I love the way that e-reading allows stories to be presented in whole new ways. Sometimes it’s bold experiments in multi-media like Device 6, sometimes it’s just drawing your gaze through a comic slightly differently like Comixology can do. The comic Moth City by Tim Gibson does something in between.

Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson

Tim Gibson by Tim Gibson

Moth City is a dark historical thriller, set on a fictional island during the civil war that racked China from 1927 through to 1950. There’s a speculative element to it, the dieselpunk-style device of a high tech industrial island producing weapons of unimaginable devastation. But I’m only one issue in, and I don’t know yet whether this story will see many wild, fictional technologies, as opposed to just one to drive the plot forward. Either way, the island’s an interesting idea.

What’s really interesting is the way that Gibson has used the potential in digital comics to change the way that the story is revealed. Rather than show you a whole page at once, or guide you through panel by panel without showing the whole page, he’s set his comic up so that panels are added to the page as you read. This allows you to enjoy the extra surprise of not seeing what’s coming up, while also getting to enjoy the dramatic art of a good page layout. Sometimes panels even replace other panels, creating an added sense of movement, of passing moments.

You can get the first issue of Moth City free from Tim’s website or through Comixology. If this has piqued your interest then give it a go and let me know what you think. I’ll certainly be going back to read more.

I found out about Moth City when Tim appeared on an episode of the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast, so if you want to know more about Tim and his comic you can listen to that too.

For a writer, I can be terrible at thinking about the purpose of my words.

I realised this as I was helping everwalker with some editing last week, looking for ways to make one of her scenes punchier. All my suggestions were about taking things out rather than adding them in, because I’m that sort of editor as well as that sort of writer. There’s always a conscious element to the choices I make in that process, but for the first time another part of the process, one that had previously been happening subconsciously, came to the fore.

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

I realised that I was thinking about what each sentence did in the reading experience. Not just what information it conveyed, but what it represented as a function in the scene. What changes in this sentence? What emotional impact does it have?

Several sentences in a row can convey different descriptive information while all serving the same function, for example telling you that a character is tense. In a slow scene that’s fine, it adds vividness, but once the pace picks up you really just need to convey that tension and quickly move on.

I’ve never read my own work in quite such a functional way before, but something has clearly clicked in my brain. I expect it will make my writing and editing better, as well as giving me a new perspective as a reader.

* * *

Quick update on the e-book. It’s been delayed by a mixture of other deadlines and technical failure on my part. I wanted to get a mailing list set up before I publish, so that I can direct readers there from my books. But two days after switching domains to andrewknighton.com I discovered that I’d done that in the only way that didn’t let me embed a signup link. Curse my mildly inadequate research!

I then put off solving this for a while, because mailing lists and internet domains are slightly outside my comfort zone. And when I came back to it yesterday I realised that it wasn’t a big problem – I could have a signup page over on Mailchimp and a page here to direct to that.

So yes, I failed at the internet, but at least now I have a mailing list. And if you’d like to receive updates when I have a new story out, as well as occasional free stories and offers on the books I will soon start to release, then please go and sign up.

 

Image by bark via Flickr creative commons.

When I was growing up science fiction and fantasy TV was a rare and precious thing. My dad, my brother and I would set time aside for any episode of Doctor Who (old school) or Star Trek (repeats and then the thrill of TNG), because that was what there was. Then came the X-files, Babylon 5, Buffy – suddenly there’d be two speculative shows on TV in the same week, maybe even three. A new dawn of nerdery seemed to be upon us!

These days there are so may science fiction and fantasy shows, and so many ways to consume them, that I have to pick and choose. Something like The 100 can be out there for a year before I even hear of it. Fortunately I heard of it three weeks after Channel 4 started showing it, so laid low by a headache one evening I lay back and caught up on the first three episodes.

It was a pleasant surprise.

Wait, it’s not the 4400 sequel?

Like me, you may be disappointed to discover that The 100 isn’t the post-apocalyptic sequel to flawed but intriguing The 4400. Instead, it’s the story of a bunch of teens dropped into an Earth recovering from nuclear war. Will they be the harbingers of humankind’s return? Or will they all die of radiation poisoning, leaving us to watch twenty episodes of trees, glowing butterflies and rotting corpses?

In case you can’t guess, this trailer explains a little bit more.

 

It’s clearly a YA drama, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it’s based on a book.

Did they just do what I think they just did?

If you hate dramas about teens then you’re going to hate this. There’s no escaping that. And if you get annoyed at trend-jumping television then you’ll spend the whole time screaming ‘I read The Hunger Games already!’ Honestly, I don’t even know whether I’m going to stick with this one. It has potential to be awesome, or to descend into Lost-meets-the-Vampire-diaries meandering tedium. I have no idea which way it’s going to jump, and that’s part of why I’m still watching.

This show clearly wants to be seen as Lord of the Flies in space. But its commitment to that wavers. There was a shock moment at the end of the first episode that made me grin darkly and rub my hands together as they committed to the concept’s horrifying potential.

Then the second episode pulled back from all of that. Dammit, I thought, they’ve lost it.

Then came the last five minutes of episode three, and another ‘holy cow’ moment that was particularly surprising from American network television (dammit, it’s hard to discuss this without spoiling it).

Based on what’s happened so far I fear bitter disappointment from episode four. But for now at least I’m going to keep watching. Partly because I’m the kind of guy who wants to see Lord of the Flies in space, but more than that, just to see if this show turns into something darkly brilliant or collapses into a compromised mess.

Either way, I’ll get to witness something terrible.

If you’re in the UK you can catch The 100 on 4OD. If you’re elsewhere in the world and have seen it already, does this thing work out?

Our reading habits are hugely influenced by gatekeepers, people and institutions who make broad judgements on what is and isn’t worth reading. It might not feel like it on an individual level, when you’re picking up the book that your friend recommended, but if you look at the big picture you can see these guardians of our reading experience looming over our selections.

They’re the big publishers, deciding what to put into print.

They’re the bookstores big and small, deciding what to order, what to show prominently on the shelves.

They’re the reviewers and editors who decide what gets attention.

They’re the writers of school and college curricula, making decisions on what counts as ‘important’.

Out with the old gatekeepers

Of course the overt power of any given gatekeeper is crumbling. Western culture developed a healthy and outspoken strain of cynicism about authority in the 1960s. The rise of the internet in the 1990s created a space in which we could easily seek out voices like our own, and so live the fractured and pluralistic culture promised by that previous generation. Now the growth of self-publishing is along many more writers to see their words in print.

The power of traditional gatekeepers is in decline. Bookstores are closing down, or at least being transformed. Ministers receive as much ridicule as praise when they try to tell us what’s worth reading.

And yet the wide range of choices causes us problems. We need a way to filter the millions of books, to decide what to read. We cannot make decisions without the help of some kind of gatekeepers. So what will those gatekeepers look like in ten or twenty years’ time? And will they empower us to make the choices that best suit our tastes, as we want them to, or will they try to make us fit their tastes, as is traditional?

Algorithms as gatekeepers

One of the biggest gatekeepers at the moment is Amazon. Its algorithms are designed to help you find books that you will like through its recommendations on what to read next. Amazon foregoes the opportunity to deliberately point you towards books which provide the company with a larger per-sale profit, instead betting on the long game. If they keep recommending the best choices for you then you will keep coming back and buying through them. It’s part of how they so thoroughly dominate the book selling market right now. If you want to know more, go read the informative books and blog posts of David Gaughran.

If the Amazon story has taught us anything it’s that nothing lasts forever. Damien Walter has predicted that, with the rise of more sophisticated software, Google may eventually take over from Amazon as our best source of book recommendations. This would, as Damien points out, liberate writers from being dependent on Amazon. However, Google’s paying customers are advertisers not readers or writers, and that could have a detrimental impact on how it works.

Algorithms have proved the sort of gatekeepers that empower us and help us to find books we want. The owners might change, but those programs aren’t going away. What will be interesting to see will be who provides the programs and who they help.

Awards as gatekeepers

Awards ceremonies provide a very different sort of gatekeeper, essentially creating a recommendation that the judges or collective community believe everyone should read. Whether it’s the impending Booker Prize directing the entire British reading public towards a single piece of literary fiction, or the fandom-voted awards that accompany the summer’s big science fiction and fantasy conventions, these are hegemonic gatekeepers, trying to hold a group together through shared tastes and identity.

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

In some ways awards are among the most old-style of gatekeepers. The idea that any single book can be held up as objectively the best in its field feels absurd to me. But these prizes aren’t going anywhere, and they do fill a useful function. They bring us together, scattered as we are by our diverse tastes, help to create bonding conversations before we scatter back to our algorithmically identified reading piles.

What other gatekeepers?

I’m sure there are other gatekeepers still of relevance. Can you think of some I’ve missed? And what difference do these ones make to your reading? Do you find Amazon helpful? Do you single out award-winning books to read?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Body language, and in particular facial expressions, are a vital part of getting across characters and emotions in a story. Lists of their common meanings such as this cheat sheet or the database compiled by the Center for Nonverbal Studies, can be invaluable for writers in getting this right. But as a teacher I saw first hand that there are exceptions to even the most obvious of rules.

To most of us, a smile is a smile. It’s a way of expressing our happiness. Sometimes we fake it, but people can often tell the difference. One small high school class I taught, consisting of only half a dozen kids considered ‘challenging’ in their ability to learn or behave, showed me how many other things it could mean.

Aiming to misbehave

O was your classic troubled pupil. I never found out what was going on at home, but he had the attention span of a fruit fly and the gleefully malevolent humour normally seen in cartoon devils. O could have been a capable student if he could just sit still for three minutes at a time. But O didn’t want to learn. There was only one thing O craved, and that was attention.

When O smiled it was because he knew that attention was coming, and he didn’t care why. As the quickest route to attention was normally to misbehave, 90% of O’s grins meant that he was acting up, or plotting to act up. In a sense, O’s smile was still a happy smile, but it was a dark sort of happiness.

This isn't how O smiled, but it's how most teachers saw his grin.

This isn’t how O smiled, but it’s how most teachers saw his grin.

These things that I have learned

M was an adorable, politely spoken lad with a smile like an angel. You could have sat him and O on someone’s shoulders and thought you were in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. M was also autistic, so far along the spectrum that he could only function in a mainstream school with full time support.

If you’ve watched Scandinavian police drama The Bridge you’ll have seen a detective who is apparently autistic. She doesn’t understand social rules and conventions. She doesn’t smile because she isn’t having the same emotional experience as everyone else. Her face is set to a default.

M was similar, except that his default was a smile. I think he was genuinely happy most of the time, but that smile only showed a surface learning of the emotion. He didn’t understand how it worked in others, or how to expand upon it for himself. He just knew that nice people smiled, and so he smiled.

Smile like you mean it

Q was the most heartbreaking person I have ever met. He and his family had fled Afghanistan at a time when that country was in horrifying turmoil.

Q smiled a lot. It was a huge, nervous grin that split his face in half. He smiled when he was happy. He smiled when he was nervous. He smiled when he didn’t understand what people were saying, which happened a lot because his English wasn’t great. He smiled when he was being told off, which led many teachers to conclude that he was a troublemaker who they needed to deal with strictly. But punishing Q led to more inappropriate grinning, led to more frustration from teachers who thought their message wasn’t getting through, led to more trouble, led to more grinning, led to… You get the idea.

A couple of months after I first met him we found out what had happened to Q and his family in Afghanistan. He had seen horrifying things that had traumatised him for life, brutal crimes committed against people he loved. Somewhere in all of that physical and emotional violence he had learned to suppress his feelings beneath an uneasy smile. For all I know that smile kept people off his back for a while, maybe saved his life. But it made it almost impossible for him to function in the ways we’re used to. Our universal signifier of happiness had become, for Q, a signifier of fear. If he smiled on happy occasions it was just because he feared that the happiness would be snatched away. Most of the time, he was smiling because he was confused and afraid and had no idea what else to do.

Whatever makes you smile

Years later, thinking of those kids brings a tear to my eye, but it also makes me smile. I miss them more than anyone else I ever taught. I miss that whole class – O, M and Q, the sweetly gormless smile of P, the ever-changing expressions of the wannabe-rebel G. They were amazing kids, and ones our education system has almost certainly failed by now.

As a writer it’s incredibly useful to be able to use a single expression as a signifier of a standard emotion – smile means happy. It cuts through the clutter to convey emotion to the audience. But reality isn’t that simple, and if you can find ways to use other forms of smiling, other reasons to smile, then you can show your readers unexpected depth of characters, like I found with the real life characters in that class.

One day I’ll write a story about those smiles.

 

Picture by Randy Robertson via Flickr creative commons

Fellow writer J H Mae recently invited me to take part in IC Publishing‘s writing path blog tour – an opportunity for authors to connect up with each other while talking about their craft. That seemed like an interesting thing to do, so here I am, touring from the comfort of my living room. Thanks for the invite!

Seriously, it’s really comfortable here. I’m sitting in Laura’s big armchair, set up perfectly to face the flat screen TV. For her, this is the Skyrim setup. For me, it’s how I write.

Speaking of which…

1. How do you start your writing projects?

Brainstorming. Whether the project’s a short story or a novel, whether it comes to me in a flash of inspiration or comes after trawling my notebooks for hours looking for the right idea, I go from there to brainstorming. I note down ideas relating to the central concept, looking for inspiration for characters, setting, plot and thematic elements that relate to it. Sometimes ideas connect back in with each other, which is great. Sometimes not so much.

Then I develop the main characters, often using Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, because I find templates helpful. I think about background, motives, desires, conflicts. Based on the conflicts I plan out a plot, usually using Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because, again, I like templates – they remind me to put important things in. Somewhere in all of this I’ll do some research, usually at the brainstorming stage, to give me interesting and authentic details to bring my setting alive. If it’s about an alternate history Baghdad I want the history convincing. If it’s about an alien race then I might want tribe formations to seem anthropologically convincing. A few good details will provide a lot of inspiration and a lot of grounding for a story.

Then it’s time to write.

What passes for my office

What passes for my office

2. How do you continue your writing project?

I’m lucky. Because I work at home as a freelance writer I can mix my schedule up to try to create a balanced life. So writing six hundred words of fiction a day is just part of my routine, to be slotted in wherever it’s convenient between other writing, household chores, a bit of mindfulness and maybe a trip to the gym. Sometimes I do a lot more than 600 words, but having that routine is what keeps me going. If I get stuck I use the Write Or Die word processor to force myself to put words on the page, but these days that’s seldom a problem.

I’m usually thinking about my projects between writing them. Many of my most vivid ideas have sprung to mind while driving over the Pennines to visit family.

And no, getting distracted by plot isn’t why I crashed my car, though it was on that route.

3. How do you finish your project?

For most short stories I get a first draft written pretty quickly, then do one or two editing passes (one with input from a friendly reader) and then send them out into the world. But that’s seldom actually the finish. I have about a 5% acceptance rate, so my average story gets rejected nineteen times before it gets accepted. And a few of those rejections come with useful feedback, which I use for further re-writes. So really, a short story is finished when someone accepts it (or I do the edits they request after acceptance) or when I decide that it’s never going to see the light of day and stick it in my ‘abandoned’ folder.

It’s a big folder.

That means that by the time one story’s done with I’ll have written a dozen more, so I don’t really struggle to let go – I’m writing so many things, I get to endings all the time.

4. Include one challenge or additional tip that our collective communities could help with or benefit from.

The best inspiration comes from other creative fields, different disciplines sparking new ways of thinking. So go take ten photos of different sorts of boundaries, or dance around the room like your character, or watch a video about how computer games are structured and see what you can learn.

Next up…

Now I get to pass the tour on to some other fine writers, who will answer these same questions in a week’s time.

First up is Russell Phillips. Russell is an award-winning author of books about military technology and history. His articles have been published in Miniature Wargames,Wargames Illustrated, and the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers‘ Journal. He has been interviewed for the American edition of The Voice of Russia. And you can read my previous tribute to the awesomeness of Russell here.

Next is another fantasy author from my neck of the woods. Manchester-based R. A. Smith is an occasional time travelling historian, a keen gamer and a wannabe petrolhead. He counts war gaming armies and several bears amongst his extended family. Authors the Grenshall Manor Chronicles, Oblivion Storm and Primal Storm out now, book 3: WIP :)

Last and by no means least comes the blogger whose beard and enthusiasm I most envy. Josh Stanton is crazy about steampunk. When he’s not reading and blogging about it, he’s writing it. He is currently working on a steampunk horror, called Choke City.

Go check out their blogs, and look out for their blog tour posts in a week’s time.

andrewknighton:

I’m a big fan of How To Train Your Dragon, and also of Sue Archer’s Doorway Between Worlds blog, where she discusses communication lessons from science fiction and fantasy. So today I’m proud to present a guest post for DBW all about communication in How To Train Your Dragon. Please go check it out, and while you’re there have a browse around Doorway Between Worlds – I particularly recommend the article ‘Would Your Captain Be Proud?’

Originally posted on Doorway Between Worlds:

This week on DBW, I am featuring a guest post by Andrew Knighton. Andrew writes fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk, and shares my passion for clear communication. Welcome to DBW, Andrew!

Communication isn’t easy, which is a shame, because it’s vital to human life. The ability to tell someone else how to grow crops, or how to read and write, or that you love them – these are fundamentals of human life.

Fortunately there are lessons on communication, as on everything in life, in that greatest source of human lessons – children’s animated fantasy films. Kids’ films get away with what adult films can’t, both in wild flights of imagination and in teaching us, gently but firmly, lessons in how to live. So today we’re going to learn from How To Train Your Dragon.

Set patterns – a communication problem

One of the greatest barriers to communication is…

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