Friday, 24 June 2011

My books are now available for the Kindle

My books 'The Pirate Princess' and my collection of short stories, 'Beyond Twilight' is now available on Amazon for the Kindle: (Copper Moon Rising- thanks to Peter Krause for the fresh artwork)

Monday, 20 June 2011

Science fiction is speculative fiction

I don’t like the term ‘science fiction’. Why? Well, I claim to be a science fiction writer but I would say while I know a little bit about fiction, I don’t know very much about science. Not off the top of my head, anyway. I could probably just about manage to turn on a Bunsen burner. I got a double B for Science in my GCSEs, but that was the last time I studied Physics, Chemistry or Biology to any great depth. If I write fiction where I need to know scientific principles or where science is applied or subverted in some way, then I need to do my research (luckily I am a trained researcher and that’s my job title). I’m not a qualified aeronautical engineer like Robert Heinlein, or a professor of biochemistry like Isaac Asimov.

Most importantly, how do we define ‘science fiction’? If you ask most people this question, they will most probably picture a story that is set in space and/or some future time. There are numerous repetitive motifs in science fiction (much like dwarves, elves, and magicians in fantasy fiction) such as space craft, space colonies and colonisation, robots and androids, alien planets and cultures, aliens, alien invasion, time travel, inter-galactic wars, etc. Think of the numerous films, television shows, books and video games which can be neatly packaged in this niche genre. Most importantly, it reaches the stage where it can be marked ‘For Geeks Only’ (“It’s nothing to do with the real world. Strange, sad socially inept people and overgrown schoolboys like it”- this is the opinion of a lot of women, by the way) and the type of entertainment that people like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost like. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but when it reaches the level of SF Conventions and obsessive weirdoes with questionable personal hygiene, dressing up in ridiculous outfits complete with fake pointy ears and learning redundant fictional languages like Klingon, I do begin to suspect that it probably is.

I had a discussion with my boss about the writer J.G Ballard. I insisted that Ballard was a science fiction writer. My boss hates the standard SF motifs, despises Star Trek, Star Wars and any space/future time-located story but he does like Ballard (he also likes Iain Banks, but not Iain M.Banks). He maintained that Ballard did not write science fiction because his stories are set in an everyday recognisable world rather than dealing with spaceships and little green men, or star captains in skin-tight jumpsuits piloting vast space craft, or time machines spinning inexorably through space. The more recognisable everyday setting is a hallmark of writers of ‘New Wave’ science fiction which became popular from the 1960s onward but I’ll come to that in a moment.

A brief resume of Ballard’s fiction is appropriate here. It’s true that he wrote non-SF material such as ‘Empire of the Sun’ and ‘The Kindness of Women’ about his formative childhood experiences in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War. Yet the work he is most noted for has science fiction elements. ‘The Drowned World’ is about ecological disaster, when Earth’s polar ice caps melt and most of civilisation is submerged, leading to a regression in the previously civilised attitudes of the protagonists of the story. ‘The Crystal World’ is about the discovery of a crystalline organism within the African jungle which is slowly expanding and turned everything to crystal; a rather attractive form of apocalyptic destruction that might eventually transform the world into a giant crystal rock, glimmering within space. ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ is an experimental novel, heavily influenced by William S.Burroughs, exploring the inner workings of the mind of a psychotic character, with a splintered, fractured narrative. Ballard’s most notorious novel, ‘Crash’ is about car-crash sexual fetishism (symphorophilia). One publisher’s reader returned the manuscript remarking that: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” ‘High Rise’ and ‘Concrete Island’ have similar themes- speculation on how modern life and technology warp and subvert the human psyche. Other Ballard novels such as ‘Cocaine Nights’ and ‘Super-Cannes’ are set in a recognisable near-future, in dystopian social environments- yet although they do not focus on advanced technology or encounters with alien races, their themes and ideas are certainly compatible with the science fiction genre, except the term ‘science’ is not quite so relevant any more.

This is where I would apply the definition of ‘science fiction’ more loosely, and instead apply the term ‘speculative’ fiction. The concept of speculation may encompass a broader range of work in regard to speculative concepts of future time, alternative histories and alternate realities, in worlds that may even closely resemble our own.

In my opinion Ballard is writing in the same genre as Philip K.Dick, Robert Heinlein, Brian Aldiss or even Michael Crichton- although his style may be more literary than others, let’s say. Speculative fiction can be further subdivided into science fiction, which then can be subdivided into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction, if you’re inclined to do so and you enjoy categorising fiction. Yet I prefer the broader definition of SF, where it’s possible to appreciate each individual writer’s unique vision.

The writing of Philip K Dick

Philip K.Dick is perhaps the wildest, most erratic and yet most original Speculative/Science Fiction writer of them all. For those of you who are more inclined to follow film/cinema than books, you might be interested to know that films such as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’, ‘Paycheck’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ amongst others are based upon his writings, and more of Philip K Dick’s fiction is likely to be adapted to film in the future. Some more loosely than others, of course. There are always difficulties in adapting written fiction for the screen, no less illustrated when considering the clunky nature of some of Dick’s titles: “Blade Runner” is based on the novel titled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” while the original title of the short story that ‘Total Recall’ is based on was “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’. The movie title comes from the name of the company ‘Recall’ in the original story, which uses technology to implant false memories in people’s minds.

There are few Speculative Fiction writers that have the ability to be as humorous, thought-provoking and unsettling across the breadth of their work as Philip Kindred Dick. Many of his original ideas and concepts have been hugely influential both in SF fiction and the mainstream. It can be argued that recent films as diverse as ‘Twelve Monkeys’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Truman Show’, ‘Memento’, ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Inception’ owe a lot to his ideas.

When I wrote two of my first science fiction short stories, ‘Epiphany’ and ‘Garden of Illusion’ (one of which is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have developed psychic abilities through science or evolved psi powers; the other which is about a traumatised woman who is in virtual reality therapy) I hadn’t read much Philip K. Dick. After I had read half a dozen of his novels and many of his short stories, I realised that I owed a huge debt to his influence, which had pervaded into the creative consciousness and themes of other writers of fantasy and SF that I had read, and who had then influenced and inspired me.

I’ve not read all of his works but my personal favourites of what I have read are ‘Martian Time-Slip’, ‘Now Wait for Last Year’, ‘Our Friends from Frolix 8’ and most of all, ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’.

These books are quite difficult to describe and a plot summary only hints at their imaginative power. Briefly-

‘Martian Time-Slip’ is set on a Mars colony in the distant future. The three central characters are Jack Bohlen, a schizophrenic repairman; Arnie Kott, the governor who controls the planet’s limited water supply and Manfred Steiner: an autistic boy whose condition is a result of the fact his mind and consciousness can exist in a different phase of time to the present. He can see into the past and future, and possesses supernatural powers that disturb the consciousness and reality of those around him, particularly the unstable Jack Bohlen. The conflict occurs when Jack Bohlen’s father wishes to buy land on Mars that will be turned into condominiums by the UN and will sell at a high price; Kott also has an eye on the land and wishes to travel back in time to buy the land before Jack Bohlen’s father can. I won’t reveal any more, only to say that there are some very creepy passages in this book, particularly when Kott starts to see the past through Manfred’s eyes and the ending when an aged Manfred travels back in time physically to revisit his mother in the past.

‘Our Friends From Frolix 8’ is set on an Earth of the future, where humankind is divided into three groups: New Men, Old Men and Unusuals. Old Men are normal, average everyday humans. New Men are super-intelligent highly evolved humans with enhanced craniums, and they are the new rulers of mankind. Unusuals are humans with psychic abilities such as telepathy or telekinesis. Earth is ruled by Willis Gram, an Unusual who maintains the hegemony between the power of the New Men and the masses of Old Men. However, there is a revolution brewing led by the ideas of Eric Cordon and the figurehead of Thors Provoni, who has travelled out into deep space to look for help to save Old Mankind. Eventually he returns, with a dangerous and powerful alien lifeform for company…

‘Now Wait for Last Year’ is set during a war in a galactic future between the Starmen (inhabitants of a planet called Lilistar) and the Reegs. The central character is a man from Earth called Eric Sweetscent. He works for a man named Virgil Ackerman who introduces him to Gino Molinari, the elected leader of Earth who can apparently return from the dead. Meanwhile the Starmen locate Eric’s wife Kathy and addict her to JJ-180, a hallucinogenic drug which is both toxic and highly addictive. The Starmen know Eric is working for Molinari and believe Molinari has defected to the side of the Reegs. They want Kathy to spy on her husband, in return for providing her with more of the addictive drug.

‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’ reads like an insane rollercoaster ride. It’s set in a future where the entire Solar System has been explored and colonised by humans. For their own entertainment people take drugs to enter shared dream worlds created by the PP Layouts Company (if you thought some of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ ideas were original, or that there was frankly anything original about that film at all, it’s worth noting that Dick wrote this novel in 1965). Palmer Eldritch, returning from a journey into deep space, is rumoured to have discovered an alien hallucinogenic drug which he plans to market as ‘Chew-Z’ and which will put the PP Layouts out of business. Leo Bulero, head of PP Layouts, attempts to contact Eldritch but he is kidnapped and forced to take Chew-Z. He enters real or unreal realities which are seemingly controlled by himself and Eldritch. The three stigmata, by the way, are: artificial eyes, an artificial metal right hand and metal teeth.

‘Three Stigmata…’ is perhaps most representative of the key themes in Philip K.Dick’s work: mental disturbance and states of paranoia; altered consciousness and altered perceptions of reality (via the supernatural, advanced technology or by drugs); human nature and human desires; political control and leadership of society and particularly in his later work, religion and theology.

As for Philip K.Dick himself, he worked as a repairman and salesman in the 1950s before he became a professional writer. He suffered from anxiety and obsessive character traits throughout his life. In the 1960s when he produced his best, most structured and inventive work (in my opinion) he used amphetamines in order to be more prolific and productive. He claimed that when he was on speed, he could produce ’68 pages of copy a day’. I can manage between 20-25 pages on a good day (about 12,000 words) with the aid of coffee and Red Bull!

In 1970 he divorced his wife and became an addict. He opened his house up to hippies and street-people. In 1974 he had some kind of breakdown which influenced his later, more inaccessible and esoteric writing (it’s possible that he suffered amphetamine psychosis) Overall, his output was much reduced from his 1960s work. The novel ‘A Scanner Darkly’ was written in this later period, and he admitted that the novel (which describes an undercover police officer who infiltrates a drugs den to catch dealers but then himself becomes an addict to a highly dangerous fictional drug called Substance-D) was semi-autobiographical and that the characters were based on many of the people that he had come into contact with in the early 1970s.

The noted, great SF and Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has criticised Philip K Dick for his ‘cardboard cut-out characters’ and ‘hack writing’

Moorcock has a good point (particularly about Dick’s later work following his breakdown) but there are many intriguing and original ideas in Dick’s work despite his erratic style. (I was thinking about subtitling this section ‘Moorcock on Dick’ but then I noticed an alarming double entendre) I think Philip K Dick has great value as an imaginative writer and the fact that so many of his works have been adapted to film shows his enduring appeal and the fascination of his ideas in our modern age. I found that his stories get under your skin and leave you with a sense of unease, but his work can also be witty and amusing too. If you want to know more about Philip K Dick and his writing, there are some useful links here (including the Michael Moorcock review):

Shortlisted in Contact Publishing's Page Turner Prize competition

My novella 'Staccato House' was shortlisted for Contact Publishing's Page Turner Prize competition. I came 7th overall and won a book as a my prize.

I'm planning to rewrite and extend my novella entry 'Staccato House' into a novel.

The unknown artist

Unfortunately I do not know who the artist was who created the covers for my 'Copper Moon Rising' and 'Beyond Twilight' books.

I found these images online in 2006/2007, saved them and made a note of the artist's web page URL and contact details as I thought they were perfect as covers for my self-published books. Unfortunately, I lost the URL of the artist's website. When it was time to self-publish in 2010, I spent hours searching on Google images with the original JPEG titles, but I could not find the images or the artist. I had set my heart on using the images and so I did, but if you are that artist, or you know who the artist who made those two book covers is, then please contact me! I would have asked your permission had I been able to find out who you were. Apologies.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Q & A

Some time ago I posted that I was going to do a Q & A to respond to fan questions. Thank you to all the people who asked me questions about my writing. I received several by e-mail, on facebook and verbally. Here are my responses, I've endeavoured to answer them to the best of my ability.

Do you really think you could become a famous and successful writer?
It's incredibly difficult but we can all dream! You need about 5 % inspiration, 45 % hard work and 50% of a thick skin that can accept rejection and properly assess your own work in order to improve it. It's really important not to give up. A short story or a novel might receive 100 rejections and the 101st could be successful...a lot of people would give up before the 50th rejection. J.K Rowling was rejected several times by publishers before her manuscript for the first Harry Potter novel was finally accepted. The importance of networking and knowing the right people and right avenues to go down and who to approach is also important in any industry too.

Writing fiction is a hugely competitive field, and the publishing industry is saturated. You only need look on the self-publishing websites like Lulu, XLibris, Authonomy and Authorhouse to see the vast amount of self-published work out there that has been completed and whose authors are trying to get noticed.

I've only just started and I am still learning. Experimenting and practicing writing is all part of the process. I think it's very important to complete stories and novels and then be self-critical. Unless you're fortunate enough to be a literary genius, or work relentlessly at a first novel you believe in for ten or fifteen years or however long it takes to get it up to scratch, your first book will not be a masterpiece and it will be very difficult for it to be published.

In terms of choosing to do this, I think there are easier ways to become famous and make money. If that's the sole intention for someone trying to write a book, I'd advise that you do something else. It's a very lonely hobby/profession and it is extremely hard work, harder than you might initially think. However, I do it because I enjoy writing and constructing fiction, I enjoy telling stories. And I'll plod on with it, for better or worse.

Is Self-Publishing worthwhile? Is it really the way forward? After all- anyone can do it. It doesn't have the stamp of quality that published, properly marketed, packaged and edited work does. Self-published writers are considered 'hobbyists', rather than serious professional writers and self-published books are therefore erratic in terms of quality.
The principle benefit of self-publishing is that I can have complete control of the material I write and of the editing process. I can even switch genres if I desire to. I don't have to keep to a formulaic approach. Secondly, once I have finished work I can make it available to people and share what I have done. Feedback is always welcome. Being able to make my completed books available in this self-published format also keeps me encouraged. I know that there can be an end product when I finish something after investing a lot of time and energy in it, even if it would be rejected by traditional publishers. Seeing a printed book with my name on the spine at the end is a powerful incentive and a reward for time invested.

The publishing business is changing with advancing technology anyway, and the traditional model is not sustainable.

Do you write poetry?
No, I prefer writing prose. I'm more into storytelling and creating characters and conflicts that need to be resolved rather than experimenting with language in that medium.

Have you published any short stories in magazines yet?
Not yet, but I'm working on it! Submission requirements are quite stringent. Many magazines don't accept work that is over a certain word limit, or has been already published or self-published in some form, or made available online. I'm currently working on more stories. My story 'Staccato House' was shortlisted for the Page Turner Prize Novella competition and I won a prize for that. I've also received interesting feedback from publishers and magazine editors.

I really liked the Pirate Princess but the story seemed to end a bit abruptly. I was hoping that Ayesha would find her parents and who was the mysterious magician at the end? Will there be a sequel?
Time permitting, yes there will be. I will write a sequel eventually. I think it would be a much longer, epic novel and you will find out a lot more about Ayesha and her world. Initially I wasn't planning to write a sequel to that novel but I have a few interesting ideas for Captain Nightshade's next adventures that I plan to work on sometime in the distant future.

Why do you mainly write 'weird' stuff (horror, fantasy and science fiction)? Will you attempt to write stories in other genres?
I don't write with a specific potential audience in mind. I just write fiction to please myself in the first instance, in the genres I like and would read myself. I am writing a romantic historical novel at the moment though, which might surprise a few people. It's set in the period of the 1940s up to the late 1970s. I've had to do a lot of research to make it as authentic as possible.

You said you were going to write a vampire novel on your blog last year. What has happened with that?
I'm planning a trilogy of books about vampires, and I have the structure and plots for them. I'm planning to try and do something original with the vampire myth. I just need to find the time!

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm writing another collection of short stories. It may be some time before they become available though because once I'm happy with them these will be sent to magazines or entered in competitions. After the outcomes with those, I will self-publish them in a book and make them available online if they weren't published in a magazine. I made the mistake of doing it the other way round before but that was because I was eager to show what I had been working on for some time.

I'm also working on four novels, which are all at varying stages of completion. 'Staccato House' is a dark crime thriller set in the present day, and the first third of what will become that novel was the novella shortlisted for the Page Turner Prize. I'm also working on another crime/detective novel (also set in the present), a science fiction novel that I've been attempting to finish for years but is all mapped out, and I've also begun this romantic historical novel set from the 1940s-70s, which is a bit of a departure for me! Really though, it's more a dramatic character study than a romance as such, although a romantic relationship is at the heart of the story.

I'm hoping to complete these five projects (including the short stories) over the course of 2011/2012. Once they're complete, I'll try to get them published and do something with them to make them available: whether they're self-published or free to read online. I've also thought about making 'Staccato House' available in a serialised format here on my blog. I would post a chapter each week, or each month depending on the final length.

Those were all the questions I received this time, but I welcome all comments, replies, feedback, suggestions and criticism!

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Film noir, Marlowe and Chandler

I like detective fiction and I like reading Raymond Chandler. It's easy to admire his cynical hard-bitten private detective, Philip Marlowe. Sometimes I think Marlowe, the protagonist of Chandler's novels, speaks with Chandler's authentic voice and is a fictionalized version of Chandler's real-life personality too. The majority of detectives in modern fiction: in film, television and books, are influenced by the figures of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade in American 20th century fiction (along with Agatha Christie's 'Poirot' and Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes' of course) Chandler partly invented the noir/film noir genre and this cool, hard-nosed, cynical but somehow heroic private detective who is a staple of such fiction. He has also spawned a legion of imitators, not to mention parodies and caricatures of the genre. Chandler himself was heavily influenced by the work of Dashiel Hammett and Hammett's own detective creation, Sam Spade. Chandler however writes genuinely literary prose, and is a master of his craft.

 I also think Chandler creates femme fatales in noir fiction like no other writer. This is one of my favourite passages (it amuses me and I think it is brilliant writing) from Chandler's The Long Goodbye: it is where Philip Marlowe sees Eileen Wade for the first time in a bar and begins to reflect on the nature of blonde women and their various 'types', as he sees it:

I stared. She caught me staring. She lifted her glance half an inch and I wasn’t there any more. But wherever I was I was holding my breath.

There are blondes and there are blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blonde as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial.

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pale and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the Editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindeminth she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.

And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap d’Antibes, an Alfa Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.

The dream across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its colour.

Raymond Chandler  (from The Long Goodbye)