Monday, 28 September 2009

Toby Frost: Space Captain Smith

Captain Isembard Smith of the British Space Empire has a ship (which is admittedly more rust than metal), a crew (consisting of a mildly psychopathic alien, an android sex toy who's reprogrammed herself as a pilot, and a hamster named Gerald) and a mission to retrieve one of those new age, whale saving types and bring her safely to Earth. All while maintaining a suitably stiff upper lip, doing battle with the Ghast insect empire, and avoiding fundamentalists from New Eden, who all seem to want his passenger for themselves.

It's hilarious. Somehow, Frost has taken every sci-fi reference imaginable (and there's a lot of fun to be had playing "spot the reference") crammed it together with the sort of over the top historical fiction you get in Sharpe, or better yet Hornblower, and thrown in enough jokes to get us all the way through a wonderful story. Imagine if Douglas Adams could do endings properly, and you'll have the right sort of idea. Definitely read this.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

First Draft

About half an hour ago I completed a draft of the alternate version of the sequel to the comic fantasy novel I've been working on. It's still a little on the short side in this form compared to usual, at 73000 words, but so far I like it much better than the original approach. Presumably the thing to do is read it after a few days so that I can judge that more effectively, though at the moment it does seem to have the advantage of holding a single, coherent storyline, where the other feels like it's trying to split in two.

Obviously, I've got the various rounds of revisions to do on it, but it also means I'll probably be doing slightly more short fiction in the coming weeks, since I don't want to start another novel length effort straight away. I hadn't noticed until I looked just how few short stories I actually write. Maybe it's just that, when I get a nice idea, I tend to get a bit carried away.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Story: What is it good for?

Absolutely... no, hang on, that's something else isn't it? A very short post in a brief attempt to be interactive. Stories, what are they actually for? Well obviously, for entertainment. And for telling us stuff in a way that actually affects us. But other than that? I've tried to come up with some other possibilities, and I hope you'll feel up to joining what (almost certainly won't be) an important debate.

  1. Preventing most bookshops these days from being just coffee shops.
  2. Keeping daydreaming artistic types in front of computers, rather than out on the street where they might bump into things.
  3. Effectively immobilising the world's avid readers, so that they're easy to find again once you've put them down.
  4. Preventing books from being big, blank, papery bricks.
  5. They mean that the illustrators don't have to fill up so much space.
  6. Using up the world's zombie/vampire surplus, so that we don't have to keep them under the stairs.
  7. Taking people whose main ability is to make things up, and calling it a job skill rather than simple oddness, thus reducing unemployment.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

K.E.Mills: The Accidental Sorceror

I bought this largely on the strength of one of those recommendation notes you get in bookshops, which happened to use the words "humerous" and "fantasy" in close combination. Always a good way to get me to buy books. The basic plot is that third grade wizard Gerald Dunwoody finds himself jobless after an accident that suggests he might be a bit more powerful than everyone thought, ends up taking a job as royal wizard to the tiny country of New Ottosland, and then has to deal with a bossy princess, a possibly mad king, and a prince more interested in butterflies than people.

It reads well, flowing beautifully from one difficulty to the next, and there's some nice work on character development with Gerald, who suddenly has to cope with rather more responsibility than he ever saw as a magical compliance officer. There are some very unexpected characters, and it plays with traditional elements quite nicely. I like the light tone throughout, though I think that it is more of a proper story told lightly than one that stacks up the jokes after the fashion of full blown comic fantasy. That though is more of a quibble with the people who write those little cards in bookshops than with the writer, who has produced something that is a wonderfully fun story, and which trips along at a great pace.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


  • I'm up to 57 000 words on the alternate version of the sequel, and I suspect that at this rate the thing will end up about 10 000 words shorter than I originally intended. That's normal for me though, and tends to get corrected in the editing, once I put in all the bits I forgot in the first draft.
  • It is possible, but far from straightforward, to make a pick and fingers approach to guitar playing sound suitably heavy metal. I found this when I looked down the other day and found that I wasn't sweep picking the bits I thought I was.
  • My short stories 'A Madder Scientist' and 'The Apocalypse Factor' have both been accepted for Semaphore Magazine's print anthology.
  • My job hunting has intensified, and seems to involve a lot of careful phrasing on the cover letters, largely to make it clear how medieval history is relevant to anything normal.
  • On the editing front, there seem to be a few more short story submissions for GC than last month. Either it's a seasonal thing, or the efforts to publicise it by all our editors are having an effect. Mostly the effect of me having a lot more stories to check than I expected, suggesting that I should possibly have spread my efforts out more over the month.
  • One kind (joking I hope) comment that nevertheless shows much of what's wrong with british fencing. 'You should be in the olympics or something'. Only if I get a lot better very quickly. Still, it made me laugh.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Having put the PhD into the binders, I've gone back to the novel I was working on before academic stuff took priority. It's an intriguing experience going back to things after a short break. You come at it with fresh eyes, and so very quickly get a feeling for whether what's there is any good or not. I'm happy to say that I liked what I'd already written, and quickly got on with writing the next bit.

I think that's the other main thing you get from breaks: a burst of enthusiasm and ideas afterwards. In fact, in creative contexts other than writing, it's considered fairly normal advice that you should take a break now and then, so that you can come back with new inspiration. Of course, that runs counter to the normal writing idea of writing every day to get into the habit of being creative, so which approach works best?

I suspect that, as a general thing, it's better to write than not. Stopping every time you don't particularly feel like writing anything that day can easily turn into "I haven't written anything for weeks" without you realising. Writing something each day is probably a good base point. Probably better still is wanting to write something each day. After all, we do this because we enjoy it, don't we?

At the same time, there are times when it's easy to get stuck in a rut. You've written essentially the same story a few times in a row. You've repeated ideas throughout the novel. You can't tell the last half dozen poems apart. That sort of thing. Or worse, whatever your creative endeavour, it's starting to feel like Work. I'm pretty sure that's the oposite of the sort of thing we normally want.

So getting away from things is sometimes a good idea. The trick is to judge when you need it, and I suspect that comes back to the idea I mentioned above, of wanting to write every day. Ultimately, most of us aren't paid for this. Or at least, we aren't getting rich from it. We write because we want to. I think that the key to knowing when to back off is paying attention to whether you're enjoying it. If you have a day when things aren't going well, then fine, you might want to push through it. If you have a string of days when you just hit a blank, or when it feels more like work than fun, then it might be time to have a break.

I once went through a phase of trying to practise the guitar properly every day. I'd do my warm ups and my scales, and try to move up a notch on the metronome. I'd do the same exercises over and over, and pretty soon I found that I wasn't looking forward to playing. Now, I play more or less when I feel like it. The thing is, I probably play more now than I did then, and my playing is better for it. Sometimes, if you focus on simply enjoying what you're doing, you get far more done than when you try to force it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


  • The first training session of the new fencing season over at Hull's fairly social fencing club was on Thursday. It's a bit odd not preparing for the university one for the first time in years, but I'd like to think I'm having a positive effect. At least, there was a sudden outbreak of sabre-ing, which has to be a good thing.
  • On the other hand, I have apparently become monumentally unfit over the summer, probably from the lack of cricket. As in "ready to collapse by the end of a match" unfit. I may have to do something about that. Or just settle for sticking my arm out and waiting for the other person to run onto it.
  • Lots of printing to do today. I hope my tired old printer feels up to 576 pages of research, but suspect it probably isn't going to like it. Since we're off to the bindary on Tuesday, it will just have to cope. Spare printers are on hand.
  • For the first time in ages, I've started a history book that I'm simply interested in, rather than because I suspect it may have the word "minster" tucked away in it somewhere. Actually, Arnold's Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe still might, but that's not why I'm reading it.
  • I'm continuing to break bits of research down into articles, basically rewriting relevant bits of chapters, but I'm taking my time. It doesn't strike me as something to do in a rush, and I want the main thesis in first.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Guest Post

Although any ideas of an extended blog tour are currently on hold while I take the time to learn how best to do it, Jodie over at Book Gazing has been kind enough to let me put up a guest post over there.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Jasper Fforde: First Among Sequels

By now, I imagine some of you will know that I'm something of a Jasper Fforde fan. I liked the first four novels of the Thursday Next series, and loved the spin offs dealing with the activities of Reading's "Nursery Crime" division. It is with some sadness then that I have to agree with my mate Adam's assessment of this book as really not very good.

The basic plot is... actually, I suspect that may be the problem. As I understand it, the plot is that Thursday Next must save the bookworld from being turned into reality TV, prevent the time travelling Chronoguard from getting hold of the secret of time travel, and do something about falling reader rates at the same time. It seems a bit thin for 350+ pages, really.

In fact, there's plenty going on. There are some extra Thursdays wandering around, a couple of assasination attempts, some stuff about doing away with a national "stupidity surplus", some fairly random stuff about Thursday's children, jokes, arguments, and all sorts of other stuff that should be fairly good when nailed to a strong central idea.

The trouble is, there isn't one. Stuff turns up. Stuff happens. Quite a lot of it seems to come out of nowhere. There's a whole segment with a minor villainous henchman that doesn't come from anything in the book, but apparently sets up things in the next. In fact, if I try and put my finger on it, that's probably the problem. This book feels a lot like one of those in-between ones, tying up loose ends, introducing new bits, and not really concentrating on its own story. There are still some nice gags (and a surprisingly random guest appearance from Dr Temperance Brennan) but the whole thing feels like a patchwork cobbled together from bits Fforde thought "this is great, let's include it" about.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

zombie chicken

Jodie over at Book Gazing has been kind enough to present me with this zombie chicken award. Though if it comes with actual zombie chickens there might be problems. The cat has enough problems chasing pheasants.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Gary Murning

There's an interview up over at Gloom Cupboard that I did with Gary Murning, author of If I Never.


  • I think I've finished the writing and proofreading on the PhD. I think. It's hard to be certain with this sort of thing, because my supervisor might make a last minute suggestion, or I might need to re-do bits to get it through, but I think it's finally done. Of course, I've still got the sitting waiting and hoping the examiners like it to do, and then the viva to get through, even once it's in.
  • The first royalty statement for Searching came through this morning, and more than the anticipated (by me in my more pessimistic moments) three people bought it. Still not likely to start troubling the bestseller lists in the near future, but good anyway.
  • Because of these two factors, I might actually do some work on some fiction in a minute.
  • Then again, I might continue working on the history articles, which are probably a better use of my time, but slightly harder to fit jokes into. Though I suppose I could try.
  • I'm reading Jasper Fforde's First Among Sequels with a certain amount of trepidation. My friend Adam, whose opinion I respect on these things, was really quite scathing about this one. I can only hope that his occasional chemistry related accidents have temporarily knocked his sense of humour sideways. (Try standing further from the exploding test tubes, Adam)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Help please...

I'm trapped in this computer thingie. No, not there, under the grills. You'll need a screwdriver...

Sorry, I was having a bit of a flashback to the Amiga game "Cannon Fodder", which in the interminable installation took a moment to ask for a cup of tea. I can't help but wonder if anyone ever did pour it into the vents as it asked.

Now to what I'm actually asking for help with. It occurs to me that, what with one thing and another (mostly 900 year old things, but also the bit where I didn't notice it happening), I didn't really do that much publicity when Searching was launched. For all that it's not nearly silly enough for my current tastes, I'd quite like to put together a bit of a blog tour to promote it, on the basis that I'm probably a lot more confident and outgoing this side of a computer screen than I'll ever be face to face.

If anyone feels kind enough to host me, please let me know.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Semaphore Magazine

The September edition of Semaphore Magazine is up, and contains my rather odd take on reality TV talent shows, "The Apocalypse Factor". I like it, and hopefully you will too. Don't forget to check out the rest of the magazine, since there's usually lots of good stuff in there. If you feel inclined to give me high marks in their reader survey thingy to decide the contents of the anthology, so much the better.