Dracula was published. Indeed, that's a plot point in Dracula the Undead.

But then it occurred to me that depending on your blood type, you might have a pretty chance of a random person being compatible with you. Indeed, if Lucy happened to be AB positive, she could have transfusions from anyone.

So I finally got around to working out the odds of a random person receiving blood transfusions from three different random people, and surviving.

Using some information about distribution of blood types from this page of the NHS Blood and Transplant website, and making the assumptions that that hasn't changed hugely over the past hundred-odd years, and that no-one involved had any rare blood types, I calculated Lucy's chances:

You can receive blood from anyone who doesn't have any of A, B, or Rh that you don't -if you have it and they don't, it's fine.
Add up all of the compatible percentages, and you get the percentage of people who can donate blood to you.
Divide by 100 and you have the probability of a random person being able to donate to you.
Cube that, and the result is the probability of three random people all being able to donate to you.

But that's the probability given that you have a certain blood type, and we don't know Lucy's blood type, so we need to calculate that figure for each blood type, and than calculate:

(probability of having blood type)*(probability of three people being able to donate to blood type)

and add up the results.

I came out with 0.2970, or 30%, to the nearest %, which is not a fantastic chance IRL, but more than plausible enough for fiction, I think.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

At the Bottom of the Garden

... there used to be a pond. To give that name to what there is now would be insulting to all the garden ponds out there. We have what can only be described as a garden swamp.

It's too small to be self-sustaining: there are no fish or waterbirds to eat the plants, so left to its own devices it gets overgrown. I remember once we did clean it out thoroughly, or rather, my dad did, while us (then quite small) children lent assistance which was doubtless more enthusiastic than helpful. but since then it has been allowed to drift slowly into a state of ... indescribableness.

These days, about twice a year, when I'm home in the Easter and summer holidays, I decide to clear it out. i spend some time each day for a few days pulling out dead leaves and twigs and moss and grass and silt and excess pond plants and heaven only - and possibly not even heaven - knows what else and piling up what must be nearly my own bodyweight in assorted muck. The pond is around a metre and a half across, and no more than half a metre deep. The heaps I extract make no obvious difference to it.

Then I give up. I get fed up, or disgusted, or the weather turns, or other matters press. The back right corner is nearly inaccessible thanks to overgrown flowerbeds, and by now looks more like compost than water - with an inexplicable Christmas-tree bauble that certainly never belonged to us, but the other three-quarters is bounded by lawn, and it is from there that I remove a few cubic feet of rubbish twice a year. Invariably, when I next attempt the task, it is a worse state than when I started last time.

This week I've been having another go at the job and this time (as usual) I am determined to actually finish it, or at least make a noticeable difference.

There is more moss and grass growing in there than actual pond-plants. It is monstrously choked with dead leaves, mostly bits of the conifers that overlook it (they were recently trimmed, which may be why there's more than usual in the water). I found a lost golf-ball, which was at the same time invisible beneath the matted vegetation and supported by it.

The yellow-flowered plants - which I think are marsh marigolds, but I couldn't swear to it - that used to stand tall in the centre of the pond now spread throughout, their long stems horizontal, submerged, leafless, root-trailing and in many places indecently bleached shocking white from lack of light, ring the whole pond in a tangled mass, clogged by moss above and fine silt-gathering roots below. The whole thing is a solid mass, several inches thick and intertwined with everything in the pond.

The silt is incredible. I haven't yet dared to plunge my hands into the bottom, where unknown terrors lurk - decaying frogs spring to mind - but the stuff that clings to the roots of the plants is bad enough. It is exceptionally fine, and if I didn't know what it was the soft and silky feel would be quite pleasant. As I pull each handful to light, I see things in it that I would rather not. Some are crawling, some look like eggs, some are wholly unidentifiable. And to talk about the smell of that silt is to waste a perfectly good opportunity to use the word 'stench'.

We have a breeding colony of frogs, but this year I wondered if they'd all died, perhaps at the claws of Poppy or one of the many other cats that haunt our garden, or simply left in disgust, as we didn't appear to have any frogspawn this year. But the pond must just have been too choked up for it to be visible, because the latest crop of tadpoles are swimming around, newly-hatched, and I feel like a murderer. I try to avoid pulling them out with the filth, but I'm certain to kill some.

And when I decide to call it a day, I still have to clean myself up. The smell is always unwilling to let go of my hands, even after somewhat more diligent washing than a surgeon scrubbing in for theatre. Once I came down with a stomach bug the day after, and I doubt it's a coincidence. And tonight I had a disagreement with the cat - equal fault on both sides, I think - which resulted in my worst savaging yet (don't worry: still very superficial injuries, and from past experience my immune system is perfectly able to cope with whatever might be in Poppy's mouth) and I'm not sure I want my lacerated and punctured right arm anywhere near that muck, so this may possibly be it for this bout. I'll see. If you never hear from me again, assume I've died of septicaemia.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Pearls of Wisdom: Grammar Nazis

I haven't done one of these for ages. Hmmm. Anyway:

 Let he who is without typos cast the first sarcastic reply.

Or she, obviously.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

First of all, I apologise to any regular readers for the longer than usual silence. But I'm here now.

Today Twitter led me in the direction of a rather good Guardian article. I rather like a lot of what was in it. so I thought I'd share it with you.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Playing God

I'm a mathematician and a writer. It sometimes occurs to me that both of these things are sort of like being God.

In maths, you get to say 'Let there be...' and there is, Old Testament style, which feels awesome.
And unlike every other branch of science, maths is Bottom Up. Other sciences are Top Down: you look at the world and try to work out how it fits together and does what it does. In maths, you start from the very building blocks and find out what you can do with them. It's as if a physicist started with the idea of quarks (or whatever they are made up of, if they aren't as small as you can go), and deciphered how atoms and molecules and everything bigger worked from there. Which is presumably what God does, if there is a God (I believe there is, but I have absolutely no problem with it if you don't).
This means that you can prove things in maths: unlike in other sciences where the best you can get is a theory (that is, a comprehensive explanation supported by a great deal of evidence) that is the best explanation anyone can find and fits all the evidence is the nearest you can get to proof, and still could, potentially, turn out to be wrong, in maths you can prove things, and then you can be 100% certain that it's not possible for it to be otherwise.

As for being a writer: I create worlds, and people to fill them.
I put a great deal of effort into it, and make sure that things work - you already know about my scientifically plausible vampires, and just recently I've been looking up pterosaurs to design a basilisk, which in my version is a giant flying snake-creature, for another story - and my characters are all created, to some extent, in my image, because it's not really possible to make someone up without putting some of yourself into them.
And you know, I do seriously wonder sometimes if my creations are real to themselves: I don't see why not as they're pretty real to me. And then I wonder if it's wrong of me to put them through all the things I do, although it's not really possible not to: you can't have a story without conflict, and you can't have conflict without suffering. And stories have a mind of their own, so if they decide on one route, you can either follow, no matter the consequences, or abandon it entirely.

of course that leads to the question: if God is an author, does that make Christianity the biggest work of self-insert fiction ever?

Wednesday 29 February 2012


I was trawling round Los Angeles on Google Maps streetview the other day, location scouting for my novel, and I found this:

Thomas and Betsy: Because I said I Wouldn't Talk About my Cat

But I made no such promise about anyone else's.

Thomas and Betsy are two cats who live in a house on a street next to the University, which I usually walk down on my way to and from Uni. Thomas is a chunky black-and-white tuxedo, and Betsy is a dainty little calico. I met their owner once - he came home while I was petting them, and he told me their names although not his own. While I'm away from Poppy in term time, they are my substitutes.

They are very friendly: Poppy takes an interest in everyone indoors, but outside she won't even come to me (she's my little Wild Thing). Betsy on the other hand, came right up to me as soon as I showed any interest. Thomas took a little coaxing the first few times we met, but now he comes running to see me, although he needed a little more encouragement the first time I saw him after being away for the Christmas holidays.

Their owner says Betsy bites, but she's never bitten me, even when I once tried briefly to pick her up: she didn't like it, but she only wriggled until I let her go. If she did bite or scratch me, though, I'd just call it an occupational hazard of petting strangers' cats. Or any cats: I have had plenty of blood drawn over the years by my own little darling.

I've been a little worried about Betsy lately, since I'd not seen her since before Christmas, and I'd wondered if something had happened to her, but she was there today and although it's the best part of three months since she saw me, she came running from halfway down the street.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Greatest Hits

Nothing new today, I'm afraid. I want to post something today, but I really can't think of anything. So for new viewers or anyone who missed it, here's what you (or your pageviews, anyway) said you liked best:

Writing Tips: let them be themselves the first of my Writing Tips series, and my all-time most viewed post, by some margin.

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Good Book to a Would-be Author second most viewed post ever: ramblings about reading and writing.

Reader Response Question of the Week: Sci-Fi and Vampires number three, and the only question I ever got a response to. If you have any thoughts, they are more than welcome.

Writer: Definition equal third, although it's only a little one, and has been collecting views for a fair while less than the three above it.

Productivity Rules how I finally got on with writing. fifth most viewed, and a few people have said they think it's a good idea.

You like Horror Stories? some recommendations for those who do: most commented post ever (because more than one person besides myself commented).

Sunday 26 February 2012

The Best Way to Wear Headphones.

Headphones are very useful, but they have a tendency to get in your way, or to get caught on stuff and painfully ripped from your ears just when you had finally settled them comfortably and just when you were listening to your favourite song. At least, that's what I (used to) find.

But never fear: there is a better way. Here's my patent method:

Just put it behind you. And if you're walking about, up your shirt as well.

Instead of having the wire in front of you, in your way, it goes behind you, out of your way. The earplugs go over each shoulder, and when you want to take them out you can just drop them and they'll stay there. If you have one of those adjustable slidy things on the bit where the wires separate, it's best to leave it down while you put them on, then slide it up until you just have a comfortable amount of slack even when you turn your head.

If you're sitting at a computer or whatever, that's it. And if you get up for anything, unplug from the computer and take the headphones with you. It;s easier than getting them comfrtablesettled again.

If you're going out plugged into your iPod etc, run the wire down the inside of your jumper or shirt so it won't get caught on anything. Best way is to drop the whole thing down the back of your neck, keeping back the earplug end, and wriggle until it falls out the bottom. If possible, put the device in a pocket on your top, not your trousers: this is much easier if at some point you need to go to the loo.

One thing to note is that it's harder for people to tell that you're wearing headphones - if, like me, your hair covers your ears, you can't tell at all. This might be useful (if you're not supposed to be wearing them!), or it might not. If you would like to be left alone, you want people to notice the 'phones, and if you're doing an a crapela version of your favourite song, you look even more crazy/annoying.