Recommended Reading for Writers

I've posted another guest blog over at Writers Workshop on writing. This time, it's on recommended reading about writing for writers:

One of the things you learn when you become a professional writer is that you never stop learning, and while I still learn much from reading novels with a writerly mind,  I do still, even several books into a career, buy and read books about writing. It helps me actively think about the process of writing, and it’s often a good way to psyche myself up for a day’s work. And it’s not just books I read; there are vast online resources related to writing that simply didn’t exist when I first started sending out short stories and joining writer’s groups back in the early Nineties. Sometimes reading about how other people approach writing gives me just the kick I need to get into a working frame of mind – and as displacement activities go, it’s at least a useful and pertinent one.

You can read the rest there.



I'd like to say I've been enjoying the sudden burst of summery weather up here in Scotland, but unfortunately I'm having to stay indoors a fair bit of the time. I've been getting UV treatment three times a week for dermatitis, and while my skin is clearing up a treat, it means I have to try and avoid the sun. I'd hoped once the weather got better I might be able to head out and do some cycling - by far my preferred mode of exercise - but I suspect that might wind up with me overdosing on the sunlight.

Which is fine, if you're a writer, and therefore given to being squirrelled away and, eh, writing. For a long while, however, work on the current book was dragging and I was having a hard time finding my focus. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it writer's block, since as far as I'm concerned that doesn't exist. If you replace 'block' with 'fatigue' that's probably closer to the mark.

I spent a couple of months revising the first half of the book until it was pointing in the direction I wanted it to, and only just started writing the second half a week or two ago. It is, however, trucking along nicely - hence the return of my writer's mojo. It's nice to be back to producing exactly two thousand words a day, every day.

Here's something I came across the other day, which I think is an absolutely excellent idea. It's a writing performance event - except they're using actors to read the stories. The unfortunate fact is most writers are  dreadful at reading their own stuff out loud to an audience, and I've suffered through too many snooze-athons featuring writers staring at their shoes and mumbling quietly into a microphone that's too far away to actually pick up their voice.

There are exceptions, of course. Edinburgh's Writer's Bloc always do an amazing job, performance-wise. I'd encourage anyone to go see and hear them. I heard Scottish author Louise Welsh (who writes some ver fine crime novels) doing a reading once, and she was great. But they are still the exceptions.

The event is Outside Thoughts, and I'm hoping to be in the audience for their first show, in Glasgow, in early April. I hope they can live up to their promise. 


BIAJ Release: Duncan Lunan

I'm beginning to think it makes sense to just keep details of BIAJ releases here on my own blog, instead of going to the trouble of trying to maintain an entirely separate blog/web site. Really, it's long past the time I should actually spend some money and set up an actual web site incorporating the blog - most probably on Wordpress, if I can ever actually figure out how the damn thing works...

Anyway. The newest release is by Duncan Lunan, another Scottish writer. Here's the bumf:

Four linked novellas and several short stories all dealing with time travel, by the author of the runaway bestselling non-fiction book Man and the Planets. The first two novellas were first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Analog, and this is the first time they have been reprinted since then. About the Author: Duncan Lunan became a full-time author in 1970, initially writing science fiction, but now also undertakes a wide range of other writing and speaking as a researcher, tutor, critic, editor, lecturer and broadcaster.
His earlier publications include three nonfiction books, contributions to 20 other books, over 700 articles and thirty short stories, including a number of science articles for Analog magazine. In 1989 he edited “Starfield: science fiction by Scottish writers”, the first ever anthology of SF and fantasy by Scots, and as manager of the Glasgow Parks Dept. Astronomy Project, 1978-79, Duncan designed and built the first astronomically aligned stone circle in Britain for over 3000 years.

You can get it on Amazon US and Amazon UK, and on Kindle internationally. No DRM, of course. 

Here's an excerpt, of the first few thousand words from The Arctic, Out Of Time:

In the Arctic, Out of Time  
First published in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, July 1989 
"Two ships coming around the headland, sir."More straightened to look. “These waters are becoming as busy as the English Channel, Bo’sun. What d'you make of them?”
"Can’t tell much from here, sir — but we haven't seen them before."
“Pass the word to the Captain, then.” More went aft, and turned a telescope on the newcomers.
They had seen the squadron: men were scrambling up the rigging to shorten sail.
The Captain joined him at the rail. “What‘s this, Mr. More?”
“Two brigs, sir, flying the American flag. They've seen us all right.” More passed him the instrument.
The first mate was waiting for orders. "Any signal, sir?"
“I don‘t think so. They're putting in to join us.” The Captain closed the telescope. "Get a reception party organised — and tidy up some of that deck cargo for’ard!" On deck and aloft, the Resolute was far from the usual neatness of a Queen‘s ship. Deck cargo of casks, sledges, ice-triangles and ice-saws; powerful rigging and ice blocks, to cope with the Arctic storms — but at the sight of another flag, even in mid-exploration, the impulse to improve her appearance was automatic.
The American ships dropped anchor a mile away, and a boat put out for the British squadron minutes later. The Captain and More took up their position at the ship's side as it approached.
“Shall we pipe, sir?” asked the Bo'sun.
"I think not, Brown." Both men in the stern of the boat seemed civilians, though in cold-weather gear it was hard to tell. By his awkwardness coming aboard, the older man wasn't even a seaman.
"Dr. Elisha Kane, sir, of the brig Advance," said the first American, advancing with hand outstretched. "May I present Dr. Howard Hayes, of the Boston Geographical Society."
"Captain Horatio Austin, H.M.S. Resolute, at your service," the Captain said formally. "My first lieutenant, Mr. More. Will you come below, gentlemen?"
In Austin's cabin, as they shed their fur suits and canvas jackets, the Captain called for hot drinks. "It's an unexpected pleasure to meet other ships here," he said. “Though this year, it's less unusual. We overtook Captain Penny's ships earlier this week, and two days ago we sighted another vessel in the Strait.”
"No doubt that was the Prince Albert, financed by Lady Franklin," said Kane. “She spoke the Advance yesterday. They’ve been searching Barrow Strait and Wellington Channel, but without success, alas.”
"Captain Penny's ships were likewise equipped by Lady Franklin," More told him. "She remains convinced of her husband' s survival."
“Lady Franklin's misfortune has aroused a great deal of sympathy in the United States,” said Kane.
“Our two ships, the Advance and the Rescue, were fitted out by Mr. Henry Grinnell to search for Franklin's party. Has nothing been found?”
“We’ve found their first winter quarters,” said Austin. “It's only a matter of time, now, before their fate is discovered. I've despatched two of my ships, the Assistance and Intrepid, in the direction of Cape Riley, and that's one of the last possibilities in this area. But after five years, I fear hope must be abandoned. Some survivors of the expedition might have found shelter with the Esquimaux to the south; but if so, word of them should have reached civilisation by now.”
“And is this the view of the Admiralty in England?”
"Not officially, of course," said Austin. "But my orders are first to establish whether or not a passage to the west exists along Barrow Strait from Lancaster Sound, at the same time searching for traces of Sir John Franklin's expedition. We hope to be back in England by October l85l."
“I see,” said Hayes. “Captain, it's possible you could do us a very great service. May I ask you first to look over these papers.”
He produced three documents and passed them to Austin. More saw only the seal. The Captain read them through. "I am asked to extend every assistance to your party, Doctor. Though a ship of Her Majesty's Navy is not bound to comply, a request from so high in the United States' administration must almost be received as a command."
"I wouldn't have you feel under any duress, Captain. But I would be very grateful if my daughters and I may transfer to your ships, to continue our work through the winter."
At the word 'daughters' the Captain's expression changed sharply. "A winter in the ice-pack, sir — surely no place for young ladies, especially on a naval vessel. Without appearing inhospitable, let me urge you to take your party south and continue your research in another season."
Hayes was apologetic. "That might seem to be best – but Commander De Haven fears, from the climatic conditions, that his ships may be caught in the 'middle ice' of Baffin Bay. They are not equipped for wintering in the ice, and conditions aboard would be at least unpleasant, at worst hazardous."
"Extremely so, if the hulls were to be nipped," Austin agreed. “I shall review our position as regards stores and equipment, Doctor, and let you have my decision within the hour. Please call my steward if you require anything. Mr. More, come with me, please.”
A midshipman was despatched to fetch the chief quarter-master. "This is a fine situation," said the Captain. “The fellow must know their President, or even be related to him, to judge from those letters! I can’t risk a diplomatic incident, not when those ships have been sent by a philanthropist to search for Franklin. We can't refuse to take their passengers, if there's a chance they won't get through Baffin Bay before the ice closes in.”
“If they're not prepared for the winter, they'd have scurvy to contend with,” More agreed.
"And if the ships are crushed, they'll be lucky to survive at all unless they reach a whaling station," Austin went on. “Imagine the outcry if we refused and these young women perished!”
However reluctantly, Austin had to take the American scientists aboard. The Resolute had a tier of cabins on each side, for her unusually large complement of officers; it was arranged that More would share with the third lieutenant, so putting his own cabin and the third's at the Americans' disposal when the second lieutenant, McLintock, moved to the other side. By the time their gear was moved next day, the scientists and their equipment were on their way across.
Dr. Hayes came aboard first, to supervise the hoisting of wooden boxes marked 'Instruments — with Care'. Then the girls came up the side, each followed by an American sailor in case of accident. Despite the cold wind, they both threw back their fur hoods to be introduced to the Captain. More was struck immediately by the contrast in their looks: the taller one was blonde, almost Scandinavian in appearance, while the other's hair was wavy and jet black. Her height was little over five feet. Perhaps they're only half-sisters, More thought as the remaining dunnage was hoisted to the deck. The older girl put up her hood again almost at once, though Austin was inviting his guests to come below; but the other, still bare-headed, took an appraising look round before she followed. Her eyes met More's and stopped — just for a second, but he felt his insides turn to water. Without resuming her survey of the deck, she turned and followed the others aft.
To his satisfaction, More recollected himself a second before the American officer at his side. As More's eye lit on him, he too clicked back to reality. "There's one thing I can say, sir," he said, turning to the ship's side. "I am purely sorry not to see the effect that young lady will have on Her Majesty’s Navy!" And with that he was gone, following the sailors into the boat; leaving More to look after him, in turn, trying to extrapolate from that parting shot.
Near mid-day, the Resolute's search parties returned from the shore. Penny's ships had gone on, intending to make another landing further along the coast; Pioneer already had steam up. To save time Austin ordered the tender to tow Resolute into the main channel, crews lining the decks for the customary three cheers as they passed Grinnell's two ships. The two girls appeared briefly aft to wave handkerchiefs, but the cold had driven them below long before the Resolute made sail.
Progress along the Strait was slow; the wind was freshening, and beginning to turn against them. Penny's ships were still ahead when More was relieved, and with great relief went below. The weather, he foresaw, would be thoroughly nasty by nightfall. He left his heavy jacket and gloves in his new cabin, and set off to claim the hot tea that should be waiting. At the change of watch, as ice thawed from clothing and boots and kettles boiled on all sides, the ship filled with fog below decks; and out of it, there came an astonishing apparition.
Though the girls had come aboard in long skirts, cold-weather gear had hidden their femininity. Below decks, however, warm air was distributed mechanically. The dark girl was now wearing sailor's shirt and trousers, but the effect was anything but masculine.
"Oh, come on, Lieutenant!" she said brightly, before he found words. “It can't be that long since you left England, surely?”
"Young ladies don’t dress like that in England," said More, swallowing hard.
She dropped him a curtsey — and he'd never seen that done in trousers before. “Why, thank you, sir! I'm glad you approve.”
Naval officers are not fools — not even when facing astonishing young women, instead of fire and storm. More could almost hear her saying, “But Captain, Lieutenant More said it was all right.”
“No miss,” he said firmly, “your clothes would cause a stir there.”
"No doubt," she said casually. “When we reach England, I shall have to be demure and conventional. But for a winter in the ice, I must dress practically, don't you agree?”
“I don't think it'll be necessary to go to these lengths, miss.”
“I have a feeling I'll surprise you, Lieutenant,” she said with disconcerting firmness. “I’ve come to the Arctic to work, to conduct a serious scientific investigation, not to be decorative at the Captain's table. Right now for instance I'm going to make friends with the crew, and I want them to accept me as an equal, not as some fashionable lady amusing herself. Excuse me?”
That did catch More unprepared. The Americans were obviously under the Captain’s authority on the Resolute – but could More place the fo'c'sle out of bounds to them without referring to Austin? Probably not. He let her go, unable to resist staring after her, then made at once for the Captain's cabin.

Writing post: Internal/External Conflict

I've just posted my second article on writing techniques over at the Writer's Workshop blog. This time, it's all about internal vs. external conflict:

Broadly speaking, the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is this: literary fiction deals in internalised conflict – fear, jealousy, greed, desire for power or revenge, thwarted love and so on. It’s these internal conflicts, after all, that are the cause of so many of the great tragedies that characterise the human race – wars of religion, of power, of survival. In Greek myth, the entire Trojan War took place because Paris fell in love with Helen of Troy and stole her away from her husband. A ten-year-long conflict is thereby triggered entirely by one person’s desire for another, regardless of the consequences.
Go check it out


And yet another super-fast BIAJ Release: Hal Duncan, Escape From Hell!

This is Hal's forty-thousand word novella, written not long after completing Vellum and Ink, the first of which is an award-winning book. As I've said before, Brain in a Jar is primarily about releasing work that's previously been published, but is hard to get hold of or is out of print. Escape From Hell! hasn't been out of print for very long, and was only ever available as a limited release - and if you want to get a physical copy these days, it's going to cost you a pretty penny.

Here's the details from the Amazon page:

A hitman, a hooker, a homosexual kid, and a hobo suicide make the ultimate prison break...escape from Hell itself! But when news of their attempted escape gets out, the souls of the damned are transformed into a rioting mob, and all Hell truly does break loose. It's Escape from New York meets Jacob's Ladder, by one of fantasy's rising stars.

Hal Duncan is a Scottish author of science fiction and fantasy. His first novel, Vellum, was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and went on to win the Spectrum and Tähtivaeltaja Awards. It has since been translated into half a dozen languages. It was followed by a sequel, Ink, shortlisted for the 2011 Tähtivaeltaja Award.

He has published numerous short stories, several of which have been anthologised, including The New Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, and Paper Cities, edited by Ekaterina Sedia, as well as two poetry collections, Sonnets for Orpheus and The Lucifer Cantos. A further volume, Songs for the Devil and Death, collected a number of poems from each of the prior collections.

This forty-thousand word novella is the first in an intended trilogy. The sequels will be titled Assault! On Heaven! and Battle! For the Planet! Of the Dead!

'...a gripping and stylish read from one of the most talented new fantasy writers to emerge in a long time.' THE GUARDIAN

Here are the links for Amazon UK and Amazon US. I'm pricing this one a little higher than the others by way of an experiment. I'll see how it goes.


The growing world of self-publishing

It's funny how things have changed in just the last couple of years. Ten years ago, self-publishing was anathema. In the Kindle era, it's gained a sheen of respectability, particularly when carried out by authors who've already proven themselves in the traditional publishing market place.

The vast majority of self-published work otherwise is, of course, utter trash, even the stuff that shifts a quarter of a million copies a year on Amazon. If you don't believe me, go take a look at the opening page of pretty much any self-published, high-ranking novel. Most of them make Dan Brown look like Hemingway. That they sell as well as they do says more to me about the reading public than it does about the authors.

Don't get me wrong. I wish these authors all the best in their success. I hope, however, they spend some of the money they make to teach themselves the basic skills of grammar and sentence construction.

Because of this, it's very hard for genuinely good but unknown writers to become recognised. I knew when I released Fergus Bannon's Judgement as an ebook it was going to be a single shiny nugget floating in a sea of shit. But I got the book out there, and that gave me the impetus recently to put out previously published work by some well regarded authors. I know there must be equally good self-published works out there on the internet, but I'll be damned if I have the time and energy to find them.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the best way to become published remains finding a (good) agent and then a publisher. Outside of that, the only truly notable self-publishing ventures are those backed by writers who are well-known in their field. William King is an obvious example, and his work is backed up by dozens of best-selling novels for Warhammer. I was pleased to see Rudy Rucker recently start up something called TransReal Press. His anthology 'Transreal' was an absolutely seminal anthology, and he's without doubt one of the finest writers in the sf field. He's produced a huge, ever-evolving anthology of all his published short fiction, and it is very surely worth the price he's asking.

So how to identify a genuinely good author and bring him to the attention of the right readers? Well, that brings me on to a recommendation.

I've known the writer Ian Sales for at least a couple of decades, and was probably introduced to him by Jim Steel at some convention or other. In fact, I know Ian entirely through science fiction conventions. He's had bits and pieces published here and there, mostly in the small press, but is a genuinely fine writer. In fact, he's precisely the kind of writer who could and should benefit from the e-publishing revolution. He recently sent me a novella called Across The Sea of Rains to read, and it proved to be a beautifully written piece of hard science fiction constructed around a delightful bit of Forteana.

Now, you might be thinking well, he's a mate. You would big him up, wouldn't you? Well, er, no. No, I wouldn't, unless I genuinely rated the work. I'm hard that way.

Here's the description from Ian's own blog:

This April, Whippleshield Books will launch its first book, Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales. This 20,000-word novella tells the story an attempt to return home by a group of military astronauts stranded at a base on the Moon. Described by Adam Roberts, author of By Light Alone, as “written with an expert blend of technical precision, descriptive vividness and emotional penetration”, and by Kim Lakin-Smith, author of Cyber Circus, as “as poignant as it is impeccably researched”, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first in a thematic quartet. The remaining three installments will also be published by Whippleshield Books.
Whippleshield Books was founded by Ian Sales in order to focus on a type of science fiction which no one else seems to be publishing – ie, stories of high literary quality with extremely strong scientific and technological content. 

So keep your eyes out for that one. I'm recommending it highly.


Coming up from BIAJ: Hal Duncan and Duncan Lunan

I got the text file for Hal's Escape from Hell the other day and it took maybe an hour or so to check over and revise the formatting in Scrivener before outputting it as a Kindle-compatible file, which so far looks pretty good. I'll probably get around to uploading it to Amazon in the next week or so. The only question really remaining for me is, how much to charge? It's a novella, rather than a novel (as Hal pointed out in the pub the other day), just scraping in at forty thousand words. Which brings up the classic question, do you value it by the quality, or the length?

My gut reaction right now is to price it at a fiver in the UK, and five dollars in the US, selling it for a lot more than other BIAJ releases (I don't however, rule out dropping the price after the first six months). Previous releases so far have been of older books, mostly out of print or ones or small-press publications with limited print-runs. Because they're older, less 'current' it makes sense to price those other books at, say, £1.99 in the UK, $3 in the US. Hal's book, however, is a bit more recent. He has a higher profile, with a couple of bestsellers out in the fairly recent past.

Another thing that affects a pricing decision is the gradual evolution of what people now call the 'indie publishing market on Amazon. Where people most commonly priced their books at the lowest possible value allowed by Amazon once they opened themselves up to self-pubishing, those same self-published authors and 'boutique' operations like BIAJ are now raising their prices. People understand that if their work is truly of good quality, then people will, hopefully, pay for that.

I've certainly bought indie books - but they've all so far been by authors who were already traditionally published, either now or in the past. I have self-published books on my Kindle by Jonathan Carroll, Simon Ings, Rudy Rucker, KW Jeter, William Barton and a number of others, all wonderful influential writers. This is the primary reason why everything BIAJ publishes is by writers who have already proven themselves by making sales in the traditional short story or novel markets. I don't need to edit them - usually - because they've already been professionally edited. I do proofread them, in case of errors of translation from one format to another. I also get the authors to re-read them following that proofing. Some are easy to set up: Escape from Hell! took literally five minutes on receipt of the file (followed by an hour's worth of formatting in Scrivener).

The shift in pricing also has to do with the recognition that those books which are huge indie sellers are those with the broadest possible appeal. A lot of people downloaded Fergus Bannon's Judgement when I made it intermittently free, but were they the right audience? It's far, far from being a traditional thriller, and probably has a great deal more in common with the work of authors like Rudy Rucker and KW Jeter. People who are used to reading Bourne books are not going to be able to get their heads around a book as desperately WTF as Judgement proves to be once it reaches its denouement.

The thinking goes, then, that it's worth raising prices so that a book can reach the right audience. Meaning, those people who will actually understand what they are reading. Now, people self-publishing on Amazon are seeking not just any audience, but the right audience for their work.

And that's the thinking right now for Hal's forthcoming ebook.

In other news, I've been working on a collection of novelettes (I can never remember which is which) by Duncan Lunan, who has written extensively for Analog and Asimov's. The collection features at least one Nebula-nominated story, With Time Comes Concorde. You can expect to see that, maybe, later this month.