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.

The Door

April 20, 2011

My friend disagrees with me when I say that programming can be  just as creative as writing.  She questions the fact that code is poetry.

After much argument, she sent the following poem, and challenged me to write a program just like it.  I went one better and wrote a Java implementation of the original.

I must admit, the original poem is a lot shorter than my implementation, but the Java version has the advantage of scalability. You can add as many items as you like to my program, rather than restricting yourself to the (rather paltry) eight the poet allows.  (I note, for example, he included “Magic City” but neglected to check for a normal City, or even a village or town.)
I would also add that it would take a good 10 or 15 seconds to read the poem, whereas my implementation will run in in under a second.  Score one to science, I think.

The Poem

The Door
Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there's
A tree, or a wood,
A garden,
Or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog's rummaging.
Maybe you'll see a face,
Or an eye,
Or the picture
Of a picture.
Go and open the door.
If there's a fog
It will clear.

Go and open the door.
even if there's only
the darkness ticking,
even if there's only
the hollow wind,
even if
is there,
go and open the door.
At least
There'll be
A draught.
By Miroslav Holub
Translated by Ian Milner and George Theiner

Java Implementation

import org.sensibility;
import com.darkness;
import com.wind;
import com.external.door;

class doorChecker
    Door door = new Door();

    String [] itemsVerse1 = {"tree","wood","garden","magic city"};
    String [] itemsVerse2 = {"dog rummaging","face","eye","picture of picture"};

    boolean isDarknessTicking = false;
    boolean isWindHollow = false;


	Darkness darkness = new Darkness();
	Wind wind = new Wind();

	isDarknessTicking = darkness.isTicking();
	isWindHollow = wind.isHollow();

	for(String s:itemsVerse1)
		    System.out.println(s + "exists outside the door");

	for(String s:itemsVerse2)
		    System.out.println(s + "exists outside the door");

	    System.out.println("Also, the fog will clear");

	if(isDarknessTicking || isWindHollow || door.getOutside().isNull())
	    System.out.println("There is a draught");



    public boolean openDoor(String item)
	boolean itemExists = false;

	    itemExists= true;

	return itemExists;

    public static void main(String args[])
	new doorChecker();


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.

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

Stone Age, Iron Age

January 27, 2010

I’ve just got the copy edited manuscript for Blood and Iron from Macmillan and I’m busy working through it.  It always amazes me the inconsistencies the copy editor picks up.  The MS must have been read by at least six people by now, including me,  and none of us noticed that I used the same word eight times on one page, or that one character knows another’s name even though they’ve never met before.

The copy editor also queried the fact that I said the Stone Age came after the Iron Age.  In fact everyone so far has pointed out this is the wrong way round.  They’re right of course, but I state here, for the record, before the reviews come in, that on Penrose the robots learned to handle iron long before they learned to handle stone.  In fact, for robots, the Iron Age means the time of the birth of the robots.

Okay, I make it me 1, copy editor 552 and counting.

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.

Max J Friedländer

November 1, 2009

I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).

Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”.  Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”.  The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.

The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon,  amongst other guides:

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”

It wasn’t always thus.  Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories  to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of  dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field.  You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).

Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.

Or maybe not.  You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves.  Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall.  The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.

Reading Aloud

September 28, 2009

Listening to David-Rees Thomas’s excellent reading of my story, “The Waters of Meribah” the other day, I was struck by just how awkward some of the sentences were.  This is not the fault of David’s reading, I should explain, but my writing.

No false modesty: I can give two reasons for this.  Firstly, and I’ve heard many other writers say this, when you read any piece of your own work once it’s published on publication, its always the case that every mistake and piece of bad writing becomes glaringly obvious in a way that it never did when you were still redrafting.

But secondly, and this is the main point here, back when I wrote  “Waters” I hadn’t yet learned the trick of reading my stories aloud when redrafting.  I don’t always do this now, if I’m honest, mainly due to pressure of time, but it’s a good trick to learn.  Reading aloud makes you more aware of the rhythms in the dialogue.  It exposes wordy sentences and unnatural expressions, and it makes you realise just how awkward some of your sentences are prose is.

Most importantly though, you experience the story via another input stream and this gives the brain a different perspective on the work.  (Similarly, some writers re key in the entire final draft of a story in order to send it through the brain in a different way).

By way of experiment, I just went through the above text reading it aloud.  I’ve marked my deletions using strikethrough.

See?  It works.