Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - A Year in Writing

So farewell, 2014.  Another year has passed, and I want to do a quick rundown of where things are.

I made a couple of plans for myself at the start of the year, and with one notable exception, I haven't really made much progress.  I'd decided that if I was going to write about South Africa, I should go to South Africa, and I'm afraid that I'm no closer to having a ticket today than I was a year ago.  Part of this is cowardice on my part, I'll make clear now.  I hear different stories about Johannesburg, the city close to where my story is set - some say it's an excellent place to visit, some say unsafe - but I'm still very keen to go.  I'm now planning Japan for 2015 so it's likely that I'll get to Jo'burg after the book is complete.  Not ideal, but hopefully my research and my beta readers will see me through.

So what went well in 2014?  Lots of things!  My partner Melissa Brown completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund costs related to her first YA book, 'Becoming Death'.  My friend Lesley Smith completed her first full novel, 'The Changing of the Sun' and my twitter friends were enjoying their own successes too.  Jennie Davenport completed her novel, 'Hemlock Veils' and Rena Olsen got herself an agent, so hopefully that three book deal will be just around the corner.  Thrillingly, I also got to meet Ivan Vladislavic and my favourite author, JM Coetzee (I may have stuttered like a fool at the signing...)

For me, there was of course the great pleasure of winning the SMHAFF writing award, and giving one of the most excruciating radio interviews in history (thanks to all the lovely and very patient people at Future Radio in Norwich, who stayed with me despite high winds and my phone cutting off on no less than four separate occasions.)  I was also longlisted for the Nottingham Writer's Club award, which I'll be entering again in 2015.

Here are a few 2015 writing goals:

1)    Finish the novel!  The first draft of 'What Comes from the Earth' is now complete, so some structural revisions and then a secondary edit process should sort that.  2015 is the year that it begins, y'all.

2)    I'm working to a March/April deadline on a contribution to a forthcoming anthology called 'The Z Chronicles.'  Expect a strong, character-driven story about a woman searching for her lost child in a complex fraught with the undead.  If you're interested in other anthologies by the same creators, including one where Hugh Howey is a contributor, please click here.

3)    I've been discussing the possibility of adapting 'Crowning Kings' to the screen in the form of a short film.  It's very early stages just, but I'm in discussion with Eduard Micu about a possible collaboration.  If we can agree on a process and can arrange any necessary funding, I'll be working on a screenplay.  Please check out Eduard's work - his short films look fantastic.

4)    More regular blog updates.  Because you deserve it.

What are your writing goals for 2015?

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Holiday Writer

We writers are a funny lot.  Give us a break, five minutes to call our own away from the responsibilities of work and family, and you'll generally find us spending time that could otherwise be used for relaxation huddled behind a laptop screen or poring over a well-thumbed manuscript, looking angry/puzzled/desperate (or sometimes all three at once.  That's a facial expression that has to be seen to be believed.)

In today's crazy world, there are precious few opportunities to step back from our duties and simply be ourselves.  Holidays are a precious resource, being few and far between, and non-writers see this as a chance for families to spend time together, share thoughts and feelings, or just gather to watch the Christmas episode of 'Doctor Who'.

Writers are a special case.  An hour with no responsibilities is an hour that can be dedicated to polishing a novel, or researching the most grisly way for a villain to die.  While others are sipping wine and going to holiday parties, the self-respecting writer ignores all distractions and has the discipline to apply themselves to their craft.  After all, that Macallan Silver Dagger or prized Nebula Award isn't going to win itself.

But why am I telling you this, oh partners of the damned?  You know better than anyone what it's like to live with a writer.  You understand the true meaning of sacrifice.  In the past, we had golf and football widows.  Nowadays we have manuscript widows.  You poor souls spend your waking hours lingering hopefully by closed study doors, all the while knowing that your partner won't come out until they've finished redrafting their hero's redemption scene for the tenth time that weekend.

Non-writers, you should understand that we envy you, we really do.  You'll never know the anguish of finding yourself totally awake at 4am with sudden inspiration for how you can close that glaring plothole in chapter 14, knowing that if you don't write the scene now, THIS INSTANT, the inspiration will be gone forever by morning.  We wish that we had normal hobbies.  No gardener ever had to tolerate a plethora of well-meaning relatives asking continuously if the flowers have grown yet.

So be kind to the writers in your lives this holiday season.  If we take five minutes away from the in-laws to outline a new chapter or jot down some dialogue, cover for us.  It may just be the best present you can give to us, and we will appreciate you forever.  For while we must suffer from one of life's most debilitating conditions, we remain your loyal friends, dedicated partners and loving children.

Perhaps, in the end, the best thing to do is accept that if you can't beat us, you should join us.  It's said that there's a book in everyone, so why not pick up a pen, charge your laptop, and join us in the study?

Sunday, 14 December 2014

She is Ray

When he found her, she was standing atop Notre Dame's tallest tower, looking out across Île de la Cité.  Here, so late into the night, she blended in perfectly with the shadows.  Had Armand not known that this was where the young woman went to reflect, he might not have seen her at all.

'He's here,' Armand said.  'Zombie Bin Laden is here.'

High above the city of Paris, the air was chill.  Armand shivered in his simple clothes, but he would not have dared to approach her.  It wasn't that he was scared of her, not exactly.  But interrupting Ray's repose was something that simply wasn't done.

For a moment, he wasn't sure that she had heard him at all.  The shadows were unmoved and the moon remained hidden behind the clouds above.  At the very limits of his hearing, the breeze was carrying words to him.  At first, Armand thought she was praying.  He strained to hear, and then realised that she was swearing to herself.

Armand licked his cracked lips and took a deep breath.  'Mademoiselle...I'm sorry to interrupt you.  I know this is your time.  But the world needs you.  Zombie Bin Laden is here.'

'Of course he is,' the girl said in English, her voice perfectly clear.  'I'm here, so where else would he be?'

Ray was fluent in several languages, Armand knew.  He had heard it said that she could quote the classics, understood the principles of particle physics and was a world-renowned munitions expert.  It was a skill set that would make every spy head in every country in the world sit up and take notice.  She was rumoured to have taken the decorated French war hero LeBoyf as her lover.  Glamorous, artistic, academically gifted, Armand could not fathom the speed at which Ray's mind worked, and he did not try.

And yet, there was a sadness about her, as though the weight of her responsibilities was a burden that might some day overwhelm her.  Armand tried to imagine her in a happier world, one where she could knit, chat to her online friends and surround herself with her books.  Instead, she carried the fate of the free world on her shoulders.  All the world's most prominent figures knew of Ray.  The politicians watched her carefully.  The billionaire playboys wanted to date her.  The super-villains wanted her dead.

'What does Zombie Bin Laden want?' Ray said.

'He audience,' Armand said.

'Then he should go to the Moulin Rouge.'

Armand felt wretched.  This girl was maybe half his age, and certainly no more than half his weight.  Still, he could not summon the courage to stand between her and the twisted undead villain waiting below.

'He says that he has placed bombs along the Champs-Élysées, and he will detonate them unless you go to him now.'

For the first time, Armand saw a movement, as though she had inclined her head towards him.  He could not summon the words to say more, and as the night grew colder still and the silence lengthened uncomfortably, he heard her say, 'Okay, I'll go down.'

Armand's eyes moistened, but he told himself it was just the breeze.  'Mademoiselle...maybe you shouldn't go.'

'You heard what he said, Armand.'

'Of course.  But maybe the responsibility for dealing with him and his nefarious scheme should fall to government.  This is what the army are for, after all.'

'Since when do governments ever act in the interests of the people?'


She turned to him as the moon came out.  She was just a young woman then, sitting on a concrete step atop the world.  Armand was struck by how small she seemed.  Her hair was trimmed short around her ears, giving her an elfin appearance.  Her eyes, like her long leather catsuit, were midnight blue.  Ray's gaze was gentle, knowing, accepting.

Armand took off his hat and held it across his chest.  He could not say more, for fear of bursting into tears.  That she could accept the responsibility and her likely doom so easily humbled him more than mere words could express.

'But first things first,' she said.  As he watched, Ray reached down to her stiletto heels and pulled the zips along the side.  Having kicked her feet out of the shoes, she reached into her pocket and produced a thick pair of socks which she then proceeded to put on.  Armand's forehead creased in confusion.  The socks had a little panda face across the toes.

'What?' she said, seeing his expression.  'It's a cold night!'

Then Ray stepped back into her heels, zipped them up and moved swiftly past him to the staircase.  As she disappeared, he heard her say, 'Once more into the merde, Armand...'

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Four Thousand Words reviews 'Doomsday Book', by Connie Willis

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

The path of genre fiction is so well-worn, that sometimes you are left wondering how it's possible to spin it out in a way that is fresh and original. Then, sometimes you are reminded that fresh and original are irrelevant when you can build a story so well that it really doesn't matter.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards following release in 1992, the story of 'Doomsday Book' is set between a future Oxford some fifty or so years hence, and the same location some seven hundred years previously.

Historian Kivrin Engle utilises time travel to explore and research Oxford seven centuries ago, but unwittingly suffers a fever and is taken in by a local noble family. As a consequence of her illness, she cannot fully recall the place where she is due to find the gateway back to her own time. To make matters worse, the same illness ravages the university that is supporting her study and Kivrin is cut off, effectively stranding her in the past.  It then becomes apparent to her that she has not arrived in the past at the expected time, but has in fact arrived in Oxford at the same time as the Black Death.

With the two diseases rampaging through the respective populations, Kivrin is forced to watch her adoptive family and friends die horribly, one-by-one, without knowing if there is anything she can do. At the same time, her instructor, James Dunworthy, must breach all protocols, risk exposure to the deadly virus and still do whatever it takes to find a way to bring Kivrin back home.

With the narrative split between Kivrin and Dunworthy, Doomsday Book is a slow-burning example of technical mastery that ultimately takes the breath away. It is heartbreaking for me, as a fan of such an immense novel, to read it described on other blogs and on Goodreads as boring; in fact, the tension rises by degree with each twist and fresh disaster to the point where it is practically unbearable. Despite being nearly 600 pages long, I finished the book in only a couple of days and was left physically drained by the effort. You can feel Kivrin's despair at her utter helplessness as each of her new companions slowly succumbs to the plague. It is not a happy story, make no mistake, but it is stunningly observed. Hopes are raised and then brutally cut down; each new victim feels like a wound inflicted upon the reader.

Building tension to a sufficient climax takes time, and you can feel the frustration oozing from Dunworthy as he has to deal with the repetitive minutiae of his job while his protege is subject to any number of imagined horrors. Doomsday Book is a study in plot development for new authors, with each new event building crisis-upon-crisis. As a further example of Willis' brilliance as a storyteller, nothing at all from the buildup is wasted - Dunworthy's student with Lothario tendencies distracts the nurse, allowing him to flee the infirmary, and as he finally completes the tasks he needs to mount a long-overdue rescue mission, the choir who have distracted him throughout the book with their constant trivial demands are singing, 'Now At Last Our Savior Cometh'.

There is little more to say than this - if you are a fan of science fiction, or of carefully constructed fiction of any genre, you should read Doomsday Book. Much like Marmite, it splits readers down the middle, with most people either loving or hating it. Be willing to stick with it for the duration, rather than giving up early as so many seem to do, and I promise that you'll be rewarded.  This is a colossus of a novel, and one that deservedly bestrides the genre.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

'Becoming Death', by Melissa Brown

My name is Madison Clark and I am the Undead.  FEAR ME. I'm not really that scary.  I weigh about a hundred pounds soaking wet and I'm more likely to crash my car through your gate than eat your brain.  My life is crazy complicated, though.  My mother has this weird Stepford thing going on, my oh-so-perfect sister is already doing all the things I should be doing, including paying her own rent, and my boss just froze herself solid in her own walk-in freezer.  I really, really miss my dad.

And of course, I'm dead.  Did I mention that already?

Not that people seem to cut me any slack or anything.  I already finished school once, and now I have to go back a second time and learn how to run the family business.  It turns out that the whole accountancy thing is just a cover, and now I have to learn how to take souls and show them to the next world.  There's an app with a life of its own, a uniform that is really (I mean REALLY) unflattering, and a Queen Bee who seems determined to make my afterlife a misery.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in the crazy.  There's a whole family of professional mourners who've taken me under their wing.  There's a love interest, a social climber in the funeral business who seems to be going out of his way to spend time with me.  And last but not least, there's my best friend Aaron, the one person I can tell anything to - if telling anyone was allowed.

So yeah - that's me...and you can hear my story soon.

*beep beep*

Sorry, that's my phone.  Wait just a second...what?  I have to kill WHO?!

(Make 'Becoming Death' a reality!  Contribute to the Kickstarter here!)

Melissa's facebook page is here and you can add her on Twitter: @MRBrown_author