Category Archives: Science Fiction

AntiHelix, nuts and bolts and a writer’s workflow

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I’ve finished the first draft of the third volume in the Book of the Colossus quadrilogy, AntiHelix, and put it to one side for a month to pickle. It stands at just over 129,000 words which is the  longest piece of work I’ve written so far (though I’ll hack it back to 120,000-ish). I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about the workflow I’ve developed, hoping it might be of some use to other writers, and to mention a couple of the tools I use.

In a previous blog I wrote about Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days, a book that turned me from a generally confused pantser into a planner. As I mentioned at the time the process she details in the book can actually be boiled down to a handful of steps. Over the last three books (and the handful of outlines and ideas I’ve got waiting in the wings) I’ve developed my own version. Now a lot of books on how to write are filled with helpful advice on creating characters, stories, backstory etc. which is all well and good but I think that some of them do have the tendency to over-exaggerate writing as a deeply personal creative art. It’s a modern version of the myth invented by the Romantic poets when they found themselves having to redefine writing as something you did on your own for an invisible audience, instead of work designed to please a patron with whom you had a personal relationship.

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For me, at the end of the day producing a novel is a nuts and bolts operation and there are very few well-established writers or editors I’ve come across who think otherwise. To me writing a book is a like an architect designing a house. Ninety percent is precise engineering to make sure it doesn’t fall down and is pleasant to live in. Once you have this skill perfected you can then design amazing Frank Lloyd Wright confections (or Gherkins if you’re so-minded) to your heart’s content – but the main process of building is all about practical stuff like stresses, forces, beams, girders and mixing your concrete right. The kind of fiction I want to write was defined in three words by John Jarrold – Point of View, Clarity and Pace and the building of a book should aim for that. Unless you’re writing a post-modernist masterpiece that radically interrogates such bourgeois notions as ‘plot’, ‘character’ and ‘legibility’ then all else is icing on the cake.

Anyway – here’s my decidedly unpoetic method for writing a book. It won’t be for everyone’s taste but there might be a few useful nuggets for some. One thing I can say is that by following this I haven’t hit writer’s block in three years.

1) I fire up Scrivener, create a document called Synopsis and write out the basic idea of the book in a single sentence.

2) I choose a core of up to eight characters (a hang over from my script writing days when smaller cast meant a smaller budget) and write down a description, backstory and their key drivers. At this point I start thinking about their individual story arcs which will thread through the main narrative.

3) Next a brief description of the main locations where most of the fun will happen.

 

RaggedClaws

The above bit is more or less verbatim from Wiesner’s method, distilled down to the three starting points. I focus on character from the beginning so that by the time I’ve started writing the first draft I’ve been living in these people’s minds for at least four months. Occasionally I’ll use a photo as a character prompt but I find these distracting because the person in the photo then takes over the character in my head. I also avoid basing characters on anyone I know, or characters from films/books for the same reason, though some of them are a synthesis of a whole bunch of people I’ve come across over the years.

4) Next I rewrite the synopsis in 120 sentences – each sentence containing a major plot point or something to advance the story. Each of these sentences will eventually become a 1000 word scene. At the end of this process I then create 120 documents in the Draft folder of Scrivener.

5) I revisit the characters’ story arcs, break their individual plots into sentences and add these to the 120 documents where appropriate. I also find it’s a good idea to use the keyword function in Scrivener and add these to the documents. So all the scenes in which, say, Berthold’s story arc plays out I add a keyword Berthold. This way I can use the search function in Scrivener to build collections of scenes around one character. So if I want to check through Berthold’s story I just click on a button and all the scenes where he appears are collated together into one sub-set. It’s a brilliant and very powerful feature of the software.

ruthflyerheadssmall

6) Now it’s synopsis writing time – I turn each scene into (roughly) a 300 word synopsis saying what happens, who interacts with who and how they feel about it. The golden rule (and this is something I learned from Michael Moorcock) is that every scene must advance the plot in someway, no encounter or episode can be wasted or be just a time-filler. At the end of this first run through for AntiHelix I had a 40,000 word outline. What I’ve subsequently found is that here is where the bulk of the work is done in terms of plot, character development, point of view etc.

The great thing is that if I find somethings just aren’t working at this point it’s much easier to reconfigure the story. In the case of AntiHelix I discovered that one new character I’d planned on having throughout the entire story actually became redundant halfway through so I reworked accordingly. In the past I’ve tended to write the synopsis in the present tense, but switched to past when writing the book. Next time I’ll write the synopsis in the past as well, purely to save time as switching tense later is a pain. I’ve also discovered that some scenes are ready to be written in full – in the case of AntiHelix there were a couple of episodes late in the story that I wrote in their entirety, simply because I could see them so clearly in my head. Because I’d planned everything I could drop them in knowing they still fitted the rest of the tale.

largecaravans

7)  After writing the synopsis I put it to one side for a month – this is a must because by the time I’ve finished it I’m too close to the work to have the perspective necessary to be ruthless in making any changes. Four weeks later it’s a lot easier to revise and to make sure everything is water-tight before I actually start writing the story.

8) I’ve now got 120 scenes in a detailed synopsis. In Scrivener I group these into sets of four – each group will be a chapter in the final book. It’s a good idea to do this to make sure that chapters end at suitable break points and not halfway through something important (unless I specifically want a cliff hanger). I also colourise the documents in the outline view – green means that I’ve completed the first draft for that scene, and then I start to write.

ruthcovertest9) I try and set myself a goal of a minimum of 1000 words a day. In reality if I’ve done the synopsis right this ends up being 500 – 700 words to flesh out what’s already there and so, for me, it’s about an hour’s work. When I’ve finished a scene I go to the website Prowritingaid.com and use their online tool to check for repeated and overused words. It’s a very handy utility because no matter how hard you try inevitably you end up repeating yourself, and well worth the subscription. Once I’ve stripped these out I mark the scene as First Draft Complete and compile the whole manuscript to Kindle format to read before I go to sleep. This is a technique I learned from film-making when, at the end of each day’s shoot the director and editors view the day’s rushes. It helps me ensure there’s continuity of atmosphere and voice carried through from earlier scenes.

And that is basically it. It may sound very mechanistic and factory-like to a lot of writers but I’ve found it completely liberating. I can do all my planning at an early stage without fear of having to do massive rewrites, and by the time I come to write the scenes themselves I have a 90% clear view of who’s doing what to whom and why. If I ever struggle with one scene I can jump ahead to any point in the book and write that instead and this can even help me clarify anything I’m struggling with earlier on. It also makes it easier to interweave complex plots and make sure there aren’t any extended periods where the action goes flat or people disappear for no reason (I hope).

I hope this is useful and I’d be very interested to hear from other writers what their nuts and bolts getting words down on the page process is.

Interview with Jim Burns

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Go here for my review of Jim Burns’ latest book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

Can you talk us through one of your paintings from concept to finished image – both in terms of the idea and the practical execution. My choice would be Tea From an Empty Cup or Crucible purely because of the stunning characterisation but please choose another if you prefer.

Tea From an Empty Cup

Tea From an Empty Cup

The process varies from painting to painting somewhat. It all depends on a bunch of factors from the outset as supplied by either the commercial client, the private client or, indeed myself – should it be a personal piece – the latter two categories becoming an increasingly large proportion of my output. Both the pieces you’ve chosen fit into the first category – were commissioned by publishers as cover images for books. This of course is the way most of my career panned out for the first 40 years but the weighting has shifted in the last few years more towards private commissions and personal pieces…which usually mean a different approach from the word go.

Tea From an Empty Cup was commissioned recently to cover a collection of stories by Pat Cadigan. The fee was modest – as most book jacket work is these days and as a consequence one is obliged to produce the image digitally as this can be turned around much more quickly…there is little commercial sense in spending weeks and sometimes a month or so slogging away at a painting – the economics of it simply don’t work. Also in the case of this particular job the design of the book jacket itself was highly configured before I even started work on it. Neither did I receive any reading material – which in the past was pretty much standard practice. I was simply given the cover template and asked to produce a feisty-looking female future warrior type in an appropriate SF setting. I have a growing reference library from model shoots I’ve had in the past and the woman in this image is based on one such shot. She (‘Teph’ the water gypsy) modelled for a couple of private commissions a few years back (see Planet of Peril, Days of Gloriana and Children of Forgotten Gods) and and I took the opportunity to take a whole bunch of extra shots whilst I had the opportunity. The initial design was passed in sketch form to the client for approval…which it gained  – and then the image itself was created entirely in Photoshop – utilising some Jupiter and  interior background I’d painted years and years ago for a different project altogether, played around with in Photoshop, the figure dropped into the image and her gear and clothing generally altered to fit the concept. In the ref photo her gun is my old Black and Decker drill..here changed to a futuristic rifle of some sort.

Crucible

Crucible

Crucible was painted a good few years ago for a Nancy Kress novel. This time I had the luxury of being able to read the book and to produce a painting as this was back in the days of ‘good fees’!! In the case of this particular novel the painted ‘moment’ is based pretty precisely on a passage described in the book (the manuscript having been helpfully supplied this time). The characters are all there to be found in the book and are based on a bunch of found, manipulated reference plus some material I shot myself. I have become quite adept at performing the old ‘Frankenstein act’ on found material…although these days I much prefer and almost always paint the main characters from my own photo sessions. Again there was a ‘sketch for approval’ stage – and the painting then, in a fairly ‘verbatim’ way turns that sketch into an acrylic painting. Acrylics have been my paint of choice for most of my career – although I’m currently considering getting back to oils..the medium I used up until the early 1980s. The painting in this case would have been painted on to a piece of previously gessoed board, this sanded to smooth it off but not so smooth that no ‘tooth’ was left. The process of painting for me, back then involved both the use of brushes and, of course the airbrush – which I’ve always found to be a hugely useful tool in my armoury. Finally I would have varnished the piece – although for varnish read ‘medium’ – the satin, matte or Gloss mediums for mixing with the paint working perfectly well as a good flat final varnish-like coat..and also allowing for further work on top should it be necessary.

The methods I use today on my own work and private commissions is diverting away somewhat from the methodology I’ve outlined above.

majipporchroniclesJB

Majipoor Chronicles

You seem equally at ease with machines, humans and aliens. Which do you prefer to paint/draw and why? What are the challenges of each?

I think I can honestly say that these days I like each equally! It wasn’t always the case. When I was much younger…before I ever became a ‘pro’ – it was the machinery I liked. The Foss approach! When I got my first commissions back in 1972 most of them were for historical romance covers and similar stuff. It was the ‘keep the wolf from the door’ period and work was work. By definition these covers almost always required human characters as their main element – so I gradually improved my figure work capabilities…and then when I started to get a lot more SF work the characters sort of crept into them too! And clients I think started to expect them to feature…and I found that nice niche where the human element always featured largely in my work.

Tertiary Node

Tertiary Node

I don’t find machinery a challenge as such…but I do like to push myself to suggest in the lines of a particular spacecraft for example…the sense of its designers having different species mind-sets – different aesthetics…forms born of alien propulsion systems etc. I like my vessels to look ‘designed’ within whatever bizarre parameters have been thrown up by the story or by my own imagination. I never want this stuff to be easy – that way lies laziness.

Aliens are always fun to do! Much the same ideas are brought to bear as with the machinery. Alien should look alien to my mind. I absolutely hate the idea – mostly here I blame Star Trek and its various spinoffs…of aliens being humans with funny looking foreheads.

You have a very distinctive use of colour – limited palette and high contrast. Can you tell us a little about how and why you choose your colour schemes and design your compositions?

I think I’ve grown towards the idea of the limited palette more and more as time has gone by. Gradually it seemed to me to be a lazy and rather unsophisticated approach to just chuck the entire spectrum of colour at a painting. In recent times I’ve studied the old, old Renaissance technique – that of the old masters – of ‘grisaille’, ‘brunaille’ and in particular ‘verdaille’. I employ it for slightly different reasons than they did but I like the potential richness it can bring through the use of transparent colour glazes laid over a monochromatic underpainting. The three terms reflect in order, grey, brown and green underpaintings…most of the tonal values – the light and the dark created at this time prior to the glazing. This speeds up the process (theoretically!) and also I’m able to fall back on my old airbrush skills for the glazing element…and of course I’m using acrylics for this which would not have been the case in the Renaissance. High contrast is not a deliberate thing with me…it just happens to turn out that way! I shall be endeavouring more and more to inhabit the middle tonal zones…use less Paynes Grey for a start!

Courtship Rite

Courtship Rite

Compositions for book jacket work were often very highly constrained by the format. Depending on whether a piece was a wraparound or front cover only , the main element would either tend to occupy the lower right corner (wraparound) or the bottom two thirds (front cover). Lettering and blurb considerations dictated this. In my own work I think I have a fairly good eye for balanced yet unusual compositions. I have no formal training for anything to do with technique or composition (that was art college for you back in the late 60s/early 70s…and I don’t think it’s any better now!)

hisconqueringswordJB

His Conquering Sword

I think I see a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence in your own paintings (especially from artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The Pre-Raphaelites were among the first of the manifesto artists. If you were to write an artists’ manifesto/SF artists’ call to arms what would it say? What would you call your movement?

Hmmm …people will start labelling me as ‘pretentious’ if I bite this bullet! What you have to remember is that I came at this business from a very distinctly commercial art perspective. I was never a man driven by artistic inner demons or some high falutin’, soul-searching, personally-driven motive. I had some skills as a painter, learned a few techniques and tricks as I went along, this much helped by a good imagination – and for a long time I was content to be simply that – an illustrator of other peoples’ words for a commercial purpose. Making a living with a young family to feed etc…And at no point did I ever regard illustration as some inferior art form. I always believed the best of it is as being as interesting and accomplished as art created for different purposes. It’s inevitably connected – but the notion of an ‘Illustrators’ manifesto’ is something that has never ever crossed my mind!

A Quantum Murder

A Quantum Murder

However, as time has gone by and illustration..well at least book jacket art within the genres of the fantastical has become more and more catered for by digital art..indeed some of us have moved sometimes reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically into territory that one would have to admit aligns itself more with the the accepted baggage of the fine art world…namely gallery representation, private commissions and the time for our own creative juices to start flowing unencumbered by commercial considerations. And you’ll find that for those of us who like to paint our ‘fantastical’ subject matter in the traditional way…then the period dominated by the Pre-Raphaelites and various associated groupings of artists – mostly English and European – still strikes a chord.

So a visit to something like Illuxcon…’The Symposium of Imaginative Realism’ (yes…we are ‘Imaginative Realists now!) will demonstrate that those elements of the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto interested in naturalistic detail, intense colour and busy composition, the natural world and Romanticism…those are still strong themes that thread through our work. Of course it has a modern take in terms of subject matter..although having said that I personally am becoming more and more drawn to mythological subject matter (perhaps with a contemporary twist!) and also Romantic poetry..in fact a piece I’m about to start on is based on a Keats poem – ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’- frequently the subject of 19th century art…but  I want to give it a darker twist than the usually somewhat bland approach of yesteryear. The poem is after all pretty dark. My version will be called ‘Poor Lorenzo’ (probably) and instead of a wan English lass draped miserably over the pot of basil – will feature a beauteous dark haired Florentine girl caressing the semi-putrescent head of Lorenzo and maybe an empty pot, strewn basil and earth etc. It’s all there in the poem. On holiday last year in Symi I spied a gorgeous half Greek/half Mexican girl who I thought …there’s my Isabella!!..and I should hastily add, at my wife’s prompting..approached her. And got the reference material I needed.

planetstoryJB

Colonel Kylling (Planet Story)

The term isn’t mine – but more and more it’s becoming associated with the loose ‘fellowship’ I think I identify in the artists who gather at Illuxcon…so maybe ’The Fellowship of Imaginative Realists’ (if you insist!!) might do? Or even more pretentiously ’The Fellowship of the Fantastical’?

If you had the opportunity of working in the school of any artist from history, who would it be and why?

Oh gosh – what hard questions!!! I can’t think of a sensible serious answer to this!!! Of course it would be great to associate with those Pre-Raphaelite guys..in part because one would also be knocking around with a whole bunch of other artists associated with them and whose work I often find more interesting. Artists like Collier, Godward, Dicksee, Waterhouse and photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron. One could learn a lot! But there’s no getting away from the often kitschy, corny, sentimental, morbid, gutless aspects of some of the art of that time. I’d love to find a way to reinterpret some of their themes but in contemporary, darker ways and it’s that darker approach I find difficult. I know I have it in me – that darker streak! – but I find it hard to express it adequately in paint.

artificialthingsJB

Artificial Things

So let’s say I’m taking 6 months out to go and stand at the shoulder of a dead painter here…I wouldn’t go very far back..in fact I would go to the Polish studio of Zdzisław Beksiński the ‘Fantastic Realist’ who died in 2005 (horribly murdered actually!). He was apparently a man of generally quiet demeanour, shy but amusing and funny, liked company and good music both classical and rock and always worked with mostly classical stuff playing in the background…sounds like my kind of a man…but who successfully managed to trawl the darkest depths of some zone of his imagination somehow – even though the absolutely horrifying results…brilliantly horrifying results! – in no way reflected the apparently pleasant demeanour of the man himself. I would dearly love to find out if there’s a secret to finding this place within myself!!

What is wrong with contemporary art? Which contemporary artist/movement do you admire? Would you consider yourself to be a Stuckist?

Again – I really can’t feel myself to be strongly connected at all with the world of ‘Contemporary Art’. I’m assuming you are mostly referring to the Brit-Art style of self-indulgent, self-obsessed, largely meaningless (to my mind!), conceptual stuff in which the concepts themselves are usually trite and essentially meaningless?? And change hands for millions??

The Iceni Girl

The Iceni Girl

Well – one can get mired in this messy quicksand very quickly and I’ve tended more recently to acknowledge that this stuff exists, that it only has in common with what I and others like me create, one thing..namely the word ‘art’…that it has every right to exist – and I would always say of any artist trying to make a living in whatever style they choose..’good luck to them’ (although I rather resent the millions they get!!)..But it’s a world unto itself. Self-absorbed, ego-driven, contemptuous of ‘irrelevant’ traditional values, deliberately and contemptuously obscurantist..’If you don’t get it that’s your problem and I don’t need to explain it to you’ (usually meaning that the concept has either no meaning or that the meaning is so shallow and pointless that it is embarrassing to even attempt to define it). Its sense of superiority and entitlement does sicken me I have to say…and the sub-literate claptrap one sometimes has to listen to from its practitioners and adherents is particularly annoying because on the whole I find art that’s informed by intelligence more interesting. And really that’s the thing with me. I simply find contemporary art mind numbingly boring. It rejects technique in favour of trite conceptualisation…I can’t bear to look at most of it. And eventually it will vanish up its own vacuous fundament and – I suspect – something resembling a new Representationalism will find its way back into favour. A return to drawing and painting …indeed there are signs that this happening.

No I’m not a Stuckist per se!! I think there’s room for everything. The idea of demonstrations and the politicising of creativity strikes me as dumb. But I can sympathise with its ideals. And importantly…if you look at a lot of what gets labelled as Stuckist Art…well much of it is really, really horrible!!! A LOT of very bad painters subscribe to Stuckism. No – I’ll happily just keep ploughing my own little furrow and people can compare or associate me with whoever they like! I know so many artists who get constantly pissed off and angry at ‘other art’ – particularly when the dosh is all heading off in that direction! I don’t get angry about any of this. I suppose the words are ‘bored’ and ‘bemused’.

Seasons of Plenty

Seasons of Plenty

Finally – what would your advice to a young artist be?

Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptuous of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. (I’m talking specifically about SF art on book jackets here). I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B! But go on drawing drawing drawing!!!

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Jim Burns – Hyperluminal

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Hyperluminal coverFor me the golden age of science fiction and fantasy paperback illustration in the UK spanned the 70s and 80s. While 60s covers often favoured a minimalist Pop/Art approach the following decade saw an explosion of wildly imaginative and entrancing art, dominated by a handful of painters, each with a very distinctive style. New English Library’s magazine Science Fiction Monthly (1974) provided poster-sized copies to stick on the bedroom wall and although it started off mainly as a promotional tool for their own catalogue they were happy to include works by artists working with other publishers, such as Chris Foss (Panther) and Patrick Woodroffe (Corgi). While US trade paperback art often looked repetitive and clunkily unimaginative, the UK seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in imaginative art.

Of all the artists to emerge from this era, Jim Burns stood out in my mind as an artist who was equally at ease with the human (or not so human) figure and the titanic and beautifully seductive imaginary technology of the distant future. Even the most famous occasionally struggled with people. Bruce Pennington’s inhabitants of his surreal futures could look sketchy and ill-proportioned. If David Hardy and Chris Foss added people to their paintings they were usually tiny specs dwarfed by planetscapes or massive starships. Jim Burns, on the other hand, filled his canvases with a stunning range of meticulously realised characters, brought squarely into the foreground and imbued with such life and personality you felt you could engage them in conversation.

slantJB

Slant

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal (Titan Books, 2014) is a gorgeously produced retrospective look at Jim Burns’ work from the 1970s to the present day. Still very active with commercial and private commissions, his paintings continue to hook the viewer into detailed and precisely composed alternate realities, usually dominated by one or more characters. Above all his work excels in capturing both a moment and a personality, and in this respect he is closest, in my mind, to the Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones. There are three points of contact that I can see – composition and palette, the figure work itself and the idea of the tableau-vivant where a dramatic emotional moment is frozen in time.

homuncularium

Homuncularium – 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to secure an interview with Jim as a companion piece to this post, and I don’t want to pre-empt any of his comments, which are far more illuminating than mine. However looking through Hyperluminal I see a constant tendency towards a limited palette and high contrast colours. For example blue/gold in Homuncularium (2010) or his cover for Greg Bear’s Slant (1998). As with the Pre-Raphaelites this has the effect of giving the artwork an intensely decorative look, which makes the figure work and characterisation even more striking. Jim Burns’ people (and elves and aliens) are about as far away from the gormless cookie-cutter people inhabiting the paintings of (say) the Brothers Hilderbrandt. Dramatic characterisation in SF and Fantasy art can often end up looking like comic-book caricature, a fault that plagued even such talented artists as Kelly Freas. Jim Burns’ cast in any painting are instantly living grown-ups believable both as people (or creatures) and in whatever baroque or hyper-realistic future they find themselves in. In the Victorian theatre the tableau-vivant occurred at points of high drama when the whole cast would freeze into the living picture. There’s something about Jim Burns’ paintings that captures this unusual combination of intense emotion/action and stillness. Two good examples of this are Ancient Light (1988) and one of my own favourites – Crucible (2003) (see the interview where Jim talks about Crucible in detail).

ancientlightJB

Ancient Light

At a time when so much SF/fantasy paperback cover art smacks of derivative Photoshop clones of computer game box art (I’m getting tired of the endless copies of Assassin’s Creed), The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal reminds us that, in the hands of someone who has clearly dedicated their entire professional life to perfecting a particular kind of vision and approach, the genre is as capable of producing great visual art as much as literature. It’s interesting that his work appears to channel so much Pre-Raphaelite sensibility as it was in that era when the distinction between Fine Art and Commercial Illustration was far more blurred than now. Great painters illustrated fantasy tales of King Arthur, Boccaccio and Shakespeare and the works they displayed at the Royal Academy were printed in the equivalent of coffee-table books for Victorian and Edwardian families to enjoy at home. In an age when art is dominated by sneering conceptualism – as much in hock to money as the most commercial art – Jim Burns’ paintings show that a meticulous attention to palette, composition and figure work can produce art of real beauty that is decorative and compelling as well as illustrative.

Jim Burns’ website is here where you can see some of his latest work and order prints.

Interstellar (2014)

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poster**WARNING – Major Spoiler Alerts**

I’ve been face down writing AntiHelix for the last month so I’ve neglected this blog a little, but having seen Interstellar on its opening night yesterday I thought I’d jot down my thoughts. It’s a curate’s egg – some parts are very good, other parts are disappointing and I came out of it feeling that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. In clearly referencing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan was stepping into very big shoes and sadly they kept falling off. It’s essentially another attempt at a realistic space movie (like Europa Report) and has all the standard cliches of that genre (crew member cocks up, crew member mopes around, crew member goes barmy, people say things like ‘Doobry Flange Q5226 is out of alignment with the Thargalator’ and everyone bursts into tears and shouts because this is really important somehow). I’ve listed down the good points and the bad points, and now realise there’s more of the latter. That’s probably unfair because it was enjoyable and definitely worth seeing, if only for the accurate physics bits, but ultimately it’s a frustrating film.

The Good.

1) The science they got right. Much was made of the film employing the astrophysicist Kip Thorne to make sure the cosmic stuff was accurate. Having modelled a black hole in Mathematica he even found out new things about gravitational lensing, which meant that the aptly name Gargantua has rings of distorted light around its middle as well as round the edge. There’s a sub-genre of YouTube videos dedicated to trying to visualise higher dimensions and hyperbolic space – they’re fascinating to watch and the last part of the movie had the hero floating around a vast 5 dimensional tesseract which looked extremely impressive on the huge screen. The wormhole was also brilliant, and again apparently what the inside of one would really look like.

blackhole

2) Getting around in space is bloody hard, especially when time dilation and strange gravitational influences kick in. The human cost of travelling to new worlds was shown particularly well, especially in the scene when the hero and heroine drop down to a planet for an hour or two, returning to find that the poor bugger they left behind has had to twiddle his thumbs in orbit for 23 years. None of this ‘Let’s go to Tatooine – woosh – here we are!’ – each trip to a planet was a hard slog costing energy, time (as in Time!) and the lives of Supporting Actors I Don’t Know What To Do With (see 1 below). The planets themselves were particularly grim affairs – uninhabitable Giant Wave world, uninhabitable Ice Cloud world with abandoned loony, and Tunisia – which is how it probably will be, and not welcoming civilisations of Gangsters, Romans or Nazis with slightly different noses.

iceplanet

3) The spectacle. It’s a jaw-dropping movie and once they get off Earth it’s more or less constant eye candy but without the incessant fizzy-pop fuelled explosions and noise of your standard blockbuster. Despite its faults it didn’t actually drag – the exciting explorer bits were fascinating and the drippy schmaltz was annoying instead of tedious. This is definitely one to see on IMAX if you can.

The Bad

1) None of the characters are that engaging and most play to ill-concealed stereotypes. Anne Hathaway is irritating as the slightly thick emotional woman who comes out with a completely left-field argument about how ‘lurv transcends space and time’ which somehow ends up being the core message of the movie. Michael Caine does Avuncular Old Scientist and Jessica Chastain phones in Resentful Abandoned Daughter. Nolan doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rest of the cast – token black guy can’t handle space travel, an uncredited Matt Damon rolls up as Marooned Nutjob. Matthew McConaughey is particularly charmless as the Chuck Yeager clone hero. The most interesting character ended up being the sarcastic robot TARS. He wasn’t your standard humanoid like Marvyn the Paranoid Android or Bender, but a cool articulated rubik cube that looked like a fridge designed by Apple. Some of the scenes where he went charging through the water were impressive but it’s hard to think of a worse design for the cramped confines of space capsule. You’d be forever stubbing your toes or barking your shins on the damn thing.

Hathaway

2) America is the world and only NASA can save the day. The complete lack of any sizable reference to foreign parts or Folks From Not Round Here (apart for Michael Caine) means that the film offers up a depressingly Tea Party-esque vision of a universe in which the only people who matter, or even exist, are Okies who will save the day with homespun wisdom and a test-pilot suspicion of panty-waist city slickers. If a wormhole turned up near Saturn with a promise of human salvation the considerably less risk-averse Chinese government would be cheerfully tossing astronauts in by the hundred. In fact why send humans at all? Given that TARS the robot was infinitely more likable and spent most of the time saving idiot humans why not just send him through to set up tents and get the place swept ready for mankind to follow?

3) The plot – which ended up being a) confusing and b) underwhelming. Part of the problem was that the Oh My God denouement was flagged five minutes after the film started (‘Dad, there’s a ghost in the bedroom and he keeps sending me data about gravity in binary!’ ‘Sorry dear, I can’t sort it out right now because I’ve got to go into a wormhole but I promise I will reach back to you from the other side of Beyond and communicate with you somehow’). Thinking it through this morning I still don’t understand how anything got fixed, though clearly something good happened because mankind ended up in groovy space habitats floating near Saturn – apparently the result of Resentful Abandoned Daughter reaching a breakthrough that connected gravity with quantum mechanics, or something like that – it’s not really clear at all.

saturn

4) Scratch the surface and you find 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without the apes and Joe the Plumber instead of the Starchild. Hyper beings send message to humans – humans go through portal – weird shit happens – human comes back with revelation. Most of this was rapidly lost in the irritating ‘I will return to my daughter’ plot but there was enough of it there for tribute to wander over into plagiarism. The insistence on playing the last note of the opening riff to Also Sprach Zarathustra whenever something big happened was clearly intentional, but to my mind just underlined the gap between Nolan’s vision and Kubrick’s.

So all in all a mixed bag. Definitely worth watching but I wouldn’t class this as a serious hard science fiction movie. The intelligent bits are hard to find in the mess of a plot, and the lazy characterisation just serves to reinforce the prejudice that SF struggles with people – a fatuous myth exploded by the first ten minutes of the infinitely better Solaris (the Tarkovsky one, not the rubbish George Clooney vehicle).

Samurai Jack

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I came back from Japan with a five year old and a three year old with heads full of Sailor Moon, Anpanman and Miyazaki Hayao, so inevitably when we signed up for cable back in the UK we turned to Cartoon Network. When I was a kid TV cartoons were pretty dire. I grew up a fan of Filmation (responsible for, among other things, the animated Star Trek) and have a lot of affection for their peculiar style of ‘minimal’ animation, wonderfully sent up here in Cheapo Cartoon Man. By comparison most of the stuff my kids were watching was brilliant – imaginative, stylish and very funny, especially series like Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog. Among all of these my favourite by far was Samurai Jack.

raincastle

Living in Japan for ten years made me a bit jaded and snooty about the portrayal of that country’s traditions and cultures in the West. Despite Cyberpunk dreams there are no corporate samurai or ancient traditions of bushido lurking under the surface of the Chiba/Tokyo sprawl. The average Japanese man or woman regards practitioners of martial arts pretty much in the way we look at Morris Dancers, and most are more concerned with struggling through their stressful office jobs, getting their kids to a decent school and paying off the mortgage. The biggest shock was the attitude to the films of Akira Kurosawa, who I’d always thought of as the backbone of Japanese culture. ‘He makes boring, pretty films for foreigners’ summed up the general attitude, a comment borne out by the fact that all of his later films were funded by people like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

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So at first I didn’t bother watching over the shoulders of the kids when Samurai Jack was on, until eventually they persuaded me to sit through one episode and I was completely blown away. While heavily influenced by Anime it had its own unique aesthetic and an insane premise which is best explained in the opening words of each episode:

Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish Samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!

By dumping a medieval samurai in a cyberpunk future ruled by the evil demon Aku the producers, led by Genndy Tartakovsky, could go to town with their imaginations, setting the honourable though slightly dim hero against ancient gods, alien assassins, killer robots, bounty hunters, deranged Scotsmen and all manner of odd foes. Every other episode was a clear tribute to a genre film or TV series, whether it was 300, My Neighbour Totoro or The Matrix. Most of the stories had Jack (a name given to him by a gang of bizarre street punks on his first arrival in the future) hunting for the portal to take him back to his own time in the hope he could change history by slaying the demon Aku. Others saw him tackling specific foes or setting off on bizarre quests (including finding himself a new pair of Japanese clogs when the old ones are stolen).

greenwoman

Not only were the 30 minute episodes a fascinatingly eclectic bunch of adventures, but the editing and visual style also stood out a mile from other cartoons. To begin with the designers took the decision to avoid outlining, relying instead on minimal and often abstract designs and colour to distinguish between shapes on the screen. This gave the cartoon a visual elegance you don’t usually see in animation, and some of the scenes, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, are actually quite beautiful. Samurai Jack also drew heavily on the styles of editing used in Japanese movies and Spaghetti Westerns. Unusually for cartoons the producers were not afraid to have long periods without speech, relying instead on images, close ups and subtle sound effects. Split screen, rapid cutting and sudden slow motion also allowed for the ratcheting up of tension during action shots. Most of Jack’s foes are robots, which got around the problem of gore during the often pretty violent battle sequences.

cityscape

As animation, and a loving tribute to science fiction, fantasy and Japanese popular culture Samurai Jack is one of the best cartoon series I’ve seen. Not every episode is spot on, and sometimes the extended fights. where Jack dismembers yet more robots, drag a little, but there are very few bum notes in the four seasons that were made. To my mind the best episodes are number 6 in Season 1 (don’t read the description on iTunes, it has a major spoiler), Episode 5 Series 3 in which Jack confronts the ancient Egyptian Gods and the two parter from the same Season (11 and 12) which tell of the birth of the evil Aku (voiced by the Japanese actor Makoto Iwamatsu who played the shaman alongside Arnie in Conan the Barbarian). All the episodes are available from Amazon or on iTunes.

Patrick Woodroffe

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The Radio Planet by Ralph Milney-Farley, Ace Books

I’d already planned on doing an article on the fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe when the news came in that he’d passed away and so, sadly, this has become my personal tribute to his powerful and often frightening imagination. Patrick Woodroffe was one of a small group of painters and sculptors working in the 1970s whose book covers stood out in a genre increasingly dominated by the Precisionist realism of Chris Foss and his many imitators. Woodroffe, like his contemporaries Ian Miller and Rodney Matthews, produced canvases that were an intriguing, and often disturbing, combination of fairy tale whimsey and twisted dream imagery. In his book Mythopeikon, published by Dragon’s World in 1976, he cited both Salvador Dali and the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance artists (Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Breughel the Elder) as among his main sources of inspiration. He was also working very much in the tradition of the Bohemian artisan creative of the 60s and 70s – local painters and sculptors scattered throughout the English countryside producing work that cleverly mixed together ideas from nature, folk lore, fairy-tale images and nursery rhyme nonsense shot through with doses of Freud and LSD. The narrative accompanying his early watercolour Masked Ball sums up this zeitgeist pretty accurately and could easily have been the sleeve notes from a Gong or Amon Düül album:

Patrick_Woodroffe_MaskedBall

“I’m a tiger!” says the girl with the platinum hair. Her borrowed pelt invites caresses. The Rainbow Man, meteordynamic, spirit of the storm, spins in at the double doors.”

The grim realities of the late industrial Victorian age gave rise to a peculiarly English type of fantastic nonsense, epitomised by the writing of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. It’s little wonder that the collapse of the wartime social consensus in the 1960s, and a Cold War marked by the long shadow of the Bomb, encouraged the same. Like the Pre-Raphaelites they identified with, 60s and 70s art ‘rebels’ in England turned back to the imagery of child-like carnivals mixed up with a large dose of Freud and the odd tab of Acid.  At its worst it could be self-indulgent and narcissistic, but at its best, as in the paintings of Patrick Woodroffe, it had a wonderfully lunatic vibrancy that cheerfully stuck two fingers up at The Man, and the harsh media landscapes of American Pop Art. Filled with imagery from nurseries and picture books (especially smiling sun and moon faces) his non commercial works manage to tread the very fine line between infantile fantasy and full-blown freaky nightmare that characterises grotesque art.

Patrick_Woodroffe_EverlastingCovenantHis 3D painting I’m Coming to Get You is a perfect example. With its benign sun and field of chirpy faces it looks like it belongs next to someone’s cot, but I wouldn’t want it in the house because I know it would give me nightmares for weeks. The fact that a lot of his work was in 3D doesn’t help – all it means is that it looks like all those strange creatures are emerging into our world where they really don’t belong. The Everlasting Covenant is just as bad, and the fact that it’s from a quote from Genesis doesn’t help much.

Patrick Woodroffe’s commercial cover art for publishers like Corgi stood out from the rest because of its sheer vibrancy, and the fact that he could give a book cover an incredible sense of place and character, even the images that don’t have strong single figure. The monstrous blue harlequin he created in 1975 for the cover of the Avon edition of Jack Vance’s The Gray Prince is a perfect example. Clearly influenced by Italian Renaissance portraiture the creature gives off a fantastic vibe of sinister, opulent evil combined with real tragedy. His triptych for Piers Anthony’ s Battle Circle trilogy (Sos the Rope, Var the Stick and Neq the Sword) has the same wonderful sense of both place and person.

Jack Vance, The Gray Prince, Avon Books

Patrick Woodroffe’s figure work was often exaggerated or distorted, not from lack of skill but rather from the overall fantastic aesthetic he brought to the image. His covers were characterised by bright, vivid colours, a meticulous attention to textural detail and the desire to fill each painting with a wealth of information which rarely overloaded the picture. His covers for the Quartet Corum: The Prince with the Silver Hand series, which he acknowledged were influenced by the fruit and veg portraits of the Milanese painter Arcimboldo, match the baroque intensity of the books themselves and act almost as an emblematic index to the tales of the Eternal Champion.

Sos the Rope

Inevitably given his interests and background, his spaceships were less assured. He also painted covers for such classic hard-boiled detective novels as Dashiell Hammett’s The Big Knockover and Red Harvest which, while unusual, look completely out of place in the context of the stories themselves.

Patrickwoodroffe

Patrick Woodroffe’s website is as quirky and original as the artist. His recent work saw a return to Flemish inspired wooden box triptychs filled with smiling suns and brightly coloured surreal iconography mainly inspired, it seems, by his own naturalist folk art take on Christianity. The dark scary edge has gone from most of the works and even to a grumpy old atheist like myself they represent a joyful and quite beautiful portfolio of works. It’s a real tragedy that Patrick Woodroffe passed away as his art would often lighten up a tired and derivative shelf of covers in W. H. Smiths in the 1970s and he rarely failed to do justice the fantasy books he illustrated.

Europa Report (2013)

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News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

Ragged Claws out now!

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Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ragged Claws by John Guy Collick

Ragged Claws

by John Guy Collick

Giveaway ends March 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

 

Ragged Claws, second volume in The Book of the Colossus, is available on Amazon as an eBook and a paperback, and on Smashwords. Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble will follow shortly.

To order from Amazon.com click here.

To order from Amazon.co.uk click here.

To order from Smashwords click here.

To order from Createspace click here.

Ragged Claws, like its predecessor Thumb, is set at the very end of the universe, when all the stars and planets have dissolved into quantum ash. The last remnants of humanity live on an immense, flat singularity created for them by the alien race known as the Black Roses. Covered in the remnants of ground-up worlds this wilderness has become a workbench on which mankind is building a god. The titan, half a million-miles long from head to toe, will come to life and carry humanity to a new universe. Because there is nothing left at the end of time the materials to build the colossus are plundered from the past via wormholes punched through the singularity. These swiftly-fading portals also provide the last people with the clothes, food and artifacts they need to survive and so the realms of Ragged Claws are a patchwork of tatterdemalion kingdoms in which diesel-powered flyers fight battles inside the caverns of God’s body with guns and missiles, and men and machines are fused together into monstrous hybrids using science so rarefied it has become arcane magic.

The Great Task has taken a million years and is reaching completion, but over the long aeons most people have forgotten its purpose and turned on each other, building empires and kingdoms that plot, go to war, conquer, rise and fall. Max Ocel and Abby Fabrice are making their way through the shadowed interstices of the titan’s body in search of the Machine Men. Max carries him with a terrible secret that will condemn all of mankind to destruction and he finds himself in a race against time, pursued by enemies human and inhuman, and betrayed by those closest to him.

If you want to find out more about the universe of The Book of the Colossus, and the first book in the series, Thumb, check out this interview on Underground Book Reviews.

For those of you who have not read Thumb, the eBook version is now available at the discounted price of 77p/$1.28.

 

Ragged Claws available on March 16th!

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Release flyer

 

Max and Abby are trapped in the city of Interosseous where the inhabitants navigate through the treacherous streets using the giant faces in the sky.

If humanity is to survive Max must contact the Machine Men who live in the Heart and Mind of the Colossus. But the way onward is a deadly maze peopled with lost creatures transformed by the darkness at the end of time.

As Max tries to trace a safe path through the Body of God he stumbles across a pair of fugitives, and finds himself caught in a web of betrayal and conspiracy that ultimately threatens to destroy the last remnants of mankind.

Ragged Claws is the astonishing sequel to Thumb and the second volume of The Book of the Colossus, a gripping fast-paced science fantasy series.

Ragged Claws Cover Art

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The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.

Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.

Ragged_Claws_Cover_Test_2

As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.

This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:

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