It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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2014 and me

This time last year I said 2013 hadn’t been a particularly good year, but this year has been worse. Admittedly, last year felt bad, but quite a lot of good stuff happened during it – including winning the BSFA Award. This year… well, the event of 2014 was Loncon 3, and I chose not to go to it (for a variety of reasons which felt right at the time). I did, however, attend the Eastercon in Glasgow, Edge-lit in Derby and Fantasycon in York. No trips abroad, sadly. I also went to Bloodstock Open Air festival, and it was a good one.

Only three of my stories saw print in 2014. ‘Waters of Lethe’ appeared in Perihelion SF in June; ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, my first ever sale to a literary magazine, appeared in Litro #137 in September; and ‘Far Voyager’ provided the title to the latest Postscripts anthology, #32#33 Far Voyager, in November. Another two stories were due to appear in an anthology this year, but its appearance has been delayed.

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Speaking of delayed… I’d hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows out in 2014. My initial hope was to have it ready for Loncon 3, but by July I was still busy doing research. And sort of feeling out the story and how I wanted to tackle it. Once I started writing it, and decided it was going to be a short novel rather than a novella, publishing it by the end of the year seemed unlikely. So it’s going to be a 2015 release and I’m aiming for the second half of January.

I’d used MPG Biddles to print the paperback editions of Apollo Quartet 1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains and 2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, but they went bust in June 2013. So I had to use Amazon’s CreateSpace for book 3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. And now that I’m running low on my stock of books 1 and 2 in paperback and would have to use CreateSpace to replenish… I decided it was a good opportunity to produce a second edition of each. New cover art, such that all four books will look like a set; and even some bonus material to up the page-count as CreateSpace can only put lettering on the spine for books of more than 100 pages. One advantage of this is that Amazon will print and carry its own stock, so I won’t make a loss every time I sell them a book. I’m also hoping shiny new editions will give sales of the books a kick in the pants – as too will the appearance of book 4 All That Outer Space Allows. As of 12 December 2014, sales of books 1,2 and 3 stand at 1,160, 540 and 255 respectively.

All of this had unintended consequences for another project I was working on: Aphrodite Terra, a mini-anthology of six stories about the planet Venus. Again, I’d planned to have it out for Loncon 3, but that didn’t happen. And given the amount of work I’ve ended up doing in the last quarter of this year, I’ve had to knock that into early 2015 too. I hope it’ll be worth the wait.

On the non-fiction front, I was interviewed at the beginning of the year by some Spanish bloggers – the Spanish-language version appears on Leticia Lara’s Fantástica Ficción here, and the English version is on Odo’s Sense of Wonder here. I was also interviewed on Confessions of a Book Geek for Sci-Fi November. I reviewed 23 books for SF Mistressworks and 3 books for Interzone. I also started a new reading project: postwar British women writers. Only two books read so far – by Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz – but it’s an informal, unstructured reading project so there’s no rush. I also contributed a pair of ‘Friday Fives’ to Pornokitsch: 5 Trips to the Moon in June and 5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema in August.

2015 should prove… interesting. I’m determined it will be a more productive year than 2014 has been. Once All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra are out, I plan to get started on a literary hard sf novel. I also have a stand-alone novella I’d like to write. And some short stories – I have several I started this year but never quite managed to finish. Toward the end of 2015, I’d like to gather together my space fiction stories and publish a short collection through Whippleshield Books. I also have another little project I’m considering tackling, a sort of pendant to All That Outer Space Allows. But we’ll see how everything goes.


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Finger on the Zeitgeist

So I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains sometime in 2010, and then the film Apollo 18 was released in September 2011 – although I didn’t publish my book until April 2012. And then I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself about a mission to Mars, and published that in January 2013… by which point Andy Weir’s self-published novel The Martian was doing so well, it was bought by a publisher for six figures who then published it in January 2014, and now it’s being made into a movie by Ridley Scott. I decided to write about the Mercury 13 for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and so does Kelly Sue DeConnick in Captain Marvel, which was collected as In Pursuit of Flight in late 2013. And BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a documentary on the Mercury 13 in November 2014. And for the final book of the Apollo Quartet, I’m focusing on the wives of the Apollo astronauts, and among the books I’ve used for research is Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club… which has been adapted for television by ABC and will be broadcast in spring 2015…

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So it’s not just me writing about these things, but on the other hand it’s not like I’m getting any benefit from their appearances in popular culture. Clearly my marketing department is not doing its job properly…


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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

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While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.


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Serendipity strikes again

Sometimes, when you’re working on a piece of fiction, and you’re wondering perhaps if this marvellous plan you have in your head and you’re trying to get down is a) achievable and b) not going to result in ridicule from all those who will read it… Sometimes, when you’re in that space, an artistic decision turns out to be just so right, you can’t help but feel it really is going to work after all. This has happened for all of the Apollo Quartet… and today I had my moment of serendipity for the fourth book, All That Outer Space Allows.

The protagonist of the story – it will be a short novel rather than a novella, around 50,000 to 60,000 words – is a science fiction writer, and she is married to a test pilot who is selected by NASA for the Apollo programme. For one scene, I needed the names of some women sf writers who had had stories published in 1965. One of the names I picked was Josephine Saxton – her debut, ‘The Wall’, appeared in the November 1965 issue of Science Fantasy. I wanted my protagonist to say something about the story after reading it, but I didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, it was collected in The Power of Time and I found a copy of the book on eBay. So I bought it…

sfnov1965

The collection arrived the following day, I read ‘The Wall’… and discovered its central metaphor fitted in perfectly with the general shape of All That Outer Space Allows.

I love it when that happens.

On the other hand… I remember sitting in the Bijoux Bar in the Raddison Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, the day after the launch of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and describing to Maureen Kincaid Speller the plot of All That Outer Space Allows. Yes, even back in April 2012, I knew what it was about and what the title would be. But now I’m about a quarter of the way into writing it, and it’s shaping up somewhat differently to that original plan. For a start, it’s proving to more about science fiction, and the history of science fiction, than I had intended. It’s also going to be more of a work of imagination than the preceding three books, chiefly because I can find no direct documentation I can use to help me evoke the time and place. For example, I can tell you the average temperature on 1 April 1966 in Lancaster, California, was 66.8°F, but I’ve found only a handful of photos online of the city taken during that year. And, of course, astronauts wives are not as well documented as the astronauts themselves. I’m having to do my research by reading between the lines…

But if it was easy, I wouldn’t do it. Would I?


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Sales report

Loncon 3 is now in full swing. I am not there. After spending last weekend in a field in Derbyshire, drinking and watching a number of metal bands perform, I can’t say I’m especially bothered about missing the Worldcon (though I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to meet IRL a few visitors to the UK I know only from online). Bloodstock was good – I think I enjoyed the music more this year than last, even though initially I hadn’t been that keen on the line-up. Highlights were the sets by Obsidian Kingdom and Shining, and the crowd’s performance during Evil Scarecrow’s set. Other good stuff included Orphaned Land (twice), Rotting Christ, Winterfylleth, Old Corpse Road and Voices. The weather behaved – mostly. It hammered down on the Sunday, and everywhere got wet and muddy, but it cleared up by the evening. Security this year was much improved; the toilets were much worse. A good festival, nonetheless.

Meanwhile… these summer months so far have felt spectacularly unproductive, and there have been days when I’ve had trouble working up the enthusiasm to write, edit, or even get started on a book review… Which is not to say I’ve done nothing. It just feels like it. I’m assuming reviews count. I wrote a fair few of those during June and July. Four for SF Mistressworks, in fact: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (here); Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (here); Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (here); and Judgment Night, CL Moore (here). A fifth went up this week – The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (here) – and I have another two suitable books I’ve read but I’ve yet to start on the reviews – Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntyre & Susan Janice Anderson; and Second Body, Sue Payer. I also reviewed Extreme Planets, edited by David Conyers, David Kernott & Jeff Harris, for Interzone (the anthology’s publishers really need to sort out its Amazon page); and I have another book sitting on this desk beside my laptop to review for them, which is, er, already late. (I’ll have it done by the end of the week, Jim. Honest.)

Whippleshield Books continues to quietly stumble along. Sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains have just passed 1100, those of The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are over 500, and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above has to date managed a tardy 200-or-so units sold. I’m determined to get the final book of the Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, out before the end of the year, although at present I can’t predict exactly when. (Which reminds me: I need to buy some more ISBNs.) Aphrodite Terra, however, should appear some time next month. (The contributors were paid on acceptance, so any delay is more annoying than anything else.)

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Also, next month, I’ll have a story in Litro magazine. The issue has a “future fashion” theme, and my story, ‘The Spaceman and the Moon Girl’, is about astronauts and space age fashion designers. Sort of. Postscripts #32/33: Far Voyager should also be out some time this year, with my story providing its title. And later this year – no date as yet – Tickety Boo Press are publishing an anthology Space: Houston, We Have A Problem, which contains my story ‘Red Desert’.

ETA: I forgot to mention I contributed a couple of Friday Fives to Pornokitsch – one on sf novels about first missions to the Moon titled, with a great deal of imagination, ‘5 Trips to the Moon’; the other about sf movies set at the bottom of the ocean, ‘5 Pieces of Soggy Sci-Fi Cinema‘.

 


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Loncon 3 and me

As you likely all know, the Worldcon this year takes place in London. So they’re calling it Loncon, the third of that name as there were previous Loncons in 1957 and 1965. It will take place from 14 to 18 August at ExCel, which is some sort of humungous exhibition centre in Docklands. It also seems it’s going to be the biggest Worldcon so far. All of which is academic as far as I’m concerned, as I won’t be going.

I did buy an attending membership, and I volunteered to be on programme items. I was asked to be on one panel, but I turned it down. It was not a topic that interested me, or one I felt could usefully contribute to. All of which is, again, pretty much moot.

There are a number of reasons why I’ve decided I’m no longer attending Loncon 3. One of them is that I had hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra ready for the con. But that’s not going to happen, so I think I’d better spend the time working on them. Loncon 3 is also the weekend after a metal festival, and I doubt I could recover from one in time for the other.

There are lots of people I’d hoped to meet IRL at Loncon 3 for the first time. Back in 2005, at the Glasgow Worldcon, I remember such plans failing spectacularly – but then the “voodoo board” wasn’t very effective… These days, of course, social media and smartphones make it all so much easier. Another time, perhaps. Helsinki in 2017?

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