Monday, 31 October 2011

A bargain with Death

It's that time of year again, when the veil between life and death is so thin that to stray off the path could easily take you on a detour via the Twilight Zone.

Martin and I cooked up this Warren-style short story "A Wrong Turning" a couple of years ago. I had spent a week at Shute Gatehouse, a place you find by turning off the main road, passing between two half-collapsed stone posts, and finding yourself on a narrow route that seems to take you a couple of decades back in time. The mist closed in and Roz and I spent a few days exploring the local woods, pubs, and footpaths. One afternoon we came across a line of pumpkins, puckered and caved-in on themselves in the week since Halloween, but which must have marked out the way to a party. The story arrived just like that, in one piece, a gift from the otherworld.

And so...

Guy Wasserman has already suffered one bereavement, and when his car is forced off the main road, he finds Death waiting with an impossible offer: "You, or your son."

Find out if Guy can cheat Death in the free PDF right here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Look out!

I'm interviewed on review site Paper Dragon Ink today, talking about Mirabilis but somehow managing to bring in Shotokan karate, pirates, videogames and photons. My thanks to Douglas Lentes, their editor in chief, for inviting me and asking a bunch of good questions. They've got lots of other good stuff too, from fantasy books to movies. There's even a girl in a chainmail bikini. Ahem.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

"I'm just a bookseller and I want my corners"

The future doesn’t look rosy for the big bookstores. Less than three out of every ten books sold last year were rung up on the tills of chain stores like Waterstone’s. And that’s print books. When you factor in the accelerating rise of digital books and comics, online book sales are whittling away at those meager profits that have so far kept booksellers on the high street. As the Economist put it recently:
“Publishers rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But [Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins] says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.”
So book publishers are getting squeezed? As an author, one of a group accustomed to being shoved around by the often rather bullying might of publishers, I might be expected to say cry me a river. Except that the river in question is Amazon, which owns the dominant e-reader, publishes its own books, runs a print-on-demand company widely used by small and self-publishers, and is pretty much uncontested in online book sales. That dearth of competition is bad for a lot of people, most especially the reading public.

Over the last few years, as online stores and supermarkets have chipped away at the dedicated retail bookstores, the high street browsing experience has diminished. Publishers respond with ghostwritten celebrity books and genre works of dubious quality. It is the mid-list, backed by editors with experience and gut feeling, where we traditionally find quality writing and interesting surprises. Strip that away and the future of fiction is pulp. But mid-list titles are the least likely to sell away from the high street. Online shopping pushes you ever-tighter into genre-based recommendations, supermarket shopping favors easily recognizable trash.

If bookstores close, how will publishers catch the passing trade? Tesco, a grocery company, have recently been trying an interesting experiment in South Korea. Faced with the problem of fewer stores than their competitors – and aware, as Mr Murray is, that people don’t shop so enthusiastically or so eclectically in front of a computer – Tesco put up display boards on the subway that replicated the look of grocery display cabinets. While waiting for their train, commuters can fill a virtual shopping trolley by scanning the QR codes of the products they like. Impulse buying has never been so painless.

Online stores so far have focused very much on a Microsoft (desk) rather than Apple (roving) model. Yet the exciting thing about where personal computing has been going in the last few years is that it’s out of the study and in your pocket. People like to shop out in the world, but they don’t like to lug heavy bags home. Imagine a world (it’s not far off) where the high street bookstores and comic shops have gone. Instead, at a much lower cost, publishers and booksellers put up posters and virtual bookshelves with QR codes that direct us to where we can browse, discuss and buy the books.

Publishers have done a little in this direction so far, but they don’t seem to grasp the full potential. One recent book poster on a London railway platform sported a QR code that directed customers to the book’s trailer on YouTube. Dumb, dumb, dumb. The moment I took out my phone to scan the code, the publisher should have been closing the deal – not directing me to yet more publicity material designed to hook my interest.

I’ll tell you who the QR selling model would benefit most: a would-be rival to Amazon like Britain’s Book Depository or Barnes & Noble in the USA. Currently Amazon have a Herculean grip on the Nemean lion of online book sales. But the online book market is set to more than double in size over the next ten years, so there’s a lot still to play for. Also, there really is no good reason for rivals to be scared of taking Amazon on. None of the technology involved is untried; all that is wanting is vision and ambition.

Admittedly those are not qualities often associated with book publishing, which in the last year or two has looked increasingly paralyzed by present shock. But booksellers are traditionally a nimbler breed. For the sake of the quality and variety of the books and comics we read as much as their price and availability, it’s time for the booksellers to get out there and pitch their QR-emblazoned virtual stalls in the high street space. Because that’s where the readers are in a mood to buy, whether it's a pint of milk or War & Peace.

Monday, 17 October 2011

"A strange dreamlike intrigue"

"Mirabilis the magnificent" - that's what no less an authority than Lew Stringer said on his blog last week. Well, of course you wouldn't expect me and Leo to argue with that. Quite aside from Lew's overall assessment of the strip, he says some very perceptive things in a beautifully written critique that -- but why am I gassing on? You ought to pop over there right now and read it for yourself. Go on, shoo.

Still here? Oh, you want to know about that picture... All I'm saying is that Gus is away with the fairies in Mirabilis #10, on Leo's Wacom tablet for inking right now.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Girl Who Took The Piss

Spoilers ahead? You bet.

Writers are very often sedentary, even intellectual types. If we didn’t like the world inside our heads better than the one out there, why would we write? Okay, there are notable exceptions. Hemingway liked to fish. Shakespeare preferred being on stage. But I’m just saying there’s a type. Jeans and a sports jacket. Whisky not brandy. Men (and women) of letters are a tribe apart.

This can cause problems, because obviously readers like stories they can believe in, but often writers have unrealistic and pretty unbelievable ideas about how the world works. For example, I was watching a movie based on a Stieg Larsson book. Let me tell you how I’d escape from Colditz if the rules of reality were like in the movie. First I’d attack a guard. He may shoot me a couple of times, but as long as it’s just a handgun I’m okay. Then the guards would carry me out to the cemetery. Maybe the officer even guesses I’m not dead (he’s used handguns before) but he goes ahead and has me buried alive. Maybe a shallow grave, just two or three feet, as it’s all I deserve. He thinks I’m done for. The fool. What he doesn’t know: I have the lid off a coffee tin in my pocket, and I can use that to dig my way to the surface.

It’s a story, you say? It doesn’t have to be realistic? Well, see, it does – realistic within the rules of the world you’ve set up in your story, at least. Road Runner physics is not kosher with Newton, but we understand and accept how the cartoon world works. In a thriller, if you have your hero shot and then buried, the reader is going to be on the edge of their seat. How the hell is she going to get out of this? Maybe her phone..? Her journalist friend could find her by ringing it, locating the sound, and digging her up. But no, the answer is simpler than that: she’s Supergirl. You sap, for ever supposing there would be a clever solution.

You may feel inclined to forgive the poor writer for not knowing about guns and burials and stuff. Again, I can’t agree. Here is a simple experiment that would have told him what he needed to know. Go to a garden centre (as the characters do in the movie at one point, funnily enough) and pick up a bag of soil. Man, that’s heavy, right? Now lie on the ground and get a friend to load a couple of those bags on your chest. Another couple on your head, your arms, your stomach, your thighs, your ankles. Now sit up. You see? You didn’t even have to leave the comfort of your chair; the thought experiment is enough on its own. (Einstein figured out the whole of relativity using thought experiments, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a thriller writer might give it a go for the sake of a story.)

Of course, in The Girl Who Played With Fire, the soil isn’t in bags. The character is actually buried in a grave with two or three feet of soil packed on top of her. But wait – she has a cigarette case, thoughtfully given to her, not by Q, but by her girlfriend. So naturally she digs herself out of the grave.

Right, thought experiment number two. Imagine yourself under those fourteen or so bags of soil. And let’s suppose you are equipped with an oxygen tank. And haven’t got any bullets in you, ‘cause after all it was just a revolver and they only do flesh wounds. Okay, you have a trowel in your hand. Now what? You can’t lift your arm. Ah, so you start with a kind of rotating motion of the wrist, working the trowel around. Visualize that. Close your eyes, smell the damp soil, feel the weight. Focus on that hand with the trowel. What’s happening as you work it around?

You don’t need to be Einstein to figure out that you’ll dislodge a bit of soil and another bit will fall to take its place. On the surface, you wouldn’t even see the minute depression created as the soil settles in above where you’re moving the trowel. What you are actually doing here – the only thing you’ll be able to achieve – is shifting the soil so that it’s more compact than it was to begin with. And, without leverage, you’ll never get your arm to the point where you can actually dig upwards – never mind that the soil has nowhere to go, so you can’t create any kind of a hole anyway.

Moles do it? Yes they do. They take soil from in front of them and they pass it back and pack it behind them. They’ve had a few million years of evolution to help out with that, not only with body shape but with tolerance of carbon dioxide too. And that’s tunnelling. You take a mole, shoot it a couple of times, and bury it in your garden, and that sucker is not coming back.

Writers need to put some thought into their stories, because they are asking us to invest our time and our imagination in those stories, to believe what is happening to the characters and to care. Life and death decisions are made, for stakes higher than we see in everyday life, and for the story to thrill us the writer must keep the contract with the reader. They must play fair. Invent a Superman, but invent Kryptonite too – and then stick to your rules.

Here's William Goldman - a writer who always does the work so that his surprises and reversals suspend disbelief without actually burying it alive:
When I was growing up in Bakersfield, my favourite thing in the whole world was to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons for the Chapter Plays.


I know that, Mr. Man! They also called them serials. I'm not stupid ya know... Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no-brakes chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn't cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn't what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn't fair! HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCK-A-DOODIE CAR!