Monday, 3 December 2012

The shape of things to come

One of the good things about writing science fiction is that I can just make stuff up. The down side is that I'm not really that good at it.

Echo is set something like seven or eight thousand years in the future but, leaving aside the spaceships, it's not that different from now. A couple of chapters ago, Echo shot somebody with what is effectively a Glock Model 18, she wears clothes that wouldn't look out of place now (OK, the jumpsuits would probably need to hide in 1982), and, until recently, reusable spaceships went up and down to orbital platforms. The world / galaxy of Echo is reasonably recognisable.

I've got round this in a couple of ways. I mentioned the war with the artificial intelligence race, which effectively bombed humanity back into the dark ages and a lot of their technology was presumably lost and they had to start again. Also, different planets have different technology levels. At first I presumed that all planets in the Empire would have the same level, but then I realised how dumb that it. I live in a house with electricity, central heating, and reliable utility supplies (although crap Internet speeds) and, in some parts of the world, people live in dwellings made of corrugated metal and plastic sheeting. Economics is likely to be no different across the Sleeper Empire. The world of Sangekar, which was resource poor, wet and mountainous, invested fabulous amounts of its meagre coffers in bringing in the best software technology and has prospered, although the taxis are still motorised rickshaws. Asimov, the capital, has unsupported bridges that span kilometres although, to avoid having to design a futuristic city, I set my two scenes on buildings that were old.

How quickly does stuff change? I don't watch Heartbeat, but the world of the 60's isn't that different. Their cars were small and poxy, their telephones were few and far between, and computing involved either your fingers or a pencil and paper. But they had cars, they had phones and they had a couple of computers in a building in Manchester. It's not really that different. Everything is smaller and faster and more reliable (apart from the Internet here), but has it really moved on so far?

It's not just me that struggles to see the future.The Head of IBM famously (supposedly) thought the world would need only a handful of computers. From where I sit I can see four and that's not counting the myriad ipods and smartphones.

It's my ambition to write steampunk, but the level of imagination and detail needed is probably far beyond me. For now I'll stick with Echo.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The difficult second album

Echo had a couple of themes ; the conflict between duty and desire, and the need of an outsider to belong. Although the characters kept going off and doing their own thing, I always had a framework that I could come back to, just by asking "What is this book about?"

You often hear bands talking about the difficult second album. They've got shed loads of songs left over from the first album, but they want the next to be recognisable, but to have progressed. Echo was intended to be a stand alone novel but, somewhere along the way it turned into a trilogy. I had a story line, focussing on the search for the lost Visionary Ship, the Clarke, but no real idea what the book was actually about.

That's not the only problem with a second book. Starting out involves introducing the characters and getting to know them. The third book will bring everything together with some big battle scene and a final resolution (and we -I include myself in that - will find out what happened and who survived). But the second book risks being just the journey from the start to the end. 

I suspect this is not unique. Look at Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think LOTR is a fantastic story, well written, which is one of the few books that I have read which induced a real sense of dread and uncertainty over the outcome. But the middle bit? Oh, get on with it!

I've just completed chapter 14 of Clarke and it's been a bit of a slog. Partly it's that Echo has been so well received that expectations are high and there's a lot of pressure to make it as good, which I'm not sure I'm doing. But also, I've not been sure what the book is about, other than the bit between the start and the end. There have been fun bits. Woz won a competition and got a cameo which I've just done and she's quite pleased with. And I'm in the middle of a big fight and Echo has just rammed her knife into somebody's thigh, severing their femoral artery and getting covered in blood for her trouble.

But today I figured out my theme. It's going to involve a rewrite of several early chapters but, perhaps the difficult second novel isn't going to be so difficult now I know what the book is actually about.

Monday, 22 October 2012

All she wanted was the sax

The bar was dark and unadorned with any sort of decoration. The Vrgrr weren't an ostentatious race and the whole orbital station was stark and functional. It was cleaner and in better condition than many orbitals that I'd set foot on. Imperial stations on the edge of the Empire were old, grimy and lucky if they could maintain an airtight seal. The air in here was thick with smoke, particles twinkling through the beams of the handful of lights. I supposed that, when you fought other people's wars for a living, lung cancer wasn't high on your list of worries.

Although we had docked the day before, I was yet to see a Vrgrr. There were several companies worth of private military forces on reserve rotation and most of them were crowded into the handful of bars. The uniforms were similar shades of green-grey fatigues, differentiated only by the outlandish and mythical creatures on their unit badges.

Acre pushed her way through the crowd, holding a tray high and trying not to spill the drinks. With her free hand she pushed drunken mercenaries out of the way, sneering at a half hearted attempt to put an arm round her waist. I knew that the Bad Girls looked down on mercenaries but, although many of York's missions were on behalf of the Empire, they had effectively operated as a private military unit themselves.

Acre put the tray on the middle of the table and passed a glass to me.
"Vodka and something that passes for orange for the Domina." She actually smiled at me. Most of the crew were subdued, particularly York. Acre was more cheerful than I'd seen her for a long time and Cavendish appeared quietly satisfied. She was sitting next to York, occasionally speaking to him, although he wasn't saying much in reply.

The others took their drinks. Acre raised hers in my direction and nodded. I returned the toast. It shouldn't have taken a murder to raise my spirits but Acre's respect and acceptance took away a huge cloud. I had longed to be accepted by York's crew but she had been the one marine that had never overcome her initial reservations.  The death of the Empress had removed a major impediment to York's mission and anything that supported him was good for her. Not York's mission. Our mission. I was as committed to finding the Clarke as any of the crew.

I thought about something Professor Helms had said.
He glanced my way. I hadn't spoken to him much during our voyage, tiring of his hypocrisy, of the way he judged me for what I had done. I couldn't be bothered to point out that he was the medical officer on a warship, patching up troops who had, between them, killed many more people than I had. Cavendish had carried a thermonuclear device onto the Imperial barge. Over a thousand people died alongside the Emperor.
"Am I human?" Most of the crew had undergone medical scans at some point over the last few months. The ship had a state of the art diagnostic suite attached to the sickbay. I'd been in the scanner several times and Chakrabarty had drawn enough blood to refill my veins if I was ever sucked dry by a giant space leech. Perhaps I needed to slow down on the vodka.
He thought about his answer for a few seconds.
"Mostly?" What sort of answer was that?
I waited. In a few seconds he would go into teaching mode.
"A gene is a code. A collection of four different chemicals in a certain order. By manipulating the order we can create a new code. We can create DNA with any code we choose to create an infinite number of genes, most of which will do absolutely nothing. Therefore I say you are mostly human. Somebody knew what genes were necessary to create your abilities. Your myelin sheathes are much longer than normal, which means nervous impulses travel faster. Your bone structure is completely different to mine making it stronger. You can produce endogenous chemicals at will. The scientists who constructed you did not start from scratch. They took these genes from somewhere. Cosmetically you are human but I would say that up to a quarter of your genome is alien."
"Is that why I was told I could never have children?"
"Almost certainly. Your DNA was selected so that it would not effect the viability of the embryo. Reproduction is an act of chance and there is no telling what would result."
Although the experiments must have gone on for years, I knew that there were only a handful of successful outcomes; Helms had said ten. I dare not think what monsters had been created to get those ten.

York said something to Cavendish and she wrapped her knuckles on the table. I wondered if she was able to smash straight through the composite surface. I could probably punch through it if I pumped suitable volumes of combat chemicals although, even with my modified skeletal structure, I risked fracturing bones.
"If I may have your attention." He paused for a moment. "I am aware that divisions have been created between us and not everybody is convinced of the value of the mission that we are undertaking. I will be continuing the course we set and, to that end, the ship will be leaving during the next optimum launch window, which is in nine standard hours. Those of you that do not wish to accompany me, please use that time to collect your belongings. Your share of the profits will be available in the currency of your choice.
"That's a lot of chocolate, Marianne." said Acre. Nansen was well known as the primary raider of the chocolate stores. We carried more than a tonne in the hold. Real chocolate. In some systems it was worth more than its weight in gold as it was far rarer. A small bar, judiciously gifted to the right official, had smoothed our way across several difficult systems. I wondered if they had eaten it or sold it.
York stood, but put a hand on Cavendish's shoulder to stop her following him. So this was why we were here.   Not to hand me over to whatever authorities existed, but to offload any of the crew that didn't want to go any further. He wasn't making a case, he was just giving us a simple choice. A risky strategy and I wondered what was in his mind. As far as I knew, leadership was more than saying 'Follow me.' and 'Follow me, if you want to.' was just bizarre.
In reality, the only one of his crew he actually needed was Dr Chakrabarty. I'd looked at the files on the passengers and there were engineers and a full command crew, but he needed a medic to bring them out of cold sleep safely.
Nobody spoke until York had gone. Everybody stared at their drinks or watched the chaos unfolding around us as the mercenaries loaded more alcohol. There would be a fight soon.
Ash broke the silence.
"How much is a share?"
"Fifteen million credits." replied Pearce.
Hemingray's head snapped up. "Bloody hell, I never realised I was a rich woman. Does that make me more attractive, Marc?"
"Oh yes. So much more." said Dryden, getting a sharp elbows in his ribs in retaliation. "How much is my share?"
It appeared that nobody had worked that out.
"Five." said Cavendish.
"Based on what?" demanded Ash.
"Based on the fact I said five." Cavendish glared at Ash, daring him to object again. He wanted to ask who put her in charge, but didn't dare.
"So I'm wealthy in my own right. Don't need you any more, Grace." He got another elbowing.
I glanced across at Cromwell. She was looking worried. I wondered if she wanted to continue, but was expecting me to jump ship and, having risked her life to get me off the Stobo, didn't want to abandon me here.
In the lull that followed, I weighed up the likely outcomes. Cavendish, Acre and Cartier would go with York and Gregory would go with them. Now that the Empress was dead I couldn't see a reason for a split in the Bad Girls. Although Hemingray and Dryden were worth twenty million credits between them, they were actually no wealthier than yesterday and I knew that she was desperate to find the Clarke and figure out where it had come from. She had been building an algorithm to calculate the Clarke's course between systems based on the trajectory of an intact hull. She had purchased every database she could find that detailed the position of every documented star and their relative shift in position. If Pearce went, Keyes would go with her, bringing us back to two engineers, but we could thaw out another. Ash wanted to take the moment and jump ship, but I suspected that he wouldn't go if he was the only one. I had no idea what the doctor would decide.
I was about to announce my decision when I was distracted by something across the bar. A group had gathered on a slightly raised platform. It was clear from their dress that they weren't troops. As they opened what appeared to be weapons cases I realised that they were actually a band. Their efforts would be wasted tonight on this crowd that was steadily getting more drunk.
Cavendish opened her mouth to speak then stopped. She was focussed on the door to the bar. Her eyes followed somebody who had just arrived.
"Trouble?" asked Nansen, who was sitting near me. We both had our backs to the door and couldn't see what had attracted Cavendish's attention.
We were all carrying weapons. Firearms law varied between systems in the Empire but, on all but the most lawless and newly colonised planets, a bar like this would have required patrons to secure their weapons at the door. Here there was a half hearted request to leave long weapons outside. I had a short bodied submachine-gun strapped to one leg, my combat knife taped to my forearm and my stiletto hidden in the folds of my kilt. We knew a bar full of mercenaries would be dangerous and we were ready.
I turned slightly and immediately could see what was troubling Cavendish. There were ten of them and, although they were dressed in an assortment of ragged clothes, none of which were standard military, they were clearly a unit. Two formed a rearguard as the eight others formed a wedge to force their way through the crowd. The leader was near the rear of the main group where he could see what was happening and command the squad. Cavendish did something similar; they were professionals, like the Bad Girls. I glanced around my group. The crew were wearing tunics and rank stripes on their sleeves but the troops were not in uniform. Cavendish and Livingston were both in grey fatigues, the others in a variety of casual clothes. Gregory was even wearing a dress, although it clashed with the combat boots and the weapons belt.
"They look like you." I commented.
"Yes they do." replied Cavendish. "They look like us, but they are not us. And that's a good thing and a bad thing."
I knew what she meant. The Bad Girls were disciplined. They'd come in to the bar in twos and threes, quietly and without fuss. The new group had entered in force and arrogantly pushed their way across the the serving area despite the fact it was crowded with battle hardened soldiers. As well as sidearms they carried automatic weapons slung across their backs. They were expecting trouble or they were here to cause it.
"Echo, if it kicks off, you lead the crew out. Cromwell, Hall, rearguard. Acre."
"Red head."
"Squad leader."
The Bad Girls were selecting their targets. If fighting broke out they would each deal with one, rather than having a free for all and potentially missing somebody, leaving them free to fight back. I blinked each of them into my implant so that, if I was looking at them over the sights of my weapon, the targeting programme would confirm I had selected the right face.
"Who do you think they are?" I asked. "Imperial Guards?"
Cavendish thought about it for a moment and looked at Acre, who shrugged.
"No. Not Guards." said Dryden
"Do tell."
"They don't walk like you. Your movements are smooth. You're..."
"Machines?" offered Acre.
"I was going to say controlled but, yes, your chassis..."
"Internal architecture, please."
"Gods in a row, Acre, let me finish. You're machines. You move like machines. They move like men."
Cavendish looked at me.
"Could they be constructs?"
"I was told there were ten viable constructs. I have no idea if that was the truth. The woman that created us was on the Stobo. I never had a chance to ask her for more details. Why are we looking at such unlikely answers? I can see that this lot are in a different class to the pissheads crowding the bar, but they could be some sort of Imperial special forces."
"We were the Imperial special forces. Have you heard of another unit?"
Actually I hadn't. If it existed, it was likely that I would have been aware of it. The Commission was the embodiment of the Emperor's will and could call on any and all available resources. Special forces would be included in that. The Empire had a large and powerful navy, but its ground forces were minimal. Very rarely did the Emperor need to intervene in the routine business of the constituent worlds. A destroyer in high orbit sent a very clear indication of the Emperor's displeasure and most planetary governments got the hint very quickly. Occasionally the Imperial Guard was involved in small scale, offensive, operations; surgical strikes aimed at removing troublesome individuals but, far more often, that unpleasant task was left to members of the Silent Order. If the Empire required large scale ground forces, it contracted with private military companies to do its dirty work.
"No." I admitted.
"I want those shoes." said Gregory, apropos nothing.
"What?" demanded Cavendish.
Gregory gestured across the bar. "Shoes."
The band were back on the low stage, warming up their instruments. One was stood at the front, a black dress and bright red shoes with bows and the highest heels that I had ever seen. I'd had a pair of dancing shoes and their heels were only three centimetres high. I wouldn't be able to walk in her shoes, let alone run or fight.
I looked at the combat boots she was wearing. "Really?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. Of course not." Everybody laughed.
At a signal from one of the others, the girl on the stage picked up a microphone.
"Good evening everybody, my name is Woz and we are Saxophobia." I wondered what sort of life it was, jumping from system to system to play in complete dives like this one, full of drunk soldiers who didn't really give a damn.
"I don't understand her accent. What are they called?" asked Gregory.
"Saxophobia." answered Cavendish.
"What's that?"
"Fear of sax."
"How can anybody be frightened of sax? I love sax." Everybody groaned.
The woman on stage continued her introduction.
"We're going to play a few tunes for you tonight. I hope you enjoy it."
I knew what Gregory meant. Her accent was quite strong and I guessed she was born out towards the forward edge of the Sleeper Empire, one of the industrial systems where the massive orbital shipyards had built the previous generation of naval destroyers. There was a good chance that York's old destroyer, the Nemesis, had been constructed there. Nowadays the Imperial battle fleets were built closer to the core worlds where they were less vulnerable to cross border incursions.

The band were good. Although only six of them, they made a sound like a much bigger band. I ran the music through a database on the implant and it told me I was listening to a style of jazz known as swing. I wasn't really bothered about its name and I found myself tapping my foot.
By the third or fourth tune, the space in front of the stage had attracted some dancers. There weren't many women amongst the mercenary companies but several of them had found partners. I could see a blond, probably in her mid forties and wearing sergeant's stripes. I caught Cavendish's eye and nodded in the direction of the dancer. She smiled and mouthed a reply. "If things had turned out slightly differently..." One day I would try and get her story from her although, so far, I'd failed to learn even her given name.

"I know this one." said Acre. I knew it too. It was from a vid I'd seen years ago, when I was still a novice. A scene set in a bar, which was clearly intended by the band. It was probably going to be the last piece before they took a break.
"I like the part where the old man chops the guy's arm off with that laser sword." said Nansen. We'd pored scorn on the weapon for both the scientific impossibility and the complete impracticality.
"The smuggler's more my thing. I love the way he takes the alien out by firing under the table." said Acre.
We were on the verge of the entire crew picking their favourite scene from the film when Cavendish clicked her fingers and, immediately, the Bad Girls were poised for action. She touched her ear with three fingers. My comm set was taped to my forearm next to my knife, under the sleeve of my shirt and I activated it with a tap of my ring finger. It linked through the ring to my implant and I selected channel three.
A scan of the faces in the crowd showed that most of the target team had drifted across to the far end of the room, but two were heading for the exit.
"It's going to kick off as soon as those two are out of the door." said Cavendish, over the comms. "Find your target and prepare to engage." She didn't have to explain. When an armed group lined up, it meant they were taking a position where they couldn't accidentally fire on each other. The other two were either going to stop anybody entering, or stop everybody from fleeing.
I released the retaining strap that secured my gun. In a crowded area an automatic weapon could reap havoc, but my bolt thrower would have been just as dangerous. There was another issue.
"Go ahead." She was on her feet, drifting to where she could see her chosen target. The other Bad Girls were also taking positions. I dripped adrenalin and a small volume of Quicktime into my bloodstream.
"If we open fire, everybody in the bar is going to start shooting at us."
"What do you suggest?"
My cartouche was in my pocket. "If..."
"Too late!"
The new arrivals were bringing their weapons to bear. The Quicktime made it appear a relaxed and casual act, but then the one that I was watching was punched backwards, head snapping back and arms flailing as Cavendish fired twice and then twice again.
"Armour." reported Livingston. I'd also noticed that the first three rounds hadn't penetrated but, with the fourth, a spray of blood had coloured the wall.
After a brief pause, made longer by the Quicktime that was circulating round my cerebral arteries, the rest of the Bad Girls opened fire. I turned away; my task was to get the crew out of here, rather than getting involved in the firefight. The crew had all taken cover in the booth. Ash had a pistol up, looking for a target, Hemingray and Pearce were crawling towards the exit, pushed on by Caro Hall. The engineers were with Cromwell, waiting for a clear run for the door. "Chakrabarty, with me!" Where the hell was Dryden? "Ash, don't be an idiot, let's go! Where's Dryden?" Hemingray wouldn't be happy with me if I didn't get her man out.
"The Bad Girls are standing up."
"The Bad Girls are wearing bloody body armour." I took the pistol from his hand and propelled him towards the exit. Just in time as a couple of rounds came our way. By now almost everybody was on the floor and quite a few were bringing weapons up.
The crew were on their way now. Cromwell had taken a covering position, walking backwards. Hall was over to my left, firing a couple of rounds to keep heads down. I could see Dryden now, taking the lead and head butting a mercenary who didn't get out of the way in time.
I trod on a few people in my hurry to get to the door before the others. There were two more gunmen outside, probably waiting in the corridor for the first mercenaries, those with the strongest sense of self preservation, to flee. I pushed a medium dose of QT, along with skeletal stim and some adrenaline, then slid the submachinegun gun out of the harness, pulling the door open with my other hand and rolling through the gap.
I came up, leading foot planted firmly and my weight resting on one knee, weapon up and safety off. They were fast. Already they were adjusting their aim to compensate for me being half a metre lower than expected. The first one took a dozen rounds in the chest, his weapon discharging into the roof panels as he fell backwards. The second one hesitated, glancing at the doorway.
"Drop it!" commanded Dryden, taking a couple of steps to clear the way for Hemingray who was just behind him. Before the second gunman could decide which target to focus on I fired again, pulling a bullet into his lower leg. He howled as he went down, letting go of his assault rifle, although it was held close to him by the sling.
I could hear automatic weapons fire as I jumped up and, carefully keeping out of Dryden's field of fire ran to the fallen men. The first got a single round to the head, in case my bullets had only impacted on armour. The second I slammed into unconsciousness with the sole of my boot.

All the crew were in the corridor now. Hall was at the back of the group, her weapon pointing down the corridor, covering our backs. Cromwell was stood in the doorway to the bar, presumably covering the retreat of the other troops. I could hear a lot of shouting but, for the moment, no gunshots. I changed the magazine on my gun for one of my two spares.
"Where were you keeping that?" demanded Dryden.
"You don't need to know." said Hemingray, who'd seen me slide it out of a garter round my left thigh. My kilt only had a small pocket and, to carry a lot of weaponry, I had to be inventive. I presumed Cavendish had done something similar when she produced a pistol from nowhere when we were trying to flee the Stobo.
"Cavendish, the crew is safely out."
"Understood. I need you back in here."
"On my way. Pearce, run a frequency scan. Find out if security is on its way."
I touched Cromwell on the arm and she shifted position to let me through. I did a count. Eight Bad Girls standing. That was good. Everybody else that I could see the was on the floor. There was blood spattered on the wall in several places and several of the bodies covering the floor were dead. The Bad Girls were circulating slowly, weapons raised and shifting left and right, their fingers on triggers.
"Keep calm, keep your hands away from your weapons." The mantra was being repeated by several on the Girls. They were heavily outnumbered, but had the advantage and were trying to diffuse the situation.
"Have you got your badge?"
"Cartouche, yes." I held it up and let it radiate. I could see that many of the mercenaries wore iron citizen's rings and they would be firing off signals in the presence of the Emperor's symbol. The Bad Girls didn't have rings; Cromwell had told me that, on joining the Imperial Guard, they renounced their citizenship and entered servitude to the Imperial Court. I'd asked what happened when they retired and she'd said that they weren't expected to retire. That tallied with what Professor Helms had said. Once we were back on the ship I would raise the issue with them. Clearly I had made a subconscious decision that I was going back to the ship.
"I am Mistress Echo, Imperial Commissioner." I almost demanded that they recognise my authority but, although most of the people in the room would be Sleepers, we were a long way over the border. I had run a number of searches on the ship's information systems but was still unclear on the status of the occupied systems and whether I actually had any authority here. "Listen to my troops and we will not have any more trouble."
"Who put you in charge?" came a voice. "We're not in the Empire now."
"No, we're not. But if we hadn't have been here, many more of you would have been dead. And if you don't listen to me now, more of you might be very soon."
I stepped over a couple of bodies, my boots crunching on broken glass.
"Cavendish, what's the score?"
"Eight targets down and six collateral deaths. Handful of wounded." She gestured to where a couple of groups were gathered, performing some sort of first aid. I'd heard her tell the squad medics to show themselves as I came in.
"It could have been worse. What do you need me for?"
She led me over to the far wall where a body was sprawled awkwardly, assault rifle hanging loosely from his fingers. The implant flashed the target symbol as I looked at his face. Red head, Acre's target. From the number of ragged holes in his jacket, she had used most of her magazine on him. I put my finger to one of the holes and could feel the sharp edge of a corresponding hole in the ceramic plate underneath. In the darkness it was impossible to make out any detail on the wall behind him but I would bet it had bullet holes in it. Armour piercing rounds inside an orbital. Luckily we weren't near the hull. looked up at Cavendish.
"I know." she said. "I'll deal with her. Look at this." She leant down and took hold of the shirt pocket. Something was pinned through the material of the flap. She flicked it over. On the underside was a small enamel badge. I thought I knew what it meant, but ran the symbol through the implant anyway for confirmation.
"Interesting. Have you checked for ID?"
"A couple, but they've nothing. No ring, no cards, no tags. This one broke a rule."
The gunmen had tried to cover their identity. On an Imperial station I could have found their entry and started to back track their passages, but not here. This wasn't our business.
"Take the tag and let's get out of here." I raised my voice. "Your attackers are dead. Form up on your squad leaders and report to your companies."
The Bad Girls were carefully pulling back towards the door, still covering the crowd in case some drunken fool decided to have a go at us. I wondered how many of the collateral were due to somebody threatening the Girls rather than from the gunmen.
The soldiers on the floor started to stir. The Bad Girls slowly pulled back, still keeping their weapons up in case of trouble. There was a commotion from the stage.
"I think one of the band was hit." commented Acre. "Shame. They were good."
"I can.." started Livingston, our medic.
"No. We're leaving." commanded Cavendish.
The band were gathered round the girl who had done the introductions, pulling her up to a sitting position. Her eyes were open and she was still alive.
"I'm alright, I'm alright." she said. But she but looked pale and shocked, probably massive blood loss. Her saxophone was clutched tightly and I could see where a bullet had ripped through the rods and levers. The band pulled her to her feet and she started laughing. Strange behaviour so I stopped. She tipped the instrument and something rolled out of the bell into her hand. Clearly the attackers had been using soft nosed ammunition; a much more sensible choice in the circumstances.
"Lucky bugger!" said Acre

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Word Up!

Chapter 14 is turning out to be a lot of fun. I'm going to put in a couple of jokes which suggest my characters have seen a film set a long time ago in a galaxy far away, plus there's going to be a fight in a bar.

There is one interesting difficulty. It also includes a cameo role for somebody I know. She won the competition to decide which of the covers I should choose for E1 and the prize was to appear in E2. When I'm writing an imaginary character I can describe them how I like and make them say and do what I want. With a real person, there's less flexibility and I don't really want to offend anybody by making them mad, bad or dangerous to know (presuming that they're not).

So, Wozzer gets her fifteen minutes of fame. Hope she likes it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Night fever, night fever....

I think I've broken one of my own rules. Rather than leave everything to the reader's imagination, I've    posted photographs of some of the main characters.

If you're interested in knowing what Cavendish, Acre, Livingston and Gregory look like and you're not already a Facebook friend, have a look at my Facebook page

You probably already know what York looks like as his face graces the cover of E1. I was curious if I could find anything similar so I was delighted that googling shaved head goatee found several pictures of some bloke who looked suitably hard.

Can you tell who it is?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Running around with guns

The doors slid apart. I held my breath, looked down the barrel of my pistol and waited.
Thirty metres down the corridor, the airlock hatch to my ship stood open. Cavendish waited for three beats, long enough for anybody in hiding to come out of cover.
Immediately Acre was moving, swinging her weapon to the left to cover the first cross corridor. Livingston was next, the soles of her shoes making hardy more noise than Acre. As she was left handed, she covered the right hand side.
I pushed off from the wall and ran, following the first two Bad Girls through the airlock and into the circulation space on deck seven of my ship. I expected to see bodies on the floor; marines from the Stobo assigned to guarding the connection to the citadel class.
“Permission to come aboard?”
“Permission granted, Captain.” Replied Gregory.
“The engineers are on board and the power plant is on-line.”
“That was quick.”
“The flight officer lost the key to the sealing mechanism a couple of nights ago.”
“Where are the guards?” Asked Cavendish.
“They got called away by the Captain of Marines.” She held up a small comms unit.
“Interesting. Tell us later about all the people you had to sleep with. The rest of my crew?”
“Cromwell and Hall are bringing the command crew through the forward airlock. We lost track of Chakrabarty. Nansen’s gone back to find him. And I don’t kiss and tell.” Gregory stepped back into the airlock and fired two rounds down the corridor. “We’ve got company.”
Acre trotted back from the weapons locker carrying weapons and ammunition. She passed them out to the other three Bad Girls and they took up a defensive position facing out through the airlock.
I activated the intercom. “All stations, report.”
“Engineering, three crew, power plant on-line. We’ll have drives and main systems in approximately thirty minutes.” Dodd; the most chatty of the three engineers.
“Give me a ten minute warning.”
“Yes, sir. Engineering out.”
“Hemingray on deck one. Pearce and Ash in tow. On the bridge in one minute, critical systems on-line in ten.”
“Let me know when they are. I’ll be on channel one.”
“Understood. Out.”
We would have an operational ship in thirty minutes. The citadel was locked to the Stobo but there were emergency procedures we could use that would force the docking clamps to release us. Getting away was another matter. We would be in range of the Stobo’s weapons long enough for them to reduce us to molten slag and, if the reconnaissance group was carrying enough fighters or fast attack boats, they could do the same.
The weapons locker had other equipment. I took a comms set and linked it with my implant, then selected channel three.
“Cromwell on three.” I smiled. I could rely on my troops to find weapons and comms sets as a matter of priority.
Two rounds entered through the open hatch and put a hole in the partition to the EVA suit locker. We’d need to check all the suits for damage later. I filed it onto the implant. Livingston responded with several short bursts from her flechette rifle.
“Lights going out.” Called Cartier. She trotted over to the locker and selected a new weapon. From the length it was either a plasma rifle or a long-barrelled large-calibre rifle. Cartier was my main sniper so I presumed the latter. She had turned the lights off so she could fire down the corridor without being seen. In the dim glow from the emergency markers I could see her hitch up the skirt of her sari then kneel and bring the weapon to her shoulder.
“Cromwell, I need you and Hall to gear up in standard marine kit.”
“Are we going back out?”
“Received. We’ll be ready in five.” She didn’t bother to ask why and complain about the danger.”
“Belay that order. Get down to deck seven immediately.” Interrupted Cavendish. ”I’ll go out with York.” I sighed, but there was no point in arguing with Cavendish.
Cromwell and Hall arrived in less than a minute. In that time Cartier had fired three rounds and, from the noise levels from outside the ship, achieved three hits. Gregory and Acre were in the airlock, protected by the outer hull but positioned where they could fire down the side approaches. Cromwell and Hall found the best place to add their firepower to Cartier’s. Our position was secure against an assault with small arms but once they got organised they would bring sonic emitters or grenade launchers into play

I followed Cavendish and Livingston down to the assault deck where the main armoury held the ship’s largest supply of weapons and military equipment. Quickly we dressed in standard Imperial Marines uniforms and armour.
“What are we going back out for?”
“The Empress.”
Cavendish considered this. “We’ll never get near her.” She started to select her equipment. I looked at the racks and took half a dozen ammunition packs, then clipped as many grenades and diversion devices to the body armour as I could fit.
My implant activated as the comms set received a transmission. “Hemingray to York. Bridge systems are up and running.”
“Received. I need a download of the Stobo’s deck plan and security systems. Tell Pearce to intercept their communications and direct us. We’ll also need to know what Ladywood’s intentions are.”
“Understood. She’s already got the plans. Ash will be Zero.”
“Received.” I switched the set to channel zero.”
“Cavendish to Zero.”
“Zero, receiving.”
“Can we get back through the airlock on deck one?”
“Negative. There’s a full squad of marines up there and we’ve sealed our outer hatch. You need to fight your way out from the main lock.”
“Understood.”  I took an extra pair of smoke grenades from the rack.
The other Bad Girls looked so incongruous in their brightly coloured clothes and assault rifles.
“Listen up.” called Cavendish. “We need to hold an outer perimeter otherwise they’ll start bouncing RPGs around.”
“They’ve got a rotary launcher already.” Said Cartier. She paused to sight her weapon and fire another round. “Don’t trip over it.” I glanced down the passageway. "Or the marine who was carrying it." There were two or three bodies in sight.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Facebook friends are not real

Everybody I can persuade to buy Echo has done so. Some people I don't know have also bought it. I'm now trying to squeeze out a last few sales as I've almost broken even, which I think was goal number five or six twenty blogs or so ago.
To try and drum up the last few downloads I've started a Facebook page. I could have just pushed the book through my personal FB but I'm fairly sure people would get fed up of me shamelessly promoting it at them. Again.

The strategy is about like the one I use on twitter. Post a couple of paragraphs taken from an interesting part of the book. The difference, this time is that I've also set up FB accounts for the major characters and they're going to be commenting, making snide remarks and generally refusing to do what I want them to do. No change there then

It's a real pain in the bum. I have to keep switching accounts. To make it a bit easier I've given them all the same password, but FB software has cottoned on to that and decided I had to prove they were real people rather than sock puppets by asking for a different mobile number for each. Between us we have four mobiles so, if I ask to borrow yours, and then you find a strange text in your inbox, I've just added another member of the crew.

At the moment I'm working through the story set out in Echo. When I've done that I think I'm going to work on a back story for some of them. If you read Echo (and were paying attention), you'll know a little bit about Grace Hemingray, but almost nothing about Eleanor Pearce or Edmond Ash. I'd like to colour them in a little, give them a life before York.

I'd like to think the readers know a little bit about who some of the characters are and what they're like. I have notes on them in a paragraph that I cut from the finished chapter and paste into the new one. it tells me a bit about them. It also helps me remember their first names. Apart from Cavendish, who doesn't appear to have one.

Navigator                 Grace Hemingray loyal but lacks confidence to command
Weapons and tactical Edmond Ash         Cynical whinger
Comms and scans         Eleanor Pearce Geek
Pilot.                       Marcus Dryden.              Daredevil

C/S Cavendish         Pragmatist
LC (Suz)Anna Gregory          Likes sex. With pretty much anybody
P Caitlin Acre         Angry (but funny)
P Helene Cartier            

C Nat(asha)Livingston             (Left handed) medic
P Marianne Nansen
P Jude Cromwell

On a completely different note, I took the hard copy and showed my Dad. Science fiction isn't really his thing so I'm not sure if he'll read it, show it to everybody, or pretend he wrote it.

P Caro(line) Hall Easygoing. Doesn’t say much

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Psychos in a lift

She handed me a weapon. One in the chamber, safety on. The others had weapons that theyd obviously taken from Stobo personnel but Id seen the small automatic pistol that before. It belonged to Cavendish and I was surprised that shes managed to smuggle it in to the ball. The line of her dress didnt allow many hiding places.

We caught up with Acre who was securing our position further down the corridor. She glanced at the gun. Where did that come from?
I have no idea. I said.
Bet it chafed when you danced, Cavendish.
I didnt see you dancing. Said Livingston, who had appeared out of a side passage to deal with my escorting marines. Id have paid money, especially as shes wearing heels.
Gods in a row, were trying to get off a doomed ship. Get a grip. ordered Cavendish.
Sorry, Sergeant. Muttered Acre, grinning unrepentantly. As she reached the next corner she stopped and stepped back behind the bulkhead. As there was no cover, the rest of the Bad Girls dropped to one knee, looking to Acre for instruction. I glanced round to see Cartier facing the way we had come, weapon up, in case wed entered a trap.
Acre made hand gestures. I knew that, when working with Echo, they sometimes deliberately got them wrong or made up new ones, just to wind her up. This was bona fide. Eight targets, heavy weapons and armour. Fourteen metres. At that range the handguns we were all carrying would be useless.
What are they guarding? I whispered to Livingston.
Main lift shaft.
Is there another way?
The ship is fifteen decks down and less than thirty metres from the lifts. Its this or a series of fire fights with heavily armoured Imperial Guards whilst trying to go down the secondary ladders.
Cavendish was three metres in front of me. She turned and gestured me forward.
I need you to distract them.
If they report in that theyve found me, wont that give our position away.
Well hopefully deal with them before that happens. She slipped off her shoes and silently led me up to Acres position. Acre, like Echo, had been barefoot all night.
If theyre going to shoot, duck to your right. Dont use your weapon unless you have to.
Understood. I pushed the pistol into my sash at the small of my back and walked confidently round the corner. I was only a couple of steps down the corridor before muzzles started to rise in my direction.
As you were, marines. We were in luck. All the Imperial Guards would have taken up position around the Empress and the security of the Stobo was in the control of the ships marines. They would be competent troops but the Bad Girls had the advantage.
As they started to return to parade rest an officer appeared.
I took two more steps.
I said, halt! Marines, weapons up!
They were confused. Clearly the message that they were to capture me had not been passed on to all the marines. The officer knew what he was doing, but most of the others were uncomfortable about pointing weapons at a very senior officer.
Lieutenant, what do you think you are doing? Dont you know who I am?
It didnt matter what I said, just that their eyes were on me and they werent listening for the quiet footsteps behind me. I took as many steps as I dare. Two marines had their weapons trained on me now. I fixed on their eyes and, as they almost closed their eyes in involuntary preparation for firing, I threw myself down to the right. Cavendish and Acre were past me and amongst the marines. The Bad Girls werent as fast as Echo but they were much faster and stronger than normal marines. The officer went down first, an elbow smashed into his face. Most of the marines were wearing full body armour and helmets, but some had been dispatched from their barracks with their weapons and varying pieces of equipment. This created opportunities for the Bad Girls. They were in the middle of the marine squad who were afraid to use their weapons for fear of hitting one of their own. In hand to hand combat the armour slowed them down. By the time Livingston joined the melee, three of the opposition marines were down.
In a fight like this I was a liability. Cartier was still rear guard.
She looked in my direction and I jerked a thumb at the fight, then raised my pistol to cover the corridor we had just used. Go!
She didnt need telling twice. I focussed on my target area and ignored the noise from behind me, confident that Cavendish would prevent anybody firing a burst at my unprotected back. It felt like an age but, in reality, was only a few seconds until it was over.
York! Fall back. I obeyed Cavendishs command, keeping my weapon up as I backed towards the lift cluster, leapfrogging Cartier and Acre.
Nobody spoke as the lift compartment dropped towards the deck where my ship was docked. If there were marines waiting for us, we would be an easy target. I raised an eyebrow at Cavendish who just shrugged, then returned her eyes to the deck indicator. It took discipline not to watch the numbers changing. The other three marines were focussed on the door, waiting for it to open, weapons up and index finger touching the triggers. Acre and Cartier were on one knee, Livingston pressed against the wall of the compartment. I took up position on the other side. Cavendish stood in the middle, hands behind her back. In her dress, looking unarmed, she looked like a civilian. With luck it would delay the opposition long enough for us to start firing first.
The silence continued until Acre started humming an off key version of a well-known tune. Cartier sniggered.
Focus. Muttered Cavendish. Three, two, one.
Ting. Added Acre.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Do not read this

Twelve chapters down and I still haven't got to within 100 light years of the Clarke. A sub plot I wasn't really expecting has taken over the first part of the book. In theory, I should get on with the real story and cross the vast and unimaginable distances between chapters in the turn of a page.

However, there's so much happening that I want to describe, to colour in the universe that my characters inhabit. And I promised somebody that they could have a cameo which involves a bar fight and a saxophone. Does it move the story on? Not really. The only risk is that it slows everything down and the reader starts to shout 'Get on with it!'

But it's not about the reader. It's my story. Eventually I'll let somebody read it, but it's mine. I'm going to write what I like. I may edit stuff out before I show it to anybody but, then again, I might not.

This is a really boring blog. Sorry.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

I think there's going to be violence

“Majesty?” A lieutenant commander entered the compartment with unseemly haste. Two marines followed him through the hatch.
She held up a finger, then waited until he had composed himself. “I will receive your report now, Commander.”
“Majesty, we have picked up multiple ships dropping out of AltSpace.”
“How many?” I asked. He ignored me. If it was more than a handful then it was more than coincidence.
 “The Captain recommends that we leave orbit and disperse the ships.”
“How many ships?” Asked the Empress. This time he answered.
“Twenty three, Majesty.”
“Leave orbit.” I said. “Now!” This was no random event. Either they had come for us or for the Empress.
“Gabriel, as you know, in addition to the Stobo, I have a full squadron of frigates at my disposal. I presume that Captain Ladywood is capable of handling these new arrivals. So many ships must be a fleet of pirates. It’s happened before.”
“Absolutely not. It’s a reconnaissance group.” She looked at me blankly. “There is a destroyer and four heavy cruisers in the system, and they’re looking for the Stobo.” That might not quite be true, but it didn’t matter.
“Captain Ladywood agrees, Majesty.”
“Why now?” She looked at me. “Did you bring them here.”
“No.” I hoped that was true although the end game might be just the same.
“Then it’s a remarkable coincidence.” Commented the Naval Officer. “I have orders to escort Admiral York to his quarters and confine him there. The rest of his crew are being rounded up.” Ladywood clearly thought we were the vanguard and wanted us where we could do no further harm. I would have done the same. I had an idea what had happened but, right now, exploring that wasn’t the priority. I had to avoid being locked in my cabin. If the Empress didn’t act quickly, the warships would be upon us.
“How soon before they arrive at our current position?” I demanded.
“A little over four hours.”
“Esther, you need to leave orbit.”
“Thank you, Gabriel. I think you need to go with the Commander.” I knew she had an implant and could have recorded the names of all her senior officers, but she clearly hadn’t bothered. I was surprised that she had managed to retain the loyalty of her crew for so long.
“Sir, if you will come with me.”
We were in a small compartment one deck above the ball. It had a single hatch and I knew there were four Imperial Guards outside. I couldn’t think of a way to get past them and, even if I did, where would I go? Going with the marines was a better option.
The Stobo’s two marines took up position behind me as I followed the  officer. As we turned a corner, he nearly collided with a woman who had been the ball and was now standing in the passageway. It was Cavendish. The lieutenant commander turned to shout out a warning but his face showed increased alarm as he looked past me. There was a pair of thumps and the clatter of weapons falling to the floor. He reached for his holstered pistol but Cavendish put her hand on his shoulder and spun him round, head-butting him into unconsciousness.
“We need to get off the ship.” Said Cavendish. “Team two are rounding up the crew.”
“I’m surprised you got out of the ballroom.”
“Echo created a diversion. It got us as far as the hatch unnoticed.  After that we had to resort to violence.”
I grimaced. It never sat well, having to fight with other Imperial troops.
Cavendish saw me. “There’s an Imperial destroyer in system. Everybody on the ship is dead, they just don’t know yet. I don’t see why we have to join them."
She was right. I wasn’t sure that it made me feel better but I might not hesitate when we had to fight our way through the ship’s security. She handed me a weapon. One in the chamber, safety on. The others had weapons that they’d obviously taken from Stobo personnel but I’d seen the small automatic pistol that before. It belonged to Cavendish and I was surprised that she’s managed to smuggle it in to the ball. The line of her dress didn’t allow many hiding places.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

What killed all the vampires?

The most difficult part of both Echo and Clarke to write is not the characterisation, the plot, the dialogue, the background description. It's the sex.

Sex is big in novels at the moment. I'm sure you've noticed. Every time I go into WHSmith there's somebody brazenly standing in front of the huge 50 Shades section. And it's going to get worse as the massive band wagon rolls into town and bookshops have to clear away all the vampire books to make room.

If you've not read Echo (and why not?), you'll know there's sex. Twice. E winces and skips over those parts, the crowd at work read it aloud in the office, fortunately whilst I'm not there although they tell me about it.

There's an unspoken presumption that sex scenes in books are autobiographical. Hand on heart there are no polka dot pants in the house. I've no idea whether EL James did theoretical or practical research. Thnk what you like but remember it's a novel of fiction :-)

As I've said before, Echo was written with the intention that nobody would ever read it, but it was still very hard to write. And it will be even harder with Clarke because I know that it will have an audience, and a fairly merciless one at that. 

Because everybody is too busy taking the piss, it's almost impossible to get any constructive feedback  about those scenes. I read the first too chapters of 50 Shades and they're terrible, so I can only presume that the sex (page 115 onwards, apparently) is truly badly written as well. Is it possible to write a "good" sex scene, or do writers leave their critical facilities at the door as well?

I've never actually questioned why I left those parts in or what they add to the book, I just wrote them. I suppose that I could leave the scene with the closing of the door.

But where would be the fun in that?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

I've been expecting you, Mr Bond

What makes a good villain?

I've been beta reading something recently and one of my constructive criticisms was that the characters I perceived to be the bad guys just didn't cut it for me. Their motivation was around climbing the corporate ladder and getting their own back on people who had spited them previously.

Should a villain be evil? Evil isn't that interesting. True evil is sad little men finding themselves in positions of power and murdering millions of people through the application of bureaucracy. Who was the most evil character in Star Wars. It wasn't Darth Vader, it was Grand Moff Tarkin who blew up an entire world. Nor is evil attractive (to those of us that consider ourselves to be sane).  The moors murderers have been in the news a lot this week and nobody can consider them anything other than abhorrent. 

Do we need a villain? Writing courses talk about the antagonist. The person whose sole purpose in the story is to place barriers in the hero's path and potentially be the source of threat. Does the antagonist need to be a villain. In Echo the main antagonist is trying to kill York and those around him, but their motivation is as much about preservation of the Empire rather than personal gain, spite, underlying character flaw or psychopathic tendencies. If you want to judge, then remember that York is responsible for something in the reason of 50,000 deaths on the nineteen ships destroyed by the Nemesis during the war and Echo cheerfully murders her way through the entire book. In Echo 2 I'm starting to work up a couple of antagonist characters but both are honourable, honest, professional people with great integrity. If the book was written from the point of view of the Realm, they would be the heroes and Echo and York would come across as monsters.

In most books an antagonist of some kind is necessary. Until they're dead/ imprisoned / exiled/ rehabilitated then there's no closure. But I've concluded that they don't need to be evil. They do, however, need to have a clear reason for being the bad guy and, if possible, they need to be interesting.

Cats are optional

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The joys of the West Yorkshire Road Car Company

Blogs are like buses. You don't blog for ages and then several ideas come at once. Blogging is different to authoring in that, as I've discovered and many other writers will tell you, just putting words on the page will eventually kick the muse into action and then you can delete all the dross. With a blog, it's different. I try to find something to say reasonably frequently so that I can then tweet about it and, at the moment, each blog/ tweet appears to generate one sale.

I should probably post more stuff from E2. Lots has happened in the last few chapters and it was quite exciting to write. The difficulty is that I need to select a bit that will work out of context. And without giving too much of the story away, after all, I'm looking to you lot to buy the next one. The tax man will eventually be looking for me to make a profit, rather than the UK subsidising Cathy Helms and the US revenue.

An unforeseen consequence of the iPad is that the blogger site doesn't seem to handle it particularly well. Hard returns (does anybody remember typewriters?) and  speech marks just seem to be ignored, so the final product is all bunched up without the dramatic spacing I wanted. Never mind, still think the iPad is the best thing since sliced bread for writers on the move.

Next blog will look at giving your book a title. Hopefully see you then. Single to Aireworth Road, please.

Doing the Tango with Brucie

I'm getting ahead of myself. Although I've just finished chapter 8, I'm starting to think about the end of the process. Book 1 only became "Echo" quite some time after it was finished. Echo herself only become Echo a day or two before hand. Prior to that she'd been called Chorus, after the narrator in some of Shakespeare's plays. At some point over tea one night,  I was persuaded that it wasn't a great name and I changed the names of the three constructs around. Surprisingly I've thought of her as Echo rather than sticking with the name she'd had for the previous twelve months in my head. A day or two later I decided to name the book after my main protagonist.

Throughout the writing the working title of book 1 was Scenario Five.

'Five basic scenarios.’ She ticked them off on her fingers and I noticed that the tip of one was missing. ‘Guard, Hot insertion, Cold insertion, Pursuit and, number Five, everybody’s favourite, Lost contact. Whenever we find whatever it is we’re looking for there are inevitably dark corridors full of traps, xenomorphs, madmen. Danger and destruction.’

At that point the story was basically about the investigation into the loss of contact with a research station. However, as is their want, York's crew get themselves mixed up into a conspiracy that coulddisrobe stability of the Empire itself.

So, whilst book 2 is meant to be about the search for the lost Visionary Ship, the Arthur C Clarke, one of the five ships that carried humans from Old Erth to their new homes, who knows where the story is actually going to go, and I'd be a fool to try and predict it.

It's a bit too soon to start thinking about a title then, isn't it? The working title is "Clarke", but I've taken a fancy to "Outcast". I'm definitely going for a one word title as a theme through the series and currently Outcast is the word for book 2.

I have some concerns. First, that I'll end up tailoring the story around the title rather than the other way round. The other is that I came up with the title after hearing Hey Ya on the radio several times over the course of a couple of days. Not a good reason.

I'm also itching to start work on the cover. I love the work Cathy Helms did for Echo and I've no idea whether she's got any more pictures of Trout Pout and Slap Head or whether we'll have to go with something else as the part that we take through the series. I like themes and it would be good to have something that appears in all, in one form or another.

Of course, I could just write faster so that I can do the title and cover sooner rather than later. But, as a writer, it's as much about the journey as it is the end product. Oh no, I sound like I'm on Strictly (Dancing with the stars for you Yanks). I better stop there before I commit to giving 110%.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off

Chapter eight is in the bag. 5016 words and, unlike some of the early chapters, I really enjoyed writing this one. Actually the last three or four chapters were good fun, with lots of death and blood and destruction. One of the casualties of chapter 6 was the plan. I'd written five or six bullet points describing what happens for each of the chapters 6 to 15. I don't know why I'm surprised but, just like in Echo, the story went its own way when I started wondering what the characters would do in this situation and the answer was not actually what I intended. Again This isn't always a bad thing. Having got themselves in a difficult situation I spent ages trying to figure out how to get them out of it. I needn't have bothered. By the end of chapter 6 York's crew are different starships and in mortal danger. Ok smartarses, what now. Fortunately they're a resourceful lot and they worked out a plan. York's crew like to have a plan. By the end of chapter 8 they're well on the way to sorting themselves out. Those of you that are writers will be nodding along to my comments. The rest of you will probably think I'm nuts To continue. That was too easy I thought. Actually it wasn't easy and lots of people died (don't worry, they're not real people) but I decided to intervene (interfere) so I've just created a cliffhanger for the end of chapter 8 that sees Echo trapped outside a spaceship with her oxygen supply leaking from her damaged suit and they're under attack. Will she survive? Of course she will, I've got another sixteen chapters to write. I'm making no promises that she'll survive to the end of the book though.

Monday, 9 July 2012

John McCain wouldn't approve

I love gadgets. Some people are surprised to find that I'm not an early adopter of techie stuff, but once I've got it, I usually embrace it. I've had my iPad for about a month - I waited until it was a 3rd generation before i took the plunge, but it's like it's nailed to my hand. One of the reasons I went for a iPad 3 was that it has a voice recognition function. It works well, although it does cope better with a Scots accent than it does with my flat vowels. It's a very cool thing, however it hasn't got the use that I expected it to. Partly it's that I tend to write in the evening whilst not really watching the telly. Mostly it's because I can type faster than I can dictate. That's not quite true. I obviously type slower than I can speak, but that slight delay allows me to think through what I want to put down in a few words time. I read about writers who still write longhand, or insist on using some vintage Olivetti. I can understand that now. Dictating leads to lots of pauses and umms as I try to keep up with myself and, most importantly, the result isn't as grammatically or dramatically satisfying. Sometimes speed isn't everything. I recently watched a Programme on Quest about the development of the submachinegun. Some ex special forces type tried out all the key SMGs developed over the last seventy years. Rather than the Thompson, which had a high rate of fire, he preferred the 'grease gun'. Cheaper and less elegant, but the reason for his choice was that it had a lower rate of fire. If you watch the Die Hard series, it's all about the quantity of lead, but the real soldier preferred the better control and accuracy that it achieved. The Bad Girls clearly favour spraying about large quantities of depleted uranium rounds but Echo's weapon of choice only has eight rounds in the chamber and she has to conserve them, preferring selective and accurate fire over the room broom approach. It's still a cool button though. I'll just have to find a better way to use it.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Incredible stretchy pants

Is it possible to create something that combines all four aspects of character, plot, action and detail? I suspect we all set out to do all four but, somewhere down the line, we start to major on one or two of these at the expense of the others. Probably not on purpose, but we focus on the bits that interest us most. I started this train of thought just after going to see the Avengers movie. Visually impressive, if a little intense. Plot? Not really. Action, most certainly. Characterisation? Well they tried. Captain America was uptight and upright. Bruce Banner and the Iron Man guy were meant to be geeky and the Black Widow was meant to be a hard edged spy and assassin (no, there's none of her DNA in Echo). So, a good idea but,actually, they were all completely out-acted by the Hulk, who was a cartoon and had the best line in the whole film. And the most remarkable trousers. I know I'm a writer rather than a film director but, as I've said before, I'm just writing down details of the film that's playing in my head. I'm curious to know if other writers are the same. So, trying to be objective, can I manage all four of those things? No Character - I have two main characters who I think are reasonably interesting and feedback, particularly about Echo, has been reasonably positive. The others are mostly cardboard cut outs although I'm trying to make a few of them three dimensional so that you'll care about the one(s)who die. Plot - well there's a few large holes in the plot of Echo. Some of them are there on purpose as I've been intending to fill them in E2, or possibly in E3. The broad outline is in my head and I actually wrote it down in some detail when writing Echo although stuff changed as I wrote, when I had to follow the characters rather than forcing them to obey the plan. My intentions for E2 have changed recently. I'm on chapter 6 and, by now, we should have moved into Vargrr space and we should be well on our way to finding the Clarke. But the crew of the citadel are trapped on the cruiser Admiral Stobo and trying to fight their way out. The plot of E2 was set in motion in Echo and I think it will be a simpler story that the first, although I do have a few loose ends to sort out and so it may become more complex. Action - there was action in Echo, but I'm starting to see that E2 is probably going to have more action than E1. Echo was mostly about the relationship between two people. E2 details the breakdown of that relationship (temporary or permanent, I'm not saying -partly because I haven't decided). Detail - as I've said before, I think my job is to create a framework and for the reader to create their own film. I think i'll be majoring on action and characterisation. But I've been wrong before. It's an exciting ride. But enough about me, what does the reader want from me when they boot up their Kindle?And do they want the same thing every time? With books, I'm ALWAYS looking for the same thing. Reasonable plot but strong characterisation (and minimal description). I was about to say that films are different but I think I'd be wrong. I went to see the Avengers movie not because of the film but because I wanted to have some Dad and boys time. We bought fizzy and sweeties and had a laugh at the jokes (the boys seemed to be pretty indifferent to Gwyneth Paltrow, but then they're 13 and haven't quite got girls yet) Star Wars, my all time favourite film is still visually stunning and all the more impressive considering the limited technology but, if I was going to be objective, could have been so much more. It's easy to forget how dark a film it is. Luke's uncle and aunt are reduced to smoking skeletons, Obi Wan chops off somebody's arm in a bar fight, a whole planet is destroyed and Han Solo fired first. But that level of menace isn't sustained, Luke is transformed into ace pilot and Han into a good guy. I hear the original version was panned by audiences and only drastic editing saved it from being scrapped. Partly I wonder whether a director's cut would be a good thing or whether Biggs Darklighter, a major character who was completely cut from the final version, is better as a pub trivia question. Look at what happened when George Lucas finally got the technology to create the film he really wanted. Did he beef up the characters or add meaty plot? No, he just coloured it in. Enough on star wars. Alien. Plot. Not really. Detail- dark, greasy, grim. Characters? Ripley develops well but the others are basically just there to make up numbers. Action- absolutely, and the scariest film I've seen I'd argue that nobody does everything well and great things have been created by focussing on one or two parts rather than trying to do the lot. Overanalysing is probably not a good thing. Will it make my book better? Probably not. Will it make it less fun? It might. Despite it being an old question, I did spend part of the Avengers thinking about how come the Hulk, who was massively too big for Bruce Banner's jeans wasn't naked but, when he turned back, Bruce Banner, who fit the jeans, was.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Colouring book

When I write, I can see the action in my mind. I picture the camera angles and can hear the explosions or klaxons or whatever. As well as whatever's in focus, I also have a fairly clear idea what the room or compartment or whatever looks like. However , I don't inflict a detailed description on the readers unless it's relevant. I did it in Ch 1 of Echo because I wanted to get across the impression that starships were battered, workaday, grubby tools like the Nostromo rather than the clean and shiny world of Star Trek. As a writer, I want to create the broad outlines and then allow the reader to colour the picture in. Your camera angle may be completely different to mine, and the characters are likely to look completely different in your head to what's in mine. I described Echo as having jaw length, bobbed hair and green eyes. That was it. It wasn't till Cathy Helms did the cover art that she became a brunette (and acquired a trout pout). One of the first readers thought the Bad Girls were 7 feet tall (they're not, but they can be if you want) and, if you were paying attention, you may know that Acre is blond and has her hair plaited into cornrows, Pearce is tall and thin, and I may have told you that Hemingray is small and has a blond bubble perm. However, if you want them to look different, that's fine. Some writers want to transfer the cinematic experience that's in their head into yours without allowing the freedom to interpret it as you see fit. Have a look at this: Jason Bourne eeled his way through the mob. He was assaulted by the bone-juddering, heart attack inducing, soul-shattering blast of music coming from ten-foot-tall speakers set on either end of the enormous dance floor. Above the dancers' heads an aurora boreal is of lights splintered, coalesced, and then shattered against the domed ceiling like an armada of comets and shooting stars. That was taken from one of the posthumous Jason Bourne novels. It's a 100,000 word adventure wrapped in a 200,000 word book. Part of the problem is that Jason himself isn't very interesting. I've read several of the Ludlum and post Ludlum versions and, unlike say James Bond, it's quite difficult to get a handle on the man himself. I enjoyed the three Bourne films with Matthew Damon. Not for their portrayal of Jason Bourne, but for the way they handled crises and action scenes. The realism used in the Bourne films was taken up by the Daniel Craig version of Bond. Violence is brutal and ugly rather than stylised or glamourous. Part of Echo's (genetically engineered) DNA came from the Jason Bourne. Another DNA donor is Jack Reacher. He's a much more interesting character although I've never really warmed to him as a person (if you see what I mean) which is no mean feat in itself. I like the way that we see Reacher's process of deduction and I particularly like the way he previsualised a fight. I forget which book it's in but, at one point he's faced with three men and it described, succinctly but effectively, which one he's going to batter first, how he's going to do it and why he's made those choices. So, Bourne is a boring cardboard cut out and Reacher is an interesting, if slightly unpleasant, character. I'd like to think that Echo is a reasonably interesting and sympathetic character and that's why I've had such positive feedback. It's difficult to judge the value of your own creation. In the next post I'll talk about whether you can have well drawn characters, strong plots and detailed description or whether something has to be compromised to create a book that works. Actually it's just an excuse to talk about Hulk underwear.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Cardboard cut out

Incedental characters are more difficult than I would have expected. Although most of Echo is set in the closed environment of a starship, on occassions the crew of the citadel class have to interact with other people. How detailed should those people be, given the fact that most of them have a limited life expectancy. Some of the incidentals have names, mainly because it's a fairly natural thing to introduce yourself to people, but also because it's easier to write Joe Bloggs said, rather than the man in the raincoat said, over and over again. But, once they have a name, do i have a responsibility to make then slightly more real? No, of course not. Is it helpful to round them out a bit? I don't really know. When writing Echo I asked one of the First Readers how individual I should make the Bad Girls and they said they were disposable cannon fodder rather than main characters. Shame as I quite like them, probably more than some of the other main characters and might struggle if some of them don't get to survive E2? Just to make life more difficult, I'm writing several real people into E2. How many words should they get? Professor Helms, genetic engineer is in chapter 4 although I'm not sure I've got the voice right. There's a conversation with Echo which gets interrupted - considering she got a couple of pages, is it going to be weird when she just disappears? However that will be difficult as she doesn't survive past chapter 8. Sorry Cat. On a complete aside, am I the only person who noticed that a minor character in the first series of 24 caused the crash of a jumbo jet (for a reason that I never really figured out) and the fate of the jumbo never gets another mention? On another complete aside, I'm writing this on my new iPad :-)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Shall we take the Volvo?

I'm grateful to Terry Deary. If you haven't heard of him, he's a writer who created the Horrible Histories.A few years ago we got a set of Horrible History CDs with a box cornflakes. We played them in the car on long journeys for a couple of years. Eventually the boys bought themselves the HH books and every time i went looking for them, i'd find them with their nose in a Horrible History.

Terry Deary got my boys reading. We didn't need to push them, hassle them, cajole them. They just started reading because they found something that interested them.

I still love Horrible Histories. My particular favorite bit is Stupid Deaths. Have a look on YouTube.

What is it about death that fascinates writers? Excluding the chick lit section, the vast majority of books in the library are thrillers or cop procedurals or horror or sword and sorcery, all involving mayhem and murder. My antihero was an assasin.

"Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job." This is a cracking line from when Terry Pratchett was still funny. Death is a reoccuring character in the Discworld stories and has all the best lines.

My favorite bit from Monty Python's Meaning of Life is the section about death. "How did we die?...But i didn't have the salmon mousse." Sorry, like many Python fans i like to quote the dialogue.

I suspect it's something to do with talking about the thing we fear. If we name the beast, it's not so frightening. When i had surgery a couple of years ago, i talked about it a lot in the couple of weeks before the surgery. It made me feel better about it.

It's a heavy responsibility, helping everybody face their fears. I'm sure we're up to the job.

Of course, i could be talking blox.