On Writing Head Of State, Part 1

Sorry for my absence for a few days. This has been an incredibly busy and stressful few weeks — since the election I’ve had a severe illness in my family, spent a couple of evenings with a friend over from California, and had various other bits that needed doing.

One of those things, that’s occupied a big chunk of my spare time recently, is putting together the final edits for my novel Faction Paradox: Head of State, which will be out in the summer. So I thought I’d talk a little about it, without spoiling too much, because I think the process of writing it is of some interest.

It started, as a matter of fact, as a space opera. I was trying to come up with a Faction Paradox novel idea, because my friends Simon Bucher-Jones and Lawrence Burton, both of whom have written their own very good novels in the series, said I’d be good at it, and my original thought was to use a space opera idea I’d posted here, about first contact with a planet that was exactly like Earth in every way.

The idea was a good one, and I may well come back to it, but I hit a few snags. There were things I wanted to include, things that I had a hazy idea of, that just didn’t fit — I wanted to include a book that held some great significance, I wanted to talk about power, and I wanted to include a plot point hinted at in The Book of the War which I still think is one of the best ideas in the Faction Paradox series. And none of this really seemed to fit the space opera storyline.

Then, I had two other ideas. I can tell you precisely where I was — I was walking through Piccadilly train station, and I could show you the precise spot where I was when these ideas came to me, they were that vivid. The first idea was to have the Thousand and Second Night, as told by the decapitated head of Scheharazade. The second was a scene which comes right at the end of the book, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s set in 21st century America. But the thing is, I *knew* those two scenes, totally disconnected as they are, were part of the same book.

I also realised that the Thousand And Second Night could be the important book that I wanted to write about, so now all I had to do was connect the two images.

The first, obvious, thing was that Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer, was a translator of the Arabian Nights, and also appears as a character in The Book Of the War, so I decided to use him as a character, and model the version of the Nights in my book on his translation. Making the book the motivating factor behind a character in the last scene could tie the threads together.

But that’s still only five ideas (1002nd night, Richard Burton, ending, book, motivation). At a rough approximation, you can get about 1000 words out of an idea. So I needed seventy-something more ideas to write a novel. I’ll talk about how I pulled those together next time…

Tales Of The Great Detectives Ebook Up For Sale Now!

While the physical book is not yet available (though you can pre-order it for delivery at the end of last month), you can buy Tales Of The Great Detectives now in DRM-free epub and mobi (Kindle) formats.

It has the best short story I’ve ever written, and seven more great short stories about the various Holmeses and Watsons in the City Of The Saved, the city at the end of the universe from the Faction Paradox books, where every human who ever lived — and many that didn’t — has an immortal second life. It’s edited by Philip Purser-Hallard, one of my favourite writers, and is just superb. Buy it.

(Incidentally, for those who do buy the ebook, there’s a minor formatting error in my story that may cause confusion. The two paragraphs that start “‘These pictures”, and the three starting with “From the 1950s” should be formatted differently to show they’re quotes from other sources. Having seen the copy-edited manuscript, I don’t think this will be a problem in the physical book, and it’s certainly not a major enough thing that you shouldn’t buy the ebook.)

Pre-Order Tales Of The Great Detectives Today!


The City of the Saved houses every human being who ever lived… but some of its immortal Citizens need more.

For the Remakers, one fiction above all exerts its fascination: a character existing in countless interpretations, many of them now recreated in the flesh and in business together as the Great Detective Agency.

These are their tales.

In the Agency’s annals, the City’s many Sherlock Holmeses solve the Case of the Pipe Dream, experience the Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate and explore the strangely clichéd Mansion of Doom. A Watson falls in love; a Moriarty goes missing; and Holmes comes face-to-face with his arch-nemesis, the sinister Dr Conan Doyle…

Edited by Phil Purser-Hallard, who created the City for the Faction Paradox line, with artwork by Blair Bidmead, this third in the City of the Saved series and is a little more…focused…than usual…

You’ll all know how much I rave about Phil Purser-Hallard, both as a writer and as an editor, and he’s edited two books coming out from Obverse Books next month, Iris Wildthyme On Mars, which I’ve not read, but which contains stories by many of my friends and shoud be great, and this, which I have read and know is superb.

If you like Sherlock Holmes, eschatalogical science fiction dealing with the nature of reality and identity, the Doctor Who/Faction Paradox universe, or just good stories, you’ll like this. If you don’t, buy it anyway because it has a story by me in it, The Adventure Of The Piltdown Prelate, that I think is the best thing I’ve ever written except my forthcoming novel. (NB I don’t make any more money if you buy it unless I misread the contract — I’ve already been paid. Just buy it because it’s a good set of stories).

Pre-order physical book, ebook

Ten Sentences From Head of State

Just to whet your appetites a little. The book is still being edited, and there may be rewrites ahead, so these may not all be in the final book, but here are ten sentences chosen at random…

These Mal’akhim are spoken of throughout Araby in dark whispers and legends, and are capable of taking the shape of a man, but are neither human nor ensouled, and should they go without the human blood on which they make their beastly repasts, they soon begin to decay into a foul slurry.

If you think being a pretty, skinny little girlie gets you hit on by too many repulsive men, you need to try being a pretty (if I do say so myself — I *am* fucking fabulous), skinny little girlie with a British accent in the Midwestern US, attached to a political campaign which acts like a gigantic Strange Man Magnet.

While my illustrious colleague hath told a tale of the past, of Allah’s creation of the universe, and of the war between Jannat and Jahannam, my tale, no less fantastic, is a tale of the present, of a far-off, distant land, many leagues from here.

They’re treating Matt Nelson like he was Zac Efron (look, I have a little sister who was way into High School Musical, don’t judge me) or someone, and it’s a bit freaky.

Sometimes you couldn’t tell how nutty they were for a while — they’d be talking about normal stuff like how we should go back on the gold standard or something, and then they’d start in on how the Republican and Democrat parties were really fronts for two rival groups of aliens who secretly controlled the world, or how there was a mad god trapped in the centre of the earth that was controlling everyone’s thoughts.

“I mean he’s the Antichrist, Dave.”

It has been suggested by some that I should put down for posterity an account of the circumstances behind my induction into the organisation to which this missive, written currente calamo but not, I hope, to be taken as evidence of cacoethes scribendi, is dedicated, and which it is meet not to mention, at least in terms which the profane masses will readily comprehend.

There may be some confusion here, though, and Civitata may be an aspect of sakīnah, a word which means a blessing sent by Allah, but with overtones of “dwelling place” or sanctuary.

The typical Democratic voter, even those who support him, says “he’s a nice enough guy, I guess” and little else (the Republicans say “he’s a Communist atheist who wants to sell out our country”, but then they’d say that about Ronald Reagan these days).

On one side there’s a group of… I was going to say “people”, but in one sense they’re something closer to what you’d get if you crossed the Greek gods with the mathematics department at Cambridge University, while in another they’re more like laws of nature but with very slightly more personality.

Faction Paradox: The Brakespeare Voyage

Now I’ve finished the latest draft of my novel (and hopefully any further revisions will be relatively minor rather than the major changes I made this time) I can get back to blogging, and to start with, here’s a belated review of The Brakespeare Voyage (ebook here).

This is an odd book for me to review, in that I had — sort of — read it before I ever read it. Simon Bucher-Jones, one of the two co-authors, told me the basic story outline several years ago, and last year he sent me a late draft of the book so we could coordinate stories a little — there is something set up in this book that will resonate a little with my own next book (which will be published by the same publisher, so take this as my declaration of interest).

So when I actually read it, as an actual proper book, there was a strange feeling of deja vu — but then, that’s appropriate for a book like this, which is resolutely non-linear in its structure, and which is built on a dense network of allusions both to other books and to earlier and later events in the novel’s own timeline.

The book is, in essence, the story of a whaling ship, and as such all through it there are resonances with other nautical stories — the Jonahs (whalers who believe their own ship is also a whale), Captain No-One, one strand of the story starting “Call me Nebaioth” (Nebaioth being the son of the Biblical Ishmael) — but this is no ordinary whaling ship, being instead a ship that sails the void between brane universes.

Captaining it — at least in one version of reality — is Robert Scarratt, a figure who will be familiar to readers of The Book Of The War. Both Bucher-Jones and Dennis contributed to that book, and so it should be no surprise that this book makes more use of the Faction Paradox mythology than many of the books have up until this point. Where books like Erasing Sherlock or Warlords Of Utopia are Faction Paradox books because they have a certain atmosphere that fits with the other books, this is something that couldn’t have been done as anything else. It makes use of so much of what is established in the other Faction Paradox books that it’s impossible to conceive of it being done in any other series.

And it’s absolutely marvellous. While the basic form of the narrative is that of a nautical adventure — the kind of story that was mostly told between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries — all the elements of that style of story are given new forms and context in a story which works on the grandest scales imaginable.

Some may find the novel’s form — with multiple narratorial viewpoints intertwined (though mostly just those of Scarratt and Nebaioth), each telling only part of the story and not in chronological sequence, with some metafictional elements also thrown in — difficult, if they’re coming to this book only knowing the authors for Doctor Who spin-off fiction. But the truth is that the form merely fits the subject matter, and Faction Paradox more than any other setting seems to demand this kind of structure (there are superficial structural similarities both to Lawrence Burton’s Against Nature and to the next Faction Paradox novel, though all three books were conceived independently).

The book requires some work from the reader, but surprisingly little for such an idea-rich book. Practically every page, and certainly every chapter, contains an idea around which a lesser writer would base an entire book on its own. My own particular favourite was Hilberta’s Hostel, which I found a beautifully funny concept.

I’m really not doing justice to the book, but it’s probably the best thing that either Bucher-Jones or Dennis have written, and another sign that the Faction Paradox series is in safe hands at Obverse.

For those who are interested, Simon has posted several pieces about the evolution of the novel on his blog, where you can also read some pieces of Faction Paradox flash-fiction.

New Short Story Collection Featuring Me Coming Soon

As Phil Purser-Halard has now announced it, I can tell you that my story The Adventure Of The Piltdown Prelate will be published in Tales Of The Great Detectives, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories set in the City Of The Saved. Here’s the blurb and list of authors from the link:

The Afterlives of Sherlock Holmes

The City of the Saved houses every human being who ever lived. Inevitably, its immortal Citizens entertain themselves by recreating those who never did. One fiction above all has drawn the attentions of the Remakers – a character existing in countless interpretations, many of them now alive and in business together as the Great Detective Agency.

These are their tales.

Read about Holmes and Watson’s sojourn in the strangely clichéd Mansion of Doom, about the Case of the Pipe Dream and the Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate. Learn what happens when a Watson falls in love, when a Moriarty goes missing, and when Sherlock Holmes comes face-to-face with his arch-nemesis, the sinister Dr Conan Doyle…

The stories in it are:

Young Sherlock Holmes and the Mansion of Doom – Stephen Marley
Eliminating the Impossible – Jess Faraday
The Case of the Pipe Dream – Chantelle Messier
Art in the Blood – Kelly Hale
The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate – Andrew Hickey
The Baker Street Dozen – Elizabeth Evershed

I’ve read Jess Faraday’s story already (to tie some bits in with mine) and it’s excellent, and both Evershed and Hale have done some extremely good work in the past. I’m not familiar with the other two writers, but the last two City Of The Saved collections were both absolutely full of wonderful stuff, so I’m sure their stories will be great.

For those who liked my Doctor Watson Investigates story (also available at Smashwords) my story is another Holmesless Watson one.

More Tales Of The City

(Crossposted from Goodreads)

I really need to post more reviews of books I’ve read, don’t I? I’m reading them far faster than I can review them. But I’m going to try to do more.

To start with, here’s the sequel to last year’s Tales Of The City, and so I have to add my obligatory disclaimer:

I am not only friendly with the editor of this book, but also with some of the writers in it and the publisher. I have a novel coming out from this publisher at some point late this year or early next, and both the editor of the book and one of the authors in it have bought stories off me for forthcoming anthologies. It would not be right for me to review this book without mentioning that.

But it also wouldn’t be right for me to do it without pointing out that I *became* friendly with them because I admire their work and share something of their aesthetic, so I personally believe that rather than my friendship with these people causing my enjoyment of their work, rather my enjoyment of the work affects the friendship.

For those who don’t know, the City Of The Saved is a fictional environment, established in The Book of the War and Of the City of the Saved…, in which every human being from the first Australopithicene to the last posthuman demigod has been resurrected after the end of the universe. Not only that, but the technology exists to ‘resurrect’ fictional characters as well, so there’s a detective agency staffed entirely by different versions of Sherlock Holmes, for example.

As a setting it’s quite brilliant, and I loved Of The City Of The Saved… , but that was largely because Philip Purser-Hallard himself is such an excellent writer. What surprised me was last year when Tales of the City came out and showed that the City is an extraordinarily good playground for a whole variety of different types of storytelling, not just Purser-Hallard’s eschatological SF, but everything from Regency pastiche to dark horror (and that was just in one story).

More Tales Of The City is, if anything, better than that first volume. Possibly I think that because while the earlier collection was loosely based on the theme of Greek myth, this is a collection of stories that are, in one way or another, mysteries, and I prefer that genre, but either way, this is an astonishingly good, varied collection.

I won’t talk about everything in it, but just briefly discuss two stories I particularly enjoyed. The first is Double Trouble At The Parasites On The Proletariat Club by Simon Bucher-Jones. This is a Wodehouse pastiche, and anyone who’s ever read one of these knows they’re notoriously hard to do — Wodehouse was the greatest prose stylist in the English language, which pretty much by definition none of his imitators are. This means it’s very, very easy indeed for even a writer as good as Alan Moore to fall flat on his face and come across looking like an idiot.

Bucher-Jones has, happily, come up with a rather ingenious solution to this problem, which is to have his narrator be an idiot who is attempting to pattern his life on Wodehouse’s characters — thus the character is *meant* to be narrating in Wodehouse-pastiche rather than in Wodehouse’s actual voice. This allows him to play with Wodehouse’s style without having to match it exactly, and the result is a rather lovely mystery-farce which hinges on a character note from some of Wodehouse’s early work.

The other stand-out story is The Mystery Of The Rose by Richard Wright, who’s not a writer I’d noticed before, though he has stories in some Iris Wildthyme collections. It’s another literary pastiche, and an astonishing tour de force, as he does Raymond Chandler and William Shakespeare simultaneously. Here, a recreated version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (as played by Ian McKellen), now working as a private detective, is hired by Elizabeth Woodville to discover if the real Richard III actually killed her children. He narrates the entire thing in first person, of course:

The patter of my speech confirms the truth –
my author’s revered voice is known to all.
A son of York, the plotting king, the fiend,
Richard third, the deformed, dethroned, deceased.
Yet never walked I through the world you knew.
Pentameter crossed not that monarch’s lips:
his northern tongue could scarce concoct such verse.
A Remake I, a story given flesh.
A fictive being pinned to humanity’s
understanding of itself so surely
that I have earned a place at the end of Time.

And the introspection of the Chandleresque mystery works perfectly with the Shakespearean soliloquising, as Wright tells a story of power, guilt, morality, free will and responsibility. It’s a rare pastiche that manages to evoke two very different authors simultaneously and bring their similarities into focus, while still remaining a worthwhile and inventive story in its own right.

While I’m not going to review every story in that much detail, the other four stories in the book all rise to this level as well, as does Purser-Hallard’s linking material. I can’t imagine an SF/F reader who wouldn’t enjoy this collection.

More Tales Of The City is available from Obverse Books in paperback and ebook.