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Out now!

Just in time for Christmas the Omnibus edition of the Nameless War is now out!

trilogy-omnibus-cover-2This also includes a sample of my next book – Out of Era, due out in 2017

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Filed under Book Three of the Nameless War, science fiction, Self Publishing, Writing

Working Disabled Characters Into Fiction

First off I am not disabled. The closest I get to disabled is mild short sightedness, without glasses I wouldn’t be safe behind the wheel of a car but that’s about it, so this entry comes from that stand point.
Over the weekend I was attending the Irish Science Fiction Convention – Octocon and one of the topics was ‘A Future Without The Disabled – Our panellists discuss future and fantasy worlds in which science or magic is believed by some to make the existence of disabled people “illogical”. From the eugenicists to the Star Trek movies, what does it say about us that we can’t imagine a future with disabled people? ‘

Now oddly enough I would say that SF actually has at least some track record for attempting to include disabled, for a start we have this guy:

geordi_la_forge

Now for any non-science fiction types this is the character Geordi LaForge from Star Trek, who was born blind, the gadget across  his eyes allows him to see, although not necessarily in the same way as the Mk I eyeball.

disAnother couple of examples are on the left Gary from the short lived TV series Alphas, who was autistic and Nick Fury from the Marvel cinematic universe, who is quite obviously minus an eye. However inclusion of a disabled character isn’t necessarily always successful. Of the three above Gary was arguably the most successful despite autism being one of the most difficult to do properly, while Fury is markedly the weakest because despite being down to  50% eyeballs, he doesn’t appear to suffer any problems with depth perception or peripheral vision, mostly it just makes him look cool.

Handling Disability with Fictional Characters

So broadly speaking I think we can think fictional disabled characters can be broken down into a number of categories with different treatment for each.

  1. Disablement from injury
  2. Disablement from illness
  3. Disablement from birth

With two sub categories within each for of mental disability and physical disability.

Frankly I think physical problems are generally a good deal less intimidating to approach, particularly for a main character but there are things we have to careful of. A disability that doesn’t in any way inconvenience the individual – see Nick Fury – is not really a disability. Autism is another one that is often badly handled, with it portrayed as some kind of super power*. At the same time a disabled person is still first and foremost a person. People with disabilities will attempt to live lives, they will attempt to find work rounds for their problems, they will likely aspire to things that are beyond their abilities. The novella Flowers for Algernon is a superb example of a story being told from the stand point of an intellectually disabled person.

No matter what you choose the next step is going to be research; if a character is being described as having a particular problem, you need to get the details right. Without that the writer runs the risk of coming off as condescending, pitying or just ignorant, none of which are helpful.

One other issue is cures. Out in the real world, over the last hundred years medical science has developed by leaps and bounds. Some conditions that were death sentences are now inconveniences. In science fiction, even when set in the near future, there can be a temptation to assume a easy cures, ones that don’t require rehabilitationsimply a blast of something from a syringe or something equally fast. The closer to reality the setting is, the more unrealistic this is. Illness and injury come with recovery times – I managed to get myself knocked down by a car in my twenties, even though my injuries were fairly minor I was still in plaster for three months.  Unless the work is set in some magic level technology setting, not all injuries can be entirely recovered from. Even when they can PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – can be an issue that remain with someone for the rest of their lives. Certainly if you intend to write in my own area – military science fiction – then PTSD is a possible consequence that you should consider for your characters or someone they know. Even beyond the military SF sphere it is worth considering the mental effects of injury or birth defect, scarring or birth marks may not physically impair in the slightest but could have grave effects on the character, especially when somewhere obvious like the face.

Why Not Opt Out?

So it is complicated. If you get it wrong you may alienate readers. So easy solution don’t have disabled characters.

Okay.

Well since we’re doing that let’s skip women? Homosexuals? People of colour?

Do I stick to writing character that are what I am and only what I am?

No.

Realistically unless your setting has no conceivable disabled, then they probably have to be there in some shape or form. In my own work I’ve thus far I’ve had two characters with physical impairments and one who arguably has PTSD (this is from the outset, I’m not including the ones I maimed during the course of books) although I must admit when writing them, disabled wasn’t a label I would have attached any of them – it was simply a part of their backgrounds.

Inclusive Language

Now as I was writing this entry the thought cross my mind am I using the right terms? Terminology changes and what was acceptable yesterday isn’t necessarily today. The following I found  HERE which come from the UK.Gov advice website.

termsSo there we have it, my brief thoughts on the matter, as ever any thoughts comments or observations are welcome.

* If that was in fact the case the whole Vaxer movement would have a very different complexion.

* Batman seems to be particularly good at getting these because apparently recovering from a broken spine is no big deal.

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Problems of Self Publishing – Currency Exchange

At the start of this year I had hoped would putting out by now my next book; due to various changes in personal circumstances that basically isn’t going to happen. The amount of time I got to commit to all thing writing related took a hit and I decided to concentrate what little I got on the writing part of writing as opposed to the business part of writing, however with the benefit of hindsight that might have been for the best. As followers of this blog are no doubt aware I live in Dublin, Ireland, which is part of the Eurozone. What you might be less aware of, is that over half my book sales to date have been through Amazon.UK, which is priced and pays me in sterling. At the moment that’s not such a good thing.

Brexit

On the 23rd of June of this year Britain voted to leave the European Union, since then the Pound exchange rate against the Euro has done this:

pound-to-eur-jun-to-oct

And in October it has got especially exciting:

pound-to-eur-oct

The source for these can be found HERE

At time of writing (morning of 12th October 2016) one pound sterling is worth one euro and eleven cents – less exchange costs. So let us crunch some very basic numbers.

My first book – The Nameless War – is currently for sale on Amazon.UK for £2.90 for the ebook version, so the breakdown is as follows:

£2.90 selling price, 30% of which goes to Amazon, leaving £2.03. Multiply this by 1.42 (£ to € rate on 19th Nov 2015) equals €2.88.

Do the same calculation again at today’s rate and:

£2.90 selling price, 30% of which goes to Amazon, leaving £2.03. Multiply this by today’s rate of 1.11 equals €2.25.

This is a drop of €0.63 or nearly 22%.

Now obviously this is a little bit artificial, it doesn’t include various fees, like bank fees and I don’t get to chose which day Amazon send payment for the month, so the arrival of funds in my account will probably not coincide with the absolute peak or trough of exchange movements. Also to complicate matters Amazon pays two months in arrears, I won’t see the money from a book sale today until the tail end of December but this example nonetheless gives a sense of the issue.

At the moment I personally can take a relatively calm view of this. My last book was published two years ago and while I am still getting sales in the UK, they are at a fairly low level so the reduction in the value of those sales is fairly modest. That however is for books that were released two and five years ago. In my experience the bulk of a new book’s sales are made in the first couple months, with an accompanying knock on to my other books. This means that payment comes in a few large lumps, rather than spread evenly over the course of the year. So while the reduction on say ten sales is only €6.3, on a thousand it is more than €600, which becomes harder to swallow. So if after months or years of writing those big paydays coincide with a slump in the source currencies value, then you are left to take the hit.

So what can I do?

The answer isn’t quite nothing but where I’m standing, the options are limited and all carry at least some downsides.

1. Sit on any planned new releases.

This is probably the simplest option. Keep your powder dry, wait out the fluctuation until at the very least things have stabilized. The downside of this is that your work isn’t earning if it is stuck in your desk draw. If you are with a publisher, contractually it might not even possible. If you are writing a series readers will not wait forever, they’ll either forget about you or get irritated, either way hard earned goodwill starts to drain away and with it your potential sales.

2. Peg the book’s price against a currency that is stable relative to your own.

This one is tricky and very dependent on the system you’re using. With Amazon self publishing it is possible to peg the price of book in other regions against the US$. Now Sterling is currently on the slide against the US$ so the very obvious downside of this is that the book’s price is going to start rising. In all likelihood some of the writers I would be competing with for sales are based in the UK, their price could remain static while mine rose. Their prices in other areas could fall or remain as is and they would receive more per sale when it got converted to their home currency – the upside of currency fluctuation. Either way the risk would be that you could be priced out.

3. Park the foreign currency.

While this one is even trickier. That means parking the foreign currency within that territory or in a foreign denominated account. Depending on regulations or cost this might be unworkable, either way this is delaying the inevitable, at some point you have to change it into the currency of the country you are in, especially if your writing income is you main income.

There are also other financial instruments for mitigating against foreign currency movements, but I don’t know enough about these to speak about and I suspect that many may not be suitable for relatively small amounts. The other thing I don’t claim knowledge or is what things were like back in the days before electronic self publishing, the answer probably depended on the contract between writer and publisher. Also in the old days books were not generally subject to global release. In the age of Amazon, a book can be available to anywhere on planet Earth with an internet connection and with that availability comes exposure to currency movements. If you are based inside the country where you make you main sales, then it is less of an issue but it is something that the modern writer needs to be aware or and ready for.

So any thoughts, comments or observations?

CORRECTION: A commenter points out I have failed to account for vat – value added tax – so my back of the envelope calculations in fact lean towards optimistic. Thank you and I will make the correction when I can – currently attending Octocon in Dublin.

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Older heroes, possibilities and problems

Every so often I get into the mood for a re-read of David Gemmell books and sooner or later I tend to get to his first and in my opinion finest book, Legend – A book saw the induction of what was probably Gemmell’s most iconic character – Druss the Legend. One of things that for me makes Druss interesting is that he’s an old man of sixty, marching to a battle he believes he will not survive. In so many stories revolve around the young hero, in which the older mentor plays a significant but nevertheless supporting role. Why though send the apprentice if the master is available? The older hero comes with a few complications but offers some possibilities his/her younger counter struggles to match.

Occasionally you will come across criticism of the hyper competent protagonist, who does seem old enough for the skills they possess (see the Force Awakens or heck the first Star War films for an examples of this)  It becomes a lot easier to explain how the hero has the skills they have, when with the extra years on the clock, they’ve effectively had time to go everywhere and do everything. In the case of Druss,  even though he is by the start of Legend already old and creaky, he has a lifetime of experience, mostly of not getting killed, contacts everywhere and a towering reputation. Another example of this kind of character can be found in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, whose main character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, is an aging demon hunter.

As well as the skills the character can be granted from the outset, there is also the opportunity for a maturity that a younger character might not be able to show. An older person comfortable with their abilities may not feel they have to prove anything. Equally however, the character could be clinging to a fading youth as well has degrading mental and physical capabilities. That latter point leads us on to the made draw back of older main characters.

Those extra years on the clock at the start, mean that less years are available in the future. Should a writer’s older character prove commercially successful, using that character might be difficult or impossible depending on what happened in their first story. In later books Gemmell spent a lot of time on Druss’s earlier years, which put you firmly into prequel territory with all of it’s attendant problems. The other main problem with an older character depends a little on the medium of the story, if it is anything visual (TV, film or even comic book) well the rather brutal fact is that young people are usually more attractive than older people. The visual medium will therefore tend to place emphasis on best looking members of the cast, which generally means at the younger end of the scale. Obviously there are exceptions but really female characters hit harder.

So there we have it, some light musing on the topic and for any writers out there perhaps look at your work and wonder whether your characters should be given a few extra birthdays.

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New cover art!

Well it has finally happened – although months later than I hoped, I’ve had a busy year. I have finally updated the cover art for the Nameless War.

new-covers-compositNext up will be the omnibus edition which will be including a sample of my next publication.

 

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Filed under Book Three of the Nameless War, science fiction, Self Publishing, Ship design, Writing

Let’s talk about alien sex…

in world building. First off minds out of the gutter please, I’m not about to start writing alien erotica ( although I understand a living can be made that way… ) I’m instead going to talk about it as a part of a book’s background development.

With the time travel project currently in a holding pattern while I await feedback from my test readers, I’ve been making a tentative return to the Battle Fleet setting. Now as is my way I charged into the writing without a lot of formal planning… before coming to a fairly screeching halt.

As readers of the the Nameless War will be aware, while aliens did appear in the text as speaking characters, they were very much bit parts; it was first and foremost a story about humanity. A number of reviewers did comment about the fact that the Nameless War is not set very far into the future – while I do have an explanation for that, in part it was because I wanted the human race to be still recognizable. It also saved mightily on the world building. Once you start on alien life through, well it’s best to start from the bottom.

Before we go on I suggest you take a quick look at THIS, don’t worry I can wait.

Welcome back. Now those are all terrestrial species, go back far enough and they (and us) all have common ancestors. An alien species won’t have that commonality so that leaves the writer free to come up with all kinds of wacky ideas.

Or does it?

Life in any sense that we might recognise it will seek to perpetuate itself, basically living things will look to produce more living things. If we take the terrestrial experience as a guide there is (very) broadly two basic methods – quantity Vs quality. The quantity approach is where the species produces a lot of young, with limited resources expended on each one. Most will not reach sexual maturity but by sheer weight of numbers enough will to perpetuate the species. The quality method – which we use – is the place a lot of resources into producing a small number of young. The more complex an alien ecosystem is, the more likely you’re going to see a mix of both. The other thing that terrestrial experience indicates is once you get to complex life a two gender system is the norm, (with exceptions) males – sperm, females – eggs, hermaphrodites – both.  So does that mean that an alien species to be plausible should follow the Earth model with just a few tweaks ?

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let's keep this classy

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let’s keep this classy

Well no.

Life on Earth – as it currently exists – is a product of the environmental conditions as they have existed and changed over the past few hundred million years. Different conditions, different life forms but there has to be a logic to it. So if for example you want an alien race with six different genders, you need to come up with a set of environmental factors that make this a route with enough advantages to offset the disadvantages. Bare in mind that as the saying goes, no man is an island and neither is any species, if  one has a six genders, then odds are so do all of its evolutionary cousins and so did its ancestors.

So how do we go about coming up with a different but plausible alien race?

First off what is the end point we want to reach, both in terms of physiology and culture. Possibly don’t get too wedded to any of it because some points may not mesh together. Now the temptation is the start with the culture, which I have come to the concussion is like trying to build a house by first doing the tiling. You need to foundations to be there to build everything else on top of. It is easy to come up system that works for a technologically advance species but how well does it work for their stone age or pre-sentience forebears?

Let’s go back to the human model for a minute. In the western world the average woman is capable of baring young from her teens to late forties/early fifties*. So a period of fertility of over twenty years. But a woman can complete one pregnancy each year so the average woman has a far greater fertility period than she needs to produce her and her partner’s replacements. At least by twenty first century western civilization standards. Dial things back a few million years and firstly she won’t live as long and childhood mortality from illness, injury, predator deprivation etc, means many children have to be had just to get a few to adulthood. As I said this is the human experience, which for sentient lifeforms is the only model we have to work with. It isn’t to say something really wacky can’t be done, but you have to take a cold hard look and see if its internal logic works.

An example in media of a failure to consider the practicalities is the Ocampa from Star Trek Voyager, a humanoid race with a mayfly like lifespan, who’s females the series blithely told us, only breed once during their lives, having one child. This would have the obvious problem that your species would at least halve at every generation even assuming every child reached maturity*2. A much better example can b found in Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which features an alien race, the majority of who’s members must breed at regular intervals or die. In an environment where there was a high mortality rate this system made sense. What makes this book well worth a look though is that the writers having come up with a system, then worked through the consequences. In the case of this species the result is run away population grown and eventual social collapse due to over population.

Once we have the mechanics of how a species can function we can move onto how this will shape its culture – or more probably cultures. A hermaphrodites race for example may not have any such thing as gender roles. A race with different subgroups with clear physiological or mental differences may have clear ruling or subject classes. History will also do massive things to shape how a species reacts. A history of internal warfare might produce an aggressive species or a peaceful one because it knows how destructive war can be. It’s all a question of how you spin it. In short this is the fun bit of alien race world building you just have to make sure it makes some kind of sense.

There’s one aspect of alien world building that I wasn’t sure if I would touch on – the matter of sexuality. What has already been covered is really a matter of imagination and following a line of logic but if we can for a moment pay attention to the man behind the curtain, should a writer be willing to tackle the matter of sexuality? My answer is I don’t know. When it comes to writing I’m best known for Military SF, a genre that tends to lean to the political right and conservatism. On the other hand, homosexuals and other groups have long complained that they are effectively written out of the picture. Finally there is the question of whether an attempt to include matters of different sexuality will backfire. As I was writing this piece the point was made to me that some groups of human society wouldn’t like the terms ‘hermaphrodites’. Terms change and when you aren’t personally a part of a particular group, it’s hard to know how something will be accepted because let us be honest here and admit to ourselves that the political left, can be as rabidly unreasonable as the right. Writing for payment by its nature mean producing something people will be willing to pay for. Most people aren’t going to pay to be metaphorically bludgeoned over the head with something they don’t agree with for whatever reason. In my own opinion the answer is found in the old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ – if it isn’t relevant remove it. That said a couple of brief mentions of different sexuality types can go a long way in terms of expanding the inclusiveness of a work.

Now finally it has to be said that even if you have worked out the complete evolutionary history, culture and politics doesn’t mean it all has to go into your book. I’ve certainly come across books where the writer got lost in the world building and forgot about the characters and plot. The reader is there for the story but just to have this worked out and in your head will build a richer world and if nothing else, help with the internal constancy.

As ever I’ll be interested to hear any additional thoughts.

* Granted at diminishing levels of fertility as time passes with higher risk to both herself and the child.

*2 I’m aware they tried to fix it in later related works but it still leaves a gaping hole in the internal logic and is something of a warning to writing about the problems an ill thought out fact can create.

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End a job, start a job

So my current WIP has been brought to the second draft and has now been unleash (inflicted?) on a small number of volunteers. I frankly wait with baited breath because for one I know there are a lot of error still in there. In my defence time travel makes tenses rather awkward (will have going to have been?) and logic can go a bit circular. So while I wait for feedback I’m moving on to a new project.

In the past I’ve always found that for me at least there are two kinds of writing. The first is starting something new, not quite a case of throwing it all on the page and seeing what sticks, but certainly starting to nail things down, taking the individual ideas, putting them all together and start to get an idea of what kind of material is needed to link them together. I’m not saying it is the bit of writing I enjoy the most but it is certainly the kind where it is the easiest the feel you’re making forward progress. The second kind is the editing process. I don’t know about other writers but my first drafts tend to be extremely rough, with ideas thrown in or abandoned. I’ve learned that when when it come to first drafts not to go back, start at the beginning and keep going forward until the end, resist the urge to tinker because then you go round in circles. So the editing tends to at least start as an exercise in pruning abandoned ideas, building foundations for developed ones and eventually becomes the final removal of errors.

I’ve always found going from editing mode back to writing mode to be a bit of a difficult one so this time round while I’m in the lull with one project I’ve decided to start another just to see if I can keep the writing and editing mental muscles going simultaneously. So far so good but one page and five hundred words probably isn’t enough to prove anything.

So wish me luck.

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