All posts in Writing

When someone asks if you’re a god, you say…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself trying to describe what I write to people – friends, family members, work colleagues, it all runs the same way:

“So, what do you write?” they ask.

“Well,” I say, madly scrambling for a quick answer that fits… there is usually a long pause at this point where I pull various faces and wave my hands around before giving up and answering: “Science fiction.”

“Oh,” they say, usually with a touch of disappointment.

This is when I make a judgement call – do I try and explain how it’s not spaceships and aliens and stuff? If I say Empire State actually starts in Prohibition-era New York and deals with pocket universes, does that make it any easier to understand? Then if I say it has rocket-powered superheroes and steam-powered robots, am I making it better, or just digging a bigger hole for myself?

Or, as I suspect, am I overthinking things?

When I first pitched Empire State to Marc and Lee from Angry Robot, it was over lunch in Nottingham. After talking about my latest story in Hub – which had come out that day, I think – Marc asked me if I was working on anything longer. I said yes, I had a manuscript called Empire State. Marc asked what it was about…

… and I paused, and waved my hands, and pulled a face, and as the silence grew, Marc turned to Lee and said “sounds like just our kind of book!”.

Of course, let off the hook a little, we then spent the next hour discussing it. But when someone asks you what you write, firstly (outside of a convention) they’re unlikely to be people like Marc and Lee who know what they’re talking about. And secondly, you’re unlikely to have an hour to describe your book to them.

The thing is, Empire State is science fiction. Blogger Amanda Rutter once told me that science fiction is based on an idea, while fantasy is based on a character. I think this might be true, in general anyway (although not always, of course), because Empire State is very definitely based on an idea.

The other question is whether it really matters what you write anyway.

There are two answers to this – firstly, no, as a writer, not at all. You write what you like – if it is hard science fiction or epic fantasy or crime fiction then cool. In fact, you’ve got it a little easier, because you can say you write hard science fiction or epic fantasy or crime.

If, like me, you write across genres, it gets harder. Kaaron Warren, one of my favourite authors recently said on the Angry Robot podcast that she writes whatever she likes, and indeed, her current three novels are all very different from each other. She considers herself to be an “author”, and any other descriptor is probably irrelevant.

I like that a lot, but when it comes to marketing and publicity – and telling a friend about your book! – it gets a little tricky. People like boxes and labels, and I don’t blame them. Stephen King, another favourite of mine, is considered a master of horror when really he writes – to my mind – mostly science fiction. Of course, when you’re Stephen King, you’re a genre all of your own, which is nice and easy for bookstores. But, reading as I am his entire catalogue in publication order, he really strikes me as another author who is just that – an author, writing whatever he likes. He gets a good idea, he writes it, and it doesn’t matter.

The header of this blog says “Steampunk, superheroes, and science fiction”. A few years ago, when I got everything set up, that seemed like a good summary (plus it kinda rolls of the tongue, with all those ‘s’es). But now it seems less relevant – I have written steampunk, but I don’t write it much now. When I started taking writing seriously, I really thought that would be “my” genre, but that’s not how it worked out. Superhero fiction is more important – and certainly superheroes are something I have a very strong interest in – and my first two novels, Empire State and Seven Wonders, are superhero stories. Having said that, I’ve never really thought of Empire State as a superhero novel, while Seven Wonders most definitely was designed that way from the outset. And Empire State has steampunk elements too… well, truth be told, I just couldn’t resist!

What does that leave? Science fiction? That’s accurate, possibly more than the other two, but it doesn’t quite encompass everything. I also write horror – although I find horror itself hard to judge, given that it’s less like a genre and more like a “tone” that can be applied to anything. I’ve also got ideas for some crime fiction, and a couple of ideas for stuff which isn’t really anything other than… well, slightly strange, I suppose.

Perhaps more importantly, I write stuff which is a mix of everything. For that reason I’ll be ditching the subheading shortly, and will just be an “author”. I wonder if the need to categorise an author is more important in the early stages when they are establishing themselves and trying to get that first book deal. Once the work is out and a wider audience is familiar with the writer, it becomes less important as the name of the author gets recognised, on some level at least, rather than a categorisation.


And let’s face it, as I discussed a LONG time ago, we all get lumped in alphabetical order in that big shelf at the back of a bookstore anyway.

But I really do need to work on that elevator pitch for Empire State. Raymond Chandler meets The Rocketeer in Gotham City? That might do it.

So tell me: what do you write? Do you stick to a clearly defined genre, or do you fit into many categories? I’m interested. And in either case, how do you define yourself as a writer?

Night Pictures has an outline!

Sunday. Still alive. Just a few days now and I get to be full-time writer writer for the rest of the month. Hell. Yes.

Today I seem to have finished the outline for Night Pictures – I say “seem” to have finished, because no doubt there is still room for alteration, addition, deletion, improvement, etc. At the moment it consists of a big table of 51 chapters – each one gets a little description of events, and then I have a side column with notes for myself. Overall, this is about 1,700 words, which is more or less right for an outline or synopsis – a synopsis is usually 2,000 words-ish in my experience.

The next step then is to take this outline and turn it into a synopsis. As I mentioned before, I want to use a more detailed foundation document for Night Pictures than I have done in the recent past because this just feels like the kind of book that needs it.

On the other hand, given my tendency to go off on tangents and for my characters to start making their own decisions, I don’t want to spend too much time locking down a synopsis that will just change anyway. So long as I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, all the twists and turns are more or less in the right order, and I know who is actually in the book, I think I can probably make start. I’m not due to begin until August, but I’ll continue to tweak the outline and let my subconscious start working on it, so once Seven Wonders is out to my beta-readers it’ll be straight into it.

It’s gonna be a good one!

Friday night air guitar

Just a quick one as I head into a weekend of… work.


With Seven Wonders at draft X.2, I’m putting it to one side for a week or so as it’s at the point where it really needs my full attention, and it’ll get that in the second half of this month.

In the meantime, I’ve written a short story which is very silly but which should go online shortly, and I’ve been working on the outline for Night Pictures. The last book I wrote was Hang Wire, and while that turned out just fine, I decided to run with only a very loose outline and at times some of the draft was tough to get right. So this time I want a pretty strong foundation, especially as I have a “feeling” about Night Pictures – that sounds both silly and pretentious, but hey, I think this is going to be a good book. I’m excited about it.

So while I pull the plot to pieces and try and get it into some kind of order, for this week I leave you with Lou Reed playing a Velvet Underground classic sometime in the early 80s. Check out the front row air guitar.

Agent advice: Stacia Decker tells it like it is

Three days down. Ten to go. Still alive and still drinking tea.

Today’s little snippet is some agent advice from Stacia Decker. Stacia is actually my own agent, and represents a fine stable of crime, mystery and now SF writers at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Collectively we’re known as Team Decker, and we even have a Facebook page and our own t-shirts.

I’ve just discovered this audio interview of her talking to Dan O’Shea, another Team Decker member, from November 2009. While it is about 18 months old, listening back to it now Stacia imparts a lot of relevant advice about how to get an agent, what an agent actually does, and what the publishing business is like. Although at the time she was talking from the perspective of an agent specialising in crime and mystery, it applies to all genres. She also gives her perspective on social media, including Twitter, which is now so important for writers at all stages of their careers.

Go have a listen over at Dan O’Shea’s website.

Agent secrets – Stacia Decker in conversation with Dan O’Shea.

28th April, 2011: Creative Consequences

No, this isn’t about the state of my office this week as I split my time between the day job and getting a bucketload of writing/editing down before departing for New Zealand. Creative Consequences was a writing game played by myself, Ro Smith, Lou Morgan and Anne Lyle on Saturday night at EasterCon. It’s pretty easy – write one line of a story, fold the paper over so the next person can only see the previous line (or the first line), and pass it on.

With eight completed masterworks, we vowed (however unwisely) to post them online. Anne has put one up already, so here are the two I have. To protect the innocent, I shall not identify who wrote which line.

The man in the black hat took a drag on the cigarette, pulled back the

covers to examine the body; it wasn’t pretty.

But then again, it never had been.

So they decided to give it another try, and with a mighty effort, off it went.

As the countdown raced towards zero, they both saw the

massive mice were leaping into the breach to help.

The sharks turned and – as one – they fled.

Fortunately the padre had worn his snorkel and flippers, but the others were not so lucky.

“Never fear”, the sergeant barked, twirling his moustache.

“I have a cunning plan.” Sadly, the plan involved far too much periperi sauce, and didn’t end well.

Hmm. Not bad. It starts as a hardboiled detective story and then turns into military SF with added cooking. Okay…

And the second:

The glass shattered, and Camila’s necklace slid from her neck to the floor.

Her head followed a second later, hitting the marble tiles with a sickening thump.

Blood trickled into her eyes as she stood, turned, and took the scimitar from its scabbard. “Now you die!”

“Holy shit!” screamed Paul. “I didn’t mean it!”

But it was already too late, and the prince was running barefoot through the snow.

“After him!” his uncle bellowed. “A hundred sovereigns to the guard who brings me his head.”

The soldiers marched out of the throne room, determined to rid the land of his terrible evil.

But in their heart of hearts, each knew he was truly afraid of the wizard.

His magnificent shoes couldn’t disguise the fact that he had terribly large feet.

It was only then that they realised that Uncle Frederick had run away to the circus for a reason.

Huh. An epic fantasy, Camila apparently able to survive decapitation. Must be something to do with the wizard. This one makes a surprising amount of sense, actually.

I look forward to the next round at Olympus 2012!

26th April, 2011: The list that never ends…

So… I got back from EasterCon with a to-do list straight from hell.

Actually, that doesn’t make sense, does it? Writing is what I do, and to now have so much of writing and writing-related business to attend to I’m actually in hog heaven. It’s just a shame that there are only twenty-four hours in a day to get things done. Damn you, science!

But, if you’ll excuse me, normal blog posting will resume tomorrow. Let’s just say this one got caught in post-con “stuff” and we’ll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, go check out the wonderful result of Paul Cornell’s Beard for Lent charity drive.

12th April, 2011: One book down and the year ahead

Well, after hammering out 4,278 words yesterday (amazing what you can do when the end is in sight), I finished draft 0 of Hang Wire. The manuscript weighs in at 90,447 words, which is 10k below target but still within the accepted 80,000 to 110,000 for science fiction. I tend to add 10,000 words at the redraft anyway, and I suspect I may add even more for this book as the theme changed halfway through, and I have a fair bit to go back and add in. That’s why this is draft 0, not draft 1. This one will go in the trunk until next year.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words yesterday: 4,278
Words total: 90,447/100,000 (90%, although complete)
Total words for 2011: 120,428

I also finished 10 days ahead of my self-imposed deadline, which means I won’t have the guilt of not writing anything during EasterCon.

So: yay! But I must admit I’m at a loss as to how to celebrate. Jen Williams has some thoughts over here, but as I don’t drink or smoke I may have to settle for… cake! Cake is good.

While it’s only April, the rest of this year is looking very busy already. Taking stock of projects, I have to fit in the following:

  • Revise Ludmila, My Love based on beta-reader comments, write a synopsis for it, and deliver both to my agent by April 30th. Hopefully this won’t take too much work – I’ve got all but two sets of comments in and most things are minor.
  • Edit Seven Wonders, allow a beta-reading period and further revisions, then deliver to Angry Robot by October. This deadline may be months away, but it’ll arrive sooner than I think.
  • Re-write Dark Heart and deliver to my agent ASAP. I mentioned on Twitter last night that I was contemplating a “secret project”, and this is it. Dark Heart was the first novel I wrote, and while the story is solid, the writing is less so. After chatting to Stacia about it, we agreed that the best way forward is to basically strip everything out of it bar the plot and characters, rewrite, top-to-bottom. I’ll talk about this later when I actually start work on it, but I’m feeling a lot happier about this book now I know what needs to be done.
  • Outline, write, edit, beta, correct then deliver Night Pictures by the end of the year. The timeline is still fluid on this project, which will be my next novel written. I’ve shuffled it down after Dark Heart, and it’ll be an interesting exercise to turn around a novel – including edits – so quickly. I’ll have a better feeling for this once I actually start writing it – I certainly don’t want to rush it, and it may be that this slips into 2012. We’ll see.
  • Edits/rewrites on Empire State for Angry Robot. I don’t know when these are expected, although no doubt I’ll know more after EasterCon.
  • Finish Godless by year end. Doable, considering I’m only writing half of the 100,000 words. Again, more planning will be possible after EasterCon.

And that pretty much fills my calendar up until the end of 2011. By heck, I’ve a job of work to do. But what a great job it is!

10th April, 2011: Sunday listmania

  • In response to some recent questions, here’s my annual discussion on how I know that what I am writing will run to 100,000 words: I have written four novels, am about to finish my fifth, and am concurrently collaborating on a sixth. In that time, I’ve worked out what 100,000 words feels like, and with that word count in mind, I can plot and write a story to that length. I’m not artificially constraining a narrative to fit within that limit – a story is as long as it needs to be. But with practice (and that’s what writing is and continues to be – practice) you learn how to plot a story to the required length. It’s the same as any kind of fiction – if you write a short story to submit to a market that has a limit of 5,000 words, for example, you know the length of the story before you start, and you sure aren’t going to write an 11,000 word story.
  • Having said that, I tend to write to 110,000 words – a 10% fudge factor seems about right. As it happens, my current project, Hang Wire, looks like it’s going to come in at around 90,000 words. No doubt it’ll hit 100k on the second draft, as I already know a couple of things I need to expand.
  • Speaking of words, today’s writing advice is from Stephen King: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones“. Oh, how true this is. The number of books I have put down and never picked up again because the writer is not writing but choosing words (believe me, there is a difference) is surprisingly large.
  • Speaking of putting books down, I’ve just finished Vegas Knights and now need to read something else. How do you choose, when your to-be-read pile is several years long? I think I may need to break out a random number generator… although that means counting the books up first. Still, anything to take the heavy responsibility of choosing what to read next away from me!
  • The World Fantasy convention is coming to the UK at the end 2013! Memberships are available now, and will go fast. Yes, even for an event which is two and a half years away.

Does five items count as a listmania? Does in my book.

I have a feeling I’ll finish Hang Wire either today or tomorrow. I’m writing the final showdown now, and then there will just be a couple of post-adventure chapters, and I’m done on draft 0. Actually I’ll definitely be done by tomorrow at the latest, as I have a whole writing day booked in.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words yesterday: 2,090
Words total: 84,092/100,000 (84%)
Total words for 2011: 114,073

4th April, 2011: Genre for Japan – the results

Well, what a week – hitting refresh on Genre for Japan lots became something of a habit! Unfortunately my budget ran out and I didn’t win anything, but the total money pledged is an incredible £11,203. Which is just amazing.

Bidding on a creating a superhero in my forthcoming novel, Seven Wonders, topped out at £111, which is far more than I ever hoped to achieve. Well done to the lucky bidder, Christo Taylor-Davies!

There were some terrific lots available, and if I had an unlimited budget I would have bid for a truckload of them.

So congratulations and thanks to the organisers – Amanda RutterLouise MorganJenni HillRo Smith, Alasdair Stuart and Robert Mulligan. Splendid chaps, all of them. These guys deserve some kind of reward themselves for services to genre fiction.

Well done!

Writing wise, it was a good weekend despite the fact it was so busy – we had a million and one chores to get done, mostly in prep for our New Zealand trip next month, but I still cracked the 70,000 word mark on Hang Wire and 100,000 words on writing for 2011. Or maybe it was because we were so busy? I must admit, when I have a whole day free to devote to writing, my attention can wander around a bit. Having to fit it in around an already tight schedule may be beneficial. Hmm. Something for me to work on – because if I have a day of writing planned, that in itself should create a tight schedule.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words yesterday: 2,067
Words total: 70,599/100,000 (70%)
Total words for 2011: 100,580

2nd April, 2011: March madness

So 2011 is now one-quarter gone… and what a quarter it was! To paraphrase a line from Firefly, I feel like I’ve done the impossible and achieved two dreams – to get a book deal, and to get an agent. It still feels very surreal, but I’m very grateful for the opportunities those two achievements represent. This is just the beginning of a big long adventure!

I’d been in negotiation with Angry Robot since February, but the beginning of March was when everything was made official. With Stacia taking me onboard on the very last day of that same month, March was certainly an eventful one.

During the month I also:

  • Continued work on Hang Wire
  • Wrote the synopsis and sample chapters of my post-apocalyptic horror The Suicide Tree and submitted them to a publisher
  • Had my shorty story The Walker appear in Hub magazine
  • Began working up notes on my next book, Night Pictures

So, pretty busy. But busy is good. Busy means things are happening. April looks like another packed month, although a little more relaxed, I hope. I need to:

  • Finish the first draft of Hang Wire
  • Attend EasterCon, where I’ll be on my first convention panels ever (!)
  • Prepare the final draft of Ludmila, My Love based on beta-reader critiques
  • Complete a proper outline for Night Pictures
  • Write full synopses for Ludmila, My Love and Dark Heart

I’ve also got two other things on the horizon. One is to start the final edit of Seven Wonders, which I am due to deliver to Angry Robot later this year. After that edit it needs to go through my beta-readers again like any other novel.

Secondly, as mentioned in my April list above, I’m going to unearth Dark Heart, my steampunk novel and the first full-length novel I actually wrote. This has been edited, at least in part, but the draft is still fairly rough. I’m going to get this ship-shape this year.

Yesterday I didn’t hit 2k on Hang Wire, but that was because I spent a large chunk of my writing time preparing a project status list for my agent. I’ve got a lot of material stashed away, several pieces out in the world, and a few things planned ahead, so compiling the list took a little time. But it was useful exercise for myself, as well. We’re off to New Zealand for nearly all of May, and while I’m going to try and get some writing done as usual, my writing time will be unpredictable and I’m not going to force it. I need to take that month into consideration, hence a project list is very useful in helping plan my work for this year.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words yesterday: 1,133
Words total: 66,422/100,000 (66%)
Total words for 2011: 96,403