The Research Trap


Over the weekend, Ash introduced me to an interesting blog post from her one-time lecture and novelist David Rain, busting the “Seven Myths of Writing. I don’t usually go in for writing advice much, partly because the craft is such a personal thing. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a book I really enjoyed, but it was “how Stephen King writes” rather than “how you should write”.

David’s approach, however, was interesting. It wasn’t advice per se, but rather challenging some common pre-conceptions. Myth number two in particular leapt out at me, “The Myth of Perfect Preparation“:

…the truth about research and planning, for fiction at least, is this: Do the minimum. Do just enough to get going, and no more… Research is a bottomless pit. If you do it without knowing where you’re going or what you need…it’ll be a long time before you write Chapter One…

Read on…

Why I don’t do NaNo


Every November, it begins. Actually, the lead up begins in the second half of October, expanding the initial event by half again. Much like Christmas, actually.

Yes, it’s NaNo. To the unintiated, that’s an abreviation of NaNoWriMo. Which in turn is an abrieviation of National Novel Writing Month. I’m not entirely sure which nation it refers to, but as with most things my first guess would be the US. At its most basic level, the aim of the game is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

This means that most years, mostly by non-writer friends and occasional dabblers, I find myself being asked “Are you doing NaNo this year?” Well, the answer is invariably no, for a few reasons.

Read on…

The Way We Write: Writing on the Go

nexus 7 writing

As previously mentioned, I do a lot of my writing on the train these days.

I have a hour and a half commute to and from work Monday through Friday which (stormageddon aside) includes an hour long train journey. Getting on at the first station at each end means that I always get a seat, so it’s an excellent and regular space of time in which I can focus on whatever I like. I try to split this time between reading and writing, usually — but not exclusively — writing on the morning commute, and reading on the way home.

Since I’ve developed a little bit of a system to allow me to do this as efficiently as possible, I thought I might as well share it.

Read on…

The Way We Write: an (almost) foolproof back-up method

synctoy backup

One of the ongoing fears of writing, is of a computer glitch — or catastrophic failure — wiping out hours of your work. It’s a statistical inevitability, that the more you write the probability of you losing a few thousand words (or worse) approaches one.

It’s why we have a thousand back ups on CDs, pen drives and emailed to ourselves (on floppy disks, back in the day). It’s why we’ve delved into our Microsoft Office settings and changed the autosave interval to one minute. And we’d make it more frequent if we could.

There are a lot of work-arounds for this little problem. None are infallible, though some are very creative. But here is the one I use.

Read on…

Chips and Gravy

chips and gravy

I worry that I don’t read enough.

It’s not a new worry, or even strictly simply that I don’t think I do enough reading. I have always been plagued by a fear that I do not read widely enough, that the books I pick up aren’t varied enough. And as a writer, it’s one of a clutch of fears which pursue me like the hounds of hell.

A great man once said:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

And whilst as a breed I regard so-called writing rules as largely hokum, but this one rings true. This one I would put my faith in.

Read on…

Batteries Recharged


So, for those of you who didn’t already know, I spent the last week in the gloriously sunny Portuguese town of Faro. Tucked away on the southern coast, it was beautifully sleepy at the same time as being exotically different. And the end result is that I have come back to the (ironically rainy) United Kingdom feeling newly energised.

In the course of a week, I have seen old buildings with paint flaking; a chapel made of skulls and bones; how Mediterranean locales really wake up at about eight or nine in the evening; what it feels like to walk through a place recognisable, but distinctly alien.

It is experiences like these which, to me, make an excellent holiday. I’m not someone who wants to go to the resorts, the Benidorm-style well-worn  Brits-abroad locales. Growing up, my mother always told me “A change is as good as a rest“, something which I have taken to heart; those views off the beaten track are usually those worth seeing.

And I think that’s a big thing which drives me as a writer.

Whilst I was away I had the fantastic news that one of my stories would be published. Those moments are always brilliant, like thermal draughts which lift me up from the doldrums of thinking that it’s all a waste of time and that I’m getting nowhere. But whilst those highs are good for boosting my resolve (and, I’m sure, the resolve of my fellows), it isn’t the fuel in the tank which drives me.

One of the main things I’ve been aware of in writing is that I am an experience-seeker. The mantra “write what you know” is often misunderstood, but there is a real ring of truth to it. It is in the experiences, in seeing the difference, that I find the inspiration to write the edgy, meaningful and engaging stories which I set my sights on.

And that was an itch which Faro has definitely scratched. I return to these shores not only buoyed by a publishing success, but with four immediate ideas for pieces, and memories which will fuel a lifeline more.

Once more, as the bard wrote, unto the breach!

A Note on Iain Banks


The first book that I read by Iain (M.) Banks was Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture series, whilst I was still at college. I can still remember it, on the shelf at the library. Shades of blue, standing out against smaller, less imaginative novels. I was immediately hooked and read it in a fevered rush, consuming it like oxygen.

I then didn’t read another Banks’ novel for a few years. My girlfriend, in her infinite bookish wisdom, handed me a battered copy of The Wasp Factory, telling me that it would change how I looked at fiction. She was right.

So I am, as I type this, truly devastated at Iain’s announcement today that he has terminal cancer, and has been given only “several months” to live. I don’t really know how to begin saying what a blow this is to the world of literature — and judging by the dominance of a single issue on my Twitter feed today, I don’t need to — but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to acknowledge how Iain’s writing has enriched my life.

I actually met Iain, at a literary event at Middlesex University in 2009. At the time, Ashleigh had settled on it as her first choice of university and he was the guest of honour at their (then-)annual literary festival. Of course we went, and listened to Iain talk about his life, his books, and writing in general.

We even got our photo with him.

So I am, as I said, devastated that the world is going to lose such a gifted writer, the genre is going to lose a visionary, and the world is going to lose an uncommonly kind man. It would be disingenuous to cite Iain Banks as my only or even chief influence, but he is one of an army of writers who inspired me to pick up my pen. And his fiction has taught me a great deal about how to do it well.

So thank you Iain. You have no clue who I am, but you have shaped me a lot. Thank you for all the books and all the entertainment over all the years. I hope that your last months amongst us are everything that you want them to be.

You will be very sorely missed.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Like a lot of other aspiring and working writers, I do an awful lot of submitting. I submit my stories to magazines and anthologies, having several submissions out at any one time. And, of course, I get a lot of rejections.

When I got my first rejection of a piece of fiction I had written, I was ecstatic. I was an excited 18 year old student, with aspirations of grandeur. The rejection wasn’t anything special, just a form slip saying that sorry, this story wasn’t for them.

Your first rejection makes you an actual serious writer. It is celebrated, and the story eagerly re-edited and re-submitted. But after a few, it gets harder to take it as a victory. After nearly four years, it can be downright discouraging.

The majority of places do issue form rejections, and this is every bit as understandable as it is disappointing to the unsuccessful writer — of course, these places get hundreds of submissions a month, and can’t possibly write personalised responses to everyone.

A select few only respond if they decide to accept your story. Personally, I find this incredibly rude and won’t submit there. I get that there’s an element of busyness, but how long does it really take to copy and paste a paragraph into an email?

Then, there are the rare gems who give out personal rejections. When it was alive, this was one of the things I loved about Murky Depths. Not only did they publish excellent fiction and comics, but they always had time to give a few words of why the story wasn’t for them. And they always managed to phrase it in an honest, yet encouraging, way.

For that, Terry Martin and his team, have my eternal gratitude.

Yesterday, I received one of the most encouraging rejections I’ve had. It wasn’t much, just two simple sentences that a human being had taken the time to write:

[X] is not the best fit for us. It is more a work of art than a story. The right publisher is going to love it.

Which put a smile on my face to rival that of my very first rejection.

Making it as a writer is not an easy path, but it is a well-trodden one. Every story is a labour of effort and love, and those publishers who understand and recognise that are in a large part what keeps me going. So thank you.

Laurie Penny, Game of Thrones, and the Necessity of Conflict

Laurie Penny’s rantings against the awful unpleasantnesses in Game of Thrones massively miss the point.

I like Game of Thrones. I like it rather a lot. I was sceptical when it first arrived, thinking it would be another Lord of the Rings rip-off (I hadn’t read the books, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which it is based). But over the course of its 10-episode first season run, it seduced me with its gritty intrigue, excellent acting, and casual disregard for the wellbeing of characters to whom I had become attached- so much so that I rushed out and bought the DVD box set when it was released.

Laurie Penny, however, doesn’t seem quite as enthusiastic about it, if her latest New Statesman column is anything to go by.

Ms Penny’s writing frequently inflames, agitates and sometimes inspires many across the political spectrum, but I confess I’m usually pretty indifferent to her. I’m a NS subscriber, and I read her columns along with the rest of it, but they don’t seem to ever incite much emotion in me. But I see now it was just a matter of time.

In her article “Game of Thrones and the Good Ruler complex”, she manages to labour a spurious point and misconstrue the entire nature of fiction and storytelling, in an effort to criticise the monarchy by comparing it to Game of Thrones, which she calls “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons“. Which is perhaps a truth, but certainly not a whole truth.

Here, I think, is my favourite part of her article:

If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.

How many of you responded to that with some variation on “Erm…wow…“. It’s hard to know where to start in taking that particular gem to pieces, but how about here: if every piece of fiction was set in a lovely, perfect utopia, then it would get very boring, very fast.

I say this as a writer and a reader, you cannot have meaningful stories without conflict and friction. It’s what makes Game of Thrones so interesting, and keeps it from just being Ned Stark having tea with Robert and Cersei, whilst discussing the fact that it’s getting a little nippy.

You also can’t take everything so damn literally. Writers use metaphors of different types, and very often the entire story is an extended metaphor. I write horror and science-fiction, so very often I’m writing about nasty and unpleasant things. I’m not doing so because I want to say that those things are right- very often its the opposite. Similarly, just because George R. R. Martin has rape, racism, murder, and other unpleasantness in his stories does not mean that he agrees with them.

In terms of Game of Thrones itself, I’m not completely convinced that the amount of sex is Martin’s fault. HBO isn’t known to shy away from sex (True Blood, anyone?), and the sad truth is that we’re a bit sex-obsessed as a society. In a more primal society such as Martin’s Westeros, that’s going to be emphasised.

I could also highlight how much better a job Game of Thrones does in portrayal of women than, say, Lord of the Rings. Tolkein’s masterwork has a grand total of two female main characters, one of whom spends most of the time sobbing, and the other who spends most of it trying to stab things with swords. Game of Thrones boasts characters such as Queen Cersei, Brienne of Tarth, Catelyn, Sansa and Arya Stark, Shae, and so on. Not all good people, but a full range of characters. Like the real world.

I don’t doubt there are legitimate concerns about the potrayal of social issues in Game of Thrones. But Laurie Penny’s objections are nothing short of infantile.

Abominations Magazine #1 Published

The debut issue of Abomination Magazine

My writing doesn’t seem to be going all that badly of late, which besides being nice for me makes a nice break from politics-themed blogs.

Anyway, I announced last month that Abomination Magazine had accepted one of my stories for their debut issue, and today I can tell you that said issue has been published. It is currently available for Kindle at the frankly bargain price of £1.30. And for that you get a selection of other delectable stories.

My own offering is entitled “Whispers in the Skin Gardens“, and without giving too much away it’s a dark SF story, about biotech gone slightly mad.

If you buy and read it (which, of course, you should) I would love it if you’d let me know what you think. And if you want to put a review on Amazon, that’d be great too.

But above all, please enjoy. And don’t have nightmares.