Monday, 30 November 2015

Plotting, Pantsting And Pulling Out Your Hair!


 

Hi Guys,

 
 
 

Haven't posted a lot for a while. I've been busy writing and editing and haven't had a lot of spare time. But now that I have a little, I thought I'd share with you one of the thoughts that's been on my mind lately. It's about time I suppose.

This time it's about the ever present debate in writing circles – should you plot or write by the seat of your pants? There are probably, as everyone who's in this game will know, as many opinions as there are writers. And so many of them are strongly held and even more powerfully argued.

Those who are plotters will argue that working to an outline gives them the chance to pull a coherent book together right from the start. It saves them time and effort and focuses them on a target allowing them to be more efficient. Pantsters on the other hand will talk about creative freedom and being unable to stick to an outline anyway. And then there are the guys in the middle who will do some plotting and some free writing and hopefully pull together a story that way.

My thought in this post is not to support either side. Nor to hold some place in the middle ground. But rather to look at the entire argument in a different way. It may not actually be a choice at all. As a writer you should write the way that works best for you.

To begin with I suppose I should start by laying my cards on the table. I'm as close to a pure pantster as any writer can be. I never plot. I don't work to an outline. And when I write I not only don't know where the books going to end I usually don't know where the chapter's going to end. My approach to writing is simple. I start with a character or a scene or an idea and I write it. Then I stretch it a bit by asking questions. Who is this man? Why is he doing what he's doing? What sort of world is this? And little by little what started out as a wisp of an idea becomes a story and in time if I'm lucky, a completed novel.

That's not to say that this is the right way to do it. Just that it's my way. And as a writer I pay a heavy price for this approach. Not having any idea of where a story is going to go means that very often it goes nowhere. So I have well over a hundred partially completed novels sitting on my computer now which have basically run out of legs. Some of them are all but complete but I simply don't know how to complete them. Others are simply fascinating ideas that I explored, and may one day take further. But all of them share one thing in common. They all took a lot of effort to write and there is no novel to show for that effort.

This is a problem. Pantsting comes with some heavy prices for an author. As an author if I want to make more money I should stick to one genre like epic fantasy and write series etc. But how can I stick to one genre when I don't know even what world my idea comes from when I start writing it? And how can I write a series say when I wrote the original novel and completed it without any thought that there should be any more. I had a story, I wrote it, and that was all there was!

So that's my world as a pantster. A sort of organised chaos that sometimes comes up with a novel and occasionally even an original one. But with a lot of dry runs and misfires along the way. And sometimes, like every other writer out there, I think to myself – maybe there's a better way.

Then about a month ago I came up with a story idea that I really liked and threw myself into it. The book, though I doubt it'll ever be finished, was called Three Wishes, and was in essence a cautionary tale about wishes and having them come true. And like a mad man I quickly started working out what those wishes should be and how they should go horribly wrong while being granted exactly as asked for. And then at some point I expanded the idea to have two antagonists both having three wishes granted by the same agency, both having them fulfilled exactly as requested, and having them go horribly wrong, and yet at the same time have each antagonists wish the perfect foil to the others wish. In short they cancel each other out.

Yeah I know, sounds complicated. And it is. And it became more so when I had to formulate the three – or actually seven as it became – wishes so that each and every one of them perfectly countered another so that in turn everything went horribly wrong for both antagonists, yet the story would somehow end up in a positive place.

That's where the plotting versus pantsting thing comes in. As a pantster, knowing all the places where pantsting lets me down, and finally having a logical construct to hang a novel on, I thought it was time to finally embrace the dark art of plotting.

So I went out, read all the books and advice columns on plotting – there are a surprising number of them – and ultimately set out to craft a plot around my two antagonists and their wishes. Then with everything nailed down and a twenty seven chapter book outlined, I began writing.

That as you can probably guess is where the pain began.

Within the first chapter I went off plot – and not just a little bit. We're not just talking character outlines and city names here. By the end of the first chapter I'd swapped genres, shifting from an urban fantasy to an epic fantasy, and also changed the relationship between the two antagonists as well as throwing in a third character with her own wish to confound things and a religion.

But undeterred because I knew that plotting was the way to go to advance my craft, I went back to the drawing board (lap top) and replotted the entire novel based on the new first chapter. After all I figured, most plotters say that there's room for a few changes here and there. And most of the guides talk about having a looser outline that allows for minor changes here and there. I'm not sure though that I can do minor when it comes to changes!

Unfortunately none of those guides had allowed for chapter two where it became obvious to me that in fact I'd got the entire thrust of the story wrong, and that the two antagonists while the ones making the wishes weren't the ones driving them. There was in fact another player behind the scenes pulling their strings as well as granting them their wishes – the Red God.

So back to the lap top and re-plot an entire novel based on this new understanding, then start on chapter three. Alas chapter three was the one where the king's daughter turned up unexpectedly and completely changed directions. In a heartbeat she went from being the loving daughter who was unable to wed the prince because her golden dowry and turned to lead, to the daughter forced to marry the prince of a rival kingdom because the entire treasury's gold supply had turned to lead. It was just a tiny change but it changed the entire story necessitating yet another complete re-plotting of the book.

Then came chapter four where – you guessed it – more shit happened.

And that brings me to where I am now, a month later and ten chapters wiser. And what's the one piece of wisdom I've learned? I can't plot! Or rather I can sketch out a brilliant plot, outline it to twenty decimal places, and make it perfect – but I just can't damn well write to it.

So far from making me a more efficient writer and helping to weave together a plot perfect story, plotting has slowed me down immensely and contributed precisely nothing to my writing. Because what's the point of having a plot if you can't stick to it? And especially when every little change I make as I write, means I have to completely rewrite the plot? It may be a brilliant approach for many writers. It may overcome many of the problems inherent for pantsters. But it's absolutely useless for me.

Which is really my point for other writers entering into this fray. And it's not to say that plotting is bad and pantsting is the way to go. You're all plotters or a pantsters or some hybrid creatures in between. And that's fine. As long as you've found what works for you.

My point is that before you start thinking of how wonderful it would be to either start plotting more or free writing more, and before you waste your time and money on the various writing guides, you take a step back and think about whether there's any point in trying to change. Because despite all the arguments about how each side is so much better than the other from whatever perspective, the truth is that the one that is best for you is the one you're most comfortable with. Trying to change how you write may well be the biggest, most frustrating waste of time and effort you could ever engage in. In fact you may well end up like me – pulling your hair out clump by clump!

So this is my new golden rule of writing. There is no right way to write.

 

Cheers, Greg.

 

 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Greg's Pustulating Necrosis of the Gut!


Hi guys,

 
 
 
Bit of an odd post this time. A few days ago I ate something that disagreed with me – (no, it wasn't a critic!) – and ever since then have been living in a land of pain and toilets that no amount of imodium and erythromycin can seem to hold. And then the night before last, just as I was thinking things were finally on the mend, they instead took a sudden about turn and I became convinced somewhere in the early hours of the morning that death wasn't such a bad thing. Dying is of course a different matter! Naturally I'd feel sorrow for those I left behind. For my family. For my cat who'd have to find someone else to look down upon with disdain – though to be fair she's a cat and so has the entire world to look down upon! For the coroner who might have to wear multiple gas masks to do his work and then still be decontaminated! But really as the clock struck three in the morning and the porcelain was begging for mercy, it still didn't seem so bad.

Somewhere after that though, a strange thought took hold of me – the understanding that whatever I was suffering from couldn't be natural. It had to be new and improved. A whole new class of diarrhoea. Something that would make the medical texts. I could have a brand new disease named after me!

But then I realised there are diseases and then there are diseases. I mean who wouldn't want some cool disease named after them? Greg's Lycanthroposis for example would be quite cool. Not a bad way to be remembered. Or some sort of hyper mania perhaps. Greg died while trying to hurl a bus at police and was later found to have over four hundred bullets in him! Greg's Hyper Rage! Now that would be undeniably cool! By contrast I can only imagine that Gerhard Hansen was infinitely glad that Hansen's Disease was never popularly known by that name but rather simply as leprosy. Still even against that infamous horror Greg's Pustulating Necrosis of the Gut would be a far less welcome memoriam. And when the symptoms of GPNG are listed as the sufferer's choice of death either by his insides suddenly deciding they wanted to become his outsides or alternatively asphyxiating on his own flatulence, I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to be associated with the condition. Least of all me.

Writing I think, has a little in common with this. (There! You see? You knew there would be some return to my more normal topics at some point since no one could talk about diarrhoea forever! Not even me!)

My point is that as authors we write books that people read, and will hopefully enjoy and remember. And in a very real way some of these books may in fact become a memoriam to us. More so now in this digital age where nothing is lost unlike paper books which have vanished over the previous years and centuries.

Which leads me to the rationale behind this post. (Yes there is one!) We all talk about the need for quality in our work. For making sure that whatever we put out there is the best that we can do. That it's beta read and edited to death. And that certainly is important to us as authors; indie and trade, living and dead. But before anyone pushes that publish button it occurs to me that there's another question that we need to ask ourselves. Is this a work that I want to be forever associated with me? In five years, ten years, twenty am I still going to be proud to have published this work? Or am I going to be living down the shame of having put it out there? Is this going to be a work that will forever shine a glorious light upon me? Or will it be like those nude pictures you took as an overweight teenager which eternally follow you around from job interview to job interview? It needs to be considered.

Sure I may hate (insert name of political movement or religion here) now, but in a decade am I going to want to be remembered as the man who wrote the book accusing them of promoting indecent acts? I may despise (insert persons name here) but in twenty years time am I going to want to be known as the man who in public accused them of various crimes? Especially if they're later shown to be innocent? Yes I may support certain political ideologies but in twenty years when movements based on my writings have caused immeasurable harm to the world, will I want to be associated with them? Even recognised as their inspiration?

You think I'm joking? Perhaps driven mad by the long nights spent curled up on a toilet seat, gassing myself in the smallest room in the house? Sadly actually I'm not. Many authors have ended up regretting their works and trying to have them pulled from the shelves and for all sorts of reasons.

The list starts with Stephen King who in 1997 tried to get his 1977 book Rage pulled when a copy of it was found in the locker of a boy who went on a shooting spree in a school. His fear was that the book inspired the act.

At the more minor end of the spectrum Octavia Butler tried to have Survivor pulled for a completely different reason. Though it was well written, edited and professional and indeed readers loved the book, to her it was clich├ęd and trope ridden.

And of course you would have to wonder how Nietzsche would have felt had he lived to see the rise of the Nazi's. He had a vision of his ubermen as modern equivalents of ancient Greek gods striding across the world. To see instead the reality of death camps, genocide, unbridled ambition and a world in flames all inspired by his work would probably have had him spinning in his grave.

Which brings me back to my point. We live in a digital age. Whatever we publish will be with us potentially forever – or at least for the rest of our lives. And once you push that button there's no way to unpush it. So take a moment. Give it a little thought. Have a cuppa or two before doing what you can't undo. And ask yourself that vital question:

Is this going to be your hyper rage? Or your pustulating necrosis of the gut?

 

Cheers, Greg.

Friday, 11 September 2015

So You've written A book - Trade or Indie?


Hi guys,

 

First up, apologies as usual for not having posted for so long. Unfortunately my muse kidnapped me – it does that sometimes – and said “head down, bum up, you've got a book to write boy!” Oh to be a plotter and not a pantster! One day I'll make that switch. Not this month though.

 

The upshot is that on the fifth of August having finally got The Arcanist published and thinking I should enjoy a bit of a break, I started Spaced. And last night just before the witching hour I sent the completed first draft of the space opera off. 157K in a month and six days! Maybe this year I finally should enter Nanowrimo!

 

Anyway, that's been my life for the last month or so, which is why I haven't done a hell of a lot else. But now that I've regained my freedom and the use of my poor, overworked fingers, I thought I'd turn my attention to other things. And first up, before I start editing the third Wizard at Law book which returned from my editor last month as well and got pushed to one side, I thought I'd answer a question that keeps coming up among new writers. So you've written your book – do you go Indie or Trade?

 

This is obviously not an easy question to answer. In fact there is no right answer. It's going to depend completely on who you are as a writer and who you want to be as an author. And strangely even the premise – that you've written a book – is going to change depending on the answer. So to begin.

 

First you've written a book. This means I assume that you've done everything you possibly can to get that book in the best possible shape. You've drafted and redrafted it. Hunted for mistakes and plot holes. It is as close to error free as you can possibly get it. But the one thing that you haven't done is send it away to an editor.

 

This is actually the next step in your journey – if you go indie. If you instead try to get a trade deal – it isn't. The guts of it is simple, and it comes down to that most base of all motivations – filthy lucre. If you decide to try and pursue a trade deal with an agent or a publisher then your work should not be edited. The reason is that most new authors getting signed get very small advances – less than five thousand dollars and then at least half of them never earn out their advance. (Sorry to shatter any dreams of wealth you may have but writers are by and large very poorly paid whichever route they take.)

 

(Which brings up another pet peeve – pirates. Grief I get sick of hearing from those who support piracy that all books should be free. It is practically a mantra for the criminally insane. These people believe they are doing some sort of Robin Hood type thing. They aren't. In fact they are doing the exact opposite. They're stealing from the poor and giving to those who have more than enough money to spend on a book. So well done guys!)

 

Anyway I've wandered down that path enough for the moment. Back to the main thread and the point I was making. If you submit to agents and get a trade deal, the chances of striking gold – which really you've already struck by getting your deal – are small. But the one thing every agent / publisher will provide for free to their writers – is writing services. That means editing and book covering etc. So the last thing you want to be doing is paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for an edit which you'll get for free if you get a deal.

 

If on the other hand you decide to go indie – bad luck guys. Every book needs to be edited and the bill is yours. So your first guideline in making this decision is a simple one – do you have the money to pay for editing and cover design etc? If yes then you can go either route. If no, then trade is your only option.

 

Okay, so next up in your decision tree as you sit there with your book should be your skills in other areas. Do you understand things like cover design, marketing, formatting and how to do publishing? If not are you willing to learn? Because make no mistake, going indie is a decision that will necessitate you knowing all of these things. Anyone as they say can self-publish. But doing it well is far harder. To be a successfully indie involves a very steep learning curve.

 

So here comes your next question in your decision tree. Do you have these skills? Are you willing to learn them? If yes, then you can take either route. If no, then again trade is your only possible route.

 

Next on our list, you need to consider commercialism – yes I know – more filthy lucre. But here it's not actually about the money. It's about the selling. And you need to consider this one question before you make your decision – will people buy it?

 

Yeah I know, it's a difficult thing to guess. But there are some things that will help guide you. First think of the genre. There are some genres that sell better than others – paranormal romance for example is hot these days. Bead work from the 1900's is not. There's also the question of how original it is. Yes everyone says they're looking for the next fresh idea. But they aren't. If you want your best chance to sell you want to stick closely to something that's already out there with just a few tweaks. So maybe your sparkly vampires have a silver sheen instead of gold? But they aren't born literally legless and forced to spend their lives in wheelchairs!

 

So take a step back from your work and ask yourself, how original is it? And how important is it to you that it's original? If this is something that's wildly new – and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the five people who bought The Man Who Wasn't Anders Voss!!! – indie is really your only option. Almost no agents and no publishers are going to pick it up. They're there to make money and that means selling.

 

Yes I know – you're all going to yell Fifty Shades at me, and it is true. There are a few exceptions to this rule. But they are just that – exceptions.

 

Next on the decision tree is what Hollywood likes to call creative control. You've written a book. You're proud of it. It's your baby. Are you willing to let other people mangle it? Yes I know they won't actually mangle it – mostly. But what I consider mangling and what you consider mangling are likely to be very different things. And what I can accept in terms of changes and what you can accept are equally likely to be very different.

 

There's an old story – not sure if it's true – that Disney once hired a consultant to advise them on Donald's nephews. And the consultants came back and said well you can save money by removing a button on their shirts which will be quicker to draw. Disney said yes. Then the consultants said – does he really need three nephews? Two would be easier to draw. At which point they were sacked.

 

That in a nut shell is the question you need to ask. How much can you compromise on your artistic vision? If the answer is no more than a few typo's corrected, indie is your choice. If on the other hand it's “hell yes, let it rip – I didn't need to have that character anyway”, then trade may well be a better option for you. I'm not saying that that's what they will do, just that compromise is far more important for someone going the trade route than it is for an indie.

 

Last of course on our decision tree, we come back to that age old conundrum – filthy lucre. You've written your book. You're proud of it. You want to sell it and make some money. (Let's leave the dreams of castles and jets to one side here and think about things like paying the rent.) Which option is more likely to achieve your objective of keeping a roof over your head?

 

The truth of the matter is that no one really knows. The surveys of author income all show that trade published authors do better on annual income – though no one really does well. But the surveys are also wrong because they compare apples to oranges. They forget that people don't choose to go trade. They choose to try and go trade. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to make an agent or a publisher pick up your book. For every author who submits to agents and publishers and gets a trade deal there are probably hundreds who submit and get nothing – not even a reply. When you factor that into your calculations suddenly the likely income favours the indie in a big way.

 

But then comes the next big shovel in the face – and this ones for indies. Surveys all show that the vast majority of self published books don't sell. They get released, no one buys them and they fall to the bottom of the slush pile. There are any number of reasons for this – I've discussed a few here – but the biggest one by far is that an incredible number of writers simply get to the end of their book – think to themselves “this is genius” – slap a cover photo on it and think they're done. They don't do the hard yards of editing and format, cover design, blurb work, beta reading and marketing. And then they no doubt wonder why their book doesn't sell. Obviously the world just wasn't ready for their brilliance!

 

Yeah right!!!

 

Anyway, to get back to the point. If you aren't willing to do all those hard yards – indie is not for you. I don't know that any agent would pick up your work either but you are fairly much guaranteed to fail as an indie.

 

And to the other point – filthy lucre and keeping your roof over your head – my own thought is that for the average author who is willing to put in all that extra effort to get their books beyond the standard poorly written self published novel indie is the better financial option these days.

 

Having said that, both are viable options and you should carefully consider all the pros and cons before deciding what's right for you.

 

But one last thing. For those who decide to try and get a trade deal – set yourself a cut off. So many unsuccessful submissions sent. So many months or “shudder!” years spent on the agent-go-round. Then go indie.

 

You're a writer. Writing is a communicative art. If you're not communicating, you're failing yourself. You actually need to publish however you can, to complete your journey as a writer.

 

Anyway, enough from me. I need sleep!

 

Cheers, Greg.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Science And Magic - And The Arcanist


Hi guys,

 

People often ask me where as a writer I get my ideas from. Usually I resist saying something like the bottom of a packet of cornflakes and try to give them some sort of vaguely intelligent answer. But the truth is I often don't know. This is one reason I seldom tell people in the offline world that I'm a writer. In the case of the Arcanist I do actually know where the idea came from though. The Arcanist and a companion book which has yet to be finished were written as a response to one of my favourite computer games of all time – Arcanum. A game which sadly doesn't seem to run on either Vista or Seven – at least not for me.

 

Arcanum was a fun role play game which I spent uncounted hours playing before finally retiring that computer due to advanced old age and worn out keys! And while it was similar to many other role play games of the time it had one aspect that I found fascinating. The interaction between technology and magic.

 

In Arcanum magic and technology oppose one another, with each the downfall of the other. So for example wizards had to ride in the back of trains, as far from the engine as possible, because their mere magical presence might upset the delicate workings of the steam engine. Meanwhile the presence of technology might upset the ethereal balance of spells.

 

This dynamic also impacted directly on how you designed your character. If you wanted a spell caster to run around and zap people, you needed to make sure that he didn't learn any technological skills and only grew in certain attributes. Otherwise you'd end up with a weak character – which was never good when it came to fighting the big bad and winning the game. Similarly if you wanted a technologist as your character, you had to advance only certain technological skills and attributes or risk having his guns misfire etc.

 

That dialectic between magic and technology stuck with me for many years, not least because I realised that it is a tension that exists in the real world of the twenty first century. One that began in my view with the age of enlightenment and reason. Because science and magic are both aspects of two opposing world views.

 

Science is part of what is often called the materialist world view. The belief – and I use that word intentionally – that the universe can be understood. That it is all nuts and bolts, atoms and forces. And that if only we have enough time and knowledge we will eventually be able to weigh and measure, name and put to work everything there is. Nothing is beyond logic and reason.

 

Standing against this is the world view of the idealist. A view that says yes hey, science is wonderful and all, but it's not everything. There is more to this universe than those things that can be weighed and measured. That there are things called souls and true free will. That there is an actual right and wrong and life has a purpose. And that those who attempt to put everything in little rational boxes are actually cheapening the whole meaning of what it is to be human.

 

As you can see these two world views oppose one another directly and so for those who are firmly stuck in one camp the other is a complete load of twaddle.

 

Enough said about the philosophical side of things. I could waffle about this stuff for hours and bore the pants off you – please check that your belts are still done up(!) – but instead what fascinates me about this as a writer is the practical side of this debate. And despite the fact that all this sounds dry and academic there is a practical side.

 

What occurred to me is that for the past few centuries the world view of materialism has been in the ascendant. Ever since science started uncovering the explanations for many things that formerly seemed mysterious, the materialist has been crowing. Believing more and more strongly that everything is pure nuts and bolts.

 

But – and this is what mattered to me – as belief in the materialist world view strengthens it necessarily means that belief in the idealist world view weakens. That those who believe in magic and spirits and whatever else, are little by little relegated to the category of fools and madmen. They are considered delusional and sometimes even called liars and con men.

 

As a writer the question that struck me was what does any of this mean for magic and the unexplained? Especially if as many claim, magic is dependant in part upon belief? Does magic work but we simply refuse to believe it? Does it not work because the collective will is so anti-magic that it can't? And perhaps even more strangely – does science itself work in part because we believe in it?

 

It was this understanding that led me to start writing two books last year based on the opposite interactions between magic and technology. Both books began with the same character in the same social position; a man with a knowledge of technology and the gift of magic, but living in two completely opposite worlds. Superhero fans will probably think bizarro worlds here!

 

The first book was one in which magic and technology complimented one another. This is the book that became The Arcanist. The second world was one in which magic and technology interfered with one another as in Arcanum. That book, which may yet be finished one day, is tentatively called Wings.

 

Both books became in part an exploration of what it would mean for the worlds to have magic and technology both and for these forces and understandings to either work together or at cross purposes. They were also an exploration of what it would mean for a technologically minded man to have magic.

 

In one world for a technologist to have magic would be a complete disaster as it would undo everything he strived to achieve. Imagine him building a flying machine and have it fall out of the skies because there was wild magic in his bones. Equally for the world itself it would be a disaster as societies could not advance. Technological advances would be undercut by magic. Magical advances would be undercut by technology.

 

Given this, and the desire of all societies to advance, my thought was that this sort of world would swiftly become divided and isolationist. The natural inclination would be to isolate magic and technology with some cities and lands embracing technology, some embracing magic. In time those with one or other of the particular arts would find themselves forced to live in the appropriate land.

 

That is the world of Wings, where a died in the wool technologist suddenly finds his world turned completely upside down as he discovers he has magic – at the same time as all the technological devices around him start failing!

 

In the other world of course a technologist would welcome magic. Just imagine how much better his inventions would work with a spark of magic to boost them. Consider a gun built with both the best metallurgy and chemistry known and then boosted with a spark of magic. That would be a weapon to fear! Or how about spells enhanced by wizards who apply technological principles to them.

 

This is the world of The Arcanist where our hero has had both the aptitude for technology and the spark of magic for his entire life. And where he uses both to win his battle.

 

Anyway, enough rambling from me. Now you can all go rushing out to second hand stores and start hunting down old computer games!

 

Cheers, Greg.

 

 

 

 





Sunday, 5 July 2015

Real Villains


 

Hi Guys,

 

 

 
(All graphic elements were taken from PhotoMorgue.)
 
 

New topic for me. Having completed the first draft of the third volume of the Wizard At Law books – Money Matters, I had a little time on my hands. Enough time to create new covers for all three of them, and then to go on my various fora and get back into some serious chatting with other writers.
 
On one of them a question was asked that fascinated me. Not so much for the question itself, as what it said about the entire genre of fantasy and where it's heading. And yet on the face of it the question was a stupidly simple one. How do we make our villains more real?
 
This is a topic I have touched on briefly before when I wrote about not really wanting to understand villains – just dispatch them. But it's not really something I've explored in any depth. This time though I want to go into the psyche of the fantasy villain in more depth. In particular the concept of making the villain more “real” and the place of this within the modern fantasy sub-genre known as grimdark.
 
Grimdark is as the name implies, simply a movement in the genre towards the creation of worlds and characters that are more gritty – grim and dark. It is a movement where the heroes are flawed and the villains are often as much misunderstood victims as they are actual villains. And currently the best example of this movement and certainly one of the most popular is George R. R. Martin's Game of thrones. In his world, every hero has feet of clay and every villain has a reason for being as dark and terrible as he or she is.
 
Proponents of grimdark, and fans of course, will argue that this is more real. That real life is not black and white. That there are no white knights slaying evil dragons. And on the face of it that almost seems reasonable – until you remember that we're all writing fantasy! But then when another writer asked that simple question I I turn had to wonder – is it actually any more “real” than what preceded it? And my thought is that it actually isn't.
 
The movement towards grimdark in fantasy in my view has been born of a dissatisfaction with and a rejection of the former typical heroic fantasy of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. It is a reaction to having read and seen too many heroes of pure nobility and courage and of course pure hearts, racing in to save the world from the dastardly villain – and maybe kill a dragon or two along the way. And I understand that. You can only read the same thing so many times before you start to want to read something new and fresh. But while it makes sense to want something new, it doesn't make sense to believe that that something new is more realistic. True the white knight and the Bond villain were not real. But neither are the new crop of fantasy heroes and villains.
 
Nowhere is this seen more clearly in my view, than in the villains.
 
Consider the archetypal big baddies. Starting with Ming the Merciless – and seriously what baddie would call himself “the merciless” to begin with – it sort of gives the entire game away as to who he is! Ming was a simple villain. He wanted nothing more than ultimate power and to rule the universe, while his arch enemy Flash Gordon was the all American hero. Really there wasn't a lot of character development that went into our baddie. His motivation was simply a lust for power and that was enough to explain him.
 
And that pattern has continued for decades with a while host of Bond villains. You know the ones – petting their cats and coming up with ingenious plans to take over the world. They had no great depth until the more recent movies. And obviously this is no longer enough for audiences.
 
So obviously as writers we can't use these archetypes so much any more as a basis for our villains. But what do we use instead? Because that is where grimdark falls down.
 
We can't use real villains, no matter how much we want to make our villains more “real”. The reason is unfortunately as simple as it is sad. Real villains are sort of pathetic. Most of those who commit serious crimes, are from bad homes, raised with little in the way of education, and by and large simply aren't very bright. The reason they commit their crimes is usually a horrible lack of coping strategies. They actually find themselves in difficult situations and the only way they can think to get out of them is by doing something bad. As a basis for arch-villains they would by and large be unconvincing and boring.
 
Sociopaths became rather fertile ground to explore with the advent of villains like Hannibal. And for a while we were all thrilled by the idea of this super-intelligent plotter with no moral compass. But unfortunately while sociopathy is not nearly as rare as we would like it to be, the reality is that most sociopathic criminals aren't incredibly smart. In fact they aren't particularly smart at all. For a rather disturbing view of one of them you should watch the interviews done with Richard Kuklinski – the Iceman as he was known. With what is believed to be over a hundred assassinations that can be laid at his door, the man was cold and not particularly bright, with a violent temper and little actual understanding of people.
 
In reality the reason he was not caught for so long was that he was protected by organised crime and there was no relationship between him and his victims and therefore no reason to suspect him. It is this same lack of connection between victim and killer that makes most serial killers harder to catch than others – not any great intelligence.
 
Last I suppose there's the tortured soul. The angst ridden, long suffering wretch who is so twisted up inside that he can do the most vile things. Probably the benchmark for grimdark villains. These are the ones that readers want to believe are real. But really are they? Yes there are such people in the world. Sadly I've worked in an institution and met some of these people. But the sad fact is that these people don't generally become major villains. They sometimes commit crimes, sometimes horrible crimes. But as to taking over the world etc, it's not usually in their compass. It's hard to be taken seriously as a master villain when you spend your days talking to yourself, or curled up in a corner staring at a wall. And that's the sad fact of the matter. The more tormented the soul is the more likely the man is to be so badly broken that his capability to be an arch villain is destroyed.
 
Which brings us back to the central thrust of this post. The question that was asked. How can we as writers make our villains more “real”? And my answer is that we can't.
 
This is fantasy, and the villains we write are not real at all. They never were. They weren't real when they were archetypal power crazed despots and Bond villains. They weren't real when they were super-intelligent sociopaths. They weren't super-villains when they were based on actual criminals and in fact they were too boring for the most part to even pen. They weren't real either when they were tortured souls reacting to the horror's of their past lives.
 
Grimdark is no more “real” than heroic fantasy was before it.
 
So my thought is that as authors instead of concerning ourselves with questions like how real our villains are, we should instead ask the more accurate question – how believable are they? Because that's what people actually mean when they talk about “real”.
 
Well, enough wild ranting from me for one day. As always be good or don't get caught.
 
Cheers, Greg.
 
 
 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Battle Between Hard Science and Space Opera


Hi guys,


The Arcanist is in editing at the moment so I have a little time to spend on my blog. This time I thought I'd turn my thoughts to a controversy that keeps coming up.
 
This is a far from a new topic. In fact it's one that keeps coming up again and again and again in my various writing groups (Damn – almost said gropes – fingers aren't working well today!) How much science should we put in our books? One that rages through the world of sci fi. How far can we move from what we know – or what we think we know – about how the universe works as we write?
My answer is that sci fi is a genre based on two simple words – “what if?” It doesn't operate on the phrase – “well this what we know so lets work with that.” It goes beyond that to speculate on what we don't know. And sometimes to cross the boundaries between what we know and what might actually be.
 
Nowhere in sci fi is this tension between what we believe we know about the workings of the universe and what we need to speculate might be for our stories to work, more pronounced than in my own sub-genre of space opera. Because space opera is based on one founding acceptance, the idea that we can travel to the stars. Relativity on the other hand quite clearly says no. You can't go faster than the speed of light, and really that's pushing it too far. So realistically speaking the closest you can come to space travel is generation ships. I don't know about you guys, but if someone offered me a ticket on a spaceship heading for a new star to explore, with a round trip time frame of a century or more – I'd say no. I might sign up for a trip lasting a few months, but once we start talking generations I have better things to do.

So for me like generations of sci fi authors before me, I'll resort to cheating to write my space operas. I'll use hyperspace and subspace, warp drives and time dilation drives, worm holes and slip streams – maybe even the dreaded spin dizzy drive of Doc Smith. And though some people may – and have – criticised me for it, I won't apologise. Call me a scientific heretic – I'm comfortable with that though I prefer fantabulist! Because the ultimate reality is that I want to write books about travelling to the stars, about alien invasions, and interstellar wars.
 
In my mind those who want sci fi to limit itself to science fact, have lost a large part of the joy of the genre. They have lost the what if that is the heart of what sci fi is all about.

Cheers, Greg.
 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Stars Betrayed Almost Done

Hi Guys,




Just a quick update. The Stars Betrayed is nearly through it's final edit, and the cover above almost ready too. The artist by the way is Adam Kopala of Deviant Art though I added the text.

So hopefully in a few days The Intruder will take to the stars - and my first book of the year will be published. (It's been a long time between drinks as they say!)

It's a space opera as you might have guessed, with a strong theme of betrayal running through it. Essentially everyone save the hero is both betrayer and betrayed and that weaves together to form the plot. It is most similar to "All the Stars a Grave" though it's set in a very different universe. One in which humanity has been made second class citizens by genetically engineered Ubers, and a war is raging between the Terran Empire and the Alliance.

After this The Arcanist heads down to my editor - just in time for her birthday! I always give the best presents!

Cheers, Greg.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Of Warp Driven Spaceships And Betrayal

Hi Guys,



(Mock up model of The Intruder from my cover artist Adam Kopala - can't wait to see the finished version.)
 
Just sent off "The Stars Betrayed" for its second line edit, and so have a little time to spend on other things. So I thought I'd talk a little bit about the ship.
 
First, though the ship - The Intruder - is important to the story, this is not a simple "man in a battleship goes off to have adventures" space opera. The ship is just a vehicle (pun intended!) for the story. Rather this is a story of lies and betrayal - betrayal at every level. (Though I will not explain that any further since it might spoil the story by giving away some plot elements.) It's about why people will betray others including the ones they love. What will push them to do something almost unthinkable. And what sorts of betrayals can be forgiven. But also it asks the question, is their a longer term price to be paid?
 
It's also a story about Nietzsche's supermen. As some of you may know I am not a fan of Nietzsche, and I regard his supermen as people akin to sociopaths. People with no moral compass other than what they decide for themselves to be right and wrong, good and evil. That is not in my view a good thing. And when you give such people power, it can become a very bad thing indeed. When you give them ultimate power through say genetic engineering, it can be a nightmare.
 
Nietzsche himself saw his ubersmench as heroic figures in the ancient Greek tradition. Almost godlike and unbowed. He saw them as a vision of what men should be. He did not seem to accept that men have the impulses of both angels and demons in them. That yes we can be wonderful, true and loving. But we can also be monsters. And when psychologists tell us that one to three percent of our society have sociopathic tendencies, the monster within has to be recognised.
 
The Stars Betrayed grew out of these disparate ideas and also one further one - that some betrayals, even the most terrible can be forgiven. For example the father desperate to save both his drowning children who can only save one. He has to sacrifice / betray one to save the other, or else lose both.
 
Yes that can be forgiven. It can be understood even. But the cost of such a decision would be soul destroying for the father. And the question hardly ever asked is what would the sacrificed child think of his father's betrayal? Could he forgive him? Could he understand? Or is it a betrayal too great?
 
I hope that this book will make readers think about these same issues - as well as hopefully be entertained!
 
Cheers, Greg.
 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Yes - Something Is Actually Happening!

Hi Guys,
 
 
Sorry for not having written anything for a while - (why do so many of my posts begin with apologies?)
 
However I have a good excuse. No the dog did not eat my homework! I have however been writing and there is progress on the horizon.
 
In the last couple of months I have completed one sci fi / space opera book which is now sitting with my editor. Meanwhile I have commissioned a cover artist to design a spaceship and am sitting on tenterhooks waiting to see what he comes up with. The ship by the way is called The Intruder, and the book is titled "The Stars Betrayed". (Maybe there will even be a hope by then that my blog problems will have been resolved and I will be able to post an image of the cover here. If not I suppose it will just go to Facebook.)
 
My hope is that "The Stars Betrayed" will be released within about a month or so.
 
As well as this I have returned to an old fantasy book - "The Arcanist" - and just finished the first draft. As soon as The Stars Betrayed has finished its editing process The Arcanist will begin its hellish journey, and with a little luck both novels will be out by the middle of the year. It will also be getting a privately commissioned cover. Currently I am searching out cover artists that I think can provide an image similar to the one I want.
 
As for Mage - The sequel to Maverick with which I was having so many problems, it hasn't been forgotten. It just hit a rough patch at a hundred and fifteen k and I got distracted. (I blame the cat!)
 
Cheers, Greg.
 
 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

MFA - Creative Writing Teacher Quits - With A Few Choice Words

Hi Guys,
 
Recently you will have read since its all over the blogosphere, about Ryan Boudinot, a former teacher of creative writing in an MFA programme who quit and then decided to leave a few unfortunate comments.
 
 
And of course there have been a great many (outraged) responses to his blog, which seems to have become something of a storm magnet. This is my own response which I hope will be somewhat more balanced than many.
 
To begin with let me just say that teaching is a hard job. Ask anyone who's been in the profession. It wears down the soul. And so first I applaud Mr. Boudinot for having made this a career of his and having tried to teach. But I would also say that given the general tone of his blog, I think he may have been in the job too long. It strikes me as the sort of post someone would write who's a bit on the jaded side of things.
 
I would also say that as has been said many times, the most convincing sort of lie is the half truth. The lie that has a nugget of truth at its core. And most of his blog post reads like that. It is not that there is no truth in what he says. If there wasn't people could simply look at it, laugh, and walk away. It is that there is a nugget of truth in there which is expanded upon and then made into a great flat blanket claim.
 
And last let me just say that Mr. Boudinot's claims - at least the headlines - read as black and white. As absolute rules that must be adhered to. But the truth is that with creative writing as with most other human endeavours there is a huge grey area. There are no hard and fast rules. If you do this you will not necessarily succeed. And if you do that you will not necessarily fail. You will just make things either easier or harder for yourself.
 
Okay, over to the claims he makes.
 
1 Writers are born with talent.
 
Well this is absolutely true. Everyone is born with all sorts of talents for all sorts of things. Maths, rugby and writing to name but three. But no one (or at least almost no one) is born with so little talent that they will never be able to produce great creative writing. And equally no one is born with such great talent that they can simply write masterpieces without some study and hard work. Mr. Boudinot actually alludes to this once you get past the salacious headline.
 
2 If you haven't started writing seriously by the time you're a teenager you're probably not going to make it.
 
Again a half truth. Yes if you start writing seriously at a young age you have a better chance of succeeding. The same is true everywhere. Tiger Woods would have to be the world's best example of how valuable starting as a toddler practically and training from then on can be. But if you start later does that mean you're doomed to failure? No. Even Mr. Boudinot says "probably". The fact is that many great writers have started later in life. What those of us who do start later - like me - is that the journey for us will probably be harder. But if we're willing to put the hours and sweat in, there's no reason to assume that any of us can't make it.
 
3 If you aren't a serious reader don't expect anyone to read what you write.
 
Well this ones a complete pile of pooh. Yes reading is vital to becoming a good writer. But is there any evidence that what you read will make you a better or worse writer? No. What we do know is expressed in that mantra every writer is told almost from the start - Write what you know. So lets take two well known authors - Dame Barbara Cartland and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Do I know what either of them read as kids? No. But is it a fair bet that the first read romance and the second serious literature? Yes. And what does this tell us? That That Dame Barbara Cartland probably couldn't write serious literature (don't you just hate the sheer snobbishness of the term) and Feodor probably couldn't write light romantic fiction. But is either of them not read? No. The truth is that both of them are highly read and respected. What you read won't determine whether you'll be read in turn. What it will do is probably steer you in a certain direction writing wise, and that in turn will decide who reads you - not how many. But that's one of the great things about creative writing. There isn't just one thing you can write to be read.
 
4 No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.
 
And here were return to the issue of burn out among teachers. (Note that I choose to see things this way rather than the unfortunate alternative which is that this is how Mr. Boudinot always felt.) What I read here is that Mr. Boudinot is saying don't come to me with your problems unless you have something great to bring with them. As I said at the start teaching is a hard profession. But one of the things that stands out for me when I think about the teachers I've had, is that the best of them were the ones who understood that I like everyone else had problems and were willing to listen and help.
 
5 You don't need my help to get published.
 
Well this one is actually completely true in this day of the internet and the indie.
 
Okay guys. That's my two cents worth on this unfortunate episode in the annals of creative writing. Now it's up to you to go and write and prove this guy wrong.
 
Cheers, Greg.
 
 

Friday, 30 January 2015

Happy New Year and Je Suis Charlie.

Hi Guys,

 

Bit of a gap between posts this time, and as you will notice no nice graphic at the top either. The reason I believe is called technical difficulties. A polite way of saying I'm a computer moron. For some reason I can't seem to upload anything to my blog anymore - I just get error messages. Something about server connections failing and a resumable file which I can't open. So if anyone knows what any of that's about, kindly drop me a note.
 
However this blog will be short and sweet.
 
At the start of the year you'll remember I usually like to set out some resolutions, and also to see how I did on the previous year's ones, and this year I did the same thing. I find that this is one way to cut out the BS and just get a benchmark for how I'm going as a writer.

Last year I decided that my goal would be to put out six books - which was a goal I had achieved previously. I felt that was an ambitious target, but not an unachievable one - and goals should always be achievable. Sadly I didn't achieve it, putting out only five books, but in my defence one of those books - The Godlost Land - is a 250K monster. So I think I'll give myself a B on that - with the proviso that I should really get off my arse more often and write!

Over to 2015. This year my new goal is to do the same (five books not six since I've included a second goal which will slow things down.) And my second goal is that one of those books will be a genuine sequel to one of the other books I've already written. This as I'm daily discovering, is a tough goal, since most of the books I'm looking at sequels for I closed years ago. I've forgotten so much about them, that it makes continuity a major problem. However, I am pushing on and Mage, (The sequel to Maverick) is now over 100k.

This year however, one other thing impacted on my writing as I'm sure it did on the lives of many other writers. Terrorists, murdered a dozen innocent cartoonists in Paris.

That monstrous act left a disquieting feeling in my writing guts, as I'm sure it did in the guts of many others. It brought home the reality that there are people out there who truly believe that they are the only ones who should be allowed to decide what people can write and say. And ultimately I assume, what they can even think. And it reminded me that if I write the wrong thing I could become a target for them.

That of course was the terrorists intention. To scare people like me.

It failed.

That was the other new years resolution I came up with. I will not be bullied into writing only what other people want to allow me the right to do so. Granted I don't write a lot about Islam, but if the subject comes up it will be written about and in a way that suits my creative purposes, not the desires of these thugs.

Because in the end people have said that this was an attack on the freedom of speech - which of course it was. But it's something more fundamental than that. This was tyranny in action. These people believe that they have the right to determine how others should live, act and think. They aren't just opposed to democracy, they are opposed to freedom - yours and mine.

And the bitter irony is that they claim that they do this in the name of God. They don't. What seems to have escaped their notice is that every person they bully, intimidate, harm and kill is a child of God. These people were created with free will and out of love. And they were not created with the intention that anyone should harm them.

So to any out there believing that these modern day savages are in the right, think again. And if you support them you support their acts. You are as guilty as they.

Lastly in conclusion: Happy New Year and Je Suis Charlie.