doctor who

A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction

The first book review I’ve written for Luna Station Quarterly has appeared today (Doctor Who novel, nailing my colours to the mast at the start), which is exciting and I urge you all (assuming you’re a partaker of speculative fiction) to go and read it, then lose yourselves for a couple of hours in the vastness of their archives. Further reviews should emerge quarterly, in a column I’ve called ‘A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction’, mainly because I’ll be reviewing whatever I happen to have stumbled across that’s good, so it’ll be a bit random (but also because I once did a research project involving random walks, and you know me and maths jokes).

In other exciting news, my friend Alice and I will be holding a story-telling event at the York Festival of Ideas on June 10th (I’d link to their site but it still has the 2014 details up, I’ve seen a proof of the programme this week and when it’s available I’ll mention it here). The theme of the festival is Secrets and Discoveries, so our evening will focus on the importance and the dangers of secrets, through myths and fairytales, and a couple of stories I’ve written (one historical, one sci-fi).

What with all that and the writing workshop I’m going to in the morning, I feel positive and busy, but none of this is getting me any further with editing the sci-fi noir novel…

Differences in the similar – the lack of a shared experience

In The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart mentions people listening to a particular wireless programme because everyone at work will have listened and they want to be able to join in when people are talking about it. I remember something similar when Friends was first on British TV, with twittering groups of girls at school the next day saying ‘did you see the bit when…?’ (I wasn’t one of them, but I’m sure you’d guessed that). I’ve watched a most annoying episode of Doctor Who just so I can talk about it with Big Brother later, keeping us in touch when we’re apart at Christmas, but is there much of that left?

To stick with TV for a moment, there are so many cable, satellite and Freeview channels available now that it would be a big coincidence if a colleague had been watching the same programme as you (a friend with a certain amount of shared tastes is a different matter – I forget what the programme was but I’d watched something minority-interest on the iplayer a while ago and was amused to find that friend T had watched it too). And with on-demand services (whether internet-based or a catch-up TV channel) and the possibility of recording it to watch at a more convenient time, even if you watch the same programme, by the time one person’s seen it, the other’s forgotten what it was about.

Music is easier to get hold of via the internet, not like the days of browsing through the rock section in HMV and taking your pick, and internet radio means we’re beyond the days when you could guarantee that someone would have listened to Tommy Vance because his was about the only rock show available. There’s more scope for being able to introduce people to music they might not have come across (that was always a popular way of trying to impress someone as a teenager, as I recall) but not so much of the joy of discovering that the person in your class that you’ve fancied for ages is also a big fan of (insert your favourite rock band here). Incidentally, even then it’s not plain sailing: OneMonkey’s happiest with the petulant edginess of The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, whereas I’m often more inclined to wrap myself in the ribbon-festooned duvet of Bloodflowers.

With multiplex cinemas charging extortionate ticket prices and DVDs getting cheaper, excepting the occasional must-see, even going to the pictures isn’t likely to provide a talking-point later at work. And books aren’t worth considering in this context.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only truly shared experience like the ones Hoggart mentions seems to be the awful reality TV dross. It’s so picked-over in the media that if you want to watch, say, some sort of dancing final to get the excitement of seeing who wins, you need to do it within a few hours of it first being on TV, so you and all your friends will at least have watched it on the same evening. And if you want the shared experience without having to go through the pain of watching it, just pick up a tabloid on the way to work and you can join in all the highs and lows, as well as who’s hot and who’s not. Sharing’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Help! I’ve rewritten series 5 episode 3 of [insert classic TV sci-fi here]

There’s only so many stories in the world, I know that. And within a genre it’s easy to fall into cliche-traps. Your classic hard-boiled detective comes up against the gat, the girl and the gangster (not necessarily in that order) and the variation comes from how he handles it. Or maybe just the wisecracks.

I thought I was onto something with a recent story. It wasn’t breaking new ground but it was by no means riddled with cliche. Then I realised that if I pictured the central character as Tom Baker in a long scarf, it still worked. If I hadn’t quite rewritten turn by turn a 1970s episode of Doctor Who, it wouldn’t look out of place in the stack of scripts they never filmed. A brief period of crisis ensued: should I ditch the story entirely or just think of another central premise (but if I was going to do that, why not ditch it entirely)? Then I was hit by an uncharacteristic wave of confidence: countless stories and scripts have similarities of plot, it’s the writing and the characters that make them different.

The story survived, now all I have to do is redraft until the characters are individuals and the writing’s outstanding. See you in a few years…

Tidying some loose ends

I’m sorting out, this weekend. Tidying up, replying to overlooked emails, filing pieces of paper (and electronic equivalents). Last time I did this, I discovered the anthology some of my twitter fiction is in had been for sale on Amazon for a while without me noticing. This time I was reminded of something I meant to mention here but I don’t think I did – it was a most favourable review of said anthology, which brightened up my day.

I also don’t think I’ve mentioned that a reasonably long (9500 words or thereabouts) fantasy story of mine should be coming out at Strange, Weird and Wonderful in half a year or so, which I’m quite excited about. There has been a whisper of the possibility of an audio version – for all my talk of the well-spoken Yorkshireman, I have to say I’m not one of them, and I wonder if such stately prose (at least, it was intended that way) would survive my verbal mangling. Something to ponder over the coming months. The story was (though the location is never explicitly mentioned) set vaguely in the New Forest and Wales, though I’m not sure that has much bearing.

The other thing to mention is of course Neil Gaiman’s fantastic, oh so Gaimanesque episode of Doctor Who, which I saw on the iplayer. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw it mentioned in his journal (yes, I know, I really am beyond help), and I’m delighted to say I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Someone asked me earlier this week what I wanted to do with my life, and the answer that sprang forth before I’d quite got my truth-filters in place was that I’d like to be Neil Gaiman. Not literally, you understand, but I wouldn’t mind following in his literary footsteps. Back to the story-crafting…

How to hook a reader in seconds: finding a good title

What’s the first part of your story that a reader sees? Whether it’s on the spine of a book, at the top of a magazine page, or in a table of contents, it’s the title, so it had better be a good one.

Pretty much all you can see is the title

Sometimes the title is the only thing someone will see, for example a bare list of titles and authors on a webpage – you have to entice the reader to click on your link purely on the strength of that title, before they even get a chance to experience your story. It can be amusing, quirky, groan-inducing, exciting and full of promise, but it definitely has to be eye-catching. If it’s in a mixed-genre setting it may also have to suggest its genre within its limited character set.

The Menagerie. Goth Opera. The Mind Robber. Shadowmind. Mission Impractical. Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Those are all titles of Doctor Who novels, but they don’t all have the same feel. When I acquired all those Doctor Who novels recently it struck me how the titles variously suggested horror, sci-fi, highbrow fantasy, tongue in cheek comic fantasy, old-fashioned mystery, adventure story for children, thriller, or some combination of these (and other) moods. Titles have such potential, but if you’re anything like me you may often throw one at your story at the last minute, an afterthought considered vaguely acceptable and sent out into the world. If so, you and I both need to think harder.

Blame my unfortunate affection for dodgy puns on my dad (and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again) if you like, but whatever the origin, I know I do use them in titles. Leaf Encounter for instance – their eyes met in a greengrocer’s shop and it seemed like an obvious choice; I hoped that it might also suggest to others some of the things it suggested to me, that maybe it wasn’t entirely serious and that it might involve a love that wasn’t to be.

For that reason I also use common phrases like Rain Stopped Play or Windows to the Soul. Rain Stopped Play isn’t about cricket (though it is about rain) but Windows to the Soul does have eyes as a central point. I use song-titles, some of which fit the mood (Resurrection Joe and Boys Don’t Cry are both about goths), some don’t (Wasted Years has very little to do with Iron Maiden but I still like it as a working title). Sometimes the title comes first – I have a few in my bits file that have only sparked glimmers of ideas or very rough outlines so far, and most of them will probably stay that way.

I don’t always throw in a title at the last minute, and I don’t always stick with the first title I think of – Boys Don’t Cry had two previous titles I think, but was usually known as the gothlad comic. A good indication that your title isn’t so hot is when you and your closest friends can’t remember it; I had another story recently which a friend was trying to refer to and had to fall back on a plot summary, and when he apologised for forgetting the title I had to confess I couldn’t remember it either (I’ve renamed it since, and I now know it’s called Cracks in the Foundations).

I’d already started drafting this post (see the work that went into this) when I spotted a link to a wordpress advice page about choosing eye-catching post titles, and certainly the basic principles of that also apply to story (or any other) titles. I’m not claiming I come up with good titles, in fact mainly I’m saying the opposite, but I’m trying to learn, both for stories and blog posts, and if I’ve made you think a bit harder about the next title you have to come up with, that’s probably a good thing. Just don’t blame me when you’re stressing about it.

Second-hand book emporium of doom

Inevitably, I have been seduced by second-hand sci-fi again. The very same shop that left me with a stack of CJ Cherryh novels and nowhere to put them has now provided me with a serious overload of Doctor Who novels. I went in innocently enough (in fact I’d been going to walk past, till OneMonkey suggested ‘just a quick look’), started browsing the shelves and thought ‘Oh wow, a 1970s 4th Dr novel, haven’t seen one of those in years’ – naturally enough I picked it up in case anyone else grabbed it while I was still looking. And I picked up the next one I saw, and then a more recent one (‘Paul Cornell, I’ve been meaning to read one of his’). Then the lady at the counter asked if I was a Doctor Who fan (luckily there were very few customers in so I quietly admitted it) and suggested I browse their boxes in the back room as someone had just donated an entire collection. Well, what can you say to that?

It’s occurred to me that since I’m unlikely to want to read them all one after the other in case of Doctor fatigue, and since I already have the To Read cupboard (now full, and overflowing to a small pile on top of it) including books I got for Christmas, and I’m bound to pick up or borrow books during the year that will jump the queue, I will at the very least be reading these well into next year and probably beyond. Unless I spend my Easter break on a Doctor Who novel binge?

Introspective retrospective

Partly for inspiration, partly to avoid repeating myself too much, I’ve just had a read through my posts from the last couple of Christmas breaks. It made me realise how little reading I did at Christmas this year, in fact I haven’t picked up the book I’m currently reading (History of Education in Great Britain by SJ Curtis, interesting but heavy-going so it’s taking me a while to get through) since the 23rd.

Books were still quite a feature of Christmas in the parental home, being given to OneMonkey (by me), me (by OneMonkey and my parents), my mum (by me and my sisters), Big Brother (by sister number 2) and my dad (by Big Brother and probably my mum and sisters though I realise I wasn’t paying attention at that point). On Christmas Day, however, the spare hours were filled with board games and Doctor Who. This year I was sitting next to BB, so we didn’t have to pull it to pieces on the phone later, though given the high quality of Moffat-written Christmas special we wouldn’t have had to anyway. Most enjoyable (and very little Amy Pond, which is a bonus in my opinion).

Which brings me to the other recurring feature, the resolutions and the look-back over the year. In 2010 I made only about three-quarters the number of submissions I made in 2009; 2 are still out and I had 6 accepted (compared with 7 in 2009) so although I slackened off a bit in 2010 (submissions between the end of February and the end of October only) I still did OK. One of the accepted pieces is due out soon in The View From Here.

The graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, finally came out in 2010 which was probably the high-point of the year for me – it’s something we’d talked about for so long, and its emergence has provided me with proof that with enough nagging from OneMonkey I really can stop talking about doing something and actually do it. I also bought a fabulous trilby this year (as seen at Thought Bubble) which lives by my bureau and is worn for inspiration, particularly for that noir mood (though I am in fact wearing it as I write this).

So all in all, another good year but as usual with a hint of ‘must try harder’. I shall finish this now, replenish my new mug with Earl Grey, grab a mince pie and get down to the serious business of finishing the story for Ostragoth Publishing’s next moody venture.