Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Working Day

I’m fascinated by how writers go about the day to day business of writing.

Over the years I’ve spoken to many fellow scribblers and read a lot about writing techniques – not so much the intellectual side of creation, but the more prosaic, practical aspect – and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are as many ways of going about the business as there are writers out there.

Thomas Wolfe wrote his sprawling narratives while standing up and using the top of his refrigerator as an impromptu desk. (He was a tall man). The SF writer Lester Del Rey sequestered himself inside the tiniest office of all, his wardrobe, rigged out with a folding chair, a light and his typewriter. Kevin J. Anderson dictates his best-selling novels while hiking across the American countryside, and many of G.K. Chesterton’s stories and novels were dictated to his secretary.

Some of us write in short bursts, others in extended periods lasting all day. Anthony Powell wrote for a couple of hours in the mornings, and took the rest of the day off. Frederik Pohl wrote all during the night. Chesterton wrote whenever the mood took him; at his desk, in bed, in the pub, and he even composed poems while walking the streets of London.

As for how much individual writers write during a ‘sitting’ or shift – well, that’s as variable as their writing methods. Famously Roald Dahl took six months to write a short story. Considering his tales are on average six thousand words long, this means he wrote a thousand words a month or, breaking it down even further, roughly thirty-three words a day. Obviously he didn’t write so little: my guess is that he’d write a few pages at one go, edit them rigorously over a period of days, then continue and revise, until after six months the story was finished. I know some writers who think nothing of bashing out ten thousand words a day, then taking another day to rewrite and revise a final draft.

The other day, while walking the dog in the rolling countryside of East Lothian where I live, I found myself describing my working methods to a friend. (I’m not in the habit of boring people with such details, but they did ask. And if you’re not at all interested, stop reading now).

I start work around nine-fifteen after walking the hound. I work on my PC, positioned low down on my desk which is an old Baird radiogramophone – a lovely piece of furniture in polished walnut, four feet long, eighteen inches high and just as deep. I sit back in a comfortable chair with the keyboard on my lap – which accounts for my bad back, according to my wife.

I have a notebook by my elbow, full of scribbles pertaining to the novel or story I’m working on – but I rarely refer to this. It’s as if the act of writing down the notes in longhand has cemented the ideas in my head.

I start tapping the keys, narrating the images in my head, and when I next look up it’s around eleven-thirty and two thousand words are in the bag. I walk the dog again; we have lunch; then around one o’clock I start the afternoon shirt, completing another two thousand words before it’s walkies time again. The writing day is then finished and I cook the evening meal.

After a month to six weeks, I have the first draft of a novel finished. I let it lie for a week or so, then print it out and go though it with a rigorous pen, cutting and rewriting. When this is done, it’s time to unleash the ms on a few unwitting friends for their expert criticism and advice.

A month later I go through it a couple of times, and finally abandon the project and call it finished.

I then move on to writing short stories, reviews and the odd non-fiction piece.

As to where the ideas come from… Well, that’s another story, one a bit more difficult to pin down, but which I’ll attempt to do here in a future piece.

~

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Jani

I’ve been itching to write a steampunk novel for years. I like the idea, the ethos, behind the sub-genre. I like the idea of writing SF unconstrained by the shackles of science and technology – it can be as way-out and whacky as you can make it – and I like the idea of writing action-adventure.

Last year I pitched a couple of steampunk ideas to my editor Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, which came to nothing. Then Jon asked, “How about something set in India…?” which set me thinking. Over the next couple of weeks, Jani Chatterjee was born. She would be half-Indian, half-English, torn by loyalties to both camps, grieving the loss of her recently deceased father, and pitched into an adventure in which the future of the world is at stake… It would be set in India and Nepal in 1925, when the British Empire rules the world thanks to something they discovered, fifty years earlier, in the foothills of the Himalayas; it would feature evil baddies, aliens from other worlds, strange devices – as well as obligatory airships – much derring-do, seat-of-the-pants adventure, and would be an unashamed romp, while at the same time taking a little time out to address issues like the idea of Empire, racism, and the role of women in society… but above all it would be a thrilling chase through an exotic India. Jani’s assumptions would be challenged along the way: in each book, reality as she assumed it to be would be subverted by things she learns – and the expectations of the reader would, likewise, be subverted by what is revealed.

Jon and the team at Solaris liked the idea, commissioned the novel on the outline, and then I sat down to write it.

892-1First, though, Dominic Harman supplied a fantastic cover – which has struck the aesthetic cords of various people, along the lines of, “Mechanical elephants and steampunk… what’s not to like?” I gave Dominic the brief for the cover before I’d actually written a word. Oddly, the idea that a mechanical elephant might make an arresting image came to me before I realised that an artificial elephant would feature in the story. But, once the idea popped into my head, I had to make room for it.

Then I began Jani, and it whistled out in little over a month. It was one of those happy novels which wrote itself. Jani became a larger than life character, dictated where the novel should go, and I merely followed her. Alfie Littlebody, a secondary character, (A bumbling but well meaning officer in Field Security, opposed to the excesses of the Raj) also took off in ways I’d hardly envisaged when thinking about him before I started the book.

I had more problems with the ‘alien’, and his depiction. In the novel he befriends Jani – or perhaps uses her to his own ends – and persuades her to embark on a death-defying quest across northern India and into Nepal. The alien, Jelch, had to be obviously unhuman, but sufficiently human to pass visually amongst the folk of India. He also had to be of another world, yet understandable to the reader in his motivations and mind-set – always a hard trick to pull off when depicting aliens. Whether he works is down to the reader to decide, but so far the reviews haven’t singled him out as a weak point.

A couple of critics have said that the baddies are too one-dimensional, too evil – and here I hold my hands up. They were meant to be. This is melodrama, where we hiss at the baddies and cheers the goodies. The Russians are irredeemably bad, and Jani good, for the sake of telling a headlong action-adventure-chase tale.

At the end of book one, Jani, Littlebody, and Jani’s Indian friend Anand, are fleeing India bound for London aboard a vast airship – and bound for further adventures that will test their mettle to the limits. They’re being pursued by Russians, Chinese (little do they know it), evil aliens and even the British. The trio hold the future of the world in their hands, and it seems that the whole world is determined to halt their progress.

Their adventures will continue in the second volume of the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit.

All I have to do now is write it.

Here’s a sneak preview of Dominic Harman’s excellent cover.

jani-2 two~

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Rejections

Rejection is part of the writer’s life. It’s hard to take at first, when one’s lovingly crafted masterpieces are sent out like lambs to the slaughter and face the cruel cudgels of professional editors. When I began writing way back in to mid-seventies while living in Australia, I came across a periodical called The London Mystery Magazine. To be honest, I thought the standard of their stories, for the most part, was pretty low. Surely, I thought, I could do better. By the time I’d screwed up the courage to send out my stories, I’d returned to England, so submitting tales to London would be considerably easier than sending them from Melbourne.

According to my records, in 1978 I wrote half a dozen short crime/mystery tales. During the course of 1979 I submitted them, one by one, to The London Mystery Magazine – and, one by one, they all came back bearing form rejection slips.

I was devastated, of course.

I thought they were good stories, many of them far better than the fare on offer at TLMM. With the hindsight of years, however, I can see that my younger self was very wrong. They were nothing but shallow, badly written, badly characterised puzzle stories – with the failing that the puzzles weren’t even original. They deserved form rejections slips.

I recall, however, that far from discouraging me, the rejections served to spur me on, to prove the editors wrong. I moved from writing crimes tales to writing science fiction, and the rejections piled up: form rejections for the most part, but with the occasional encouragement of a note from the editor bearing kind words and the exhortation to try them with my next one.

I still receive regular rejections. I write perhaps half a dozen short stories a year, and I’d say that fifty per cent of these are rejected first time round. I send them out again, and again, and again… and I usually end up selling four or five of them, eventually.

The reasons for a story being rejected are many and various. The editor’s taste might not be attuned to the kind of tale you submit; the editor might simply not agree with something – politics, religion, philosophy – in the story; the magazine might have a surfeit of similar stories. Or the tale might not be very good and needs work to pull it round.

I’ve learned over the years, and in the course of hundreds of rejections, not to take it personally. Writers are fallible, we get things wrong, and everything we write isn’t going to be the masterpiece we think it is. Rejection still hurts, of course – especially when it’s the rejection of a story I think might be one of the best I’ve done for some time. The thing to do is file the story away and pull it out a few weeks later, read it through and rewrite – you’ll be amazed at the deadwood you find that can be excised – and then send it out again, and again…

Is there a time when you say, enough is enough, this tale has been rejected so often it must stink?

Yes, of course. I retired a tale last year after its twelfth rejection (I was tempted to try it a lucky thirteenth time). Enough is enough, I reasoned. I might reused the central idea one day, but I’ll spare future editors the pain of reading it, and the pleasure of rejecting it yet again.

And I’ll use the time more profitably, writing a new, original, brilliant, cutting-edge SF tale, before biding it adieu and posting it off on it’s journey into the unknown… or, more likely these days, pressing the send button and launching it into the ether.

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Satan’s Reach

A few years ago my editor at Solaris, Jonathan Oliver, asked if I’d be interested in developing a ‘future world’ for a series of adventure space operas to be published by Abaddon Books; I’d also write a couple of the novels.

I jumped at the chance. Not only would I enjoy writing in one of my favourite sub-genres, but it would be a fascinating experience to build a future from the bottom up, and then seeing what other writers, in succeeding novels, would come up with – how they might develop and expand my original vision.

Jonathan and I batted a few ideas back and forth before we settled on the Weird Space background. The human race has colonised more than a hundred Earth-like planets, coming across all manner of weird and wonderful alien races in the process. The governmental organisation that runs the Human Expansion has evolved into a tyrannical, fascistic body, which rules its domain with brutality and little compassion.

On the border of human space is Vetch space, where the alien Vetch have an empire of two hundred worlds. The Vetch is a warrior race, and fifty years before the series opens they invaded several human colony worlds in what they called ‘disputed territory’ on the edge of their empire. They annihilated these worlds and slaughtered millions of humans. From that time the two races have maintained an uneasy peace.

The first novel of the series, The Devil’s Nebula, was about a human colony world discovered beyond Vetch space, in a region known as the Devil’s Nebula. The crew of the starship Hawk discover a human settlement enslaved by bizarre creatures which emanate from another a dimension, a realm which existed beyond this reality.

These creatures, the Weird, are out to absorb the human and Vetch races; they aim to enslave all intelligent life in nearby space and so assimilate and comprehend their victims. Now the Weird is a hive-mind race and they fail, as such, to see that what they are doing is evil: they’re obeying a biological mandate to seek out, to absorb and understand.

Which their victims, understandably, have issues with…

The action hots up when the Weird breach human and Vetch space and begin opening portals and sending through their monstrous legions.

At the same time, to add another and potentially greater threat, I decided to have the Weird send mind-parasites into human and Vetch space. A hundred years before the action of the first book begins, the Weird loaded a starship with parasitic spores and launched it toward human- and Vetch-occupied space. The ships landed, the spores disseminated, and infected humans and Vetch alike. Now many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of humans and Vetch are carrying the mind-parasites, unbeknownst even to themselves. In time the Weird will give the signal and these parasites will take over.

The infected can only be detected by telepaths working for both races in a desperate race against time.

The second book in the series, Satan’s Reach, features one such telepath, Den Harper who, five years before the novel opens, grew disgusted with the regime of the Expansion and the job he was called upon to do at the behest of his fascist bosses, and absconded from human space. He stole a starship and headed for the lawless wastes of Satan’s Reach. A bounty hunter was sent after him, with orders to kill him on sight. Telepaths are powerful people, and rogue telepaths a danger to the stability of the Expansion regime. Harper killed the bounty hunter in a shoot-out, and continued his life as a star trader continually looking over his shoulder.

Now, however, more bounty hunters are sent after him – this time a human-Vetch team – with orders not to kill Harper but to bring him back alive. He’s worth more alive to the authorities than dead, in that he might help the fight against the Weird by locating and eradicating those humans infected by mind-parasites.

Satan’s Reach is the story of that chase, and the unexpected twists and turns that befall Harper on the way.

It was one of the quickest novels I’ve ever written, and one of the most entertaining to write. I lived the part of Harper and had great fun getting him into predicaments and out of them again.

And now I relinquish the reins of the Weird Space series, and other writers take them up. I’m intrigued to see in which directions others will take my ideas, fascinated by who (if any) of the characters I’ve created they might decide to use… and not a little apprehensive, I must admit, of the fate in store for one or two of them I’ve grown close to over the course of writing The Devil’s Nebula and Satan’s Reach.

But of one thing I’m sure – the world of Weird Space will be in capable hands.

This piece first appeared in Upcoming4me.

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What Steampunk Means To Me

I read steampunk at its very inception, long ago in the 1980s – Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, and the works of James P. Blaylock – back when the sub-genre wasn’t even graced with a sobriquet but was lumped in with the catch-all term of Fantasy. Little did any of us realise, at the time, what a thriving genre it would become, nor what a lifestyle sub-culture these and other novels would spawn. (There is even, as I sit typing, a Steampunk-themed café seven miles north of here in North Berwick, East Lothian).

To me, in the Eighties, these and other novels occupied a strange hinterland between SF and Fantasy. While fantastical, they didn’t much partake of the occult or the overly magical; and while ostensibly SF, they weren’t tied to the rigorous rationality of Hard SF. They were great adventure romps which played fast and loose with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy; they had their cake and ate it.

Then in the 1990s Steampunk seemed to fall out of favour. Cyberpunk was the big thing, and retro-derring-do set in Victorian times appeared to have had its day. The future was Neuromancer, streetwise hackers and cynical multinational mega-corporations: the past was passé.

And then at some point in the Noughties, novels set in Victorian times, featuring fantastical inventions that never existed, began to trickle out. The trickle became a stream, and then a torrent. Publishers, always eager to jump aboard the next band-wagon, commissioned more and more Steampunk novels and it seemed that the surge was unstoppable, to the point where some bookshops up and down the country now have sections devoted not only to SF, Fantasy and Horror, but also to Steampunk. There are Steampunk conventions, Steampunk weekends (there’s one forthcoming in my hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire), Steampunk parties, magazines, websites…

But, we ask ourselves, why the big attraction? What is it about stories set in mainly Victorian times featuring almost-magical inventions, street-urchins, evildoers and the like, that is so phenomenally popular? And why do we write it? (Well, the cynical amongst you might answer that writers write the stuff for the simple reason that it keeps the wolf from the door. But I like to think that there are other, more interesting reasons).

Perhaps the answer is that Steampunk is so popular these days for the same reason that, before the last millennium, everything New Age was in vogue: the future was a nebulous entity that frightened the average man and woman in the street, and it was comforting, even reassuring, to turn back to old certainties.

We live in interesting times, a decade and a half into the new millennium. Never has the advance of science and technology been so rampant, never has that person on the Clapham omnibus faced such confusion when attempting to come to terms with the many and wondrous quantum leaps in contemporary science. There are so many advances on so many fronts that no one person can claim to understand it all.

So readers fall back into the comforting safety net of Steampunk, where the science never existed – where the science and technology is retro and therefore not really threatening. We all like adventure stories, and the exotic, and never is the exotic more exotic than when two disparate elements (weird science and grungy Victoriana, in this case) are juxtaposed.

And writers?

Well, we write Steampunk for many of the same reasons. We want to tell thrilling stories, we want to write of fantastical adventures; and I suspect that many of us – and I’m speaking personally here – find the future (the advance of science and technology) baffling and often incomprehensible. So we write fantastical stories set in the Steampunk milieu, utilising the same sense of wonder as found in SF, to tell our tales of human beings caught up in circumstances vaster than themselves.

Or that’s why I wrote Jani and the Greater Game, anyway. I wanted to write about India, and about India under the British Raj, about a woman half Indian, half British, who finds her loyalties torn and her life under threat from all sides. The novel is set in 1925, so it’s well after the usual Steampunk stomping ground of the Victorian era, but it hews to the same ideas and ideals: the inventions are fantastical, the villains evil, and the adventure is, I like to think, thick and fast and pretty well relentless.

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Productivity

I received an interesting email the other day from a reader who described himself as ‘an Eric Brown completist’ (a rare creature indeed). He collected the first editions of all my books, be they SF, children’s, or crime. He wanted to know – with, I think, his tongue firmly in his cheek – why I was so prolific, as it was costing him a small fortune to keep up with my output.

It’s a good question, and there are two reason why last year I had five books out (Starship Seasons, The Serene Invasion, Murder by the Book, Satan’s Reach, and Salvage), and this year there will be six new Brown titles on the shelves (Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV, Strange Visitors, Rites of Passage, Jani and the Greater Game, Murder at the Chase, and Sacrifice on Spica II). The first reason is that I enjoy writing, and I write a lot. I get a lot of ideas and, after sitting down at my desk and writing (almost) every day for the past thirty-five years or more, I’ve become adept at letting my subconscious take over the writing process. So, every two or three hour shift I put in in my study, I produce around two thousand words, and I do two shifts a day. Of course, I take a rest after the first drafts are done, and move on to reviews and non-fiction pieces, and then rewrite the fiction. Even so, that’s a lot of fictive wordage every year. I find that I can comfortably write two novels a year (at the moment an SF novel and a crime novel), a novella or two, and half a dozen short stories. The problem isn’t writing the books, but selling them. At the moment, Solaris put out my SF, and Severn House my crime novels. PS Publishing bring out my novellas, and the short story collections come out from NewCon Press (Strange Visitors) and Infinity Plus Books (Rites of Passage, The Angels of Life and Death, etc – though IPB did publish my fix-up novel, Salvage last year). On the children’s writing front, things have stalled for a while – I still have two novels for Young Adults looking for a home: Gone Twocking and The Children of Winter, based on my BSFA award winning tale of the same title. So there could be even more Browns out there…

And the second reason I publish so much is that we live in straightened times. It’s becoming ever harder for a freelance writer to make a living writing just one book a year, or even two. There was a happy time, from the ’50s right up until perhaps the ’90s, when a mid-list writer could turn out a novel a year and make a half-decent living. Not any longer. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 saw to that, along with online outlets like Amazon offering used books at a penny apiece and even new books at vastly reduced prices. For a full-time freelance writer to earn a crust these days, he or she must turn out more than two books a year (unless they’re a best-seller, of course), and supplement whatever they make from advances and royalties with writing-related work on the side like reviews and journalism.

That said, even if I became a best-seller overnight and could afford to ease back and write just one book a year, I wouldn’t. I enjoy writing too much to restrict myself. There is nothing quite like being infected by an idea, locking myself away in my study (accompanied by my dog), and losing myself in a story for a couple of hours. It’s like a drug, and I emerge feeling refreshed and with a pleasant sense of accomplishment.

And next year? Well, it doesn’t appear to be quite so replete with new releases at the moment. (My completist reader will be pleased to know…)

Next summer will see the publication of the second book in the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit, the third and fourth Telemass novellas, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II and a final volume which is as yet untitled, and maybe another collection from Infinity Plus Books. I have a couple of outlines for big SF novels out with a publisher, and I’m awaiting a decision from my crime publisher as to whether they want to see a third Langham and Dupré mystery.

All in a bid to keep that ravenous wolf from the door…

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Deep Future

deepfuture-demoDeep Future, my collection first published by Cosmos/Wildside back in 2001, is now available as an e-book from infinity plus books, Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

It contains ten stories, among which are a few of my favourites: “The Miracle at Kallithea”, an unabashedly romantic tale about an artist on a Greek island, his grief for his dead daughter, and the scientist who offers the hope of bringing her back to life – after a fashion… Also set on a Greek island is “The Kings of Eternity”, the short story, first published in SF Age in 2000, which inspired the novel of the same title. It’s about an immortal man, and how he became immortal, and much more. “Deep Future” is unusual in that I don’t write many far, far future tales: this one is about a time, one billion years from now, when crab-like creatures are the dominant life-form on Earth.

From Keith Brooke’s introduction:

I first became aware of Eric’s work in the late 1980s when a mutual friend, the novelist Mike Cobley, mentioned Eric Brown among a few writers to watch. I sought out his early stories and was hooked – by the plotting and craft but, more than anything, by the deep compassion in the writing.

Those familiar with Eric’s work know that he is a writer who revisits and explores certain themes and moods: longing, loss, redemption; the lingering effects of events long past; the power of art to give life meaning; the quest for love and the questioning of love. This exploration and re-exploration gives his work tremendous resonance, unifying apparently disparate stories into a fictional universe that is as distinctive as any operating in the field of science fiction today.

In this collection you will find stories that range from the Victorian past to the far, far future, varying in setting from Eric’s native Yorkshire to Greece, Asia and the far-flung planets of his imagination. You will find a colourful, atmospheric travel story, which also happens to feature first contact; a gentle and poignant love story that happens to be set in virtual reality; alien structures looming on the horizon of a wintery, near-future Yorkshire. You will find all the trappings of both modern and traditional science fiction, but always it is their effect and impact on the characters that is paramount, not the exploration of neat ideas for their own sake.

None of this should be taken to imply that the science-fictional elements are incidental in Eric’s work: they’re not; the stories twist and turn and burst with ideas as does the very best SF. The point I labour to make is that these are real and humane stories that contain far more than just aliens and telepaths and fancy rocketships.

 

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