2084, crowdfunding and interviews

Anyone who has been even slightly near Unsung Stories on social media in the last two weeks will have noticed that we’ve launched an anthology of dystopian fiction called 2084. The idea for this is pretty much – get writers to ‘do an Orwell’ and look into our future.

A few people have been asking how we managed to pull together our contributor list – which includes Christopher Priest, David Hutchinson, Lavie Tidhar, James Smythe and a bunch more excellent writers – so I’ll happily spill the secret for you here. Are you ready? Secret publishing voodoo coming: I asked them. Pretty much just sent an email to them, or their agent, saying who we were, what the project was and why we wanted them involved.

So what’s the moral of the story? Your favourite authors are really groovy people, and a good idea gets anyone’s attention.

We also decided to try something new and crowdfund this one using Kickstarter. We figured we have a good list of writers and we’ve spent some time building our reputation, so it might just fly. And boy did it fly!

We set our goal at a number we thought would be achievable for the month – a nice, solid £2,500. Eleven hours later, that was in the bag. A couple of days later we had £4500 in pledges. Now, at the two-week mark we are 366% funded at over £9000, adding more authors to the collection and looking where to stretch next. Simply, its been a staggering and humbling couple of weeks.

To help promote the project I’ve done a couple of interviews. The first was with the Papertrail Podcast and you can read that on their website. The second was with the Skiffy and Fanty podcast, as the very first guest(!) on their new Signal Boost show: Signal Boost #1: George Sandison (2084) and Alexandra Pierce (Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler). So thanks very much to Alex at Papertrail, and Jen and all at Skiffy and Fanty for having me.

Also, keep an eye on the Kickstarter tomorrow evening, we have some limited edition rewards going up…

 

 

Unsung update: Grievances, live lit and Missives book launch

It’s been a busy spring so far, with lots of things happening at Unsung Stories. I still occasionally have days wondering how I managed to land this gig, and here’s a few reasons why it’s all pretty exciting.

Unsung Signals

First, we’ve launched Unsung Signals, a digital line focusing on mid-length fiction, novellas, small collections and the like. This came about because we had some submissions come in which were excellent, but completely the wrong length to print. So rather than rail about the economic realities of physical products and small presses, we made Signals.

Winter by Dan Grace is already out, a wonderful piece of writing about revolution, folklore and magic. It’s confident elliptical stuff, etching out a world in so few strokes.

Our second title, The Bearer of Grievances by Joseph McKinley, was published on Monday and I love it. It’s a collection of 8 stories, all linked, all full of the same black comedy. It’s a satire on bureaucracy and technology which reminds me of Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Douglas Adams. It makes me do the same inappropriate laugh that Ben Wheatley films do. And I’m normally the one telling people how hard SF comedy is to write.

Unsung Live #3

The third instalment of our SFF live lit night takes place on 27th April at the Star of Kings, Kings Cross. This is a great fun night where authors get a platform to perform short fiction. This time we’re very proud to say we have Stephanie Saulter (Gemsigns, Binary, Regeneration) and Ian Whates (Pelquin’s Shadow, City of a Hundred Rows and founder of NewCon Press), with more TBC.

Tickets are free but limited, so RSVP to secure your place.

The Arrival of The Arrival of Missives

More Aliya Whiteley! After the wonderful response we had to The Beauty, it’s really exciting to say that we are publishing Aliya’s new book The Arrival of Missives.

The launch party is on 3rd May 2016 at Blackwells Holborn and is free and open to all. Come help us celebrate, hear Aliya read and answer questions, and maybe share a cider with me once I’ve put the microphone down.

A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

It’s somewhat flattering to be in the same company as And Other Stories. Here, David Hebblethwaite rounds up recommended novellas including The Beauty published by Unsung Stories. Yes, this is one of those ‘Love my job’ days.

Follow the Thread

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into…

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Some thoughts on S. – The words

So after all the gushing of my previous article on Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ meta-bonanza, S. an important question remains unanswered – is it a good book?

The problem here is that all of the ambition which makes for such an incredible artefact comes back to bite Dorst and Abrams. They neatly demonstrate one of the real risks with writing meta-anything which is this: it’s all too easy to sell empathy and emotion short in the pursuit of complicated architecture. You still need a good story and characters, or you’re screwed.

What it all comes down to is that, of the two key stories at work – The Ship of Theseus, and the relationship between Jen and Eric, the two students writing in the margins – only one commands any empathy. Straka’s masterpiece, which supposedly has hypnotised readers and critics alike for decades, feels sterile. Perhaps this is because it is made first and foremost to provide the roots of all the other narratives, but Dorst’s adopted style feels staid, denying any real access to S’s inner world. Add in the pervading mystery of who S is and you start to hear the echoing tones of hollowness.

The Ship of Theseus takes a while to really get going, and when it does you find yourself looking back at the opening chapters and wondering why they’re there. As far as I can tell they are there to establish S’s amnesia, one mostly absent character and not much else. S’s amnesia is integral to the meta-story so it becomes the tail wagging the dog. Somewhere along the line Dorst lost site of Straka’s work being a book in its own right.

Once you start juggling potential identities for Straka you then have lots of names (handily codified into acronyms just in case you were keeping up), dates and events outside the book to manage as well. Now I’m not normally one to complain about asking the reader to do some work, but it started to feel like a bit of a chore.

It’s something I suspect Dorst realised as well though, because one of the possible identities for this Straka chap is that of a pirate. No one takes it seriously but Jen says at one point that she likes the pirate idea best. It’s exciting, it’s engaging and I agree! Ok, ok, it’s not as considered or meaningful as the actual resolution, but it would have been less wearying to read.

In fact, some considerable mental agility is also required to successfully read S. because the marginal notes are everywhere and most pages require you to hold The Ship of Theseus in your head whilst you catch up with Jen and Eric. The only other things that made me work that hard are William S. Burroughs and The Illuminatus! Trilogy, both of which try to replicate narcotic dissociative experiences (AKA being reeeeeeeally fucking high) on paper. But it’s also only a matter of time before you start thinking how conveniently arranged the marginal notes are in terms of understanding their story. There are a few notes that jump ahead to tease, but mainly it’s all laid out for you. In such a meticulous work it acts as another brick in the barrier between you and an empathetic connection.

The other major issue I have with The Ship of Theseus is its ending. For one thing it’s a massive tease without the meta-story, banging the final nail in the coffin of its chances as a standalone work. For another, it smacks of an anachronistic populism. It’s hard not to read the book today and think, ‘Hey, that’s a hip message. I can get on board with that.’ Except it was supposedly written in 1949. Ok, admittedly it’s the same year as 1984 was published, but it’s just a little too convenient, you know?

All of that said, Jen and Eric are very real creations, leaping out of the page at you (literally, if you open the book too quickly) and the strongest parts of the book are undoubtedly their confessional moments. The anonymity of writing notes allows them to confront their demons together. There is a very real sense of two people meeting, coming to know each other and then peeling away the layers of their defences. There is something genuinely intimate – perhaps even to the point of feeling invasive – about their story. But these moments are over far too quickly.

So there you have it. Maybe this makes me a churlish bastard but however wonderful I think aspects of S. are the whole left me dissatisfied. It’s a real labour of love and I can appreciate how elegant the structure is, how much thought went into it and that if nothing else it is A Beautiful Thing. But part of me wishes Dorst and Abrams had taken the time to leave it alone, then come back to it and realise, ‘You know, I’m not sure I care about this S guy…’

Some thoughts on S. – the paper

This morning, over breakfast, I finished reading S. the singular and vastly ambitious work of Doug Dorst, based on J.J. Abrams concept. This genuinely is one of the most interesting and exciting books I have seen in a very long time and it deserves attention for some important reasons.

Trying to describe S. is something of a minefield, where every step you take explodes into a fistful of questions that you don’t want to answer because, well, you need to experience it for yourself. What I can tell you is that S. is the story of a fictional tale (that’s near to being a tautology I realise, but bear with me), The Ship of Theseus, written by one V.M. Straka. The protagonist is the eponymous (of the overall work, if not the story he inhabits) S. who has no idea who he is, and who is promptly Shanghaied into service on a mysterious, and nameless, ship.

The problem with this (fictional) V.M. Straka is that no-one knows who he really was and his identity was a closely-guarded secret up to and beyond his death. As you can imagine, academics (in the world of S.) have a great interest in discovering who Straka really was, indeed his identity is posited as a grail of contemporary literary studies.

So far, so linear, right? However, this is just the first thread because the artefact you hold is presented as a library book printed in 1949 (first edition, none the less), complete with Dewey decimal reference on a spine sticker, withdrawal stamps and the lot. There are footnotes throughout from the translator, who may or may not have amended the text of The Ship of Theseus. And critically, in the margins, on and around all of the text you have notes left by two student Straka-philes who want to know his real identity just like everyone else. Pretty cool, eh? Except that there’s more – these two students come to know each other through this book, leaving notes, postcards, photos, newspaper clippings and even doodles on napkins. Meta, meet the twins Meta-meta and Meta-meta-meta and their mother Recursion.


There are a lot of things about S. that interest me, so much so that this will be the first of two articles. Whilst the artefact and story are intrinsically intertwined there are two key discussions. One is the how it works as literature, which I will come to later. The other is what it represents for publishing.

The first thing to acknowledge is that as a piece of physical production it’s incredible. This is hardcore book porn of the filthiest kind: a debossed hardbound book with slipcase, 4/4 printing with each page designed to appear stained by time and with 20-odd inserts (including one (what meta-joy!) that is an insert into an insert). Lord knows how they’ll make any money off it when Amazon are selling it at half price, but bless them for making it.

Once you are past the inevitable craven moments of stroking that come with first opening it, however, the thoughts begin. What have they made here? How am I meant to read it? Do I start with the story then go back and do the footnotes? What about the photos? Does it matter that I don’t know who is writing the notes at the start? Or how many of them there are? And why does it feel like I’m reading the internet?

Because that’s what this book is: It’s hypertext fiction finally being produced with gusto and a full budget. Except it’s a physical book, not a website. In fact, I can’t really see how it would work as a digital format. It’s futurist but dependent on its traditional routes, swilling the meta-irony round its mouth with gleeful hedonism. It’s hard not to think of David Foster Wallace disappearing down the rabbit hole of footnotes within footnotes and digressions that subsume the narrative, mining the depths of literary form for something irreducible. However it feels like this is a lifeline back to reality, to a place between the real world and the prodigal depths. This isn’t Infinite Jest, S. is a tightly controlled work, intricately planned and surprisingly open to interpretation but also concise, coherent and contained in its own right.

It’s hard to shake the feeling you are browsing through a private wiki or Google Doc – especially as the marginal notes get more personal and confessional. I also find it hard to think of it in any other terms. When you are flicking ahead 50 pages on the instructions of one of the marginal notes, where you can’t help but glance around, you realise you’ve just clicked on a link before you finished reading the article you started at. In part, the result is that to read S. successfully requires a greater tolerance for tension and uncertainty than most books I know. You are tapping a stream of information, of multiple stories, not reading one book.

After all, these marginal notes aren’t chronological, so the story of the readers comes at you from all points of their story. Think The Time-Traveller’s Wife without the handy date references. In fact, you start to feel very grateful that they had different colour pens. You start to notice that the red ink is more faded than the black so it must be older. You become an archaeologist without realising it.

This is the single greatest joy of the book, the way it puts you into a range of positions without any coercion or effort. It throws four narratorial voices at you, a bunch of missing identities, gives you no help with chronology and teases you with huge unknowns right from the outset. Yet as you read you accept all of this. Your relationships with the literary and physical are simultaneous. You read words that explain one mystery, another is unfurled in the texture of a napkin.

That napkin really is something else by the way – all of these inserts are produced on appropriate stock, made as authentic as possible. The napkin really is two-ply loose weave, the ink over-saturating the paper. The photo really is glossy with the watermarks striping the back. Newspaper clippings are aged and ragged-edged. Everything speaks as an artefact, the medium embraces the message.


All of this gushing does have a point. Both within the publishing industry and without, there has been a lot of discussion about what the growth of ePub and digital formats means for publishing and ‘The Book’.

For a while now I’ve been telling people that the mass-market paperback will go the way of the dodo and that digital will take over. Maybe it won’t die out, but at some point reading devices will become ubiquitous and the mountains of unsaleable second-hand copies of E.L. James and Dan Brown books will turn in to un-accessed files taking up space on every burgeoning hard drives.

I’ve also been telling people that print won’t die any time soon. Instead it will become the preserve of high-end and beautiful works. Coffee table books, photography collections, graphic novels and gorgeous hardbound books, to name a few – the neophytes can’t deny that we will always enjoy creating and owning beautiful things.

Hypertext fiction, enhanced ePubs, augmented reality and all the other blurring lines between technology and interaction are coming. Our artistic relationship with these mediums is in many ways nascent, first fluttering its eyelids open to play with new ways of interacting. S. may well be remembered as one of the first books that transcended the format of The Book.

How to Make ePubs: A simple guide

So, as promised a long time ago, I’ve put together a guide for making ePubs the easy way. I’ve had a think over how best to handle this and realised that I could agonise for years and still get it wrong. So that means the best thing to do is put it out there and let you lovely lot take a look at it.

This means that a) the idea reaches some kind of milestone, b) you can get your teeth into it and c) any comments received back can be used to update and improve it.

So here is the very first version of How to Make ePubs: A simple guide. This is a guide for people who really don’t have any idea about ePub, html, CSS and the like in that it’s all explained in friendly language. The assumed level of knowledge is rather low. The reason for this is that when I was trying to work it all out myself I found it nigh on impossible to track down explanations written in plain language. There are countless amazing resources by developers and professionals but none of them set things out really simply.

The master plan is that this book helps you with the first step of making your own simple ePub. From there on it’s a brave new world of CSS and html because if you want to do the fancy stuff you have to learn code – but before you can run…

I’d absolutely love to know what you think, positive or negative. This is an idea I’ve had in my head for a while now and my only intention is to help some people. Any feedback would be simply brillig.

You can download the book for free from the following link: How to Make ePubs: A simple guide.