The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?


In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.


They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

How long does it take to write a novel?

So how long does it take to write a novel?

National Novel-Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, to the initiated – is in full swing and I hope those of you that have joined this year’s challenge are getting along swimmingly. I’ve never tried it myself. Nothing against it; I’m just happy with my own way of working and don’t feel the need for this sort of mission.

The aim of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. Possible? Yeah, I guess. But to write a good novel takes longer. That’s because getting words down on the page is only a fraction of the whole task, and not the first one either. The NaNo organisers themselves advise that you prepare by getting some idea of where you want to go in your story. And that work can continue on the project long after the onset of December.

So how long does it take to write a novel? Well, I’ve been working on Night Shift for two and a half years now –

Except that’s not actually true. It’s been two and a half years since I first started typing the first draft. But that was only after I’d abandoned a hand-written attempt. And that itself was after the hours spent lying in bed thinking about the damn thing in the first place. So… maybe three or four years, that’s how long I’ve been working at it.

Chivalry’s been longer. That’s had around six years of work. The only good thing is that you can work on more than one project at once, alternating between drafts.

The actual creation of the first draft is a relatively speedy process. Night Shift only took something like a month and a half to bring to life (63,000 words in its initial form). Just think – something from nothing in under two months. That’s kind of magical, and the act of creation has to be one of the most exciting, wonderful things a human being can do.

But a first draft is nothing. Unless you’re a staggering genius, a first draft will have massive errors and little of merit except its own potential. So it’s back to the forge, hammering and smelting and folding and annealing, testing and sharpening all the way. And it’s always important to emphasise how useful putting the damn thing away and working on something else for a while is to the process. You know what you’re trying to do; what you need is a bit of perspective to help identify where and why you haven’t quite got it right.

Night Shift is now hovering around the 78,000 word mark. Those extra 15k didn’t come from nowhere (and by way of comparison Chivalry’s been cut from 150k to around 137k); the changes have come because they’ve helped make the story more rounded and satisfying. And that all takes time, and the will to improve your work.

I don’t want to be spending my whole life working on the same few projects, endlessly rewriting and polishing and never getting it out. There are many other novels that I want to write. So it’s my hope that what I’m learning on the journey are the sort or tricks and tools that help shorten the process. I think instinct is often the word we give to experience. Knowing what works and what doesn’t, what ideas have depth and what are resoundingly non-stick, is a question of this experience.

So how long does it take to write a novel? God knows. I’m still to finish my first.

My writing process

It’s blog tour day! And that means an extra blog-post for all you lucky, lucky people. No freewheeling, rambling inanities today; there is Structure, and Questions, and (possibly) Revelation.

I should start by thanking Gabby Aquilina, for ‘twas she who invited me to take part. You can read her entry at gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk; please do visit and spread the word. For we are not rich, haughty authorly aristocrats but the mere unpublished (or self-published) peasants who crave all scraps of attention and wallow in the Bog of Eternal Rejection.

And without further ado…                

What am I working on?

Regular blog-readers will know that I’m currently doing a root-and-branch revision of Australis, the second in a trilogy of novels set in near-future Antarctica. The three books (which start with Night Shift and conclude with New Gods) are all a blend of science-fiction, murder mystery and psychological thriller.

I’m also – still – trying to get Chivalry into publishable shape. I’ve been working on this on and off for the past seven years and, at 135,000 words or so, is what Baldrick would probably call my ‘magnificent octopus’. That’s an adventure set partly in modern day (alternative?) Bradford and partly in a computer recreation of the Crusades.

Finally, I have a new work currently gestating in the murky depths of my mind. If I don’t get distracted by another new idea, it’ll be another adventure – possibly YA – set in a Victorian-style Fenland. If I ever get round to actually writing anything you’ll be sure to find out here first.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Firstly I should say that genre exists more in the mind of publishers, agents and bookstores than it does in the minds of authors and readers. I’ve never really put too much stock in the established tropes of fiction – not in that regard, at least. I want to write what I want to write.

That said…

The Night Shift trilogy is different in a number of ways. It doesn’t really belong anywhere; the sci-fi element is minimal, being used only to support the (very human) plot. The setting is unusual: MacLean’s (excellent) Ice Station Zebra and the film The Thing are probably the closest parallels. Finally, the protagonist isn’t a hot-shot detective or some grizzled veteran but a relatively young loner, lost and troubled by traumas of the past. His development over the course of the three books is something I’m really keen to get right.

Then there’s ‘the voice’. All authors have their own voice, and only the very finest satirists and parodists can imitate another’s style convincingly (Boris Akunin is the best ‘pasticher’ I know). An author’s words are like the brush-strokes of an artist; the rhythms and timings of the prose are as distinctive as Van Gogh’s thick oils.

I’ve always leant hugely on my personal classics for inspiration. Andre Norton, Philip K. Dick, Roger MacBride Allen, Bernard Cornwell, Dorothy L. Sayers – I’ve stolen from them all. I guess really my voice is a composite of every book I’ve ever enjoyed, in addition to a sprinkling of my very own fears and neuroses.

Why do I write what I do?

God knows. I’ve really no idea. I guess it comes down to all the books I’ve ever read. I’ve also a massive interest in history, and that provides an almost infinite selection of ‘what if?’ questions – and I do usually start with such a posit, hence my self-description as a writer of speculative fiction rather than sci-fi or thriller or whatever. For example, my starting point for Chivalry was the question ‘what if someone lived by the rules of Chivalry within the modern world?’ I can’t say what question inspired Night Shift as it contains spoilers. It was there, though.

I also dream desperately. At least four projects have been directly inspired by dreams, and in the stories I tell myself in order to slip off into sleep.

More simply, I write because creativity is embedded in my core and I’m no good at anything else. I’ve tried art, music and acting over the years, but now I’ve come to realise that I’m too old, too ugly and too crap to be anything but a writer. I have such a massive need to speak, to express myself; I guess that over the years I’ve thought myself voiceless so often and I’ve slipped into writing as a way to communicate… to communicate myself. I want to be understood, I want to explain the way I work. Gradually, as other options faded away, I’ve come to realise that this is my metier.

How does your writing process work?

Badly. No, not really. Just… well, a little chaotically, I suppose. I don’t plan. I get my idea and mould that rough core into something workable and logical. For Night Shift I began with the setting and then worked backwards to divine what kind of world could generate such a situation. Then I might sit down and sketch outlines of the major characters; again, this is more practical that inspirational. ‘Right, what crew are needed to keep this Antarctic base running?’ I might never look at my notes after I start in earnest.

I start the actual writing when I have a protagonist, an antagonist and a vague idea where I want the piece to finish. I’ll usually begin when I can visualise a scene so strongly that it can’t not be written. And then carry on to the bitter end. It’s only then I’ll really work on the words. I also rely on friends and family to beta-read and tell me where I’m going wrong.

I work part-time, so have enough free hours to write five days a week, either in the mornings or afternoon depending on my shift. In the mornings I’m sharper but have less time. I’m often dopey in the afternoons, but having more time allows me to work at my own steady pace.

I always, always, write to music. Silence is too loud. I like good ol’ rock and indie, with slices of folk and metal thrown in for good measure. I can write to most things, but it can’t be too ‘wordy’. It also takes a bit of time for me to ease new albums into heavy rotation. Unfortunately familiarity is best, but I do try and vary the patterns as much as possible.

How much I do in a session varies dramatically. I’ll admit to being a word-count obsessive, but I don’t have targets. I work to the laws of the local bus service. It’s also tremendously satisfying to see the word-count go down as that almost always means you’re making things better.

I prevaricate to the nth degree. I’m always pausing to wash up, put the kettle on or to just pace around the room. I’m a big fan of this, especially where the thinking is hard. I like to give the subconscious time to mull things over…

Coming next…

Right, that’s my tuppence chucked in the well. Next week will be the turn of…

David F. Chapman – writer, game designer, editor, publisher and all-round control freak. He is probably best known for his work as game designer on the award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game for Cubicle 7 Entertainment, and as line developer on Conspiracy X 2.0 for Eden Studios.

He has also worked on such games as Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Terra Primate, and his game systems have been adapted for use in the official Primeval RPG and Rocket Age. He also produced such comics as Missing, and D’Adventures of ISRAELI for renowned comic artist D’Israeli, and will be publishing his forthcoming roleplaying game of dreamshare, WILD.

Find his blog at autocratik.blogspot.co.uk. He is a man of rare wit, intelligence, and subtlety.


Liah Thorley –Liah currently lives in Abingdon, in the soggiest county in England. She writes historical fiction and has two finished novels, though hasn’t actually got round to doing anything with them as yet. Her themes range from historical romance to the more supernatural with vampires and time travel. Her third novel is sitting under her desk waiting for her papers for a part time Masters in History to be done for the year. 

You can find more at liahthorley.com.

Please check both these folks out – great writers both, and lovely people to boot. Also check out #mywritingprocess on Twitter for more instalments.

The third rule

The third rule:

Thou Shalt Join a Writing Group. And Thou Shalt Take Time to Find the Right Group for You. And Lo! Thine Words Shall Flow.

Ahem. Yes. The third rule is that you get feedback on your work before showing it to the people who matter.

It’s certainly possible to become a good – nay, great – writer on your own, in your room, beavering away in silence with only your MA in Creative Writing for company. The annals are littered with the names of the illustrious who’ve done such a thing – or many such things. And there’s no reason you can’t either. But take it from me, getting feedback on your work is a surefire way to get better quickly.

Writing groups seem, to my ignorant eyes, to be a fairly new phenomena, but the idea is as old as the hills. Wasn’t Frankenstein first performed in such a circle, sheltering huddled in an Alpine fastness? What was the Bloomsbury group but a way of exchanging ideas and feedback in a London ripe with zeitgeist? These examples – and I’m sure you can add more – can perhaps be seen as the prototypes from which a proliferation of groups have exploded in the last decade.

Seriously. Go on the internet. Type in ‘writing groups [name of town/region]’ and see what comes up. Even if you’re living in a cave in the Bora Bora mountains you’ll be able to find lots of groups that ‘meet’ online and all of whose interactions are carried out on the intraweb. You can barely escape the buggers. Don’t like the internet? Well, I’d be curious to know how you’re reading this, but anyway – just go into your nearest bookshop (indie for preference – they’re better about things like this) and ask. Simples.

When I first started writing seriously I joined a group based around people from my local Ottokar’s. That folded after a few months and I seriously considered joining a bigger one. But I didn’t. And that’s because I couldn’t really see what such a group could do for me. I bet that’s what you’re asking yourself now, isn’t it? Be honest. Why should I give my time to join a group when I already know how to write – when I’m at home with my craft?

It’s a fair question. And to some extent the answer depends on finding the right group for you. Because all these groups might be called something similar (the words ‘Writing Group’ is a clue), but the way they operate might be completely different. But here’s a quick outline of some of the things you can gain from joining:


Technical advice

A reason for writing



Feedback on your work


A different perspective

A deeper understanding of ‘foreign’ genres

The Ottokar’s group I mentioned earlier mainly revolved around writing exercises – given out one meeting, reviewed the next. This was great fun, and in my memory I produced some really nice stuff – now sadly lost. But that’s not the best way to go about it, I think. A year and a half ago, when I moved to Abingdon, I joined the local group in part to give myself something to do in this curious little town. And in that year and a half my writing has improved greatly.

The format of the meetings is this: each fortnight we meet up in the proverbial church hall – pubs work well too – and any of us are free to bring an extract of our work; around 1,000 words. We then take it in turns to read this section, and then the rest of the group will provide feedback. And then we move to the next person.

The group is made up of eighteen people, and average attendance is somewhere from eight to twelve – the ideal number. Four or five people will read in a session. As with Fight Club, new members have to read .There are drawbacks, which I’ll get to later, but for now let me spell out the advantages.

First of all, feedback. Instant, unvarnished feedback on the section you’ve read. What works, what doesn’t. I still remember my first reading; I took the opening of Chivalry and saw it criticised for being too confusing, for not having a real sense of ‘here’. This can be painful. And the critics might, of course, be wrong. But it’s always a good idea to listen, to hear this, as they’re usually right.

Other readers are also excellent at picking out what you’re not good at, be it technical issues such as punctuation or formatting or aspects such as dialogue, It took me some time to realise that my dialogue was lacking, and since that was pointed out to me (twice) I knew I had to work harder on it. The result? Rapid (I hope) improvement.

It’s also incredibly good for you to give feedback to other people. This is a massively under-explored area, I feel. It’s really beneficial as a writer to look critically at the work of others, to see what’s working and what isn’t – and why that might be. It’s especially interesting to look at other genres or forms such as poetry and scriptwriting. I can’t overstress how helpful it is to push out of your comfort zone a little; even if you never write their yourself, to think about things in a whole different way can set you down roads you never knew existed.

I’m lucky to be in a group that’s good at balancing criticism with encouragement. It’s pointless to surround yourself with people who say everything is brilliant – that’s no help at all. Neither is it helpful to face a constant barrage of disparagement. Take your time, try out different groups, explore. You have to find a group that’s right for you, and that can take a little time. At this point I guess I’m supposed to say ‘if you don’t find one, set up your own’, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be bothered. So I won’t waste my breath.

The big disadvantage of the setup I’ve described? Well, if you’re a novel-writer you’re working with small extracts only. So, unless you read your whole work in bite-sized chunks, there’s no real feel for plot or character arcs. There’s no real answer for this – but there’re often people in the same position who’ll be willing to do novel-exchanges. And, if there are enough, you can form your own little spin-off ‘Fiction Action Group.’

And the Lord Spaketh: Go Forth and Multiply Thy Words. Take Communion With Thy Brethren in Letters, and All Shall Reap The Rewards.


*          *          *

Just a quick reminded that next week I’ll be hosting the finale of Marissa De Luna’s ‘blog tour.’ Her novel The Bittersweet Vine is being launched on Monday (28/10/13) in London. The previous instalments of her tour can be found, as she describes…

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog.http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from Hockey player to author.

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on the 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog.http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

And finally… Stop 6 will feature the last part of the author interview on Robin Triggs blog, A writer’s Life on the 31st October.  Robin is another talented writer. I have read two of his manuscripts and can’t wait to read the third. The minute you read his blog – even if you don’t write – you will want to pick up a pen. Witty and insightful it’s a great read!

(Marissa’s words, not mine – thanks Marissa!)

Let’s talk about sex

Sex. Yes, dirty word, sex. I’d like to thank the geniuses behind some of our biggest e-book retailers for inspiring this weeks’ column. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24491723.

The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Delta of Venus…Classics? Well, I’ve only read one of them (I’ll let you guess which) but certainly they’ve all come in for plenty of flak in their time. They’ve all been banned. They’ve all been accused of encouraging (or exemplifying) ‘moral degeneracy’.

As I said, I’ve only read one of them – but I’ve read a lot in my time, read a lot of sex, and I think I’m moderately normal and no more degenerate than the rest of the herd. In fact, my first encounter with the adult world was through books. Of course, I’m not talking about the sort of things that’ve caused Kobo to temporarily suspend their entire self-published list. But take another look at the titles I’ve listed above: pederasty? Check. Homosexuality? Check and check. Public masturbation? You get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think books about incest should appear on the screen when someone enters the word ‘daddy’. You have the right to be offended by this. But the stupidity lies on the fault of the companies, not the authors. Especially not by authors who made no attempt to hide the nature of their works.

Which leads me ask: why is it so notoriously hard to write a good sex scene?

Sex is one of the most natural things in the world. Most people who are looking to put out books will have had it at some point. It’s been depicted in the cinemas for decades, either via insinuation or full exposure and all degrees in between. So why do authors struggle so?

There are, I think, two aspects to good sex. One is the mechanical pleasures – the fleshly sensations of squishing together with your partner. The other is the emotional: the reading of the senses, the instincts for touch, for whispers: that which bonds you (or not, if you’re writing a different kind of scene) to your partner and has very little to do with sticking it in and wiggling around a bit.

I’ve never written a sex scene – not what I’d call a proper full-on graphic account of hot hard rumpy-pumpy. I was planning on putting two in Chivalry, but when it came to it I ducked out. This is partly because I believe that the most vital images are in the readers’ head and, with a good enough set-up, the reader will create anything better than I could. In this regard I’m influenced heavily by American films from the 40s and 50s, when the Hays Code was in force and film-makers were severely constrained as to what they could show on-screen. The response was to insinuate sex: oh, Lauren Bacall! Those classic films noir; never more than a kiss, but the subtext…

The other main reason for not writing sex – and, indeed, it can stop people writing at all – is that someone’s going to read what you’ve done. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It may seem obvious – of course it’s obvious – but you’ve got to show what you’ve done to other people. Writing is a terribly personal thing. It’s so exposing. You’re putting your heart and soul into every word; the characters are a part of you – and not necessarily a nice part. It takes courage to present others with what you’ve done; you’re exposing your naked flesh to the world.  And sex – especially anything even faintly ‘other’ – can be a step too far for an author.

I’m a member of a writing group. Every month or so I’ll take an extract of my writing and read it out. I’ll then get instant feedback from a disparate group of people (alright, not that disparate. I do live in Oxfordshire). I’ve never tried a sex scene out on them. I’ve never heard anyone else try it either. It’s not at all as if we’re prudish (I’ve dropped a few ‘c’-bombs and an ‘mf’-bomb in my time to a complete lack of flabbergastedness) but still – how comfortable would I be about this?

And then there’s the fact that my parents read my work. Hi, Mum, if you’re reading this.

So why should you write sex? Why even try? Well, for one thing, sex is normal. Lots of people do it. It can very quickly look as if you’re a bit strange if you constantly skirt around the edges. And it’s popular. Who doesn’t like a good sex scene? And it can be comic, or threatening, or boring…

And that’s the real reason. And it’s why a good sex scene is one that shows how people are thinking: not only is it more involving, a good sex session can tell us far more about the novel’s protagonist(s) then almost any other type of scene. It shows us if they’re happy, dull, adventurous, dangerous… It can set up a novel (disappointing sex showing us the character is at the start of his journey), or be the big game-changing valedictory fuck in the middle. It is an incredibly useful tool for letting us know the dynamics of a relationship.

So why do authors get them so wrong?

The two main sins, I feel are to either be too mechanical (‘I did this. She did that. I cried out in joy…’) or to get all poetic and ‘literary’. I suppose this happens because – well, it’s what writing is, right? To find new, true, ways of saying what we all know; to describe events – ordinary or extreme – with subtlety and insight. That’s the aim. And a lot’s been said about sex over the years. How many new ways of describing the act can we come up with? ‘He ploughed her fertile delta, wondering – always wondering, dreaming, delighting, fearing – whether this time, this time, his seed would find purchase in her soil.’

So: problems technical and personal. That’s why so many people duck sex or write it badly. My advice? For what it’s worth, always keep in mind that these aren’t robots you’re describing (unless they are) – they’re people and have reasons for wanting – or just having – sex. And those reasons tell us a lot about the person you’re inhabiting.

My favourite sex scene? Actually, I don’t think it’s that erotic, but in the context of wonderfully drawn romance, my props go to Jane Fletcher and The Walls of Westernfort.

That is all.

The first rule

The first rule of write club is that you do not talk about write club.

The second rule of write club is –


Hang on a moment. That’s not the first rule. The first rule for writers is that you must write.


You’re a writer because you write, right? It’s what makes you what you are. Of course I understand that many people want to write but haven’t got round to it yet, haven’t found the time – but if they’re not doing it they’re not writers. In the same way that I’m not a rock star or an international cricketer or a lesbian.


I sometimes wonder if writing shouldn’t be seen in the same way as a mental illness, or as an addiction like smoking. Antisocial? Check. Habit forming? Most definitely. Somewhat smelly? Well, I don’t want to get too close to you.


Writing isn’t something you just do. It’s a compulsion, a dark, dirty secret done furtively on one’s own – often (if I’m to believe what I read) done at night, or in the early hours of the morning when the rest of the family’s asleep. The first time you come to it you might choke over the words, sit despondent and disillusioned in front of a blank screen. But if you get just fifty words down – or one line of poetry, or a spider-diagram of where you’re going – then that’s something you didn’t have beforehand. And the second day is always, always easier.


See, that’s the thing. The further you get, the more you do, the more you want to do. The first few sessions are the hardest. Of course, later on you’ll find plot problems and you have days when it’s just not flowing. But in essence, once you’ve started, once you’ve got the scent of a story in your nostrils, stopping becomes much harder than starting.


I’m not the most disciplined writer. The average hour-and-a-half session is usually eroded by an unfeasibly large number of coffee-breaks, of washing-up intermissions and the like. You wouldn’t believe how much time I can waste just by deciding what music I’m going to have on. I excuse this idleness by saying that my subconscious needs time to chew things over, which I think is true and is rarely mentioned in ‘how-to’ books.


But with the odd exception I write five days a week every week, either before or after work depending on my shift. Every week is pretty much the same: Monday’s a – well, struggle is perhaps too strong a word, but Monday is always my least productive day. Just two days off (I do like to spend some quality time with my partner) and I’ve lost the thread. Takes time to reconnect, to draw back the reins, consult the map and compass. It’s a slow limp forwards. One of the horses has lost a shoe, have to back up slightly realign the traces.


But Friday – Friday, on the other hand, can be a great day. Not just because I have the weekend ahead of me but because I’m straight in the zone and know exactly where I’m heading.


In theory, at least. It’s never quite that simple, but you get the idea.


All of which is why I hate taking time off. I hate finishing a project because I’m floundering for something to give my energies to. All the advice is to rest, or to ‘prove’, a completed project for six months before going over it again, so you can see what’s worked and what hasn’t. You need that time to get out of the flush of elation and have lost the blinkers you need to wear whilst you’re drafting. I’m not so good at that. I’m too eager. I have to force myself to play games and eat chocolate instead of writing. It don’t feel right not to be tapping away. Even a week is too long.


Which is why I always have about three projects on the go at once.


At the moment I’m busy on the first draft of my new novel, New Gods. That’s all I’m working on right now, chucking out something like 5,000 words a week. In the background I also have Australis to butcher. That’s my next mission. Another run-through of Night Shift is needed, and of course there’s Chivalry. The latter two are so nearly finished it almost hurts. Sometimes it feels like I’m schizophrenic, trying to keep three or four worlds in my head at the same time, each with a different set of characters with different needs and temperaments. And at any moment my priorities can change: a request for a manuscript will send me scampering back to Night Shift. A new idea could rear in my head, as ignorable as Mothra. Very little stability in this writing world of ours.


I bloody love it.


Because I’m a writer. I write. And the real world never stood a chance.

I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

There’ve been many stories about the end of civilisation. Right back to War of the Worlds (Wells), through Day of the Triffids (Wyndham) and on to Mostly Harmless (Adams), writers have delighted in killing lots and lots of people. And the trend sees no sign of ending. Even my own work, Chivalry, has the end of nations as its backdrop.


Why is this? What is it in the imagination that leads us to such grim speculation?


I guess that part of it is that there’s something in all of us that shares the fear. There’s a common knowledge (rightly or wrongly) that we are constantly walking at the edge of the abyss. We all have so many worries, many stoked by the media, that we are about to enter a new Dark Age. So it’s easy to come up with a world-destroying mechanism that people will accept, will buy into. We’ve also learned so much more about our planet and the solar system we live in; we’re now so aware of the possibility of a supervolcano plunging us into an instant Ice Age or of a comet doing to us what one did for the dinosaurs so many years ago.


So destroying civilisation is easy and believable.


Another reason is that there are so many ways to tell the story. The hero can be trying to prevent the end of the world, or to rebuild some sort of society or just trying to survive. Or the story could pick up years later, like Tim Arnot’s story Wanted.


Maybe a lot of us subconsciously want society to fracture. We are, after all, a product of millions of years of evolution and for most of this time we’ve lived as small groups. It’s been suggested that humans struggle mentally when living with more that a hundred other people. Which is why most of us know, are related to, interact with, no more than that number despite being surrounded by so many more. And no, Facebook doesn’t count.


Of course, the world in microcosm has already ended many times. The Minoan civilisation ended as a (probable) consequence of the Santorini eruption around 1600 BCE. Believers in climatic determinism can cite a dozen more examples, and once upon a time I knew them too. I’m fairly certain that various collapses in Chinese dynastic history can be linked with periods of famine and environmental downturn.


These events, real or imagined, can provide great inspiration for writers. As well as a ‘true’ historical account of events at the time of great disasters, it’s at least moderately easy to transplant these disasters into different times or places. How about moving the effects of Santorini to Victorian London, or onto a brand new space-station posted at the edge of the solar system?


One of the major sources of inspiration for Chivalry was an academic book called Brittania: The Failed State. Written by Stuart Laycock, it tries to explain why the British abandoned the culture of Rome after the legions had gone. Maybe this is only of academic interest, but I find it fascinating. Laycock’s ideas may not be accepted by the people who matter, but it makes for a good convincing story.


For me, what really ‘clicked’ was the idea of people naturally reverting to old tribal boundaries once an overarching authority had been removed. And that’s what Chivalry became. Not the story: that always remained focussed on the small group of people I’d centred the tale around. But the background. The slow descent into anarchy.


I was always intending to write a sequel (which was going to be called Feudalism until someone said it was a not-very-good title) which showed the transition to a tribal society. That’s not happened. I did start it, and do some planning, but the idea’s stalled. The major problem for me is that I feel I’ve exhausted one of the main devices in Chivalry, which was to set part of the novel in a computer recreation of the Crusaders. Logically I can’t see a way to crowbar that sort of thing into a sequel. But without it I’m missing something; a spark, a flame – something to maintain the thrill of the first book.


Maybe my history books will provide the answer.

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.


We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.


Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.

On Ideas

No-one’s ever asked me where I get my ideas from. I guess that’s because the people I talk to about writing have tonnes of ideas of their own, so they don’t talk about it much. But it’s always struck me that this question – where do ideas come from? – is wrong. Fundamentally so. Because ideas are all around us. Seriously, if you’ve any sort of enquiring mind you’ll barely be able to walk a hundred paces without being assailed with ideas.

Take that wall you’re strolling casually past. Why was that built? When? Who might live behind it? Oh, that’s a cool-looking alley. I wonder who might lurk down there?

See? Ideas all around us.

I think people who don’t write sometimes have this image of writers (and artists, musicians, actors etc) as people who are somehow different, that we see the world in a different way.  I’ll tell you now we’re not and we don’t. Everyone, everyone, is jam-pack full of ideas, whether it’s how to deal with an annoying colleague or how to improve on some new gizmo that’s just been produced by the engineering department. Ideas are cheap. They’re nothing special. And 99% of them aren’t worth much.

The trick is to have a second idea.

Take your average novel. Think about it. How many ‘ideas’ are in one book? In the crudest terms you’ll have at least three: you’ll have plot, setting and character(s), and each aspect requires a different way of thinking, of inspiration.

This is why I’ve so far been unable to write my great historical novel. I can create convincing characters and I reckon, now I’ve done years-worth of reading, that I can create a setting that has depth and colour. But I’ve yet to come up with a killer plot to bind everything else together.

And plot – what most people think of as the ‘idea’ – without setting, without an atmosphere to breathe in, is nothing. Unless you’re Franz Kafka, a plot without a world is a waste of time.

The trick, for me at least, is to find the right combination of ideas.

Imagine your head is the Large Hadron Collider. You have an endless circle, an endless flow, and into that you pour Your Idea. There it goes, zooming away… But it’s a solid, solitary thing, out there on its own. So, to give it company, you tip in a whole bucket-worth of fragments, of half-developed concepts and rudimentary characters. What you’re hoping for is that magical moment when two ideas smash into each other and react in strange and wondrous ways; to produce something that is neither addition, nor multiplication, but change. Something new. Something different. Something more than the constituent elements ever could have been on their own.

The Higgs-Boson of ideas.

I said in my first post that Chivalry came out of the question ‘what if a game could start a war?’ This is true, but what really made the idea take off was when I combined it with ‘what if you tried to live by the code of chivalry in the modern world?’

When I was working on Night Shift someone once asked me if I could take it out of Antarctica and set it in a country manor or somesuch. I couldn’t answer. It’s true that the novel shares, deep in its DNA, a common link with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and did so more in its early drafts). But…

But the setting is so integral to my concept of the novel as a whole that to make what might appear to be a superficial change has a profound affect on how one views the work in its entirety. I don’t think I’d be able to write the book in a different setting, now. Not because of the work that’d be needed – work is work, be it minor editings or massive structural revisions – but because that’s not what the book is to me.

It’s also important to remember that ideas change. No collision of thoughts leaves the nucleus unbent. Thus those questions I mentioned above remain unanswered; they’ve been bastardised into grotesque mutants by the initial impact, and then further twisted to fit my needs. I suspect that’s why authors (and musicians) return to the same themes again and again and again.

They’re still trying to answer their questions. They’re still trying to refine their amalgams into perfect shining swords of truth.

They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there. But that’s really, really not the point.