I found a press release online for Phil's agent deal, which you can find here.
Nonetheless, the armed forces in any country has its own quota of mystics and cranks, as does any sufficiently large social group or organisation, and some of the whackier exploits of the US Army are a matter of public record, although I aver on the side of the skeptics in finding little to recommend in the supposed results of these experimental programs: much of it seems the result of wishful thinking and overactive imaginations, and I'm a big believer in the notion that remarkable claims require equally remarkable proof.
Perhaps, given that some of the scenes yet to be written in Things Unseen/Wonderland are far more influenced by the psychedelic journeys of Marvel Comics' Doctor Strange into the dream-realm of the Dread Dormannu, perhaps I was never likely to get a great deal out of supposedly 'true' accounts of remote viewing programs.
Other stuff: Phil Raines of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle - writing as Harvey Raines - has found himself a book agent in the form of John Jarrold, which is quite something considering Jarrold is a highly-regarded name in the UK science fiction publishing field (former editor of Earthlight, now freelance editor and, as mentioned, agent). Jarrold was also the 'reader' on Angel Stations: he published the first two books of another GSFWC'er, Mike Cobley, through Earthlight. He also recently signed William King to his agency - King is the author of a series of books for Games Workshop, based on some of their characters, as well as being a one-time, long-ago GSFWC'er. Harvey/Phil's book is called 'Moondog', and probably fits somewhere in that whole 'new weird' area of the genre.
A couple of days ago some of us were discussing this, aware that (H)al Duncan had also mentioned it on the Night Shade Books forum. Subsequent to (H)al mentioning this online, queries came in from a couple of publishers interested in seeing the manuscript. Which just goes to show.
'Things Unseen' (or Wonderland, as I've been thinking of calling it instead) is halted just for the moment at fifteen thousand words, while I try and work out some of the intricacies of the plot. Basically, I need certain people to do certain things. For this, they need motivation. In order to have the necessary motivation, they need a certain kind of history/life experience that leads them to behave in the ways they do. That will also define the kind of personality they have. Which means, rethinking the kind of characters I've been imagining in my head until now.
For some people this isn't a big deal, but it comes down to my wanting to avoid having unnecessarily heroic characters. I've always been very heavily influenced by something Philip K. Dick said (I'm vaguely recalling here) that he'd rather write about ordinary people with relatively mundane aspirations than the kind of gun-toting violence monkeys that up until that point (late Sixties/early Seventies) had been, if not typical of, then certainly prevalent in a certain type of sf up until that point. When I wrote Angel Stations, I tried as much as possible to write about people who did the things they did because they literally had no choice. Elias bucked that trend slightly - he was more of your gun-toting hero type - but I made damn sure he didn't get off on it (far from it, as a matter of fact).
This part of the writing process is beginning to seem quite familiar to me - you get up to a certain point, you stop for a bit, figure out some of the details to get you through the second quarter or so of the manuscript, and hopefully including some of those cool/potentially interesting settings or events that were floating through your mind when the manuscript was only an idea rather than actual words. It's a little frustrating in the sense that the solution to all this - lots and lots of thinking - feels somehow less than proactive: after all, you're just sitting around, waiting. But I've been here before, and will be here again.
I've now seen yet another design for the book (all mild variations on each other, I should point out, rather than anything radically different) which fits the bill exactly. It seems to make the marketing people happy, and it certainly makes me happy. It's like the cover I'd already seen and approved, but better (basically, a different bloke in the foreground, but similar pose). So, sorted, really. Now I can get on with some other stuff, like ... I don't know ... writing, or something.
I know this is hard without actually being able to see the damn things, but bear with me. I can't really post them up willy-nilly, unfortunately, since the designs are somebody else's property.
Basically, both designs feature a naked male figure, half-glimpsed through a forest of superimposed details, all to great effect (look at any of Steve Rawlings' other covers for Neal Asher or Sherri Tepper and you'll see what I mean): however, the newer design's figure looks, frankly, like he just walked out of a Jean-Paul Gaultier advert. But again, the background's got this really nice, kind of gritty effect I like, so maybe ...
Ech - I should probably hurry up and make my mind up.
It's a spoken word event, which means readings. I won't be doing one myself since it's a themed night (Fantastic Scotland, something like that), and I don't have anything that fits that particular bill. Someone suggested I do an excerpt from Against Gravity, which does feature scenes set in Edinburgh, but there's nothing in that respect that would work particularly well taken out of context. To be more precise, it wouldn't make sense. I do know however, that Hal Duncan whose first book Vellum is coming out in 2005 from Tor UK, will be reading from that book, since some of that is set in Glasgow, and presumably is excerpt-worthy.
I've been to just one of the Writer's Bloc events before, in Edinburgh earlier this year, and it was a lot of fun. We're hoping to make it quite a busy night, and if it goes well enough maybe we can make it a regular, perhaps at least annual event. See you there if you can make it.
Other developments: apparently someone concerned with marketing at Tor UK is concerned that the current cover design for Against Gravity - which I think is superb - 'looks too gay', in their opinion. The artist concerned already apparently had alternate designs, one of which said Tor UK person feels looks 'less gay'. In fact, the newer, 'alternative' design in my opinion actually looks really quite gay compared to the previous, but that's just my opinion. As cover art they're both really very striking, but I'm leaning towards the first (the one I keep promising to post up here sometime soon), rather than the newer. I've been canvassing opinions over the writer's circle's private message board, and at the moment the split is about 50/50, including the comments of the woman who rents a room in my house, and the bloke who runs the printing press at the place where I do my part-time daywork. Both of these latter feel the newer design does, indeed, look extremely gay, and also prefer the previous.
What I'm most likely to do at the moment is opt for the previous design, but suggest changes that might incorporate elements of both. Decisions, decisions.
And ... Things Unseen is sitting at about twelve thousand words, and I'm still figuring out the characters, and exactly what the story is going to be. Like I've said, I'm one of those writers who can't figure out the plot of the book until he's started writing it. Then it comes to me in dribs and drabs. However, plot developments are leaning me towards the idea that 'Wonderland' might be a good title to consider as a possible alternative to 'Things Unseen'. In the context of the way the story is going, it could work quite well.
For research, I've been reading a history of the CIA, and flicking through a book on the Guggenheim Museum that Hal Duncan loaned me after his return from a recent trip to the Big Apple (since art, particularly abstract art, and the occult influences on many of the proponents thereof, feature strongly in the story). Also doing a fair bit of research on Reinhard Gehlen - one-time spymaster extraordinaire of West Germany, and ex-Wehrmacht General, on whom I'm basing a central character.
Curiously enough, some ideas came from flicking through The Big Book of Conspiracies (part of a series which includes titles like The Big Book of Weirdos, illustrated, highly suspect, but nonetheless very entertaining comic-strip guides to unusual areas of modern culture); not necessarily the most dependable source in terms of rigorous research, but still far enough on the weirder side of Robert Anton Wilson to keep me lurching towards that kind of offbeat, pop-culture driven narrative I'm hoping Things Unseen might become.
At the same time, I saw the new, heavily revised cover artwork for my second book, Against Gravity, and let me just say it just knocked my socks off. It is seriously, utterly stunning, and when I get a chance I'll be putting it up here sometime real soon.
It's still early days, but for the hell of it, here's a couple of lines from Things Unseen:
'Silverman cleared his throat again. “Sit down, will you? You're making me nervous.”
Guy shook his head and raised his hands in a placatory gesture. “Sorry. You just caught me a little off guard, is all.”
“Well, it's been a while, that's true.”
“You want anything to drink? There's coffee.”
Silverman grimaced and shook his head. “Whisky?”
Guy shrugged gamely. “Little early for me, but -”
“Early for you, still last night for some of us.” Guy slid open a desk drawer, and drew out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He gestured at a couple of glasses standing on a shelf by Silverman's shoulder. Guy stepped around the desk and poured the other man a shot.
Silverman tasted the whisky and winced, coughed again. “Damn, that's good.” He knocked the rest of it back.
“That's a bad cough you've got there,” Guy observed.
Silverman nodded. “Lung cancer.”
Guy opened his mouth, but no words would come, so he closed it again. An awkward silence passed. After a moment Silverman reached inside his pocket and drew out a silver hip flask. He twisted the top off, then held it up in a kind of salute.
“Morphine chaser. Cheers.” He took a couple of swallows, made a face and twisted the cap back on, replacing it inside the voluminous folds of his coat.
“I'm sorry, I had no -”
Silverman waved a hand between them. “Please. Spare me the fucking sentimentalities. Something happened last night. Someone got killed.”'
Oh yeah - and I had a terrific review in Interzone. Did I mention I have a terrific review in Interzone?
Well, I knew that. People used to say to me when I mentioned the book that they couldn't wait for the movie to come out: I would reply neither could I, once some Hollywood studio found the 300 million dollar budget it would take to film Angel Stations. The reader concludes: "Hopefully saleable before he's been dead 10 years."
What's strange about reading this - there's a fair bit more of it, but I won't bore you with the details - is the realisation that Angel Stations has a kind of life of its own, a separate entity now from the interior of my head, floating through newspaper offices, homes, studio script departments, wherever. I keep picturing the book sitting in a chair in some enormous office while some guy with a cigar tries to persuade it that it could have a better career if it just cut me loose.
Rotten book, stealing my career - doh!
I've figured out what I'm going to get myself for Christmas (and possibly one or two other people, too) - journalist Jon Ronson has a new book coming out called "The Men Who Stare At Goats". Casting about for words to describe Ronson's particular shtick, I'd say he writes books reflecting 'extreme' politics and worldviews, such as 'Them - Adventures with Extremists', which was also a tv series here in the UK. That book took a look at many of the more bizarre mindsets of the more militant libertarian/isolationists in the United States today - the same kind of mindset that created Timothy McVeigh. It's a journey into the wilder side of the human psyche and the depths of absolute paranoia, and makes for uncomfortable but remarkably entertaining reading.
Jonson has an excerpt from '...Goats' online at The Guardian Online, which frankly has to be read to be believed. It reads like something out of a Lucius Shephard novel. I read the full article on Saturday morning with equal parts inspiration, amazement and depression (unfortunately, the online piece itself is only an excerpt from what appeared in the newspaper). Inspiration, because it's close to the subject matter of the book I next want to write. Amazement, because of the view it gives of parts of the modern US Army as being almost (if not genuinely) occult in some of its practices. Depression, because although it's not fiction, I still feel somehow like Ronson beat me to it. It did give me pause for a moment to consider whether or not, judging by the events described in the aforementioned article, I could set 'Things Unseen' in the present, but there are plot elements in there that may well keep it in its current setting in the Seventies.
Here's a tiny sliver of the excerpt, a chat with an unidentified soldier who worked at Abu Ghraib:
"We sat on the balcony of the restaurant and he pushed his food around his plate. "You ever see The Shining?" he said."Yes," I said.
"Abu Ghraib was like the Overlook Hotel," he said. "It was haunted."
I assumed Joseph meant the place was full of spooks: intelligence officers - but the look on his face made me realise he didn't.
"It was haunted," he said. "It got so dark at night. So dark. Under Saddam, people were dissolved in acid there. Women raped by dogs. Brains splattered all over the walls. This was worse than the Overlook Hotel because it was real.
"It was like the building wanted to be back in business," he said."
Yeech. Completely unreal. There's the roots of a genuinely politically conscious horror novel right there. And as for the title of the book, 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', that refers to Psych Ops attempts at causing the hearts of goats to cease beating by staring at them really, really hard. Really hard.
I'm fifty pages from finishing my second run-over the edits on Against Gravity, and still making a few last-minute changes here and there. The interview on Agony Column seems to have been pretty well received, which is good, and what's slightly weird about it (although I'm happy to get used to it) is seeing my name on the Locus Magazine website's front page. Slightly weird, because it's my default homepage, so everytime I start up netscape, that's just about the first thing I see. Until next week, anyway, when it gets replaced by something else.
I finally have a working title for the other book I wanted to write (apart from Things Unseen), a space-set book involving colonisation and sub-ftl technology: Slow Burn. Which I rather like. A quick browse through Amazon reveals, to my mild astonishment, that this title most often appears in assocation with romance novels. No sf books with that title I can find, which does surprise me: it seems like a perfect hard-sf title to me, anyway.
"Slashdot reader: In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?
Neal Stephenson: The first time was a year or two after SNOW CRASH came out. I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle. "
You can read the rest of this at http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/10/20/1518217
Cold or not, I dragged myself out this weekend to see Iain Banks read from and speak about his new book The Algebraist at Glasgow's Waterstone's earlier this evening. At one point he mentioned having written a vast, sprawling action scene, which his editor subsequently reduced to something like 'he tied himself to the railing' and I thought, nice, so it's not just my editor that does stuff like that, then.
I've become marginally obsessed with Amazon Sales Ranking. This is the number you see that tells you your sales figures within the website (which, by the way, many people don't realise isn't specific to books: that number also represents everything from ipods to cd's).
This is useful, but at times confusing, partly because it's a trade secret: Amazon aren't telling how it works. But I've done a little internet research, and it's possible to make some reasonable guesses according to those who have an interest in these things. What it comes down to is: if you're in top ten thousand, your sales are recalculated every hour. Between ten thousand and a hundred thousand, your sales are calculated by the day. Between a hundred thousand and, say, two million, it gets calculated somewhere between once a week and never.
Also, sometimes your sales will spike suddenly, and can drop and fall according to predictable fluctuations in sales. For instance, it's the new academic year in the UK, and as a result sales figures are artificially pushed down as the number of textbooks sold over Amazon goes up. In other words, a (non-textbook) book might look like it's selling less well, but this isn't actually the case. I've seen Angel Stations bounce ridiculously high at some points, before falling back to a decent but sustainable average.
I heard a story recently that someone, somewhere, supposedly figured out that Amazon sales are measured according to books ordered, not necessarily books sold: this means even if you order a book and then decide not to buy it, it still gets counted. Supposedly (and I suspect this is highly apocryphal, but you never know) some writer out there got all his (or her) mates to order dozens of copies of their book, and then cancel the orders. As a result, the book bounced up into the top ten for a weekend - which pretty much guarantees your being featured on the Amazon front page (as was recently the case with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).
Supposedly. Of course, there's only one way to tell, and that's ... no, no, forget I said anything, all right? Let's just, I don't know, move on swiftly ...
... to a funny experience I had in Borders the other night, wandering around the music department in the late evening, while MJ browsed through the anthropology books looking for stuff she needs for her studies. I heard this terrific record, and couldn't figure out who it was. I thought maybe one of those bands who're in the middle period of their career, they're all thirty or forty something, not too concerned with commercial considerations, like a smaller version of REM or The Eels, or someone like that. The kind of band who aren't afraid to innovate.
So of course I had to ask the girl at the counter who it was, and blow me away if it wasn't ... now, prepare yourself for this, I'm not kidding, it really was pretty decent sounding - it was William Shatner.
Now, I'd heard rumours Shatner had actually recorded a good album, but how do you take a statement like that? With more than a pinch of salt. It's simply not the kind of statement you can take seriously, right? But the point is, when I heard it, I had no idea who it was, and so couldn't apply any preformed opinions to someone who is, rightfully, acknowledged as the creator of some of the most truly dire music of all history. But somehow things have turned round, and the monkey's gone and written Hamlet after all. Of course, it helps once you know that the album was produced, arranged and co-written by Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five; and all the pieces suddenly fall into place.
I'm going to say it again. I only heard three tracks before I could find a reason to decide it was bad, but instead it's good. Really.
I'm a touch obsessive about tracking down any and all reviews of my writing, so I've already visited the Mitchell Library, an enormous building occupying an entire block, near the centre of town (one of the biggest libraries in Europe). They have stuff on microfiche going back decades. I didn't need to go back that far, however. I went through the Sunday Times book reviews for the past six weeks, but no sign. I don't know if book reviews are published by The Times during the week, but obviously it's a bit more of a slog to go through all those over the period of an entire month.
And before you say 'online archive', yes, I've tried that already with no results. I emailed The Times' archive dept, and it turns out that for 'copyright reasons' not all their reviews are available on the net, even, apparently, to subscribers. So here's a small request: if anyone out there happens to recall seeing a review of the book in either the Times or The Sunday Times, let me know.
Otherwise, the past week has been spent on line-revisions to Against Gravity, which means the book should be completely done and dusted in the next week or two. I've also seen some roughs for the cover, which is still at the early stages, and could still change (there are some things I'm not too sure about, so I could be about to discover how much influence - or lack of influence - an author has in these matters). Publication is set for July at the moment, and I'm at least assuming the mass-market paperback of Angel Stations will come out at the same time. Myself, Hal Duncan, and Miller Lau will all have books coming out over a three-month period, timed to coincide with the Worldcon next year, which is rather neat. In the meantime, I have about four thousand words of 'Things Unseen', which seems not too bad. Tidy it up a bit more, put together some notes and outlines, send it off to the agent, and see what she makes of it.
I just got word the line edits on Against Gravity are on their way to me - the first chunk, anyway. Which means knuckle-down time, and probably some changes major and minor. AG was a very hard book for me to write, simply because I wrote it knowing I had a book deal. That put a ton of pressure on me, knowing I had to come up with something worth a substantial amount of money: I knew I had to deliver.
Second novels (and second albums, second art shows, second plays, etc) are notoriously difficult creatures. When you write a book without a deal, you write under less pressure, for obvious reasons. Writing under the UK system (in the US, I believe, people sell a book at a time, with little in the way way of multiple book deals, except for the trilogies/connected series) where you sign a single contract to write maybe two or three books for the same publisher, followed by a decision whether or not to ink a new contract depending on your sales figures, is a system designed to kill off whole slews of brain cells at short order.
I was intrigued to discover that David Mitchell, author of Cloud 9 and Ghostwritten, specifically avoids this problem by always writing each book without a contract, and only then approaching publishers with his manuscript. Curiously enough, the book I've just started doesn't feel quite so pressured. Partly because I won't allow myself to get that way again, and partly (I suspect) because it's being written subsequent to the specifically two-book contract I have with Pan/Tor UK. Partly maybe, also, because I've had generally speaking some excellent reviews, and these make me feel a little more confident.
But the news that really knocks me out is that I can expect the cover design for AG sometime in the next several days. This, I'm looking forward to, although there's a little trepidation in there, simply because it matters to you as an author exactly how you're going to find yourself represented by the artist assigned to your book. I'm lucky, however, in that the artist concerned is Steve Rawlings, whose work I rate very highly indeed. His stuff appears at once highly detailed and impressionistic, and the end result is what appears to the eye as several layers of imagery, some half-visible in a way that suggests more rather than less.
We'll just have to wait and see.
'Things Unseen' is currently standing at about five thousand words, an opening chapter that's almost completed. After that I'll probably go over it a dozen times or so, working it over, and adding detail where I can. Then I might show it to some people, see what they think, although it's hard to get an idea of where a writer is going from only one chapter. I don't as yet have a fully detailed outline, more a rough sketch of where I see the story going. I'd hoped I might be able to have a fully worked outline by now, but I've come to realise I'm one of those writers who just can't work that way. I have to, literally, make it all up as I go along, and so far it works. Titles: I was playing with some other ideas for titles. 'The Sight of Things Unseen', which is where the previous version is taken from, appeals, but sounds a bit too Lovecraftian for what I'm doing (although that might not be a bad thing either). I thought of Sacred Geometries, until I discovered it's a term with a more specific application to a certain type of occult study. Oh well.
I've been working on the new outlines. Once I've got something more cohesive ('coherent' might be a better word), I'll be firing stuff of to my agent. One of these has a working title, 'Things Unseen', which I don't really like, so expect that to change. As I may have mentioned somewhere else, this is a break from the past couple of books. 'Things ...' is set in Seventies New York, and involves: modern art, murder, Nazis, mandalas, remote viewing, and covert CIA projects.
The other outline is for a new space opera. That'll probably come second, mainly because it's going to be longer and even more heavily researched than 'Things ...' by dint of sheer necessity. Though when I say 'space opera', maybe 'hard sf epic' might be a better description. No title for it yet (a much earlier, far different outline was called 'Stealing Light', which I still really like as a title, but it just doesn't fit the new outline, so back to the drawing board where that's concerned).
I did manage to write a couple of words for 'Things ...', testing the water, as you do. Well, about 1k or so. Feels all right. Interruptions from revision for Against Gravity aside, it feels like I've started another book.
What happened next: she arranged to give me a call about a photo shoot for the three of us, at the Science Centre across the river from the SECC. I heard nothing from her, and assumed the interview had been permanently spiked. Monday morning I get a call from a photographer, who says he's been waiting at the Centre for half an hour, myself having received absolutely no word of this from Hamilton. So various phone calls were made, and the shoot was rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon, which turned out to be one of the extremely rare sunny days of the year.
I've mentioned before that the south side of the Clyde is changing rapidly. Not only are the BBC building a brand-new state of the art facility a short walk from my house, so are several other media companies, as a result of which certain nearby areas - such as Govan, practically a ghost town in parts, over the past couple of decades - are seen as prime real-estate-in-waiting, something I'm hoping and at least partly expecting will have a knock-on positive effect on the value of my place. The Science Centre, next to the BBC's building site, looks like it should, like an artefact of the new century. So naturally they chose it as a backdrop to the shoot, which was enjoyable, but exhausting in the blazing sun.
I haven't seen the piece in the papers yet, which leads me to suspect it might have been temporarily spiked for future reference, or perhaps it'll be in the paper sometime this week. Or perhaps not until Worldcon next year: I'll just have to wait and see.
Thursday, I did a reading and question-and-answer for a good-sized crowd at Ottakar's, a small chain bookstore located in a large and busy shopping centre almost dead smack in the centre of town. This was marginally nerve-wracking, as you might expect, but all my fears were allayed and it went very well indeed. Most of the audience, big surprise, were people I knew, but there were a good few pleasantly unfamiliar faces there as well. It was nice getting to sit there, with a big, attractive-looking pile of the books next to me on the table.
Afterwards I signed a shedload of copies, and although I didn't count, it felt like a good number were purchased as a result of the reading. Some of the Edinburgh writers were also present, particularly Andrew Wilson who writes for The Scotsman. Phil did me an intro, I read a couple of passages from the book, answered some questions, and then a crowd of us continued the night at the Counting House, which is a large city-centre bar just off George Square.
I also got an excellent review of the book in The List, which is the Scottish equivalent of London's Time Out, a combination of events, theatre and cinema listings, along with arts, music, film and drama reviews and interviews - whatever your local equivalent happens to be. I'd specifically asked the publicist at Pan Macmillan/Tor UK to send a review copy to them, since I knew it had a better chance of being reviewed there, and a better chance of being picked up on by potential readers. You'll note this review is now quoted up on the right hand bar.
At some point I'm going to have to hit one or two of the other local bookshops and sign some of their copies for sale. I already signed some spare copies for Ottakars, so that's at least one out of the way.
I found it on the shelves in Glasgow’s Waterstones, although it wasn’t on the ‘new books’ display shelves. There were several, however, faced out on the regular shelves. I did what every writer does in these circumstances; I picked up a couple of copies, and carefully placed them, face out, on the ‘new books’ shelves. You could say I had a sense of quiet satisfaction, seeing it there on the shelves.
More good reviews, particularly one in ‘Dreamwatch’ magazine: "a strong debut novel that promises well for the future and a serious contender for the shelf space currently occupied by Greg Egan and Richard Morgan". This will, of course, be up on the right-hand bar of the blog within the next few days, if not the next few hours. There’s also a mini (very mini) interview with me next to the review, along with a, frankly, slightly rough-looking picture of me. Well, it looks rough to me. And reminds me I’ve been meaning for ages to get a better digital shot, maybe in the garden, for the Pan Macmillan publicity people to use. They did ask for one before, but I didn’t have a digital camera at the time. I do now (or rather, MJ does).
Hal Duncan has already spoken about it at length on his own blog, but he, myself and another Glasgow-based author Mike Cobley met a journalist from the Evening Times the other afternoon. MJ put together a press release for me a couple of weeks ago and sent it out to a good few of the local rags, and on this occasion it looks like she hit paydirt. The journalist was as interested in hearing about the writer’s circle, so it seemed like a good idea to get a couple of other writers along to get involved. One writer having a book out is one thing, but demonstrating that there’s a remarkable contribution to the genre as a whole originating from north of the border, particularly if you include Edinburgh - that’s a whole other level.
The feeling I got from the journalist was that she didn’t really know what to expect (her slightly bewildered words to me on the phone: "what … kind of people are you exactly?". Part of me suspects she anticipated a couple of deeply socially challenged anoraks with a complete set of Battlestar Galactica dvd’s, and this feeling arises from what struck me as some confusion/surprise on her part that we were interested in talking about literature, not even necessarily restricted to science fiction.
The good thing about having Hal along on these things is he knows his classical mythology, and is well-informed on the role that stories of the fantastic have played in dozens of cultures over the span of recorded human history. So, we talked about writing, and books, and some fairly complex subjects, all really far too deep and involved for the newspaper she was writing for - the Evening Times. I’d say about 99% of what we said would never make it into the pages of what is, after all, a Scottish tabloid, but I was hoping we got across that we were serious about our craft, both in terms of execution and of our attitude towards it. If that impression comes across in any subsequent news piece, then we’ll have done okay.
If the article does go ahead, we can expect to do some kind of photo-shoot involving the three of us some time early next week, following which I suspect the piece would appear in the following weekend’s edition. But, like Hal says, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll still call us ‘sci fi’ writers.
If you're living in the US, then as far as I know (if you know different, tell me) the trade paperback will set you back about twenty dollars, including postage, ordered over Amazon UK. I suspect the book will wind up in US specialist bookshops, and possibly also US-specific online specialist retailers as well, but I don't really know how that side of it works. If you do know where it might be readily available outside of the UK, let me know, and I could always post the information up here.
Just to clear up a point - apparently the reason he writes as 'Hal' rather than Al, is because there's already a well-known Scottish writer called Al Duncan (though I'll have to admit I've never heard of him, and I can't be arsed googling him).
In the meantime, I've also been given a nice (very nice) review at trashotron: "'Angel Stations' is dense and involving, puzzling and perplexing. It's unabashed science fiction, with an almost "Golden Age" feel to it, but a very modern density, the culture-shock that makes science fiction so enjoyable. It does require a soupcon of patience, but that patience is rewarded with surprise after surprise, amongst them, surprising sympathy for and understanding of a large cast of characters, not all of them human. Yes, Gibson does ignore advice from the original stone tablets handed down by the publishing deities. Readers will feel themselves fortunate to reap the rewards of Gibson's acts of literary heresy."
Curiously enough, I was browsing the web the other day, and googled Shipbuilding, the anthology I was involved in putting together that was distributed as a freebie at the '95 Worldcon in Glasgow. It's a proper book, meaning a web-printed paperback with full colour art cover and spine. I found it listed on Abebooks, the second-hand online bookshop, for twenty dollars. That's quite an appreciation.
But, I might as well play follow-the-leader since everyone else seems to do it without compunction, whether famous or not-so-famous. If there's one advantage to it, it means you get those 'signed by the author' stickers on the front in the bigger shops, which means you might get an extra picosecond of attention paid to your book by casual browsers. This is a good thing, since book covers are generally designed to catch your eye, in the context of a bookshop where there are literally thousands of the things all trying just as hard to achieve the same effect. Half a second is all it takes to grab your attention just for that extra tiny instant it takes to make you walk over, pick the thing up, and at the very least contemplate buying it.
Later, we wandered around the Book Festival for a bit. They do charge a hell of a lot of money for their author's appearances/talks. There wasn't anyone or anything on this year that struck me as something I really wanted to check out, or if there was, I couldn't find a way to justify the cost of travelling to Edinburgh as well as buying the ticket. Cheap dinner in a basement bar, then home.
Nice, as they say in Jazz Club.
"Addressing what the Sept. 11 commission said was one of the main failures of government -- imagination -- a senior CIA official said Wednesday the spy agency was willing to "push beyond the traditional boundaries of intelligence."
The article goes on to say that "It was an attempt to see beyond the intelligence report, and into a world of plot development," she (Jami Miscik, CIA's deputy director for intelligence) told a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations about analysis and the need for imagination and creativity. The CIA also ran a round-table discussion with 10 science-fiction authors so intelligence analysts could see how the writers spun possible scenarios. (italics mine).
I suspect this article is going to be all over the genre message boards over the next few days, but if not, what I want to know is: how much do they pay, and do they have my phone number?
On a side note, I tripped over the above while browsing the Fortean Times site doing a little research. I've gone off the thing I was working on - The Fracture - and started thinking of other ideas. One is another space opera, maybe a bit lighter than some of the other stuff I've done. Besides, Tor UK took me on to fill out the sf part of their list, which is otherwise stacked with fantasy and 'new weird' authors, o I feel a little obliged in that area. But for a long time I've been playing around with the idea of a cold war thriller, involving remote viewing. If anyone happens to know of any, I'd be very happy to hear about them. I'm reading Declare by Tim Powers at the moment, but what I'm thinking of is (hopefully) a lot different to that.
More details later.
I got talking to the events manager at Ottakar's Books here in Glasgow today. He said, 'you look familiar'.
I said, 'yeah, I was here for that thing a couple of weeks ago - Grant Morrison, Mike Cobley, Miller Lau and Richard Morgan.'
He shakes his head. 'No ... weren't you at Caledonian University?'
I said, 'yeah ...?'
So it turns out, right, that back when I was just about ready to admit defeat and give up my postgrad computing course, that I did a couple of reviews for the university newspaper (and if there's a clearer sign my interests lay in something other than programming, what?). I did a review of Jewel, an American singer/songwriter who played at the Mitchell. Turns out the events guy had been the music editor. I have no memory for faces or names, but clearly he doesn't have that problem.
Apparently I have a review in Vector, one of the BSFA publications. Craig is going to bring it to the next writer's group for me. Apparently it's pretty decent.
I'm feeling poor (ish) at the moment. The roof of the tenement block I live in is in bad disrepair, something which will probably cost myself and my neighbours a fair whack of money. The previous owners of my flat didn't mention the problem when I bought it from them, and as it turns out, nobody's insurance will cover the cost of repair, since it falls under 'expected wear and tear'. The company who factor the building screwed up with their initial estimate for repairs, so it looks like it'll be more than originally anticipated. At the moment, it's going to cost me half a grand (that's my one-eighth share with my neighbours to fix, but once the re-estimate is carried out, I can easily expect it to jump by maybe a couple hundred.
All this wouldn't be a major worry if I had a full-time job, but that's something I'd rather avoid since I want to concentrate more on the writing - so that the writing's at the core of what I do, with the occasional daytime paid work supplementing the income I currently get from the writing. I know there are people out there who hold down full-time jobs and have no problem writing when they come home, but for me, it feels like it reduces the writing to little more than a potentially lucrative evening hobby - something that's fun to do, but not really serious.
Apart from the writing and the daytime graphic design/quark layout stuff, I also supplement my income by renting out a room in my flat, which bumps my income up by a couple of tons per month. So maybe it's not so bad. But the roof repairs mean that I've had to put to one side my intention to buy a decent, new laptop (preferably Apple which, although more expensive, would allow me to maybe go out there a bit more and do more freelance work) until, maybe, next year. Until then, I'm sticking with the Compaq 166mhz laptop, knackered screen and all. It works - usually - but it's getting decrepit.
I saw Fahrenheit 911 last night, and it pretty much knocked my socks off. It's a long movie, though, and there were times when I caught my attention drifting from the continual onslaught of details, since the whole farrago makes for a fairly complicated web of deceit. It's a documentary which, I suspect, bears repeated viewings to get the full gist.
The thing people have mostly commented on about this movie is its sensationalist slant. This is true, but - perhaps simpy because I agree with the great majority of what Moore says - I don't mind. Unlike some, I found it quite refreshing to see someonefrom the liberal left using techniques far more frequently associated with the strident rightwing press. I still recall with some distaste a poster campaign run by the Tories some years ago, titled something like 'Labour Defense Policy': it was a picture of a British soldier with his hands in the air. Low, very low. But effective, in its way.
People from the political left are generally seen as preferring carefully reasoned discourse over emotionally driven histrionics and easy sound/image combinations, but given that in the US the media is apparently so heavily slanted towards the right (the movie features Fox News journalists saying things like 'Am I biased? Hell, yes!" and "I'd just like to say that Navy Seals rock" during an interview, if I recall, with someone on active service in Iraq), it makes sense to use exactly the same techniques against those who've used them to such clear effect for decades.
They also sent this link, www.amazon.co.uk/add-content-books, which you can use to actually enter the book's details yourself (as opposed to just dumping it online via the 'reviews' option). Useful, particularly if you're, say, a small publisher. There are, as you'd expect, plenty of warnings about precisely where your information is going to go if they have any reason you're a)not really the author, or b)not the publisher.
So I'll give it a couple of days, and see if anything appears. If you end up duplicating the information - ie you manually post something and then their database repeats that information, which can apparently happen - they'll sort it on request. Nice.
This worried me enough that I even sent an email to Amazon asking about it. It's important to me, because anybody coming to my book via one of those 'people who bought this book also bought ..." type messages you get on Amazon isn't going to have a clue about whether or not they do want to buy my book, because they've got no idea what it's about!
On the other hand, I checked out an anthology by another Glasgow science fiction writer, Mike Cobley, Iron Mosaic, and he simply typed up the sleeve details and posted them up via the 'reviews' section, which is as good as anything. At least, then, you know what you're looking at, beyond a cover and a title.
I'm still working away on the edits, but at least I'm close to the end. I ended up re-line-editing the whole thing myself, because I felt it was necessary. Stuff that makes sense to you during one draft doesn't necessarily make as much sense during subsequent drafts. But it's feeling tighter, sharper. As usual, I've made my own changes and adjustments above and beyond the editorial suggestions.
Thursday evening, I was in Glasgow Ottakar's bookshop watching a question and answer session featuring four well-known Scottish genre authors: Richard Morgan, Miller Lau, Mike Cobley (again), and Grant Morrison, who's been a well-known writer for both DC and Marvel for a number of years. It went well, but at one point during proceedings I started wondering if what we all really need is some central repository called 'really interesting and incisive general questions we can draw on when we want to ask a writer about his work'.
Obviously, they'd have to be fairly general, but the fact is, despite being a novelist myself I still find myself pretty stuck when it comes even to asking questions of other writers during these events. I sat there, and all I had in my head was, 'urrr ... where do your ideas come from?' Not that I said it out loud, I hasten to add. But it's always the same at these things: it can be a struggle to come up with something which might actually be illuminating by way of a question.
Anyway, we all headed for the Counting House next to George Square, and Grant surprised me by remembering me - I used to be fairly heavily involved in the small-press comics scene in Glasgow in the early '90's, particularly a publication called Frankly, which I worked on with Simon Mackie, an artist currently living near London. I'd only spoken to Grant maybe once, something like thirteen years ago, so I was surprised that he did remember me.
I got another pretty decent review, this time in SFX magazine, which was nice. I'm keeping my eye out for others.
Mainly, I need to tighten the middle section of the novel, since there's a little too much to-ing and fro-ing. This means trimming a particular character (not the hero)back a good bit. He appears at several points through the middle of the text, so it's going to take a little ingenuity to work the story around him if he exits the story earlier than I'd originally intended.
Editors are good for this kind of thing since it can be exceptionally hard to get a complete grasp on a book you're writing. It's like not being able to see the forest for the trees. When you're working on any one particular section of the manuscript, you can see that bit clearly. It can be easy to repeat yourself, at different points, and that's one of the main things you (or at least I) can catch myself doing.
Once this is done, and once Tor are happy with the changes, the next thing will be the line edits.
The Glasgow West End Festival featured a live Saturday night performance a couple of weekends ago in the Botanic Gardens by Belle & Sebastian. I was in the area during the afternoon and saw the same thing I always seem to see performing at these things - a group of forty or so women bashing away at enormous drums with more enthusiasm than skill. I could go to Alaska, and I'd probably find them performing on an iceberg. Wherever I go, there they are. But I didn't stick around for B&S, having already enjoyed the experience at the Barrowlands a few years before during my days as a reviewer and designer for a music magazine and not being particularly blown away by what I regard as rather over-mannered fey whimsicality.
ALl of which brings me round to meeting Tam later that evening in a bar I have been known to frequent with other writers. He'd been in the park watching the band, and happened to drop in with some friends of his without realising I would be there. I mentioned I lived near him. He said something like 'Ayethasgoodnlldroproonsumtimnseewhatyruptonall' and I said, great.
So he dropped round this afternoon to ask me to give him a hand working a couple of Ikea wardrobes out of his van and into his flat. His flat is legendary, and I'd never seen it before. The front door is hidden behind a vast metal security grille that wouldn't look out of place in Escape from New York. Inside, is a dentist's chair next to the phone, all buried under tons of musty junk. Three thousand moldering copies of 2000AD are piled up on a ledge above the entrance.
In the living room is a Suzuki motorbike, a guitar, a settee dating from the early 80's, and the skull of a Water Buffalo. I learned today that Water Buffalo have very big heads. I was slightly disappointed, since Tam is in the process of doing the place up in order to rent it: I'd heard skulls of various types used to be everywhere in his home, mounted on small custom shelves around the hallway. Still, as skulls go, it was pretty impressive.
I got my first review. It was in a small publication called 'Outland', which is produced by Ottakars bookshops for their branches. In this respect its a slightly loaded review in that they're hardly going to sabotage their chances of selling the book if their reviewer happens to hate it, but at the same time it read like an honest review in that the review - similar to all the other reviews - came across as fair and balanced, rather than false and gushing in order to boost sales. Still. I liked what they wrote well enough to slap a brief quote up here, which you'll see to your right.
Last weekend I also enjoyed the annual Phil Raines and Craig Marnock joint birthday bash. As always it's an affair with an element of dressing up, and as always I turn up looking exactly as I would on any average Saturday night. I hate dressing up. It's just a thing. Still: excellent party.
I just finished a couple of sf novels and needed a serious dose of reality, so I picked up a library book by the BBC journalist John Simpson, which makes for illuminating reading, given that much of it focuses around Simpson's experience of Afghanistan. In a roundabout way, it reminded me that I need a holiday. I know one or two people down in London, and I haven't really been away in a good couple of years except for the last two Eastercons, so the temptation to go down south for a long weekend is there. I might check out if there's any sf-related events or whatever happening down there to give myself an extra excuse to go. I am, however, very skilled at procrastinating, especially when it comes to actually doing things.
I'm feeling remarkably chilled since I found out money was on its way to me. I blew the first chunk of the advance buying the house I now live in, and I've been gripping onto part-time work in the belief that if you're serious about writing, you should at least try and live on part-time work so you can spend more time writing. I'm still here, so I suppose it's worked, but it does feel a bit of a struggle at times. I now feel much more financially secure. I'll also be getting another chunk of the advance when the first book finally comes out in September.
I missed the transit of Venus, so I didn't get to see the second planet out from the sun passing in front of same, though I did see a clip of it on morning television. The Glasgow Science Centre is on my route to work, via a footbridge over the Clyde. They'd set up a powerful telescope just outside the front entrance so anyone who wanted to could step up and get a good view of it (the telescope, of course, shielded so whoever looked wouldn't have their retinas fried). Unfortunately, this being Scotland, it was grey, overcast, and a bit wet. Unlike the rest of the country. So nobody saw anything, unfortunately, including me.
I read in the papers that the BBC now have the go-ahead to build a state-of-the-art Scottish hq a few blocks from me. This pleases me mightily, since I'm hoping it'll keep property prices healthy, and might make the area move up in the world a little bit. I know SMG, a local media group, are considering a similar move. The whole project constitutes a stupendous financial and architectural rejuvenation of the old dock area of Glasgow, in effect custom-building a new financial district and centre of commerce. There's a lot happening here, although I suspect it'll be close to the end of the decade before it's all finally finished.
I tripped over this highly entertaining piece on slush piles, and why authors get rejected >>link<<. I've got a considerable pile of them from short fiction magazines. I don't know how many publishers knocked my first book back: my agent knows the answer to that one. A good few, I'd say. But then, nobody actually bought the first book I'd ever written; they bought the one I wrote after that.
I suppose at this point it's worth saying something about that first book, Touched by an Angel. There's bits of it in Angel Stations - bits of the background really - but apart from that, they bear no resemblance to each other whatsoever. WOuld I like to see that first book eventually published? I'm not absolutely sure that I would, to be honest. It was a first book, the kind of thing you write - in retrospect - as practice, to learn how to write a book. I haven't re-read it in a very long time, and maybe I'll change my mind when I get around to reading it again.
I remember workshopping the first 20k of it with GSFWC, writing the rest of it, and in the next draft completely excising the section I'd workshopped and replacing it completely. ALmost a quarter of the manuscript, but it had to be done. I still have that 20k and I read a bit of it recently. Pretty rough. What I replaced it with was far better. The moral of which, I suppose, is that I learned early to be hard-headed about my own writing.
Another thing I've found is that the more you write, the more your ideas about what you want to write change. I'm happy enough to write solid sf for Tor, but as you do, I feel an occasional hankering for other things. Not even necessarily things vastly different from what I'm already writing; just ... different.
I've started editing the first chunk of The Fracture. I had a mild crisis over the past few days over exactly what approach I wanted to take to it, and I'm tempted to give it a bit of a 'new weird' sheen. What do I mean? It's hard to say, actually; it's just a vague sense of how I'd like the story to read rather than anything I can yet clearly put into words, but I'll try. The obvious thing to do is provide some explanation for how some purported alternate reality accessing technology would work, and in fact there's plenty of lucid theory concerning quantum wormholes revolving around just how you might do precisely that. What I'm considering is a fictional situation where I don't in the least describe the means by which people access worlds. It's an attempt to not do the obvious skiffy thing, and do something maybe a little bit different. Or maybe I'll chicken out, and do the straight-up thing. Or, as straight-up as an opening scene featuring a bank heist, wormholes, bottomless suitcases, and the Cheshire Cat can be.
Here's something I'd like to ask you. Who reads this blog? Something got me thinking along these lines quite recently, and it would be nice to know if anyone is reading this on anything even remotely approaching a regular basis beyond the two people whom I happen to know personally. It took me a bit of work, but I managed to get the comments on this blog working at last (I changed from my previous non-entry-specific external comments system to blogger's own, and had to do some tinkering since their comments system was optimised specifically for their new range of templates rather than my semi-homebrew variety).
If you can add a comment below to let me know that you do drop by, even from time time, I'd very much appreciate it.
This is a good thing, of course, except that the awards almost always go to literary writers - not genre science fiction authors. I don't know this for a fact, and I'll never know if I don't apply, so I might as well apply.
I got thinking about this the other day when I read a post on the TTA message boards by an author called Laura Hird, and the name rang a bell. She's an Edinburgh author, and judging by things she mentions in her (linked to) web page, I understand she's supporting herself, to some extent, via one of these grants. I get the impression she's very much of a mainstream writer.
I know of two other authors who received these grants who are friends of friends. Alisdair Gray is one, Alex Benzie is the other - he's te author of a very well-received Scottish historical novel called This Year's Midnight.
Some people I've met are a bit uncomfortable with the idea that genre authors might find it harder to get such frequently desperately necessary financial support. Funnily enough, even though it might turn out to be to my detriment, I don't have so much of a problem, simply because the grants make sense if you take them as what they are: a lifeline to people writing what is, by some consensus, work of real literary value - which isn't the same thing as commercial value. Genre writers therefore would tend to get left out in the cold since they're seen as purely commercial by nature. Which is, of course, a vast oversimplification, but maybe it's better to draw a line in the sand than not to draw a line at all, and end up with a situation where nobody gets this kind of help.
I've finished the first section of the next book - about 12k. It involves movement between alternate realities, and I've spent a good few days not so much writing as trying to figure out exactly what kind of approach I want to take. I'm aiming for something that feels a lot more like Zelazny than the stuff I've previously written. One approach I'm taking - and I know some people I know will have a problem with this - is to not be in the least specific about how people move between the worlds. So that if there's an artifact that allows this to happen, to not describe it.
The reason for this is - I'm hoping - to create a strong sense of mystery. There are times when I enjoy hard sf, solid nuts and bolts stuff, but there's a lot to be said for things not necessarily being clearly spelled out. It's hard to get into words exactly what I'm working on in my head, and that's one reason my writing's been gummed up for the past couple of days. I'm also trying to use a simpler prose style, something very clear and lucid.
The event was excellent, consisting primarily of people reading their work. Until recently I wouldn't have expected to enjoy something like this, but what's changed my mind is an awareness that my horror at live reading is partly influenced by unpleasant memories of being forced along with others at school to read stilted passages from dull but supposedly worthy books. And let's be frank, there's a lot of dull people reading dull stuff out there. Writers Bloc, by contrast, was a terrific night.
One reason I attended was the admittedly vague notion I think it would be a good idea to do something like this in Glasgow. I've semi-promised Andrew Wilson from the Edinburgh group I'll be checking out places over here for hosting such an event, particularly if Andrew and the others are willing (and I get the impression they are) to do a Writer's Bloc thing over here. Apart from anything else, it would give me a little extra to do and keep me occupied: even though I have the part-time work and the writing, I definitely need something else to occupy my mind.
Besides, the fact that the East Coasters play up that whole East/Soviet angle just demands an appropriate response from us West Coast authors, don't you think? I keep picturing a flyer in my head for an event with an east/west theme, maybe using that picture of Sly Stallone facing off against Dolph Lundgren (in the sickle and hammer boxing shorts) in Rocky IV - a movie, I hasten to add, I've never seen.
I dropped into Borders the other day and spotted Jon George's new tpb The Faces of Mist and Flame. It looks very smart. I'm holding back on buying it since I'm hoping I can blag a freebie from my editor (since Jon is another Tor UK author) at some point in the near future. What impressed me further was the full-page author photo on the inside of the cover, with a fairly detailed bio.
Full-page pic on the inside cover? Full bio? Rats, how come I didn't get any of that? Sigh. But it would have been nice to have had the full bio I'd originally written, rather than the hacked-down version due to a slip-up at Pan ...
Interestingly enough, the bookseller in charge of Border's sf section had given George's books a good face-out; nice and visible. My next stop was at Waterstone's, where I had a much harder job finding it. It wasn't on display on the new books tables, though quite possibly it had been and simply hadn't been replenished. I finally found it quietly tucked into a bottom shelf, no face-out. Some sense of bond between myself and other Tor UK sf authors made me pick a couple of copies of George's book up, and drop them on the new books tables. It felt like the least I could do.
Of course, I don't have a deal for The Fracture. My deal with Tor UK is for two books. But once I've got some of The Fracture written, me and my agent can see about chasing after a new deal to follow up the current one. Here's hoping.
I've been back and forthing with my editor concerning the recently finished Against Gravity. He hasn't finished reading it, but I've basically been given the green light: everything's fine. I can expect some money to come winging my way before too long, apparently. This has also engendered an attempt on my part to write a back-cover blurb for AG. The editor put in some changes, but it's still not quite there for me. Some more bits and pieces here and there, I think, and it'll be good. The cover art will be done somewhat ahead of schedule this time, at least compared to the last time around with Angel Stations, when the cover art was delayed by just the few days necessary to force the publishers to push the publication date back another month to September.
On the other hand ... my agent sent me a press clipping from Publisher's News, which features details of my debut novel amongst a listing of new releases and new authors. The P News entry says the launch date is 1st October ... 1st October??I seriously hope they've just cocked it up ...
I’ve decided on a new look for the blog. It’s not quite complete, since I’m thinking of bringing in some background graphics, gradually, in order to spice it up. But in all – and assuming it looks as good on other people’s screens as it does on mine – I think it’s come out pretty well. Although I feel I must insist that I do not look sinister up there, on the top left. .
Kingdom Hospital: I’ve just watched the new, Stephen King-flavoured version on tv. It’s too early to tell if it’s going to be any good, but I kept feeling like I’d seen it before. Then I realised what felt so familiar: it reminded me – in a good way – of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the recent early-80’s gore-spoof developed by Channel Four. But … they are both set in a hospital, and it does create a certain – resonance.
There was an explosion at a plastics factory here in Glasgow the other day, a few miles from where I live. I knew absolutely nothing about it until that evening, when I met some other writers in town. Apparently you could hear the building detonating, apparently, from several miles away. When it happened, I was cycling around a park where it was quiet. I wondered if I’d heard it: I have a feeling that if you hear something like that, your immediate reaction is: blown tyre, or something falling off the back of a truck. The kind of thing you hear so often, in some form or another in a city, that you forget about it immediately.
It was nice running into Gary Couzens at the writer’s circle the other night. He’s on holiday at the moment, and I had a look at his short story collection while he was there .Apparently we stalked Gardner Dozois at a Worldcon because we wanted to, er, touch his Hugo (Award). Or something like that – Gary has a better memory for these things, I think, than I do. He mentioned the incident at the time, though my memory is a bit garbled. I first met Gary when I’d managed to place a story in Interzone in the mid-90’s, and he’d just made a sale to F&SF. Gary’s gone on to make considerably more short sales since then than I have, while I kept whittling away at novel-length manuscripts.
I had a tiny scrap of positive news; so naturally, being a writer and generally paranoid in an uncertain industry, I feel driven to place huge emphasis on it. My editor says he’s happy enough with what he’s read of Against Gravity (so far) to ask me for a synopsis, so he can get the cover art and some other details done and dusted. Cripes … hope he likes the second half of the book too …
Here’s something that quite shocked me. I finished a short story recently – it’s called The Sleep of Flesh – and I figured, send it to a magazine. That got me thinking about just how many years since I’ve regularly bought any science fiction magazine regularly – if at all (the noble exception, of course, being Scotland’s own and sadly almost certainly defunct Spectrum SF). Feeling the urge to pick up Asimov’s for the first time in maybe a decade (I stopped buying the short fiction magazines for the same reasons, I think, as anyone else – you just reach a point where you read the articles first, and the period between that and actually reading the stories grows longer and longer until you realise, despite your best intentions, you’re never going to read them).
Guess what? I couldn’t find it – anywhere – in Glasgow. Not even in Forbidden Planet which galls me. Yes, they have Locus, and I’m pretty sure they stock 3rd Alternative and Interzone – but absolutely no sign whatsoever of the US digest magazines. Which is just insane – how the hell is anyone going to find out about short science fiction these days if they walk into FP and all they can see are Lord of the Rings action figures? Yes, I’m aware they’re as driven by market demands – but it’s still a vast pity. Analog and F&SF, curiously enough, can be tracked down in Borders – but no sign of Asimov’s.
One good thing was getting a chance to chat to Andrew Wilson, who writes freelance book reviews for The Scotsman. I've been picking his brains about ideas for getting some decent press, including writing some kind of press release closer to the time, or persuading local radio stations to interview me. Radio Scotland has an early evening arts slot where they frequently talk to authors about their new books. I have no real idea how to go about these things, but I know people who know something about it, which helps.
I also got an email from my agent with the name of the person who's handling publicity for Angel Stations at Pan Macmillan/Tor UK - I can give them a ring and find out what's expected - or not expected - from me in the coming months.
The reason I bring this up is a conversation I had with my editor at the 2003 Eastercon in Hinckley. We were talking about other books I'd like to do. Part of the conversation went something like this:
Editor: Now, Gary, we'd like you to write some science fiction for us.
Gary: Nods emphatically.
Editor: Now, you're not going to write any books about magic cats, are you?
Gary: Shakes head emphatically.
Ever since, despite what I said above, I've been trying to figure out a way to sneak magic cats into a story without being tawdry and without diverging into fantasy. In a way that wouldn't annoy, say, highly regarded genre editors. Here’s how I figured out I could do it.
In the movie True Romance - written by Quentin Tarantino - the hero frequently gains advice from a figure whose face always remains in shadow: it is clearly intended to be Elvis, in the hero's imagination. Garth Ennis, clearly gaining inspiration from this, has the hero of his DC comic Preacher similarly seeking advice from a carefully shadowy John Wayne in classic Searchers mode. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade books feature a fox-like character who converses with the hero, who may or may not be the product of technology implanted with the hero’s skull. It’s standard mentor stuff. Also a nice way of drawing out what’s otherwise an entirely internal and therefore not so involving dialogue and making it feel richer.
I’m still working out the plot details of The Fracture and Leviathan’s Fall at the same time as working on a couple of short stories. As far as The Fracture is concerned, what I’m looking at is introducing a mentor-type figure who appears to the hero, in the hero’s mind, as the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Why the Cheshire Cat? Because the communication begins when the hero is very young indeed, but not so young as to be unfamiliar with the book. When he gets older, the hero has to figure out who – or what – has been occasionally interrogating or even aiding him, in some remote fashion, throughout his developing years.
The Cheshire Cat is, of course, a magic cat. But in this case, it exists as a useful metaphor for Something to communicate with a young child. Meaning, of course, it’s not really a magic cat. But close enough, I think, for me to feel like I’ve risen to the challenge without descending into terminal cheesiness.
Put it this way: say, hypothetically speaking, someone wants to make a science fiction movie. Someone else makes a sneering 'unicorn and spaceships' remark about sf. Film-maker rises to challenge, inserting dream-unicorn into otherwise hard-boiled narrative, as well as using much more metaphorical unicorn in the form of an origami sculpture. The film is, of course, Bladerunner, and it's surprisingly easy to forget that, yes, it has unicorns in it.
Of course, this isn't how Ridley Scott went about creating that part of the narrative, but you see what I'm driving at.
If you haven't read Rucker before, I highly recommend Saucer Wisdom, which was deliberately designed to ape the style of 'ufo confessionals'. Style-wise, Rucker is a beatnik. There's no other word I can find to describe it and I'm not even sure what I mean, so take my word for it.
I read my new short story out to MJ and Eryn (whom I rent a room to) this evening and they listened in rapt silence, which is a good thing. Still needs a little work, though. Plus, the idea is such a good one I'm completely convinced someone must have used it before in just the same way.
One thing that amazed me last weekend, outside of the convention in Blackpool, was the news that David Pringle had decided to quit editing Interzone. I bought Interzone fairly religiously for the first several years of its existence, not so much of a commitment as that might sound given that it was quarterly for a good while. Now that Andy Cox of the Third Alternative is taking over, I'll be interested - very interested - to see what he does with it.
When I stopped buying Interzone, it wasn't so much down to a dissatisfaction with the magazine - the magazine was fine - as a falling interest on my part in reading short fiction. I haven't bought a copy of Asimov's or any such for several years. I've bought the occasional Dozois' Year's Best since then, but that's about it. I can't say why I lost an interest in reading short fiction, since I'm sure there's scads of really good stuff out there: all I know is that I found myself buying magazines where I knew I was never going to read the stories.
Ellen Datlow's Sci Fiction site, however, has brought me back a little. I read one of Lucius Shepard's 'Hobo' stories there and thought it was tremendous. I'm also going to make an effort to read 'The Empire of Ice Cream', by Jeff Ford, also on the same site, since - and I hadn't realised this - the story was not only nominated for the Nebula Awards, but also won. And also because myself and the other Glasgow writers met Jeff at Blackpool last weekend.
Actually, I'm fibbing, although I only just realised it. There was one science fiction magazine of consistently high quality I did buy every issue of, although its appearance has become sporadic to the point of assumed discontinuiation: Scotland's own Spectrum SF. If you can find back issues, I strongly urge you to do so, particularly since it contains the serialised short novel 'Atrocity Archives' by Charles Stross.
Since I'm intending to write and hopefully sell some short stories, it makes sense I really should actually buy some of the current magazines and see what's going on. Probably I'll buy the Andy Cox Interzone, since it feels like a new beginning, and take it from there.
Since I sent 'Against Gravity' off, I've been catching up on my reading. I bought a shitload of books off Amazon, and a couple at the convention (Convention dealer's rooms aren't what they used to be, and it's reasonable to assume the success of online booksellng may have something to do with this). I just finished Cory Doctorow's 'Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom', which is good fun without necessarily being tremendous. If I had to make a point of comparison, I'd say... Rudy Rucker. With a hint of Bruce Sterling-style social engineering. Also picked up Michael Chabon's 'Wonder Boys', admittedly because I really enjoyed the movie; what else? Uh ... 'Solitaire' by Kelley Eskridge because I heard good things about it - 'Stone Junction' by Jim Dodge because it sounded sort of interesting ... and some other stuff. Though I'll also strongly recommend you to read 'The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', about a teenager with Asperger's, trying to solve a dog-murder in the style of his hero Sherlock Holmes.
Okay, enough wittering about what I read on my holidays. Later.
The rules aren’t the same for all writers. Some already have a degree of profile – perhaps they’ve sold several short stories to the professional markets, or they’re well known for some other reason. But most of the time when you have a first book coming out, your name is unfamiliar to the reading public at large. The question that’s been floating around in my head for a while is, what can I do to promote Angel Stations when it comes out? Or is the effort really necessary?
When his first novel Shadowkings came out, Mike Cobley – another Glasgow writer – arranged a book launch at the local Waterstones. A lot of friends and family turned out, a couple dozen copies of the book were sold on the spot, and everybody had a pretty good time. He’d had several short stories published in the professional market over a period of several years. But with my own publication date fast approaching, I couldn’t help but wonder how much difference this really makes. At Eastercon last weekend, I asked another author with a couple of books under her belt what she did to mark the occasion when her first novel came out. Well … she had a packet of peanuts and half a pint of lager, apparently: they launched it at an Eastercon some years back and nothing else really seemed necessary.
What about pre-signing copies of books available in local bookshops? Does it actually make a difference if you’re a new author? My niggling feeling on this was, no. If it does have any advantage, maybe it’s that the ‘signed by author’ sticker grabs the attention for just that extra fraction of a second: and there’s also a greater chance your signed copies will be displayed face-out on the shelves – not a bad thing. Still, I remain ambivalent. If you’ve got several books out and people want to put a face to the name, then it all makes sense. But at the start of your writing career …?
So what can you do if you’re relatively low-profile and you want to make your book stand out just that little bit more from the rest? There are ways. One – and probably the best – is try and sell a couple of short stories to the pro magazines, and hope they come out within a couple of months of your book. Easier said than done, sure, but it’ll get attention. So I’ve been thinking about finishing off some short stories I’ve had lying unfinished on my hard disk for a while. Another approach I heard was running off some posters of the cover of your book and persuading at least some local shops to stick them up. It sells copies and the bookshop makes money. In the meantime, I’m thinking about what to do come September 3rd, and the release of the book.
Eastercon turned out to be a lot better than I’d expected, although the venue – the Winter Gardens – was terrible. Blackpool achieved the amazing feat of making even the worst parts of Glasgow, by contrast, look quite nice. And if the seafront is anything to go by – Jimmy Cricket and Frank Carson’s All-Star Show – Blackpool is where entertainment goes to die.
Although the actual event didn’t turn out to be quite what I hoped for, as a social event it went very well indeed. For me the surprise turn-out was William King, once a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer’s Circle in the late Eighties and early Nineties: he went to live in Prague about the same time I joined the group, and he’s been writing for Games Workshop ever since. It was also nice to see Miller Lau again, after meeting her for the first time at last year’s con in Hinckley.
Who else did I run into? Mark Roberts, Jeff Vandermeer, Tony Ballantyne, Richard Morgan and Liz Williams spring to mind. Looks like quite a few reviewers have got their hands on advance review copies of Angel Stations, too.
I haven’t been doing a great deal since I sent Against Gravity off to my agent. I’m still working on the outlines for two separate novels I want to write. I learned the hard way to plan everything as much as I could beforehand. ‘The Fracture’ is currently the front runner for getting written first. The plot feels fairly strong, and it’s beginning to occupy more and more of my attention. ‘Leviathan’s Fall’ is still in there, however. The thing is, ‘’Fall’ has strong themes, but not much (yet) in the way of a plot. ‘The Fracture’, on the other hand, has a solid plot, but no great depth thematically. That’s okay, since you can figure out what the book’s ‘about’ while you’re actually writing it. But again, this is all in relation to my current obsession with knowing completely and absolutely what I’m going to be writing before I sit down to write it.