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.

The Problem with Blogs

In my very first post I said that the purpose of this blog was mainly for self-promotion. That’s fine, and true, but it also brings with it certain problems. Or one problem in particular. That problem is called perfection.

 

I was having a chat with some of my colleagues in Abingdon Writers’ Group in a local pub a few nights ago. We were discussing typos, and in particular the difficulty of hunting down typos in self-published work. Tim Arnot has just recently released his first book on FeedARead (http://www.feedaread.com/search/books.aspx?phrase=tim%20arnot) and was going through his proof copy at the time. He said – quite correctly – that the standards expected of a self-published author are actually much higher than that of a traditionally published work.

 

Everybody hates typos. Every author does, especially. And yet I’m willing to bet that you’ve found errors in almost every single book you’ve read. They creep in everywhere, and no matter how thoroughly you trawl your work, there’s almost inevitably a mistake or two that’s going to slip the net. In a traditionally produced book – where they have copy-editors and you can reasonably expect the novel to have been read by dozens of people before it hits the shelves – you might notice these errors, but you barely think of them at all.

 

In a self-published novel, however, these typos seem to be much more important. They become, without any real logic, a sign that the writer is a fool. That the book is hastily produced and thus not worth reading.

 

Why is this? Surely it should be the other way round? A self-published author doesn’t necessarily have the resources to pay a commercial service to proof-read his/her work, and even if they do there’s no guarantee that the manuscript will come back ready to print.

 

It’s especially hard to take when people such as Steve Bohme are saying that the vast majority of self-published books are ‘unutterable rubbish’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/11/self-published-ebooks-20-per-cent-genre?INTCMP=SRCH) and that publishers are needed to act as gatekeepers against the tides of trash that are spreading across the digital waves.

 

The problem with that, of course, is that most writers see publishers and agents not as gatekeepers but as riot police.

 

But I digress.

 

The point is that I have to work very very hard to make this blog perfect. I’ve adopted a policy of writing it a few days before I publish, so I can make sure I’m saying what I actually mean, and that my prose is as clear and error-free as humanly possible. I’m trying to attract agents and publishers to this page, and should they find a single clumsy phrase, a stray Oxford comma (I think there may have been one of those in last week’s post), one measly typo, they will think that I can’t write and will blacklist me forever.

 

That’s the fear, at least. I’m sure that’s not actually really true, but that’s the ever-present fear. I work in words. If I fail to find the right one then I can’t be trusted to write a saleable novel.

 

And that’s a bit of a bugger.