In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Friday, 12 January 2018

How The Stars Shine

 Hi all. Hope the New Year has started with promise for you.

 I'm getting right into the new novel, 22,000 words done now. I've renamed it How The Stars Shine, from a quote by Bertrand Russell about how he yearns to know so many things. Part of the story (before, it was called Eternity) deals with a scholar called Mani, whose job is to talk with the Sea-Goats who live in the lagoon and glean information from them. He's a man of learning in a culture where almost everyone works in farming or the military, who takes one simple step and finds that it throws him into the heart of events sweeping across the cities.

 Trouble is, from there the story has grown into something so ambitious that it scares me. There's a non-human species, the Sea-Goats, who are a bit like mermen but have a distinct culture and keep secrets all the time. There's a mad warlord who wants to live forever, and an almost equally insane High Priestess who thinks she can ride his coat-tails to power. There are betrayals and revelations galore. All this makes the story difficult to write in a structural sense, because there's so much going on and I have to keep it all tight and sleek so it isn't confusing.

 At the heart of it all is the longing for power, and the things people do to achieve it. We're driven by pride and ambition, even if we don't know what we'll actually do with power once we've got it. A bit like Donald Trump, who seemed to want the Presidency so he could boast to foreign leaders about how big his button was (metaphorically, hehe). The warlord in Stars is like that. He wants to live forever not so he can achieve good things for his people, not so he can understand mysteries, but just so he doesn't die. A little man holding great power is dangerous.

 Then there's Mani, who wants to understand all the mysteries, know all the answers to questions he hasn't even thought of yet. That's foolish too, because if we know everything we have nothing left to learn, or achieve. The Arabs have a proverb; "May all your dreams come true but one." Having one thing left to dream of means we remain dreamers, and isn't that good?

 I'm as guilty as anyone, by the way. I'm a bit like Mani, wanting to know all the answers, even though I know it's a fool's longing. But I do know there are limitations on what we can do. I've typed this blog with one hand while cradling a sleepy-struggly baby in the other, and boy, that teaches you the limits of what you can do.

 Is writing How The Stars Shine beyond my limits? Maybe. But if the project doesn't scare you it's not big enough, and as I've said before, God hates a coward. I think I can manage the story. Finding out is deliciously scary.

 Pip pip.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Hope for Better

 So the Christmas dinner is eaten (and very nice it was too). The presents have been opened, though Bella got so excited with some that she still hasn't unwrapped the others. The pop-up play-tent was especially popular. She likes to get inside and then roll it across the floor, so this afternoon has not been very restful.

 Still, happy kids, happy wife, and I even had a beer with lunch. Good day, eh?

 Usually my last blog of the year is a review - the best and worst of 2017, that sort of thing. I can't really do it now because I've done very little this year outside work and family. There are a few things though, and first among them is Blade Runner 2049. You've probably heard that it's too long, but that's not true - it's long because it has important themes to explore, about what makes us human and how we define ourselves. Every minute is worth it though. My three favourite films for years have been Blade Runner, Dances with Wolves and The Godfather; now I have a fourth to add to the list. 2049 is outstanding, a proper tour de force. Go and see it or you'll miss something special.

Otherwise, it's been a year of coming close. Twice I was offered a conditional publishing deal, as regular readers will know, and twice I turned it down. I'm right on the edge of a contract now, but there's nothing to say that my next submissions will be as well received. There are no guarantees until you've signed that paper. So I have to carry on as before, writing and submitting, doing what I can on social media - generally, as Churchill said, just Keep Buggering On. And though the old year has been great, hope for better in the new.

 I hope your 2018 is terrific too. Enjoy the rest of the festive season, and best wishes for the New Year. Pip pip!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Back to the Light

 So, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, eh?

I’ve never liked the festive season. It’s too commercial and too forced. The adverts start much too early, and they’re all pressure sells - “buy this for Dad to make him happy.” Then it’s as though you have to smile, all the time. Not allowed to be down, not allowed to have a blue day. Stores play the same trite songs on a loop and we all have to wear jumpers that show we’re just such fun guys. It rings fake to me.

But now I have kids, things have changed (Like that’s a surprise). Christmas is for children, isn’t it? Bella’s of an age where she still prefers wrapping paper to presents, and plays for hours with the boxes, but still, she likes tearing the wrap off things. And she does like new toys, at least after she’s destroyed the boxes and strewn the house with cardboard. Besides, this will be Evie’s first Christmas. It doesn’t matter if I’m a grumpy old curmudgeon. It stopped being about me when the kids were born.

Christmas grew out of the pagan midwinter festival. I wonder if people then felt the same about that?


In some ways, patently not. The old festival was about emerging from the winter. The shortest day meant the year had turned, and now began to move towards spring and the rebirth of life. It was something to celebrate, but something dark too. The gods of rebirth used to die at midwinter, their blood on the snow, because they had to before being reborn in spring when the shoots start to grow. Darkness and light, a mixed message. Hope and despair.

 But faced with that, people focus on the hope. We always look for the light of a candle in the night. I can imagine those old festivals being full of life and joy, laughing in the face of the dark. What else were they for? We know the darkness is there, but we don't have to dwell on it. Better to raise a glass and smile.

 My wife wants us all to have onesies. I've always refused to wear the dreadful things. No force on Earth will get me into one of those things... except there are the kids. Caz says she can get minions onesies for her and the girls, and a Gru one for me. And take photos.

 The things we do for our kids.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Mad, like Poets

 Well, as expected, Austin Macauley didn't want to negotiate over The Death of Ghosts. They said it would be unethical to keep the first £2,500 of my royalties, instead of me paying that up front. I don't really see that. I think it's an excuse, but there it is. I can't change it, so I'll just keep on as I was before.

 Two offers of publication rejected. It's not easy y'know.

 Having a laptop helps. I've completed more work in the past three weeks than the five months beforehand. That includes original work, first draft stuff, of which I'd done exactly none at all since Evie was born. Some editing, some publicity work and suchlike, but nothing original. It's sooo good to be doing that again. I think it's true for most authors that we write not because we choose to, but because we're driven to. Without writing we go a bit mad, like poets. At times I've felt the top of my head was going to come off if I didn't get some work done.

 So now the new edit of Death of Ghosts is nearly done. This one is because I decided to change the series from a tetralogy to a trilogy,which means adding about 20-30,000 words that would have gone into volume 2 but are now in volume 1. (Hence the original writing) I think it makes the series stronger and tighter. Volume 2 will now be called The Tower of Mages, and volume 3 is The King of Rain. All plotted out, ready to go. As is a standalone novel called Eternity, a series called The Pyramids of Saqoma, and also the new idea, as yet untitled. The Beast Beneath the Sea? Not sure that works, but it'll do for now.

 But first priority now is Fanged Fish, the sequel to Black Lord of Eagles. (Gosh, this is a lot of titles) It's due out in late February and I'm arranging the launch now. I'd like to do three or four events, in different towns, to publicise it. Bideford, Barnstaple, maybe then Tiverton and Minehead. We'll see. If anyone knows of a library or book shop in North Devon or Somerset that might be interested in hosting, let me know, eh?

 This must all be done on top of my job, and looking after the family. Quite a lot on my plate. Like I said, we're all mad, like poets, aren't we?

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Temporary Deafness

 Hi all.

 I've had yet another conditional offer for Death of Ghosts. This one is from Austin Macauley publishers. I turned it down, for the same reasons that I refused Olympia back in the summer. AM then emailed back to say they really do want the book. Trouble is, I am not going to pay £2,500 up front. If they believe in the book they can push it themselves, and if not, I'll keep looking. I'll try to negotiate, but don't have high hopes.

 Still, and once more, it shows that I'm pretty close. The doors opening are the wrong doors, but soon (with luck) it will be the right one. I just have to keep working, keep improving, and keep ringing the bell.

 That's made easier because we bought a laptop last week. With two small children in the house it means any and every room is likely to be occupied, and if not now, it will be soon. So wherever I put the desktop I get interrupted. Now I can just slope off to another room and keep working. I've already written in the lounge, in the bathroom, and on break at work. The result is more work finished in ten days than the whole of the previous month - despite Evie deciding that whenever Mummy isn't there, she'll shriek at jetliner volume until a) Mummy is back, or b) Evie collapses in exhaustion.

 That takes about two hours. The first time I didn't get hearing back in my left ear for days. You can see why the laptop is important.

 I've also had an idea so stonkingly good that I can't shake it. In essence I've been wanting for years to write a story about Easter Island, or a Fantasy version of it, but my trouble is there's really nothing to say except what really happened. That's just history, not a Fantasy. So I needed something different, and couldn't think of anything original and interesting. Now I have. It will have all the things I wanted, like outrigger canoes and moai, but also include some elements of my own. I'm a little bit indebted to Terry Pratchett's Nation to be honest, for starting my mind down the path of thinking about the culture and people more than monuments and events. That's an outstanding book by the way. Meant for children, but excellent for adults too.

 See what happens when I have time to write? Although my temporary deafness might have played a part. It's hard to be distracted when you can't hear a bloody thing on one side.

 Bella has just arrived and is trying to work out what they keyboard is for. Her method involves hitting the keys with hands and feet. This may be a hint that Daddy's blog time is over.

 Pip pip.

Monday, 23 October 2017

More of our Time

 I wonder what my writing says about me, and how I think.

 Look at Stephen King. We all know his work, right? King himself says a lot of it is driven by his belief in good and evil, in forms that we encounter every day. He believes that in the end we all have to take a stand with light against the dark. (I think he's right. If you hear overt sexism on the bus, or you see racist bullying in a bar or nightclub, don't walk by. Not unless you want to live in a world where such things are accepted.)

 But King's work was coloured heavily after his accident. For a while it was full of crippled characters - in Dreamcatcher and Duma Key, for example. King's own pain seeped into his work. So some of it is conscious and some sneaks through without us poor writers noticing it. How then can we tell how much of us is in our work?

 Well, I try not to repeat ideas or memes, but I've noticed that I have. Alar in Risen King and Calesh in Songs of Sorrow are both reluctant warriors, drawn into battle as young men and now returning to fight again. There are big differences between them too, but that lies at the heart of both their characters. More broadly, several of my books are about the struggle to be free. Risen King and Sorrow feature here too, as well as Black Lord of Eagles. The situations are very different, and the stories change - those are three very different tales. But I can't deny there are similarities. So it seems I've returned to a theme without even realising it. I must be as dumb as a horse going to the same old watering hole, sometimes.

 Maybe I have an itch about the question of freedom. I admit, I've never been especially persuaded by the way we define freedom in the Western world. It seems to boil down to being free to vote once every four or five years, while also being free to be exploited by the wealthy, to be denied health care, and free to be cold in winter because we can't afford to turn the heating up. The gap between the richest people and the rest of us is wider than at any time in hundreds of years, and it's getting wider. We can't eat freedom. What good is it when it's just a word?

 Bizarrely, in some ancient societies even slaves were more free than we are today. A debtor in ancient Greece could work off what he owed, as a slave, but then regain his liberty. Serfs in England might work as little as one day a week for their landowner, and have the rest of their time to spend on their own crops. All right, these were grindingly hard lives, I know that. Still, on the road between then and now we've managed to give away more and more of our time, often for less compensation, and we call this freedom.

 Yes, I have a bee in my bonnet about this. It can only continue for as long as we let it. So in these days when Greeks are scavenging food from bins in Athens, when British people are fined for going to the dentist, and when Americans are being stripped of health insurance they paid for, why do we let it go on?

 In all my research into ancient cultures, I've learned one important thing. People build the culture they want. But then it changes, the society stops serving its people and the people begin to serve it instead, so the system (whatever it is) can be perpetuated. It's why change is so hard.

 But boy, do we need change.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Good, eh?

 So, I've been doing research for a new project recently. It involves finding the names of the three roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse myth. Just poke my nose onto the web, I thought, and the answer will pop up.

 It did not pop up. It continued not to, until after a month I quit looking. This doesn't usually happen. As I'm sure you know, you can find the answer to almost anything online - well, you can find an answer, at least. It might be utter nonsense, or an outright lie written by a swivel-eyed fanatic in the cellar of his Mum's house, so you have to check whatever you find. But still, answers are there. Except in this case.

 It surprised me, because I do a lot of internet research and the web very rarely lets me down. If that wasn't true I simply could not write my books, not in the form they take. The setting matters a lot. The people's myths, their habits, what they eat and how they speak, are important. Black Lord includes drinking venues called machanas, for example. Other books include Celtic superstitions about elves, the Greek belief in glory after death, and a heretical Christian concept of flesh as the domain of the Devil. I couldn't learn these things, couldn't add the colour they bring to my stories, without the internet.

 Yes, libraries would help, but no library can host the millions of sources you find online. In effect Google can take you inside every library in the world at the same time. So if a month of effort doesn't turn up the names of Yggdrasil's roots, I begin to suspect it's because the names aren't there to be found.

 Therefore I've made some up. After all, I'm writing Fantasy here, not a history of the Norsemen. Good, eh?

 Story is king. I draw from real cultures, and real history, but I take what I want and ignore the rest. I'll even invent something and throw it in if I need to - like Kai, the kamachi at the centre of Black Lord of Eagles. There was never a Servant of the teacher god among the Inca. But there Kai is, because I needed him to help me answer the question of why the Inca empire held together. It shouldn't have done. It was made up of dozens of cultural groups scattered across eight or nine climate zones, and ought to have collapsed in a few decades. It didn't, and nearly threw the Spanish back at the end, too. How? How could such a motley, divided empire turn out to be glued together so tightly?

 I researched that question. I read books and tracked down files, and found zilch. Nothing. But I knew that the Spanish dedicated a lot of effort to wiping out Inca culture, which means that for everything we know about them, there are a hundred things that were lost. So there's a great big void which I could fill with Kai. It means the novel isn't a history, but then it never was. It's just (I hope) a bloody good yarn.

Have a read and see if you agree. Pip pip.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Lord-Eagles-Blessed-Land-ebook/dp/B06XZCB61G/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507574162&sr=1-1&keywords=ben+blake+black+lord+of+eagles