One Blog Closes, Another Blog Opens

Hello!

I have a brand new website and so, as of August 2015, will blog there instead.

The new site contains most of what once lived here, but looks nicer and works better across different platforms.  It also contains plenty of new words and pictures.  I'll transfer over selected posts from Bloggery Pokery, which will remain here in its entirety as an archive of all the nonsense I squawked between 2007 and 2015.

Check out the new site here.


John Higgs: 20th Century Boy

Hey, you.  There's a great new non-fiction book out today.

It's entitled Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century and has been written by the twisted genius that is John Higgs.

You may well already know John's work from his hilarious and emotive head-fuck fiction (The Brandy Of The Damned and The First Church On The Moon) and/or his mesmerising non-fiction (The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds and I Have America Surrounded: The Life Of Timothy Leary)

I have totally read Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century and can tell you it's extraordinary.  John has the rare talent of being able to convey a clear-headed overview on complex events and concepts (even quantum physics, for Christ's sake), while weaving a unique narrative and making you laugh, all while utterly shunning the sandpaper-dryness which afflicts so much academic work.  This book not only makes sense of the 20th Century: it sheds light on what in the blue blazes is going on right now.

Buy it, I tell you.  And also be advised that there's a London launch party for the book tomorrow (August 28, 2015), with free entry for all.  See you there.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine... at Amazon UK

Stranger Than We Can Imagine... at Amazon US

I'm only too happy to bask in John's reflected glory, by pointing out that he and I released a joint Kindle book a while back, which bundles his Brandy Of The Damned with my novella Beast In The Basement.  Obviously, then, it's called Brandy In The Basement (UK / US)

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The Week In Genre Books - August 21 2015

Yes, it's the second in this series of irregular posts.  Whenever I feel like it and have enough time in any given week, I'll list some new genre (fantasy, horror, SF) releases out that day.  For the sake of simplicity, I'm focusing solely on 'trad-published' novels and, even then, the list will be far from exhaustive: mainly stuff on my radar.  Please feel free to quack about any egregious trad-pub genre omissions in comments!  Let's go: what's out this week?

ZER0ES - Chuck Wendig (Harper Voyager)

You know Chuck Wendig, right?  The man is a book-writing and advice-giving MACHINE and if you don't read him, you're missing out.  Along with his forthcoming novel Star Wars: Aftermath, this high-octane cyber-thriller represents Wendig's well-deserved shift into the mainstream, while forfeiting none of that essential Wendigery-pokery. 

BLURB:

An exhilarating thrill-ride through the underbelly of cyber espionage in the vein of David Ignatius’s The Director and the television series Leverage, CSI: Cyber, and Person of Interest, which follows five iconoclastic hackers who are coerced into serving the U.S. government.

An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Can the hackers escape their federal watchers and confront Typhon and its mysterious creator? And what does the government really want them to do? If they decide to turn the tables, will their own secrets be exposed—and their lives erased like lines of bad code?

Combining the scientific-based, propulsive narrative style of Michael Crichton with the eerie atmosphere and conspiracy themes of The X-Files and the imaginative, speculative edge of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, Zer0es explores our deep-seated fears about government surveillance and hacking in an inventive fast-paced novel sure to earn Chuck Wendig the widespread acclaim he deserves.


Chuck Wendig: Site | Twitter


THE PARADOX (OVERSIGHT TRILOGY) - Charlie Fletcher (Orbit)

The much-awaited historical fantasy sequel to The Oversight, which was hailed as "the start of something amazing" by The Girl With All The Gifts author M.R Carey, who clearly knows an amazing thing when he reads or writes one.

BLURB:

SOMETIMES YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR - SOMETIMES IT LOOKS BACK.

Those who belong to the secret society called The Oversight know many things. They know cold iron will hold back the beasts in the darkness. They know it is dangerous to stand between two mirrors. And they know that, despite their dwindling numbers, it remains their duty to protect humanity from the predations of the supernatural. And vice versa.

But two of the society's strongest members, Mr Sharp and Sara Falk, are trapped in the world between the mirrors, looking for each other, searching for a way back home. What they discover there will have ominous consequences both for The Oversight and the world it protects, effects that will make them question everything they thought they knew.

The dark waters rise. The candle is guttering. But the light still remains. For now . . .


Charlie Fletcher: Site | Twitter 


SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS - April Genevieve Tucholke (Dial Books)

Okay, okay, you got me - I chose this one because the cover and title are really cool.  But that's so often how books reel you in.  Besides, this YA horror anthology looks rather good in all respects and editor/contributor Tucholke has strong past form, having written Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea and its sequel Between The Spark And The Burn for Penguin.

BLURB:

For fans of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, American Horror Story and The Walking Dead comes a powerhouse anthology featuring some of the best thriller and horror writers in YA

A host of the sharpest young adult authors come together in this collection of terrifying tales and psychological thrillers. Each author draws from a mix of literature, film, television, and music to create something new and fresh and unsettling. Clever readers will love teasing out the references and can satisfy their curiosity at the end of each tale, where the inspiration is revealed. There are no superficial scares here; these are stories that will make you think even as they keep you on the edge of your seat. From blood horror, to the supernatural, to unsettling, all-too-possible realism, this collection has something for anyone looking for an absolute thrill.

Stefan Bachmann, Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, A. G. Howard, Jay Kristoff, Marie Lu, Jonathan Maberry, Danielle Paige, Carrie Ryan, Megan Shepherd, Nova Ren Suma, McCormick Templeman, April Genevieve Tucholke, Cat Winters


April Genevieve Tucholke: Site 


Okay, that's all I have time for, folks.  What have I missed in genre trad-publishing this week?  Quack about it in comments below!


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The Week In Genre Books - July 16 2015

Here's the first in a new series of irregular posts.  Whenever I feel like it and have enough time on a Thursday, I'll list some new genre (fantasy, horror, SF) releases out that day.  For the sake of simplicity, I'm focusing solely on 'trad-published' novels and, even then, the list will be far from exhaustive: mainly stuff on my radar.  Please feel free to quack about any egregious trad-pub genre omissions in comments!  Let's go: what's out today?

UNDER GROUND - SL Grey (Macmillan)

The latest pulse-pounding novel from SL Grey, which is the combined pen name of authors Sarah Lotz (The Three) and Louis Greenberg (Dark Windows).  Hardback out today!

BLURB:

They're trapped fifty feet down... and someone wants them six feet under

The Sanctum is a luxurious, self-sustaining survival condominium situated underground in rural Maine. It's a plush bolt-hole for the rich and paranoid - a place where they can wait out the apocalypse in style. When a devastating super-flu virus hits the States, several families race to reach The Sanctum. All have their own motivations for entering. All are hiding secrets.

But when the door locks and someone dies, they realize the greatest threat to their survival may not be above ground - it may already be inside . . .


SL Grey: Site | Twitter


THE HUNT - Tim Lebbon (Avon)

An acclaimed thriller which looks set to see renowned horror/fantasy writer Tim hit the mainstream.  Only 99p on Kindle at the time of writing!  Out in paperback today, in bookshops and supermarkets.

BLURB:

‘A great thriller … breathless all the way.’ LEE CHILD

The cruellest game. The highest stakes. Only she can bring his family back alive …

Rose is the one that got away. She was the prey in a human trophy hunt organised by an elite secret organisation for super-rich clients seeking a unique thrill. She paid a terrible price. Every moment since she has been planning her revenge … And now her day has come.

Chris returns from his morning run to find his wife and children missing and a stranger in his kitchen.

He’s told to run.

If he’s caught and killed, his family go free. If he escapes, they die.

Rose is the only one who can help him, but Rose only has her sights on one conclusion. For her, Chris is bait. But The Trail have not forgotten the woman who tried to outwit them.

The Trail want Rose. The hunters want Chris’s corpse. Rose wants revenge, and Chris just wants his family back.

The hunt is on …


Tim Lebbon: Site | Twitter 


TRACER - Rob Boffard (Orbit)

Debut sci-fi novel from the South African scribe, who also offers Dust, a free collection of short stories, on his site.

BLURB:

Imagine The Bourne Identity meets Gravity and you'll get TRACER, the most exciting thriller set in space you'll ever read.

A huge space station orbits the Earth, holding the last of humanity. It's broken, rusted, falling apart. We've wrecked our planet, and now we have to live with the consequences: a new home that's dirty, overcrowded and inescapable.

What's more, there's a madman hiding on the station. He's about to unleash chaos. And when he does, there'll be nowhere left to run.

In space, every second counts. Who said nobody could hear you scream?


Rob Boffard: Site | Twitter


NECROPOLIS (GAUNT'S GHOSTS 3) - Dan Abnett (Warhammer 40,000)

The new fantasy epic from legendary veteran Abnett.  How cool is that series title: Gaunt's Ghosts.  Love it.

BLURB:

For a thousand years, the Sabbat Worlds have been lost to the Imperium, claimed by the dread powers of Chaos. Now, a mighty crusade seeks to return the sector to Imperial rule. And at the forefront of that crusade are Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only - better known as Gaunt's Ghosts. On the world of Verghast, a grinding war between two hive cities - one loyal to the Imperium, the other fallen to the worship of the Dark Gods - is bolstered by the forces of the Imperial Guard. But bitter rivalries and treachery threaten to derail the defence of Vervunhive, and it falls to Gaunt to take command of the Imperial forces and forge victory from an almost certain defeat.

This edition includes the epilogue short story 'In Remembrance', in which Gaunt's Ghosts are accompanied into battle by an artist commissioned to create a sculpture in commemoration of a great victory by the Tanith First.


Dan Abnett: Site | Twitter


DUNE - Frank Herbert (Hodder)

The immortal 1965 novel gets a new 50th Anniversary paperback release.  Factoid: despite having collected Dune stickers as a kid, I've still yet to either read the novel or see the film.  Should probably remedy this.

BLURB:

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's life-span to making intersteller travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the noble House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens fight back, murdering Duke Leto Atreides. Paul, his son, and Lady Jessica, his concubine, flee into the desert. On the point of death, they are rescued by a band for Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who control Arrakis' second great resource: the giant worms that burrow beneath the burning desert sands.

In order to avenge his father and retake Arrakis from the Harkonnens, Paul must earn the trust of the Fremen and lead a tiny army against the innumerable forces aligned against them.

And his journey will change the universe.


Frank Herbert: Site 


What have I missed in genre trad-publishing this week?  Quack about it in comments below!


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Ten Years After 7/7: How Best To Live Our Lives?


On the morning of the horrific London bombings which we soon came to know as '7/7', I was in the centre of town and fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me.  Nevertheless, the seventh of July 2005, 10 years ago today, feels like quite a significant event on a personal level, because it changed the way I thought about life.  Negatively in the short-term, but positively overall.  Which is obviously odd.

That morning, at about 9.10am, I travelled through London's public transport system, on the top of a double-decker, heading from Camden Town to Central London for a day's work at the Heat magazine office.  I remember looking down to see Euston Square station closed off - an ambulance or two outside, lots of people milling.  About 20 minutes beforehand, three bombs had detonated in the Underground, eventually prompting a Code Amber evacuation of the whole network.  Half an hour later a Number 30 bus would explode in Tavistock Square.

It wasn't until about 10am when we Heat magazine staffers found our attention glued to the news on the office TV screens.  Remote controls soon raised the volume, revealing newsreaders trying to make sense of what had happened, while trying not to cause undue panic on London's streets.  At one point, a "power surge" was apparently to blame in the Underground.  Eventually, we saw the bus.  Down in the Tube, all the unimaginable horror was hidden away, but you didn't have to be a scientist to know that the bus' horrendous state hadn't been caused by a power surge.

Worryingly, the mobile phone network soon became unusable, clogged up with desperate speed-diallers.  My mum phoned Heat to make sure I was okay.  I called through to Boots on Oxford Street, where my then-girlfriend Sarah worked, to make sure she was okay.  For the rest of the morning, the country would be just one big jittery chain of people checking on others in a pre-Twitter age.

Everyone left the Heat office early.  Walking through the streets seemed dangerous now, since we had no idea if there'd be a second wave of bombs.  Sarah and I walked up to Camden Town where we visited a series of pubs to get drunk.  We ended up in the Liberties bar, as it was then known, watching news updates on TV.  The number of dead was rising.  It would ultimately reach a total of 52, with over 700 injured.

For a while after that day, a queasiness clung to my stomach.  If I, or people close to me, been in a different tin-can zooming through London, at a different time, we would have either died or been transformed in some terrible way.  The ice-cold randomness of that began to eat into me.  For weeks afterwards, I insisted that Sarah got taxis to and from our Camden home to Boots on Oxford Street. Amazingly, I could afford this back then, because I had yet to leap into the financial no man's land of fiction writing.

I didn't use the Tube for some time, either.  This may well have been irrational and contrary to the bulldog-beef national spirit.  The way I saw it, though: if you could improve the odds for yourself and the people that matter, then why not?  "Stay calm and carry on" seemed an easy mantra for politicians who didn't have to travel in sardine tins, hundreds of feet below ground level.  But of course, after a while, given enough time to readjust, staying calm and carrying on is exactly what you do.  It's really the only way to do anything, not least because fear is the arch nemesis of fun.

It might seem crass to describe 7/7 as a near-death experience for all surviving Londoners and visitors, but in some way it felt like one.  As if we'd passed some deeply arbitrary, sickening test.  Survived a dice roll.  The thing is, we survive dice rolls every single day, to which we're mostly oblivious.  It was just that, on 7/7, four suicide bombers made that gamble visible and explicit.  They heartlessly skewed the odds for others while ensuring that their own fell to zero.

So, in a world where dice forever tumble, how best to live our lives?  Should we live as if every day is our last?  Or as if we'll live forever?

The problem with that first approach is that it would turn you into a mad parody of a Bucket Lister.  You'd spend every day bouncing around like a freak.  Kissing, hugging and shagging people, hurriedly ticking off stuff you never did before, eyes manic as you goggled down at Manhattan from a helicopter full of champagne and cocaine, or swam frenziedly alongside whales.  Chances are, you'd wake up the next morning and have to artificially generate brand new excitement about your New Last Day On Earth.  Exhausting.  Untenable.

There are two ways to act as if we'll live forever.  There's behaving as though you're physically immortal, which is easy in your teens and 20s, because your body's so resilient and armour-plated, only to start sending you warning signals which intensify with each new decade.  This kind of hedonism ultimately tends to reduce your lifespan, which can't be good.  The whole "Live fast, die young" ethos is great until it's time to do the dying.  Only yesterday, I looked up an old Camden Town friend on Facebook, only to be chilled by the sight of the word 'Remembering' on their page, above their name.

Then there's behaving as if your time here is infinite.  It's the anti-Living As If Every Day Is Your Last.  You lounge around, turn down opportunities to socialise or achieve because there's plenty of time for all that pro-active stuff and, anyway, there are good shows on TV tonight.

Whether we'd like to admit it or not, the majority of us reside within varying degrees of mindlessness.  We're not behaving like mortals or immortals: we're just not thinking about it.  This is our factory default setting and one which brings an undeniable comfort.  Wouldn't be healthy to spend all our days fretting about lifespans, death, fate and odds.  The mindlessness of staring at things, while barely seeing them at all, is actually an important shield.  Pretty sure that's why I enjoy some ludicrous Saturday night TV: a procession of shows which demand little of the brain.  It can be good to switch off for a while.

Yet none of these designs for life are the answer in themselves.  The answer may well lie in a varied rotation of them all, but all things considered, I've come to think of awareness and appreciation as key.  Walk beside the sea and taste the salty air, really suck it in.  Take time to fully appreciate loved ones.  Do what you enjoy most and do it with all the high-definition consciousness you can muster.  My favourite Fight Club quote is "This is your life and it's ending, one minute at a time".  Granted, I wouldn't want it tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, but sometimes we really need that reminder, that wake-up call, amid modern life's sound and fury and incessant interconnectivity.  Don't let too many of these minutes flood between your fingers and toes.

As someone who works seven days a week by default, and is all too capable of walking through interesting surroundings while seeing none of it because there's a creative building site toiling away in my head, I'm well aware that I'm fundamentally writing for my own benefit here.  Still, the idea of maintaining a measured sense of urgency to your life applies to work too.  Write your next Creative Thing as if it's your last (which I blogged about here) and you want to leave the strongest possible legacy.



Did you see ITV's recent documentary, 7/7 Bombing: Survivors' Stories?  The latest of the docs, it gathers the testimony of people affected by 7/7.   Human faces fill the screen, telling their stories direct to camera, to the viewer.  The camera tends to stay tight on them, so that we only learn if they have terrible injuries, missing limbs, etc, if they choose to tell us.  There are graphic accounts of events which can't help but haunt you, but also uplifting stories about people helping people.  My opinion of humanity seems to sink each year, but I do still believe most people will help others when faced with that kind of horror.  Most people are essentially good.

You can watch the documentary on ITV Player here for the next few weeks.

Today, I'll be thinking about those who died or were injured in London on the seventh of July 2005.  I'll also launch a renewed campaign to view life through a high-definition lens.

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Treat The Script Reader As A Viewer

There’s a script note I’ve given rather a lot over the years – to myself and other writers – and yet it doesn’t get talked about all that much (except for this week, when a post by the mighty James ‘Sitcom Geek’ Cary reminded me to write this). Since launching my Script Notes service a few months back, I’ve applied this note to a fair number of the varied and splendid TV and film scripts I’ve received.

Don’t tell the script reader things which the viewer won’t see or hear onscreen.

It’s easy to fall into this trap.  Why?  Because we’re keen to communicate with the reader and get them on board.  We want them to enjoy the script and get the story, without getting confused.  But our eagerness leads us to forget that readers enjoy scripts most when experiencing them as a viewer would – when they’re picturing the drama in their heads and gleaning all information solely from what’s ‘onscreen’. 

So if your script’s action lines start sidling up and whispering privileged information about offscreen stuff, you run the risk of snapping them out of their own imaginations.  You can remind them they’re reading a script rather than watching something.  Suddenly they’re no longer visualising, but processing purely written information.  You also make it harder for them to gauge how well the script is actually telling its story onscreen, where it counts.

Here are some examples of imaginary action lines which commit this cardinal sin…

INT. LINDA’S BEDROOM - NIGHT
Linda lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.  She’s been awake for hours.
How do we, as viewers, know how long she’s been awake?

INT. BAR – NIGHT
Dan props up the bar, nursing a whiskey.  He’s thinking about what Susan told him this morning.
How do we, as viewers, know this?  Even an Oscar-winning actor would find themselves hard pressed to convey specific thoughts using only their facial muscles.

EXT. SPACE
The massive and imposing Stornbecker 8 spaceship glides into view.  This vast behemoth is home to over 200 scientists who specialise in the latest cloning techniques.
How do we, as viewers, know it’s home to over 200 scientists specialising in the latest cloning techniques?  Sure, we’ll hopefully gather this stuff in subsequent scenes as we venture inside the ship, but why tell the reader up front?  It’s a waste of a line.  And more importantly, the reader is no longer wondering, ‘Hey, I wonder who might live in a spaceship like this’.  Let’s look at another example of robbing the reader of questions…

EXT. GOLF COURSE – DAY
Pete runs breathless past the 18th hole, towards a pub called The 19th Hole. Something falls from his jacket. He stops to snatch it from the ground, then takes a moment to study it: a photograph of his dead wife HELEN.

How, in the name of all that’s holy and unholy, do we, as viewers, know that’s his dead wife in the photo?  This, by the way, is the first time we’ve encountered Helen in this imaginary script and so we have no idea who she is.  And crucially, we shouldn’t yet.  When we read the script we should have the exact same experience as the viewer, wondering who the woman in the photo might be.  So from this point on, the script reader and the potential viewer are having two completely different experiences.  And since the Mystery Photo Woman would have been a good hook, the script reader is actually less engaged.

Sometimes we writers fall into this trap by mistake, in early drafts.  Other times, we try it as a crafty cheat, to avoid having to find ways to convey information, either visually (ideal) or by dialogue (the last resort).  But it’s very much a false economy and can cause real problems.  If Helen is never established onscreen as Pete’s dead wife, she’ll forever remain a mystery for viewers.  The writer has told the script reader but never the viewer.  This is an outrage!

So, we need to watch ourselves when it comes to this stuff, especially when flip-flopping between prose and script (and it’s arguable that ‘show don’t tell’ still applies just as much to prose as it does to script, even though the prose writer gets to communicate directly with the ‘end-user’.  Depending on the narrator’s POV and story, we should still ideally be looking to convey things to the reader via characters’ surface lives – through their gestures, spoken words and actions.)  As a general rule of thumb, look out for these three warning signs:
  • You find yourself writing about what a character “feels” or “thinks”...
  • Or using the word “clearly” or “obviously”, which often tends to be code for “I’m not sure how to convey this visually”, eg ‘Tim is obviously finding this new bar job a struggle’, instead of something like, ‘Tim, caked in sweat, pours two drinks at once.  He glances over at a row of frustrated, waiting customers, then knocks a stack of glasses over.  Smash!’
  • Or naughtily delegating work to the director and/or actors. One example of this might be starting a scene with ‘Lisa, Colin and Tom are chatting on the sofas. Suddenly, the door bursts open’.  Guess who has to supply the actual words these people were chatting?  That’ll be you, unless this is some kind of crazy arthouse-improv show.

Are there exceptions to the above?  Should we never write little asides for the reader’s sole benefit?  Yep, there are always exceptions.  When introducing new major characters, it’s more of a matter of taste as to whether you tell the reader their relationships to each other (‘TED holds the door open for his elderly mother IRENE’) – provided, of course, that you also remember to establish these onscreen.

Another example might be giving the reader a brief reminder of a smaller character’s identity, eg ‘Rob, the homeless guy from earlier, stares menacingly up at Tara’s window.’  The viewer will have the advantage of instantly recognising Rob from earlier, but the reader will thank you for a prompt.

Such small exceptions aside, scriptwriting is all about visual storytelling.  And that’s why we must treat reader and viewer as one and the same.