The Week In Genre Books - July 16 2015

Here's the first in a new series of irregular posts.  Whenever I feel like it and have enough time on a Thursday, I'll list some new genre (fantasy, horror, SF) releases out that day.  For the sake of simplicity, I'm focusing solely on 'trad-published' novels and, even then, the list will be far from exhaustive: mainly stuff on my radar.  Please feel free to quack about any egregious trad-pub genre omissions in comments!  Let's go: what's out today?

UNDER GROUND - SL Grey (Macmillan)

The latest pulse-pounding novel from SL Grey, which is the combined pen name of authors Sarah Lotz (The Three) and Louis Greenberg (Dark Windows).  Hardback out today!

BLURB:

They're trapped fifty feet down... and someone wants them six feet under

The Sanctum is a luxurious, self-sustaining survival condominium situated underground in rural Maine. It's a plush bolt-hole for the rich and paranoid - a place where they can wait out the apocalypse in style. When a devastating super-flu virus hits the States, several families race to reach The Sanctum. All have their own motivations for entering. All are hiding secrets.

But when the door locks and someone dies, they realize the greatest threat to their survival may not be above ground - it may already be inside . . .


SL Grey: Site | Twitter


THE HUNT - Tim Lebbon (Avon)

An acclaimed thriller which looks set to see renowned horror/fantasy writer Tim hit the mainstream.  Only 99p on Kindle at the time of writing!  Out in paperback today, in bookshops and supermarkets.

BLURB:

‘A great thriller … breathless all the way.’ LEE CHILD

The cruellest game. The highest stakes. Only she can bring his family back alive …

Rose is the one that got away. She was the prey in a human trophy hunt organised by an elite secret organisation for super-rich clients seeking a unique thrill. She paid a terrible price. Every moment since she has been planning her revenge … And now her day has come.

Chris returns from his morning run to find his wife and children missing and a stranger in his kitchen.

He’s told to run.

If he’s caught and killed, his family go free. If he escapes, they die.

Rose is the only one who can help him, but Rose only has her sights on one conclusion. For her, Chris is bait. But The Trail have not forgotten the woman who tried to outwit them.

The Trail want Rose. The hunters want Chris’s corpse. Rose wants revenge, and Chris just wants his family back.

The hunt is on …


Tim Lebbon: Site | Twitter 


TRACER - Rob Boffard (Orbit)

Debut sci-fi novel from the South African scribe, who also offers Dust, a free collection of short stories, on his site.

BLURB:

Imagine The Bourne Identity meets Gravity and you'll get TRACER, the most exciting thriller set in space you'll ever read.

A huge space station orbits the Earth, holding the last of humanity. It's broken, rusted, falling apart. We've wrecked our planet, and now we have to live with the consequences: a new home that's dirty, overcrowded and inescapable.

What's more, there's a madman hiding on the station. He's about to unleash chaos. And when he does, there'll be nowhere left to run.

In space, every second counts. Who said nobody could hear you scream?


Rob Boffard: Site | Twitter


NECROPOLIS (GAUNT'S GHOSTS 3) - Dan Abnett (Warhammer 40,000)

The new fantasy epic from legendary veteran Abnett.  How cool is that series title: Gaunt's Ghosts.  Love it.

BLURB:

For a thousand years, the Sabbat Worlds have been lost to the Imperium, claimed by the dread powers of Chaos. Now, a mighty crusade seeks to return the sector to Imperial rule. And at the forefront of that crusade are Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only - better known as Gaunt's Ghosts. On the world of Verghast, a grinding war between two hive cities - one loyal to the Imperium, the other fallen to the worship of the Dark Gods - is bolstered by the forces of the Imperial Guard. But bitter rivalries and treachery threaten to derail the defence of Vervunhive, and it falls to Gaunt to take command of the Imperial forces and forge victory from an almost certain defeat.

This edition includes the epilogue short story 'In Remembrance', in which Gaunt's Ghosts are accompanied into battle by an artist commissioned to create a sculpture in commemoration of a great victory by the Tanith First.


Dan Abnett: Site | Twitter


DUNE - Frank Herbert (Hodder)

The immortal 1965 novel gets a new 50th Anniversary paperback release.  Factoid: despite having collected Dune stickers as a kid, I've still yet to either read the novel or see the film.  Should probably remedy this.

BLURB:

Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender's Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune: winner of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, and widely considered one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Melange, or 'spice', is the most valuable - and rarest - element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person's life-span to making intersteller travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the noble House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens fight back, murdering Duke Leto Atreides. Paul, his son, and Lady Jessica, his concubine, flee into the desert. On the point of death, they are rescued by a band for Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who control Arrakis' second great resource: the giant worms that burrow beneath the burning desert sands.

In order to avenge his father and retake Arrakis from the Harkonnens, Paul must earn the trust of the Fremen and lead a tiny army against the innumerable forces aligned against them.

And his journey will change the universe.


Frank Herbert: Site 


What have I missed in genre trad-publishing this week?  Quack about it in comments below!


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Ten Years After 7/7: How Best To Live Our Lives?


On the morning of the horrific London bombings which we soon came to know as '7/7', I was in the centre of town and fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me.  Nevertheless, the seventh of July 2005, 10 years ago today, feels like quite a significant event on a personal level, because it changed the way I thought about life.  Negatively in the short-term, but positively overall.  Which is obviously odd.

That morning, at about 9.10am, I travelled through London's public transport system, on the top of a double-decker, heading from Camden Town to Central London for a day's work at the Heat magazine office.  I remember looking down to see Euston Square station closed off - an ambulance or two outside, lots of people milling.  About 20 minutes beforehand, three bombs had detonated in the Underground, eventually prompting a Code Amber evacuation of the whole network.  Half an hour later a Number 30 bus would explode in Tavistock Square.

It wasn't until about 10am when we Heat magazine staffers found our attention glued to the news on the office TV screens.  Remote controls soon raised the volume, revealing newsreaders trying to make sense of what had happened, while trying not to cause undue panic on London's streets.  At one point, a "power surge" was apparently to blame in the Underground.  Eventually, we saw the bus.  Down in the Tube, all the unimaginable horror was hidden away, but you didn't have to be a scientist to know that the bus' horrendous state hadn't been caused by a power surge.

Worryingly, the mobile phone network soon became unusable, clogged up with desperate speed-diallers.  My mum phoned Heat to make sure I was okay.  I called through to Boots on Oxford Street, where my then-girlfriend Sarah worked, to make sure she was okay.  For the rest of the morning, the country would be just one big jittery chain of people checking on others in a pre-Twitter age.

Everyone left the Heat office early.  Walking through the streets seemed dangerous now, since we had no idea if there'd be a second wave of bombs.  Sarah and I walked up to Camden Town where we visited a series of pubs to get drunk.  We ended up in the Liberties bar, as it was then known, watching news updates on TV.  The number of dead was rising.  It would ultimately reach a total of 52, with over 700 injured.

For a while after that day, a queasiness clung to my stomach.  If I, or people close to me, been in a different tin-can zooming through London, at a different time, we would have either died or been transformed in some terrible way.  The ice-cold randomness of that began to eat into me.  For weeks afterwards, I insisted that Sarah got taxis to and from our Camden home to Boots on Oxford Street. Amazingly, I could afford this back then, because I had yet to leap into the financial no man's land of fiction writing.

I didn't use the Tube for some time, either.  This may well have been irrational and contrary to the bulldog-beef national spirit.  The way I saw it, though: if you could improve the odds for yourself and the people that matter, then why not?  "Stay calm and carry on" seemed an easy mantra for politicians who didn't have to travel in sardine tins, hundreds of feet below ground level.  But of course, after a while, given enough time to readjust, staying calm and carrying on is exactly what you do.  It's really the only way to do anything, not least because fear is the arch nemesis of fun.

It might seem crass to describe 7/7 as a near-death experience for all surviving Londoners and visitors, but in some way it felt like one.  As if we'd passed some deeply arbitrary, sickening test.  Survived a dice roll.  The thing is, we survive dice rolls every single day, to which we're mostly oblivious.  It was just that, on 7/7, four suicide bombers made that gamble visible and explicit.  They heartlessly skewed the odds for others while ensuring that their own fell to zero.

So, in a world where dice forever tumble, how best to live our lives?  Should we live as if every day is our last?  Or as if we'll live forever?

The problem with that first approach is that it would turn you into a mad parody of a Bucket Lister.  You'd spend every day bouncing around like a freak.  Kissing, hugging and shagging people, hurriedly ticking off stuff you never did before, eyes manic as you goggled down at Manhattan from a helicopter full of champagne and cocaine, or swam frenziedly alongside whales.  Chances are, you'd wake up the next morning and have to artificially generate brand new excitement about your New Last Day On Earth.  Exhausting.  Untenable.

There are two ways to act as if we'll live forever.  There's behaving as though you're physically immortal, which is easy in your teens and 20s, because your body's so resilient and armour-plated, only to start sending you warning signals which intensify with each new decade.  This kind of hedonism ultimately tends to reduce your lifespan, which can't be good.  The whole "Live fast, die young" ethos is great until it's time to do the dying.  Only yesterday, I looked up an old Camden Town friend on Facebook, only to be chilled by the sight of the word 'Remembering' on their page, above their name.

Then there's behaving as if your time here is infinite.  It's the anti-Living As If Every Day Is Your Last.  You lounge around, turn down opportunities to socialise or achieve because there's plenty of time for all that pro-active stuff and, anyway, there are good shows on TV tonight.

Whether we'd like to admit it or not, the majority of us reside within varying degrees of mindlessness.  We're not behaving like mortals or immortals: we're just not thinking about it.  This is our factory default setting and one which brings an undeniable comfort.  Wouldn't be healthy to spend all our days fretting about lifespans, death, fate and odds.  The mindlessness of staring at things, while barely seeing them at all, is actually an important shield.  Pretty sure that's why I enjoy some ludicrous Saturday night TV: a procession of shows which demand little of the brain.  It can be good to switch off for a while.

Yet none of these designs for life are the answer in themselves.  The answer may well lie in a varied rotation of them all, but all things considered, I've come to think of awareness and appreciation as key.  Walk beside the sea and taste the salty air, really suck it in.  Take time to fully appreciate loved ones.  Do what you enjoy most and do it with all the high-definition consciousness you can muster.  My favourite Fight Club quote is "This is your life and it's ending, one minute at a time".  Granted, I wouldn't want it tattooed on the inside of my eyelids, but sometimes we really need that reminder, that wake-up call, amid modern life's sound and fury and incessant interconnectivity.  Don't let too many of these minutes flood between your fingers and toes.

As someone who works seven days a week by default, and is all too capable of walking through interesting surroundings while seeing none of it because there's a creative building site toiling away in my head, I'm well aware that I'm fundamentally writing for my own benefit here.  Still, the idea of maintaining a measured sense of urgency to your life applies to work too.  Write your next Creative Thing as if it's your last (which I blogged about here) and you want to leave the strongest possible legacy.



Did you see ITV's recent documentary, 7/7 Bombing: Survivors' Stories?  The latest of the docs, it gathers the testimony of people affected by 7/7.   Human faces fill the screen, telling their stories direct to camera, to the viewer.  The camera tends to stay tight on them, so that we only learn if they have terrible injuries, missing limbs, etc, if they choose to tell us.  There are graphic accounts of events which can't help but haunt you, but also uplifting stories about people helping people.  My opinion of humanity seems to sink each year, but I do still believe most people will help others when faced with that kind of horror.  Most people are essentially good.

You can watch the documentary on ITV Player here for the next few weeks.

Today, I'll be thinking about those who died or were injured in London on the seventh of July 2005.  I'll also launch a renewed campaign to view life through a high-definition lens.

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Treat The Script Reader As A Viewer

There’s a script note I’ve given rather a lot over the years – to myself and other writers – and yet it doesn’t get talked about all that much (except for this week, when a post by the mighty James ‘Sitcom Geek’ Cary reminded me to write this). Since launching my Script Notes service a few months back, I’ve applied this note to a fair number of the varied and splendid TV and film scripts I’ve received.

Don’t tell the script reader things which the viewer won’t see or hear onscreen.

It’s easy to fall into this trap.  Why?  Because we’re keen to communicate with the reader and get them on board.  We want them to enjoy the script and get the story, without getting confused.  But our eagerness leads us to forget that readers enjoy scripts most when experiencing them as a viewer would – when they’re picturing the drama in their heads and gleaning all information solely from what’s ‘onscreen’. 

So if your script’s action lines start sidling up and whispering privileged information about offscreen stuff, you run the risk of snapping them out of their own imaginations.  You can remind them they’re reading a script rather than watching something.  Suddenly they’re no longer visualising, but processing purely written information.  You also make it harder for them to gauge how well the script is actually telling its story onscreen, where it counts.

Here are some examples of imaginary action lines which commit this cardinal sin…

INT. LINDA’S BEDROOM - NIGHT
Linda lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.  She’s been awake for hours.
How do we, as viewers, know how long she’s been awake?

INT. BAR – NIGHT
Dan props up the bar, nursing a whiskey.  He’s thinking about what Susan told him this morning.
How do we, as viewers, know this?  Even an Oscar-winning actor would find themselves hard pressed to convey specific thoughts using only their facial muscles.

EXT. SPACE
The massive and imposing Stornbecker 8 spaceship glides into view.  This vast behemoth is home to over 200 scientists who specialise in the latest cloning techniques.
How do we, as viewers, know it’s home to over 200 scientists specialising in the latest cloning techniques?  Sure, we’ll hopefully gather this stuff in subsequent scenes as we venture inside the ship, but why tell the reader up front?  It’s a waste of a line.  And more importantly, the reader is no longer wondering, ‘Hey, I wonder who might live in a spaceship like this’.  Let’s look at another example of robbing the reader of questions…

EXT. GOLF COURSE – DAY
Pete runs breathless past the 18th hole, towards a pub called The 19th Hole. Something falls from his jacket. He stops to snatch it from the ground, then takes a moment to study it: a photograph of his dead wife HELEN.

How, in the name of all that’s holy and unholy, do we, as viewers, know that’s his dead wife in the photo?  This, by the way, is the first time we’ve encountered Helen in this imaginary script and so we have no idea who she is.  And crucially, we shouldn’t yet.  When we read the script we should have the exact same experience as the viewer, wondering who the woman in the photo might be.  So from this point on, the script reader and the potential viewer are having two completely different experiences.  And since the Mystery Photo Woman would have been a good hook, the script reader is actually less engaged.

Sometimes we writers fall into this trap by mistake, in early drafts.  Other times, we try it as a crafty cheat, to avoid having to find ways to convey information, either visually (ideal) or by dialogue (the last resort).  But it’s very much a false economy and can cause real problems.  If Helen is never established onscreen as Pete’s dead wife, she’ll forever remain a mystery for viewers.  The writer has told the script reader but never the viewer.  This is an outrage!

So, we need to watch ourselves when it comes to this stuff, especially when flip-flopping between prose and script (and it’s arguable that ‘show don’t tell’ still applies just as much to prose as it does to script, even though the prose writer gets to communicate directly with the ‘end-user’.  Depending on the narrator’s POV and story, we should still ideally be looking to convey things to the reader via characters’ surface lives – through their gestures, spoken words and actions.)  As a general rule of thumb, look out for these three warning signs:
  • You find yourself writing about what a character “feels” or “thinks”...
  • Or using the word “clearly” or “obviously”, which often tends to be code for “I’m not sure how to convey this visually”, eg ‘Tim is obviously finding this new bar job a struggle’, instead of something like, ‘Tim, caked in sweat, pours two drinks at once.  He glances over at a row of frustrated, waiting customers, then knocks a stack of glasses over.  Smash!’
  • Or naughtily delegating work to the director and/or actors. One example of this might be starting a scene with ‘Lisa, Colin and Tom are chatting on the sofas. Suddenly, the door bursts open’.  Guess who has to supply the actual words these people were chatting?  That’ll be you, unless this is some kind of crazy arthouse-improv show.

Are there exceptions to the above?  Should we never write little asides for the reader’s sole benefit?  Yep, there are always exceptions.  When introducing new major characters, it’s more of a matter of taste as to whether you tell the reader their relationships to each other (‘TED holds the door open for his elderly mother IRENE’) – provided, of course, that you also remember to establish these onscreen.

Another example might be giving the reader a brief reminder of a smaller character’s identity, eg ‘Rob, the homeless guy from earlier, stares menacingly up at Tara’s window.’  The viewer will have the advantage of instantly recognising Rob from earlier, but the reader will thank you for a prompt.

Such small exceptions aside, scriptwriting is all about visual storytelling.  And that’s why we must treat reader and viewer as one and the same.




British Fantasy Awards 2015: Jury Duty


Here's an unusually brief post to say how delighted I am to serve my third summer of jury duty for the British Fantasy Society's British Fantasy Awards 2015.  I'm handling Non Fiction in the distinguished company of Johnny Mains and Laura Mauro.

Over the last couple of years, it's been great to help hand gongs over to the deserving Pornokitsch and Speculative Fiction 2012, but now the process begins afresh. You can see the full list of juries here.

The lists of nominees will follow in due course.  Naturally, I'm always especially interested in the Best Horror Novel category, in which I'm very much hoping to see the mighty likes of Sarah Lotz's The Three, Lauren Beukes' Broken Monsters and MR Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts up for awards.  Glad I don't have the task of judging that one.

Bye for now and don't, whatever you do, stare into your bathroom mirror for more than seven seconds, unless you want to free what's trapped within the glass.

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Blind Dates And Dialogue Writing

I enjoy the Guardian Weekend magazine.  Well, about 63 per cent of it, which is pretty good going on their part.  Lately, I've noticed a trend in one of the mag's regular features, which can unexpectedly inspire fiction writing and dialogue in particular.

The Blind Date feature sends two strangers for an evening in a restaurant, then quizzes them individually about the experience, placing their answers in two columns side by side.  One of the questions is What Did You Talk About?, and it's this one we'll focus on here.  Take a look at the two sets of answers to this question, from six different Blind Date features, and notice something which unites all of these examples...







Yes!  When the participants are asked what they talked about during their date, they each recall completely different subject matter.  Literally not one thing the same.  This doesn't always happen in the Blind Date feature, but about 75 per cent of the time.

This phenomenon has little to do with blind dates in and as of themselves.  Neither does it mean each person has appalling short-term memory or is  being dishonest.  It is, however, relevant to writing dialogue, because it underlines how everyone tends to have their own conversational agenda.  All too often, we're lost in our own little egotistical worlds, convinced that the other person really is "genuinely interested" in that dissertation.

And of course, the reality may differ.  Unless a conversation is particularly focused for some reason - urgency perhaps, or politeness, or the involvement of a gun - it doesn't ping perfectly back and forth, with each side neatly answering the other every time.  Surprisingly often, two simultaneous conversations are happening, about different things, or the subject matter gets tugged to and fro.  Each party is much more interested in certain subjects than others, for their own reasons, just as they each take different things away from the conversation.

So next time we're writing dialogue, it might be an interesting technique to ask ourselves this: if each of our characters was asked what they talked about during this conversation, might they say entirely different things?  And might the conversation gain authenticity and dramatic tension as a result?

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Five Things I've Missed About Spooks

On Thursday May 8 2015, Spooks returns to our screens - but big screens this time, as opposed to TV where it first ran for 10 series.  Four years after the show reached its climax, the movie Spooks: The Greater Good is upon us.

Oh my God, I love Spooks.  Haven't seen the film yet, but you can bet that's happening soon.  So, why was the TV series so great?  Let's hack into my memory banks and exercise covert surveillance on the contents...

(Spoiler note: Never seen Spooks?  This piece contains mild spoilers, but no name-specifics about the fates of characters during its run.  It does, however, name one character who endured throughout and is on all the new movie posters.)

1) INSIGHT INTO A HIDDEN WORLD
Spooks entices you into a world to which you'd otherwise have no access.  The scarily seductive micro-universe of MI5.  Sure, it's MI5 played for razor-edge drama, but it's about as much of an authentic feel as you're likely to get, without subsequently being bundled into a black van in the middle of the night and vanishing forever.  It's a relative safe, entertainingly vicarious look into that mind-boggling world via majorly souped-up TV specs.  There's no question however that Kudos managed to mirror, and sometimes even pre-empt, the global climate when it came to terror, espionage and lurking threat.  Its finger remained squarely on the pulse, as well as the trigger.

2) GREAT CHARACTERS
Ingeniously, Spooks makes you care more about these characters by dint of the fact that any of them could die at any moment.  This was established early in Series One, when one character had their hand dunked into a deep fat fryer, followed shortly afterwards by their head.

This seriously horrific scene was matched only for intensity during Spooks' entire run by a sequence in Series Five in which a really likeable Section D character was psychologically terrorised by two thugs, then murdered. That's still one of the most disturbing and haunting things I've ever witnessed on TV - and despite myself, I love to be disturbed.  How often does drama properly shake you and feel like it's doing something forbidden?  Spooks plays hard, fast and loose with its people, keeping you on the edge at all times.  No-one is safe.

3) MAXIMUM VELOCITY
Spooks moves fast.  As the producers have noted, the show munches narrative like a nuclear-powered Pac-Man (okay, I'm paraphrasing).  It's clear that, while assembling each episode's plot, writers have been encouraged to pile in as many shocks and twists as possible.

The show worked hard to anticipate your expectations, subvert them and then throw the whole thing into a blender roughly ten minutes from the end.  Dear God, that whole bomb plot has been a decoy!  This is actually about feeding the Prime Minister headfirst into a cement mixer while his weeping children watch!  Spooks not only moves fast, but it's jam-packed with brain-warping plot goodness.

4) THE GREATER GOOD
Spooks tempers its brutal ice with heart.  Behind all the explosions, gunfire and nail-biting transferrals of confidential data to USB sticks, the show has always wisely striven to give their agents a personal life.  A recurring thematic question throughout Spooks' run has been how MI5 operatives can balance their work with their often sorry excuses for home lives.  Drama's most likeable characters tend to have one thing in common: altruism.  That's arguably why the two most evergreen professions in long-running drama are medicine and law enforcement.

Spooks' characters constantly have to value the greater good above their own lives, even if it means losing colleagues who have also become friends.  I'll never forget Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones, the finest of Spooks' square-jawed leads) throwing up into a sink upon hearing a fellow operative getting shot in the head over a comms link, then having to immediately pull himself together in order to deal with the ongoing crisis.

5) SIR HARRY PEARCE
Section D's quotation-spouting, scotch-sipping monarch has remained the decade's sole constant as horrendous things happen to his agents, whose heads he regularly has to place on chopping blocks for Queen and country.  Peter Firth is consistently astonishing in the role.  He's the absolute master of underplay.  Where other actors might belt out the lines, Firth practically whispers them - and his increasingly weathered expressions tend to say far more than his mouth.

Harry is a truly superb character.  Never predictable.  A man who relies on his gut instinct and remains steadfast in making impossible decisions while all around is madness.  Most importantly, I think, Harry is never entirely knowable.  We've spent 10 years with the man, but have remained muzzled at just the right distance.  More than close enough to empathise with him, but never enough to work out what makes him tick.  Frighteningly, if Harry turned out to be a Russian spy all along, our hearts would sink with the realisation that we never really, truly knew anything about him.  It would be entirely gutting, but all the more so for its plausibility.  That's a really tough trick to pull off in drama's leading characters, but it's common among its best.  Harry Pearce, The Doctor, Peter Boyd (Waking The Dead), Vic Mackey (The Shield)...

Fundamentally, then, Spooks was the most arresting and dynamic drama series the BBC ever made without the aid of a blue police box.  I was so sorry to see it 'go dark' and I really hope Spooks: The Greater Good both honours and revives the format.  Off to the cinema with us...
                                                                       

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