On Stories and Endings

So, I’ve got two books out this week. Actually it’s the same book and it’s already been published, but there you go. Welcome to the temporally asymmetric world of international publishing, where the hardback first US edition of Regeneration drops in North America on 3rd May, and the UK edition mass-market paperback (MMP if you want to sound like an insider) lands elsewhere in the English-speaking world on the 5th. The MMP is the smaller, cheaper print copy that fits in your bag and costs about the same as your workday lunch, conveniences that the publisher and I hope will entice lots and lots of you to check it out.

It feels like a lifetime since I got the call that led to this moment: my agent had secured a preemptive offer for three novels, based on the Gemsigns manuscript and outlines of two further books that I’d hastily sketched at his insistence. I hadn’t planned a trilogy. Now, five years later and with the last of those three books about to be available throughout a good chunk of the planet, with me thoroughly embedded in the world of publishing and the life of a writer, it’s worth taking a moment to feel just slightly awestruck.

I made up a story, and in so doing changed my own story.

That’s some kind of magic.

And so I find myself thinking about the magic of stories: how they change and how they grow, where we join them and where we leave, and what happens when we’re not looking. How they seem to have their own reality and logic – whether or not we are living them, whether or not we are writing them.

I’ve always loved the Tolkienesque idea of the neverending story, an endless tale that the characters – and by extension the reader, and indeed the writer – inhabit only for a little while. One of the things I wanted to achieve in the ®Evolution novels was that sense of continuity: of a tale that had begun long before the writer started writing or the reader started reading. That both would visit for a time, and depart at some point of the writer’s choosing, rather than come to the end of. That had enough weight and heft for me, the writer – and you too, dear reader – to feel almost incidental to its existence.

Stories are real. We spin them out of dreams and desires, fears and hopes, moments of inspiration and confusion. We turn the electricity in our fingertips into bits and bytes, and somehow it all becomes actual. Solid. A tangible object full of the crumbs and stains of workday lunches, bearing a kinked spine and edges frayed by the passage of time; familiar yet somehow, hopefully, undiminished.

Not unlike ourselves.

The best stories tell us the truth about the real world. The best stories stay with us, even when we have left them behind. The best a writer can do is try to write that kind of story.

And so this is my hope for Regeneration, and all of the ®Evolution: that it will feel no less real for having been made up, and that its ending will be for you, as it is for me, a departure rather than a conclusion.

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BINARY lands in America

Binary is now out in North America, which officially makes it available throughout the English-speaking world. Accordingly it and I are popping up all over the place, like some kind of brightly-jacketed internet mushroom. I’m really proud of this book; it’s the first thing I wrote after I’d got a publishing deal, when I knew I was a proper writer and also knew that meant I had something to prove. I poured my heart and soul into Binary, and I believe it shows.

US Edition

US

UK edition

UK

But! This is not where I tell you what I think of my own work, because I want you all to go read it and have your own thoughts. I will, however, share some other things I’ve written recently to mark the US hardback and the UK paperback releases. They are all in one way or another about the opportunities and the responsibilities of being a storyteller: tackling an unplanned sequel, creating fictional worlds that nevertheless reflect reality, the kinds of stories we choose to keep telling, the challenge of conveying character and of finding your own voice as a writer.

Asking the Next Question

What happens now? Given what has already been done, and cannot be undone; knowing what we now know, and can no longer pretend ignorance of; how do people move forward? What kind of society do they wish to live in?

Who will they choose, now, to be?

Plausible Fictions and Strange Realities

Thanks to medicine, it is a certainty that no one anywhere in the world will get smallpox ever again. That is a real-life, honest-to-god miracle, accomplished during my lifetime; but there is no glamour attached to it. The fairy dust of fictional extrapolation has somehow passed it by.

Violent Impulses, or How We Think About Conflict

As someone who writes fiction which draws on the social sciences as well as on genetics and information technology, I’m keenly aware of those patterns of belief and presumption – and given that fiction almost invariably relies on some kind of conflict to provide a sense of significance and urgency, it strikes me that how we resolve fictional conflicts is relevant to how we think about real ones.

Finding Voices: Defining the Characters in Binary

If creating this plethora of voices and characters and languages and subtext sounds terribly difficult and complicated, well it is – but no more so than the complex human interactions we engage in and expertly negotiate every day.

(And, because I think you might enjoy it, here’s a little story from my own life before I became a writer.)

New reviews keep coming in, all linked under the tab above. (I do mean all; as long as a review is online and I know about it, it’ll be linked from this site. The only exceptions will be ones that are abusive or excessively spoilery – which hasn’t happened yet – or groups of reader reviews at sites like Goodreads or Amazon.)

Nose, meet grindstone.

After all the excitement and online attention of the last couple of weeks, and the turmoil of the past half-year or so, it’s time to get back to something approaching normal. I actually can’t remember the last time I spent a day, much less a week or a month, simply writing fiction. But I’ve just checked back through my list of other-things-to-do and to my relief, they’ve all been done. Guest posts and articles have been written, interviews have been given, and all are now online. Reviews for Gemsigns and Binary continue to come in at a steady rate, and I will continue to link them here. But increasingly those reviewers and interviewers (not to mention regular readers) are also asking how the third book of the ®Evolution, Gillung, is coming along, and the answer is that it mostly hasn’t been; I’ve been hugely distracted for many months now. The manuscript isn’t just a little bit late, it’s very late. But the story is there in my head, scrabbling to get out, growling at me for some undivided attention.

So that’s what it’s about to get. It’ll be another complicated, layered story with a large cast of characters, and if I’m to give it the kind of focus that demands I can’t allow my mind to wander. I’m going to try out one of those apps that’s supposed to help eliminate the distractions of the web (I’m looking at you here, Twitter). I won’t be completely absent, but I will be less immediately responsive. I’m not going to be saying ‘no’ to all new requests, but I may no longer be saying ‘yes’ to everything in the way that I have done. As it is I’ve still got loads of appearances, real and virtual, coming up: in a week I’ll be recording a Skiffy and Fanty roundtable discussion with other Caribbean SF writers for podcast shortly thereafter. A couple of days after that I head to Jamaica, where I’ll be reading at the Calabash Literary Festival on 31st May. When I get back I’ll be the BSFA’s interviewee on 25th June, and I’ve made myself available for Independent Booksellers Week which starts on the 28th, and then in August there’s Nine Worlds and the World Science Fiction Convention. I doubt I’ll be finished by then, but with any luck the end will at least be in sight.

Nine Worlds News

Where have I been, where have I been?

Enjoying that rarest of phenomena, a proper British summer; selling my house (big moves afoot! more in a future post); rereading the Binary draft, collating thoughts — editor and agent, the ®Evolution Readers, and my own (again, lots of material for its own post here) — and commencing my own edit; all interrupted, for the past 36 hours or so, by a visit from the norovirus (who knew you could get the winter stomach flu in the summer?!?); and getting ready for the NineWorlds Convention, now only two and a half weeks away.

I jumped on the Nine Worlds bandwagon when it was running its Kickstarter back in February. The organisers billed it as ‘an unconventional convention’, with multiple tracks to accommodate all fans of the fantastic; from comics and cosplay, to gaming and Game of Thrones, to films and fanfic, to academia and, of course, books. If I’m honest, the thing that had me most worried was the sheer enormity of their ambition – could a first-time convention put together by a bunch of fans actually pull off something on this scale? But I made my pledge anyway, because I prefer grand ambitions to puny ones, and because I was really impressed by the con’s commitment to being thoroughly diverse and completely inclusive; to internalising the full breadth and depth of fandom, and making the event a place where everyone is welcome and safe, and no one feels marginalised. That, I thought, was well worth a punt.

I’ll report back after the event, but on both fronts the signs are good. The number of tracks is frankly mind-boggling, and they all seem really well programmed. The guest list is, to say the least, impressive. And judging by that programme and those guests and the regular bulletins we’ve been receiving, they’re doing what they promised and making it a con for everyone.

My appearance schedule looks like this:

  • Friday 9th August, 10:15pm: NEW VOICES SLAM SESSION. Short readings from nine of science fiction and fantasy’s most promising new authors! (Full disclosure – I suggested this one to the organisers, because there are always more authors wanting to read than can be accommodated, plus it’s hard for new authors to pull an audience on their own. So if it tanks, blame me. But it won’t. It’ll be great. I can’t wait. It’s on Saturday night as well, with a different line-up — go to both.)
  • Sunday 11th August, 10:15am: CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME: SCIENCE FICTION AND SPACE TRAVEL. It’s over fifty years since we sent the first humans into space. Are we still as excited about going to the stars? How have real-world concerns about the reality and practicality of space travel affected the genre? I moderate Charles Stross, Adam Christopher, Jaine Fenn, Ian Whates and Gavin Smith.
  • Sunday 11th August, 11:45am: RACEFAIL 101. The panellists discuss colonialism, xenophobia and racism in science fiction and fantasy, recommending the best works discussing these issues as well as discussing the problems we face in writing and reading SFF and what we can do about them. Anne Perry moderates me, Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Tade Thompson.
  • Sunday 11th August, 1:00 – 2:00pm: BOOK SIGNING. I’ll be racing from Racefail to the Forbidden Planet table to sign copies of Gemsigns – do drop by for a chat and a scribble.
  • Sunday 11th August, 3:15pm: WRITING THE OTHER. Last but by no means least, I’m joining Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to run this workshop as part of the Queer stream. The thinking is to follow on from some of the themes of the Racefail panel, looking broadly at issues of inclusion, diversity, and social justice in addition to the core LGBTQ focus. I’m told that signups are essential for this one; email queer@nineworlds.co.uk.

In addition, I’m definitely going to the launch party for Tom Pollock and Snorri Kristansson‘s new novels (The Glass Republic and Swords of Good Men respectively) at 8:30pm on Friday; to the panel on gender and sexuality at 8:30pm on Saturday; and then to the New Voices Slam at 10:15pm Saturday, assuming I’m still vertical. In between all of that I shall be spinning around like a top, trying to work out how to take in all the other great events.

Nine Worlds is being held at the Radisson and Renaissance hotels near Heathrow. Tickets are still available here, and you can follow them on Twitter; the event-wide handle is @London_Geekfest, the Books track is @booksnineworlds, the Queer track is @NineWorldsQueer, the Writing track is @9WorldsWriting … and there are more. Did I mentioned I’m impressed? I’m impressed.

Riding the come-down

After a year of angst and anguish, painfully slow progress, wrong turns and backtracks and the startling discovery that yes, the second book really IS harder to write than the first, I’ve finally done it. Binary is complete.

Back on 9th May I said I thought it would take another couple of weeks; as so often with this book I was both right and wrong. I got to the end and typed ‘The End’ last Wednesday, neatly inside my estimate, but it took another 4 days of morning-to-midnight work to fill in missing bits of text and fix errors, incoherences and inconsistencies. The obvious ones, anyway. I’ve no doubt that editor and assistant editor, agent and alpha readers will catch lots of things I missed. And thank goodness for that, because at this point I know I’m far too close to it to be able to see it clearly. It’s only been done for a day and a half, and I am swinging like a pendulum between sunny confidence that it’s a flawless book full of fabulous characters and a fantastic plot — and a dreary conviction that my reach has far exceeded my grasp, that the mysteries I’ve constructed are so intricate they will make sense to no one but me.

Here’s a prediction you can lay money on: I’m going to be wrong on both counts. With any luck I’ll be very wrong on the second, and only a little wrong on the first.

I can say that because when I finished Gemsigns a year and a half ago and sent it off to the loose group of friends, family and acquaintances that I dubbed the ®Evolution Readers, I felt pretty much exactly like this. I was mentally exhausted, emotionally drained, and I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written a good book or 100,000+ words of gibberish.

Turned out it was, fundamentally, a good book. And after about a month of not looking at it, I was able to read through with a clear head and see that; and with the comments of those alpha readers to hand, fix the inevitable outcrops of error and poor prose. So I am comforted by that memory, and confident that the experience will be repeated.

In the meantime Gemsigns is making its way in the world — to as wonderful a reception as any debut author could hope or dream of (see the Reviews link above) — and will be formally launched in the USA next May as part of the Jo Fletcher plan for world domination. I have a sorely neglected house and garden to attend to, and next week I’m off to Jamaica, to visit family and friends I haven’t seen for eighteen months, sun myself and swim and hopefully decompress a bit. There’ll be promotional events there too, including a local launch, reading and discussion at Bookophilia, Kingston’s premiere bookstore. And I have the third book of the ®Evolution to think about, to plan and to write.

But not just yet. The pendulum needs to stop swinging first.

What a difference a year makes

As 2012 counts down its final minutes I find myself reflecting on what an extraordinary year it’s been; not just in terms of Queen and country (Jubilee, Olympics); not just for family (one brother’s film spent the year racking up awards, another launched his debut art exhibition and had a piece selected for the National Biennial, our late mother received a posthumous parenting award from the great and good of my birth nation); but for me personally.

When the year started I was an underemployed freelance consultant who had taken the uncharacteristically irresponsible step of bunking off for most of 2011 to, of all things, write a novel. It was an itch I needed to scratch, an intellectual and artistic exercise, a labour of love. In the hope that someone besides me and a few friends might want to read it, my first task of 2012 was sending it out to agents, in the sure and certain knowledge that interest (if there ever was any) would be long in coming and publication (if it ever happened) wouldn’t happen for a good long while. I popped the packages in the post and told myself sternly to forget about it for now and get back to doing some real, i.e. pay-the-bills, work.

I’m ending 2012 with that novel less than three months away from publication, it’s sequel two-thirds written, and a third book due after that.

I think that when I tell people this was unexpected they think I’m being modest. I’m not. This has been a gobsmackingly, flabbergastingly, never-in-my-wildest-dreams sort of year.

So I want to say thank you – to the first few friends and family who said I wasn’t crazy to skive off and write, and to the wider circle who later read and commented and encouraged; to Rachel Dench who made a particular point of recommending me to Ian Drury, and to Ian for listening to the new girl in the office, reading the manuscript and offering to represent me; to Jo Fletcher for buying not just the book I’d written but two I hadn’t – yet; to Nicola Budd and Lucy Ramsey and the rest of the Quercus/JFB team for all the work they’ve done and will do behind the scenes to polish and package and promote my books and help me learn the things I’ll need to know; to the truly lovely people I’ve met in the SFF community, who are friendly and welcoming and full of lore and wisdom; and finally to everyone I’ve met, or who has stopped by the blog or the Facebook page or the intermittent Twitter feed. Everyone who’s said, ‘Wow, that sounds cool. I’d like to read that.’ You have all made this my best year ever.

The City’s Son shines

I’ve just finished reading one of those books that grabs hold and hangs on and gets in your way until you’re done with it; or until it, possibly, is done with you. The kind that interrupts my own writing and even my sense of place; I’ve looked up a couple of times over the last couple of days, slightly dazed to find myself in a sunny garden in Devon instead of a wintry, smelly back alley in the Big Smoke in the company of garbage gods and warrior cats. Urban fantasies of alternate Londons are almost a genre of their own now, what with your Neil Gaimans and China Mievilles and Ben Aaronovitchs and … I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think there wouldn’t be too many new takes on the idea, not too many opportunities to seduce a fairly jaded reader like myself. You’d be wrong.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son is a delight. Nominally aimed at the young adult market, I think all you have to be is young at heart to appreciate this beautifully written, cleverly constructed tale of a city whose very fabric is alive and vital – a city of sodium-light dancers and tower-crane demons and the ghosts of trains, a city where the Pavement Priests are made of stone and bronze and the Mirrorstocracy are, quite literally, no more than reflections of former glory. Into it stumbles graffiti artist Beth Bradley, fleeing tragedy at home and trouble at school, only to find herself in the company of Filius Viae, abandoned son of the city’s absent Goddess. Together Fil and Beth must find a way to save their city from his mother’s ancient enemy, Reach, the King of the Cranes. And that’s as much of the story as you’re getting from me. All I’ll say is that the outcome isn’t obvious; Pollock, like Mieville, has a fondness for turning tropes on their head. That’s not all he’s got going for him; his characters jump off the page at you, fully realised and recognisable in the space of a few words (not unlike Gaiman, and believe me when I tell you, coming from me that’s very high praise). And like Aaronovitch, the story is full of snarky humour and a palpable love of London.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but they are few and forgivable. The speed with which Beth’s dad and best friend accept the altered reality in which they find themselves seems a bit unlikely under the circumstances. The friend, Pen, is subjected to horrific ordeals in both Londons but the one in the ‘real’ world, although an inciting event for much that happens later, is pretty much glossed over. And I found myself wondering how the cataclysmic events in the ‘other’ London were perceived and explained in ours, and why the police didn’t seem to be involved in the hunt for two missing teenage girls. In a lesser book these would have been real problems; here they are quibbles. Pollock’s prose flows so beautifully it would disguise far greater sins. I’ve read a fair few first novels recently that are long on story but short on storytelling, in which the craft of writing seems neglected by writers in love with the tale, but not the telling.

The City’s Son works the way all magic works; by paying attention to the details that seduce and misdirect, using turns of phrase and moments of imagery to channel emotion and imagination. Tom Pollock didn’t just tell a great story; he’s a great storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Creating smart characters

I’ve been procrastinating this morning by browsing writing questions on Quora. Someone wanted tips for creating a character who is smarter than they are, and I was struck that most of the answers seemed to assume this must be a very difficult thing to do. Suggestions ranged from role-playing; to the Arthur Conan Doyle method (have a character of normal intelligence, i.e. Dr. Watson, describe the character of greater intelligence, i.e. Sherlock Holmes); to making the character confusing and incomprehensible; to not even attempting the task.

Now I write a lot of very smart characters, some of whom are definitely smarter than me, and I don’t find it that hard at all. You don’t need to make every line they speak or every action they take redolent of their greater intellect, unless you are actively trying to present their cleverness as the only interesting thing about them and the only reason they are in your story. Instead give them a quirk, some character trait that suggests quick thinking or the kind of specific intelligence you want to convey.

For instance: I’ve created a character who likes wordplay and aphorisms. He tends to drop them into conversation, either to amuse the friend he’s speaking to or stump someone who’s annoying him. The rest of his conversation is intelligent in an unintimidating way, but just four or five of these zingers scattered throughout the novel is enough to give the impression of a really big brain at work. Another possibility would be a prodigious memory, someone who remembers the details of things they read or saw long ago. Or you could give your character a facility with numbers – have them add things up in their head before the person with the calculator or cash register can give them the total, for example.

How you do it will depend on the type of story you’re telling and the purpose of the character in it, but think about the things that make you form an impression of someone’s intelligence in real life. It will rarely be because they suddenly start spouting the laws of particle physics or deduce what you had for breakfast from the stain on your tie. It’ll be the way in which they speak, what they do for a living, the esoteric subjects they seem to know a lot about, how insightful they are. Utilise those kinds of naturalistic cues in your writing and it will be easier to make your character’s intelligence believable.

BINARY extract: Supper therapy

It pleased her greatly that he had learnt to enjoy food, instead of treating it as no more than a tedious refuelling that took him away from his tablet and screens. They had formed an instinctive, unspoken rota back in the beginning of the Squats, making sure he had a tasty meal and company to eat it with every day if they could; prying him gently offline and into the more visceral interactions of meat and bread and touch and speech. She had watched him change over those lunches and suppers, bit by infinitesimal bit, could almost map each new word or glimmer of expression that he gained against a taste or texture that gave him pause, and fired a new, old pattern into the altered web of his brain. Some deeply buried instinct for humanity had stirred with every bite.

(Postscript: I can’t post proper extracts from Binary, not until Gemsigns is out, but no harm in the odd un-spoilered paragraph here and there. I’m quite pleased with this one.)

Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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  • UK edition

    REGENERATION

    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • UK Edition

    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    REGENERATION

    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

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