Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Artwork for the Upcoming Website

Here is some of the Tarot inspired artwork that my friend Bede has done for the upcoming website (which will be located here). The website will contain many, many, interesting things mostly about my books but I'm hoping to diversify as time goes on.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Gibbon Spotting

If you love a good generalisation you can divide the people that work in the Film and Television Industry (1) into 4 main types: talent, deal-makers, gibbons and and hamsters.

Talent is just what it sounds like, these are writers, cinematographers, editors, actors, scene designers all those that make creative input(2) into the project. The level of talent is, of course, variable but what they contribute is self-evident.

Deal-Makers are people whose principle skill is making deals and this is vital to any production of anything. The best deal-makers are masters of organisation and while often not talented themselves are capable of recognising it in others. To put it in script writing terms when a deal-maker reads a script he/she can tell you whether its any good and how it might get made. What they contribute is the project itself.

Gibbons(3) are usually executives who are neither talented or able to spot talent. They might actually be quite good at making deals but since they can't tell the difference between shit and sugar their product will only be any good by accident. Furthermore their principle concern is with their own status and thus they are perfectly happy to stay in the development spin cycle forever. Just so long as they can eat lunches, do meetings and work through their dominance issues.

Hamsters are essentially passive agressive gibbons who usually rise up through the ranks of a media company tucked away in a handy bodily cavity of a gibbon or a deal-maker with low self esteem.

In the next post we shall discuss the all important gibbon ratio.

(1) I suspect you can do this in most industries but I don't have experience of them.
(2) And I don't include giving your opinion at a meeting here.
(3) With apologies to the Hylobatidae family here.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Inspiration (or theft)

The five of you who've read Genius Loci will know all about Pinky and Perky the two terraforming machines that play a small but crucial role in the plot. They're also a really classic example of subconscious idea theft and it's taken me a while to pin down where they came from. Now the image of the implacable building machine came from numerous sources not least the logging, spider, walking thing from an episode of Thunderbirds but the indelible idea - a machine building in a straight line across alien continents - came from a book I never owned and never actually read. At least not all the way through.

The beauty of the modern internet age is that you can google a series of vague recollections from your childhood and discover that that image comes from Planet Story, written by Harry Harrison and illustrated by Jim Burns. I think it belonged to the father of one of my schoolfriend's and I don't believe I ever read it all the way through. Still something must have stuck.

This is an illustration of just one inspiration for just one element of just one novel. It takes literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas to construct the world of your story and this is why whenever somebody asks a writer - 'Where do you get your ideas from?' They tend to give them a blank look.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Things for next year - The Heroes

I try, as best I can, to avoid buying books in hardback. It's not the price but the size and weight that deters me. Anyone who's tried reading A Game of Thrones or The Evolutionary Void on the tube will attest to the dangers of wrist strain and, worse, the risk of serious injury to one's fellow commuters.

Still there are some authors for whom I just can't wait and Joe Abercrombie is one of them. I'm looking forward to another cynical, black nailed, foul mouthed and blood soaked chapter in the history of the world of the First Law which, according to Amazon, will be mine in March 2011.

Apparently it's actually available from January - so much better!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Watching the Detectives: Agent Kimball Cho

I love 'The Mentalist' but fun as it is to watch Patrick Jane playing his mind games or sparring with Agent Lisbon I always find myself waiting for the scene where Agent Cho sits down in an interview room and tears a suspect limb from limb - metaphorically of course.

Actor Tim Kang plays Cho as a solid brick of a character, not inscrutable but completely self-contained. A man, you feel, who sets himself goals and then reaches them by following the most straight-forward route available.

I live in fear that an executive somewhere will feel that the character needs to be 'developed' at some point. More Cho, yes please, diluted Cho, no thanks - an episode composed entirely of one interrogation - I could go for that.

Monday, 13 December 2010

First Line Meme

I recently read an interesting article about the importance of the first line of a book in getting you published. In the time honoured tradition of writers everywhere I immediately attempted two things; a) to relate the article to my own work and b) come up with something quick and easy to blog. So here is my solution... the first line of every book or short story I've ever written.
The old man had a shock of white hair pulled back from a broad forehead; startling eyes glittered in a severe high cheek-boned face. (1990)
Proof positive that you really do get better with practice.
The Doctor stood alone on a Devonian beach and tried to persuade the lungfish to return to the sea. (1992)
According to the old woman there had once been a leopard that fell into a trap. (1995)
An allegorical phase obviously
It should have been raining the day they put Roz into the ground, not bright and sunny under a blue sky. (1997)
It should have been a full stop after the word ground, not additional contrasting clauses which should have come later.
See that woman there. (2006)
When in doubt steal(1) - in this case from a Nobel prize winning author. I really have no shame.
They set a post-hound on Benny's trail on Tallyrand, slotted it to her biometrics and the colour of her hair. (2006)
More blatant theft; can you see who I'm stealing from here?
'Do I know you?' asked the man. (2006)

While she was waiting, the girl passed the time by counting the thermonuclear warheads as they went gliding by. (2007)
I think the second one sets the tone of the story well.
It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. (2011)
Some people don't like long sentences.

(1) Did i say steal? I meant of course 'pay homage'.(2)
(2) Recursive theft - love it!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Sweet Scent of Blood by Suzanne McLeod

Some people, when writing urban fantasy, like to keep the magical aspects of their world low key and subtle. They aim for a certain understated elegance whereby the fantastic lurks in interstices of the mundane world.

Other people say 'Oh bondage up yours', rip the kitchen sink from the wall and fling in to the bubbling cauldron of story. Susanne McLeod is one of the loud people her series is filled to the brim with witches, fey, sorcerers, vampires, trolls and the sort of colour that is usually the preserve Jack Vance and people who are seriously off their meds,

Now others have taken this approach and have ended up with either a thick, brown, unappetising mush or a novel so weighed down with cliché that it slips from your fingers and, in defiance of Isaac Newton, falls sideways to strike the opposite wall with enough force to rattle the windows.

McLeod dances past these pitfalls and delivers a book where the weight of the concepts is transmitted perfectly down the arm of story, into the fist prose that connects smartly with the rubbery nose of reader enjoyment. And with my metaphor slipping slowly into the west I think I'm going to stop here...

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Publishers Weekly Review

Midnight Riot
Ben Aaronovitch, Del Rey, $7.99 mass market (320p) ISBN 978-0-345-52425-6
In this fast-paced paranormal police procedural, Aaronovitch introduces Peter Grant, a rookie cop who can see ghosts. This unusual talent saves him from a potential life of office work when Chief Insp. Thomas Nightingale sends him for wizard training. Britain's police force has long known of the supernatural, and Grant is to assist Nightingale in solving many of London's magical problems--most notably, the mysterious string of violent attacks that tend to end with the perpetrator's face falling off. As the brutal epidemic spreads, Grant must race to finish his magic lessons and solve an ages-long dispute between the rivers of Britain. Though the novel sometimes feels just a little too jam-packed with plot points and adventures, it's witty, fun, and full of vivid characters, and the plot twists will keep even seasoned mystery fans guessing.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon

When I first conceived the idea of an urban fantasy set in and around Covent Garden I did so secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, at least the setting would be original.

Imagine my horror when, a mere 10,000 words into my magnificent octopus, the very personable Mike Shevdon turned up in my shop and thrust an ARC of his first novel into my hands. It's an urban fantasy, he told me cheerfully, set in and around Covent Garden.

I said thank you through gritted teeth and promised faithfully to make sure I ordered lots of copies and put them face out. That evening I started reading on the bus home in the hope that it would be terrible but unfortunately it wasn't.

It was actually very good - damn!

Beautifully researched, meticulously plotted and paced to keep you in suspense until the very last page this is an excellent book and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Almost a web page!

My new web site now has a holding page so at least people will know where it is. I'll add content over the next month so that hopefully by January it will be an all singing and dancing site.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Urban Fear

I'm not actually sure this blog has any point but here it is all the same.

Urban Fantasy(1), like horror with which it shares many tropes, often uses its supernatural elements to express both fear and fascination with the urban demi-monde. Or more precisely what looks like the demi-monde from the safe distance of the suburbs. Thus supernatural creatures can serve as allegories (or metaphors) for a great many 'issues' from race to poverty to crime and drug abuse.

But while there's excitement there is always and undercurrent of fear, that society has either broken down or has become, in itself, the enemy of the indivudual. Thus the big city can become literally demonised, not a place of families and communities but a landscape overrun by predators both singularly and in packs.

Interestingly this debilitating fear of the 'urban', for me, came across strongest in Phil Rickman's brilliant Remains of an Altar. In Rickman's work the supernatural grows out of the bones of the country and so, as a reversal, the fear and loathing of the urban becomes explicitly part of the mundane. Rickman's villain says, as justification for his actions; 'The cities are a lost cause... Reinfecting themselves on their own sewage.' And while his actions are condemned by the novel's protagonists his analysis is not. Us urbanites, and our children, are an infection that the countryside must resist with all its might.

The threat to the countryside is seen as completely external as one of the protagonist's friends says 'One day... I think we may be pushed just slightly too far.' The villains are an uncaring government, Brussels bureaucrats and ignorant townies who have no knowledge or interest in the true history of their own country. '...fight for our traditions,' says another character. 'And we're branded criminals.' A fate that almost befalls another character as the novel reaches its climax.

Now I think I should say here that Phil Rickman does not share this simplistic view but to describe how he explores the nuances and subtleties of town vs country would give away too much of the plot. You're just going to have to buy the book and read it yourself.

(1) I really should use the more accurate term 'contemporary fantasy' but it always strikes me as curiously bloodless term for what is a rich bouillabaisse of a sub-genre.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Right Said Fred

Spent this morning freezing to death on Waterloo Bridge in aid of my fifteen minutes of fame. SFX sent a photographer in an attempt to secure a decent photograph for an article they're doing about my upcoming book. It was an interesting experience, not only was I cold, I was self conscious and embarrassed. I'll never be cruel about models again, it's much harder work then it looks and is it a tedious way to make a living.

At least for the likes of Naomi Campbell there is at least the consolation of looking good. I'm afraid that however hard the photographer tried I will continue to look excessively rotund and thin only in the hair department. If only my fifteen minutes had come 20 years ago. My only hope is that the editor crops it severely before publication.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Flüsse von London/Mitternachtsaufstand

Some time ago a German publisher bought the translation rights for Rivers of London/Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho and since I signed the contract I've been dying to see what my books look like in German.

The publishers, with typical attention to detail, are waiting for the definitive text but I, with typical impatience, cannot wait that long. Instead here is the first page of the book courtesy of Babelfish.

Flüsse von London/Mitternachtsaufstand
durch Ben Aaronovitch

Kapitel 1: Materieller Zeuge

Es begann mit eine dreißig auf einem kalten Dienstag-Morgen im Januar als Martin Turner, der Straßenausführende und, in seinen eigenen Wörtern, Lehrling Gigolo, ausgelöst über einem Körper vor dem WestPortico von Str. Pauls am Covent Garten. Martin, der nüchterne keine zu selbst war, am ersten Gedanken der Körper war der von einem der vielen Zelebranten, die den Marktplatz als bequeme im Freien Toilette und Schlafsaal gewählt hatten. Sein ein erfahrener Londoner, Martin gab dem Körper das `London sobald-over' - ein schneller flüchtiger Blick, um festzustellen, ob dieses ein betrunkenes war, ein verrücktes oder ein Mensch in der Bedrängnis. Die Tatsache, dass es völlig möglich für jemand war, alle drei zu sein gleichzeitig, ist, warum gut-Samaritanism in London als einen extremen Sport - wie das Unterseite-Springen oder das Krokodil-Wringen gilt. Martin, den hochwertigen Mantel und die Schuhe merkend, hatte gerade den Körper als betrunkenes verdübelt, als er beachtete, dass er tatsächlich seinen Kopf verfehlte.

Als Martin, der zu den Detektiven leiten sein Interview gemerkt, war es eine gute Sache, die er inebriated, weil anders er Zeit ungefähr schreiend und laufend vergeudet haben - besonders einmal er verwirklichte, dass er in einer Blutlache stand. Stattdessen mit dem langsamen, wählte die methodische Geduld vom betrunkenen und erschrocken, Martin Turner 999 und bat um die Polizei.

I make no claims about the accuracy of that text...

Or of translating the titles into Chinese 倫敦河。 午夜暴亂
Or Dutch: Rivieren van Londen. De Rel van de middernacht
Or French: Fleuves de Londres. Émeute de minuit
Or Russian: Реки Лондон. Полуночный бунт
Or Greek: Ποταμοί του Λονδίνου. Ταραχή μεσάνυχτων
And finally Spanish: Ríos de Londres. Alboroto de medianoche

Sigh; well and author can dream can't he?

Monday, 15 November 2010

King Maker by Maurice Broaddus

This is a cunningly wrought retelling of the Arthurian myth set amongst the street gangs of Indianapolis (a city I'm afraid to say I had to look up on Wikipedia). As usual this isn't exactly a review (but it is an endorsement) more a singling out of the aspect of a book that particularly caught my eye.

Spoilers ahead.

The clever thing in King Maker is the shroud of ambiguity that Broaddus wraps around the supernatural for the first half of the book. Many of the characters live in something close to a state of waking hallucination brought on by drugs, mental illness and years of poverty and abuse that even when something indisputably supernatural happens in the text you still find yourself questioning whether it actually happened or not.

This ambiguity prevents the supernatural elements from swamping the horrific reality of the setting allowing the magic to serve as a spot light to throw the characters lives into harsh relief.

Fortunately, for anyone like me who has finished the book, the second novel is due to be published in February 2011 - I have mine on pre-order already.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Moon Over Soho (US Cover)

This is the US Cover for Moon Over Soho and Peter Grant is looking hard as nails.

Things for next Year - The Wine of Angels

I've been waiting for them to reprint this book since I shelved The Remains of an Altar when I was working at Waterstones. Intrigued by the basic premise I went book in the series and found it was out of print. Like many people I hate starting a series midway through but out of print is out of print.

Once I'd read The Remains of an Altar my desperation intensified but fortunately, according to Amazon at least, the book is being re-released in March 2011. I already have my copy on pre-order.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Nostalgic Smell of Tube Trains

I went to the London Transport Museum, for research purposes, and after stepping around drifts of off season tourists I stepped inside an old red 1960s era tube train. I was instantly caught in the undertow of nostalgia and dragged back to the thousands of hours I spent riding that exact type of train in my youth. Back when the silver Jubilee Line trains were the height of modernity.

It wasn't the look of the carriage as the smell and this is where I find the limitations of my prose. Dust certainly, something that might have been electricity (except the carriage had been sitting in a museum for twenty years) and a musty smell that could have been the seat covers. Really, just as honey smells of honey and shit smells of shit what the carriage smelt of was 1960s era tube train(1).

(1) I think it might have been either 1959 or 1962 Stock but I can't tell.

Monday, 1 November 2010

I Shall Eviscerate You In Fiction - Part 2

The question for any writer when faced with criticism is simple - having restrained yourself from homicide what should you do next?
Walk away, turn the other cheek, do unto others as you would have them do unto you...etc etc. Us writers, let's be honest, are driven by an arrogant sense of entitlement so this is not really an option unless --- The insulter is high up in the publishing, film or news media and is likely to retaliate in kind. The insulter is much, much, bigger than you or under the age of criminal responsibility. You happen to be in a lasting relationship with sex, bed and/or food being conditional on your good behaviour.

Eviscerate them in fiction. This is the preferred choice ever since a popular Archean female singing trio dismissed the Iliad as a trite war story and ended up being depicted as murderous women headed birds. Try to keep it in proportion though; Micheal Creighton portrayed one of his critics as a child rapist with a tiny penis which is overkill, everybody knows that on the sliding scale of fictional evisceration a bad review merits a horrible death (real or social depending on genre) - they'd have to be something personal involved to get me up to Creightonian levels.

So remember my fellow writers: kill em in fiction, is cheaper, less likely to get you arrested and almost as much fun as the real thing.(1)

(1) If it isn't you are not a writer but a psychopath please report to your local mental health institution and turn yourself in.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

I Shall Eviscerate You In Fiction - Part 1

Here is an unpalatable truth about writers - we're not good with criticism. Or to clarify:- criticism of a writer's work drives them to an immediate and almost uncontrollable rage. Any criticism, about any aspect by anybody = psychopathic episode. Any writer who tells you differently is either lying, in denial or being ghosted by somebody else entirely.

I realise that many people are unaware of this from the blithe way that readers, critics and, occasionally, people who sit next to you on the bus flirt with death. I suppose it could be a novel form of extreme sport or TV reality programme(1). In an effort to reduce the number preventable deaths I offer the following safety advice.

If you must criticise an author to his face then be sure to do it at the end of the conversation. The killing rage begins with the first unfavourable comment, beyond that point the writer has ceased to listen to a word you're saying and is instead imagining how good it would feel to rip your arm off and beat you to death with the wet end.

When dealing with an enraged author never, ever, state that you have no intention of buying their next book. The only thing keeping you alive is the squeaky little voice in the author's head that reminds him/her that dead people don't buy books... It's a very tiny little voice at the best of times.

Before making a criticism ensure that you are not alone, standing by a ship's railing, pool of lava or acid bath or conveniently far from any CCTV coverage. Writer's are very weakly socialised and it's only fear of arrest and prison that is holding them back.

Next week - advice for writers on how to vent in safety.

(1) 'When Authors Attack' presumably.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Midnight Riot Cover (US)

This is the US cover for Midnight Riot (which is what River's of London is called in the states). See him, I wouldn't mess with Constable Peter Grant if I was you!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Moon Over Soho (UK) Cover

This is the almost finalised cover for Moon Over Soho I like the blue colour and the way it thematically matches the Rivers of London cover.

Moon Over Soho will be the second book in the continuing adventures of Peter Grant, Detective Constable and Apprentice Wizard.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Turbulence by Samit Basu

I was first sent this novel as a very large word file and was asked to read it as a favour to my agent. I procrastinated, as I always do in these circumstances, but finally when at eleven o'clock in the evening there was nothing left to watch on telly I opened the file.

I'll just give it a quick scan, I thought to myself.

Three o'clock the next morning I finished reading with that rare sense of loss you get when you finish a book you never really wanted to end.

I'm terrible at summaries and reviews so I'll just say that it involves superpowers, politics, the limits of human responsibility and is fast paced, deep, crisply written, full of vim, vigour, wit, wisdom and zest.

Plus it's really, really funny. As the man with the long name at the bottom of the cover says...

"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll gasp and YOU WILL demand a sequel!"

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

I don't write reviews partly because I'm lazy and partly because I don't feel I can do justice to someone's work without doing way more writing than I'm willing to do without a contract. I do like to recommend books that I enjoyed and then loot them for any useful craft wisdom the author might have left lying around their text.

Zoo City by South African author Lauren Beukes is a wonderful fantasy noir thriller and then some and you should read it for that reason alone.

However if you are a writer you should also read it because it is a masterclass of how to weave exposition into your book and when and where to spring those little details that bring a setting vividly to life.

So that's my recommendation and my looting - enjoy.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Moon Over Soho Cover

This is the American cover of my second book which will be published in February/March. Just to clarify; the first book will be titled Rivers of London in the UK and Midnight Riot in the US.

Del Rey have informed me that this isn't the finished cover so I'm taking it down until the official cover is released.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Rivers of London Cover

This is the UK cover for my upcoming novel 'Rivers of London' which will be available from all book stores, good, bad and indifferent, from January 20th 2011.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sometimes more really is more....

I've always felt that a great many modern films could be improved by the judicious snipping of about twenty minutes of material from the final print. If you see a film with a running time of over 2 hours its often a safe bet that the surplus is superfluous - I'm looking at you Cameron.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is an exception, there are obvious gaps where chunks of character development have been pruned out and the movie suffers as a result. In this case I would welcome a bloated self indulgent Director's cut.

Not that the film is perfect it has a pointless and grating prologue which adds no information that is not given later and does nothing except drain tension from the narrative. That has the strong stink of the gibbon about it.

Less easy to blame on the hooting of the studio primates is the lacklustre and oddly static climax but in this the Sorcerer's Apprentice is hardly alone; many recent action films including the A-Team and the last two Bonds have ended with action sequences that were less exciting than those that preceded them.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Pushy Minor Characters

What is it with these pushy minor characters? You're tooling along nicely from plot point A to plot point B you need someone to lay some pipe or ease you through a transition and the next thing you know the fuckers are measuring curtains. You've moved on to the next scene and they're still prancing around going "Look at me I'm so three dimensional; use me, use me!" It's like Bottom in a Midsummer's Night's Dream any little part and they're telling you how good they'd be doing. "Oh I can deliver that exposition,' they say. "Just give a chance, I don't mind doing nude scenes or dying, let me die. I can always come back as a zombie or my own twin brother, please, please, please."

I've got one character in the first book who's sole original function was to open the fricking door and now she's a fricking regular - a regular - my publishers are asking when she's coming back. Except my sodding viewpoint character is going "How come she gets all the best lines, if you love her so much why don't you get her to do the first person narrative." It's these pushy minor characters that put the 'extruded' into extruded fantasy series and the 'bloat' into bloated sequel.

Well it's not happening to me you hear? I'll put every one of you against the wall and have you shot - you see if I don't. No minor character is safe in one of my books and nobody's coming back as their own twin sister - evil or otherwise.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Blake's 7 on BBC 7 in June

Yes folks there will be 4 B7 Audio Episodes on BBC 7 this June, two of them written by me and two by inestimable Simon Guerrier. You can listen to them live or 'catch up', as those funky teenagers say, on iPlayer or direct from the BBC7 website.

I will, of course, be reminding you closer to broadcast time so there is no excuse. The transmission dates are as follows....

Blood and Earth by Meeeeeee! Tuesday 1st of June at 18:30
The Dust Run by Simon. Wednesday 2nd of June at 18:30
The Trial by Simon again. Thursday 3rd of June at 18:30
When Vila Met Gan by Meeeee...again! Friday 4th June 18:30

You owe it to your children's children to listen to these shows.

Monday, 10 May 2010

In Praise Of: The Charles Paris Mysteries

Bill Nigh is note perfect as the ageing actor, occasional lothlorio and reluctant amateur detective Charles Paris. Beautifully adapted from the Simon Brett novels by Jeremy Front the mysteries are compact little masterpieces that have never failed to delight.

You can read what Front says about the adaptations here and at least one of the mysteries is available as a CD from all good stockists.

Friday, 9 April 2010

My Macaroni Ostrogoth

Just a quick note to say that my three book deal with Gollancz is now official. I'd post more but for some quaint reason Del Rey and Gollancz labour under this strange notion that just because they've paid for something it ought to be delivered on time.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’ve just finished N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and a damn fine book it is too. In turns intriguing, terrifying and exciting it follows the story Yeine Darr a formerly outcast scion of the family that rules the world (the eponymous Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) who is summoned unexpectedly to Sky, the centre of all power, as part of a Machiavellian succession plot. Now I like castlepunk but this takes palace intrigue throws in half the spice cupboard and a shelf full of metaphysics and turns the heat up to eleven. I had really good time reading it and that’s what counts for me.

From a craft perspective I was particularly struck by how cleverly Jemisin starts the book. Yeine Darr, the narrator, keeps restarting her story as she remembers things that she needs to tell you before she can continue. Done skilfully, as it is here, this allows Jemisin to lay down some serious pipe without holding up the story or breaking reader immersion and give us an insight into Yeine’s own mental state. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Writing the Other 2: It Depends on Who the Camera is

First some caveats: I have no academic training whatsoever and the following blog has been written because I’ve decided to articulate some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for ages now(1). I make no claims to academic rigour or any other perspective than the tools I have devised to successfully write things down and then sell them. I hope some of it will be useful but I offer no guarantees. Anyone stealing this material to form the basis of an essay or, god help you, a thesis or something had better be prepared a) for abject failure or b), in the unlikely event of procuring a passing grade, to provide monetary compensation(2). Anyway moving on…

Since I write Science Fiction and Fantasy my definition of the other is quite wide and some issues that apply to some others don’t apply to other others(4). This blog will strive to differentiate and classify the various others into groups and then look at the relative levels of knowledge required to write with confidence(5).

Others, for the purpose of writing fiction, have two principle characteristics: one) what I think of their basic type, contemporary, historical and the fantastic, and two) their prominence in the fiction; point of view, foreground and background. We will deal with prominence first since this is the easiest.

A background character is precisely that; a character that exists only because you don’t want to have your principles act(6) against a void. In this case you can get away with a few telling details, often just a name, mode of dress or verbal tic providing, and this is important, you don’t step on a cliché bomb(7). Heinlein does a lot of this in Starship Troopers to show that his Terran Federation is an equal opportunities fascist state and my favourite example is a line from Robert Holmes’ classic ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’(9) “I was with the Filipino Army during their final advance on Reykjavik” which conjures up a far future in which the balance of power has radically shifted away from where it rests now.

Never get background characters confused with background; if your main characters are operating in another culture, say Feudal Japan, then you’re going to need something more than a verbal tic to get you through the chapter.

A foreground character, or culture come to think of it, is one who interacts enough with your point of view characters for the reader/viewer to get a real sense of their personality. If their role is tightly circumscribed within the work, they’re the pathologist in a crime story, for example, and we only meet them in the lab during autopsies – then as with a background character you can get away with a few telling details. If you’re planning to portray a truly multicultural society then you may have no choice but to treat some of your characters this way – just think about what you’re doing and have some respect for your own ignorance(10). Americans face a particular pitfall when writing about Europe, particularly Ireland and the UK, in thinking that a shared history, literature and pop culture(11) equates to a real familiarity with a particular culture(12). To write a foreground character with confidence you need, what I’ve decided to call on this instance, a working knowledge of their culture.

Point of view: writing point of view, which includes close 3rd person, of a character requires more than a working knowledge of their culture - you must be able to think yourself into their heads and that requires you to embrace the other to the point where it ceases to be the other and that, my friends, is a whole different ballgame(13)

Next time on Writing the Other ‘Oi! Who are you calling the other?’

(1) Along with the Glee cover version of Amy Whitehouse’s ‘Rehab’.
(2) I’ve had some hard times(3) and this has eroded my sense of humour about copyright infringement.
(3) I wanted to put ‘Will write for food’ on my card but my agent said no.
(4) Or indeed to other’s other others.
(5) They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no…
(6) I’m using ‘act’ in the broad sense of the word here.
(7) Cliché bombs and how to avoid them will be covered in a later blog but for now the rule of thumb is to avoid getting your telling detail from: i) film or TV, ii) background characters in other authors works, iii) some vague recollection about something that guy you knew did years ago…(8)
(8) If only you could remember his name.
(9) Both of these works have their own problems however.
(10) Surgeon’s Law applies to your casual knowledge of other cultures; 90% of everything you think you know is bollocks.
(11) And language of course.
(12) A good example of this is Lt. Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5 whose characterisation, while strong, is the product of the Russian Jewish immigrant culture of America with a few cold war cliché’s thrown in – rather than any imagined St Petersburg of the 23rd Century.
(13) Possibly one day cricket(14).
(14) I’d rather be home with Ray I ain’t got seventy days…

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Mokit on a Tricycle

Spring is in the air, daffodils are thrusting their way through the dog poo, spontaneous singing can be heard from the high rise blocks and film crews are out gambolling on Primrose Hill. This is a favoured location for film crews, not only does it have good sightlines, a spectacular view over London but being Primrose Hill the producers can pop back to their nearby £1,000,000+ Regency Townhouse for a quick spot of lunch and sex with the nanny.

This particular crew were filming a young kid cycling down the steep slope of the hill and, because dead children can cause productions to over run, they had child, tricycle and camera mounted on a motorised flatbed. There was, what back in the 1980s we used to call an AFM (assistant floor manager), standing at the bottom of the hill with a walkie talkie trying to keep unsuitable people out of shot.

We exchanged cheerful nods and I opined that I'd never seen a mokit on a tricycle before, he gave me the glassy eyed grin of someone being forced to talk to weirdos all day, and I walked on whistling cheerfully in the knowledge that my fat backside was waddling away in at least one of the takes.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Writing the Other: The Thing About Pimp Culture

The epigram on this subject is that you should write the other only when it ceases to be the other. This is both glib, true and, on its own, not very helpful. Over the next few weeks(1) I will be looking at how I approach writing the other in the hope that it might prove useful to other writers. Later blogs will look at what we mean by ‘the other’ and what actions we can take to make the other not the other. So to start off we’ll ask the question – why should you care?

Once when I was young, stupid and not enjoying myself at a party (2) a white art school student was enthusiastically telling me about the influences on his film project. ‘I’m really into pimp culture,’ he shouted over the music, ‘I want to start this film with this guy in the suit and the hat and he turns round to the camera and says “Get down you ho”.’ He didn’t specify that the guy in the suit and the hat were black (3) but I think it’s a fair assumption that he probably was. I remember staring at him and thinking ‘what the fuck?’ but being too drunk and stupid to say anything coherent in reply.

Now that I’m older and wiser and have had things carefully explained to me(4) I can articulate what was bothering me(5). This young man, who would have been mortified to have been described as racist, had not only drawn his information entirely from film and TV(6) but planned to use the caricature without any thought to the political and cultural context that had created it in the first place. In other words he thought it was up for grabs to use as he saw fit(8) he thought he knew what he was talking about..

Anyway, moving on, if you want to write about the other with confidence then the other must become so familiar to you that it ceases to be the other.

Which leads to the question – what is the other? And that is the subject of the next blog.

(1) Unless I wander off and lose interest.
(2) The bulk of early 1980s.
(3) Or even African-American.
(4) Often in a loud voice.
(5) Apart from the staggeringly ignorant racism obviously.
(6) I will be discussing why film and TV constitute the least useful source of information about the lives of anyone other than rich white media professionals in a future blog, or possibly several future blogs depending on how worked up I get(7).
(7) See footnote (1)
(8) There’s probably a sociological term for this.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

My Mellifluous Cephalopod

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just done a 3 book deal with Del Rey the first book to be published in spring 2011. The announcement by my agent is here and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank John and John, my agents at Zeno, for the brilliant job they’ve done flogging the manuscript and Andrew Cartmel for his continuous support during the writing process. Watch this space for further announcements.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Plodding: A Decree from on High

On the orders of my agent I am supposed to try and make a post to my blog at least once a week. Those that know me know that this level of productivity is very un-me but I'm going to give it a try.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Rejection Letter

Today I received a rejection email from Sheil Land Associates exactly 6 months and 4 days after I first submitted my work to them. The email was obviously copied from a standard template and was signed by someone called SUBMISSIONS, a terrible name to inflict upon a child, but it did finish with the comforting news that my work would be recycled - as firelighters I assume.

I can't be hard on poor old Submissions because he'd already rejected me, for the same work, 3 months previously which indicates a worrying level of overwork on his part. However this duplicate rejection (so good we said no twice) reminded me that I'd planned to give a brief account of my hunt for an agent for the edification of those amongst you who plan to follow suit.

Between the 15th of July 2009 and the 5th of August I submitted sample chapters to 43 different agents. I received 9 requests for the full manuscript and from amongst those 4 requests for a meeting. I was rejected 32 times with the latest, not counting our confused Mr Submission, arriving 4 months and 9 days after submission. 10 agents have never bothered to respond and will remain nameless bastards until I'm rich enough not to care about who I offend.

In the light of my experiences I recomend the following method...

1. Write a really good manuscript.
2. Compile a list of agents using such sources as the writers and artists handbook.
3. Before submission call each agent to determine that they're open for submissions.
4. Make your submission following the guidelines given by the agents.
5. Try to make 5-10 submissions a week and keep submitting until every single eligible agent in the world has a copy.
6. Wait for the rejection letters to roll in.
7. If after six months you still don't have an agent return to step 1 and start all over again.

Good luck, I've done it so it can't be that hard.