Careful What You Wish For / The Wrong Trousers (26/01/10)

Posted in Critical Failures

It had to happen. I’ve come home from the cleaners with the wrong trousers. Long and dark and in a bag. So I get them out this morning to put them on and immediately they don’t feel right and I know something’s wrong, and eventually I work out they have acquired pinstripes as well as a whole new texture , and finally, after a lot of head-scratching, I get around to looking at the label.

I am not Mrs Ronson. I’m pretty sure about that.

Also these trousers are too long. I am moved to comment on this to Adamantine Lady, as I am a fairly long fellow myself, and this may make identifying the owner of these errant trousers much easier. Really tall person, 6′6″ or more, walking around in their underpants looking pissed off.

Adamantine Lady: (pensively) (who has a minor thing going for really tall people) “Really? I think I’d like to meet Mr Ronson.”

Me: (With great smugness): “Mr Ronson? It says Mrs Ronson.” Yes, instead of acknowledging the extremely likely possibility that these trousers have been taken to the cleaners by some gentleman’s wife, I prefer to explore the extremely unlikely possibility that Brigitte Nielson’s 6′6″ Amazon half-sister a) exists and b) has her trousers cleaned in Chelmsford. There may be a certain wish-fulfilment to this line of thought. By the time I am finished with pointing out this possibility, I am the king of smug. Ha, let that teach you to jump to conclusions!

Adamantine Lady: (precisely exactly as pensively as before) “Really? I think I’d like to meet Mrs Ronson.”

Exit author under a cloud of hoist-by-your-own-petard-ness.

Mr/Mrs Ronson, I have your trousers. I do apologise. I will aim to return them shortly.

Story-Writing 101 (20/1/2010)

Posted in Critical Failures

A while back I was invited into the local infant school to teach children a little bit about writing stories. I think what I actually managed to teach them was how to draw a cartoon dragon and a cartoon goblin, but hey, they liked the visuals, so here they are, in case anyone wants to try and do a better job.


The ideas I was trying to present are pretty simple, and are also pretty much how I set about writing a novel:

Start at the beginning of the story

Know who your story is about

Know what problem they need to solve

(or what challenge they need to overcome – remember I’m talking to six-year-olds here)


Know the end of the story

What is their last chance to succeed?

What is the final outcome?

(Between you and me, sometimes I do this the other way around and get the end before I even know to whom it is happening, but remember: 6 years old).

(The “story” we ran through here is pretty obvious: Dragon and Goblin want to make a book. Contrary to popular (6-year-old) opinion, Simon Skeleton in the last scene isn’t Simon Cowell…)

Now you’re ready to start. Think of the rest as setting off on a journey: You know where you’re starting, you know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. You need a map (or a compass and some orienteering skills or some combination of both in practice but we’re keeping it simple, remember?).


This is the bit where you just think of a couple of things that sound fun and exciting and happen between The Beginning and The End. I have to admit I’m not very good at describing what happens here: make some stuff up. Don’t lose track of where you’re trying to go.

Anyway, anyone who fancies using the pictures, help yourself. They’re probably a damn sight better than the words that went with them.

Here’s One I Made Earlier (12/1/2010)

Posted in News

Busy busy busy. The Adamantine Palace is coming out in the US in less than three weeks and so there’s interviews and guest blogs and and and… And a copy of the book too, and it’s a hardcover and even prettier in the flesh than it was on a screen. Two suich beautiful covers! How can you choose between them? Order of the Scales re-write number one is going slightly better than expected, the page-proofs for King of the Crags are due in a fortnight and and and…

Then there’s the Gemmel Awards to mention. Go vote! Don’t make Mr Abercrombie mad! And I’ve been reading some other titles due out from Gollancz too. Tome of the Undergates and Wolfsangel. Both will receive some more attention closer to their release dates.

Right now, though, I don’t have time to do justice to anything. So here’s a review I made earlier for Vector for a book you can (and should) go and buy right now.

Yellow Blue Tibia (Gollancz; ISBN 978-0575083578 )

Author: Adam Roberts

World War II is over. The Soviet Union has defeated Hitler and Stalin is convinced that Europe and America will soon fall. Global Soviet peace will follow; and to prepare for that peace, Stalin calls Konstantin Skvorecky and a handful of other Soviet science fiction authors to a secret dacha in the countryside. The new communist world will need some new menace to hold it together, something to give it a unity of cause and purpose. In short, it will need the threat of an alien invasion, and the job of this group of writers is to create one, a fiction but a plausible one. No expense will be spared in staging this invasion. It will begin with the destruction of an American spaceship and a huge explosion in the Ukraine…

When their job is done, the writers are unceremoniously ejected and told to forget what they have done. Mostly they consider themselves lucky not to have been shot.

Fast-forward some forty years. Skvorecky, now ex-SF writer, ex-alcoholic, part-time translator and dedicated cynic finds himself asked to act as a translator for a rather odd pair of Americans. As he leaves, he is approached by the last other survivor of Stalin’s SF cabal, now working in the KGB, who tries to convince him that the alien invasion they created is becoming reality: It’s 1986. The Space Shuttle Challenger has exploded, something is afoot in the Ukraine at Chernobyl, and aliens appear to be secretly invading the world.

So there’s the set-up. Skvorecky quickly acquires a taxi-driving nuclear physicist sidekick and proceeds to be bounced from one slightly bizarre and surreal episode to the next in what is, in the end, an exquisitely crafted and cerebral mystery.

Now, I have this idea that stories engage with readers in two fundamentally different ways. They engage with us on an emotional level, with adrenaline-pumping action, tooth-grinding tension, white-knuckle drama; with love and joy and hate and revenge and possibly too many adjectives. And they engage with us on an intellectual level, with ideas and philosophies that educate and amuse and stimulate and enrich. Yellow Blue Tibia is firmly entrenched at the latter end of the spectrum. Skvorecky and his taxi-driver never emotionally engage with the story in which they find themselves; rather, Skvorecky observes his own trajectory with a detached amusement, while his taxi-driver is a realistic depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome. These are both deliberate choices by the author and, as with everything else here, expertly crafted; in fact, this sort of detachment is probably necessary, as some of the strangeness they encounter would likely drive anyone else (reader included) to distraction trying to work out what could possibly be going on. Right up to the end, it’s not clear whether this is a mundane KGB conspiracy, a comedy of errors, a narrator who’s lost his marbles or whether there are, indeed, some aliens somewhere. Adams seems fascinated with the phenomena of UFOs, the are they-or-aren’t-they of them, the weight of the anecdotal set against the utter lack of hard physical evidence. Yellow Blue Tibia even offers a rather tidy answer.

The real strengths of this book are in the easy flowing prose (I occasionally had to stop and read a scene again simply to admire how well it was put together), in Skvorecky’s sardonic wit and in the marvellous central idea, revealed at the end, which gives almost perfect coherence and sense to all the seemingly random events that precede it.

In summary, the writing is elegant and yet straightforward, the mystery is engrossing and the idea at the core is inspired. Readers after an emotional connection may find it difficult to engage with the story, but for those who are after a piece of old-school science-fiction brain food that makes you think, Yellow Blue Tibia delivers in spades.

(Post review note: I read this in the summer of 2009 and still find myself thinking about it. It’s just such a neat idea. Even if it violates the second law of thermodynamic and thus casts the whole premise into the realms of. . . But no: that’s a battle for another day :-)

The rewrite-athon continues (4/1/10)

Posted in News

I was having a minor grump over the holidays about how much time the rewriting of Order of the Scales was going to take (Simon, don’t expect to see it early). Well, the rewrite is going OK, but it’s still taking up a lot of time that could otherwise have been spent doing more worthwhile things like playing Dragon Age: Origins or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II or Assassin’s Creed II. But over the weekend, someone dropped me this comment:

“I’ve bought and half finished 5 books in the last month and had thought I’d lost my passion for sci-fantasy. Now I realise I’ve just been picking shitty books to read. Until now that is. I bought and finished The Adamantine Palace today and absolutely loved it. Thanks for giving me what I thought was lost Stephen!”

One happy reader doesn’t make a book good, but it makes an author happy too and not mind that he’s spending his evenings in front of his laptop. Also, he is apparently not alone. Been a while since a new review for The Adamantine Palace came out…

As noted my last post, my the first draft of Order of the Scales is needing rather more work than I’d hoped (largely because it was written about a year ago before King of the Crags went through its edit and the Gazetteer changed a few things). So instead of the usual two re-writes, this one’s going to need three before submission. Usually, there’s a first rewrite to iron out any inconsistencies in the story, character or background and put on the last icing and sprinkles. Then there’s a pause of a month or two while I go and do something else and then a second rewrite that all buff and shine and polish.

I like re-writes when I’ve finished them. I don’t like doing them. They’re treading familiar paths and rarely taking me anywhere new. Bleh.

Right. And that really is about it for any ’system’ I use.