Friday, June 17, 2011

Creative Consulting

Continuing our semi-irregular highlighting of the works of other authors, we're privileged this week to play host to Justin Richards, who really should need no introduction.

Not only was he the editor, presiding over BBC Books' Doctor Who range 'back in my day' - and continues in his role as Creative Consultant for the range - if you want some idea of just how prolific he has been as an author, you need only check out this list on Amazon and prepare to be impressed. Even setting aside the mountain of Doctor Who books and audio dramas, he's written a host of other original series, collaborated - creatively! - with Jack Higgins, and has recently ventured into the Kindle arena with another creation of his own, The Skeleton Clock. So it's even more of an honour that he took time out of his scribely schedule to answer a few questions.

Now, for openers, I already have my copy of The Skeleton Clock on my Kindle, so technically you don't have to sell me on the book, but give us an elevator pitch for the novel. What does the story have going for it?

The main thing – I hope! – is that it’s a good, exciting story. It’s set in the City, which is London some time in the future when the sea level has risen and the Thames has flooded out across the city. The ground has fractured and moved, so there are areas that are completely under water, and others where just the tops of the buildings stick out of the flood. So it’s sort of recognisable, but very different – St Pauls Cathedral is just the dome above the water and called ‘Whispers’. If you look out from there you can see the twisted, broken remains of the Gherkin, with the glass shattered and the rusting skeleton of the structure just about intact and that’s The Twisting. But to get there you’d have to take a boat – maybe from Nelson’s Mooring, which is this statue on a short plinth sticking out of the water. Or maybe you can find a way through the old tunnel network under the city – though that can be dangerous as the tunnels are liable to flood without warning...

So it’s a fascinating environment, society breaking down and everything sort of skewed. Into that, let’s add a mysterious antique bookshop, and some nasty villains, some secret experiments, a talking statue and of course sea monsters!
Sorry – I think our elevator travelled through a lot of floors there, didn’t it?!

You are a prolific author with a host of published material to your credit. Why on earth would you choose to add to your workload by venturing into the independent publishing arena?

It’s an experiment and an adventure. I wasn’t really sure what to do with The Skeleton Clock once I’d written it, so I thought it would be a good novel to try as an eBook. Seeing the royalty rates publishers are offering, and watching some ‘independent’ novels doing so well as eBooks, I thought I’d better find out what it’s all about. I read almost everything on my iPad now, and while I don’t think eBooks will replace the physical printed editions the market is going to be huge. So I wanted to know what’s involved – the formatting, submitting, publishing... And I’m getting into pricing and promotion as well. That’s where it gets trickier as I want to be an author not a publicist or marketeer. But even in print-publishing the author these days has to be more involved in the non-writing side of things...

Has it been a successful experiment? Too soon to know – but I don’t think I’ve lost anything by trying and who knows, maybe Spielberg will find the book...

As an author, I'm a fan of having two or three different projects on the go at any given time - in case inspiration runs temporarily dry on one, I always have something else I can turn to. But with so many different series and individual titles to your name, how do you juggle the various projects?

Panic usually. Well, actually it’s a complex algorithm that combines: (a) what do I want to do today? (b) which deadline is the soonest and (c) what was I working on yesterday as that’s likely to be easiest to pick up on again.

I tend to have things at different stages. So I’ll have several projects that I’m working on proposals or outlines for, some that are coming back to haunt me in the form of rewrites or proof reading or whatever, and I’ll have one that I’m actually working on the main writing part of. So I don’t actually write several things at once. Well, not really.

Also of all the creations and series to your name, which would you consider your favourite and why? (Setting aside Doctor Who!)

Ooh, that’s tricky. In fact, impossible. I love them all as much I think. I’m very proud of my standalone novels like The Chaos Code and The Skeleton Clock. But as series go The Invisible Detective was a great breakthrough for me – and such fun to do. The I sort of moved on with the books about the Department of Unclassified Artefacts. That was never really devised as a series, but there are three of them now (The Death Collector, The Parliament of Blood, and The Chamber of Shadows) – all of which have been great fun and very exciting to write...

Then I’m also proud of the work I’ve done with Jack Higgins – which was such a privilege, working with a literary hero of mine. And for sheer enjoyment, my younger children’s spy series Agent Alfie made me laugh the whole way though – even though writing funny is very very difficult!

I remember a favourite quote, from Sol Stein, that you used to cite to me: "A writer is someone who can't not write." Obviously with contracts and commissions come deadlines and demands, but is that creative impulse still very much a part of what drives you or is making time to write purely a discipline and/or part of the job?

I’m glad you remember that – it’s a good and apt quote isn’t it? And it applies to me just as much now as ever, I think. ‘Driven’ sounds a bit pompous, but if I go for a few days without actually writing anything then I do get itchy fingers – I need a keyboard. I need to write... something.

Doctor Who formed a large part of your writing - and editorial! - career for a long while and that was clearly a labour of love. How much of that influences your writing outside of the Doctor Who universe?

I suspect it’s a huge influence. I write the sorts of things I would love to read – or see or hear. And my absolute favourite series in any format is Doctor Who. So whatever I write will be to an extent tinged with that, I think. I don’t mean I’m writing Doctor Who without the Doctor, but I love that style of story – which may be quite realistic in so many ways, but underlying it is a huge fantasy or SF or horror conceit. There is something – in the true sense of the word – extra-ordinary going on. Maybe it’s ghosts, or the supernatural, maybe it’s monsters, maybe it’s extrapolating science, or maybe it’s flooding London and filling it with sea monsters and animated toys...

Back to the Skeleton Clock. It's a great title, but where and how was the idea for that story born?

I started with the setting – which I think is probably unusual for me. Usually I have an idea for a plot or a character. The Chaos Code came from the character of Julius Venture, for example. The Parliament of Blood came from a new take on Victorian Vampires... The Skeleton Clock started to tick (as it were) when I was watching an Alan Titchmarsh series on the BBC about the making of Britain in geological terms. There was sequence where they took London back to Jurassic times, or whenever, and they used CGI to flood Trafalgar Square I think – showed the water rising to where it would have been. I watched that short sequence and first I thought it was a terrific image. Then I thought that it could happen again in the future – just like they showed. Then I started to wonder what sort of stories you could tell set in that environment.

Finally, what's your take on the age of the Kindle and ebooks? And are there plans for a paperback edition of the Skeleton Clock?

To take the second question first, I’m not sure. I don’t want to become a print-publisher. But I might well take The Skeleton Clock round and try to sell the print rights. We’ll see – for the moment it’s ticking over (ha-ha) as an eBook.
As for the future of publishing, well now you’re asking. I think eBooks will become hugely important. More than that is difficult to predict. There’s the whole democratisation of publishing as well – anyone can publish a book. So how do Publishers fit into that? Will they be gatekeepers in the sense that readers will look to see if a ‘real’ publisher is behind a book as a guarantee of quality? How will Publishers persuade authors that they can add value to their work? Because I’ve seen both sides, I know that a publisher brings editorial advice and judgement as well as marketing clout and ‘branding’. But will that continue to be important?

There was a point, I remember as I was in the computer industry, when it was obvious that the whole video-game revolution would be driven by the film studios. They had the visual authors, they had the technology and expertise to produce what would be basically interactive films the user could control somehow. But it didn’t happen. The film industry stepped away from that – or rather, never realised it was there. A whole new industry grew up instead and for a while we talked about how the film industry would die as a result. We’re at a similar turning point now – or soon will be. Print books will survive, no question. But for the new, exploding eBook industry – will the existing publishers step up and bring their expertise to that, will they reinvent themselves and learn how to add value and stay in the game? Or will a new industry develop – like the teenagers and young entrepreneurs who jumped into the video-game vacuum? So far, eBooks are just print books put online. Will that continue to be the case, or will the eBook branch off and mutate into something very different?

We live – and write – in exciting times!

You can find The Skeleton Clock for your Kindle on Amazon or for other e-readers on Smashwords.

Further information on The Skeleton Clock, including a free sample, can be found on Justin's site along with details of many of Justin's other works.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Dancing With Dinosaurs

There are some rules they don’t tell you about going to concerts. Like when the doors open on a Shakira gig, there’s no hurry because she won’t be on until much later. (She’ll be well worth the wait, mind you.) But for a Rush concert, well, rush. The clue was there in the name, I’ll grant you, but I was, for the first time in my life, late for a show.

Admittedly I took a laid back attitude to the schedule – courtesy of the lessons learned at the Shakira concert in December. Doors open at 6:30pm, show starts 7:30pm, I figured the latter time was more than good enough to aim for. But on Wednesday 25th May I should still have been at the O2 in fine time for the Canadian trio’s Time Machine Tour.

But: (adopts Reggie Perrin voice) 10 minutes late, delays on the Jubilee line. Followed by a hold-up at the doors as, thanks to having my ticket displayed prominently on the side of my fridge for the last few months, the print had faded somewhat so they had to print a fresh ticket for me so that their machine could read the bar code. Then I foolishly attempted to grab some fast food before taking my seat, and suffice to say it wasn’t. Fast, that is. It was food, of sorts.

And, perhaps as punishment for my joking on twitter about who might be supporting Rush – Hans Zimmer? – there was no support act and the main act had kicked off at or near 7:30. Ouch.

So I missed the first twenty minutes. I’m guessing about four songs. Although with Rush, that could just as easily have been two songs. Depends on which era they started out on in their Time Machine.

Ah well, all these things are part of the adventure and, like the winter wonderland outside at the Shakira concert, certainly serve to characterise a given occasion in the memory.

The fact is, I’m glad to say, missed songs aside, the band pretty much scotched all my jokes about dinosaurs and the chance to see them again before fossilisation set in. They have been around for aaaaaaaaaaaaages. I grew up with my Dad playing their albums (loud) (in amongst Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and others) on Saturdays when my Mum went out shopping. Fair to say, I didn’t actually get into them myself until early to mid teens, maybe, but that still makes for thirty years I’ve been following their progress. I saw them live back in the days of yore of their Roll The Bones Tour. The memory cheats, I know, but to me they didn’t seem any less live this time out.

More so, I would say, since Roll The Bones – along with Hold Your Fire, which featured prominently on that tour - was heavier on the synthesisers and lighter on the heavier stuff. Whereas, what with Time Machine intended as a tour through their own history, this packed enough punch to defibrillate a dinosaur. Such hammering bass you could feel the vibrations in your chest. In a good way.

The set – as in physical set – was relatively simple but had a beautiful Jules Verne steampunk aesthetic going for it, backed up with fireworks (loud enough to nearly give the guy next to me a heart attack) and spurting pillars of flame, with Peart installed at its heart like a cross between Captain Nemo and Animal from the Muppets – and delivering a sensational drum solo midway through the second half.

That’s right. Second half. For all their age, Lee, Lifeson and Peart gave us a *three-hour* stormathon of recent tracks, a smattering of new material and of course the classics. Lifeson doesn’t move a whole lot but he gives his all on the guitars, while Lee bounds around the stage like a kid. One section of the show is devoted to a live performance of the Moving Pictures album in its entirety. Yay! Because I love that album. From Tom Sawyer to Vital Signs, (even if I can’t always hear Red Barchetta these days without being reminded of that damn Milky Way ad – “The red car and the blue car had a race!”) it’s something of a bridge between their purer metal years and their flirtation with more commercial leanings (like Hold Your Fire) – but at least they never did a full Genesis. It’s something of a miracle in rock genealogy terms that the three of them have remained together for so long. Whatever chemistry they have between them, it works.

On first impressions, the new songs were what I’d call dependable Rush, not blow you away stuff. But in fairness to the band, when you go to see a show like theirs, there’s a sense of an unspoken trade agreement – sure, fellas, you can play your new material as long as you give us a healthy slew of the oldies. And they held up their end of the bargain.

The one and only area I feel a bit cheated on (apart from what the O2 vendor charged me for a burger and a few chips!) is that there was no Xanadu. I have this horrible niggling feeling that maybe they opened with that track and I am going to have to put it on the CD player when I get home just to remind myself of its awesomeness. We did get the exquisite Closer To The Heart from the same era, but part of me always (and when I say always, bear in mind I’ve only seen the band live twice) feels a Rush concert is incomplete without Xanadu. I’d rather hoped it would be one of the encore numbers, but instead we were treated to the powerhouse Villa Strangiato and (oddly reggaed up to initially disguise it) Working Man. For my money, the latter was a curious choice of closing number, but on the other hand it hails from their very earliest album and I guess it’s fitting that the Time Machine ends up back at what was essentially the beginning.

It’s like if Doctor Who was a rock band, they might play out with An Unearthly Child. And that would by no means be a bad thing.

It’s an oldie but a goodie. Just like Rush. Thanks for that guys.

Not sure what kind of dinosaurs they are, but I’m sure the word ‘bronto’ is in there somewhere.


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Extraordinary League

Before I get stuck into a review of Saturday’s Doctor Who episode, let me just get something out of my system:

I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!

It’s tough to be entirely objective when buoyed up by the satisfaction of having been right all along, but on the other hand it’s one helluva neat trick to deliver an episode that gives the answer you expect while also magically avoiding the trap of predictability. The Grand Moff is quite the conjurer.

A Good Man Goes To War was everything it needed to be and more. I was concerned that the mid-season break might damage the show, with too large a chunk of the audience losing interest during the summer interval. Autumn may prove me wrong, but now I’m pretty confident that anyone who watched it will be back for more. Hopefully along with a lot of others who just heard about how bloody good it was.

It was big, bold, gutsy, brave and tugged at the heart-strings. This is the first episode in ages I’ve rewatched the following morning and I shed genuine tears. In amongst the genuine out-loud laughter and woo-hoos of delight. My main grumble is that we should have had two episodes of this, instead of the dreary Flesh runaround of the preceding couple of weeks. Plainly, the Flesh plays a significant part in this season’s arc, but there was more life and excitement and suspense and emotion in any randomly selected five minutes of this than there was in the entire Almost story.

The opening scene was enough to confirm for me the identity of Amy’s daughter – the name Melody Pond on the side of the crib – so it kicked off with a little Yay! From me from the get-go. The destruction of the 12th Cyberfleet was a bit of unnecessary grandstanding and further undermined a Who monster reduced to a bit of a joke by too many rubbish stories... *but* it served to underline a key point which comes up later *and* finally gave us a Rory full of authority and maturity, one we could believe had stood guard over his beloved Amy for millennia. “Don’t give me those blank looks.” Brilliant. And then the punch: “Shall I repeat the question?” to a backdrop of a fleet breaking apart in fireballs.

Grabbed my attention.

Then we’re treated to a look-in on Demon’s Run and its residents: the creepy order of Headless Monks and the Anglican army (previously seen as good guys in Time Of Angels) - both of which have an irresistably (Robert) Holmesian flavour – and some elaborate, extensive trap laid for the Doctor by Mrs Eyepatch. Amy’s declaration to her captors is highly-charged and the subtle introduction of Lorna, watching on as Amy’s baby is taken is superbly done. I will say the gay Anglican couple were amusing, if not great in the acting department – but the horror of the fat one’s conversion is expertly dished up – without the need to show us anything but an empty – waiting – box.

Then we’re off on a whirlwind tour of time and space as the Doctor and Rory recruit their Magnificent Several for their own battle beyond the stars. And they’re a fantastically colourful collection of characters too. Sword-wielding Victorian lesbian Silurian and her maid sidekick (Tipping The Scales, anyone?); Sontaran nurse (I can just picture him in Casualty); and wheeler-dealer Dorium (“What do you need me for? I’m old. I’m fat. I’m blue!”). Storming little scenes that deftly paint the characters and backgrounds (and doubtless spawn several thousand works of fan fiction, but these scenes are honestly all we need!) And, of course, Rory the Roman turning up to enlist River.

Oh my god, I loved that scene. River: “Turn it off. I’m breaking in, not out.” The whole thing is beautifully laced with emotion and razor-wit, both of which cut deep. Is Rory the ‘Good Man’ that River kills? I ask this because although we have seen the Impossible Astronaut shoot the Doctor, I’m not sure we can be sure the young River was in the suit at the time or indeed how or by whom she would be arrested for the crime. I foresee a certain future ahead and how this all might play out, but I’m reserving speculation for the moment – partly because of the spoiler potential, I suppose, but mainly I think because I doubt the chances of my being right twice. ;-)

Anyway, what’s true of that scene holds true for most of the rest of the episode. Moffat writes rollercoasters that spiral around themselves and take you on topsy-turvy heart-wrenching rides in the best possible way. The triumphalism of the Doctor’s battle on Demon’s Run is very RTD-like, but it has the advantage of occurring early on and we know it’s all just been too easy and that there is a bitter downfall to come. We’d know it even without River’s prophesy.

Where a two-parter might have enhanced that would be in elaborating on that battle, making it a little less obviously too easy. What we get is something of a shorthand version and the bad guys’ trap might have seemed a touch cleverer – and we would have gotten to see the Extraordinary League in action some more. As it is, within the time allotted, it works – even if I did fully expect the Doctor to be revealed under one of those Monk hoods and when he says, “Surprise!”, I wasn’t really. But I still enjoyed it all the same and the story had further surprises to come.

The Anglicans chanting “We’re not fools” went on a bit too long for my tastes. That’s an incidental though and the magic carries on around it, culminating in the Doctor’s 3 mins 42 seconds victory (NB not without bloodshed as the Sapphic Silurian – thanks, iCowboy! – later claims) and is not even sullied by the pirate captain and the space spitfires turning up to remind us of two of the poorer stories in the last couple of years. The great truth is that there’s almost too much fantastic stuff going on *after the battle is over* to properly cover in the space of this review.

You know me, I never like to harp on too long. But I have to cite just a few of the special moments.

The Doctor’s anger and his breaking of Colonel Runaway. That’s the vengeance of a Good Man. Amy’s tearful reunion with Rory and her baby – and the Doctor joining them and speaking baby. The Doctor and the Silurian discussing when the baby ‘began’. The Monks and their attack prayer. River's voice-over 'Demon's Run, When A Good Man Goes To War...' recital while everything is coming undone. Dorium’s wasteful death. The Magnificent Several’s heroic stand. The ‘fool you twice with the same trick’ flesh-baby. Hands up, I did not see that coming. I feel like I should have done, but hats off to Moffat. And Amy’s reaction. I get a chill now just thinking about it, the way she screams out Rory’s name.

The Sontaran’s death and his connection with Rory: “Rory, I’m a nurse.” Lorna’s death and the Doctor’s lie: “Who was she?” “I don’t know but she was very brave.” “They always are.”

The cot. Not only a wonderfully quirky example of Gallifreyan meets Gipetto carpentry, but it raises so many fascinating questions. Some of which Amy and Rory put to the Doctor, of course: “Have you ever had children?” To which there’s clear evasion going on and surely the Doctor’s lying when he tells them the cot is his. Thank goodness he’s not a suspect in LA Noire, because I’d never have been able to read the lie. Later, River is asking him if he’s forgotten how to read and there’s a close-up of the Gallifreyan script. So it’s her cot. Sure it could have been his as well at some point in the distant past, but I don’t mind admitting I have trouble getting my head entirely around the River-Doctor timeline. Moffat cooks a mean pasta dish but I can’t wait for him to properly untangle all the spaghetti.

River’s arrival on the scene is, in any case, the crowning moment. The speech she gives the Doctor is a rude awakening for him, a home truth. It happens to echo something I’ve wondered for a while now and harkens back to that scene with the destruction of the cyberfleet: has the Doctor become too powerful? The man who can turn armies around at the mention of his name. And, as River puts it, if he carries on this way, what will his name become? What will he become?

It’s inspired, to explore the consequences of that. I wonder if it will lead to a sort of reining in of the Doctor, something of a return to his older ways where he wasn’t quite so in command all the time. At the same time, it’s difficult to see how he could take a step back from what he is now, without some kind of regeneration or otherwise cataclysmic trauma. (And who knows, with the teaser shot that followed this week’s episode, that could well be what’s coming...!)

That is ultimately part of the beauty of what Moffat has left us with. This has all the spectacle and grandeur and epicness of a season finale, with all the advantage of also feeling like part one of a however-many-parter. The ending strikes a kind of Empire Strikes Back note, with the Doctor heading off to recover Amy’s daughter while the others remain behind with, er, Amy’s daughter.

On the subject of which revelation (I knew it!), it just bears out how superbly it’s been played all along. I sensed a bond between Amy and River, a similarity even – to an extent they’ve been played like female Doctors and that has to have contributed to the chemistry that’s evident whenever we’ve seen the Amy-River-Doctor team in action. (That and you get the sense the actors have a whale of a time.) And I totally buy it, as long as River never actually calls Amy ‘mum’. That would just look/sound really odd. Temporal shenanigans will do that, I guess.

There are questions. Umpty-gazillion, I’m sure. For one, exactly who is it that the Doctor has scared so much that they’ve gone to these lengths? The Daleks? The Silence? Silent Daleks? Whoever or whatever, the season has a real villain, a real enemy at its core - no matter how long we have to wait before we see them. But what Moffat pulls off with this halfway finale is to ice this cake with a major major answer and sprinkle all those other questions on top like hundreds and thousands. And as if that wasn’t enough to make us sit up and eagerly await Doctor Who’s return in the autumn, they then promise that he’ll be back in an episode entitled:

Let’s Kill Hitler.

That alone was worth a laugh out loud and a huge round of applause.



Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Death Is A Lonely Business

So said Ray Bradbury in one of his titles. And far be it from me to argue with the great Mr Bradbury, but of course that's only one reason why we might choose to explore the topic in our creative writings.

And it's a recurring theme for children's writer and illustrator, Janie Bill, who guests here today as part of our occasional mission to highlight other authors.

Over to you, Janie.

Janie's Fantastical Floridian Tales

Dying is serious business. Growing up with strong family ties, much of my childhood involved attending funerals for extended family and elderly relatives. I wasn’t allowed to wear black because back then it wasn’t a proper color for a child even when in mourning. I saw open caskets and closed ones, flamboyant floral arrangements and coffins inside homes.

Despite all the support I gave to my extended family and friends of my parents, most of whom I saw once a year at Christmas if that often, death didn’t strike me as a monumental occasion until it visited my immediate family. Although my novels intend to uplift readers, death consistently makes an appearance.

In Lochness, a boy named Lochlan drowns while saving his dog during from a Floridian hurricane. His guardian angel in the form of a dragon fairy helps him find his way through the passage between life and death. As Lochlan struggles to survive underwater, he searches for the path back to his home before being devoured by a lochness monster.

In Halo Light, a boating accident at the moment an enchanted island disappears takes the life of Ivy’s dad. Determined to bring her father back, Ivy develops her ability to understand the miracle of Halo Light. When Ivy learns fate intends to take her mother’s life also, she embarks on a quest into the Everglades where she confronts paranormal demons and discovers the secret to everlasting life.

In Mystery Under a Full Moon, while snorkeling, teenager Anatolia finds a Spanish treasure that possesses supernatural powers when placed under a full moon. An hour later her dinghy overturns and she lands on a waterlogged body floating in the lagoon. She sails through the Caribbean, hiding from the killer who hunts for her treasure, and collecting clues to reveal his identity before he attacks.

Simon, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to visit your website. Please stay in touch and discover the inspiration behind my Floridian tales at

You'll also find a range of Janie's illustrations and thoughts on writing and her unique world view over on her site.