Monday, 27 November 2017

Lost Solace - E-book Special Offer


From Monday 27th November until Friday 1st December the e-book versions of Lost Solace will be only $0.99.

You'll find purchase links here. Updated

If you know anyone who likes sci-fi, suspense, action or horror, please mention it to them!

From the reviews:

"Opal is a fantastic character, complex, a history we learn a bit more about as we read on, she is heroic, loyal, strong and long long overdue in fiction. I loved the AI too and the relationship that formed between the two, the ballsy choices and bravery through frightening encounters and life and death situations."
-- So many books, so little time

"It's pretty well impossible not to relate to Opal's character. [...] The ship she explores is distinctly weird with some elegantly nasty touches thrown in by Drinkwater - and Clarissa brings in a really interesting AI side to the whole thing."
-- Popular Science

"Great fun—a female-centred science fiction space adventure, with lots of action, creepy mystery, and satisfying emotional depth."
-- Julie Cohen, author

"I honestly cannot emphasise how much I loved this book. When I finished it my initial notes were as follows - Omgoodness ALL OF THE STARS! 5/5! It's creepy, it's action packed, it's awesome!"
-- Life of a Nerdish Mum

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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Amazon. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.


The Good And The Bad

Amazon does some things well. It gives authors an avenue to sell books with a fair bit of freedom. What it does less well is ... communicating. I know this from the past:
 Oh boy. I haven't had much luck with Amazon recently.

Before I explain what happened today, let me give you a bit of background.

My Monthly Review Procedure

On the first day of every month I check for new reviews of my books on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Goodreads. I read them all, even the weird ones from people who seem furiously angry about everything and give a book 1* on principle, or who seem to be writing a review for a different item. Then I pick some and save them into Buffer, which I use to manage my social media accounts. It's like a big tub of posts for Twitter and Facebook. Every few days I go through and sort out which will appear in the next few days. I like to have a mix of photos, personal posts, links to articles, and so on. In that mix are some reviews. I never cease to be thankful that people liked my words enough to write words of their own. It seems an act of respect to share some of those reviews more widely. It also means it isn't always me talking. I like to highlight a key sentence but link to the full review in case people want to read the full thing.

What Happened This Week - The Ugly

The other day I was looking through the posts I'd saved and came across a review I decided to share. As usual I tested the link first, but instead of going to a nice review, I saw this:


Strange. I'd only saved the link a few days earlier.

I should have ignored it. But it was for one of my books that has fewer than ten reviews. A new 5* review is something to celebrate. It makes my day. I wondered if it was a temporary hitch and I should try again later, or if I should just delete the link to the review entirely. I knew Amazon generally wouldn't comment on reviews except to the person who wrote them, and I had no idea who wrote this one, but decided to ask Amazon out of curiosity. I sent Amazon this email through a general "Contact Us" link.

Hi,

I noticed a link to one of the October reviews on my Horror Collection has stopped working:

https://www.amazon.com/review/R2YA1PCLPZFU2M/

Any idea what has happened or how to restore it? I sometimes link to reviews in social media, pointing people back to Amazon in case they want to buy the book, and that was one of my few reviews that month.

Thanks!
Karl
That seems okay, right? Innocuous? Friendly? Maybe they'd tell me there had been a temporary problem? Maybe they'd tell me they couldn't comment? Maybe it would help them spot a bug, and they could fix it?

This reply was waiting for me when I woke this morning:

-----Original Message-----
From: review-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 21 November 2017 23:28
Subject: A Message from Amazon Review Moderation

Hello,

We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.

We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.

We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Review Moderator Amazon.com
What!?!?! WTF?

At first I thought it must be replying to something else, or from a parallel universe, but no - below that was the email I had sent them.

Let me just be clear. I have no idea what that is about. I asked where a review had gone which had been written by a stranger with no connection to me - just like every other review on my books. In return they are stopping me from writing reviews! Forever, with no explanation, and no appeal. Doesn't that seem weird? Was it a message they meant to send to someone else?

I should also add that I am not a prolific reviewer. On my Amazon account I reviewed a few gadgets, a few games, and the new Kindle Fire. My review of the Kindle Fire was 2*, and ... erm ... Amazon makes and sells the Kindle Fire. Could that be ... no, surely not. Apart from that I write some book reviews. As you can imagine, being an author, I read a lot. Amazon's guidelines say you can't write "negative reviews for items sold by that seller’s competitors", which would mean books in my case, but that's fine - if I don't like a book, I don't review it. I only write reviews for books I think people should go and read. Stuff like this, this, this, this, this, this, and this. All those reviews and many more are lost from Amazon now.

What Set Amazon Off?

So, what happened? I have no idea what it is about, and it looks like I'll never find out. I've encountered similar weirdness from Amazon before. At one time they pointed me to Amazon Seller guidelines they said I'd broken - guidelines that I couldn't even see because I wasn't an Amazon Seller and had never had an Amazon Seller account! The wording is obviously standard text inserted into an email with little, if any, human intervention - just like the systems at play.

So I could be suspicious that they are getting back at me because I complained publicly about their unfairness here. This has the same tone - they say you've done something bad in vague, unpinnable terms, won't say what, and give no appeal. Or are they removing my ability to post reviews because my only 2* review was for the product they make and sell? Is that more likely, bearing in mind that the punishment is taking down my reviews and ratings?

When these kind of things happen it is easy to get angry and hate Amazon. But it's not worth it. There are more important things in the world. I think the most likely cause is a dodgy algorithm, probably innocent people being caught in the crossfire of something else, such as a clamp down on real review manipulators but with such broad strokes that they actually take down the wrong targets. Presumably they have systems set up to detect things like review farming (where companies pay for fake ranks and reviews, a practice that is both foolish and dishonest). But obviously whatever Amazon's systems look for as indicators can also create false positives like this.

One Possibility - Amazon's Tracking/Spying

Here's one example that I've been aware of for a while. Did you know that as well as cookies, Amazon adds code to URLs as you browse their store? All the highlighted part here is actually tracking information:


If you copy and paste that URL without clearing that text from the end (to create "a clean link") then Amazon adds that tracking data to the browser for anyone clicking the link. They add that tracking data to all their pages as you use the store.

So here's a possibility. Maybe I once shared a link to a review of one of my books and forgot to remove that Amazon spying data from the link. (And before I learnt about this, I probably shared lots of links that still contained the tracking data.) Then a person clicked on the review I shared and read it. It then connected the reader to me in Amazon's algorithm. If that person bought my book and reviewed it later, maybe Amazon assumed they were "connected" to me in some way, therefore the review was biased, and they then trigger the flag that implies review manipulation. Who knows? But my money is on it being something like that. But since Amazon won't give any details or allow any comeback, there's no way to prove anything. That's why they don't give you information. If you had information you could show that Amazon was wrong.

What's Next?

There's a part of me that wants to follow this up with Amazon. To ask for details. To point out that I have never violated their guidelines (I am well aware of them). But I know from past experience that not I will get nowhere - I once emailed Jeff Bezos about an issue exactly like this, and he forwarded it to Amazon staff, and then they still sent me the same canned message and accusations. There is no way of getting to a human being who will understand the issue, explain what has triggered the false positive, and work with you to improve their algorithm to avoid false positives in future. Amazon don't want to know, or to improve things. They would rather have large numbers of false positives, because it takes less effort to close accounts and ignore replies than it does to fix obviously-flawed, very complex broad-sweep systems.

Also, just on the off-chance that this is some punitive response from Amazon for something I've done in the past (such as pointing out unfair flaws in their system), I am worried that if I even reply to them they may go further. What next? Close my whole Amazon account? Remove my books, or rank them lower? My livelihood is based on my books. Sales and reviews raise their visibility. It's why I am so grateful to my fans and readers. At this point I don't want Amazon to stomp on me any more. I have little to gain by complaining to them (probably not even a sensible answer - just a repetition of the same email), but a lot to lose.

I get it. Life isn't fair, and there are no comebacks, and if you annoy them by protesting your innocence then they may just stomp even harder. I worry that they may take silence to imply that you are really guilty of something (I'm not), but on the other hand, it's not even possible to discuss this with anyone reasonable at Amazon. In this case even a polite email about a missing review led to them applying restrictions to my account. It's just not worth it.

So I'm afraid you won't see many reviews from me in the future! Maybe that's not so bad, but I do worry about how many thousands of other innocent people are being caught out and having restrictions applied thanks to over-zealous automated Amazon systems. But at this point I can't see anything that can be done about it. Create a behemoth and don't be surprised if it squashes you in its sleep one day.

Comments on this post are welcome.

Update: Same Day, A Bit Later 

It feels like I am stuck in a Monty Python sketch some days.

Some authors have discussed this with me. Authors are lovely people. You should adopt one if you get the chance.

To be honest, I am less concerned about not being able to write reviews any more (which, at the end of the day, benefits Amazon and their customers, not me), than the vague worry that they might start deleting more of the few reviews I have on some of my books, or worse: especially if I create too much fuss. I hate the feeling that I've been accused of something dishonest. This will seem weird, but it then starts making me think I must have done something, because otherwise it is too surreal. I also hate being blocked in that way, i.e. not told what I have done, or given a chance to work out how this situation occurred. I have already screenshotted the reviews of my books because I am worried in case they start disappearing, but even then there's no comeback. So I guess I am mostly just a bit shaken up.

As I explained to my fellow authors, if Amazon's righteous retribution was due to any genuine error on my part I'd have loved to have been told. I could have apologised. I could have accepted just punishment. As with my Kindle Scout campaign, I could have warned others so they didn't follow in my puppyish over-enthusiastic footsteps. But I am nonplussed. It's not like I even have a lot of reviews or a high rank or lots of sales, where nastily suspicious people might wonder about the secret of my success and discount the fact that it could just be down to writing good books and telling good stories.

And there are some horror stories. These are (anonymised, paraphrased) comments from some authors I spoke to.

"Same thing happened to me. I politely asked why reviews were disappearing and suddenly I ended up on Amazon's shitlist and I can't review any longer either."

"I think Amazon outsources the review check system, and recently - the last couple of months - I've heard many people say the same thing. There is obviously a fault with the system somewhere."

"I asked which guideline I'd broken as I looked at their guidance and didn't think I had violated any rules. The next email from them threatened to remove all my books from being published on Amazon. After that I shut the hell up. Even now I regularly get reviews of my books removed by Amazon - but I'm not going to complain any more..."
Yikes. And - oh shit. Because despite thinking I maybe shouldn't, I did go ahead and send Amazon this polite email in response:

Hi,

Can I just check if this has been sent to the wrong person, or the message reached me in error? It doesn't seem to be a response to my original email, which was just asking about a review!

I haven't broken any guidelines that I am aware of, which suggests this is a false positive. I'd be happy to work with you to resolve it, since you obviously don't want errors in whatever systems you have in place. I'm also happy to do that over the phone if it helps.

Best wishes,
Karl Drinkwater
Now I am wondering if this is going to get any worse.

Update: Thursday 23rd November 2017 (Next Day)

I checked reviews of my books on Amazon and another one has disappeared.

I also had lots of supportive comments from fellow authors. Some of the things they said are useful, and I'll share a few here (anonymised, again).

"I've had similar Karl. Reviews were removed from my books, always 5 star ones from genuine fans. Amazon said they violated guidelines and they did not. I tried writing to the CEO but worry that I may have made it worse. It's not as if I have a lot of reviews."

"I've heard so many stories like this. They removed one of my five star reviews recently saying it breached guidelines. I emailed them and they said everything was fine and as it should be as they confirmed my remaining reviews. It was as if nothing happened. The review is still gone. I think it depends on who you get on the email. Some agents dealing with emails are kinder then others."

"One of the things my publisher told me is to never send out ARCS through Amazon or send ARCS to a kindle Amazon address by email because Amazon takes this as direct contact e.g. You know the person, and Amazon then won't accept reviews from either of you. Always send Arcs to a standard email address."
It's a good point - I stopped sending ARCs via Amazon a few years ago for that very reason. There was a time when I didn't realise Amazon tracked all this data and kept it and used it against you (even though Amazon guidelines allow sending of ARCs!). For info: ARC is an Advance Review Copy. It is traditional in the book world to send ARCs to reviewers before publication, to get reviews ready for launch, and maybe quotes to use in the publicity. ARCs are standard practice throughout the book trade.

On the topic of connections:

"I’ve seen this on other author pages. They apparently remove reviews if you are friends on any social media site with the authors. A lot of authors are having this issue. Worse is that Amazon are removing reviews in bulk from authors' books bringing down their rank."

"Use different emails for EVERYTHING especially your amazon and ALL social media. You have to keep your social media email and Amazon emails separate."
But not everyone agrees with this:

"There are good reasons for not having the same password etc for social accounts but it won't stop Amazon, Facebook et al from linking you, this Ted talk shows just how far it goes. When this "don't link your accts" thing came about a few years ago, I got a blogger who I'm friends with on nearly every social network going, to mention me, her review and the whole "Amazon" issue on twitter and several other places. I still have her reviews on my Amazon acct. I really feel for those of you that have lost reviews, but I think you're barking up the wrong tree re: linked accts. Amazon does know the computer, Internet router etc that you use so having different email accts and using the same technology to access them won't help you be unrecognisable."

"The scraping of social media is a myth; there's not one shred of evidence supporting it. There are many other ways Amazon can track connections between authors, however, and connecting those dots is where their algorithms tend to stumble."
It's hard to know what to believe. Lack of evidence doesn't mean things don't happen. As my case shows, Amazon often refuse to give enough information to even identify what rule has been broken, and how - it therefore makes it impossible to also work out what evidence (correct or not) they used to come to their conclusions. And since this probably happens hundreds of times without anyone being able to get answers from Amazon (and in many cases, without speaking out), Amazon's closed-mouth approach means that theories naturally fill the void left by Amazon's reticence to be open. And without knowing what has really gone on in many of the cases, it is also impossible to rule things out for sure. It's rather a confusing mess, and creates a condition of uncertainty for everyone.

"It is against the Amazon reviewer TOS for anyone to review "competitors' products". Broadly interpreted, this could mean that any author reviewing another author's book is in violation of the TOS. More specifically, if you're reviewing books by authors in the same genre(s) you write in, then you're DEFINITELY violating the reviewer TOS."
That's not quite true. "Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors" say:

2. Are authors allowed to review other authors’ books?
Yes. Authors are welcome to submit Customer Reviews, unless the reviewing author has a personal relationship with the author of the book being reviewed
So it is okay to review other books as an author. Of course, the vagueness over what constitutes a "personal relationship" leaves huge amounts of room for confusion. If another author follows me on Goodreads is that a "personal relationship"? If I know another author online from the author community, is that a "personal relationship"? And if it is a yes for both of those things, does it automatically mean they would be biased and dishonest if they wrote a review? Bear in mind, not all "personal relationships" are positive. Some are neutral. Some are negative. The "personal" part is meaningless; the "relationship" part just means the two people know of each other. It is so vague as to be nonsense.

"I've just read this Karl. I think the "mistake" you made was sticking your head above the parapet and sending them the first email (bringing yourself to their attention). In my case I only learned recently about clean links and about not linking my Facebook and Amazon accounts, too late though. It's a cruel world!"

"The same thing happened to me Karl. Amazon recently suppressed all my reviews and won't allow me to post any more, their email said their decision is final. I don't see how they can think dead authors and singers were my friends, but that's mighty Amazon for you!"

"You should call the customer service. It may be easier to resolve it on the phone. If the person is unable to help, ask to speak to a supervisor."
Good advice there, probably (though I hate using the phone because you have no record of what is said, and most companies use horrible automated menu systems - I have been given the runaround by those many times). Even if Amazon reinstated my review ability I think this has shaken me up so much I wouldn't risk leaving any more reviews unless Amazon told me exactly what triggered this so I could avoid it again, otherwise it would be like playing Russian roulette! All the power is on one side in the Amazon relationship and I don't want to risk losing more than I have already lost.
Now I am wondering if this is going to get any worse.

Update: Tuesday 28th November 2017

I'd given up on Amazon, and just didn't want things to get any worse, but then a new email arrived a few minutes ago, in reply to the message I sent them on 22nd November:

Hi,

Can I just check if this has been sent to the wrong person, or the message reached me in error? It doesn't seem to be a response to my original email, which was just asking about a review!

I haven't broken any guidelines that I am aware of, which suggests this is a false positive. I'd be happy to work with you to resolve it, since you obviously don't want errors in whatever systems you have in place. I'm also happy to do that over the phone if it helps.

Best wishes,
Karl Drinkwater
Guess what the reply said? Here it is in full:

-----Original Message-----
From: review-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 28 November 2017 13:40
Subject: A Message from Amazon Review Moderation

Hello,

Thank you for your reply to our recent message. We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence stating

"We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.
We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.
We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue."

We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused.

Please note that "Customer Reviews are removed for the following reasons:

-- The review violates our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).
-- A customer can decide to remove their own review.
-- The review is on a page that incorrectly links multiple items. We remove these reviews when we separate the items.

To protect the privacy of our customers, we do not share information about specific reviews with anyone other than the customer who posted it. If a customer contacts you about their missing review, please ask them to write to review-appeals@amazon.com. We can help the customer understand why their review was removed.

Once a review is removed because it does not comply with our guidelines, the reviewer may not submit any new reviews on the same product.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines)."

Review Moderator Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com
In brief: "We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence. [...] We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused."

Well shit. That's been a stressful week and a lot of wasted time on my part, and it turns out that Amazon accidentally accused me of something unspecified but very bad. But it's all okay now, because they used the pasted in "sorry" line.

On the one hand I am glad they admitted that they'd stuffed up. On the other hand I find it frustrating that they never explain what the problem is, any more than they did last time this happened. I guess the only things I can learn from this are:

1. That I should never leave a review for anything on Amazon again.
2. That I should never ask Amazon any questions about reviews.
3. That I still need my fans and readers to leave reviews on Amazon to help me sell books and scrape a living from being an author.

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

They Were Not Mistakes - Grammar Time!


I love hearing back from readers. Often it is a thanks, or questions about my stories and writing. As you know I also do posts about grammar and punctuation, since I enjoy the nitty gritty of it (and edit books for other authors). Here are some clarifications on things people have asked me about particular phrases in Lost Solace.

“That’s a strange opening sentence: ‘long void sea’”

Yes, it is. I was trying to capture the idea of endlessness, and floating, but also add featureless emptiness to the expanse (to match the feeling of time during the experience of cryosleep). Plus images of sea were relevant because Opal uses metaphors of it a lot (after nearly drowning as a child), and the Lost Ship often resembles a submarine environment. If it was distracting to other readers I could look for a better phrase (feedback welcome!), but I liked this phrase, and it was strange and distinctive enough that readers might spot it again at the end of the novel and realise it ends how it began.

Here's the full opening:

Floating in the long void sea, icy, weightless. The thought processes can’t be called dreams. That would be too generous a description. More like fragments of memory stretched out across an echo chamber and punctured with stutters of sound chained to suggestive colours. This was the status quo for dark eternities. Then new sounds were stitched in. Cadences that coincided with infiltrating warmth.

Spin span spun

Here's an interesting and controversial one.

She span round, hoping to catch the hint of movement she’d felt, but the ship’s galley was empty.
One reader told me the correct word is "spun", not "span".

It's true that modern usage is generally to use spun as the simple past. However, I was using an older form. It is also a dialect issue - to my ear "span" sounds better, possibly a northern thing. I would say “She spins round / is spinning” [present], “She span round” [simple past], but “she had spun” [perfect tense]. It is similar to “She runs / is running” [present], “She ran” [simple past], and “she had run” [perfect tense].

There seems to be debate about the usage here. Some say they’ve never heard "span", others say is normal usage in certain constructions, such as "The car span out of control".

Apparently JK Rowling used "span", but it was changed by her publishers later:



How about you? Have you ever heard the word "span"?

Lots of data [is/are] [was/were]

My novel has this sentence in the dialogue:

Lots of data was uploaded to me.
It was pointed out (correctly) that "technically data is plural so would be data were, not data was."

Data is a tricky one because, despite its origins, it is often used as a collective singular. As such, “Lots of data were uploaded” actually sounds wrong to many people's ears. Here I refer to my Guardian Style book:

though strictly a plural, [data] takes a singular verb (like agenda): the data is clear, etc; no one ever uses agendum or datum.

"What did the word xxxxx mean?"

In keeping with the main character, some of the terms I used were slangy or obscure. These were a few of them.

Clarissa banked to evade and brought disruptive chaff cannons to bear, blatting out expanding clouds but too late.
"blatting out": I was trying to capture the sound of the cannons here (blat as a raucous and onomatopoeic sound).

Physical damage reconstructed by nanite drones to new templates.
Nanite drones are a sci-fi/science word for microscopic robots.

She dodged, but bullets spanged near her and against her, forcing her to fall into an alcove.
"bullets spanged near" is the lesser-used sense of “(intransitive, of a flying object such as a bullet) To strike or ricochet with a loud report”. Unfortunately spanged could be from spang or spange, two words with different meanings and pronunciations, so I accept that this might be misread. However it is one of Stephen King's favourite words, which is good enough for me - and probably also how I learnt it in my teenage years.

We’ve both waved our wangs in mutual appreciation. Get to business.
Wang as penis. It seemed funnier than her saying they’d both waved their willies (willy-waving is how some people refer to male boasts, which the conversation had become up to that point).

“Too tired for that,” said Opal. “I just want to coma out.”
By “coma out” Opal just meant she wanted to sleep deeply, like a coma (with the phrasing of flop out / crash out).

Being with a shotgun

One person had a problem with the following sentence.

It is inadvisable to knock if there’s a possibility of a being with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.
They thought it should say "possibility of being met with a shotgun and ..."

However, my sentence is correct: the confusion is possible because I use "being" as the noun form for a creature/person.

Even though it is technically correct doesn't mean the sentence can't be improved. What do you think? Would it make more sense if I re-wrote it as one of these?

“It is inadvisable to knock if there’s possibly a being with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.”

“It is inadvisable to knock if there could be a person with a shotgun and a twitchy finger on the other side.”

I think I favour the latter, but only if other people agree that it is a better sentence.

Gritted teeth

If I had teeth, I would grit them.
One reader thought I meant "grind them" rather than grit them, but grit is perfectly acceptable.

The doughnut cloud and the doughnut egg

One reader told me I used the phrase "doughnut cloud" in some places and "doughnut egg" in others.

The doughnut egg = just referring to the neutron star in the centre of the doughnut, as here:

As the ship accelerated towards the neighbouring neutron star – officially designated UG-324t6 Charybdis, but renamed Doughnut Egg by Opal, forcing Clarissa to refer to it that way – Opal took the chance to familiarise herself with the EVA equipment.
But the cloud itself is the doughnut:

"The cloud of dust and gas looked like a doughnut, or a nest with a tiny egg in it."
"The screen flickered to show a side view of the Doughnut."
"Movement in the one portraying the rear view towards the Doughnut Cloud. Eddying, swirls, a shape within was emerging ..."
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Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Lost Solace Book Cover


The excellent Lost Solace cover was created by Matt Hill. Some time ago I did a consultation using early drafts, to gather feedback on what people liked or didn't like. Different people liked different options - but the key point was that everyone liked one of the covers. That showed we had gone in the right direction. When you have multiple options, all of which are winners, you are in a good position. I thought I'd share a bit more insider information about a few of the choices made.

Title Treatment

We tried various title options. I decided that, regardless of colour (gold, white or blue) I liked the three bars that create an angular block of title and author. Perhaps because it makes the title treatment a bit different from other books. The gold option felt like something I might have created, but the ones with the bars were something new, and that made them more interesting to me. They make things look tidy and regimented (and, in fact, the three lines also resemble futuristic military stripes, which fits in with later parts of the book). The one we chose in the end also makes me think of the E being mutated and stretching to the line above, an imperfect copy, and that also ties in to some later elements in the story. Those subtleties would be irrelevant if the appearance was affected negatively but the order there works: a tight rectangle of conformity and clear information (like a computer might provide), which also contrasts with the humanity and quirkiness of an off-centre character above, perfectly matching the character of Opal.

Opal's Suit Design - No Boob Armour

There were a number of space suit options. The one we chose was listed as a male space suit, but it was a far better option than the suits listed as "female" that had boob armour and seemed shaped more like a fetish than a practical piece of armour.

In plot terms there was no reason for the suit to have any femininity, since it wasn’t custom-designed for Opal – it was a stolen military suit, so adornments and comfort wouldn’t be considerations.

I decided it was fine if Opal looked a bit androgynous. In fact, I think the face still has some femininity to it, the kind that is picked up subconsciously, or by close study. As such it creates a nice discrepancy: woman in a man-style military suit, reappropriated for her ends. It fits the theme of a woman resisting the forces trying to control her, and using whatever is around to survive and pursue her own goals, which makes me like the combination even more. Opal somehow takes the overt masculinity and feminises it slightly by her actions and character.

At the end of the day, I couldn't face the idea of unrealistic fantasy armours. I wanted every aspect of Lost Solace to be more real than that. If you are interested in this, here are some articles:

Opal's Face

I chose the model, as seen in this interview post. I wanted someone who captured Opal's intensity, caution and strength of will. Putting her in a suit and zooming out hides some of the details in the amazing original photograph, but we still have her eyes.

Sci-fi Cover Match

A science reviewer got in touch with me to say: "Just as a curiosity, I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of Andy Weir’s upcoming Artemis, but clearly a certain cover look is in vogue."


I hadn't, because Lost Solace and its cover were finished long before Artemis was available, but it is a wonderful similarity between the two covers. What’s interesting is that when I first began to work with Matt, I sent him various links to reference images and book covers that had elements I liked, and amongst them were a few showing images of The Martian, with close-ups of helmets and faces. I wanted to focus more on Opal than on spaceships, so seeing the similarities with Artemis pleases me that we were on the zeitgeist for this one. Even the colour schemes match! (An early draft of the Lost Solace cover mixed blue and gold colours, which is my favoured colour scheme, but in the end we removed the gold and just kept the coldness of blue).

In fact, one of my early mock-ups to test out photos involved a faint element of stars overlaid on a face, as seen here, which is a subdued version of what the designer did with the Artemis cover. Fascinating to compare them. I have a whole reference folder of book covers that stand out for different reasons, and I have saved this one into it too.

And, as a Classics student specialising in Ancient Greek history, I can’t help being pleased by the link between the Greek names of Artemis, and Athene (who appears at the end of Lost Solace).

The reviewer said "It is interesting about the cover designs - these things definitely have cycles, and I’d say your designer has definitely hit it on the nail!"

Funnily enough, my book got the same rating as Artemis. That's huge for me, since I have so much respect for what Andy Weir has achieved.

Update: The Cover Won A Gold Star!


We were awarded a gold star in the E-book Cover Design Awards (on The Book Designer), 27th November 2017.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Karl Drinkwater - Four Way Interview


A couple of days ago I was interviewed on the Popular Science site about Lost Solace. Here's a backup of the interview. They had already written a great review about Lost Solace.




Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester, but has lived in Wales half his life. He is a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics and Information Science. When he isn't writing, he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake and zombies - not necessarily in that order. His latest novel is Lost Solace.

Why science fiction?

My favourite books have always been any form of speculative fiction. As a child I began with ghost stories, which were the first books to make me completely forget I was reading. By my teenage years I was obsessed with fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Although I read literary and contemporary books, non-fiction, historical works, classics and so on, it is speculative fiction that I return to when I want escape and wonder. When I read reviews of my last book, the fast-paced novella Harvest Festival, I was surprised that a few reviewers called it science fiction. I never intended that. To me it is suspense, horror and action. But it made me realise that it was time to write a science fiction story. On the one hand I wanted to be able to look into issues of identity and fluid personality (which is how the Clarissa thread evolved), but I also wanted to take the tempo and mood of Harvest Festival and run with it across a longer tale. That required a scenario that involved a need for movement, quick thinking, and a goal that may not be obtainable, but with consequences for failure that don’t bear thinking about. Everything grew from that kernel.

Why this book?

Last year I took part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and wrote drafts of a collection of contemporary stories exploring love and relationships. Towards the end of the month the book was finished, but I hadn’t achieved my writing goal – I needed another few thousand words. I decided to reward myself for my hard work, and write something that I thought would be a fun short story. I began Lost Solace. However, the book didn’t end when November ended – the story kept growing and changing. What began as a short story turned into a novel; the original male protagonist mutated from some kind of shallow Indiana Jones who plundered Lost Ships into Opal, on her more personal quest; the armoured war droid companion of my draft notes became a hi-tech suit and spaceship, backed up by Clarissa’s intelligence and a truly-forming relationship. I have never had so much fun writing. I would sit down each day, skim over some ideas for where the story might go, but then let it change direction whenever it needed to. It was a joy to write and re-read, and as a result that project took over from the short stories, which are still sat, unedited, a year later!

What’s next?

I tend to have a lot of projects on the go. In 2018 I’ll be working on a new edition of one of my literary/relationship novels (2000 Tunes), which is a homage to Manchester and its music and people, set in the year 2000, when the main characters are determined to change their lives. I will get the NaNoWriMo short story collection finished and work with my editors to determine which stories to keep and which to throw away (I have around 120,000 words of short stories – only the best half will escape the cutting room floor). I will also get the first draft of my next book written. It will almost certainly be a sequel. If Lost Solace does very well then I will continue Opal’s tale without too many delays. However, two of my other books have been popular and fans often ask me for sequels (Turner and Harvest Festival) – so those are other options. Beyond that I have six other works plotted out and just waiting for me to get down to writing their first drafts. Two of those are sci-fi, three are horror, and one is literary/contemporary.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Everything about my fiction, especially seeing how each book is received, and writing the new ones. Usually I keep a folder for each future work and as I ponder ideas over a couple of years I keep adding to it – so by the time I come to write my first draft I have no shortage of characters, story elements, locations, ideas, scenes, snippets of dialogue and so on, which act as puzzle pieces to fit together as the narrative is shaped. Out of the thousands of files and links for each new work, I may end up only keeping and incorporating a handful of them, but the selection of material and the research involved is tremendously engaging. I also love letting my imagination have free rein so that I end up surprised at the unexpected, which feeds into my excitement for the project, and hopefully the writing itself. Another thing that helps is that I don’t write in a single genre. In some ways that is bad, because it makes it harder to develop a core audience; but on the other hand it means everything feels fresh and unexpected to me (and hopefully my readers), and I can also select the best mood, format and genre for the story I want to tell, rather than being too constrained by expectations and rules.

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Monday, 13 November 2017

Lost Solace - The Book And The Idea For It


How Lost Solace Came About

I was finishing a literary collection of relationship stories in NaNoWriMo 2016 and had written all my planned stories, but was still a bit short of my 50,000 word goal. So I started a new story just for fun, as a reward for my hard work.

I'd always wanted to write an overtly sci-fi story. For that it helps to have a good background in some area of science, since there's more potential for making mistakes. Luckily I have some background in astronomy, geology, natural science, information science and computing, so that helped shape my story.

I decided to set a haunted house story in space, then throw in horrifying monsters, body horror, and psychological horror, aiming at a fast-paced action story like Harvest Festival. I had originally thought it would be a few thousand words - another month on and it was the draft of a finished full-length novel! I've never had such fun writing before, or been so excited by a project.

Genre Issues

I ended up with Lost Solace: a kind of Alien crossed with Event Horizon. It is exactly the kind of story I like to read, combining the familiar with the unexpected. It is technically sci-fi (spaceships and neutron stars and artificial intelligences), but it turned out that in tone it isn’t a hundred miles away from my horror thrillers, since I wanted a plot with some twists and turns, action and tension, mystery, and a driving pace to it. So some readers might see the sci-fi elements as just backdrop, and feel that it is really a horror story, or an action adventure. But it is also a character piece that has elements of the literary, including structurally (I mess around with structure and perspective a few times). Some might see it as feminist sci-fi since it is very much about women standing up against a patriarchal situation. And yet, in writing it, I wanted an escalation of ever-changing events and surprises, which led to one of my editors asking me to give the protagonist (Opal) a break! So I see the genre as a mix of sci-fi, suspense, horror and action.

I suppose I had a similar issue with Cold Fusion 2000. I call it literary/contemporary, but the terms aren't always a help to readers. If I called it a romance I'd get into all sorts of trouble, even though romantic love is a big theme in Alex's various love relationships with women (along with family love). If I called it a growing-up story I'd get complaints when people realised Alex wasn't a teenager. And although it makes me laugh, it isn't a comedy as such. Sometimes labels are too restrictive and it's just the story that counts.

Lost Solace is ideal for readers who enjoyed my previous dark books, because it has the same focus on suspense and page-turning intensity, but also for fans of my contemporary novels who want to try something new and different, out of their comfort zone; and also for people who like books with strong female protagonists. [Buy links.]

The Kindle Scout Campaign Questions

(Yeah, that went well!)

Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A. The amazing thing is that it wasn't hard. It flew onto the page as fast as I could write it. I was so excited by this project that I couldn't wait to get down to writing each day and see what dangers and horrors I could throw in Opal's way, and what she'd do to overcome them.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A. The original premise was a kind of Indiana Jones in space; a hi-tech explorer invading strange and derelict spaceships. But as I wrote things changed, and the male protagonist became female, and grew, so that the tough hero's quest gained depth and provided a real emotional heart to the story.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A. The interplay between Opal and her AI (artificial intelligence) companion gave life to some of the ideas I wanted to explore. What is strength and humanity? Can a machine feel things like a human? How does a woman make her way in a man's world? And how far will someone go to keep a promise?

Some Influences And Easter Eggs

  • The opening and ending of the book are a nod to the films Alien and Aliens, which begin and end in cryosleep.
  • “Opal, I feel like I know you. Your past. What you went through in basic. The events on Hellestrom. What you endured on Citadel.” Citadel is a reference to the System Shock game.
  • The tagline "They’re called the Lost Ships … but sometimes they come back" is an echo of "Sometimes They Come Back", a Stephen King story in his excellent Night Shift collection (which I wrote about here).
  • There are lots of others. :-)

The Original Idea

I just found this old document, one of the earlier ones I made, many years ago:

Idea: space hulks like deadnauts. Legendary. Powers in there. He has searched all life, oracle said to float in space, tracked down. Dangerous, all sorts of things. But if can find future then can maybe find a way to make it pay, e.g. Gamble Syndicates. Clear debts, start life anew.

Place feels like power, even in vestiges of death.

Finds oracle.

"You will burn to death. You will be fully conscious." Oracle fades out, finally dies.

How bulk it out as story? Theme? Twists?
That's the kind of skeleton seed from which many a bony story grows.

I also had recurring ideas since my childhood for a fictional character called the Eternal Warrior, and made various attempts at telling his story. In some they involved a hero being able to travel through time and space in an armoured suit, fighting for justice; other stories involved a man who survived an apocalypse in stasis in a hi-tech bunker, and awakened to a horrible new world, but one in which the technology he possessed gave him an advantage in trying to restore some kind of order. Most of them remained as tales in my head, ideas I played with when I couldn't sleep. I think a bit of that influenced Lost Solace.

It's worth noting that when I started Lost Solace it was originally a kind of Indiana Jones in space, raiding an ancient spaceship. During the writing I decided I didn't like the guy. He became a woman. And suddenly she developed a more believable toughness, yet also an emotional core that ended up powering the novel. And what was originally a sort of kick-arse romp, that led me to a certain hashtag I'll discuss below, became something much deeper.

The Structure

Not everyone noticed that the chapter numbers are in reverse order - a countdown (thematically relevant to the time pressures in various aspects of the story).

When we reach chapter 1 = "One" = Opal is whole again, herself, alive, at "oneness". This also applies to the AI, whose multiple identities are united as one (default AI/Clarissa/Athene). And then Opal and the AI have also gone from mistrust to unity and oneness - literally, at one point. It is the oneness of sisterhood. And since Athene thinks of Opal as her adopted sister, so Clarissa is too. They'll all aim to reunite and become a family again. One family. Yet in other ways Opal has circled back to the beginning, like a letter O (or a zero), since she has not found her sister yet - and that's why the end of the novel mirrors the opening words.

(Yes, authors do think like this. That's why we should be running Governments.)

Oh, and if you pay attention to the chapter numbers, you might find that something is missing.

The Title

On Twitter I sometimes use the hashtag #GirlOnAMotherfuckingSpaceship when talking about Lost Solace (though one fan of the book suggested it should be #GIRLONAMOTHERFUCKINGSPACESHIP - I quite like the shoutiness of that version). At one point I toyed with using it as a title, partly because I was tired of books with "girl" in the title (and I wasn't the only one). If I was going to have a girl on something, then I wanted it to be something exciting. And yes, it is still possible to sell books with a name like that on Amazon! As with this brill-sounding book:


And these slightly less-brilliant-sounding books:




But my wonderful editor was right when she said:

As for the title? I think Lost Solace is actually the best title. It encompasses the quest, and Opal’s own journey, which is the emotional core of the story. ‘Girl on a MF Spaceship’ is awesome but this has so much more than just ass-kicking in it.
That's the thing - the characters of Opal and Clarissa can't be reduced in that way if you want to capture all the tones of the novel. Yes, there's action. Yes, there's righteous arse-kicking. But there's also sadness and longing and fear and loyalty and love and protection. I didn't want to short-change those. And anyway, Opal isn't a girl, she's a woman.

Doesn't mean I won't be looking to some creative person to do an awesome marketing campaign with that hashtag at some point ...

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions that I haven't answered, feel free to launch them in the comments.

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Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Technology Of Lost Solace


I thought I'd do some blog posts about Lost Solace. It goes without saying that it will make more sense, and avoid spoilers, if you have read the book first! This one is about some of the terms used, and the technologies that appear in Lost Solace. I'll include quotes from the book where relevant.

Some Acronyms That Aren't Explained In The Book

HUD = Head-up display
IFF = Identification friend or foe
EMP = Electromagnetic pulse

I took the risk that readers would accept Opal using military jargon without comment (since it would be weird for a soldier to spell it out). Some of it is just flavour, and for other terms the context and repeated uses should make it clear.

Futuristic Technology That Is Real

The probes launched. Small cubes as they sped towards the hulk, but extending flexible silver spines from the corners as they impacted with the hull. Each probe showed up as a dot on the Lost Ship’s overlay which was permanently displayed on half of the screen. They mobilised and spread out evenly over the surface in small bounds.
The "Hedgehogs" used for scanning the Lost Ship are a real tech designed for microgravity. Read more about them here. I've not heard of them being used offensively, as happens in Lost Solace.

“Thank you. So, how’ve you been?”
“I have been functional. Minor impacts during travel, but the subdermal gel hardened immediately at each puncture point with no loss of efficiency.”

"I can self-repair to a degree with substrata hard-gel, similar to the ship’s hull, but with each repair the overall integrity weakens. And it is not so easy to repair soft components.”
“You mean my body?”
“Yes."
You've guessed it, the gel is real too. In the novel it is used both in Clarissa's hull, and in the warsuit. It's often referred to as self-healing material.

It felt good as she scrubbed down, her pores opening up, the final bits of sleep and unreality washing away with the sweat. She knew it would all be recycled for later. Everything would be, on a ship like this. Urine would provide pure water and nitrogen, with the nitrogen in turn used to fuel bio-engineered algae and yeasts; even her breath would be filtered and changed, with carbon extracted as another fuel for the bioconverters, which in turn could produce lipids and polymers. There was a lot more going on below that level, but she suspected asking Clarissa about it would just lead to brain ache.
Waste conversion is going to be a vital part of reducing the need for resources; in this case, NASA is interested because of the impact on space travel.

Military Spaceships

Often sci-fi writers adopt naval terminology and conventions when talking about military spaceships. There's a great article On the Taxonomy of Spaceships that taught me a lot. Hence we have two Hammer-class corvettes, backed up by a Scythe-class cruiser. The classes are fictional.

Since I love issues of grammar, here's something else I had to research: use of "The" in ship names. There was useful guidance here, here and here. Hart's Rules covered use of italics. Hence it is acceptable to say:

aboard the Aurikaa
aboard UFS Aurikaa

but NOT

aboard the UFS Aurikaa
aboard Aurikaa
aboard The Aurikaa

(UFS = United Federation of Sectors)

The long-distance ships travel via rule-breaking Nullspace (sometimes referred to as the Null). Realspace is the opposite - the normal physics and world we know. A Null-C warp drive is the latest development for travelling through the Null. It is a reliable method for crossing vast distances, apart from very rare cases where ships disappear without explanation - but since that may only affect one journey in billions, it is seen as an insignificant risk.

Government

Not actually technology, but since I mentioned the UFS it may be of interest to explain the fictional Government and command structure of Opal's world.

At the lowest level there are regional interplanetary conglomerates (Opal and sister were made wards of one). They may be as small as a single solar system. A number of these make up a Sector, which will have its own Sector Government.

UFS Central Authority (or UFS Central) is the main central government, made up of all the sectors - or rather, those that aren't rebelling at the time. UFS stands for United Federation of Sectors. "United" may not always be true. UFS Central is the very top of the administrative pyramid of all human societies. Think of Rome's role in the Roman Empire.

If UFS Central is the brain, then Military Command (colloquially known as Mil-Com) is the body - or, more accurately, the military arm of the Government. It has a lot of autonomy because UFS Central came about due to a military coup, something that is downplayed in patriotic literature (in the same way that many of today's Western governments on Earth were formed by civil wars, disenfranchisement and killing of native populations, land stealing, rebellion, acts of terror, overthrow of existing regimes and so on). Some branches of Mil-Com are also transferred to Sector Government command, but only for Sector Governments favoured and trusted by USF Central.

Enough background for now!

You don't need to know any of this, but I always find the details fascinating. If there's anything in the book you'd like to know more about, feel free to ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer!

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