To The Survivors – The Author’s View

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Survivors

First Published at Morphys Book Blog

To The Survivors was published on 13th June on only Kindle for the time being.  (Editor: now also available in Paperback and This Author’s View) The story is completely different form my first book, An Agent’s Demise a serial killer/spy/thriller based on the events leading up to and after the second Iraq war.  As a new writer, I am experimenting with different genres based on my reading habits.  In my teens, I was very keen on Science Fiction, reading many different authors Silverberg, Heinlein, Asimov, Niven and Clarke amongst many others.  Their works tended to concern space within science fiction. This is what a news diet of the space race does for the imagination, rather than my later preference for a different type of Sci-Fi such as Neal Stephenson’s books Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.  In the 1970’s the BBC, in the UK, broadcast a series called The Survivors; I was gripped by it. The programme was remade and broadcast from 2006 to 2010 but this time I was not gripped, just frustrated by the portrayal and the reality factor. 

Both series portrayed life in the UK after a major virus that kills 95% of the population. I have covered my dissatisfaction with this, and other books, films and TV Programmes covering catastrophic events in another blog Dystopian Survival – Where Reality Sneaks In.  This blog is about my book, why I wrote what I did, and how I researched the elements that make up the story.

Firstly a disclaimer, as I point out in my disclaimer notice in the book:

I have no personal experience of the end of the world as we know it, but neither do you…

Fiction is just that. It is not real, but if, like me, you like doses of reality mixed in them, then this is the type of plot that I have tried to write.  The book is split into four parts. The first deals with the virus and the government’s actions, the next three parts deal with the survivors. What do they have to do to survive. It also covers their thoughts on why they survive. One of the issues I attempt to depict, is how the infected react to their impending doom, heroism, fanaticism or stoic acceptance.

Part One of To The Survivors

For the first part, I focused on the medical aspects of genetic viruses, relying on several research papers available for public viewing including reports on Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth Disease, AIDS and HIV research, but also recent Measles outbreaks and the herd immunity ideas.  I also had to research population numbers.  SPOILER – My twist to the other genetic virus stories was the impact on mammals. My virus kills them as well, and this also had to be researched in terms of common genes. In other words, my virus plausible if highly unlikely.  Recently there has been much discussion about the rise of anti-biotic resistant viruses and diseases such as tuberculosis have made a return.  This sparked my reason for a cataclysmic story.  Much of my writing is sparked by snippets of news not necessarily the headline.  For my first book I used the production of the Iraqi dossiers in the USA and UK which convinced many sceptics that war was necessary against Iraq. Then, when no weapons of mass destruction were found this embarrassing misleading of politicians, media and the public was covered up.  For To The Survivors I was intrigued by the spread of measles in Wales during a recent outbreak and the seeming inability of the Authorities to cope.  I just went a lot further.

Part Two

For the second part, my focus was on sustainable power and water, mainly solar, along with the basics of survival. I also introduced the key characters for the rest of the book.  Several ideas for the house that plays a large part in the story came during the installation and setting up of my own solar power system; although it is nowhere near as extensive as the one described in the book.  The viewpoint in this stage switched from the government’s macro view to a survivor’s micro view but covering a similar time period.  The house construction had intrigued me since I saw a documentary on the building of a Huf House several years ago.  The hardest element wasn’t the house it was deciding where in the UK to locate the scenes.  Research using Google maps can only go so far, poetic license has had to be applied to find the right geography, although many locations are accurately described.

Parts Three and Four

The later section of Part Two, and Parts Three and Four are the story from a survivor’s perspective. The Sci-Fi reduces as it turns to more human interaction elements. This takes the timeline into the future and the different challenges that evolve. This is more fiction, than science. The Sci-Fi element remains in the settings, but there is no new technology, super power abilities, or other elements typical of this genre. New technology is ruled out due to the collapse of civilisation. No one has super power abilities, unless surviving the virus is considered to be an evolutionary step by human kind.

Civilisation

In the book, are several quotes on the fall of civilisation. I found these or had read them previously.  I am interested in post-Roman Britain as an example of the fall of civilisation. How did so much technology and capability disappear?  Roman houses had central heating, but nearly two thousand years later many houses in the UK still do not, or were built without it. In all the sections, I wanted to cover the realities of living in this new world.  That has meant talking about sewage and latrines. I am not that interested in toilets, but it’s something that I felt was missing from virtually every other book and film in the genre. My previous experience in the military helped here, not with the descriptions but the reality of survival. I found on deployments that living without a modern toilet or shower is not fun. Yes, camping for a few days with a chemical toilet might be an adventure but we all feel relieved when we return home to hot running water and flushing loos. Modern humanity creates massive amounts of waste for disposal from food packaging to empty bottles. Even a scavenging society has to dispose of its waste.  The sewers and drains no longer work so how do people cope? This element seems to be conveniently overlooked in nearly every film, TV, or book portrayal. The blockbuster movies love using CGI to destroy a city, when creeping grass over a road is more realistic and will eventually prevent road travel.

The Survivors’ Characteristics

Character development is always tricky, I prefer not to give too vivid physical descriptions of people, not because I am not picturing them in my mind, but I want the reader to paint their own picture.  Where it is relevant I have described race and age, along with the gender, but I deliberately kept this minimal.  I have also tried to write only from what the chief protagonist knows, might know, or has been told by another character.  Consequently, he does not know everything or why certain things in the plot have happened. I have given him some character traits, which go some way to providing an insight to his actions, but again I leave some of this open to interpretation.  Mostly, I wanted to write about what people did, more than why other than the overreaching to survive.

Many friends and family have asked if I have used them as the basis for my characters.  This has a yes, and no answer. In that some elements are bound to filter through, but it is more likely to be a snippet rather than an entire character. When I picture a character in my mind, I may base this on someone I have met, but it is unlikely to be a friend or family member because that will condition my thoughts rather too much.

Survivor’s Actions

Some survivors are more ruthless than others, which lead to other concerns about censorship and how far descriptions go.  I have blogged on this dilemma for an author before in How Far Should I Go.  It remains a cause of concern and the more extreme I am, the less audience I might have in for example Young Adult readers. My books are not for children, but I read so called adult literature as a teenager, so the YA market is confusing for me anyway.  Would I want my children to read what I have written?  They are both adults, so it does not apply now; in fact most of the moral comments have come from friends who seem surprised that I can write about sex and violence.  Morality, in my view, is easy when you are living in semi-luxury, with a full belly and enough water to drink.

History teaches us that rape and other violence is common in stressful situations from war to famine.  Disaster survivors, whether genocide or natural calamities, report different experiences, from Death Camp guards, to Schindler’s List, and onwards to cannibalism in the case of the Andes air crash survivors.  If personal behaviour is based on background and culture, what happens when that envelope disappears?  I am not a woman, but if I were, would I sell my body for food, shelter, or water?  As a man would I take advantage of such a woman and is that rape?  In our comfortable homes we all like to think we would behave with decency and morality, but would we?  Society no longer exists so its morals, may not survive either. In my story, new moralities and behaviours takeover especially in the relationships between the survivors and the need to procreate.

In the end, I have written a fictional story.  I hope thousands read it and enjoy it, but some will not, some will loathe it, some will criticise it, some will complain that it would have worked better with aliens, or zombies, or a nuclear war.  If it makes a reader turn into a writer because of their dissatisfaction with my efforts then all the better. I am happy to move on to my next book and story, another change of genre, but that is for another day.

Dystopian Survival – Where Reality Sneaks In

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First published on The Bookstop – Dystopian Survival – Where Reality Sneaks In

I recently completed a new novel, only my second, which has survival after a cataclysm as its theme. I was drawn to write such a novel due to my dissatisfaction which the portrayal of such events, especially in modern film, and literature, where if it’s not zombies it needs to be vampires. I am not criticising the authors of such works or the readers who like the material, I just came away dissatisfied on several levels.

Firstly, the cataclysmic event itself, secondly, the progress of the cataclysm, and finally, the survivors actions to survive.The event itself is a matter for science, or fantasy, or ignored in some dystopias. For examples I turn to Mad Max (1979) or Waterworld (1995), as films, the change is ignored, likewise The Island (2005) or even back to Logan’s Run (1976).What changed in society or the world to make this happen? This is not explained, or thought through, there is little science in the Science Fiction. In my own book I have tried to explain the virus and also added how it has managed to spread so quickly. Where we have large asteroids Deep Impact, (1998) or apocalyptic weather change The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or alien invasion, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951 and 2008), I have been left with a feeling the writers and film makers do not go far enough. What happens next? In my own story the selection of the survivors is unknown because there are so few, as the disease I envisage is genetic and viral in nature, and already well underway by the time the Authorities notice. There is no Ark to save humanity, no time to find a cure. I use the AIDS example of long-term research well funded that has not found a cure – yet. Hollywood, and by implication the script writers, or the novels the script writers have based their stories on, tend to simplify the actions of Governments and other authorities when dealing with major incidents or disasters. Governments are not all seeing and pervasive, even in police states. They are all dependent on information fed to them and can only act on what they know and the probabilities of what might happen.

They may have political overtones in the policies they pursue, but events overtake them. In my story, the water and sewage issues may seem trivial, and never seem to be mentioned in other books, but the western developed world is used to clean, available hygienic toilets and fresh clean water, when this is not available I do not believe anyone fully grasps the impact. Typhoid in a major western city is a frightening thought. Likewise food distribution is so intricate in a modern society that food shortages would start very quickly. The collapse of the financial system is also skipped over in many dystopian scenarios. Currency is no more than an I Owe You note backed by a government guarantee. We all go to supermarkets to get our food, how would we get food if money is not acceptable. Barter, knowledge, work, sex, what would an individual have to exchange to get food and water.The progress of the epidemic or disease is skipped over in nearly all these events, unless it is the wham bang variety of action, which allows the CGI departments of Hollywood movie studios to show their talents. A notable exception is Contagion (2011) which certainly influenced me to research viral disease spread. The Day After Tomorrow focuses its human interest on the race to rescue New York survivors. There is a novelisation The Sixth Winter, but written after the event , or its non-fictional start as The Coming Global Superstorm (ISBN 0-671-04190-8), what was missing, I felt, was a novel that covered the progress; so I decided to try and write one. For many ideas the people issues become the centre of the plot, but the reactions of all seem to disagree with reality.

We only have major disasters to help us understand, as there has not been a cataclysmic event in written history. We have had many major disasters from natural impacts, but not on the scale imagined in these and my book. For the asteroid impacts, even the dinosaurs took millions of years to be wiped out; if that is what started their decline? For human reaction we have events like the holocaust, earthquakes, and tsunamis to guide us. Life goes on, and there were many earthquakes and tidal waves, famines, volcanic eruptions, floods. World wars and global epidemics impact only a few of the world’s population or specific geographic areas. In modern times if it is not reported, it did not happen. Two hundred years ago a viral infection in central Asia or Africa would not have been noticed, and for all we know, could have killed tens of thousands. The human pattern of surviving, despite the grief that is clearly apparent following a major disaster, has always been enabled and helped by other survivors. The bubonic plagues of the middle ages directly impacted the European populations leading to changes in society. In the case of the plague, and in my theory, it is the inability of society to cope that is the story. We are taught to believe that our government, society, community, or church, are blessed with extraordinary capabilities to solve problems.

To succeed these organisations depend on the technology and communications of the age. Without our modern encumbrances we would struggle. For an example from my book, Governments communicate their orders via networks of computers and phones. If one breaks they rely on network or telephone technicians to fix the link. What if there are no technicians left? Very quickly we would be back to messenger services that take time, but what about the messengers. Villages protected themselves in plague days by closing gates. If the plague was not in the enclosure when they started then they survived, if not they suffered.More in line with my own plotting are the two BBC Survivors stories based on 95% human population disappearing. The second series in two seasons ran 2006 to 2010 was essentially a re-make of the 1975-1977 original. The premise is of massive population loss; my dissatisfaction is that a secret government remains, why they are immune, is never explained.Jeremiah a Showtime TV series from 2002 to 2004 focus on survivors that were under the age of puberty. I will not go into the issues of plot that do not stand up, but suffice to comment that 15 years after the cataclysm the new adults seem to have skills they could not have learned before or during the epidemic that kills all the adults, apart from the secret Government adults that is. What I did like is that the survivors wanted to rebuild, which is the main focus of my story.

I Am Legend, I like for its scene setting especially the depiction of the decaying cities, in the 2007 film, but why would the hero stay in a deserted city centre, that is not explained, where is his water coming from and his power his sewage disposal, why be in an apartment up flights of stairs, good for defending against zombies but useless and impractical for survival. Of course the zombie plot, creates my dissatisfaction with the 1957 short novel as well as the 2007 film.

Survival becomes the main interest for me, how do survivors survive? How do they cope with loneliness and grief? Where do they go to the toilet, do they know how to dig a latrine? How about baking bread, but they would need yeast and flower and power in the form of heat? Where does the grain come from to make the flour? What does wheat look like, and how does it grow? How did the survivors find this out? Hundreds of years ago, the bulk of the human population were farmers or hunter gatherers. How many people in the world now know how to grow wheat? How many know how to catch kill and butcher a chicken or a fish? That’s if they know how to find one and catch one. Fuel may last, but it will become contaminated, and how many people know how to wire up a generator to a house? The numbers who have this knowledge in our current society are very small in percentages, and those that do have this knowledge do not have the ability to survive a genetic virus? For the survivors to survive they need knowledge, if we become totally reliant on the Internet for our manuals and books what happens when the Internet stops. Which book has the necessary information? Many people cannot wire a plug let alone a solar panel or wind turbine.

The plague in the middle ages attacked the rich and poor, many of the rich could escape because they could travel, the same was not true of the flu epidemic of 1918/19, which killed more people than the First World War it followed. As a western society we have become ever more interdependent and specialist. If we are manufacturers, we work in large factories where materials arrive and are assembled into other parts. How would the survivors start from scratch after supplies run out? These are the questions I wanted in my story and I wanted to try and answer.

The most important element though remains the human story, who would survive mentally, and how would they behave themselves and to each other? We do know from survivors in real life that human beings can do extraordinary things to survive, and immensely stupid things that prevent their survival. Is this Darwinism in action, intelligence, education, or just luck? I cover suicide and the bravery of individuals in my book, when there really is no hope, will many end their lives rather than burden others or suffer a long painful drawn out death. This goes to the heart of the euthanasia debate and the impact of modern medical science, where we can extend life, but cannot necessarily improve the quality of that life. Medication can prevent rapid deaths from disease, and in return the patient suffers an extension of life, but probably in pain and without their former capabilities. If medical treatment were not available, in my scenario, then what would a survivor do? As time goes on the reliability of remaining technology will reduce. An example, car tyres, how long do they last unused on vehicles or even in a storeroom? With no new manufacturing available, how long will any other technologies last? Electronics maybe ten years, engines maybe twenty, the long life examples we have in current society are reliant on modern spare parts or replacements. When there is nothing new in a showroom, or the stuff in the showroom has rotted and decayed, then what?

Is survival just about ruthlessness? How do the vestiges of the former society impact on the survivors, morally as well as practically? I have tried not to hide some of the brutal or morally agnostic elements in my fictional account. If surviving men are physically stronger will they exploit their power to the detriment of women? Will women accept subjugation in order to survive including rape and abuse? In my story I twist this, in that there are more women than men surviving; however, that will not stop some men. Society’s morals will be pushed, what was unacceptable, may have to be accepted in order to survive. In the end it is just that, it’s not a treatise on humanity, it’s a fictional story; I hope you enjoy it.

To The Survivors by Philip G Henley is published by Phenweb Publishing and is available on Kindle and Paperback

The Joys of Editing

I have been involved with the thread in Goodreads on the joys of editing and the potential use of professional editors. I have not used such a service, yet, simply due to the economic case and from a return on investment. Selling a $1 Kindle book on Amazon attracts a 35c royalty payment before tax on the income. My current book currently in informal edit has 150,000 words. For a professional edit, a typical 150,000 word book for $0.015 to $0.06 per word, for a standard edit, deeper edits double this cost so at the cheapest I am looking at a $2,250 investment.

To cover this cost I would need to sell 6,429 books before I broke even on a basic edit. A full edit would cost $9,000 and I would need to sell 25,714 copies to break even. My current book has sold 3,500 copies although over 3,000 of these were as free downloads. Yes, I could put my price up, but that would likely result in fewer sales. To get on Amazon’s higher royalty rate of 75% I would need to charge $2.99 minimum. I may try this after an initial launch but….

Given my lack of success with software I may go down this route, but timescales for edits can be quite long. I have now made contact with some cheaper editors but they have a long waiting list as you might expect. At least their prices are more reasonable in the region of $500 to $750 but that is still a substantial amount needing 1,429 sales to cover the cost at the lower end.

I have now tried two software editors, Grammarly and Whitesmoke. Both are frequently endorsed in Goodreads as well as on line in other forums and websites; however, I have huge problems with both.

Grammarly (http://www.grammarly.com) Problems from the start. It only works on Windows. I am on a Mac, so I had to resort to using it on a virtual machine. That would have been OK if the following issues had not occurred:

1. It continually contradicted itself in its advice. After making changes it would then scan again and offer advice to change back.
2. It also took an awful long time to check and scan text. I could at least check a whole document, but the results were marked as errors even when it was an alternative.
3.The system did not seem to learn from my decisions even when I selected to apply for all instances. The next time I opened the document there were all the problems again.

Result uninstalled during test period and order cancelled.

Whitesmoke (http://www.whitesmoke.com) offers itself as a premium software, given its pricing I can only agree. I had the following problems though:

1. The lack of UK English setting. I write in UK English (English being the operative word) I do not want colour changed to color, or worse marked as an error. I have lived and worked in the USA, I have no complaints about spelling in that version of English in a changed version I just want to use English UK as my dictionary choice. No settings button to change this. Dictionary just has English no variations.
2. When sending back text to apply changes the programme changed formatting including adding line and paragraph breaks into the “Normal” style setting.
3. At 5,000 characters per effort it can only handle approximately two thirds of an A4 page. A lot of time wasted getting this small amount checked.
4. Having to be on-line is annoying, and would restrict use to my office desktop rather than a laptop in the garden – if it ever stops raining.
5. The F2 function key can be changed but not in settings although there is a section called Keys in settings
6. Mac version has no on-line help file associated

Result I have applied for a full refund because Whitesmoke do not offer a trial version for Mac.

I am going to give Scrivener a try. It’s installed now so we’ll see. I have tried Writers Cafe as well, but struggled with it.

The final method, and the one I am using, is to get friends and family to read and provide edit comments. I have tried this and of course I hope I have become better at it myself. One thing I have noticed and become frustrated by is Amazon not notifying existing owners that a version has changed on a downloaded book. You have to ask them to do it via support. New downloads get the new version, but existing ones don’t get told there is an updated version. The help of friends and family is duly acknowledged but the results are variable. The good news is that they get caught up in the plot so miss stuff. The bad news is that errors get missed. Oh well back to editing …….

How Far Should I Go?

One of the interesting things about writing my own books, has been the explicitness question i.e. how far should I go? This covers several different elements; I’ll try and cover my reasoning for each.

Language – should characters swear at each other. I personally, have nothing against the use of swear words, although a lot of dialogue used in movie adaptions, or TV, seem to go further than the books on which they are based. I have used swear words, but minimally, and only where I think it adds to the plot. I have not written an action packed crime thriller or gangsta rap piece. If I did, I may swear more, but even then, I would want to keep it to a minimum. DH Lawrence used sexually explicit words in his descriptions and conversations. I have not, but then again I am not DH Lawrence by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Sex – I have been told there is a lot of sex in my book, there is some but define a lot. For the lead characters it is part of their engagement with each other, it’s also critical to the lead protagonists behaviour before he meets his girl. This is an adult thriller not an adult book. I could have been more explicit, I could have been less. I have found that in a lot of thrillers, in this genre, sex is missing or skipped over. I wanted to make sure it was there.
  • Violence – Like the sex, there is some, not as explicit as a slasher or other serial killer books, but some. Again I was tempted to go further but held back. I wanted to leave some to the imagination
  • Sexual Violence – Combining the last two into a single theme. There are some difficult scenes with the killer and his victims. Again, I was tempted to be more explicit but held back. Partly, this was contrived for the further parts of the plot, but also because I didn’t want to write some of the things, or when I did it became too comic book.

With the elements covered, there is an overall pitch level as to who the book is for. That covers the style, language, and theme. Do I want 12 year-olds reading it? Probably not, but I read some fairly serious so called adult books as a young teenager. I have tried to understand the Young Adult genre characteristics, and I am struggling. Why is a film or book characterised in this way I struggle to understand much as the argument about nudity in films, (bad leading to age restrictions) compared to nudity in an art gallery (good and culturally uplifting and worthy of a school visit).

Hollywood and TV seems to have decided that bad language and violence is fine but nudity and sex is not. Calling someone a M***** F***** is fine in a 15 film rating, but showing them having sex results in an 18 or USA R rating. When visualising the scenes in my books or writing the conversations am I led by this hypocrisy or should I write what I want. I would love a film deal so should I swear more to try and get one? If I was lucky enough to get one would I argue to keep the sex in and swearing out, what would you do?

The Confusion of Editing

The confusion of editing is often raised in reviews of many books, often including comments on grammar and punctuation. Especially, on Kindle and other ebook readers. Yes, much of this is due to the author, mea culpa; however, the publishing industry, word processing software, and scholarly guides need to take their share of the blame. Reading existing books does not help. There are differences in various English versions. Even then, two books, from the same author, from the same publishing house, can have different grammar treatments and punctuation. This is particularly complex in recorded speech, where so called correct grammar, can make the written view ridiculous for example:

“He’s bad…,”, the character hesitated, then said, “really bad, or is he?”.

or

“He’s bad,” the character hesitated, then said, “really bad, or is he?”

I have seen both examples. The second one uses US English placing of the comma inside the speech marks. UK English should be outside, allegedly. I know which I prefer, and I have seen grammar guides that say both are correct, and others that neither are correct.

For me, I am trying to communicate my plot and descriptive material. I want my readers, what few I have, to be lost in my story, but I also want them to follow how I am hearing my characters speak; therefore, I am guilty of using punctuation to force pauses or continuations, where they may not be grammatically correct.

The final problem is the conversion software for e-books and even printed books losing planned punctuation. Even PDF submissions seem to lose data. Without reading and editing, and submitting, and proof reading, again, on each version of each device, it’s impossible for a one man band to do it. No one is paying me, and the cost of professional editing is unlikely to be recovered from book sales.

I have resorted to reissuing versions especially on Kindle, but getting Amazon to notify readers that downloaded that the version has been updated is a slower process. Paper versions are even harder with Lulu for example insisting on a review and proof copy.