Three Books

At the end of the film The Time Machine, Filby and the Housekeeper realise that three books are missing from the shelf.  They have been taken into the future!
There’s a scheme by Porcupine Books at the next Eastercon for people to give a short talk on a book that has influenced them.  I’m one of the writers due to whiffle on about a book, but not one of the following three.

A friend of mine gave me three books for my <cough-cough> sorry, birthday.  They were The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis (for the essay Thinkability) and Who Will Remember the People by Jean Raspail.  The three books that influenced his life.

What are these books for me, I wonder.

I think they are The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Introduction to Pascal (Second Edition) by Jim Welsh and John Elder and Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran.  It’s rather an odd collection now I write it down.

The Day of the Triffids is also rather a stand-in.  I could have chosen The Chrysalides, also by Wyndham, or any number of others.  I trying to recall that book that got me into Science Fiction, but I’m not sure I remember it or that there even was one.  I wish there was one, but there really isn’t.  It might be one of the Target Doctor Who books.  The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came much later and I’m a fan of the radio (and perhaps a theatre) version.  Telly with Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.  It’s all a bit rubbish compared to those who say The Lord of the Rings changed my life.

On the other hand, Introduction to Pascal was the manual of a life change.  I went to University to do Civil Engineering – mad idea, what was I thinking – and I realised my enormous mistake about four weeks into the course.  Somewhere I have the very fluid mechanics test that left me high and dry, and pushed me over the edge and into deep water – as it were.  I turned the page over and made notes on the back as I went through the University prospectus to find an alternative course, any alternative course.  So, after Anthropology, Astrology, Astronomy, Biology and Carpentry had all turned me down, Computer Science was next in the alphabet.  They accepted me on a Friday to start the following Monday.  I was four weeks behind, I panicked.  (As it turned out I was further behind in Civil Engineering than I was in Computer Science, but I didn’t realise that at the time.)  I bought the only book on the recommended reading list that I’d been told about and I read it cover-to-cover – twice.  I didn’t think I followed it at all.  During the first workshop on programming, we were given twelve questions and I was hopelessly stuck on Question 6.  You can’t turn a computer round and make notes on the back about Cover Design, Drama, Education or English Language.  (As if I’d do any of those.)  Oh god, I thought, I have just wasted my life.

I turned to one of my brand new colleagues and whispered, “I’m stuck on Question 6 – help!”

“What!” they replied, “but we’re all stuck on Question 2.”

I love programming in Pascal, still do, even though it’s now hidden in an IDE called Lazarus.

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran did change my life.  I wanted to know where I was academically with writing, so I did the MA at Birmingham City University.  I sort of walked it, but then I had been doing all the modules on an ad hoc basis over and over for the past dozen years.  I wish I’d not done the intensive version and spread it out over two years, because I enjoyed it so much and it would have been nice to appreciate the scenery during the journey.  I even snuck into film course I wasn’t doing run by Andy Conway.  (It’s his book I’ll be whiffling about at Eastercon.)  We got chatting, I started to give him lifts home and he said I should self-publish.

“Oh, but isn’t that vanity publishing.”

“No, not at all, read this ebook by David Gaughran.”

So I did.  Interesting, I thought.  By page 5, I thought I must get a Kindle one day; by page 10, it was on my Christmas list; by page 15, I’d ordered one and by page 20, I was coding in html.  My conversation from occasional playwright to committed indie publisher was faster than someone with a road map to Damascus asking for a bit of light to read by.

Would I take these three books off to the future with me?

Probably not, because I’ve read them.

A Kindle can contain more books than you can read in a lifetime, so, if you could only take three books to the future, surely you’d choose a Kindle and… two other Kindles.

You know, perhaps I should have added the first novel I published to this list of books that changed my life, but it’s kind of cheating.  Or should it be the first one I completed?  To steal and paraphrase an anecdote from Peter Ustinov, the favourite book of my own is, of course, the next one.  (Actually, it’s not as it’s being a bit awkward.)

And your three books?

Doctor Who’s Master Plan

I’ve just watched “Time and the Rani” followed directly by “Ghost Light”, the worst story and then the best (arguably) of Andrew Cartmel’s era as script editor.  There couldn’t be two stories so utterly different.  Andrew Cartmel was a Guest of Honour at the recent ArmadaCon and was interviewed about his writing, and then about Doctor Who.  I bought his memoirs, “Script Doctor”, and I’ve just finished it.  It’s a fascinating insight.  So, I thought I’d watched the first and worst story – and, boy, was it bad – and the one he considered the best.  Now, I’d argue (hence ‘arguably’ above) that “The Curse of Fenric” was marginally better, but they are both truly excellent.

Andrew Cartmel sort of inherited Pip and Jane Baker’s opener for Sylvester McCoy and… oh dear.  The problem with it was the pantomime attitude to the programme that came in with Colin Baker’s jacket and the introduction of Bonnie Langford’s character.  (I’ve met Colin Baker and he even persuaded me to break the law for him, and I’ve a lot of respect for him, and I’ve Bonnie Langford’s signature somewhere.)  The issue is that his jacket is loud, therefore he’s loud, therefore Bonnie is loud to compete, everyone else does the same and we’ve ‘behind you’ and the playing of spoons.  It’s just hopeless and into this fray comes Sylvester McCoy doing pratfalls and physical comedy.

Andrew Cartmel believes in proper science fiction.  His book outlines his attempts to turn the ship and he does so.  I was, during Andrew’s spot at the convention, disparaging about his first season in a question, but I was unfair.  Even with “Paradise Towers”, the second story, you can see evidence of a better approach, but we were trained by that stage to spot nonsense, so we all looked for it.

Most periods of Doctor Who can be identified by the companion(s).  This is the way that the production team stamp their identity upon the programme.  Because Mel, Bonne Langford’s character, came from the pantomime style, so the Doctor remained defined by it, but as soon as Ace came on the scene, the whole dynamic of the pairing changed, the 7th Doctor matured and the programme jumped up leaps and bounds.  Basically, Cartmel’s Master Plan, as it’s been erroneously called, could make itself felt.  There was no Master Plan according to how I understood Andrew during his guest spot, but, I think, a correct attitude to Science Fiction (and writing for that matter).  The stories come from a sound idea rather than being nonsense decorated with an “it’s sci-fi so you can do anything you like” attitude.  (Was that a Moffat quote creeping in… you know, I think it was.)

Some of the best Doctor Who was the Ace period, Seasons 25 and 26: good solid pure SF with a brilliant companion and a mysterious and manipulative Doctor.  It is such a shame that he wasn’t allowed to move forward and give us Seasons 27, 28, 29 and so on.  He had a good relationship with a Producer, who trusted his opinion, and a good batch of writers, who understood SF, and had learnt how to avoid certain pitfalls with the way television was made in those days.

Stephen Moffat wrote a forward to “Script Doctor”, but I’m not sure he read the book.  Andrew Cartmel would not have allowed the moon to be an egg, etc.

ArmadaCon 26

I was at ArmadaCon in Plymouth last weekend, looking forward to a small and relaxing con, but unfortunately I volunteered to do a play, a film and a talk. But then I don’t really like cons where I’ve nothing to do. So I did a play on the Friday, a restaging of “One of Our Eastercons is Missing”, Saturday some filming, on Sunday I set the alarm for 7:40am – conventions have that time in the morning, who’d have thought!? – in order to do some more filming and that afternoon I gave a talk. So, a very full con.

The film was Alan and Linda Marques “Convention of Death”, set at a convention with death. I did some 1st ADing, so I got to shout a lot. I also got to do some acting, both in reality and in front of a green screen. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
I tested my ‘trundler’, a cut down coffee table from Loncon’s Tartan play, which is a sort of boxy, zimmer frame that doubles as a portable bookshop and beer garden. There were numerous suggestions to install optics (or an alcohol drip) and remote control. Quite a few people came up to me for the sequel to the Derring-Do Club. It was grand to have the books selling themselves. I was called to film my death scene and someone caught me to sign a copy: I put “The last book I signed before my death”, then, as I was filming my death scene, I became rather concerned that I was tempting fate, so I was relived to sell another copy and so write “The first book I signed after my death”. Phew really. Not that I’m – touch wood – superstitious for anything.

I think I went to more programme items than at Worldcon. Certainly stayed to the end of more, 100%, as opposed to Loncon’s somewhat lower total.

But really conventions are made by the people. The usual crowd, of course, Gary, Liz, Ali, David, Ros and – now I’ve started a list I’m going to miss someone and they’ll feel left out – everyone. They made me very welcome last year when I was Guest of Honour for their 25th Anniversary. This year was Andrew Cartmel and Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Cartmel’s interview and live audio commentary as well as a natter in the dealer’s room. Nice to meet someone who has the same attitude to SF as you do. i.e. we should have SF. Now I’m half-way through his memoirs of his time as Doctor Who’s script editor, I’d like another conversation.

Philip Reeve was the other Guest of Honour, timetabled against morning’s or filming, so I missed his programme items and we only chatted in passing. He was in my play though, which name checked him and Andrew Cartmel.
I sat with three people I didn’t know for the convention meal and we had a lively conversation about a research idea I have for a novel – very useful. That’s what’s great, meeting people.

Cat, Sam and Jon were the other theatre group (ah, the ego, but our play was on first) and we shared rather too much red wine and talked theatre, writing and so forth. Their Friday piece was a collection of shorts acts on the theme of horror… and burlesque. On Sunday, I did a talk on writing and they helped out first with a reading and then, as we took a short break for tea and biscuits sponsored by the Plymouth Tea Company, they talked about their writing method. I stopped them: we should share this with everyone, so we reconvened the talk and used that as a spring board.

I came back very unrelaxed and somewhat exhausted, but I had a good time.

The Killer Yarn

I’ve just passed the 100,000 words mark with the fantasy novel I’m currently working on. Strange how we note these round numbers, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually matter how big it is, after all, does it? I mean, for example, who cares about the word length of, say, this paragraph?

It’s the age of the ebook, when every individual book (and every book added together and everyone’s completely library) weighs between 170 to 290 grams, surely the terms ‘short story’, ‘novella’, ‘novelette’ and ‘novel’ aren’t as useful as they once were.

After all, ‘novel’, and all the lengths that have that as the root, means ‘new’ and they’ve been around for a while now.

The Hugos define them thus:

• Short story: Less than 7,500 words.
• Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500.
• Novella: 17,500 to 40,000.
• Novel: over 40,000 words.

We can go slightly further than this: Flash Fiction is between 300 to 1,000 words. A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drabble (the second paragraph of the History section is the important one). A ‘dribble’, therefore, has been defined as 50 words.

It’s all nicely quaint, although shouldn’t a Novella be a female novel? (By the same token, a more female ‘Barbara’ would be ‘Barbarella’, someone with another female chromosome making her XXX.)

No-one completely agrees, of course. Novel-in-90 goes for 67,500 words. NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, defines a novel as anything above 50,000 words. (So a careful crafted Hugo winner could be disallowed by those knock out first drafts in 30 days.)

It all has the same feel as the yards and furlongs of old imperial measurements. If you pour a US gallon into a good old British and Commonwealth English Imperial gallon, how many pints have you been short changed by?
Isn’t it about time for a metric system of writing?

Might I suggest the ‘yarn’ as the steel ruler in the French National Archives along with the second and the Kelvin.

A yarn thus is – by definition – 50 words. This is a dribble, the length of an anecdote, enough to tell a story, just about. For example, my opening paragraph is exactly a yarn or 1 y. This blog, 12.9 y.

If we subdivide this, then a centiyarn is 5 words or the length of a sentence clause. This could be a useful subdivision for discussing prose as I can say that the previous, rather awkward sentence, is 3.4 cy. Readability indexes would be well to use the centiyarn. A milliyarn is half a word or about syllable. (On average there are 0.6 syllables per word, which is an allowable smidge over the milliyarn, I’m sure you’ll agree.) So the measurement system is convenient for words.

Going the other way, the 100 yarn dash is 5,000 words, which is the length of an average (using the word rather sloppily) short story or the chapter of a novel. The novel becomes anything that’s a 1,000 yarns or 1 kiloyarn or above. (NaNoWriMo becomes Inkywrimo, the International Kiloyarn Writing Month.)

Thus:-

• Flash fiction: up to 10 y. (1-500 words.)
• Short fiction: 10 – 100 y. (500-5,000 words.)
• Medium fiction: 100 – 1,000 y. (5,000-50,000 words.)
• Long form: 1 ky and above. (More than 50,000 words.)

Novels do become really easy to talk about. You can instantly compare the sizes of say, War and Peace (1.2 ky), Fahrenheit 451 (0.9 ky) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3.8 ky). My last book, The Derring-Do and the Year of the Chrononauts is finally comparable to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (that’s 2.0 ky as opposed to 9.2 ky). The Guinness World Record Holder for the Longest Novel is À la recherche du temps perdu coming in at a whopping 25 ky.

So, my fantasy work in progress just passed the 2 ky threshold – woo hoo!

How many moons above your world?

I’m writing a fantasy novel and using it as an opportunity to think about the genre in general.  There seem to be three types, which surprises me as I thought such an open form would have far, far more.  Maybe I’m missing something.

 

  1. An idealised mythical setting.  Examples would include Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age.  (Although, how you can have an age ‘undreamed of’ when you are making it up?)  These are, I suppose, the historical world as it should have been with dragons and magic and whatever.
  2. Something fantastic in our world.  I’d count near history in today, so a werewolf in Tudor times.  Dracula is our world into which is introduced a vampire.
  3. Another world.  Narnia for example.  It often has someone from our world going there.  I wonder about John Carter of Mars as that might be defined as SF.  The film certainly was, whereas in the books he just dozed off.

 

Which leads to the question of how many moons?  One option would be not to mention one at all and then the reader can populate the night sky with whatever they want.  Most have one moon.  Middle Earth has a sun and a moon, but then it is our world without the top and bottom.

Gaie Sebold’s Babylon Steel has two moons, the story pivoting around an alignment known as ‘Twomoon’.  The novel has Tarot cards, including ‘The Moon’, which I thought was a misstep, but there are portals there to other worlds with any variety of moon numbers.  It’s strictly fantasy, whereas the two moons of Barsoom (Mars) in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work is a step towards reality.  He knew at the time what he thought Phobos and Deimos, neither having leather goddesses I suspect.  I think if you start adding planetary objects, you end up discussing orbits, and then you are moving towards science fiction.  A perfectly good fantasy world can weaken and crumble before the might of logic; once you’ve added enough midichlorians, then any forceful magic slips away through your fingers.

I suppose this is the flipside of my usual obsession with scientific rigour in your science and pseudo-science.

I’ve ended up adding a moon (the moon?) because my characters wouldn’t be able to see a damn thing during a night scene.

Science Fiction, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

When Sydney Newman created Doctor Who, he wanted the programme to be educational.  So, enter two teachers: Ian Chesterton, Science, and Barbara Wright, History.  (Of course, they could never go the United States in the 1930s as that’s not part of the curriculum anymore.)  It was a clever plan, you have to agree, to have the space and time machine alternate between the future and the past, each affording one of the teachers a chance to explain something.  And Sydney didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters.  Education was the keyword: in other words, proper Science Fiction.

Of course, in the second story, the Daleks turned up.

Years later, the Daleks’ creator, Terry Nation, gave an interview for the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Doctor Who Special.  He said he wanted his scripts to be… ‘educational’, and then baulked at the word.  The interviewer suggested the phrase ‘intellectually stimulating’ and Nation agreed that this was a better expression.  I bought into that idea, but I now wish Terry Nation had stuck to his initial answer.

I mean here education in the sense of knowledge, culture and understanding, rather than stuffy classrooms, hard desks and stupidity.

There’s a need in writing to get your facts right.  None of this Ian ‘if you paint someone gold they die’ Fleming nonsense.  I think this is doubly important in SF as the ‘facts’ can be made up.

However, all this drive for purity doesn’t quite work.  I agree with Bob Shaw about certain necessary fudges.  He called it the ‘Secret Game’ in his book How to Write Science Fiction.  Basically, you want to write about an alien world, say one of these exo-planets recently discovered, and why not.  But, sadly, your main character will have died of old age before he gets there, so…  er, FTL anyone?

Bob’s Secret Game is basically a nod to the reader to say “OK, I know this won’t work, but stick with me and we’ll get a good story out of it.”

Herein lies the problem with CAMRSF (CAMpaign for Real SF), apart from an inability to pronounce the acronym, and it’s in separating our allowable ingredients from impurities.

 

Ingredients

  1. Pure SF (‘Hard SF’ has an engineering feel to it and excludes the softer sciences, so I prefer ‘pure’ here).  This is straight forward extrapolation, build a satellite in geo-stationary orbit and you can beam messages around the world, stuff.
  2. Secret Game, which is stuff invented to make the imagined Universe work: FTL drive, Bob Shaw’s Ylem substance used to construct a Dyson sphere, and, I suppose, elements like telepathy.  Some of Star Trek’s technobabble fits here.  Their Heisenberg Compensators are a nod to the Quantum Mechanical objection to Transporters.

 

Impurities

  1. Gibberish, which is just nonsense.  A vast quantity of Star Trek’s technobabble (but not all, see above).  This impurity leads to lazy writing: all the character needs to do is spout things with Greek endings and press a button to solve any problem.
  2. Wrong as in just plain wrong, basically contradictions of known science and pseudo-science.  Examples for this would be adding new elements to the Periodic Table (in Avatar that lump of unobtainium must be radioactive, because we know all the non-radioactive substances) and most things in the film Prometheus.  I’d include here breaking the laws of established technobabble.  If a starship goes at Warp 9 and takes 3 days to go from Earth to Vulcan, it can’t in the next episode go at Warp 9 and take a couple of hours.

 

Now, I just need to do CAMRSF t-shirts and souvenir glasses.

The Formula of Writing

At the weekend I did a programme item at Satellite 4, the Eastercon, called “Improvisation for Writers”. I wanted to prove a point. I think I did. (Perhaps only to myself.)

At writers’ groups there’s always someone, usually near the back who starts this particular debate.

“Rules are made to be broken,” they say, “I don’t want to write formulaically.”

Everyone nods sagely, because honestly, who would want to write formulaically?

Well, actually, I would. Do. And so do you.

‘Rules are made to be broken’ is such a clever phrase. It sounds good, it makes the speaker seem like a rebel, their stories different from the usual mix. However, if you ask them what the rules are, then they’ve no idea. Except, of course, that they are made to be broken. And the formula? Well, they don’t know that either, and they don’t need to because they aren’t going to write that way anyway.

My theory is that all stories follow the ‘rules’ and the ‘formula’, no matter what, and my idea was to take a bunch of actors to improvise scenes to illustrate this. If you talk about story structure nowadays, you get caught by the fact that no-one has read or watched the same things. I mean, you can get Star Wars on DVD, for goodness sake. The first point of the improv was that everyone would be to generate something that everyone has seen.

The second point was to show that these stories, despite being created on the spot based on suggestions from the audience, followed the rules and were formulaic. It was a kind of scary leap into the unknown to depend upon unpredictable examples.

We did two games: ‘A-Z’, were the scene is improvised such that each line must start with the next letter of the alphabet, and the infamous ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’, where the actors take out a line written by the audience (or indeed, written by members of the convention during the day before). How, goes the argument, can they stick to the rules and the formula when they don’t know what’s coming next, cannot plan and indeed don’t know which letter comes after ‘J’? (For some reason, ‘K’ seemed to be a real stumbling block.)

So, our actors were in a gym, caught on a fishing boat in a storm, a meeting where evil reigns, sisters with a dreadful political secret and finally something quite bizarre involving shoes.

Did they follow the rules? Where the sketches formulaic?

Of course they were.

I went through each afterwards pointing out the steps along the Hero’s Journey (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell) and the points along Hollywood’s Nine Points. For one, I even did the ‘writer’s’ commentary as the sketch progressed. Next we’ll have the pinch…. and yes, the line starting with the next letter was indeed the pinch.

It is a very controversial point of view, and the Q and A at the end had a couple of people objecting with an argument that spilled into the bar to become quite a discussion.

There are two ways to see the word ‘formulaic’, either as an evil mad scientist mixing up the elixir of world domination, and really that’s not something we want. The other is a scientist going to the lab to make a substance and it having a chemical formula… well, of course it does.

People who don’t want to write ‘formulaically’ really mean that they don’t want to write badly. It’s a shame that bad writing (or more commonly a ‘lack of writing’) in Hollywood blockbusters have given the formulas a bad name. They are descriptions, useful tools and very handy checklists. Following the formula means a story is a story, not that it’s guaranteed to be good. Huge budgets and massive marketing campaigns mean that bad stories written using the formula have been successful, so, goes the thinking, all stories that slavishly follow the formula will be good without any writing being needed, as such.

Maybe ‘rules’ and ‘formulaic’ are misused words to the point of uselessness. Perhaps ‘patterns’ and ‘description’ might best describe the shape and structure that all stories have.

My message, and all stories should have a message, is that if you are writing something and spot something ‘formulaic’ appearing, don’t worry. Like chemistry, writing has formulas.