All posts by Ian Hocking

About Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

Acquired by Unsung Stories

I’m excited to announce that the first book in the Saskia Brandt series, Déjà Vu, has been acquired by George Sandison at Unsung Stories. This is a new imprint and I’m lucky to be one of the launch titles along­side m’colleague Aliya Whiteley.

I’m cur­rently work­ing on an updated edi­tion of Déjà Vu and, with any luck, I’ll be pub­lish­ing sequels Flashback and The Amber Rooms with Unsung too.

Exciting times.

Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose styl­ists of the twen­ti­eth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was pre­sum­ably a way to describe the most curi­ous steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the lan­guage of Shakespeare — another to be unaware how rich was the vic­tim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a pub­lic intel­lec­tual, an icon­o­clast, and a buf­foon of epic proportions.

A report of a cock­tail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went imme­di­ately to the liv­ing room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been look­ing for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like but­ting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The host­ess walked in from the kit­chen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; some­body do some­thing,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ring­side, said, “Shut up, this fight is mak­ing your party.”

Why did Mailer phys­ic­ally attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the lat­ter. Certainly it com­bined the duellist’s need for viol­ent sat­is­fac­tion, Mailer’s idea of releas­ing the dogs of his mas­culin­ity, and a deeper, mys­tic notion that unmet chal­lenges cre­ate a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, can­cer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excel­lent bio­graphy that, among other things, con­trasts the pub­lic Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while read­ing Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life look­ing for exper­i­ence. He did this, in part, because the chief dif­fi­culty for the nov­el­ist is obtain­ing mater­ial. Douglas Adams once wrote some­thing along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advant­age of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listen­ing to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is use­ful to a writer, you see — every scrap, even the longest and most bor­ing of lunch­eon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He com­ple­men­ted it with a liv­ing exper­i­ment in the pur­suit of exper­i­ence. Too often, he agreed to capers–like trav­el­ling to Russia on the prom­ise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of mater­ial. The drugs provided as much illu­min­a­tion as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writ­ing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a bar­bit­ur­ate], booze, cof­fee, and two packs of cigar­ettes a day, he began tak­ing a tran­quil­izer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched for­ward through May, feel­ing as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an exist­en­tial­ist, a philo­soph­ical school defined more by a push away from clas­sic ortho­doxy than the pull of well-argued altern­at­ives. The heart of exist­en­tial­ism, accord­ing to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repu­di­ation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and espe­cially of sys­tems, and a marked dis­sat­is­fac­tion with tra­di­tional philo­sophy as super­fi­cial, aca­demic, and remote from life

Mailer val­ued the primacy of exper­i­ence (as a truth, or some­thing closer to it that than the truth presen­ted by logical pos­it­iv­ism). The richer that exper­i­ence, the bet­ter. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, sec­tion 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruit­ful­ness and the greatest enjoy­ment of exist­ence is: to live dan­ger­ously! Build your cit­ies under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the per­spect­ive of the writer, there is value in this. If exper­i­ence is credit, woe betide the over­drawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recog­nise, in throw­ing out the baby with the bathwa­ter. It can lead to the some­what bizarre state­ments like Mailer’s com­ments in this inter­view with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in cat­egor­ies. I try to think in this way, that the world is bet­ter off if every so-called type in the world is bet­ter. In other words, it’s a bet­ter world when the cops get bet­ter and the crim­in­als get bet­ter. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the crim­in­als are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a trans­form­at­ive force. He was eager to assume the role of com­ment­ator and doer. His dis­tance from true power frus­trated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his over­tures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influ­ence on the Clinton admin­is­tra­tion was neg­li­gible. Mailer’s life seems to have coin­cided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the pub­lic intel­lec­tual. Today, our intel­lec­tu­als pro­duce BBC doc­u­ment­ary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these oppor­tun­it­ies. He always wanted to trans­mit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weak­ness of the arti­fi­cial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fun­da­mental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon pro­gramme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psych­ic­ally, is an accel­er­a­tion suf­fi­cient to push human­ity from one sphere to another. And yet the mis­sions that fol­low (with the excep­tion of Apollo 13) are both iter­at­ive and bor­ing. The accel­er­a­tion has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon pro­gramme itself. For Mailer, this is the treach­ery of tech­no­logy. It appears to be freighted with pos­sib­il­ity but this prop­erty only emphas­ises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer work­ing through his manu­scripts with edit­ors, line by line, stop­ping at every weak sen­tence. While his poetry was unsuc­cess­ful in most estim­a­tions, he brought a poet’s atten­tion to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sen­tence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a para­graph or a pas­sage, and thus change the char­ac­ter of the pas­sage as a melody leads its key. The pas­sage would be writ­ten again.

And what pas­sages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every prom­ise (in the first glow of moon­light) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and bar­ley, sweat and hus­bandry. By noon tomor­row, the riverb­ank would be an oven of mol­der­ing reeds. Domestic anim­als would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the pluck­ing of a heavy string came a first intim­a­tion of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are dif­fi­cult to read. I was reminded of the com­ments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC doc­u­ment­ary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the doc­u­ment­ary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to com­pare him­self to Shakespeare. But to con­sider all that exper­i­ence, the wick burn­ing low before going out, is troub­ling. The point is to illu­min­ate the party.

The ‘Arisen’ Series

I’m not sure when I first encountered Michael Stephen Fuchs. I believe he respon­ded to my review of Transparent Imprint, a book by Michael Barnard on the estab­lish­ment of MacMillan New Writing. MNW included Matt Curran, Roger Morris and Aliya Whiteley, as well as Fuchs himself.

Fuchs was writ­ing philo­soph­ical thrillers. His first, called The Manuscript, was a take on the ‘little green bag’ story, where vari­ous fac­tions were fight­ing to obtain the secret of life. Fuchs’s book was rough-edged, but solid, and I gave it a blurb.

Fuchs went on to part­ner with Glynn James. They pro­duced a series of digital novel­las (the ‘Arisen’ series) for the Kindle. A few days ago, I heard that Fuchs and James have landed an audiobook deal with Podium Publishing. This is great news. Fuchs has been walk­ing a long, hard road with his fic­tion and it’s good to see him make a suc­cess of it.

If you’ve read my novel, Déjà Vu, and like tech­no­thrillers, you’d prob­ably like the Arisen series. It starts with Book One: Fortress Britain

To Vim

I see that Apple has updated its word-processor Pages again. The new ver­sion has some sweet fea­tures, but if you open a doc­u­ment cre­ated in the pre­vi­ous ver­sion, you will be asked if you wish to upgrade the file format. On click­ing ‘yes’, the pre­vi­ous ver­sion of Pages will never again be able to open the file.

That, in itself, is not a prob­lem. But, let’s say, you don’t upgrade your ver­sion of Pages imme­di­ately. Let’s say you wait until the ver­sion after that. Will that ver­sion open the files you have right now? Possibly not.

When a file format is updated, you get new fea­tures. I under­stand that and I applaud. But there are dis­ad­vant­ages. Once you’ve been writ­ing for a few years, and you look back for your floppy, your ClarisWorks files, or even your Kindwords files, you real­ise that file format change is the krypton­ite of longetivity.

Check out this art­icle by Charles Stross on Microsoft Word, entitled ‘Why Microsoft Word Must Die’. Now, we all hate Word, don’t we? Come on. You do.

I hate Word from a pos­i­tion of some expert­ise, because, back in 2003–2005, I used it to write my PhD thesis. That was a single doc­u­ment con­tain­ing mul­tiple con­tents tables (some for chapters, sure, but oth­ers for psy­cho­lin­guistic examples), cross-references, a bib­li­o­graphy, and a great deal besides. I learned the hell out of that pro­gram. Thus did I learn to hate it. It is buggy, poorly designed, and over-featured.

Going back to the point made by Charles Stross, it is a real shame that the pub­lish­ing industry relies on Word as its workhorse.

Stross men­tioned another pro­gram that he some­times uses. It is called vim. I also use it.

Format Wars: A New Hope

Back in 1976, the year I was born, Bill Joy wrote a text editor for UNIX. That editor was called vi. It was designed to work over a com­puter ter­minal (i.e. a text-based inter­act­ive inter­face). It had two modes. In the first mode, whatever the user typed would be entered as text in the cur­rent doc­u­ment. In the second mode, the key­board became a way of nav­ig­at­ing around the doc­u­ment. You can read more about the pro­gram over at Wikipedia.

The pro­gram was updated by Bram Moolenaar for the Commodore Amiga, a com­puter I used as a kid. Moolenaar called his pro­gram vim. This stood for ‘Vi improved’. The year was 1991.

What’s It Like Using Vim?

Where I grew up, we often bought fruit from the vil­lage shop. The apples didn’t come from China or South America. They tasted good, but were a bit small and occa­sion­ally bruised. Later, we bought fruit from super­mar­kets. They were never bruised and they all looked the same. Didn’t taste as good, but by then I’d for­got­ten what non-supermarket apples tasted like. Nowadays I eat ponsy ‘organic’ apples, and they tend to come from Kent, where I live. They’re smal­ler, more bruised, but the taste real.

Where am I going with this? Is Vim some kind of home-grown product? No, it’s American.

Is it tastier than Microsoft Word or Apple Pages?

Well.

It’s like this. When you write in Vim, it doesn’t pre­tend that you’re look­ing at a book. It’s text. The notion of ‘present­a­tion’ is off the table. Layout can take a run­ning jump.

Vim presents you with the text at a much sim­pler level.

If you—by which I mean ‘me’—write a story in Word, or Pages, and print that bad boy out, the product you hold in your hand is some­what disin­genu­ous. It mas­quer­ades as a fin­ished product. The imper­fec­tions and short­falls of your prose are very slightly obscured by the lay­out and present­a­tion, both of which are telling you, uncon­sciously, that the work is already like the work you see in books.

To Vim (verb): To remove super­fi­cial present­a­tion in order to reveal substance.

Example: ‘We were lar­ging it at the Time Piece last week until the last tune, Get Lucky. Then the main lights came on, the music turned off, and the boun­cers moved in. The place was totally vimmed.’

Every imper­fec­tion jumps out. It’s just you, your eye­balls, and your text.

Stop Being So Arty-Farty. What Is It Actually Like To Use?

Vim is Fast

When you’re typ­ing text into the com­mand line, the com­puter is not ren­der­ing graph­ical gub­bins. Letters appear slightly faster. Not so much faster that you notice it in Vim, but fast enough to notice that text ren­der­ing is slower in most other places, not­ably Word and Pages.

Vim as a Learning Curve

Vim has key­board short­cuts for:

  • Deleting sen­tences
  • Moving the caret to the start/beginning of a sentence
  • Moving x words for­ward or back
  • Jumping to the top of the doc­u­ment, to the bot­tom, to the middle, and so on

These take time to learn. I’m still learn­ing them. But, even after a few minutes, it becomes much faster to nav­ig­ate a doc­u­ment using the key­board than using the mouse.

Rock-solid

Vim is used by a lot of geeks (mostly for pro­gram­ming). I’ve never encountered a bug or had it crash.

How Do I Start?

Every jour­ney starts with a single jump, grasshop­per. From Engadget, VIM 101: a quick-and-dirty guide to our favor­ite free file editor.

Happy vimming.

vim

The Martian: A Modern Classic

18007564

This week­end, my body has been clean­ing the house, doing some Kindle admin, mow­ing the lawn, and eat­ing. My mind, how­ever, has been on Mars, thanks to the audiobook The Martian by Andy Weir.

I’m not going to tease you: This is the best hard sci­ence fic­tion book I’ve read in years, pos­sibly since Dune. Bear in mind that:

  • I don’t keep up with cur­rent fash­ions in sci­ence fic­tion, so maybe there are bet­ter hard sci­ence fic­tion volumes out there

  • I don’t like polit­ic­ally earn­est (or even insin­cere) sci­ence fiction

  • I may not even know what hard sci­ence fic­tion is, given that I’ve included Dune as an example

  • This book isn’t a door­stop with eighty char­ac­ters, sub­plots, and a gloss­ary of swear­words used on the planet Ah’hrrhr!g. It’s as long as it needs to be and that’s that.

The Martian begins with astro­naut Mark Watney regain­ing con­scious­ness on the sur­face of Mars hav­ing been left for dead by his crew­mates. What fol­lows is a grip­ping novel that reads like Apollo 13 on an epic scale: to make it, Mark has only his wits, his sci­entific train­ing as a bot­an­ist and an engin­eer, and re-runs of 1970s TV shows. Meanwhile, NASA is work­ing around the clock to help him work out ingeni­ous solu­tions to life-threatening prob­lem after life-threatening problem.

Here are some things that occurred to me as I searched for more chores this week­end in order to pro­long my listen­ing time:

  • If you’re going to write about space, know about space.

    • Get shit right. If you wrote a novel about foot­ball, you’d be embar­rassed if you didn’t know the off­side rule.
  • Just because the set­ting is highly tech­nical, that doesn’t mean your char­ac­ters can’t be well-rounded, human, and funny.

  • If you’re not inter­ested in pub­lish­ing tra­di­tion­ally, go ahead and do it anyway.

As far as I’m aware, Andy Weir wrote this book as a free serial. That’s when he star­ted to pick up read­ers. The ori­ginal draft he uploaded to the Kindle had plenty of typos, but by doing his home­work and writ­ing well, Mark accrued so much good will that his rat­ings were sky high.

Now, the novel has been picked up by a major pub­lisher. Andy Weir deserves it. He didn’t set out to make money, but I hope he does, because I’ve paid a lot more over the years for sci­ence fic­tion that is well below the bar set by The Martian. You know what? I’ve just pre-ordered a phys­ical copy for £12.99. It’ll be released in early February and it’ll be going onto my shelf.

In case you didn’t between the lines, I liked this book very much. Here’s my Amazon review:

This book is, quite simply, one of the most engross­ing reads I’ve come across for a long time. It’s metic­u­lously researched, funny, mov­ing, and just about the pin­nacle of hard SF.

Curiosities in the Cabinet that is Interzone 248

Interzone 248

I first sub­scribed to Interzone a few years ago when I was writ­ing short fic­tion. For the unfa­mil­iar, Interzone is a British sci­ence fic­tion magazine, estab­lished in 1982, and a pay­ing mar­ket for writers.

In a few days, I’ll be start­ing a Masters in Creative Writing with Tibor Fischer, so my mind is turn­ing to sources of inter­est­ing short fic­tion. Interzone, which lands on my mat with some reg­u­lar­ity, is a good place to start.

The prob­lem of act­ing like a critic is its endo­scopic nature. You’re always at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing up your own arse. In my defence, as I per­form this age-old trick in the para­graphs below, I’m at least doing it positively.

Some com­ments, then.

Ad Astra

In this story by Carole Johnson, we join a female astro­naut called Lena on an exped­i­tion bey­ond the solar sys­tem. She is accom­pan­ied by her com­pan­ion Rick, who is going bonkers, as is she. There is a sense from the first para­graph that thinks are not going to end well for either.

We have a lot of sex because it’s a way around the things we can’t say. The things we can’t do. The things we don’t want to think. We’ve always been very good at that; even when we hate the very thought of one another, we can still fuck.

Lena engages the reader with her dir­ect style and her thought­ful­ness is con­sist­ent with her role as a per­son ques­tion­ing her situ­ation and her exist­ence. The prose is tight, the pacing rapid. From the begin­ning, the story is on pole for a podium finish.

The work reminded me of the novel The Explorer by James Smythe, in which a lone astro­naut con­tem­plates the oncom­ing jug­ger­naut of obli­vion. Where The Explorer got into dif­fi­culties by being too long and dif­fi­cult to believe (on its own terms), Ad Astra does not. They reach a sim­ilar resolution.

In a story that asks us to face the mys­tery ‘What is out there?’ there is a risk that, as the final card of the hand is turned over, the reader asks, ‘Is that all you had?’ This is, of course, prefer­able to the storyteller keep­ing the cards to her chest as we FADE TO BLACK.

Ad Astra suc­ceeds by mak­ing the last card a per­sonal one for Lena. She has not bluffed. She wins.

En Passant

Oblivion; Silent Running; Solaris

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension

In this effort from James Van Pelt, we have the his­tory of an American school from its Victorian incep­tion as a col­lec­tion of build­ings to its far future form: a sprawl­ing, mys­ter­i­ous insti­tu­tion that is nev­er­the­less char­ac­ter­ised by an essen­tial benignity.

Half way through this story, I was becom­ing wor­ried that the whole thing was an infodump. At the end, I knew it was an infodump, but I didn’t mind. Van Pelt had won me over.

That’s not to say the story is without puzz­ling blemishes.

Explorers reached both the south and North Pole. They plunged the ocean depths.

Maybes. But wouldn’t ‘plumbed’ work bet­ter than ‘plunged’?

Another uncom­fort­able metaphor:

Whether [the jan­it­ors] know it or not, their hero is John Kapelos, an actor who played Carl, a jan­itor, in The Breakfast Club.

Can you really have a hero you don’t know?

A spanner-wielding line editor would have tightened the nuts on this story in a few places, but I liked the over­all sense of it. Someone wrote that edu­ca­tion is what endures when know­ledge has been for­got­ten, and it would be easy to see this (half-remembered) quote as the inspir­a­tion for this story. The Hareton remains…even when all else is lost. Because edu­ca­tion, like cul­ture, is a continuity.

Otherwisely

Russian Ark; Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Dark Gardens

The more I think about this Greg Kurzawa piece, the more I enjoy its images. These I will not describe. I will say that the one image—mine, not his—is an ele­phant, and it is stand­ing in the room of his story. Said ele­phant is The Prestige—or Christopher Priest, depend­ing on how you like your images.

Sam is a per­son we know little about. He has just pur­chased a fore­closed house with the inten­tion of gut­ting the place, doing it up, and selling it on. Before any of this can hap­pen, he dis­cov­ers that the house formerly belonged to a stage magi­cian named Kurricke, and many of his illu­sions remain about the house.

This story is unusu­ally enga­ging. Its mys­tery is com­pel­ling and the steps that Sam—and his scuba-diving com­pan­ion, David—take are logical explor­a­tions in its res­ol­u­tion. What sets it apart are the ways in which the solu­tion to the mys­tery are real­ised, and the human­ity with which the non-human ele­ments are handled. I have little doubt that the cor­rect term adject­ive for this story is Lovecraftian (I write ‘little’ because I have never read that fabled hor­ror writer, H P Lovecraft).

The magi­cian had van­ished after liv­ing in a the two-bedroom ranch for sev­en­teen years, leav­ing spoiled milk in the refri­ger­ator, dishes in the sink, and all the tools of his trade in unlocked trunks.

In the base­ment, Sam dis­cov­ers a hatch that opens on black water.

What’s not to like?

Which Reminds Me

The Prestige; The Room; Android; The Lurking Horror

Il Teatro Oscuro

This story by Ken Altabef is a shortie. We open on an old man, sit­ting alone in a theatre.

The old man’s back aches. This is not unusual, des­pite his hav­ing the best seat in the house. Third bal­cony, dir­ectly centre stage, a seat which still clings to some fair por­tion of crushed red-velvet cush­ion where the brass studs haven’t yet chewed through.

But this does not mat­ter. All thought of worldly con­cerns, dis­com­forts or oth­er­wise, fade quickly to obscurity…

What of the old? Do we stand on the shoulders of our past giants, or do we trample them? Altabef’s story takes an interest in nos­tal­gia and obses­sion. The old man char­ac­ter has an interest in opera—itself a niche art form kept alive by a small but ded­ic­ated fanbase—and there is a sense that its lack of mean­ing grows mean­ing as it matures. A simple cab­inet, after all, gains value by vir­tue of its antiquity.

This a sharply judged and affect­ing story where the meta­phors, place and char­ac­ters bring out the best in one another. While, for me, the end­ing did not work well (we observe the rebirth of a char­ac­ter in whom we have little invest­ment as read­ers), the inev­it­able tramp­ling of the giant tuned this story to just the right pitch of melodrama.

Meanwhile

Pan’s Labyrinth; His Dark Materials

Technarion

Sean McMullen’s story is a mys­tery with a tra­di­tional plot, by which I mean the prot­ag­on­ist is good man doing his best in bad cir­cum­stances. Literary qual­it­ies are min­im­ised as the author con­cen­trates on lead­ing us through a fair whack of story mater­ial. Its atmo­sphere is very Conan Doyle. If the story stands on a giant, that giant is Jules Verne.

In the spring of 1875, I was a right and inno­cent young man. Although steam was the found­a­tion of every branch of industry, I had chosen to study elec­tri­city when I had entered the mech­an­ics insti­tute. By chance I had been given a good edu­ca­tion, and this has kept me out of the mills and the mines.

Lewis Blackburn is invited to meet with a mys­ter­i­ous, rich indi­vidual who wishes to har­ness his elec­tron­ics genius. Before long, Lewis is tangled up in a plot to push com­put­ing tech­no­logy for­ward at a start­ling rate.

Interzone will want to appeal to wide demo­graphic, and will include a vari­ety of stor­ies. It’s not likely that all of them will be to my taste. So, of all the stor­ies in this volume, I liked this the least. That’s not to say it doesn’t have good ele­ments. The plot is con­sist­ent in small chunks (less sat­is­fy­ing in lar­ger units) and con­tains some good dialogue.

However, there are uncom­fort­able tonal shifts. For example, fol­low­ing a quite stag­ger­ing rev­el­a­tion, the main char­ac­ter says:

How does one reply when one’s fiancé says that?

That made me laugh, and the author, too, I expect, but the char­ac­ter would not; this jux­ta­pos­i­tion is cheap.

We have char­ac­ter reversals, too, and a fram­ing nar­rat­ive that rolls too many mar­vels into one.

Nearbies

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb; The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters; I Am Legend

What’s not to like?

Overall, some great short fic­tion in this issue. You’ll like at least one of the stor­ies a lot. And, at £4.99, you can’t argue about that’s not value for money. I’d like to see more use made of the illus­trat­ors. Their work is good, as usual, but repe­ti­tion of the same imagery gives the impres­sion that more money needs to be spent on them.

Conversations in the Margin of Déjà Vu

So I’m not a dir­ector. But, if I were, I’d be first in the chair when they asked me to chat­ter away about the movie. I’m a writer, and I’m doing the next best thing.

I’m not sure where I first came across ReadMill. Somebody on Twitter men­tioned it, I expect. ReadMill is a com­pany that provides read­ing applic­a­tions for mobile devices. So far so nor­mal. The Kindle applic­a­tions do this, too. What sets ReadMill apart is that its applic­a­tions are well designed–to judge from the iPad one, at least–and allow read­ers to have con­ver­sa­tions in the margins.

I’ve always thought that the high­lights fea­ture on the Kindle was a missed oppor­tun­ity for Amazon because of the rel­at­ive lack of inter­activ­ity. ReadMill addresses that.

So here’s what I did, and what you can do too (with most books).

  1. Sign up with ReadMill.

  2. Buy a book on any one of these ser­vices. I down­loaded Déjà Vu from the Kobo store, where it is cur­rently free.

  3. Download the ReadMill app for your mobile device.

  4. Sync your lib­rary and look for com­ments by other read­ers. If you have Déjà Vu, you’ll see my ‘director’s commentary’.

What kinds of things am I includ­ing? Well, I’m not sure what people will find inter­est­ing, so I’m adding bits of trivia, thoughts on the cre­at­ive pro­cess (nat­ur­ally), and hints about deleted scenes. You can see some of them on the ReadMill page itself.

At some point in the near future, I’ll be work­ing with ReadMill on a giveaway of Déjà Vu. For the time being, if you want to check out what it’s like to use (remem­ber that the app and my book are free right now), it’s worth a shot.

The Short Version

The author Julian Gough writes today in the Guardian that Amazon’s short Kindle Singles are the future of pub­lish­ing. By this, he means that the optimal size deman­ded by pub­lish­ers (from about 80,000 words to–I’m guessing–150,000) has been estab­lished as the norm because books need to look value for money but can­not be prac­tic­ally bound at ginorm­ous sizes.

I agree. One of the most effect­ive books I read over the last couple of years is True Grit. It was mar­keted as a novel but, really, it’s novella length. There have been a few occa­sions when, read­ing a book, I’ve got the impres­sion that a sub­plot has been added to increase its bulk. Now, that’s not neces­sar­ily a bad thing, and if a book needs work like that a care­ful editor can sug­gest it to an author, but I think you need to think twice before insert­ing mater­ial willy-nilly.

I wanted to add this: Shorter works give writers the oppor­tun­ity for a faster turn­around, the oppor­tun­ity for which is not to be underestimated.

Branching Out

In April of 2011, I pub­lished my only novel, Déjà Vu to the Kindle store. I was at the end of my tether with the intransigent (for me) tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing industry. I had a story I believed in and nowhere to place it. Finally, I chose the Kindle store, which was the only game in town. Over the next two years, I made enough money to edit, proof and dec­or­ate my four remain­ing books (Flasback, The Amber Rooms, and Proper Job. So my pro­fes­sional writ­ing has sus­tained itself financially.

One of the great aspects of the Kindle store is the Kindle Select Programme. This allows authors to make books free for a period (five days in every ninety) in return for exclus­iv­ity. Even though the per­cent­age of people down­load­ing and, cru­cially, read­ing free books is not high, the deal worked out well for me. Off the back of these pro­mo­tions, my books ten­ded to ride high in the paid chart after­ward, and many of the best reviews of Déjà Vu begin with “I down­loaded this for free and wasn’t expect­ing much, but…”

But. The Kindle Select pro­gramme isn’t what it used to be. Probably as a res­ult of Amazon mov­ing its focus away from Select (and because the algorithm might sup­press older books), the pro­gramme is one of dimin­ish­ing returns. Eventually, the exclus­iv­ity isn’t worth it.

At the same time, I’ve been mov­ing towards a more auto­mated way of pro­du­cing books, as you can see in these posts. I’ve now reached the point where a single text file (the novel, styled using Markdown) can be passed to a pro­gram designed to gen­er­ate val­id­ated ebooks (com­plete with table of con­tents, about the author, and so on) for Kindle, PDF, and iBooks.

About iBooks. I did use the Smashwords meat-grinder, once upon a time, to pub­lish Déjà Vu in many ebook stores, includ­ing the iBook­store. There was one advant­age to this and sev­eral dis­ad­vant­ages. The advant­age: It was free, and that’s great. The disadvantages:

  • The pro­duced ver­sions looked like crap (incon­sist­ent place­ment of images; vari­able line height within body text; even–saints pre­serve us–failure to indent at the start of chapters).

  • At the time, the Amazon Kindle store was huge, and even good sales for these oth­ers amoun­ted to pennies.

The first dis­ad­vant­age was the killer for me, though the second might have iced my cake. I del­is­ted the book from Smashwords. This meant that Déjà Vu appeared briefly on iBooks. Enough to pick up a couple of reviews, then disappear.

Déjà Vu is now back on the iBook­store. It looks good. I designed it (and all my other books) from the ground up using Markdown, CSS and Apple’s proof­ing tools. My pre­cious indent­ing is cor­rect and the over­all impres­sion is much closer to a pro­fes­sional one. I’ve even added my own fleur­ons.

We’ll see what hap­pens with regards to sales. My sus­pi­cion is that they remain quiet because Apple’s sales are driven almost entirely by brand name and expos­ure on the front page of the site. Amazon, by con­trast, is much more aggress­ive about push­ing unknown authors on the basis of match­mak­ing to the reader’s book his­tory. M’acquaintance Scott Pack, relates his exper­i­ence of pub­lish­ing Confessions of a GP on iBooks, which bene­fit­ted extremely from front-of-store pro­mo­tion by Apple. Advertising is the Achilles’ Heel of the inde­pend­ent author; we just don’t have the clout. Everything has to be word of mouth, and the iBook­store isn’t good at amp­li­fy­ing that.

Are you ask­ing your­self: “But, Ian, how can I help you out?” If so, you are very kind. The main dif­fi­culty for me is the lack of reviews. Each book starts afresh. (I’m not sure what the iBooks policy is on includ­ing Amazon cus­tomer reviews in their product descrip­tions; I might check that out.) But if you’ve read any of my books and feel dis­posed towards rat­ing them once again on iBooks, I will feel briefly warm and fuzzy.

You can see all my iBook­store books here.

Advertising for Independent Writers

Via Alex Roddie, I came across an art­icle on Cult of Me that offers some thoughts on online advert­ising. This is one of many things that inde­pend­ent writers need to con­sider, and there isn’t much data about the effect­ive­ness of dif­fer­ent sites and advert­ising methods.

My own advert­ising has been lim­ited to Goodreads and Facebook. Goodreads is expens­ive, as Michael Brookes says, and prob­ably not all that effect­ive. Facebook has a nice inter­face and allows you tar­get your advert so pre­cisely that you’ll feel dirty. (I did, and left Facebook shortly afterwards.)