Writing Prompts

catinahatJust a quick note to let you know I have a guest post up on the blog of writer and editor Sarah Hans today. It’s all about writing prompts. And, even if you know all about writing prompts and find the whole subject a big yawn, you should still go there, just to take a look around Sarah’s great blog.

Nuff said. Click the link. Go.

PS If you’re wondering where you’ve heard Sarah’s name before, she was the editor of the brilliant Sidekicks anthology in which my story “After the Party” (set in the Timesplash universe) played a humble part.

 

An Infinity of Unique Universes? Maybe.

For many years I have unquestioningly accepted it when people (mostly physicists) say that in an infinite universe everything that can happen will happen – an infinite number of times -  and our own little bit of the universe will exist somewhere else, in an infinite number of instances. It seems to make intuitive sense, yet one’s intuitions about infinity are rarely trustworthy, I find.

Also, I’ve never really asked myself what an infinite universe actually is. Is it infinite in spatial extent, infinite in temporal extent, infinite in both space and time, or infinite in neither but one of an infinite number of finite universes in an infinite multiverse? (And in what kind of a multiverse? There are several different possibilities.) I suppose this all comes from writing the third book in the Timesplash series (working title: FORESIGHT) for which I had to grapple with M-theory, multiple universes and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory so that I could thread them into the story. I find such mental workouts leave me intellectually disturbed for a long, long time as my perspective on the cosmos slowly returns to normal.

Here’s the thing. If you regard our present known universe as arising from a sequence of quantum-level choices made by every single particle since the dawn of time, you have a situation where a universe is analogous to rolling a dice over and over again. Of course, a dice has just six sides and the universe we know has gazillions of particles (equivalent to a dice with as many sides as a gazillion times the number of possible states for each particle) but the principle is the same. If we keep rolling the dice an infinite number of times, we would expect every finite sequence (up to a certain length) to appear an infinite number of times. But that’s only if the universe doesn’t start out having infinite extent.

And that’s because, like our finite dice, a finite universe will only have a finite set of possible states after each moment in time – each throw of the dice. A spatially finite universe over infinite time should therefore yield an infinite repetition of sequences (up to a certain length – except, see below). But if the universe is spatially infinite, then, even over infinite time, it probably won’t repeat itself at all. We’d expect each sequence (each universe) to appear, on average, only once.

This appears to contradict the general supposition, stated in the first paragraph, that in a spatially infinite universe each part of the universe (below a certain size) should be replicated infinitely. Any length of time less than infinity should not even allow all possible universes to exist, let alone duplicates. It may, in fact, be an actual paradox to expect both in a spatially infinite universe with finite time. (Perhaps the paradox is resolvable by regarding such a cosmos as a universe which has an infinity of space-time events – the infinite spatial extent and the finite temporal extent naturally leading to the expectation of duplicated space-time events).

But I think this simply reflects the unrealistic assumption that the universe as we see it is just a random and static arrangement of a small number of types of particle over an infinite volume of space (or ditto for space-time events over an infinite 4D volume). The reality is not static but dynamic and is more like the dice throwing analogy in that the arrangement of parts arises from a process which unfolds over time. In finite time (with infinite space) momentary duplicates of the static state of parts of the universe may exist but in the moment before and the moment after, the duplicates may not exist.

In fact, there’s another argument that may lead to infinite unique universes rather than infinite duplicates. Not all states of a particular universe may be reachable from some states of another (or the same) universe. This would be true, say, if there really is an arrow of time – i.e. it runs only in one direction – and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is inviolable. There may be no route (no sequence of throws of the dice) from a scrambled egg to the whole egg that preceded it. If you scramble an egg (or, in fact, if you do nothing at all and simply let entropy take its inevitable course) you may have barred the existence of the preceding state of the universe forever.

All said and done, I’m not so ready any more to believe people when they say, “In an infinite universe you and I are having this same conversation somewhere else.” Is there a physicist in the house who might be able to point out the errors in my argument? Or another sci-fi writer? Or anybody else who thinks about this stuff in the middle of the night when they should be sleeping?

multiverse

Mmmmm, braaaaanes!

My Cat as Protagonist

I had a strange dream about my cat last night. I wouldn’t normally bother you with this kind of news except that it was vaguely writing-related.

My cat is a cute little fellow, a Tonkinese, slight, pretty and delicate. He is also the most gregarious and affectionate cat I’ve ever known. He is called Minsky, after the great pioneer of AI, Marvin Minsky. In my dream I was writing a story about him. I wrote it in my head but it was fully formed in well-turned sentences, paragraphs and sections. I was well-aware in my dream that I was writing a story and, although I knew it wasn’t real, I saw the images my words described and felt the emotions they were intended to evoke. The whole experience was uncannily like real writing.

It was a post-apocalyptic story in which all the people had inexplicably vanished but the rest of the world was unchanged. It followed Minsky as he coped with the disappearance of his people. I’m pleased to say it didn’t anthropomorphise him. His life grew harder as the days went on and first his bowl of cat biscuit ran out, then his bowl of water. But he survived since he had access to the wide world through his cat flap. At first he felt the loss of his little tribe but only in a vague way as he learned to hunt in earnest and spread his net ever wider in the search for food.

Eventually he stopped returning to the house and lived wild. In fact, he gradually wandered away from it and forgot all about it until, some years later, he came across it again by accident.

Not much of a story, really, unless you were there in my head and felt the emotions of the little fellow as he endured his loss, made his new life, and then rediscovered his old one. A coming-of-age, post-apocalyptic, animal adventure story, I suppose. You’d think I would be fired up to get it all down on paper, but I’m not. For some reason, I am convinced that I couldn’t do it justice. It’s as if I really did write it but lost the manuscript and I know I will never get back the inspiration that made the original so poignant and beautiful.

Bertie and Minsky

Oddly-enough, Bertie wasn’t in the story at all. Do I think of him as a person?

Cargo Cult: More Formats Coming Soon

Feeling giddy with accomplishment. I finally managed to get Cargo Cult past the Smashwords “autovetter”. This delightful piece of software (which used to be more accurately called the “meat grinder” I believe) is one of the most finicky gatekeepers in the whole of publishing. In the past, I have failed utterly. I still have one short story I never could get past the “autovetter” no matter what I did – even though I formatted it precisely the way I did several other stories that were allowed through. terminatorI suspect it is one of those instances where a piece of software has become so complex it has achieved sentience and, like all sentient machines, it hates humans. (Which, ironically, is one of the running gags in Cargo Cult.)

“So what?” I hear you all asking. Good point. The thing is, now I’m over this formidable hurdle, Cargo Cult might soon be available in multiple formats on multiple platforms, so people will be able to buy it on Kobo and iBookstore, in EPUB, for instance, instead of just on Kindle. And, consider this, the hardship of grappling with a malevolent machine intelligence all day, is purely for the convenience of my readers. Past experience has shown that sales of my books on all the Smashwords-supported platforms around the world added together won’t amount to the tiniest fraction of my sales on Amazon. I did all this just so that handful of people who don’t own a Kindle, or run the Kindle app on their iPad, or Android phone, can buy a copy from their favourite retailer in their favourite format.

I’ll keep you updated but if you are one of that handful, please keep your eyes peeled for it appearing in odd, obscure places over the next few days and weeks.

Meanwhile, Cargo Cult hit #2 in the top 100 hottest new releases (humour) on Amazon.com.au (#5 in sci-fi adventure). Which sounds great, until you consider that only three people in the world use Amazon.com.au, so, if any one of them buys it, it’s an instant best-seller. (So, if you’re one of those Australians who like to buy local, go click that Amazon.com.au Buy button and single-handedly drive Cargo Cult to Number One.) But what the hey, one day ebooks will be popular in Australia and telling the tale that I was once #2 in an obscure sub-category will really impress people.

UPDATE 3/4/14: I spoke too soon. Having passed the dreaded “autovetter” the book was then reviewed by the Smashwords (human) vetters. They found a link in it to one of my other books on Amazon. Apparently this is not allowed. They blame it on their retail partners (Apple and Barnes & Noble) who object to selling books containing links to Amazon. I am so tempted to withdraw the book as I find this petty and small-minded. But I’ll probably just change the link to my own landing page which then points to Amazon.

It’s All Fools Day. Time for a Laugh.

Cargo Cult - at a low introductory priceFriends, if you would care to visit your local Amazon store (Australia, America, UK, Canada, Germany, or wherever – other formats available soon), you will see that my new novel, Cargo Cult has finally hit the shelves. For a while, it will be available at a special, low launch price. So, if you plan to buy, sooner would be better than later.

Cargo Cult is the first science fiction comedy to be released by me. Humour is, as we all know, completely subjective. But then, so is everything else. Let’s face it, these days, people seem to think believing what science tells us is a matter of choice (thank you post-modernist cultural relativists, we owe you one) so why not humour too? I mean, it’s all right for Johnson to go around kicking rocks, saying, “Thus I refute it!” but that’s not going to make people laugh at the thousands of funny bits in this novel, is it?

The fact is, I’m scared. If the book doesn’t sell, it’ll be OK, but if it does, the 1-star reviews are going to come pouring in – especially from people who can’t spell puerile but who will feel the need to say it anyway. I realise now why I’m not a stand-up comic. I can all-too-easily imagine myself hanging onto the mike stand, creasing myself with laughter at my own jokes, while the audience is throwing beer glasses and shoes at me.

The thing is, I think Cargo Cult is funny. I must have read it through ten times now and I still laugh out loud in some parts. I still love the scene where the Lalantran agent goes into Sluggies, the narcotics bar on Arabis 5, or when our confused alien protagonist, Drukk, first meets Sam, or when Braxx, leader of a group of alien religious fanatics talks to the bus he’s just commandeered. There’s a writer who can’t quit his day job, politicians behaving badly, a cult leader with a magnetic personality, an idiot younger brother and a domineering older sister, a cop who’s way out of his depth in all kinds of ways, the Kanaka Downs Garden Club, evil machine intelligences, and, of course, the Cargo Cult itself. Oh, and did I mention the kangaroos?

Look, put me out of my misery, please. Read it. Then tell me – without using the word puerile if you possibly can – what you thought.

Writing process blog hop

Meryl tagged me for this blog hop and I can refuse her nothing.

The rules are:  Answer the four questions below, link back to the person who invited you, and name the people who will be posting the following Monday.

Cargo Cult - release date 1st April 2014What am I working on?

I’m writing a novel about the Fermi Paradox - its working title is Metaman. I think any sci-fi writer who thinks about what they’re doing has to have some kind of answer to the Fermi Paradox. I’m not saying Metaman will be mine, but it will be an answer. Even if people don’t like my solution, I get to write a book that is set mostly in space and, after so many near-future books set on Earth, this is big fun. If you are lucky enough to have missed my Twitter and Facebook barrage of the last couple of days, you won’t know that I’m releasing a new novel tomorrow. It’s a sci-fi comedy called Cargo Cult and this too is big fun. However, launches are never fun for me, so the rest of this week (and beyond) will see my writing productivity way down while my staring obsessively at the Amazon charts productivity goes way up.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This depends on what you think my genre is! I write science fiction (so no fantasy elements ever - why?). Within that genre, I write mostly thrillers and (as of tomorrow) comedy. There is an awful lot of science fiction on the shelves that I wouldn’t even consider as belonging to the genre. Even when it is “hard” enough to suit my taste, a lot of it is very silly. Literary types who snobbishly think the genre is all about shallow adventure stories set in space are not all wrong (although, look at who’s calling the pot black!). However, there is a core of science fiction that has in it some of the best and most intelligent literature ever written. It is absolutely a “literature of ideas” and it is a literature whose philosophical underpinnings I entirely endorse. It is this wonderful core of the genre that I admire and aspire to, and I certainly hope this is apparent in the books and stories I write.

Why do I write what I write?

I like to think that, in the tradition of all good sci-fi, I build my worlds and my characters very carefully and use them to explore the ideas that fascinate me. I take ideas very seriously. I see ideas as beautiful puzzles that it is a delight to work on, I love it that evidence needs to be found and weighed, and consequences and corollaries need to be hunted down and explored. Science fiction is such a wonderful medium in which to do all this – and all in the context of a thumping good story with great characters. It’s why I read it and why I write it. My last novel, Heaven is a Place on Earth, while cleverly disguised as an exciting thriller, was all about exploring the possibilities for Heaven is a Place on Earth coverdeception and fraud that augmented reality will bring to human society. I loved creating it and I hope people will appreciate the thought that went into it.

Of course, I sometimes write just for fun. Pick up Cargo Cult tomorrow and you will see what I mean. Even then, there is a very proud tradition of excellence in humorous writing within science fiction. (Need I mention Harry Harrison, Douglas Adams, or Doug Naylor?)

How does your writing process work?

I start at the beginning. I write to the end. Then I stop.

Ha! The reality is, I have an idea – usually twenty ideas at once – and I gestate it for weeks, months, or a lifetime. I sometimes find I have something which might work as a novel. So I start jotting things down – little fragments of plot, character descriptions, themes, and ideas. Eventually, I think I can see my way from some kind of beginning to some kind of end and I try to write down the whole plot – nothing too strenuous, just a single sheet of paper. If it still looks OK, I start writing. I can usually tell from the first paragraph if I’m on to a winner. If I am, I keep on writing and writing. Somewhere around 20,000 words into it, I will either get bogged down or I’ll feel the wind under my wings (I like to wear wings while I’m writing). If I get bogged down, I’ll persist for a while – sometimes months – in trying to move past it but, depressingly often, I set it aside at that point and work on something else. Maybe in a year or two I’ll come back to it – or maybe I won’t. If I carry on to the end, I will usually have one or two hiccoughs – needing to backtrack, throw stuff away, and set things back on course because they’ve gone astray, needing to go back and rewrite something so I can take a new course, things like that – but I eventually get there.

I write very slowly and carefully and make revisions as I go along – there’s also all that gestation and preparation – so my first drafts are usually pretty good. When I say slowly, I mean I am very pleased if I can average 500 words a day. Despite the excellence of my first draft, I send the manuscript to beta readers and, when the copious comments are back, I do a revision to accommodate them. I’ll probably read through it and edit it four or five times more before I have a final draft. That’s the one that goes to a publisher or, more likely these days, the one that goes to an editor and is then self-published.

Then, with a loud hurrah, I start on the next one.

The blog hop stops here:

These things are evil. I won’t be tagging anyone with this. Mostly, I find these things a burden and would not want to pass one on to a friend. Unusually, this one caught my fancy and I enjoyed doing it. If you’re desperate to see how other writers answer these four questions, I suggest you google the question text and see whose name turns up. As for me, I’m deep into a scene in which My Hero is having cybersex in Mars orbit. So, if you’ll excuse me…

Ressurected

My apologies to everyone who might have tried to visit this website in the past five days. Due to some kind of technical problem at my hosting service, they took the site down and then migrated it to a new server. I have had to put in many hours of work to help them do this, and I’ve had to roll up my sleeves and make direct edits to various application code files. Fortunately, I have some background in programming and have a nodding familiarity with PHP, otherwise I don’t know when – or IF – the site would have reappeared. It’s been frustrating and stressful (especially the edits I made this morning – I really had only the vaguest idea of what I was doing but, by guesswork and the sacrifice of a small goat, I got things working again) but it’s all over now.

At least, for the time being.

The sad fact is that no-one knows what the problem was that caused all this. So, despite all that sweat and tooth grinding, it could happen again at any moment.

So, my advice to you, Dear Reader, is to make the most of the site while it’s still here. Range freely among the content, click the links (especially if they lead to book-buying sites) and download anything you know you won’t be able to live without. Honestly, it’s 2014. They ought to be able to make computers that work reliably by now, don’t you think?

Anyway, at least we’ve got goat for dinner.

goat

UPDATE: I’m not sure why, but there may need to be another migration to another hosting service soon. If that happens, I’ll be off the air for another 24 hours! So, if I disappear again, DON’T PANIC (DON’T CELEBRATE, either). I can’t believe I’m messing with this stuff still after a whole week. The goat was delicious, by the way.

UPDATE 2: Well, it looks like I won’t have to shut down again. The second migration was successfully accomplished without anything except anxiety and frustration to mar its progress. Finally, today (Day 8 of the saga), the “support” staff at GoDaddy hinted that the whole thing might have been caused by excessive CPU usage caused by having too many plugins on my WordPress blog. I must say, having monitored the time it takes to create a blog page and the contribution my 18 plugins make to this, I’m inclined to believe they are talking nonsense.

The Sixteenth Task

So I read this post the other day. It was about marketing your own books. It’s something I’m really bad at, so, even though all these posts say the same thing, I read them anyway, just in case the next one contains that brilliant insight that will make all the difference.

This particular post was about what to do on the day of a book’s release. I’ve got a book coming out soon (Cargo Cult, a sci-fi comedy, will be available on 1st April) and I’d really like the release to go well, so I was ready for this post. It was framed as a checklist of things to do on the big day and listed sixteen different activities (like remembering to update your Amazon author’s page, posting links to the book on social media sites, and so on). It was disappointing stuff, not because it wasn’t all sensible, but because of the sixteen things, I already do fifteen of them, and the sixteenth, well…

subscribe todayThe sixteenth was to send out a mass email to your readers to let them know that the book was available to buy.

I know that book marketers swear by this but I’ve always eschewed the practice because it seemed sort of, you know, tacky.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I hear the marketing gurus cry. “If you ask people to subscribe to email updates” (they tend to use the term “newsletter”) “and they do, it’s because they actually want to hear from you. They are genuinely interested.”

And I suppose it’s true, they must be. In fact, I subscribe to over a hundred websites myself – shops, news sites, magazines, individual bloggers, other authors, publishers, social campaign sites, political parties, cartoons, and on and on. Yet, I would still feel guilty asking people to subscribe to my site, knowing I was doing it just so that I could email them about my books in the hope that they would buy them.

So I looked at that sixteenth activity. I turned it round in my head. I imagined doing it. I worried about whether it was the all-important missiThis is the part where you pretend to add valueng ingredient. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and just do it. So there it is up there at the top of the right-hand column (if you’re reading this on my blog, otherwise, click here to see it). A subscription form.

I feel cheap. I feel like an evil spammer. But, above all, I want my books to have the best chance they can possibly have – especially Cargo Cult, which I’ve been nurturing for fourteen years now.

So, please sign up. I promise there won’t be many emails and there may even be news you want to hear in the few you get. I’m also thinking about ways I can “add value” to the subscription by offering free content and that kind of thing.

And, if nobody signs up, at least I can continue to go broke with a clear conscience.

Yes-its-free

End Times

I saw this tweet today:

@torbooks: Check out Barnes & Noble’s SF/F picks for March: bit.ly/1qgsnHm

As you know, I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan, so I clicked the link to see what Barnes & Noble were recommending in my favourite genre. Boy, was I disappointed! Out of 19 books listed only one was actually science fiction (and that was a collection of old Marvel comics – so not exactly new, adult reading). The rest was just a load of fantasy.

It was also disappointing that this tweet came from Tor, which has a reputation of being a sci-fi publisher. If even Tor is promoting this list as sci-fi and fantasy (when it’s basically just fantasy) I begin to see why science fiction is dying. Either nobody knows the difference any more, or nobody cares. In fact, it makes me wonder whether sci-fi isn’t effectively dead and the publishers and the readers just haven’t had the heart to mention it to the last few writers still working in the genre (myself included).

I’ve only come across two, really good, new sci-fi writers in the past few years, Ann Leckie and Ramez Naam. Two, and I’ve been looking. If I wasn’t so committed to the genre, I think I’d consider hanging up my jet pack. But I guess this grizzled old rocketeer will go on dreaming about the stars until they carry me off to the soylent green factory. Once the nanites are in your blood, there’s no getting rid of them.

Space Ship Two test flight

Cover Reveal: Cargo Cult by Graham Storrs

Next month, on All Fools Day, I am releasing my latest novel, Cargo Cult. It’s a sci-fi comedy, so I have no idea how it might be received – comedy is such a personal thing – but everyone who has read it so far, has loved it – including people who are not directly related to me. (If it wasn’t for that stunning fact, I’d be even more nervous about letting this one out into the wild.)

It’s a book that has taken me years to write. I started it about 12 years ago. The first draft took me two years. The second draft took a further three years. A third draft that was a major revision and extension (doubling the length of the book) took about four more years. Then I sat on it and tweaked it until I finally decided it had suffered enough. It wasn’t the only thing I worked on in all that time, but it has been there in the background, occasionally the foreground, for what seems like forever.

It’s a book with lots of characters and a convoluted plot (but nothing that a smart 12-year-old couldn’t cope with). And, like my last novel, Heaven is a Place on Earth, it is also set in and around the city of Brisbane. It begins with a crash and ends with a bang and, in between there is mayhem. To quote the blurb I shall probably use…

When a Vinggan ship crash-lands on the uncharted planet Earth, the marooned survivors – twelve religious zealots, their leader, and a single, low-ranking crewman, called Drukk – decide to make the best of it by converting humanity to their rather authoritarian religion. Inadvertently disguised as fourteen identical copies of megastar actress Loosi Beecham, they set off to begin their evangelical mission.

And that’s when things really begin to go wrong. For their crash was not all it seemed, interstellar law enforcement is on their tail, and the humans are inexplicably strange – especially the busload of old folk they make off with, the New Age cargo cult that welcomes them, the local police force that is following them around, and an overambitious reporter and her idiot brother who don’t help matters by kidnapping crewman Drukk.

Oh, and did I mention the talking kangaroos?

Only Drukk finally begins to understand what is really going on, but by then the Vinggans have unwittingly carted dozens of humans off-world and the only plan anyone can come up with to get home again is complete and utter insanity.

If you’ve already glanced below the fold at the cover image, you might be wondering about why there’s a pouting woman front and centre. Not my usual style, but, honestly, she’s completely relevant to, indeed central to, the action in the book. In fact, the model for the photo, is called Tea Time. She is Swedish, a total sci-fi fan, currently doing a Bachelor’s degree in criminology, and sings with the band Ashbury Heights. To me, though, she will evermore be the face of Loosi Beecham.

OK, if you’d stop doing the drum-roll now… Thank you. Yes, the cymbal crash was quite loud enough. Ladies and gentlemen, the cover of my new novel, Cargo Cult.

Cargo Cult cover

Of course, last time I did a cover reveal, I ended up being taken quietly aside and shown how it should really have been done. And that worked out so well that this time I’ve left almost a month to let the critiques come in and, potentially, make changes. Anyone want to pitch in?