Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Dead End

When I wrote Secession Campaign I went through the whole process of breaking out a synopsis and creating an outline. It went through a lot of revisions and several significant changes before I published it. I went through the same process before I started on the sequel, taking advantage of a lot of the critique I got while working on Secession Campaign, not to mention that book provided a clear framework for the sequel.

Things were very different when I started on my 'steampunk' novel The 4TH Planet Problem. That developed more organically, started as short story structured out of faux newspaper articles and diary entries, became a medium length story centred around a single character and then grew into a novel. I thought I could do the same with working on the sequel, but this past weekend I had to bite the bullet and scrap what I've written so far which was a lot of words.

So what went wrong? Well first off I didn't wait to get feedback on the first book, so I was working a sequel to a book that only existed as a first draft. This was an issue, though it didn't seem like one because I expected the 4PP sequel to develop in the same organic way as the first, not needing a detailed structure. Added to that though this book was intended as a sequel the plot threads in 4PP didn't really create a guide for what direction I needed to go.

I had been struggling with the 4PP sequel for a few weeks now, chopping and changing things, with the writing going far more slowly than it was on the Secession sequel. It was only when I finally started getting some critique on 4PP that I finally had to accept it just wasn't going anywhere very interesting, added to which the feedback sparked new ideas that did give me a clear idea. So I've started breaking out a completely new plot and synopsis and I'm going to let it mature a bit before i go back to it.

Moral is if you can free form something it's great, but you should never count on it. if you're not sure about a piece your writing it probably is time to stop and think.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

4th Planet Problem - Take Two

So I've been working the cover for my next book (currently being critiqued much to my relief) and this is the Mark II. Replaced the porthole from the first one as that was clipart I couldn't really use commercially, so I created my own in DAZ 3D. I also completely redid the text as that was the thing that people really didn't like in the first one:

So any feedback on this would be appreciated

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Anti-social Media

I am not a social media person. I don't have a Facebook page, or a twitter account, or Snapchat, or well anything unless you want to count this blog. That could be a problem because when you're trying to get people to read your book one of the obvious routes to take advantage of social media to reach out to an audience. The 'good news' for me is that it probably isn't going to work, unless you already have a huge following on Facebook, Twitter, etal, or you're a successful author simply looking to reach out to a fan base that wants to hear from you. Fundamentally trying to build a following to create potential readers of your work is probably not going to be a winning strategy. If you are looking to find readers for your work from a standing start the people I've asked about it have been fairly uniformly negative.

But suppose for a moment that wasn't necessarily the case, that you could with time and effort use it as a platform to simply market your work, the question then becomes, where does that time and effort come from? I work full time but I have generous lunch hour and my evenings are my own, which creates plenty of space to write. I know other people who aren't that lucky, work and family life eat up their free time and writing time is a luxury. When you don't have that much time to begin with it potentially comes down to a choice between writing and creating content simply to meet the demands of maintaining activity on a Facebook page or Twitter feed.

Add to that the question of what is that content going to be? How much creative energy are you going to pour into that endeavour that might otherwise go into your writing? One of the reasons I don't post more often in this blog is that I only do so when a topic strikes me that I want to write about, trying to come up with daily updates would be frankly wearisome.

Basically for a writer social media seems to be what you need to do if your successful enough to have fans to connect to and time enough to do everything.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Ticket to Ride

A favourite ‘golden age’ sci-fi story of mine is Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’. It’s a story of an entrepreneur called D.D. Harriman who creates his own spaceflight company and ultimately lands the first man on the moon, though he is ultimately denied the chance of fulfilling his dream of going himself. It was published in 1951 and its prediction of a first moon landing in 1978 seemed wildly optimistic at the time. 

As it turned out of course it was the idea of commercial spaceflight that Heinlein was being optimistic about. He was hardly alone in that respect,  in the science fiction of the 50’s and 60’s the idea that spaceflight would follow a similar trajectory to airline travel was almost a given. When the Space Shuttle emerged in the 70’s with its promise of slashing the cost of spaceflight it looked like we might be on the road to opening space up to more than a select few government agencies. 

That promise fizzled out as the Shuttle proved to be complex and expensive to operate. Every plan to improve or replace it fizzled out (Shuttle-C, Venturestar and HL-20 are just a few of casualties) and spaceflight seemed moribund and indeed may even have gone backwards in some respects as with the Shuttle retired the USA faced a long period with no manned spaceflight capability. Yes the various space agencies have done wonderful things with space telescopes and probes to other planets, but for those of us who had grown up with the idea that one day be able to buy a ticket and go out there ourselves it was just a little disappointing. There were occasional flurries of media interest as some company emerged claiming they would open up commercial spaceflight but they were all better at PR than rocket science, D.D. Harriman remained pure fantasy, and then the Internet happened...  

What I really mean is the internet stopped being a niche thing for the computer literate and became part of the mainstream, people started buying things, and paying for them, online. That created new companies and a number of wealthy tech entrepreneurs, some of whom had grown up with the dream of space travel and decided to do something about it. Right now the best known of the new commercial space companies is undoubtedly SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk. They didn’t invent new technology, what they did do was take ideas that had been explored, but never exploited and turn them into working space vehicles. Suddenly the ‘tail sitter’ rockets beloved of golden science fiction have become real (checkout this video of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage returning to base) and the idea of opening up manned spaceflight to more than a select few is back on the table. 

Maybe it will all turn out to be another false dawn, but right now the chances of buying that ticket to the moon are better than they’ve been since the heady days of Apollo. Time to start saving those pennies…

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Write what you know, or not

It's one of the classic pieces of advice, 'write what you know'. What it really means is that you should use your own experience of human interaction to inform the behaviour of your characters. It quite definitely doesn't mean limiting yourself to the limits of your objective knowledge, large parts of the science-fiction genre would go unwritten if it did.

What has me wondering is that even the correct interpretation could actually be a bit limiting. I'm white fifty-something and male, and all my life experience is refracted through the lens of that. It's easy and comfortable to write from that perspective and I know from experience it can create some problems when writing. A few years ago I was working on one of many failed novels and about two-thirds of the way through the first draft I realized that all my main viewpoint characters were male. Given the cultural setting of the world I had created that was possibly justifiable, but it just struck me that I was creating this whole imaginary universe and my creativity had fallen short on simply figuring out how to create a decent role for a female character. I tried rewriting some of the plot threads, which marked the beginning of an endless loop of rewrites that eventually collapsed the book under the weight of them.

I don't know how much that potential comfort zone affects other people's writing, but I suspect that it's not that uncommon. Trying not to fall into the trap isn't about political correctness, or trying to reflect current day social values, its about stretching yourself as a writer pushing out beyond what you know and trying something unknown. Better to fail doing that than winding up writing characters who are just endless variations on yourself.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Common Knowledge

'Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it' is a maxim that makes sense on one level and turns up in a lot of fiction, the character determined to fix past mistakes only to end up repeating them in an ironic twist. Thing is did that character fail to learn from history or did they just learn from the wrong version?

This isn't based on the idea that history is written by the winners, in fact I would say that the losers have often gotten better writes up than the winners, consider Napoleon or Robert E Lee. What I'm talking about here is the chasm that often exists between the common knowledge or pop culture version of historical events and the facts of what actually happened. The Battle of Dunkirk offers a great example of this. At the height of the battle Hitler issued what has become infamous as the 'Halt Order', which suspended attacks by the German army on Dunkirk for three days, allowed the British to consolidate their defence perimeter and carry out the evacuation. There are actually two 'common knowledge' versions of why this happened. The first is basically that Hitler was a lunatic, he panicked about a minor counterattack and called the halt over the vehement objections of his generals. The second explanation is that it was because Hitler admired the British Empire and let the troops escape in the hopes of getting the British to 'see sense' and make peace.

So which version is closer to the truth? Well neither actually. The description I gave of events surrounding the Halt Order is certainly the one that most people who've heard of it would give, but reality is something else. The fact was that only the Panzer divisions halted, the rest of the German forces maintained their pressure on the perimeter. More than that, it was the frontline generals who asked for the halt. They needed to regroup after two weeks of non stop action and they wanted to save their tanks for the operation that was going to bring them fame and glory, crushing the French army and driving into Paris.

Does it matter that the general public has the wrong view of events? I would say yes, as it often downplays the contribution of those who made huge sacrifices to influence events. From a writing perspective I would say it matters even more. If you buy into the notion that 'crazy people do crazy/stupid things because their crazy' it encourages last writing. Most of the 'stupid' decisions you can point to in real history have a rationale behind them that made sense to the characters at the time, that rationale may be misguided, or yes plain insane, with hindsight but based on what the character knew or believed it made sense.

In short characters may do stupid things for stupid reasons, but there is always a reason that makes sense to them.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Myth of Fan Power

So first off happy New Year!

Now recently it seems there's been a glut of stories about outraged fandom condemning/defending the creative decisions of those in charge of various franchises. I'm not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of the reactions, my question is should these be getting the attention the media are lavishing on them and, more importantly from a writer's perspective, should their reaction influence the creative process?

I am taking here about the kind of people who fit the profile of the true 'fanatic', those who don't simply enjoy a particular work, but have developed a sense of ownership over it. one of the earliest and best know examples of this has to be Sherlock Holmes. When he went over Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty the fans were horrified and demanded his resurrection. In the end Holmes did return, a victory for the fans! Thing is though it wasn't the endless pleas from fans that changed Conan-Doyle's mind, it was financial desperation and the sales of 'Hound of the Baskervilles' that persuaded him to go back to a character he was frankly tired of. It's a fairly safe bet that if Conan-Doyle had been financially secure then Holmes tales would have ended in death at the hands of his nemesis(BTW there is a great science fiction story about this topic called 'You See But Do Not Observe' by Robert J. Sawyer that I wholeheartedly recommend.)

The Conan-Doyle template can be applied to a lot of modern fan 'victories'. The ability of a fan campaign to change the minds of creators and corporations has a great deal more to do with cold hard cash than zealous passion. The problem is that the true fanatics don't see it that way, they are convinced they are possessed of influence that goes beyond the contents of their bank accounts. There's also the problem that as anyone who has posted work online knows the ratio of views to reactions is generally terrible, even if people like something they can rarely be bothered to give it a rating let alone actually comment. The truth is that for most people being a fan of an author simply means they will read your next book. They read or watch for relaxation, it's not going to become an all consuming obsession.

At the end of the day you can't let some self-declared fandom control your creative process, follow the road you want to take and accept not everyone will be happy when you try something different.