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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flagrant Podcastry

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


Five Questions and an Excerpt

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

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


Survival Game is released this Thursday

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

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


What is this new hardback novel that stands before me?

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

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

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


Scrivener for iPad and iPhone, or: Scrivener Über Alles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

In short, God, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We materialised in another hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

You can pre-order it here.


Shoreline of Infinity

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

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