More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 2


In Part 1, I said I’d take a look at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum. You’ll need to read Part 1 ( utter-bunkum-part-1 ) to know what I mean by ‘utter bunkum’, but it’s worth repeating: this is not in any way meant to be serious. I am not intending to be disrespectful or disparaging about any of the works mentioned—as I said, these are some of my favourite works of speculative fiction. I love these books; I wish I’d written them.

It might be a little more fun to present the books in the form of a lighthearted quiz. What follows are the plots of twenty novels stripped back to their bare bones—to the utter-bunkum level. See how many you can get without peeking at the answers which follow. (The links—some of which partially obscure the answer numbers, which I can’t do much about—lead to Amazon UK in case anyone wants to check out any of the books mentioned.)

Warning: by their very nature, some of these may be spoilers if you haven’t read the books, so proceed with caution.

  1. Shapeshifting alien terrorizes small American town every twenty-seven years.
  2. Six-foot-plus man who thinks he’s a dwarf joins city police force and helps thwart a dragon.
  3. Children play computer games in preparation for alien invasion.
  4. Man from Mars preaches free love.
  5. Boy speaks pidgen English and worships a Punch puppet in post-apocalyptic Kent.
  6. Made-up creature and faithful companion infiltrate the heart of deadly enemy territory to destroy magical artefact.
  7. Old aristocrat takes voyage to Yorkshire for the hot young women.
  8. Man tries to open path to hidden worlds, convinced he’s finishing the work begun by Jesus.
  9. Man and boy wander along and hide a lot.
  10. A strange cloud turns people into murdering psychopaths.
  11. Intrepid young woman tries to prevent the plot of a much-loved classic being ruined.
  12. Everyone, kill Zack!
  13. Bury them and they come back, but you’ll wish they hadn’t.
  14. Boy meets girl in midnight trysts; boy watches girl die of old age.
  15. Lots of intrigue and spicy worms.
  16. Man in dressing gown sets off on amazing adventures after his home is demolished.
  17. Evacuees from war-torn London free land of icy dictator; native fauna say, “thank you.”
  18. Sculptor shockingly brings life to his work.
  19. Love story that jumps about because he can’t stay still.
  20. 101 reasons to be paranoid.

 

Answers
1.

IT

2.

Guards! Guards!

3.

Ender’s Game

4.

Stranger in a Strange Land

5.

Riddley Walker

6.

The Lord of the Rings

7.

Dracula

8.

Imajica

9.

The Road

10.

The Fog

11.

The Eyre Affair

12.

World War Z

13.

Pet Sematary

14.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

15.

Dune

16.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

17.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

18.

Frankenstein

19.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

20.

1984

Right, next week I’m off to chill out in the sunshine, drink lots of beer and grow plumper on a Greek island, so the post due on 6th September isn’t going to happen. See you instead on the 20th. Yia mas!

Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

It’s Only Make Believe

So, fantasy novels. As suggested in the title, by ‘fantasy’ I mean speculative fiction that has no basis in technology, no matter how far-fetched the technology might be, and doesn’t fall firmly within another genre, such as horror. That’s still a huge range of sub-genres and I’ll barely be scratching the surface. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re like me—some people seem to obsess about this stuff—but I try not to stress about into which sub-genre a particular novel belongs. In truth, the only time I pay much attention to these subtleties is when uploading a book to Amazon and having to choose the categories in which it’s to be published and which keywords are to be linked to the book. Otherwise, the broader genres such as fantasy and science fiction will do me, although even then there are stories which do not sit comfortably within just the one category.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I came to fantasy at an early age through the works for young children written by Enid Blyton. She was later supplanted by books like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. But I want to mention others I’ve enjoyed from my teens onwards. They include two books that would comfortably make it into my top ten of all-time favourite books in any genre.

Let’s begin with the book that many readers list as their favourite: The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to say much about this because it will already be so familiar to most, either through the book or the films. Suffice to say, I discovered it in my teens and have read it every few years since. One of my favourite books ever—a re-read is overdue.

At around the same time that I first read LOTR, I discovered another fantasy writer: David Gemmel. I read (over and over) his Legend series, although this was in the dim and distant past and I don’t clearly recall a great deal about them now except how they made me feel: thrilled about escaping to a fantastic and dangerous world, cheering on Druss (I think that was the hero’s name) and fighting his battles alongside him (as if he needed my help).


Legend

Another series I enjoyed was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. At least, I enjoyed them to a point. I can’t remember how many sequels I read, but think it was at least three, before I moved on to something new.

In my early twenties I read a book called Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was dark, involved magic and entranced me. It contains a line I can still recall today: Once upon a time, when we all lived in the forest… I was already one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers so when he and Peter Straub teamed up for The Talisman, I had to read it. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel that came out years later, but return to the original every five years or so. Another one that’s overdue a re-read. Sigh. Too many new books to read first…


The Talisman

When I was a child I hated sprouts and loved a fizzy drink called Dandelion & Burdock. Now, in my fifties, I love sprouts and one whiff of Dandelion & Burdock makes me want to projectile vomit. Our tastes change over time and that includes our reading tastes. As years have rolled by, I’ve moved away from the more traditional high fantasy of wizards and elves and the like and sought out darker or humorous tales.

They don’t come much darker than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Without wishing to spoil anything, the main character does something dreadful early in the first book which made me loathe him. And he never through the ensuing books endears himself. Yep, he’s a man with issues, and comes across as one of the most unlikeable people you’d never want to meet. Despite all that, I enjoyed the first three books. There is something intriguing about the land which Covenant visits, something compelling about the characters he encounters and the predicaments they find themselves in. And there’s a scene—don’t ask me in which book because I can’t remember—involving the fate of the giants which was so heart-rending it made me want to cry.


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

I read the second trilogy—with diminishing enjoyment, it has to be said. When I found out there was a final trilogy, I hesitated, but I’m a glutton for punishment. The final three books in the series are as heavy as bricks and focus on a character who is possibly, though it hardly seems possible, less endearing than Covenant himself. I have the ninth book in the series sitting in my bookcase taunting me to read it. I’ll have to psych myself up to do so and will get to it eventually. But I don’t care how many more instalments Stephen Donaldson might write, this will be the last I’ll endure. (Oh, bugger. Thought I’d better check there are no more books before finalising this piece. You’ve guessed it: there’s a tenth book. I know I said that I’m not interested in reading any more, but I shall have to see how much of a struggle I find the ninth book before deciding whether to get the tenth. I mean, I’ve put this much effort in already and if the tenth is really the last one…)

As for the humorous, they don’t get much better than the Discworld series. In my late twenties when I discovered them, I have since read and re-read them. They are my go-to books when I want to escape into a wacky and endearing place where, if everything is not possible, it feels like it is. When Sir Terry passed on, it felt like losing an old friend. Here’s a link to one of my many favourites in the series.


Guards! Guards!

Another enjoyable, light-hearted series involves the adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective, by Jasper Fforde. It begins with The Eyre Affair. Wonderfully imaginative and a great deal of fun.


The Eyre Affair

I still keep my hand in with the more traditional type of fantasy. I’m slowly working my way through Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea quartet. Read two so far and enjoyed them both, but probably won’t be embarking on the third for a while.

Another novel I feel worthy of mention is Audrey Niffenegger’s (try saying that after a few beers) The Time Traveler’s Wife. Although, as the title suggests, this is about time travel, it belongs within my definition of fantasy because there is no technology involved. I found it to be an incredibly moving tale, a love story doomed by the man’s tendency to disappear into another time period, often at the most inopportune moments.


The Time Traveler’s Wife

The final series I want to mention is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Before I get to the negatives, I enjoyed the early part of the series, probably the first four or five books. By the sixth, I felt a little jaded. By the seventh—the original final book (there has since been another published, which I haven’t read)—I was feeling a little dark-towered-out, but girded my loins and embarked willingly enough along the home straight.


The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

What of the negatives? I’m not in any position to offer advice to Mr King as to how he writes his books, but he indulges in such an outrageous piece of author intrusion in the seventh book that it threw me completely out of the story and left me feeling reluctant to continue. I’m guessing he knew he was risking such a reaction amongst his readers and made a conscious decision to take that risk. Well, for me, it backfired. Nevertheless, I pressed on to the end. When I got there, I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ve mentioned before that I think endings are his weakness. Well, everyone has to have at least one weakness, right? His novels are more about the journey than the arrival and I love most of them, even those where I think the ending could be stronger. But the end of the seventh Dark Tower book? Made me want to throw the bloody thing at the wall. I won’t say any more—if you haven’t read them and you enjoy fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy this series. You may even like the seventh book. We all have different tastes and different levels of tolerance, thank goodness. The world of books would be a dull, sanitised place otherwise.

To my final book; the second one that would, along with LOTR, comfortably make it into my all-time top ten favourite books of any genre. I read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and enjoyed it enough to seek out another of his books, Imajica. Oh, wow! What a breathtaking work of mind-blowing imagination. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, so will merely say that if you haven’t read it, hurry and do so. You’re in for a treat. (Unless, of course, your tastes differ from mine…)


Imajica