Sunday, 28 October 2012

Thursday, 25 October 2012


 This will be included on my friend Marj's Blog. Have a look and see what she's writing about:

I've been thinking a lot about planning recently, as I'm going to be doing it as part of my on-line writing course. It's one of those things that seems to divide writers along with ,“show don't tell” and the use of semicolons.

The real argument seems to be that the non-planners say that the story is driven by their characters. They put them in a place and the story naturally unfolds. The other side seems to say that this is fine for a simple story, but that for a story to have real have depth its got to been seen as a whole picture first.

I think I tend towards the last group. I've experimented with both forms of writing and while I find the first is good, and even more enjoyable for adventure stories, there have been too many times where I've been led to a dead end or even worse, an unsatisfactory ending in a story. There have also been loads of Indy books that I have read where the author is obviously doing this and you can spend several meaningless chapters waiting for something story wise to really happen. Although that might just be poor editing as well.

On the other side I think there is a danger of over planning. I think when you hold characters too tightly and try to force them in a certain direction they can become wooden. If you are too focused on the final destination and not going with what feels natural for the characters, the reader can tell. There is nothing worse in a story the when the nice kid who's never done anything bad in his life suddenly decides for no reason to steal something or break in somewhere. It's cringe worthy and I want, and sometimes do, throw the book across the room shouting “why!” This is really bad for me as I now use a Kindle.

So I think the argument is not really a matter of right a wrong, but much more a matter of degrees. When I've spoke to people who say they “don't plan” their stories. It seems what they mean is that they don't formally plan their stories. Likewise I've never met a writer who makes a time-line for each paragraph of their book. That's why I go for the middle ground.

When I plan I usually make mind maps for the main characters as way of finding out who they are. Likewise there will be another mind map for story itself. Every couple of chapters I'll also tend to do a mind map for the next section of the story in which I'll include a few more details.

The thing is, these are just way points for me. They are vague mountains in the distance and don't go in to very specific detail. It's something that I could do in my head, but for me putting in on paper helps. I think that non-planning writers do the same thing. They just don't need to put it on paper.

Also, as I write, the mind maps change. In fact most of my diagrams grow more during the story than at the start. For me it's a way of keeping track of characters and ideas along with giving me time to examine smaller facets of the story in detail. That said, there have been plenty chapters where the map just got lost – or burned. Things came up as I was writing and so the story changed. In my first book Paradigms there was one chapter which I stared writing that ended up adding another five unplanned chapters to the book. It was a long and productive diversion that really added to the story, but the final destination still stayed the same.

So what I'm really saying here is that there is no right or wrong. There is just what is right or wrong for you. Use short stories. Play around. Experiment. Find what you are comfortable with and what works for you, then go for it.


Chris McKenna is the author of the books Bardo, Paradigms and the Truth about Faeries.

You can follow his blogs and find out more about his books and writing courses at:

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Experimenting with new styles

I’ve been trying to do some work on a new novel. I really would like to do something more serious rather than action oriented, but the switch is not easy. The story often feels slow and bland compared to what came before. It’s like simmering a pot of water over a long time rather than boiling then cooling boiling then cooling. It’s going to take some time to get used to.

I had started on the first chapter of the novel, but trying to go from where I left off has been tough for the second chapter and I’m questioning if I’ve told too much of the story rather than letting people see it in the first. It might be that I’m rushing the story to try and keep it busy in the way my fantasy stories are.
I think I’m going to experiment with some short story writing in different style that I can use to figure out how I want to write.

Has anyone else had much experience changing styles? Can anyone give me some advice?

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Writing and relationships.

I had a guest over from Japan for the weekend and it was nice having someone in the house for a while. However, I did find myself feeling conscious of the amount of time I was on the computer trying to do some stuff. I couldn't have imagined starting to write at the that point, it simply would have been rude .

There was also another time once when I wanted to spend time with a girl friend, but was also trying to finish the first novel. I suggested we could take our respective work to a cafĂ©. That way we could still spend time together while getting our work done. It did not go well. After about an hour and a half she had her first out bust, which went something along the lines of, “It’s like I'm not even here!” Needless to say I've never tried that again.

So how do people get around it in full time relationships? In Steven King's writing book he talks about how his wife is his great support, but he’s raking in millions, so it might be easy to be understanding at that point. Is it the same when your an Indy writer, that also has to do some “real” work to pay the rent?

Can relationships and writing really go together?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Going Low-Tech

I've been doing a bit of game shopping recently and interesting to see all the big titles out there and how impressive they look, but most of them really don't interest me. Mainly because I'm sure I've played the same game before in another guise. Now I don't think gaming industry is going to give up its big sellers any times soon. High graphic games are still going to be with us for ages to come. In fact I'm sure they're only going to get more realistic. What has been interesting me recently is the sudden up surge in low graphic gaming. The ones I think of straight away a FTL and Minecraft. But  they seem to be a vanguard of a whole bunch of other games fuelled by the rise of mobile computing.

Personally I think it's great. Ask anyone who grew up in the 1980's about the games they played then and they wont be able to shut up about them. UFO, Master of Orion, Ultima and Dizzy. These games were fantastic and they were fantastic because they had to be. You couldn't just throw out a game with super amazing graphics you had to focus on game play.

Sadly, as games developed people simply just mimicked what came before. Innovation – expect on the graphic side – seemed to be dying. But the new rise in games has led to game designers having to think again: Limited memory, limited inferences, limited processing power. How do we make up for it? Better game play! It seems like it having a great effect on the industry and I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Like I said, I doubt the old way of gaming is going to disappear, but hopefully the new innovation wont just be limited to mobile gaming but will extend to traditional games as well.  

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Chinese Copyright – An Oxymoron?

Let me start by saying that I’m not into China bashing. I think that in many cases China has become a scapegoat for western governments for problems that we have created ourselves through greed, jingoism and whole bunch of other things that are not really the point in this post. 

However, one thing that has annoyed me a bit about China is the lack of copyright enforcement. For me it’s one of the biggest examples of China’s supposed “cheating” when it comes to international trade.  

Now I’m not talking about home software or downloading films here. I personally don’t mind if a person who doesn’t have the money downloads an illegal copy of my book. Besides, most Chinese would not be able to afford a real copy of windows and would not buy a full price DVD (or my book) if it was available to them; the relative costs are just too much. And on that side of the argument publishers and producers only have themselves to blame. 

For me the unfair part comes once we starting getting into companies, schools and other institutions. I’ve worked in four or five different schools, both public and private and not once have I seen a legal copy of software. In fact, once, when I was at the computer science department, I found an illegal copy of “XMLspy”. This is a product I was involved in developing when I lived in Austria. From what I’ve read and seen such piracy is common place throughout China. The book we had in the computer science department quoted the illegal software figure at over 90% of all software used.
Now I think China could have been forgiven for this ten years ago. But in the current state of things where China is rich and there are massive trade imbalances, it seems pretty unfair. 

If you think about Altova, the middle/small company that I worked for in Austria. They’re spending a lot of money to develop that product, but getting nothing back from it. Yet some people in China are using it to make money from Austrian companies – possibly even Altova - through the products they manufacture. It’s a one way flow of cash for a two way flow of goods and services.  

Moreover China has started moving in on creative industries as well, not just manufacturing. So who can create a cheaper application? The Austrian company that has to pay thousands for software licenses or the company that’s getting them for free? In this case the Austrian company is effectively subsidising the Chinese company by paying towards the development costs of the software. Without the one company paying, there would be no software for either.   

 And it’s the same for all industries. The light bulb factory in Scotland has to pay its share of fees for software licensing, while the Chinese light bulb factory can use the products for free. It’s small part of the reason China can make cheaper bulbs. It’s especially hard for start up businesses where technology costs are can be a large part of the start up fees. It’s not a fair contest.

So what can we do about it? Well for a start governments have to start raising this issue with China more. In my admittedly limited experience with Chinese people is that if you stand up to them in a firm but polite way then you will get results. Not taking action seems to be seen as a green light to do something even when saying not to.  Although I do wonder how much control over ground level issues like this the government of China really has.

What’s really needed is a change in the mindset of the Chinese people – no easy task. And the only way of doing this is education, which is something that the Chinese government has to be on board for. But why wouldn’t they be?
The thing is, it’s not just in the West’s interests to improve the copyright law. It’s in China’s interests as well. If the reports I’ve read are true, China is trying to move away from its manufacturing focus and trying to develop its creative and service industries instead (or possibly as well as). But is anyone going to open a software company in place where they know that they will make no money for their products? Is anyone going to spend millions of investment in new technology only to have it stolen and sold for a fraction of the price? 

Moreover, I think of my students in the computer science department. What jobs are there going to be for them in the future? Sure there will be some large scale developments and governments or military jobs, but that’s a small number of positions  compared to the number of graduates. Most, with their high education, will probably end up doing menial jobs in factories far away from their homes to pay the rent.

Frankly I don’t think there is a simple solution to this problem. But inaction is certainly not the way to go. Raising the issue with China is a start, but it means little without reciprocal financial punishments. On the other side, software companies have to start charging reasonable prices, based on an international mean for their products, so as not to keep pricing companies in low wage countries out of buying. Maybe with these and some other changes we can come to an agreement on a fair way to deal with copyright.   

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A new chapter for a new book

Been working today on part of a new book. It's been pretty intense to write. First of all I'm out of practice but more than that I'm used to writing light fiction and this is a lot more personal. 

My big worry so far is that it's too angst
sy. It's not going to be like that the whole book. But I'm worried it will be put people off. Any thoughts?( NB: grammar and spelling are still going to be a mess, so just ignore those for now. It's early days)

Chapter 1

It seems to happen for different people, at different times, for different reasons. A death in the family; an ageing face in the mirror one morning; a close call in a traffic accident. But for me it was simple boredom. At least that's where it started.

I don't know when, but at some point in my life I just started getting tired of it all. When you're young everything seems so bright an so new and then one Monday morning you're old and you wake up knowing that the day is going to be exactly the same as the past ten years. Then its every Monday, then everyday. The days of the week becoming the bars of your prison.

But by then it's no longer just boredom. It's become something else, something beyond the simple words. Something insatiable. The punishment of Tantalus. Frustration. Frustration becoming anger. Anger at life. Anger at the world for offering no chance of change. Anger at ourselves for not finding a way.

Your mind is invaded by a question:
“Can this really be all there is?”
And that devil has a thousand guises:
“Am I nothing more that work, sex and caffeine?”
“Where did my life go wrong?”
“What's the purpose in it all?”

But it's all the same lingering unanswerable question. And facing the void of unknowing we do what hundreds of generations of humans have done before us: we start to pray.

On our knees we ask for revelation, we beg that something more will be revealed to us. But we abandoned god long ago and now his church sits empty. We bit into the apple too many times and knowledge and the sciences have become our gods and so our prayers fall on deaf ears. And we know, however much we fight it, we know that we are alone.

We're just solitary chemicals, blips of insignificant energy strewn around in the randomness of the cosmos. We are pitiable machines that deserve no salvation – because there is no salvation for the likes of us. We, the cursed, that have evolved so far that we can see what we really are. We that can see the pointlessness of our own existence with no way to act upon it.

But I did act. I don't know what series of events conspired on my behalf. Which supernova erupted billions of miles away? Which comet pass through our solar system? Which storm battered the shores? Which blade of grass grew? I did act.

Life for me had been simple. Simple and meaningless. I'd been raised by loving parents yet never learned to love. I'd gone to school, studied and gained all manner of papers and accreditations, yet learnt nothing. At the end of more than two decades in the education system, I found myself behind a desk watching as another two passed me by.

I could write pages about that job. I could expound on the products we bought and sold. Chemical supplies for the most part. I could rhyme of our client lists and suppliers. I could lecture on out company philosophy. But it would be like the job itself: pointless.

It was a simple position and one that I cared nothing about, but for the monthly pay checks debited to my account. Silver handcuff. I lived for weekends. Grinding though Monday to Friday so that I could earn enough, to get drunk enough, to forget that I had another five waiting for me on the other side. Like so many others, I was funnelled like cattle to be milked for my profit to the company. No life but for that which would benefit our market share.

But don't misunderstand, my owners were nice. My boss Lisa was a benign little woman who came up to my chest and I am not the tallest of people. She was always cheerful and pleasant as she piled up the work for the coming week.

Lisa had come from the Philippines and married to a local businessman who probably worked in an identical but slightly better paying company at the far end of the industrial estate. She lived only for her family. Whether that was her two children that she went home to every night or the network of family that she posted cash to every month. Either way she was far from tyrannical. I would better describe her as motherly, even with those below her at work. She was the sort of person you would feel strange swearing in front of.

Despite all this I despised the woman. As the mouth piece of the company I looked on her as a captive looks on his jailer. But more than that, I hated her contentment with her normal little life. Why did she not feel the way so many others did? Why was she content when we were not? I have since wondered if it was the children. I never had children of my own. Would I have cared more if I had? Would I have been more willing to pretend to care for their sake?

It matters not. For as it stood I shovelled the shit she put on my desk will all due care and diligence, while watching the clock with one eye. Before returning home to my two bedroom house in the suburbs where I would spend my evenings in a comma of internet and film induced numbness. That was except for Fridays. Friday was the night for Eliza.

Eliza was not my girl friend, but far more than a friend. She looked after me. We looked after each other. On Friday nights we would bar the door to her five year old son and bar her mind to her ex that had had ran off and left her with him. Then we would sit drinking together while watching a film. We would chat and laugh about the stupidity of our respective offices or complaining about the cards that life had dealt us.

Eliza's life was much like mine, but with the added insult of her wayward ex. She was condemned to her days in the call centre most weeks. Cold calling people who had no interest in upgrading their gas supplies. She's been a pretty girl at school, with a touch of something foreign in her blood that made her dark and more seductive than most others. She had attracted many and chose the wrong one.

I never found out his name, she never used it, but I heard that he was in the army. A good looking fellow I guess. The kind that would be popular in school and then not amount to much after. I'm not sure if he waited until the kid was born until he disappeared, or not. But he was good enough to leave the house and some cash before vanishing into the sunset.

I don't think Eliza hated the guy. I think she missed him. Always hoping that some day he would come home. She never chased after him, nor tried to get him for child support. She wanted him willingly or not at all. She had her pride and she had his son.

We'd talk about him and work until we were both drunk enough to find ourselves wrapped around each other. Her most passionate times were always after she'd spoke about him. Sometimes she would cry as we had sex, but most of the time it was fun and playful. I don't think we ever seen the end of a single film.

It was an escape for both of us and although not without it's affection, it was not love. It was something between lust and love. A in-between shade where they both existed and did not. An agreement of two lonely people, to be a little less lonley for at time.

In the end I would leave her as well.      

Friday, 5 October 2012

Common Themes

I do think that even with science fiction and fantasy a lot of the stories play into idea that are active in our world today. I was thinking a bit about some of the most common themes that have been about in films, books and games recently. Here's my thought on what some of them could be:

The apocalypse: There seems to be more and more of this around recently, I'm thinking of things like the Road, the Book of Eli, Hunger games, Fallout and even my first book Paradigms.

For me the symbolizes a fear that a lot of people have in the west about the current state of affairs. In many ways it seems we've already peaked and are now on the way out to be replaced by something else from the East with very different values from our own. Is it the end of of our would as we know it? Maybe not quite in the way that some people are portraying it, but it certainly feels sometimes that we are at the end of one “section” of history and at the start of another.

The return of Dragons/Elder Gods/Insert other thing here: There have also been plenty of stories around recently about the return of some former ruler race that come back to enslave mankind and put it back in it's place. Most recent things that come to mind are:Prometheus, Skyrim, Risen maybe to some extent the Avengers.

These types of stories for me make me think about a certain fear about religions – in the old style. A lot of people in the world have become secular and have given up on the old ways or at least have become accepting of other culture and beliefs. But there's been revivals in certain parts of the world and signs that religion is not as gone as many of us thought it was. In fact in some places it's coming back and taking over again, finding it's way in to politics and race relations. Maybe some of us are afraid of being put in our place again.

Zombies: We've had loads of zombie stuff of late. The walking dead would be the vanguard for sure, but there's been plenty of other things in other places. I used Zombies in Bardo as a way or portraying the hungry ghosts and it seems to be something that become a minor theme in many books and films. Think of what Loki does in the Avengers, or the zombie type things in Fallout.

Zombies are classic and I think they're still the same deal as what they were when they first came out, but in the generation of the Iphone, they seem even more pertinent than they were in certain shopping malls. You only have to see a bunch of kids shambling down the street with their smart phones to know what's going on there. Never before have we been so connected and yet disconnected at the same time. Have we lost our brains and been reduced to comments in certain number of characters? Can we no longer think for ourselves, but simply consume RSS feeds, podcasts and youtube videos (well not if you have an Iphone but you get the point.)

Vampires: Another classic that's been revived thanks to Twilight, True Blood, Underworld and the amazing number of Vamptasic ebooks that have been published.

Lust, as it ever was, seems to be the name of the game here with vampires. Although it seems to have taken on the form of angsty teen development in modern cases. Are we worried that our kids are growing up too fast? Are we worried about the not so modern, but much more out spoken obsession with sex? To be honest I'm a bit old for this one, so better to ask a teenager, but there something going on with blood suckers for sure.

Now I'm sure there are load of interpretations as to what all these things could mean and there are a lot more recurring themes than the ones I'm pointing out. In fact, the ones that I've picked probably say a lot more about me than anything else. Still I always think it's interesting to look at what's possibly going on in our collective cultures/consciousness/media – however you want to look at it.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


The debate with Mitt Romney made me rather surprised. I had this image of this guy in my head – a typical Republican, big business and burning down the ecosystem, and what not. In truth I ended up agreeing with a lot of what the guy said – though not all for sure, but he seemed normal, even reasonable.

In addition I've been watching the Daily show and while it is comedy focused with some international issues they've really been going into some depth. Again it's totally counter to what I've heard about the American media. It's supposed to be vapid and only skimming the surface. What's going on here?

It is funny how you end up making these pictures of people in your head. People who you've never even heard talk, all based on propaganda, hearsay and jingoism. I guess this is the biggest problem on both sides of the left right debate – on the sides of all debates. Is that we have this set image of what the other person is like. “All Christians are right wing … bla bla ”, “All gays are camp cavorting fellows who.... etc”. It makes it really hard to listen to what people are actually saying, because we've already decided what they are going to say. 

I've seen a lot of the same in books and films. Two dimensional characters that we instantly know who they are: the geek with no social skills, the burly hero who stands against authority, the sasy love interest. I wonder how much I've done this with my own work - I hope not too much.  I don't think I've done it with main characters, but maybe with "extras", but then I had hoped the same with politics and see how well that turned out. 

It's something I'm really going to pay attention to in future stories - assuming there are any. I'm going to try and avoid using template characters and makes sure there is a back story to everyone. Likewise I'm going to try and do the same thing in real life and try and see the people that are really there and not just the image that I've been told to see.