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Category: Writing

Writers of the Future Award

I’m pleased to announce that my story “The Withering Sky” is a recipient of the Writers of the Future Award 2022. The space horror novelette will be published in the upcoming Writers of the Future Volume 39 on 16th May 2023.

Writers of the Future Vol 39

Click here to order the anthology from your preferred store.

The Writers of the Future anthologies are an excellent way to discover up-and-coming writers in science fiction and fantasy — not to blow my own trumpet (okay, maybe a little bit). The contest and associated publication have been running for decades (with 39 volumes at the time of writing). Many genre-leading writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick Rothfuss and Ken Liu got their start in these pages.

You can find all the previous anthologies here.

Wiggling Through by Subtle Manoeuvres

Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life it not possible then one must try to wiggle through by subtle manoeuvres.

Franz Kafka, quote via Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Kafka’s words, on trying to organise his life around his writing. Kafka’s works are notoriously dark and surreal, but his letters suggest anything but an effortless creative experience. The quote paints a picture of a generally hectic and cluttered life, where the free flow of ideas is staunched.

But closely tied to it is fatigue, and lack of proper rest. The full quote goes on to explain, “The satisfaction gained by manoeuvring one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.

Judy Horacek, via BMJ

Following on from my last post, Kafka’s words go deeper into why rest is vital for creative output. Fatigue not only cuts off access to creative energy, but degrades the quality of the small amount that does get done.

But the quote offers no solution, only sober reality: the time will never come when conditions are perfect, when life resembles the stillest lake waters and the vistas of the mind are clear of mist. You have to make do with those subtle manoeuvres: rest in those brief respites between between breaking waves, and when you catch your breath, stumble through the mists, and over months and years, maybe make something new.

Writing Longhand

Like millions of other people, I would have Neil Gaiman’s babies (we’d sort out the mechanics). His world-renown literary works aside, he also gives a bloody good interview.

Tim Ferriss recently reposted a 90-minute chat they had a few years ago. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and any other Gaiman interview you can find (there are lots on Youtube, like this one with Amanda Palmer).

Story bloat driven by word processors

What really grabbed me today was Neil’s comments on writing longhand. He always writes his first drafts out in a notebook, and it affects not only his process, but he has observed it affecting others, too.

I’ll be paraphrasing hereon, but you can read the full transcript here.

Neil notes that before PCs with word processors were mainstream, he edited an anthology of short stories. Then, the word counts averaged around 3,000 words. Only a few years later, with more computers around, he edited another anthology, only to find that the average word count has more than doubled.

On a computer screen, words are cheap. There’s no paper or ink to waste. There’s no selection pressure on the choice of words — just use them all. I wonder if short stories are fundamentally more difficult to write by computer than by hand. Does the brain process the task in a measurably different way?

Gaming environments for success

Neil has a well-known writing habit: if he doesn’t write then he is free to do nothing, but he is only allowed to do nothing. In minutes, doing nothing tends to lost his charm, and he so he writes. Procrastination is short-circuited.

But he also does something else. Neil produces his second drafts by copying his longhand manuscripts onto the computer. When he does this, if he realises he doesn’t need a page or so, he just doesn’t copy it up. Instead of deleting a whole chunk of digital copy, feeling like he’s losing work, he in fact saves himself the labour of transcribing.

This approach of using technology, environment and ritual provides an environment where Neil maximises his chance of doing the things he’d rather do. It doesn’t have to always work, it just has to be better than the default state.

Chris Clear posted something similar recently:

Prime your environment to make the next action easy.

First drafts are just meet-and-greets

In any case, Neil doesn’t try to catch lightning in a bottle. Even the master doesn’t spit out perfect prose right away (though I suspect his first go is usually still disgustingly good). I’ll close out with his thoughts on what first drafts are for.

… Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames … it is you telling the story to yourself.

Buff and rebuff

I haven’t posted since November. A lot’s happened since then, including a new job and a downpayment on our first house.

I’ve spent a lot of that time editing, rather than writing. I’ve focused on my backlog of short stories, dusting them off and buffing them until they’re like glass. The oldest of the stories was written over two years ago. Even in that relatively short span, I’ve changed as a person, and that change is reflected in each draft of the stories.

First drafts are always unrefined, anyway. It’s like firing a bow and arrow while blindfolded: you’ll settle for shooting in the right direction at first. As Joyce Carol Oates said:

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Two of the stories only needed tightening, though I’ve managed to shave them down by around 30% each. The other two required a complete overhaul; they’re barely the same stories I started with.

I’ve been submitting them, with no expectation of acceptance, taking the long view. I’m racking up the rejections already.

My short-story submission statistics so far this year (I use Duotrope to handle my submissions)

In terms of writing activities, I’ve done nothing else for almost three months. Every morning for around an hour, and in the evening when I can squeeze it in. It’s put me in an entirely different headspace: every word counts; misplaced punctuation reads like a bullet fired through a china-shop window.

It’s very different from my usual get-it-on-the-page, word-vomity method of writing fresh material.

What’s really been impressed on me is that revision can create a definite sense of peace and solitude. Like those model ships that people build inside bottles. But it can also be a bottomless pit — there’s no natural end to the process.

“A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,” remarked Paul Valéry (though there seems to be some controversy over who actually said it).

When to draw a line under a project is one of the hardest things to get right. Working on a lot of short stories in sequence seems like a good way to get better.

I’ve never revised any piece as much as I’ve revised these stories. I’m sure I could recite them from memory by now. I might even get an acceptance if I keep it up.

Harnessing Creative Bubbles Before They Burst

I live with frequent brain fog. I’m not sure why. Could be chronic stress, bad sleep patterns, over-dependency on caffeine to function, general anxiety. Who knows.

What I do know is that I only get about an hour a day of clear thinking, if I’m lucky. It’s difficult to compare between individuals, given natural variations in energy levels and attention span, so let’s be specific.

Most of the time I function just fine: I can socialize, run errands, exercise, do admin, and perform the less intellectually demanding aspects of work. But anything insightful, thoughtful or creative is walled off behind a snarl of vines, iron wool and vertigo.

As a rule, the wall comes down once a day.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern in what triggers the spells of clarity. They just come, leaping from the shadows, unbidden and grinning.

Sometimes I’m lucky, ready at my desk or a quiet corner or a train. I can drop what I’m doing and take to the keyboard or a pad of paper before the wall is thrown up again.

Other times, I’m not so lucky. Maybe more often than not, I can’t possibly take advantage of the clear spells, like when I’m in the shower, out on a run, or during a conversation.

Catching the tails of creative bursts over a week usually produces a sprawl of notes like this… (see half-baked wisdom point #2 below)

Recently, I’ve had more free time and a rested mind, so I’ve been able to catch the clear spells more often. Maybe half the time.

In more usual circumstances, I’m a caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived, anxious mass, carefully groomed to look like a high-functioning adult. I might catch a clear spell once a week.

I’ve tried to use my recent ample free time to maximise the number of usable clear spells. I’ve experimented, and come up with five things that work for me that I think are worth noting (and I stress: they work for me; this is not advice).

Today’s Nuggets of Half-Baked Wisdom

1. Scheduling: I hate schedules, but they work. This is advice that’s been repeated again and again by creatives in every medium. See Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for dozens of examples. If you want to create, or even to think, it’s never going to happen if you don’t set aside time for it. That’s the bare minumum. Like condoms: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

2. Notepads, notepads everywhere: I’ve heard one person say they keep a waterproof notepad in the shower. I haven’t gone that far, but I do have notepads stashed everywhere else now: in my pocket, my coat, my bag, beside my bed, beside the treadmill. It might not replace access to a journal or keyboard, but the little snippets and notes build up.

3. Strategic drug-taking: Calm down, I’m not onto mescaline… yet. But I’ve started taking caffeine at scheduled times to optimize its effects, giving a small kick without overloading me or causing a crash later. See books like Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, for the science. And if I’m stressed and too rigid to move, a wee dram of whiskey greases the wheels.

4. The Gaiman Method: Neil Gaiman says his writing method is simple. He sits down at his desk to write, and it doesn’t matter if he produces nothing. But he’s only allowed to stare out the window. He’s free to do that all he likes, but eventually his mind gets bored and starts making stories. Crafting an environment to induce boredom not only removes opportunities for procrastination, but actually incentivises your mind to invent its own distractions.

5. Don’t Force It: Probably the most important of the five. Everything has limits: we know when we’re too tired to go on, when our limbs are twisted to breaking point, when we’re about to lose our balance. Nothing good comes from pushing too hard. I’ve found that once I managed to make use of a creative spell, I often tried to squeeze it for all it was worth. But ultimately, what came out of it just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I tried to climb a mountain in one leap.

Committing to Play: Tapping Creativity

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

– Mary Oliver

If you let it, the chaff of life will crowd out your true purpose. Without conscious curation, life falls onto default rails, and and it is possible to spend years on what is fundamentally unfulfilling.

Over 10 years ago, when I was 19, I finished my fourth novel. I was surprised to find it wasn’t obviously a steaming turd, so I decided to try and get a literary agent. (An adorable story, involving me writing my age on the cover letter, as though to assure them I wasn’t actually three toddlers in a trench coat.)

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s gloriously messy workspace. (Image Credit: this Medium article about Bradbury’s recipe for a good life.)

Some of my friends laughed at me, for writing nerdy fiction for nerds, and for aspiring to anything loftier than a birthday party at All Bar One.

I wasn’t quite old enough to realise that friends who laugh at you for trying to grow are not friends at all. Nonetheless, I didn’t have time for their crap. As Ray Bradbury famously said:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

I read every guide on the publishing business I could find, and started querying.

A year later, I signed with an agent, delirious with excitement.

It didn’t go well. By the time I was 21, we parted ways and I set out to publish the books independently admist the self-publishing revolution. It was 2013, the crest of the ebook gold rush.

Literary agent's letter
I still have the original letter from the literary agent who offered to represent me.

I released five books over three years, and featured in a series of short story anthologies. My degree and subsequent PhD gradually took over, and the writing got pushed onto the back burner. I was satisfied with what I’d accomplished, so I let it slide further and further back, until it became not something I do but something I used to do.

More recently, with my doctoral studies coming to an end, it looked like I would finally have the time and energy to return to writing in a serious way. I couldn’t help wondering why I had stopped in the first place. I’d had a great time, after all.

Except, I have a journal that says otherwise. It tells a totally different story. As a friend of Greg McKeown once said to him:

“The faintest pencil is greater than the strongest memory.”

Looking through that journal, the signs of burnout are obvious. There had been ups and downs, but it’s clear that, at some point, it had simply stopped being fun. I suspect that juggling it all meant that I ended up treating it like a chore, rather than something I enjoyed. And something with a long payoff horizon is unsustainable if you get no enjoyment from it.

The key to avoiding burnout in doing what fulfils you is to have some fun with it.

The key is play.

The ideal work is that which feels like play. We’re socialised to think the opposite from a young age. Ken Robinson has a spectacular TED talk about the school system killing creativity (see below). I remember first watching the talk in 2015 and emphatically agreeing: play and exploring are vital to self-actualisation (see Maslow’s Pyramid).

Then I proceeded to grind away in a playless desert for years.

Being aware of a fault doesn’t automatically change your behaviour. Habits are difficult to form deliberately. As explained in this Freedom article, “According to a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took study participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days to carry out an eating, drinking or activity behavior habitually, with an average time period of 66 days.”

Maintaining the space and time for play requires commitment.

Sounds odd. Committing to play.

But in the modern world, that’s exactly what it takes. Greg McKeown talks about this very thing in Chapter 13 of Essentialism: subtraction. Cut away all the non-essential chaff of life, leaving the single thing you want to use your energy on (more about that here).

McKeown quotes what is apocryphally attributed to Michaelangelo, which I’ll paraphrase here:

When asked how he accomplished the feat of carving his masterpiece, the statue of David, Michaelangelo replied: “It’s easy. You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Leave Unfinished Projects in the Drawer

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Almost everything I’ve ever written will never be seen.

I have hard drives and drawers full of files, each housing what I once thought was the seed of a story.

This used to depress me. The excitement and momentum of a good idea turning stale in front of me, and my dancing fingers slowing despite my efforts to keep going. Maybe one in ten ideas turn into a complete story, and maybe one in five complete stories might be worth sharing.

Piles and piles of the stuff…

But if I could go back in time and give my younger self advice, it would be this:

Stillborn stories and projects are essential to the process.

The digital publishing revolution brought many changes, most of them great for readers and writers. One that isn’t good is the perception of eternal scurrying. You hear stories about successful independent authors writing 10,000 words a day and publishing a book a month. There are books about how to smash out thousands of words her hour.

It’s important to remember that these people are the exceptions, committed and astute businesspeople who don’t have time for “high art” and naysayers. Despite the prevailing advice that “anyone can do it too”, I would wager that these people are productivity monsters who are just wired that way.

I think almost nobody can match that pace without sacrificing quality. If I wrote 10,000 words a day and published a book a month, those books would be subpar at best.

There’s some great advice on how to survive in the new digital world, such as Joanna Penn’s website or David Gaughran’s bestselling series Let’s Get Digital/Visible.

However, the visibility of these prolific creators has further entrenched the idea that if you’re not producing something visible all the time, you’re not doing it right.

I mean it’s really everywhere…

Your path is determined by your goal.

If you’re a businessperson supporting your family, your goal is income. Your priority is to research what’s selling, get words on the page, and release ASAP.

But there are lots of other valid goals when it comes to writing stories, or creating anything.

You could just be trying to get the demons out, or might be trying to connect with people who like what you make (even if only a handful of them exist). You might — god forbid — be trying to have fun without turning that fun into a side hustle. (For more on rejecting side hustles, see Jason Gurley’s newsletter or Austin Kleon’s blog.)

I’m somewhere in between, and I’ve spoken before about how I write often just to clear my head and be a functional human being. If I’m going to put something out into the world, I need to be selective.

My process consists to a large degree on filtering.

Ideas aren’t the problem, because ideas are cheap. Creators can’t look at a carton of eggs without having a dozen ideas ricochet around their heads.

The hard part is spending time working on an idea, knowing ahead of time that you’ll be going against the grain of good business sense, and putting that idea away forever.

I can say without doubt that, for me, it’s best that way. If everything I wrote ended up out there for people to see, I’d be mortified. I am capable of writing supreme dreck, and I do it regularly.

But I need it to be that way.

Writing rubbish is part of my process.

The piles of paper and bottomless digital folders are not a testament to my laziness, but to my pursuit of the handful of things really worth buffing up for the world to see.

Storytelling on the Martian Frontier

I’ve been working on a book for years. It tells the story of the first generations of people to settle Mars (see more here). As I near the end, I want to start writing here about what drew me to the topic.

Lots of books and films depict Mars. It’s in the golden valley of otherness: alien, yet familiar. It’s a place where our machines have landed, but also a place that feels impossibly distant. We might as well be sending probes to another plane of existence.

Image of the Martian surface, courtesy of NASA.
The eerily familiar surface of Mars. Image courtesy of NASA.

We also recognise Mars as a place vaguely similar to our home. Space is cold and dark and infinite. But photographs of the surface of Mars look like they were taken at dusk in Arizona or Chile – and the geology is indeed very similar. Earth and Mars are almost twins (actually Earth and Venus are more twin-like, with Mars being the runt, but Venus is as close to Hell as you can find in real life). The opinions of pundits vary wildly, but there is a very real chance that we will see human beings walk on Mars this century.

The Wild West of the Space Age

Mars is one of the last true frontiers. The Wild West of the Space Age. And if we know anything from Hollywood and Western sagas, it’s that storytellers love a good frontier. Our natural exploratory instinct is biting at the bit on an Earth, where only the deepest ocean floors aren’t exhausted for mystery and intrigue. We want to be titillated by the unknown: a bit of dark mystery like the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or a bit of adventure like Nemo’s voyages in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Cover of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

But there’s also a problem with storytelling on Mars: actually telling a human story. Most books and films set on the Red Planet aren’t about people living their lives. They’re about the dangers of running out of air (Stowaway) or Robinson Crusoe-type survival thrillers (The Martian), or far-future visions of techno-punk, three-boobed, unicorn-obsessed glory (Total Recall, Blade Runner).

You can also do a bit too much research and turn the book into a pageant for near-future technology (personally, I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars falls into this trap, even though it’s also the closest thing to a Martian family saga out there). The presiding widsom is that you need a gimmick to hook people in and engage them. If you don’t have a gimmick, there’s a fear that you’ll lose people. Instead, you have to have laser-wielding aliens or AI run a-mock.

The cover of The Fated Sky

The Real Story Waiting to Be Told

There’s a real story waiting to be told on Mars, one that only a few have achieved (e.g. Mary Robinette Kowall’s The Fated Sky or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles). If people ever go there with any intention of staying, their lives will be fascinating. I’ll expand on this in future posts, but for now here’s a list of questions that I hope will highlight how fertile this ground is for stories:

  • If you had the chance to be part of a real exploratory mission into the unknown, would you take it – if there was a chance you wouldn’t come home?
  • There’s something in the idea of travelling to a new planet that is intimiately bound up in the immigrant experience, something most people from Western counties know very little about. What would it mean for the people you left behind?
  • In making a harsh and unforgiving place your new home, what would you realise you had taken for granted?
  • If going all that way was the price you paid for eternal infamy, would you pay it?
  • Does the cost of countless billions for a mission to Mars provide returns on investment? Why aim for the stars when there are so many problems on Earth?
  • How would you navigate the terrain of equity of all nations and peoples? We still talk about colonizing space, in a world that is supposedly post-colonial. Who gets to plant flags and found cities, gets to name anything? Who owns the means of transportation between worlds?
  • How would you deal with the prospect of having children if you knew they could never return to Earth? Could you cope with knowing you were condemning them to a difficult life, either underground or surrounded by an endless desert?

Writing So That Loved Ones Don’t Have to Kill You

“This isn’t really a smile, it’s the lid on a scream.”
– Julie Goodyear, Coronation Street

If I don’t write things I wilt.

I get moody. I don’t sleep well. I’m pretty sure I get more colds.

It doesn’t have to be anything good, and it usually isn’t. It’s usually the kind of thing that would cause an overnight guest to sleep with a heavy object to hand.

And I don’t mean writing – as in a berets-sporting, turtleneck-clad, I’ve-never-farted-in-my-life kind of writing. I mean waking up to a napkin on your bedside table with ‘growing suspicion of voles’ scrawled in crayon.

But I must write something.

Without it I am a bag of advertising slogans and incomplete thoughts. I can’t process what I’ve been reading. William Zinsser summed it up in Writing Well: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

Unfortunately, writing is hard. I don’t know whose idea that was, but we’re stuck with it. Often it’s a Catch 22: you’re a talentless fraud if you write, and you’re a lazy uncreative sack of shit if you don’t.

Writing Process on an Index Card
The (not totally healthy) process…

Even being an advocate for writing is hard. Performing the act isn’t necessary to dream of living in a cave and terrorising hikers instead. As Lynn Truss says in Eats, Shots & Leaves: “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. One almost dare not get up in the morning.

Some days I can barely face it.

But I sit and I do it. I do it so that I don’t end up keening on the ground, while loved ones beat me to death with sticks – because it’s kinder that way.

Anne Lamott’s effortless words from Bird by Bird do the heavy lifting:

… I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.