Saturday, 19 July 2014

And the winner is...

This year Reviver had the honour of winning the Audie Audiobook award in the Paranormal category, and it struck me how it was very much a shared honour – author, narrator, production team.

Look behind the Audie in the picture above and you’ll see a BAFTA, one that I was lucky enough to be presented with at the 2012 Video Game BAFTAs for Shogun 2: Total War. This is a more extreme case of shared honour – the development team had about 150 people. Only three get to accept the award on the night, and I was one of the few who got to shake the mighty hand of Dara O’Briain. (You can catch it on YouTube. Spot the moment where my wife (at home) was yelling at the TV for me to take my hands out of my pockets…)

But there’s an important point to be made here. With the BAFTA, I was part of a large team; with the Audie, I was part of a small team. The thing is, with Reviver the novel, I was also part of a team.

My ‘shared honour’ description in the first paragraph above is missing some people. Whenever you see the word ‘author’, don’t think of it as one person. Really, the creation of the text is a team effort. Agent, editor, copy editor, early readers – they all make a huge contribution to the final text, and without the help of a great editor a book is never going to shine.

Even once the text is locked down, the rest of the team comes into play: publicist, sales, design, and more.
Everyone who has a hand in the creation of a book deserves credit. I’m the jammy bugger who gets to take the award home...

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

You've gotta love Google Translate...

The paperback of the Spanish edition of Reviver is coming out in June:

The tagline 'la muerte no los hara callar' is based on 'Death won't silence them', which the original UK hardback used.

Google Translate renders this into something that makes me smile:

Death does not make you shut up

Now we know what to put on the cover of Book 2!

No such luck with the German edition, which is out in August; the subtitle is translated simply as 'Whispers of the Dead'.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Too much fruit and veg is bad for you, says study

You remember the study that suggested the 5-a-day fruit and veg advice should really be 7-a-day? Or even 10-a-day?

Well, I just read a study that suggested – using exactly the same methodology – that 7-a-day is WORSE for you than 3-a-day. Yes, THREE a day.

And you know what?

It was the same study.

The current coverage of the Tamiflu scandal (and £500 million fraud) is one example of science being misrepresented for gain, but the recent paper suggesting that the current five-a-day fruit and veg advice should be changed to seven-a-day was another example.

And while not in the same ballpark of atrocity, it is, I think, worth pointing a shaming finger at.

While some media reports suggested the study had problems, there was a glaring issue that meant the researchers – or at least, whoever wrote the press release – should hang their heads in shame, as should the media for not calling them on it.

Because when it was time to create a press release, they took one result from their paper and went for the spin that would get the one thing they really wanted: media coverage.

Here is the paper.

Their conclusion is actually fairly reasonable. The problem is when the press release says this:

‘The study findings imply that even those who do get their recommended quota, need to eat more’, they say. ‘Is it perhaps now time for the UK to update the ‘5 a day’ message to ‘10 a day’? they ask.

This is nonsense, and it is intentionally provocative nonsense aimed at ensuring news coverage.

(Let's face it. This is how researchers get their grants.)

Hopefully, this is especially good news to all you evil parents who thought you were damaging your kids by only managing to give them 3 a day. You are not evil. Tired, but not evil.

I’ll remind you of the study. Take 65000 people, ask them about their lifestyles, and check back in eight years to see who died.

Then, try and work out (adjusting - somehow - for age, education, BMI and others) if the risk of death correlates to intake of fruit and veg.

The media tended to quote one set of figures that suggested that, relative to the baseline risk-of-death of people who ate very little fruit and veg (less than 80g a day), your risk of death decreased as follows (portion=80g):

Eating 1-3 portions a day: reduced by 14%
Eating 3-5 portions a day: reduced by 29%
Eating 5-7 portions a day: reduced by 36%
Eating 7+ portions a day: reduced by 42%

Wow! Look at that! Eating 7+ is 42% better! It’s 6% better than 5-7, and is 13% better than 3-5! And that’s science!

But not so fast.

The media were always going to focus on the most extreme of their results, and to suggest it’s quite so clear-cut is a teeny bit of a fib.

First, there is the simple fact that averaging out results can be uninformative at best, and at worst can be damaging. The results – and hence the advice – could be very different for men and women, for example, which is the case for the advice on daily calorie intake.

Luckily, the researchers give us a few of these alternatives, restricting the results to certain groups and seeing how the figures look. And they all pretty much say the same thing, right?


The most striking example was obtained by restricting the study to what they call never-smokers: people who have never smoked regularly, which was almost half of the study population.

The headline for this is very different: too much fruit and veg is bad for you.

What? How? The figures are as follows:

Eating 1-3 portions a day: reduced by 6%
Eating 3-5 portions a day: reduced by 24%
Eating 5-7 portions a day: reduced by 28%
Eating 7+ portions a day: reduced by 23%

The first thing to note is the big jump at 3-5, going from 6% to 24% reduction, which is encouraging for those of us who try but fail to hit the five. Then, 5-7 gets a modest improvement, with a 28% reduction. But look carefully at what happens next. The 7+ group have a… 23% reduction?

Yes, the 7+ group do worse than the 3-5 group.

The simplistic conclusion from this result would be that eating seven-plus portions, for non-smokers, is WORSE for you than eating 3-5 portions.

Now, the researchers were happy to suggest that public health policy should change based on a 6% difference in one set of results. Yet in another set of results, with a 5% difference that seems to imply that eating more than seven-a-day is a BAD idea, they don’t mention it.

(Note that the non-smokers had a much reduced risk anyway, so all these figures are relative to a baseline that already has a far lower risk of death than in the general case. That's right, folks - if worrying about not eating enough veg made you so stressed you needed a fag, you have just been the victim of the Universe's twisted sense of humour.)

It would be fascinating to see the figures for the have-been-regular-smokers group, as well as the current-smokers group, as they surely have to show a much larger positive effect for 7+ than even the media-friendly overall result showed.

Also, as the media did typically suggest, the idea that you can successfully adjust the figures for age, social class, BMI, etc (and, as in one great phrase in Table 5, “adjusted for age, sex, social class, cigarette smoking, BMI and all other fruit and vegetable variables”) is stretching things somewhat.

That kind of statistical messing-about might be useful to show that there is an effect, yes, but to suggest that the result is then something people can directly apply to their own situation is misleading. Because you have adjusted the figures.

As far as I can see, the paper itself doesn’t even go into detail on what magical techniques achieve this untangling of variables.

Now, I’m no statistician, but I suspect there’s more than one way to do it, which would seem to offer the opportunity for endless after-the-fact tinkering until you get the results you want or expect. Which is handy.

Add to this the fact that several different analysis methods were used, producing notably different results. Also, the media-quoted stats excluded people who had died within one year, in an attempt to exclude those who were seriously ill and hence may have adopted some emergency dietary changes (which would make healthy food unfairly correlate to being very sick). It would be interesting to know if the choice of a one-year cutoff was made because it led to the best results... Also, though - it was a shame that the public health questionnaires they got their data from hadn't asked pertinent questions about people's actual health, like 'have you dramatically changed your diet recently because of health issues', say, or 'are you really really ill'?

Last but not least: another problem is how broad the 95% CI ranges are.

In the figures given, they provided 95% confidence intervals. These (sort-of) are the expected range of the ‘actual’ values for the figures they give (more accurately, we would be 95% sure that another similar study would produce figures in those ranges).

Broad ranges are bad news… and these are broad.

For the headline figures, we have the following percentages quoted, here with the 95% CI ranges:

1-3: 14% (5%-21%)
3-5: 29% (19%-37%)
5-7: 36% (24%-47%)
7+:  42% (29%-54%)

These are pretty wide ranges. They’re all basically plus-or-minus 10%. If we had another study showing 29% across the board for everything from 3 and up, it wouldn’t contradict these results.

At all.

And they say we should change public health policy based on this?

Of course they do.

That way, it’s news. Any other way, and the study just gets ignored.

NOTE: Some of the figures in the paper are clearly incorrect. For example, the introduction quotes 48.4% of those in the study as having never smoked regularly, in a sample of 65226, yet the figure quoted as the sample size in the never-smokers result was 43973, which is actually 67.4% of the sample.

Also, one of the analyses quotes a study size of 84,894 participants. Out of the 65226 taking part.

Another point, though: Imagine how much fun it would be to have all this data publicly searchable…

(And yes, I do have a deadline approaching, which is why I ended up spending two hours reading a paper on vegetables...)

EDIT: I just noticed that in their results table, one of the sets of results is labelled 'physical activity years only', and those results are amazing compared to the others - I mean, they're really the best set of results they have, overall.

So, what does 'physical activity years only' mean? It must be meaningful, right? Maybe it rules out really old people who don't get around so much?

No. What it means is this: out of the years the data was collected (2001-2008),  only in some of those years were there questions asked about physical activity levels (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006).

So, that amazing set of results is for, really, just a RANDOM SUBSET of the data. The physical activity questions have nothing to do with the actual results. It does, though, give them a better hook to hang the results from than just 'random years which made the results look great'. They should have tried all possible combinations and subsets, maybe there would have been something even more misleading impressive.


EDIT: I also just noticed that my description of the study itself was wrong: the data came from surveys done over 2001-2008, but all the mortality data came from 2013.

In other words, the people surveyed in 2001 had an extra seven years to die compared to those in 2008. I don't think they specified how many deaths were recorded for each of the survey years, but I would be willing to bet that the people in the 2001 study showed the most deaths.

They also don't specify if the dietary habits showed any trends across each year, but it would be worth looking to see if fruit&veg consumption in 2001 was typically lower than in later years, since that would almost certainly be the year that would experience the most deaths, thereby biasing the link between deaths and lower consumption.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Loncon3 homework

Recent SF-community strife looks to be settling again, so hopefully everyone attending Loncon3 later in the year can start to look forward to it. (In the meantime, remember to read all Internet content in the style of Adam Buxton’s BUG. Much funnier, and far less enraging.)

My first-and-only convention to date was the World SFF conference in Brighton last year, which highlighted a gaping hole in my knowledge of the genre. (I sometimes sort-of knew what people were talking about. Although, thinking about it, I get that for pretty much everything, not just SF...)

I plan to read some of the bazillion things that I Should Have Read between now and August, but this is an exercise I’ve done before.

Then, things went just-about-OK, but there were plenty of classics that I found myself shrugging at, bored by, or thought were just plain bad.

Problem is, I find myself short on patience these days, but still find it tough to stop reading a book I’m not getting on with. Reading through gritted teeth (erk) is not fun. The last to suffer this fate was Wolf Hall, which I loved until about half-way, when all my reading momentum seemed to vanish and I had no real desire to continue. (I think the not-my-cup-of-tea nature of the topic finally caught up with me.)

Books I love, I’ll read in two days. Books I hate, I’ll persevere with for weeks, until the tears set in.

Horrible truth of reading, that I spend most of my life reading books I don’t even like.

It doesn’t help that I’m a slow reader. At the World SFF con, one panel member spoke about how long a typical book might take people to read, and gave the upper bound at around six hours. I looked around the room hoping for raised eyebrows – my own rate would probably make it at least twice that.

This effectively makes novels twice as long, so I need to focus on my main preferences and hunt for the Ten Most Readable Great SF/Horror Novels Ever.

Suggestions welcome. Yes, even from you, Google Web Crawler.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Offence is good

He’s a great big kid without an ounce of tact, he’s overpaid, and he’s married to the second-coolest woman in the universe. He’s also had the outrage of the Internet poured over his head.
Why Jonathan Ross should give zero shit about the SF community’s self-harm.
Wow, it’s been a busy day in British SF fandom.
Of course, to most of the world that’s means as much as a discussion on what font to use when writing about, say, milk, but please. Other things have been happening in the world besides Syria and Ukraine.
Anyway, the story is short: the Hugos (SF fan-voted awards nobody outside SF has heard of) were going to be presented by Jonathan Ross (British chat-show host and general geek celeb).  One of the committee resigned in protest citing Ross’s prior hosting controversies. The resignation was entirely heartfelt. Supportive Twitter outrage followed. Ross stood aside. Twitter counter-outrage followed.
It was slightly creepy to watch, at first, as Ross was depicted by some as a broadly unacceptable misogynist and hater of minorities, then abused by people who had never even heard of him. Whatever your feelings of Ross’s talents, he’s a genre champion with wide (British) recognition. The (let’s face it) entirely obscure Hugos - and indeed the fairly obscure SF genre - could have done with the press.
Part of the problem was the perceived chance of Ross causing offence.
Now in any community of reasonable folk, there’s a group that is morbidly averse to causing offence. With SF fandom currently embroiled in regular batches of soul-searching disarray, that group seems to have become the loudest. Those in the middle seem to feel the pressure to keep schtum, lest they be accused of a heinous whateverism and lumped in with the loud-as-always whateverists.
Yet offence can be good. Offence can be healthy. Say something funny, and get the audience to agree: wasn’t that a little close to the bone? Wasn’t that too much?
It’s not easy. It’ll likely go a bit wrong. Even if it’s done well there’ll be a degree of apoplexy out there, amplified beyond measure in the destructive way the Internet does so well.
But if you remove all chance of offence, become so timid that any potential for it is murdered at birth? That, I would suggest, is actively bad, actively unhealthy.
It’s also - to the rest of the world - self-righteous, po-faced, and hilarious. This may not be the best face for any community to present.
Irony looms large in this story. A genre champion with huge media recognition and a massive Twitter following has been hounded out by a minority mob preaching liberal values while lobbing invention and misrepresentation. (The initial post that started the ball rolling based its damnation of Ross on him being excessively sweary in a previous hosting role, and on a Daily Mail (!) collection of prior controversies that included his observation that not enough black people were presenters on the BBC. Damning stuff!)
It’s broadly a failure of sense. No sense of proportion, and no sense of humour.
And with Ross kicked off in such a dramatic fashion, there may well be media interest. It’s a great story, after all! Maybe in a roundabout and negative way, the Hugos will get some of that much-needed press.
So, whoever gets the gig in the end, please. Please.
Offend. Wittily, affectionately, mercilessly, offend. The genre community is in dire need of it.

Monday, 13 January 2014


With the paperback of The Reviver being released on Thursday, it’s a good time to look back at how the book came about.

There are plenty of people who deserve my thanks, but the two most directly responsible for the birth of the book are bestselling British crime author Peter James, and American master of Gothic, Edgar Allan Poe.

It was back in 2004 that I joined a writing course run by Peter James, and the homework Peter gave us at the end of the first lesson was this: write the first page of a scary novel, introducing your protagonist and a murder weapon.

He’d spent much of that first lesson drilling into us the importance of grabbing your reader on page one, so I knew I needed something different. We were going to be reading our work out to the rest of the class, something I hadn’t had to do since I was at school, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I had a week to get it done, but it wasn’t going to be easy. By ‘first page’, Peter meant the first 250 words – the first page of a manuscript that a prospective agent or publisher would read. And, unless you got their attention, it could well be all that they would read.

It’s a great writing exercise, because 250 words is a lot shorter than you might think – by the time you’ve read to the end of this sentence, you’ve already read over 250 words in this blog.

Days passed, and I’d come up with nothing. The idea finally came when a friend showed me Wikipedia’s entries for specific dates, letting you see who you share a birthday with. That’s where Edgar Allan Poe came in: we were both born on January 19th. The thought of Poe brought back two of his most memorable tales: Murders in the Rue Morgue, widely considered to be the first modern detective story, and The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar, in which a man hypnotises a terminally-ill friend who then continues to speak after dying.

The image of the detective in the first story talking to the corpse from the second flashed into my head, and I had my opening! When I came to read it out, the response was fantastic.

Over the rest of the course, that one page became the first chapter. The reaction and encouragement I got from Peter spurred me on: to continue with the story, complete a novel, then hone it until the time came to send it to an agent.

It took a while, but it finally happened.

Now the paperback is coming out, appropriately enough, in the same week as Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday.

And if you want to read that first page? It’s there in the Amazon preview, and it’s hardly changed since I first wrote it.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013


The end of a big year, one that saw my first published novel, and me going full-time as a writer.

The UK paperback edition is ready to go:

With the new cover and a tweak to the title, it’s going for more of a crime look. Out 16th January, the same week as Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. It also includes a short story that was previously only available with the ebook version, called ‘The Death of Never Geary Will Be Televised’. (Which does not, be assured, feature the death of Never Geary.)

Remember, if you’ve read it and loved it, tell a billion other people! Or thereabouts.

Busy year ahead. I’m currently finishing off book 2, then I’ll be getting stuck in to the novelisation of French TV hit The Returned before rounding off the Reviver trilogy with – yes! – book 3.

So at this point of reflection, do I have any plans to change my ways in the coming year?

Well, I could vow to use Twitter and my blog more – AGAIN – but we both know where that ends up. I’ll vow to at least try and think about it. Take it, it’s the best you get.

I certainly vow to read more than I managed last year. I may have actually got the hang of stopping reading books I’m not getting along with. I still feel bad about doing it, but I finally realised that books I love I can read in two days, while books I don’t take weeks, meaning the majority of my reading life has been spent on books that just aren't for me.

That’s something I plan to change.

Finally, I vow to fit in plenty of messing about with stuff that is great fun and in no way helps to get the writing done. It always helps to commit to something you know will happen anyway.

Have a great year!