The Sin Eater (21/7/2014)

Posted in Critical Failures | Excerpts

The Sin Eater first appeared in Unexpected Journeys, the BFS anthology published for the 2013 World Fantasy Convention.

Barricade, by Jon Wallace (28/6/2014)

Posted in Critical Failures

Declaration of vested interest: Jon Wallace is a Gollancz novelist whose debut, Barricade, was published earlier this month. We share a publisher (although not an editor) and I was sent a courtesy copy prior to publication.

Declaration of being irritated at willy-waving from my elders and better.

The blurb:

Kenstibec was genetically engineered to build a new world, but the apocalypse forced a career change. These days he drives a taxi instead.

A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, BARRICADE is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain; narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Kenstibec is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Originally optimised for construction, Kenstibec earns his keep as a taxi driver, running any Ficial who will pay from one surrounded city to another.

The trips are always eventful, but this will be his toughest yet. His fare is a narcissistic journalist who’s touchy about her luggage. His human guide is constantly plotting to kill him. And that’s just the start of his troubles.

On his journey he encounters ten-foot killer rats, a mutant king with a TV fixation, a drug-crazed army, and even the creator of the Ficial race. He also finds time to uncover a terrible plot to destroy his species for good – and humanity too.”

The set-up then: An apocalypse has happened[1]. Our hero, Kenstibec…

Stop. Let’s get something out in the open before we go any further. Do you have a brain? Yes? Can you turn it off for a while? No? Then we’re probably done here. Barricade is not a challenging or though-provoking story, and where it does provoke thoughts they tended to be dismal ones. Not that being though-provoking is a necessary thing. Thought-provoking Hollywood blockbuster? Yes, sure, they exist, but it’s pretty clear that entertainment doesn’t have to come with any weight to work, either intellectual or emotional, provided it can muster sufficient pace and/or wit, and a sufficiency of big explosions. Fun is fun, and sometimes fun means switching off for a bit from all the serious shit. So it’s not for me to say what’s right to like and not to like, but I can tell you something of where Barricade’s strengths lie and where they don’t. It’s moves. It doesn’t use a long word where a short word will do. It doesn’t offer any kaleidoscopic palette of words, metaphor, imagery, meaning or emotion to either soar or bore. Its prose is sparse and functional and so is everything else. If that sounds sterile then maybe so, but the style fits the story, and much the same could be said of Kenstibec. Some people like Mozart, some people like Ministry, and some people like both, and that’s diversity for you.

The characters then. Most of them are artificial lifeforms. Kenstibec is a construction ‘fical, which means he’s largely emotionless, entirely practical and, aside from occasionally worrying about his Landrover and the state or repair of various structures he sees in passing, unflappable. Wallace uses this to good effect in places to keep the pace up and inject a steady dark humour, largely sourced from bemusement at the irrationality of humanity. Personally I found this appealing enough for most of the book to make up for the lack of warmth or empathy. If you’re the sort of reader who looks for characters to connect with rather than hang out with, I didn’t find Kenstibec had much to offer (and why would he – he’s not human and isn’t supposed to have any) by way of emotional depth. Anyway, the set-up is that Kenstibec works for a soldier ‘ficial Shersult[2], who wants him to take a pleasure ‘ficial from the Edinburgh Barricade to London. This leads pretty quickly into Mad Max territory, with a good dose of World War Z–style zombie apocalypse, except it’s not zombies running about in unthinking hordes and being gunned down in droves, it’s people.

Stop again. Lots of people die. Barricade isn’t particularly graphic in its violence but it’s extremely casual. With the exception of the one human Kenstibec picks up to be his guide (casually shooting his companion with absolutely no apparent consequence or subsequent anguish or resentment on the part of said guide), humans exist to run around, be stupid, show off how fundamentally irrational and all-consuming mob mentality can be, and then die, preferably all of those things in swift succession and often. Homo Sapiens does not come out of Barricade looking at all good, either individually or as a species. It’s a dirty, misanthropic little story really. Being a dirty little misanthrope myself, bombing along in Kenstibec’s passenger seat with all my critical faculties turned firmly off, I rather liked it for that, but that’s a matter of taste. The world is shit. People are shit. In large groups, people are really REALLY shit and also dumb as fuck. The largely emotionless ‘ficials are quite often shit too, on the grounds that that’s the logical and effective response to all the other shit, and also because now and then it affords opportunity for some deadpan humour.

Eventually some plot happens…

No. Stop again. Kenstibec’s pleasure model passenger, Starvie. Starvie is the only significant nominally-female character in Barricade. I say nominally-female because she’s a ‘ficial. The treatment she gets from Kenstibec is shit. The way she treats him in return, later, is shit. Both accept this without much of a blink because the logic is apparent and they have very limited (if any – it’s a bit unclear about this) human feeling. Early on (before they even start their trip) Kenstibec punches Starvie out for the sole reason of making her stop talking. As best I remember it there was no pressing reason to do this, he simply had other things he wanted to do and punching her out was the most efficient route to getting on with them. If your gut-reaction to that lies somewhere around “shrug” or “that’s quite funny”[3] then Barricade’s attitude to casual violence to, from and between its various protagonists may entertain and amuse. If it makes you uncomfortable, Barricade probably isn’t for you. If it instantly rubs something the wrong way about the portrayal of women in fiction[3] then you’d best avoid Barricade. There’s worse to come. Pleasure model, remember?

Anyway, some plot happens and nothing is quite what it seems, and to be honest, I found it was better when the plot *wasn’t* happening. As a closely focused nihilistic fast-paced, dark-humoured brain-turned-off ride through a shitty apocalyptic future of faceless deranged lunatics and vaguely annoyed artificial people, the first half of Barricade works pretty well (if you like that sort of thing). I had it mapped out in my head as a road-movie type story, in which the wry but closed-off protagonists eventually reveal depth and bonding and emotions and all that; but they don’t. Instead some plot arrived that was more than a simple road trip and the focus widened. I found myself having to actually think about what I was reading, trying to work out what was going on, and then it all went a bit downhill and also didn’t make much sense[4], but at the same time it shifted up a gear and charged forward with such devil-take-the-hindmost speed that for some reason all I can liken it to there is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen [5] [6].

A fun beach read if you like that sort of Mad Max thing, short and snappy, heavily laden with a misanthropic cynicism, but with no shortage of flaws. “fast-paced, droll and disturbing”? Yes, through at least the first half. After that not so much droll. “Savage”? Yes. “cold-blooded yet magnetic” Yes and, er… well… maybe in flashes.



[1] (the nature of the apocalypse is partly resolved in a series of flashbacks throughout the book, although the greater context is left entirely vague: there seems to have been some sort of global disaster that has affected almost everywhere except Britain for … reasons. Britain has apparently responded to this by building an artificial race of humanoids (the ficals) who apparently come in one of three models: the construction model, the shooting people model and the (privately financed) pleasure model; and then, presumably for some more reasons, we hand over responsibility for the future of humanity to an artificial intelligence of some sort and ask it to please save the planet. Unfortunate consequences ensue. Maybe there’s more explanation to come in the future, but my inner world-builder is looking at Barricade with a “could do a lot better” expression. These events, such as they are, unfold purely through Kenstibec’s eyes, so the only sense of drama, tragedy and emotion is what the the reader can bring to the party. Kenstibec views it all with a rather bewildered “humans, what are you like?” detachment. My inner misanthrope rather enjoyed that. I often feel the same).

[2] (he just does, for reasons again, and you simply have to live with the fact that Barricade offers you next to nothing about how ‘ficial society works or why, except that it seems to be very haphazard. Which actually made more sense by the end than it seemed at the time).

[3] One thing reading Barricade taught me is that the answer can be both of these things at once.

[4] SPOILER ALERT: 1) Where did ten-foot killer rats suddenly come from? 2) Encountering “the creator of the Ficial race” felt like a massive coincidence, which would have been fine until a large chunk of plot subsequently depended on it. SEVERE SPOILER ALERT: 3) If Starvie = Jennifer-E, what the hell was her excuse for being in Edinburgh, and how long had she been there, and didn’t the King of Newcastle notice that she was gone for however long and how did he know where they were, exactly, and oh my, everything to do with that twist was either too clever for me or just didn’t make much sense and was certainly the point at which my suspension of disbelief collected its coat and stomped off to sulk on the doorstep and have a quiet smoke. 4) And then later Kenstibec is unwittingly delivering Starvie to York so she can deliver the “package,” yet Shersult arrives by other means and could clearly have delivered said package himself with greater efficiency

[5] Which was also fun, but dear lord only if you loan your brain to charity for the duration or firmly kill it with beer.

[6] There are no giant robots in Barricade, just in case you were getting your hopes up there.

Middle Earth v. Westeros matchcast commentary

Posted in Critical Failures

A couple of weeks ago when England played Italy I tweeted commentary of a fictional match between Middle Earht and Westeros. You can find the pre-match buildup on the Gollancz blog here. It seemed to irritate about as many people as it amused, judging from the responses; but for anyone who wants it, here it is in less irritating form. It’s pretty much the commentary that went out but I did edit a couple of tweets on the fly and add one or two. Enjoy or not, as the case may be.

Good evening and welcome to live coverage of the opening Fantasy World Cup match between Middle Earth and Westeros in Mordor. #fwc2014

The team news is in. #fwc2014

Middle Earth: Smaug in goal; a back three of Thorin, Gandalf, Gimli; Aragorn, Sauron, Legolas in midfield. #fwc2014

The usual strike quartet of Merry, Gamgee, Pippin; Frodo. I fancy Gamgee to play in the hole just behind Frodo tonight. #fwc2014

No surprises in the line-up. Home advantage to the hosts, but a Mordor crowd can be very partisan. #fwc2014

Already a lot of orcs already singing racist chants against Hobbits. FIFFA will have something to say about this after the match. #fwc2014

Westeros: Varys The Spider in goal; The usual Lannister back three of Cersei, Tywin and Jaime. #fwc2014

Stannis Baratheon sitting in the holding role. A midfield four of Oberyn Martell; Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, Jon Snow and Arya Stark. #fwc2014

Oberyn seems to have recovered from those injury fears after his training ground bust-up with Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. #fwc2014

Hadn’t expected to see the Hound playing tonight, but his partnership with Arya on the wing has been productive of late. #fwc2014

Danaerys Targaryan playing the number ten role as expected; Tyrion Lannister as the lone striker. #fwc2014

No place in the team for Littlefinger tonight, who remains on the bench. Westeros have such a large squad. #fwc2014

Joining our commentary team tonight our guests are the dragon-queen Zafir and Elric Cantona. #fwc2014

Our other guest commentators tonight are Radagast the Brown and the Ghost of Ned Stark. #fwc2014

All the injury news seems to be good tonight. #fwc2014

Middle Earth’s central midfield dynamo Sauron has been declared fit despite a nagging ankle injury. #fwc2014

Manager Jackson restores striker Frodo and wide forward Pippin after both were rested for pre-tournament friendlies. #fwc2014

Gollum remains on the bench. #fwc2014

Westeros have been boosted by the news that Jaime has recovered from losing his hand injury to return to the defence. #fwc2014

Cersei is at right-back in place of the injured Joffrey and the suspended Selmy Barristan. #fwc2014

Arya has also shaken off an injury doubt to start in the midfield, where Snow retains his place ahead of the returning Littlefinger. #fwc2014

This is a true clash of Fantasy heavyweights. Between them, Middle Earth and Westeros have 16 major titles. #fwc2014

Middle Earth – including West Middle Earth – have thirteen World Cups to their name. Westeros can boast three. #fwc2014

What is quite incredible is that Middle Earth have never beaten Westeros in a competitive game. #fwc2014

In the seven meetings that mattered, the Westerosi have won three and drawn four. #fwc2014

It’s reassuring the know that even a nation as mighty as Middle Earth has a bogey team, isn’t it? #fwc2014

Will Middle Earth finally break the hex Westeros have had over them at tournaments, or will the Westerosi prevail? #fwc2014

Middle Earth have played in a semi-final in a major competition 17 times so far, making it to the final on 11 occasions. #fwc2014

They have now won their last fifteen competitive games – an all-time record in Fantasy World Cup history. #fwc2014

Middle Earth have scored in each of their last 20 games (51 goals in total). #fwc2014

Westeros have failed to make it to the finals only in two of the ten tournaments they’ve played. #fwc2014

Six of their last seven goals have come from set-pieces, whereas 11 of Middle Earth’s last 12 have come from open play. #fwc2014

Tonight’s head to head between Middle Earth and Westeros sees two of the new star men go head-to-head. #fwc2014

Sauron’s enduring quality has been a constant theme in recent games. #fwc2014

The 3300-year-old’s passing from a deep-lying midfield position cut the Shanarra eleven to ribbons in their last qualifying game. #fwc2014

Zafir: “His big mace-thing helped a lot there. Added the crunch into those crunching tackles.” #fwc2014

Oberyn Martell operates higher up the pitch, but is no less important as the creative fulcrum of an impressive Westeros side. #fwc2014

Radagast: “Oberyn is an exceptional player, with good ideas. He’s the one who directs the game, so we have to stop him.” #fwc2014

“It’s amazing to see him starting after such a horrific injury. I think most of us thought he’d be out for the rest of the season.” #fwc2014

“We have to think of a way to play better than Westeros and dictate the tempo of the match. It’s a confidence thing.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark: “We’re all fit both mentally and physically. I don’t think we can have any negative thoughts.” #fwc2014

“Except possibly about the Lannisters.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “I rather like the Lannisters. Obviously I’d burn them if I was up against them, but they’re fun to watch.” #fwc2014

The players are led out by captains Gandalf and Tywin. The referee for this one is Loki son of Odin. #fwc2014

A controversial choice there. Some say he’s a Westeros supporter. #fwc2014

Ned Stark: “I wouldn’t be surprised if some Lannister gold has reached his pockets before tonight.”

Gandalf and Tywin each read out a message of support for FIFFA’s Respect Diversity campaign.

Zafir: “Loki was cleared of last year’s corruption charges by FIFFA president Hoofwanking Bunglecunt last year.” #fwc2014

Elric: “Says it all, really.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “I hear the Hoofwanking Bunglecunt might try to run for a fifth term. I do have a dragon, you know.” #fwc2014

Oberyn and Tyrion sharing a joke at Tywin as he speaks. Clearly something amusing! #fwc2014

All very worthy, of course, but all are glad to see the players finally shake hands and get ready for kick-off. #fwc2014

1′ Westeros’s mentally-unhinged front pairing of Danaerys and Tyrion get us underway! #fwc2014

2′ Sauron is screaming for the ball from the edge of the box, but Gimli chooses to cross to Frodo instead. #fwc2014

The ball sails over the striker’s head. As Middle Earth crosses often do. Don’t know why he tried it really. #fwc2014

Can’t remember the last time Middle Earth scored a headed goal. #fwc2014

3′ Tyrion chases after a ball over the top and is judged to have shoved Gandalf in the back as he did so. #fwc2014

4′ A through ball is slipped forward for Tyrion, but Smaug is quick off his line to gather the pass… #fwc2014

… and crushes it. New ball required. I think we’re going to see a lot of that tonight. #fwc2014

5′ Cersei charges into Sauron with a solid challenge that yields the first corner of the match for Middle Earth. #fwc2014

6′ Sauron swings the corner in and it comes to Aragorn on the edge of the six-yard box. He guides it past The Spider…! #fwc2014

Oberyn blocks on the line! The Spider gathers the loose ball! Middle Earth showing how dangerous they are early on. #fwc2014

7′ Pippin goes on a rampaging run down the left channel.

He slaloms through two blue shirts but Cersei is one man too many. #fwc2014

Woman. #fwc2014

Zafir: “I was stuck on rampaging hobbits.” #fwc2014

Loki isn’t happy with that challenge from Cersei. She came flying in with several Kingsguard. #fwc2014

They’re having words. #fwc2014

Elric: “I think she was trying to have him executed. That’s pretty much her standard tactic early on.” #fwc2014

Is that going to be a first yellow card? No. Just a warning. The referee’s going to have to be strong in this match. #fwc2014

8′ Arya is fouled by Pippin in the centre circle. Westeros play it short to get it to Oberyn’s feet. #fwc2014

9′ Played inside by Danaerys and the ball comes to Oberyn again. #fwc2014

The midfielder tries to deceive Gandalf with a drop of the shoulder but the centre-back blocks the shot. #fwc2014

A familiar wag of the finger from Gandalf. “You shall not pass.” #fwc2014

Taking his own advice a little too literally there, as he’s almost caught in possession by Tyrion. #fwc2014

Zafir: “It’s always the same with him. Hang around at the back and lob impossible balls at hobbits.” #fwc2014

“It’s not like he as a single other strategy ever.” #fwc2014

“He’s a good player, but strategically an utter liability.” #fwc2014

10′ Great tackle on Tyrion from Legolas. The Mirkwood player has been one of Middle Earth’s top performers in this tournament. #fwc2014

11′ Legolas tries to float a ball into the box that goes all the way through to The Spider. #fwc2014

Worrying sign for Westeros as Jaime Lannister takes a few seconds to get back to his feet following a challenge. #fwc2014

The midfielder was another injury doubt before the game with a crucial morality problem. #fwc2014

12′ Legolas with an incisive run forward before laying it off to Merry out wide. The low cross comes in… #fwc2014

The Spider spills it! The ball bounces off Tywin and trickles just wide of the post! #fwc2014

13′ Westeros defend Middle Earth’s short corner well enough, but that was another nervy moment early on. #fwc2014

14′ Tyrion draws a foul from Aragorn. #fwc2014

15′ Merry cuts in from the right, works half a yard off Jon Snow and has a pop from range that The Spider beats away two-handed. #fwc2014

16′ A slick turn from Thorin in his own half helps Middle Earth win possession back. #fwc2014

17′ Snow shimmies past Sauron. He shoots from the edge of the box. The ball bounces up in front of Smaug who sets fire to the ball. #fwc2014

Second new ball of the game. #fwc2014

The Ghost of Ned Stark: “Danaerys has been very quiet so fa–” #fwc2014

Danaerys with curling effort from 20 yards that Smaug sees all the way and catches between his teeth. #fwc2014

Another new ball. #fwc2014

19′ Middle Earth’s last seven goals have been scored by seven different players. #fwc2014

20′ GOAL!! Great work from Danaerys as she wriggles between Gimli and Gandalf on the left before a chipped cross. #fwc2014

Smaug was bewildered there by Tyrion in the six yard box. It was the easiest thing in the world for the Imp to head the ball home. #fwc2014

21′ A very rare sight here – Tyrion has a beaming smile and looks ecstatic in his celebration! #fwc2014

Such a marked change from his usual sour expression, but you can see why. That’s a huge goal. #fwc2014

22′ This is the first time Middle Earth have been behind in a competitive game since the infamous Thomas Covenant goal. #fwc2014

24′ Frodo steals half a yard off his marker but is unable to glance his header on target. Good response from Middle Earth. #fwc2014

25′ This may be an appropriate time to remind you that Middle Earth have never beaten Westeros in seven previous attempts. #fwc2014

26′ Great strength from Frodo to hold the ball up and tee up Gamgee for a strike. The Spider gets down to make the save. #fwc2014

Elric: “A great keeper for Westeros. He plays as though he always knows exactly what’s coming. Never flustered.” #fwc2014

28′ Lovely gliding run forward from Samwise Gamgee before he picks out Merry who tries to feed Frodo with a reverse pass. #fwc2014

30′ Merry now has a pop from range himself, but his shot is always swinging away from goal and wide. #fwc2014

31′ Thorin concedes a free-kick for a foul on Tyrion, though it’s difficult to know what referee Loki saw there. #fwc2014

The Lannisters surround the referee. More of a huddle than a confrontation. #fwc2014

Now Gandalf’s getting involved. He’s waving his staff. This might get ugly. #fwc2014

Gandalf gets a yellow card for dissent. I think Loki enjoyed writing his name in the book. Play resumes. #fwc2014

The free kick is a lame effort by Jaime. Smaug watches it past the post. #fwc2014

32′ Tyrion teases Gandalf as he shields the ball from him before being hauled down by his shirt. #fwc2014

Gandalf has to be careful here. #fwc2014

A great performance from the striker so far. #fwc2014

33′ Gamgee sends Thorin scampering away down the right. #fwc2014

He skips the challenge of Jaime before sending in a lovely cross for Pippin that Cersei just reaches before him! #fwc2014

Corner to Middle Earth. #fwc2014

34′ Westeros defend the corner and soon they are on the attack. Lovely control from Danaerys. #fwc2014

She slips the ball into the box for Jon Snow, who tries to turn but is halted by Gandalf. Why didn’t he hit it on the turn? #fwc2014

35′ The ball sits up well enough for Legolas to try his luck. He hits a solid strike on target that The Spider saves well! #fwc2014

36′ Tyrion is onside as he chases a after a long clearance from the Westeros half… #fwc2014

GOAL!! An unerring strike right into the top corner from the edge of the box! Fantastic! Smaug flails. #fwc2014

Classic dragon error. He tried to burn the ball out of the air when a simple parry would probably have done. #fwc2014

Tyrion celebrates his second goal of the game by whipping off his shirt and striking a pose. That’s a booking. Not that he’ll care. #fwc2014

Middle Earth players surround the referee now claiming that not all of the ash crossed the line. #fwc2014

Ned Stark: “Looking at the video replay they might have a point.” #fwc2014

Doesn’t matter. Loki has given it. #fwc2014

Elric: “The video clearly shows the ball bursts into flames well before it crosses the line.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “Does ash still count?” #fwc2014

Still doesn’t matter. Smaug and Sauron are furious but it’s 2-0 Westeros. #fwc2014

39′ Pippin’s control lets him down inside the Westeros box. Middle Earth look rattled. #fwc2014

41′ Tyrion is now Westeros’s joint-highest all-time scorer in this championship, level with Danaerys. #fwc2014

42′ Gandalf kicks the ball out play as Danaerys is on the floor writhing around in pain. #fwc2014

There was some argy-bargy in the box there between Danaerys and Smaug. #fwc2014

The replay shows an exchange of words and then Smaug flattens her with a swat of his tail. Uh-oh. The referee saw it too. #fwc2014

That’s a yellow card for Smaug. The dragon is furious. Incandescent, you might say. #fwc2014

There’s been some off-the-pitch banter on Twitter between Smaug and Danaerys before the match, but that’s no excuse. #fwc2014

Smaug has lost it! Westeros and Middle Earth players fleeing the penalty box. Smaug is breathing fire everywhere. #fwc2014

Danaerys enveloped in flames. Just as well she’s fire-proof. #fwc2014

Smaug smashes the goal. Loki shows the red card. Smaug tries to eat him. #fwc2014

The dragon’s completely lost it. He leaves the pitch at last. Middle Earth down to ten men. #fwc2014

That’s the last thing they need. #fwc2014

44′ Danaerys leaves the field on her feet, and will rejoin play shortly. Middle Earth’s can’t wait for half time. #fwc2014

Loki magics the goal back together. Looks like Gandalf’s going to replace Smaug at least until half time. #fwc2014

45′ Gimli plays the give-and-go down the left. He gets the ball back and crosses it, but The Spider comfortably claims it. #fwc2014

45+1′ Middle Earth win a corner, but The Hound heads it clear as the first defender. #fwc2014

45+2′ Half-time is signalled. Middle Earth go into the break two goals and a man down. #fwc2014

Not many would have predicted that before kick-off, but Tyrion’s brace has got Westeros dreaming. #fwc2014

Plenty to talk about from that first half. Two goals and the sending off. What do you make of that? #fwc2014

Radagast: “Middle Earth have produced some quality moves in the first half but their finishing has been poor.” #fwc2014

Elric: “It’s the same old story. They grandstand. It’s great spectacle, but there doesn’t seem to be the commitment any more.” #fwc2014

Radagast: “Smaug was new to the team and the manager’s brought him in to add something new. But it hasn’t paid off.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “It’s bound to happen sooner or later if you leave a dragon like that without a rider.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “’I and fire, I am death’ is all very well for the pre-match press conference, but what you are now, mate, is sent off.” #fwc2014

Radagast: “Westeros have gone in at half time very happy.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “Tyrion rocks tonight and he well deserved this show. It’s maybe his star hour tonight.” #fwc2014

Elric: “After everything he’s been through the law of averages owed him a couple of goals. Superb! Tyrion should stay hungry.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “Westeros are a team with a tendency to implode, but tonight they’ve kept it together admirably.” #fwc2014

Elric: “Do you see any way for Middle Earth to get back into this? Ten men and two goals down?” #fwc2014

Radagast: “Honestly? No.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “Fat chance.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “I wouldn’t be so sure. Westeros are going to feel comfortable now, and that’s dangerous.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “They’ll sit back and turn on one another. And you just can’t do that against Middle Earth’s front four.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “Hobbits are so incredibly dangerous.” #fwc2014

Ned Stark’s ghost: “They’re not much to look at, but Middle Earth are at their best with their backs to the wall.” #fwc2014

The teams return. Looks like Gandalf is staying in goal. Middle Earth sticking to their attacking formation. #fwc2014

It’s going to be fascinating second half. #fwc2014

46′ The second half is underway! #fwc2014

47′ Middle Earth substitutions: Gollum and Bilbo were introduced at half-time for Frodo and Pippin. #fwc2014

Bizarrely Tyrion and Oberyn Martell have been substituted for Westeros. Brienne for Oberyn is a defensive move. #fwc2014

Oberyn is apparently suffering a recurrence of his crushed skull injury. No news on Tyrion. Reek up front? Really? Reek? #fwc2014

48′ Bilbo makes an impact early in the second half, showing good feet to create a chance for himself in the box. #fwc2014

I don’t know what’s been going on in the Westeros dressing room, but that substitution makes no sense. #fwc2014

49′ Bilbo’s pass for Merry on the edge of the box runs behind him to Gimli, who plays a one-two with Merry… #fwc2014

…and sends his sidefooted effort from the edge of the box over the bar! Great start to the second half from Middle Earth. #fwc2014

They are attacking with real purpose. #fwc2014

51′ Problems for Westeros in midfield. The Hound and Arya have tangled. The Hound isn’t getting up. #fwc2014

He was pretty close to Smaug when the dragon went off at the end of the first half. It’s rattled him. #fwc2014

No, he’s not getting up. Westeros use their third substitution and bring on Littlefinger. #fwc2014

54′ Bilbo’s cross is blocked but it runs to Gollum. Gollum goes down, possibly with a Lannister knife in his back. #fwc2014

He’s up again. Only muted appeals and play continues. Referee Loki isn’t interested. #fwc2014

55′ Searing run from Gamgee to the byline and he pulls the ball back for Legolas. #fwc2014

56′ Gollum charges into the area but it’s a well-timed tackle from Stannis that means Westeros only concede a corner. #fwc2014

Despite being down to ten men it’s all Middle Earth at the moment. Reek looking very isolated up front. #fwc2014

59′ Gamgee linking up well with Thorin again down the right. That flank looks like a good source of chances for Middle Earth. #fwc2014

60′ Danaerys has the ball on the corner of the Middle Earth area and she has only one intention. She hits a curling low strike… #fwc2014

…great save from Gandalf. Danaerys is looking sharper than she did in the first half. She’s a real threat. #fwc2014

61′ Stannis goes into the referee’s book for a foul on Merry. The free-kick is in a central area, about 25 yards from goal. #fwc2014

Sauron, Gamgee and Bilbo all fancy taking this. #fwc2014

62′ It will be Sauron to strike. Plenty of dip and bend on it as it head for the top corner, but The Spider saves well! #fwc2014

63′ Jaime Lannister on a meandering run out of defence. He’s… #fwc2014

Well. #fwc2014

I don’t know what happened there. #fwc2014

Thorin kicks the ball out of play. There are three Westeros players down. A misunderstanding between Jaime and Jon Snow. #fwc2014

Snow takes the worse of it. Then bizarrely Jaime spins out of the collision and smacks into Danaerys. She goes down and… #fwc2014

Did he tread on her head? He did! That looks more like a stamp. Westeros with some serious problems here. #fwc2014

Jaime is on his feet again. Dirty looks from Jon Snow, who is also up, but they’re having to bring on the stretcher for Danaerys. #fwc2014

Westeros have used all three substitutions already. If she can’t continue, they’re down to ten men too. #fwc2014

Wait! Snow is limping off! Looks like he can’t continue either! #fwc2014

Is he faking it? #fwc2014

Westeros have always had a discipline issue and tensions in the team, but what a time to implode! #fwc2014

65′ Reek tries to catch Gandalf off his guard with an effort on goal. it’s an easy catch for the keeper in the end. #fwc2014

67′ Littlefinger and Arya exchange incisive passes and Arya fires wide! That would have surely been curtains for Middle Earth! #fwc2014

Despite being down to nine men – entirely of their own making – Westeros are still dominating the midfield. #fwc2014

69′ Another collision between two Westerosi, this time Littlefinger and Cersei. #fwc2014

Middle Earth put the ball out of play so that Cersei can receive treatment. That has not gone down well with the crowd. #fwc2014

71′ Middle Earth substitution: Tauriel repalces Thorin. #fwc2014

72′ Both teams have now used all three of their substitutions. #fwc2014

73′ Gandalf is closed down as he tries to make a clearance and is rattled into making an error! #fwc2014

Arya twists and turns to leave Gandalf flat on his back before firing a low strike inches wide of the far post! #fwc2014

Brienne was screaming for the square pass but Arya went for glory. #fwc2014

75′ Gollum wins a corner. Every set piece not converted now will start to sap the belief from the Middle Earth team. #fwc2014

76′ Aragorn heads wide. He looks wholly disappointed with himself as he trots back to his own half. #fwc2014

78′ Great tackle from Arya as Gollum was preparing to surge into the Westeros box. #fwc2014

79′ Lovely pass from Brienne to send Arya away down the left. The midfielder hooks the ball into the box but Gandalf intercepts. #fwc2014

81′ The Westeros penalty box looks very chopped up. A consequence of Smaug’s first half rampage. #fwc2014

The game is really opening up now. 10 v. 9 and both sides are looking desperate. Several Westeros players carrying injuries now. #fwc2014

82′ Sauron’s cross is headed away by Stannis and in the blink of an eye Littlefinger is clean through on goal! #fwc2014

As two despairing dwarves dive in he shoots into the side netting! #fwc2014

Gandalf lumps the ball forward to Middle Earth’s attacking line. Whatever subtlety they once had is long gone. #fwc2014

That’s just what he does. Never mind the midfield. Always the same long ball to the hobbit front line and hope for the best. #fwc2014

They could do with playing it through the middle of the pitch more. Their play has become a bit one-dimensional. #fwc2014

The Middle Earth midfield looked like a second bank of defenders for most of the first half. They don’t look it now. #fwc2014

84′ Arya is booked for a foul on Gollum. #fwc2014

85′ Quick one-two inside the Westeros box and Bilbo has the ball right in front of goal… #fwc2014

Another excellent tackle from Cersei! She punches Gollum in delight at her great piece of defence! #fwc2014

Jaime brings down Merry right on the edge of the box. Straight into Loki’s book. Yellow card. #fwc2014

Middle Earth are screaming for him to be sent off but he survives. A nod from Tywin there: “well done, my son.” #fwc2014

Ooof. Sauron takes the free kick and blasts the ball straight into the wall and straight into Arya. #fwc2014

Cersei clears, but the Westeros winger is down. That was some strike by Sauron. Loki is inspecting the ball. #fwc2014

Another new ball needed. #fwc2014

Tywin is having a word with the referee and the fourth official. The fourth official looks a lot bigger than I remember. #fwc2014

Westeros are trying to bring on another substitiute! Sansa for Arya! That’s a fourth substitute! They can’t do that! #fwc2014

The referee hasn’t noticed. That or he doesn’t care. #fwc2014

Middle Earth players surround Loki . . . Whoa! Sauron just picked Loki up and choke-slammed him. #fwc2014

Middle Earth are all over the fourth official . . . I thought the fourth official was a bit bigger – isn’t that the Mountain? #fwc2014

Tywin Lannister giving himself an insurance policy. This will sour the win, if Westeros hang in there. #fwc2014

Loki’s back on his feet. He’s realised his mistake now. He’s waving Sansa off the pitch. She won’t be allowed to play. #fwc2014

Straight red card for Sauron for violent conduct. Off the pitch both sets of substitutes are laying into each other. #fwc2014

The Mountain is down, swarmed by dwarves. Possibly they’re trying to build a new kingdom inside him. #fwc2014

Arwen pushes Sansa and Sansa’s not taking that. The officials need to break this up. #fwc2014

89′ On the pitch Tywin goes into the book, but he won’t mind one jot. Only injury time stands between Westeros and a win now. #fwc2014

90′ Gandalf comes up for a Middle Earth corner, but runs back to his own goal after a shot flies wide of The Spider’s goal. #fwc2014

90+1′ We are in the first of four minutes of added time. #fwc2014

90+2′ PENALTY!! Cersei handles inside the box under pressure from Gollum! A lifeline for Middle Earth! Gollum to take it… #fwc2014

90+2′ GOAL!! Gollum only takes a one-step run-up, but his penalty is good enough to fly out of the diving The Spider’s reach! #fwc2014

2-1. They can’t, can they? #fwc2014

90+3′ Gandalf is now stationed in the centre circle as Middle Earth lay siege to the Westeros goal. #fwc2014

Middle Earth playing a 1-2-6 formation now! #fwc2014

Aragorn is booked for a barge on Tywin. Westeros can breathe again. #fwc2014

90+5′ Gandalf charges up for one final free-kick by the halfway line, but Middle Earth play it short! #fwc2014

By the time it’s sent into the box the final whistle has been blown! Westeros WIN! #fwc2014

Well, that was quite incredible. Westeros worthy winners on the night, with Tyrion their two-goal hero. #fwc2014

They played well in the first half and deserved their half-time lead. But the news is all going to be about the second half. #fwc2014

Lots of controversy there, but lets not forget that Westeros were 2-0 up before Smaug was sent off. #fwc2014

Westeros team has been decimated. Looks like most of their best players will be out for the next match. Last thoughts? #fwc2014

Ned Stark: “Typical Lannister defensive strategy in the second half. Bugger up everything even if you don’t need to.” #fwc2014

Radagast: “Middle Earth will need to re-think their strategy. They have the players but they need way more depth.” #fwc2014

Elric: “Both teams gave us a full exhibition of both their strengths and their weaknesses.” #fwc2014

Zafir: “A marvel of destructive play by Westeros. I look forward to playing them. What’s left of them.” #fwc2014

And that concludes our commentary for tonight. #fwc2014

Ignorance, Bigotry and a Free Book (5/5/2014)

Posted in Critical Failures

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so please excuse the lack of more free books. It’s been dragons and dragons and more dragons as well as some work on some proposals for what might come after dragons. I might post something about the benign annoyance of proposal-writing one day. But mostly it’s been about getting The Silver Kings knocked into shape before Summer, and it’s getting there, and another thing I might post about is how a character can come out of the background and take over what will ultimately be 700k words of prose. Thanks, Zafir. I think.

Usually I skip on to the free book about here. If that’s what you want to do then that’s find – scroll down past the cover art picture and you can skip to the end, but for the rest of this post I’m going to digress and rant a bit about top-ten lists and the difference between ignorance and bigotry, and it’s going to start with my own top-ten list of the greatest explorers of all time. Here goes (in no particular order):

  • Christopher Columbus
  • Marco Polo
  • Vasco Da Gama
  • Ferdinand Magellan
  • Yuri Gagarin
  • Captain James Cook
  • David Livingstone
  • Ernest Shackleton
  • Alexander von Humboldt
  • Jacques Cousteau

This is a pretty crappy list in many ways. After I wrote it I had a look to see what the internet had to offer, which made me feel a bit better. Anyone who has a clue would doubtless squeal over various omissions (Sir John Cabot? Sir Francis Drake?). Cousteau and Gagarin maybe show a little more lateral thinking than than most (smug smug smugity smug), or possibly a desperation to get to ten . Yes, doubtless you could critique this top-ten list of explorers from her to Sunday, but let’s just go in for the kill and point out that every single one of them is white and male. I did try (carefully without doing any research) to think of any explorers I knew to break that mold, and I couldn’t (I think Amelia Earhart was the best I came up with). I had a lot of trouble coming up with ten at all. I was struggling after five or six.

I submit that the absence on this list of any explorers who aren’t white stems from a considerable ignorance on my part rather than bigotry, at least on a personal level (one could argue ignorance stemming from systemic social bias and thus a passive bigotry). I made this list to make a point, although it really is the best I could come up without help. I’m quite certain there are explorers from Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa who contributed massively to their cultures. I’m quite sure that if I had bothered to do any research then I would have found out about them. I’m quite sure I would have found their stories fascinating and talked about them. I’m quite sure that if anyone were to look at my list of explorers and point out how Euro-centric it is and then pointed out some alternatives, I’d go and find out about them. I’m interested. I want to know more. I’m not as ignorant as it’s possible to be but I know there’s vastly more out there than I’ve discovered. So if you read my list and find it offends you with its monochrome, you could suppose it’s simply ignorance on my part and try to educate me, and I’d like that very much. The likely consequence is that I will have respect for your opinions and values. I might listen to what you have to say in arguments about things other than explorers with a desire to be sympathetic to your point of view. Or you could tell me how bigoted it is and get in my face about it and very all your friends and make me feel stupid and a jerk. You could suggest I did no research and don’t know what I’m talking about (and you’d be correct). You could tell me I’m an ignorant dick. You could do that. I don’t think I’ll be having much respect for your opinions and values if you do.

You realise that the bedrock of bigotry is ignorance, right? You realise that taking that ignorance and educating it makes a mind more open than closed, right? You realise that yelling “stupid” does the opposite, right?

So my plea to anyone who’s still reading is this: the next time anyone posts anything on the internet (say, for example, their best SFF releases of 2014, just by way of something that might come around at some point), and it turns out to be full of white dudes, or otherwise excludes a large section of thought or society, grit your teeth and swear quietly in a corner and teach rather than torment. Pretty please?

OK. Done now. Thank you for listening. This week’s giveaway book is a signed hardcover copy of The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice.

thieftakers apprentice cover

Usual deal – comment on this post before May 11th and I’ll randomly select a lucky victim for a free copy. In addition, if anyone wants to play, I’m going to give away a an Angry Dragons T-shirt for the most interesting explorer anyone can point me at who isn’t a white dude. You can enter as may times as you like and I’ll count the first two entries – the rest are just for fun and showing off.

Although, though no one has yet complained about how long it takes me to get to the post office and post things, it can take a while and if you live abroad then it can take even longer. Sorry about that, but they do get there eventually. Well, so far. I am currently very behind so if you’re waiting for a book from a previous giveaway then, er, sorry. They’re packaged up now and should go in the post today.

Grammarly: A not-bad grammar checking tool (30/8/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

Grammarly: A grammar checking tool

So what follows here is slightly unusual fare for this blog but it’s writing related and turned out to be a bit more of an interesting experiment than I initially thought. So . . . a few months back I was invited to play with a grammar checking tool and, for some reason I still don’t understand, imagined this would come complete with an extra day tucked into the week somewhere in which to play with it. Still, it was an interesting exercise in the end.

The tool is called Grammarly and, when I used it, it operated as a web application. My personal previous experience with grammar checkers is limited to the grammar checked in MS Word which I loathe with abundant passion. As a writer of fiction, I think I come to any grammar checker with a deep sense of suspicion. You see, it’s not my job or my aim to write grammatically correct prose; it’s my aim to write prose that flows and this frequently results in deliberately breaking grammar “rules” even in descriptive passages. As for dialogue . . . Well, people don’t talk grammatically, they just don’t.

The upshot is that I have two main criteria in assessing the utility of any tool like this. The first is the criteria I expect the designers aim to fulfil: how well does the tool work in identifying and explaining grammatical errors. The second is one I don’t see how any designer could possibly address: how much of my time does the tool waste in correctly pointing out grammatical errors which were intentional in the first place and so I don’t want to change. This second criteria is one at which I expect every single grammar tool ever made, now or in the future, to fail, simply because the number of deliberate “mistakes” in a work of fiction will be so high that reviewing them all will become boundlessly annoying.

First things first – a few generic irritations to get off my chest: I can understand why there’s a limit to the size of the document that can be uploaded to a web application and I suppose that for most purposes the limit (I can’t remember exactly what it is but I think 10k words) is fairly generous, but I could see it getting quite irritating loading up and editing an entire novel in chunks. In part because it’s just another irksome chore but mostly because I suspect it undermines the potentially rather useful “ignore all” feature (of which more in a moment). It’s also a bit irritating having the application doing spell-checking when I’ve already done that and now have to go through clicking “ignore all” lots of times, presumably only to have to do the same again when I load up the next chunk with exactly the same set of character names and places.

Grammarly splits all the faults it finds into a plethora of sub-categories and has an ‘ignore all’ option for each one individually. It wasn’t clear to me exactly how this actually works – I initially took it to mean all grammar faults of a particular type would be ignored in the text (which would have been useful) but this didn’t seem to be the case. It became clear to me when I used the tool later that I’d like to switch various parts of the grammar checking in and out, tailoring the use of the tool to my personal strengths and weaknesses. I thought the ignore-all options would allow this but they didn’t seem to work that way.

Something I wasn’t able to test but which might mitigate or even completely eliminate these two irritations is the tool’s integration with MS Office. Grammarly offers the option to download the tool as a plug-in (I think). Presumably this would then allow entire novel-length documents to be examined in one go while seamlessly integrating with the Office dictionaries. Presumably. Unfortunately, as I don’t use MS Office, I wasn’t able to test this. Having to cut out chapters, work on them in a separate tool and then paste them back makes the tool a non-starter for me, and that’s a real pity because the reports the tool made on my two sample pieces I found to be impressive.

On to the detail then: For the review I used two test pieces of prose. Sample one was two chapters (3600 words) of The Crimson Shield. This was text that has been (allegedly) written and rewritten to perfection by me, then edited, rewritten again, copy-edited and proof-read, so it really ought to be quite squeaky-clean. The second sample was a single chapter of 6160 words from a work in progress that I think is about ready for submission to my editor.

For the proof-read sample, the tool split identified a good few categories of faults. In each case, I’ve noted the type of fault, the number found and the number I felt merited a change to the prose:

  • Use of Articles (a test for the presence of an unnecessary definite article) [2/0]

  • Pronoun Agreement (a test to see whether a pronoun has the correct form (i.e. singular plural and subject/object) for the noun it replaces) [6/1]

  • Use of Adjectives and Adverbs [4/1]

  • Incomplete comparisons [3/0]

  • Use of “Like” and “as” [1/0]

  • Faulty Parallelism (i.e. in a sentence with multiple clauses, the verbs either side of the co-ordinating conjunction should have the same tenses. I had a debate with an editor about this a couple of months back) [3/2]

  • Squinting modifiers (when a modifier in a sentence with multiple clauses is not unambiguously associated with a specific one of the clauses) [6/1]

  • Mistakes using qualifiers and quantifiers [0/0]

  • Split infinitives [1/1]

  • Subject and Verb Agreement [8/0]

  • Apparent missing verbs [4/0]

  • Verb Form Use (wrong form of a verb) [2/0]

  • Possible missing words [0/0]

  • Punctuation: commas – this particular MS WENT through a great comma cull and the tool and I disagree on the appropriate use of commas for run-on sentences and before a conjunction joining independent clauses. I’m far from sure I’m right on this one. The tool made 35 suggestions of which 32 were regarding commas. I would have implemented nine of them and most of the others I think my editor would have implemented We don’t see eye to eye on commas. The tool apparently doesn’t understand ellipses . . .

  • Spelling: The tool found 135 spelling mistakes all of which were names etc., The tool has its own dictionary and it only took about 30 seconds to go through and add them all.

  • Commonly Confused Words [2/0]

  • Capitalisation [0/0]

  • Vague and over-used words [0/0]

It’s worth noting that a good few of the apparent problems (perhaps 30%) occurred in dialogue where the tool was clearly correct in identifying a grammatical fault but the fault lay within the pattern of speech for a particular character and thus didn’t merit change. In two flagged sentences, although I disagreed with the change proposed by the tool, I would have made a related change.

Overall, for this “polished” piece of prose, it took me about twenty-five minutes to upload, run the tool and review the results. Ignoring spelling and punctuation, the tool flagged forty-one possible problems of which eight would have resulted in a change to the manuscript if it hadn’t already been too late. It flagged thirty-five punctuation problems of which I would have implemented nine changes. The spell-checking was superfluous. Expanded to an entire novel, this equates to about ten hours of work to catch some 200-250 sentences that could have been more clearly written, i.e. close to one per page (I’ll ignore the punctuation and spelling). This strikes me as quite a lot for a finished manuscript.

For the “submission-ready” sample, the results were slightly different. As a general note, I found that the sentences highlighted by the tool in this sample frequently merited some examination and re-wording even if the specific problem highlighted by the tool wasn’t one with which I felt required changing.

  • Use of Articles (a test for the presence of an unnecessary definite article) [5/1]

  • Pronoun Agreement (a test to see whether a pronoun has the correct form (i.e. singular plural and subject/object) for the noun it replaces) [11/3]

  • Use of Adjectives and Adverbs [7/3]

  • Incomplete comparisons [7/2]

  • Use of “Like” and “as” [1/0]

  • Faulty Parallelism (i.e. in a sentence with multiple clauses, the verbs either side of the co-ordinating conjunction should have the same tenses. I had a debate with an editor about this a couple of months back) [2/1]

  • Squinting modifiers (when a modifier in a sentence with multiple clauses is not unambiguously associated with a specific one of the clauses) [1/0]

  • Mistakes using qualifiers and quantifiers [1/0]

  • Split infinitives [0/0]

  • Subject and Verb Agreement [1/0] (the tool mistook a proper noun for a plural)

  • Apparent missing verbs [7/2]

  • Verb Form Use (wrong form of a verb) [9/2]

  • Possible missing words [2/2]

  • Punctuation: In the unpolished sample, the tool raised 125 queries. The issues were much the same as above.

  • Spelling: there were correct English spellings being flagged as incorrect and no apparent way to change the language of the dictionary.

  • Commonly Confused Words [16/0]

  • Capitalisation [4/0]

  • Vague and over-used words [10/9]

For this piece it took about fifty minutes to go through the whole process. Ignoring spelling and punctuation again, the tool flagged seventy-five possible problems of which twenty-three seemed require a change to the MS and a further nine resulted in changes in the highlighted sentence due to related problems. Expanded to an entire novel, this equates to about fourteen hours of work to catch some 500-550 sentences that could have been more clearly written (I’ll ignore the punctuation and spelling).

In both samples, I found the tool clear and easy to use and its explanatory text as to why it was proposing a change was lucid and sensible. On numerous occasions, I found sentences where the highlighted ‘fault’ wasn’t one with which I agreed but there was some clumsiness in the sentence construction that deserved to be addressed and had caused the fault to be highlighted.

Crunch question – will I use it? As things stand, no, because having to chunk up work and feed it piecemeal into a web-based tool is really irritating and prone to introduce mistakes. If I used MS Office and if the integration is truly seamless, I might think otherwise; even with the support of a professional editorial team, the number of faults I would have changed in the supposedly polished sample was, I thought, high. Although the number of faults that didn’t merit any change was high too, the tool was clear and easy to use, the explanations given were lucid and yet detailed and it was almost always quick and easy to make a choice on the proposed change and move on. I’d probably wrap the use of the tool into the copy-editing stage of manuscript production. It’s probably also a useful tool for identifying and perhaps rectifying any systematic flaws in a writer’s style. I could see a few patterns starting to emerge even from these two samples.

One last minor irritation: the tool speaks fairly well for itself when you use it in its full version, but although as a non-subscriber you can put some sample text in and have it run a report, it doesn’t sell itself very well (it tells you there are a pile of problems but doesn’t show you what they are and feels a bit like a virus checker). It’s understandable that Grammarly don’t want people freeloading off their hard work but I do wonder whether giving free access to the web-based tool with a maximum text sample size of 500 or 1000 words would show the tool off much more effectively.

Disclosure: This review was presented to the suppliers of Grammarly for comment in case I’ve mis-represented their tool. They didn’t ask for any changes or clarifications.

A Lazy Life of Sex and Mojitos (26/7/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

I signed a new contract a couple of weeks back. I’ve got another one to sign right in front of me. I’ve got an offer on the table for some more. The last few weeks have been one big sigh of a long-held breath of thank-fuck-for-that. Because things have, for a while, been a little tense.

Now and then, when people ask what I do for a living and I tell them I write books, they act as though this is some amazing thing that makes me somehow immensely special. I’ve taken to simply rolling with that. I’m not sure I buy it. I think what I used to do was actually more challenging and took more training and more skill. For some reason it doesn’t strike me as all that clever that I write books. In part, I think, that stems from the sense of having pulled some great con trick on life so I get to do this thing that I largely greatly enjoy and somehow scrape a living out of it.

Now and then I also meet people who assume that being a writer equates with being rich. I’d laugh except it still hurts too much (stupid infection)

So far this year, then, work has consisted of the following:

  • Copy-editing and proof-reading various manuscripts coming out this year. Totally about 550k words.

  • Two proposals (unpaid) written for series of novellas / short stories. One has turned into a contract, one hasn’t and probably won’t.

  • Editorial revision of a ghost-written piece of about 100k words

  • Manuscript delivered for editing (The Splintered Gods, 210k words)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (title TBA historical fiction, 80k words – kinda hopeful this one will sell)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (SF, 100k words – no idea if this will sell)

  • Half a manuscript delivered for editing (BigSekkrit SF, 40k words)

So that’s 430k words delivered so far this year. For reference that’s about equivalent to A Storm of Swords.

The rest of the year is going to consist of:

  • Another manuscript delivery (Empires: Extraction 80k words)

  • Two novellas delivered (announcement soon, 30k words each)

  • Editing The Splintered Gods and BigSekkrit

  • One more speculative manuscript bashed into shape for delivery of about 120k

  • Starting work The Silver Kings or something else.

Which will bring the word count up to about 700k for the year, consisting effectively of three contracted novels and three speculative ones. In order to make ends meet this year, one of those speculative ones needs to sell for something more than a bottom-of-the-range advance. That’s to keep a family of four going who have fairly low overheads but with a penchant for an occasional extravagance.I guess if I was single without dependents I could get by on half that. And then it’s a different game again, I suppose, if you have a second income from somewhere.

In order to do this, I’m sat in front of a laptop working for 5-6 hours of almost every day of the year.

Don’t take this as a gripe in any way – I work as fairly average number of hours every week, I get to do it wherever I can take a laptop at whatever time of day I feel like and I’m largely beholden to no one doing a job that I largely enjoy. My point – my only point – is that for most of us, it’s not the lazy life of sex and mojitos that some people seem to think, dammit.

Isms (27/6/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

I should be writing a book right now. My writing partner is going to cry because I’m not. But it’s turned into one of those days where I mostly just want to kill myself[1] and I haven’t got the Bock[2] for wrangling with the personal problems of two women from the thirty-fourth century right now. So here’s a story about lions and zebras instead.

One upon a time on the Serengeti there lived herds and herds of zebras and pride after pride of lions. There also lived all sorts of other animals but for the purposes of this story their relevance is precisely as an excuse for the numbers of zebras and lions to be about the same. Yeah, take that ecology and damn did those lions eat a lot of wildebeest. And for a long time there was a sort of steady situation in which lions ate zebras any time they felt like it and zebras basically felt pretty shit about life but on the whole they didn’t make a fuss and kept quiet about it because it generally wasn’t a good idea to stand out from the herd when there were always a hungry lion about the place. But as time went by, they slowly got more antsy about it. Some baboons took surveys of the zebras, asking them how they felt about the general state of affairs. Significant disenchantment was noted. The zebras started talking about making some changes.

The lions responded to the first few surveys by eating the baboons. When that didn’t change anything they had a go at eating a lot more zebras than normal on the off-chance that the zebras might shut up their moaning and also because, being lions, they rather liked eating zebras. If anything this seemed to make the general level of zebra dissatisfaction worse. Some lions were bemused by this. A lot of the lions wondered why the hell any of the other lions gave a shit what zebras thought. A few lions noticed that by actually talking to the zebras and pretending to give a shit about their feelings, they were able to lure a zebra away from the herd now and then which made it much easier to eat them. A few lions got really good at that, which pissed off a lot of the other lions, most of whom did frankly fancy an easy ride when it came to eating a zebra.

On the whole it was quite hard for lions and zebras to be friends but that didn’t stop a few of them from trying. The plains would be a better place, they thought, if lions and zebras could learn to get along and the lions could stop eating zebras and just eat more wildebeest instead. A lot of zebras agreed with this for obvious reasons. A lot of lions thought this was a crock of shit and laughed but a few of them tried anyway. They tried really hard. The wildebeest, by the way, weren’t best pleased but nobody had bothered to ask them and they’re not supposed to figure in this story anyway.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a zebra,” said the first zebra.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a lion,” said the first lion. “But we could both try.” So the first lion and the first zebra both tried. They tried very hard but they were new at this and unable to break past expressing basic carnivore/herbivore stereotypes and ended up both pretty offended. The zebra expressed its offence through snorts and foot-stamping. The lions expressed its offence by eating the zebra.

The second lion and the second zebra managed a little better. “Zebras are cowardly and always run away,” said the second lion.

“Not so,” said the second zebra. “Some zebras are like that, others aren’t.”

The second lion gaped in wonder, having learned something new. “Well I never,” it said. “I didn’t think zebras could be so different. Tell me more.” So the second zebra told the second lion some more and the second lion listened in amazement. “I never knew zebras were so diverse and complex,” it said when the second zebra was done.

“Lions are stupid and always angry,” said the second zebra, allowing for a joyful moment the elusive  ideal of some true inter-species understanding to get in the way of common sense.

“Not all of us,” said the second lion angrily.

“But a lot of you.”

“I suppose you have a point there,” said the second lion and ate the second zebra.

“See!” shouted a third zebra from a good safe distance. “That’s why in the quest for inter-species harmony and understanding it’s always incumbent on the species in the position of power to understand that the generalisations it makes of the dis-enfranchised species are far more damaging and re-enforcing of existing sub-texts of of dis-empowerment! Your generalisations demean and lessen us and take away our individuality when we are powerless to denounce them yet our generalisations can never hurt you for as long as you can turn around and eat us by way of rebuttal!”

Exactly one lion across the Serengeti was actually capable of understanding this but unfortunately it was somewhere else and didn’t hear. Most of the lions who gave a shit at all, which wasn’t very many, laughed and pointed out how obviously wrong it was and that it was the zebras who ought to be careful about their generalisations if they didn’t want to be eaten. To be honest, not a lot of the zebras understood it either.

The baboons[4] meanwhile, fed up of being eaten for doing surveys the lions didn’t like, had all gone away for a long time to study kung-fu and now came back (all except the one who stayed with a red panda and a turtle). They were still pretty pissed at the lions and decided they would teach the zebras kung-fu too. Thus began no end of trouble.

Eventually, when the dust settled and the sounds of roars and spinning back-hoof-kicks died away, there was only one lion and one zebra left (surrounded by a horde of cheering wildebeest who were none too keen on lions nor on the zebras either after the previous attempted betrayal of their herbivore comrades).

“You kept eating us,” said the zebra, shifting to a preying-mantis stance.

“You kept making all these generalisations,” complained the lion.

I never made any generalisations,” said the zebra.

“And I never ate a zebra,” said the lion.

“But lots of other lions did,” said the zebra.

“So you just treat us all the same then?” asked the lion.

The zebra rolled its eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake! You can hardly go through life without making any generalisations and assumptions about the people you meet, can you? You’d be having week-long conversations with every animal you ever met! You’d never get anything done! It would be ridiculous. Sorry mate, but you have to take some responsibility for the actions of your species as a whole.”

“I suppose,” said the lion. “But then so do you. And I don’t know about zebras, but lions can change as the situation changes around them. Sometimes I want to eat a zebra, sometimes I don’t. We’re all individuals aren’t we?”

“But you’re still a lion.”

“See, there you go with the generalisations again. You can’t possibly know who I am better than I know myself.”

“Really?” countered the zebra. And when neither the lion nor the surrounding wildebeest were prepared to have any of that crap, the zebra went on at great length about something the baboons had brought back called the Johari window and proved to the lion that yes, sometimes a zebra could know what a lion was thinking better than the lion could, and sometimes a lion could understand a zebra better than the zebra understood itself. Which, frankly, made both the lion and the zebra a touch uneasy.

“But that still doesn’t mean you know me better than I know myself,” said the lion.

Eventually they agreed that the only way to really get along was for both lions and zebras to treat each other with respect, as individuals, to make allowances for the occasionally wrong and hurtful assumptions that both parties would make as a necessary part of getting on with life and to accept challenges to those assumptions with good grace. When they were done, the lion and the zebra gave each other a big hug. It was a pity, they agreed, that every other zebra and lion had to die to reach such an understanding.

And then the lion ate the zebra because, well, it was still a lion and it was really, really hungry. And then, since it was the only lion left, the wildebeest kicked it to death and lived happily ever after.

The End.

(brought to you by the wildebeest)

[1] Not really. Well, mostly not really.

[2] A German word that should be in general circulation. “I haven’t got the Bock for this” = “I seem to be unable to raise even the first jot of the necessary enthusiasm to engage with the proposed activity.”

[3] OK, I lied about the relevance of other animals.

[4] Survey monkeys. Ba-boom tish.

Let me Crush Your Dreams For You (7/3/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Someone said that on Twitter this morning and it kicked off a little bit of a shit-storm among the dragons here. In fact, it kicked up enough of a shit-storm that I couldn’t find any time to write today, even when I should, because I was too busy debating the rights and wrongs of a statement like this. So now I’m late on a deadline and pissed off.

So anyway, on a superficial level it’s obviously bullshit. I can’t find any time to learn to play the guitar but I still want to be a rock-star. I can’t find any time to get onto the ice rink but I still want to be an Olympic ice-hockey player. I can’t find the time to get out into the garden and have at it with a spade and shears but I still want a garden that’s slightly more penetrable than a mangrove swamp. It’s perfectly possible to want something and not invest a single second of your life in achieving it. I’ll hazard a guess that almost everyone wants something that they don’t even try to get (author of the above statement included). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not even delusional provided there’s no expectation of actually getting it. [And can we pass quickly by any pedantry over the use of any in the above – if you can't find any time in your entire life to spend a second of it typing a word on a page then you're not a writer? Well duh. Can we just agree that that interpretation is so patently both obvious and useless as a statement that it's not worth the silicon atoms it takes to record for posterity? Please can we? Because arguing over that would make me want to scratch out my own tongue].

I suppose it’s clear enough that a superficial interpretation isn’t what was intended. It’s an old sentiment expressed in many subtly different ways (“writers write” being most succinct). I guess (note guessing) the intended meaning is something along the lines of “Hey, if you can’t find the time to sit down and write reasonably often – even if not for very long – and reasonably regularly, you don’t really want to be a writer enough to. . .” Enough to what I’m not sure. Deserve it? Make it? Finish a novel that no one will ever see? What? What does “a writer” actually mean? Different things to different people.

There’s a truth in the statement nevertheless, for all I’m about to rip it apart. I consider myself to be a writer by pretty much any reasonable definition. It’s my full-time job. I depend on it to pay all the bills for my family. We have no other income source. I have several novels being published each year. I take on ghost-writing work when that doesn’t pay the bills. At the moment I work 40+ hours a week as a writer. I don’t have writer’s block because it’s a luxury I can’t afford. I have to be able to sit down and write whenever and whenever. I write on trains, tubes, in coffee-shops, sitting next to my kids while they watch TV. There are a lot of things I don’t do because it’s more important to write and often there are times when I’d rather do those other things, but I can’t afford to allow myself the hours they ask for [1]. I have deadlines, lots of them. People expect me to meet them. There are consequences if I don’t, largely to do with not getting paid. Stories have to be written in a certain time whether they want to be written or not. Sometimes they come easy, sometimes they come kicking and screaming but they have to come, whatever mood I’m in, whether I or anyone around me is sick or well. Through births, deaths, divorces, marriages, house-moves, you name it, they have to come. So if your dream is to be a full-time professional writer, and you struggle to find a way to sit in front of a keyboard and write, maybe that’s not the career for you. I guess that’s a part of the underlying meaning of that statement (note still “I guess”).


It wasn’t always like that. I’ve been writing on and off for twenty-five years. In that time there were fallow times, years long, were I didn’t work on my stories at all. Was I a writer then? Not sure. Did I want to be? Yes. Should I have given up? Apparently not. And anyway, is that the only way it has to be? Of course not; and who’s to say what happens after you get your first story published. If confidence is an issue, maybe being published blows that issue away and you suddenly can’t stop. Maybe the opposite happens. Maybe you clam up. Who knows? More to the point, who am I or anyone else who doesn’t know you to tell you how its going to be?

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Writers write. As a statement that’s hard to argue against. Anyone who does want to be a writer, yes, obviously you do have to actually write to actually become one. Trying to find the time might be hard but doesn’t happen by itself. It’s good advice, I think, to try and make time almost every day, even if it’s only half an hour, to write if you want that dream to come true, but if you don’t, I’d still say you should slap me for telling you what you should or shouldn’t want. You have a right to want to be anything. I might not take you very seriously, but they’re your dreams, not mine and who am I or anyone else to come along and tell you they’re not valid. For some people maybe time really is a crushing issue. For a lot of aspiring writers, I’d suggest perhaps confidence is more the problem than time. Well maybe now it is. Maybe things will be different in six months or maybe not. Maybe never. A dream is still a dream and we’re all poorer without them. I can think of several people who wanted to be rock stars long ago. Now they live ordinary lives and play in little bands that do pubs and weddings for pocket change and that’s still for them a wonderful thing. I will never be an Olympic Ice-hockey player. I might, in a couple of years, play in a small team of incompetent amateurs and have a huge amount of fun. Many aspiring authors will never publish best-sellers but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that a not-yet-expressed idea should be killed dead here and now. Maybe that novel never happens, but maybe out of the dream of it something unexpected grows instead.

If you want to be a writer, try and find a little time most days to write. Or make some notes or something to inch forward. At least do something about it. Good advice? Yes.

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.” An insidious dream-killing cage of a statement. An authoritarian devourer of possibilities. Probably not meant as it comes across. Definitely ill-conceived. Don’t piss on my dreams, people and I won’t piss on yours.

[1] If that makes it sound like, gee, any other salary-slave job then yes, there are a lot of similarities. Do I wish I was doing something else? Hell no.

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style (25/1/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

Yes, this is a proud-parent post. You have been warned…

A couple of years ago, number one sithling wrote his first story and I put it up because it had knights and dragons in it and also hog-roast, and you can’t say no to hog-roast. Number two sithling has a story too that he’d like to share. So here it is:

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style

by Evan

Age 7

Long ago, there lived a boy called Evan how was living with his mother. During a visit to Rome the Emperor falls in love with Evan’s mother  and kidnaps her. Evan is furious and sends a message to the Emperor demanding for his mother back. The Emperor said: NO! Only if you bring me the head of the fiercest lion in all of Rome. Evan goes to an island in a chariot and meets the goddess Diana who gives him a shield and a magic sword and flying sandals. Evan travels to another island to meet the three sisters who tell him where to find the great beast. The lion lives in a tunnel underneath an old amphitheatre in Rome. Evan uses his flying sandals again to get to Rome quickly and finds the lion in one of the tunnels. During a big long fight,Evan chops off the lion’s head and kills him. He puts the lion’s head in a bag and takes it to the Emperor. The Emperor is very surprised and agrees to let Evan’s mother go.

I believe I may have a synopsis for a short story…

I Have Nothing To Say So Here’s A Cat Picture (10/1/13)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Ferg

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