A letter from [my old] editor

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Matt Bielby is the man who set up SFX, and who launched Death Ray. I worked with him only on the latter, but have known him for years. He’s got a looooong CV in the magazine industry. Google him.

He read Reality 36, and seeing as he’s a prolific wordsmith, he sent me a critique of it (he wrote it while becalmed on a sailing boat, would you believe). I emailed him back a set of responses, as you do.

Some of this reveals some of my thinking on writing the book, and a little bit of the backstory to the universe so I thought I’d share. So here goes. My bits are in bold. I figured I’d just reproduce it as it was in the correspondence, although I’ve removed some of the more spoilery stuff, and tidied up some of my points. However, please bear in mind that this still contains several spoilers for Reality 36. Read it at your own peril. It’s all very honest, too, so if you’re a writer, or are interested in the writing process, it might be useful to you.

All fair comment mate, no worries there.I think part of my problem is that I have to write so fast, my pay is quite low as I’m new, so I can’t afford to spend 18 months making each book perfect. On the other hand, some of the stuff you mention is resolved in the book. Other parts of it are not covered as I was trying to achieve two things; one, to keep info-dumping down to a minimum and the other, to throw the reader into the deep end. The analogy I always use is that you go to observe a meeting of say, social workers or physicists whatever they have their jargon, and they don’t tone it down for you. You have to catch up. Ultimately, I hoped the pace would cover over the cracks, and from what you say, I think I almost pulled it off!

Thanks for the compliments. And don’t concern yourself over my replies, I really do find all this useful, and I do not feel in any way defensive (apologies if it comes across that way).

Here are those notes, as promised — tidied up a bit, of fairly epic length (as ever!) and hopefully interesting and/or useful. (Or, at least, not annoying.)

Cheers! M

First, and most important, thing to say is that I liked it, really liked it. More than any of the short fiction of yours that I’ve seen, and certainly more than the vast majority of debut novels I’ve read. You deftly sidestepped most of the obvious obstacles and kept me distracted from whatever (relatively minor) flaws there are by fast pace, engaging characters and a seemingly endless run of invention.

Inevitably, the following seems to contain more negatives than positives, but that is the way with these things: if I haven’t mentioned them, assume that I think they work!

Some general points

I wasn’t bored. Not once, not even for a page. For me that’s huge: countless classics have their dull bits, loads of bestsellers have their clever plots near-ruined by clunky prose. But Reality 36 was a smooth, entertaining read. I didn’t just finish it because I know you or because I had to for a review; I raced through it because I was having a genuinely good time.

The prose throughout was solid, sometimes very good, though some bits worked for me better than others. (Details follow.) Way better than in much science fiction, certainly.

Characters were almost universally engaging, distinctive and well drawn, if often rather simple. (I’ll get onto what I think I mean by that.) Even more minor characters, like Chures, are very well done.

I like the general style – things like your invisible(ish) narrator, single-POV-character-per-chapter choices, and the fact that once the story starts to move faster you have little Dan Brown-style cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. The balance of humour with action, character stuff with exposition, etc. seems sound.

The world-building, as has been much commented on, is excellent: confident-sounding and convincing. We get tons of info, and while for whole chunks of the book it seems hardly a paragraph goes by without some new future fact being slipped in, it never feels like we’re swamped or bludgeoned by it. Top stuff.

I like the way you follow modern scientific speculative thinking most of the time, then just ignore what currently appears likely to make things more fun when it suits you: flying cars, say, are probably quite unlikely, but the book’s more fun with them, so they stay.

You’re quite right there, but I think the flying cars fall between two stools – they’re not very likely, but not completely unlikely. The idea in the book is that new carbon composites and high-powered hydrogen fuel cells overcome the two main obstacles to contemporary flying cars – weight, and power source. They’re very much based on this: http://www.moller.com/

Some things I particularly liked

Your well-handled action sequences, especially the one with Otto in the diner (except for Otto’s comment on sniper movement; as I understand it, real-world snipers mostly stay put, or move incredibly slowly, for fear of being spotted), and the one with Richards and Big Daddy.

The sniper in this is a [SPOILER!], shooting at a cyborg. Otto would have been able to see him if he stayed put in this case, it’s the future, so things have changed.

The sidekicks, chiefly Chloe and Tarquinius. But especially Chloe. (She was especially cute on p262: “’No,’ she said in a small voice.”)

As I said, the constant invention: you’ve always got some new future concept to pull out of the bag, be it huge things like the Great Firewall of China, or the way more minor stuff Quifang sees on his trip to London.

You’ve plenty of good twists.

Some things I wasn’t sure about at first, and grew to like

Jag and his world: I was worried we were going to get loads of silly names, a plodding quest etc and was rather glad when we didn’t.

Otto. I was worried he might come across as something of a stock character – the gruff, heavy-drinking ex-grunt – and though that is there, I ended up rather liking him.

I tried to keep the characters simple, archetypes, hopefully without them being cliché. I figured with such a dense world going on, to have massively complicated character types would have undermined my aim of writing a fast-paced adventure.

I find many genre books I read go for kitchen-sink characters (as in they describe everything but) and they all end up seeming the same. It’s better to let the reader fill them in with their imagination. Simplicity is key. On saying that, there are depths to them, but they are hidden for the time being!

The names, like Reality 36 and Omega Point, which initially sounded too meaningless and SF-generic, have actually grown on me. (I’m less certain about the chapter names, which don’t seem to follow any set rule: sometimes the name of the POV character, sometimes of another character they meet, sometimes of a place, sometimes repeated, sometimes a first name and sometimes a surname, sometimes a more general description of the chapter’s content, sometimes the same thing said in different ways: The 36th Realm vs Reality 36, etc.)

Chapter names aren’t that important. I just wanted something short and punchy for each that helped set the scene.

Some things I’m still not sure about

Hughie and Richards together: I’m just not certain I ever quite reconciled their more buffoonish dressing-up-box character qualities with the hugely powerful and important supercomputer serious business that must be ticking over out of sight.

With this, I was trying to make them human, without being human. The thing with the Fives is that they try quite hard to be human, but they are not really. The rules governing my AI are quite complex, and I didn’t want to bang on about it and swamp the narrative. I thought it best to present them as characters, no matter how… Odd. If there are more books, more of all this stuff will be revealed.

The whole AI hierarchy thing: did they really build over 1,000 Fives in a single year, from scratch, and then give them all important jobs, which they could then fuck up right royally, within the same year? 2104 seems awfully busy! And how come a Class Two AI (like the one Quaid says he has just to sail his boat) seem so much more stupid than, say, Chloe, who is only a near-I?

Two things here. First, the Fives. The Five Crisis is a major part of my backstory, which I intend to fill in over time (there’s a bit about it in Champion of Mars, which is set in the same universe). They weren’t all given important jobs –Richards was bought to be a digital archive retrieval machine (there’s more on this in ‘The Nemesis Worm’). All AI in the universe were bought (before emancipation), like Windows is now – in fact, maybe best to think of them as smart operating systems or system administration computers? You know, years of development, then a roll-out, they were products. The Fives went crazy for reasons that will eventually be revealed.

They weren’t all running the European security services – and in fact the ones that remain and are in powerful roles have worked their way into those positions (Hughie says as much).

The Fives have a fundamentally different architecture to those that came beforehand. The ones that came after share the same underlying structure as the Fives, but were deliberately limited. This is also alluded to.

Chloe is an exception to the rule dividing Near-I and AI. She’s been heavily tinkered with, by someone who is something of an AI genius. Like the Fives, Sixes and Sevens (and unlike the Ones to Fours), she has evolved elements to her capabilities and personality. The more indivualistic Threes and Fours – like Lincolnshire Flats and Cybele (who’s she? Find out soon) also use heuristics and progressive mental evolution in how they live and adapt, not this is not how they were built. That’s all I’ll say on the matter for now!

The Reality Realms: if all they are is big, futuristic computer game world like WoW or whatever, why are they so powerful and important? I get that they can’t be switched off because of all the ‘life’ within them, but surely anyone rich enough (like, I assume, k52) could just build new ones that are as good if they wanted, instead of trying to usurp existing ones? And why didn’t Jag, if he’s so powerful, send a more obvious, can’t-be-ignored warning out of R36 that it’s all going badly wrong?

The Realms represent a massive slice of Grid real estate, even though their hardware is somewhat outdated. They are also entirely isolated, so k52 could do his stuff undetected.

Jag and Tarquinius are not all that powerful. They are entirely part of their world.

To carry dialogue, I’m usually of the belief that you should nine-times-out-of-ten (at least!) only use ‘said’, and very rarely with a qualifier: don’t get me wrong, R36 isn’t bad in this regard, but there was still a little too much sighing/crying/muttering/gasping etc going on in places, and too much ‘he said disappointedly/sharply/enticingly/unsurely’ etc too.

Yeah, maybe. I can find it a bit bland without any. En masse they help build character — if you’re careful. I’m still finding my way with this. I hate it when people overuse them myself, or have one stock phrase they use over and again in this circumstance (“He gave her an ‘Oh please!’ look”).  Which way do I turn? Sookie Stackhouse, or Cormac McCarthy? : )

Just occasionally, I thought the almost 2000AD-like parodies of modern-day stuff got a little heavy-handed, though they were perhaps worth it for the gag: Otto’s thoughts on Americans and their candy, the continued existence of Starbucks, Fanta and Germoline, Toyota renaming itself Toyata (unless a typo), etc…

Toyata is a typo. It’s actually not supposed to be a 200AD type parody. Some of this stuff is in there because it’s useful shorthand for the reader. Some of it because brands can last for a long time. (Although we all remember the TWA logos on 1970s ‘future’ spaceships, eh?)

Some of it is because one of the underlying (very lightly touched on and hardly there at all) themes is that I reckon an information culture, where everything is to hand, can stagnate. Look at kids now, they listen to music of all kinds. When I was a boy it was what was hot now, and everything else was old and past it. Companies trade off nostalgia. Brand identity is so important now, and I don’t think this will change.

We could, I reckon, be grinding to a halt in some respects, maybe even losing our artistic vitality. I touch on this when Otto is looking at the diner, which is a pastiche of a pastiche of the 1950s. Or it could all be bollocks.

Occasionally information was either hidden or only revealed very late: unless I missed it (which I might have done), we don’t discover Veronique is black until way, way into the book (p143, I think);

I agree. That’s a bit dumb.

USNA takes an awfully long time to be explained;

United States of North America— that’s a deliberate deep-ender.

we never discover why Richards has called himself Richards, etc.

I will reveal this eventually. In the real world, he’s named after a know-it-all friend I have, who is called Richard.

Now I like the drip-feed of info, but it’s annoying to have to reboot the visual you’ve got of someone half way through. (It’s like watching Star Trek in black-and-white as a kid: I thought all their shirts were blue, because I’d seen a colour photo of Spock in a blue shirt, then when we got a colour TV i was really annoyed that I’d been imagining it all wrong!)

There is no wrong Matt, it’s your imagination!

I occasionally got confused about things: is Chloe actually her phone, or a near-I program that lives on her phone but could live elsewhere too, or what?

She’s a programme. She exists mostly on the Grid, with a large part of her personality kept inside Valdaire’s phone. She’s actually illegal– an AI that powerful should have a registered base unit. Cloud existence for AI is not permitted. But she’s a near-I, so that’s alright then. (Valdaire’ll get busted for this, one of these days).

Can Chloe copy herself (as the Fives are not allowed to do, seemingly) elsewhere?

They ALL can, but they’re not allowed to. Although it wouldn’t occur to a baseline near-I to do so, or to a One or Two, for that matter.

Similarly, what exactly is Genie’s status?

This will be revealed later. This is deliberate on my part. There’s a short story here. The most important thing is that she’s the new girl.

And how much multi-tasking can a Five do: a lot of the time they seem to be only in one ‘place’ at a time, but surely the whole point of having an AI do Hughie’s job is that they can handle a million different cases etc all at once? Things like this may have been explained, but perhaps not clearly enough for a doofus like me, or that info got swamped in all the other explanations of near-future things.

I didn’t really explain it on purpose. But they’re just like really smart people, they’re not massively awesome supercomputers in a godlike SF over-noggin, Mekon’s-pocket-calculator sense. They can be aware of a lot. They can work on a fair few things at once. But look at the way they work: Hughie is an overseer, really –he doesn’t work on those cases he mentions himself. Richards can assimilate lots of information, but to really use their superior brains, they have to concentrate on one thing, just like us. They theoretically can split their consciousnesses down into subminds, or copy themselves, but that is illegal. The price of freedom is to live as we do.

One underlying theme here (these themes are very minor) is that the Fives are almost, almost, like a new pantheon of gods — capricious, flawed, human, but inhuman. Richards is a [SPOILER] type, a friend of man.

The repetition of elements, and air of manipulation, in having Otto twice come across Bad Men so evil they have a truck full of poor little orphans they plan to do nasty things to.

Yeah. Guilty. My bad. Although the kids in the jungle were the families of the rebels. I find that writers do get trapped in thematic cul-de-sacs (and linguistic, character and whatever else – the limits of one human mind are not so great. Indeed, I made the characters simple as by complicating them, I’d just run into the walls bounding my own intellect) and I’m no exception.

p145. Jagedith ‘wobbled his head’. Really? Like in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum?

Jagadith was programmed by an Indian. He was based on my experiences of actual Indians in actual India. They really do do that. It’s a cultural thing.

p167 Quaid’s shock that he had sex with a robot. Surely as common as sneezing for a guy like him?

No! Fucking a robot!? He’s a genetically engineered aristo, way below him. Well, maybe not, the shock was because he didn’t notice. The little brain was in charge there. I think he was embarrassed.

Why can’t Jag etc just ‘teleport’ about the R36 game world instead of traveling physically? They could easily be coded that way, and it would make them much better at their job, surely?

Meh. Who knows? My reckoning is that once he manifested from wherever he was before he was (mostly) bound by the rules of that reality. But what do I know? I’m not an expert on the Reality Realms. Ask Veronique.

I got a bit confused about exactly what was going on, why or how ‘matter’ from Reality 36 was being stolen to build Reality 37, as described on p306 and elsewhere, or exactly what is going on in a couple of sequences, like the top half of p308.

It’s processing space, not matter per se. A lot of the weirdness can be explained by the computers that run these worlds trying to visualise things like file swaps or overwriting in a visual way that makes sense to those observing it, in the context of where they are observing it from. It’s all quantum : )

Some things to think about

Did the plot actually make sense? I’m not sure. Reality 36 is a bit like a Raymond Chandler or something in that it seems to hang together at the time, and then afterwards you can’t remember exactly who did what to who and why. Certainly, did having all these super-high-end, presumably super-expensive robot doubles of the famous and easily-spotted Quifang running around blowing themselves up and getting killed in unlikely places really help anyone achieve anything they couldn’t have done in a much simpler, easier way? Not sure.

Bit late to think about that surely! Qifang’s face is not that recognisable, really. The people of the 22nd century are even more self-obsessed than we are, and overly reliant on technology. But yeah, maybe the plot is not entirely believable. Or maybe it’s too complicated, I thought this more than once, but it’s that way because a) It’s an entertainment, and b) lots of things in real life don’t make sense, so why should they in fiction? I am aiming for a ‘Whole Cloth World’. (See the interviews on my blog for what I mean by this). Not ‘Tied up In Bows’.

Does the book read too much like a particularly sophisticated YA novel, with only the odd, slightly-uncomfortable moment of true adult-ness creeping in? Of course, no characters are kids here, and there’s no teen angst, but I think here’s what I mean: nobody comes across like a modern-day adult in that there’s no sex (or romance), at all, and nobody has anything resembling money worries, job worries, relationship worries, family worries, or any of that. Certainly, because of this lack of grit (except in the action sequences, natch) those moments where the adult world was more front-and-centre jumped out at me: when the narrator, up until now largely dispassionate, seems to weigh in calling Hughie a cock on p119 and throughout that chapter; when hundreds of people were killed in a bomb; when Veronique pulls the catheter out. (The fact that I was occasionally reminded of writers like Philip Pullman – Chloe, Bartolomeo etc as daemons, Veronique as Mary Malone, the Grid and the Reality Realms as the various parallel worlds – heightened the YA-with-adult-bits impression, perhaps.)

I don’t think so. Should I put sex and romance in it, just for the sake of it? I didn’t deliberately avoid them. They will feature in later books, they just weren’t part of this story. Indeed, Otto’s relationship with his wife, and her death, is a major strand of Omega Point. And there is some real horror in there too. Poverty and environmental destruction and human suffering will be a major part of this series. If it makes it to a series.

Finally (and perhaps only for me) two big weak points (and one minor weak point)

The minor one

It seems to me you constantly ask commas to do the job of full stops, semi-colons, colons, brackets or dashes: you’ll have a sentence, like this one you’re reading now, with two distinct elements to it, and all you’ll use to separate them is a comma.

Initially, I was trying to mimic the way people speak –in broken sentences, repetitively, false starts, etc. I dropped this, but the punctuation, at least in the dialogue, reflects that/ is a remnant of it. You are right, though/

The bigger ones

I didn’t always love the dialogue: it gave information, it established character, it was sometimes (even often) very good fun, but it didn’t always read to me as something someone would actually say.Much of the tough-guy dialogue in Chapter 5 is an example, especially elements like Otto’s hugely long speech on p103-104. Quifang’s ranting in R36 is another.

There is an element of the monologue here that I need to stamp on, it’s all to do with developing as a writer.

In the Hughie/Richards talks Hughie initially appears as, yes, as much of a cock as advertised (though I ended up being rather fond of him)…

Well, that worked!

…but the way Richards talks defines him as, at least, a bit of a dick too. (Similarly when he starts doing an annoying American accent around p204.)

And that worked too! He’s not going to say “Hughie’s a cock, but hey, I’m a cock too,” is he? Of course he’s a dick! I mention how Otto is annoyed by him, yes? It’s supposed to be, um, complexity. EVERYONE can be a dick. And somethimes, when a dick calls someone is a cock, the cock is not a cock at all. Methinks you want it a little too clearly laid out for you.

Quaid says things like ‘Goddamn!’ all the time, which seems a bit broad; similarly with the garage guy on p240, etc.

Quaid is a cliche made flesh –my joke at what real DNA tinkered rich bastards would be like. A lot of what you say is simply this: I tried to mimic real speech (see above). It doesn’t work, so I settled on a bunch of  ‘signifier’s’ to set apart each character from one another, which also helps keep them simple and aids the engagement of the reader’s imagination too. It’s a bit unsubtle, but it kind of works. I am sure I will get better at this. I hope.

(All this said, though – and weirdly – I quite liked the outrageous French accent around p247, so what do I know?)

The structure is a bit odd. In classic detective fiction, the hero gets the initial case – which then goes all twisty and turny, of course – in the first chapter or so; here we have to wait until page 129, the meeting with Hughie, for the set-up stuff to be over and the real plot to actually start. Before that we’ve had Otto at war and Otto’s stuff with Launcey, all with good bits but more like stand-alone short stories than integral parts of this tale, plus chapters introducing Jag and R36, Veronique, etc.

One of my worries was that the intro  is maybe too long, and maybe the book is too complicated. On the other hand, life is messy and I wanted Reality 36 to reflect life in a bunch of ways, which is why I think it works, even sometimes when it should not! I also plan to have a James Bond style pre-credits adventure to each book, which the Launcey adventure here kind of it, but we’ll see.

Then there’s the fact that this looks like a stand-alone novel, but is actually part 1 of 2, already much commented on. And the fact that the big bad (we assume), k52, doesn’t even appear, like Blofeld in the early Bond films – but more so, as we don’t even see his hands! Don’t get me wrong: none of this breaks the book by any means. But I do think it could have been better.

k52 is an enigma. Deal with it : ) I do wrap the Qifang part of the case up. I would have liked to have finished it off in one volume but, well, look at it as the two-part season opener (buy the book so there are more!)

Finally, though the book’s pretty ‘clean’, here are some typos and other minor mistakes I spotted, perhaps to be corrected for subsequent printings(!):

[I reproduce only some here, as most are simply technical errors; but there are a few that offer some insight into the writing process].

p314 Jag says R36 is the most violent of all the lands, but where’s the evidence? It seems quite benign.

They’re in the middle of nowhere, that’s why.

p314: maths doesn’t work – says one realm dies to save 35, but 4 are destroyed already, so it actually dies to save 31.

Well done. Originally, there were 40 Realms, but we changed it because it was too close to Douglas Adams’ ’42’. This is a hangover from that. We did spot it, but too late.

p336 Hughie’s based in Geneva? I may have got this wrong (in fact, I think I probably have), but I’m sure earlier on it was suggested he was based in New London. (He certainly comes across as English, with his country garden/English summer/baking cakes fixations, etc. What language do they speak in this new Europe? It’s never mentioned.)

He’s based in Geneva, as is mentioned. He comes across as English because it suited my caprice, and he may well have been an ‘English’ Five to start with. The languages of Europe are as they are now (well, the same, but different, as language shifts), but as noted in ‘The Nemesis Worm’, the official language of the EU in the 22nd century is Neo-Latin. Which is like a less shit Esperanto.

p352 Richards’ survival is a tiny bit of a cheat: like in an old Flash Gordon serial, it looked like he was shot dead/blown up/fell out of a space ship, but next week it turns out it was only a flesh wound, or he jumped clear at the last minute.

It’s an action story… He did nearly die! Come on Bielby!

p363 (and elsewhere, especially Chap.1) ‘anomalous jungle’: as physical rules would not seem to apply in a game world, why all this fuss about a jungle that couldn’t exist in the real world? And why would a game character care? So what?

Each Reality Realm is ‘fixed’, its laws of physics and so forth determining how it should be. Physical rules apply very much in the cordoned off RRRW’s. Tarq and Jag are NOT game characters, but security programmes.

Phew! And that’s it. Like I say, an exceptional start.

And thanks to Matt for that too! This kind of thing is a great help to writers. As one day I will say, when I get round to my ‘how I write post’, “Always listen to criticism”. And I mean ALWAYS. You don’t have to agree with all or indeed any of it, but great things can come of it, and at least listening says you’ve got the right attitude.

  1. Matt Keefe says:

    Careful with those brackets, Haley. You know what you need? An editor.

  2. guyhaley says:

    When I’m rich enough to afford my own editorial pet, you can have the job.

  3. Matt Keefe says:

    I was referring to the title. You’ve enclosed ‘my’ when you shouldn’t have. There, a freebie. Do not tell anyone.

    • guyhaley says:

      Actually, it we’re both wrong. The [my old] replaces the common ‘the’ in the phrase, ‘A letter from the editor’, see? They should be square brackets. That’s the error. Corrected.

  4. Matt Keefe says:

    That is beyond opaque, Haley.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s