Category Archives: Writing

About the process of writing

A little something…

“You little lard-faced bastard,” yelled the Svart, kicking at me as I held him aloft by his ratskin weskit.
Like the blackhead had room to talk. If I stretched him, he’d be a quarter my height and a tenth of my weight, and his face was the same color as maggot, only scrawnier than most maggots.
“What did you do with her, Glibflint?” I snarled at him. “And if you kick me, so help me, I’ll eat you, and puke your remains into the sea.”
He blew me a raspberry.
I shook him so hard his that his little sharp teeth nearly rattled out of his head.
“Answer me, or that’s just the start!” I screamed into his face.
“Not going to,” he hissed, working his mouth to find spit.
I knew what that meant. Svartalfar are as brave as a mouse with a cat… unless they’re being watched.
I grabbed his leg, with the other hand. Dropped his weskit and swung him savagely at the shadows behind me. They’d never be in the shadows in front, let alone the light. He was a lousy club as I thrashed into the squalling mass of them. They poured out of their little crack like roaches. Yammering and ululating in their nasty triumph, surging around me, trying to get behind me.
I flung Glibflint at them, trying to haul out my sword as the gibbering shrieking mass snatched at me. Biting, pulling, kicking, clinging.
Down I went under a stinking tide of little vermin, shrieking their triumph as I fell.
I hit the ground hard. Tried desperately to roll.
Cold little pinching hands made a net, holding me down.
The sharp lava-rocks beneath me stabbed at me, tore my shirt as I struggled desperately to get up, to break free.
My nose was full of the smell of moldy cloth and half rotten meat, and fresh blood.
They were trying to cram something into my mouth, crushing my lips back against my clenched teeth.


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I swear, ’tis no lie

Wrestling for words is always a tough one. I was looking for suitable swearwords for a YA novel a little while back, knowing full well that at 13 there weren’t many I hadn’t heard. Some I didn’t fully understand yet, and for true expressiveness I had to pass through boot camp and end up yelling at the little darlings myself. Then I ended up working as a fisheries scientist on trawlers, and just when I thought I’d heard it all, in fish factories where delicately bred ladies would discuss the merits of the water of green pineapples for the complexion… or something of that sort, while wielding really sharp knives with terrifying speed.

Yet while YA novels push boundaries of sex into areas where no man has been (well, no ordinary hetero man – like 95% of the male audience) they’re good on what when I was young was considered blasphemy, but they still haven’t got f…ing punctuation of f… ing sentences f…ing right yet. It is a punctuation. At least when you’re teenage boy among your peers, trying desperately to prove you’re not a teenage boy, it seems it is.

So: reality is not what one seeks because in reality the gay kid is not everyone’s best friend, and the group is not always gifted with a suitable white male doofus and jerk as the villain. We have applied to central planning for a larger supply, and they have promised they’re working on the school system to oblige, but in the meanwhile we have been instructed to just make-believe.

It’s a good thing we’re writing fiction, in other words, with no need to suspend the credibility. I believe it has been called training the youth to accept political debate from the PTB without throwing up or bursting out laughing. It is our duty to educate them. And if they are not educated enough, to betray them to commissars so they can be re-educated (I believe they send them to salt mines in Vermont). Like royalties, it’s all about delivering small change you can believe in to the starving authors/masses (or both).

Seriously, reality diverges considerably from either the normal text in books (let alone for YA audiences) and what editors will accept in traditional publishing, and what readers will accept in the broader world. I freely admit the idea of my dear little offspring and future grandkids reading the sort of scatological spew I managed as a real 14 year old idiot has no appeal at all. And, dear hearts, as I grew up in the ’70’s when people were still seriously trying this in print, that sort of spew irritated me then. I could do better, and they always got it wrong, and it was condescension. It did appeal 20 year old adolescents with low IQ’s, but while there are a lot of them, some in their 50’s by now, and still adolescent, they don’t read a lot.

I have noticed that children have separate vocabularies – the brighter one – i.e. probably the ones who read – quite a number, depending on who they are chameleoning with. There’s the gung-ho boys vocab, the talking girls (younger) vocab, the talking to girls (older) vocab, the talking to authority vocab, and the talking to the stupid (aka adults including parents. It takes growing up to realize that these lumbering behemoths are more than just ATMs and taxi services. Stupid is often relative – some of mine are a great example. And some think I am.)… and that’s without the dialects spoken to the different types within these groups. The dialect spoken to the girl next door whose heart or blouse the young Lothario have no interest in getting into is quite different to the fine sentiments and poetic soul that comes out with Desiree Hardache. You didn’t swear much in her presence – or in the presence of those you respected or were afraid of, or wished to impress. That was for lummoxes, who… don’t buy a lot of books.

Which brings me back to my thesis – it’s not the reality of language that sells the book – it’s convincing the audience that they are group who would hear that from you. i.e. You’re talking UP not down your audience.

Oddly, they’ll accept your respect, not your assumption of equality.
Or at least, that’s my take. What’s yours?

And here, for your edification is a little poem on the delights of spoken English.

cross-posted at Mad Genius Club


Filed under philosophy, publishing, Uncategorized, Writing

Next Big Thing

My friend Chris McMahon asked me if I’d be prepared to do this. To help him out, I agreed. Now I just don’t do chain letters and this one has reached its end, anyway. I asked around. Everybody willing I that knew or at least could think of had done so. But by all means, volunteer.

Update: ha, a volunteer – due next Wednesday… Pam Uphoff

1) What is the working title of your next book?

‘current book’ (yes, that is what it is saved under). At the moment one is called CHANGELING’S ISLAND. The other is called Fred. Yes, two books at once. No, this is not a good thing.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

From my head. From that empty resounding space which should be full of folded grey muck called brain. Where do you get yours from? Those delightful people who write to you and say: ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story. You write it and we’ll split the money.’ ? Trust me on this one, this is not wise. CHANGELING’S ISLAND is the result of reading AGAINST PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, talking to an abalone diver about his one-time deckie, a person with aboriginal heritage, reading that many of the sealer-settlers here were in fact Celtic/Scots Irish islanders themselves, and that a belief in the second sight is widely held here. Put that into a fantasy-writer’s anti-computer AKA head, and the story had to come out. Fred is a result of cockatrice and a woman scorned and the unification of Italy… Okay so maybe I need to get out a bit more.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It does not fall. It stands. Fights back. Resists to the last word. CI is probably going to be labelled as anti-urban Fantasy, and possibly as YA. Fred is Alternate history meets fantasy, have a passionate affair and Fantasy is left with a very odd love-child.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh! Should I run screaming into the night? Personally I favor Sylvester Stallone as the little grandmother, DiCaprio as my braces-on-her teeth heroine, and Julie Andrews to play my 15 year old sulky city brat boy hero, Brad Pitt ideal for the decayed corpse in a hole in chapter three, and Chuck Norris as the mermaid… Look, this is a BAD mistake. Never do this, or you tie your characters to known and narrow values, making it a lot harder for people to identify with them, and put their OWN characteristics into that frame.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Phttt! (If a book fitted into one sentence, why write a book? And yes, I am a professional, done a lot of books.)

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
One’s on contract, the other will go to my dear long-suffering Agent Mike Kabongo

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Long did I labor, and burned much midnight oil… Which manuscript? I’m still busy. It takes anything from 4 weeks to 4-5 months. Now stop bugging me.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It’s like the Bride of Frankenstein meets the Eye of Argon with a dash of added Blathering Heights and a lot of the Cat-in-the-Hat! (Ergo, it isn’t. Like the crocodile, it is like itself. And the tears of it are wet. It is vaguely like other Dave Freer books, in that sense of humor and ethos are similar. If you like his books, you’ll like the next one.)

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The thought of living in a cardboard box under a bridge. I only look like a troll. Shrug. I am writing Fred for that reason, anyway. CI is a book which may well be unpublishable, in that it’s as un PC as ever I am (Yes, I did write the Bolg, PI: Wolfy Ladies (Bolg PI)
stories) Shrug. Idealism I suppose. Wanting to tell a story where being human counted not being a ‘designated victim’. Wanting to have a COUNTRY story instead yet another urban one. Wanting the values of people I considered quality, reflected as worth having.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Um. I’m sure there must be something. Really…
The author might have a sense of humor.
I think.

Anyone wishing to be tagged to answer this rather insipid lot of predictable questions… write to me. Maybe you can make your replies more entertaining than mine.

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Character Building

Back when I was a gossoon, and the world was yet young and unformed in places, whenever your parents, teachers etc wanted you to do a spot of septic-tank diving or eating earthworm-spaghetti in the ante-chamber of hell, or to take a long swim in water that could freeze impure thoughts solid and leave you singing falsetto for six months, they’d tell you it was ‘character building’. I don’t know if this is an expression elsewhere, but in Darkest Africa, it was used often. Let me assure you all that if I had to get post-facto planning permission for my character, it would make several major national bureaucracies explode. It’s almost worth it. I have a character, as a result of their well-meaning efforts, slightly larger than Pangea, and incorporating architectural styles from Aztec to Zorasteran, and all possible intermediates.

In their generous fashion the Army, South Africa, migration, and the publishing world have done their very best to continue this good work. I only have something to do with the last part now, and really, I appreciated your efforts, but you can stop now. Let’s try doing things the easy, pleasant, highly rewarding way… just so I can experience that too.

Being possibly slightly biased, I think this has made me into an interesting (if confused and confusing) character, except when I have had three glasses of wine and start droning on about fisheries management, stats and the philosophical underpinnings of politics, at which point I can put hyperactive two-year olds to sleep and wildly cast nasturtiums (or whatever other delicate blossom comes to hand, like cauliflower) about the ancestry of politicians and fisheries scientists. Do not give me wine.

And from this I wanted to extend the would-be writer’s thoughts into that job some of us do, and some of us just make as we go along. Being fluent liars – that’s what fiction is, after all – we’ll probably deceive you about how we slaved over the hot keyboard to do this, even if we didn’t. But it is worth thinking about. We read about a character, and not, in most instances, a plot, or the gifted beauty of the prose (well, yes, but look at the fact that most modern literary fiction sells 3 copies to people who aren’t pretentious enema-orifices, and there is a fairly limited supply of the latter, as the sequential disease-vectors for this unpleasant complaint are the soy-latte, Voltaire and the vegan leather leather boot, and most people are sensible enough to avoid at least one of those.) We read about character… because: 1)We can identify with them. 2)They are amusing, different, interesting.

You simply can’t always do the first. My politically incorrect hero PI Bolg,
is difficult for anyone to identify with. Well, perhaps aspects of him. I am sure there are some of you who are 4’7″. I am sure some of you are blue. I know for a clearly established fact that some of you are contrarian, and have enough attitude to stop a herd of charging buffalo in their tracks. But my point is Bolg is an easy character to make interesting. He’s had many lifetimes of character building. Most of the time we simply don’t have that luxury. And if we’re to follow that excellent piece of advice – write about something you know about (or at least something about) – one’s characters can end up well, like us. Which is tough (and rather obvious) if you’ve lived a sheltered life and are a young writer (or even an older writer who has a great imagination and yet has a fairly safe, comfortable life. You’re a cubicle geek from the software industry and the most exciting thing that has ever happened to you is a FEMA official looking at you funny (Yes, there is a real author rather like this).) You can write characters other cubicle geeks love, and there are a lot of them to buy your books. You can make my eyes glaze over. Or you can step out of your known.

Of course, the joy – or trial – of being an author is that you don’t have to restrict yourself to experience. No, I cannot be female and give birth. I cannot be a skin color I am not, or an orientation I not. Trust me, most female fantasy writers couldn’t possibly deal with the life-threatening, often acrobatic and deadly adrenalin fueled hell-scenes they write either. Most male ones or sky-blue pink and polka-dot skinned ones cannot write about medieval torture and the emotions of crusaders or harlots from experience either. What they, and you, can do is to build that character – and if they do it well, build it with foundations of your experience and observation of real people, re-enforcing of research, bricks of building it up gradually (that interesting character does not arrive fully formed and deep without this. You get cardboard cutouts, all very well for demonizing political opponents, but useless for enveloping readers). He wasn’t always the finest swordsman outside France. Once he was the finest boxing champion of kindergarten, for three years. And before that he was the kid they laughed at for wetting his pants. This shapes and forms that building. And then there is mortar. And the author only has one kind of mortar, and that is imagination and real empathy, the ability to see himself, standing there with a dark stain spreading from his crotch down his pale blue trouser legs while the other kids giggle and point. To burn from the scolding and to cringe with the embarrassment that shaped that brick.

And then finally… there is the plaster-work. And that is confidence and panache. Cough. Many is the author who has hidden lousy character structure under this. You can get away with it too.


Until you don’t and the whole book collapses like streets of cheap clapboard or dominoes when the reader jars on one of those weak characters.

The other route – which is particularly favored for coming of age novels is of course to write those bricks and mortar. It’s easier. But the books still usually call for the same things.

So: Okay. your turn. Let’s talk about characters where, although you did not see the building, you were sure the author had built them, not just taken prefab units for their book?

cross-posted at Mad Genius Club


Filed under books, Uncategorized, Writing

Neither A nor B

Heads or tails?

It’s a choice, with the occasional ‘balance on edge’, or ‘simply fail to come down at all’, which applies well to tossed coins.

It may sometimes apply to other things. Stepping over a cliff for example. Humans very often apply it a lot more broadly. Democrat or Republican. Black or white. Male or female.

It is a core theme in many of my books, that patently in a lot of cases, this is bullshit. 1)Things are seldom simple and entirely and perfectly described by a narrow simple category. If you think they are… you probably are behaving like a sheep, and haven’t actually looked carefully. Pigeonholes may work well for pigeons. They are lousy for people, emotions, philosophies or political positions 2)There is almost always another possibility, if not a myriad of them. Yes, you may have chosen to vote for one or other party. It is massively unlikely, unless you are, in fact, a prion (and incapable of independent life, let alone thought) that, if you actually thought about a party manifesto you would agree with all of it. And, if you really thought about it, inevitably humans choices come down neither A nor B but a percentage of A, a percentage of B and percentage of options through to zz. DRAGON’S RING – a choice between A & B… and actually neither are good. 3)We may simply be looking at the whole damn thing bass ackwards. Take health insurance as a simple example. What is it intended to do? Make sure that when you get sick you can afford to be treated and get better? Or in other words, that you can stay in good health? Right? Does it? As far as I can work out, only incidentally, and in fact the principal beneficiaries are people who only benefit if you are sick (especially as inevitably the insurers themselves have ownership or part ownership of the facilities for treating you). The IDEA of making sure you are not sick simply because you can’t afford treatment is a very desirable one. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thought they deserved to die or be sick and miserable because they didn’t have the money for treatment. I’ve met a few people who didn’t mind if it happened to someone else, as it never seems to occur to them, that someone else could be them someday, or their child, lover, mother or friend. So: it’s a good goal. But yet… when you think about it, the way it has been applied has been as counter-productive as possible, making affordability more a case of ‘how much blood can we take in how many ways from the host before it actually dies?’. If I were to announce with convincing evidence that I had a cure for everything that might ail you, and that I was going to release it, free, next week, I would give Flinders Island about 3 days before being nuked, in the process killing several hundred highly paid assassins and hitmen from every part of the medical business. (I’m ugly but not that much of a fool. I’d be elsewhere.). Yes, indeed, there are some wonderful doctors, nurses, radiographers and research chemists who would love nothing more than to say ‘my years of training and experience are now worthless, I’m unemployed and have to find a new job, and I am so happy about it’. But these make a small fragment of a fairly desirable group of people, and Doctors, nurses etc, make up a valuable but a very, very small fraction of the group whose livelihood depend on people being sick. A lot of these are salesmen, administrators, accountants, managers, board members, lawyers, CEO’s – not medical people at all. In fact, if you did a careful look at where the money from that insurance goes… most of it will be into this group (who don’t fix you when you’re sick) and the smaller volume into the actual cost of things needed and the people needed. And really, there is no incentive (especially, yes Discovery Health, I am looking at you, where the hospital facility is owned by the insurer) to limit that wastage. In fact, big talk aside, there is no value in keeping the insured healthy. If the insured never need a doctor, high premiums will put them off (unless insurers get the state to play ball and make them have it by law. At which point you may as well give the medical industry your salary check.). To look at this more logically there need to be serious incentives to the medical industry… to stop people needing their treatments and to make those as affordable and effective as possible. And actually the only way to do that is to reward the right things and punish the wrong. So for example they get paid… if you aren’t sick. If you are sick your premium reduces. If you’re incapacitated or die… they pay out. If you over-live your expected span… they get a bonus. And work out ways to get rid of the dead weight which adds no value. If the state wanted to interfere, the right way would to punitively tax the non-medical (or in the case of pharmaceutical companies non-scientists) personnel. Or make those non-tax-deductable expenses. Costs that cannot easily be passed on to the public, either via directly charging more, or getting the public to pay more tax to cover for largely un-needed expenses.

And those are just some of the possibilities. If you don’t want to go that far, maybe an effective basic state health service that forces private medicine to be competitive and offer more.

What underlies much what I write are simple questions: what are we doing this for? and is how we deal with it an artifact or accident or history, or really best for the purpose? I’ve used medicine as an example, but you could apply it to anything from energy supply to governance. Of course my possible answers aren’t right. But they’re about providing the right motivation to solve the problem, rather than motivating the creation of groups/institutions/bureaucracies whose lifeblood is keeping the problem vaguely under control but there forever.

The answer is inevitably neither A nor B but a big mixture of that and other things, and sometimes something new.


Filed under economics, philosophy, politics, Uncategorized, Writing

behind the covers

Someone asked me a few days ago ‘Do you do much research for your books?’

Probably about 2-3 books full for each one I write, if I was to write it all down. Unless you’re quite mathematically challenged or believe books to be some kind of multi-dimensional portmanteau (which yes, some of them are. They take headspace from readers, which can add many dimensions) it’s fairly obvious that the point of research is to leave it out (but to get the setting, the background the underpinning right).

Then of course if your book is a straight story all you have to do is tell it, right?

For me the answer is a big no, probably because I couldn’t just tell a straight story to save my life. I’m such a plonker. You see all the other parts are important to me. Take the Heirs of Alexandria books – SHADOW OF THE LION et al. They’re Alternate History meets fantasy, and so the geography, the food, the people, the belief systems all have to be researched, and sometimes taken to their logical extension point. Then the characters (who are in some cases based on real historical figures. Only the names (and sometimes dates) have been changed to protect the guilty have to be researched, developed, dialogue sections so I can get a feel for them (there is a character sketch, with everything from hair color to emotional stability, likes, dislikes, favorite words and phrases. Yes. I am anal. Call me an arse. Just don’t scratch me). The layers get built, knowing the end point (possible) and the underlying setting… and in the case of these books the mythological tie in (each of the books is 1) A story; 2)Alternate History. It’s like a vast 3 d chess game, taking Occam’s razor and logic and possibilities.. If they did that back there, what would the situation be like here. What color are the carrots? What do people eat? who rules, what religions are there and how do they work? 3)a myth-retelling which has to fit in, usually blending several mythologies to achieve a ‘desired and logical’ outcome. I know Misty did some adding at the end of the last one and I haven’t been able to bear to read it, as I know she just doesn’t have the background reading to make it fit properly. Sigh. I’ll have to cope soon 4)A show-not-tell on my ideas on socio-politics (The Republic of Venice was a fascinating canvas, with similarities to and differences from to the US and UK.) 5)a supply in jokes, plays on names which are as necessary I suppose as gilding on a pig. But I like them.) and then I write an outline.

And then I write the the book trying to blend these and the characters do what they would do, and screw everything up.

Right now I am wrestling with the unification of Italy, putting Garibaldi out of a job a few centuries on. Trying to find the right mythos. Trying not to get too distracted by one of the other 5 projects bobbing around…

Of course you don’t have to do this. You can wing it. Some people do, very successfully. I’m just not one of them.

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I was struggling with the WIP earlier, and somehow got caught up in this

I was struggling with the WIP earlier, and somehow got caught up in this:

“Nevermore! And my name isn’t Raven either. It’s a sore throat,” croaked the man in the tattered black cloak, flopping down like dropped bladder on the stool. He didn’t quite burst, however.
“That’s what you said last time,” said mine host, dryly.
“My name wasn’t Raven then either. Arrack!”
“Don’t you mean ‘Ark!’ Mister Not-Raven,” said Cybelline, toying with her near-empty glass. There was that brittleness in her voice that said ‘I’m looking for a fight or sex, and I’m not sure which I’d prefer. Help me decide by saying the wrong thing.’
“No. Arrack, Malthias,” he said to barkeeper. He improved his chances. “One for her too.” And then ruined them again. “It’ll stop her wisecracks.” He wasn’t her type anyway. She liked them big, blond, well-dressed, muscular, handsome and attentive. He was small, shapeless in that loose grey shirt, and slumped onto the bar, paying it more attention than her. And he wasn’t what anyone would call handsome. ‘Fine-boned’ would be the kindest, and Cybelline wasn’t one of those. She’d have said that he had a sharp hook nose, a pointed chin and… uncomfortable glittery eyes. The kind she felt saw too much. He was entirely too like the raven that he said he wasn’t. And he’d be the center of attention, not you. She didn’t like that either.
“You like to have the monopoly on those,” said Malthias, taking down a bottle from the top shelf, blowing the dust off the cork. “But you did say ‘nevermore’ last time, Ramarin. You always do.” He took tall glasses out from under the counter, tossed ice in them, pulled the cork with his blunt square teeth, and poured the liquor. The clear fluid went cloudy as it hit the ice, as if it wanted to hide it.
“This time I mean it,”said Ramarin making glass clutching movements with his left hand.
“That’s what you said last time too.” Malthias pushed the glasses across the bar-top. “I wouldn’t drink it if I were you,” he said to Cybelline, who had been about to refuse it. So she couldn’t. She took a sip and wished she had. It stank, not smelled, of anise. The taste was lost in the raw alcohol though.
“Most people thin it out with water,” said Malthias, pushing a jug towards her.
“Ugh. He blasphemed. I heard him,” said the not-raven, his mobile face shrivelling in a rictus of mock disgust. “Water. He said ‘water’, in this very holy place. Wash his mouth out with gin.” At the same time he poured some of the blasphemous stuff into the glass, before drinking at least half of the Arrack in one long gulp.
Cybelline added water, tasted it again, with what of her taste buds had survived. The water hadn’t had much obvious effect on the amount of alcohol. It was, admittedly, more drinkable now. Just.
“And so,” said Malthias leaning forward on the bar, his big head tilted in enquiry “How is our friend General Porknees this time?”
The subject of payment had not arisen, Cybelline noticed. That, considering Malthias normally wanting money up front… was interesting, let alone whoever General Porknees was. But there was a chance she might learn something valuable. And a girl in her position took what was available.
Ramarin snickered nastily. “Having apoplexy, I should think.” He raised the glass in his left hand in a salute.
Malthias smiled. “But otherwise in good health?”
“Sadly, old friend, sadly. He’s never let me get close to him again. I keep trying though.”
“Better luck next time,” said Malthias. His tone said he really meant that. It wasn’t mere polite barman talk. Whoever Porknees was, Malthias hated him.
“I said ‘nevermore.’ And there is something wrong with this glass,” Ramarin announced, holding it up, peering intently at it, a show-man to the core, calling for a response. Not getting one, besides a wry twist of the lip from Malthias.
“What?” asked Cybelline, obliging him, despite herself
“It’s empty.”
It was an experiment in character, setting and the response of the readers to cues. Maybe the start of a story…


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