David Kowalski on the process of writing The Company of the Dead

company-of-the-dead-cover-imageToday sees the publication of David Kowalski’s The Company of the Dead, an ambitious and imaginative work of alternate history, set against the backdrop of one of the the greatest maritime disasters.

It asks the question: Can one man save the Titanic?

March 1912. A mysterious man appears aboard the Titanic on its doomed voyage. His mission? To save the ship.

The result? A world where the United States never entered World War I, thus launching the secret history of the 20th Century.

April 2012. Joseph Kennedy – grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy – lives in an America occupied in the East by Greater Germany and on the West Coast by Imperial Japan. He is one of six people who can restore history to its rightful order – even though it would mean his own death.

We are delighted to welcome David Kowalski to Fantasy Book Review and hope you all enjoy reading his words on the writing process that created The Company of the Dead.

I first started writing Company back in 1997. It was going to be a short story about how the Titanic misses the iceberg and arrives safely in New York. I was looking for a happy ending but what I had written was not really satisfying.

I started doing more reading about the Titanic and was amazed at how much had been done on the topic. At that time I’d also read that someone called James Cameron was making a film on the subject.

The process of writing was truly trial and error. I had never done any courses in creative writing. I figured the best way of learning how to write involved just that, writing. I also read widely, history and fiction, trying to analyse the skills of the trade. I set myself word targets to achieve at each writing session. As I have an element of OCD, editing was a problem. Looking back at early drafts I can see that there were some chapters that had been revised close to a thousand times over the course of seven years. Many of those changes may have been minor but I kept going over and over my earlier writing. I saw the book as something I was building from the ground up and, while I made notes for what lay ahead, I always wrote the book in the order it would be read.

Research was very important to me. Writing about time travel and alterations in history had to invite criticism from experts in their field. I didn’t want to disappoint readers with obvious or even subtle blunders. I discussed airship designs with aeronautical engineers and Twentieth Century history with (very patient) historians. I wrote to locals living in Nevada and New York to get the geography right. When I had to get inside the head of a Japanese emperor I read Musashi and the Hagekure. I studied the deck plans of the Titanic from the hull up. This may sound like a strange distinction but while I was writing fiction, I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. The reader had to believe…

It never felt like work because it was always interesting. I found that planting the material in solid reality leant it a truth I could never manufacture from pure conjecture. That’s the way it worked for me.

I also had to try and resist the desire to write about all the things that fascinated me. I suspect that is a common problem with first time authors. Perhaps it’s due to the fear that you may only have one shot at saying what you want to say. The other trick I had to learn was determining what to cut. The original final manuscript came in at over 1000 pages.

After a while, I noticed a phenomenon I’d heard of but never much believed in. Some writers say that their characters assume a life of their own. That never made sense to me, as the characters were surely just pure creation. Nevertheless I found that as the novel progressed my cast seemed to resist the direction I wanted them to go. Planned conflicts were resolved without violence, betrayals turned into friendships, controlled situations turned into chaotic firefights, as the characters, following the path I’d set, seemingly determined their own futures within the frame of the story. Sometimes I felt more like a stenographer, struggling to keep up with my cast, than the author!

I had no idea at the outset, how long the book would take to write. I’m thankful for that or I might have baulked at the task. I never actually imagined it seeing the light of day. And I certainly never imagined having the chance to discuss all the stuff that went in to making this book. Thanks for giving me that opportunity.

For more information on this book and its author, David Kowalski, please visit http://titanbooks.com/the-company-of-the-dead-5816/

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The Hunger Games Movie Review [Spoiler Free]

It’s a little past midday on the east coast of Australia and I’ve just gotten home from watching ‘The Hunger Games’ in the theaters and all I really want to do is to go straight back and watch it again. Failing that, here is my spoiler-free review.

The Movie

There is a reason that this movie is rating so highly on Rotten Tomatoes and other such sites out there. The Hunger Games is a purposeful step behind epic, bringing the wonder and adventure and excitement of an epic movie without missing the point of the source material.

We’re thrown straight into the deep end with very little breathing space before Katniss is carted off to the Capitol along with all the other tributes. There’s no stopping then, as their introductions lead straight into raining which throws them straight into the arena.

The star of the movie is without a doubt the star of the movie. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen is an inspired choice, in my opinion, and I loved her acting on the screen.

The remaining tributes were similarly talented, though faded into the background nicely.

Outside of the arena is where we get to see some really fine acting though. Woody Harrelson is fantastic as Haymitch, and Lenny Kravitz plays a wonderfully emotive Cinna. Elizabeth Banks is quirky and perfect in her role as Effie Trinket, and with an embossed role from the books, the character of Caesar Flickerman as portrayed by Stanley Tucci was one of my favourite performances.

Filling out this already fantastic cast and mesmerising story is a really impressive use of special effects to make this futuristic/dystopian world fully realised. But maybe even more impressive is the work done by the hair and makeup department, who managed to – I think – perfectly capture the style portrayed in the books.

The Adaptation

This movie is an adaptation of a book, and I want to spend just a moment talking about that. I’m notoriously harsh on adaptations, but I was rather impressed with this one.

Yes, there are moments when something happens that was done differently in the book. In fact, if you want the gruesome nature of the book depicted on the screen, you’ll probably be disappointed, and for good reason considering what you can and can’t do on the big-screen if you are marketing a movie to all ages.

The use of Caesar Flickerman throughout the arena sequence was inspired, considering the inability we have to get into Katniss’ head, and changing up the parachute system was also necessary for the same reasons.

I’m unsure – having not read the next two books in the series – whether we were given insights into future movies/books or not, but those scenes were impressive, and brought me to tears at least once. The silent salute scenes are perfect in their execution, and play exactly the right role they were intended for.

In The End

I definitely want to see this movie again. There are things that I wish I had spent more time on, and things I wish they had spent more time on. In every aspect of filmmaking I can think of, the directors of this movie nailed it; story, casting: and the score to the film was wonderfully emotive and, at times, heartbreaking.

Whether or not you’ve read the books, The Hunger Games is definitely going to be one of the big movies to see in 2012, and I recommend you see it as soon as possible.

Douglas Adams still as relevant as he ever was

Sunday 11th March would have been Douglas Adams’ 60th birthday and he is as relevant and entertaining as he ever was, with the eBook omnibus edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Trilogy of Five, published by the Tor imprint, going straight to No.1 on the Kindle chart.

While friends, fans and the likes of Sanjeev Bhaskar,  David Gilmour and Terry Jones were celebrating his birthday with a party in his honour at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last Sunday night, the omnibus edition hit the No.1 spot and remains there, as of Monday 12th March.

Adams’ legacy is very much alive in other ways, with the second episode of the Dirk Gently series airing on BBC Four. The Hitchhiker’s Guide radio script plays will be on tour from June this year.

Independent Publishing Awards: Nosy Crow win hat-trick

Independent children’s book and app publisher Nosy Crow has won in three categories of the Independent Publishing Awards: the IPG Children’s Publisher of the Year, the IPG Newcomer Award, and The Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award.

Nosy Crow was recognized as IPG Children’s Publisher of the Year for its books and apps that “bring reading alive for children and parents”. The judges said that, “What Nosy Crow has achieved in just two years is phenomenal. Its marketing has been faultless and its publishing is full of energy.” The judges especially liked the high production values of Nosy Crow’s books and apps and Nosy Crow’s use of web and social media to build and maintain close relationships with customers and suppliers.

In the category of IPG Newcomer, Nosy Crow was celebrated for its impressive commercial success after just two years in existence. The judges admired the twin focus on books and apps, and sense of ambition, and said that, “Nosy Crow has produced a string of beautiful books and apps in a very short space of time. It has picked up impressive sales from a standing start.”

Nosy Crow was awarded the Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award (for which no shortlist was announced) for its creative and interactive apps including ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Bizzy Bear on the Farm’. The judges were impressed by Nosy Crow’s adoption of digital technology right from its launch, by its in-house development of apps, and by strong marketing, PR and sales. “Nosy Crow has adapted to change and embraced it with some terrific work. It is easy to produce apps for the sake of it, but Nosy Crow has done something very innovative and special.”

“It’s just amazing to see Nosy Crow honoured in three categories at the end of its first year of publishing,” said Nosy Crow’s Managing Director, Kate Wilson. “It’s such a tribute to the whole Nosy Crow team, who have worked so hard and with such commitment to build a list from scratch, and it’s a particular honour for our completely brilliant in-house app team. It’s also a great tribute to the authors, illustrators and other creative talents who entrusted us with their work from the beginning of our journey. We’re grateful to the shops, librarians, reviewers, international publishing partners, and, above all, mums, dads and other grown-ups who bought and appreciated our books and apps over the course of the last year. Being recognized in this way by the IPG, a community of publishers who exhibit such professionalism, focus and sense of their readers, is particularly inspiring for us. To paraphrase Adele at the Grammys, ‘the Crows done good’.”

Full Independent Publishing Awards winners list:

  • The Bookseller Trade Publisher of the Year: Constable and Robinson
  • IPG Academic & Professional Publisher of the Year: SAGE
  • IPG Children’s Publisher of the Year: Nosy Crow
  • IPG Education Publisher of the Year: Jolly Phonics
  • IPG Specialist Consumer Publisher of the Year: Osprey
  • IPG Newcomer Award: Nosy Crow
  • The London Book Fair International Achievement Award: Woodhead Publishing
  • Ingram Digital Publishing Award: Constable and Robinson
  • The Frankfurt Book Fair Digital Marketing Award: TopThat!
  • IPG Young Independent Publisher of the Year: Andrew Furlow, Icon Books
  • GBS Services to Independent Publishers Award: Adrian Driscoll
  • IPG Diversity Award: Barefoot Books
  • IPG Independent Publisher of the Year Award: Constable and Robinson
  • Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award: Nosy Crow

What If Agents Wrote Honest Rejection Letters by Mhairi Simpson

Yesterday I got to wondering (not for the first time), how sincere are agents’ rejection letters? I mean, I’ve collected a few, mostly from when I was young and stupid and thought I could write. I haven’t queried lately, now that I’m older and intelligent enough to know that my writing is definitely a work in progress. But in my experience, agents’ letters mostly go along the lines of, thank you for your submission, we’re terribly overwhelmed with queries right now so we have to be very picky and we just don’t think this is a right fit for us.

And you have to wonder if what they really mean is, we wouldn’t demean ourselves with such a steaming pile of sea cow dung.

I wonder how many people would benefit from receiving a letter that said, we can’t take this on right now because your writing obviously has a long way to go before you’re ready for publication.

Which leads to the question, how many people would actually believe it?

Not many, I think.

Which is sad.

I recently hosted a guest post on my site by Paul Weimer. He’s a creative guy, has oodles (yes, oodles) of story ideas revolving in his head, and never writes them down. Fear, you see. But his post was beautifully written, torn straight from the heart and therefore wildly popular with my readers, all of whom can relate (I think they’re nearly all writers, and if they’re not they can still relate to his theme, which was that fear is the mindkiller, whatever you’re trying to do). Here is a guy who is most definitely a good writer and yet he doesn’t write.

And then you get other people who really aren’t good writers. But they write. Thanks to the various platforms now available, if they’re rejected by every agent in Christendom, or if they don’t query at all, they can and do self-publish and inflict their badness on the world.

This is NOT to say all self-published writers are bad. I’m just very disappointed that so many of the resulting works are.

I would love to see rejection letters that were honest:

“I’m sorry but your flagrant disregard of grammar caused Mr. Big Agent to have an aneurism. He will be in hospital for a while and is therefore disinclined to represent your work.”

“This sounds like a great idea but the murderer was so obvious to me within the first two paragraphs that your thriller lost all its thrill.”

“Having rejected this novel three times already and in light of the fact that it has obviously not been altered, I suggest you stop submitting it to me.” (I’ve actually seen this mentioned several times by an agent online.)

“Please learn English and resubmit. I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not.”

“Plagiarism is plagiarism even if the original author is dead. You obviously enjoyed Tolkein’s work very much, but we’d prefer to see your ideas. We have, after all, already seen his.”
“Your mystery action adventure story lacked in mystery, action and adventure. I fell asleep during the first paragraph.”

They could then follow up with a list of works of fiction which the would-be author should read, in order to see how it’s done by people who have actually been published. And a list of books on craft which the would-be author should read. Which might also include a dictionary.

I know why agents don’t do this, of course. It’s because most writers who submit their work anywhere are such speshul snowflakes they can’t handle the idea of being told their work is crap. Which is a great pity because from what I can gather online, a lot of it is. I, personally, am hopeless at editing my own work. I can see spelling errors (mostly) but I miss where I haven’t connected with my characters, or where I took a character up three flights of stairs from the lobby and then had them walk out the front door.

People should be told they’re writing dross, because otherwise they have no motivation to improve. Unfortunately, those who write dross are usually of the opinion that their stuff is awesome and react badly when told otherwise. While those who are often quite good already always want to improve, no matter what, and welcome all feedback, whether it’s good or bad. So I suppose the agents should just lie, because those who would benefit from their honesty might not be able to see past their own egos to appreciate it.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2012.