2012 in Writing – Getting there

2011 felt like treading water.  In some ways that was OK – I’d just bought a house and there was lots of time to be spent and pleasure to be had there – decorating, settling into the garden, and putting a couple of not so great years behind me.  I was still writing though, short stories, and the start of a new novel, but I was also feeling a lot of the time that I was getting nowhere.  Especially with novel submissions – a seemingly endless series of rejections that really was going nowhere.

So it’s nice now to look back at 2012 and realise that a few of the things going on in 2011 came good.  And the year just past has now set some good things going into the future.  Also, I got lucky.  And I learned a lot.

To start with, the novel submission/rejection flip-flop continued, but spring brought a nice surprise in third place in the 2011 Aeon award run by Albedo One magazine for ‘Where the Sun Shines Brightly’.  I was really pleased that judges including Ian Watson and Mike Resnick liked my story enough to place it.

Out of the blue I had an email from Simon Ings, Editor of New Scientist’s ARC magazine.  He’d read one of my short stories and did I have anything that might work for ARC?  ‘Yes, sure,’ I said, ‘I’ve got loads.’  So I wrote ‘All Your Futures’ and that was in ARC 1.3.  This was just utterly brilliant.

My partner, Gaie Sebold, got an invite to Edge-Lit in Derby, a one-day con run by Alex Davis.  This was great fun, lots of nice people and some good panels and events, and then some good stuff happened in the bar.  I bumped into Terry Grimwood who runs The Exagerated Press, who said that, if I liked, he would like to do a collection of my short stories.  Then Jaine Fenn whizzed past, waved her hands in some sort of magic spell and said ‘Dave, this is Colin, you two should talk.’  Colin runs Clarion Publishing and had just signed Jaine for ‘Downside Girls’ a collection of short stories from the universe of her ‘Hidden Empire’ SF novels.  So Colin and I propped up the bar for an hour or more, the result was I sent him my near future SF novel, (Shopocalypse).  He liked, we signed a contract.

And I went to Milfiord again, on the spur of the moment, snaffling the last place.  This was a lovely week, I met some old aquaintances and several new ones, read some astonishingly good stories, and went for the wettest run of my entire life with Al Robertson & Guy Martland.  As before, I came away from Milford refreshed, energised, and pretty tired.

So, a good year, a splendid year.  II’m dead happy and have good things to look forward to this year as a result.  Things I learned are:

– Hang out at places. Meet people.  I met Jaine at my first Milford a few years back (she really didn’t like my story), Terry used to be in the writing group some years past.  If I hadn’t gone to Edge-Lit there would have been no talk about a collection, and no novel coming out.  (But don’t network, to hell with that, and anyway I can’t do it and hate the idea.  Just meet people and make friends.)

– Don’t give up. Shopocalypse had been rejected 136 times.  Agents, publishers large and small, sometimes it hurt like hell.  I still thought it was pretty fucking good and still kept submitting, even though some days I felt like a kind of masochistic weeble.

– Friends help you.  The truth is, absolutely now way whatseover could I have done it without them.  Thank you.

Dinosaurs in my attic

Dinosaurs are brilliant.  When I was young collecting tea cards was pretty good too.  These were illustrated cards that came in loose tea packets (tea bags weren’t proper, not in my house), for collection in albums.  I had a good few albums, and the best one, the only one I still have, was all about dinosaurs.

Front cover.I loved it then, for the tiny, detailed paintings and drawings.

I still love it now, for the mix of imagination, technical skill, and information, and the sheer effort that has been put into making something as trivial as a tea card album as good as it could possibly be.

The pictures were, and I still think are, wonderfully romantic, so full of colour and detail.  And now I know those ‘palms’ are tree ferns – you can see they are.  And those stubby bottle-brush plants are Equisetacea, plants that grew big as trees and helped form the coal beds.

Protoceratops vs spaceman

Unfortunately a younger me couldn’t resist a little bit of science-fictional vandalism…

 

 

Rhamphorhynchus and Pteranodon

 

I expect a fair amount of this is information is out of date, and the dinosaur colours?  These days we’re starting to get an idea.  When I was young I was just amazed that they somehow knew.

 

 

 

Still, it’s great.  And so are dinosaurs.Dimetrodon

Tylosaurus

 

 

 

My Writing Group – The T Party

If you’re interested in finding out more about my writing group, you can read about it here in an interview with Rebeccah Giltrow.

Also, there’s oodles of stuff on the group web site itself, natch.

 

 

Secret Pleasures

My slippers are muddy.  I’ve just been down to the bottom of the garden, built a bonfire, and watched it burn.  In my slippers.

Nothing’s changed, I used to do the same sort of thing when I was a child.  My mother used to tell me off for it, but it didn’t stop me, I just couldn’t be bothered to put my shoes on.  Actually, one thing has changed – I put the slippers on properly now, so the backs don’t get broken down.

Slippers in the garden is one of my two secret pleasures.  I seriously regard each one as a small but significant benefit of growing up, of being master of your own destiny – or at very least, when you get to wear your slippers.

The other one is leaving the fridge door open.  It used to drive my dad mad. He had his rules: Open the door; take the milk; shut the door; use the milk; open the door; replace the milk; shut the door.  This was the accepted method and everyone in the household followed it.  Except me.  And so I got told off.  Regularly.

These days  the fridge door stays open.  It’s so petty, but even after all these years it still gives me a little tweak of satisfaction to behave that way. My fridge, my fridge door, my rules – or lack of them.  Be my guest, feel free to leave it open, or shut it.  Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law regarding fridge doors.

So why the continuing desire to cock a snook at parents who I loved, both now long departed?  There are no emotional scars, no abiding sense of burning injustice.  They wanted things done one way, I preferred it another.

I’m still too lazy to put my shoes on, I still can’t be bothered to shut the door, but now there’s nobody around to tell me off.

I’ve got away with it.  It makes me smile.

Somewhere deep inside, I’m still that kid.

Aargh – they got me!

The fragrant and talented Gaie Sebold tagged me in The Next Big Thing writers blog hop.  So, here goes:

1. What is the title of your book?

Good question, well put, and one I intend to answer fully in due course.  The working title is The Shopping Trip, but I can tell you now, of all possible titles, that’s not going to be it.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A story challenge from my writing group   (write about two random subjects).  After 15 mins of Beatnik Sex & Shopping I’d defined the two main characters and knew I wanted to tell their story.  It’s changed a bit since then.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

First, it’s one of those David Gullen stories, that’s my main genre.  It’s also near-future apocalyptic SF, a black comedy, apolitical satire.  Of course, it’s also all going to come true.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

What a superbly entertaining time-waster of a question!

<wine and conversation ensue>

Novik, an idealistic drifter – Leonardo DiCaprio.  I loved him in The Departed, and Blood Diamond, he’s my star.

Josie, a realist, Novik’s girlfriend – Connie Nielsen would be my first choice, I think she would be absolutely perfect, but just perhaps these days it would have to be Eva Green, who was brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven.

Mitchel Gould, King of Nu-Orleans – Daniel Craig.  Give the man the chance to be a villain.  I think he’d love it.

Guinevere Snarlow, President of the USA – Sigourney Weaver.  Just the right lady to start a nuclear war.

Jericho Wilson, burned-out ex-cop – John Goodman is the only possible choice.  See him in Red State.

Pallfinger Crane, richest man who has ever lived – Charles Dance.  An actor with huge screen presence we don’t see enough of.

Ellen Crane, fattest person in the world – this was tricky.  Who can bring gravitas and emotional depth to a role in a fat-suite while wearing a powered exo-skeleton?  That would be Ellen Page.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Novik is on the run in a talking car with a trunk full of hot money in a world on the edge of a nuclear war only he can stop.  To do that he has to buy everything, absolutely all of it.  Right now.

OK, three sentences, I refuse to be restrained by mere convention.  If you want to stop me, send ninja girls in cat-suites.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither.  It’s being published by Clarion Publishing.  I don’t have an agent.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About 18 months.

8. What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?

The format was inspired by Frank Herbert’ s The Dosadi Experiment, but it’s not like that.  Thematically it’s more like John Brunner’s near future books like Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar, but he didn’t go in for the humour.  Perhaps Charles Stross’s work is the nearest in contemporary writing – or Ken MacLeod.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This started out pretty light-hearted and became more serious when I realised (duh) I could have a lot of fun and also write about a few things I give a damn about too.  Hence the descent, or triumphant ascent, into black comedy and satire.  Oh dear.

Insiprations?  A question – What would happen if you bought everything?  How could that even be possible, and why would you want to.  That, and a song – World Party’s Ship of Fools.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s really good!  It’s bat-shit crazy!  It’s got a talking car!  I blow things up!  People blow each other! Up!

So now I’m supposed to tag 5 more writers.  Tricky, everyone else has grabbed them!  I do some quick calculations and see that only on the fifth iteration 3,750 writers are involved.  Maybe I’m actually in the 14th iteration, when the entire population of the world is required.

Nevertheless, I have lined up:

– Mysterious, enigmatic man of mystery: Jeff Anderson. (So mysterious he hasn’t told me his blog address yet.)

– The beautiful, deadly, and talented Melanie Garrett.

And maybe more to follow!

Review – The Steel Seraglio

Cover of The Steel SeraglioSentenced to death in the desert, the concubines of a fallen sultan instead free themselves and evade the pursuit of the fanatical new ruler of their city, Hakkim Mehdad. Out of nothing, they and their allies – robbers and storytellers, a librarian, a female assassin – found a new city in the desert, the fabled City of Women.

The three Careys – Mike, Linda, and Loiuse, have written a vibrant, colourful, page-turner of an adventure with passion and care. Filled with drama, romance, and humour, it is overlain with a wry, observational wit that can spare a morsel of compassion for the complex and conflicted enemies of freedom and reason that the women and their male allies must overcome.

I found each character memorable, whole, and altogether believable. Mike, Linda, and Louise have created a terrific cast of complex, conflicted heroines and heroes, wicked zealots and self-serving opportunists – and everything in between.

This is a lovely book, magical and earthy, and is beautifully illustrated by Nimit Malavia. The Steel Seraglio is a tale from a once and future Arabia of fountained courtyards, silks, and jewels – and parched lips, burning heat, thieves, honour, and betrayal. A story of love and madness, hate and obsession. At times it feels more as if these stories and people are real rather than invented, and their world a country you could, by taking the right turn at the right place and time, step into.

You might even want to.

Anyone who enjoys well-written fantasy with a human touch will enjoy this delightful book.

It’s great. You really should read it.

The Steel Seraglio
Mike Carey, Linda Carey, & Louise Carey
Chizine Press, 2012

One substantial step

Last week I signed a contract with Colin Tate at Clarion Publishing to publish my near-future SF novel.  After jumping around the room, doing the happy dance, and wagging my finger at the universe in that ‘I told you so’ way, we stayed up too late and drank some champagne.  Happy days!

I realised I’d learned some important lessons.  The excellent and talented Mike Carey* once was guest speaker at our writing group.  Somebody asked him when he realised he’d made it as a writer, and he replied there never was that exact moment, instead, a series of cumulative steps, one after the other.

Writing groups.  Mine is the T Party, now one of the most successful genre writing groups in the UK (always open for members, by the way), with current members and alumni including Gaie Sebold, Tom Pollock, Aliette de Bodard, KD Grace, Francis Knight, and Will Mitchell.  With serious critiques, friendship, and endless mutual support, I don’t think I’d be where I am now without them.  The honest critiques helped, the after-meeting conversations and weekends and weeks away created good times, grand memories, and some fantastic story ideas.   Sometimes I needed to be told to try harder, sometimes I needed that group support, and wise advice.  ‘Correction does much, but encouragement does more.’

And perseverance.  I learned to stick with it, roll with the punches and enjoy the good times.  Hone your craft, work your ideas.  Actually do try harder.  And take delight in your friends successes.  Go to Cons and workshops.  Mingle.   Just be there, and chat, meet people, and ask questions (such as ‘Would you like to come talk to our writing group?’)  You’ll encounter a few who think you’re not worth talking to, that’s fine, move on.  Meet the rest.

You can’t do it on your own, a lot of great chances have come my way via friends who wanted to help out.  Such as Jaine Fenn at EdgeLit, who breezed past and said, ‘Oh, Dave, have you met Colin?’

Of course you have to be ready to make good use of those opportunities.  I did that bit by all by myself, with help and encouragement.   Looking back, I can now see that series of incremental steps taken.   I’m looking forward with wonder and excitement to what comes next.

*Hellblazer, Felix Castor, The Unwritten.  If you’ve not read The Steel Seraglio, written in collaboration with Linda and Loise Carey, then you’re denying yourself one of the most original, poetic and moving of recent fantasy novels.

An old yacht sails again

 

Many years ago, this yacht lamp used to belong to my grandmother, who told me it was made by a WWII Polish refugee.  It hadn’t worked for a long time, so I decided to see if I could dismantle it for repair.

I found the wiring was a mix of plastic coated and cloth-wrapped cable.  After 65 – 70 years, the cloth insulation had crumbled.

There is some lovely detailing on the hull, much of it handmade.  The port holes are eyelets, the windlasses turn, and the cables run through the hull to the bow anchors.

It’s all looks pretty scruffy here.  The more I fiddled, the more I found how it came apart.  When I discovered the rails and deck fittings attached to the hull with pins, my quick rewiring with a bit of dusting turned into a full-on refurbishment.

On the left: wood and metal all polished, rewired, and reassembled, including the ancient, and still working, bulbs.

And on the right: with mast and sails.  I had to remake the metal hoop holding the top of the sails to the mast, the original was missing.

 

And here she is, a ship coasting by in the night.  I wonder who the crew is, their cargo and ports of call?

I loved this old lamp of my grandmother’s when I was a child.  It’s great to have her ship-shape again.

Cranachan – food (porridge) of the Gods

I first ate this ambrosial Scottish dessert of raspberries, honey, whisky, cream and oats at Frank’s Cafe, the amazing temporary restaurant and bar on top of Peckham’s multi-storey car park.   Frank’s has one of the best views in London, great food, and a unique setting.

Last year I planted some raspberry canes.  This year, despite the weather, I have a decent crop.   A first attempt at cranachan felt like an excellent way to celebrate the harvest, and I used this recipe from Nigel Slater.

Cranachan - ingredients

And five minutes later, here’s the finished product:

Cranachan - Porridge of the Gods

Brilliant!  Sucha fantastic desert, so easy and quick to make.  To my taste, the recipe could use a few more oats – maybe an extra 100g, but perhaps that is because I used rolled oats.

I also discovered when I went back for seconds, it tastes so much better if you leave it to stand for ten minutes.

The recipe is for four servings, so it’s cranachan again tonight, hurrah!  I’ll find out what it’s like after standing for 24 hours.

Prometheus – and hello world.

Welcome to the first blog on my new web site.  I saw Prometheus on the first night of release in the UK with my partner, the lovely Gaie Sebold, and we decided to write a joint blog, which you can also see on her own web site.

So, without further ado:

Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott.

Dave & Gaie:  As the credits rolled, we just sat there.  I looked at Gaie and said ‘Hmm.’   Then we both got up and left the cinema.  That says it all, really.  However…

Dave:  This was a film I was really looking forward to seeing.  I love the first two Alien films, and I’m a big fan of Scott’s work: Kingdom of Heaven (you have to see the director’s cut), Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Body of Lies.

Gaie:  Me too.  I love one, three and four of the Alien films:  admittedly I loathed Gladiator, but I do adore a lot of his stuff.  When he gets it right, he really gets it right.  Here, though…

Dave:  Overall, the film is incoherent.  OK, I trained as a biologist, so the wilful science bollocks got to me:

Q: Are we throwing away three hundred years of Darwinism?  (The biologist character asks early on.)

A: Yes, we are, apparently.  Anyway, under your spacesuit is a RED SHIRT, so it doesn’t really matter what you say.

This hand-waving was the real problem – trying to paper over the cracks results in drawing attentions to the flaws.

Gaie:  Yes, If you’re going to have pseudo science, do it.  Don’t try and jam it together with real science.  I’m no scientist, and even I was going, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, that makes no sense.

It would be far better to just use the unobtainium, and go ‘it just does, guys, the interesting stuff is over here, look!’ instead of trying to rationalise a massive logic fail.

Dave:  Absolutely.  With explanation, less is always more, in the same way scenery is always better on radio.   More is always too much.  Imaginatively, it doesn’t leave anything for the audience to do.

Gaie:  Exactly.  And one of the great things about the first Alien film was the way the monster was seen only in terrifying glimpses; your own mind supplies the rest, and it always knows what scares you the most.  But this?  I had heard there was supposed to be some sort of subtext about invasive penetration, etc. etc.  But there was no ‘sub’ about it.  It looked, at points, like  tentacle porn – and judging by the giggles coming from the row in front, I wasn’t the only one wondering if they’d bought some of their monsters from the local branch of Lovecrafts.

A shame that Scott didn’t take his cue from the first film and keep things mostly hidden, rather than almost literally slapping us in the face with a big wet penis; (a particularly startling experience in 3D).  Or, for that matter, smothering someone with what appeared to be a starfish blessed with a ring-a-rosy of vaginas.  Was this last an attempt at gender-balancing the whole monstrous sexuality thing?  It’s the only feeble excuse I can possibly muster.  Anyway, it was mainly just rather icky, in a faintly amusing way that I can’t imagine was intentional.

Dave:  Each scene in Prometheus works pretty well, but that doesn’t mean when you string them all together you’ve got a film.    There were too many references to the oeuvre that Prometheus seemingly felt obliged to pay homage to, or subvert – the eggs, the space jockey, the Alien itself –  while also denying it was a real prequel.  Some of these are in the film, some are not, but it felt like this stifled creativity and originality – these references had to be in there and each and every time they killed the great thing that SF does so well by refusing to explain the unexplained: Sensawunda.  So they went ahead and explained it, inconsistently and nonsensically.

Gaie: The whole thing felt like a sort of closed loop; like playing a video game where you can’t get past this particular door, and however pretty the scenery, eventually you get bored and go play something else.

Dave: Actually, the actors are pretty good – Idris Elba plays a believable, pragmatic, and, in the end, heroic, jobbing space captain, Michael Fassbender a sinister, malevolent Jeeves of an android, and Noomi Rapace is a very human female lead – who goes through hell, and back (but more of that later).

Gaie: Yes, Rapace was good; it was a shame she was given such wildly improbable things to do. I ended up unable to concentrate on her acting because of the words, ‘You what?  You’re kidding,’ ringing through my head.   Fassbender was also excellent; potentially far scarier than the monsters.  And as for Elba, his was the best-realised human character of the lot, to my mind; a shame he wasn’t foregrounded earlier.

Dave: I also thought the characters behaved inconsistently.  The biologist, at first sight of a dead alien, takes fright and runs away, leaving it to the archaeologists. Then, when he sees a slimy little worm creature he plays with it – and guess what, bad things happen, not because he’s an idiot, but because the script says he has to.  He’s also part of a very uncomfortable comedy duo with the geologist, the brittle dislike they have for each other disappointingly turns into half-baked silliness as the script throws them away.

Gaie: Yes!  This is the first biologist ever to see an alien and he’s going, ‘lemme out of here!’.  The collection of characters on the ship seems to be there not because anyone had given any real thought to who might be on this sort of expedition, but in order to have someone to drop in a plot point or get nastily messed with by a slimy sex-toy.

None of the character interrelationships felt properly built or worked out; but then, neither are the majority of the personalities.  The interactions seemed to be between bits of scipt, not between people.  The potentially interesting characters were generally the more minor ones; but they hardly got a chance to shine.  Charlize Theron can do ice-queen in her sleep, which is exactly what this felt like; Dr Shaw’s partner (Charlie/Logan Marshall-Green) actually struck me as a bit of a jerk.  Poking other people about their beliefs is a tad adolescent, and just because David is an android, there’s no excuse to be unpleasant to him when you don’t even know he may have a hidden agenda.

Dr Shaw herself (Noomi Rapace)  seemed little more than a bundle of angsty survival instinct held together (in the end literally) with surgical steel.  She tries to save her lover, she tries to save herself, and only when poked in the spine by the plot does she attempt to save anyone else.  She lacks the sense of someone who will take the right moral choice, even when it’s tough, that made Ripley so appealing.

Dave: Only Idris Elba’s character, the ship’s captain, does that.  And the relationships between the characters are at times wincingly clichéd.

Gaie:  Agh. The Star Wars style revelation moment was the dampest of damp squibs; like a badly chosen Hallmark card left out in the rain.

Dave:  Overall, it’s all done by the numbers – the prequel, the setup, the team of disparate souls with secret agenda all fractiously rubbing along.  The shock actual ending after the ending, just when you , yawn, think it’s safe.  They even had the, admittedly alien, limb slapping the window.  Bang!  Ooh, scary!  This is ripping tropes out of teen-horror, and is sadly derivative.  There were too many moments that broke me out of the film with a mental ‘Hang on…’

In particular, one absolutely laugh-out-loud moment during possibly the most traumatic scene in the film.

Gaie:  Yes.  It should have been utterly grim and scary, but first, the horribleness was undercut by a really weird design choice, and I have no idea what sort of reference they were going for there, but what I got was a ‘huh?’.  And, from that moment on I was going; no.  No, sorry, that person, in that condition, couldn’t do that.  Or that.  Or that and certainly not that.  I don’t care how good surgery is in the future.  Just no.

Dave:  So what was good?  Cinematically the film is impressive, the design is great, and it’s very beautiful in parts.

That’s it.

Gaie: Yes.  Much of it was very, very pretty; and the sense of scale was at times wonderful.   But…I needed people in that fantastic landscape I could care about, and they were sadly lacking.

Dave:  In a word?  Disappointed.  In a sentence?  Oh my God, Margaret Attwood was right – it is all squids in space.

Fin.