Four Things I liked This Week

A few things I've read, heard, seen and otherwise enjoyed or found useful over the last while:

Pounding out a few hundred thousand words per year tends to be brutal on keyboards. I was forced to put aside my Apple bluetooth keyboard when the down-arrow button popped out and refused to be put back.

At first, I was taken aback to realise just how often I use a key I thought I'd hardly miss, and started researching the cost of new keyboards. Then I discovered Karabiner, which makes it ridiculously easy to remap keys. Now the right-hand option button functions as the 'down' key on my Apple keyboard, and I saved myself a lot of money.

I always had a soft spot for Egan's fiction ever since I first encountered it in the pages of Interzone back in the Nineties and late Eighties. This is one of his more 'accessible' pieces, in the form of a short novella published by Tor.com about a movie executive reborn by choice in a new body in the near-to-intermediate future. I can easily see it as a lo-fi independent science fiction film, which would be fitting given the subject matter.

A very twisty Hitchcockian thriller from Spain in which the CEO of a new company wakes up in a hotel next to the body of his mistress. Of course, nobody is who they appear to be, and nothing is what it seems. This one kept me guessing all the way to the end.

A nice little photo filter app with a variety of pre-set filters that give your pictures a very nice, moody edge. I liked this enough I ended up playing with it for quite a while, and it could be genuinely useful for designing (say) ebook covers, especially when compared with other apps or software such as Pixelmator. 


Poll Results

A couple of weeks back I posted a poll in which I asked people to pick which future writing project of mine sounded promising based on a one- or two-line description so I could try and gauge what kind of book people might like to see from me. I think anyone could have guessed what the results might be, but I still hoped for a surprise.

I've been meaning to post about the results for a while now. I would have done so sooner, but I got caught up in writing a new manuscript - which I talk about further down the page. That’s just about finished, so now I think I can talk at last about the poll.

I figured most of you would vote in favour of the description that most resembled the kind of books I’m known for, so of course it’s no big surprise that it came out well ahead of the others. Although I was perhaps a little surprised at how far ahead.

And there was another unexpected result related to the two other choices I gave you.
Here's a screen grab to show you what those results actually look like.


As you can see, the vast majority of you are overwhelmingly in favour of Ghosts of the Deep, which I described as far-future hard sf. The other two contenders, Proxy and Black Dog are, by comparison, a long way behind. But the poll demonstrates they do have their supporters, however lightly sketched  the description of each is.

I was certainly surprised that Black Dog, which I described as Seventies-set Lovecraft, scored higher than Proxy, given Proxy is, ostensibly, cyberpunk. Of course, I didn’t actually use the word cyberpunk in the survey, and maybe that was a mistake.

Maybe it's time to talk a little more about these ideas, and how far they've been developed.

Of the three, Proxy is by far the most thoroughly developed. It currently exists as a detailed six-thousand word outline, and it got an enthusiastic response from my editor when I was still with Tor UK. Unlike the majority of my previous books, Proxy is set only thirty years in the future, and revolves around post-human mind-swapping in the criminal underworld of near-future New York.

Black Dog, by complete contrast, is intended to be full-on horror fantasy, depicting the rise to prominence of a thug-like band manager in the late sixties and early seventies with a great deal of black magic and occult goings-on. Think Valley of the Dolls by way of The Song Remains the Same  and Phantom of the Paradise.

So, yeah. A long way from Stealing Light. But of course, the idea of doing something so utterly unlike anything I’d ever done before is what makes it so enormously appealing. And, like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve read a shedload of Lovecraft, as well as fiction that makes use of the whole Cthulhu Mythos.  So it's natural I might want to write something like that.

Both Black Dog and Ghosts of the Deep, however, are only lightly sketched-in by comparison to Proxy. Even so, this poll is a really useful reminder both of where my strengths lie, and therefore of what I should focus on.

But neither do I want to get stuck in a rut of always writing books that use broadly the same settings and themes. A way out of that is to write more, and more varied stuff. And, indeed, the writing project that took up much of my time this month was a deliberate attempt to see if I could write a first draft of a novel in less than a month.

As it turns out, I can. Therefore if I can write more, and faster, then I can hopefully produce a greater variety of books - not just the ones people want and expect from me, but ones that let me flex my creative muscles. It’s equally possible that some of the ideas I've talked about here could be novellas rather than novels since, after all, they take much less time to write.

The other big takeaway from the poll for me is that running an occasional poll is not only fun, but genuinely insightful. Sure, sometimes the results aren’t always that surprising. But at the very least it's a direct link from your brain(s) to mine, and that's pretty useful. 


Ulysses shifts to subscription model: some thoughts.

In short, not a fan.

For those of you who don't know, Ulysses is writing software, similar to Scrivener but not as detailed and available only on Mac. And Scrivener, in case you don't know what that is either, is also writing software, and very, very popular: I've used it for writing every single book I've produced since 2007. Recently Ulysses announced a shift to a monthly paid subscription model and saw their servers crash due to a flood of visits from people who were, so I gather from social media, less than thrilled by the news.

I've seen some solid arguments about why some firms shift their software over to a subscription model: it's because every time they release a new version of their software, there's an initial rush to buy, followed by a long spell of no purchases until the next major update. With little or no money trickling in, sometimes for years, there's little incentive to work much on updates beyond hurried compatibility patches for OS upgrades. A subscription model, by contrast, keeps money flowing in regularly and allows for more frequent and meaningful software development.

And that's a valid business model - for a software company. For fiction writers and those who might be described as casual users, it's perhaps a different matter.

I think this move shifts Ulysses solidly away from casual to business software. I use both Ulysses and Scrivener, but for different things. I write short stories and book reports in Ulysses, since Ulysses is very good at handling short form work, but not long-form. I write novellas and novels in Scrivener, because there's no contest. It was also a nice way of compartmentalising my work: professional critiquing goes here, my own stuff goes there.

Scrivener is due an update very soon to version 3. I can tell you right now it rocks, because I've been beta testing it for months (I can't talk about it in any more detail than that, I'm afraid). It does make me wonder if Soulmen, the company behind Ulysses, saw what Scrivener are about to unleash and felt their collective hearts sink.

The question is, is it worth it to me to subscribe to Ulysses? Not really, no. Why? Because there's an alternative - Scrivener - that doesn't require a subscription. I could write the cost off as a business expense, but why pay yet more money? If I were using Ulysses for work, every single day, as opposed to spurts of activity as and when I'm asked to critique a manuscript, then a subscription might make sense.

And as a writer, my business expenses are always to the fore of my mind. Money is always to the forefront of my mind, as it is with every one of us whether rich or poor - and to be fair, it's poor, for most of us writers.

That's why this feels like a deliberate move to a specifically business, rather than casual model. If they've got a business model that can support them, great.

In the meantime, however, I'm going to keep using the non-subscription versions of the software, at least for as long as it'll work, which hopefully might be a couple of years. Ulysses has been very useful to me, but when push comes to shove, I know where I'd choose to land - with Scrivener. 


Four Things I Liked This Week

If you're wondering about the results of that poll I posted a few days back, they're on their way. In one respect, the results did not surprise me. In another respect, it surprised me a great deal. I'll elucidate further in an upcoming post.

I've been meaning to share a few things I've read, seen, listened to or made use of, hopefully on a semi-regular basis. Obviously I want you to buy my books, but I don't live in a vacuum: there's other good stuff, and since most of the things I encounter are through personal recommendation, it makes sense to pay that forward. So until I post the results of that last poll, here are some things I liked this week, and that I think you might too:

Comics: Locke and Key, Vol 1-4.
I actually started reading this a while back, but picked up the most recent volumes of this comic book series by Joe Hill during a sale on Comixology.  If you were to ask me for a recommendation, this comic series would likely be top of the list.

The Keyhouse, a sprawling mansion, has been part of the Locke family for centuries. After the brutal murder of their father, the Locke children return to live in the Keyhouse with their increasingly alcoholic mother. They soon discover certain keys open doors, and that passing through those doors produce unexpected results. They can make you bigger, or change your sex, or allow your spirt to wander free temporarily. But there's something hiding in the bottom of the well, and it wants out...

Film: Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright
Baby, a former teenage car thief, pays off a debt to a criminal kingpin by working as a getaway driver for bank robbers. His tinnitus means he constantly blasts music into his ears to drown out the noise. Sixty seconds into the movie, with the sound of Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion blasting out of the speakers, I was ready to stand up and cheer. A triumph of not only vivid and powerful storytelling, but also style. A future and perhaps even current cult classic by the director of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead.

Books: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
This is the book I wish a lot of the people writing endless military sf novels set in some kind of space Vietnam would read. Orwell, like many,  went to the aid of the Spanish communists and anarchists fighting Franco's fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Once there, he vacillates between boredom, spending long weeks half-drowned in mud at the bottom of a trench to no apparent purpose, and time in Barcelona, where he sees the people he came to help disintegrate into bickering and mutual betrayal, torn apart by larger forces abroad that have their own ideas of how the war should come out. Essential reading for anyone wanting to set a story in war times.

Documentaries: The Accidental Anarchist. 
This may still be on BBC IPlayer. Carne Ross is a former diplomat to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. He rapidly became disillusioned, and came to the conclusion he was doing more harm than good by aiding the Western war effort in the Middle East. Then he journeyed to Rojava, which is to modern idealists as Barcelona was to Orwell and his contemporaries: a place where a new kind of democracy could be brought into existence. There, he finds anarchism in action and working, and finds the same thing in scattered communities in modern Spain. One of the most enlightening and remarkable pieces of documentary film-making I've seen in a while.