31 December 2004

Brain-Racking Time

There's a literary device which I'm considering using in Peculiar Lives, which I'm certain isn't original. However, I cannot for the life of me recall where I've read it. On the basis that one should always be aware of who one's stealing from, I'm straining my brain to remember where, exactly, I've encountered this particular narrative pattern:

The book, narrated in the first person (and in an archaic style, although whether authentically or in imitation I don't recall), has a false ending which appears to bring the story to a close. Someone close to the narrator (very likely the book's central character) has left him (I believe it's a him), presumably forever. They may well have died, in fact. However, there is a final chapter / passage where the narrator returns in great excitement to writing the supposedly finished story, having just received a visit from the person in question, who has reassured him that all is well. There's some doubt in the reader's mind as to whether this is all a delusion or a dream on the narrator's part. It begins something like "It is with great astonishment / exhilaration / arousal / whatever that I resume my tale, which I had thought forever finished. For [insert name here] has returned to me, this very night!"

It doesn't seem to be from any of the books I thought it might be in. So, I'm opening up the question to the floor. Does this sound familiar, at all whatsoever, to anybody reading this? Or did I dream it?

24 December 2004

A Very Merry Christmas to All of You at Home

It's been (briefly) a surprisingly sunny Christmas Eve. Earlier I took the scooter up the road to buy earplugs (a vital commodity when visiting one's in-laws), and I felt hot. Now of course it's gone overcast and miserable again, but I appreciate the effort.

I have now finished the first complete draft of my novella (cue angelic trumpets, hallelujahs etc). There's still a lot of work to do before the book's finished, of course -- it needs a thorough rewrite and extensive polish, just in the nature of things; and there are some tricky copyright issues to be worked out, relating to some rather vital chapter epigraphs I want to lift from dead-white-male-but-still-in-copyright S.F. authors. But all of that can wait until 2005.

All of which means I'm allowed to spend the next week Not Working, but instead doing things like reading, eating, drinking and very likely helping with the washing-up. Today, for instance, I have mostly spent in the mind-numbingly tedious tasks of wrapping presents and packing, which has been nice.

Our plan is to spend three days with in-laws, three with parents and New Year's Eve probably in our own living-room watching The Wicker Man on ITV. I may be online at some point (using my parents' broadband, if not my in-laws' dial-up), but I doubt I'll be updating the blog before the 31st or so.

And so, it only remains for me to wish everyone reading this a splendid festive season, however you wish to celebrate it.

[Deity, spirit or impersonal force of choice] bless us, every one.

19 December 2004

Slightly Momentous

Well, the novella now has a title. And the title which I've chosen, in consultation with the editor, as being the most appropriate to the volume's content, is... Peculiar Lives.

Trust me, it works. It really does fit the novella remarkably well. It does however, mean that to avoid ambiguity, the title of this blog is going to have to change, slightly, to Peculiar Times. The URL will stay the same -- http://infinitarian.blogspot.com/ -- and there shouldn't be any particular practical implications, except that anyone who links here (er, does anyone?) will have to change the wording.

The title itself has been rattling around inside my brain for ages -- before I kept this blog, I'd used it as the title of an (unpublished) short story about a bookshop owner, and as the name of the bookshop within the story. Using it for a published book should stop me from recycling it again, at least.

18 December 2004


I've put up my short story 'Scapegoat' (originally published in Emerge), at www.infinitarian.com. I hope some of you like it, at least.

Emerge is an anthology of work by Christians, so the story has a religious theme -- but it's not exactly a conventional one, so I hope it can be of interest to secular readers too.

It's remarkable, looking back at this, to see how my style and approach have changed (for, I hope, the better) in the last couple of years. The concentrated and protracted process of writing Of the City of the Saved..., and since then the short stories and novella, has forced me to focus on the actual mechanics of writing as never before, and my inclination when reading older material like this is to be hyper-critical. The story reads as if I was out to shock the volume's more conservative readers -- which I was -- and this seems a slightly adolescent ambition now. The influence of Sandman on the work is also rather embarrassingly obvious.

If you do find 'Scapegoat' an interesting read, do consider buying Emerge. It's packed with good stuff -- poetry, prose and drama from unpublished and professional authors alike. And Subway is a small press, with some interesting publications under its belt, so it's worth supporting.

17 December 2004


...Last day of term, and I really can't be bothered with anything. Tomorrow I begin a week's writing, during which I theoretically finish the first draft of the novella; after that, if I'm really lucky, a week off visiting family, eating far too much and being given presents. So naturally I'm uninclined to deal with the petty problems of students, even if they do all seem suddenly to have developed a remarkable eagerness for study. Perhaps it's just that only the keen ones are in college today.

I've heard back from my editor, to whom I sent the first three-quarters of the novella a couple of weeks ago: he says there's nothing much wrong with it, which is a big relief. My visions of spending February frantically rewriting the whole thing from scratch have now receded rather.

We're discussing covers and blurbs as well, which is always rather exciting. We also need to finalise a title rather urgently, as the novella has to be given a "Coming Soon" slot in the next novella of the series, which is going to the printers in the next week or so. Having decided that A Man Apart was rather crap, I'm now leaning towards Men of the Times, or possibly Man of the Times. The only problem is that that sounds rather like a group of journalists. Hey ho.

Van Me to the Fens to Wrestle Pigs

Yesterday, as I was scootering to work, cursing the earliness of the morning and wondering when I should next take the bike in for a service (answer: some time next week, really, as if if it doesn't get seen to every few months the spark plugs tend to start to fall apart), I realised with a jolt of horror that I was stuck behind the poo-lorry.

It's a mystery to me why anybody would want to freight excrement (or dung, or manure, or whatever the agrotically correct term for the stuff is) around the city in a large lorry, but obviously somebody in the vicinity of Bristol considers it worth their while. Perhaps it's the rural equivalent of performance art.

Whatever the reasons, there is a driver who regularly transports a lorry-load of poo around Bristol on a Thursday morning, and I occasionally encounter them, and it's horrendous. While the vehicle is actually in motion the stench isn't too bad, but the moment it's stationary, its hideous miasma rises up around it like a halo, and makes its immediate vicinity unbearable for any road user not hermetically sealed into a metal box. It really is very, very noxious and unpleasant, and whether you're stuck behind it (such that you have to drive into its mephitic odour whenever you stop at traffic lights) or vice versa (so that it pulls up behind you, and its foetor continues forward to envelop you) it's deeply unpleasant.

It's difficult to overtake a lorry on a scooter that only does 30 miles an hour, so instead I held back, hoping that a few cars would come between my bike and the dung-transport. Instead, a huge crane on a truck came thundering past me and tucked itself in ahead of me, with great big whirly flashing yellow lights on the top.

The smell of excrement is unpleasant, but constant disco effects going on in front of one's helmet visor make concentrating on driving pretty much impossible. Fortunately we were approaching traffic lights, and they were red, so I was able to flit like a hefty petrol-driven fairy betwen the streams of stationary traffic and enter the bicycle box beneath the lights. This had the effect of infuriating any number of car drivers, who roared indignantly past me once the lights had changed, cursing the persumption of the lesser creature who had challenged their territorial mastery.

Nevertheless, I had successfully removed myself from the proximity of both the poo-lorry and the great big light-flashing crane. "Hurrah," I said to myself, and -- as anyone who's made an elementary study of comic timing would expect -- my bloody spark plugs failed. The bike ground to a halt and I pulled over, then watched, listened and smelt as several more car-drivers, the poo-lorry and the great big light-flashing crane all drove angrily past me.

I had to walk the last half-mile, pushing the bike, and arrived at work sweaty and knackered.

There's probably a moral to all of this -- something about hubris, and how people who have the temerity to drive scooters really deserve to have bright lights flashed in their eyes whilst smelling of poo -- but honestly, I'm not sure I can be bothered to tease it out.

14 December 2004

Odious Comparisons

My promise of more and more interesting bloggage is beginning to look rash (although today's crop of comments has been rather interesting, I've thought).

I've been meaning, though, to praise the other short stories in A Life Worth Living, on the grounds that I was being altogether too smug about my own (that would be "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants", which you can find praised here and here). In fact, ALWL is not my absolute favourite Benny anthology -- I think that would still be Life During Wartime -- but it has some damn good stuff in it.

I'm not even going to begin to attempt to review ALWL, as that could only end up being an ignominious mess, but I do want to mention a handful of the stories. [I tried to use an HTML list below, but it shagged my formatting for some reason, so here's the inelegant version.]

Kate Orman is on excellent form with "Buried Alive", a tale of alien dynasties and their nasty secrets.

Ian Mond's "Denial" is a thought-provoking story with a compelling twist -- and not the one I expected, either.

"The Blame of the Nose" by Ben Woodhams is another comedy story, and one which threatens to be funnier than "Sex Secrets" on numerous occasions.

Benny's original writer, Paul Cornell, has a lovely piece in "Misplaced Spring" -- a quiet story where virtually nothing happens, unless you happen to be interested in characters, emotions and relationships.

Probably my favourite story, though, is Eddie Robson's "Against Gardens" -- a fabulous, lyrical and annoyingly well-written exploration of death and gardening. With a Martian in it.

So -- plenty of reasons to buy A Life Worth Living from Amazon.co.uk or direct from Big Finish Productions, then.

In other news, having recently (ooh, say around 5,000 words ago, at the 30,000-of-40,000-word mark) moaned extensively to B. that I was getting nowhere, that I was a terrible writer and that my novella was a heap of absolute arse from start to finish, I was amused to read Neil Gaiman's recent blog entry, where he reveals that not only does he get hopelessly miserable three-quarters of the way through every single thing he writes, but so do all the other authors his agent deals with. So that's all right, then.

In fact (judging by his last entry) both Neil and I seem now to have passed this seventy-five-per-cent hurdle, so all's well, and the world should have both Anansi Boys and A Man Apart (as it probably won't be called) to look forward to next year.

(Hmm. I wonder which it will enjoy more?)

13 December 2004


2,500 words written, and something like 4,000 extensively rewritten, this weekend; including the philosophical kernel of the novella, with which I am pleased. Only the last chapter, some 5,000 words, left to go. I am, as I believe the young people describe it these days, teh r0xx0r.

More, and I hope more interesting, bloggery to follow tomorrow.

21 Gram Salute

So, Saturday night B. and I rented the D.V.D. (such being the hectic glamorous lifestyle of an author and his paramour) of 21 Grams.

It was actually very fine -- one of those all-too-rare film-scripts that makes significant demands of the audience's intelligence, and what's more it was acted and directly profoundly well. My one complaint was that, given the title, I was expecting rather more of a speculative thriller predicated on the notorious "weight of the human soul" experiments, rather than a mainstream drama which merely mentions the concept in the final monologue. Excellent film, just rather misleadingly titled and marketed.

Anyway. I couldn't remember where I'd seen the female lead, Naomi Watts, before, so I looked her up on the Internet Movie Database. It seems that she was also the female lead in both Ring and Mulholland Drive, which makes sense. To my astonishment, it also turns out that she was born in Shoreham of all places, and therefore very likely in the same maternity hospital as I was, albeit three years earlier.

(Apparently she's Nicole Kidman's best friend. I wonder whether... erm, no, almost certainly not.)

10 December 2004

Stealth SF

The Dragon Waiting has got me wondering whether any fringe alternative-universe novels have ever been written which appear at first to be historical novels, but where, in a relatively late development, a historical event suddenly happens quite differently from how the reader expects?

One approach would be to make the story primarily about the event itself rather than its consequences -- an account of the victory of the Spanish Armada, for example. Another would be to examine the more personal effects of alternative experiences (as Sliding Doors did for example), but in terms of a well-known historical figure -- a novel about Abraham Lincoln where he ducks, for instance.

Can anyone think of any candidates?

Edit to add: I should specify that I'm not talking about novels of time-travel where visitors from the future change history -- I'm aware that there are lorryloads of those. I'm thinking of stories with no "SF element" except that a historical event happens differently.

The Dragon Sundered

I've been meaning to say a few more words about John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting, which I finally finished a week or so ago. It's a fabulous novel, full of politics and intrigue against the backdrop of one of the most interesting alternative histories (and certainly the most interesting alternative-history-with-magic) that I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the story comes apart down the middle, and the two halves don't really match.

The first half of the novel, which introduces the new history allusively by examining the current state of play in Wales, France, Florence and Milan, is a tour de force: it's this fantastic exercise in worldbuilding which is the novel's real strength.

The Byzantine Empire dominates a Europe which never knew Christianity, or at least never as a mainstream faith, and which is characterised by a bewilderingly diverse pagan pluralism. Perhaps because of this (although in fact neither group seems very religiously-minded), both wizards and vampires are present, and play prominent roles in European power-politics. (Oddly, the Duke of Milan is one of the latter, not of the former.) In non-Byzantine Britain, King Arthur once ruled and rumours of Robin Hood haunt the forests -- but oddly, the Wars of the Roses happened according to schedule, and now (in the late fifteenth century in our history) Richard Duke of Gloucester requires help to consolidate his brother's reign over a radically unstable England.

The second half of the book, which narrows in on Britain, the family of the soon-to-be King Richard III and the literally byzantine machinations of his enemies, is less impressive. The plot is well thought through, and so convoluted as to make one's eyes water, but in presenting England, Scotland and Wales in such detail -- and with a history so similar to our own despite the differences -- we lose the grander picture. While vampirism and wizardry continue to provide important plot functions, the paganism is reduced to occasional glancing references (indeed, the only character whose faith is examined in this half of the novel is a stray Christian) and Byzantium might be any nebulous overseas threat.

Richard himself is as witty, charming and intelligent as Shakespeare's, while being also loyal, altruistic and handsome (although there is a reference to his having been a sickly child). This Richard is simply too idealised: when he does show a flaw (in being too readily taken in by one facet of the labyrinthine conspiracy), you can't believe it of the character Ford's painted. This is in no sense (as I earlier suggested) a retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III: instead it's an entirely new interpretation of the historical story of Richard himself (one with what's probably a unique solution to the problem of the Princes in the Tower).

The four other central characters -- including a vampire and a wizard -- who connect the two halves of the novel are convincing enough, but somehow seem to be acting according to formula. One feels as if Ford is committed to characterisation as his novelistic duty, but finds it less interesting than (in the first half) his setting and (in the second) his plot.

It was the setting which really interested me. The story left me hungry to see more of its world: the Zoroastrian Saracens of the Middle East; the New World and its deities being brought under Byzantine or British rule; whatever mutations of our nineteenth and twentieth centuries this fascinating history might cast up. Most of all, I wanted to see the City of Byzantium itself, but this never happens -- instead London takes centre-stage, and is rather dull.

It's the world which Ford creates which is his real star here. What a shame that it's almost invisible for most of the second half.

06 December 2004

Grinding Away

Apologies for the slight lapse in updating this blog. I'm knackered, frankly.

This weekend I've written over 3,000 words and rewritten 2,000 more which, if you've been paying attention, you'll recall is pretty good going for me, at this point in my life and with this novella. This means that I have somewhere around four-fifths of a complete draft, which is moderately pleasing. What's more, I've been given a likely publication date of July 2005, with the title being announced in March or so -- assuming it's finished on time, and is any good, and all that kind of thing. So, Go Me.

The plan is still to complete a draft by New Year (or preferably Christmas, so that I can take a week off), and to rewrite ruthlessly throughout January, handing in a crisp and well-tooled product for the 31 January deadline. At which point I plan to fall over in a heap and whimper for a little bit, before addressing the lengthy but hopefullly less arduous editing process which will likely ensue.

(Yes, I did just use "hopefully" to mean "I hope [that]". Does anyone want to make something of it?)

I've also been asked for some notes towards the cover, which is always fun... if slightly awkward in this particular instance for a couple of reasons, the most glaring of which is that my most visually striking character doesn't bother with clothes, and is therefore almost certainly undepictable within the context of a book cover.

I'm also trying to come up with an alternative title, having spent the last few months progressively going off the one I settled on back in April, until now I feel it pretty much stinks. I have a number of ideas -- indeed, Peculiar Lives turns out to be strangely apposite, were it not already taken -- but none of them leaps out as being obviously right. More work needed there, obviously.