Archive for July, 2014

To be a writer you need a thick skin. This is not only because you probably are going to get rejected, A LOT, but also because, even when you are published, your work won’t appeal to everyone, so you’ll need to get used to negative reviews as well.

I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years. It’s not perfect, like a force field in Star Trek there are places where it’s a lot thinner, and if you fire a photon torpedo of rejection at just the right angle you will probably piss me off, but on the whole I’ve learned to be fairly relaxed about the process. I know I’m a good writer, it’s just that sometimes other writers are better, or my story isn’t quite right for a particular publication, and over the years I’ve found homes for plenty of stories that were initially rejected. Sadly the truth is that yours might be the 13th best story out of 150 that were submitted, but if the anthology only has space for 12 there’s nothing you can do about that.

Sometimes though, however powerful my shields are, something happens that really rubs me up the right way, and such a thing happened today. I won’t name the publisher, but I submitted a story back in October 2013 for an anthology that was supposed to be published this month. Finally today the table of contents has been published. My story was clearly rejected yet I received no rejection email, there wasn’t even a quick message on the website along the lines of “If you haven’t heard from us we’re afraid your story has been rejected. We wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere.” No, instead I (and ones presumes the other rejected) have been left hanging for weeks, possibly months.

Rejection is annoying, and a form rejection that gives no indication of whether your story had any merit, or how it could be improved, is more annoying, but they’re both an acceptable part of the biz. Not even having the decency to send a form rejection email on the other hand, well I think that’s a bit crappy. At the end of the day I have what I think is a decent story, and whilst it may not be right for this particular editor/publication, that doesn’t mean it won’t find a home elsewhere, but unless I know it’s been rejected I can’t send it elsewhere (because publishers frown on simultaneous submissions don’t ya know!) .

For all I know the perfect home for my story has been and gone. A publisher who would have paid pro-rates and a publication that would have been seen by a big shot Hollywood producer who’d buy the rights to my story for a million bucks and…well ,you get the point.

So in this instance a bit of phaser fire has penetrated my shields and caused some minor hull damage. Nothing too serious thankfully. The majority of publishers and editors are great, but in this instance someone else will have their name added to a very small list of persons I won’t submit to again.

That’ll show em!

Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman.

Its ten years after an apocalypse caused by the Simian Flu, a manmade virus that was designed to fight Alzheimer’s but which actually boosted the intelligence of apes, whilst proving fatal to large numbers of human beings.

Since he led his fellow apes into the forest Caesar (Serkis) has built a peaceful society based upon the axiom that Ape shall not kill Ape. He has a son, and his mate is about to give birth to another child. It has been several years since any of the apes have seen a human being, and they wonder if there are any humans left.

The peaceful life they have built for themselves is shattered when a group of humans from a colony in San Francisco arrive, led by a man named Malcom (Clarke). After an initial misunderstanding where one of the apes is injured, Malcom explains that they are trying to use the nearby hydroelectric dam to power their colony, which is down to its last few weeks of fuel. Initially Caesar refuses to help, and orders the humans out of the forest. Egged on by Koba, his lieutenant, and an ape who still bears the scars of his own captivity by man, Caesar leads his apes to the walled in colony within the city to make it clear that they are quite capable of defending themselves if needs be.

Desperate for the power the dam can provide the colony leader Dreyfuss (Oldman) plans to lead an armed offensive against the apes, but Malcom convinces him to give him another chance to convince Caesar. Along with his wife, Ellie (Russell), his teenage son and a handful of others, Malcom heads back into the forest, but with distrust on both sides can there ever be peace between man and ape?

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a really pleasant surprise, successfully washing away the foul taste left by Tim Burton’s truly atrocious reboot. As a result I was eagerly anticipating Dawn and I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. Be warned, it’s a slow burning film, and it does take a little while to get going, but once it does it barely slows down until the end, and is that rarest of beasts, a blockbuster that actually has something intelligent to say.

As he did in Rise, and as he’s done as Gollum and as other CG characters, once again Serkis is the star of the show. The special effects are truly magnificent, to the point where it’s impossible not to believe that Caesar and the other apes are real, but special effects alone would be nothing without the performances backing them up, notably from Serkis, who imbues Caesar with a huge amount of intelligence, honour and, apologies, humanity. With every movement, every twitch of his lips or lift of his brow, Caesar is utterly real, and totally empathetic. Close behind him is Toby Kebbell as Koba, who is far more than a moustache twirling villain, he’s a fully realised character, and his hatred of humans makes perfect sense given his background.

The apes are amazing, especially when roused into action, and the ape army descending on San Francisco is stunning, as is the battle between man and ape when it arrives, and not only do you fully believe that Koba is real, but you don’t doubt that he’s really riding a horse and really welding an automatic rifle.

Dawn is about far more than action sequences though, dealing with fatherhood through the eyes of both Malcom and Caesar, and in dealing with the nuances of diplomacy between two opposing forces whose natural instincts are to distrust one another, and there’s an abiding sense of doom hanging over the film, because even when things seem to be going well you can’t help but feel that sooner or later things are going to take a turn for the worse.

Sadly the human characters are not nearly as well realised as the Apes and this is where the film falls short. Clarke is not an actor I’ve seen before, but he does a good job as the everyman Malcom, struggling to balance his need to survive against his humanity where it comes to the apes. As his wife, Russell is also good, although she perhaps isn’t given nearly enough to do. The rest of the humans are fairly thinly realised and, despite a valiant attempt to make him come alive, it’s a shame that an actor of Oldman’s statue doesn’t get more to do, and in the end he’s wasted as Dreyfuss.

Any such failings are more than made up for by the Apes themselves, and arguably Caesar and Koba are more fully realised characters than you’d likely find in a slew of Michael Bay films.

Thoughtful, intelligent, visually impressive and emotional, this might not be the most in-your-face blockbuster of the year, but it’s far and away one of the best. Ape will not kill ape, and you must not miss this film!

The Night Eternal

Posted: July 25, 2014 in Book reviews

The final chapter in The Strain Trilogy by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, and writer Chuck Hogan. Before I start the fact that I’m reviewing the third part of a trilogy means that there may be spoilers, particularly for the first two books. You have been warned!

It’s two years since The Master’s plan came to fruition, two years since he eliminated the other ancients, leaving him top of the vampiric food chain, and two years since he caused nuclear reactors across the globe to meltdown, creating a nuclear winter. Now it’s dark most of the time, aside from a very gloomy “day” that lasts about two hours around midday. Vampires are everywhere, and those humans not allowed to continue with their lives are now forced into camps providing blood for the vampires.

Professor Abraham Setrakian died at the end of the second book, but his struggle against the vampire horde is continued by a rag tag group of resisters, although they are far from a unified force. Epidemiologist Dr. Eph Goodweather has become increasingly unhinged and obsessed with trying to find his son, Zack, taken by his ex-wife Kelly, who is now a vampire. His fellow scientist Dr. Nora Martinez is still struggling to keep her mother, who’s suffering with Alzheimer’s, safe. She’s also found herself falling out of love with Eph and in love with the former exterminator, Vasiliy Fet, who is continuing the work of Setrakian in trying to locate the origin of The Master so they can defeat him. Former gangbanger Augustin “Gus” Elizalde now hates Eph and he’s also keeping his mother, who’s a vampire, locked in his basement. This disparate band are joined by The Master’s “son”, the only vampire left who The Master can’t control, a man who’s been alive since Roman times but is now prepared to die so long as he can take the Master with him.

Somehow they must find a way to work together if they are to unlock the secret of The Master’s creation, the key to its destruction…

It took me a while to get around to reading the final part of the trilogy, and this was, to an extent, because I’d found the second part a little dull. This isn’t to say that the opening novel had been ‘the greatest thing ever’ because it wasn’t, if anything the story felt more than a little derivative, but it was still well written and interesting and I did want to read on.

If the second part was dull, it’s still probably better than the third. It’s hard to know quite where to begin when detailing just what’s wrong with it. Firstly the vampires themselves seem to have got less interesting, and whilst originally they were quite an original take on vampires, now the intriguing, and somewhat grounded in biology, elements of their pathology are shunted aside in favour of some Old Testament bullshit that seems to have come out of nowhere.

Character wise it’s hard to root for anyone (if anything The Master’s “Son” Mr Quinlan seems more heroic than Eph). Eph’s character has degenerated significantly since the opening book. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with flawed heroes, they’re preferable to the whiter than white perfect variety any day of the week, it’s just that Eph seems to have veered too far into his obsessions. The others aren’t much better, they castigate Eph whilst Nora keeps her mother around despite her being a huge liability, and Gus keeps his own vampire infected mom around too, so is Eph’s obsession about finding his son that unusual?

Talking of his son, the evolution of Zack’s bizarre in the extreme; in fact this is a book where everyone seems to be acting out of character.

Of course maybe the new darkened world is to blame, except the nature of the new world seems quite vague, to say the least, a lot of people still seem to be working and living normal lives, whilst many others are in the blood camps, only nothing seems remotely conceivable, it’s as if the authors drafted their idea for a world where vampires are atop the food chain on the back of a fag packet rather than giving even the merest thought towards some proper world building, or did any research on what such a world would actually be like.

As such we have a bunch of unlikable characters, inhabiting a world it’s hard to truly get a grip on, fighting a villain who couldn’t be any more two dimensional if he was a cardboard standee.

I’m also kinda annoyed that they stole the ending from my own novel City of Caves (not that I imagine either has read it, but the denouncements are very similar.)

There were some interesting ideas at the heart of the trilogy, but it almost feels like the authors got bored over the course of writing all three books (or perhaps one of them had less time/input over the course of the story’s evolution) and the tail off in quality is quite dramatic. The trilogy still deserves kudos for making its vampires vicious and disgusting monsters, in the Twilight era this is always a plus point, but I can’t really recommend this unless you’ve already read the first/second books and want to know how the story ends.

So close!

Posted: July 3, 2014 in Regarding writing

I really should have posted this last week. I really should get around to writing a post about how procrastination is the writer’s greatest foe…I’ve got a lot of ironing to do first though…

A few months ago I submitted a story for a competition run by SFX magazine, the theme of the contest was zombies, and the winner would be published in the 250th issue of SFX, and get some free books.

Issue 250 of SFX was published last week and, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, I didn’t win. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I’d been named as one of four runners up. You can click here to read the announcement and see my name in print.

As anyone who is a writer, at any level, knows, having people appreciate your work is one of the biggest boosts you can get. So whilst I may not have won, for my story to be chosen as one of the top five out of hundreds that were submitted is a real honour. Out Beyond the Naughty Step is a story I’m very proud of, and I hope to find a home for it one day.

Aspiring writers get so many rejections, so it’s important to hold onto any piece of good news that you get, even if it’s not an acceptance as such. So if someone tells you that you haven’t been successful, but that they did enjoy your story, then believe them. Positive feedback is often thin on the ground, so when it comes accept it as genuine, because I suspect most of the time it is. For publishers dealing with hundreds of submissions it’s understandable that they send form responses out to the unsuccessful, that they’ve taken the time to say something positive suggests they really did like something about your story.

It may not win the war, it really isn’t even akin to winning a battle, but at the very least you’ve won a skirmish, and that’s not to be sniffed at.

The Fourth Protocol

Posted: July 2, 2014 in Book reviews

By Frederick Forsyth

Its 1987 and the General Secretary of the Politburo, aided by British traitor Kim Philby, has hatched a plan designed to ensure a Labour victory at the next UK General election by breaking the so called Fourth Protocol, a secret caveat of previous nuclear talks. The Fourth Protocol precludes any of the nuclear powers from smuggling a nuclear weapon into another country. Now the Soviets plan to not only smuggle the parts of such a device into the UK, but to assemble and detonate it near to a US airbase, making it seem that an American bomb has gone off which will drive the British voters towards the Labour party. Shortly after the election victory the plan is for Neil Kinnock to be replaced by a hard left candidate who will become Britain’s first Marxist Prime Minister.

KGB Agent Valeri Petrofsky is chosen to infiltrate the UK, setting himself up with house in Suffolk. Slowly but surely the component parts of the bomb are smuggled in by a succession of Soviet agents. Petrofsky hasn’t reckoned with the dogged investigations of MI5 agent John Preston however, although Preston’s concerns about a possible Soviet plot aren’t taken nearly seriously enough by his superiors, which complicates matters.

With time running out can Preston track down Petrofsky before he completes his mission?

One of Forsyth’s greatest talents as a writer is to make even the most banal and procedural elements of a story seem exciting. In his hands a search of hotel cards in The Day of the Jackal feels like a running gun battle. He is meticulous in his research, and in putting this all down on paper.

When done well, as in his best novel (the aforementioned Day of the Jackal) or The Dogs of War, it makes for fascinating reading. However sometimes there isn’t enough of a payoff from all that hard work, and whilst The Fourth Protocol is fascinating in places, it lacks the sense of drama to make it a classic.

As a protagonist Preston makes for a great hunter, but unlike the eponymous Jackal Petrofsky is a thinly realised character, and although the book tries to build towards a tense finale it never quite has you on the edge of your seat.

There’s early promise in a detailed examination of a burglary committed by a top criminal that will have wide reaching ramifications, and similarly the nuts and bolts espionage work is intriguing. It’s just a shame things fizzle out towards the end.

There’s also the problem that Forsyth lets his politics show through a bit too much. Perhaps he had done before but it hadn’t been so noticeable because he was talking about France, or Africa. When he’s talking about Great Britain of the 1980s, about Thatcher and Kinnock, the Cold War and CND, it seems so very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. That’s not to say a writer shouldn’t let his politics inform his writing, he, or she, should perhaps be a bit more subtle about it.

Similarly, although very much a product of its time (written in 1984), it’s hard not to wince a little at how gays and ethnic minorities are portrayed, although Forsyth is hardly the only author to have written in this way.

As a snapshot of the 1980s, and the Cold War, it’s interesting, and it’s enjoyable enough as a thriller, but a book about the potential detonation of a nuclear bomb should really create more of a bang than this does.