12/30/2015

Count Motorhead

I had the privilege of seeing Motorhead play live, once, some time in the mid-90s at one of Glasgow University's two student unions. It was pretty great. I was very sad to hear of his passing. Having Lemmy in the world was one of the few things that made having to live through the Eighties bearable (shit music, shit fashion, at least in the mainstream).

I've long been a fan of the band Hawkwind, for whom Lemmy was also, for a number of years, the bass player. It's hard to think of an appropriate tribute to such a remarkably iconic figure, since everyone and their Granny has by now posted videos on Facebook of the band playing Ace of Spades or Killed by Death or even Silver Machine when he was still in his old band.

Few people are aware Lemmy was also a character in a novel. A really, really terrible novel called The Time of the Hawklords, purportedly co-written by Michael Moorcock (who had some involvement with the band) and Michael Butterworth in the mid-70s. A quick google reveals something I didn't know: Moorcock had nothing to do with it, and worked hard to disown the book.

Having read it, or at least a fat chunk of it, I really don't blame him. The writing is amateurish at best, and there's no trace of anything that might have come from Moorcock's hand.

Weirdly enough, my memory informs me that the plot featured the characters roving a largely depopulated Earth, the majority of the species having opted instead to go and live inside a vast virtual reality. In other words, it's a work of singularity science fiction before anyone started using that word in that context, and does indeed contain Lemmy in the form of a character known as - wait for it - Count Motorhead.

You could track it down and read it, but you wouldn't thank me. 

12/29/2015

That was the year that was: books read, movies seen, TV watched in 2016.

It's my second year (back) in Taiwan. I finally finished redrafting the sequel to Extinction Game. It was originally going to be called The Deeps, but Pan MacMillan's marketing department didn't like that, apparently, so now it's Survival Game. I'm pretty happy with the results. In truth, my editor, Bella Pagan, is probably a big part of the reason why it came out as well as it did. A good editor is the one who tells you the things you don't want to hear. The revised ending in particular has come out very well. Anyhow, you'll find out all about it once August 2016 rolls around, because that's when it finally comes out.

We acquired a dog, Cooper, currently asleep in the same room as me. There are also some career changes afoot, but I'm not quite ready to talk about the details yet. Maybe in another few months, once I've got a better idea of what's happening.

I sold my first short story in nearly twenty years, Scienceville, which was published in Interzone in December 2015. I have several other stories doing the rounds of various markets. Hopefully I'll be able to write more next year as well. I never found it easy to write short stories, because there was something about the writing of them I just couldn't figure out. And then it just...clicked. It's also resulted in me reading a lot more short fiction than I used to, and that's definitely a good thing.

Movies: The Force Awakens was...okay. It relied too heavily on the original movies and was essentially Disney playing the safest bet possible. Avengers: Age of Ultron was just fun. To be honest, I'm incapable of being entirely critical of the Marvel movies because I grew up reading those comics. But so far they've done a pretty excellent job of taking the comics and adapting them to the screen. Ant-Man was far better than it had any right to be, given the loss of its original and highly talented director.

I think we can safely say the Fantastic Four movie is proof of just how badly these things can be done.

Fury Road was a standout for me because its' the first Mad Max movie I've seen that I actually liked. I wasn't keen on them when I was a kid, possibly because they seemed to appeal to the most thudding morons at school. I finally watched the second movie this year all the way through, and it wasn't bad. Not great, but not bad. But Fury Road was the perfect distillation of all the elements of the previous films. The best way I can think to describe it is that it's either a 2000AD comic strip with a vast budget, or an Iron Maiden video without the song. But the flames! The guitars! The soundtrack! The visuals! All were amazing.

I also managed to catch Ex Machina, but to be honest I found it a little disappointing. It seemed, if anything, like a missed opportunity, featuring supposedly very smart people behaving like absolute dunces because the plot would be impossible without the characters being severely damaged. The non-human characters were really just one more variation on overly-familiar and frankly cliched tropes.

Outside of genre, the stand-outs for me were Birdman, Whiplash, and The Gift, probably in that order. Sicario also deserves a mention, because it seems like it's going to be a standard cops-and-heavily-armed-drug-dealers movie, then turns out to be something quite different. An arthouse action movie, if you will.

Similarly, The Gift may have been misunderstood, by those who didn't see it, as a standard stalker/horror movie. It isn't. It's so much more than that. If you have a Netflix account and a decent VPN, you can watch it on the French Netflix.  Then you can come back here and thank me.

Actually, Netflix has turned out to be an absolute Godsend. Especially with a VPN to get past the regional restrictions. The Netflix Original series of Daredevil was...entertaining, but proved, for me, far from essential. Jessica Jones was much better, and David Tennant as Kilgrave was terrific. But it worked best the longer it stayed away from any reference to its origins as a superhero comic.

I also had fun with Sense8, even if it did get a bit...Californian at times. I'm hoping for less group hugs in season 2.

I think Jodorowsky's Dune deserves a special mention. I caught it on Netflix. I still haven't managed to watch more than the first twenty minutes of Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain, although there's something deeply compelling about it. Actually, the most fun I have with that movie is probably just when I try and describe it (or the first twenty minutes) to other people. I once tried watching El Topo, but gave up after ten minutes. Sorry, it just seemed quite, quite terrible.

But Jodorowsky comes across in the documentary as really quite a lovely man and very charming. Shame his movie version of Dune, most likely, would have been deeply impenetrable if it had ever been made. I say that with some uncertainty, however, since the glimpses we see of the Dune storyboard are also quite, quite compelling. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it could be an animated movie some day?

I think the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle deserves a shout-out. It was very good (I had a free month of Prime to use, and took advantage of the offer to watch the whole series), even if it took a remarkably laissez-faire approach to adapting the book. But then again, the book as it stands really can't be adapted to the screen very easily, I suspect. Adopting a more straightforward thriller structure was likely the only way they could do it.

Books!

I read 43 books in 2015, and took out two subscriptions - one to Interzone, and one to Wired. Both were digital subscriptions. The last was a special offer, hence dirt cheap.

I re-read several books this year: I use a website called ereaderiq.com to track the prices of Kindle books I'm interested in and grab them when they drop to a certain level. In this way, I've been slowly buying up electronic copies of old favourites to reread on my Kindle and/or iPad.

So far, I still read exclusively ebooks.

I re-read Philip K. Dic's The Man in the High Castle because, well, Amazon. It's been many years since I read it and what a strange, if nonetheless deeply compelling, book it is. A statement that might be made about much of Dick's catalogue. I remember being eternally flummoxed by the ending of the book when I was younger. I'm less so now, although I certainly did come away with at least a few questions as yet unanswered.

Peter Watt's Firefall was something of a stand-out. I can't necessarily say I enjoy reading Watt's books, which is neither to say that I don't. But I always come through the experience feeling enriched and enlightened by some very big ideas.

On a lighter side, I read those of Kage Baker's Company books I hadn't yet got around to. The most fun books I've read in quite a while, even if she had some very, very strange ideas about a) Britain and b)the future and what it would be like.

I was very underwhelmed by Michel Faber's Under the Skin; a silly book, that essentially collapsed in on itself halfway through, and contains absolutely no surprises to anyone who's read even a scintilla of decent sf. Far better was Ian Sales' All That Outer Space Allows. Louise Welsh, a Glasgow crime writer I've always had a soft spot for, did a better job with genre - and indeed, with disaster fiction - with A Lovely Way to Burn.

I read Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time. It's...odd. Extremely so. Was this really considered a classic? The first half is set in a training camp that, powered space suits aside, could have been set in Fifties America, with extra recruit-whipping. Not to mention a Heinlein stand-in howling at classrooms full of kids about the horrors of democracy. As a result, I look at the movie with far greater respect. No wonder the director couldn't take his source material the least bit seriously. Or was Heinlein writing some kind of clever satire? Perhaps, but I doubt it. The whole book reads like one long howl of 'get off my lawn, you damn longhaired commies'. Or at least it does as far as I could read it: I wound up skimming the last fifty or hundred pages because it was full of fairly predictable military moves involving planets, burrows and mean, mean aliens.

I reread Childhood's End by Arthur C.Clarke, which while terribly old-fashioned, is thoroughly decent in only the way that Clarke chap could be. Thoroughly indecent but utterly brilliant would be an apt description of Lucius Shepard's Two Trains Running, which I first read on Omni Online, of all places, many, many moons ago. Highly recommended.

In non-fiction. Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag, about a British double agent in World War 2, was hilarious. Who thought the Nazis loved English country dancing so much?

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: a brief history of humankind was also quite brilliant. So was Jon Ronson's Frank, about his time in a band with Frank Sidebottom, a man who can only possibly make sense to the British.

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was one of the most eye-opening books I've read in a long, long time. If you were to pick one book out of all these to read, make it this one.

Again in the fiction stakes, I bought Jay Stringer's Ways to Die in Glasgow almost entirely because I liked the title and the cover. So naturally I bought it and it's quite excellent. It's a very disconcerting book because half of it is set literally within five minutes of my flat back in Glasgow. I know every single bar, street and location mentioned in the book, even if some of them I would never dare to tread within. I'd highly, highly recommend it. I strongly suspect Stringer is or was a close neighbour of mine.

Every now and then I try and break out of familiar reading patterns by finding something unlike anything else I'd normally read. Unfortunately, the experiment rarely seems to work, and this is one of those times. The book I chose was the New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, only the first third of which I could bring myself to finish. Does something this amateurishly-written genuinely rate as high-quality literary fiction?

A very good book on writing technique I read this year is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It's not so much how to write, as it is why the right techniques make us want to read a work of fiction. It's a book, essentially, about the physiology of writing, and what it is readers want on a deep, unconscious level, and I found it thoroughly fascinating.

And that's it!

12/28/2015

Political Metal

One of the things about living in a different country is you get to observe all the things that are probably completely normal to the locals, but which have that unmistakable quality of otherness for the expat or economic migrant, such as myself. 

Despite being a country that retains an unwavering and perhaps inexplicable love for Air Supply and Europe, one of the bigger bands round these parts are Chthonic, a metal band. They've been around a couple of decades. They're also pretty political, on the leftist/progressive side of things, which around these parts often also means anti-China. China insists Taiwan is Chinese, and the majority of Taiwanese say we are, and always have been, Taiwanese. They have their own flag and their own elected government. It's a little more complicated than that, but at heart that's the essence of it.

Anyway, the singer is running for a government post. There's an election coming up next year. All this came together in the form of a free concert at Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Here's what the Guardian said about it in an article:

"Wearing combat boots, lead singer Freddy Lim held the stage with the brand of music that has seen the Taiwanese “black metal” band dubbed the Black Sabbath of Asia.
But this was not just any gig: it was also a political rally ahead of a crucial year for Taiwan. Described as a “concert to calm the soul and defend the nation”, the event was intended to energise Taiwanese youth and gain political support for Lim’s new role – as a parliamentary candidate for the New Power party (NPP).
The party, which was formed earlier this year, emerged out of Taiwan’s 2004 Sunflower student movement and represents, said Lim, a means “to channel the energy and frustration of young activists and frustrated Taiwanese” ahead of the parliamentary elections on 16 January."
Naturally, we went along. It was pretty good. I haven't been at a full-out metal gig since I saw Opeth sometime in the mid-2000s. I'd have to think about it to be sure. But there's something decidedly surreal at being at a gig like this and seeing various besuited politicians trotting up onto stage between songs to rouse the crowd. Now try and picture Hilary Clinton turning up at a Rage Against the Machine gig, and you're pretty much there.

Here's a short clip from the gig to give you a wee taste of what the experience was like. There were a LOT of people there. We were stuck somewhere way, way, way at the back.

Force Awakens review

I actually posted the following on my Facebook account a couple of days ago, and there's already been a spate of post-release reviews all saying pretty much the same thing. But, for what it's worth, here's my take on the new Star Wars movie. TL:DR; it could have been a lot worse, but it could have been a deal better, too.

On the new Star Wars movie - needless to say there may be spoilers, but I'll try hard to avoid them. And the tone of what I say may come across as a lot more negative than I actually felt watching the movie, but which needs to be said nonetheless:

I think it's safe to say, judging by what I've seen via Google (try googling "Force Awakens plot holes"), that I'm not the only one left a touch bemused - if not downright perplexed - by the new Star Wars movie. Once the credits rolled, Emma asked what I thought of it, and I said 'I'd give it 7/10. It was...okay.'

That surprised me a little, because I'd actually gone in with high hopes. I was genuinely looking forward to it. I've always been willing to cut Star Wars some slack because in the original trilogy at least, it told a pretty effective story with some genuine surprises. Even when I was a kid, seeing Star Wars for the first time, I already knew spaceships couldn't make noise in space, and that a parsec was a measure of distance, not time. But if you can get the story right, the audience, including me, will forgive a lot.

What _also_ helped were the endlessly positive reviews of The Force Awakens, particularly from reviewers like Mark Kermode, whom I don't always agree with, but whose reviews I always respect (if you don't know him, he's a BBC film reviewer with the haircut of a middle-aged rockabilly, and a highly-regarded podcast). He gave it an enormous thumbs-up, despite himself never having been that much of a fan of the previous movies.

I often find I don't really figure out what I think of a film until I've had a little time to absorb it and think about it. Now, a day later, I feel less like I've seen a Hollywood film than I have a dramatised spreadsheet in which points of drama are strung between points of fan-service.

I found it curiously lacking in excitement, for all the running around and explosions. In fact, for a major Hollywood movie, it's surprisingly lacking in any real dramatic tension. I had a hard time caring, to be honest, because the movie was aimed, judging by reports I've read of audience reactions in packed cinemas, at people who wanted to see familiar faces and familiar objects and places from the original films. These faces, objects and places (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) overwhelmed what otherwise might have been a decent story.

If you'd kept all the old faces out and concentrated on the new - on Finn, Rey and so forth - it might actually have been a better and more involving movie, because there would have been time for the story, such as it is, to develop. It would also have allowed for - and one can only hope for the Star Wars movies still to come - a more _original_ story.

That way, we might have had time to get to know and thereby empathise with those newer characters, instead of them being subsumed in the tide of referentiality that otherwise constitutes the plot. In fact, what you get is less a movie than a _cover version_ of a movie. Not quite a reboot, but more like what might have been a genuinely original story that's been strangled at birth and fed into the gaping, Jabba-like maw of a commercial franchise.

I could say more regarding the huge, massive plot holes that litter the whole thing, but instead of that I'll just point you to at a review that goes into far greater detail, but which I agree with.

It's far from the best movie of 2015; it's far from even being the best science fiction movie of the year. If it's akin to anything, it's a reunion gig by some 60s or 70s rock dinosaur where the audience sits and waits passively while they rumble through the new, not so good songs, before cheering hysterically the moment the band plays the opening chords to a familiar hit.

Again: I really wanted to like it more than I did. I went in with high, rather than low expectations. If I was 12, I'd probably have enjoyed the heck out of it. But when I was 12, I also thought Irwin Allen's The Lost World was the greatest thing ever, and just a couple of years before that I'd probably have thought cardboard boxes were a barrel of fun too.

But as an adult, I felt like I'd gone to a restaurant everyone raves about that turns out to serve a meal that's merely acceptable, if even that. In other words, I felt disappointed, and just a little bit let-down. I can only imagine what that other, better movie featuring the new actors and none of the old would have been like. 'Better than the prequels' just isn't enough.

12/10/2015

New book, new cover

It's been through a bunch of name changes, but here at long last is the cover and publication date for Survival Game, the sequel to Extinction Game. It's coming out at the beginning of August 2016.


12/02/2015

Algorithms and Amazon.

...so now Extinction Game is back up to £4.19 on Kindle, Final Days and Thousand Emperors are still cheap, and Empire of Light is now way down in price. So if you missed that Extinction Game deal, you missed it. I'm guessing an algorithm, rather than an actual human being, is responsible for all these prices bouncing around. 

12/01/2015

Price Drops (UK) for Thousand Emperors, Final Days, and Extinction Game

I have no idea if this is something specific to Cyber-Monday, or Black Friday, or Slightly Mauve Wednesday, or whatever the hell it is this week, but you might be interested to know the ebook editions of several of my books have just drastically dropped in price on Amazon UK.

Being naught but a lowly author, I have no idea for how long these deals will pertain, but the prices are low enough to edge the books in question into impulse-buy territory; The Thousand Emperors and Extinction Game (my most recent book) are £2.45, and Final Days is £2.10.

So my advice, if you've been thinking about getting these particular titles, is to get them now.

This works well both ways - you get the book cheap, but I still get my full royalties from the sale, regardless of what price it's sold at. So the more it sells, the more I can eat and pay for a roof over my head, and the more writing I can do without having to throw a pesky day-job into the mix.

You can get Extinction Game here, Final Days here,  and The Thousand Emperors here.

The prices have been gradually dropping over the last couple of days, so it's not outside the bounds of possibility Amazon UK might decide to drop some of those prices further. 

11/19/2015

Buy Interzone (and read me)

The November-December issue of Interzone, the UK's longest-running sf magazine, is just out. It contains, amongst others, my six-thousand word story Scienceville

I'd recommend buying Interzone at the best of times anyway, but if you've never previously read the magazine and feel inclined to check it out, I'd be super happy if you made this particular issue your entry point. And if you like the story, let me know.

For some reason, I've had a sudden spurt of creativity in the past couple of months, in that I've been writing short fiction for the first time in a long, long while - although strictly speaking, Scienceville was written in late 2014. I've since written a couple more stories which are currently doing the rounds, and have ideas and notes for a few more.

(And in case you haven't heard of it, a big shout-out here to the excellent website Submissions Grinder, which isn't nearly as filthy as the name just might suggest. It's both a market listing site and a user-end database that lets you catalogue who you've submitted stories to, and how long it takes to get a response. What's really nice about it is that it also aggregates the most recent turnarounds (both rejections and acceptances) reported by site users, so you get to see if they're responding quickly or not. I've been using it since I wrote Scienceville.)

Back to that new issue of Interzone: you can subscribe to the magazine direct or buy individual copies in either physical or e-format here. It's also available in Kindle format on Amazon pretty much everywhere. I personally subscribe to the magazine through Weightless Books, since that gives you access to the magazine in three different formats at once: epub, mobi and PDF. I happen to like the PDF version because Interzone is a highly visual magazine with very high-quality illustrations, and by far the best-looking genre magazine out there, and it looks pretty fantastic on my iPad Air. 

(Also regarding Weightless Books: they offer numerous subscriptions to other, highly-regarded sf and fantasy short story magazines, all of which are worth checking out.)

10/29/2015

Questions Writers Sometimes Ask Me

A few weeks ago I got paid, as I sometimes do, to read an unpublished novel and tell the author what I thought they needed to do to make it publishable. As is usually the case, there were a lot of errors that pretty much guaranteed the book as it stood would never get out of the slush pile. I told the author what I thought they needed to do to make it better, and also emphasised - as I nearly always do - that writing often requires an enormous amount of dedicated work with absolutely no guarantees of success. Success in this case being: getting a book deal.

And, as is not infrequently the case, after I'd written up my assessment and sent it to the client, I got a reply. In most cases they're pretty happy with my comments, although there tends to be a certain shellshocked quality to their words that makes it obvious most of the things I picked out as needing fixing were things they had never been aware of. 


One, recently, asked me whether it was worth it to keep going. I don't get asked that often, but I'm guessing it's a question pretty much all, if not most, writers ask themselves. I wrote a long reply, then thought maybe it applied to a lot of writers, and that maybe I could put it up here. I've edited it a bit, but what follows is, essentially, the same advice I'd give to pretty much anyone asking that same question.



Dear [Writer],


You asked me whether it was worth continuing to write. 


I can't really answer that, I'm afraid, but what I will say is that if it gives you pleasure, then you should keep going. That you say you love to write is very important, but ask yourself this question: would you still love writing if it took you ten years to get a book deal? Or even fifteen years? How do you feel about writing ten books, none of which sell, in the hope that maybe - just maybe - the eleventh might net you a deal? 


I sold a two thousand word short story to a magazine in 1990 for £40. Over the next decade, I made a grand total of £260 from selling a total of three stories. 


Most people who aren't interested in becoming writers would laugh and shake their heads at these numbers, but I had realised one important thing: if you can write a short story and get paid actual money for it, then in theory at least you can also write a book and get paid for that too. 

About 1997, I wrote a novel that never sold. I wrote a second, and that did sell, in 2004.

That's nearly fifteen years it took me to get to the point I could at least in theory support myself by writing, and I'd say that's a not untypical span of time for a lot of writers. I kept my day job, of course, at least until 2007 when back problems forced me to quit. Fortunately by then, I was on a more even financial keel and could support myself by writing - mostly because I moved to a cheaper country for a couple of years. 

Like you, I hammered my first novel out without stopping and without any real idea what I was doing. However, after I had extensively revised it - a process that included dumping the last third of the novel and writing a completely different ending - it got me an agent. 


That first book never sold, for reasons that are now startlingly clear to me: it showed promise, but was not a saleable work. How can I know that? Because as I kept writing, I slowly became a better writer, and got to the point where I could better judge my earlier work. 


Five years after getting an agent, a publisher showed enough interest to ask if I was working on anything else. I'd just started writing something new, fortunately, and they took a look. 

One year later, I had a book deal.

Let's assume you'll do anything it takes to succeed, because you love writing. Do you read a lot? You'd better, or you might as well give up now. I read up to fifty books a year, maybe half of which are non-fiction.
Should you keep going? Absolutely - as long as you accept the possibility it might never happen. I wrote to get published, but all the while aware it might be for nothing. On the other hand, if I'd never tried, I'd never have sold ten books to a major publisher. 

If you REALLY love writing, dedicate yourself to it completely. Don't let anything get in the way of it. Make your life fit around your writing, not the other way around. Are you constantly critical of your own writing? Do you always strive to improve, and learn from others? Are you prepared to miss out on the TV shows everyone is talking about, skip social nights, at times become a near-hermit to focus on your work?

You're concerned that your lack of science education - or education in general - might hamper your desire to write.

Fred Pohl was one of the most famous sf writers in the world: I recently read somewhere online that his Gateway books might be made into a TV series. He wrote The Space Merchants, a hugely influential book in its time. He was also a major sf editor for some years.



Pohl's writing was a huge influence on me, and yet he didn't get his US high school diploma until he was an old man. Learn from his example. When I started writing, the internet had barely been born. Now all the writing advice you could imagine is out there, to be found, and often for free. Don't know about something? Look it up online. I'm amazed how few writers do. Is there a library near you? Use it. 

What else can you do? Find a writing group near where you live and join it: it makes for a great support network and you get to meet new people with the same shared interests and drives. If there isn't one near where you live, there are groups online - Critters has a good reputation. There are probably others.

Also, don't just write novels. Write short stories too. Short stories, especially online, are having something of a golden moment. These are paying markets: check out Clarkesworld, Interzone, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Apex, just for a start. Then go to http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com and check out the short story markets listed there. Write a couple of dozen short stories, and maybe one of them will sell for a few pennies. Write another couple dozen, and maybe four or five of those will sell. Write more, and if you sell more, people will start noticing your name appearing in the magazines.



Getting just one story sale for money makes for a HUGE confidence boost, I can tell you, and it's nowhere near as much work as a novel. 

It all comes down to how badly you want something - and whether you're willing to put in the time and sacrifice to try and get it. Someone once said you need to write a million words of shitty, terrible prose before the gold starts emerging. And even then there's still always the possibility it might not be enough.

But the only way you can ever get good enough is by writing and studying and improving and working and being obsessive to the point of near-lunacy and all without any guarantees of success.

Are you that person? Maybe you are, but I'm not the person to tell you. That, you'll have to figure out for yourself.

- Gary Gibson

9/04/2015

Writer's Block, and Why I Don't Get It

I came across an article on Lifehacker called You Don't Have a Creative Block. It references another article, which in turn quotes the author Jodi Picoult, talking about writer's block.

In it, she says:

"I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it—when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page."

I couldn't agree more.  I just finished up two outlines for two new novels, one 7,000 words in length, the other close to 12,000 words. Completing them took two months. An outline is creative invention in its most purest form: imagining a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating characters, motives, action and theme. Each outline contains a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story. This is something I've done since early in my writing career, and most often the resulting novel is pretty close to what you'd find in those outlines.

Behind each outline is a great deal of writing you don't get to see - notes totalling 55,000 words for both projects together. Add in the outline themselves, and that's 75,000 words I've written in the past eight weeks or so: equivalent in length to a short novel.

So why so many words? Because that's how I avoid writer's block. I just start writing. If I get stuck, I summarise what I have so far.

But you can't force it too much: there will be days when nothing comes. But the act of writing out what I've come up with so far, I find, forces unexpected connections to appear. And even if they don't immediately appear, they'll pop into your head at unexpected moments.

What I do most recently is have a 'work diary'. I put in the date, scan the previous entry, then try and think my way further into the story based on what I've already come up with. I scribble down anything, on the off-chance it might mean something. I explore connections. Even if no idea is immediately forthcoming, I keep making notes, waiting for something to come.

And I do it every day.

For instance, in one of the aforementioned outlines, I wanted character A to find out something about Character C. Except Character C is CEO of a major technology company, surrounded by private security, and therefore untouchable. There was no way for A to find out anything. I was stuck.

So I tried looking at it from a different angle. I thought: what about B, who used to have a close personal relationship with C? Is there any reason they couldn't find out the terrible truth about C? And what if they rushed to a phone to tell A the news, then the call got suddenly cut-off...as if someone had got to them before they could fully warn A? And then what if...

And suddenly you're coming up with ideas.

So, really, there is no such thing as Writer's Block. Procrastination, sure, we all get that. But block? Doesn't exist. 

9/02/2015

Final Words on Ulysses (the writing software)

Pretty much, it's great.

I'll have to admit, I really, really wasn't hot on it at first. It takes time to work out its kinks and its features. I discovered many of these in the process of using it. On first contact, it seems confusing and limited. I felt as if I were restricted by unmovable, unnameable notes panels. Markdown threw me. If I wanted to edit styles, I had to dig into HTML-like text-files I felt sure would send most people unused to such things running (I'm used to such things, but that doesn't mean I want to have to deal with things like that).

Then, as I explored further, I slowly discovered that I could undock my notes, and a great deal more, and I got things set up more or less the same way I have them in Scrivener. It helps a lot that, like Scrivener, the people behind Ulysses are very quick to respond to questions (in my case, usually via Twitter). I discovered I could have non-printing in-line notes (like Scrivener) and add annotations to individual words, sentences or paragraphs (similar to something you used to get in an earlier version of Scrivener that got pushed out).

I've been using it exclusively now for about a month and if you're thinking of trying it, you definitely should: there's a demo version available for the desktop or laptop with a ten-hour limit which should be time enough to at least explore it a little.

That's not to say I haven't found niggles. I've found several, but I could say much the same about Scrivener. Don't get me wrong - I highly recommend Scrivener as well: but where a few months back I would have said Scrivener was comfortably ahead of the pack, I'd now say Ulysses is more or less neck-and-neck with Scrivener.

There are conditions to that statement, however. Ulysses is Mac only; Scrivener is available on Mac, PC and Linux. Scrivener does not have an iPad app yet, and even though there's been a lot of talk about one forthcoming - I still hold out hope for November for a possible release date - there's no sign of it yet. Ulysses has an iPad app that integrates perfectly with iCloud and syncs smoothly and automatically (I've read elsewhere that hasn't been the case for some people, but so far I've had no problems).

If you have a PC or a computer running some flavour of Linux, Scrivener is by far and away your best possible choice.

If you have a Mac, it's down to personal preference between Scrivener and Ulysses: Scrivener has a huge range of features which mean it can be used for tasks far beyond simple novel writing. Ulysses is much more bare-bones on the surface, but with a great deal of hidden muscle. Some people find Scrivener too complicated (although I must admit I don't understand why); they might have a better time with Ulysses.

If you have a Mac and an iPad, and want to write on the iPad and sync it with the desktop or Macbook, Ulysses is an absolute must-have.

Scrivener is powerful, but utilitarian: Ulysses is more limited, but beautiful to look at and work with.

In the past month and a half, I've written two lengthy outlines for two novels, each document about ten thousand words in length, and all in Ulysses. The real test, of course, is what happens when I write a novel.

And the only way to find out how Ulysses handles that is to do it. 

7/24/2015

Ulysses (yes, again)

Okay, so maybe the last couple of times I got talking about Ulysses I was being a bit grumpy. I got some editing work in since then and thought screw it, and bought the desktop version of the app as well. And you know what? I quite like it. It seems a bit minimalist compared to Scrivener, but it looks nice and - like I think I mentioned last time - it's got an attractive layout that somehow prompts me to write. Is it better than Scrivener? Hell, no. But it's close, and if Scrivener hadn't been invented I'd have probably thought Ulysses was pretty great. But someone did invent Scrivener.

The thing that puts people off Scrivener - and draws them towards Ulysses - is the latter's simplicity. God knows I've known enough writers who seem to get severe techno-fear when it comes to computers that the appeal of something like Ulysses is clear.

Now that I have the desktop as well as the iPad version, Ulysses turns out to sync really nicely between the two machines. In fact, the iPad version only really comes into its own when used together with the desktop version. On its own, Ulysses for iPad is perfectly acceptable, but with a certain small degree of hassle that means it doesn't entirely get out of your way as you write. But these are minor concerns, and it's otherwise a genuine pleasure to use.

And that's what for many people gives Ulysses the greatest advantage over Scrivener at the moment: you can use it on the iPad.

Like many, I'm sure, I've discovered that an iPad paired with a bluetooth keyboard makes for a much better laptop than most actual laptops. It turns out that you can use an iPad for work, if the tools are good enough: and Ulysses is more than good enough. If you wanted to write on the iPad, you really, really couldn't do better than Ulysses.

However, I do still have a strong sense of loyalty towards Scrivener, having used it to write almost all of my books apart from the first two (and how the hell did I manage that?), and I really want them to get out an iPad version of their software and blow everyone else out of the water. And when it comes, I'm sure they will.

In the meantime, I'm gradually getting used to Ulysses odd-to-me quirks like the insistence on markdown text. I like that I can drag documents into Ulysses for OS X and boom, it's transformed into markdown; I'm using it at the moment both for working on outlines for future potential books and the aforementioned editing work. I was a bit annoyed at first by a fairly constricted notes panel (I write a lot of notes) until I realised they could be undocked. Even so, I'd like to be at least able to name the bloody notes, so when I look to the right of the screen I can find what I'm looking for immediately instead of having to scroll up and down for ages until I finally find the specific note or detail I'm looking for.

It's little things like that which keep Scrivener just ahead in the race. For some, its flexibility is a bug. It seems too complex. For me, that's what works about it. I don't use that many of Scrivener's features, but I don't notice them at the same time. If I one day need them, I can find them fairly easily.  Scrivener is flexible enough you can figure out what you want to do, and how you want to do it, and do it that way - as I demonstrated in the previous post. It's a serious working tool for novelists, for people working on theses, or on all kinds of documents. Ulysses is...more like Scrivener Lite, let's say.

Here's the best metaphor I can find for Scrivener's utility: it lets you see past the trees to the whole wood.

When you're writing, and you're deep in the guts of a book, you feel like you can't see the forest for the trees, right? You're there in the middle, and you can see the immediate detail, but getting a mental grasp on the whole picture can be difficult. But with Scrivener, with its multitude of ways of displaying information, you can in fact get very close to seeing everything at once. You can surround your primary text with all kinds of ancillary windows containing synopses, paragraph-specific detail, other chapters, notes, and so forth. You can move everything around until it's displayed in a way that suits you. Can you do that with Ulysses? A little, but not nearly so much as I'd prefer.

But it does look terribly pretty. And I wanted to be able to work on the iPad as well: my laptop, with its buggered-up keyboard, now sits on a Roost stand and I type on a bluetooth external. That makes my iPad my true laptop, for now. I still don't know if I'd be able to write a whole book in Ulysses, because I still have a sneaking suspicion once a project got complex enough I'd have to go back to Scrivener to finish it. But we'll see. 

7/17/2015

Ulysses on the iPad versus Scrivener on the Macbook

I read a rumour somewhere online that the much hoped for Scrivener iPad application might still be a while away, and possibly not this year, as many were hoping. Well, shit happens, even to the best of us, assuming this is true: even so, Scrivener remains by far and away the best of the writing tools out there for people like me, by a very long mile.

But increasingly people want to write on tablets like the iPad, and in that respect Scrivener are playing catch-up with everyone else at the moment. I suspect there's a huge market out there for an iPad app of Scrivener, and a lot of people aren't going to think about the cost whatsoever once it does finally appear. 

I wrote recently about other apps like Ulysses and Storify, and found them wanting, for various reasons. I'd been holding off buying anything else until Scrivener arrived on the iPad, but I finally gave in and decided to get the iPad version of Ulysses, which I've previously tried on a limited trial basis on my Macbook.

To my surprise, the markdown aspect didn't bother me nearly as much has it had the first time around, and in fact I'm getting used to it. The app works beautifully - in most respects. It's all very swishy and pretty, and it makes me want to write, which is a definite plus.

Previously I'd been syncing Scrivener on my Macbook with another app called Textilus on my iPad, which has the advantage of being very cheap. But it, alas, has serious problems. Every time I plug in an external keyboard while using Textilus, half the text disappears precisely as if it's hidden behind the onscreen keyboard...except the onscreen keyboard isn't visible either. A recent attempt to use Textilus to work on some Scrivener documents was painful and distracting enough for me to think fuck it, and pay the money for Ulysses for iPad. 

I can see why people like it. I can see the advantages of the app, in that the files it works on are purely text files. There's not a hint of a proprietary format, which means your text files aren't going to be inaccessible twenty years down the line. 

But here's the problem(s).

The biggie is iCloud syncing. I cannot begin to express how completely the app's ability to sync with iCloud sucks. It's ridiculously bad. They've just introduced a new backup feature, but that only functions locally: if you lose or break your iPad, you're pretty much screwed when it comes to accessing those backups. I've just wasted the better part of forty-eight hours trying to get the damn app to sync with anything, and it just. Won't. Work. 

There is a way to save your information, however, but it means accessing various submenus. It's hardly the seamless, always-on background Dropbox syncing I'm used to with Scrivener. Because Ulysses...doesn't work with Dropbox. 

Go figure. 

But, when you're a writer like me, you like to try new things, because it varies up the workflow. And I do really like writing on the iPad, I find, even when my Macbook is right next to me. As I said in the blog recently, the more I muck about with my iPad air, the more I'm impressed by it as a piece of hardware, even if certain functions such as iCloud are ridiculously bad. I can't entirely blame Ulysses: the true blame, I suspect, is with Apple's bungled cloud software. But even so, for the kind of money Ulysses costs, you really expect better. 

If one thing puts Scrivener far, far ahead of its rivals, it's in multitasking.


This is what Scrivener looks like when I'm working on a book, most usually, as above, in fullscreen mode. On the left is the current draft of whichever book I'm working on. On the right and on top of everything else is a "quick look" window: this is a movable, resizable text window containing documents from elsewhere in a Scrivener "project". It can be anything: another chapter, other notes, whatever. I can also open up additional information such as comments, footnotes, synopsis and so forth in a little window at the bottom. 

Behind that, is an illustration of a bridge (some of the action in Extinction Game took place near a bridge, and I used this for reference). And behind that is the scratch pad. 

The scratch pad is pretty much what it sounds like - an in-app notepad in which I can create multiple documents saved separately from a book draft. This is where I just blast down anything that comes into my head as I work out the mechanics of a scene, or - more often - just cram down ideas where I can see them. From this same window, I can also launch a synopsis for a particular chapter or book, or keywords, or external web references, and more. One thing I really like about Scratch Pad is it always remains on top. Even if I switch to a Chrome or Safari, it's still there, which means I can take quick notes without having to switch back to the full application. Which is amazing.

In the main text window, some text is surrounded by a soft-edged bubble. This is an annotation - an in-line note that won't appear when I compile or print the document. Similarly, a sharp-edged box lower down shows where a comment has been placed, and displayed on the right. 

Everything you see in the above example can be moved around or resized. I can change the background colour. I can change the text colour. I can move windows around. I can move the current draft to the middle, or the right, make it narrower or wider. 

If I opt out of fullscreen view, even more ways of displaying information become available. There is, in other words, a wealth of strategies to place the information I need, right now, where I can see it all at once. It's as close as you can get as a writer to seeing both the wood and the trees, all at the same time.

Not to mention that the whole thing backs up seamlessly. automatically and constantly to Dropbox without having to think about it (I also have a paid CrashPlan account for the whole hard drive - never rely on just one method of saving an important document). 

This is an awesome level of functionality. I get why people might be daunted by it. Pro tip: you don't need to use all this. You can just use it on a very simple level. Nobody's bending your arm and saying you must use any of this. God knows, I didn't at first: but over time, I tried things out, or got bored enough to play around with settings, and gradually discovered there were many, many things I could do to improve my ability to both write and to clearly understand the context of what I was writing within the larger work. 

Now, I don't know what I'd do without it. 

So: Ulysses. It looks great. The markdown threw me at first, but now I actually kind of like it. But when people talk about keeping an app simple, so you can "just focus on the writing", that makes the mistake of assuming that writing is a process that travels directly to the screen, from the brain, via the fingers. 

Wrong. It's an accumulation of data, both invented and actual, merged together into a narrative. That data can come from reference works, from web pages, from Wikipedia, and sometimes, as above, you need to be able to see it all in front of you so you can work out the connection...and quickly write notes without having to switch to some other app and risk forgetting that carefully linked-together daisy chain of plot logic hanging on in your brain by its fingertips. If you're not used to writing the way I do, the above might look messy. It's not. It's perfectly aligned to my particular way of writing, and if your way is different, you can change it to suit. 

I've played around with Ulysses on the iPad for long enough now to actually find it quietly impressive, despite my reservations. But for really serious, hard-grinding novel-writing, Scrivener is by far still the best of the pack. I could see myself writing at least part of a book in Ulysses, but eventually I'd get to the point where I'd think hey, where is that web link? and wouldn't it be easier to see what happened in chapters two and three that explain why chapter four is happening, all at once on the screen? and why do I have to keep changing apps to check out that visual reference?

But for now, Ulysses at least makes a nice change. I can at least put together outlines in it on the iPad, and it feels nice to type in. Even if it can't sync for shit. But for doing serious writing, to a contract with a deadline? Not so sure about that. 

7/01/2015

In praise of my Ipad

I'm back. I need your ironic glasses, your skinny jeans and your...fixie.

*Checks time machine chronometer, realises twenty-five years too late to terminate Sarah Connor, gets back in time machine, disappears*

Sorry.

I'm back! I mean, I finished a major redraft of the sequel to Extinction Game, which will be out some time next year. I've basically been welded to an office chair for the past couple of months and haven't really seen much of the outside world, and...

Oh yeah. My iPad. I can't remember when I bought it exactly. Just over a year ago? Something like that.

I think there's a kind of growing-in process with an iPad. You're not sure if you actually need one, but you like the idea of getting one. Because, you know, Star Trek. In Star Trek, everyone had some wizzy little tablet-looking prop (that looks unbearably clunky in retrospect) and whenever you tried one you thought hey, this is pretty cool, then checked the price tab and thought...maybe next year.

But things tend to be a little cheaper in Taiwan, so it made sense to get one while I had the cash. So I did. And I've talked about it before. But it's gone from being kind of cool, but do I really need it? to downright indispensable.

In the morning, it's my newspaper. I check Facebook, not just to see what friends and other writers are up to, but to check various newsfeeds plugged into the service. I read the Guardian, a couple of online magazines. I could use my laptop, but I don't want to get milk and coffee all over it. I could use a phone, but who the hell wants to eat one-handed?

In the afternoon, it sits next to the Macbook. I use it a lot for checking online resources because, frankly, it's faster than the Macbook. It has a flash memory, an attribute it shares, so far as I understand, with the current iteration of the Macbook Air, which Emma has. And that's a whizzy little beast itself. That flash memory means what I want to get just pops up. Often, I don't need to even type anything: I just tell it to open Google, then use the voice-activated search which works really terrifyingly well.

It's also my TV a lot of the time. I've been using Netflix and BBC using a VPN service, and it's terrific. I watch when I'm having my lunch, or stick it on top of the fridge to catch the UK news when I'm doing the dishes.

It's a games machine and a comic reader. Granted, I don't play that many games any more, and I don't read that many comics primarily because of the cost and because I won't pay serious money for anything with DRM on it, but still. I have become a touch immersed in Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and I'm still working through a bunch of graphic novels I got from HumbleBundle.com.  They look great on my iPad.

And it's fast. Fast. It's wonderful using a machine that responds more or less instantly while my Macbook grinds its way noisily through a process, and I am forced to watch that little spinning blue ball until it finally does what I damn well want it to.

I even use it to work on, most usually with a bluetooth keyboard. I could use my laptop, sure, but I killed one of the keys through sheer overtyping the last couple of years, and the Macbook now lives, more or less permanently, on top of a Rooster stand, and I now type using the same Mac bluetooth keyboard I use with the iPad. Now, if I want to move about, or even go outside, I have the iPad to work on.

And that, interestingly enough, is where the iPad - or indeed many tablet computers, by their very nature - are possibly superior to the laptop as we currently know it. The things that go the most wrong with laptops in my experience are either the keyboard, the trackpad, or both. Those, after all, are a person's primary points of contact with a computer of any type, and hence are the ones most likely to be affected by wear and tear...at least, they are if you're a busy working writer.

And because the average laptop, whether Mac or any other flavour, is a fully integrated device, you can't easily swap one part for another the way you can with a desktop. With a desktop, all you need to do with regards to a faulty keyboard, mouse or screen is buy a new one.

To me, ultimately, tablet/laptop hybrids are the way to go in the future, for economic reasons as much as anything else. By separating the tablet from the trackpad and/or keyboard, you create the possibility of replacing parts that are relatively cheap to replace. I can't do that with my Macbook. I can with my iPad. Having a separate or detachable keyboard creates an extra layer of versatility that a fully integrated device lacks.

Most recently, because of the inherent vulnerability of the keyboard and trackpad on integrated machines, I've been considering that in the nearish future instead of using a Macbook to work on, as I have for a few years now, I might switch back to a Mac Mini with separate monitor, keyboard and trackpad, but also have an iPad with a good quality keyboard and/or cover for when I want to be on the move.

In fact, the primary reason I haven't already done that is because you can't get Scrivener on the iPad. Yet. But it will be released sometime this year: the iPad version is currently undergoing testing and the minute - the second - it becomes available on the iPad, I'm buying it. And when it does become available, the iPad, as much as a good laptop, stands a very good chance of becoming indispensable as well for a good many writers.

5/16/2015

General Tso

I saw a documentary the other night here in Taiwan called The Search for General Tso, General Tso's Chicken apparently being right behind pizza as America's favourite fast food. Which is interesting in that I've never heard of it. But, anyway, the documentary crew went to China, where most people have also never heard of it, except for a few in Hunan Province who took them to see a giant statue of Tso, who lived in the Qing Dynasty.
Then it turned out /SPOILER ALERT/SPOILER ALERTthat General Tso's Chicken Dish was actually invented in the 50s by a chap called Peng, who worked and lived in the US for a while, and is still alive, and whose son now runs a chain of restaurants here in Taipei. As a result of which, at some point quite soon, I will not only be having General Tso's Chicken for the first time, it'll be prepared by the same people who invented it. Or at least by people who work for Peng's son. But, hey. Close enough. The old man probably keeps a close eye on the quality of the output. 
Highlight of the documentary: Peng flicking through a sheaf of photos of General Tso's as sold by various restaurants in the US, and muttering 'What is this crazy nonsense?' to his son. 

4/07/2015

Huckster alert: Extinction Game part of UK Kindle's special monthly deal for just £1.49

Time for some serious hucksterism round these parts: I just learned that the Kindle edition of Extinction Game, my most recently published work, is just £1.49 as part of Amazon's regular monthly deals and special offers. It's already rising higher in the ranking than it has been for a few weeks, and you can boost it even further! If you don't have it already, of course. But in that case, if you liked the book and want to persuade someone to read it, send them the link to this post.

The nice thing is I don't lose out because of the lower price; Amazon are obligated to pay the full amount to my publishers for each sale, regardless of discounts like this one (or so I've been informed). I think that came out of one of the publisher/Amazon wars a few years back. So it's win-win all round. And yes, Amazon are evil, but so are Domino's Pizza (funded religious anti-choice groups, given to religious extremism), Wetherspoons (UK pub chain whose owner frequently rails in in-house publications against the existence of public libraries on the basis they're a waste of money), Burger King (employ nearly all their staff on zero-hours contracts) and, really, the list goes on and on. So there's only one answer: death to capitalism! Or, possibly, give up cheap beer, pizza and burgers.

In the meantime, you might as well find a good book to read while you're manning the barricades, and Extinction Game isn't lacking in perilous post-apocalyptic scenarios much like the post-climate change wastelands we're sure to be roaming in wild cannibal packs just a few decades from now. So get clicking!

3/25/2015

Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses

Driven, I suppose, by a desire for something new, something different, I tried a couple of alternatives to Scrivener recently. Scrivener has been my go-to writing software since I discovered it in the middle of writing Stealing Light, and the second half of that book was finished using it.

Scrivener essentially collects chapters, notes, synopses, images and research, all into a single document or "project". It has a full-screen view that blocks out distractions; you can do neat stuff like open separate chapters that "float" in size-adjustable boxes next to what you're actually working on, for reference; you can set searchable keywords; have another text box open for notes specific to a chapter, or the manuscript as a whole: make use of a scratch-pad for typing in very quick, rough ideas; label chapters as to whether they're finished, not finished, and so on; add notes and comments into the main text that stay out of the way while you're writing; and a million other little tricks I still haven't tapped into.

Essentially, Scrivener's pretty much awesome. But I got an iPad last year, and found myself wanting to write on that. There's no Scrivener app for iPad, however - at least, not yet. An iPad version's been in development for a couple of years, and the announcement finally came not long after New Year that an internal beta was undergoing testing. Well, excuse me, while I throw my hat in the air and whoop. I know a lot of people are champing at the bit to be able to use Scrivener on a tablet.

But an internal beta is a long way from actually being able to get hold of and use the app itself. I had a halfway solution: Textilus, an iPad word processor that syncs reasonably well with Scrivener. But it's not perfect because, essentially, it's still not Scrivener, and depending on how good your internet connection is there are often document conflicts as it tries to autosave to your documents into Dropbox (through which the two programs automatically sync). So, while an acceptable halfway solution, that's all it is.

But there are other programs like Scrivener which do have iPad apps. One is Storyist. The other is Ulysses. I tried both recently. Storyist looks nice, but isn't nearly as malleable and adjustable as Scrivener. They've aimed for simplicity, which is fine, but coming from Scrivener it merely feels restricted. If I want to make in-document notes, I'm presented with a set of pre-formatted sheets with sections for 'Character Bio' and so forth that don't in any way reflect my working process. And I don't like being forced to make use of someone else's idea of an outline.

Still, the iPad app for Storyist is...okay. I tried a demo of the desktop version, but wound up back with Scrivener. The latter is also, I must add, shockingly expensive at nearly £45. And if you want the iPad app as well, that's most of a tenner on top of that. Scrivener is considerably less expensive, and vastly more flexible.

Ulysses is slightly better, and has a philosophy behind it of keeping things very clean, zen-like and simple...perhaps, I think, too simple. They eschew any kind of toolbar. There's no clickable option for bold, italic and so forth. Instead, they rely on something called Markdown which, I learn, is a form of HTML formatting.

I had no idea what Markdown even was until I downloaded the demo. It's kind of a pain in the ass, because I see no evidence that typing a bunch of hash marks or other symbols before and after a word is in any way simpler than just pressing ctrl-b or crtl-i on your keyboard. Sure, leave a toolbar out, but does anyone who writes seriously still click those little buttons instead of using the standard keyboard shortcuts? Supposedly not having to 'think' about formatting means you can focus on your writing; again, all I see is an opportunity to waste time 'focusing' on figuring Markdown the hell out. Not to mention there are "editable" style sheets which would send anyone who's never hand-coded a web page run screaming into the night.

So: Ulysses tries to sell itself as a simple, clean solution to writing, but my personal feeling is it's anything but. If you're a blogger, or a web page author, sure. But writing a book? Not so sure.  It also has a weird - to me - document storage solution entirely separate from your computer's native folder system. That, I don't get.

And here's the thing that annoyed me most of all: I could not find anywhere any way any means by which I could do something so simple as centre-align a line of text in Ulysses. Put it this way: if I can download free word-processors  capable of centre-aligning text, I feel no great need to spend thirty quid on one that can't, let alone requires the additional learning curve of an unfamiliar, if basic, formatting language.

But, again, there are two advantages Ulysses and Storyist still have over Scrivener: the first is that they have iPad apps, and Scrivener doesn't. Yet. I'd thought about getting one of these other programs to tide me over until that Scrivener app does finally appear, but I've found nothing to persuade me to shell out on either.

The other advantage appears relatively insignificant, but does count for something. Storyist and especially Ulysses have the advantage of being, well, pretty. They look nice. When I went back to Scrivener, it looked kind of...utilitarian and functional by comparison. It looked like a program built in the mid-2000s, rather than the 2010s. The current iteration of Ulysses, by comparison looks very sleek and modern, despite having only a fraction of Scrivener's flexibility.

But pretty isn't enough to make me move away from Scrivener, even temporarily. It's just too powerful and too flexible compared to the competition. In fact, trying other programs has made me dive a bit deeper into Scrivener's settings and change things around in a way that's improved my workflow. I've only ever really used a fraction of its settings, but now I'm trying to learn more, and that's a good  thing because, ultimately - hopefully - it'll make my job easier.

I gather there's going to be a  major update for Scrivener when the iPad app finally appears later in 2015, so maybe there's a chance they'll upgrade the overall look of the program at the same time.

(Edit, October 2015 - this entry has been getting a lot of hits. Indeed, it's had more hits than any single post on my blog, ever. There are several follow-up entries that explain the process through which I ended up almost entirely switching to Ulysses - the first, from July 2015, is here, the second is here, and the third and last, from September 2015, is here.)

3/16/2015

Chappie, with Spoilers

I was avoiding going to see Chappie partly because of a series of deeply unflattering reviews, and partly because Neil Blomkamp's previous film Elysium was universally acknowledged to be a car crash - even by its creator. I certainly thought it was a car crash. All that, plus a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a fairly damning review on i09.com, put me off even further.

Then I saw a series of tweets by William Gibson, of all people, saying the film was unfairly maligned and deserved to be seen. And since there wasn't actually anything else on here in Taipei worth seeing this weekend, I figured what the hell. If Big Bill, the author of Count Zero, digs it, then maybe I'll dig it too.

And you know what? It's much better than the critics say. Is it worth seeing? Yes, it is. More like 80%, than 30%.

But that's not saying it's not a deeply flawed film regardless, and I think it's worth briefly addressing these on behalf of anyone who doesn't mind tripping over a big bunch of SPOILERS from here on in. You have been warned.

The film is set in 2016, unless I misheard the dialogue. Apparently in 2016 we'll be able to build robot armies of sufficient sophistication to patrol the streets of Jo'burg with minimal, if any, human police participation.

I really, really don't think so.

Also, it appears in Jo'burg that if a clearly unbalanced office worker in your weapons firm slams another down on his desk and pushes a pistol against his cheek, no one else in the office will even blink. As opposed to, say, evacuating the office, calling the police, having security manhandle the violent prick to the floor, or any of the other and various strategies that might be employed in a movie with any relationship whatsoever to real life.

The movie also ignores the fact that the bad guy, and we know he's a bad guy because he literally cackles insanely while ripping people apart with the aid of a huge ED209 lookalike (in fairness, this is a point also brought up in the i09 review), actually has a really good point. He's against allowing robots with guns to run around a city taking decisions on whether or not to use them on living human beings: he thinks we'd be safer if cops instead had direct manual control of an alternative technology -  essentially drones with legs.

Further, apparently 'neural helmets' in 2016 are capable of reading the mind of a person with sufficient sophistication to create a complete, working, conscious map of that person. Not only that - not only that - the same helmet will work on the mind of a police robot, despite its lack of anything even remotely resembling a human or organic brain.

Also, waking up in a robot body isn't, apparently, going to drive you insane. Being a machine consciousness hacking whiz apparently makes you immune to going crazy (you'll recall in RoboCop, the previous attempts at machine/human interface resulted in the subjects going immediately berserk - a far more realistic take).

Also, you'll be able to store a complete copy of a human consciousness on a cheap memory stick.

I can't type the word 'no' often enough to express just how much is wrong with the world building here. I'm actually kind of amazed, because Blomkamp has made his name through the use of lifelike CGI, suggesting (unless he's a master delegator, which is always possible) he's pretty handy with a computer. Which would further suggest he knew enough about the whole idea of consciousness-as-data to be able to frame the world building in a more realistic context  than is demonstrated here.

But despite all this, it still is a movie worth seeing. It's not the best movie you'll ever see, and it's sure as hell never going to be the go-to-classic on machine consciousness it might hope to be, but it's fun. In fact, nearly every single one of the problems outlined here could be solved by a single simple strategy: changing the stated date from 2016 to, say, 2036, or even further away.

That's it. That's all they need to do. Because we've no idea how sophisticated such machines might be in even just twenty years. But we've got a really, really good idea how sophisticated they will be in twelve months. Not nearly sophisticated enough for the purposes they're put to here.

And I know it seems like damning with faint praise, but it is an enjoyable movie. It's an action movie some people have clearly been expecting to have something serious to say about machine consciousness. On the contrary, it's an action movie with lots of explosions and running around and a non-human character who's far more identifiable than any of the humans. The 'nature of consciousness' stuff gets a faint nod before someone starts shooting at someone else. It is, essentially, a mid-1980s 2000AD strip brought to cinematic life, which should give you some idea just how deep it gets.

But if you're anything like me, it helps a lot if you press your hands over your ears when somebody says '2016' and just pretend they're saying some other, much further away date. Because when you factor in technology that doesn't yet exist, the whole plot immediately comes together.

In fact, I have a theory why it's 'set' in 2016: because it's a way for the marketing team to pretend it isn't really a science fiction movie and thereby guarantee a greater number of bums on seats. And I'm prepared to bet it's the marketing team who have the most trouble switching on their PC's.

Further, it's perhaps impossible to address the complex issues alluded to in Chappie through the medium of a two-hour film, and it's perhaps unfair to expect it to do so. We live in a world where a movie has to recoup preferably all of its investment in the first weekend of its showing or its regarded as a flop. That means investors are going to want things guaranteed to bring in an audience, and shooting and things blowing up is far likely to result in that return of investment than philosophical treatises on the nature of consciousness. On the other hand, I've been binge-watching Person of Interest over the last several months, and that undoubtedly is the go-to visual drama based around machine consciousness - and it even has room for lots of shooting and things blowing up. 

2/11/2015

Interzone No. 3, Autumn 1982

So why am I suddenly writing about all these issues of a magazine that first came out more than thirty years ago?

Well,  I'd wanted to reread them for a long time. By the late 90s, I had more or less stopped reading short fiction altogether, although I still picked up occasional Year's Best collections and the like. I found it harder and harder to find short-form fiction that worked for me, but  I can't be sure if that was something objectively to do with the stories or, instead, something to do with me. From 1991 onwards I was a regular member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle, which often met weekly, meaning I both read a lot of unpublished short fiction and wrote a great deal of it as well. Perhaps I just hit overload.

Regardless, my memories of magazines I had first read back in the 80s, particularly Interzone and IASFM, remained exceedingly positive, and a number of stories stick with me even now. I first read William Gibson's Count Zero serialised in IASFM, and I couldn't get enough of stories by the likes of Lucius Shepard, Rudy Rucker and Lewis Shiner, all of whom published regularly in the latter during that period. And of course Interzone had Charlie Stross, Paul McAuley, Simon Ings, Eric Brown, Greg Egan and many others.

That's not to say I stopped reading short fiction altogether. I still pick up the very occasional collection. Perhaps the best I read in recent years was by Joe Hill. But short fiction magazines? Not so much with a few rare exceptions.

What changed between then and now? Had we all been living through some kind of Golden Age of SF in the 80s, or was it simply that my tastes changed?

Given all this, it's hardly any surprise I might get to wondering if I would have the same experience on rereading those stories, particularly since my perspective is now that of of someone with a book published almost every year in the last decade. Back then, the idea of being a pro writer - even appearing in the pages of Interzone - seemed nothing more than a pipe dream.

Which brings me finally to Interzone's third issue.

It's here that Interzone for me began to more clearly develop its own identity - not just through big-ticket names like MJ Harrison, JG Ballard and Angela Carter, but through the fiction published by unknown British authors who until then had little choice but to mail their stories to American magazines - a frequently difficult and often costly affair.

One story that really stuck out in my memory of those early days was Nicholas Allan's Cheek to Cheek, and it's here that we find it. It's a strange, uncanny little story like nothing else I had read before - precisely why it stuck in my mind for so long. It's the story of a young couple in what is presumably their first sexual relationship and how they wake one morning to find themselves almost literally joined not at the hips but at the genitals:

I pulled away the bed-clothes, glanced down and saw between us, lying snake-like on the sheet, a long, quite thin extension - line an umbilical cord - running from, as well as forming part of, the foreskin of my penis to the mouth of Camilla's vagina, which it enclosed in the form of a loose funnel where the enlarge lips once were. The cord itself was four or five feet long, about as thick as a finger. The skin, moist and translucent, blue veins showing beneath, was blemished by large pores, from which exuded, even at that moment, a faint smell of...sexual activity?

If you pulped the first dozen or so issues of Interzone down into a damp mash, simmered it overnight  with a dash of Ballard and a soup├žon of Delany, then left it out to cool in the middle of a British high street lined with job centres and Oxfam shops, you would get this story. It is, to my mind, the ur-Interzone story, at least so far as the magazine's early incarnation is concerned.

More than the central conceit, which reflects the physical nature of the protagonists relationship, it's the very Britishness of this story which appeals. The main characters are students, with little in the way of money, living in a kind of bedsit Britain that would a few years later become very familiar to me when I became a student. For instance:

It had been raining on and off for the last three days...I became astounded at the staggering tastelessness of the interior design: a pea-green sofa challenged a canary yellow fire place, a rose formica-topped dining-table reflected the complex tulip pattern of the rust-coloured wallpaper...

Yeah, I recognise that flat. I either lived there or visited it in multiple incarnations. And, of course, it's raining. It's a form of fantasy - or SF - or New Wave - or whatever the hell you want to call it deeply rooted in the British psyche, sharing the same mental space with the two unemployed actors in Withnail and I or the broad parodies that populated The Young Ones.

It's interesting to note this is also the first issue in which illustrations appeared. Cheek to Cheek has a very clever design, otherwise static blocks of text broken here and there by a simple curving black line flowing from page to page. Other stories have small illustrations by Ian Miller amongst others.

What else is there? A Josephine Saxton piece, a Garry Kilworth short story, The Dissemblers, about a man trying to defeat death by hanging himself over and over again and then stopping just before the point of no return (imagine finding that in IASFM!). There's an Angela Carter I must regretfully admit to passing over largely unread. David Garnett has a story called Saving the Universe set at a science fiction convention and containing parodies, one assumes thinly veiled, of pro sf authors of the time, although as to whom the specific targets might be I can't say. A war has shattered time, so one might step through a door and, briefly, find themselves far in the past. Rather than a source of adventure, it's one more thing for the British characters to put up with, along with the rain and Maggie Thatcher and the quality of the beer.  The Cold War is still hot, and here, at least, the future appears far from bright. Doleful British science fiction at its best.

And there are letters! There's a brief note about an obscenity trial involving Dave Britton of Savoy Books, and a reflection on the fact the magazine has already published both Moorcock's Brothel in Rosenstrasse and now Nicholas Allan's Cheek to Cheek. A letter by Moorcock himself regarding the trial follows.

It's here, as well, the distinction between the British sf field of the early 80s becomes more clearly separate from that of preceding decades. Charles Platt, at one point closely involved with New Worlds, has a long letter that starts with a joke about the cover design of the magazine to date suggesting that the sun is already setting on Interzone. He then goes on, essentially, to lambast the editors (you have the New Worlds authors, but you lack its spirit - its wit and its willingness to take risks), at least in part because it was then edited not by a single editor, but by a kind of collective comprising David Pringle, Malcolm Edwards, Alan Dorey, Roz Kaveney, Colin Greenland, and Simon Ounsley.

There's a reply to this "galling" letter, by John Clute, in which he pretty much takes Platt to task. He writes: Interzone is a forum minus Nero (...) and in that - to answer your final point - lies the editorial policy of Interzone, as I see it: Open all hours.

Well, jeepers. Remember this is 1982, way before the internet, when writers had to trudge through the rain to the nearest library to do that thing called 'research', or go further if they wanted to get their hands on harder to find books. Channel Four hadn't even started and there were still only three television channels. There were few, if any, ways to find out what was going on out there in the wide world of genre, whereas now we have email, Twitter, Google, bulletin boards, forums, Facebook lists, Google Hangouts, blogs, or whatever your preferred poison is.

At that time interchanges like this, in the pages of magazines and sometimes in the introductory essays of various anthologies and collections, were the bush-telegraph of the science fiction world, a brief glimpse of one tiny corner of that grand operatic mud-slinging fest we call 'genre'. Interzone, then, is the punk upstart sticking one finger up at its 'cool' dad and insisting that its way is better. With all this, and stories like Nicholas Allan's, no damn wonder I already couldn't get enough.

Those issues of the magazine available to me to reread on the blog are limited, which is why the next one I'm going to look at, when I get around to it, is the Winter 1983 issue, published a whole year after this one. I don't know long I'll keep going, and I won't necessarily look at individual issues, but so far it's been a fun ride through the past. No reason not to keep going for now.

A dedication on page 2 of the magazine reads: "This issue is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, who said three Interzones was like three Shredded Wheat." Which means...well, I'm not sure what it means. That it's bland? That there needs to be more? Who's to say? More next time. 

2/03/2015

Interzone Summer 1982 (Number 2)

I wrote about Interzone Number One here. That naturally led me on to re-read the second issue, but actually acquiring it proved...less than easy.

Back in 1982, wanting to know more about the magazine after having found that first issue, I kept my eyes out for its second which, being a quarterly publication, was due sometime that Summer. My primary memory of that year is somehow winding up at an Ultravox concert during their Rage in Eden tour because someone gave me a spare ticket for free.

It was the first real gig I'd been to, unless you count seeing the Wombles at the Glasgow Pavilion sometime in the mid-70s. The Ultravox concert took place in the Glasgow Apollo, across the road from the Pavilion, a long-notorious and now sadly missed concert hall that, in fairness, looked as if it was constantly in danger of collapsing. I can't tell you much about the gig except that it was okay, and I only really knew the one song Vienna because you basically couldn't escape it if you happened to be passing by a radio. I was still at school, but the end was in sight. A year later and I'd be into Hawkwind and Iron Maiden.

I made a point of dropping by Futureshock frequently, in order to keep my eyes out for Interzone and, indeed, new books. I had developed a habit of walking long distances around Glasgow, frequenting different book shops and walking from the city centre to the West End. This was back in the days before giant superstores like Borders came to - briefly - dominate the publishing landscape. Bookshops were smaller, and frequently secondhand. I can't remember if the Glasgow branch of Forbidden Planet had yet opened up in Sauchiehall Street, but it was in roughly that time period as I recall.

I kept checking back, but there was no sign of Interzone issue number Two. I gave up waiting and asked Neil Craig, the owner of Futureshock, when it was likely to come in.

'They're not publishing it anymore!' he spat around a jam tart half-wedged into his mouth in a tone of voice that told me what he really meant was go the hell away, kid. He didn't even lift his eyes from the tatty paperback wedged into one hand as he crouched behind the filthy counter. Bits of pastry lay on the counter from yelling at a little boy, all cherubic in his neatly pressed school uniform, who'd made the unfortunate mistake a few minutes earlier of asking for advice on which comic to buy.

I thought about asking him are you sure? But I had a feeling that wouldn't be a good idea.

In the end, I didn't lay my hands on that second issue until some years later. I departed that day, feeling sad yet another magazine had bit the dust before it had even started.

Later that year, in the Autumn, I dropped in again and found Interzone 3 wedged, like the first issue, so tightly into its wire rack next to the counter the top half drooped limply like a body left hanging after a lynching. I stared at it in confusion. I looked over at Neil Craig, who darted a furious, thin-lipped look at me, then breathed loudly through his nose before turning back to the paperback that was, as ever, wedged in one hand. He avoided my gaze, staring hard at the pages, as if he could see something concealed behind the words.

You tosser, I thought.

Many years later, I had a conversation with,  I think, Jim Steel, some time after I became a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle - indeed, Jim is now Interzone's reviews editor. Jim briefly worked  in Futureshock in the late 80s/early 90s.

'Yeah, he just tells people stuff isn't published any more because he can't be bothered,' he explained with a shrug (or words to that effect). 'It's just something he does.'

So what did I miss in that second issue? Stories by JG Ballard, Rachel Pollack, Tom Disch and a small handful of new names. And reviews! A few, anyway.  According to the editorial, they'd received hundreds of submissions from hopeful writers. It states they're glad the material veers away from space battles and futuristic kung fu. This is a touch ironic since, much later, in the post-cyberpunk era, it was variations on such things in the context of New Space Opera that Interzone became a major influence on, albeit with a slightly more literary bent.

Ballard's Memories of the Space Age is exactly as bonkers as you'd expect classic Ballard to be: all bizarre, empty urban landscapes, strangely altered states of mind and temporal and spatial shifts. Ballard would later go on to write some genuinely science fictional stories for Interzone that are amongst my very favourite stories published in that magazine. Here, Cape Canaveral and much of Florida has been abandoned due to a strange stretching of time perception so that single moments seem to last an infinity. Naturally, we have a protagonist who for reasons known only to himself is drawn to precisely such a moment, hoping to find in it some kind of apotheosis. The whole thing is set against the backdrop of a failed space age. It's a damn shame, you know, that Kubrick never filmed a Ballard story. It would have been a masterpiece of filmic art and borderline sociopathy.

Andrew Weiner's Third Test is a neat enough story about, of all things, cricket and aliens, at least one of which bores me to death. But, it's serviceable. The Rachel Pollack story, Angel Baby, was my first encounter with her fiction, and a brilliant introduction at that, as a young woman has to find a way to deal with becoming pregnant after being sexually assaulted by an angel. There's also a very short piece by Alex Stewart whose brief bio tells me - like a fair proportion of Interzone readers of the time, or so I suspect - that he was unemployed at the time of submitting. Try admitting that nowadays without losing all your benefits immediately.

Tom Disch has a short poem to the memory of Philip K. Dick, who had recently died, which means that's the summer that Bladerunner came out. What a time for an sf magazine to start. I'm clueless about poetry, but it seems an effective enough tribute. Finally, there's a couple of reviews, of recent books, and it's also interesting that all of them are now regarded as stone-cold classics: Little, Big by John Crowley, The Divine Invasion by Dick, and Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss. Of the three, I've only actually read the Aldiss. I might have made an attempt on another Crowley book, but left it unfinished. Maybe I should try again.

It's clear even this early the magazine was slowly building its own identity, synthesising pulp tropes with literary sensibilities to terrific effect. Some time soon I'll read issue three and post here about it.

Another thing: the covers, with their shifting sun, are quite brilliant, and perfect examples of how to do a lot of effective work with little in the way of graphic resources.