Category Archives: Ramblings

Pseudo-Science (Fiction)

One thing about running is that you get time to think, you can take a small inkling of an idea that you have, and turn it over in your head until it’s grown into something more, something usable in a story.

Over the weekend I was discussing personal force fields with a friend of mine, the sort to keep the rain off rather than the sort to deflect lasers – I live in Manchester after all – and I pointed out that the theory is already sound, using ultrasound.

In very basic terms, ultrasound uses sound waves to produce a thin “wall” of air at a fixed height away from the generator. You can move your hand underneath it and meet no resistance, but the wall of sound will push back. And it’s totally invisible.

Tests and experiments have shown that small objects can even be pushed along, and I recommend looking up videos on acoustic levitation and seeing water droplets being suspended in mid-air. Researchers in Tokyo took this one step further a few years ago, and rather than suspending small objects, created touchable holograms. Sensors detected where the hand was, and when it came into contact with a holographic object, ultrasound was used to create pressure on the hand, and give the impression of touch.

So when out running this morning I was thinking more about this, and what other uses it could be put too. I’m not a scientist, I’m a writer, so I don’t know if what I came up with is actually feasible or if there’s something pretty important I’ve overlooked, but it’s by coming up with these ideas, and writing them into books, that we hope that the real scientists will read them and act on them.

What I was thinking about was how artificial gravity works on spaceships. There’s lots of idea out there, based mostly on rotational or linear movement. But I was thinking, what if we’re going about this the wrong way? What if, instead of trying to create gravity, we instead created the impression of it? What if the ceilings of spaceships were lined with ultrasound generators and sensors, and as someone walked along, ultrasound was used to push them down to the floor? There’d be no need for massive flywheels or huge power supplies either.

We wouldn’t be creating gravity, we’d be mimicking it. Muscles and bones would still have to work against a force, so deterioration of muscular and skeletal structure shouldn’t be a problem, and having an “up” and “down” would help with the mental effects of long-term free-fall. Obviously this wouldn’t work when you got close enough to a planet where its gravity would take over, but it’d certainly work for space itself where it was only pushing against nothing.

It would take a very fast computer to monitor all crew and passengers, and to shift the ultrasound along with them, and there would most likely be a fair amount of heat generated behind the ceilings, but we’ve all seen in films that spaceships have lots of air ducts, perhaps this is the reason why?

30ShortsIn30Days: Review, Part 2

In part one of the review, I looked at each story, and gave my thoughts on them, but what of the exercise as a whole, was it worth it?


Even though I work from home and can give as many hours as I like to writing, in amongst the other stuff I do, it was still quite difficult to get the stories written during the day. Instead I’d spend most of the day doing that comfortable pastime of procrastinating under the guise of thinking up ideas. The first few stories were much longer because I’d been thinking of them in the days running up to the start of the month, so was better prepared for them. Around the middle of the month though I’d run out of pre-planned ideas and was spending more of the day trying to think of something to write.

Once I get going with an idea I can write quite quickly, but it’s the getting started that’s difficult. As Calvin & Hobbes once said “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.” They also go on to state that the right mood is last-minute panic, and they’re right. Too many of the short stories I wrote were written later at night, or even cut shorter than I wanted because I was running out of time.

I certainly intend to come back to most of these shorts and spend more time on them, some of the ideas deserve it. And I think this is one of the main reasons why it was good to do this exercise, to force myself to come up with lots more ideas than I normally would. Either expanding out throw-away lines in stuff I’ve already written, testing out ideas for stuff I’m currently writing, or coming up with something completely new. The other main reason why it was good to do is because it has provided you, the reader, with something (hopefully) entertaining to read while I finish the next book.

I think it’s also helped to show what goes on in a writer’s mind, I can’t speak for others, but it’s not all jumbled up in there. It seems that lots of ideas can be dragged out and looked at, and then when we find one that just seems to work, we run with it. This certainly happened with the duality ships idea. I was thinking about writing something different from the No Pandas characters, and the obvious (to me of course) was to write something sci-fi. In part one of this review, and previous ramblings, I’ve touched on the idea that belief can only be stretched so far. I fully believe in that. You can’t just make something completely incredible up and expect readers to go along with it, as soon as you’ve stretched it too far, the bridge into the world that you’ve created for the reader collapses and they’re not likely to come back. I suppose that the best examples of this are in characters themselves. Too many characters just aren’t believable, “heroines” who swoon, “heroes” with bulging biceps and IQs approaching two hundred. If you write and you write about people like this, then please go into any city centre and look around you. The world is populated by normal people, and these normal people are the ones that do extraordinary things.

So I try to make my characters normal, believable people, and when I got the idea to write some sci-fi, I tried to do the same with the universe I was going to be putting them in. There’s a few science fiction stories and television shows I like that seem to have got it right for me. Red Dwarf comes straight to mind, well the earlier episodes. There are no aliens, there’s no shiny white command deck that you can’t see because of all the lens flare. The people aren’t all poster posers for the marines. They’re normal people on a dirty old ship that actually does some work. Another is Enterprise, a lot of Star Trek fans hated it, but I loved it. Okay, it had aliens and that was okay. What it got very right though is my mind, was showing the “here to there” of space travel. The bridge of the ship was laid out in a similar way to a submarine, in fact the whole ship was laid out based on how warships and submarines are. The writers and set designers gave some real thought to how it would look and work, and for me that really made the series. That and the characters made mistakes, they weren’t heroes for being muscular and killing things, they were heroes because they were ordinary (albeit highly trained) people doing great things, and giving others the hope that they could too. The third one that’s worth mentioning is Firefly, this got the ships right, it got the people right, but most of all it got the universe right. The here to there was there, there was a background that was believable, there were worlds that you could associate with, and language and culture progression. Again, thought had been given to it, and it showed, it made the whole thing more realistic.

So after that ramble that will almost certainly get turned into a blog piece of its own, when I got the idea of the duality ships, I spent quite a lot of time thinking of how they would work, how they would be laid out, how they would be piloted, crewed and fuelled. I started looking at characters, what they would be like, why they’d be in the story. And I started thinking about the universe, why it would have these ships and these people, and what they’d be doing in it. And then I started thinking about the short stories that I could write, once the background was there the stories started to come quite easily. Too easily in fact, so after a few days I had to cut them off. I want to do them the justice they deserve, and to do that I’ll be turning them into a full length book, maybe even a series of them.

So as a writer, yes this was a very worthwhile exercise. And in case you’re wondering, the most read short that I wrote was Joan and the Armourer, which I think is possibly the best stand-alone short of the month too.

30ShortsIn30Days: Review, Part 1

The idea behind 30ShortsIn30Days was to write a new short story every day in April. There weren’t that many rules:

  1. They couldn’t have been started before the day, although they could be planned to a degree
  2. They had to be over 200 words
  3. While they may be able to be linked together, each story had to be able to stand alone.

Initially, this sounds reasonably easy, after all, 200 words isn’t really that much. I’ve done eighty eight up to the end of this sentence. In part two of this review I’ll go over how it wasn’t that easy, but this part will cover the stories I wrote, and my thoughts on them.


Dodo Kebabs

I had the idea for this one kicking around in my head when I was writing Endangered Creatures, I was thinking of putting it in as a scene, but it just didn’t sit well anywhere I thought of putting it. So I didn’t bother writing it. I do like the idea of it though, because it annoys me that trading standards or some other industry watch dog steps in to “protect” the customer from perceived idiocy. I remember as a child a brand of crisps going through huge legal battles because they were called “Hedgehog Crisps” and more recently a sausage manufacturer in Wales had problems with their Dragon Sausages, named because the dragon is on the Welsh flag. It galls me that companies like this are prevented from trading like this, yet other companies, usually the very large, rich ones that fund these watchdogs are able to get away with blatant lies, such as producing a “cider” with only 17.5% apple juice content when the tax office in the UK states it must have at least 34%.

It really does seem that if you’re making the rules, you can do what you like. But if you’re not, you’re subject to the most ridiculous restrictions all in the name of protecting the consumer.


The Tour

I really wanted this story to be a lot longer. I liked the idea of the estate in Endangered Creatures, run by Bob the dragon overseeing everything, and I liked the idea of how a human might, or might not, fit in with all the wonderful creatures there. I had in my mind that the tour would see them being introduced to everyone, and being made to feel very unwelcome. And then, over time, being accepted and made to feel part of the family.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time to write all of that, and while I was writing, this seemed to flow out.



I put a throwaway line into Endangered Creatures about the vet being away treating yetis for colds, and I loved the idea, and I’m also interested in what are now thought of as natural remedies, and not long ago were thought of as quack or pseudo-science. We got along not too badly for thousands of years without the big pharmaceutical companies, so we must have been doing something right. Then all of a sudden we were told that the medicines and treatments we were using were all a load of rubbish, and we should be taking two of these little pills, twice a day, come back in a fortnight if the symptoms still persists. Yet not many years later, the pharmaceutical companies are now telling us that these wonder remedies from plants are the next best thing, that they’ve been researching them and are even patenting treating illnesses using them; I’m not making that up.

So I thought how would you treat the common cold? And was able to expand out the previously barely mentioned character of the Programme’s Vet.


Goblin’s Teeth

This is another short that stemmed from a throwaway line in Endangered Creatures, and another one that I thought should be longer. I keep seeing the scene play in my head, and it is longer, but when I came to write it down, it wasn’t. I do like it though, I like the idea of what a mixed school, humans and endangered creatures, would actually be like, and what sort of things could go wrong. I may write more around this idea.


Happy Workers

In Endangered Creatures I mention a few of the job interviews that the main character Connor has had in the past, and what went wrong with them. Yes, they’re (mostly) based on personal experience. This short starts with a bit of a bugbear of mine, people being employed because they tick the boxes decided upon by human resources, rather than because they can actually do the job properly, and would get on with the rest of the staff. Humans aren’t drones, yet most work places treat them like such. And the current fad in the education systems of teaching students to pass tests, rather than preparing them for a working life, means we’re seeing a workforce that isn’t really capable, and leads to a very high turnover rate. Which probably explains why I get more spam email from recruiters “offering” me jobs than I do from Nigerian princes selling me Viagra.



One of the things I loved about writing Endangered Creatures was “debunking” the Bible miracles. I was brought up in a Catholic household, went to church every Sunday and major saints days, and was taught the Bible and to not question it. Then I lucked out at secondary school (also a Catholic institution) and got a religious education teacher who taught us to question everything rather than take it at face value. His view was that if you questioned something, and then still believed in it, it was a much stronger belief. And if you no longer believed in it, then at least you found out early enough to stop wasting your life.

I’m also a fan of locked room mysteries, Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Creek style ones, so having my two main bad guys being angels, gave me the opportunity to look into how the miracles could actually have been stage managed. I have a couple of them in Endangered Creatures, and another on this site in the Short Stories section, but the problem is, there aren’t actually that many different miracles. Mostly it’s heal the sick or feed lots of people. This one though, this took a bit of thinking, and a reasonable amount of research too.

Oh, and my mother, who’s still a devote catholic, doesn’t approve of these parts of my writing, but she can at least see the funny side even if she does think I’m likely to go to hell.


The Big Sleep

This didn’t start out like it ended. I was taking a break from NoPandas related stories to write something a bit more serious, but not too much. It was going to be a mayfly narrating, fitting a life into a single day, but as I wrote it it changed, and it got more and more sad. I didn’t want to write something as serious or depressing as this, it’s just the way it came out. However, I do like it.


Joan and the Armourer

This came about from a conversation I was having over on where we were discussing, or rather moaning about, the generic book covers you always seem to get, and how the women on them are always wearing the same inappropriate outfit that almost certainly isn’t even in the story, but is thought to appeal to the teenage boys they’re trying to sell the book to.

It’s a bit of an old joke about how they’re totally impractical, but I thought I’d give it a go anyway. And I’m very pleased with it, especially the line “all I’ve got between me and the horse is a cheese grater” which still makes me laugh. This also took a bit of research too, because every single part of a suit of armour has a special name, and having a list of those handy might help when reading this.



I can’t remember how I came up with the idea for this one, except that while writing the sequel to Endangered Creatures (called The Breeding Programme), I realised that while Belia’s in it a bit, Polynius isn’t in it at all. Which is a shame, because I really like those characters. There’s a lot that could be done with them that I just wasn’t doing. So this short somehow came about, and I really like it. It explains more about the angels as creatures, and about Poly and Belia as characters, and when I finished this I realised why I wrote it, because although I’ve already given a draft of The Breeding Programme to my editor (who’s also my wife) there was a gap in it. An angel shaped gap, and a pregnancy shaped gap. When I get the draft back from its initial review and cursory edit, this short is going to be worked into it. I love the idea of a pregnant angel, and how Poly and Belia react as individuals. Plus it also fits in very nicely with the outlines I’ve written for the third book.


Turkey Trouble

This is another one of those that started as a throwaway line in Endangered Creatures, and I wanted to expand it out. It’s also another one of those that seemed better in my head than when I wrote it down. I’d like to revisit this one because I still like the idea, I just don’t particularly like the way I’ve written it.


Sick On Thursday

This one started from a remark on Twitter, the idea about 24 hour bugs, and never getting the hang of Thursdays. It’s a totally made up creature, I think, something I don’t normally do. Normally I take an extinct creature, or an existing myth, and work out how it could actually be real. This time, I just made something up to suit a situation, rather than a situation to fit a creature.

I quite like this idea, and do wonder about thinking up some more creatures to fit situations.


The Killing Game

One of the things I like about writing, is planning how to kill people. Sounds a bit sick doesn’t it? But it’s the thinking I like, the logical puzzles and the planning. Don’t worry, I’m never likely to actually kill anyone, but it is kinda fun figuring out how you could do it.

This actual method of killing I worked out years ago, and strangely enough not long afterwards someone tried it. They didn’t kill, but they made a lot of people very ill. I’ve thought of several other ways of killing, and at times wonder about writing about a serial killer, but at the moment there seems too many other serial killer stories out there. So it’ll sit on the back-burner for now.


Love & Lunacy

One of the things that’s always bugged me about Endangered Creatures, was never being able to properly explain how Bridget got out of the convent. It’s been one of those little niggles that’s kept getting to me. So this was an excuse to try and work it out. It also gave me an opportunity to write a bit more about Edith. Her character so far has been a bit set in the background, but I rather like her. She comes out more in The Breeding Programme, but I wanted to try and work with her a bit more.


Military Manoeuvres

One of the short stories I wrote prior to releasing Endangered Creatures had the two dragons, Bob and Fred, watching humans at a jousting tournament, and commenting on them, and I really liked that. I like the idea of watching history from an external viewpoint, and the way that Bob and Fred comment on it in a bemused way. So I thought I’d give it another go, and I quite like the results, so I think I might well write more on these two throughout history.



This is an old joke too, why do people run towards the screams? Surely you’d run away from the screams?


Daniel In The Lion’s Den

Another sort of miracle debunking story, but not really explaining how it could be done. The idea was actually thought up by my wife, but I loved to run with it. Again though it’s one that I wanted to do more with but time got in the way.



I had to be careful writing this one, it was based on a scene I saw in a pub several years ago, that was a little more graphic and explicit in its conversation. I really couldn’t believe what the two blokes were doing, sitting in the pub in the middle of the afternoon being very graphic about this young woman. So you can imagine how hard it was for me to contain my laughter when it turned out to be the sister of one of them.


Something Fishy

One of the things that I think give credibility to the premise of Endangered Creatures, is the coelacanth.  For years it was thought that they were extinct, and then all of a sudden, there they were alive and well. So if the coelacanth survived, what else did? And I like the idea that it was saved in secret, and reintroduced into the wild.

So this short follows that reintroduction, and the sheer stupidity of people.



Another miracle debunking story tale, this one took a while to work out. Bringing someone back from the dead? Yeah, no problem. But making a paralysed man walk, that took a bit of working out. Thankfully the English language is such a flexible thing. But this is another one where I wanted it to be much larger, but just didn’t have the time to do as much with it as I wanted.



I read recently that some sloths have lichen growing on their backs because they move so slowly, and I thought that’d make a great defence mechanism for a large, slow moving animal. The one that come to mind was the woolly mammoth, obviously.

I didn’t mean for this to be set in the No Pandas world, and in a way it isn’t. It’s not part of the Programme, and it’s not exactly humorous either. However, it does contain a supposedly extinct creature. But it is part of the No Pandas world, along with Endangered Creatures and The Breeding Programme, and writing this gave me the background for the third book in the series. I already had a lot of notes about characters and the things they would do, but didn’t really have a backdrop for it. Until now. So after writing this short story, I went to the pub (no surprise there) and sat and wrote out the full set of chapter plans for the third book. Yes folks, there’ll be more woolly mammoths.



This is yet another one of those that was a lot longer in my mind, but when I came to write it out it ended up a lot shorted. I’m not really happy with this one. There’s so much more I could do with it, expand the characters out, show their lives other than the main thread, in short, make a proper story out of it. And I’d like to come back to it and do that, because I like the idea, but not this short.



Again, this was longer in my mind. Which seems to be a running theme. I was determined with this one though to make it at least a reasonable length, and it is better. But there’s still a lot I didn’t put in because I was short on time.

I liked what I wrote about Edith earlier, and I wanted to write a bit more. So I took another throwaway line from earlier writing and wrote about Gerald and Edit meeting and going on a date. I also wanted to show a bit about Bridget starting to lose it a little. She was quite coherent in the earlier tale, but by Endangered Creatures she’s much older, and quite a bit madder. So this had to show her somewhere in between.

All told though, I like this story and want to come back and write some more on it.


Not From Guildford

“Not from Guildford after all” is a wonderful quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur finds out that his friend Ford is actually an alien. I loved that idea, and thought about what would happen if you found out that a friend you’d known for a few years turned out to be a visiting alien, what would you actually do?



I’ve always liked science fiction, books, films and television series.  The problem is though, they’re usually so unbelievable. Even the ones without aliens. It’s almost as though civilisation has taken a leap from where it currently is, to where the writer wants it to be without any thought of how it could get from here to there. It’s like a lot of the fantasy books, where the story gets written into a corner, so magic is used to get it out. I can understand that a bit in fantasy, it’s fantastical after all. But I’m not keen on it. A good magic system can add so much more to a world, using it as a Deus Ex Machine just seems like a cop out to me, no matter how much it’s needed. And I feel the same with a lot of sci-fi that’s around. There’s no link between what is, and what it has become, and I think that science fiction has lost something there.

So I started writing this idea about the duality ships, I sat down and planned out a ship, how it would be laid out, and how it could work. I also started thinking about the worlds that it would be set in, full of normal people. And then I realised I’d already written about the characters in Not From Guildford, three people just bumming around the universe having a laugh. So I expanded them out and started writing about them stealing a ship. And this has really taken off.



This story was where the from here to there comes in. And without an apocalypse, something else that bugs me. I mean, are humans so bad that we’re doomed to annihilate ourselves? Can’t we perhaps maybe, just maybe, get it right? Or at the very least not totally mess it up.

So I thought about how we’d get there, what would it take? And I came up with a couple of blokes in a pub, who actually put their money where their mouths are, something that rarely happens. This again though is something that I want to be longer, and I’m definitely going to come back to this and expand it out.


New Gaia

Part of working out the worlds to set my sci-fi stories in, was to actually create worlds. I’d been thinking about how colonists used to create countries, moving away from persecution of some kind usually, so brought that into this series. I’d also been thinking about the ship itself. I’d created them to be long-haul craft, but minimum crew and therefore minimum facilities. Which wasn’t really going to work for what I was looking for. So I needed a way to get a mechanic on board and do the ship up, and I came up with New Gaia, a planet on the edges, and Wrench and Socket, a father daughter team from a nomadic tribe that I’ve loosely based on the American Indians.

But again I wanted to make it believable, so in came the pirates and the debris, because it’s not a perfect world, even if it didn’t start from a total mess.



I seemed to have got stuck on my sci-fi bent doing this, but I also wanted to keep it realistic, something I seem to worry about quite a bit. To this end I thought about how Wrench and Socket wouldn’t get on with the crew in close quarters, at least not straight away, it just wouldn’t happen. Also, I wanted to make their ship quicker than the others around. If they were going to be on the run, they needed to be able to run.

So this short allowed me to work on those points and set the worlds up for the rest of the stories I want to write. I’m definitely looking to write more with this crew, I’ve got another couple of crew member ideas, and quite a few planet ideas to put them into.



This should have been a lot longer, but I ran out of time, again. I’ve pretty much worked out how the crew will be able to make money, not just to survive, but to try and buy their freedom, and I started writing about it in this story. I wanted to get away from sci-fi for a bit though, because I was wanting to write too much of it. I could easily have sat down, planned out, and written the book about the MHC-1 and her crew (really must find a better ship name) but needed to restrict myself while doing the shorts.

I wanted to take the crew out to Florian, and to set up the trading, exploring the trade routes more, and the people that work them. But there just wasn’t time, and I needed to rein it in a bit.



My sister-in-law has just had a baby, it’s her third, and she’s a nurse on a children’s ward in her local hospital. So she knows a thing or two about babies, through experience and proper training, which is the right way. It’s always amused me, the idea that you can give a kid an egg, or a rabbit, cat, chick or other small animal and expect it to learn all about parenthood from that one experience. They can’t. What’s the worst that happens? A small animal dies. Yes, that’s quite tragic, but if you’re worried about the small animal, don’t let the kid have it in the first place. And kids aren’t stupid, they know it’s only a game, it’s not like the real thing. The whole idea is ridiculous.

Which is why I thought of Belia and Polynius when I was thinking about it. They try, but they just seem to get things wrong.



I have a cat, or rather I inherited a cat with the wife. It’s definitely her cat. And yes, this was based on him a little, especially in the descriptions of how he looks.

I liked the Kitty story, but wanted to do a bit more with it. I also liked the idea of Bridget, the mad old lady, having a cat. But more in the sort of evil genius cat way. So I started writing this.

Like with Kitty, this could be a bit longer, and a lot better too. That’s one of the difficulties with short stories, you’re pretty much limited to a single thread, and a single set of characters. But also like with Kitty, I’m going to try and work this story into The Breeding Programme, because I really like the idea.

Preparing for a Writing Marathon

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) and it’s not an easy thing to do. Fifty thousand words in thirty days is quite a lot, and unless you prepare by clearing your social calendar and locking yourself away, it’s a difficult target to meet.  Even with preparation it’s not easy.

But I’m starting to think that agreeing to do thirty short stories in thirty days is going to be harder. Restricting the size of the story means you’re also restricting what can actually happen. There’s no chance for wild flights of fancy, you can’t go off on tangents and work your way back to try and explain a situation you’ve put your characters into. You have to be far more concise. You have to watch not just the word count, but the action count. You can have too much going on at once. And that’s quite difficult when you’ve got used to rambling on and expanding side remarks into their own chapters and threads.

It’s often said that a story consists of a start, a middle and an end. Thing is though, a book will usually have several stories within it, and each of those threads have starts, middles and end, and often they overlap or share. If the tale you’re currently writing doesn’t seem to want to finish yet, don’t panic, just push on with another thread and they might end up together. But with a short story, you don’t usually have separate threads. You have the one start, the one middle, and the one end. Expand out from that and you run the risk of turning your short story into a novella or even a novel.

So writing short stories is an exercise in control. Writing a book is like wielding a sabre to a short story’s scalpel. You need to rein in the winged horse of your imagination, and stop it flying too far.

If You Want To Continue Your Education, Write

Writers know stuff. Not stuff like spelling and grammar, because there’re editors for that. But stuff like how to kill people (most crime books), and get away with it (some crime books). How to fight with a sword (most fantasy books), how to tan leather without chemicals (I learned this through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series), how to mix cocktails (James Bond and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), what the wingspan of a dragon would need to be (The Pern Chronicles).

Writers have to know this stuff, because if the reader sees something, and it’s obviously wrong, they lose faith in the writer and anything else they’ve written. 

If their main character is a blacksmith, then the writer has to study enough about being a blacksmith to make it believable, even to a blacksmith. If the villain kills people with poisons, the writer has to study enough about poisons to know what’s readily available, from where, how to mix them if needed, how to administer them and what side effects or tell-tale signs there would be from using them. If writing something set in some point in history especially, the author has to learn about the relevant history, politics, technology and language used. Unless they’re writing a Hollywood film, then they can just make it up.

Writers are continuingly learning new things for new characters and scenes, and as those characters grow so too does the writer’s knowledge. The first time a character is introduced, the background knowledge needed can be just enough for passing references, but if the character has been developing for three or four books, then off hand remarks won’t be enough and the writer really must know their stuff. It’s said that writers have to do their research, and it’s very true, they must. And this is a good thing.

So if you want to keep learning, start writing.


Short Stories Are Great

I’ve decided that short stories are great. I’ve always quite liked them, but they’ve now moved up in my esteem from pretty good to great.

You see, there’s an awful lot of writers out there. Go into any large book shop and try to count, it’s a pointless exercise that will give you a crick in your neck as you tilt you head to look at the spines. Go onto Amazon and just start browsing. There’s loads. So how do you know who to read?

You can’t pick up one of their books anymore and read the back cover and think “Hey, that sounds like a good story!” because you’ve more likely to think “Hey, someone who gets paid to write this for a newspaper I never read has written something trite about this!” And if you go into a book shop and try to read the first chapter or so, you might not get to see what the book is actually like because things are still just getting going. So you’re then stuck with either having read the author’s other books, or personal recommendations or reviews on site like Goodreads.

But if it’s a new author you’ve got none of these, which is why I like short stories. I’ve got a modest collection of anthologies on my bookshelves that have led me to discover authors like Ursula La Guin for the first time, and then go out and buy the rest of her books. An activity that put the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on the face of the assistant in the shop, who then proceeded to tell me the best order to read them all in. And she was right. So from a readers point of view, short stories are an excellent way of finding out if you like a writer’s style before committing yourself to a potentially long and agonisingly difficult read.

But since agreeing to do 30 Short Stories in 30 Days with the Manchester NaNoWriMo group I’ve realised how great short stories are from a writer’s point of view. You see, my first book was released towards the end of last year, and while I’m very happy with it there were parts that I had to leave out. They made good stories, but they just detracted that bit too much from the main story threads that I had running. I put three of these on the website before the book was launched as a taster so people could see what the book was like, because trying to explain about a world with an endangered creatures programme that was set up by a dragon to protect humans as well as mythical and extinct creatures is a bit tricky. Whereas saying that there’s a couple of short stories online gave people a chance to realise I wasn’t totally mad.  But those three short stories came about because while describing the dryads was needed, explaining how Robin Hood and his Merry Men were actually dryads wasn’t. And I’d already worked in a good scene with the dragons in history, and a few with the angels stage managing religion.

Whilst I liked these story ideas they were just a bit superfluous to the book, and there weren’t alone. To try and come up with thirty short story ideas I’ve gone back through Endangered Creatures and found all the bits and pieces where I thought “It’d be great to expand this out” or “Hey, this would make a great short story on its own.” I’ve also checked my notes and ideas for characters I’m introducing in the sequel, The Breeding Programme, and putting together short story ideas for them to see if they actually work as characters before firmly committing them to the book. In a way, I’m prototyping them.

For a writer then, short stories offer two great things. The chance to expand out the ideas and scenes that got cut from longer books, and the chance to try out new characters and scenes to see if they work, and see what people think about them.

So in short, short stories are great.

I’ve Done It Again

Sometimes you wonder what you’ve let yourself in for. The first time I signed up to do a 10k run was one of those, ten kilometres in one go? On the first training run I managed five hundred metres before I had to stop. The first time I signed up for NaNoWriMo was another, fifty thousand words in one month? Seriously?

I managed to do the ten kilometre run, and even managed a time that wasn’t too horrendously bad. I didn’t manage NaNoWriMo the first time though, work got in the way sending me off to a conference. I’ve entered the Manchester 10k every year since though, and last year I was able to clear time and do NaNoWriMo, and managed just shy of fifty-five thousand words. These were two things that I’ve signed up for and then thought “What have I just done?!” Hopefully this latest one will be the same.

The guys who look after the Manchester area of NaNoWrimo must be masochists, because they’ve come up with the idea of doing thirty short stories in the thirty days of April. Apparently a few of them did this last year, and it was good fun, so being the sort who finds it hard to say no to a writing challenge, I’ve agreed to join in.

It doesn’t sound too difficult; stories only have to be over two hundred words. This ramble is already over that. But think again, thirty different short stories. Thirty. Take a moment to just try and jot down as many different short story ideas as you can. I tried, I came up with two. Thankfully I’ve still got another month to come up with a few more ideas, and with several book ideas on the go I’ve got a whole host of characters that I can write about.

And that’s why I’ve agreed to do this really, to help develop some of the character ideas I’ve got. Whenever you sit down and start writing, no matter how well you’ve planned it (I don’t generally plan) the characters will do something that takes your story off in a different direction (which is why I don’t generally plan). I’ve found though that the more you write about a character, the less they’ll surprise you. They still will, I don’t think it’s ever possible to write a book without a character changing it, or suggesting a change that you deliberately ignore, but there are fewer of them. Knowing the characters better also helps with whatever planning you do actually do. You’re more likely to know how a character will react in advance, you’re better placed to plan out the story lines, the threads and twists and the interactions if you know more about the character.

It’s not just the characters though, there are the situations too. A lot of stuff sounds like a great idea in your head, but when you come to write it down you realise what utter tosh it is. This can really put a crimp into your story if it was a vital part.

So, between now and the start of April I need to think of thirty different short stories involving the characters and situations that run around inside my head, but are able to stand alone on their own two (or sometimes four) feet, and if they’re not too horrendous I’ll put them up in the Short Stories section

Adaptive Storytelling

A lot of people buy a book, read it, and then either put it on the shelf or give it away. They only read the story once. Which is a shame really, because the first time you read a book you will almost certainly miss things.

But what if every time you read a book, it was different?

You can get Read You Own Adventure books, I had loads of them as a kid, where you make decisions, roll dice, and work your way through different potential storylines. These were certainly different each time you read them.

But what if you didn’t choose the adventure, what if it chose you?

If the reader is using an app on their phone, or reading on their tablet, laptop or desktop, we can use technology to find out where they are, what time of day it is, and even what the weather is like there. We could then use this to change the text they get.
One of the things that can really enhance a story is the weather. A character can look out of the window, see the sun shining, go out for a walk and meet a stranger that sends them off on a journey of discovery. Or, they could look outside and see the rain and decide to stay in and watch the telly instead, and then see something on the news that makes them act in a totally different, still setting off on their journey, but informed by the news on the television rather than the words of a stranger in the park. And what if the reader was reading about thunder rolling outside, when it actually was rolling outside their window too?

A character could be having a meal, and depending on what time of the day the reader has picked up the “book” that meal could be breakfast, lunch or dinner.

By using technology to find out where the reader is, what time of day or night it is for them, and what the weather is like where they are, the story could adapt to bring the reader more into it.

And then there’s reading time too. If a reader sits down and reads from start to finish, the characters could act more tired, and make more bad decisions than if the reader picks it up occasionally and gives the characters time to rest in between bouts of acting. I think that it’s something that computer games have dabbled with in the past, tying real world dates and times into the action of the characters in games. In a way, this is something similar to a cross between The Never Ending Story and a Tamagotchi.

Storytellers have been doing something similar for years too, adjusting the tale according to their audience, so is it possible now to use technology to do the same?

Stretching Belief

One of the things I like in a good book, or even a film, is that I don’t have to suspend belief.

I was trawling through IMDB looking at the the synopses of films released last year, and for the vast majority of them I heard myself mentally tutting “would never happen.” I know they’re films, and I know there’s supposed to be an element of make believe, but I have to be able to believe it could happen or it tends to fall into the category of film that I have on in the background because I’ve started doing something else instead.

I touched on this a little with my rambling about my love hate affair with love stories, if something is too far a stretch of the imagination, then like anything that gets stretched too much, it’ll break. Which is why I’m struggling a little with my next book.

In Endangered Creatures I tried to make sure that everything was believable, that even though I was writing about dragons, manticore, angels and dodos amongst others. I tried to make it all plausible, so that you could read it and think “It could be real” and that the next time you visited London Zoo (which I highly recommend, it’s a great place) you’d look at the staff just that little bit harder to see if you could tell which ones weren’t totally human. I tried to give a little background as to how these creatures could be living among us, and how they could either pass as human, or hide in plain sight.

The problem is I’m now writing its sequel, The Breeding Programme, and I’m having to do the same, which means trying to think of other ways that supposedly extinct or mythological creatures are amongst us. How they survive without being found, how they’ve adapted, where they’ve come from and in one case a religion that they follow. Actually, having to do it isn’t the problem itself because I’m having great fun with it. Coming up with ways to explain how boggarts have managed to hide, even from the characters in the first book, has led to some rather creative camouflage inspired by a day out a few weeks ago. Working out the background of imps led me to further develop the dryads in a way I wasn’t expecting, but really like. And making up a religion for the gargoyles was pretty fun after a couple of pints.

What’s actually hard is then winding this all in around the main story threads that I have, without making it seem like I’m explaining things carefully to the reader just to keep that level of belief. Douglas Adams managed this brilliantly in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by having the Book explain things in cut away scenes and films tend to use flashbacks a lot to explain what’s going on. There are lots of other methods of doing it too, but they mostly involve one knowledgeable character explaining to the rest of the characters, and therefore the reader, what’s actually happening. If done right, these are great ways to keep belief. The characters in the book are going along their journey learning new things, and the reader is learning with them. But please, can we have less gurus and wise-men sitting on top of mountains in deep in caves that they have to seek out? If it’s done wrong however, it makes at least one character incredibly dull and boring, and seem almost totally pointless except to explain things.

I’m trying to make sure that when people read my books they don’t mentally tut to themselves “would never happen” because I think it’s a bit of an insult to the reader to not credit them with enough intelligence to know what’s possible and plausible, from what’s impossible.

Levelling the Playing Field

Self-publishing and its bigger brother Indie-publishing are starting to really make it mainstream, which is a bit of a contradiction in terms really. But it is becoming well known and is seen as the easiest way to get your book published.

It is easy too, so much so that on some websites offering the service all you need to be able to do is upload a Word document, tick a few boxes, and press publish. In less than ten minutes your manuscript will be available on the internet as an e-book for people to buy, with its own ISBN number. Within a couple of weeks it will then also be available through Amazon, iTunes and Nook. Without much more effort you can turn it into a hard or paperback version too, and with an entry in book distribution catalogues people can order it from their local bookshops.

So it’s understandable why the big five publishing houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) are starting to get worried. It’s said that everyone has at least one good book in them, and now everyone can publish them without needing the help of traditional publishing companies, and the fees that they entail.

If you read the media then it’s obvious that self-publishing is the way to go, and that it’s killing the traditional publishing route. The problem is though, the traditional publishing route has carved itself out such a deep niche that the self-publishing route currently doesn’t really affect it. Self-publishing currently has two very major drawbacks that mean it will take some major changes before it starts to compete with traditional publishing on anything approaching equal footing. However, those changes are already happening both on the part of the self-publishing side improving, and the traditional side becoming lazy and less caring.


When you go down the traditional publishing route, one of the things that they take a cut of profits for is quality control. Editors, proof-readers, typesetters and cover artists all work on your manuscript to produce a final product.

A good editor that can work well with the author is worth whatever you can pay them, they’ll pick up on all the little oversights, the parts of the plot that contradict each other or don’t logically work out. All the things that as an author you don’t notice because you’re so involved with your work. No matter how well you go through your manuscript, you will never do as good a job as a proof reader at picking up all the typos, grammar and context mistakes, because you will always be reading the story whereas a proof reader will be checking your use of words. Once the manuscript itself is polished, it needs to be laid out properly for publishing. Different publishing methods require different techniques and skills, and a good typesetter knows all these and can turn your bunched together words into something that is pleasing to look at, something that is easy to read in bursts of longer than five minutes. When that’s all done, there’s the cover. With so many books on the packed shelves and screens, yours needs to get people to pick it out to see what it’s about. And that’s where a good designer can make a difference. No matter how good your story inside, unless the cover gets it noticed, your words will sit there unread.

Far, far too many self-published books like the quality of publication that traditionally published books achieve. Text published in block capitals throughout, spelling and grammar mistakes that even Word should have picked up on, sentences that don’t make sense, line height and spacing that make you have to screw your eyes up tight to be able to read and covers that are frankly shocking.

These generally occur because as a self-publishing writer you also had to do everything else yourself, or pay a lot of money up front to hire a professional to do it for you. That’s changing though as self-publishing becomes a bigger market. More and more companies are setting up that offer these services, and with more competition the prices have started to come down. Even a lot of the traditional publishing companies provide these services on their own, although they’re more often than not provided through a subsidiary that isn’t obviously linked to the parent.

With these services available the quality of self-published books is getting better and better, and at the same time the quality of traditionally published books is starting to suffer. Bookshops report books coming in with pages of text missing, sometimes whole chapters and after having my own book professionally proof read and seeing what gets picked up, it’s now impossible for me to read a book without noticing all the errors that have slipped through. As for the all-important cover design that gets the book picked up, it’s got to the point where Private Eye magazine run a semi-regular Bookalikes feature showcasing the overly generic use of clichéd covers that make the use of stock photos on websites look original.

But no matter how many publishing services a self-published author may take advantage of, and no matter how great their book, they will still hit the second very major drawback.

Distribution and Marketing

The largest chain of bookstores in the UK is Waterstones, and they have very strict rules about whose books they will stock. No matter how good your book, no matter how well it sells independently, unless it is available through one of their recognised distributors there is no chance of it being available to even order through their stores. Getting a printed copy of a self-published book into stores is limited to the ever diminishing number of independent bookshops. The majority of printed books bought in shops is from the main chains, or increasingly from supermarkets. This largest part of the book buying market is shut off from the independent publisher because of deals and agreements that were put in place to support the traditional publishing system.

What’s left then for the self-publisher is the internet. Amazon is the largest and most easily accessible portal for self-publishers to get their books to market, both printed and e-books. But the ease of getting the books to this market place means that it’s swamped, there are over two million books available on Amazon for the Kindle alone. Not just self-published titles, but also those from well-known authors and the big publishing houses that the independents have to compete against. Without the marketing budgets of the big publishers most of the self-published books aren’t likely to sell more than a few copies, but because they’re e-books and haven’t have an initial financial investment to get them to this stage there’s no monetary loss, only time and tears from the authors. An author can’t self-publish their book and then just leave it amongst the hundreds and thousands of other titles and expect it to sell. It has to be promoted, found, bought and recommended.

As with getting the book ready for publishing, there are now also services that a self-publisher can purchase to get their book promoted, and as with the publishing services a lot of these are also provided by subsidiaries of the traditional publishing houses, under a different name that isn’t always obviously linked. Using these marketing and promotional services can start to cost a lot of money, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds which is out of the reach of most self-publishers. There are other services out there, for instance book review blogs. The reviewers will read an advance copy of your book and tell their readers about it, they’ll also leave reviews on sites such as Amazon and (the Amazon owned) Goodreads amongst others.

And as with the publishing side, while the independents are getting more professional the traditional publishing route seems to be getting less profession and less trusted, especially where e-books are concerned. Over the last few years the big publishing houses have been in a mad rush to get their back catalogues available on the different e-book formats, and sometimes corners have been cut. Chapters or paragraphs are missing, tables of contents not linking through to the right places, or missing entirely and cover images being of very low quality, or sometimes just text. And perhaps the thing that rankled most with the customers was the price. Even still it seems strange, a new hardback edition of Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam costs £9 on Amazon, and the Kindle version costs £8.55. It seems strange to a customer the electronic version that entails no additional manufacturing or shipping costs should cost the same as the hardback version. While more and more people are starting to use e-book readers, the savings in book publication to these formats doesn’t appear to have been passed on to the customers, making the traditional publishers seem slightly shady.

The Future?

Overall what we’re currently seeing is a levelling of the playing field. Self and Independent publishing is getting more professional from start to finish, and a lot of that is because the traditional publishing companies alongside smaller, independent companies are providing the separate services that before you would only have got through a publishing contract.

We’re starting to see a hybrid publishing route emerging where publishing companies are no longer having to invest their own money in getting books to market, but will take the author’s money to do so, a system far more like the old vanity publishing of the late 90’s. But this hybrid route takes away a lot of the independence that self-publish gives, and can still cost a lot of money and still leaves the author up against the distribution wall.

Thankfully though, we’re also starting to see something else emerging. Smaller publishing companies are recognising the need and are starting to help, and I know of a couple of different groups also looking to start up new publishing companies specifically for self-publishers, to provide the services that they need, at a cost that is a lot lower than those available at the moment, or for a share of any profits that may accrue. These existing and emerging companies provide the filter that is seen as being needed for self-published authors, a trustworthy recommendation of the quality of the work along with distribution channels that can get the books to market.

The publishing world is changing, and the speed of that change is increasing. Hopefully the big five will learn from the mistakes that both the music and film industries made with restrictive distribution, and will embrace the emerging wave of self and independent publishers without trying to lock them into overly complicated legal agreements and pricing structure, or lock them out of the market altogether. Because if they do, they’ll soon find themselves left behind as the smaller companies start to take over.