Monday, December 21, 2015

Wishing you the very best for the festive season

2015 has been a significant year for me and for my company, Cyberium. I began by continuing to promote my two books that had been published at the end of 2014: Stormteller, the cli-fi novel for teenagers, and The One Planet Life, the big book of everything about how to lead a sustainable lifestyle. The highlight of this was two appearances at the Hay Literature Festival

During the year I completed or contributed to four more non-fiction titles: 
  • Pocket Reference books on Passive Solar Architecture and Solar Energy, to be published in 2016 by Routledge
  • Best Practices and Case Studies for Industrial Energy Efficiency Improvement, An Introduction for Policymakers, with Steven Fawkes and Kit Oung, to be published soon by the United Nations, and
  • a free ebook, Green Bonds and Property – just published and which you can download here. Do you know how many billions are going into these bonds?
I also completed a new novel, Till The End of Time, which hopefully will see the light of day in 2016. 

New clients include Australian publisher The Fifth Estate and work supporting the Environmental Defense Fund's Investor Confidence Project on energy efficiency. Inspiring new partnerships include with Tina Perinotti in Sydney, Australia and Clare Taylor in Brussels. 

Cyberium spent the first half of the year working with the Sustainable Cities Collective but I was sad to have to say goodbye to them. We continued supporting the work of the One Planet Council and working as a member of the Cambria Publishing Co-operative.

On the web front, Cyberium completed several new websites for existing clients, and the big success and privelege was to help Awel Aman Tawe, a community windpower co-operative, with a public share issue that exceeded expectations, realising £721,000. Our role was the web, online and social media work. You can still buy shares with estimated 7% interest here until the end of January. What are you waiting for?

We look forward to continuing our successful relationship with you in 2016. Have a truly sustainable year, help to build on the success of the Paris Agreement, and remember: 

With imagination we can change the world!

Friday, December 11, 2015

At last! A Welsh Branch of SCBWI!

I am pleased to announce the formation of a new Welsh chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI – known affectionately as Scoobies).

For anyone who's been off-planet for a decade, SCBWI is a great international membership organisation that provides support to lots of creatives who are starting out in this field, as well as to many have been around for awhile. It's launched quite a few careers as well as some great friendships. A more supportive crowd of people you could scarcely find anywhere.

There hasn't been a Welsh branch for a while, the main problem being the huge geographical spread of the country. It's not that there is a dearth of creatives in the land of the bards, but it can take over three hours to get from one end to the other.

And many of us are salted away in the hills scribbling in secluded valleys or wandering (and wondering) pensively on deserted beaches and mountaintops. The spirit of Taliesin pervades the landscape, and myth and magic abound (even in Port Talbot!).

About seven years ago I tried to start a Scoobie branch here, when I lived in mid-Wales, and we met two or three times, but holding it together was difficult because of the travel times. Out of it grew, if memory serves, the Dragontongue blog, which merged with the Awfully Blog Adventure about four or five years ago? (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

I moved to near Swansea about four years ago and since then a few new members have joined who happen to live in various parts of South Wales.

So at the moment it's mostly South Walians (Hwntws – as opposed to the Gogs of North Wales). Who knows, maybe another branch will form in North Wales?

[Using the word 'branch' brings to mind the four branches of the Mabinogion, that collection of ancient Celtic stories from the oral tradition of Wales. Kind of appropriate, no?]

As a group we've only met three times so far, and I don't pretend to speak for the group here. The Facebook group has 12 members and at the last meeting we celebrated the fact that Claire Fayers had received an advance copy of her new swashbuckling magical pirate story that unfortunately will not be published until next summer – in separate editions in America and the UK. That's a shame because we all wanted to get hold of a copy straightaway it looked so exciting.

Claire was in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2014 anthology and was snapped up by Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency. Well done, Claire. It just goes to show how effective the network is.

We, the south Welsh branch, are making links with the English SouthWest group and hope to meet up with Candy Gorlay in Swansea soon.

If there are other writers and illustrators in Wales reading this, I encourage you to join SCBWI and get in touch with the network organiser Marie Basting.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

If 80% of 'Young Adult' books are bought by adults, should we keep the label?

Did you know that 80% of Young Adult (YA) books are bought by adults? Why do you think this is? And what does this mean for the future of this label, for publishers and readers? As a writer of books for young adults, who has just completed what might be described as a young adult/crossover novel, this subject interests me intensely.

Some fascinating insights into children's book reading habits and book sales were recently revealed by market research company Nielsen Books at its second annual Children’s Book Summit at Convene, NYC, on September 15. Before moving on to a discussion of the YA label, here are some key other points:

BOOK SALES UP: For the time period between January 2014 to September 2015, children’s book sales were up 12.6% in the U.S., 28% in Brazil, and 10% in China, with 11 of the 20 bestselling books in the U.S. being children’s titles.

TABLET READING AGE DOWN: The spread into households of tablets and other digital devices has meant that children start reading e-books from the age of five, rather than seven previously. And, children from as young as a year-and-a-half are using tablets and engaging with content.

PRINT BOOK SALES UP: But this does not seem to be harming the sales of printed books: board book sales have grown by 20% over the last three years. Only 10% of children's books were e-books compared to 19% of all books in the last quarter of 2014.

MANY YOUNGER READERS SEEM TO PREFER PRINT OVER DIGITAL: There was speculation over why: Kristin McLean, Nielsen Book’s Director of New Business Development, said: "Partly they like to share them. Teens also like to carry books around, show off what they’re reading. Partly because [print books are] easier to get without a credit card, they like to use the library."

THERE ARE INTERESTING VARIATIONS AROUND THE WORLD: Mostly children's book publishing takes around 34% of all book sales on average around the world, a striking exception being in Australia and New Zealand where it is almost 50%. (What that says about adult reading habits is not mentioned, although it is mentioned that print sales of adult fiction and non-fiction have dropped in the US while the juvenile market has concomitantly grown 40% in the last decade. It's the categories of religion, today's and non-fiction that have seen the greater increase in sales and surprisingly e-books are down 14% this year so far.


MORE BOOKS ARE BEING BOUGHT ONLINE: With the demise of the Borders chain, sales in chains generally are down too. Sales from independent bookstores are stable but sales from school book clubs have increased.

5-8 IS THE BEST SELLING AGE GROUP: The most important age group for children's books in terms of market share was 5-8, accounting for 38% of sales to all children.

The Curious Case  of the Young Adult Label

Then the event came to the topic that interests me most. As we found out, rather surprisingly, earlier this year, a staggering 80% of all YA books that are selling are not being bought by teenagers but by adults.

To find out why this is happening, Nielsen asked a panel of eight adult consumers of young adult novels. They "seemed to suggest that the YA label can be limiting", they reported. YA isn't a genre, it's an age designation, so it doesn't help to say what the book is about.

But one member of the panel, a mother of two teenagers, said it was a useful label when trying to identify books that were appropriate for her children.

Many of these readers come across the books in bookshops, attracted by the cover design, or by hearing of movie in TV adaptations, through the Internet via GoodReads and twitter.

They overwhelmingly prefer fiction. And, their motivation for reading is that they enjoy getting into the character's head and growing along with them. One panellist said the YA label should be changed to YAH – Young at Heart. I find this patronising. I don't think it will catch on!

But the fact that she said this is illuminating. It tells us why older people are reading books for teenagers: they are still asking the questions and trying to understand the changes that are supposed to only happen during teen years. Maybe what it says is that we never stop growing up, contrary to how we are supposed to feel as adults.

Nielsen also brought along a panel of suburban teenagers who also had something to say about the label YA, namely that they don't take much notice of it because it doesn't say what kind of a book it is. Instead they are definitely attracted by movie releases when choosing what to read, as well as the Internet and Amazon's suggested books feature and Wattpad.

So where does this leave YA? I don't think it's going to go away any time soon, since it does help books to reach a market. But if we write is no most of our readers aren't even going to be teenagers but older, this should liberate us to write about more adult subjects and help us be less reticent about using certain kind of language. In other words, we can let our imaginations go further.

I very much like this idea.

Below, find some more infographics from the presentations.

How readers find books:

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Writing for TV: The Market for SF/Fantasy is Stronger Than Ever

This blog is usually addressed at writers of children's books but there are other markets for children's writers, such as comics, graphic novels, television and film which are worth considering.

This month I did a short survey of the state of the market for science fiction and fantasy television series for the producer optioning my own SF book, Hybrids for tv. I looked at series that were not necessarily just for children, but many of which may be watched by young people, that are on our screens this year or in development up to 2017. (Of course just because something is in development does not mean it will be produced or reach the screens, but even so writers may be paid to produce scripts or plots.)

I was astonished to find over 60 series in this SF&F category alone. The market has expanded hugely as television has become more international and companies like Netflix and Amazon enter the market, and I feel very encouraged by this.

Of these 60+, around half are adapted from books: 12 from the UK and 21 from the USA. Six are adapted from comics, continuing the trend of taking Marvel and DC characters to small screens. They include X-Men, Daredevil, Supergirl and Luke Cage.

Many of you might have seen Tatau, an eight-part paranormal series for a younger audience for BBC3 set in the Cook Islands and New Zealand, written by Richard Zajdiic, who got his tv break writing for EastEnders, then moved onto This Life and Attachments, an interesting series about an Internet start-up that was developed by the brilliant veteran scriptwriter Tony Garnett and was probably ahead of its time.

Richard gives his own advice for writers who want to break into the market:
"It's not just about talent. Luck is a huge factor too - being in the right place at the right time - so perseverance and tenacity are equally important. Remember, it's a marathon not a sprint. Hang on in there and hopefully you'll win one eventually.
"There are so many factors in getting a show made, let alone recommissioned, most of which are totally outside your control. I've had several development scripts praised by all parties involved, even one where the director (Peter Kosminsky, no less) was scouting locations and sending me pictures of where he was going to shoot my scenes but then, crushingly, the coveted green-light somehow failed to materalise. I also wrote on the prison drama Buried which won a BAFTA for best drama series and gained widespread critical acclaim. Channel 4 cancelled it. Go figure."
Anyone who is in this business needs perseverance. Life On Mars was rejected for years by all the channels before finally being resurrected. There are plenty of resources out there, the principal one in the UK being the London Screenwriters Workshop (which I helped to get going a long time ago) and the London Screenwriters Festival.

Tatau: Kyle (Joe Layton), Aumea Vaipiti (Shusila Takao) BBC/Touchpaper, Photographer: Kirsty Griffin

Historical fantasy is popular in the wake of Game of Thrones and the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is being further capitalised upon big time by the BBC with three series:

  1. a historical eight-part series The Last Kingdom, from the creator of Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell; 
  2. The Living And The Dead, an original period horror set in 1888. Both of these have been developed in partnership with BBC America for the American market;
  3. and World's End, in which a group of children from diverse backgrounds are taken to a mysterious remote Scottish castle which houses a secret army research centre for an unknown purpose. This is written by Danny Spring and Diane Whitley.

ITV is not being left out with The Frankenstein Chronicles, a six-part series being made for ITV Encore following in the wake of Penny Dreadful.

Children's writer Charlie Higson (best known for the young James Bond) continues the classic horror theme with a 10 part version of Jekyll & Hyde to be set in the 1930s. Robert Jekyll is the grandson of the original doctor. It will begin screening on ITV in October.

[While we're on the subject, did you know that Anthony Horowitz was offered the chance to write that Young Bond series and turned it down? Never mind, he's since been picked to update another classic character, Sherlock Holmes and to write The House of Silk and Moriarty, and a new Bond novel Trigger Mortis, to be published later this year.]

Mary Shelley's richly resonant and prescient novel Frankenstein also inspires another series called The Frankenstein Code, that's being developed by Michael Cuesta for 20th Century Fox television and written by Rand Ravich and Howard Gordon, set to air next year. However it actually has little to do with Frankenstein apart from the fact that a corrupt sheriff is brought back to life in the body of a younger man.

The BBC has a kind of Humans for children, a gentle comedy about a family who have to share the house with the world's first fully sentient artificial person, called, with a stroke of originality, Eve. It's written by David Chikwe amd Emma Reeves.

There are quite a few comedy SF dramas. The one I'm looking forward to most is Tripped, a four-part comedy drama for E4 from the writers of BBC crime series The Missing, Harry and Jack Williams, adapted from an E4 pilot titled Alt, written by Doctor Who's Jamie Mathieson. It features a lad called Danny and his stoner friend Milo, who trip through alternate worlds, meeting different versions of themselves.

Dystopian drama tends to be crossover: both adults and older children like it. The theme is expressed by another series of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, Legends of Tomorrow, a kind of retro futuristic story about a ragtag group of heroes and villains trying to prevent the Apocalypse, Programmed about aliens taking over the human race, one actually called Dystopia about a virus that has rendered mankind infertile, plus several more, but apart from Black Mirror it feels like scraping the barrel.

Two dramas address the 'what if' idea of Nazi terror still being around today: Timeline Alpha and the probably much more interesting adaptation of another novel by the infinitely exploitable Philip K Dick, The Man In The High Castle.  I can't wait to see this 10 episode alternate history, having watched the pilot shown in January, that is being released on 20 November from Amazon Prime Instant Video, and is executive produced by Ridley Scott.

There are so many more, but I can't sign off without telling you about something you will no doubt have missed, so bad was it: a Christian science fiction series recently aired on the The CW Television Network that was apparently deliberately contrived to influence children. In The Messengers the devil (in the form of The Man) turns five normal people into angels with supernatural gifts that might be the only hope for preventing the impending Rapture. The storytelling was so convoluted and confusing it has, I'm very sorry to say, because it was so much fun to watch for all the wrong reasons, not been recommended for a second series.

At any rate, what's for sure is that the hunger for science fiction and fantasy is stronger than it has ever been. Good news for the prospects of Hybrids at any rate.

David Thorpe is the writer of the Sci-Fi YA novel Hybrids and the cli-fi YA novel Stormteller.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Help the world to read on International Literacy Day!

As it is International Literacy Day I thought I'd share this infographic with you, and use it to support this organisation:, which donates books to children in need. Literacy is a door-opener to wondrous worlds of possibilities, both real and imaginary. I can't imagine not being able to read, and yet 757 million over-15s around the world are illiterate. Please support them.

  Literacy Day

Credit for the graphic: Grammarly.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Using Suspense to Mess With Narrative Structure

So how do you make suspense work?

I'll tell you later.

cheeky grin emoticon

First, the necessary info:

The #MSWL tag on Twitter stands for "manuscript wish list" and both agents and editors use it and the related website to alert writers to what they are looking for. It is extremely useful and greatly simplifies the process of manuscript submission and selection for both sets of actors.

Now, a flashback:

The other day, when I was monitoring the wish lists for manuscripts aimed at older children, teenagers or young adults I was struck by the number of requests for novels that had an unusual structure or played with the traditional narrative form, or even had unreliable narrators.

Why should it be that editors and agents think that readers in the age range from older children to young adults are looking for something other than stories with a traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, in that order? Perhaps they have had enough of such structures already in their short lives, or perhaps there is something else?

Writers nowadays have to compete with a plethora of other media – films and streaming television, Instagram, YouTube and video games – to grab the attention of teenage readers, who are hungry for an immediate hit and possess a comparatively short attention span.

Diving into the story at the deep end is one way to do this.

The traditional structure means that in act one, known as the set up, the writer takes the time to introduce the context and the characters before coming to the main problem which the protagonists has to solve. Several writers, including myself, on this blog have written about it before.

This takes time and maybe modern readers don't have the patience to plough through all this. They want to cut straight to the chase.

One way around this problem which writers frequently use is to open with a prologue containing high action that is either part of the back story or a flash forward (e.g. the Young Bond stories written by Charlie Higson) before  commencing act one. (This is a device often found in early Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The disadvantage of this approach is that you still have a slow pace in act one. Modern readers are wise to this and the risk is that they may lose patience. For these readers there must be either almost constant drama or humour depending on the genre to keep them hooked.

Yet from time to time as storytellers we have to give the readers information such as descriptions of characters, places, and other incidental but necessary plot information. So how might we be able to do this while playing with traditional narrative structure? Conveying this information can slow the pace unless it is deftly mixed into the narrative flow like adding seasoning to a dish.

When the information is what would have been in the set-up it will seem like a flashback. The flashbacks are dropped into the main chronological sequence to add relevant backstory on an ongoing need-to-know basis.

Now writing courses will tell you that flashbacks slow the pace, but that isn't necessarily true. The key to good storytelling is to maintain the suspense, to get the readers turning those pages. What if we use flashbacks in order to keep the suspense going for longer?

Let's say you're telling a friend about something exciting that happened to you. Some way into your story you realise that they won't understand who a certain character is who has appeared on the scene, so you have to spend a couple of sentences filling in who they are. Then you pick up your narrative.

The listener will be grateful because it helps them understand what's going on but they will keep listening because they know they are going to find out what happens next pretty soon. It's the suspense that lets them do this. Of course if you spent too long telling the life story of this person they will end up forgetting where they are in your main story, or lose interest and walk away. So you keep the insertion as long as it needs to be and no longer.

So the storyline reaches a cliffhanger, which doesn't have to be a big deal, just something you know will make the reader pant a little to find out what happens next, then you drop in the flashback. The more of a deal the cliffhanger is the longer the flashback can be. All the time they're reading this they're also wanting to get to where the storyline picks up again.

That's the key to this form of playing with structure.

So how do you make suspense work?

Told you I'd get to it.

Suspense works on different levels of timescale. A short timescale may be, say: what is behind this door? Will the prisoner reveal the answers to the questions being demanded by their captor? Will the boy tell the girl how he feels about her? The longest timescale for suspense in your story is the one set up near the beginning that you resolve at the end. In between there are other ongoing questions being set up and resolved (or not) over different timescales, not just in your main narrative but in any subplots.

When looking at your structure you should be particularly aware of all of these suspense elements.

Here is a metaphor to illustrate this idea. Imagine a guitar fretboard.


At one end is the beginning of your narrative and the other end is the conclusion. Each fret is a plot point – the tension rises and the pitch gets higher as you move along the fretboard. All of the suspense elements in your book are like rubber bands stretched between nails hammered into the fretboard. (Please don't spoil a real guitar by hammering nails into it!)

These suspense elements (rubber bands) will overlap: some will be short and some will be long. The more you have and the more they overlap, the more of a page turner you have.

So, at each point in your narrative, on every page, you can ask yourself the following questions for each of the narrative strands:

  1. What does the reader know?
  2. What do they want to know?
  3. When shall I tell them?

This will allow you to keep track of the suspense elements.

Okay, armed with this information we can go back and look at the structure of your book. Where are the moments of heightened drama? To keep high both the tension and the attention of the reader, you would need to keep these high drama moments coming thick and fast. But after a high point the reader needs to catch their breath. This is when you can insert the flashback containing the necessary back story information that the reader needs in order to make sense of what's going on.

Of course if these scenes themselves contain drama, so much the better.

This is just one way in which you could scramble the narrative structure. But whatever method you choose there needs to be a good dramatic reason for it, perhaps linked to the journeys of your main characters. It should not be arbitrary.

David Thorpe is the author of YA speculative fiction novels Hybrids and Stormteller.

Friday, July 24, 2015

When YA Books Tackle Heavy Stuff

This month I was lucky enough to take part in the first panel discussion session to be held on climate fiction at the Hay Festival (or perhaps at any litfest?). Also on the panel were YA writer Saci Lloyd (third from left), and an expert in communication on climate change, George Marshall (right). The panel was convened by Jane Davidson (second from left), who's responsible for sustainability at one of the main Welsh universities, Trinity St. David's.

Saci is the author of The Carbon Diaries 2015 (written in 2007) and 2017 (written the following year). She discussed how she felt about writing about the year she is now living through... Which although not exactly as described in her book, is prescient in some ways.

In front of an audience of about a hundred, she related how she's been talking in schools and to other gaggles of teens for 10 years about climate change. "Compared to superheroes or music it looks to them at first as a pretty dull subject, but I've learned that the best way to get my message across is to be passionate, completely committed. Gradually they move from being apathetic to – 'What? Why didn't we know any of this!'"

We discussed why we feel the need to write about climate change in fiction for teens – basically, because it's hardly taught in schools. "If you do geography or science, then you might touch on it," said Saci. "But it's not a core subject, so it's quite possible to go through school and come out the other end not knowing anything about climate change."

There's nothing wrong with using fiction to talk about heavy subjects. Children's writers have been doing this since Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies about child chimney sweeps in 1862 (which I was given to read as a children's book when I was about six!). Yet when I said as much to the audience, my words got picked up by a young Daily Telegraph journalist sitting on the front row and turned into a headline in the following day's printed version of the paper: "Climate activists: 'We must infect children's minds'".

That headline was deliberately a come-on. To start with that first noun should have been singular! But the article itself is ok, although obviously a lot more was said. They quote me as saying that I like writing for teens because:

"They are asking all sorts of questions about how the world is working. Their minds haven't been tainted by ideological bias, they are still open minded about it.
"You can try to be seriously subversive and try to infect their minds with these viral ideas that they can explore on their own to make it exciting. When I was that age I loved having my mind boggled."

I stand by what I said, although I was speaking playfully – tongue-in-cheek – but naturally I also said a lot more (and so did the other three), and when talking about ideological bias I was referring to what George Marshall had said previously about the research he had done showing that adults generally only give credence to arguments put forward by others with whom they share the same ideological bias.  Usually children's minds are a lot more open and enquiring.

Perhaps the Telegraph is not used to the fact that writers for young adults often deal with heavy subjects, and we do so for a number of reasons, and not just because they are not covered adequately at school. We also write about them because children need to read about things that are bothering them, especially when nobody else is talking about it with them, because they're asking all kinds of questions about what they see around them, and because we want them to continue to enquire, to take nothing for granted, and to seek out answers of their own. At the same time hopefully we're telling a good yarn ("boggling their minds" as I put it).

With the predictable inevitability of the Internet, the deliberately sensationalistic bias of the headline was soon picked up by the nutters and climate sceptics who lurk as trolls on the 'net. The next thing I knew I was being accused on Twitter and certain websites of corruption of minors, child molestation and even, in one tweet from fundamentalist Jewish organisation, of being Hitler. All over the course of three days, which just goes to show the truth of Godwin's Law, written as long ago as 1990, which says that any Internet argument will inevitably lead to somebody being accused of being a Nazi.
It was up to the Telegraph's environment editor, Geoffrey Lean, to put things right three days later with a more balanced article, suggesting that in fact there is a lot of common ground between those who believe in climate change and think something ought to be done about it, and those who don't. This, however, does not justify the paper itself deliberately stirring things up and giving plenty of space to a certain climate sceptic well known for his deliberate misrepresentation of science. No wonder people are confused.

And no wonder we need to write stories which attempt to tackle this heavy stuff from a different angle.

David Thorpe is the author of cli-fi YA fantasy Stormteller and the YA SF Hybrids.

Monday, May 11, 2015

I'm at Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival this Month - Come See Me

I'm very excited because this month I am to achieve a long-time ambition of being on stage at a literary festival. Not just any literary festival, but Hay, and not just once but twice! I'm not at all nervous, no.

Both events are part of the festival's 'green' strand.

The first will be about my new non-fiction book The One Planet Life where I will be in conversation with Jane Davidson, director of INSPIRE and a fellow patron of the One Planet Council.

The second will be to do with children's writing and climate fiction, where I will be joined by Saci Lloyd, Jane, and climate change campaigner George Marshall. I hope other members of the Facebook group of cli-fi authors will be there, too.

Saci, plus other cli-fi authors, took part in a week of activity on the Guardian's children's books website last month about writing about ecological and environmental matters for children, culminating in a Twitter chat [#GdnEcoChat] on the evening of World Book Night with Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Kate Kelly, Sarah Holding, Tony Bradman and others.  The Guardian's record of it is here.

One of the questions that was asked was: is cli-fi just a passing fad? My answer, which was favourited a few times, was: 'NO! We've only just begun! One day all books will contain an element of cli-fi. They'll have to.'

It's now recognised by almost everybody that climate change is real and happening and caused by human beings burning fossil fuels. Any story that is set in the future which paints a picture of a world that hasn't been affected by climate change in one way or another will just look daft, especially if read in a few years' time.

It doesn't have to have disasters in it, it doesn't have to be a dystopia and it doesn't have to be science fiction. The lives of any characters, whether living 10, 50 or 200 years in the future, will have been affected in one way or another, whether it is how they get about, what the technology is like, what their home is like, or where they live.

I usually write about the near future. Stormteller and Hybrids both take current trends and extrapolate them, but the former is almost exclusively cli-fi and the latter only contains one tiny nod to it: a description of a swollen River Thames in London.

The novel I'm writing now is set in 2089-2104 and, while it is not about climate change at all, I still have to describe the ways that people get about (in their self-driving electric cars, rapid transit buses, or high-speed trains), the buildings that people live and work in (where attempts have been made, successfully or not, to retrofit them to save and/or generate electricity and to bring nature back into cities), the food they eat and where it comes from, the energy they use (all kinds of renewables), where the coastline happens to be (usually not where it is now) and what has happened to former seafronts.

This is a radical reimagining of life. It's neither dystopic nor utopian, just looking at how life and society might have to adapt in one way or another.

In this election there has been little talk of climate change, but all of the main parties (even UKIP, but with the striking exception of the DUP) recognise the huge contribution the low carbon or clean technology sector already makes to the UK economy, employing as it does close to one million people. Inevitably this contribution will continue to rise. Some parties (LibDems, Greens) attach more importance to the way that green jobs can make life better and improve the economy generally. It's a win-win-win scenario.

Yes, predicting the future is notoriously difficult, but the predictions about climate change have, ever since 1993, been consistent in saying that a certain list of impacts is likely to happen; exactly when is less certain.

We also know that human nature tends to leave everything to the last minute, only responding to disasters when they are imminent or actually happening.

Put the two together and you begin to get an idea of the way things might go; except that climate change is not one disaster but a whole succession of transformations with all sorts of ramifications that will continue for the next few centuries.

In the past, quite a few writers who have tried to predict the future have found life imitating art, such as Ray Bradbury's description of “little seashells… thimble radios” that brought an “electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk” in Farenheit 451; John Brunner’s description of electric cars powered by fuel cells and Detroit as an abandoned wasteland in Stand on Zanzibar; tablet computers in Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Oddysey; Google Glass type goggles in Willliam Gibson's Neuromancer; not to mention ubiquitous people watching (CCTV) in Orwell's 1984.

Not written for kids? Actually, almost all of these books I read as a teenager.

I will leave you with two thoughts: encouragement to contemporary writers not to ignore developments that are consistent with a world predicted by climate science, and the infographic below that I discovered, which records many predictions made by writers that have come to pass.

David Thorpe is the author of cli-fi YA fantasy Stormteller and the YA SF Hybrids.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New Cli-Fi Book Portrays a Rough Eight Decades Ahead

The Vandervelde Documents by Richard Turner is an ambitious novel that attempts to envisage how the rest of the century will pan out for planet Earth as it suffers from the increasingly severe impacts of climate change, followed by the response of fragmented governments to the ensuing cataclysms.

It collects three e-books into one printed novel. The separate books cover in chronological order: in Book 1, The Carbon Brief, the period 2020-2044; in Book 2, The Phoenix Nation, from then up to 2078; and in Book 3, The Warden, 2084-2092 with a prologue from 2120.

This is a work of climate fiction, or cli-fi, particularly the first book. Since it is written by someone with a knowledge of engineering and technology the proposed technological solutions to meeting the challenges of climate change make some sense.

Predicting what will happen in the future is a thankless game and there will be readers who disagree with Richard's prognostications. One can always argue about details. The point of the book is to provoke discussion.

It is not a novel in a conventional sense. Instead it is a collection of documents or archive records, including blogs and diaries from the main protagonists.

It also sits securely within the realms of fantasy or science fiction, since it proposes a small group of people called the Elders – also known as "Sapients" – who have extended lifespans and manipulate events through some unknown means behind the scenes. They work on behalf of Gaia – the spirit of the Earth in its biosphere – from whose perspective humanity is a destructive virus.

It also, unusually, views world events from a Welsh perspective. The author is not Welsh but has lived there most of his life. This leads him to speculate about how small nations might, following the disruption of a cataclysmic event in 2044 which upturns the old world order, enter diplomatic dialogue with each other regarding alliances, with the intention of attempting to avoid in their new forms of governance the mistakes made by the former large global players that led us into this mess. It comes as no surprise to find that the author, in a previous life, for several years organised a Small Nations Music Festival in Wales.

This is a thought-provoking and enthralling novel that will captivate anyone interested in how climate change will affect the power plays of the future. It is also, frustratingly, one of the most poorly proofread novels I have ever read, but don't let that deter you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Going Underground: The City Where People Continue To Live In Caves

Nottingham Rock Cemetery Cave entrance

Nottingham Rock Cemetery cave interior.

On a recent weekend I took a small tour of some of the tunnels under Nottingham as research for my next novel, which is partly set in the city; and one of the main characters is, for a while, forced to live in the caves.

It was a fascinating experience.

Nottingham is a city that is built on a system of caves that have been expanded by the city's occupants over the centuries for living and working space. Some of them are available for the public to tour, others continue to be used by homeless people as they always have.

The city, which dates back over 1000 years, was built a particularly soft form of sandstone called Bunter sandstone. It has played a major part in the way that the city has expanded. This is the city that I grew up in and to which I regularly return.

Nottingham is most famous for being the city of Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The castle which now sits on top of the splendid rock overlooking the city centre is not the original one, which burned down in a fire in the 18th century.

A cave system extends from the castle down to the ground level and into neighbouring built-up areas. Directly below, at the bottom of the cliff, is probably the oldest pub in the world: the Trip to Jerusalem Inn.

In the days of pilgrimages to the Holy Land documented in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, pilgrims would begin their journey at the castle gate and the first stop would be the Inn. The habits of Brits travelling abroad have not changed much over the centuries! The Inn is carved out of the cliff base. Looking up to the ceiling you can see a chimney extending right upwards to the castle above.

Trip to Jerusalem Inn chimney

The Trip to Jerusalem Inn chimney carved in the rock.

Many of the buildings in central area of Nottingham have cellars and extended underground areas that were carved out, particularly in the 17th and 18th century.

The reason for this is that during the Industrial Revolution tens of thousands of people migrated from the countryside to work in the factories in the cities of England. In Nottingham's this was in the lacemaking factories.

The city could not expand beyond its tight boundaries because of a complex system of land ownership around the outside. Everybody living inside had the rights to farm strips of land outside the city walls to grow food, a relic of the feudal system. They also had the right to walk in the surrounding countryside to get fresh air.

Inside the city walls conditions were dire due to pollution from burning coal and the lack of a sewerage system. Overcrowding was terrible and in an effort to make more space people burrowed into the soft sandstone, carving out more rooms for both workspace and living space. The dispossessed lived in the caves.

Nottingham Cave

But this was not a sustainable solution. As in many English cities at this time there was an outbreak of cholera in Nottingham. Hundreds of people died. The proper solution was not just to build sewers but to extend the city and build on the surrounding land.

This was the time of the Enclosure Acts in England which were used to appropriate agricultural land for building and development. In many cases this led to agricultural land, much of which was common land which everybody had a right to use, being grabbed by the rich and fenced off. Many people starved as a result.

But in Nottingham it was different. The 1845 Enclosure Act specified that developers or builders must come to an agreement with the owners of the land and those who had the right to use it before it could be built upon. This process took 15 years to pan out in the courts. But it was worth it because it was done amicably. Everyone benefited.

map extract Nottingham field pattern 1845

The map extract above from George Sanderson’s ‘Twenty Miles Around Mansfield’, published in 1835, gives some idea of the density of development and overcrowding which Nottingham suffered from prior to the enclosure of the fields around the town. Also visible are the Sand Field and Clay Field which were enclosed to the north of Nottingham. The field pattern is clearly visible.

One result of this is that certain corridors of green space and parks were kept and are still there today for all people to enjoy. They provide a vital means by which the city can breathe.

Today you can look at Nottingham from the air or walk around it and see the result of this expansion. Outside the original compact city is a ring of Victorian buildings, large homes which would have had a room for servants. These are now in the main subdivided into apartments or used by businesses.

Around that was built rows of small tenement homes for the workers. Many of these still remain, as in Hyson Green, but others have been since demolished because they grew to be slums, such as the notorious Meadows area between the castle and the River Trent immortalised in local author Alan Sillitoe's novel (and film adaptation) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Plan of planned estates of council houses on the lines of garden cities Nottingham

The 1930s saw further urban sprawl (above) in the form of large, planned estates of council houses on the lines of garden cities, with generous gardens for the workers to grow their own vegetables, two or three bedrooms and wide roads. Nowadays hardly anybody unfortunately grows vegetables in these gardens and the front gardens have been paved over for cars, because nobody thought that workers would own one, let alone two or three cars, in those days so no room was provided for them.

Nottingham has sprawled much more since then, with endless badly designed housing estates extending into the countryside. Very little of Sherwood Forest remains although in mediaeval times it came almost up to the castle itself.

Who knows? Perhaps Robin Hood and his outlaws used to live in some of the cave systems and used them to creep up upon the Sheriff in his castle.

When I visited one small part of the caves yesterday I found evidence that they are still being used by the homeless.

The part I accessed is through Rock Cemetery, one of the green spaces preserved by the Enclosure Act in the area known as the Forest (although it does not resemble a forest at all).

Nottingham Rock Cemetery

Rock Cemetery.

The entrance to the system is meant to be protected by iron railings but they had been tampered with to provide enough space for someone to crawl through.

Nottingham Cave entrance

Inside is evidence that people do in fact sleep there:

Nottingham Cave homeless people evidence

There is also evidence of drinking and drug use:

Cemetery Cave

I talked to Dwayne, the council officer responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery, who confirmed that drug users and homeless people do use the caves. He had a relaxed, laissez-faire atitude to this. I met a German journalist doing a feature on Nottingham who told me she had told by a charity official that cutbacks in council spending have caused an increase in homelessness.

It's very dark and quiet in the caves. The rock is soft and crumbly and dry. It's also quite scary at first. There are occasionally roof-falls.

While some of the caves in Nottingham are accessible only through private property, and some are available for visitors to tour, the full extent of the system is unknown and it's possible to find entrances all over the central part of the city.

Nottingham's underground culture looks set to continue far into the future.

For further information about the 1845 Enclosure Act in Nottingham see John Beckett and Ken Brand, ‘Enclosure, Improvement and the Rise of “New Nottingham”, 1845-67′ (PDF)Transactions of the Thoroton Society, XCVIII (1994, published in 1995), pp. 92-111.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Wonder or Despair: What Are We Giving our Kids to Think About?

This week I was doing an event at our local library, in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, which has just undergone a very nice refit and upgrade. It's always great to see libraries being renovated and improved rather than closed, which happens all too often these days.

For my event I was put in the section containing racks of books for older children and young adults and graphic novels. Casting my eye across them, and having read quite a few, I was struck by the overwhelming mood of many of them: dystopic and preoccupied with doom, gloom, death, hate, angst.

I suddenly felt sorry for children if that was the entirety of their choice of reading matter.

Of course, I am guilty of writing books that probably fall into this category as well, but I suppose what depressed me was seeing that this type of book is mostly what either the librarians or publishers in general think the kids want to read.

Well, maybe they do. But one book stood out amongst all the others as being exceptionally different. I know, because I've read it and it's by one of my favourite – and the country's most celebrated – authors.

It is a book of wonder, that celebrates creativity, being different, and the splendours of the natural world.

It does not follow any particular page-turning plot structure. Nor does it correspond to any particular genre, although I suppose you could call it in the end fantasy or magical realism, but really it's about imagination.

(The author is on record as saying: "When people began to describe me as a magic realist I thought - I'm just me.")

David Almond's My Name is Mina is about a girl who doesn't fit in, who finds that the constrictive pressures of the school system are too much for her huge personality.

It celebrates learning at your own pace, following your instinct, writing, a love of words and language, finding the marvellous in the everyday, and so on.

Above: a page from the book.

At the same time you can feel the anger that Almond has towards the school system and teachers caught within it. No doubt he is drawing upon his own experience of being a teacher for five years.

I should say that any child reading this, who feels a little bit different, will sense validation for their unique perspective on life.

And anyone else, who was ever looked at a bird, or the sky, or a leaf on a tree and just wondered how it came into being, will also find validation for their purposeless gaze.

I have put passages in my books a bit like this, but I have not ever considered writing a whole book like this. It was a revelation to read.

This is not a book that trades upon the existence of a sense of desperation for its page turning qualities. Although it is in part a kind of an us-versus-them story, Mina's reactions to adversity, particularly from her teacher, are always gentle and loving.

The book shows readers another way to be, and that is to its immense credit. It's a book that takes its time even though it is short.

It's interspersed with lots of exercises, called experiments, for children to try, almost like a self-help book.

It takes courage to go against the grain and write a book like this. Too many writers think that they just have to follow the herd or go with publishing trends. It's your own vision that's the most important and that will last beyond such trends.

David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Birds of a Feather are Gathering

Since my post last month on cli-fi (climate fiction) there have been a couple of very nice developments involving authors crawling out of their garretts to coalesce around shared interests.

Climate Fiction Facebook group

This last post caused a flutter on Twitter which resulted in several climate fiction authors deciding to get together. There's safety in numbers.

The best platform we could find was to set up a Facebook group. Not ideal since not everyone is on Facebook: apologies to Nick Green!

Nevertheless anyone who either considers themselves be writing fiction connected with climate change, or who even touches upon it in some of their work, is welcome to join.

The aim of the group is to share experience, marketing, information, etc. the members so far include, besides yours truly:

One of our first achievements has been to be offered an event at next May's Hay Festival debating Cli-Fi. The discussion will be chaired by Jane Davidson, former Welsh Environment Minister, and will include two other panellists besides myself:
  1. Saci Lloyd author of The Carbon Diaries
  2. George Marshall, author of Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.
This is very exciting because I have always wanted to be on a panel at the Hay Festival! The discussion will take place on May 22 at 5.30 p.m. We hope to see you there.

Welsh Branch of SCBWI

The second exciting development is a new incarnation of the Welsh branch of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. 

As many of you will know this fantastic organisation has been going for about a decade in the UK and has some very dynamic regional groups. I was a member of about 6 to 8 years ago at which time I tried to start a Welsh branch, but it fell apart because members were too far apart.

(As an aside, it gave rise to the Dragontongue blog, which eventually merged with this one).

With the advent of some new Welsh writers joining SCBWI there has recently been a new impetus to start a group. At the moment it is only seeming to reach a saturation point (this is the point of geographical density at which writers will deign to venture out of their studios and coalesce together in a mutually agreed venue) in the south of Wales. Writers and illustrators up north in gog-land will have to wait.

Those joining up so far and signed up to the Facebook page include:

the regional coordinator

Our first South Wales meeting will be this Saturday at 11 AM in Calon Cafe and Interiors, 2 Mansel Street, SA31 1QX Carmarthen. Anyone is welcome to attend. I'm looking forward to it.

We will also be meeting at 2pm on Sunday 29 March at the Cardiff Children's Literature Festival, which any of you might also like to attend, and where we will be joining up with Malachy Doyle who has a session at 5 PM.

As they say here, Croeso i Bawb!

David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Can Imagination Change the World for the Better?

Ever since 1962 when both Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and JG Ballard's The Drowned World (number one in his 'disaster quartet') were published, tens of thousands of non-fiction but perhaps only scores of fiction titles have addressed environmental and, specifically, climate change-related issues.

Ballard's quartet has been cited as an early example of 'climate fiction' or 'clifi', identified as a new label by the journalist Dan Bloom.  Climate fiction specifically contains references to climate change. I interview Dan about it here.

I would say that there are perhaps more clifi books for children/teens than adults.

Ian McEwan's Solar or Margaret Atwood's Madaddam trilogy are examples of clifi for adults.
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015The Ward  by Jordana Frankel, After the Snow by S. D. Crockett and Georgia Clark’s Parched are examples of clifi books for older children. More are here.

But can fiction ever change minds? Or does it merely confirm existing attitudes in the mind of the reader who chooses to read a book of that nature?

And are more clifi titles aimed at children because their enquiring minds are supposed to be more open?

These questions are thrown into relief by research showing that logic and reason count for little in debates about the reality of climate change among adults.

Much clifi has concentrated on the destructive aspects of climate change, being variants of dystopian or disaster novels. New writer Paulo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife, has even coined a new term: "accidental future" novels, i.e. novels that describe an unintended consequence of present human activity.

There is a greater challenge, however, that fewer writers are engaging in with fiction – although plenty have in non-fiction – and that is to create stories in which people successfully tackle climate change, devising solutions that rise to the challenges.

There are a few, beginning with Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.   But can you think of any for children?

I believe it is essential that children are given hope that the future will not be necessarily full of catastrophe.

We should be empowering them. After all, so many children's books are supposed to do this, aren't they? "You can fulfil your dream. You can beat the bully. You can defeat the enemy."

But climate change is not something tangible or immediate, it is a vast and vague. It's scary and discouraging.
If we are to stimulate the imagination of the world's children so they do not feel hopeless and disempowered by the overwhelming scale and prospects of climate change, fiction must play a vital role in helping them envisage how they can successfully live in the future.

The winner of the Guardian Children's Book Prize 2014, Piers Torday's The Last Wild is a good example of an environmental fable that gives hope, but it is not about climate change.

Such fiction might show children what a successful future could be like and even paint a picture of a good place to be in that is realistic and possible. A future where not only are children given a full part to play in society, but society itself is structured in a way that works with, not against, nature.

There are plenty of non-fiction books that do this but non-fiction is for specialists (planners, politicians, engineers, architects), and fiction, especially if translated into film, can be for the masses.

Fiction reaches places that non-fiction can never reach.

So, writers, how about it? David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids.