I answer questions on digital marketing for Leicester Writes

My old home city, the wonderful multicultural metropolis of Leicester, has a festival called Leicester Writes. Despite being far away on the Indian sub-continent I will be taking part, with a live Q&A on Twitter about indie publishing and digital marketing. Join in!


Twitter Q & A with Damien Walter

JUNE 25, 2015 / 8.00 PM – 9.00 PM

Join us on Twitter for a Q&A with writer and columnist, Damien Walter. Walter was the first professional reviewer to dedicate attention to indie authors in his regular column for The Guardian. He helps indie authors and major publishers market their work in the digital world. Please use the hashtag #AskDamienW to join the conversation and put your questions forward.

A pioneering work of of “Neuro-Scifi”.

God Bless The Dead by Evan Geller

A pioneering work of “neuro-scifi” and tech start-ups, where Breaking Bad meets American Gods.

(This is the first in my series of paid reviews for indie writers. Find out more about book reviews and my other services for writers.)

We’re accustomed to thinking of the space inside our heads as private. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions are the landscape of an inner world that only we have access to. All art is about the attempt, however incomplete, to express what lies within to the outer world. Today humankind may be on the brink of changing this most fundamental assumption of our existence, as the techniques of neuroscience, of brain scanning and neural imaging, open up our inner world to scientific investigation. It’s this scientific revolution that forms the backdrop to Evan Geller’s remarkable – and remarkably amusing – debut science fiction novel, God Bless The Dead.

“the first technology to read human brain patterns is deployed as a smartphone app that allows consumers to order a Coke with the power of their mind alone”

Gabriel Sheehan is a struggling young scientific researcher, derailed from the fast-track-to-success by one fundamental problem. His research isn’t producing results. Applying the cutting edge in brain scanning technologies to reading minds in the lab should have been a “no brainer”, but after years of work and tens of thousands of dollars wasted, all Gabriel has to show is a pile of junk data. Inspiration arrives in the form of Helena Fianna, a talented Irish student of astrophysics who seems to hold the key to Gabriel’s research, and to his heart.

Evan Geller skilfully weaves a intriguing tale from three quite different kinds of story. Gabriel and Helena’s romance unfolds with all the whit and wry social observation of a Jonathan Franzen novel. The Sheehan family are a perfect portrait of America’s educated upper middle class, who remain charmed by the chaotic young Irish woman in their midst even once they begin to suspect her mysterious background. Is it normal to discover your fiancé keeps a stolen Duccatti 1199 in a seedy lockup? And that her real name probably isn’t Helena? Of course not, and Gabriel will be dragged far outside any normal life by his strong willed new wife.

Gabriel’s research project is in one sense a science fiction story. But it’s the kind of sci-fi which understands that scientists aren’t mad inventors in secret bunkers, but the founders of multi-billion dollar businesses. Gabriel and Helena realise that to find patterns in human thinking they need to scan humans en masse. They have the technology, what they lack is the marketing. And so, exactly as would happen in this day and age, the first technology to read human brain patterns is deployed as a smartphone app that allows consumers to order a Coke with the power of their mind alone. And at the same time report back invaluable data on human thought patterns to Gabriel and Helena’s new company.

The product of this mass data collection is “the salmon”, a database of universal human thought patterns that will make many people immensely wealthy, and attract the attention of some powerful factions, from the corporate boardroom to the NSA itself. But, God Bless The Dead’s core story is more mystical than science fictional. Eagle eyed myth hunters will recognise The Salmon of Knowledge from the Fenian cycle of Irish myths, one of many references to these ancient stories scattered like gems in Geller’s novel. That Helena Fianna is much more than she seems is apparent from early in the story, but just how much more is a mystery that unfolds, step by expert step, in the narrator’s surgically steady hands (Geller is in fact an accomplished surgeon, when not filling pages with words).

“a rom-com take on Breaking Bad, mixed with the urban fantasy of American Gods”

God Bless The Dead is a big book, and this reviewer’s only substantial criticism is that it’s pace is sometimes a little slow. Geller is a very skilled writer of quick fire dialogue. Scenes between Gabriel and Helena blaze past as they affectionately eviscerate each other in the way that very intelligent people in love commonly do. When NSA agent Chuck Parnell appears to investigate the eves dropping capabilities of Gabriel’s research, the reader is left with the absolute conviction that, yes, the NSAs top agents really would be annoying, fast talking geeks that just never go away. But Geller occasionally over deploys this gift of the gab, dragging down the pace of his story with scenes that could be reduced to a few lines of summary.

This criticism aside, God Bless The Dead is a novel of remarkable storytelling skill and panache. It’s episodic structure is very much in the HBO style so popular in television today. At points Geller’s novel feels like a rom-com take on Breaking Bad, mixed with the urban fantasy of American Gods. God Bless The Dead succeeds in feeling contemporary while capturing a mythic atmosphere, wrapping both in a tale of science fictional intrigue. It’s a rare combination, that many reader will greatly enjoy.

Can you read role-playing games?

You don’t have to actually play a role-playing game for it to fire your imagination, so why don’t RPG manuals count as books?

I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.

Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s Ocean

A review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s relationship to other stories by Neil Gaiman, and the trauma of fantasy.

All great fantasies are formed in response to experience. And often, the experience of trauma.

J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us in to a fantasy world of elves and dragons, but it’s the depthless grief of a young man who experienced the first World War that gives the work its sombre magnificence. Tolkien signed up with twenty friends and was the only one to return from the trenches. He was a rare survivor of a lost generation, one that never truly recovered from the trauma of Passchendaele and the Somme, just as young Frodo Baggins never recovers from the trauma of carrying the One Ring to Mordor.

J G Ballard cast his fantasies in the language of science fiction, depicting one shattered urban landscape after another in novels from The Drowned World to Crash, Concrete Island and Highrise. But it was with the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984 that Ballard’s fantasy life returned, with crystal clear insight, to reality. Ballard’s childhood was shattered by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War 2, his separation for his parents and internment in a prisoner of war camp, from where he observed the swift collapse in to barbarity of the middle class English society he had grown up in. A collapse his novels recreated again and again in fantasy.

From Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and it’s satire on the crushing oppression of the British class system, to the orphaned children of Diana Wynne Jones that reflect their creator’s own turbulent childhood, great fantasy writing always has its roots in the real. And like Ballard, great fantasy writers are often at their best when they return to the reality that shaped them.

Fathers are very important in the writing of Neil Gaiman. The Sandman comics that catapulted Gaiman to cult status begin with a father inducting his son in to the mysteries of the occult, and a secret ritual to summon and entrap Morpheus of the Endless. Decades later Morpheus escapes, and the son is left trapped in endless dreams of waking. The unfolding story arc of The Sandman turns on Morpheus’ relationship with his own son, Orpheus. Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, is adrift in the badlands of America when he is drawn in to the mystical plots of Mr Wednesday, soon revealed as the Norse god Odin, and then later as Shadow’s long absent father. Anansi Boys also features a young man attempting to come to terms with the legacy of a father who is also a god. It seems that time and again Gaiman’s fantasies return to the relationship of a son to a powerful, and often mystical, father figure.

The father in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from powerful or mystical. He is in fact quite ordinary and flawed. Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys brings him closer than any other previous work to directly exploring the paternal relationship that has influenced so much of his writing. The directly autobiographical aspect pulls the story in a literary direction that, rightly or wrongly, his earlier fiction has not been recognised for. And it leaves the reader guessing, what in the novel is imagined, and what is the author’s true experience?

The novel’s narrator recounts a series of horrific events from a childhood spent in a large family house at the end of a long contry lane. The young boy’s life with sister, mother and father is mundane in its joys and tensions, until the suicide of the family’s lodger unleashes a series of supernatural manifestations. These are complicated by the Hempstocks, a neighboring family of grandmother, mother and daughter who have lived around those parts for raaaather a long time. Trinities of women are another of Neil Gaiman’s repeat motifs, but with the Hempstocks he grants them a far more central, and humane identity than in previous manifestations. A hike in to a weird and alien environment ensues, and an ancient evil is unleashed.

The real horror in The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives in the form of a young woman, Ursula Monkton. Employed as an au-pair for the boy and his sister, it is soon clear that Miss Monkton and her short skirts are not all they appear to be. But it is Ursula’s effect on the boy’s father that ushers in the true darkness at the heart of the book. For all its otherworldly fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple and brutally told story of the trauma children face when confronted with the frailties of their own parents. The graphic sexuality and violence that errupt at key points in the story mean that, despite surface similarities to earlier children’s stories like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children. It is however a book that will resonate powerfully with anyone attempting to process the darker aspects of their own childhood. And in an age when childhood ends early, and often brutally, that makes it a book for almost everyone.

The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as an older man looking back, recounts these events to us the reader in part as an attempt to understand them himself. The after effects of encounters with the supernatural, and of emotional trauma, are another central theme of Gaiman’s writing. The young Rose Walker, at the conclusion of The Doll’s House, retreats for months in to solitude to consider her encounter with both dreams and nightmares in the realm of Morpheus the Dream King. There is an aspect in all of Neil Gaiman’s fiction that is permanently at war with mundane reality and our experience of it. His early writing, on projects such as Miracleman, and his collaborations with Dave McKean on Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch seem to step beyond fantasy and become active deconstructions of reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane recaptures the conceptual energy of those earlier stories. Reason and common sense construct the narratives of our waking lives, but for the millions of readers drawn to Gaiman’s stories, the un-logic of dreams and fantasy are just as valid a way of understanding life, the universe, and everything.

Of all the writers creating literature today, Neil Gaiman is arguably the greatest at articulating that fantastical nature of reality. Inevitably, given the massive publicity surrounding its author and this this his latest work, some will ask if The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a work of fantasy, can also be a work of literature. Increasingly, it is a question fading in to the oblivion of irrelevance. Like all great writers, Neil Gaiman is not constraining his vision to pre-definied notions of genre or literature. Instead, through his contribution to literature, he is redefining its boundaries to include our inner worlds of dreams and fantasy as essential ways of seeing our reality.

Writer as Wise Friend

When I pick up a Discworld novel, it’s not because I want to know what happens in the story. I likely know what happens, unless it’s one of the few I haven’t read (these are being saved for emergencies). Most times I pick up a Discworld novel it’s beacause I want to spend some time with Terry Pratchett. I’ve been able to hangout with Terry since I found his books when I was eleven. And so have, I would guess, about 200 million other people. That’s a lot of friends to keep in touch with.

This is what novelists do. Some of them. The really good ones. They tell a story, and something of who they are sings through that story. I’m tempted to call it their soul. But I think it’s more likely their heart, which is the place where true wisdom lives. We all need wise friends in our lives, but sometimes they are hard to come by. So some people spread themselves out by writing books.

I wonder about social media sometimes. I spend perhaps too much time on it. Twitter is like catnip for writers I think. And then today, for a quite unexpected and private reason I can’t share, I realised that I turn on Twitter for much the same reason I open a book. Because there are writers there I consider friends, even if I only read their tweets. And with Twitter I also sometimes get to talk directly with my wise friends. The medium changes, but the role of writer as friend remains the same.

Don’t stop writing books though, I want those as well!

I’m writing essays on Geek Culture, and you can help me!

How hard is it to go from traditional publishing…to self publishing?

Josh Powell is a successful non-fiction author making the transition to self published fantasy author. In this guest post Josh answers the question…what is it like to transition from traditional to self publishing?

Buy The Berserker and the Pendant on Amazon.

In a word… tough! I’m an acknowledged expert in web development; I didn’t need to shop around to find a publisher. The first one I went after scrambled to land the book. I found an experienced co-author to help out and two years later a book popped out. The publisher, Manning, put it in all the right places, it was an excellent book so it took off. It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment and ego boost to see my work in a bookstore.

But I have stories I love to tell, and non-fiction doesn’t scratch that itch. There is so much to learn when writing and self-publishing fiction about pacing, dialogue, world building, editing, cover creation, avoiding common writing pitfalls, killer openings. There is also a sense of control, the work is mine and I get to do with it what I please. I’ve written the first book in a fantasy series, The Berserker and the Pedant. It’s out in physical and ebook form on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N and all the usual places.

The next trick is getting the word out. My traditionally published book had a built in audience looking for how to do what that book taught them to do and people already sought out that publishers books. If the topic hadn’t been spot on or the writing was terrible, the book wouldn’t have sold, but the publisher knew how to get people to look at the book.

When self-publishing, it’s on you to get people to look at the book. It’s hard. People have many things competing for attention: tv, movies, blogs, articles, and other books. Why should they pay attention to your book long enough to discover how great it is? Being a great writer is only the beginning, you must learn to market as well.

As part of my strategy to convince people to read my work, I’m having the book turned into an audio book and graphic novel, and working with some very talented people. This lets people experience the work in whatever format excites them. I have a professionally created cover I reuse in posters, bookmarks, websites, and business cards. I’m also hitting the convention circuit, going to Baycon and later, Worldcon and Con-volution.

Self-publishing is hard, but it’s worth it to maintain ownership and control over my work.

Buy The Berserker and the Pendant on Amazon.

Update on a Patreon

I’ve been promoting my new Patreon page for the Geek Culture essay series and the response is making me pretty happy. At this point I have 13 backers at $36 a month. That’s great, and I think I’ll likely get a couple more before I start the essay series.

I made the choice to do a Patreon because for the last 6-8 months I’ve been a little stuck. There’s been a lot of writing happening but I’ve been torn in a few different directions about what I want to do. Patreon is a motivator for me, one I’m planning to do a handful of writing projects with. At least one more essay series and a fiction project. The amount of money isn’t the key thing for me, but the support of readers who I know have some expectation of getting work from me really is. It’s hard to express how much each backer means to me, regardless of amount. If you’re inspired to help inspire me, the link is below.

Geek Culture essay series on Patreon.

Geek Culture and why the editorial process is broken

“Geek culture is stupid and its fans are losers.”

“Sci-fi novels are trash and their writers are hacks.”

“Superhero movies are just about muscular blokes blowing stuff up.”

“Role-Playing Games are for total nerds!”

Support Geek Culture on Patreon

I don’t believe these sentiments. Well, not all of them and not completely…but they are widely held ideas about geek culture that the mainstream media repeats mindlessly. I’ve written a lot about the hidden masterpieces in the sci-fi genre and the value and importance of geek culture in general. I’ve done this for some pretty high profile venues including The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Wired UK, SFX, IO9 and Aeon magazine. Writing for these venues is a privilege, but it also comes with challenges.

I enjoy writing serious criticism on geek culture. I think it deserves it. As I argue over here, geek culture is now a seriously influential part of our lives. But, to put it bluntly, geek culture still isn’t taken seriously in many mainstream venues. And when it is given attention at all, it’s rarely considered critically. It’s a superhero movie right, why give that the depth of consideration you would give to, say, a contemporary art exhibit that gets 0.01% of the audience?

I think we know why.

I had been dealing with this problem privately, building up contacts with media outlets, only to find that pitches for anything resembling serious criticism met a wall of editorial silence. Until I read fellow writer Monica Byrne’s experiences with Wired magazine, which closely mirrored my own. I don’t believe Wired magazine is the only mainstream media venue guilty of projecting a monocultural view of contemporary culture. I think the problem is endemic and hardwired into the editorial process.

To get into the mainstream media any idea must first get past a clumsy system of second guessing by editors, and editors who rarely if ever have expertise equal to the writers approaching them with specialist knowledge. I’m fortunate to have a great relationship with my editorial team at The Guardian, where I’ve developed reporting on science fiction literature from occasional pieces asking why it isn’t better written, to consistent and serious coverage of the field. But that has been a long process that began, quite literally, with over a year of consistently commenting on the Guardian’s book section before I ever published a piece “above the line”. That’s clearly not a process I can repeat at every mass media publication!

And why should I? I think it’s clear now that the future of writing does not rest with with newspapers or publishers. They will continue to play a role, but it’s the direct relationship between readers and writers made possible by the internet that is now the driving force. When geek culture has received proper critical attention it has come from independent voices like Anita Sarkeesian. And the response to that criticism has also come from independent voices. Demagogues spouting attention seeking bigotry they may be, but there’s no doubt the “leaders of gamergate” understand their hate filled audience perfectly.

This week I launched a new Geek Culture essay series via Patreon. The first essay will be on our culture’s fractious relationship with criticism itself. Future essays will take a look at, among other things, the complex issues of male identity woven into geek culture. I’m excited to write these essays, and hope you’ll choose to back them.

You can read some of my thoughts on the Patreon platform and why I’m using it in my regular newsletter here.