Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Quote of the day

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
C S Lewis

Rod Serling interview: Part 1

Monday, 30 August 2010

Quote of the day

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson

Review: Survivors: Genesis of a Hero

Survivors: Genesis of a Hero (1977) by John Eyers is the first and only sequel to Terry Nation's novel, Survivors and the only one of the two not based on events from the 1975-1978 BBC serial. It picks up directly where the previous book ended with Peter Grant having murdered his mother, whom he hadn't seen in five years, before he recognises her while stealing a trailer full of supplies.

The plague known as the Death left only a handful of the world's population alive and Britain half a decade later is a a land of overgrown fields and crumbling towns that is rapidly descending into tyranny and barbarism. Ironically, the teen-aged Peter's crime turns him into a cold-hearted killer ideally suited to survive and thrive in this new dark age. Deciding that the best way to remain alive is to join up with the most powerful group, Peter enlists in the army of the National Unity Force; a Communist movement led by former trade union leader Arthur Wormsley, who is bent on conquering the whole of Britain. Luckily, Peter is not only willing to kill anyone who stands in his way, but he is also a master with a throwing knife, a natural leader of men, and a tactical genius, so in short order he rises from recruit to Sergeant to Captain to General. True, he does this by crushing what remains of the independent peoples, but we're assured in the prologue that this is a story of Peter's redemption, so we're asked to be patient.

It's a good thing we have this assurance because that redemption is long in coming. The story keeps up a fair pace as we follow Peter's career, his entanglement in palace intrigues, and his involuntary affair with Lady Sarah Boyer–Wormsley's woman and self-proclaimed queen of England. Eyers presents us with a fairly straightforward story of Peter's rise to power and his increasing vulnerability as his star rises and he makes new, more powerful enemies. A nice touch is how Eyers contrasts this with the fate of Tom Price, the only other main character to carry over from the last book, whose path as a coward and congenital liar leaves him in a deepening state of uncertainty and terror.

Three quarters of the way through the book, Peter is now a general, Wormsley is assassinated, and our hero is on the run to Wales. It's at this point that Eyers throws us a plot twist that's more like falling into a completely different book. Up until now, the rules have been fairly clear, but once Peter passes into Wales, we've gone from science fiction into Tolkien. We discover that within ten years of civilisation's collapse the Welsh have reverted to an idealised Iron Age society complete with homespun clothes, bows and stone-tipped arrows. warrior princesses, mystic dwarfs filled with prophecies, stilted speech habits that include everyone speaking fluent Welsh Gaelic, and all of it coated with an ecumenical form of primitive Christianity that indicates that Eyers felt it was going too far to resurrect the Druids. It does not stop him from saying with a straight face that the Welsh have "eliminated evil".

One wonders what they did in their spare time.

It's also at this point that Eyers seems to have lost interest in his plot because with almost peremptory speed Peter murders Tom Price, manages to regain his soul, learns to fight for a cause rather than himself, defeats the NUF, wins the warrior princess and becomes warlord of Wales. The story doesn't so much end here as pause in expectation of the third novel that never came.

In all, Genesis of a Hero is a fair companion to Survivors. Eyers captures Nation's voice and he remains true to the setting and premises of the first book–at least until Tom Bombadil shows up, but it suffers along with the first novel from the problem of where to take the story next. Either it ends up as some nihilistic Lord of the Flies story where society crumbles and decays until the reader is left with a dark age romance set among the ruins of London or some order returns and it becomes a tale of slow reconstruction. Both are valid paths, but either would have meant ending one story and beginning another. Eyers tries to split the difference and marches off to the Shire. It's a problem, but it does illustrate an important fact; there are some stories that just naturally tend toward an end. If that is the case, then the author must bite the lead sinker and end the story or avoid it and turn the work into "The Adventures of So-and-So in Somewhere" with the story of a depopulated world reduced to a Mad Max backdrop. Or in the case of Eyers, Mad Hobbit.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Review: Survivors

If anyone were to ask me what was one of my favourite subgenres in science fiction, I'd have to say that it was the "quiet catastrophe". It's an end of the world story of the sort mastered by such British writers as John Wyndham, John Christopher, or the writing team of Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis that changes one little thing in our world, something that is hardly noticed at first, but which leads to global disaster. Kill off all the grass in the world and it soon changes from brown lawns to universal famine. Create a bacteria that eats plastic and before you know it a few saggy plastic soda bottles lead to the destruction of London. We live in a complex and fragile world, these stories remind us, and our comfortable existence is threatened by the most unlikely of sources that can change our lives forever–if not end them entirely.

In Terry Nation's Survivors (1976), the small change is the removal of people from the world by a deadly virus. Abby Grant, the wife of a successful City banker, enjoys a well-off upper middle class life in the country. Her only concern at the moment is an outbreak of flu that is disrupting the natural order of things and keeps her eleven-year old son Peter at his boarding school, where the authorities are trying to prevent the boys from falling ill. At first, the problems are annoying; phone services disrupted, her housekeeper having to go off to tend to her sister, her husband hours late coming home because the train schedules are all fouled up.

Then the power goes out and Abby catches the flu so badly that she's in a near coma for days. When her fever breaks, she finds her husband lying dead in the living room and the village deserted except for corpses. In less than two weeks, humanity has been almost destroyed. Only about 10,000 people are left in Britain–not nearly enough to keep the complicated mechanisms of civilisation going.

Based on the first episodes of Nation's 1975-1978 BBC science fiction series, Survivors is more than a novelisation; it's an outline of how Nation wanted the series to progress before he left off writing it out of creative differences with the BBC. In both series and novel, Abby Grant meets would-be Communist dictator Arthur Wormsley, from whom she runs like the clappers, and teams up with Jenny, a secretary from London, and engineer Greg Preston, and tramp Tom Price. Abby and her band take over a farm and try to build some sort of normal life with what's left of the old world while Abby keeps up hope of one day finding her son alive.

It's at this point that the novel veers away from the series. On television, Abby's community goes through all manner of adventures and setbacks (not to mention character changes as actors leave the series), but for all the hardships it's acknowledged that there are attractions to their enforced bucolic existence. By the third season, they eventually reestablish trade, railways, telephones, and some sort of government, and by the last episode get part of the national electricity grid going. In the novel it's clear that Nation planned for a much bleaker future for Abby and her band. Far from making a go of the farm, the survivors toil from one shortage to the next; never able to get ahead and always a hostage to the seasons. By the time they do start to get on their feet, dictator-in-training Wormsley's brigands arrive on the first leg of their campaign to raid and subjugate the whole of Britain. With nothing left to lose, the survivors gather their few belongings and make for the coast and a better life on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Not surprisingly, it does not end well.

Confining himself to the span of one novel, Nation is able to tell a more coherent story than the television version and he is able to pursue his darker version, but its very darkness makes it less believable. The entire plot is utterly devoid of humour; even the black variety. The old world and all its goods decay with a speed that one can scarcely credit. Instead of acting like survivors of a plague that left them heirs to the products of an entire civilisation that, with care, could last them generations, they are more like refugees from an all-destroying army. There isn't even any lamentation for what has been lost. No one bemoans the lack of cinemas or easy travel. It's one prolonged march through a wasteland that Poe would have appreciated.

All this could be forgiven if Nation had made more of an effort of his plots and characters. There's little or no dramatic reason for the deprivations they suffer and we aren't made to care much about them. Some characters are drawn so sparingly it's hard to even recall who they're supposed to be. It soon becomes a story about survival for the sake of surviving punctuated by an end that is perfunctory and unsatisfying.

The recent 2008 remake of the series claimed to be based on this novel rather than the original series. Perhaps, but that's hard to believe. If the novel soon strays from the series, then the remake treats the novel as a bran tub for a few scenes and lines of dialogue before discarding everything except the title and a few character names.

In summary, a book not as good as the series, but much better than its successor.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Keep at it

If you write a hundred short stories and they're all bad, that doesn't mean you've failed. You fail only if you stop writing. I've written about two thousand short stories; I've only published about three hundred and I feel I'm still learning. Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, consistent labor, he'll eventually make some kind of a career for himself as a writer.
Ray Bradbury

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Strange Case of Eric Frank Russell

L.O.W.F.I looks at the career of Eric Frank Russell; the man who coined the "ancient Chinese saying", May you live in interesting times.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The ghastly shrug

Jason Lee Steorts looks at Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugs. He's a lot more forgiving about her prose than I am. He sees Miss Rand as flawed. I see her as mad as a balloon.

There are other views.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

By H P Lovecraft (1937)

My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

While my chosen form of story-writing is obviously a special and perhaps a narrow one, it is none the less a persistent and permanent type of expression, as old as literature itself. There will always be a small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets momentarily suggest. These persons include great authors as well as insignificant amateurs like myself—Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare being typical masters in this field.

As to how I write a story—there is no one way. Each one of my tales has a different history. Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express, and revolve it in my mind until I can think of a good way of embodying it in some chain of dramatic occurrences capable of being recorded in concrete terms. I tend to run through a mental list of the basic conditions or situations best adapted to such a mood or idea or image, and then begin to speculate on logical and naturally motivated explanations of the given mood or idea or image in terms of the basic condition or situation chosen.

The actual process of writing is of course as varied as the choice of theme and initial conception; but if the history of all my tales were analysed, it is just possible that the following set of rules might be deduced from the average procedure:
  1. Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurrence —not the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.
  2. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events—this one in order of narration (not actual occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses, and climax. Change the original synopsis to fit if such a change will increase the dramatic force or general effectiveness of the story. Interpolate or delete incidents at will—never being bound by the original conception even if the ultimate result be a tale wholly different from that first planned. Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the formulating process.
  3. Write out the story—rapidly, fluently, and not too critically—following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. If the development suddenly reveals new opportunities for dramatic effect or vivid storytelling, add whatever is thought advantageous—going back and reconciling the early parts to the new plan. Insert and delete whole sections if necessary or desirable, trying different beginnings and endings until the best arrangement is found. But be sure that all references throughout the story are thoroughly reconciled with the final design. Remove all possible superfluities—words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements—observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references.
  4. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness or transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa. . . . etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.
  5. Prepare a neatly typed copy—not hesitating to add final revisory touches where they seem in order.
The first of these stages is often purely a mental one—a set of conditions and happenings being worked out in my head, and never set down until I am ready to prepare a detailed synopsis of events in order of narration. Then, too, I sometimes begin even the actual writing before I know how I shall develop the idea—this beginning forming a problem to be motivated and exploited.

There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story; one expressing a mood or feeling, another expressing a pictorial conception, a third expressing a general situation, condition, legend, or intellectual conception, and a fourth explaining a definite tableau or specific dramatic situation or climax. In another way, weird tales may be grouped into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.

Each weird story—to speak more particularly of the horror type—seems to involve five definite elements: (a) some basic, underlying horror or abnormality—condition, entity, etc.—, (b) the general effects or bearings of the horror, (c) the mode of manifestation—object embodying the horror and phenomena observed—, (d) the types of fear-reaction pertaining to the horror, and (e) the specific effects of the horror in relation to the given set of conditions.

In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan–fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.

Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood. The moment it tries to be anything else it becomes cheap, puerile, and unconvincing. Prime emphasis should be given to subtle suggestion—imperceptible hints and touches of selective associative detail which express shadings of moods and build up a vague illusion of the strange reality of the unreal. Avoid bald catalogues of incredible happenings which can have no substance or meaning apart from a sustaining cloud of colour and symbolism.

These are the rules or standards which I have followed—consciously or unconsciously—ever since I first attempted the serious writing of fantasy. That my results are successful may well be disputed—but I feel at least sure that, had I ignored the considerations mentioned in the last few paragraphs, they would have been much worse than they are.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Into the Media Web: Selected Short Non-Fiction 1956-2006

A Spectator review of Michael Moorcock's new collection of his short non-fiction.

I've read a lot of Moorcock and I'm not surprised that the book reveals that he's a science fiction writer with a low opinion of the genre. He's not my favourite author, but I have a soft spot for any man who confesses to,
(A) morbid terror of vegetarianism.

Quote of the day

I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.
Peter De Vries

Monday, 16 August 2010

Research and the library card

Research is vital to writing. Without it, giving an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing argument becomes chuntering on about something you know nothing about.

It's one of writing's great annoyances. You got into this business to write, not to plough through musty books and old newspapers. Unfortunately, the homework isn't going to do itself. Even if you're writing your autobiography, you still need to confirm names dates and places. Otherwise, you'll be in the embarrassing position not even being able to keep your own life straight.

It's also one of writing's great joys. So many people would love to learn about the Civil War or how to pilot a nuclear submarine, but can't justify the time. You as a writer not only can justify looking up the difference between milk and dark chocolate, you have to-assuming that you're writing about chocolate,of course. Otherwise, you're in the same boat as everyone else.

It isn't just in writing itself that research is important. If you're making a career of writing, you need to find out how to sell your work, whom to sell it to, and all the formats and hoop jumping that entails.

The good news is that today is the golden age of research. Never has it been easier to look up facts. Anyone in the heart of London or a mud hut in Zambia has instant access to collections of knowledge that the librarians of Alexandria would have given their wedding tackle to possess--though they probably had already, so the metaphor is moot. Over the last twenty years, the Internet has grown from a novelty where geeks carried on Kirk vs Picard arguments to an incredible repository of information. A generation ago, having access to all the great works of classical literature required sacks of money or a dedicated haunting of secondhand book shops. Today, anyone can reach the works of Shakespeare, the thoughts of Aristotle, the poems of Tennyson,or the essays of Orwell with the click of a mouse.

It isn't just books either. The Internet has literally billions of web pages dedicated to every topic under the sun, huge encyclopaedias, and forums where people can seek answers to all manner of questions. Then there are newspapers from all over the world, digital archives of magazines going back over a century, mp3 libraries going back to Edison's first wax recordings, and video collections almost as old. For the writer, this is an embarrassment of riches.

There isn't enough space here to go into the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet for the researcher and why it must always be approached with caution. We'll save that for reviews of individual sites in later postings. For now, it's best to remind the younger readers that the Internet may be a major source of research, but it isn't the only one. True, more and more information is digitised every day, but 6000 years of civilisation doesn't go on line in a single generation. Even if it does end up on line, there's no guarantee that they will be available without a premium price or that you'll be aware of their existence in the first place.

That's where the public library comes in. I'd spent so much of my adult life working with university and museum collections that I was pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago when I rediscovered the public system. My local one, at least, became a very different animal with the advent of the digital age. The Internet means that library branches are no longer isolated places that have to maintain large collections of aging, redundant works. Their catalogues integrate the entire system where every branch in the county immediately knows where every book in every branch is. That means fewer redundancies. It also means that libraries can now afford to concentrate on maintaining smaller, more current collections to meet the local community's needs. The downside of this is that it's hard to walk into a particular branch and lay your hand on the book you want. The upside is that you can reserve a book from your home computer and have it waiting for you on your next visit. And then there's the wonder of interlibrary loan where you can reserve works from completely different library systems.

Naturally, books aren't the only medium that libraries trade in. There are also CDs, DVDs, audio books, and, increasingly, Internet access. At the moment, I'm sitting in the local library and over a third of the floor space is given over to computer terminals. The first time I saw this, I thought it was the death knell of the books, but then I learned about the digital services that modern libraries afford. By holding a library card, I found that I was authorised to download ebooks, "borrow" video and audio downloads, and I had access to a whole raft of privileged online content that would have cost me a small fortune to subscribe to privately.

Finally, libraries have one more invaluable resource: Librarians. Having someone on hand who knows the ins and outs of the system and has years of experience of people asking silly questions can save hours or even days of hunting for that obscure fact. Make friends with your librarian. It's a great investment.

Sci-fi bios

Cory Doctorow looks at a new major biography of Robert A Heinlein. Meanwhile, Frederik Pohl continues his reminiscences of Jack "World-Smasher" Williamson.

Friday, 13 August 2010


The hallmark of good writing is to avoid cant, slang, jargon, cliché, buzzwords, and any other linguist abominations that come between the reader and clarity. Unsuckit is a handy little tool in the war against nonsense. Type in whatever bit of businessspeak you're stuck on and it delivers a translation in plain English.

(Cross-posted with Ephemeral Isle.)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

When life intrudes

Writing is hard work. It doesn't look like that to someone watching from the outside. That's why biopics about writers dwell on every other aspect of their lives except writing. That makes sense. Who wants to watch someone sitting at a computer staring at a blank screen for hours on end? The conversion of soaring ideas into prosaic reality is incredibly difficult and requires tremendous concentration. It isn't easy. Not by a long chalk.

Unfortunately, there's this nasty thing lurking beyond the writing desk called "real life" and it has a depressing habit of intruding on the writer's world with unwelcome regularity. Sometimes it's the need to earn a living. Other times it's the demands of family. It might be a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend who is getting genuinely sick of all the time and energy that this person they love expends on what seems like a hopeless dream. Sometimes those demands become so overwhelming that it seems as if being a writer will get chucked into the bin along with wanting to be a cowboy or an astronaut.

Life demands sacrifices and many times we have to sacrifice our dreams for the good of those around us or the necessities thrust into our laps. But that doesn't mean that your dreams have to be buried for all time. Maybe it just means that the dream needs a little adjusting.

Okay, maybe the need to go to class or find a job means that you haven't the time to write that great novel that you have in your head. Maybe the needs of your kids means that you haven't the time, energy, or money to blast off wave after wave of query letters to editors in hopes of making the big sale that will spark your writing career. That doesn't mean it's the end. It only means that if you let it. Look at your plans, your goals, your options, and you'll soon find that there's a chink in that brick wall in front of you.

You can't write you novel this year? Then one way around it is to change your time frame. Figure out how much work you can realistically do on your book and adjust your deadline accordingly. Maybe it will take two years or three. The journey may take longer, but so long as you are still moving forward you'll get there eventually.

You can't find any time to write at all? Okay, can you make notes? Tuck your Moleskine in your jacket and scribble your ideas on the bus. Play with the plot outline at lunch. grab those little moments and use them to their full. That's what they're for.

Maybe one problem that is stopping your career is having too much on your plate. I often find that I spend so much time trying to drum up business for my freelance work that I sometimes feel like I never have a chance to actually write. How can I work when all the things I have to get done don't and I put them off until the next day and the next until everything grinds to a halt under a growing pile of unfinished tasks? That's when I go to my endless to-do list and start prioritising and cutting. It may mean admitting that I have to suspend my writing for a while. It may mean that an aspect of the business will have to coast for a bit. I might even have to take a holiday for a couple of months to tend to matters. But the writing is still there when I get back.

Perhaps the problem is that your project is too big and ambitious for your current resources. Maybe you can't write that definitive history of Rolls Royce aircraft engines because your wife is threatening to divorce you if you don't spend enough time with the kids for them to stop asking her "Who's that scruffy guy?" There's always the alternative of turning your research into a series of articles or a blog. It may be a roundabout way of writing the book, but it still gets you there.

Whether it's longer deadlines, smaller goals, simplifying the work load, or taking a holiday, the hardest part is attitude. After a while, writing becomes part of one's identity. You start to think of yourself as a writer and having to pull back from that can be hard. It's even worse when economic necessity means exchanging impoverished wordsmithing for a "real" job. This is particularly hard if you've actually had some success as a writer and then hit a dry patch. It can feel like selling out or failure or admitting that you've been wasting your time. Maybe it even feels like the world is telling you that you don't have any talent and should wise up. Maybe, but that will only become true if you let it. Everyone has setbacks and writers more than most. Art is never appreciated and in our very commercial, materialistic world writing isn't very highly regarded unless it can turn a profit or attract patronage. However, the former is hard and the latter rare and often exacts a high price. If the world forces you away from your pen, think of that setback as just that; a setback. It won't be forever and with time circumstances must improve. If mere optimism isn't enough, then consider it as experience, research, gaining new insights into life and the world that you can turn into words.

But what of time lost? What about years to the locusts? What about all those novels, stories, plays, articles, and scripts that will never see the light of day. That is a problem, but always remember that quality is vastly more important than quantity. Homer only wrote two books, but what books they were.

Arthur C Clarke interview (Part 1)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Review: The Machine Stops

If improving man proves impossible, then the logical recourse is to improve his machines. Why bother making the human body faster and stronger or the human mind more clever when it is easier and less time consuming to improve all of the communications and labour saving devices that serve man until there is literally no reason for improvement–or to do anything at all.

That was the idea behind E. M. Forster's 1909 short story The Machine Stops, which describes a time in the distant future when technology fulfills every need and whim of the human race and everyone lives in identical cells about the size of a small hotel room that are stuffed to the rafters with every conceivable device to make life easier and more pleasant. Communication and data retrieval systems bring any person or any piece of information from anywhere on the globe instantly. Food, clothing, entertainment and anything else that one might desire is obtainable at the mere press of a button. If one even drops a glove there's no need bend over to pick it up because the floor section will rise to return it to one's hand. The whole of humanity does nothing all day except sit or lie about as the Machine tends their every need.

That is, until, as you might have guessed from the title, the Machine stops. Then everyone looks pretty silly.

But I wouldn't laugh too much yourself until you tally up how many hours a day you spend staring at this thing and decide to go out and get a bit of exercise.

The story follows a woman named Vashti, who has lived a pleasant existence despite the fact that she has rarely left her tiny room and hasn't done so in many years. As the Machine tends to her every need, Vashti spends her days chasing after "new ideas", which generally involve discussions about the history of various forms of music, and talking to her friends over the videophone. Hers would be an idyllic life if it weren't for the minor breakdowns of the Machine and calls from her son Kuno. She hasn't seen him in person for years, but he insists on sharing his wild ideas about life Outside and his belief that one day the Machine will cease functioning–a belief that soon proves to be prophetic.

Written just over a century ago, Forster's story is remarkable in its prediction of our modern society where most people are utterly dependent on the vast industrial network for mere survival. Imagine what a modern city like London or New York or Seattle would be like if the services that supply electricity, food, water, sanitation, and all the rest shut off. Any major metropolis would be uninhabitable within a week and the population reduced to a mass of refugees who faced the prospect of fleeing to the country or dying in the streets. Forster also foresaw our world of instant global communications where many people's "friends" are only seen over the Internet and where the loss of the cyberlink would leave many staring at their iphones in blind panic. What's truly astonishing is how quickly that world has come about.

Forster's world of the Machine is also an oddly "green" place. One of the common tropes of the environmentalists is that man is a plague upon the Earth and it would be better for all concerned if we ceased to be. In The Machine Stops, man has abandoned the surface of the planet in favour of gigantic, self-contained underground hives that hardly warrant the name of city. They are sustainable, self-perpetuating, and make no demands upon the outside world, which is allowed to grow wild and is disturbed only by the occasional airship gliding from city to city. Human beings have separated themselves so utterly from the outside that they cannot even breathe the air without respirators.

They are even fulfilling the most radical of green demands. The human race is dying out. They have lost all interest in their surroundings and even in maintaining the great Machine that feeds and tends to them all. Thus, at the end of the story Vashti and Kuno find themselves reunited in a darkened corridor along with a crush of dying humanity as the machines crash to a halt all about them. Only a handful of surface-dwelling exiles that Kuno encountered on an illegal visit outside are left to carry on the race–hopefully, having learned their lesson.

Hopefully, we can learn it as well.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Learning from: Reading

One of the best ways of learning the writer's craft is to read. Surprisingly, many aspiring writers don't realise this. Oh, they read, but it's usually "how to" books about writing, or Writer's Digest, or Writer's Market, or Strunk & White. Those are all helpful works and invaluable for learning the tools and skills of the trade, but I'm amazed at how many writers don't read more general works–particularly the sort of works that they hope to emulate. It's like learning to paint by reading up on painting, but never looking at a work by Leonardo da Vinci or learning to sculpt without glancing at what Michelangelo turned out. Come to think of it, having visited the Tate Gallery, I'd say that painters and sculptors have the same problem.

Reading to write fulfills a number of purposes.

First, a writer must always be learning new things. A day shouldn't go by when you don't discover something new like the atomic weight of boron or what the 39 Steps are. All these facts, observations and insights are grist for the mill–as are clichés so be avoided, such as "grist for the mill".

Second, reading provides concrete examples of how to write and how not to write. Learn from the strengths and failures of other writers. Go to P G Wodehouse to learn relentlessly logical plotting and the perfect simile. Look at Tolkien to learn how to create back story. Ian Fleming tells you how to polish an opening paragraph. Tom Sharpe provides tips on writing farce. And the immortal E M Forster shows you exactly how not to use a comma. If you're learning how to master a genre, then read in that genre. If you want to learn the style of particular author, then read that author.

Reading is also an excellent way of staying focused on the task at hand. I ceased being a real fan of science fiction years ago, but when I started work on Tales of Future Past, I had to revisit a lot of old sci-fi as research and I read little else for relaxation for over three years because I found that it kept me in the right frame of mind for my work.

Of course, it isn't enough to just read. You need to read with the eye of a writer. Don't just skim over the opening sentence of a new book; study it. See how it captures the reader's attention; look at what it reveals. As you go along, pay attention to the structure of the chapters, the cadence of the sentences and the use of metaphors and similes. Make a note of how the author foreshadows the action, how characters are introduced; what is said about them and what is left to the reader's imagination. One exercise that I've found useful is to keep a chart of the story line with dips and valleys on a graph representing the triumphs and setbacks of the hero (I'll revisit this topic in more detail later).

Finally, cast a critical eye over the work. What does the author do right? What are his shortcomings? Is a character wasted? What sort of plot holes are there? How much are you expected to suspend disbelief?

Even if you're writing non-fiction, the advice still applies. In fact, writing feature articles, news reports, and such like often requires a much more rigid format that only careful study will help you to truly master.

Besides, reading is great fun and any excuse to do so is a good one.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas? That the question that writers get asked quite often, but that's actually the easiest one to answer. Ideas are the cheapest currency in the writing trade and the simplest to obtain. They show up with remarkable ease from many different places. They are also the least important part of writing. Many people think that an idea is the heart of the story; that it's what makes it run and dictates its conclusion. In fact, it's merely the starting point and it may be altered out of all recognition or even discarded. You may start out with a great idea for a murder mystery and end up writing a Wodehousian comedy. You never know.

The easiest way to get an idea is for someone else is to be responsible. Even writers work for someone else and many articles I've written have been because an editor called me up and said "I've got an idea that you might be interested in".

If you don't get handed an idea, where can you get one? You don't get it by staring into space and banging your head on the table. I know; I've tried. Ideas come from hunting them, by observing, or just letting them come. The trick is to leave yourself open to their arrival.

Okay, but where are they coming from? Everywhere. You can get them from the news or from observing people. Maybe a conversation with a friend sparks one. Maybe it comes from a vivid dream or a pleasant fantasy through up to pass the time during a boring meeting.

Then there's the more aggressive method of brainstorming. take out your notebook or a bad of paper, index cards, or blackboard and fill them with random thoughts, observations, phrases–anything you can think of. Group the ones that seem related together, draw lines between thoughts. Sooner or later, something should click That's why you carry a notebook around.

When all else fails, steal–but remember to call it "research". As Rudyard Kipling put it:

When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre,
He'd 'eard men sing by land an' sea;
An' what he thought 'e might require,
'E went an' took–the same as me!

The market-girls an' fishermen,
The shepherds an' the sailors, too,
They 'eard old songs turn up again,
But kep' it quiet–same as you!

They knew 'e stole; 'e knew they knowed,
They didn't tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at 'Omer down the road,
An' 'e winked back–the same as us!

Now, I'm not advocating plagiarism, but I am saying that other people's works can be a goldmine of ideas. Homer did it. So did Shakespeare, Marlowe, Goethe, and just about everyone else. Not a lot of people know that Hamlet was a rewrite of an older story. Look at how The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven and then Battle Beyond the Stars. It doesn't even have to be a rip off. George McDonald Fraser based his Flashman series on a character from Tom Brown's School Days. Rivka Galchen based her first novel Atmospheric Disturbances on the film Godzilla, though you'd never know it with its plot about a neurotic New York psychologist. Many stories have been based on a quotation. For my own part, I've written screenplays that were basically rewrites of films that I hated so much that I felt compelled to do something about it, though you'd never guess from the final product what the inspiration was.

Wherever you get your ideas from, bear in mind that they are the starting point, not the end. Their purpose is to begin the process of writing. You may not recognise your idea when you finish your story. The idea might not even be there at all. We'd never know that there was any connection between acorns and oaks if oaks didn't sprout them.

That's the nature of creation.

Aldous Huxley interview (Part 2)

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Kill your babies

If there's one trait that separates the good writers from the bad, it's a streak of utter ruthlessness. For a good writer, there is one goal and one goal only: To make money. Okay, two goals: To make money and to produce the best piece of writing possible. To that end, a writer must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. He must be willing to kill his babies.

I don't mean literal infanticide, though that's probably easier for a writer to handle. I mean being willing to let go of an idea, scene, character, joke, plot device, title or anything else that doesn't make the novel, screenplay or whatever better. No matter how much you love it, if that line of dialogue or that simile doesn't make that comedy funnier or that drama more dramatic, then it should be deleted without a second thought.

It's not easy. Believe me, I know from experience. I've fought pitched battles to keep jokes in scripts only to admit at the read-through that they stank. I've insisted that the play be called "hedgehog curry" until the fliers went to the printers before conceding that no one else understands what it means. I haven't seen my novel about an academic who survived the Stalinist purges and is now having flashbacks to that time; his daughter whose long bitter marriage is falling apart around her and the journalist who's investigating the academic because he suspects he was never in Russia at the time and then he falls obsessively in love with the daughter and sacrifices his career to become a lense grinder in Omsk turned into a story about an elephant who loses his balloon, but I've come close. I've had to kill a lot of babies in my time

I have a friend who is a very good and very successful writer down in Hollywood who not only can't kill his babies, he can't even move them into the next room. He's one of those writers who needs a crutch to get started; a plot device on which to hang the rest of the story. It might be that the hero is seeking a long lost relative or that there's a bomb planted on a train. It's a tool that works and he would very often come up with some superb plots, but he would invariably fall in love with his crutch and refuse to part with it. By the time he'd finished writing, the story had altered so much that the lost relative or the bomb had no bearing on the plot at all, but he still kept it in despite it morphing from a writing aid into a pointless subplot that brought the story grinding to a halt. The result is that many of his stories aren't as strong as they could be and he ends up making a lot more work for himself in preserving what should be cut.

My personal example of the need to kill babies was a play about the abolition of the English monasteries that I submitted to a competition a few years ago. It was one of the winners and ended up in production, but when I saw it up on stage I had to admit to myself that what I'd thought of as a tight, focused personal drama was a one-act experiment in tedium that lumbered and dragged itself across the stage from one unending speech to the next. So, I dusted my script off and hacked away at it like a crazed gardener faced with an overgrown bramble bush. I went after every line that I thought couldn't possibly be altered, every character who couldn't possibly be cut, and every plot point that I thought indispensable and I altered, cut, and dispensed without mercy. In the end, my 45 minute suet pudding became a lean ten-minute play.

This sort of thing happens more often than most people realise. Take the classic film Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When Stanley Kubrick started working on the film, it was a serious Cold War drama that never had a breath of humour to it. But as the work progressed, Kubrick and his writers cracked so many jokes and ended up laughing so much that they realised that the story worked much better as a black comedy than as a drama. So, out went the solemnity and in came General Jack D. Ripper's precious bodily fluids. The same thing happened with Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch, which was originally about a second-hand car until Graham Chapman and John Cleese crossed out "car" and wrote in "parrot". I think that's one of the main reasons why Monty Python was always funnier than Saturday Night Live in its heyday. The Python lads never gave a toss how much someone liked a sketch or the fact that so and so didn't have enough lines that week. If it didn't make the show funnier, it was out and that was the last word.

The moral of the story is, if what you're writing isn't working and you can't fix it, then you're too kindhearted. Take out the blue pencil, close your eyes, and start crossing out. It's hard at first, but after a while you'll find that you can edit your work with all the dispassion of a surgeon. Or a butcher. Whatever gets the job done.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Heinlein in Dimension

Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein; I have an ambiguous relationship with the Big Three of science fiction. As a boy, they were among my favourite authors; right up there with Sapper and H. Rider Haggard. But when I started work on Tales of Future Past I had to reread their stories again and I found myself confronted by a very uncomfortable fact: however enjoyable they were to read, their writing was dreadful. Asimov's prose was schoolboy stuff locked in an adolescent sense of language and a complete inability to describe anything, Clarke's was dry and passionless for anything that wasn't made of duralloy with rockets strapped to its sides, and Heinlein's read like a good writer of juvenile fiction who aspired to creating bad pastiches of Kipling–which he was.

I'm rereading Heinlein's Starship Troopers at the moment and for all its powersuits and other toys, it comes across as if Heinlein had read All Quiet on the Western Front and figured that the best reply was a short novel so plotless and so sanitised that it reads like the script for a US Marines recruiting film circa 1942. It's either the worst of Heinlein's juvenile novels or the best of his later adult novels, which isn't saying much because Heinlein was poised for the deepest and most-drawn out swan dive in literary history culminating in the unreadable nadir of The Number of the Beast. I have a particular hatred for that one because I was on a hiking trip in Germany back in the '80s, I was tired of reading everything in German, and that was the only book in English that I could find.

God, it was bad.

That said, Heinlein was still a fascinating author who defined science fiction for over a generation, smashed that definition with his Stranger in a Strange Land, and then got all cross when people stopped taking him seriously. He's was also a much more complicated writer than many people give him credit for and a study of his work is well-worth the effort as a way of learning how to write and (more important) how not to write.

The best work I've found on Heinlein is Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension, which looks at Heinlein's writings from the beginning through the late 1960s. pulling no punches, Panshin not only examines Heinlein the author, but also explains his peculiar world view that could almost be called two-fisted solipsism. If you've ever wondered why all of Heinlein's secondary characters are so thin as to be non-existent, here is the answer. And if you think that his main characters sound like a man talking to himself, there's a very good reason; he is.

If you have a free couple of hours, I recommend that you peruse Mr Panshin's book. It's both highly readable and available free online.

Update: More on Heinlein over at Ephemeral Isle.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Writer's block

Writer's block is the writer's bête noire. It is that fearful, frustrating episode where he sits down at the writing desk, pulls out a clean, white sheet of foolscap, poises with pen hovering and suddenly the mind goes blank. Nothing happens. No ideas come. The more he forces himself, the more nothing happens. What follows is doodling, mild cursing, staring out the window, blaming the cat, and finally giving up and making a sandwich.

What do you do to overcome writer's block? How do you keep it from happening in the first place?

There are quite a few remedies. My own is what I call the "leave the table hungry method". When I'm writing, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in a session, but I'm always careful to quit work before I've set it all down. That way, I'm never at a loss at how to start the next day because I still have some work to finish up. By the time I'm through with that, I've got the creative juices flowing and it's relatively easy to come up with new thoughts.

Another way of overcoming writer's block is good, old-fashioned brainstorming. Get a large sheet of paper or a big stack of index cards and start writing down ideas. It doesn't matter how stupid they are or how irrelevant they are to the task at hand. Just write them down; something will click.

Writing exercises are another good tool. Grab an image off the Web and write a short story about it. Make up a back story for a character you see in a television commercial. Compose a murder mystery around a matchbook you find in a drawer. There are even apps to help you with this. On my iGoogle page I keep a Writer's Idea Bank, which is a gadget that throws out random story ideas. What it spews out is gibberish, but it does get the grey matter going.

Part of the problem might be that you only have one project and it's sucking up all the creative energy. Try having two or three projects on the boil. That way, if one isn't going anywhere, you can work on the others. Don't overdo it, however, or you'll end up like me with a To Do list that never gets shorter.

Discipline is also a factor. Do you write when the muse strikes you? Is she striking often enough? Not at all? The way to handle this is to set up a routine for writing. Pick a set time and place each day for writing. Make it as solid a routine as your day job so that your brain learns that this is writing time. Oddly, sometimes the problem is having too much writing time instead of too little. By setting a routine that says you will stop after so many hours or so many words, you not only set yourself a goal, but also avoid burning out.

If you become a professional writer, you'll soon discover the greatest antidote to writer's block: The deadline. When I turned pro, I learned that nothing makes me more creative than looking at the calendar and realising that I have a manuscript that has to be sent off TODAY. Inside of five minutes, I'm on a roll. Set your own personal deadlines and stick to them.

If all else fails, step away from your work and do something else. Make a cup of tea. Watch some bad television. Take the dog for a walk. Reconnect with your children. Look up the definition of "topiary". That's when ideas sneak up on you. Writing is a bit like diving; the best way to succeed is to not think about it.

Finally, remember that writer's block is a temporary condition. If you are a real writer, if you have something to say, then you will write because you have no choice. Sooner or later, the words will come. The trick is to be ready when they do.