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.

On Being a Science Fiction Writer

This was part of a series of interviews a fellow writer was conducting with indie science fiction writers to feature on his blog. I completed the interview in January 2014 and it must have appeared on the blog a month or so later.

I’ve since read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin—love everythng of hers I’ve read so far—but not yet anything by Harry Turtledove, though I have some of his works sitting on my Kindle. I haven’t yet read any longer works by Hugh Howey, but did have a story included alongside one of his in a flash fiction anthology: Stories On the Go

On with the interview…

What made you become a writer?*

First and foremost, a deep and abiding love of reading. Many of the stories I read as a child are still with me today, though I read them forty or more years ago. Books like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series, and, of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. In my teens I discovered Lord of the Rings and it has captivated me ever since. Then authors like James Herbert, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett came along, and I was hooked.

I started writing fiction in my early thirties for a number of reasons. Here’s a couple. At the time, I was doing a stressful job that I hated. Writing became a sort of pressure release valve, a refuge from dark introspection. It also represented a possible, if unlikely, escape route from a job I loathed to one I loved. At about the same time, I read a number of novels that left me feeling flat, wondering how they’d been published. I can’t now recall their titles (and wouldn’t name them if I could), but felt I could do better.

Why do you write science fiction?

Although I refer to mainly fantasy and horror books and authors above, I have also enjoyed reading science fiction over the years. Works by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to name but a few. Pratchett’s Discworld series is generally regarded as fantasy, but contains many elements of science fiction.

The title story of my short story collection, Pond Life, is probably the first science fiction story I wrote. It concerns a space ship crashing into a pond outside a sleepy Welsh village and sinking to the bottom. Though the occupants of the craft are slowly dying, they work certain changes in the village’s inhabitants.

I didn’t set out to be a science fiction writer, merely a writer, but it was inevitable that science fiction would form part of my writing output. Many writers, myself included, write the sort of books that they like to read. Since science fiction forms a large portion of my reading pleasure, I was bound to write it. Put another way, we write what we write because we read what we read.

Do your stories contain some hidden, deeper meaning?

My intention in writing a story is purely and simply to entertain. Let’s face it, for all its wonders life can be pretty shit at times. I have often found escape and solace in losing myself in other worlds found between the pages of a book and enriched by my imagination. If I can provide the means to do the same for others, I’ll be happy. If readers can find some message or deeper meaning in my work, then that’s a bonus, but wasn’t what I set out to do.

Talk about one of your published works.

My short story collection contains another science fiction story, an apocalyptic tale: The Third Coming. It was written more than ten years ago, probably closer to fifteen, but I remember thinking at the time that it touched on ideas that might reward further exploration at some later date. Ideas concerning the origins of humankind and a method of faster-than-light travel and the purpose of Stonehenge, amongst others.

I revisited those ideas last year and sat down to write a novel based on them. I do a regular job full time and have to fit writing into evenings and weekends, but I completed the first draft in just under nine weeks, a record time for me. The novel is called The Cleansing and was published in December.

Who are your favourite science fiction authors?

I’ve mentioned some already. I can add Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks. There are many authors whose works I haven’t yet read, but fully intend to, such as Ursula Le Guin, Harry Turtledove and, sacrilege I know, Hugh Howey. Too many books, not enough time…

As for why I like these authors? For the depth of their imaginations and their sheer story-telling abilities.

What reactions do you hope to provoke in your readers?

As I say above, I want to entertain and help provide an avenue to forget about the humdrum for a while. If readers take something more from my work, something that makes them think or view the world differently, then all to the good. But if I only manage to entertain them, that will do.

Tell us about your work-in-progress.

A week or two into writing The Cleansing, it became apparent that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. As an unknown, I didn’t want to write a doorstop that nobody would take a chance on buying, so decided to write a trilogy. I ended The Cleansing at about 90,000 words at a point that I felt was a natural place to pause. Not every reviewer agrees and I completely see where they’re coming from, but I hope they understand that I had to end it somewhere (or write a doorstop).

Now I’m working on the sequel: The Beacon. It picks up almost immediately where The Cleansing left off. I’m enjoying meeting the characters again (I haven’t seen them since July) and introducing some new characters that I’m slowly getting to know. Although I shall do everything I can to end this one at another natural pausing point, it will still leave the main story arc unresolved. That will happen at the conclusion of the third novel. I have an ending in mind but have little idea how I’ll get there. I’m relishing the journey.

 

* A note on copyright. Although the answers to the questions in this interview (and others I’ll be reproducing here) are mine and I am the sole copyright holder, I did not write the questions and do not hold the copyright in them. While the questions are fairly generic—you will see them, or ones just like them, asked in hundreds of blogs and other media—I have reworded them (and will reword them in other interviews I post) to avoid any suggestion of copyright infringement.

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!

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.


Lord Of Light

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.


Stranger in a Strange Land

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.


Childhood’s End

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)


Foundation

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Finally, a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died earlier this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed those of her works I’ve so far read. I’ll talk a little about her fantasy works in the forthcoming fantasy post, but to end I’ll mention one of her science fiction novels I enjoyed: The Lathe of Heaven. Although I felt the story ran a little out of fuel during the second half, it’s well worth a read.


The Lathe Of Heaven