Inspirations, Part 2: Teenage Influences

Hi Folks,

Following on from my last post, I’m back to reminisce on my literary and cinematic influences as a teenager in the 1980s.

My love of adventure stories branched out in two directions: thrillers and science fiction.

Let’s talk about thrillers first. My two great loves were novels about assassination attempts – ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffry Household and ‘The Long Kill’ by Reginald Hill. In their own ways, these books delved into the minds and motivations of sane men who decide to kill. That combination of psychological character study and thrilling plot is a winner for me. I read ‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth too, but while the down-to-earth detail in that was an eye-opener, the killer was a more clear-cut bad guy.

I wouldn’t like you to think I was particularly interested in killing. I never could stand the gory ‘shoot-em-up’ sort of killing and was grossed out by the film ‘Platoon’, for example. I did enjoy ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ film and ‘The Red Dragon’ novel by Thomas Harris, but I think it was the psychological aspect that appealed. I just wanted to know what could drive someone to kill another person (er, yeah, and eat their liver).

Other thrillers I enjoyed were basically adventure stories dressed up in a spy theme. Without fail, they featured a strong-jawed hero who confounded the enemy (typically the German SS, or the Russian KGB) by their wit and a twist of deception. Alistair MacLean’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ were favourites (and I love the movies, too). Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes were good, too. I really miss those guys. Modern thrillers take the gritty realism too seriously and don’t have the same sense of fun.

I read the James Bond books, but only because of the movies, and because my schoolfriend told me that Ian Fleming’s books had been banned from her mother’s school as being too risqué. There’s nothing like banning a book to make it popular. Together my friend and I wrote a little comic piece on the adventures of James Blond and his trusty secretary Miss Cashpound.

I think my mother was a little concerned about my predilection for ‘boys-own-adventures’. One day she brought home another book she suggested I might like, called ‘Restoree’ by Anne McCaffrey. One of the few books to have survived my multiple international relocations, I still have it here. Corgi edition reissued in 1983 (₤1.50) with an intriguing image on the cover of a space-ship and a bandaged woman. It remains one of my favourites (but only in the version with that cover).

So now we come to my best-loved genre of all time: sci fi / fantasy crossover.

There were two books by Vonda N. McIntyre called ‘Dreamsnake’ and ‘The Exile Waiting’. From what I remember (it was a long time ago!), these featured a post-apocolyptic, decaying society in which a traveller used snakes to heal, and cities were dark places inhabited by people with unwanted telepathic abilities. It was the depth of imagination that appealed to me – the wonder that someone could imagine an entirely different society from our own and make it seem real.

For similar reasons, I enjoyed more of Anne McCaffrey’s books, through the dragons of Pern to ‘The Crystal Singer’ series. Books by Frank Herbert such as ‘Dune’ and ‘The Dosadi Experiment’ kept me absorbed for days.

On the straight sci fi side, the novels of Robert Heinlein appealed to the teenage me (think ‘Starman Jones’ and ‘Farmer in the Sky’), but probably because they were simply great teen coming-of-age adventure stories, the space setting being the icing on the cake.

In a different vein, I read books by Ursula LeGuin such as ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ in which other or future worlds served as a foil to our own, making us question societal norms of gender and morality.

I became interested in big-picture questions about where mankind was heading and what we were doing to our environment. Influences included non-fiction works such as ‘The Limits to Growth’ by Meadows, Meadows and Randers and ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was developing an interest in ‘future studies’.

I read the classic future dystopias such as Orwell’s ‘1984’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (though I found Ira Levin’s ‘This Perfect Day’ more readable), and Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. The trouble with these was that they were already out-of-date and the cracks were showing – I needed a future vision that was more relevant to modern society.

I never found it, instead getting distracted by the Robot novels of Isaac Asimov. Here was an idea that was endlessly intriguing – what if we could build robots that looked like humans and appeared to act like humans? Their positronic brains were kept under control by three simple laws of robotics, yet the grey areas surrounding those laws created thrilling mysteries.

Then, right on cue, along came the film Robocop and the idea of mixing man and machine. Had the corporately-sponsored law enforcement agency successfully turned Murphy into an automated cop, capable only of obeying his programming, or did he still retain human memories and a sense of self?

Ah, so here we have it. Much as I hate to admit being so heavily influenced by popular cinematic culture, I think I’ve finally uncovered the reasons why I’m writing a futuristic adventure series featuring a cyborg spy.

Hope you enjoyed my personal trip down memory lane.

Inspiration, Part 1: Childhood Influences

I’ve never been one to follow trends or pander to a particular audience. I write what I feel like writing, in the hope that if I like it, others will too. It might mean my books will never gain much of a readership but it feels like the only way to be true to myself, and more than that, it feels like freedom.

But why do I write SF? And why my particular brand of SF? What were the inspirations that led me in this direction?

It’s not something I’ve ever tried to analyse but let’s have a look at books and films that have inspired me and maybe I can work it out.

I’m doubtful whether this post is going to be of interest to anyone at all, but from a personal perspective it was a blast putting it together, a real trip down memory lane. There are so many books and films that have inspired me, way too many for a blog post. For Part 1, I’ve picked a few from my childhood.

There was a series of books by Enid Blyton: ‘The Island of Adventure’, ‘The Castle of Adventure’, and so on. Didn’t everybody love those? They were such fun. For me, I loved the sense of discovery as the children uncovered nefarious plots in interesting locations.

Then there was Roald Dahl. My Dad read ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ to my brother and I once on a camping holiday. I think my brother liked it more than I did – maybe it was too down-to-earth for me. I went on to read ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’ and loved those. I adored ‘The Magic Finger’. Maybe it was the impossibility of it all that appealed to me – the idea of an elevator going up into space, and people being turned into birds. Maybe I’m attracted to the bizarre and impossible.

I think ‘Pippi Longstocking’ by Astrid Lindgren appealed to me for similar reasons – it was her amazing strength that I loved, and the way she was so unconventional.

I remember a few novels about children placed in survival situations. Funnily enough, I don’t think I particularly enjoying reading them, yet bits and pieces have stuck enduringly in my memory. Stories about surviving extreme events and situations are inherently powerful and they always show something remarkable about human nature. The best were probably ‘Children on the Oregon Trail’ by A. Rutgers van der Loeff, and ‘Hills End’ by Ivan Southall.

I have particularly fond memories of novels by Joan Aiken. ‘Midnight is a Place’ and ‘Black Hearts in Battersea’ were my favourites. I think it was the way she imbued the children in her novels with heart, character and individuality as they strove to cope in a dangerous, adult world.

When I was in my tweens, a friend introduced me to The Lord of the Rings. What can I say? Wow. Thinking back, though, I was never a great fan of epic fantasy apart from TLOTR. What I really loved was the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, with its hero who, despite his strong magical abilities, struggled to find his way and not turn to evil. Maybe it is this psychological aspect that appeals – it’s certainly an aspect of my books. The second in the trilogy, ‘The Tombs of Atuan’, also influenced me towards series in which the main character from one book becomes a secondary character in another.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that my list so far has not included any science fiction books. It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I started reading sci fi and thrillers, two genres that I still enjoy today. I’ll have to discuss those in Part Two, else this blog will go on forever.

I was primed already, though, by childhood exposure to the Star Wars movies. These have had a huge influence on me. It was the cinematic wonder of it: the starships and the stormtroopers, the aliens, the jedi lightsabers, and the wonderfully evil Darth Vader. Magical and unforgettable.

Again, there was that moral dilemma of choosing the difficult path of good against the easier path of evil – an especially strong theme in “The Empire Strikes Back’. Perhaps I’m a sucker for this age-old battle. I certainly hope I’ve managed to get a little of that Star Wars cinematic wonder into my books.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for sticking with me in my personal reminiscences, and stand by for Part 2 in which I will wallow in self-indulgent memories of teenage reads.

 

Review of The Seventh Friend by Tim Stead

I really enjoyed reading this.
It has all the elements you expect of an epic fantasy, such as great battles with a good dose of treachery and strategic manoeuvring, a system of magic (involving animals – I like that), and a host of interesting and sympathetic characters. Information about the world is trickled in so that it is not overwhelming, but leaves many questions unanswered. The main plot unfolds at a good pace, with a satisfying conclusion.

I especially liked the main characters of Wolf Narak and Pascha of the sparrows, to the extent that I found myself wishing to see more of them. (Luckily there are more books in the series). The author also surprised me – of two rival characters presented near the start, rather than concentrate on the more sympathetic of the two, he shows us the exploits of his rival. After I overcame my surprise, I enjoyed seeing this character develop.

I felt that the book was not as dark as the blurb might suggest. Essentially it’s a story about ordinary people becoming heroes, and, conversely, about gods who are essentially ordinary people. I can’t help a spoiler, here. There’s a great bit of dialogue in which the “god” Narak confesses that he does not believe in gods.

The “bad guys” the Seth Yarra people are also interesting. The author takes a dig at religious dogma (or so I understood it), by showing how their rigid societal rules, while a source of unity, are ultimately their weakness.

If you are looking for a fresh, new voice in fantasy, this book is a good one to try. I wish it was in paperback, though, as it’s a long one to read on a screen.

The Pitch, Part 3: Let’s Just Write It, Shall, We?

This blog post first appeared on Amorina Rose Writes.

So, after two weeks struggling with writer’s block, I’ve finally realised I’d be better off doing something else: I’m going to send The Sapience Assessment off to Agents and Publishers (A&Ps).

Which gives me a good excuse to write another diatribe about pitches. Sorry if this is a long one!

It turns out that most A&Ps don’t request a pitch, as such. They all want a synopsis and at least part of the manuscript, perhaps with a cover letter. My advice here is: write the pitch anyway and put it in the cover letter. For the reasons why you absolutely need a pitch see Part 1: managing expectations.

Engineer that I am, to me a pitch has a logic to it. First, make sure it conveys all the information the A&P needs to know, and second, emphasise the key element of the story (as discussed in Part 1). To get all the information in there, the simplest way is just to use a check-list of question words. Here’s the recipe I’m using for my pitch:

  1. Genre statement
  2. Background to the series
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Series theme
  1. Pitch for this book
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • (How?) optional
  1. Genre Statement

I already discussed the importance and pitfalls of the genre statement in Part 2, so I won’t go through that again. Just be aware of the implicit assumptions that a genre statement generates so be as specific on the book type as you can.

  1. Background to the Series

Most books will not need this section.

The where? and when? questions are only relevant if your book has a historical or geographical setting which forms a point of interest. So if you’ve written a historical drama you ought to mention the period, if your book is set in Mongolia, that’s important, but you would not normally have a separate section, you would probably mention them in the main book pitch.

In my case, I have this separate section because my book is part of a series set in the future on different planets and I felt that was important information to get across before delving into the main pitch.

Also, my series has an overarching theme, which I wanted to mention. It’s increasingly common, especially since the Harry Potter phenomenon, for a series of books, while stories in their own right, to work progressively towards solution to an overall issue.

  1. Pitch for this book

Books in different genres are likely to have different styles of pitch, so my recipe may not work for you. You might, for instance, keep the question checklist but change the order, or you might want to just run with other concepts.

            Who?

I put the who? question first is a way of indicating that this is character-based fiction. This is showing that, in my mind, the most important aspect of my story is the main character and her arc.

In this book, I only have one main character, so this part should be easy. In later books I might mention two key characters, but I suspect any more than that would be too cumbersome for a brief pitch.

Who? Means the character’s name and some indication of who they are or what they desire. So in my book, I have Thea Hyde, an intelligence operative who is desperate to get back to fieldwork after an injury.

Examples in other genres: a young woman, dissatisfied with her life in some way, is seeking escape, excitement, or love (romance genre); someone with a special skill is chosen (perhaps unwillingly) to fulfil a role or quest (fantasy genre).

What?

This is where I put the ‘plot question’ – what is the driver of the plot, the problem to be solved, or the threat to be overcome?

This is a tough one for me. My book has several plot threads, each with their own question.

Ostensibly, Thea’s mission is to find out whether a certain alien species is sapient, so that they can be saved from extinction. The trouble is, most readers don’t seem able to generate much sympathy for giant talking termites, so they don’t care. It’s a weak question.

As it turns out, the mission is a front for political manoeuvrings, with other aliens trying to sabotage it for their own ends. At the start of the story, though, this is not known, so the only question I could pose might be: who is trying to sabotage the mission and why? Again, it seems weak.

My main character has her own question to solve, too. An amnesiac, she is trying to recover understanding of who she is and why she has elevated duty to the Federation above all else. Perhaps there is another question: will she rediscover herself?

As I write this, I still don’t know which question I’m going to use (sigh).

Why?

This introduces the stakes. Why is it so important for the Who? to overcome the What?

Be careful – I find many people neglect this one. There’s a temptation to assume that readers will understand the stakes without being told.

Don’t assume. We actually need to be told that if the young woman in the romance does not find love, she will fall into depression / slavery / poverty / succumb to the evil stepmother. We need to be told that if the fantasy quest fails it will mean the slaughter of innocents / fall of the kingdom / extinction of the dragons/elves/race of men. We need to know that this story is important.

Now I’ve written that, I’ve realised I have no mention of the Why? in my previous attempts at pitches. Haha. Guess I’d better learn to walk the talk.

How?

I tend to present the pitch as a teaser, telling the A&P what the protagonist needs to do, but not going as far as how she does it, or even whether or not she succeeds. I think that’s best left to the synopsis, so this is optional.

3…2…1…Lift-off !

Here we go:

The Sapience Assessment (science fiction, 81,500 words) is the first book in my Transhumanity Series. These are soft SF adventures aimed at a new adult readership. The overall theme is a questioning of what makes us human, following a young woman who, over the course of four books, is transformed into a cyborg.

The series is set in the 24th century, a time in which transference links provide instantaneous travel between planets. Humans are one of dozens of species in the Sapients’ Interplanetary Federation (SIF), run by the powerful Sowers. The human government has developed a strong presence in SIF through its military arm, Exforce, and intelligence service, Macropol, but the Federation is under threat from the H!ane (Hakkannay). 

Macropol Recorder Thea Hyde, who’s been sidelined for a year by injury, jumps at a chance to recover her self-esteem and field agent status. She is to use her neural implants to record the work of a scientific team, sent to assess the sapience of an alien species and decide whether they will be granted asylum and saved from extinction. When someone attempts to sabotage the mission it is up to Thea to discover who and why. The treachery she uncovers will have implications for herself and the entire Federation.

Hope that’s helpful to people, to see my take on writing pitches. Comments on my pitch effort will be very welcome!

The Pitch, Part 2: Dispelling Genre Myths

Okay, so in Part 1 of my little diatribe on pitches I was talking about managing expectations.

The little snag here is that as soon as you mention the genre of your book you’ve already set up expectations. The reader already has a preliminary opinion on whether or not they’re going to like the book, and that’s even before they get to the pitch.

This is a real bugbear for me because I’m calling my books science fiction.

So the first thing this is saying is that this is ‘genre’ fiction as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. Literary being taken as synonymous with quality, with serious novels of the sort one calls ‘works’ rather than ‘books’ and whose authors can add the prefix ‘critically acclaimed’.

To those who buy into this literary snobbery, the term ‘genre’ means a book of no inherent worth except as light entertainment for the unwashed masses.

Okay, so we’re probably facing an uphill battle persuading anyone otherwise, but if you’re looking for ammunition, take a look at these:

This one is what Patrick Rothfuss (Author of The Name of the Wind) had to say when a lecturer deemed fantasy novels not worthy of study – the interesting thing for me here is his insistence that ‘literary fiction’ is itself a genre:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFI30pcv4sM

Then there’s this classic example of literary snobbery of the sort which can dismiss an author on the basis of writing style without even bothering to read one of his books (referring to the late Terry Pratchett):

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-is-not-a-literary-genius

and here’s a response (one of many):

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/aug/31/terry-pratchett-opposite-of-ordinary-potboiler-jonathan-jones

What am I taking from this personally?

That I have to stand up to literary snobbishness. My books may not be literary fiction but they are of no less worth. I will not apologise for the fact that the ideas within my novels are wrapped up in (what I hope is) an appealing story written in a commercial style.

This is deliberate on my part because I want people to read my books because they enjoy the story not because they are studying my use of language. I try to explore societal issues in the background rather than hit the reader over the head with them. Do I care that my books will never be set reading for an English lit course? Not in the slightest.

Okay, I’ve gone off topic a bit there, so back to genre expectations:

What else do people think when they see the label ‘science fiction’?

Space battles seems to be a common expectation. Or something futuristic packed with incomprehensible techno-babble. But then there are the time travel stories. Steampunk. Post apocalyptic, dystopian. Alternate universes, alternate futures, alternate political realities. Adventures, thrillers, romances, fairy tales. You name it, science fiction has it.

It can be hard to get across just how wide a genre science fiction is. If anyone were to ask me how to define science fiction I would probably through my hands up in despair. Luckily for me, other people have taken a shot at it:

To quote from this article http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140729-what-is-and-isnt-sci-fi

“…there seems to be as many definitions of science fiction as there are imaginary worlds dreamed up by its creators. Just sticking with leading authors, Isaac Asimov offered that it “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology”; Thomas M Disch argued that it all stems from the premise that “absolutely anything can happen and should”; and slightly more philosophically Brian Aldiss has claimed it’s ultimately “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge”.

I’m rather fond of the last one, probably because I’m not entirely sure what it means.

And here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty, saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”.

I wish I had an upbeat conclusion to this part but, to be honest, I can’t think how to give any practical advice to overcoming genre prejudice. Genre distinctions are inescapable.

Perhaps all we can do is break it down.

May I present my New adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

The Pitch, Part 1: The Importance of Managing Expectations

A pitch sounds like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? Just a few sentences describing what your novel is, essentially, about.

If only it were that easy.

Synopses are hard enough, giving us the challenge of condensing tens of thousands of words into one or two pages, complete with all major characters and plot threads, but I maintain that pitches are harder. The difficulty is all in that word up there: ‘essentially’. Somehow we have to submit our story to filtration, fermentation, distillation, whatever arcane chemistry we can think of, to reveal its ‘essence’.

There are no shortcuts here, it has to be done. The pitch is crucially important.

I know this because I recently finished a novel with which I was very pleased. It was one of those in which the story just seemed to flow from fingers to screen. In just a few months I had a complete draft and – get this – there was nothing I was unhappy about, no nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite right.

So I sent it to my Agent. She came back to me saying she’d tried to read it but couldn’t get into it. She didn’t like the characters. She’d given up. Ouch.

With hindsight, her reaction was not surprising. My protagonist spends 40% of the novel feeling suicidally depressed and 50% being evil. Love and redemption come, eventually, in the final two chapters.

You may be wondering why I would write a story like that. Well, I could say that this book is part of a series, so the reader will be already familiar with and sympathetic to the main character, but no, that would be making excuses. In my view, every book has to stand alone.

The fact is, I never intended the reader to particularly like the characters. I wanted them to recognise that their behaviour was wrong, was deviant, and hate them for it. Why? Because the whole theme of the story was about placing people in an inhuman situation, manipulating them to despicable acts, and investigating whether they could regain their empathy and humanity. It was intended to portray a dystopian society from which my characters need to extricate themselves.

Did I make that clear to my Agent when I sent her the book? No. I had labelled it as science fiction, as a story about a cyborg spy whose mission to another planet goes awry. In my pitch I failed to get across the essence of the story, allowing her to start into the book expecting one type of story and getting another. I had failed to manage her expectations.

The last thing an aspiring author needs is a disappointed reader. It is when readers assume things about the nature of our books, and then discover that their assumptions were unfounded, that we get those one- and two- star reviews.

This is why the pitch is so important – it is our only tool to manage the expectations of the reader (or Agent or Publisher) so that they are mentally prepared for the type of story we are giving them. If it is a thematic story, they should be reading with that in mind, looking for the underlying theme and delighting when they find it. If they are not supposed to like the characters, they need to know that, and we need to offer them something else instead – some point of interest to keep them involved with the story.

I could go on, there is so much more to say on the subject of pitches. I’ll be back…

 

Review of Wild Thing by LJ Kendall

(This review has been posted before on Amazon and on the blog Amorina Rose Writes.)

This book has an intriguing premise. Suppose you take a child and make her an experimental subject, moulding her in a particular direction over years of training. Suppose her teacher has magical abilities (and a moral deficit) that allow him to subtly alter her neurological make-up towards this end. And suppose you do this in the surreal atmosphere of an Institution for paranormal dysfunction. What would this girl become?

Warning – this review may contain spoilers

This semi-dystopian fantasy is set in a future in which society is rebuilding after mage-powered storms and a plague, and in which some choose to alter themselves with animal DNA and mind-altering drugs. The girl Sara knows little of this, having been kept secluded by her adopted ‘Uncle’, Doctor Harmon. Within the Institute’s vast grounds, she grows up a wild thing, a huntress. Here she befriends a cybernetic guard dog and learns to feel the spirits of nature and others less friendly.

It’s not long before the girl is exploring the hidden depths of the Institute, drawn to one particular man, claimed to be an insane mage. Her wilful and resourceful nature find her defying layers of security to defend him. But thanks to Harmon’s meddling, Sara herself has become dangerous, displaying a disturbing and uncontrollable mix of naivety and power.

This is a fascinating story, by turns exciting and disturbing, as the reader follows Sara’s development from wild child to adulthood. If I have a criticism, it is that the plot development was overly long and drawn-out. In particular, I felt too many chapters were spent following Sara around the grounds and on a needlessly large number of attempts to assist the incarcerated mage, which reduced my surprise and excitement at the finale. In other respects, though, this is a fine first novel.

I’d recommend Luke Kendall as a new author to watch.