Sunday, 25 May 2014

Living five minutes into the future

For a while now, I've been aware that I'm travelling in time. Well, partially.

My mind is separated into two distinct parts. One is living in the now, reacting and observing events as they happen, and the other part is thinking about what is to come in the next five minutes, five days, five weeks, months, years. I have to force myself to be fully aware of everything around me.

This thought process has been exacerbated by my writing. I'm always looking towards the next project, or the next (small) marketing attempt or offer. I plan novels that are years down the line, before I've even finished the one I'm working on at the moment. I know that this is bad practice for someone who wants to be a writer, but that doesn't make it any easier to stop, it just gives me a feeling of hollow guilt when another hour of free time fizzes past with no progress made. I constantly feel as if I'm starting out, rather than realising that I have two years of focussed writing and indie publishing experience (though not hugely successful). This feeling gives me energy, but it's a dissonant energy, shredded with nerves.

This sense of future nervousness affects my home life too. I think about the future of my daughters, and how our relationship will be when they are older. Will they respect me? Will they be happy? Will they want me around? I hope so. This wondering can also lead me to forget that right now, at the ages of four and two, they do want me around. I know I need to appreciate that fact more, lock out all other thoughts, and simply play.

It's easier said than done. Isolation is hard to achieve now. For many of us, events can be made known moments after happening. We are constantly aware of others' lives through social networking, so much so that it makes us less aware of our own.
I long for the days before I had a mobile phone, when I could go for a walk and not be found. I know I could go for a walk now, and leave my phone off, or at home, but there would always be a tiny part of my mind thinking about it. There was a purity of thought before I had the option. As much as I love writing, I'd give it all up to live in a remote cottage, and get some farming done. Seriously.

And there we go again, living in the future, or possible future, rather than the now. See how easy it is to slip?

This isn't a pontification about how technology is a plague. After all, this is a blog! It's more of a lesson for myself. If writing this helps me to give a few more moments of focus to my wife and children, then it's worth it. And don't worry, they're not here. I'm writing this on the train to work, and thinking of them.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Why I don't think of myself as a writer.

I know this will be a divisive topic, but it’s something that crops up a lot in the world of indie and self-published authors. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before, but I thought I’d dedicate a blog post to the subject as a way of fully explaining my position.
In the last two years I have written four novels, a series of six novellas, and nine short stories. I have also had a number one in the UK in the cyberpunk category with the first of my novels, The Binary Man.
I don’t consider myself a writer. I consider myself a father who writes.
This is not because I don’t value what I’m doing, day in, day out. I don’t consider writing a hobby. I love writing. I’ve always loved writing. I love crafting a story, honing it, and trying to get my words into the correct order so that they can convey precisely the image that I had in mind. I may not always achieve this, but the action itself is addictive.
It’s also not because I think that only traditionally published authors are bona fide. There are many writers who are self-publishing and have a great standard of prose, and I’ve been lucky enough to read some of their stuff. It’s humbling.
The reason is simply this… if I call myself a writer, then my success (or relative lack of it) is more immediate. If I measure my worth by my income (as many do, though I don’t) and judge it solely on my earnings from my books, I would fail to provide for myself or my kids. If I were to judge myself on the performance of my books and how well I think they should do (I really think Shy could do well, but as yet it hasn’t), I’d give up writing in an instant just to preserve my mental health.
I don’t want to give up writing. I want to carry on practicing, getting in my 10,000 hours so that I can finally get that missing something that will make one of my stories take off. If it means that I have to go a few more years without calling myself a writer, then so be it. At least the writing will still get done.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

My house is a mess.

My house is a mess. The walls are stained, the carpet is scattered with debris, and the windows are obscured by crayon. Dust clings. Toys creep out of their boxes daily and spread throughout the house like fungous. Blankets and pillows lie twisted upon a bed that refuses to be made.
We struggle against it, of course, my wife and I. We are stoic Canutes, willing the tide of filth away, to little effect. We dust and hoover and wipe and scrape, though we never reach the heady heights of being able to polish. Every day it forces its way back on us, the disorder and the chaos, caused by the two tornadoes - one medium, one small - that whirl from room to room. We sigh, we fight, we sweat, we fail.
And yet...
I see the crayon that runs from wall to wall in the bathroom, and remember my children narrating stories of great importance to themselves, and therefore to me. I see the coffee stains slipping behind the radiator, and remember a little shocked face, my harsh words, and the reconciliation of a tiny hug from a fragile body. I see the black rings that spread across the carpet from wall to wall and remember the unruly mealtimes when they just wouldn’t sit down – such a contrast to their increasingly mature behaviour, as their childhood changes in aspect daily. Each mess is a reminder. Each etched pen mark is an exploration. Each moment is a moment passed.
I miss my children daily, each and every one, the ones that leave every day to be replaced by a new one, so similar, and yet different. I resent the fact that I must work, and be away from their smiles and cries and life.
I would clean up after them for eternity, if I could.
I love my messy house, and I love them.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Fantastic Cheese

After spending a little time promoting Shy (though probably not enough) I’m starting to force myself back into writing, with The Overcloud Codex being my main focus.

The plot’s protagonist is named Tomas Rask. He is the Allfather, the head of an order named The Vigil. He is an acerbic man in his mid-sixties, who carries the dead weight of a colossal book known as the Overcloud Codex on his back wherever he goes, using its dangerous knowledge to protect himself and others. The Vigil are tasked with keeping the shadowy entities that sit at the edge of reality from overflowing into the lands of the Redsnow Baronies. In the past the order was revered, but such was there success of their actions that the threat of encroachment dwindled, and the people forgot the shadows that used to haunt their nights and instead began to focus on each other, squabbling between themselves over the pastures, forests and jewel-rich mountains. But something is growing in the west, beyond Razor’s Pass, waiting for an opportunity to spread across the land once again. All that stands in its way is one man, and one book.
This is not a story of colleges of wizards and glittering armies of beautifully sculpted elves, this is a low-tech fantasy, more dark ages than medieval. It will be filled with struggle, grime, and enough shades of grey to write a porno with. Tomas’ journey will be arduous, as will my own, as I try to keep cheese from the tale.

I used to read quite a lot of fantasy as a youth, and I won’t name any titles here, simply because there is still a fan base for most of the books that I read, I enjoyed them (for the most part) and there is definitely a place for high fantasy, but as I grew up I found the genre was full of stories that seemed too detached from reality to be believable, even if they are by definition unbelievable, if that makes sense. There was too much that was idealised for me to connect. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me.

Female warriors were slim, curvaceous, and in all cases beautiful. It seemed to matter little that they were swinging large pieces of metal, they still didn’t seem to grow the large muscles in their arms necessary for the task, or develop the scars, disfigurements or broken noses that their male counterparts did. They didn’t stink of sweat from struggling through miles of harsh mountainside. They had long hair, (easy to grab in a melee) and it never got matted or gummed up with dirt and twigs. It was all about being sexy in a chainmail bikini (I mean really, what is that? Gut shot with an arrow, down. Wear some bloody ARMOUR!)

Elves were all beautiful, graceful, and intelligent. Dwarves were all grumpy, greedy and brave. Trolls were all... trollish. All right, maybe I’ll accept that one. And the magic, oh the magic. It was bloody everywhere! Mage guild this, necromancer that. Farmers must get home after a long night of toil, wipe their faces with a cloth and go to light a candle on the house fire, and think “FML, what I wouldn’t give to be able to get a glowing orb on the go like Fizzbang down the road”.

The exception for me was always Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. For all of its farce, which was a joy in itself, it was clearly a mirror of our own world, and showed the ludicrous nature of our own lives by refracting it through a fantasy lens. A great example comes from the very first book, The Colour Of Magic, where insurance is invented, and is shown to be effectively gambling on when your house will burn down. If it does, you win the cash! In another book, Lords and Ladies, Elves are seen as being predators from beyond, playing with humans that fall for their charm. Beautifully simple, and a great way of turning the genre on its head.

There is of course the white elephant in the room (on the page?) with George R.R. Martin, who everyone can agree has created a great medieval-esque world, but despite its genius and faux-realism, still has the dragons. Yes, I know people are excited about them, probably everyone except me, but I enjoyed the books more when it was about intrigue and battles. It’s not that I want to read medieval fiction rather than fantasy, as I love reading about a fictional world, and enjoy the grisly parts of the story that take place beyond The Wall. It’s just that something about the overpowered nature of the dragons seems out of place to me. Plus, some of the scenes in the books seem a little adolescent. Are women really aware of their breasts rubbing against cloth as they walk? I certainly don’t feel my baubles smacking around in my trousers as I’m wandering around.

Where was I?

So, yes, my attempt to give a bit of grounding to my text. Here are my pledges.

1. The fantasy genre has its “rules” as much as any, with plenty of description being one of its main elements. Fantastic lands come alive with details, or drown in them. Keeping my story action packed whilst still containing enough information to create a vivid landscape will be tough, but hopefully I’ll do all right. Martin certainly manages to keep everything going at a breakneck pace, except when it comes to describing food (luscious quail eggs overflowing with the golden nectar of the pya pya pya).

2. I will create warriors as warriors, whether male or female.

3. “Magic” will be a rare and much sought after commodity, able to curse and save, often at the same time.

4. Beasts will be beasts, driven by animalistic urges.

5. There will be no blanket “good” races or “bad” races.

6. Blood will flow.

7. I will try to show the full spectrum of humanity, from the lowest of deeds to the most noble, though they will not necessarily be rewarded, because....

8. There will be no fate.

This last point is the most important for me, as I have always felt that it detracted from any deed. If it was meant to be, where is the achievement?

So, I’m off to the Redsnow Baronies. May the Allfather watch over me, and keep the cheese from my narrative sandwich.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

How to write (when you don't have time to)

It's coming up to the two year anniversary of the first publication of my dystopian novel The Binary Man, and the beginning of my adventures in writing, so I thought I'd share a bit about how I go about destroying myself on a regular basis, all in the name of narrative.

For many, including myself, writing is a hobby. I don't mean to say that it is any less important to me (it's my biggest passion, apart from my family), but it isn't my main source of income, at least not yet (fingers crossed until they snap).

I have a demanding full time job, and two small children (two and four) to look after. As I'm not willing to be an unavailable parent, I have had to come up with a framework for my writing so that I don't jeapordise either my family or working life which has allowed me to write three novels, a series of six novellas, and several short stories in the past two years. 

(This list is sometimes more intention than actuality).

Work out your optimum writing time

Everyone has a different body clock, so working out when the writing part of your brain is functioning at a satisfying level is recommended, to save having to trawl through hundreds of words of junk when you're finally switched on. The early morning works best for me, with prime time being between 10am and noon.

Cut down "leisure" time

So you want to play a bit of Shogun Total War? Sorry, those ronin ruled territories will have to wait to feel the heavy boot of your Shogunate. It’s time to tear your hair out over a freshly discovered plot hole that has destroyed the foundation of an entire novel. This is your fun now.

Make 4 a.m. your friend

There is something liberating about being the only person stupid enough to be awake. Even birds are hitting the snooze button. Use that isolation to bring your narrative world to life. The precious hours before your daily routine are a bleary eyed gift.

Ignore your kids

Just kidding.

Get the train to work

If you have the choice between the car or the train, take the train. I get an hour and a half extra screen time a day that way, although sometimes I do spend the time crammed in next to beer soaked football fans managing to scream without using any consonants whatsoever.

Find some writing music

This can be whatever works best for you, but I find that instrumental music generally helps, so that my writing doesn’t get cross contaminated with Nick Cave’s lyrics. It also helps to drown out others when you’re typing up a storm on the commute.

Realise you have two jobs

Even if one of them has a far poorer pound-per-hour ratio (guess which one). Get organised, add some structure, and think ahead. You never know when you might be able to grab half an hour.

Keep a notebook

Anyone who writes will recognise the deadly ‘blank page stare’. Counter this by noting down ideas as they come to you, to ensure you have ammunition for your next session.

A lot of these points have been said before, but hopefully someone somewhere will find them useful. I’ll probably print out a copy for myself, as I shirked my 4 a.m. start today and stayed in bed until 5.45, which means that am now having to finish this blog post with a small child (drinking juice whilst dressed as a rabbit) perched on my lap.