Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Christmas Message

Well, the Queen does one, and mine are shorter. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, and remember there is no such thing as too much turkey. Seriously, there isn't, not as long as you have enough pickled onions with it.

General sitrep – books and assorted stuff

Newsletter subscribers have now had a sneak preview of the cover for BLACK RUN, the sequel to GOING GREY. I'll be revealing it to everyone else next week, but if you want to be notified when the book's published, sign up to receive updates on new releases and other relevant stuff. The timetable is slipping because of family illness that requires my time. I'm sorry about that, but you're adults and you understand.

There won't be pre-orders for BLACK RUN because Amazon won't run a Kindle pre-order page for indie authors without a manuscript being uploaded. As far as I'm concerned, if it's in a fit state to be entrusted to someone else's servers, then it's in a fit state to go on sale, and there's no point in messing readers around by making them wait just so I can to try to get a little visibility on some new titles list for a fleeting moment. (There's no pre-order system for CreateSpace trade paperbacks, by the way.) Publishing companies can list a book for pre-orders long before the author ever starts writing it, and with no more guarantee of it ever being finished, but indies have to operate under different rules for whatever reason. It makes no difference to me, so I'm carrying on with Plan A.

Getting back to the real world, i.e. people with real jobs that actually matter, I'm going to do an unusual thing and post my thoughts on Kajaki in the next week or two. It's more to get stuff off my chest and to try to work out my reactions than to inflict an actual review on anyone, which it won't be. I think all professional reviews of books, movies, or anything creative are irrelevant at best and an exercise in smart-arsery at worst, whether they're good or bad or neutral. I used to review movies in my journo days, so as I know all too well what goes into the reviewing sausage, and how worthless and possibly toxic that sausage is unless it comes from someone you know personally and trust, I never eat the bloody things. I don't read any reviews (pro or otherwise) of my own books, either. I never have, and I never will. I've told editors never to send them to me. Well-meaning friends sometimes forward what they call "great" ones to me, but I after thanking them (because it's a kind gesture, and they genuinely have my interests at heart) I simply delete them unread.

To call Kajaki a movie is something of a slight: it's actually more like standing there and watching a situation you're helpless to solve or prevent, with all the accompanying heartfelt anxiety, and it indulges in none of theatrical froth beloved of even "serious" war movies. This is a glimpse of 3 Para in Afghanistan, God bless them, and it's not easy viewing. It's a testimony as far as I'm concerned. I would clip open the eyes of every politician in this country and force them to watch it. I would also make it compulsory for the general population to watch it before being allowed a vote. But then you know what I'm like.

This isn't insulting toss like Hurt Locker. (There are bad movies, and then there are insulting movies, and Hurt Locker was insulting. Don't even get me started.) I can't even classify Kajaki with other war movies I think are worthwhile and honest, because Kajaki is about real, named people doing and saying what they did on the day, and makes few if any concessions for artistic licence or civilian lack of knowledge. It's also the only film I've seen that depicts private security contractors fairly, too. It's extraordinary. I'm still at a loss to find the word to describe how I experienced it, and if a writer can't pick a word, that tells you a lot. Enjoy isn't appropriate at all, and moving doesn't begin to cover it, but whatever verb or adjective conveys the meaning that I feel changed, better, more committed, and angrier for seeing it, that's the word. Whatever it is.

Managing complex plots – nuts and bolts.

Years after I left overhead projectors behind and switched to Powerpoint as my corporate narcoleptic of choice, I've returned to transparent plastic and marker pens for a wholly different purpose.

I'm currently writing two storylines that can best be described as Byzantine in their complexity regarding who's who, who knows what, when they knew it, what mistaken assumptions they make and then act upon, and what their personalities drive them to do; the comic series THE FALL OF G.I. JOE, and the sequel novel to GOING GREY, which is BLACK RUN. (Which will now be on sale in late January.) Thrillers in any medium depend more heavily on small detail and not falling into plot holes, and managing the ins and outs of that isn't something you can always entrust to your memory.

Whether you're working out plots, character arcs, or just trying to keep a grip on canon, there are as many methods as there are writers. Despite being a technical girl, I've opted for non-digital methods to manage G.I. JOE and BLACK RUN. There's a lot of software out there to help you manage stuff like that, and it's an integral part of the excellent Scrivener app. But I'll share these analogue methods with you because I know they'll suit some of you better than doing everything on a screen.

1. Whiteboard. Old school, and a lot of writers use them. You can slap everything on a single sheet and get an overview that can identify those oh-no-I-missed-that plot holes, timelines that don't work, and so on. Magic Whiteboard, plastic film on a roll that will stick to any smooth surface by static alone, is my personal fave because you can cut it to any size and literally slap it up anywhere, in your eyeline or out of it.

2. Sticky labels. Beloved of many. (I use the translucent Stalogy variety.) You can move them around on any surface or stick them in a master notebook, colour code them, file them anywhere, and take them with you if you want to work on plots and outlines when you're in the coffee shop. (Because sticking a whiteboard/ Magic Whiteboard up in your local Starbucks is even more Lame Poser than conspicuously typing your latest opus there. Unless you know the other customers well enough to invite them to brainstorm with you, of course.)

You can also use card systems – 3 x 5 filing cards, those handy little flashcards on a ring, or whatever you find easiest. Display is the issue; if you're comfortable flicking back and forth between leaves, fine, but if you want to be able to see it on one surface like a D-Day chart table, then you're going to need a puzzle mat or slotted stands.

3. My current method, as pimped in the intro: OHP sheets. Yep, transparent plastic. The kind you use on overhead projectors. One page per character, then assemble them so that you see one flow chart linking who does what, colour-coded as you prefer. It requires a bit of discipline to write in the right place so that it's not a jumble of overlaid text when you lay one sheet on top of the next, but you can ink in columns or a grid on a master sheet using a permanent marker. I use Staedtler markers, the Lumocolor Permanent for the grid guide and Lumocolor Non-Permanent for the character sheets. (It wipes off with a damp cloth but it's resistant to wearing off.)

OHP sheets can be trimmed and punched to fit whatever loose leaf system you use, too. I now have a B5 26-hole master ring binder for BLACK RUN that holds all the OHP sheets, notes-on-the-go/ summary notes on Maruman B7 mini sheets, and regular B5 paper. It's a Kokuyo Smart Ring Binder and those are slim and compact enough to assign one per project and carry several with you.

This all sounds bleedin' obvious but I'm still experimenting with the best ways to manage fiction projects after ten years. Your needs will vary, you'll change as a writer, and one size doesn't fit all. So try stuff out and see what works for you.

Tough guys have to eat too

If you want to check out the International Thriller Writers roundtable discussion on the role of food in contemporary thrillers, the discussion is here: it runs from October 13 to 19.

Food is a big deal in all my books. It defines us, reveals who we are, betrays what worries us (or not, because if eating pork scratchings is wrong, I don't want to be right) and identifies our culture and income. I'm not sure how I'd write fully realised characters or societies without it.

In other news, I had a great time at Roll Out Roll Call this weekend in Southampton, an event for fans of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and other IPs of similar vintage, organised by Dave Tree of
All The Cool Stuff, Fordingbridge. It was wonderful to have time and space to talk to fans – something that's near impossible at big cons – and meet fellow pros. I'm not ashamed to repeat the news that Larry Hama kindly did a terrific sketch on the cover of my first issue of THE FALL OF G.I. JOE. Larry is one of those rare people so accomplished that if you created a character like him in one of your books, the average editor would tell you to drop it because nobody could be that multi-talented and do so much in one lifetime. He's a lovely bloke, as well. A real privilege to meet him.

Thanks, too, to Dave for donating a batch of FALL comics and to Joe fans for buying the signed copies to raise money for Help For Heroes. A cheque for £67 is winging its way to H4H as we speak.

Quote of the Event Award goes to artist Jason Cardy (Transformers). When I was foolish enough to admit that I liked the Mortal Kombat movies and thought they should have their own retrospective season at the BFI, on account of their being cinema classics of which Orson Wells would be envious, he said: "Citizen Kano?"

"Get down here!"






Another ITW roundtable

I'm doing another International Thriller Writers roundtable discussion next week, October 13 to 19, and this time the topic is food. This is the starter question:

"We've covered weather, descriptions, settings, but what about the role of "food" in contemporary thrillers? Is there room to eat amidst the chasing?"

Well, we are what we eat, and none more so than characters in novels. Food's always been a big part of characterisation and world-building in my stuff. So if you're interested in seeing how a bunch of writers handle the topic, join us on the ITW Roundtable page. I'll post specific links in a few days.

International Thriller Writers' roundtable next week

Just a quick heads-up: International Thriller Writers holds a online roundtable every week where authors talk about an aspect of writing. Next week (October 6 - 12) I'll be taking part in a discussion on revealing characters' ages, with the question being: "Do readers prefer a protagonist who is ageless? When should writers provide details on age and when are the details too much?" Visit this link for the discussion, which is in a nice familiar blog format. If you check it out now, the current roundtable is about dialogue, which is definitely worth a look.

I'll also be taking part in another roundtable starting October 13. Details of that will follow soon.

First strike and the back foot

I've just watched an interesting response to an online debate between two authors. The details are irrelevant, except for the fact that these authors know each other well. One of them said something to the other that offended the lurking audience, and a backlash ensued in which some folks declared they'd never buy another book by that author because he was such a beastly, horrid man. (And variations on that theme.)

The interesting thing for an old spin doc like me was that the alleged insultee pointed out that the alleged insulter was a mate of his and that this was just blokeish banter. The context of the original comment, though, was completely lost because all the audience had seen was this apparently obnoxious statement. But it was too late: the author was already on the back foot, and judging by the reactions of onlookers, no amount of explaining and contextualising is going to change the minds of those who now think he's a grade-A bell-end and have boycotted his titles. The myth (I'm assuming the insultee knows if he's been insulted or not) has been born.

There are some lessons here for us all. Remember that I can make a politician look like a normal human being, so I know a bit about reputation management and how to put a parade-ground shine on a turd.

1. First strike. (Which can also be an own goal. The strike doesn't always come from the other side.) First strike is everything in PR. Rebuttal is for losers, even if you're right, you can prove it, and the first strike was so wrong it could bend space and time with its wrongness. Once something has happened and escaped into the wild, it's very hard to turn it around in the court of public opinion without a long campaign of drip-drip case presentation, no matter how right or innocent you are. I won't get into prebuttals and all that stuff, nor the dark art of bogus first strikes, because that's bound to end in tears. Just remember that humans form impressions quickly, so think before you write or say a word.

2. Context will bugger you every time. Relying on audiences understanding the context and tone of a statement is risky, especially on the internet. (It's bad enough in other media.) At the source, a comment may be clearly signposted and understood as banter between mates. Once a few lines are taken out and quoted elsewhere, though, they can become something very different. By the time the words are separated from the original source by three, four, five degrees or more, all the average punter can see is a statement that looks on the surface like a poor advert for someone's attitude to life. It may well be completely misleading; but it's a soundbite, and those have a life of their own, as anyone who's edited a TV interview will confirm.

Rebuttal and attempts at explanation end up being like Snopes. Everyone could check before rushing to judgement to see if X really said what he or she was quoted as saying, or if urban myths have any basis, but generally people don't. Most people, even apparently smart ones, swallow what they're told and never think of checking it. Fair enough: you could spend your entire life checking every word you hear and read, and become paralysed by mistrust and paranoia. But the more outrageous the words I see, the more I'm inclined to go back to the source. No journo worth their salt would take something at face value without making sure someone had said what was claimed, and I don't mean checking some half-arsed wiki page, either. But very few people can or want to do that amount of digging, and it doesn't occur to others because they're subconsciously cherry-picking the meaning that reinforces their world-view. Seeing what you expect to see is another hard-wired human trait, as I often find when I read a mind-boggling headline that suddenly becomes much more mundane on further, slower scrutiny.

And that's without misquotes creeping in. When readers shopped in stores and didn't spend so much time online, you could eat kittens and nobody would connect your eating habits with your product. Now that readers will search for your name online, your kitten-eating comments will be there, and they'll judge you accordingly. Even if what you originally said was about feeding kittens rather than fricasseeing them. People often don't read what's in front of them.

3. Like it or not, the way you present yourself in public may affect how people see your product and even if they buy it or not. In the good old days, the public rarely had a chance to find out what an actor, artist, musician, or writer was like in real life. In many ways, I wish that were still true. There are people whose behaviour I really don't want to know about, but it's hard to ignore it when it makes news headlines. Backlash is an issue for anyone in the public eye. (And these days, the bar for public eye is much lower than it used to be – like when your prospective employer finds that stupid stuff you posted on FB.) There's backlash. Some of it is conscious: people often don't want to line the pockets of someone who beats his wife or a woman who racially abuses staff. On a more subliminal level, poor image can taint everything you do. There's an actor whose movies I can never watch now because I can't get his behaviour off-screen out of my head and separate him from whatever role he's in.

Moral of the lesson: reputation management isn't only for politicians and CEOs – or even just for writers, come to that. By all means be yourself on the internet, unless you're a dick, in which case keep it to yourself. But it's easy to look like a dick when the audience can't or won't see the context in which something has been said. At which point, I'll switch from spin doc advice to journo advice; when it doubt – leave it out.

Picking your battles: censorship and self-censorship

Schleteva, Galibi, Nazani. And Westerham Falls, Maine. They're all places I write about, but you won't find them on any map. Okay, you'll find Maine. That's real. But other than the obvious, I made them up for the purposes of fiction. (Schleteva isn't Ukraine, by the way, nor is Galibi. Too far west, and I was already writing G.I. Joe by the time the Ukraine crisis kicked off.) Why invent a location when the world is full of great places to set a story?

One of the problems with fiction is that it has consequences in the real world, which is why you see all those boilerplate disclaimers at the front of every book and the end of every movie reminding people that it's all fiction and not intended to refer to anyone who actually exists. Of course, there are always writers who file off the serial numbers from real life, which doesn't help in a court case, but a lot of us really do make everything up. Because it's fiction. That's what it means. Characters like and dislike things, and expressing that is a central part of characterisation. Characters also disagree with each other.

So how far do you go? Readers sometimes think that writers invent places because it's easier than researching them. Actually, it's relatively easy to do the level of research you need without even visiting a country. But some of us still invent towns and countries because there isn't a real location that fits what we need, or because we want to avoid trouble in a world where someone always seems eager to be offended. In some ways, it's harder to invent a place because you still have to shoehorn it into an existing county, country, or continent. I spent days working out sunrise-sunset times, climate, and distances and consulting people with local knowledge to make Nazani and Westerham credible but clearly invented.

It might seem over-cautious, but I recall when Beirut threatened to sue the producers of Homeland because the city was depicted as being a place where terrorist incidents occurred. (Ironically, within days of that story, there was a pretty big car bomb.) Then there was the more recent row when a character in a Dan Brown book didn't much like Manila and the city took umbrage. There's a long list of cities that didn't like the way they appeared in TV shows.

But a city doesn't actually need to stand a chance of bringing a case to court to cause problems for writers. The storm-in-a-teacup nature of the internet means that a small but vocal group can take offence about anything and scare retailers enough to get items taken off sale. Indie authors will relate the story of Kobo panicking and pulling all its indie titles off its site last year regardless of genre – even children's books – because someone got upset about erotica being available. A big company can probably cope with its products being taken off sale for a while, but for individual authors, it's a potential disaster. It's not beyond imagination that a country could apply pressure to a retailer too.

So some of us tend to play safe these days because we're not big companies and we can't weather those storms of irrationality. What might be good rebound publicity for a big name can be crippling for those of us further down the food chain. If you're going to have a fight about controversial material, sometimes it's better to keep your powder dry for the battles that matter, like tackling controversial subjects.

A footnote on characters: useful people to have around

I'll start this with a caveat: like any writing advice I give, it might not work for you, may contain nuts, and probably isn't valid in some states. But if it sheds light for you as a writer or a reader, that's great. You never know.

This is part of the ongoing thread on creating and writing characters. I'm more of a howdunnit and whydunnit writer than a whodunnit type, and when you couple that with a very tight third person POV technique, you have certain challenges, not least of which is relaying things the reader needs to know. There are certain character types I'm always happy to see show up in my stuff because I know they'll be a big help when I need to do that. Incidentally, this applies to all fiction; it's handy for games and comics too.

It's the character who isn't in any specific camp, i.e. almost an outside observer, or who knows so little about the situation that another character will have to explain stuff to them, or who has greater knowledge and needs to impart that to others. (Gamers will be familiar with the latter concept.). You've probably spotted that this instantly saves you from clunky exposition of the kind where two qualified experts who know perfectly well what's going on explain the bleedin' obvious to each other like an episode of CSI. There's quite a choice: child, alien, spy, reporter, doctor, dispatcher, sentient computer, and so on. They can all ask questions and observe things that fill in the information gaps the reader needs.

I don't recommend deliberately shoehorning this kind of character into a story, though, because if they don't fit naturally then the cracks will show up pretty fast. I always start from the position of working out what kinds of people would find themselves in a given place or situation. The character needs to grow naturally from the premise you've set up.

Sometimes people ask if I use certain types of characters because I happen to know at first hand how those characters operate in real life. Sometimes I do know exactly how outsider characters do their jobs (journalists) but sometimes I don't (psychologists) so it's not about writing what I know. In the G.I. Joe comics, Siren is the head of PR for COBRA, and that's a job (minus COBRA, naturally) that I've done. But her story in the series isn't about how she operates as a spin doc: that became irrelevant the moment that I realised that her story arc had to be about loyalties, about being a parent trying to be around for her increasingly alienated son. So if you're trying to identify an outsider/ observer character, it's not about the kind of job they do and if you have an insider understanding of it.

In the Wess'har books, I have the BBC journo Eddie Michallat, who was always handy for asking questions about why the two factions on the mission and the various aliens behaved the way they did. He's not the only character who could do that, of course, but he could generally provide that extra dimension or stand back and sum up the position that other characters found themselves in. He was the necessary outsider. In Going Grey, I have both the innocent kid who needs things explained to him, and the analytical outsider, Dru Lloyd, whose HR and psychology background enables her later in the book to fill in the gaps about the personal dynamics of the other characters.

And then there's BB.

Having said you shouldn't shoehorn a character type into a book, I realise that it's not always true. I recall walking down the road, deciding that I probably had to have an AI character in this new Halo trilogy I was due to write, and coming up with the core character of BB, Black Box, in the space of a 100 yards. (Yes, characters usually hit me very fast. They just step out the shadows, almost completely fully formed. It's weird, but like I've said, I have a lifetime's database of the human condition to draw on.)

As a smart AI, BB would be a necessary device on board ship, and a natural, expected part of the Halo universe. He could be everywhere at the same time and see everything the flesh-and-blood characters couldn't: that was his actual purpose in the canon, of course, the omnipresent intelligence required to run vast, complex spaceships. But when I sat down to write, BB evolved on the page and became the lynchpin of the entire trilogy, a key to the whole premise of Spartans and the attitudes and predicaments of all the characters around him. In the end, he was both the saviour of his human friends and oblivious of his own tragic origins.

So there's more to these outsider characters than just making exposition easier. They have to punch their own weight as people (alien, human, or inorganic) and be an integral part of the story. You won't always find them, or even need them, but in some kinds of stories, they're worth looking for and developing.

Lowest common denominators: giving the reader some credit

Yesterday, perhaps later in life than I should have, I discovered the word pleonasm.

I love new words. Words have been my living all my working life, and, predictably, I've built a substantial vocabulary. So finding a new word is relatively rare these days, and it's a real buzz to rush to the dictionary. It never occurs to me to skip the word or guess its meaning, although I do try to spot the etymology to see if I can break it down before I open the SOED. That's just a bit of fun.

I assume readers look up words too. I make few assumptions in life, but I'd hazard a guess that anyone who reads fiction is also capable of using a dictionary, and probably enjoys words as well. It's even easier if you're using an e-reader. All you have to do is tap the screen for a definition.

I was thinking this morning of a couple of occasions when editors suggested readers wouldn't understand a specific word I'd used. (Not military jargon – just an ordinary word.) In my experience, editors don't generally read a manuscript that closely, so maybe that's why a few instances stand out. The idea of readers being unable to cope with one unfamiliar word or phrase baffles me. I don't mean solid pages of highly technical or obscure language. I mean occasional words, and nothing pretentious, either; just uncommon words.

"They won't understand that word," an editor told me. "Can't you change it?"

"No," I said. I don't pick words at random. They're specific to the situation, the character, and the scene. "Readers can do what I do – use a dictionary. It's obvious from the context anyway."

None of us has a perfect knowledge of any language. We all need a dictionary sometimes. Smart people know what they don't know and look things up; it's how we all learn. Much of my early education came from seeing words I didn't understand and consulting a dictionary, then reading more widely about the topic. And, of course, I don't know what other people don't know. Once you start censoring words as possibly being too hard for an unknown person who might or might not buy your book, then your writing begins a death spiral of sterility.

In one case, an editor objected to the phrase "stood out like the Eddystone lighthouse," on the grounds that American readers "won't know what it is." Look, if you don't understand what a lighthouse is, and how conspicuous those things are – their whole purpose is to be seen – then you're probably under seven years old, and grasping the term "lighthouse" will be the least of your problems when reading my books. The suggestion (from an American, by the way) that American readers were too dumb to understand an English place name struck me as pretty patronising. If you're an American, as nearly all my readers are, then you might not know where the lighthouse is (most Brits don't, either) but you know what a lighthouse is and why the character uses that term, especially as the paragraph expands on it. As the character is English, he wouldn't refer to a lighthouse in the USA. It's the right saying for the right character. And that was my criterion for using it.

If you read my novels, you know that I generally write plain. Each scene, as I said in my last blog entry, is seen through the point-of-view character's eyes, and expressed entirely in their language – every line, not just the dialogue. That's all part of building the character and putting the reader in the character's shoes. That means the language will vary in its complexity and vocabulary, but it will never be an exercise in elaborate style to show the reader how many fancy words I know, or purple prose for the sake of it. It's as simple or as complex as it needs to be to convey meaning. In fact, if you notice a style at all, then I've failed in telling the story and keeping you immersed.

But the occasional unfamiliar word in a novel isn't going to throw anyone. (Especially not in SF.) Write what you feel needs saying to tell the story, and don't second-guess the reader. They can probably handle whatever you throw at them. They're smart like that.

Understanding character and tight third person POV

My mate Jim, another writer, made a really interesting observation when he listened to the sample chapter of the GOING GREY audiobook. Like me, he doesn't normally buy audiobooks, but he was struck by how clear the change of character point-of-view was. He said that he'd be interested to know if audiobook listeners find it easier to understand tight third person POV than book readers; the POV changes can be very striking if the narrator can do radically different voices, as Euan Morton can.

If you read my stuff, you'll be familiar with very tight third person POV. It's third person, but so tightly confined to each character's observations, view, experience of the world, and even linguistic style that it's more like a constantly changing first person perspective, i.e. it's highly subjective and the focus is narrow, confined to only what the character knows, sees, or feels. I flag that up like a shovel to the face in every scene, via the POV character's attitudes, dialogue and thoughts. There's no "neutral" narrative between the dialogue lines. The whole scene is their thoughts and words, written in their style and language. And as the characters switch, so does the style.

Many writers do multiple third, and some do very tight third, but I do multiple very tight third with large casts of characters, as many as eight, and that means the reader has to do a bit of work hopping from head to head with each scene, seeing from behind each character's eyes. No two characters see the same situation the same way. They're like real people. We don't agree. We can witness an event and come away with radically different memories of what happened and totally different opinions on whether it was a good thing or not.

So there are no helicopter views in my books and no authorial voice. I don't have one. I only see what the characters see, and after 25 novels, I've refined that to an automatic method I don't even have to think about while I write. I just switch it on and off. If I ever need to step outside the POV characters' knowledge, then I have to use epigraphs. They're worth their weight in gold if you do tight third. They can also add a kind of punctuation to the plot.

That's my main selling point, though: creating three-dimensional characters. The story is how differently characters see the situation, and how differently that makes them react to it and to each other. Most readers understand that they're inside someone else's head, scene by scene. Some don't get it, though, and look for a common authorial POV throughout. Actually, some people don't get third person POV at all, let alone tight third or multiple POVs. Jim and I spend a fair bit of time discussing why some people don't understand that it's the characters talking and thinking, not the writer, and that not all the characters agree on reality.

I have no evidence beyond observation of unscientifically tiny samples (the proportion of readers who don't get third person POV and who also mail me) and trying to roll back from the end result, i.e. the misunderstanding. This is just my rationalisation. I think some of it might be how people have been taught, and some might be their own psychology.

Just so we're clear, this is how I write characters. The purpose of writing for me is exploration, being in someone else's mind and seeing the world their way for a little while. My characters aren't people I know and they're not me or anything like me. I don't need a soapbox, because I used to be a journo, and I have quite an audience, so if I had a message to give you I've got lots of other avenues to do that anyway, not least of which is social media. So characters for me are a step into the unknown – not necessarily fun, but always educational. And then I step out of them and go back to being me, albeit altered a little by the perspective of a stranger. Once or twice, I've been altered a lot by seeing a situation from a character's perspective, and been turned around 180 degrees on an ethical issue. That's unsettling. But either way, the books write me. It really is like being exposed to real people who tell you things that don't fit your own worldview at all.

Why do some readers struggle with the concept of characters having – literally – a point of view? Well, there are people who can't imagine that others don't think the same way that they do, and I mean can't, not that they're self-centred. They really struggle to imagine how someone else would feel. I'm not sure how much of that is hard-wired and how much is down to their environment in infancy and early childhood, but some people just aren't able to think that way.

Then there's poor teaching. Sorry to mention that again, but English literature is frequently taught by people who've never written in earnest and don't understand how writers work. It's much more pragmatic and dull than they think. There's also the artificiality of having to produce an analysis that will satisfy an exam board, and it's the vexed question of "what the writer means." Only the writer knows that. It's one thing to say, "When I read this book, this was what it meant to me." It's quite another, as I've said in the previous blog, to claim you can ever know what a writer intended and indulge in teach-yourself-psychology about a complete stranger. I get mail from readers asking me who the good guys are in my books because they can't tell who's right. I reply that I have no idea – the reader has to make up his own mind about people, just as we do in real life. We all believe different people. We don't universally agree who's right and who's wrong. If we did, the history of the world would have been very different and lot less eventful. When I get that kind of mail, it looks to me like the product of bad teaching. The reader's very aware that he's seeing the viewpoints of different characters, not an author's, but he's been taught to look for a "message" and a "right answer" placed in the book by the author, and he can't find either.

That's because there aren't any. Really, there aren't. The clue is in the weight of the multiple POVs. They all have a valid point to make. It is, in a sense, what I was taught to do many years ago: balanced reporting. I recall an editor telling me they felt "seduced by sin" because they found one of my characters sympathetic even though the character's views repelled them in real life. All I was doing was portraying a person who thought that way. Nobody thinks they're a monster, and one man's monster is another's saint anyway.

The nearest I have to a message is a stated aim to tell the truth in fiction. Theme isn't message, by the way. Theme is the reference point you use to make sure your book isn't rambling all over the place. (Although, if you've got the characters clear in your head, it shouldn't.) It's your checkpoint. Sometimes you start with a theme and stick to it: sometimes it changes because the characters go in a direction you'd hadn't seen coming; and sometimes you only find the theme when you're well into the book and it emerges by itself, but it's still only the "vibe" – not a manifesto, unless you decide to make it into one.

I accept that a lot of lit fiction does set out with some kind of message, and is often the author's viewpoint through the filter of a story. There's the much-derided stereotyped novel of the English professor or starving writer embarking on self-discovery. Personally, I'd poke my eyes out with a rusty nail rather than read that, let alone have to spend months writing it. I want something different from my existence, a radical change of scenery and something that might even change my mind about the world, a bit like travel. I don't want to know how it ends when I begin, even if I need to start with a rough idea simply to decide on an initial direction before the characters take over the wheel. In some ways, I'm more like the reader than the writer; I want to be amazed. And, of course, I also write because I bloody well need to eat and keep a roof over my head. It's what I do best, and as I get older, it's possibly the only thing I'll be able to do to earn a living.

So if you read a book and you think it's full of all kinds of viewpoints, some of which strike a chord with you and some of which make you want to boo and hiss the character, then you're probably right. It's the clamour of different voices. There's no right answer or hidden message. The sound of approaching hoofbeats, as they say, is far more likely to be a horse than a zebra. (Unless you're in certain parts of Africa, of course, but I digress.) Or maybe a cigar really is a cigar. I'm sure we could work up a book of analogies on that.

Anyway, back to the original point that Jim raised to start all this discussion. If multiple third person POVs, tight or otherwise, are something you sometimes struggle to distinguish from a central authorial voice, either as a reader or as a writer, it might be useful to listen to a book in audio after reading it and see if it changes how you think. If you do try this, let me know how you get on, because Jim and I are genuinely curious about the differences in perception – whether they're ingrained or the product of the medium.

Stone curries and the eye of the beholder

A book is a different thing for every reader. Really, it is. I don't just mean that readers have different opinions on books. I mean that the book itself will tell a different story to each person on the basis of their life experience, culture, and even age. It'll even tell the same person different stories depending on when they read it.

You might recall my blog about a reader who contacted me to say how he'd read a book of mine at two points in his life – the first while he was a young, single soldier, the second time when he'd become the father of a little boy. It was, he said, like reading the book for the first time again and finding it was completely different. He saw a different story because the "extra material" in his head, the experiences that were triggered when he read certain lines, were those of a man whose life had changed.

A book or any other work of fiction exists only at the point where it creates an effect in someone's brain. So readers write the part of the book the writer never gets to see.

There's no point in telling readers what they ought to see in your book: they see what they see, and that's that, because it's the end of a complex perception process. If they tell you they know what you meant and what message you were sending, it's okay to argue with that, because just as you can't tell them what they think, they can't possibly know what was in your mind when you wrote the story. It requires an understanding on both sides that however non-linear a story a book might appear to tell compared to something interactive like a game, it's still a malleable thing subject to many filters, both in the writer and the reader.

I understand that when I write, the most I can do is tell the story and then let go of it. Some readers know that they're seeing a blend of writer and reader that turns into something unique for everyone, almost like two genomes combining and then being further complicated by the expression of genes. Others are convinced that there's a single meaning and that the writer is sending a message. The fact that the message swings wildly between readers – this one thinks you're a communist, the next thinks you're a paid-up Nazi – tends to confirm the theory that everyone reads a different book, and it's not my view of the world they see but their own.

Whatever English lit teachers tell you, there's no definitive meaning, and unless the writer has explained why they wrote it and what they intended, then teachers don't know the writer's motivation and subtext either. With dead writers, they can get away with that. But a college lecturer once contacted me to announce that he'd written a feature referencing me and asked if I'd like to see it. It wasn't the analysis of the books that bothered me: everyone sees a book through their own filters, as I've said, and he seemed to like the novels. But he presumed to also write about my personal politics, which he didn't know anything about because they stay well out of my books, and he got them badly wrong. When he asked my opinion, I pointed out that he could have asked me easily and not attributed views to me that I actually didn't hold.

He wasn't terribly gracious about it. In fact, he was pretty rude, and made it clear that he believed writers had no idea what they thought. He seemed to have no grasp of the fact that many writers don't trot out their own politics in every book but actually create diverse characters with varied opinions to entertain others. It's just a story. It's not advocating a lifestyle.

A friend who's an academic from a different background said that attitude was fairly common with literature profs, and that they operated from the basis of having an opinion and then trying to prove it was fact, ignoring everything that didn't fit. I'm not entirely sure that's unique to literature, but I was at least glad that the guy didn't do a real job requiring hard data, like running a nuclear power station.

Anyway, I finally found a really good example of the malleable nature of even the simplest stories. Years ago, I came across an Indian folk tale about a stone curry. It's a common folk story around the world, sometimes known as stone soup or nail soup: a couple of guys arrive in a village asking for food and shelter, and then take out a bag full of stones (or nails, or other inedible objects.) They ask if someone can give them some onions to make a stone curry, because they have these amazing stones that have a unique flavour. While they're chopping the onions, they ask other villagers if they can just provide a few potatoes so they can bring out the flavour of the stones. Eventually, they have a huge pot of curry bubbling away, another villager provides rice, and the villagers sit down to eat. The two guys are feted as wonderfully generous. Then they finish the meal, fish out the stones, and go on their way to do the same thing elsewhere the next day.

Now, when I read that story, it was told as a tale of two con men putting in nothing of value but leeching off the gullibility and generosity of the villagers. Recently, though, I've seen it interpreted as a parable about the value of cooperation and sharing. I still struggle to see the story that way. The facts are the same: the characters do the same thing. There are clearly at least two stories here, probably more, but I can only see one, informed by my own life experiences and cultural filters.

And, for the record, the curtains were ******* blue.

(If you haven't seen that perfect analysis, the NSFW reference is here.)


Too real, too soon

I've had a few questions arising from the think piece I did for io9 this week on indie publishing, so this seems to be the best place to address them.

One thing that I didn't go into is the curse of the Real World Book. I've had many stories get overtaken by real world events. It's a particular curse for journalists who also write fiction (as opposed to journalists who write fiction labelled "news") because we're really, really skilled at extrapolation. Give us a scenario, and we can crunch all the variables around it like a mainframe to come up with a likely next move. It's based heavily on the data sets of experience, i.e. the older you get and the more you see as a journo, the more likely you are to predict things, and not in a Nostradamus kind of way. On a smaller scale, it's the same kind of analysis that enables me to create characters. So, multiplying characters together and factoring in all kinds of stuff, a news hack of the old school can make a reasonable stab at what's coming next – not enough to play the stock market with huge success, alas, but enough to say, "Bloody well told you so."

Anyway, when you're writing a novel, and you're linking significant parts of the plot into the real world around us, you run the risk of some real human being in the real world doing stuff that blows your book. Everyone's heard the story about the bloke whose novel about Bin Laden (alive) came out or was due out around the same time that the bearded chap met his end at the hands of SEAL Team 6. That's every writer's nightmare. Well, among several events that got in the way of Going Grey was the Snowden revelations. And the sound of ripping paper, or at least delete keys, was heard in the land.

There's a fine balance between writing the most realistic book you can and making yourself a hostage to fortune. There's also the curse of the politically logical: you sit down, look at a scenario in the world, and think: "What if that government reacted like this? And then what if X did Y, and Z responded by...?" It's a predictive habit. I believe it's one of the reasons why "formative causation" seems to be alive and well among journalists. One slow news day, you'll be sitting in the newsroom, trying to think of a story to follow up to fill the void, and you suddenly get the urge to make a few phone calls and check out the latest on a story that you filed maybe a year ago. It's a cold case, a dead story, but a follow-up is a follow-up, so you think it'll be fresh because nobody else is thinking what you're thinking.

But as soon as you make your first call, the spokesman or contact on the other end says, "You're the sixth reporter today to ask me that. What's started you all off? Is there something I don't know?"

It happened to me so often that I was pretty sure it wasn't random. I don't think it was paranormal weirdness or a collective unconscious, either, but I do think that journos read microscopic, subliminal signs all around them, they learn to read them in the same way, and then, when they find themselves in a situation where a number of factors occur at the same time, they all have the same response – to pick up the phone and find out what happened to Joe Bloggs.

Anyway, the point is that when we come to write fiction, as quite a few old hacks do, we tend to extrapolate real world events in such a way that we end up looking clairvoyant, and usually at the most inconvenient time. The relevance to indie publishing is that once I've finished writing and editing a book, I can get it through my own production system and on sale in a day, provided I get stuck in and don't get distracted. Yes, one day. Not one week: one day. Traditional publishing can get books out very fast if it really has to, which is normally real world memoir stuff rather than fiction, but we're still talking weeks or months even when they're going flat-out. The usual cycle for fiction is now often eighteen months, even two years. There are reasons for this, part of which is the practice of having to sell titles into the bookstores that now have two sales "seasons" rather than three, according to a sales-savvy editor I know, but it still means that writers whose stuff rests on real scenarios are left sweating all that time, hoping that they don't get caught by external events.

So once I've written a novel and it's ready to roll, I can get it on sale immediately. I can do the sequel as soon afterwards as I please – I don't have to worry about the publisher's catalogue or the sales team selling the book into a chain that has its own schedules geared to a much longer timescale. If I've written enough to publish an entire series in a year, six* books or more, then I don't have to factor in how long the books will take the publisher to feed out into the market, or having too many titles out at once. It's just not relevant when the titles will go on sale online and will always be on the virtual shelves as long as I want them to be, so that readers can work through them as fast or as slowly as they want.

And that's a really significant advantage that indie authors – and small publishers, who can be equally agile – have over traditional big publishing companies. I won't get into why having a critical mass of titles for sale helps increase sales, but it's a factor in visibility and building a readership. But for writers who sail perilously close to the disruptive potential of the world actually doing stuff that messes up their story, getting to market fast is a life saver.

(*No. Just no. I'm too old and tired now. But I'll keep taking the vitamin C and see how far I get.)


Keywords, caveats, and rough cactus affection

If you've been following me on Twitter this week, you'll have noticed that I'm a bit preoccupied with book categorisation. Which is why I'm asking people who actually buy books to tell me how they work out what a book is and if they're going to be interested in it or even offended by it.

You'd think it would be fairly simple to work out what kind of book you've written and which people are likely to read it. But the book world's not the tidy, controlled marketplace it used to be, when books knew their place on the shelves and librarians wore cardigans. The internet has brought us maximum choice and the ability to find what we want with ever more precise keywords, but with maximum anything comes a need to sort stuff out. And that's my challenge. It came about because of the way new categories spring up way ahead of anything BISAC (the book industry's categorisation standard) can get to grips with.

When you're marketing your own stuff you have to face keywords and meta tags sooner or later. Now, I already had problems working out whether GOING GREY was a techno-thriller, a military thriller, or military SF that wasn't really what I'd call military SF. (Blokes in armour, aliens, unfeasibly large weapons, and that kind of thing, of which I've penned my share.) I ended up taking a vote among my beta readers. Techno-thriller won, but this week I decided to switch the categories to SF/ Military and Thriller/Military after checking the titles I could actually see on Amazon in those sections.

Categories, though, are plain sailing compared to the keywords you also have to add to help readers find your book when they're browsing.

GOING GREY is about a lot of things – identity, friendships, corporations, soldiers, even strong female characters although it's primarily a book about maleness – but it's also about coming of age. Ian has to work out who he is and transition from an almost monastic life to something much more risky and unnerving in the adult world. So when colleagues were talking about "new adult" as a category, i.e. protagonists who are in their late teens or early 20s and starting out on their own for the first time, some of us thought that would fit our stories.

Unfortunately, we hadn't grasped that it had now evolved pretty rapidly into what I, being old and crotchety, call soft pr0n. One way or another, "new adult" had become a term in many readers' eyes for erotica. Now, GOING GREY is violent, full of bad language, and there's frequent blokeish obsessing about sizes of appendages and getting enough female attention, but it ain't erotic by any definition. The trouble is that "new adult" as a keyword can filter you out of some searches because of its erotica rating, which can cost sales. So I spent this morning revising the keywords into terms that were (I hope) accurate, valid for most search engines, and not accidentally misleading.

I admit being educated in a way I didn't want to be when I first looked at categories on Smashwords. (A sales channel I ended up deciding not to use.) I typed in some innocuous term like "marine" or "soldier" to see what suggestions the site threw up, and the more harmless words I added, the further I fell down a rabbit hole of erotic fiction. (Unfortunate choice of metaphor, I admit.) There were things I didn't even realise there was a market for, and that looked anatomically ill-advised to me. I gave up. I just wanted to find out how a nice girl like me could sell books full of blood, swearing, anxiety, betrayal, and willy jokes.

And that's another issue. I make a big point in the book section of this web site that I don't write YA books*. Most of my novels are M for Mature, and the ones that aren't are just as full of equally mature stuff but minus the cussing. But there are still people who might hand GOING GREY to little Johnnie because they've seen the name Karen Traviss on SW books, and that's all harmless, isn't it? I suspect Johnnie has heard a lot stronger language in the playground than in my dialogue, but I still worry about the delicate of sensibility passing out when they run into their first F bomb or colourful discussion about bodily functions. Should I stick a warning label on the cover? The consensus from an admittedly unscientifically small sample is that there was no point. Yeah, it's not like it makes much difference with games, after all.

Okay, there's a nails-looking bloke on the cover of GOING GREY, clutching a pistol and carrying a baton. He might or might not be turning into a leopard. However unusual the cover is, it still indicates an absence of unicorns or steamy sex. Caveat lector, as the Romans might have said, and those blokes knew what they were talking about.

(*If I did, I'd be much better off financially.)

Cranking up a story (Warning: movie spoilers)

I was watching SUSPECT ZERO tonight for maybe the fifth time and it struck me that it's a great example of how to lift a story from a fairly solid thriller that's nothing exceptional into something that really engages the audience.

I often get mail from aspiring writers who say they're struggling to work out where their stories should go next. My stock answer is to follow the characters, get into their heads, and push the questions to the nth degree. Then the story will follow naturally. Now, that makes perfect sense to me because it's how I write. I know what I mean. But it's a bit like trying to explain colour, so an example like this movie makes it easier.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to ruin it for yourself, then stop reading this now, get hold of it on DVD or something, and watch it before you come back to this blog. If you're not fussed, read on. It's more about the character development than the twists of the plot anyway.

I think SUSPECT ZERO (Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley) is a cracking little movie. I'll watch almost anything with Aaron Eckhart in it (although I, FRANKENSTEIN was right on my pain threshold) but there was more to it than that. It could have been nose-bleedingly predictable, but it wasn't. And it was all a matter of asking one extra question that a lot of screenplays wouldn't have bothered with.

It's about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer of serial killers, and the killer appears to have a personal fixation with the investigating agent (Eckhart). Eckhart's character has Serious Personal Issues and is trying to redeem himself after being suspended for breaking the rules when arresting a throughly nasty bastard. Seen all that before? Yeah, they're all familiar elements. There are no new stories under the sun, remember, and all that varies is how well they're executed. Anyway, there's another layer to this: the serial killer (Ben Kingsley) is actually an ex-FBI agent who was trained to do "remote viewing," a fringe-y paranormal technique whereby you focus on a map and then images of what's happening at that location come into your head. But that's still not the factor that makes the film rock. It's the examination of what it does to a man to have that ability developed in him.

Kingsley's character has been trained to "remote-view" serial killers, which means letting his mind receive images of actual events as they happen and then identifying the location on a map, an inverse version of the technique. (If you think that sounds batty, then bear in mind that the CIA and the KGB attempted to use remote viewing to spy on secret locations, presumably when they weren't busy staring at goats.) And that's the key. The poor bugger is actually set on receive all the time. Murders have to come to him, because he can't predict them. He's always getting these nightmarish images intruding in his mind. And it really screws him up.

Any other movie (or book) might have been satisfied that it had a plot with a lot of twists – serial killers being killed by a serial killer with a freaky paranormal skill. (There's one more twist after that, and it's neatly signposted, although I only picked it up on the third viewing.) But SUSPECT ZERO ratchets it up by getting detailed and personal: what must it be like to be able to remote-view awful things and not be able to stop it? The answer ties into Eckhart's character's problems and sets up the ending, which isn't a happy one. It's not a twist, not some revelation injected at the end: it's a perfectly logical progression from the moment you realise what Kingsley is doing, that extra and very obvious question that needs asking, that awkward question. Train a man to do something like that, and you've condemned him to a waking hell. And that won't end well.

Take a look at this movie and then revisit whatever story you're working on to see if you've taken it as far as you can. It's a good example of pushing things to their logical end.

When fiction replaces reality

If anyone's still in any doubt about the impact that fiction has on shaping real world opinion, some of the coverage of the Yazidi refugee crisis in Iraq is a classic lesson in how pervasive myth can be, especially when there's no equal volume of reality to displace it.

I finally stopped watching a particular morning news show this week because of its increasing tendency to populate its studio sofa with Z-list celebs, minor sports stars, and others with no qualifications to shed light on actual news events. Now, everyone's entitled to an opinion: but if we're discussing what can be done to sort out an ongoing genocide, or the latest advance in particle physics, I want to hear from someone qualified in the subject, not Mumsnet or someone from reality TV. Talking about whether to launch a massive airlift by helicopter? I want to hear from a helo pilot, a pundit from the RUSI, or UNHCR spokesman. But no, we got a random bunch of minor entertainers who dished out great advice to the RAF on why it was wrong and what it should be doing with its Chinooks.

I know you have to take who you can get at the time a live programme's on air. I worked in TV for years. I know it's a slog to get studio guests within certain windows. But even so... this was feeble.

The sad thing was that these people looked genuinely moved by the crisis, but they seemed to have formed their opinions on what was physically possible in warfare and humanitarian relief from the mishmash of movies they'd seen – maybe even books they'd read. They had no idea of what it takes to get a helicopter to a location or why you just can't run aircraft like mini-buses getting people home from the pub. The logistics of what you do when you need to move thousands of people in a war zone was beyond them. There's no reason why they should know, of course: it's not their job. But somehow fiction in its various forms is so much more seductive, and so much better able to lodge in the brain than facts, that these people thought they knew how things happened in the real world. And if you start basing real decisions on myth, or voting accordingly, then it's dangerous.

I don't know how to fix it. The tendency is as old as humanity, just more pronounced these days in a world of global media. All I know is that I make every conceivable effort to tell the truth in fiction for that very reason, even if it's aliens and pulse rifles*. I know how powerful fiction is: I've been a news journalist, and I've also worked in political PR, so I know first-hand that myth trumps fact most of the time. Emotional memory is more persistent than factual memory. Alzheimer's patients may not even recognise their loved ones but their emotional memories can be triggered. But PR worked that out many years earlier. The first rule of PR was pinned to my office wall: they may not remember what you said, but they'll remember how you made them feel.

I worry about what's called the CSI effect. Friends who are cops tell me that juries are more prone to judge forensic evidence by the impossible fictional standards set on TV. If CSI can prove X did it with their super-fast tests, why is this test in the real trial not 100% conclusive? Worse, other cops tell me that fellow officers base their expectations of forensics on what they've seen on CSI too. It's wrong to pass off fiction as accurate fact when it isn't. It's why I object to docudramas both as a fiction author and as a journo. You blur the line at your peril. It can end up doing damage to real people.

Swedish cop show Wallander (the actual Swedish TV one, not the UK version) manages to entertain without losing sight of reality. When Wallander asks an officer to enlarge and sharpen a blurry security camera image of a suspect, he gets a very real world answer. "Sorry, that's the maximum resolution on that camera." If that had been CSI, it would magically resolve into an HD image verging on the minute clarity of a bloody electron microscope.

People absorb that stuff not because they're stupid but because they have no real-world data to compare it with, or because they're exposed constantly to it ("drip-drip" PR) in a medium that they're not on their guard against. Fiction gets under the radar; it produces emotional reactions, and emotions stick in the brain. They're an integral part of the learning and reinforcement system we depend on for survival. And that's the principle behind product placement and all those agenda-ists trying to get their particular cause or idea aired in a TV soap series. Next time you're watching a movie or a TV drama and taking something for granted as accurate, ask yourself what you really know about it.

(*Don't get me started on why Battle: Los Angeles is actually a more authentic military movie than The Hurt Locker, either.)


The Fall Of G.I. Joe – first pages.

Isn't this gorgeous? Great colouring. See the rest on IDW's FB page.

And keep an eye on Isaac in this series, because Steve Kurth's done an amazing job with him.

giJoe1preview

Gucci covers and snazzy workflow interfaces


I'll have to ask my editor at DC Comics about the company that prints their hardcover compilations. I've received my author copies of ARKHAM UNHINGED vol. 4 and they're a proper Gucci job – dust jacket and laminated cover, each with different artwork, plus black endpapers and black backgrounds throughout. They're not cheap, but they definitely look worth the money.

I used to accept naff quality from novel publishers because that was what you got and you couldn't argue about it, but since I've gone indie, I've realised how good the final product can look for a fraction of the expenditure and for the same retail price. So I like to applaud quality when I see it. Nice one, DC. Okay, packaging isn't content, and you could read my stuff scrawled on cardboard boxes if you were really keen, but if you're spending your hard-earned cash, then I want you to have the best possible customer experience. We all like nice stuff. It puts us in the right frame of mind. Tea from a china cup usually tastes better than the same brew from a paper one.

GOING GREY seems to be up on the B&N site already, both as paperback and e-book, which is pretty speedy, seeing as my author dashboard is still showing "pending." (Incidentally, the Nook Press publishing portal is a case study in getting workflow right. The online editing and collaboration tools are brilliant. I really take my hat off to them for that.) The Nook edition of VIEW OF A REMOTE COUNTRY isn't on the B&N site yet, but the paperback is. Well, they said 72 hours, and we're not at the 24 hour mark yet, so I call that a good result.

If you're using Kobo, iTunes, or Nook, I'd say grab your copies of both books sooner rather than later, because there's a probability that I'll be opting for a 90-day Kindle-only period at some point in the near future to see if it shifts more merch. (Paperbacks and audiobooks aren't affected.) If I put those two e-books into what's known as Kindle Select, then they won't be on sale anywhere else for 90 days.

And as of now, my brain officially hurts. I've hauled myself up a steep learning curve over meta tags today, and driven Kindle Direct's support desk mad with questions I didn't understand the answers to, yet they remain graciously patient, bless them. I'm going to clock off and have a serious coffee or three to see if I can re-boot my neurons.

Newsarama interview

New interview up now on Newsarama: a sneak peek at THE FALL OF G.I. JOE.

Many a true word

If you haven't come across The Worst Muse on Twitter, it's time you did. My mate Jim drew it to my attention and we worked through the list, checking off all those pearls of wisdom we'd actually heard from editors with only one or two words changed. There were quite a few.

VIEW OF A REMOTE COUNTRY

A collection of my short stories from waaaaay back is now up on Amazon (Kindle and paperback), iTunes, and Kobo. VIEW OF A REMOTE COUNTRY is 13 shorts that were published in various magazines like Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy between 1999 and 2003. It's 60,000 words, a mere shopping list by my standards, but a full-length book whichever way you cut it.

It's a mixed bag: most of these stories were written at Clarion or for another workshop, One Step Beyond, so there's a wide variety of approaches in there including fantasy. (Look, I was young and I needed the money, okay? But I swear there are no dragons or mages.) As I said the other day, this is the stuff I was trying for size to see what my true style was, so things like first person POV and present tense were dropped as soon as I started on novels, while other elements like parallel character arcs stayed the course.

There were more stories than that, but I couldn't find the files. I wanted the stories to appear as they did on publication, so apart from making it consistent UK spelling throughout (the files were a mix of UK and US) they're what magazine readers saw at the time.

I have some of the original art: Return Stores, for example, was illustrated by the late John Berkey, truly wonderful stuff, and I have the final painting plus the three preliminary colour sketches that he did for it. If I work out how to get decent images without wrecking the UV glass and frames, I'll post pics here some time. The fact that magazines were spending money on commissioning top artists like Berkey to do real paintings still stuns me. It's lovely, but I have no idea how the mags managed to afford it.

I'll be honest, I didn't enjoy writing shorts because they're not substantial enough to really get into developing characters. Shorts as a spin-off from an established novel or series is another matter entirely, though. It's a kind of sandbox for stuff that might not fit logically into a novel. So I haven't ruled out doing more shorts again one day, because money is money, and mobile devices lend themselves to reading fiction in smaller chunks, but the stories will probably be part of a greater whole.



From the virtual attic

It's sobering to return to stuff you wrote 15 years ago. Especially when you don't actually remember writing it.

I'm collating my published short stories – well, some of them, anyway – to turn them into an e-book anthology. These are stories that appeared in mags like Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy. I'd get mail from readers asking where they could find my short fiction, as all but one of them were published in magazine issues which were not only long gone but, in some cases the magazine itself had also ceased trading. I kept saying I'd think about publishing them independently. Now I have no excuse not to, so I've knuckled down to finding the files and knocking the antho into a single clean document.

These are very old stories. The most recent is from 2002, I think. I started reading through the folder, and not only did I not recall what happened in the stories, I couldn't even remember writing some of them. I admit I disconnect completely from my stuff after a short absence from it and it looks like a stranger's work no matter how hard I try to see it as mine.

It was the same when I was a reporter: I'd dredge up a story from my files to follow up, and think: "Bloody hell, did I write that?" Of course, for a news journalist, a story with your by-line on it didn't necessarily guarantee every word was yours, because different stories would get merged by news desk and the subs according to what was coming in – for example, I'd do a piece on a warship contract and a colleague's separate piece from the Commons would be knitted into it – and copy would also get cut to fit. You had no expectation of your copy remaining untouched. But even when I knew it was all mine, it didn't ring any bells, no matter how well I recalled the events I was writing about.

Well, fiction's ten times worse for me. And reading chunks of these old short stories, I realised how many ideas and settings I'd kicked around in them and then extracted for novels later. Some were earmarked to be novels but so far haven't been worked up into one.

Most of the shorts in this antho are ones I wrote during the Clarion workshop at MSU in 2000. Some predate that and were written between then and a previous workshop I did in 1998. I only wrote a handful of creator-owned shorts after Clarion and called it a day by 2003, because by then I was writing novels and they paid a lot better. But when I get this antho on sale, if you take a look you'll see all kinds of stuff that popped up later in my books – aliens I was trying for size, ideas that struck me as interesting moral dilemmas, and so on. So if nothing else, it's an interesting exercise in how writers evolve, work out what they're best at, and refine the themes that carry them through a career.

For example, I found I'd done a lot of first person POVs in shorts, but I've never written a novel that way. There were present-tense stories, dual intertwined POVs, and all kinds of techniques I was trying out, but this was mostly workshop material even if I sold it professionally. What we leave on the cutting room floor is as significant in developing an approach to fiction as what we retain. I'm leaving the stories exactly as they appeared back in the day – no coat of paint, editing, or updating.

A couple of the oldest stories turned out to be prophetic about the use of certain technologies. I need to add a foreword to put the stuff in context and note when each was written. Yeah, okay, it looks routine now to you young 'uns, but back then, that stuff was the future!

Goodreads "Ask The Author"


I'll be answering questions on Goodreads from July 14 to 18. (If you're not already registered to use the site, it only takes a couple of minutes and all they want is an e-mail addy and a password to sign in. Nothing intrusive that commits you to a life of being harvested and monetised.) I'll be fielding questions on GOING GREY and the Ringer series, other upcoming novel series and comics, and writing/ publishing in general.

In other news, I've discovered that over-ripe melon that I'd normally consign to the bin makes a fantastic tropical sorbet with the addition of some coconut milk (the milk substitute variety you get in litre cartons) and a few spoonfuls of stevia or the sweetener of your choice. No egg white, no syrup, and no other weird additives. If you want to avoid the rock-hard tooth-busting texture that home-made ices acquire after a spell in the freezer, try adding a splash of rum; I did an experiment and the alcohol seems to do the trick, although I didn't use as much as I thought I'd need to get the effect. It's half a capful of alcohol – the cap of a standard spirits bottle – to a 500 ml of sorbet mixture.




Great dialogue surrounds us


I have never lifted a character from the real world*, but I must say that some one-liners I've heard in the course of the day have tempted me to whip out my notebook. There's some fabulous dialogue going begging out there.

I heard a cracking line yesterday in my local hardware shop, a fascinating emporium full of hazardous substances, sharp objects, and power tools. I was queueing at the cash desk; further up the queue, a brat launched into a full-on shrieking tantrum, screaming his head off because his mum had told him to put something back. "I don't want to put it back! WAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!"

This was conducted at an eardrum-rending volume, and showed signs of going on for some time. Other customers were starting to mutter and shuffle from foot to foot. Mum, all middle class and reasonable, was trying to deal with the meltdown by explaining to her little precious that it was just too bad and he had to do as he was told. Which, of course, he didn't.

Then the rather pissed-off cashier, a big burly bloke, looked at the kid and said: "This is a man's shop. We don't have any crying in here."

It didn't completely silence the little sod, but it did reduce the volume. Now I'm just waiting for the right scene to write that line in. Pure class.

(*For the writers-in-training among you, filing the serial numbers off real people is, as far as I'm concerned, bad writing. See here for my rationale.)

Web admin stuff: last chance for Mando'a page users

Last call to those of you using the Mando'a pages on my site: those pages will be among a batch being retired in a week or two, so if you're using them every day, as some folks seem to be, download them or copy them now. The content won't be changing (it hasn't changed for five years) so there's no advantage in checking daily.

I don't normally give advance notice of expiring pages, because this site isn't set up to be an archive, but I want to avoid being hit by mail asking for files. So save your copy ASAP, because it won't be available after July 12.

Going Grey – we have a narrator

I heard today that the Audible edition of GOING GREY will be narrated by the excellent Euan Morton, the voice of my Halo books. (And, of course, a very fine actor.) I'm over the moon. This is the guy I really,really wanted, and I was worried in case he wasn't available.

When I first discussed the book with Audible and the subject of narrators arose, I only had one name on my wish list. This book really matters to me: it's more than creator-owned, it's my own product. Audible said they'd see if Euan could do it. Now I can breathe easy again.

I have Macmillan Audio to thank for introducing me to Euan's talent. When we started on the Kilo Five audiobooks, I discussed the casting with Laura Wilson, Director of Production, and the particular challenges of the characters; the novels were full of different national and regional accents, from Russian and Australian to some hard-to-do English ones. Not many people can cover all those convincingly, and sometimes it's better to read something straight rather than get it less than perfect. But Laura sent me an audio clip to check out. It was Euan Morton, and I was blown away.

A narrator can make or break a book; they're not just reading, they're doing a very specialised kind of acting, and they add an extra dimension to the whole story. When I started getting mail from fans about how vividly Euan had portrayed the Kilo Five cast, I knew we had something special going on there. He really had nailed the characters, not just the accents but their personalities and the whole vibe of the books as well. So given GOING GREY's cast of English and American characters, and the nature of the dialogue, I knew exactly who I needed to bring them to life.

And here's the funny thing: while I'm writing characters, I usually daren't listen to the audio versions in case they don't match the voices in my head (no, not those kinds of voices... ) and I lose the characterisation. I couldn't listen to the Gears audiobooks because they weren't the voices in the game, and what I heard in my head while I was writing were the voices of John, Fred, Carlos, Nan, Jamie, and Lester. It's like having an image of a character from a book in your mind and then seeing the movie, and the actor playing that character isn't how you imagined things at all. It disorients you. It's the same for writers like me. But I'll be perfectly fine listening to Euan while I carry on with the Ringer series.

I'll let you know when the audiobook's available for pre-order. Meanwhile, check out Euan's credits: I didn't realise he'd appeared in Taggart, too! God, I love Taggart. I'm a sucker for detective shows. "There's been a murrrrder!"

Treat of the day

Comics, as I tell everybody who'll listen, are possibly the most enjoyable things a writer can do. Not only is the writing bit a blast; you also get regular thrills when the various stages of the art land in your inbox. Today I have more great pencils from Steve Kurth. All this is repeated when I get the inks, and then again when I see what the colourist (hi Jeff!) and the lettering guy have done. Just opening the file feels like Christmas. However well you know the art team, and however detailed your script may be, you never know quite how it's going to look until you open it, and therein lies the thrill. It's magical. It's a glimpse into how someone else sees the world, and that's priceless.


Not shiny, not absorbent

Having control of your product is a wonderful thing. The novelty hasn't worn off yet.

I just received my first copies of GOING GREY from the printer. I've grown used to seeing trade paperbacks (the larger format ones that come in a wide range of sizes) printed on paper stock with the texture and grim utilitarian colour of recycled toilet tissue, and if you're an author who signs books in yer actual liquid ink with a proper pen, the implications of that become immediately apparent. It has all the bleeding and feathering behaviour of blotting paper without any useful absorbency. And it just doesn't look or feel like a classy experience.

So I opted for white paper instead of cream when I did the specs for the print order, making my judgment on the basis of That Which Had Gone Before. (What we used to call in my TV days getting a white balance, in this case thinking white was Average TPB White.) When I opened the box, though, it really was strikingly white. I mean white. The white you get when you crack open a ream of printer paper. It takes ink pretty well, too. Now that's what I'd always expected to see in a fancy TPB. Off-white rough paper was what I associated with MMPBs ( mass market paperbacks). MMPBs are going the way of the dodo, so the TPB seems to be filing its niche in the dead tree ecology.

It's a quality cover, too, a nice velvety matt. I need to do some adjustment of the artwork on the spine fold, but that's the joy of using CreateSpace. I can change anything, anytime, anyhow, and I don't have to pulp a warehouse-load of books to do it. They're not cheap to produce, but you do get the feeling that you're selling something that'll last a few years and not turn yellow and crumble after a couple of reads.

Overall, I'm finding that this is a much more civilised way to ply my trade. I shall now take a break and make some carrot sorbet. No, I've never tried it before. But I have the ol' Gelato Chef up and running again, and a bottle of carrot juice, so I thought – why not fling it in, throw the switch, and see what emerges?

Taking on G.I. Joe

As you might have already divined from Comic Book Resources, I'm writing the new G.I. Joe comic series for IDW.

Before you ask, no, I didn't get product placement bucks for the scene in GOING GREY where vets Rob and Mike debate about whether having G.I. Joe/ Action Man as kids shaped their identity as men. I'd written that just before I got the call out of the blue from IDW, at which point I invested in a new tinfoil hat and blacked out all my windows. Come on, you have to admit that's spooky. But it does keep happening to me.

The first person to joke about real gripping hands and Action Man deserters gets a serious smacking. No, seriously, this is deeply enjoyable work. Every franchise says it's a cultural icon, but G.I. Joe really is. The archetype is embedded in our language.

Like facing a fast bowler

I'm way behind the curve on this. The trade paperback edition of GOING GREY is already up on Amazon UK. It's not up on Amazon US yet (I may well blink and miss it) and it can take up to eight weeks to appear in other catalogues, but I really hadn't allowed for the fact that direct publishing is largely served by companies who do things faster than they promise they will. I wasn't expecting to see the paperback on sale anywhere until Friday: I'd expected the iTunes edition to take about the same time. But, like the Kindle edition, it's all beating the estimate dates by a long way. There's a lesson in there about managing expectation.

If you've been used to a culture where "next week" actually means "maybe in a couple of months, if ever," then this seriously messes with your concept of space and time. In fact, the whole calendar that's shaped my life for ten years no longer applies. There's no street date (a set date for a book to go on sale) that has to be hit because you've got just a few weeks to sell a lot or else the title vanishes into the back of the store and gets returned for pulping. Nothing has to be coordinated; no opportunities get missed. It is, in PR speak, a soft launch. I don't have to think about the NYT bestseller list because if you choose not to have an ISBN on an edition – there isn't one on the Kindle or iTunes editions – no trade organisation can track your sales, not that they all get tracked anyway. I wouldn't have bothered with one on the paperback of GOING GREY but it's the only way a reader can place an order if they don't shop at Amazon.

So this business is all between the writer, the reader, and the retailer. And you just log in to your reports dashboard and see what's selling. It's disorienting and liberating at the same time. It's like a parallel universe.

Eventually, the various editions available via Amazon will be accessible from the same page. That's quite a system they've got there. I'm impressed to see it working from this side of the fence instead of the one that buys 12-packs of Diet Kinnie.

Which reminds me: I'm down to my last six bottles.

UPDATE, 1817, June 17: y'know, I can't keep up with this. No sooner were the pixels dry on this blog than the Amazon US page for the paperback appeared, and it was already rolled up with the KIndle edition on the same page. I need to sit down and do something slower, like Formula One or something.

This won't hurt a bit

Yes, yes, very impressive, but how am I going to receive my messages from the mothership now?

'The high-pitched whine of the dental drill could soon become just an unpleasant memory after the unveiling of a new technique that rebuilds teeth with painless electrical pulses.' (Sky News)


It shows you all the valley

It's been a watershed week. I've learned to do a lot of new and previously impossible things, which is good, because there's nothing like learning radically new skills for keeping the brain in shape. When I've decompressed a bit, I'll share a few stories with you. Right now, GOING GREY is finally out, meaning that it's either on sale already in the Kindle store or due out as a paperback next week, then as an iTunes book, and eventually as an Audible audiobook. So I'm switching back to another live job on my desk, which is a new comic series that'll be announced next week.

I had some near-disasters when the cover and interiors for GOING GREY didn't materialise, so I had to start from scratch a few days before the deadline and do it myself with the aid of a good buddy who cleaned up my HTML formatting and other technical messes after me. You know all those jobs I've had in all those different branches of the media over the decades? Well, now I'm glad that I had them, even if some of them made me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork at the time. All those print, design, and marketing skillz were dusted off and deployed. And I met my deadline, because I'm still an old journo at heart, and that's what journos do. It still feels primally satisfying to hit something on time no matter what.

When my techno-design-whizz buddy is ready to be outed, I'll name him so other authors wanting his services can get in touch. He needs to recover from my onslaught first. But he's good, and you'll want to hire him. Just remember that I saw him first and I call dibs.

The weird thing is that however frenzied the process became, it was still nowhere near the amount of hassle of a traditional publishing cycle working well. (And "well" is not the default for Trad Pub.) Indie publishing is actually enjoyable, even the bits that go wrong and need fixing, and, more to the point, it's utterly transparent. I'm going through something of a self-bashing phase at the moment, berating myself for not having jumped sooner. But it's not my more recent experiences that soured me, although they were the wake-up call that told me to get out from under before it was too late : it was looking back at everything that had been done to me since I was first published ten years ago.

A line from a song by the wonderful Clive James sums it up perfectly – it's the last hill that shows you all the valley. I realised that one way or another, I'd worked for all the Big Five, the huge media corporations* that dominate traditional publishing, and for the most part it was a less than pleasant experience, relieved only by finding that I had so many terrific readers. Over the next few weeks, I'll share a few stories that explain what I mean, and shed some light on things like "nurturing" and royalty statements. Traditional publishing is a broken business model, and it broke itself long before Amazon got big enough to challenge it.

So I'm now waiting for a box of trade paperbacks. You always get a box of author copies for a title. As they're part of a trad pub contract, i.e. part of the payment, I never turned them down even when my home began looking like a book warehouse, although the charity shops around here have done well out of it. Now my author copies are part of my business costs, so I won't despair about finding storage space for them. I suppose that was an epiphany on my indie publishing road.

Picking a trim size for a book – i.e. deciding how big it's going to be as an object – is pretty key to the reader experience. GOING GREY is almost the same dimensions as the trade paperback of MORTAL DICTATA, just slightly longer and a bit thicker, but not too big for comfortable handling for most people. How customers use things – books, games, utensils – is something that everyone who creates Stuff should consider first. How does your customer use your product? To put it another way, if they love a shampoo but can't open the cap, you've failed as a shampoo manufacturer even if the bottles are made by someone else. It's common sense. Remove barriers to use. That's the heart of all design and good interaction. It's also the heart of good business.

If people can only snatch minutes at a time to play games or read a book, writers can make it easier for them by dividing the content into smaller chunks; if they have long, tedious periods to fill, and they can't be seen sitting down and reading, or they drive long distances, then a nice long audiobook is ideal. You get the idea. Look at what ticks you off when you're using something and consider your own Stuff in that light.

Some writers might be appalled by the idea that usability can matter almost as much as the content, but I'm a storyteller, and that means I want to engage with an audience. I pay attention to whatever "delivery factors" help them enjoy my stuff rather than create a barrier. Right now the feedback I get is that my readers want a big world to immerse in and to get to know the characters, so I'll keep doing long books with long chapters that enable that.

Now that I've got no constraints with my fiction, though, I'll start looking at other formats for future work like serialisation, audio chapters, and so on. If it can be recorded or enshrined in a document file, it can be done and distributed. So let me know if there's a format you like and I'll take a look at doing fiction that might fit it.

Yeah, it's a brave new world, all right. I was just late struggling up that hill to see where it was.


(*Please don't pity big publishers because Amazon is eating their lunch. These aren't cute small presses living on handouts and arts grants, folks. They're part of multi-billion-dollar international corporations that also own news media, and the record profits they're making sure as hell don't go to the writers who create their goods for them. Judge the news you hear about publishing accordingly. Follow the money. Ask awkward questions.)

GOING GREY – out now, at the speed of 'Zon.


Whoa! That was fast. I blinked and almost missed it. GOING GREY parachuted into the Kindle store at 1512 GMT. (I was busy filling out an industry survey at the time the notification arrived, working myself into a froth about the proposed ECL scheme with my blood pressure well into four figures.) If this is the brave new world of publishing, I like it. A few hours ago, I was tinkering with the source document: now it's on sale. How very modern.

In fact, it's so fast that I haven't finished gussying up this web site, which I've revamped again to make it a better experience on mobile devices. So forgive me for any odd stock images on banners and so on.

I'll be back to much more frequent blogging now – stand by for some anecdotes and beans-spilling about the industry.

But for now – buy! Put food on my table! Please!

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

It'll be out on other channels in various formats in due course but as the speed of 'Zon has caught me with my pants down, I'll have to get up to date with that later.

Odds and ends

Apologies for the lack of a coherent theme today. Brace for snippets:

1. GOING GRAY is now GOING GREY. Gray made some sense when I was working for US publishers, but I'm English, dammit, and it's time I went back to my own spelling. (If I can remember what it is. That SOED subscription – for the thesaurus - is going to be doing double duty.)

2. I'll be upgrading the web site again at the beginning of June to make it more phone-friendly. (I build and maintain my own site, hence the schedule.) If you subscribe to the RSS feed and it drops off the plot, you might need to clock again.

3. A charity to support: some excellent folk from the 501st and other SW fan groups have been doing their bit to raise awareness and funds for
this scheme in Kenya. Yes, sanitary pad underwear. It's hard for us in the West to imagine such a small issue being a barrier to girls' education, but that's the way it is.

4. Rye porridge, where have you been all my life? I love 100% rye bread, but while hefting a bag of rye flour to make my own*, I wondered if there was anything else you could do with the grain. Silly me. All those Finnish and Danish recipes! I rushed out to score some rye flakes and found that rye porridge is lush. I still like oatmeal porridge, but rye is addictively chewy.

(*I don't get good results, unless you count its ballistic properties. So I'm going to carry on buying loaves of Village Bakery Rossisky.)

A coat of paint

I've revamped my web site. There's a lot of paint everywhere and I've tested everything by plugging it into the mains and kicking it a bit, but if you find anything broken or patches I've missed, let me know. *

Read More...

Everyday engineering

I know this sounds like a line from The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, but pencils can be even more interesting than shovels wi' brass bits on 'em. Read More...

Going Grey – out in June.

It's my 25th novel, I've got half a pack of pork scratchings, I'm nowhere near Chipping Sodbury, and I'm starting over. Hit it.* Read More...

(Don't) trust me (with IT), I'm a doctor.

Your medical records in their hands. What could possibly go wrong? Read More...

Ten years on

It's ten years (almost to the day) since my first novel – City of Pearl – was published. Here's ten things I've learned in that time that I wish I'd known back then, and what I plan to do about that in the next ten. Read More...

Going Grey – update

Yes, the book's going to be out this year. But please read this if you've pre-ordered. Read More...

Belay those nukes

Sometimes you look at this sorry world and decide it's time the cockroaches had a crack at running the show -- but sometimes you find a really good reason for not pressing the button. Read More...

The cutting room floor is never wasted

Not every scene you write needs to go in a book -- but you still need to write it. Read More...

Hits the spot

I love the taste of bitter oranges in the morning. Read More...

Anyone out there working in law enforcement in Maine?

Quick question/ appeal for info: if any of you work in law enforcement in the state of Maine and can answer a procedural question, can you drop me a line, please? (Addy on contact page.) I need to run a detail past someone who specifically knows the drill for Maine. (Yes, it's for a book. I have not been busted...) I just want to get a small detail right. It's very specific, and buddies who work in law enforcement in other states have given me their take on it, but it needs to be right for Maine. The public information I can find doesn't cover it. All help from qualified persons gratefully received. (By which I mean that while I appreciate help, I can't use well-meaning guesswork. It has to be hands-on knowledge.) I aim to handle detail in such a way that anyone working in a certain field doesn't wonder what the hell I was thinking when I wrote about their job -- it's a matter of professional respect for the folks who do it for real. Thank you!

It's out. Buy it. It's the only way to be sure.

Waypoint has an exclusive interview with me on MORTAL DICTATA and the Kilo-Five trilogy in general, so check it out because it may be the only one I do. Hence the exclusive tag.


Read More...

Whodunnits, whydunnits, and howdunnits

I hope you've still got some book tokens left from Christmas. Read More...