Archive | November, 2012

Why Good Dialogue Is Never Realistic

30 Nov

The quality of the dialogue can make or break a book, and I’ll admit this is something that I struggle with (thank god for editors!).  But why is writing good dialogue so difficult?  After all, most of us know how to have a conversation, so why should writing one between two characters be so hard? I think part of the reason is that it needs to seem real, while at the same time it must bear little resemblance to how we actually speak.

To see the difference, eavesdrop on someone’s conversation and listen to how those around you talk to each other.  Their speech will be filled with unneeded uhmms and errs and pauses.  There is also a good chance they’ll repeat certain words with annoying regularity.  In my home city of Glasgow, there is a tendency to end every sentence with the word ‘but’, while every second word that comes out of some teenagers mouths seems to be ‘like’. There are other little idioms too.  Some people will start, or end, and sometimes both, almost everything they say the phrase ‘At the end of the day’ while others will endlessly repeat the phrase, ‘You know what I mean?’ (or in Glasgow, ‘You know what I mean, but?’ – compounding two of the above examples!). And these aren’t even the most annoying verbal tick that real people have. I once had a colleague who repeated the last three words of every sentence anyone said to them. It was a purely unconscious but it got very old, very fast.

While these are examples of how real people speak, none of them would work on the written page. The reader would find it just too boring, repetitive and unrealistic. To make dialogue work, you shouldn’t aim to capture how people actually speak, instead it should capture how they hear themselves talk inside their own heads. It turns out that people naturally filter out all their little ticks and idioms, and only hear the words they actually want you to hear. This means they are unaware of much of the actual dialogue that come out of their mouths. Similarly, when we try to plan what we’re going to say in a given situation, we may imagine speaking with the type of perfect dialogue any author would be happy to have grace the pages of their books. It’s just that somehow it gets garbled between our brains and our mouths, and what comes out often bears little relationship to what we intended to say.  Either that or we come up with that killer come-back to something someone said to us, but it’s many hours later, often in the middle of the night and well after it’s of any use.

So good dialogue needs to capture not what someone would actually say in a given situation. Rather, it needs to capture what they wish they’d say when faced with it. Yet, it’s easy to go too far the other way too, and make your dialogue sound too over-rehearsed, leaving your reader thinking ‘No one would every really speak like that.’ In particular, remember that no one speaks, or even thinks, in perfect prose.  You need some of the little ticks and idiosyncrasies of everyday spoken language in there to make it sound like someone is speaking in the readers head. It’s just that (unlike real people) you have to be careful not too use too many or to use the same ones too often. The best dialogue falls somewhere between pure prose and how people actually speak. It can take a while to find that middle ground, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find your writing, and your characters, really start to come alive, both in your own mind, and that of your readers.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Real ‘Zombie’ Diseases

21 Nov

Many zombie-type stories start with an outbreak of a disease that either turns living people into violent maniacs (think of the rage virus in 28 Days Later), or converts them into the walking dead (as is the case in World War Z). These diseases are fictional, but there are real ones out there that are just as scary and that share many of the same traits as any zombie infection.  They may get passed on through bites and frequently they’ll hack into your brain, gradually taking it over and, in some cases, making you do things that you wouldn’t normally do. In this article, I’m going to introduce you to three of these ‘zombie’ diseases. You might think these are obscure diseases only found in far-flung rain-forests but, depending on where in the world you live, you’re likely to find one, and possibly all three, can be caught within easy walking distance of your own home, or even inside it. This is something I can say with certainty from first-hand experience as I’m currently being treated for one of them.

Tick Bite Rash

The rash radiating out of a tick bite on my leg that is the early signs that the bacteria which causes Lyme Disease is starting to take over my body (and, if I don’t do something about it, eventually my brain!).

So I’ll start with the one I currently have.  This is Lyme Disease, named after a town in Connecticut and only discovered in the 1970s.  This is an insidious little disease. It’s spread through tick bites (that’s how I picked it up), and often starts with classic flu-like symptoms and a rash that radiates slowly away from the bite site.  It’s strange watching, as I have done for the last week, the rash spread over several days, as the infection works it’s way through your flesh (I can’t help but be reminded of a festering bite from a zombie whenever I look at the one currently spreading across my leg).  Then the rash goes away and all seems fine. It’s only months, or sometimes years, later that the real problems kick in. This can be chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and paralysis, turning you into a shambling, groggy zombie.  The strain you get in Europe also has a tendency to get into your brain, causing neurological problems. Luckily it’s easily treated, at least in the early stages, and a two-week course of antibiotics is enough to rid your body of the bacteria that cause it. Later stages are more difficult to treat, but it’s still treatable none the less.

The next disease I want to consider is rabies.  Rabies is something that in western countries has pretty much been eliminated (although it is making a comeback in some places as wildlife re-invades our cities and homes), and we’ve forgotten quite what a horrific disease it is. The virus causes those infected with it to produce vast amounts of saliva, causing them to, quite literally, foam at the mouth. This is the disease’s cunning way of getting passed on because the saliva is full of the virus, ready to infect anyone the carrier bites.  It also takes control of the brain, making the infected animal or person do things they wouldn’t normally do.  This includes relentlessly attacking others with little or no fear.  While there’s a vaccine for rabies, this will only work if it’s given before the infection reaches the brain and the victim starts showing symptoms. After that, death is almost a certainly, but only after the infected person has been sent mad, because there’s no treatment, and no cure. Because of it’s terrifying characteristics, including the way it takes over people’s brains, rabies has often been used as an agent to create zombie-like creatures (including my own book For Those In Peril On the Sea). However, real rabies differs from these fictional accounts in that it progresses ever so slowly, taking months, or years in some cases, to kill its victims, and there have been no known cases of human to human transmission.

You might think you’d be safe from animal-borne diseases in your own home, but there’s one we readily invite into our houses, or at least people with cats do. This is toxoplasmosis. At first, toxoplasmosis mightn’t seem like a zombie disease, but once you find out what it does, and why, you’ll see why I think it is.  Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoan parasite. It’s main host is cats, either of the domestic or big variety, and it does them little harm.  Why would it? It needs its cat host to be healthy so it can survive.  However, the offspring are passed out in the cat’s faeces, and this is where humans can pick it up, especially when cleaning out litter trays. While it can cause serious problems to people with weakened immune systems, it’s most insidious effect comes in otherwise healthy people.  In them, it can form cysts in the brain that will sit there, apparently doing nothing. These cysts are surprisingly common and can be found in ten percent or more of the human population. Experiments have shown that rodents infected with toxoplasmosis become fearless, even approaching cats rather than running away from them.  If you think about this from the parasite’s point of view, fiddling with the rodent’s brain like this is the perfect way to ensure that it ends up back where it wants to be. That is inside a cat. Yet, there is evidence (equivocal I’ll admit, but it’s still interesting) that toxoplasmosis affects humans in a similar way, making them more reckless.  Why would it do this?  Well, if you think back a few hundred thousand years to a human on the plains of Africa, this would be the perfect behaviour to ensure someone was eaten by a big cat, so completing the circle of life (at least from the parasite’s point of view!).

So here we have three real diseases, each of which has elements of the fictional zombie diseases used in so many books and movies. Two are spread through bites, all will infest your brain if given have a chance and will change how you think and behave, and one (Rabies) turns you into something so similar to the zombie-type infected of 28 Days Later that it’s truly frightening. In fact, the only real difference between these real diseases and the fictitious ones is the rates at which they spread.  Almost all are slow-acting, taking weeks, months or years to take over your brain, and none have the virulence of the fictional ones. But, just think what would happen if, for some reason, this were ever to change?

If you’re interested seeing a bit more on this subject, here’s some links to some follow-up videos:

This link shows how little fear a rat infected with toxoplasmosis has for cats (in this case going as far as attacking it!):

These two links are more about possible links between toxoplasmosis and zombie outbreaks:



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

When You Need That Expert Knowledge, Where Do You Turn?

21 Nov

When writing a book, you may eventually get to the point where you need the advice of an expert.  Not an expert in writing, but an expert in some other field. Depending on your story, this might be a paramedic, a lawyer, a policemen, a soldier or a fire arms expert. You need to find out how to administer an injection of a specific drug, what a process in court might be, how someone would behave when arrested, what it feels like to be shot at or how a machine gun would be stripped, cleaned and re-assembled. These are the types of things that if you get right, will add immensely to the believability of your work, but get them wrong and you’ll find people start throwing your book across the room in frustration. The reason for this is that if someone is reading your work, the chances are they’re already familiar with your specific genre, and so will be somewhat of an expert (or at least might think they are).  They might let little things slide, but not big ones.  The problem is you can never tell what they’ll think is a big one.

This is where experts come in.  They are the people you can turn to when you need to find out things that you wouldn’t otherwise know. You’d think that in the age of the internet, no one would need experts any more, all you’d need was Google, but with Google it can be hard to separate out the useful information from all the noise. It’s quicker and more reliable to pick up a phone, or drop someone a quick email, than to struggle through hundreds of web pages to find the one that will answer your question.

Related to this is the fact that for you to have any chance of finding something with Google, you need to know what question to ask, and if you’re not an expert in a specific field, you might not even know what this is. For example, for a book I’m working on at the moment, I wanted one of the characters, a surgeon, to be able to give someone an emergency DIY operation on a boat to treat a collapsed lung (I’d read about a doctor doing this on a plane once and had always thought it would be an interesting thing to include in a story). This isn’t something that can easily be found on Google because there isn’t any obvious search terms to take you to the results you want. Far easier to ask a doctor (or even better a surgeon – it turns out all you need is a couple of lengths of plastic tubing, a half-filled water bottle, a razor blade and the ever-versatile duct-tape to hold it all in place).

So where do you find your experts?  I don’t know about others, but I tend to collect potential experts as I move through life. Whenever I meet someone who has an interesting job, or a special bit of knowledge, I’ll file the information away for when it might be useful. This means that I’ve got a nice mental bank of potential experts to draw on. When I don’t have someone already, I have a tried and tested way of finding someone who can help, and it rarely fails.  I simply ask people I meet, and I mean pretty much everyone I meet until I get the information I need.  It’s amazing how many people you know have a depth of knowledge about subjects you never thought they’d even have heard of. In particular, it’s amazing how many people know languages like Russian or Japanese, and yet it never comes up in conversation until you ask.

What I’ve found is that almost everyone who have some sort of specialist knowledge is more than happy to share it, particularly when they find out you’re a writer and you want to know for a book you’re working on. Some will do it just because they can, others because they’ll get a thrill from seeing their name in the acknowledgements or the preface. Still more will do it because they’ll get the chance to read something before anyone else gets to see it.  Either way, you’ll find that seeking the advice of experts will go a long way to improving your work in ways that you could never do without their help.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Selecting Your Post-Apocalpytic Survival Crew

20 Nov

In business they say it’s not what you know but who you know that counts. Come the apocalyptic collapse of society as we know it (whether crushed under the shambling feet of the walking dead, devastation  wrought by nuclear terrorism or decimation of most of the population by a bio-engineered virus), it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to survive on your own, not for long at any rate. However, if you’re not careful, you may find that being part of a group is even worse. This is because if you don’t pick the people you’re planning on riding out the apocalypse with carefully, they’ll drag you down and your chance of survival get dragged down with you. Pick the right ones, though, and life will be easy (well maybe not easy, but at least you’ll have a reasonable chance of surviving). So who should be on your post-apocalyptic survival crew?

There’s three key issues here. The first is skills. You’re going to want people around you that know how to do things. Practical, old-fashioned things, like being able to fix an engine rather than modern, new fangled things like being able to complete angry birds in one session on the latest incarnation of the iPad. However, it’s important that the skills different members have are diverse and complimentary.  Having ten mechanics in a group is all fine and well, but what happens when you need someone to hunt, kill and clean a deer for supper? Yet, you also need some overlap between different people’s skill sets.  If you’re medic gets eaten by radio-active mutants, you’ll need to be able to divide his duties up between the remaining members. So what sort of skills should you have in your group?  I’d say at a minimum you’d need a mechanic, a navigator (one that can read a map and not just a GPS receiver!), a medic of some kind (since there’s going to inevitably be injuries), a weapons expert, a strategist (to work on your long-term plans), a driver, a hunter and a scrounger (you know one of those people who can always find you something that will do the job). While on the subject of skills, if you can’t work out what useful skills you’d bring to a group, you may find that no one else wants you on their team. In this case, I suggest you start learning how to do some useful, and fast.

So what about intelligence?  In general, you’ll find that a group made of intelligent people will do better than one filled with, to use an old Scottish term, dunderheeds. However, here intelligence isn’t about knowing useless facts, it’s about practical application of ideas and thinking outside the box, so don’t get the two confused. You may think that the members of that team who always win your local pub quiz are super-smart, but all their carefully remembered facts won’t help them work out how to escape from the killer zombies. Instead, go for the couple who sit in the corner keeping themselves to themselves while playing each other chess and backgammon at the same time. They’re going to be the type of people who can think two steps ahead and work out a plan to get you safely out of the city.

Now onto personality. This is critical. Someone can always learn a new skill, but few can change their personality. This is because personality is something that is pretty much set by the time you reach your twenties. Why is personality so important? I’ve spent a lot of time working in remote locations as part of small teams of people, and time and again, I’ve seen groups fall apart because of what would seem like minor clashes of personality in normal life. Sometimes it’s just that one person just rubs everyone else up the wrong way, causing friction either by accident or design. The apocalypse may be forever, and even if it’s not, it’s very likely that you’re going to be stuck with these people for a very long time. That guy down the road might be a great mechanic, but eventually his braying laugh and the constant double innuendos are going to drive you to the point where you start looking at death by zombie as a viable alternative to spending another second in his company. Yet, this is by far the most minor type of personality clashes you can encounter. Worse is when you end up stuck with someone who just sees the world differently that you.  They might be all gung-ho and let’s get ‘em, while you’re more of the sit tight, stay safe and avoid all conflict with the undead unless you can’t avoid it. Sooner or later will cause problems, and most likely at a critical moment and you’ll al end up dead because you can’t agree on what you should be doing next. Then you get to those with borderline personality disorders.  It’s important that you realise before it’s too late that you’ve included a closet sociopath in your group.  They’ll manipulate, they’ll undermine, they’ll kill you if they don’t get their own way, and they’re surprisingly more common in society that you might think (about 1% of the general population, but rising close to double digits in professions like banker, business and politics). These people are best avoided at all costs (both in the event of the apocalypse and in your everyday life). One of the best life skills you can learn is how to spot when people like this enter your life so you can kick them out before it’s too late.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

 

The Last Typewriter In Britain

20 Nov

This morning it was announced that the last typewriter to be manufactured in Britain had been made and donated to London’s Science Museum. This got me thinking about how much things have changed since I first started using machines to help me write. My hand-writing has always been very poor, and I saw the advantage of such machines very early. I started off on a really old-fashioned mechanical typewriter, one of the ones with the letters on individual hammers, that I found lying around the house. It was a style of machine that hadn’t really changed much in over a century and thinking back on this now makes me feel old (I’m not that old, honest).  If I made a mistake, there was no way to fix it, I either had to lived with it or start the page again (for some reason, correction fluid wasn’t common in Britain at the time, or maybe it was just frowned upon in our house). However, it was fast. If you had an idea, you could have it down in black and white in seconds, regardless of its quality.

Next came an electric typewriter, one with a daisy wheel, and the option to delete things (well scrub them off the page at any rate).  From there, I moved onto an Apple Classic. This was in my school’s computer lab and I was sent there at the insistence of my biology teacher since she was fed up trying to decipher the rather appalling scribbles that I call writing. From there is was on to my first home computer, a disk-operated Atari ST. That was fun. You had to load up the word-processor from a disk every time you wanted to use it. That was about the time I started trying to write for fun rather than just for school, mostly some pretty awful adolescent poetry, little of which, thankfully, survives to embarrass me now. As technology grew, I moved on to a Power Mac, the machine I wrote my first attempt at a book on (very bad but probably still floating around somewhere on an unreadable 3.5 inch diskette), and then various lap tops (used to write lots of short stories) until we reach the one I’m using today (and the one I wrote my first my proper book on). I’ve moved away from Macs, not because I wanted to, but because of the specialist little programs I need for work that, rather infuriatingly, only run on the Windows operating system.

So through all this technological evolution, what’s actually changed?  The art of writing is still just as difficult, although I feel I might finally be getting the hang of it. Editing is easier, since you no longer have to literally cut and paste blocks of text using scissors and glue (I wonder how many people realise that this is the decidedly low-tech origin for terms we now primarily associate with computers?), but it’s also easier to rely on automated tools like spell-checkers and grammar checkers that can miss glaring mistakes. For some reason, I’ve always found editing from a screen difficult and I tend to miss a lot more mistakes when doing that. This means that for final error-checking and editing, or when I’m struggling with a particular piece, I’ll still resort to a print out and a red pen.

I’ve also found that modern technology can slow down the writing process. Frequently, I’ll have a flash of inspiration just as I’ve closed a bit of work (and usually just after I’ve started to power down my computer). On an old mechanical typewriter, I could have sat down and hammered it out there and then. On my laptop, I have to wait for the power down to finish (including the slow, and apparently never-ending, stream of automatic Windows Updates), power it up again, then open my word processing software before I can write anything down.  By this time, the thought may well have been lost because I’ll have become distracted by something else. This means that even with all the advances technology available to me now, I still end up scrawling ideas down in my indecipherable script on scraps of paper that then litter the floor until I can incorporate them into my work (much to my girlfriend’s despair). Yes, technology has advanced beyond all recognition in the last few decades, but it’s hardly the paper-free nirvana we were promised by the Kings of Silicon Valley back in the days when the mechanical typewriter still ruled every would-be writer’s universe.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Creating The Cover Art For ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’

19 Nov

The cover art for my upcoming book is something that I’m particularly proud of, and it also happens to be the image I’ve used for the background for this blog. As a result, think it’s worth explaining how it got put together. In particular, people have asked about how I managed to create the shaft of blocked light that appears emanate from the lone figure on the roof.

Cover art for 'For Those In Peril On The Sea'.

Cover art for ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’.

To explain this, you first need to know that the sunset and the lighthouse come from two completely different photos. I was sat at the lighthouse in the image (it’s the one at Hole-in-the-Wall in the Bahamas, which features in the story itself), looking at the most amazing sunset when I realised it would be great to get the lighthouse silhouetted against it. The only problem was that to get into a position where I could do that I’d have to sit about fifty feet beyond the edge of the cliff, so that wasn’t going to happen. My solution was to take a picture of the sunset, then next day, take a picture of the lighthouse from the shore side and impose one onto of the other. This was in the old days, before Photoshop, so this was done by hand using a cut out from the lighthouse picture and an enlarger. The placement of the ray of blocked light on the roof was completely fortuitous (it’s a natural phenomenon caused by a cloud lying just below the horizon).

Later, when I was trying to think about possible cover designs, I happened to remember this old print I’d put together. I dug it out and it was scanned it into a computer. Thanks to the developments in photo-software in the fifteen years since I made up the original, the figures could then be added to it. This took a bit of trial and error, but the overall effect seemed to work. Originally, I’d intended to just have the shadowy people on the ground, but that feature reaching up into the sky was crying out to have one standing in it. It seems to raise questions in the mind. What’s it doing on the roof? Is this figure one of the infected? Is it someone trying to escape from them?

I’m hoping it will be eye-catching enough to attract people’s attention, without straying too far into the types of covers often associated with zombie-type books (not that there’s anything wrong with that style of cover, it just wasn’t the look I wanted). I think this design has a more post-apocalyptic vibe that is truer to the story being told (which is about survival in the face of adversity, and how it forces people to step up or crumble, rather than zombie horror – despite the fact it’s set in a world where the land has been over-run by zombie-type infected).


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Man’s Best Friend And The Zombie Apocalypse

16 Nov

If the zombie apocalypse were ever to come (and who am I to say it won’t?), your much beloved cat will sense the shift in the world order and immediately align itself with the living dead. That’s just what cats do. Now, with a dog, it will be very different. Dogs are loyal and they’d stick by your side no matter what. The question is would this be a help or a hindrance?

The thing that got me thinking about this was the scene in the first series of The Walking Dead where a herd of ‘walkers’ suddenly stumble into the camp and start attacking people with little or no warning. When I saw it, my first thought was that a watch dog or two would have solved that problem. Dogs can be trained to detect the smell of dead bodies (they’re regularly used by the police and are known as cadaver dogs) and they’d be able to pick up the scent of the undead long before they got close enough to cause trouble. Sure, it wouldn’t make very interesting television, but hey, when the dead rise, it’s all about survival not entertainment.

However, it takes years to train a cadaver dog, and useful as they might be, it’s unlikely any of us will be able to get our hands on one. So what about your faithful family pet?  How much use would he be? The answer to this question will depend on three things: The breed, how well he’s trained, and how much noise he tends to make. Basically, if you’re dog is something small, yappy and badly trained, it’s likely that all it will do is draw zombies to you from near and far. If it’s a bigger breed and you’ve taken the time to train it properly, then the chances are it will be much more use.  In particular, you’ll need to have trained it to come on command, stay, and keep quiet when needed. This final one will be particularly important. When you’re huddling on the roof your campervan praying that the herd will pass before they realise you’re there the last thing you need is for your dog to start barking uncontrollably at them.

You can also think about training your dog with some more specialist skills. The ability to sniff out the undead, may be particularly useful as you can use to check buildings (after all, look how often people are killed in zombie movies when they venture into a building they presume is empty only to find it infested with the living dead – a well-trained dog would put a stop to that pretty much instantly!), and warn you of any that are approaching your camp, especially under cover of darkness.  Of course, finding the right ‘Eau de Zombi’ to use in your training might prove difficult.

A well-trained dog could also act as a last line of defence.  There seems to be some debate as to whether zombies will attack other animals (in the Walking Dead, yes as they eat a horse, in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, no as they let a dog pass unmolested), but either way, if a zombie gets into your camp, a well-trained dog could provide you with the vital seconds you need to kill it or get away.

So where does your faithful friend fit into all this? Well, you might not be able to change it’s breed, but you can certainly work on the training, starting right now. If you’re going to be a responsible dog owner, you should be training your dog in the basics anyway, and all you’ll need to do is adapt this to incorporate some additional post-apocalyptic elements. If you’re not already training your dog, you need to start thinking about it now. Not only will it help you survive when the dead rise, but it will make your dog ownership much more enjoyable. After all, owning a well-trained dog is a pleasure, while a poorly trained one is likely to cause you all sorts of problems, even if the zombie apocalypse never comes.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.