Our new house

2 March 2015

So it’s still not officially official yet – the bank hasn’t approved our loan application yet and the final documents are still in the process of being put together – but it looks as though my wife and I will soon be the proud owners of our very own house.

This house, to be precise.

A shot of our new house from the back

A shot of our new house from the back

As you can see it’s a brand new semi located outside the city. Owning a brand new house is cool because it means you can make everything fit your exact specifications, but it does mean a lot of work needs to be done before it’s fit for human habitation. I can already tell you that every weekend between now and the summer is going to be a slog of visiting showrooms and pouring over catalogs for everything from bathrooms to fireplaces. But hey, it’s a project, and it’s something my wife and I have been planning for a very long time.

Unlocking the front door for the very first time

Me unlocking the front door for the very first time

The house itself is located just outside Wroclaw, in a small village a few kilometers away. It’s close enough to the city that we can drive to Wroclaw in just a few minutes but far enough away that it feels like we’re in the countryside. It’s very quiet around us. There’s a park with a children’s playground opposite us. Our neighbours mostly comprise chickens and a small company that chops wood. There are no shops but there are a lot of domestic animals. We also have some friends living in the same village so that’s cool.

A shot of what will eventually be the kitchen

A shot of what will eventually be the kitchen

My wife and I are both really excited to see how things pan out from here. As always I’ll be posting our progress here so check it out if you’re interested in keeping up to date on all things house-related. I’ve a feeling there are going to be a lot of updates on the subject.


Game reviews: Mario Kart 8

23 February 2015

mario_kart_8_box_artHere’s a question for you: what is the best-selling Nintendo franchise of all time?

Most likely your first thought was Mario. Who, after all, doesn’t remember the impact made by games like Mario Bros. 3 or Mario 64 when they first launched on an unsuspecting industry? They changed game design on a fundamental level, serving as a textbook for how create platformers for years to come.

Or perhaps your first thought was the Legend of Zelda. You remembered that almost every game in that series has been critically acclaimed, and that the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask frequently appear in the top 10 games of all time. Any series with so many plaudits must have sold by the bucket, right?

What if I were to tell you that the correct answer is none of the above? The last three home console Mario games – Super Mario Galaxy (12.22m), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (7.41m), and Super Mario 3D World (3.79m) – sold well but hardly well enough to shock the industry. The last three Legend of Zelda games – Twilight Princess (8.58m), Skyward Sword (3.67m) and Windwaker HD (1.22m) – faired even worse .

In fact, you might be surprised to hear that the most recent Mario Kart game, Mario Kart Wii, sold almost as many copies as all of the above games combined. A staggering 35.11m units worldwide and the game wasn’t even considered that good.

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

Chart reproduced from Polygon.com

When you look at things like this, you can see there are few priorities higher for Nintendo than Mario Kart. It is their golden goose. It’s that fun party game everyone knows about even if they’ve never play a game in their life. Its launch on the 3DS is partially credited with saving that system from an early death. The series appears six times in the Guinness Book of Records, with the original Super Mario Kart number 1 on the list of top 50 console games based on initial impact and lasting legacy. Simply put, see the words “Mario Kart” written on a game and you know that Nintendo have brought their A-game.

Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

From the moment you pop this game into your Wii U, you know exactly what you’ll be getting. This is a Mario Kart game plain and simple, and it comes with all the crazy mayhem and item throwing shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Race around 32 fun, impossible courses as popular Nintendo mascots. Use crazy powerups to gain the upper hand. Try to come in first place. You can race alone or with friends both locally and online. There’s a single player time-trial mode to improve your scores and a Mario Kart TV mode where you can view other people’s races from all over the world. Throw in a battle mode and a bunch of DLC and you have yourself a winning formula for success.

As always, it’s a masterclass of game design.

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is nothing that can compete with this game on the Wii U

Graphically there is almost nothing on the Wii U that compares with this game. 720p, 60 frames per second (actually 59 with the 60th frame being a duplicate of the 59th, but who really cares about a single frame?), which doesn’t drop even even while playing online. The game is slick and responsive with tight controls and fluid mechanics. It’s a real feat of programming and an absolute blast to play.

And THAT MUSIC!!! My God. Best OST ever.

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

The new anti-gravity mechanic leads to some very creative course design

Like many  Mario Karts, this one has a new gimmick to go along with all the shiny new visuals and in this case that gimmick is anti-gravity. For the first time in Mario Kart history, you can race your karts up walls and along ceilings. Tracks twist and turn in the most unbelievable ways. At various points in the game you’ll find yourself driving vertically up a waterfall, or on the underside of a giant mobius strip. You’ll find yourself driving along the ceiling of a haunted house or down through the twisting tunnels of a sewer. Simply put, nothing is off limits, leading to some of the most imaginative and fun course designs yet seen in a Mario Kart. Personal course highlights include Mute City, a homage to the F-Zero franchise, and Wario Mountain, a rare one-track race that has you racing from the very top to the very bottom of a slalom-style ski course.

Also unique to this version of Mario Kart is its heavy emphasis on DLC and integration with the new Amiibo range of toys. The DLC is fairly priced with $11.99 netting you 16 new courses and 6 new characters, essentially boosting the size of the game by 50% for less than one third of its price. This is in addition to other regular updates, more controller options than you can count and fully integrated off TV play. As I said before, Nintendo always brings their A-game with Mario Kart and if there’s a box that can be ticked on a list of Wii U features, you can be sure this game will be doing its best to tick it.

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

With Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, Nintendo is proving they know how to do DLC right

Of course there are always going to be downsides to any game and Mario Kart 8 is no exception.

The AI in this game is bad. No, worse than bad. It’s broken. Mario Kart has always been known for its cheap rubber banding but Mario Kart 8 takes it to ridiculous levels. No matter how well you are racing, no matter what short cuts you take or exploits you pull off, you will always find the number two racer breathing down your neck while the rest of the pack follow just a couple of seconds behind. Conversely, if you happen to race badly you’re only ever a couple of stars or a rocket power up away from being back in the race. I get the idea: Nintendo want to make sure this game is accessible to everyone, newcomers and old hands alike, but there comes a point when it’s too much.

And that's not to even mention how broken some of the power ups in this game are

And that’s without even mentioning how broken some of the power ups in this game are

The hallmark of a challenging game is one that’s hard but fair. Fail and you know it was your fault. Succeed and you know it was because of you mastering the game’s mechanics. It’s like with Hyrule Warriors which I reviewed last week. The more you practice, the better you get at that game and that simple fact encourages you to keep coming back for more.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with Mario Kart 8. The challenge is high, yes, but it’s been made artificially so. Random items. Random events. Rubber banding. Cheating AI. Unfair item distribution. If you’re in last place, the game does its best to put you back into the race. If you’re in first place, the game does its utmost to drop you back into the pack. Apparently Nintendo thinks this makes for a better game. It doesn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times I was cruising to victory in first place, driving perfectly, taking each corner with boosted perfection and using all the shortcuts I knew. I should have been cruising to victory. Instead I end up being hit by a lightning bolt on the final lap. Then a blooper and two red shells in the space of five seconds. You end up coming 7th because the RNG gods decided to gift a rocket to the guy who finished 6th. It’s complete BS and it leads to nothing but frustration.

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost and your living room may be in danger. You have been warned

Some moments in this game are controller-breakingly frustrating. Friendships will be lost. Your very living room may be in danger. You have been warned

The great thing about Mario Kart has always been how accessible it is. A complete novice can pick the game up, race and have fun in just a couple of minutes. However, this accessibility is a double-edged sword that limits Mario Kart as a competitive racer. There’s a reason no fanatical community has ever built up around Mario Kart like it has around Smash Bros. The game wants experienced racers to fail just as much as it wants novices to succeed. In this way everyone becomes average and the winning or losing of the game falls entirely down to the will of an RNG.

That’s not fun. It’s dice rolling.

RNG: the game

He’s 12th now but don’t worry he’ll get a rocket soon

And that’s not even to mention my biggest gripe with this game. For all its mastery and beauty, the game is simply too safe. Mario Kart’s formula is so tried and tested by this point it’s creaking at the edges. It’s such a cash cow for Nintendo that it’s almost as though they’re afraid to tinker with the formula for fear of breaking it.

Remember Diddy Kong racing? Remember its story line and boss battles? Remember Crack Nitro Kart with its track editor? Remember ModNation Racer with its customizable vehicles and characters? Playing Mario Kart these days feels like listening to a symphony by Mozart. You know that it’s beautiful and that it couldn’t have been better constructed, and yet you can’t help but get bored by it. It’s years behind the times.

Mario Kart’s formula is so ingrained in our minds by this point the games practically program themselves. But familiarity breads contempt and Nintendo really needs to try mixing up the formula soon or I doubt I will be buying the next Mario Kart as eagerly as I did this one (even though it did come with a free game. Another A-game publicity stunt from Nintendo).

Overall – B

bI so wanted to love this game. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hyped for a Mario Kart as I was for this one. Sad to say the end result is not what I was hoping for. ‘Limited’ is the word I would use for this, along with ‘safe’ and ‘frustrating’. I honestly think I had more fun with Mario Kart Wii than 8 and that’s a sad thing to say considering how hated Wii is by the community.

Fortunately, there’s just enough that’s good in this game for me to give it a recommendation. Great track layouts, fun anti-gravity mechanic, beautiful visuals and a frankly phenominal soundtrack combine to make this a good game to wile away a few hours with friends. It’s a fun game – it’s a Mario Kart game – and you’ll have a lot of fun playing it.

I’m just not sure how long you’ll be playing it for.


Game review: Hyrule Warriors

16 February 2015

the_legend_of_zelda_hyrule_warriors_5_rawReviewing a game is always a delicate matter. On the one hand you strive to review things objectively. You analyze why a game is or isn’t good in relation to the rest of the industry. You look at the game in terms of graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates, the quality of its textures and the realism of its AI. When a game gets these things right, you praise it even if you don’t particularly like it.

It’s in this way that I find myself able to heap praise on a game like Bayonetta 2 or Super Smash Bros, even though I don’t actually enjoy playing either very much. I can recognize that they are well made examples of their genre and I’m sure a lot of people will get hours of fun out of them.

This is what being a reviewer means.

Bayonetta 2: a phenominal game, but not for me

Bayonetta 2: a phenomenal game, but not for me

But then there is the other extreme: games which you find yourself enjoying despite all their flaws.

These games are glitchy, buggy messes of hasty coding and poor optimization. These games have frame rates that dip more often than nachos at a house party and load times less reliable than most bus schedules. These games freeze on you or downright crash your system. Your inner critic looks at these things and despairs: “These aren’t Serious Games! This is generic shlock; the Michael Bay of video games! Give it a mediocre score and let’s move on…”

And yet, whenever you find yourself with a few hours free, it’s this later example that your find yourself returning to time after time.

Tell me: as a reviewer, which of the above scenarios deserves the higher score? Is it the game you can appreciate like a fine wine? Or the one you guzzle down like cheap lager?

It’s a question I never really considered until playing Hyrule Warriors.

Hyrule Warriors is something of a break-out experiment from Nintendo. As a fusion between Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise and Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, the game has you thrown into large-scale battles in which you are a one-man army pitted against a literally endless hoard of enemies. The aim of the game is to capture keeps (areas of enemy territory) which once under your control will spawn more allies for your side. Once you’ve got a certain percentage of the field under your control, the enemy HQ will open up allowing you to take on the enemy commander for the mission in one-on-one combat.

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

The boss fights are some of the best moments in the game, although they do get repetitive after a while

This style of game is nothing new. Koei Tecmo has been churning out games just like this one for well over a decade now, and Hyrule Warriors (apparently) is just an average example of that series reskinned with Zelda characters. Critics of the game will tell you that it’s a mindless button masher. They will say that the missions are extremely repetitive, that there’s a lot of grinding and very bad AI. They will point out the stuttering frame rates and the graphical glitches and they will give it a mediocre score of 7 out of 10.

Like this.

Which is just further evidence as to why you should never buy a game based solely on its review score.

You can accuse this game of being a reskinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

You can accuse this game of being a re-skinned Dynasty Warriors game all you like, but Link and co have never looked better than they do in this game

Confession time: I love Hyrule Warriors. I can’t stop playing it. I’ve been playing it since it came out in September and I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’ve sunk over 100 hours into the game so far, played it at the expense of much higher-profile game releases like Super Smash Bros. (for which I’ve only played 10 hours) and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker (which I’ve yet to play at all). I’ve bought all the DLC for it. I’ve purchased the strategy guide. I’ve made Excel files with lists of the objectives I still need to complete and the order of how I will do it. I even bought a Link Amiibo just so I could unlock one of the game’s weapons.

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd

There is so much DLC in this game it borders on the absurd (in a good way, of course)

In fact, I’m so addicted to this game that when my hard drive recently corrupted on me and wiped out my save file containing over 100 hours of progress, even that didn’t stop me playing. I was devastated, sure. But then I remembered how much of those 100 hours I had wasted getting to grips with the game’s mechanics. I was much better at the game now, I knew. It would only take me perhaps half that time to regain all that progress…

And so the next thing I knew, I was re-downloading the DLC once again (this time directly onto my Wii U to avoid any future hard drive issues) and starting it all again from scratch. 100 hours of progress lost… and I continued to play the game.

That, right there, is something I can honestly say I have never done in my entire history of gaming. Sure, there are games that I’ve done multiple playthroughs for but they always tend to be smaller and more episodic in scope like Super Mario 3D World, in which a new playthrough just involves revisiting your favourite levels again as if they were new. To lose so much progress from such a monster of a game and yet refuse to give up made me realize something very important:

Despite all of this game’s many flaws, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite game on the Wii U.

Game of the year. I'm not even ashamed to admit it

Game of the year. I’m not even ashamed to admit it

So what is it that keeps me coming back to this game? The content. There is a ridiculous amount of content in this game. It took The Completionist over 200 hours to get everything in just the base game alone and since then there have been three extra download packs which have more than tripled the game’s content overall.

Because of this staggering amount of content you are literally never without something to do. You are constantly working towards something, be it unlocking a new weapon or grinding out an achievement. It’s this constant feeling of incremental progress that keeps you coming back for more and keeps you pushing on for just one more level, just one more map square until the next thing you know it’s 3.00am and you have work the next day…

Unlocking all the game's weapons and content is one of the best things about it

Unlocking all the weapons and content is one of the best things about the game

At its core, the game is very simple. All moves in the game are controlled with the use of just two buttons — a normal attack and a strong attack — in varying combinations. As a result it’s an extremely easy game to pick up and learn the basics for but like all good game systems there is a lot of depth to master.

The game is frantic too. Not in the same way as Super Smash Bros., which is a game that just loves throwing as much as it can at the screen in the hopes that you’ll interpret the ensuring chaos as ‘fun’, but in a far more controlled way. You are continually bombarded throughout the missions with new objectives and messages from your allies. You find yourself constantly re-prioritizing your objectives. Do you push on and take that keep or hold back and defend your own? Do you head over to the other side of the map to rescue your ally, or just ignore him in the hopes that pushing on will indirectly save him?

It’s frenetic. It’s intense. And most importantly, it’s fun.

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here. And it's great

This is the first time Zelda fans have been able to play as some classic characters such as Darunia here and it’s just as awesome as you almost imagined it would be

If this is what all the Dynasty Warriors games are like then I can’t believe I’ve missed out on them for so long. Damn the critics for not appreciating this sort of game more and damn me for listening to them.

Overall – A

aThe critics are right in everything they’ve said about this game. It is mediocre in a lot of ways. It lacks online play, its frame rate is questionable and glitches (like the one I mentioned above in which my entire save data for the game was wiped out) are not unheard of. And it’s true that the Wii U isn’t exactly short of this sort of combo-heavy hack’n’slash adventure style game right now. There’s the aforementioned Bayonetta 2 (and its prequel, launched at the same time), Darksiders II, and the Wonderful 101 released by Platinum last year. All of those games do many things which are better than Hyrule Warriors. All of them push their respective genres in new, interesting directions. Any reviewer worth their salt would give them all higher scores than Hyrule Warriors…

And yet not one of those games is sitting inside my Wii U right now. Not one of those games has had me playing it for over 150 hours. Not one of them excites me inside my gamer soul like this one does. Better on paper they might be but in my heart there is only Hyrule Warriors.

AND THAT MUSIC! My God it’s incredible.

If the point of a game is to give you a good time, to provide some mindless entertainment and wile away a couple of hours then Hyrule Warriors is without a doubt my game of the year and biggest surprise of 2014. It gets an A on sheer effort, fan service and content alone.

If, however, the point of a game is to be well made and interesting, like a sterile tech demo designed to please PC elitists, then this game is mediocre at best and should probably be avoided.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Wii U is calling to me…


Short story: Gifted (After)

12 February 2015

Marshall-AmpsA couple of weeks ago I posted an old story on here. I said I was going to redraft it and send it off to a short story competition about ghosts. The story had to be up to 5,000 words long and it had to have a ghost in it. Those were the rules. The rules said nothing about the story itself being scary, however, or even a horror for that matter.

So anyway, it’s been many long hard days since that last post and I’ve finally finished the redraft. The story is now called The Star, which is a much more fitting title for it.

To break things down a little:

  • Things that stayed the same from the first draft to this one: the characters, the setting, the plot points and the length
  • Things that have changed: literally everything elsetumblr_n2gqggvSsE1ryd41yo2_1280

The Star still follows the same basic outline as Gifted. Both stories start with the lead singer of a newly popular band passed out backstage just moments before the biggest gig of his life. In both we then get a scene of his band mates trying to bring him back to his senses, followed by a gig that goes disastrously wrong (though for different reasons). In both we then get to see the fall-out from this terrible concert, which results in the character hating himself.

For all that, however, this is a very different story to the first one. Its themes are different, its characterization and tone is different. The central concept at the heart of the story is perhaps the most different thing of all. And that’s one of the reasons why this was so fun to write. I was following a story template created by my younger self but I still had room to be creative.

It’s nice when that happens.

As always C&C welcome.


Short story: Gifted (before)

29 January 2015

Marshall-AmpsSo now that my novel is well and truly out of the way I’ve been thinking about the different ways I can utilize my time. Last year was a good one for me with two stories published and I’d like to see if I can keep that momentum going if at all possible.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to submit a bunch of stories over the next few months to various anthologies and competitions. Now before you say anything, yes I’m well aware that I already tried doing that over a year ago to little effect, but in my defense I was submitting to magazines at the time, of which there aren’t that many these days and those which do exist have very broad readerships. This time I will be specifically targeting competitions and anthologies, providing them with (I hope) exactly the sort of story they want to see. It was a strategy I tried last year to great success so I’m going to see if I can keep a good thing going.

So, to start with I’m going to submit a ghost story to this competition for The Fiction Desk. Here’s a description:

‘Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.

Sounds simple enough, right?

index

This is pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the subject…

Now normally I would be the first to say that ghost stories aren’t my forte. I’ve never written one, I’ve only read a handful in my life, and I don’t even believe in ghosts so it’s kind of difficult to take the whole thing seriously. However, in this case I’m feeling secretly confident about things because I trick up my sleeve. Namely, I already have a story written… kind of.

For this, I’m going to try retooling an old story I wrote many years ago for a university project. At the time of writing I got a good grade for it, but like so much of my earlier work, I find that time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s way overwritten, far too aware of itself and, yes, it’s absolutely in love with the idea of everything being as dank and gloomy as possible (because Goddamn it, if dirt and dim lighting doesn’t make things feel more real then I don’t know what does!).

Click here to read the original version (PDF)

As you can see, there’s no ghost in this story per se, but there is something very much like a ghost. You know how people sometimes say that really talented people were ‘born with a gift inside them’? Well, I tried playing with the idea that this is literally true. I imagined a gift as being a kind of spiritual creature that lives inside every person. As you would expect, every gift is different (just like every person is different). Some gifts are big and impressive, others are understated and shy. Some are well looked after, allowing them to flourish. Others are neglected or ignored.

For the story, I envisaged a musician who is, quite literally, wasting his talent. He has an amazing gift inside him – one of the best ever made – but he has misused it for years, using it only to produce quick and easy songs that are guaranteed to sell but which don’t test his talents in any way.

Then I imagined the gift getting super angry and trying to get its revenge…

internal-demons

Yeah, I know it’s a little convoluted as premises go but I have to say I do quite like it and I think it would transition well into a longer story, especially if it were told from the point of view of the gift a la the Screwtape Letters. But for a 4,000 word short story submitted to a writing competition…? Meh, it’s a little too fiddly to be workable in my opinion.

So yeah, the idea is that I’m going to be rebuilding this story with a much more straightforward premise. The main story elements will remain the same, as will the essential beats of the plot, but the gift will be swapped out for a more traditional ghost-like creature, which will hopefully result in a far more easily digestible story.

Check back next week when I’ll show you (some of) the finished version. Hopefully you’ll agree it’s a big improvement over this first draft.


What next for the Arkship Ulysses?

21 January 2015

A few weeks ago I finished writing a book. As you can imagine, I was pretty proud of this fact.

The book was longer than I originally planned it to be and I finished it well behind schedule, but I still think it’s a pretty good read for a first timer like myself. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest you go right now and check out the sample chapters available on this website.

Now, that the writing part is finished, however, the real work begins.

Leona, 7, poses inside a labyrinth installation made up of 250,000 books titled "aMAZEme" at the Royal Festival Hall in central London

So many books…

Any writer will tell you that getting published in today’s market is a brutally hard business.

In some ways the book industry has never been healthier than it is now – almost 1 million books were published last year in the US alone according to some estimates and new ones are being published all the time on every conceivable topic. At the same time, however, the trade paperback and hardback markets, as they have existed for decades of years, are dying. ‘E-reading’ and ‘self-publishing’ are the buzz words of today’s age. Outside a tiny pool of best-selling authors whose work is guaranteed to sell, the vast majority of writers find their work homeless and unloved, doomed to wonder the fringes of the slushpile for all eternity. Just more noise in a market that’s already screaming its head off.

Believe me, I am aware of these facts. They are depressing, sure, but I made my peace with them a long time ago.

The trouble is, sitting back and analyzing a situation from afar is one thing. Getting close and personal with it is something else entirely. So, for example, I can look at something like the Artists and Writer’s handbook and I can see that almost no agents or publishers are interested in science fiction. I can look at the current books sales for science fiction and see how poor they are. I can look at the list of best-selling science fiction books and notice how little there is from the last 20 years…

And yet, I still have to try. After all, I promised myself I would.

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500So let’s get down to business: all publishers and agents ask for 3 things when submitting them work.

First of all, three sample chapters. Done. Finished. Easy as pie.

Next, a one-page synopsis. This is a brief 600-word summary of your entire book boiled down to its core elements. In my case, my book had to shed a lot of weight to get to this target. I’m literally covering several chapters with every sentence here. I don’t even mention one of the main characters at all and in my attempt to boil the plot down to an understandable core, it loses almost all of its themes of religion and faith which are some of the core concepts of the book. I won’t tell you how long this took to write. The answer is too depressing.

You can find the finished synopsis below. Spoilers for anyone planning on reading the finished book:

The Arkship Ulysses is all that remains of a once-vast fleet of ships that fled the Earth a thousand years ago. Today, the ship is a shambles: overpopulated and barely functional. Its Captain is a lame duck and its crew has devolved into a pseudo-feudal system of powerful families vying for power.Abi Leighton, a young girl with a sharp mind and an even sharper temper, once belonged to such a family. For the last five years, however, she has lived a life of disgrace as one of the so-called Unspoken. She works like a slave, she lives in squalor, and, due to a ship-wide food crisis, there is talk of an uprising all around her. She is determined to crawl her way out of this hell hole and back into civilization where she belongs as soon as possible.

When she meets a beautiful girl named Kara, in whom the nobles seem to be paying far too much attention, Abi thinks she might have found her golden ticket. Abi watches over the new girl, slowly gaining her trust by saving her life from an attack by a local gang and teaching her how to survive.

Through this girl, Abi learns of a plot to end hostilities by marrying the Captain – the most powerful man in the universe – to one of the Unspoken. In this way, they claim, the masses will be shown a glimmer of hope that will motivate them to return to work and quit their talk of rebellion.

Armed with this knowledge, Abi uses Kara’s safety to buy her way to freedom. Thanks to her noble upbringing she is able to wheedle her way into a job working as the girl’s personal tutor. She quickly regains money and standing for herself. However, back in society Abi finds herself shunned by the very people she once called friends. There is nothing left of the life she once had and the situation on the ship turns out to be far worse than she imagined. The food crisis is spiraling out of control. It’s obvious that the noble families are plotting something big.

Abi bides her time until the day the Captain is due to meet with Kara for the first time. While the eyes of the ship are distracted, she steals an ident card from a high ranking officer and uses it to break into a secure area. There she discovers that the talk of rebellion wasn’t just talk after all: it was an idea planted among the Unspoken by spies working for the nobility. They want the Unspoken to rebel. They want the ship in chaos. And they want it to happen at the exact moment that Kara is being shown to the Captain for the first time.

In a flash, Abi realises what’s happening: someone is going to assassinate the Captain and blame it on the Unspoken, thus gaining the support needed to dispose of them forever. With fewer mouths to feed, the food crises would be over. That person would be a hero, in prime position to take control following the Captain’s demise.

With no time to lose, Abi runs to the Captain’s quarters, arriving just in time to stop the ringleader before he can go through with his plan. However, this victory has comes at a terrible cost. With the ringleader now dead, there is no one left who knows the plan to stop the riot when the Unspoken break out on cue and start ransacking their way across the ship.

Thanks to some fast thinking on Abi’s part, the Captain and his few remaining allies are able to bottle up the Unspoken but it’s obvious that this is only a short-term solution. Abi has saved the Captain’s life but she may just have doomed the ship in the process.

The Captain, not knowing who else to trust, charges Abi with a new task: that of finding a real solution to the food crisis that doesn’t involve killing off one third of its population. Abi suddenly finds herself thrust into the centre of attention, possibly the most important person on the whole ship.

The Arkship Ulysses is the first book in a planned series. It is a 150,000 word fantasy in space, along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Dune or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

The final thing all agents ask for is a cover letter and luckily this part is pretty straight forward. Any agent that’s been in the industry longer than a couple of days will know exactly what they are looking at as soon as they open your envelope so they really don’t need a lot of waffle. All they really care about you is that you’re not a nut job and that you have a book for them to read. Hopefully, I can prove both of those facts in one, easy to read letter.

Dear X,

I am looking for an agent to represent my book, The Arkship Ulysses. It is a 150,000-word epic fantasy in space along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Dune or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that would be the first in a series of books.

The Arkship Ulysses tells the story of the last surviving ship that fled the dying Earth when the rest of humanity died out. After a thousand years of wondering the cosmos, the ship is in a bad way. Things are falling apart, nothing works, the crew are demotivated and its civilian population is starving. Our hero is a young girl who has fallen on hard times. Her attempt to climb back into high society while all around her is falling to pieces forms the backbone of the narrative.

I am an English teacher living in Wroclaw, Poland. I am relatively new to the writing business but last year I had two short stories published in various anthologies. While at university I won the in-house ‘Edner Fuller’ prize for my fiction. I hope to now take my writing to the next level.

I enclose a brief synopsis and the first three chapters of The Arkship Ulysses for your consideration. I
would be happy to send you the full manuscript if and when appropriate. I enclose an SAE but you do not need to return the manuscript.

Please contact me if you need more information. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have or revise the novel as necessary. Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

R J Burgess

Lastly, of course, I need a contact list. Here are the agents I will be hitting first. I’ve chosen them simply because they all a) are UK-based and b) specifically target writers of genre fiction. They are:

  1. Anubis Literary Agency
  2. Michael Berenti Literary Management
  3. Mic Cheetham Associates
  4. Dorian Literary Agency
  5. Sheil Land Associates Ltd.
  6. The Standen Literary Agency

Wish me luck. I’m going to need it!

 


Reading my favourite authors

10 January 2015

Long-time readers of this blog will remember about a year ago I published a list of my favourite authors. You can find the article here so I’m not going to spent too much time explaining my choices now, but as a quick reminder the authors were:

  1. C. S. Lewis
  2. Ursula Le Guin
  3. Kurt Vonnegut
  4. Douglas Adams
  5. George R. R. Martin
  6. Octavia E. Butler
  7. John Wyndham

Over the years it’s safe to say I have read a lot of books by these guys and many of them rank among my absolute favourites.

However, I haven’t read all of them and therein lies the theme for this new series of posts. Starting this month, I will be reading one book from one of the seven authors above every few weeks. These books will be entirely new to me. Perhaps they will be lesser known works by these authors. Perhaps they will be famous books that for some reason or other I never got around to reading. All of them will be new to me.

I can already tell you these reviews are going to be very interesting to write. Unlike the reviews I did when I was reviewing the slush pile at a publishing company, I won’t be reading these books completely in the dark. And unlike when I was reviewing the best-selling books of all time I won’t have any word of mouth or film adaptations to give me some idea of what to expect.

Instead, I will be reading these books from an entirely new position: armed with full knowledge of who these authors are and knowing all too well the high standards to which they are capable of reaching, and yet approaching each book as a fresh artifact to which I have little association beyond perhaps a vague sense of its plot.

As a fan of these writers, it’s going to be hard to stay objective and not fall into bouts of fanboyism. But never let it be said I’m one to shy away from a challenge…

So without any further ado, these are the first three books I will be reading in this series:

Book one: The Screwtape letters by C S Lewis

stllewisIf anyone ever asks me who my favourite writer is, I will tell them C S Lewis. His book Til We Have Faces is easily my favourite of all time and I can’t name a single book of his I haven’t enjoyed (although That Hideous Strength came very close).

I love how the guy writes about his faith. I love the way he couples together such pedestrian everyday characters and situations with such deep and challenging theological themes. As a religious man growing up during these spiritually lukewarm times, I find it extremely heartening to read a man like Lewis and feel the pure conviction shining through from his work. Of all the writers I have ever encountered, he is the one whose world view seems most to mirror my own. There are many times during his more discursive books that I literally feel as though I’m reading my own thoughts presented on a page.

C S Lewis was a university professor by trade so his writing style is often very literate and occasionally falls into bouts of self-indulgent argumentation. Sometimes it feels like he’s lecturing you more than telling a story, which I know puts a lot of people off him, especially considering the inflammatory subject matter.

For both of these reasons, however, I think The Screwtape Letters will be an excellent book to choose for this series. The Screwtape letters are a series of fictional letters from a demon to another who is trying to tempt a man to damnation. Straight off the bat we can see that this is classic Lewis: Christian themes; literature and argumentative writing style; lecture first and plot second.

It’s widely considered one of his best books.

Book 2: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

the-sirens-of-titan3I have read precisely two of Vonnegut’s books: Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. You might be surprised that I consider the guy one of my favourite writers of all times considering I’ve only read two of his books but if you think that way that’s only because you’ve never read them.

Vonnegut writes with none of the reverence or spirituality that characterizes Lewis’s work. His work is anarchic, cynical, darkly funny in an almost depressing way. He writes like a man who has truly seen the depths to which humanity can sink and is now desperately trying to make sense of it all. It’s like the literary equivalent of punk rock and I love it.

When it comes to choosing which of his books I should read next, I actually have Vonnegut himself to fall back on. In Chapter 18 of his book Palm Sunday he grades his own novels. Not in accordance with some external standard of what is ‘good’, he says, but rather in reference to his own abilities and what he feels he is capable of.

This was how he graded himself:

  • Player Piano: B
  • The Sirens of Titan: A
  • Mother Night: A
  • Cat’s Cradle: A+
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A
  • Slaughterhouse-Five: A+
  • Welcome to the Monkey House: B-
  • Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
  • Breakfast of Champions: C
  • Slapstick: D
  • Jailbird: A
  • Palm Sunday: C

Obviously I’m going to choose one of his A-rank books for this series and The Sirens of Titan seems like the perfect choice.

Written early in his career, this book famously ranks among one of his most chaotic of all. From what little I’ve heard about the book, it has almost defies description. Vonnegut seems to tumble between ideas, somehow forging an almost Macgyver-like plot out of little more than wit and cynicism alone. Reading the book’s blurb tells me almost nothing about what to expect inside. All I know is that Vonnegut thought it was good and that’s good enough for me.

Book 3: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

lathe-of-heaven2Sometimes you read a story and you feel entertained. Sometimes you read a story and feel moved. Some books challenge you. Some books stay with you forever. Only Le Guin manages to do all of these things at the same time.

Have you ever met someone before whom you feel insignificant? You know that this person is more intelligent, more insightful and more talented than you will ever be, so much so that all you can do is stand in awe of them. That’s how I feel when reading Le Guin.

Despite being a devout feminist, atheist, environmentalist and socialist her books never seem to brow beat you with these principles. Unlike Lewis, she never seems to be lecturing you. Instead she lays out a situation and lets you come to your own conclusions.

Likewise, unlike Vonnegut she never seems to let her ideas overwhelm her or get her down but instead remains in control of her plot throughout. From a technical standpoint, she is probably the best writer on this list. Certainly, I’ve never known a female writer create such realistic male characters before.

When it came to choosing which of her books to read, it was actually really easy. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes. The idea of taking one thing, changing it and then running with the implications of that change is science fiction in its purest, most undiluted form.

As a kid I loved shows like Sliders or the mirror universe episodes in Star Trek. As an adult, I adore reading through alternate histories. I am always running what-if scenarios through my mind with my own life history and that of the world around me. I find it fascinating.

So you can imagine how delighted I was to stumble upon this book. Here we have a novel which isn’t just about one alternate universe but about the implications of creating such universes in the first place. The book is surprisingly short considering the amount of ground I’ve heard it covers so I’m expecting a dense read. I’m expecting some tough themes here on the nature of choice, reality, fate and free will. I’m expecting some crazy, unpredictable turns of events and, most importantly, a bloody good read.

Of all the books on this list, this is the one I am most looking forward to reading. It was the one that made me decide to start this series in the first place.

So that’s the first three books for you. I’m going to get cracking on reading them now and I’ll post back here in a couple of weeks with the first of my reviews.


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