Tag Archives: The Amber Rooms

The Amber Rooms Free

It’s that time again when I go crazy and make a book free. For the next few days, it’s The Amber Rooms (UK Amazon link, US), the third adven­ture in the increas­ingly mys­ter­i­ous life of time trav­el­ler Saskia Brandt. In this book, she learns more about the nature of her time para­dox, and a great deal about Tsarist Russia and how to get along with revolutionaries.

Readers are saying:

Truly a mas­ter­ful read.

Beautiful sequel.

The plot is one of the most ima­gin­at­ive I have come across in quite a while. Time travel at its best!

The amber rooms cover

The Amber Rooms Out Now

In May, 2008, I cre­ated a Twitter account for the heroine of my sci­ence fic­tion nov­els, Saskia Brandt. Her first tweet:

Entering St Petersburg via train. There are men from the Third Section in the next car­riage and I think I might need to jump off.

Cut to yes­ter­day after­noon, when I uploaded the final ver­sion of The Amber Rooms to the Kindle store. I still can’t quite believe that the book is out in the world and no longer in my head. For the past five years (begin­ning drafts in 2007), I used most of my spare brain power—and some that wasn’t spare—to fig­ure out solu­tions to plot and char­ac­ter­isa­tion prob­lems. Now, I get my even­ings and week­ends back.

You can down­load The Amber Rooms from the UK or US Amazon stores. Until 25th December, books one and two are free.

Cut to 1907, night, and a train approach­ing St Petersburg. On that train, Saskia Brandt is run­ning for her life.

The Amber Rooms by Ian Hocking

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been meme-slapped by m’colleague Roger Morris, writer of the Porfiry Petrovich mys­ter­ies and other enter­tain­ments, includ­ing one of my favour­ite books of a few years back, Taking Comfort. I have to answer ten ques­tions in ten minutes about my cur­rent book. It’s very cur­rent indeed, as I’m plan­ning to release it on the 21st December.

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

The Amber Rooms. I went through a few dif­fer­ent titles before I arrived at that one. My favour­ite was the St Petersburg Paradox (which is a conun­drum drawn from prob­ab­il­ity theory).

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

I hon­estly don’t remem­ber. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about Russia, and there are ele­ments of Russia scattered here and there through­out both Déjà Vu and Flashback. I have a feel­ing that Russia will fea­ture again in future nov­els, if they’re written.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sci­ence fic­tion, prob­ably steam punk. Historical sci­ence fic­tion might be a bet­ter term. If I actu­ally had time to read any­thing these days, I’d have a sharper idea of the genre.

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

Saskia Brandt could be played by Franka Potente, Alexandra Maria Lara, or Olivia Wilde. Kamo: Gael García Bernal. Stalin: Jake Gyllenhaal. Ego: Robert De Niro.

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

Time trav­el­ler Saskia Brandt is trapped in Russia in 1908, try­ing to get home, but she’s stolen a great deal of money that belongs to the Bolshevik Party. They want it back.

6) Will your book be self-published or rep­res­en­ted by an agency?

It’s self-published.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About nine months, but that the was second or third attempt. I got about 10% into two sim­ilar nov­els before I real­ised they weren’t working.

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

I can only think of The Man in the High Castle.

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

The main char­ac­ter, Saskia.

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

During the story, Saskia stays in a house that is mod­elled on the St Petersburg home of Prince Felix Yusupov, who con­spired to murder Rasputin.

I have to nom­in­ate three more people, so how’s about comedy-crime-scifi-horror-nonfic writer Aliya Whiteley, scifi nov­el­ist Stephen Sweeney, and tech­no­thriller (and now Kindle best-seller) Michael Stephen Fuchs. (Blast, it looks as though Aliya’s already been in the meme-wash. Check out her Next Big Thing here.)

Where Am I? Readers, Progress, and Free Books

The Amber Rooms

This morn­ing, I received an email beginning:

Well, it’s 2.00 in the morn­ing and I’ve just fin­ished your book.

The email made me laugh out loud, and I reflec­ted that it’s con­sid­er­ably easier to write these days in the know­ledge that people might want to read the final product.

This cor­res­pond­ent raised an issue. Am I still retired from writ­ing? I thought I’d update this blog with the answer. As usual, I’ll try to avoid obfuscation.

I worked with my agent on an updated ver­sion of Déjà Vu over the sum­mer. (With her per­mis­sion, I used this text to revise to the ebook, so it’s effect­ively a new edi­tion.) She then sent the book to vari­ous pub­lish­ers. As is now becom­ing typ­ical, I had pos­it­ive com­ments from all of them, but no bites. There’s a small chance that one might come back to us at this point, but I’m not hold­ing my breath.

Tracking my sales is becom­ing dif­fi­cult because some income is through Amazon’s lend­ing pro­gramme (US-only). As a rough guide, I’ve sold about 16,000 books through the Kindle, and about the same num­ber again (I think) has gone in free promotions.

I’m still writ­ing. My goal is to fin­ish a final draft of The Amber Rooms but the end of October and pass this to my agent. She’s prom­ised to edit it through­out November (though I’ve just real­ised that I haven’t men­tioned the length of the length, which is about double Déjà Vu), and I’d like to release it for Xmas. The pic­ture at the head of this post is the latest ver­sion. What do you think?

I heard a stat­istic a couple of years back that aca­dem­ics top the UK chart for unpaid over­time. Whether or not that’s still true, my writ­ing is very squeezed at the moment. It’s get­ting harder to sit down at a com­puter after a day’s work. I’m pretty con­fid­ent I can fin­ish off The Amber Rooms by then, but there’s a chance it might fin­ish me first.

Under the aus­pice of Thirst eDi­tions, a writerly con­glom­er­a­tion and child of Matt F Curran’s brain, I’ve just pub­lished a short book that exam­ines some of the philo­soph­ical issues that arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence research­ers need to address. It’s writ­ten for under­gradu­ate psy­cho­lo­gists but the lay reader should enjoy it. If you’re intrigued about the extent to which Saskia Brandt is human, knock your­self out with Down to the Wire: A Short Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.

Finally, I’ve made Déjà Vu, Flashback, and Proper Job free for the next five days. There’s no scheme behind this decision other than the nat­ural cycle of the Kindle pro­mo­tions mech­an­ism for self-published authors; essen­tially, you have five days of free offer for every ninety, and I’m still in the busi­ness of get­ting my books read. I’m plan­ning to make them free again at Christmas, partly to coin­cide with the launch of the Amber Rooms, and partly because it’s Christmas and I want to bring down everyone’s mood with tales of my heroine trapped in time.

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Some cen­tur­ies ago, it was com­mon for wealthy indi­vidu­als to indulge their appet­ite for the strange using so-called cab­in­ets of curi­os­it­ies. These were not cab­in­ets in the mod­ern sense. They were rooms arranged with arte­facts for which cat­egor­ies had yet to be inven­ted. Narwhal horns. Fossils.

There is a sense in which my cur­rent novel, The Amber Rooms (Saskia Brandt 3), is a cab­inet of curi­os­it­ies. Even now, I can­not be sure how the ele­ments will cohere. They simply interest me. There is the Amber room itself. There are ele­ments of Soviet pro­pa­ganda, such as songs ded­ic­ated to Josef Stalin. To this list I could add another six or seven ele­ments; how­ever, to do so here would spoil the book.

From Wikipedia:

The jux­ta­pos­i­tion of such dis­par­ate objects, accord­ing to Horst Bredekamp’s ana­lysis (Bredekamp 1995) encour­aged com­par­is­ons, find­ing ana­lo­gies and par­al­lels and favoured the cul­tural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic view of end­lessly trans­form­ing nat­ural his­tory and a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive that led in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury to the germs of a sci­entific view of reality.

I am cur­rently two thirds of the way through the final draft. In six weeks or so, it will be com­plete. The meta­phors at the sen­tence level, scene level, and the level of the story itself will have come together. Their jux­ta­pos­i­tions will be set. It might sur­prise you that I do not know for sure when this will hap­pen, or even if. What is the book about? How does this qual­ity of ‘about­ness’ inform the plot? Which impres­sions will be left in the mind of the reader six months after the book is closed?

The curi­os­it­ies for my novel Déjà Vu made little sense to me at the close of the first draft. It was only later, months later, that I changed the research pro­ject of Jennifer Proctor from some­thing inter­est­ing but them­at­ic­ally irrel­ev­ant to time travel. That was the eureka moment for Déjà Vu. Curiosities, which I had been col­lect­ing for years, came together.

For Flashback, the eureka moment arrived early. I was read­ing a fairytale in which a char­ac­ter cut her fin­ger and fell into a bewitched sleep. Then I under­stood how the recon­struc­tion of memory uni­fied stor­ies of Saskia, Cory, and Jem.

Right now, whenever I open the file con­tain­ing the latest draft of the Amber Rooms, I feel like an 18th-century man of inde­pend­ent means brows­ing his cab­inet of curi­os­it­ies. Why are these things inter­est­ing? How should a vis­itor be intro­duced to them? What are they doing in this room any­way? Back to the basic ques­tion: why are these things interesting?

Late Drafts

A few months back, I was run­ning a sem­inar on lan­guage devel­op­ment. The sem­inar exam­ines phon­o­logy, syn­tax, semantics — all the object­ive bric-a-brac that we cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gists like to talk about when we talk about lan­guage. Midway through the intro­duct­ory ses­sion, I stopped to ask if there were ques­tions. A mature stu­dent asked, ‘I don’t see how all these things relate to lan­guage itself. You know, as a cre­at­ive, breath­ing thing that people use to express what they are about.’

Silence on my part. I looked over their heads, out the window.

I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘that’s prob­ably a really stu­pid question.’

Some of the stu­dents laughed.

No, it’s the most import­ant ques­tion you could ask in psy­cho­logy. There isn’t any answer that I can think of.’ I paused again. ‘No, psy­cho­logy isn’t good enough to answer that yet. It prob­ably never will be.’

What you have, in psy­cho­logy and in fic­tion, is an object­ive lin­guistic frame­work that attempts to describe the mind. It omits the sub­ject­ive. That is, it has noth­ing to say on what it is like to be in pos­ses­sion of a mind. There are those who believe that an object­ive frame­work is suf­fi­cient for a sci­ence of the mind like psy­cho­logy, but I’m not one of them. And I think this prob­lem applies to fic­tion. How do we, using an object­ive, lin­guistic frame­work, provide a sense of what it is like to be our characters?

Imagine this. Imagine that.

How do you brush your teeth in a Swiss gar­ret in 1907? How much does a piece of cheese cost in a Zurich mar­ket? How anti-semitic are cer­tain groups?

But what is it like to be a char­ac­ter? The novel is an object­ive record, and the reader con­jures some­thing sub­ject­ive from this. What will they conjure?

These are my thoughts as I fin­ish The Amber Rooms, join the dots, spend some time being someone else until it’s all over.

Postcards from the Edge (of St Petersburg)

In 2008, I wrote an entry on this blog entitled The End.

About a year and a half ago, I fin­ished the second Saskia Brandt novel, Flashback. My thoughts for the third one centred around Imperial Russia. I was par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in pla­cing Saskia – who derives her advant­ages from an almost dir­ect con­nec­tion between her nervous sys­tem and the Internet – in a situ­ation where she could have no real advant­age bey­ond her know­ledge of the future.

I don’t remem­ber much about the exper­i­ence of writ­ing that book, The Amber Rooms, so it’s inter­est­ing to con­tinue read­ing this entry.

[The Amber Rooms] was a pleas­ure to write. I wanted to pro­duce some­thing that reminded me of Alistair MacLean, where the story’s struc­ture reflects a heist and the reader not entirely informed about how much the prot­ag­on­ist knows. To help get this right, I plot­ted much of the novel in advance.

I think about my life at that point. In short: Publishers weren’t buy­ing my books; I felt redund­ant as a writer; I knew I would soon aban­don my goal of writ­ing books. That aban­don­ment — that real­isa­tion of the tox­icity of my situ­ation — was brief. I am writ­ing again. However, I con­sidered The Amber Rooms to be a last waltz. The manu­script would remain on my com­puter, keep­ing the unpub­lished Flashback com­pany, while I turned my back on the one thing I do very well: write.

The point of writ­ing a book, I sup­pose, is to get it pub­lished. I’m not con­fid­ent that it will be picked up by a pub­lisher – not because I lack con­fid­ence in the book, but because the second book hasn’t found a pub­lisher yet. The third book isn’t likely to shift if the second one hasn’t.

And:

Do I think I deserve to be pub­lished? No. That’s too strong. I mean this: I don’t write books so I can put them in a drawer.

Let me turn back to an earlier entry. This is dated 1st November, 2007, five days before my birthday:

At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tes­sel­late. I hope my gentle read­ers won’t be offen­ded if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m read­ing some excel­lent oral his­tor­ies of women anarch­ists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing archi­tec­tural folly known as the Amber Room will feature.

I have stood in the Amber Room. The Russian gov­ern­ment would prefer vis­it­ors not to take pic­tures there, so I did not. But I stood within it. I stud­ied its pan­els and frowned into its mir­rors. I closed my eyes and breathed in; it did not smell of pine, which was unex­pec­ted. The moment I remem­ber most clearly is my girl­friend look­ing at me as though she loved me. So we made it to the Amber Room. This strange thing I do — fic­tion — has not been quite des­troyed by my fail­ure to con­vince a tra­di­tional pub­lisher to take a chance on it.

I tried to ima­gine Saskia Brandt reflec­ted in one of those tall mir­rors between the amber panels.

I made it to the end point of the cre­at­ive pro­cess for Flashback. That is, I got the book to readers.

Yesterday, someone in America called Suki read Flashback and wrote:

Hocking does not make a mis­step in this beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted novel, and when his tal­ent for plot meets his tal­ent for prose, the res­ult is extraordin­ary. I look for­ward to the next Saskia Brandt adventure!

On the 17th March, 2008, I wrote:

So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you stand­ing on the threshold of the Amber Room, and what does it have to do with going home?

The story is…well, it’s another adven­ture. All stor­ies are adven­tures. And going home.

St Petersburg
Sailing into St Petersburg via the Gulf of Finland — 6.30 a.m., 23rd August 2011

★ The Amber Rooms: Thoughts on the First Draft

Yesterday even­ing, I expor­ted the first draft of The Amber Rooms — Saskia Brandt novel three — to my Kindle with a plan to read it quickly and estab­lish how much work it needs prior to pub­lic­a­tion. I have, delib­er­ately, com­mit­ted myself to a 2012 pub­lic­a­tion date for the book. This gives me space to re-draft three (maybe four) times, on the assump­tion that a single draft­ing takes three or four months. (I’ll have the energy to work about half an hour, per­haps an hour, when I come home from the day job.)

What is a first draft? Hell, what’s a draft? Back in the day, when writers pro­duced long-hand manu­scripts and had them typed up peri­od­ic­ally, it made sense to think of each draft as a com­plete revi­sion of the last. Some writers — Ken Follett, I know, did this — would not even look at the pre­vi­ous draft when writ­ing the new.

We’re more advanced these days, of course. Our type­writers have Apple logos.

The Amber Rooms. Hmm.

I note that I aban­doned the novel, with a heavy heart at the indif­fer­ence of pub­lish­ers’ reac­tions to books one and two, in September 2008. Even then I had the idea that I was going to retire from writing.

The draft I’m read­ing is quite tightly writ­ten. The first half, I remem­ber, was revised when I came up with a cooler idea for a begin­ning about two thirds of the way through. I could prob­ably release it for the Kindle tomor­row and it would be work­able as a story. However, it has the poten­tial to be a much bet­ter novel than either Déjà Vu or Flashback.

So what’s good about it?

First, the lan­guage passes muster. There are no clichés and each sen­tence deserves to be there. I’m get­ting on for hav­ing writ­ten a mil­lion or so words of pub­lish­able fic­tion. By this point, Hemingway, Chandler et al. are now con­struct­ive rather than crit­ical ghosts. I find it easier to cre­ate and manip­u­late tone. I know when a slow­ing down of the nar­rat­ive works as a rest for the reader without sac­ri­fi­cing over­all pace — or, at least, I think I do.

Second, the story is reas­on­ably com­pel­ling. There are nuts and bolts to be tightened here and there, but each scene is a scene — that is, it advances the story — and the research (which is some­what more osten­ta­tious in this novel, as it is set in Russia, 1908) con­trib­utes to the milieu without dis­tract­ing from it.

So what’s bad?

Right now, the book is some­what ema­ci­ated. I’ve pared it down to essen­tial con­nect­ive tis­sue. While this gives it pace for the most part, there are one or two points — in par­tic­u­lar, an escape scene at the begin­ning of the novel — that are far too brief. It works too much like a mont­age, or notes for a novel.

Talking of mont­ages, I’m head­but­ting the ceil­ing of my tal­ent again: I find it dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of story bey­ond the con­fines of the medium that I’m most com­fort­able with. That medium is, para­dox­ic­ally, cinema, not lit­er­at­ure. Too often, I’m present­ing the story as shots and describ­ing beats with the eye of a cine­ma­to­grapher. I have to get away from this. It does make the story very read­able but I need to remem­ber the par­tic­u­lar advant­ages of the novel as a form. (I will be doing this later in the draft, as I settle down.)

One example is where our heroine, Saskia Brandt, arrives in St Petersburg pur­sued by three ‘watch­ers’ from the Tsarist secret police. She travels quickly from horse bus to trol­ley rather too much like Jason Bourne. And when I describe the moment she loses the last of her three watch­ers, whom she leaves hand­cuffed to a rail on the trol­ley, the fram­ing reads like a story­board. It’s effect­ive, prob­ably, but there is too much sleight of hand about the whole thing. Hemingway could do this without being super­fi­cial; I should be able to do it too, given time and thought.

Let’s get geeky: metaphor.

The meta­phor­ical lan­guage of the novel is often wonky in a first draft. When the book is fin­ished, and I have an idea of its iden­tity, I know which meta­phors are cor­rect and which are not. For instance, there is a meta­phor early on in the novel in which Saskia thinks of time passing through her hands like a rope, too fast to grip. I don’t know why this is a good meta­phor for this point; but it is. Other meta­phors are com­pletely wrong. An inab­il­ity to choose the cor­rect meta­phor is the hall­mark of a bad writer (or at least a writer who has sub­mit­ted a draft too early). One of the dif­fi­culties with select­ing the right meta­phor is that it can­not be done con­sciously (for me, any­way). It must be done ran­domly, a bit like Arthur Dent pulling out let­ters from the neo­lithic Scrabble bag in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They’ll get stead­ily more appropriate.

Looking back, the meta­phor­ical lan­guage of Déjà Vu and Flashback seems to revolve around mir­rors, blood, old wounds reopen­ing, iden­tity, and the con­nec­tion between help­ing someone and the phys­ical cost of that help (ampu­ta­tion; “Take my hand,” and so on).

As you can tell, I’m prob­ably more inter­ested in this stuff than the mech­an­ics of hav­ing the story work as a thriller. However, it must work as a thriller first or the meta­phor­ical brick­work will fall. That’s the job of the second draft — to get the plot work­ing. Third draft — plot plus meta­phor equals story. Four draft — finesse.

Maybe.

And, always there is the chance that the book doesn’t work at all; that it will die on stage. In a way, that makes it more excit­ing. Everything, abso­lutely everything, is on the line.

So I signed up to a Russian evening class, Comrade

Like you do.

Or rather, like I did. I’ve stopped going now because I was excep­tion­ally poor at form­ing even the simplest sentences.

Aliya Whiteley is — apart from being a great comedo-tagico-Ilfracombo nov­elista — study­ing for an MSc in Library and Information Management. As part of this, she inter­viewed me about the resources I used to help me research the third Saskia Brandt novel. (For those who aren’t keep­ing up, which often includes me, that’s the third one; Flashback is the second; Déjà Vu is the first.)

Can I ask — in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the inform­a­tion you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral his­tor­ies, etc? How did you decide that was what you’d need to know?

For the Russian, I signed up for a local even­ing class. I stud­ied Russian for two years. I didn’t expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridicu­lous writ­ing a novel set in Russia without know­ing any­thing about the lan­guage. The oral his­tor­ies showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print — ‘Women Against the Tsar’, I believe it’s called — and described the lives of sev­eral women anarcho-bolsheviks in the lat­ter part of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Another source of inform­a­tion was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the pro­cess of writ­ing nov­els set in the same period of his­tory (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral his­tor­ies and sent him links to some websites…which reminds me, the web was a very use­ful sources of inform­a­tion. I popped into one or two for­ums related to Tsarist Russian mil­it­ary uni­forms to ask the experts ques­tions about mater­i­als, col­ours, etc. I also looked on mem­or­ab­ilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest — these were very good qual­ity pic­tures with lav­ish descrip­tions includ­ing the cor­rect ter­min­o­logy (some­times in Russian as well as English), which is quite import­ant when writ­ing prose.

Is it ridicu­lous writ­ing about Russia without speak­ing the lan­guage? Try writ­ing about Russia without hav­ing set foot on Russian soil.

Feel free to check out the full inter­view. This is part one.