Sunday, 29 May 2011

Multi-sample Sunday; Test and Beta readers requested!

First off, a sample (more here):

Heaven Can Wait

“How old were you at death, boy?”

“Fifteen, Revered Justicar,” the boy who stood before the Justicar’s bench certainly looked fifteen. His face still had a little babyish roundness; his shoulders were still narrow. There were hints, though, of an age beyond his years. His nose was bent as if it had once been badly broken. He stood without fidgeting, seeming completely comfortable in his smart, formal suit. He looked at the Justicar and the priests who flanked him without cringing.

“And you have been dead how long?”

“Fourteen years, Revered One.”

“You are aware that in this court, you may appeal for special clemency as a child? Our Lord is merciful, and willing to forgive much done in the ignorance of youth which would otherwise be held as mortal sin.”

The boy nodded, “Thank you, Revered One, but as my guilt, such as it is, is a matter of public record, I would rather defend myself as an adult. Whether my actions were evil or not depends on my reasons for them. I would rather not have the court treat me as childish.”

“Very well. State your name, please, for the record.”


The Justicar raised an eyebrow, “Your full name?”

“Revered One, I was born without a second name. If you must have a family name for the record, please put down Everay.”

One of the priests had been halfway through taking a drink, and coughed sharply. There was a rustle from the benches behind Tom.

The priest at the Justicar’s right hand said, “A morbid choice, perhaps?”

“If I was ever close to having a family, that family’s name was Everay.”

The Justicar said, “Very well. Tom Everay, you stand accused of mortal sins, including murder, blasphemy, adultery and heresy. As you say, your guilt is an established fact. This Court is convened at your request to determine whether special exceptions should be made for any or all of your crimes on the grounds of correct and Holy motives. The Court will hear all testimony you wish to make. Venerable Father Gostin will take your oath.”

Gostin stood from the right-hand end of the Justicar’s bench and walked around to stand beside Tom, carrying an ornate icon of the Sun On High, the emblem of the Church. The third-highest-ranked member of the clergy in the city, he was the lowliest priest able to touch the Justicar’s icon without burning. He carried it before his face, clasped in both hands. Tom frowned at it, and for a moment it looked like he might take a step back.

Gostin intoned, “Do you swear before Almighty Justice to speak only truth and hide no evil?”

Tom looked at the Justicar, “Forgive me, Revered One, but my experiences in recent years have led me to more than a little doubt about justice. I swear by my own honour, by my life, by my death and on pain of total damnation that I will be truthful, but were I to swear by Almighty Justice I fear it would be meaningless.”

Some of the priests went white; others bright red. Every eye in the room turned to the Justicar. His eyelids flickered for a moment, and he nodded, smiling. “The point is taken, and your oath is judged acceptable. You may begin your testimony.”

A couple of the priests jumped to their feet, but the Justicar held up a hand and, heads bowed, they sat back down.

Tom took a deep breath, “Thank you, Revered Justicar. Since the petty crimes of my life pale into insignificance compared to my deeds since dying, I ask the court’s forbearance to avoid listing them. My death is the beginning, not the end, of my story.”

Chapter 1 – Dead on Arrival

In the small hours of the morning after my death, I woke up on a sandbar out in the Cohl delta with a Man Who Wasn’t There waiting for me. It’s hard to describe Men Who Aren’t There. After all, they’re not there. He wore a smart pin-striped suit, his silver smiley-face cuff-links glowing in the moonlight. Everything about him was polished to a shine, from his shoes to his briefcase. I couldn’t tell you whether he himself was smiling, but looking at his face gave me a sense of comfort. It’s not so much that Men Who Aren’t There don’t have faces, but the light never seems to fall on them right, you never get a clear look – and so you never remember what they look like.

Of course, while I was taking all this in, another part of my mind, in a voice of rising, uncomfortable urgency, was telling me that I was face-down on a sandbar, soaking wet, cold and very confused. Still another part of my mind was wondering why the shiny shoes in front of me weren’t sinking – as my face was – into the sticky silt of the sandbar.

I spat sand and started to push myself up. The Man Who Wasn’t There leaned down and offered me a hand up. I took it, gratefully, and was surprised by the strength in the wiry fingers. Standing, I did my best to brush the mud off, which mostly ended up spreading it onto my hands.

“Well, aren’t we a live one?” said the Man Who Wasn’t There.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked, then remembered my priorities, “Where am I?”

“That’s an interesting question. If you’re asking about this place, we’re about half a mile down-stream from the Seaward Gate, in the delta. Where you are? Well, that’s more complicated.”

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

“Me? Oh, I’m Not Here. But you’ve got more important things to worry about. I’m sorry to be so blunt about this, but you’re dead.”


Intrigued? I'm looking for beta readers. I'd also like to get a few people to just read the book in its current form - it's had one very quick edit/proofread - and give me a response as readers to the story, characters, and ideas. I'm aiming for the part of the YA fantasy market where you find things like Jonathan Stroud's 'Amulet of Samarkand' and Garth Nix's 'Sabriel', so I'm particularly interested in your response if those books are up your street. If you're interested and have the time to either test or beta for me in the next month, please email me at rdavnall AT googlemail DOT com. A few people have already offered - I'll be in touch with you shortly to see if you're still interested.

If you're really interested, or if you like my writing but YA fantasy isn't for you, keep reading. I've got two other novels which I need test readers for. To clarify; I'm NOT looking for betas yet for either of these books as I'm not really sure where either of them fits, genre- and market-position-wise. I'm looking to get reader responses to the stories to help me place them. I've sampled my sci-fi 'The Death of John Collins' before, but not 'Bad Romance'. With 'John Collins', I'm trying to work out whether to keep the hard sci-fi and character-focussed elements or strip it down into more of an action thriller. 'Bad Romance' sits somewhere between a contemporary romance and literary fiction, and I'd be interested in the opinions of fans of both.

Brief samples of both:

Bad Romance
Stranger Song

"Can't you believe I'm lying to you?"

"I believe you're lying to me now."

She stretches sexily, then runs her hand down his bare chest. There's hope in his eyes, but a momentary close-up shows only mischief in hers.

"You're wrong. I was lying all along."

"How can I believe that?"


The drumbeat starts up, and a pounding bass line with a weird bend at the end of the phrase. A synthesiser drops into place in the groove with a perfection that makes my toe tap. The tableau vanishes in special-effect smoke and she strides out of it, her gown sliding off her shoulders and down her lithe, narrow body. Underneath, she wears only underwear and a body-painting of a tragedy mask across her abdomen.

The dancing that accompanies the first verse is hypnotic. There’s something about Mielle’s perfect control that makes her much more than her choreography. Her nameless co-star and three identically-dressed others writhe around her with perfect timing, but something in the cat-like way her entire body moves with every sway holds my attention totally captive.

Behind them, the white background flickers into life. They dance in a theatre decorated entirely in Apple-Mac white. Lights flash across it with every pulse of the last line of the verse; Mielle’s face strobes with the drum-roll as the chorus bursts through.

Can’t you believe, can’t you believe I’m lying to you,

Can’t you take my word, take my word, my word I have betrayed,

This statement is a lie but I will tell it if you try,

To please believe, please believe nothing I ever say,

I catch myself with a smirk on my face. Who does she think she’s kidding? Of course she’s lying to us. There are flashes of her face in close-up, impish smile mixed with ridiculously long false eyelashes that glitter as she bats them at the camera. She pushes her dancers aside and walks to a throne; the theatre becomes an arena filled with cheering millions.

There’s no denying the production values on the video. There’s also no denying the energy of the hooks in the chorus; she smiles with perfect Hollywood glamour as she starts to explain why she lied to him in the first place. The underwear and tragedy mask are gone in favour of a black PVC cat-suit with dayglo squares dotted across it. Her hair has gone from a dark brown bob to black dreadlocks streaked with gold. She twists in the throne, one moment sitting normally, the next with a leg hooked over the back and her head dangling towards the floor while her hips pump in perfect time.

The chorus rises again, and she’s back in the theatre. He’s in the audience, nodding along – he’s everyone in the audience, row on row of him smiling while she gloats. This time at the end of the chorus, she goes up instead of down on ‘nothing I ever say’, and while she holds the note the music cuts back to just bass. The stage goes dark and she sparkles in a single spotlight. In close-up, she stares straight into the camera, winks, and whispers

Cohen, you’re a stranger but you’re still my oldest friend,

I actually look round, wondering who said my name, while she continues,

Stipe, it’s been a bad day but it’s coming to an end,

The music starts picking up intensity again. He’s alone in the front row; she’s somehow made her way down from the stage in front of him, and her whisper turns to singing as she climbs into his lap,

If you justify my actions, there’ll be nothing to defend,

I could show my face but there’s still so much to pretend.

His seat becomes the throne; she grinds in his lap. His eyes close in pleasure and his mouth opens in a silent gasp. She stands up and the throne explodes behind her as the chorus returns; a horde of red-clad dancers emerge from the flames and she joins them for the most vigorous routine yet.

The chorus peaks and repeats itself. She sings ‘believe me, I’m lying’ as a descant. In close-up, she mock-boxes the camera and covers her face with her hands before vanishing.

The video ends with her lying in bed wearing the same blue silk gown she wore at the start. He lies next to her, playing dead. She runs a finger down his nose, across his lips and down his Adam’s apple, and whispers ‘Do you believe me now?’

I sit back from the screen and push my chair up on its hind legs, my mind thoroughly blown. Mielle’s first video had been bland, the song energetic but forgettable. ‘Can’t You Believe I’m Lying To You?’ is a completely different package. I’m humming the chorus already, and I can’t get the image of her swaying across the stage out of my mind.


The Death of John Collins

“Sir, was John Collins evil?” The question came from a student in the front row of the lecture theatre’s seating. Two rows further back, Blanchett leaned forward, studying Professor Lambert’s reaction intently.

The Professor frowned for a moment, then said, “John was a loyal comrade and a war hero. Whatever you may have been told about him, I knew him, and he was not evil.” His voice was mild, but his face wore an owlish glare directed at the front row. In the dimness of the lecture theatre, the lines in his face became craggy and fierce. On the screen behind him, Collins’ face stared placidly down at them, one of the famous photos from him the early days of the Delta War.

From near the back of the room, a voice called out, “But he destroyed time, didn’t he?”

An audible rustling ran round the room as the students looked nervously at the Professor or tried to catch a glimpse of the questioner. On screen, Collins’ face was replaced by a screen-saver animation. It was a stylised drawing of the Clocktower being built, a tree of tangled black steel and ceramic against the dull grey background of the endless Causal Sea. The top widened sharply and spread into the white mushroom-cap of the City. The animation looped round to restart.

“You’re a new class,” Lambert said coldly, “so I’ll let that pass this once. In my classes, you must always be wary of careless statements like that. Precision is the essence of history. To answer the question as charitably as I can, no one person destroyed time, either by causing the collapse of the origin timeline or any of the other collapses in our history. Nor,” he held up a finger for emphasis, “did any one person cause any of the Temporal Wars. We will be covering the causes of each of these wars in due course. The assumption that John is to blame is a gross simplification.”

He paused and looked around the room, “Some of you are probably about to bring up the subject of Collins’ book, ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’. You may have been told that the book is banned because it is dangerous, because it describes the technologies which caused the Alpha Collapse. Well, I’ve read it, and it doesn’t. Yes, ideas it contained guided the engineers and technicians who did cause the collapse, but John wasn’t one of them and opposed their work. And if any of you are considering reporting me to the Truthers for reading a banned book, I read it during the Delta War, long before it was banned.” Lambert finished with a look that was almost a sneer. Blanchett thought she could read pride in his face. She wondered if her Council superiors could actually be right; was Lambert really Collins in disguise?

Another student asked, “So you don’t believe Collins was a Nihilist?”

Lambert barked a sharp, mocking laugh, “The Nihilists destroyed everything they touched. It’s because of them we live in this overgrown tin can,” – he gestured vaguely at the animation on-screen – “instead of on a proper world. If John had been a Nihilist, there wouldn’t even be that much. He’d have destroyed the Oracle and everyone on board after the Battle of Tibulon.”

“So you don’t agree with the Truthers?” the questioner pressed. Blanchett winced. She knew there were no Council agents other than herself assigned to monitor this class, but the other student seemed intent on making trouble.

Lambert, for his part, shot a wary glance at the doors at the back of the room. When he spoke, his voice was milder, his scowl less deep, “Well, of course, all historical perspectives must be considered. This would be a very deficient history class if I shied away from the Truther opinion out of personal sentiment, but you must surely admit – and I intend to show – that Controller Vilsteir’s evidence is unsatisfactory.”

Still staring at the Professor, Blanchett frowned. Other members of the Council militia said that Lambert’s controversial rhetoric on this point proved that he was Collins. She didn’t believe it, but she had to admit that it would make sense for Collins to talk in this way. Corrupting the youth, they called it.

Uncomfortable to let his statement stand, Blanchett spoke up, suppressing a nervous shiver, “What’s wrong with the Council’s evidence?” She tried to sound as nonaggressive as possible, affecting genuine curiosity.

In spite of her efforts, Lambert picked her out with a laser glare. Suddenly, she felt glad of the combat bodysuit she wore under her student ‘disguise’. It would provide little protection, but the knowledge that she was in some small way prepared for violence was reassuring. Lambert’s face softened a little as he said, “Well, personally, I have two problems with Vilsteir’s claims. Firstly, they go directly against my personal experience. I knew Collins. John was a close friend, and he just wasn’t like the character Vilsteir writes about. Secondly, he refuses to release his sources into the public domain. I call that bad practice.”

“But he’s still preparing his commentary!” Blanchett protested.

"As he has been doing, without aid or any apparent training in historiography, for twenty years. In the mean time, he has spearheaded a campaign to suppress alternative accounts. Banning books, for heaven’s sake! ‘A Radical Subjectivism’ is a harmless work of abstract metaphysics and deserves to be read and understood, not expunged.”

“It was the government that banned ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’, not the Council,” said Blanchett, feeling more confident.

“At the Controller’s very public urging. I doubt you are old enough to remember that unpleasantness, but-“ Lambert was cut off by the noise of the door opening. His eyes went to the back of the room and widened sharply.

Blanchett half-turned to follow the Professor’s gaze, and froze in her seat. Collins himself stood in the doorway.


Again, it's test readers I'm after, not really betas (though feedback is always welcome). What I need to know is what kind of books I've written and whether they need to change into something else. Thanks for reading, get in touch!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Heaven Can Wait: I'm a Writer (a public apology ;D)

Last night, I finished the first draft of 'Heaven Can Wait'. To the best of my recollection, that means I got from the initial idea to a complete first draft in 4 weeks flat. This novel grabbed me by the throat and hasn't let me go all through that time. It drained the fun out of everything else I did. When I got hung up on writer's block trying to write chapter 8 for a week, it ruined my mood.

Over the weekend, Friday-Monday, I wrote almost 30,000 words. I didn't sleep Saturday night. I punished my teeth and my stomach with vast quantities of acidic pop and candy. I've neglected my PhD to the point where I now have to write a paper almost from scratch in the 6 hours that remain of today. I completely failed to support a close friend who had an exam yesterday, and probably spurned or shunned most of my other friends in some way or other. I've spent most of the time with my arms in various support bandages due to joint pains.

In short, it's been heavenly (pardon the pun).

The essence of being a writer, I think, consists not in doing lots of writing or doing very good writing, but in being unable to stop writing. A writer is someone who writes, whether or not they're making any money from it, whatever circumstances they find themselves in. My whole experience with 'Heaven Can Wait' has been affirmation that I am a writer.

Let me expand; when I wrote my first novel, for NaNoWriMo last year, it grabbed me and I worked like an obsessive maniac on it for a week, but that was because I got into competition with another member of the group who wrote slightly faster than me, and I'm unstoppable when my blood gets up (I eventually won by a matter of about an hour and a half). When I wrote 'The Death of John Collins', it was more like I had to grab hold of the novel than it grabbing hold of me - it was a hard, hard book to write.

This is the first time I've felt that I couldn't not write a book, at least since I got back into writing. If 'Bad Romance' showed me I wanted to be a writer, and 'The Death of John Collins' showed me I could be a writer even if the project I was writing had deep problems and was hard going, it took 'Heaven Can Wait' to assure me I'm going to be a writer, whether or not I ever make money from it.

It helps that writing 'Heaven Can Wait' has been immense fun, apart from the aforementioned stint of writer's block - the chapter turned out to need a fundamental rethink - and I've been surrounded on Twitter by people egging me on. I'm immensely grateful for that support and encouragement.

I do owe an apology to everyone and everything I've neglected because I've been under the influence of Novel. All I can say in my defence is that there were times when the need to write was almost mental-illness intense. This thing took me over. For what it's done for me already, I'm grateful, but I am sorry if I've been a bit of a monster for the last month. Now I'm into editing, things should be a bit better. Maybe.

I'll be looking for beta readers soon, by the way. I've already had a few people declare interest, but let me know if you'd like to get on board - the more the merrier!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Remember it's the future; Stop pretending you're not special for a moment

Writers - particularly those of us who have decided to be through-and-through indie - spend a lot of time listening to people cut us down, knock us back and try to crush our hopes. This is a valuable service; it lowers our expectations and cuts down on those pesky dreams of megabuck-success that can lead to all sorts of inadvisable behaviour.

It can get a bit wearing, though. You never get to hear other people talking about the good side of the writing coin. Every positive sentiment you feel for your writing has to come from within. Well, I'm going to be a bad friend for a little while and indulge in a little bit of cheerleading and positivity. Here's an open letter to any writer who's currently feeling snowed under by negativity or just generally depressed about their writing. Before you throw up your hands and burn all your work in frustration, read this - I'm sure I'll be reading it myself before next week is through..

(Health warning; I'm going to wax a little bit lyrical and gush a little bit melodramatic. Those of you of a more prosaic (the polite word is 'pragmatic') bent may wish to steer clear ;D)

Dear frustrated writer,

Stop pretending you're not special for a moment. A writer is an amazing creature. You can hold whole worlds in your head (and yes, the world you hold in your head might be this one, or even only a small part of it, but it's still there, and it's still a marvellous thing).

We spend a lot of time being modest and humble, affecting mild embarrassment when we receive compliments. We work on our self-deprecating humour, particularly on Twitter (where we spend much of our time being nice about each other, and possibly slightly jealous of how much cooler than us all our friends are and this sentence suddenly went to a more introspective place than I expected....) because it mitigates the slightly spammy effect of all that talking we do about our novels. We fight hard to maintain a sense of perspective about our work so that we don't all disappear up our own backsides.

Humility is ennobling; self-deprecation is a great strength of character; perspective is the most valuable sense. None of that means that all the humble, self-deprecating things you say to yourself to keep a sense of perspective are true. None of it means you should let the negatives get on top of the positives. Don't let the negatives get you down.

Don't get discouraged just because of all the time you spend discouraging yourself. The negatives serve a useful purpose, but it's all too easy to get too wrapped up in them and lose track of all the incredible stuff that happens in your head on a daily basis.

I guess what I'm saying is stick with it. The negatives aren't there to stop you, they're there to help you. If they're not helping, lay them aside (easier said than done, I know) until you need them again. All these knock-backs are tools, and if a tool is stopping you working you put it down.

Writers are amazing creatures. You can hold a whole world in your head. Don't stop writing for the wrong reasons.

Right, I'm going back to the world in *my* head for a bit.

Love, Rik

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The things we do for love (of writing)

I'm now into the heaviest writing phase on 'Heaven Can Wait'. I've written 12,000 words in the past three days, and I'm hoping to do something like another 5,000 today. I'm starting to breathe the characters and get twitchy if I'm away from them for too long. I've radically cut down on my videogaming and I'm slowly becoming nocturnal (my preferred time for writing is 10PM-2AM).

All this is starting to have an effect on my social life, and probably my health. It shouldn't go on much longer - I'm aiming to finish the first draft by the end of next week - but while it does, I'm a cranky, introverted, obsessive creature. Friends tell me I'm getting too into it and I need to relax (particularly ironic given that one of the friends in question spent the weekend stressing like mad over getting his final-year project in on time).

I am, I'll happily admit, pushing as hard as I can on this project. I have a huge amount of faith in this book - it just feels like a winner - and I want to see it complete, but there's more to it than that. There's  gold-rush on in ebooks right now. It feels like for a little while longer, it's going to be quite easy to start a career in writing. Things will settle down soon, though, as e-readers start to reach saturation point and there are fewer people just getting their first e-reader and grabbing any cheap book they see in their preferred genres.

The conditions that have created the gold-rush are temporary. They might last another couple of years, or they might not last until Christmas (more likely, there'll be a drop-off later this year and things will pick back up a bit around Christmas before finally settling - lots of people will be getting Kindles in December). I don't know if it will be possible to see the end of the gold-rush coming, but I do know I'm a little late to the party - I wish NaNo 2010 had been in the first half of last year so I was six months ahead now of where I currently am.

I want to make sure I get something on sale while the gold-rush lasts. It's impossible to say whether post-gold-rush conditions will be easier or harder to sell into than the gold-rush (I suspect it will be harder; a large part of the gold-rush is reader optimism about all those $.99 and $2.99 indies), but the only way to make sure is to try under both, and time is running out.

So, I'm racing to get this book ready. Why not use one or both of the other novels I've written? Both are much harder propositions to sell; 'Bad Romance' sits uncomfortably between three very different niches - romance, literature and philosophy - and I'm still not sure what to do with 'The Death of John Collins' (or whatever I'm going to call it). I need to get some genre-knowledgeable people to read each book and help me figure out what to do with them, before I can really even get to editing.

'Heaven Can Wait', by contrast, fits into a natural niche defined by a number of books I respect, admire, and know quite well; in particular, I think it's in the same ballpark as Garth Nix's 'Sabriel' and Jonathan Stroud's 'The Amulet of Samarkand' (and their sequels). I know where those books sit in the genre/shelf-space spectrum and so I know roughly how to market towards the niche. That means less figuring out where I'm going, which means it will be easier to arrange things like beta readers and reviews.

All I have to do is write the thing, which brings me back to being an anti-social shut-in (if I'm completely honest, most things bring me back to being an anti-social shut-in. I am what I am ;D). I think most writers would agree that the actual process of writing is a solitary thing - collaborations notwithstanding.

Writing is solitary not just because it's something that requires concentration. It's solitary because it involves living in another world - even if that world exactly or near-exactly resembles this one. You have to become totally obsessed with your characters, talking to them in your head when you're not actually at your keyboard (or wherever you write). You have to stay immersed in the story or you lose the flow of it.

And, if you're a 'proper' writer, you love it. That's the world you want to live in. If nothing else, in that world, you don't have to pay any bills. But you love it so much that everything that breaks your momentum or demands your attention becomes objectionable. I'm really bad for this - I tend to get quite snippy when friends start demanding I hang out with them while I'm writing (sorry, guys).

My friends sometimes get annoyed (because they're good friends, more often they get worried) when I blow them off to work on a novel. I take my writing a lot more seriously than any of my friends do (though those of my friends who are writers do take writing in general quite seriously), and sometimes people get upset that I'm putting a 'hobby' ahead of spending time with them.

Sorry guys, it's not a hobby. I've made my stance clear; I'm going into self-publishing. That means, as of right now (actually, as of a few months ago), when I'm writing, it's a business activity. Ditto working on covers, editing, blurbing and even networking. That means that when it's convenient for me to work on a novel, it takes priority over hang-outs in the same way that going to work at an office job would. It might look like a hobby while I'm not making any money from it, but if I don't act professional, it's a fair bet I won't ever be a professional.

This is probably coming across quite passive-aggressive. I don't mean it to, but it's a point that needs to be made. It's a compromise all aspiring professional creatives need to find, and it's always been there. The good news is that the self-publishing revolution means this phase of the career should last a lot less time; there's no ten-year querying process any more. You get your book as good as you can get it, grab as much help as you can, and then bung it out there. There's no point where you get a stamp of approval from On High that says you're a Writer.

I guess what I'm saying (not sure to who; most of my offline friends don't read this blog) is bear with me. Yes, I'm going to seem obnoxiously obsessive and insular for the next six to eight months, but at least by the end of that period, I'll be putting the whole 'professionalism' thing to the test. There's nothing speculative or dreamy-eyed about what I'm doing. I'm serious about this.

By the way, since I'm so serious, maybe you can help me? As I mentioned before, I need people to read 'The Death of John Collins' (character-oriented sci-fi action) and 'Bad Romance' (contemporary romance with literary overtones and a Lady Gaga obsession) and help me figure out how to place them relative to the market. Both books are at an early stage re: editing, but I'm not really looking for detailed beta reads; it's more a case of collecting reader reactions to the core ideas and concepts. Neither book is terribly long (61,000 and 67,000 words), so it shouldn't take long. Tweet me (@eatthepen) or leave a comment if you're interested.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Remember it's the future; no, really, it is.

I'm rounding up a few thoughts which have been nagging at me for a while regarding the ebook revolution.

For one thing, the 'ebook revolution' is a slight misnomer. What we're really dealing with is the digital revolution as it applies to books. We've seen it happen to music, and it's happening to film, TV, the news and general information, and there are similarities which a lot of people have picked up on. I want to highlight a couple I've noticed which I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere.

'That analog feel'

I think I'm probably the only person alive who doesn't like analog hi-fi equipment. I love the crisp, clear sound of a digital amp and the clarity of CDs and high-quality digital audio. My parents and most of the western world seem to prefer the muddy, indistinct sound of old-fashioned analog (you can substitute terms like 'warm' and 'rich-middle' for 'muddy' and 'indistinct' if you really must...).

I think there's something of a parallel here with the 'but I love 'real' books' argument that a lot of book-buyers and trad-published authors are making about ebooks and ebook readers. I have some sympathy with the argument, if I'm honest, in that I grew up in a house whose walls were covered in bookcases and I love having books on shelves where I can just reach up and grab them. I certainly intend to make my books available through POD as soon as I can so I can have my own hard copies.

To get back to music for a moment, a few years back, my parents' venerable analog hifi amp broke. It was replaced with a digital amp because that's what they could afford at the time. As far as I'm concerned, this silver monolith is great - wonderful clarity of sound and great precise control of the setup. They have never been happy with it; it's too shrill, they say. Too harsh. Too much treble, thin in the mid-range.

Well, guess what? Recently, they bought a little black box which fits into the system between the amp and the speakers and fiddles with the signal to emulate that old muddy analog sound. I can't remember what the thing's called, but I have to admit it does a good job of the emulation, with the added benefit that despite having a richer mid-range it maintains a lot more clarity than an actual analog amp.

A similar anecdote; the frontman of my band, Nick, loves the sound of 60s valve amps. So, when he needed a proper gigging amp, he bought an amp that actually has valves in the circuit. As I understand it (and I don't pretend I do, really), it's still a solid-state amp, but it uses valves to replicate the muddy sound (I'm going to keep calling it 'muddy' until the rest of the world comes to their senses and agrees with me).

The point I'm getting at is that wherever there are real benefits to analog tech, people will invent ways to recreate them in harmony with the digital. I'm not sure how you replicate this effect with the tangible benefits (such as there are) of dead-tree books with e-readers - if I was, I'd be patenting it and flogging the idea to Amazon just as fast as I could - but I'm sure someone will think of it. Or it will turn out that people don't care about it as much as they think they do and so won't spend money on it. Either way, the argument's not terribly convincing.

Free Content and Reader Gatekeeping

For almost seven years now, I've been a keen reader of webcomics, which are the collision between the digital revolution and Superman. I've seen lots of people drawing analogies between what's happening in ebooks and itunes, but I've not seen anyone pointing at webcomics at all.

So I'm going to. For those of you who don't know, almost all webcomics are free to readers. A few operate subscription services, and a few more have subscription services for premium content, but the vast majority are free. They make their money from advertising, selling merchandise and (in some cases) dead-tree versions with bonus material, and occasionally from donations from generous fans. And, of course, most make no or very little money at all.

I'm willing to bet that once the ebook gold-rush settles down, the graph of ebook author incomes will look more or less like the graph of webcomic creator incomes (albeit with larger sums of money involved due to audience size) - a few people making lots of money, with a long tail dragging out down to the people making nothing.

Me? I've made £5 in the five and a half years I've been publishing my webcomics (which I'm finally giving up later this month to focus on prose writing), primarily because I never really tried to monetise them properly - or promote them, or make them funny.

Authors have it slightly better than webcomic creators at the moment - our paradigmatic distributor, Amazon (for the time being), insists that we charge a price so that they can take a cut on distribution. With webcomics, there's no such consumer entry barrier, and consequently no guaranteed per-unit revenue and no sales/performance tracking.

By the same token, it means the entry barriers to publishing a webcomic are even lower - if that's possible. There are free sites (Drunk Duck, ComicGenesis, SmackJeeves) where you can start publishing with a few mouse-clicks and a free signup. All you have to do is create the content.

This means there are a lot of webcomics. I don't know how fast the number of webcomics is growing at the moment, but five years ago, I did a rough guesstimate that there were tens of thousands (I forget how) and the number was still growing fairly rapidly. None of that has stopped the best webcomics rising to the top. None of that has stopped the best webcomic creators (specifically, Howard Tayler and the Foglios - DO NOT ARGUE WITH ME ON THIS ;D) making a living off their work.

Sidebar: yes, I know both Tayler and the Foglios have been around forever. For more recent examples, XKCD tops the charts, and I really should plug Gunnerkrigg Court as well.

Ability rises to the top in situations where consumers are free to decide what they want (I realise I'm coming over a little bit free-market, but in this case it's a good theory). You can advertise a comic as much as you want - and people do - but if I click your ad and am transported to sub-standard work, I'm clicking straight away again.

There's no question that there are differences between webcomics and ebooks as business fields, and I'm not about to start recommending all authors start giving their stuff away for free (though you should definitely be thinking about merchandising if you like money), but there are lessons to be learned from the way webcomics work. In particular, I think giving a certain amount of stuff away for free is a great idea to get people interested in your writing. I haven't figured out how best to apply this model to my own career yet, but I will.

The ultimate point is that, in worrying about whether our market will be swamped with crap, we're failing to give our readers a trust they deserve. The market will be - possibly already is - swamped with crap, but that doesn't mean people are going to read it. When you can buy a book for less than a bus fare, what matters is not an individual sale, but getting the customer to buy -all- your books. What matters is getting them to buy a second book from you, and a third; and readers might buy one book that's crap, but you can bet they won't buy from that author again.

The market may be flooded, but we have no right to treat our readers as if they can't swim.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Death of John Collins: The Death of this title?

I'm wondering if 'The Death of John Collins' is a strong title or not. I've never been completely happy with it, though it is better than the (awful, top secret) working title. It's a good title from the point of view of its relationship to the novel itself, and it's probably unique, but it's on the long side, it sounds a little bit too 'literary', and I don't think it looks great on a cover:
(slightly tweaked from last time you saw it, in response to feedback).

Here's what I'm thinking about instead;
It looks better on the cover, it's punchier, and it cuts right to the key selling point of the novel. It also has the benefit of linking better with the cover image, which I'm quite keen to keep after all this work on it. (I haven't quite finished deciding whether this one should go out under my name or a pen name - see yesterday - so I've left my name on there for now; this is subject to change without notice, though).

My worry now is this; is 'Destroyer of Time' too generic or too over-the-top? I'm repositioning the book as a less thinky, more YA-oriented sort of thing, so I'm not as worried as I would have been to have a slightly extravagant title, but it's still a concern (the fact that there's a volume of the D Gray Man manga with the same title may factor in this concern, though I don't think it's that big a deal).

Anyway, 'The Death of John Collins' or 'Destroyer of Time' - which would you be more likely to buy? Is either of them a good title?

(The reason I'm asking for so much feedback at the moment, by the way, is that I'm hoping to start launching things like Facebook fan pages and a goodreads profile at the weekend, for which I want - whether or not it's absolutely necessary - finished or at least near-finished cover images.)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Heaven Can Wait: Eat the Pen?

I'm writing this new book, 'Heaven Can Wait' (working title), and it's very definitely a Young Adult novel. Despite the fact that both 'Bad Romance' and 'The Death of John Collins' have attracted 'are you writing YA?' questions from beta readers, they definitely aren't YA. They are - at least as presently stands - serious and quite philosophical novels aimed at a fairly narrow audience.

I think this means I need a pen-name for 'Heaven Can Wait'. I'm usually dead-set against pen names; I hate the idea that readers aren't sophisticated enough to tell what genre a book is from anything other than an author's name. My favourite author, Dan Simmons, writes sci-fi and supernatural horror, and I'm happy for him to do both; I'm quite capable of telling the difference from things like the blurb and cover.

Still, there's a difference between wrting in two genres - and it has to be said that horror and sci-fi aren't too far apart on the genre spectrum - and writing for two different audience groups. It's a matter of branding, and it's not just a matter of audience reception; it also affects my public image. Most of the people who (I hope) will enjoy 'Heaven Can Wait' won't enjoy 'Bad Romance' or 'The Death of John Collins', and it's in my interests to keep them separate in readers' minds. Failure to do so - particularly since, as my betas have picked up on, there are still YA elements to both 'grown-up' books - could lead to misconceptions about what I was trying to do with the more thinky books and thus damage my long-term career.

The situation is further complicated by the redraft I'm doing on 'The Death of John Collins' (which may include a re-titling, of which more later this week), which is probably going to take out a lot of the more abstract, technical stuff and make the book as a whole more YA-ish. It's therefore entirely possible that I'm going to end up primarily a YA author, at least from a commercial perspective, so it's important I get this right.

So I need a pseudonym. I'm going to put 'Heaven Can Wait' and any other YA stuff I write under the pseudonym because, however much I enjoy writing YA - and I'm loving 'Heaven Can Wait' - what I'm really about is the philosophical novels; they are the books that express things about me. It would be marginally dishonest to deflect responsibility for them onto a pen name when they're so intimately tied to me as a person. There's no such personally-representative issue with the YA stuff.

I don't know if there are any guidelines for choosing pen names. Obviously, it needs to be something fairly distinctive for googlability purposes, but beyond that, are certain names more acceptable than others? I'd appreciate any information you have to offer on this point.

The nom de plume I'm thinking of using is Rich Davenant. It seems to be the tradition that your pen name should be similar to your real name, and 'Davenant' is one of the names 'Davnall' might be a corruption of (we're pretty sure that the 'e' only vanished from the name in the last three or four generations; other options include 'Davenport' and 'Davenhall'). Other first-name options include 'John' (my father's name and one of my middle names) or 'Vin' (the name by which my paternal Grandad was normally known).

So, 'Heaven Can Wait' by Rich Davenant. Your thoughts?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Objective: Objectivism - Freedom and Oppression

Time for me to start saying things that might get me in trouble...

I blogged here about the basic premises of Ayn Rand's objectivism and why I agree with them. It's now time to start talking about why I disagree with Rand and, indeed, with small-government economic conservatism in general. I have a whole bunch of problems with this family of ideologies, but I'm going to start with the biggest one today and then work towards the more detailed and technical problems later on.

I ended my last Objective: Objectivism post by saying that the basic point of objectivism is that we should be left as free as possible to pursue rational activity. So far so good. Where I disagree with Rand - and with libertarianism in general, as far as I can tell - is in defining what counts as 'free' and what we're supposed to be free from.

Rand conceives freedom in purely human terms - freedom from tyranny, or more technically freedom from threat-backed coercion by other human beings. John Galt and his colleagues go on and on about not working at the point of a gun. For Rand, 'freedom' means never suffering someone pointing a gun - actual, as in a robbery, or merely implicit, as with government taxes - at you and making you give up stuff.

Sidebar: this has led to a rhetoric on the part of some right-wing writers which I find really toxic, where every government levy of any kind is referred to as 'tyranny' and everyone on the big-government side of the debate is therefore by extension pro-tyranny. This is NOT HELPFUL and tends to cause debates on the subject to quickly devolve into screaming rows from which no-one profits.

Now, I'm not saying I think Rand's conception of freedom is wrong - it is important that we are free from coercion by others - but I do think it's far too narrow. I think there are other things which infringe human freedom to be rational, and which we cannot necessarily deal with alone (I do think there is a small problem when you take Rand's definition of freedom to its furthest logical extent, but that's a debate for another time). This is where I'm at odds with pretty much the entire small-government movement, I think.

What am I talking about? I have three things in mind;

1. Ill or poor health. I recognise government-sponsored healthcare is still a bit of a hot-button topic at the moment, but bear with me. At the most basic level, there are a number of serious mental health issues which interfere with rationality, affecting thousands or even millions of people every year.

Now, my understanding of objectivism is that it says it is both right and rational to promote greater (rational) freedom to all. This is in part because the more rational people there are in the world, the 'better' it is to be rational (I probably owe a blog post explaining why I think this way - again, bear with me), and in part because freedom and rationality are good in themselves.

So, if it is possible to have one's rational freedom restricted by a mental health condition - and unless you're going to say that mental health patients are less than human, you have to agree - then we should be trying to free people from this kind of restriction.

It gets worse, though; Rand's conception of rationality - quite rightly, I think - is a practical one; rationality involves not just thinking, but productive activity. It is rational to work for your living; irrational to try to avoid doing so. And this means that a whole range of non-mental problems also have a freedom-limiting effect; can you do your job with a broken arm or leg? How about if you're paralysed from the neck down, or if you have cancer?

I think Rand's argument at this point would be that it's up to you to provide for yourself in case of health disasters, but this simply isn't possible in all cases; very few people, even in the rich, developed part of the world, make enough money to cover these sorts of situations without help. Rand and her ilk might say that if you can't make enough money to take care of yourself, you don't deserve to live, but (I'll get to this in more detail in a moment) this is a ridiculous and reprehensible position.

Rand thinks governments are justified when they act to promote freedom and prevent oppression (specifically, as I understand it, through police services and military action against aggressive foreign powers); I say that by Rand's own rules, the same applies to health issues. If you are prevented from a rational activity by a genuine health issue, the situation falls into the same category as being mugged.

2. Poverty. This is where we get really problematic. It's an archetypal right-wing position that the only cause of poverty is personal laziness; you are poor because you don't work hard enough. Unfortunately for the people who feel this way, the evidence is against it. It may well be the case that for people born to middle-class or higher backgrounds in rich nations, the only way to end up poor is through laziness (or carelessness, which is more or less the same thing). It certainly isn't true anywhere else in the world.

Many people world-wide are born in poverty traps like Ethiopia and Somalia. No matter how hard they work, there is no way they can ever hope to escape, because the system which would allow them to do so is 'broken' at a higher level. It is impossible for them to make enough to live on, and they can't move somewhere more profitable because that would require saving a resource surplus and they have no surplus to save.

Totally failed economies make a powerful and simple example, but it happens in the developed world too, in America and Britain and so on. There are different pressures involved, but it's still possible to end up in a poverty trap.

There are plenty of people living below the breadline in the developed world, particularly with the economy in its current state. People's jobs evaporate, so they lose their homes; without a home address, they can't get new jobs. They get stigmatised for being homeless. If they do find housing, they have an x-month or even x-year gap in their employment record to explain to potential recruiters.

There are other poverty traps, too; the single mother, for example, who has to balance two kids and two minimum-wage jobs totalling over twelve hours a day - which will barely pay for two kids. Where is she going to find time to improve her situation? There is a basic physical limit to human endurance in terms of how much sleep and food one needs; finding a job takes time which this woman simply cannot spare.

The argument from the right always seems to be 'you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve', but what people 'deserve' is a matter of justice. Whatever justice is, it involves making sure people get what they deserve, both in terms of receiving what you've earned and in terms of making sure you don't get what you haven't earned (for example, by stealing).

My basic point is that for you to deserve to be in a situation, it has to be a situation of your own making. You have to have caused yourself to be in that situation. Now, assuming that you are a perfectly scrupulous and diligent worker, imagine that the company you work for goes bust tomorrow. The cause is nothing to do with you; maybe the owner was fiddling the numbers, or maybe a freak accident caused the company to lose its factory with no hope of insurance. You end up unemployed. In this job market, you can't find a job in time to stop your house being repossessed. It isn't long before you're facing the poverty trap I described above (let's assume your friends are all rigorous objectivists who give charity to no-one). Did you deserve that?

Perhaps Rand would argue you should have checked the company more carefully, but even if you did that, economics is not a precise science, nor one in which every phenomenon is understood. Sometimes companies just get caught out. Sometimes jobs just disappear. Skill-sets become redundant without warning ('editor-in-chief-of-a-big-publisher' maybe the next to go ;D).

What I'm getting at is that Rand is talking about matters of principle - should we help people out of their poverty traps? There are plenty of examples, for sure, of people who end up in poverty traps that are of their own making, and these tend to be the examples we're aware of because they tend to happen in the cities of the developed world, which is where I suspect most of us in this debate are living and working, but there are also people who did everything they could and still got caught. If our principle is that defence of freedom is a legitimate basis for government action - even a moral duty of human beings in general - then I say we're obliged to at least help those who did what they could and were just unlucky.

There's a legitimate question over what counts as 'doing what they could', which brings me to;

3. Ignorance. In a sense, ignorance (by which I mean not knowing how to do something as well as not knowing that it can be done or that it's worth doing) is obviously a restriction on your freedom; if you don't know that you are free, or even just that you are free to do some particular thing, you can't do it.

Equally, in another sense, ignorance is no excuse (as Rand would - rightly - point out). To take an example from 'The Fountainhead', look at Gail Wynand. Wynand is a self-made, self-taught newspaperman. Because he is self-taught, none of us can look at him and say 'Oh, I could have been Gail Wynand, if only I knew all his tricks'. He figured out those tricks himself; he earned his position by going out and learning how to reach it. We can't use our ignorance of those tricks as an excuse for failing to be as successful as Wynand.

However, that leads neatly into my main point here, which concerns Howard Roark (it actually applies to Wynand and everyone else who's ever learned a skill, too, but Roark makes a very clear example). Whatever the aesthetic merits of Roark's work (sidebar: Rand allegedly based Roark somewhat on Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architectural work I love), one thing the novel makes clear is that Roark is a very good architect from a technical point of view; that's why he was able to design Cortlandt to budget.

But Roark didn't learn the technical side of architecture - or draftsmanship - on his own the way Wynand learned his tricks. Roark studied at Stanton. He studied well and hard and did a lot of work, but he had to learn from another source; if he'd tried to work out the engineering principles underlying architecture by trial and error, he'd never have got to the point of building a building (and you might well not want to be the first to go upstairs in that building, either).

It's never made clear how Roark was able to afford Stanton. These days, it costs thousands and thousands of pounds or dollars to attend even the cheap universities and get this level of training. Very few people - maybe 10-15% of the population of the richest countries in the world - can afford this. If Howard Roark had been born in rural China or India, would he have been able to afford his training? And if not, I say he isn't free to be an architect, which is very clearly the right and proper form of his rationality (a very Aristotelian idea, it's worth noting).

I'm going to make myself even more unpopular that I already have and say that I believe education - all education - should be free. Before you jump down my throat, let me make three points in my favour; firstly, the internet revolution means that education can be free, because information is now post-scarce (infinitely copiable and redistributable essentially without cost). Secondly, it's in our interests to surround ourselves with well-educated people, because it increases the odds of finding the solution to any given problem to have more brains on the task, either in competition or collaboration.

My third argument that education should be free comes from Rand's own principles. Rationality, she says, is the highest virtue, and I agree wholeheartedly. But if rationality is the highest virtue, it comes with a duty (because all virtues involve duties) to promote rationality; a duty to teach rationality to the next generation, and to give them the freedom to be rational.

To summarise, then, my main disagreement with Rand is over the definition of 'freedom'. To Rand, you are free if no other human being is forcing you to (or to not) do something. I say in contrast that there are non-human phenomena which can legitimately be described as oppressing you (in the sense of restricting your freedom). I've identified three broad categories which these oppressors fall into; poor health, poverty and ignorance. If there is a moral duty to defend freedom and/or rationality - and I think Rand would agree that there is - then there is a moral duty to eliminate these phenomena.

I want to finish by making a clarification; I'm not saying that everyone who claims to be oppressed by their health, poverty or ignorance should just get what they ask for. I am not a looter, however much you might now be determined to treat me as one. I'd personally be deeply distrustful of anyone claiming to have been oppressed in this way; the people who really deserve helping are too busy trying to help themselves to do this sort of complaining (the most deserving are probably those proud enough to insist at first that the help should go elsewhere and to accept it only under protest).

All I'm really arguing is that people deserve a chance to be rational, and that there are things besides other human beings which can prevent that.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Bad Romance: Coverage

This is a post about cover-art concepts for your book rather than actually sourcing art. Whether you're drawing your cover yourself, using stock art or commissioning an artist, you need to have at least some idea of how you want your cover to look before you get to that stage. You need to be able to tell your artist what you want them to draw, even if your artist is you.

And cover concepts are hard work. Thinking up a great concept involves thinking in a quite un-writerly way; when we think visually normally, we think about the words that will most effectively convey the images in our heads. When you're coming up with a cover concept, you're looking for an image that will convey something about the words in your book. It's all backwards.

As I'm pretty pleased with my cover concepts for 'The Death of John Collins' and 'Bad Romance', I'm going to talk a bit about the processes I used to develop them, as ideas you might want to try if you're struggling. I hope you've seen the 'John Collins' cover and sample I've already blogged.

My process for 'John Collins' (which may be getting a new title, by the by) was to start from what I thought was the strongest selling point of the novel. Because we're talking sci-fi, and looking for something which could be expressed in a very few words, I focused on the time theory which underlies the John Collins story, because this allowed me to make my cover concept 'John Collins destroyed time'. I don't know how rare the idea of time being destroyed is, but I've never seen it before, and it makes for a pretty good line regardless.

Add to this the fact that the title is 'The Death of John Collins' and we've got to mix the destruction of time with a human death. The idea of some sort of damaged timepiece (with the damage being clearly from a human-killing weapon) was an easy one to reach from there, and I played around with various clocks before hitting on an hourglass - which won out ultimately because it's not actually very hard to draw bullet-holes in glass.

So, one way to find a cover concept is to start from a key concept in the novel. This is particularly good if, as I do, you like quite abstract/stylised cover art. Another method, which I'm using with 'Bad Romance', is to take inspiration from a scene in the novel. Some books - the original covers of Anne McCaffrey's 'All the Weyrs of Pern' and Dan Simmons' 'The Fall of Hyperion' are great examples - go as far as just using a painting of a scene, but this is risky (the artist usually gets something wrong; it's always bugged me that the Shrike on Simmons' cover has too few arms).

You don't have to go this literal, though. Lots of sci-fi books thrive on generic scenes of spaceships which could be any one of a number of scenes within the book. You can also go for a less 'scene-like' piece of art, as for example with Alastair Reynolds' books, which tend to have a spaceship from the novel rendered against a simple stylised background (I absolutely love Reynolds' covers - see 'Revelation Space' for a particularly good example).

Picking a scene or image from the content rather than the theme of the book, you still need to pick something which is representative of your theme and of the book as a whole. One of the reasons McCaffrey's 'All the Weyrs' cover is so good is that the scene - dragons in space - is one of the archetypal moments of the plot. A representative cover is honest marketing; and dishonest marketing tends to be a weak strategy in the long term.

So, I need to pick a scene from 'Bad Romance' which is representative of the book and which also has a striking image. Fortunately, the story of 'Bad Romance' includes descriptions of a number of music videos which are loaded with distinctive visuals (he said, modestly - and yes, the book was partly inspired by Lady Gaga, if you hadn't guessed). The story is about pretending to be someone else and about trying to find out who other people are pretending to be, and a couple of the videos described in the book play on this theme with characters wearing various masks.

Here's a very rough concept sketch I knocked up based on a scene from one of the videos (I was going to post the description of the scene, but looking at it, it needs some redrafting-type work):

I scribbled this in a spare minute this morning while the workshop I TA for was quiet, but I think you get the basic idea. The scene in the book has Mielle (the performer in the video), at the end of the video lying broken on-stage in front of a screen from which a giant 'comedy' mask mocks her; as an image, it represents the moment where she in effect loses control of her public persona.

The scene stood out from a number of others which I considered for several reasons. Again, artistic ease was one of them - this sketch took hardly any time, and I don't think it will take too long to do a neat version. Another was that in addition to representing both content and theme of the novel, it has a resonance with the title; the mask comes across as a male icon abusing a female form - a textbook 'bad romance'. You have to study the novel very hard to figure it out, but to a certain extent the male lead character does abuse Mielle; it certainly wouldn't harm a reader's impression of the novel to have them associating Joe with the mocking mask here (ooo, spoiler? Maybe).

I'm currently having a devil of a time thinking of a cover for 'Heaven Can Wait'; I can't think of an iconic scene which would reduce in the way the 'Bad Romance' scene just described does, and there isn't an easy visual expression of the concept of a ghost trying to stay attached to life. If I come up with something, you'll be the first to know. In the meantime, I hope this has helped if you're struggling for a cover concept.