M. Jonathan Jones's Blog: Spilt ink

November 19, 2019

Aqua Incognita freebies

Just a quick - and wholly promotional - post to say that Thalassa: Aqua Incognita is FREE for Kindle 19th - 23rd November (inclusive). Link to listing on Amazon.com here.

Fire & Flood, part 3, is coming along nicely. Slowly, but nicely. On which note, back to Tethys...
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Published on November 19, 2019 01:00

August 27, 2019


With some months to go (at least) before the third part of the Tethys Trilogy, Fire and Flood, is ready, I've made the decision to relaunch the whole trilogy. The most significant part of the relaunch is a bit of rebranding: Thalassa: The World Beneath the Waves, part 1 of the Tethys Trilogy, has now become Ultramarine.

The title change is a major difference - less wordy and more dramatic than the old one - and a few other aspects of the book have changed too, but it's still essentially the same story. The big differences affect the first five or six chapters, and to be honest I've never been happy with those. I've reinstated the Prologue from the first edition and tweaked the first few chapters to make things more tense, with Moanna at the centre of the mystery from the very beginning.

Thalassa: The World Beneath the Waves has been out since March 2016 and I've been very lucky to have received a lot of support and encouragement. Thanks so much to everyone who has read, rated, or reviewed it. Publishing Thalassa has been an enormously positive experience, and I've learnt a lot from it.

Over the next few weeks I'll be working on a new edition of Thalassa: Aqua Incognita, but this will involve minimal superficial revisions (so far I've changed one single word). And then it will be back to Fire and Flood for what I hope will be a final stint. My recovery from concussion is still not complete, but if I'm careful most days I can do as much as I want (or rather, as I have time for). I can't give a date yet for Fire and Flood - always in motion is the future, and I'm wary of jinxing things and getting myself in a GRRM-style pickle - but early-mid 2020 looks very possible. With luck, the second edition of Thalassa: Aqua Incognita will contain a preview chapter of Fire and Flood, which I will also publish here. Stay tuned...
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Published on August 27, 2019 13:29

June 20, 2019

The long road back...

A year ago, I suffered what seemed at the time to be a fairly innocuous head injury. A simple bang on the head. No blood. No loss of consciousness. I didn't even get a bump. However, it left me with what I now realise was probably a pretty severe concussion - it was even difficult to talk - and paved the way for about ten months of almost constant vertigo, migraines, and nausea. I couldn't read, or watch TV. I couldn't even scroll or swipe a touchscreen. For most of the first two months I couldn't even go out for a walk, and even after that, my trips were limited. This is the horror of post-concussion syndrome, poorly understood but more common than you might think; there have been some recent high-profile cases in the English women's hockey team.

Now things are finally almost back to normal. Although I still get symptoms almost every day, they are milder and less persistent, and the vertigo and nausea are occasional rather than constant companions. Reading and writing is still limited to a few hours a day, but I'm easing back into the day-job. Most days I can walk for hours if I want to, and I can finally cycle again. Migraine-like symptoms remain a plague, though even they have eased off. It's a long road, but I'm getting there.

For the sake of my sanity as much as to evaulate my progress, I've also been nibbling away at Thalassa: Fire and Flood, part III of the Tethys Trilogy which began with Thalassa: The World Beneath the Waves, and I'm now just about ready to start on it in earnest. It's been 18 months since I published Thalassa: Aqua Incognita and I can't say when Fire and Flood will be finished, but it is coming. And I think - I hope - it will be be worth the wait.

That's all for now, but watch this space...
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Published on June 20, 2019 03:26

April 10, 2019

From the 'Did Not Finish' Shelf

The jury is still out for me personally on whether or not an unfinished book should be rated. On the one hand, the fact that it has not been read in its entirety surely means it cannot be judged? On the other, the mere fact that it did not carry me to the end means it lacks something, and maybe a rating/review should reflect that. Some books do manage to save themselves in Fergie Time, but I'm not sure that lets them off the hook for a bit of the old hairdryer. So here we go:

I really liked the premise of this book - a secluded part of England which has been left to itself since Elizabethan times and is chock full of amazingly gifted people - and the first few chapters do that idea justice. Then it all goes a bit Radio 4, if you know what I mean. There are feckless males shouting things like "Look to the lady!" and the competent, icy, unattainable ladies in question saying things like "Sod off you idiot!", and you can just see Mr and Mrs Extremely Amused of Tunbridge Wells sitting there with their cocoa on a Sunday night guffawing and hoping for an adaptation with (the excellent) Hugh Bonneville. I reached the point where a character exclaims "Follow your herald!" and gave up.
Saving grace: Surely one of the best alliterative names in fiction: Vixen Valourhand.

The Road
I know. I feel bad even having this on here. But it belongs. I've tried, I really have. I love good writing and I'm no fan of Elmore Leonard's contention that writing should go unnoticed, but this goes a bit too far. Every sentence is a thing of beauty, and you need to hang on it and observe it from all angles before you go on. It's anti-Elmore, in excess. I also got annoyed by the repeated mentions of wisps of ash floating around dismally - surely rain-soaked and sun-baked into concrete by now, so that was just for some kind of unnecessary effect. Also, after reading I Want My Hat Back, I couldn't help but see every bit of emotionless telegraphed dialogue morphing into "Where is my hat? Have you seen my hat?".
Saving grace: Some amazing wordcraft.

Lost on Mars
What a title! Unfortunately, for me, everything went downhill from there. No characters worth a monkey's cuss and the annoying description of Mars as a baking desert. I am not a hard sci-fi zealot, and elsewhere I would love that idea, but here with so little else to keep hold of me it went a bit too far.
Saving grace: Erm. The title, maybe?

I've only recently become acquainted with the works of Richard K. Morgan, and I think he's a great writer with some amazing ideas. Thirteen/Black Man didn't quite do it for me. Partly that's due to the somewhat formulaic plot, already set out in Altered Carbon and then taken up in Thin Air (which I read first). I'm not anti formula - if it works, there will be pressure from readers and publishers to repeat, and pizza is pizza, right? - but this was too similar to his other books in set up. More to the point, perhaps, I also think Morgan didn't transition well to the use of 3rd person and multiple character viewpoints. He's a great writer in my view, so if you needed evidence that a shift in perspective is more than just changing "s/he" into "I" (with the required verb agreement, natch), this is it. It's perhaps telling that he resumed first person for Thin Air. I hope to go back to this.
Saving grace: A lucid portrait of a future 'post-virilicide' America. The writing. The action. Almost everything in fact...

Dan Simmons has a fascinating blog about How to Be A Writer which in his view means being at least middle aged and knowing all of (mostly American) literature from the late 19th century onwards by heart, including - somewhat strangely - translations of great works in other languages (translations can never replicate the style of the original, as anyone mildly proficient in more than one language knows). Despite all these prejudices, the blog is very interesting so I was expecting lots from this. What I got was standard sci-fi "here are a million techno-terms crammed into the first two paragraphs" plus blokes wandering around wearing faux-Elizabethan/Regency era dress (tricorns!) and drinking whisky and playing Rachmaninov. It's like those episodes of Star Trek or Dr Who where for budgetary reasons they used the props from the mediaeval romp being filmed on the next lot. The techno-babble is OK, I mean, I like to explore the bounds of advanced technology as much as the next reader, but this was larded on a bit thick. I only got as far as the woeful dialogue of the dinner party and gave up. I'd like to go back, because the beginning of Endymion is amazing, and maybe I will. When I have more patience.
Saving grace: Well, I'm sure the tricorn manufacturing industry was pleased.
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Published on April 10, 2019 02:07

March 25, 2019

The Trouble with the Targaryens...

As regular readers of this sorry excuse for a blog will know, I've been suffering since June 2018 from the effects of concussion, and I'm still not quite right in the head (getting there slowly, but still can't read or write much, thanks for asking). Concussion really sucks. Anyway, in those dark early days when I could do literally nothing, I saved my sanity (kind of...) by listening to the audiobooks of George R. R. Martin's ginormously popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. All of them. Just to prove I hadn't been rendered completely useless, I listened in German, a language I used to be able to speak. And it was great. I'm not going to discuss style, since I listened to translations, but Reinhard Kuhnert's voice is amazing. I've been meaning to write a review of my impressions for a while, and here it is. Oh, and be warned: spoilers are coming.

First, the scope of the story is truly vast, with multiple characters and settings within the very convincing world of Westeros and its neighbours. There are really three stories here: 1) the story of the Starks and the fate of the Iron Throne, 2) Jon Snow and the Wall holding back a tide of inhuman monsters, and 3) Daenerys Targaryen's quest to recover her birthright, that same Iron Throne which forms part of 1). Of these three, I most liked 1) and 2). I'll discuss poor Daenerys more below but for now I'll just say the best bit of her story are the Dothraki, who are basically Klingons on horseback (what's not to like?). But the Starks and Jon Snow storylines are both excellent. I really enjoyed the greyness of the characters, the way that we start off hating Jaime Lannister, and end up quite liking him. Martin does an excellent job of muddying the waters around Jon Snow's parentage (for my money: he is as so many theories suggest Rhaegar and Lyanna's son. The dream Jon has where he seeks his father in the crypt at Winterfell and doesn't find him seals it for me: it's his mother who is there). It's wonderful to follow the development of these characters, and to feel our own relationship with them developing as more of the backstory is revealed.

Westeros is also fantastic. There are some amazing places, both natural and man-made. It feels more real then Tolkien's Middle-Earth partly because it has diseases, and sex, and poverty, as well as recipes and songs that are not plot-exposition vehicles but just songs (like The Bear and the Maiden Fair), and a religion so well-fleshed out it can't be long before it appears in census data, alongside all the myth and history that you'd expect, but also I think because we see the same places through different eyes at different times. Take, for example, the Inn at the Crossroads. We visit this place with Catelyn, Tywin and Tyrion, Arya and Jendry, as well as Brianne and Jaime, and I've probably forgotten a few. It's not just a single point to visit on a single quest or a hook for events long-gone - it's a place which has a history that evolves through the story, and that makes it feel all the more real. Very clever.

The names are intriguing enough to deserve a whole blog post, but one great aspect of the books is that two or more characters occasionally have the same name, e,g. Jon (Snow & Arryn), Robert (Arryn & Stark & Baratheon), and even Eddard (Stark and some minor servant). There are story-internal reasons for this, of course, but it also heightens the sense of realism, because in reality we often bump into people with the same name (especially if you happen to be born with the luck of the Joneses).

I also liked the fact that the magic emerges slowly as the story progresses. By the time we reach the Children of the Forest, the idea of them no longer seems so alien: again, full marks for keeping things real. The shapeshifting/astral projection is also very well done.

But. Those Targaryens. I know we're supposed to feel sorry for poor Dani, and I do, but I don't like her much. She has a sense of entitlement to a throne which her forebears conquered, and is basically the last member of a (somewhat elfin) race of foreign invaders. Why should we want her to get back on top? She's the Normans in Britain, the Brits in India, the Brits in ... oh, just about anywhere. (I'm, British, by the way: bad-mouthing ourselves is what we do when the bad food and bad weather gets too much). And, the Targaryens took power using dragonfire. Dragons against swords and arrows. That's right: it's your machine-guns versus spears scenario all over again. Dani has less claim to the Iron Throne than Theon has to the Iron Isles, and we don't feel much sympathy for him. Alright, he's repugnant, but he's lived for years as a hostage, and however kind the Starks were to him, he would always feel a sense of loss and alienation, as well as the possibility of death if he stepped out of line (I know: too good for him, but hey). Dani is similarly selfish: she subjects her followers who are not blessed with that amazing Targaryen immune system to disease, and is against slavery but perfectly happy to keep her maidservants hanging on. I will admit she's growing on me, particulary the relationship with Jorah Mormont, but there are some much better female characters: Sansa, who starts out silly and becomes strong, Arya, who starts out strong and becomes a ninja psychopath, and my absolute favourite: Asha Greyjoy. So the Targaryens don't rate very highly with me. It could be the elf thing - I've never been a fan of the fair folk.

One final word: fans are waiting for the Winds of Winter, and have been waiting for some time. I get it, I really do, in my own small way. I've written books myself and had periods when the Muse was distracting me with other projects instead of focusing on the one which was top of the pile. It happens. And I totally agree with Neil Gaiman's blunt but accurate appraisal of the author-reader relationship. But... Martin keeps on churning out Targaryen books, and I really do think at some point he owes it to the readers - and to himself, mind - to get it over and done with. It can't be nice for him. Sometimes you just have to bunker down and get on with things. Although if he wanted to write a book about Asha Greyjoy's adventures on the side, I wouldn't quibble. I'ven even got a suggestion for the title - Black Wind: Adventures of the Kraken's Daughter. That I wouldn't mind. But it seems that for now, at least, winter is not coming.
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Published on March 25, 2019 04:40

December 21, 2018

2018 - goodbye and good riddance

It's been a while since I posted and the blog has become a bit dusty. The reason for this has been a knock on the noggin I suffered over the summer. You know that saying: "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"? It turns out this is a BLATANT LIE. Sometimes, what doesn't kill you leaves you with headaches, nausea, and dizziness every time you so much as sniff the printed word. Things have improved vastly and continue to improve, but for now, screen and text have to be kept to less than an hour a day. As you can imagine, that's put a damper on practically everything to do with books.

2019 promises to be better, and then I will finally get round to writing up the 300-or-so pages of notes that exist for the final part of the Tethys Trilogy, Thalassa: Fire & Flood, the sequel to Thalassa: Aqua Incognita.

Until then, thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas, Joyous Yuletide, Felix Sol Invictus, or whatever and however you celebrate the most ancient Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice Festival. Happy New Year for 2019!
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Published on December 21, 2018 03:47

May 7, 2018

Thalassa - the Lost Prologue

The second edition of Thalassa: The World Beneath the Waves lacks the prologue of the first edition. The prologue was a last-minute addition, and although I like it, I was always in two minds about it. Prologues are often seen as old hat these days, and when competing for clicks, not starting a book with the main character can be a drawback. So I ditched it. It still exists on my website and I thought I'd post it here too.


Something moved through the wide and empty waters of aqua incognita far to the north of the Federation Frontier, something big and grey and whale-shaped. But it was no whale. Its skin and bones were steel and iron, the blood in its veins was oil, fuel, hydraulic-fluid, and its eyes were made of glass – a submarine. A dead and dormant submarine. The steering-fins hung slack. The thrusters were silent. No lights showed through the observation-windows that studded its broad and gently rounded back. It was a ghost, drifting through the gloom.

The white-painted letters stencilled across the submarine’s flanks identified it as the Syracuse, a Militia patrol-sub out of MacGillycuddy’s Reef, the nearest and northernmost Tethyan Colony that was not yet part of the Federation. The white-painted letters were clean-edged and fresh.

Fresh and fake.

Straining ahead of the fake Syracuse was a small tow-tug. The tug looked like it was trying its hardest not to become the patrol-sub’s next meal, speeding ahead just out of reach. Strung out on control-cables behind the tug were two detachable thruster-pods, each pod locked onto a steering-fin of the impostor, one to port, one to starboard. Another tow-cable stretched back from the tug to the snub snout of the patrol-sub, all three of the cables taut, dragging the monster through the Deep.

A man sat inside the raised glass steering-cabin of the tow-tug, making final adjustments to his course and depth. There were no official charts of aqua incognita – that was the point of ‘unknown waters’, after all – but the man knew exactly where he was, and that was right where he wanted to be.

The man said nothing because there was nobody to say anything to. He turned off the engines and sat there, slowly drifting with the current. He watched the tethers to the patrol-sub slacken and billow behind him and gauged the speed and the strength of the streaming waters. The man listened as intently as if he was listening to his own heartbeat. All was quiet, just the gentle creak and groan of the hull as the unseen rivers in the ocean took hold of the tug and its lifeless companion.

The man knew what those currents could do; he had felt their strength pulling him down, had tasted the burning saltwater filling his lungs. Few ever came face-to-face with the Deepwater Dark and survived, and something of the sea had remained within him; the rhythm of its ebb and flow was in his bones. Perhaps such a sense of its power was unsurprising for someone who had never felt the wind on his face.

When he had seen and heard enough, the man moved to release the thruster-pods and reel them in on their control-cables. They hopped and hurried through the water, docking with the tug’s outstretched wings. Then he disengaged the third and final mooring-cable to the sub, and the streamlined shape that he had towed out into aqua incognita turned its nose away from him and faded into the murk.

The tug’s job was done and man wouldn’t be needing it any more. He set a course for the auto-pilot to follow and restarted the engines. Before the would-be Syracuse had completely vanished from sight, he unbuckled the safety-harness and stood up, filling the cramped space of the steering-cabin. He didn’t hurry. His movements were fluid and exact, not too fast and not too slow. There was a precise purpose to everything he did and how he did it – the precision of planning and years of training.

He pulled up the extendable helmet from the collar of his pressure-suit, adjusted the visor in front of his face, and locked it into position under his chin. Then he turned to find the access-ladder that led out of the steering-cabin, and with clockwork movements of his hands and feet he climbed down the ladder and into the hull, tock-tock-tock-tock.

The tow-tug was little more than a floating engine, but it did have a MANTA-bay, a narrow space that was almost as cramped as the steering-cabin for launching a one-man MANTA mini-sub. The man clambered into his MANTA where it stood upright in its launch-rack. Inside, stowed in the compartment for hand-luggage, was a canvas bag. The man glanced at the bag in passing but gave it no more attention than that; he had already made sure of its contents hours before.

The man strapped himself in and checked over the flight-systems. Once he had made sure that everything was operating normally, he armed the MANTA’s torpette-cannons – a sub never knew what might be waiting out in aqua incognita – and reached up to lower the glass canopy that enclosed his head and shoulders. It locked with a hiss.

An alarm sounded. The steel door to the launch-tube slid shut and sealed itself tight. Ten seconds later, the out-lock hatch in the hull of the tow-tug winked open like an eye, and the MANTA rose up into the waters of the uncharted ocean. With a twitch of its steering-fins and a burst from its thrusters, the MANTA turned and twisted so that the man inside it was lying face-forwards, and sped off in the direction that the currents had taken the would-be Syracuse.

A minute later, the blurred shape of the patrol-sub with its fake Militia markings came into view, right where the man had thought it would be: right where he had known it would be. He flew his MANTA above the curving upper-hull of the impostor, skimming along its length all the way down to the rear steering-fins to give everything one last look-over.

He left the patrol-sub behind him and flew in a slow, steady circle around it, keeping it just in view as he checked one final time that he was unobserved. He was – aqua incognita was as empty as ever, just the fish and the flotsam and the restless souls of the billions who had died with the Old Earth more than a thousand years before.

The man banked his MANTA once more, giving the directional-thrusters a nudge, and came back towards the fake patrol-sub from below. As he came in close he cut the engines to almost nothing, feeling again how the currents streamed past him. For a few seconds he drifted with them, just to be sure. Then he kicked back into the thrust-pedals and climbed towards the patrol-sub’s MANTA-bay. One of the lower launch-hatches was already open, waiting for him. With a half-twist and a turn, he lined up his fins, pointing vertically upwards, and with a final spurt from the thrusters, he vanished inside. The launch-hatch closed, and all was quiet again except for the long drawn-out murmuring of the sea.

The interior of the drifting patrol-sub was dim and dank and cold. Very cold. The man’s breath steamed out in front of him as he raised the canopy of the MANTA and unfastened his pressure-helmet. Emergency-lighting wrapped crisp shadows around everything, and the air was sharp with the smell of rust and damp.

The sub was not just dead and dormant, it was deserted.

The man took the canvas bag from where he had left it and slung the carry-strap across his body. He climbed out of the MANTA, leaving it ready in its rack. There was only one way out of the MANTA-bay and the man took it with quick strides, sending steely echoes ringing out into the shadows ahead of him. He stopped halfway to the next level and drew something out from the bag that hung at his hip: a cone of grey-brown clay. A very particularly shaped cone of grey-brown clay, which he attached in a very particular position on the bulkhead.

There were people on the Federation side of the Frontier, down in Capital Colony or Cuatro Corrientes, who could tell the difference between a hull-breach due to an impact at speed and a hull-breach due to a shaped charge of thermox explosive, but the man knew how to make life difficult for them. Not that he thought it would ever come to that, what with the real Syracuse having been a Militia sub from an un-Federated Colony. No-one south of the Frontier would give a damn what had happened to it, and the man needed the charges to make sure that things turned out exactly as he intended.

He spiked the clay of the thermox-charge with a detonator and set it for fifteen minutes.

Two minutes later he stopped again. Once again he positioned a charge on the bulkhead. Once again he spiked it with a detonator, but this time he set it for thirteen minutes.

Every two minutes along the route to the bridge, the man stopped, precise to the second. Every two minutes he set another charge, leaving a string of them behind him, all perfectly synchronised.

With five minutes remaining on the clocks, he entered the bridge.

A quick glance through the forwards-facing observation-windows showed the ocean as deep and as blue as ever, but something darker was showing up behind the blue – the jagged outline of a submerged reef. The man from the MANTA could fly anything under the waves, but even with navigation-computers and optimised control-by-wire, a patrol-sub like the fake Syracuse needed a crew of at least three to guide it safely through the Deep. Luckily, guiding the sub safely anywhere was the last of the man’s intentions. He did, however, need to have the engines running when it hit the reef. There were some things that couldn’t be faked, and the random way a drive-shaft would plough through the hull at five thousand revolutions a minute was one of them.

The man powered up the hydrogen-splitters and started the engines. A shudder ran through the deck beneath his feet. He adjusted the thrust and the steering, making a few last-minute corrections to the drifting course that the impostor-sub had taken; almost literally last-minute corrections. Then he was gone.

Back down the access-ladders and gangways he went, retracing the route to the MANTA-bay past all the charges he had set on his way in.

With two minutes thirty on the clock, he was striding through the galley and into the crew’s quarters.

At two minutes, he was on the gunnery-deck.

At one minute thirty, he had entered the MANTA-bay. His MANTA stood where he had left it, canopy wide.

Tick, tick, tick.

One minute ten. The man strapped himself into the MANTA and slammed the canopy. The launch-sequence started. Lights flashed. The countdown began. The launch-tube closed around him and started to flood.

With barely fifty seconds left on the timers, the MANTA dropped from its launch-tube out into the ocean. The man kicked the thrusters to full speed and went as fast as he could away from the immovable obstacle of the submerged reef.

For forty-five seconds he headed into the Deep. Then he turned back on himself, aiming the MANTA’s strengthened and streamlined shape into the shockwave that would be coming any second…

Impact. Explosion.

Barely any delay between the two.

From where he was, the man in the MANTA could hardly see the mock-up Syracuse ramming itself into the reef. Then, in perfect synchrony, half a dozen lines of fire flickered, marking out the sub’s outline. The hydrogen-tanks ruptured first, then the oxygen-tanks. With a stuttering flash and a judder of exploding air, the patrol-sub blew itself inside out.

The man steeled himself as the pressure-wave slammed into his MANTA, a thud-crack-crunch, muffled but incredibly powerful, water turned almost solid. The shockwave flung him around, but the man had been ready for it, and it passed him by unscathed. Following close behind, distorted by the distance, the aftermath of the explosion: a tortured mix of screeching girders, buckling pressure-plates, and falling rock.

Where the fires still burned, the pieces of the wreck hung clear against the reef for a few seconds, as if they were surprised by the blast and what had happened to them. Then, slowly and gracefully and surprisingly gently, they settled into the silt on the submerged slopes.

The sub that was not the Syracuse was gone; all that remained of it was just so much twisted ironwork.

The man had seen enough. He had done his bit – the water and the fish and a few months in the silt would do the rest. When it was found, the wreck would look just like any other sub that had got lost and wandered into a rock in the wrong place. No questions asked, no answers sought. Case closed.

The MANTA flipped around on its axis and the man took it towards the Frontier at full speed, leaving the uncharted depths of aqua incognita to guard one more secret.
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Published on May 07, 2018 04:44

March 13, 2018

Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling - my top 6

Aerogramme Writers' Studio has a list of writing tips compiled by Emma Coats who once worked at Pixar. Most of them seem very useful to me. The full list can be found here. Here in no particular order are my favourite six (my lucky number, allegedly):

1) "You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different."

2) "Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time."

3) "Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite."

4) "Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone."

5) "No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later."

6) "Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating."

And only one I'd really quibble with:

"Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself."

I'd say to hell with novelty. It's a work in progress. Start somewhere - anywhere - and work on it. It will take on its own direction in time. New possibilities will be revealed as you go. Follow your nose.
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Published on March 13, 2018 10:23

February 19, 2018

Thalassa - the world beneath the waves NEW first chapter

This is part of the revised first chapter to the second edition of Thalassa: The World Beneath the Waves. Latest: I'll be running a Kindle Giveaway from March 2nd to March 17th 2018.

Moanna was running out of time.
She pressed her face against the glass of the window, and the endless, everlasting weight of the ocean pressed back. The light was dying. Pale shimmers still filtered down from the poisonous hell at the surface, stirring the sea as they came, but they were no longer unchallenged; the Dark was creeping up from the depths.
How had it got so late?
Moanna left the window at a jog. Past the ladder up into the steering-module, past the family shrine and the staring statue of the Blue Lady, through the hatch into her bedroom. Except calling it a bedroom was at least half a lie: one pace one way, one pace the other, that’s all the actual room there was. Come to think of it, there was no proper bed, either.
Sliding open the glass of her sleep-vault so that she could dress without banging a knee or an elbow, Moanna pulled on her pressure-suit. As she turned to leave she caught the flash of blue eyes in the mirror.
Ultramarine eyes.
She would be fine. She had been out in the ocean at dusk a hundred times before. Darker. Deeper. It wasn’t herself that she was worried about.
Out of her room, really running now, she took the turn to the MANTA-bay. As she passed the statue of the Blue Lady, she gave it a touch. A touch for luck. Not that she believed in the Blue Lady, with her pointed crown and the flaming torch she held high. Most Pioneers prayed to her for protection out in the open ocean, but not Moanna. Not really. Just a silly superstition.
Then down the long central corridor of the H-Pod, through one open hatch after another all the way down to the MANTA-bay. The lights flickered on, and the two MANTAs in their storage-racks stood to attention. Fifteen feet tall, they resembled statues themselves, statues of metal, glass, and plastic, half-human, half-fish, honouring some other ancient Pioneer god of the Deeps.
One of the MANTAs was Moanna’s. The other MANTA had been her brother Jason’s.
Jason Morgan was dead, lost somewhere out in aqua incognita. He had been dead for nearly a year – a long time set against Moanna’s age of fifteen. It still felt sometimes like he would come home. Moanna wondered when that feeling would fade, and whether she really wanted it to.
Nobody quite knew what to do with Jason’s MANTA; it was a reminder of a past stopped short, of a gap in the future. It was another thing to pat as Moanna went by.
She ran past the two empty racks – Moanna’s parents had taken their MANTAs with them to the sea-grass prairies for the harvest – and then she was at the access ladder.
The reflected glare of the lights slid up and over the open bullet-nosed canopy and across her MANTA’s smooth, hydrodynamic body. Moanna checked it over. All the steering-fins looked fine, no weeds or line snagged around them, and the ballast-vents were all clear. Then she unplugged the umbilical-cables and climbed up the ladder. At the top, she ducked under the curving canopy and stepped inside the body. Her legs slotted down until the instrument-displays in the sill came up to her waist – no need anymore for the pedal extensions that she had used as a child.
Moanna strapped herself into the flight-harness and powered up the MANTA’s systems. One by one, they winked online. She tugged the extendable helmet of her pressure-suit out from the high collar behind her head, and with the quick, fluid movement of daily practice, she slid the clear plastic visor down over her face and fastened it at her throat. Then she was good to go.
The hydraulics whined as she pulled down the transparent canopy, slamming it hard and locking it. There was a hiss as the cockpit pressurised. All lights were green. It was time to fly.
Moanna hit the launch button.
“Launch-sequence activated,” a recording of her mom’s voice burbled through the loudspeaker. “I hope you remembered to go to the bathroom.”
Moanna checked the straps of the flight-harness one last time. Behind her MANTA, the in-lock hatch to the launch tube slid open.
“And did you wash your hands?” the recording asked.
Motors growled, and still sitting in its rack, the MANTA rumbled backwards into the vertical launch tube. The hatch closed, sealing Moanna inside.
“Launch in ten seconds,” her mom’s voice said, and the lights in the launch tube started to flash.
Then Moanna heard them all, a chorus of Morgan voices, shouting the countdown together as the water rushed in; her younger, gap-toothed self, her mom and dad, and a barely teenaged Jason, his voice wobbling between high and low. She remembered the day they had made that recording; Jason counting out of order so they had to keep re-doing it, her own fits of giggles, and the horror of hearing what her own voice sounded like.
Blue-green and bubbling, the water climbed rapidly up the strengthened glass of the canopy. Lots of people hated being in a flooding launch tube, but Moanna liked the rising note the water made as it filled the empty space. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, every time.
“Five!” She turned on the MANTA’s flight-lights, and the launch tube blazed white all around her.
“Four!” The Morgans’ recorded voices were muffled mid-word as water flooded the chamber completely.
“Three!” There was a thud and a click and the out-lock hatch above her rotated open.
“Two!” Moanna released the docking-clamps that were pinning her MANTA to the rack.
“One!” A last swirl of silvery bubbles spiralled up past the MANTA, and she hit the thrusters, racing them up the launch tube and out into the ocean.

Up and up the MANTA went, fifteen, twenty, thirty feet above the untidy shape of the Morgans’ H-Pod. Moanna flexed the steering-fins and put the MANTA into a lazy spin. She shifted into. horizontal. flight as she passed back over the out-lock hatch and watched it close automatically beneath her.
Hanging suspended in the flight-harness, she glanced right and left through the bullet-shaped canopy. Deep purple-blue surrounded her, with the silver-white beams of the MANTA’s flight-lights stabbing out ahead. As she circled, she looked along the path they illuminated.
Half a day’s flight to the west were the Morgans’ sea-grass meadows out in the wilds where her parents had been for a week already, and just beyond the meadows, the deep, dark water of the Mississippi Trench. Beyond that, if the old legends were true, the seas eventually ended and the rocky mountains of the Great Plague Deserts pushed their poisonous heads up above the surface. Not far in the opposite direction, behind Moanna, were the Colony’s coral mines, and then hundreds of miles further to the east, more legends: the rising slopes of the Appalachian Islands. North: nothing as far as any Tethyan knew, just aqua incognita, unknown water. Right where the Morgans’ H-Pod sat on its flat coralcrete perch was just about as far beyond the Frontier as any Tethyan had ever dared to settle.
Through the shifting bands of the salt-water currents on Moanna’s left, away to the south, the Colony of MacGillycuddy’s Reef came into view. It was speckled with shimmering lights, sprawling across the rocks and ridges like a massive metal starfish. It had grown so fast in the last few years, unrecognisable from the small hitch-up it had been for most of Moanna’s life, and more changes were coming. If the plans of the politicians in Capital Colony worked out, the Reef would soon become the newest and northernmost member of the ever-expanding Tethys Federation.
Moanna turned towards it.
Strands of twinkling dots moved between the manufacturing and trading sectors as cargo-subs and shuttles approached or left the docks. There was the odd MANTA too, and maintenance-teams flitted like little parasitic fish across the Colony’s jumble of interconnecting pressure-hulls, fixing leaks. Far away in the murk, so distant that its shape was not really visible, was the High Hub, the tower at the centre of those radiating limbs, where people as wealthy and as well-connected as Jenn and Douglas Anderson lived.
Except where was Douglas Anderson now?
Nothing. No lights broke away from the glittering constellation of the Colony and headed in Moanna’s direction.
Dammit! Had Douglas gone on ahead already, looking for her? Maybe. Or was he trying to impress her, waiting to surprise her? That thought almost made Moanna smile. But the Dark was deepening all around her: no place for a dry-walker Colonist to play the daredevil.
“Are you going out to check your lobster traps?” Jenn Anderson had asked her earlier that day, thirty-hours away at the end of a crackling teletalk-line in Capital Colony.
Moanna gave herself a mental kick for being so unguarded. She should have realised what it had meant, that question, so innocent-sounding.
Jenn hated the Andersons’ family visits to Capital Colony, Moanna knew that. Anyone else would have been excited at the thought of a trip down there, to the old, established deepwater Colonies on the edge of the Florida Deeps. But not Jenn. She called Moanna every day, seeking sanctuary from the boredom of endless shopping visits and official engagements, and that day had been no exception.
So Moanna had thought it was a fair question, asking about something that reminded Jenn of her life at home on the ‘wrong’ side of the Frontier.
And then Mrs Anderson had got involved. Moanna knew she had to be worried to consider sending Douglas. Her son had returned from Capital Colony with his father the day before, and as fond as Mrs Anderson was of Moanna, she normally tried to limit any time that Douglas might spend in her company. Just in case.
And Mrs Anderson was worried. Even after five years, she wasn’t used to Frontier life in MacGillycuddy’s Reef. Down in Capital Colony there were miles and miles of fencing and wide areas of carefully managed banks dotted with habitation-condos. Most settlements were linked together by dry-walk connections or tunnel-trains, so that even a trip in a shuttle-sub was regarded as a hazardous inconvenience. Dry-walkers called MANTAs ‘iron coffins’, and for that reason, Mrs Anderson and her husband had never been anywhere near one. Jenn and Douglas had learnt to fly – all part of growing up past the Frontier – but compared to Moanna, they were little more than novices. Just experienced enough to get into trouble…
Now Douglas was out past the Perimeter, sent to baby-sit someone who had spent her entire life out in the Wet! Moanna was annoyed by the arrogance of it – the stupid, well-meaning, dry-walker arrogance.
She couldn’t wait any longer. She flipped her MANTA around in the water, kicked the thrusters to full power, and headed for the Perimeter. She soon passed it – the sentry-pods and the strung-out lines of fluttering weeds that marked the fences, all of it left over from the last Wire War. Further south, on the Federation side of the Frontier, such defences had long since been salvaged. Up on the edge of aqua incognita, where sharks and pirates and who knew what else lurked in the unknown waters, the fences had been kept for safety’s sake.
As she angled her fins away from the Perimeter, Moanna armed the anti-shark spines on her MANTA and looked around warily. But aqua incognita was as empty as ever – just the fish and the flotsam and the restless souls of the billions who had died with the Old Earth more than a thousand years before.
The land rose beneath her, drowned summits that must once have been low hills far from the sea, and the waves at the surface painted broken ribbons across the coral banks.
Moanna glanced up. The surface was so different from the tranquil waters of the Deeps – turbulent and wrathful, a sign of the Hell that people said was beyond them. She stared at the kaleidoscope patterns of greens and blues that furled and furrowed overhead. Only a hundred feet away, but a thousand years of fear and superstition lay between her and the surface.
No-one from the Tethys Colonies had visited the surface for more than a thousand years, and most Tethyans didn’t believe it existed at all. Water all the way up, they said, until you got to Hell itself where the Sun burnt down with its shining rays, peeling the skin from your body, scorching out your eyes, and boiling away the seas to fill what was left with poisonous gasses. Papa Noah had led their ancestors under the waves away from all that. No-one but them, a few thousand at most, had survived the fires and the floods and the toxic winds that had come afterwards from the Great Plague Deserts in the west. The Old Earth had died and a new world had been born: Thalassa, the world beneath the waves. It was Moanna’s world, and she knew it intimately.
As she rounded a saddleback seamount and flew out above the plateau, the waters widened, opening to her sight. Still nothing. No MANTA. Where could Douglas be? There was nowhere to hide out there. Nowhere except…
The knot of fear in Moanna’s stomach tightened, and she headed off at full thrust towards the dusky twilight of the lower slopes.
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Published on February 19, 2018 04:22

February 6, 2018

Good openings - the eye of the beholder

Two blog posts in one day? The writing must be going well... But I didn't want to *just* use the blog as an exercise in book promotion (despite temptation/appearances to the contrary).

I'm currently dipping into Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress. I've read a few bits and here and there, as well as trying to take a more structured approach to what Kress has to say. I'm not big on self-help books, mainly because I like to discover things for myself and I think if I'd read this as a 'how to write' guide I would have felt quite daunted. Better to write first and read about your mistakes afterwards, in my view. I also think that too close attention to any 'rules of the game' can result in formulaic writing. Nevertheless, the book accords very well with my experience of writing so far and it's handy to tie things together and learn a few new things along the way.

One thing that has made me wonder a bit is Kress's approach to beginnings. She has some great advice, but she uses these two examples of beginnings to explore do's and don't's (I should also point out that the emphasis is on introducing a character):

Example 1 (p. 10):
"I am sitting over coffee and cigarets [sic] at my friend Rita's and I am telling her about it.
Here is what I tell her.
It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.
This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well-dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But is is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table next to his to see to the old couple, I first notice the fingers."

Example 2 (p. 11):
"The fall day was hot. Ted Henderson drove to the school and parked the car. He wore a dark blue suit, black shoes, and the maroon tie Kathy had given him for Christmas. He climbed the steps and opened the door. Inside, it was cooler. The school office told him Mrs. Kelly would join him soon. Ted sat down to wait.
When Mrs. Kelly arrived, she led him into a conference room. They sat down.
'I'd like to discuss my daughter Jane's grades,' Ted said. 'Her report card wasn't very good.' "

Which of these openers is deemed by Kress to be "unsuccessful"? Answer below.

Kress concludes that example 1 is more successful at introducing a character. It gives the character a real 'voice'. In Kress' words: "readers will sense that there is a character here, a genuine person." (p. 11). In contrast, example 2, Kress contends, simply raises a ton of questions about who Ted is and his motivations for seeing Mrs. Kelly. I don't dispute that, though I think anyone writing in the first person automatically gains more character - Kress doesn't make this point in her critique - and so the comparison is a bit unfair. Beyond that, which opener would prompt me to read more? For me, it would be example 2, simply because there are so many questions about Ted Henderson and his motives. Example one - from a story by Raymond Carver - is less interesting to my taste, and I even find the use of such obvious devices as the meandering and mundane 'this-is-not-important-but-it-is' tone a bit cliched and annoying.

What I really learnt from this example: write for yourself - you know what works for you, and if you don't like it, nobody else will.

I'm looking forward to the rest if the book: it's making me think, even if I don't always agree, and that's always a good thing.
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Published on February 06, 2018 05:47

Spilt ink

M. Jonathan Jones
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