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From Sudoku to Space – a guest post by Alastair Chisholm

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We’re thrilled to have just published Orion Lost, the debut children’s novel by Alastair Chisholm, which is a hugely gripping sci-fi adventure featuring aliens, space pirates, AI, and tons of action. And today we’re excited to be sharing a piece from Alastair himself, on his journey from Sudoku to Space!
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This year started in the most awesome way, with the publication of my first novel, Orion Lost, by Nosy Crow. It’s a sci-fi adventure set on a stranded starship, with a group of children trying to figure out how to get everyone home – and who is lying to them.

Before this, I’ve written picture books for smaller children, and before that I wrote quite a lot of puzzle books for adults and kids. By day I’m a computer programmer, and I’ve been told a few times: It must be hard to switch from computer programming to writing children’s novels!

Well …

I’ve always been a bit of a nerd, and as a kid I loved reading or watching sci-fi – Nicholas Fisk, John Christopher, Jan Mark, John Wyndham, Doctor Who and Blakes 7, Star Trek and Star Wars …

There were two types of sci-fi I loved. The first was actually stories about people. In The Ennead, Jan Mark’s grim sci-fi world forces her characters into compromises and bad deals, and asks the question: what would you do to survive? Nicholas Fisk’s Trillions is as much about human paranoia as its marvellous tiny creatures. Star Wars would be nothing without Han and Leia bickering!

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“Stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!” (Han and Leia bickering in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.)

The second type was where the author added clever twists to things you thought you knew. In Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, his robots had famous Laws about what they must and must not do, but in each story a situation arose where they seemed to do something completely different. It made no sense – until the cunning Chief Robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, explained it, and showed how the Laws had actually forced them do it.

That was my introduction to computer programming. It was amazing: you could set up rules that seemed perfectly reasonable, but in this situation they’d result in something bizarre, or terrible … or sometimes super-cool.

(I loved fantasy as well, by the way. I can’t leave without saying how much I adored Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, which again was as much about people as magic. I re-read The Grey King until it literally fell apart in my hands.)

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The Grey King by Susan Cooper, re-read until it disintegrated

So I became a programmer, which is both fun and infuriating because computers always do what you tell them. They don’t think, Oh, he said to do this, but I know he didn’t actually mean right now. They just do it, and the trick is working out the rules to get them to do the right thing.

A few years later, Sudoku and other logic puzzles came along and became a world-wide craze, and I was hooked. I loved how their simple rules led to endless complex scenarios and solutions, just like the robot Laws. I learned how to create my own and published books of Sudoku, Kakuro, Hashi and others, for adults and children.

But even while neck-deep in logic puzzles and programming geekery, I was writing. I’d always enjoyed writing, in between coding sessions. And one day I thought: I should write a children’s novel.

What should it be about? I recalled the children’s books I’d loved. What was it I’d liked about them? Did they have anything in common? Well, I thought: even the sci-fi ones were really about people. The adults behaved like proper adults, with their own lives and motivations. The kids felt real – they bickered, they joked, sometimes they got stuff wrong. With two children of my own, I knew I wanted something about the way we grow up, and take on more than we can manage, and figure it out.

And a scene kept slipping into my head: a girl, waking up alone on a starship. It’s very quiet, and the lights are dimmed, and as she walks down an echoey corridor, a voice says: You have to save us.

So: mystery, adventure, sci-fi problems, people. But how did the ship get there? What was it doing? What had happened to leave this girl in command? Who were the other children?

Basically, what was the plot?

Puzzles and plotting have a lot in common. You know that feeling where you have several pieces of a puzzle, and lots of ways they could sort-of-fit, but not quite? Plotting is like that. The pieces are characters, events, scenes, dialogue. He could do this, you think. She could do that, they could go there … but then she has to come back here, and he has to say this, and then this has to happen … And the pieces can change shape. Villains can become heroic, heroes can be cruel – so maybe it’s not him that says this but her, but that would mean …

It can be maddening! But, like a puzzle, you know when the pieces aren’t quite right. You try something else, rearrange events, move conversations. And gradually you start to get a feeling that, yes, this. And when it’s right, you know it’s right.

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Caution: Writer at Work. (Homer Simpson, from The Simpsons.)

So: Is it hard to switch from computer programming to writing children’s novels? No, not at all! We computer geeks were raised on tales of future worlds. We build scenes and characters out of software. We constantly imagine situations that don’t exist, and say, yes, but what if…? We love puzzles. We can spot a plot hole at a hundred metres.

But also, you don’t have to be one thing or the other. Be both, at the same time. Take what you do and use it to make stories. Programmers can be storytellers. Artisan bakers can be storytellers. Mountaineers, accountants, artists, pig farmers, footballers, gardeners …

I’m a computer geeky, puzzle-creating storyteller. What kind are you?

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Thanks, Alastair!

You can take a look inside Orion Lost below:

 

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