It’s the end of the world as we know it…

There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.

 

Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?

 

I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.

 

So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.

 

Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.

 

Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.

 

Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.

 

These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?

 

One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.

 

For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.

 

I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.

 

Maybe my history books will provide the answer.

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.

On Ideas

No-one’s ever asked me where I get my ideas from. I guess that’s because the people I talk to about writing have tonnes of ideas of their own, so they don’t talk about it much. But it’s always struck me that this question – where do ideas come from? – is wrong. Fundamentally so. Because ideas are all around us. Seriously, if you’ve any sort of enquiring mind you’ll barely be able to walk a hundred paces without being assailed with ideas.

Take that wall you’re strolling casually past. Why was that built? When? Who might live behind it? Oh, that’s a cool-looking alley. I wonder who might lurk down there?

See? Ideas all around us.

I think people who don’t write sometimes have this image of writers (and artists, musicians, actors etc) as people who are somehow different, that we see the world in a different way.  I’ll tell you now we’re not and we don’t. Everyone, everyone, is jam-pack full of ideas, whether it’s how to deal with an annoying colleague or how to improve on some new gizmo that’s just been produced by the engineering department. Ideas are cheap. They’re nothing special. And 99% of them aren’t worth much.

The trick is to have a second idea.

Take your average novel. Think about it. How many ‘ideas’ are in one book? In the crudest terms you’ll have at least three: you’ll have plot, setting and character(s), and each aspect requires a different way of thinking, of inspiration.

This is why I’ve so far been unable to write my great historical novel. I can create convincing characters and I reckon, now I’ve done years-worth of reading, that I can create a setting that has depth and colour. But I’ve yet to come up with a killer plot to bind everything else together.

And plot – what most people think of as the ‘idea’ – without setting, without an atmosphere to breathe in, is nothing. Unless you’re Franz Kafka, a plot without a world is a waste of time.

The trick, for me at least, is to find the right combination of ideas.

Imagine your head is the Large Hadron Collider. You have an endless circle, an endless flow, and into that you pour Your Idea. There it goes, zooming away… But it’s a solid, solitary thing, out there on its own. So, to give it company, you tip in a whole bucket-worth of fragments, of half-developed concepts and rudimentary characters. What you’re hoping for is that magical moment when two ideas smash into each other and react in strange and wondrous ways; to produce something that is neither addition, nor multiplication, but change. Something new. Something different. Something more than the constituent elements ever could have been on their own.

The Higgs-Boson of ideas.

I said in my first post that Chivalry came out of the question ‘what if a game could start a war?’ This is true, but what really made the idea take off was when I combined it with ‘what if you tried to live by the code of chivalry in the modern world?’

When I was working on Night Shift someone once asked me if I could take it out of Antarctica and set it in a country manor or somesuch. I couldn’t answer. It’s true that the novel shares, deep in its DNA, a common link with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and did so more in its early drafts). But…

But the setting is so integral to my concept of the novel as a whole that to make what might appear to be a superficial change has a profound affect on how one views the work in its entirety. I don’t think I’d be able to write the book in a different setting, now. Not because of the work that’d be needed – work is work, be it minor editings or massive structural revisions – but because that’s not what the book is to me.

It’s also important to remember that ideas change. No collision of thoughts leaves the nucleus unbent. Thus those questions I mentioned above remain unanswered; they’ve been bastardised into grotesque mutants by the initial impact, and then further twisted to fit my needs. I suspect that’s why authors (and musicians) return to the same themes again and again and again.

They’re still trying to answer their questions. They’re still trying to refine their amalgams into perfect shining swords of truth.

They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there. But that’s really, really not the point.

I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you here…

Hello all. Welcome to my blog.

Let’s be up-front about this. I’m writing this in order to promote myself. I don’t see any point lying.  The fact is that I’m an author, that I have ambitions to be published, and in this day and age, you need to be able to promote yourself.  Hence a blog – the fashionable weapon of choice.

It’s a horrible thing, really; I’m in a position where I have to talk myself up at every opportunity.  That sort of thing doesn’t come easy to me. I am, after all, British – home of reserve, modesty and concealing one’s true feelings. For example: I said above that I’m an author. But I’m not published – does one need to be published before you can call yourself an author? When people (rarely) ask what I do outside work I tell them that I write. Not that I’m a writer, but that I write. And it’s taken me many years to get to that point, to remove the apology from my voice and be confident about it. For there does seem to be some sort of stigma attached to any creative activity done without recompense: it’s still not the sort of thing that leads to drinks being showered upon you in the pub. Not in a good way, at least.

So. Yes. Newly confident writer.

This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but what do you write? And what can I expect to see in this blog? Will it be worth my time and the wear and tear on my mouse-finger?

I write genre-fiction. That’s the broadest answer I can give. More specifically, I write a mix of science-fiction, crime and adventure, emphasising human relationships in pressure situations. It’s also my eternal ambition to write a quality historical novel at some point, probably set in Saxon times.

Slightly less broadly I like the term ‘speculative fiction’ to describe my work. I only came across this concept a few months ago; roughly speaking, it means that the starting-point for the novel is a ‘what if?’ question.

So, for Chivalry (my third novel) the underlying idea was: what if a game could start a war?

For Night Shift (fourth, and the one I’m currently promoting): what is the next step for humanity in an overcrowded and resource-poor world?

Speculative fiction could be taken as simply a new term for science-fiction and fantasy, but I think those terms tend to be straitjackets, especially for new authors. I ran into this wall especially painfully when I was trying to market Chivalry. This is not science-fiction. I am determined on this – digging in and preparing to face enemy fire. But because part of the action is set in a computer-recreation of twelfth-century Syria (and also because it’s over 140,000 words long) it has immediately become labelled as such.  Nonsense, I cry! I don’t think any serious science-fiction publisher would be happy if I sent it to them. Although that hasn’t stopped me trying.

No, it’s speculative fiction all the way for me.

And what’s in it for you? Well, I hereby promise that I’ll do my very best to post an entry a week on this site. I’m hoping to give free samples of my writing – although I’ve no idea what, yet – along with musings on life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. Hopefully this will be typo-free and vaguely interesting. I’ll probably ramble on about life as a writer as well as more everyday concerns. I reckon you’ll get a pretty good idea of myself and my style as the weeks roll by.

Well, that’s probably enough for now: in these days of short attention-spans this is probably all I can get away with. Please, check back next week for another exciting instalment of This Blog.

Cheerio

Rob