Tag Archives: novel

London Book Fair pt 2

Further work to prepare myself for visiting the London Book Fair.

I have looked through the list of agents who are attending and researched which (a) are open to submissions (b) are interested in science fiction (c) which agents within the company are those who hold that brief (d) what books they like and other interests (e) were they are based. The idea is to have a short list of a dozen or so who seem a good fit – they would potentially like the book and could we work together.

I’m not expecting to get signed up there and then, but want to have a better chance of being looked at if they agree to receive the manuscript. As it inevitably says in most of the rejection letters I have received, whether an agent decides to take on a client is as much about “fit” as the quality of the book. Do they personally like it, does it fit the current marketplace, and are you the sort of person they will be happy to work with.

The marketplace issue is an interesting one. Publishers need to signal to potential readers why they should stump up the cost of buying the book. If they can describe it as “like a, b or c” that make that job easier. Everything from the blurb to the cover to the media releases will then be geared to make it look as much like other books you like as possible. Breaking through a book that doesn’t fit that easily into a category is that much harder.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was a wonderful book but not one that slotted comfortably into an existing genre. The hardback was therefore heavily discounted when it was launched and a lot of effort was put into getting advance plaudits from people who the public recognise and like. Once it had taken off, it opened the door to market other books as being “like The Night Circus”. Almost inevitably there will be a lot of books over the next few years that are pale imitations and dilute the genre. That category of novels will either grow if there are sufficient which are good enough to build a market, or will wither away leaving Morgenstern to stand alone.

A good example is steam punk, which my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry shares elements with. The initial examples by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, K.W.Jeter, and the one off collaboration by Sterling and Gibson “The Difference Engine” used the idea of an alternative Victorian setting in interesting ways. Most of the subsequent works have taken the superficial elements of the setting and lost what the originals were about. That doesn’t mean they are bad books – just ones that are comforting rather than challenging. One of the joys of the Difference Engine is that it makes you look at not only Victorian England but the present day in a new way. I hope The Revolutionary Tapestry does the same, but also incorporates the fun element of Steampunk at its best – Powers The Anubis Gates being the best example of this.

The same goes for alternative history. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle was a brilliant novel which asked important questions about being human in a world under a malign government and the nature of reality.  Just as with Steampunk, other worthwhile novels in the same genre are fun explorations of “what if”. However there are also scores of novels that simply write a straightforward  narrative with some historical research for seasoning.

I have always loved the writing of Alfred Jarry and the many other movements and artists he has inspired. His life is as fantastic as any of his writings and he lived in a period which not only was filled with equally enthralling people, but contains the seeds of our world today in the issues it faced. The scientific advances, the political challenge of anarchism and communism. Imperialism and its effect on the subjugated populations. The enormous gap between rich and poor. Struggles with equality and sexuality and what it means to be a man or a woman. Not to mention the anti-Semitism and general racism. At the same time people were investigating the nature of mind with neuroscience, psychology and altered states of consciousness as well as exploring the works of eastern science and esoteric beliefs.

An alternative history novel where the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t fall but succeeded and ran France seemed a good way of exploring some of these themes and the idea of the Tapestry – a proto internet based on a combination of radio and punch cards gave me not only a way of looking at information, disinformation and its political effect but also a metaphor for the way the story weaves together different lives and plot strands   as well as themes. I also stole a few techniques from John Dos Passos (without the level of skill or complexity I fear) to paint the society in both width and depth.

Most of all, I wanted it to be fun –  not laugh out loud funny but fast paced, exciting and witty in both the overall story and lots of the details. It is not Jarryesque in its style (I am definitely not worthy) but hopefully it has his sense of invention and playfulness. Some of the jokes also come from weaving some of the ideas in his writing into the plot and scenes.

One of my pre-readers suggested it could easily be taken as an historical novel if you didn’t know enough about the period to see where the timelines diverged and where the real ends and extrapolation begins. However Alastair Brotchie’s marvellous biography of Jarry and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years do such a good job of describing the reality it would be pointless retelling the truth.

Jules is doing a wonderful job re-reading it to identify issues (as well as the typos etc I have inevitably still missed so I will do the final revise today, cut it up again into the various different sizes that are needed for different agents, and rehearse an elevator pitch so I can make the best first impression I can.



A Kind of Magic

I’m about to start rewriting Masonic Fire (or Chasing the Dragon depending on which title I go for) for the second time.
I did the first draft last November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a straight conspiracy thriller. I then had more ideas for the main characters as occult thrillers so went back and rewote it adding supernatural elements.
While my best reader and critic – my wife Jules – liked both versions, she felt the second one hadn’t integrated the supernatural elements well enough as there was no underlying rationale for them. What I then decided to do was to think about the underlying structure of that universe so the books would explore that as well as working as stories.
Most novels featuring supernatural elements or magic just accept it as a given and use one or more occult traditions as a backdrop. The reason we don’t generally experience this in everyday life is the UFOlogist explanation – it is there but is covered up in some way by either the magicians themselves or some government agency that doesn’t want us to know what’s really going on. Or we simply suppress the memory.
There are a few ways of trying to put some kind of scientific rationale for magic:
• The Arthur C Clarke theory – magic is simply advanced technology. That is (sort of) the approach Lovecraft used – magic relies on the presence of ancient aliens whose technology is so far beyond ours that it looks miraculous and acts of magic by humans is based on tapping that power
• Magic is something that comes into our universe from somewhere else where it does work – either an extradimensional world of Faerie, or the Pratt/ de Camp approach where the underlying laws of an adjacent universe work differently so magic is possible. The Zelazny/Amber variation is that our world is shadow of a real world where magic works.
• Magic is based on undeveloped powers of the human mind which a few individuals have been able to tap into
All of them are bit of cop out in my view – that doesn’t mean that I don’t like enjoy them, as I do. Just that I don’t like them for my own work as I want to be able to write about issues in our own world that I care about which means most of the characters should be ordinary people with ordinary human strengths and weaknesses.
Most stories featuring the occult or magic have heroes who are special – they have talents the rest of us don’t. I want to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which I believe is the real magic in our world.
I cheat a bit in the science I use – a lot is theories that are not wholly accepted, to say the least. I then use that to develop a revamp of history which keeps the same facts, but puts a different spin on what is happening.
The core of it is the Einstein/Bell/Rodalsky paradox which points out that the behaviour of paired particles contradicts the Theory of General Relativity as they seem to indicate something travels faster than the speed of light. My explanation is that there is a fundamental substrate of information which means at a quantum level everything is connected.
At the other end is Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point. A Jesuit Priest and scientist he speculated that the purpose of the universe was to evolve consciousness to a point where it becomes God. In my version of the universe that collective godhood then travels back in time and sets the condition for the Big Bang – thus having an ouroboros loop where it sets the conditions for its own creation.
Between these bottom and top levels are James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis where the earth is a collective organism which is itself evolving in the same way its constituent creatures are, and Jung’s Collective Unconscious which links all human beings at a fundamental level populated by common archetypes. Jung’s idea has a number of variations from the mundane that our brain structure throws up things that we interpret in a similar way, to a more mystical one. Mine is at the mystical end which uses the Gaia theory and the pairing of particles to suggest that we actually do communicate unconsciously in a real way.
The working out of this can then be used to explain magic, bringing in things like stone tapes, mystically charging objects and places, possession, supernatural creatures, ghosts, and the power of ritual.
The reason in my universe that we don’t see magic is that there are three basic worldviews that are competing to impose their version of the Omega point on the universe – the magical, the religious and the rational/scientific. There are only a few people in each of these camps that understand what is going on and are in the battle knowingly and who consciously propagate their memes in order to win. Those who see the supernatural either accept it or rationalise it according to their own world view.
There is an organisation first set up by the Royal Society – or more accurately by its predecessor the Invisible College – to maintain a balance between the three world views. Hence the re-explanation of history. When the protagonists accidentally stumble into the machinations of people who want to change the balance in their favour, they are introduced to the organisation which reveals this truth to them.
Now I’ve worked it out, I just need to rewrite the story!

A Novel in a month? easy peasy!

Not quite what the title suggests, but I managed to achieve the 50k target for the National Novel Writing in a Month challenge by day 17 instead of 31. However it took another couple of days of work to actually finish the book and it will take about twice as long to get it to a state I’m happy with. Nevertheless not too bad an achievement.

I had done some work before I started – a general idea of the plot, characters and enough background reading to have lots of info to drop in at appropriate times. As it was set in a city I lived in for 25 years I just needed the odd peak at an A-Z to remind myself of street names (Like most old cities Norwich’s street names can change halfway through to reflect the medieval street layout) and what connected to what at what point.

As a conspiracy thriller, I had to decide what the conspiracy was, and its historic origins. This was a mix of join the dots history (this looks a bit like this so they must be connected) and if in doubt, making it up.The vast majority of the historic background and myths about the city are real, but the way I link them up is imagined and I did invent a couple of historic documents to link things up.It is, of course, not quite the Norwich of today. Although I tried to base the novel in the period I was writing it, the people are made up and the core drivers of the plot are imaginary, though plausible.

The only real character (apart from versions of myself and Jules I couldn’t resist putting in) is local former bookshop owner Norman Peake and I hope he forgives me killing him off (spoiler alert if it ever gets published). Any resemblance to other real people alive or dead is probably libellous so will be strenuously denied.

The timing was quite good as Jules has been working as a supporting artists in London on a six week shoot so I was able to sit at home or in a café in London and type for dear life. It was quite good discipline, though as I have since rattled out 50 pages of notes for a potential sit com and done lots of housework and admin stuff. Our accounts are now up to date, as are those for the Dare2dream Charity, and I’ve finally got round to ordering the 30 light bulbs I need to replace around the house.

Next job is to go back to the Revolutionary Tapestry and edit it into a decent shape so I can start sending it to agents. That is a more ambitious book with a bit of worldbuilding and a lot of period feel to get right in both the setting and characters. I got a couple more books with background info for my birthday so will read and make my usual copious notes on them.

The other good thing is that three stories of mine will appear in the anthology being created for Christmas by the local writer’s group so relatives and friends can guess one thing they may get as a present this year!

Two days in to NaNoWriMo

Two days in to National Novel Writing Month and still going strong! I’m ahead of my word count but it is the weekend so that makes life easier. Jules is working in London a lot of this month so I will have lots of opportunities to either work at home on my own or sit in a café and write while she does some supporting artist work or rehearses for her understudy role at a Christmas show.

I did a fair bit of prep in October – I already had the basic plot idea and some thoughts on locations and characters and I’ve raided some stuff from a short story I started and decided wasn’t working. As it’s set in Norwich I’m familiar with the geography and the background politics and institutions so don’t have to do the same amount of research I did for the Revolutionary Tapestry.

The extra stuff was reading more detail on Norwich in the 1750s and rereading books on the Hellfire Clubs and links between Freemasonry and architecture.

The basic concept hasn’t changed but I moved the time period to the present day rather than the 1990s and wrote biographies of the main characters. That helped as I was able to build in thoughts on the relationships between the characters and background tensions and conflicts not relating to the main action but informing it. While writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I realised it was about family and parenthood and while thinking about Masonic Fire I’ve realised it is about politics and elites and what marginalisation or exclusion does to people.

I suspect I’ll reach the target of 50,000 words in plenty of time and continue writing for a significant word count after that but, as always, the hard work will then be editing it down. It’s not about word count its about making every word count.


Research Material paris_commune-popular-illustration

It isn’t just in post modernism that books are made of other books. Even in ancient Greece writers would be influenced by other writers and use their works as a jumping off point for their own writing. So in writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I have been doing a lot of research and general background reading to try and make sure (a) it is accurate and (b) it “feels” right in those parts which are invention rather than historical fact.

Although the novel is an alternate history the bits before the change have to be real history and the parts after the change have to be realistic.

The key books are Alastair Brotchie’s wonderful Alfred Jarry a ‘Pataphysical Life, and the Atlas press editions of Jarry’s oevre and other books of the period with their invaluable notes. On the broader canvas of Fin de Siecle Paris Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was, David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts, Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years and the invaluable Bohemian Paris of Today by William Chambers Morrow were great.

I’ve attached a copy of the key list with links to where you can find them for anyone who is interested. I would also recommend the joy of Google – searching for people, places and events as you come across them in reading will throw up lots of other connections you can cut and paste into word documents – my background notes are nearly as long as the novel will be, although I will use only a small fraction of them. I want to avoid the trap of writing up the research rather than the story.

There are lots of other books that have also contributed in a less direct way – works by other authors of the period including Dr Faustroll’s Equivalent Books, fiction which is set around that period although written later, and fiction that also has Jarry or his contemporaries as characters. In a real way I’ve been preparing for this unconsciously since I first bought Jarry’s Supermale, Ubu plays and The Banquet Years in 1972. And, of course in a work that is Postmodern there are a lot of references that are to books, films and music that are not of the period but reference back, forward and sideways.

Edinburgh – week three

Just about to start our third week in Edinburgh of My Sister Says I’m Special. Phil has been replaced by Donna and Chris as roadies and Jules has done some great shows – she is definitely more in the moment when she is on stage and is comfortable enough to really play when she is on stage. We have also managed to see a lot more shows – mostly compilations of comedians (what is the collective noun for comedians? A chortle?). Some of these are great, some not so, but a lot depends on how many are in the audience compared to room size.

I’ve also finished doing the research notes on the novel and should incorporate these into the synopsis next week when it is just Jules and I. I now know a lot about Alfred Jarry and Fin de Siecle Paris.

The best English language biography of Jarry by some way is Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry a Pataphysical Life which is imaculatey researched and includes lots of material not in other biographies. It is also bias free – Alastair rehearses the speculation about Jarry’s life and works but is careful to identify his own and others’ opinions so the reader can make their own mind up. The Jill Fell book An Imagination in Revolt includes a lot more “creative” biography on Jarry’s art influences – he may have been influenced by various things around at the time but no evidence trail is cited.

The research has deepened my view of many of the subsidiary real characters in the novel but has not made me have to change it radically – just identify ways in which I can give a better picture of who they are in the appropriate parts of the plot. It has also thrown up lots of serendipitous detail I can incorporate to enrich the book and incorporate some in jokes. The danger now is to avoid it being a novel about Jarry rather than one about the two other lead characters so I will have to work on enriching their back stories and emotional depth. There is also the little challenge of making the “villain” a real person when they are off screen for most of the time for the very good reason that they are supposed to be a shadowy figure.

Thankfully I’ve not had to change any of the action, or alter history more than in my original conceit. Some events will change dates slightly or happen in a marginally different way, but not enough to seem like undue artifice.

Onwards and upwards.

Revolutionary Tapestry – the synopsis

I’ve just finished doing the first draft of the synopsis of the novel – The revolutionary tapestry. I’ve also been doing some character studies of the main protagonists as exercises for my Open University course in creative writing so killing two birds with one stone. Now comes the hard slog!

Not that writing the synopsis was that easy. It was a very useful exercise in blocking out the setting, plot, characters and some detail, but there is a challenge in deciding what to put in and what to leave out. As usual Jules was a great first reader as (a) she doesn’t know as much as I do about the setting so is able to say when things are not clear because I haven’t translated what’s in my head to the paper and (b) because she has great emotional intelligence so is able to say if what the characters do doesn’t feel realistic. What is happening inside the characters heads and hearts is one of the things I knew I would have to put in, but I got a bit engrossed in making sure I get down the quite complicated plot structure.

She was also perceptive enough to spot the points at which my energy levels flagged and the writing became more bullet point notes than sentences.

Although having someone read your work is always a bit frightening, the discussion afterwards meant we were able to think about the two sequels as well as the current book – I already had a broad idea for the second one but the third wasn’t even on my horizon until Jules came up with a suggestion that was perfect.

There may well be changes to the plot of the first novel but I think I’ve got the core set out – a hard task as there are several strands happening at once which all need to link together and tie up any loose ends.

Now I need to go back to the research I’ve done and look at where and how facts are woven into the story so I avoid big chunks of exposition, and do more work on all of the characters – not just the main ones – who have more than a walk on part in the book. With more than a dozen books providing core background on setting and characters, and about 50 pages of information gleaned from the internet, this next phase is another big chunk of work. However, when it’s done I will have a solid base to draw on in writing the actual novel.

Building a world that shares a lot with real history, but has some core differences which affect a lot of detail in that world is a challenge. It’s a bit like writing a historical novel, thriller, and science fiction novel all in one. What you invent has to be consistent with aspects of real history as well as internally. Oh what fun!

Starting the Novel

I’ve already written (or at least done the first draft of) one novel. However like all first novels it was autobiographical and probably quite libellous, as well as far too short. That’s in the Scrivener filing cabinet for when I feel is a good time to go back to it.

I’m about to start on novel number two – this time for real.

The title is the Revolutionary Tapestry as it is an alternative world novel where a series of changes mean a proto internet is around based on a combination of radio and punch card style computing which sends text across the globe to be printed as newsheets across the globe.

The technology started in a France where the Communards pressed home their advantage against government forces and got them to surrender, rather than resting on their laurels and partying. France is also exploiting the oil which is just off its coastline rather than further up the North Sea basin.

The third fundamental change is that this is a world where conspiracies work rather than being as ineffectual as they are in our world. That kind of “join the dots” history is great fun but I don’t really buy the idea that some secret cults are running the world, or that the moon landings never happened and the mass membership of the NRA killed Kennedy.

The hero is a journalist working for several of the hundreds of free newspapers circulating the globe with the Revolutionary Tapestry of the title, sparking uprisings and revolts in lots of other countries. His best friend is Alfred Jarry whose Ubu Roi is about to be premiered. After a terrorist bomb explodes his life does to as he is pursued by a set of different conspiracy groups all thinking he has the key to their plots, while he tracks down the mysterious Fantom behind the terrorism.

This gives me a chance to write about the city, period and artists I love without having to stick too closely to historic facts – although I have done a lot of research about the period as the people and architecture would not be too changed – only the politics and the technology.

Watch this space for progress….