Why I wrote Twisted Metal…

June 5, 2011

The Edinburgh SF Book Club recently met to discuss Twisted Metal.  They asked me to provide them with a little bit of background to the book.  Here it is…


The main inspiration behind Twisted Metal is here on my blog:

…but that’s not the full story.

The working title of TWISTED METAL was THE BOOK OF ROBOTS. That was never going to be a commercial title, but I liked the way it literally described not only the novel itself but also the rather biblical “Book of Robots” within the text; and that it also sounded like the sort of big SF picture book I used to read when I was a child.  One of the reasons for the manga like illustrations within the novel was to make the book look like an old illuminated manuscript.  The joke on the robots is that they don’t believe in their creator when they clearly have one.  The reader can form their own conclusions about our world.

TWISTED METAL was partly inspired by the nature and form of old ballads:  the idea of old stories that subtly change in the telling over the years.   I have since written a quartet of stories: STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD based on old English ballads but set on Penrose.  These may eventually see the light of day if Macmillan ever get round to giving me the go ahead to publish them.

The names in TWISTED METAL weren’t chosen by accident.

Karel should need no introduction to SF robot fans, his wife Susan dropped her maiden name of Calvin.  Turing City and Penrose offer differing thoughts on the nature of machine intelligence, and the countries of Segre, Bethe, Wein et al are all connected.  Even Artemis featured in my previous Recursion trilogy under another name.  Whilst reading the book, you may want to spot the connections, SF and otherwise, between the names.   The only original name, by the way, was made up by my daughter who, when she heard I was writing a book about robots said “You should have one called Banjo Macrodocious, then.”  I realised that she was right, and he was so included.  She also came up with Wa-Ka-Mo-Do from BLOOD AND IRON.

There comes a moment in the development of every story when I have the realisation that finally allows the transition from my mind to the page.  For TWISTED METAL, this eureka moment came when I figured out the mechanism by which robots reproduce:  with the women twisting the shape of a child’s mind and the men looking on and having to trust what they were doing.  This led to the book’s original opening line:  Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm.  The preceding paragraphs were added later to make the opening more commercial.

TWISTED METAL and BLOOD AND IRON were originally going to be one book, but the characters developed a life of their own and the first book expanded.  Kavan, in particular, was only going to be a minor character, but such is the nature of his belief he quickly invaded more pages than he should have.  That’s why Karel and Kavan have such similar names, by the way.  If I were to write the book again Kavan would be called Arban and would play the cornet beautifully.

There is a third, as yet untitled, book that completes the trilogy.  Personal circumstances have meant that it is as yet uncompleted, but in time I hope that both Karel and Kavan will finally make it to the top of the world.


Diana Wynne Jones

April 1, 2011

I just read that Diana Wynne Jones died this week.  I feel genuinely sad at her loss.  She was one of my favourite authors.

It was one of her books that first inspired me to write.  I mean to really write, not just mess around thinking about it and scrawling out the occasional 100 words.  Up until reading her I had thought of writing, as most beginners do of any activity, as rather straightforward.  I imagined that anyone could do it. When I began Howl’s Moving Castle, the first book of hers I ever read, I was immediately struck by just how clear her writing was.  How imaginative, witty, wise and beautiful that good writing could be, whilst always remaining entertaining and, in this case, suitable for children.  This was before Children’s writing was enjoying its current renaissance.

I also became aware that I couldn’t write that well – anywhere near that well – and this opened my eyes to the realisation that writing was something that you had to work at.  That’s what made me become a writer – I wanted to write as well as Diana Wynne Jones.  I haven’t managed it yet, I don’t know if I ever will, but I keep trying.

I never met her, I was bitterly disappointed when I found out we once stood near to each other at a convention.  I would have loved to have said hello and tell her how much she inspired me, but that’s life: missed opportunities.  At least I got to read her books.

I was going to put a link here to Amazon and my favourite book of hers: Fire and Hemlock.  I was going to, but the cheapest second hand copy was £15.

Instead, here’s a link to Charmed Life.  It’s also good, but, to be honest, I’d recommend just about anything by her.

Alt.Fiction Spring Writing Weekend

March 4, 2011

Alt.Fiction is proud to present its Spring Writing Weekend – the perfect chance for writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror to meet and work with like-minded people and enjoy workshops and talks with established authors in the field. Offering workshops, feedback sessions and expert advice, these weekends are sure to both inform and inspire.

Spring Writing Weekend, 20th-22nd May

Guest Speakers:

Tony Ballantyne – science fiction writer of the Recursion Trilogy and the Penrose Series

Simon Clark – acclaimed horror novelist and author of The Night of the Triffids

Venue: Legacy Chesterfield Hotel, Malkin Street, Chesterfield, S41 7UA

With a convenient location next to Chesterfield rail station and a wide range of leisure facilities, the Legacy Chesterfield Hotel is a great place to work and relax.www.legacy-hotels.co.uk/legacy-chesterfield/
The Spring Writing Weekend costs just £180, including two nights’ shared accommodation, all meals and hot drinks, plus a full programme of writing activities throughout Saturday and Sunday featuring two guest authors.

To book your place, or for any enquiries, email alt.fiction@writingeastmidlands.co.uk or call Alex on 07896 228367

A £90 deposit is required to confirm your place, with a further £90 to be paid at least one week before the event. Deposits are non-refundable except in case of event cancellation. No refunds will be given in case of any changes to guest authors, or in the event of participants being unable to attend for any reason. Please note, the deadline for booking your place is 13 May 2011.

Alt.Fiction is a trading name of Writing East Midlands

First Drafts

February 25, 2011

I notice from the news yesterday that John Le Carre has donated his archive to the Bodleian library.  Amongst the collection are original drafts of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (you can see a part of a handwritten MS by following the link).  Personally, I find these hand written drafts fascinating.  The British Museum has some of the Beatles’ lyrics on display, although what I find exciting is not so much the chance to see the crossings out and the changes, but the scrappy pieces of paper on which the words are written.  It’s funny to think of an ordinary envelope being picked up and having words that will someday be sung by millions scrawled across the back.

One thing that amused me about the news report was the following:

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the collection showed how “just how much industry, effort, craft” went into the works of a writer of Mr Le Carre’s stature.

He said, for example, that on one page of the manuscript of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, only about three lines had not been altered, corrected, amended, deleted or rewritten.

I wonder how much industry, effort and craft people realise goes into the work of other writers?  I often talk at writing workshops about my own rewriting process, which is as follows: after three or four drafts my wife reads and crits my work. I then redraft two or three more times before sending the work to two other writer friends who will then make comments.  After more redrafting the work will then be rechecked by my wife before being passed to my agent for comments and then another rewrite.  All this is before an editor gets hold of it.

This is common practice amongst writers, in my experience, and is, I find, a pleasurable part of the writing experience.  One of the things I really enjoy is having got the shape of a story nailed, and then going back and filling in the details, expanding the characters, or – something that really appeals to me – cutting out as many extra words as I can.

Of course, there has been a significant change between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now, and that is the word processor.  I write entirely on a word processor, I only use a pen for writing down ideas in my notebook.  And of course, when you use a word processor, all those crossings out and changes that you can see on Le Carre’s MS, are never to be seen.

A little bit of a shame, I think.

A Narrower Focus

February 4, 2011

I sometimes wonder if I should narrow the focus of this blog.  I can’t help think that  allowing myself to write about Robots and Accordions gives me too wide a scope and I should instead restrict myself to, for example, only writing about 72 Bass accordions and androids.  Or maybe even further, so that I only discuss accordions that are actually being played by robots.

It has never been said that life is like a robot playing the accordion, but then again a lot of things haven’t been said about accordions, and maybe I am the one to say them.  After all, there aren’t many people talking about accordions nowadays.

But let’s get to the point.

A friend bought me a CD for Christmas.  I won’t name the friend, or the CD, but it was typical of a certain style of music that is popular at the moment, one which contains elements from all kinds of music.  A little Jazz, a little folk, baroque harpsichord ostinatos that segue straight into South American rhythms. You probably know the sort of thing I’m talking about.  Now, not for a moment would I suggest that people refrain from experimenting with other forms, but I think that there comes a point when you have to commit yourself to something.  You can’t really develop a piece if you keep throwing something new in every time you’re struggling for inspiration:  you’ve got to work with what you’ve got so far.  This is just as true in writing as it is in musical composition.

This, for me, is one of the attractions of good Genre fiction.  Immerse yourself in the conventions, and then use them to create something new.  It’s not the only way to write, by any means, but it’s a good one.

FlashForward Romance

June 9, 2010

Last week I ran a workshop at a writers’ event organised by Alex Davies, somewhere in the rainy hills near Buxton.  Afterwards I stayed, and really enjoyed, the rest of the days events: the reading and critique sessions, and the session when we all sat down to write together, something I’ve never done before (although bearing in mind we just chatted for an hour or so I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again.)

Anyway, on to the point of all this.  As part of the event I described my first fiction sales- romances for My Weekly and People’s Friend.  My advice to all would be writers is to try your hand at a 1000 word romance.  It’s a great discipline, in that it forces you to think about two characters, and to show (not tell) why they find each other attractive.  Oscar Hammerstein once commented on the difficulty of having to find yet another way to write about love.  A romance may always be the same story (girl meets boy, they initially don’t find each other attractive but they come together in the end), but this simple framework allows you to really practice the craft of being a writer.

Which brings me to FlashForward.  I don’t care that it ended on a cliff hanger that will never be resolved now the second series won’t be made.  I don’t think I could have been bothered to watch the second series, as I’m rapidly losing faith that US serials will ever resolve as long as there is money to be made. But that’s not what irritated me about the show.

No, what niggled at me all the way through was the fake romance between Bryce and Keiko.  If you didn’t see the series, right at the beginning Bryce and Keiko had a vision that they would meet in the future, and they then spend 22 episodes trying to find each other.

Why?  What did they have in common?  What did they find attractive in each other’s characters?  The answer, of course, is nothing.  All they knew was that the other was good looking.  That’s not romance, that’s just seeing a pretty face.

And as far as romance is concerned, it’s bad writing.

What do Writers Actually Do?

April 9, 2010

My agent keeps telling me to write about writing on this blog:  many people are interested in the process of writing, he says, and I’m sure he’s right.

What sometimes bothers me, though,  is how much writers themselves know about the process of writing.  There was a prime example of this in the weekend papers.  Without going into too many details, a novelist who had recently left her husband had written an article describing her experiences now she had rejoined the dating scene.  The key point that struck me was her surprise at how insincere many of the men she dated were.

Now, this blog is not about getting down with the Sisters by echoing the message that all men are bastards (this blog, as regular followers will know,  is about robots and accordions).  For a start, I don’t believe that all men are bastards.  I don’t know why all the men she was dating were insincere. Perhaps she just had bad luck – but that’s not what I’m discussing.

What astonished me was her surprise that she couldn’t detect these men in advance.  The reason for her surprise?  She was a writer, and therefore she understood character.

I wonder where she got this idea from.  I’ve met many writers; they come from all walks of life and they display every personality type from the obnoxiously extrovert to the painfully introvert.  Some of them have travelled the world with two dollars to their name, some of them shouldn’t be let out on their own.  I’ve met rude writers and polite writers, writers that bored the socks off me and writers who are great fun to be with.  Some of them were aware of their shortcomings, some of them weren’t.  The idea that somehow because they were writers they suddenly became hyper aware of their fellow humans’ motives is laughable.

Writers are usually great observers of people.  They watch how they interact, they secretly write down their conversations for later on (I learned shorthand so that I could do this without people knowing).  Writers know how to represent character on the page, they know how to make their characters become living, breathing people to their readers (though they don’t always succeed) , but at the end of the day it’s all fiction.

They people writers describe are the people they imagine in their minds, they are not the real people themselves. Writers (and readers) would do well to remember that.

Blood and Iron Extract

March 17, 2010

I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today.  I’ve posted an extract over on my website:  follow the link http://www.tonyballantyne.com/?page_id=178

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

March 10, 2010

I’ve just finished, and really enjoyed, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.  I thought of writing a review, but lots of other people have already done this so I couldn’t see the point.

Something that struck me about the book, however, was McCarthy’s refusal to use speech marks when writing dialogue – indeed, there is a tendency towards the more literary end of the market for writers to dispense with speech marks and other punctuation.  I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether McCarthy found himself accidentally typing the odd inverted comma when he was writing the book.  After all, the habits of writing become ingrained over the years and are difficult to break.

So it occurred to me to write the Java program at the end of this entry.  It uses a regular expression to remove the speech marks from text, thus converting your writing into McCarthy’s style without having to unlearn all those habits you’ve developed over the years.

So, for example, if your plaintext read

“This is Cormac McCarthy style”  said Susan.  Susan picked up the tortilla.

The LitConvertor makes it

This is Cormac McCarthy style said Susan.  Susan picked up the tortilla.

Of course, this would be more Cormac McCarthy like if it read

This is Cormac McCarthy style said Susan and Susan picked up the tortilla.

Adding the following line after the first replaceAll should sort that out.

literaryText = literaryText.replaceAll(“\\.[^$]”, ” and”);

This is quite a nice exercise for students learning regular expressions – the next step would be a Roddy Doyle conversion

“From this,” he said

-To something like this.

Anyway, here’s the program.

package litconvertor;
import java.awt.BorderLayout;
import java.awt.event.ActionEvent;
import java.awt.event.ActionListener;
import javax.swing.JButton;
import javax.swing.JFrame;
import javax.swing.JTextArea;
* @author Tony Ballantyne
public class LitConvertor extends JFrame implements ActionListener
JTextArea text;
JButton okButton;
text = new JTextArea(“Paste your text here and press OK”);
okButton = new JButton(“OK”);
this.getContentPane().add(okButton, BorderLayout.SOUTH);
this.setSize(500, 500);
public void actionPerformed(ActionEvent e)
String plainText = text.getText();
String literaryText = plainText.replaceAll(“\””, “”);
public static void main(String[] args)
new LitConvertor();

Three for the Price of One

December 11, 2009

I watched the film The African Queen for the first time yesterday, and very enjoyable it was too.

Now, alongside Robots and Accordions, this blog celebrates good writing, and the screenplay had that in abundance.  I was particularly taken by a scene near the beginning of the film where Katherine Hepburn’s character kneels at the bedside of her brother.  He’s going mad, having just seen the Germans destroy the village where he works as a missionary, and he is reliving his past life.  Whilst his sister listens, he talks about how he must pass his exams tomorrow in order to become successful in life.  If he doesn’t pass, he resolves to become a missionary and in that way perform the Lord’s work.  He decides, that being the case, he will take his sister with him, wherever he is sent.

There’s a really nice example of the writer’s craft in the above scene:  many different bits of information being conveyed by one monologue.  First, there is the brother’s madness, which is distressing for his sister and the viewer.  Second, we get see a little of the brother’s back story.  And thirdly, there is the look of hurt on Katherine Hepburn’s face when her brother describes her as ‘not a comely woman’.  All that emotion conveyed in a couple of sentences.

I love this sort of economical writing, I’d rather see it than overblown prose any day. Three for the price of one.