I had planned a festive short story to go out on my site today but various real-life things – a new job for starters – have put paid to those plans, which is a shame. The work in progress I’ve been nibbling at is still coming for sure and I am very excited by it – it’s still untitled, annoyingly, but can be described thusly as a spooky sea shanty, riffing a little, and intentionally so, on a classic sci-fi story from way back when.
I am, however, giving something for Christmas this year – I have made available a ~6,000-word short story I wrote in 2018 as part of my university course, Pandora’s Box. I hope it makes adequate festive reading! (Link at the bottom of the post or in the navigation!)
It’s a good story to revisit – written as part of my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module that I recall enjoying quite a lot. This story was borne out of a great discussion we had in class about science fiction where an extrapolation of a real-world topic or concern.
The concern I took to extrapolate was one I am legitimately concerned about – government collection of vast amounts of personal data, and the nefarious means by which this data could be used. There’s also a hint of extrapolation against nationalising of private industry. Here’s my premise notes from my University notebook:
The story is set on New Year’s eve, a year after the radical PANDORA group swept to power promising that, after an unfortunate industrial accident that they use to highlight the “callous profiteering” of the gene-modding industry, the “immoral” practise of “buying” genetic enhancements (or screening for flaws and correcting them) to create the ideal human body would be outlawed and the technology used to ostensibly “better humanity”. This event is called the “nationalisation”.
Over the course of the preceding year, under the surface, PANDORA uses this technology to screen the population for their perceived enemies who start to disappear after the gene clinics are used to surreptitiously build a gigantic genetic database on the entire population.
How does the story link in?
A breakaway group, Nexus, is rebelling against these practises finagles their way into acquiring the master genetic database code and is able to stop the powers that be from continuing to screen the population. However, confronted with such a pandora’s box of information and possibilities, the tables turn with the breakaway group inevitable becoming just as bad as the revolutionaries before them.
This piece did well when assessed – scoring 67 marks, 3 marks off a First – and it was another one of my University pieces that garnered comments that it could work as the beginnings of a novel. I’ve pondered it myself, it’s certainly a setting and a premise I think holds legs!
It’s the midst of November, so aspiring wordsmiths across the world are putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) in order to attempt National Novel Writing Month – the 30-day challenge to put together a 50,000 word novel (or more realistically, a very rough first draft of one)!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012, and again previously I’ve mentioned the three books that I wrote in those ninety days – The Last of the Steamers, The World Eaters and Colonisation.
While my post last year does an admiral job of running through some general tips I learned from that time, I feel today it might be useful to discuss the three books themselves in more detail than I’ve likely done before.
It’s highly likely that none of these books will see the light of day as projects but I’ll expand on why that is – and why I’m not upset about that at first glance – afterward
The Last of the Steamers (2010)
This was my first proper, bona-fide attempt at writing any longform piece of prose and it shows. I’d conceived this grandiose steampunk world of an alternate 1910 where an adventure spanning the globe would take place, and even reflecting on it now it’s a fantastic idea. However, I didn’t at that time have the writerly skill to pull it off, and perusing the manuscript in preparation for this post, it shows both promise and peril.
My main issues from writing Steamers was that I went in with only a sketchy idea, and it was the most “written by the seat of my pants” book of the three I did. I did complete the manuscript at the end of the November and I recall that experience being one of the most satisfying ones in my “writing” career to date as I’d proven to myself that I could do it, which I see as more important that having a finished book resulting.
That said, I’ve always promised myself to revisit the work “once I have the skill to do the story justice” – which has been going on for nearly a decade now. I think a loose aspiration for 2020 would be to start immersing myself in steampunk works for a potential revisit – I think the core story is so brilliant, with so much imagination and great set pieces that I feel I could make it work.
I did learn a big lesson from my attempts at editing the manuscript – plan ahead and work in chapters! I also decided to compress three rounds of editing into one mega round which is why this project stalled – it became too unwieldy to edit, and I hadn’t helped myself! I also feel that during the edit I did overcook it slightly.
Regardless, I’m immensely fond of this work in the back of my mind and recall that I produced an “audiobook preview” which I’m happy to embed below:
This is probably the Nanowrimo project I’ve poured most of my energies into and I was genuinely surprised in researching this post to discover it was the middle project. I took a lot of the lessons from Steamers on and I had a killer idea for a story – an opposite of The War of the Worlds where it’s the humans invading Mars due to resource depletion! However, I’ll be my harshest critic and admit that Colonisation turned out as pretty much nothing like how I imagined, turning more into a pulpy young-adult book, which is both to its credit and detriment.
Aspects which I felt worked were the development of the characters – protagonist Rad Stratton and his “failed bromance” with training pal Jon Stryker – a complicated character who remains one of my favourite characters in any work I’ve written – resulting in the “gym scene” (which you can read here) which remains one of my favourite character-driven scenes I think I’ve ever written. I do think some of the imagery is pretty iconic but I did wrestle with both a quite complicated backstory of deception and double-crossing.
The core of the story in Colonisation is solid – I recall receiving praise from a well-read friend on my portrayal of my mollusc-like Martians. And perusing the drafts I have to hand I’m impressed about how adult some of the situations are, with some real tension during the colonist attack on the Martian outpost. I do identify the following pitfalls I thoroughly fell into in writing and working on this:
First person perspective: I wrote Colonisation as a first-person limited perspective book through the eyes of Rad, the protagonist. And only I found it extremely limiting in terms of storytelling, so much so I would likely not write a first-person story again, or at least not for a considerable while! One valuable lesson I’ve learned (and taken for The Thaw) is that I am much more comfortable a writer in third-person prose, and that first-person is tough for an inexperienced writer!
I planned but didn’t research: I briefly published Colonisation as a Kindle book and received a fair few harsh reviews, largely commenting that the book is based in no sense of reality toward interstellar travel. I realise this in hindsight that while I learned from my experience in Steamers by not planning by chapter, I need to have plausible, buy-able science as the suspension of disbelief required was a stretch for some. That said, some who read it, if they squinted past those oversights, enjoyed it. In hindsight now, obvious candidates for reading how to do a space-based sci-fi better are books like the Expanse books, and The Martian by Andy Weir. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars stands as a totemic example of how to do a Mars colonisation story. I’ve not finished it myself yet but what I have read was enough to realise quite how awry I’d gone
Editing error 1: Relying on myself – publishing Colonisation as an indie author – briefly – was an experience and it taught me to be much more cautious about throwing work out there that was poorly edited; in retrospect there were far too many glaring errors for this work to ever have seen the light of the day. And looking back, I know this now from having abandoned otherwise-promising books because of the litany of editing errors. It’s why my philosophy with The Thaw is so much more structured and not reliant on my own perceptions.
Editing error 2: While romantic and cathartic, editing Colonisation on a paper printout was a massive error as it doubled the workload – edit the work, then transpose those substantial edits to the digital version. It’s a task that simply hasn’t happened as it’s not fun at all, it’s work. That has sapped my enthusiasm to essentially make the same big changes twice. I’ve learned to just work digitally – it might not be as romantic as editing on paper or using a typewriter but my identification of my own workflow means I need to limit impedances to productivity or I’ll get nothing done.
The World Eaters (2012)
My final outing (to date!) into NaNoWrimo was with my grand space opera The World Eaters – a culmination of everything I feel I learned from Steamers or Colonisation – I’d planned assiduously for writing this one – hoping to create a whole new universe for my story to take place in. Likewise, I attempted with this project to write something completely different to what I’d done before – perhaps a gratuitous attempt at showcasing versatility, but I feel the attempt was the most polished out of the three NaNoWriMo projects I attempted. Looking over the manuscript briefly in preparing this post I feel it holds up pretty well as a first draft; indeed, I was most pleased with the prologue I’d written, which you can now read. I think it set the scene admirably, with great imagery and really dipped into the before, while the rest of the book takes place considerably after.
But what happened? Simply… I ran out of steam after completing the NaNoWriMo effort for it. I found some early edits on the first few chapters but that’s it. I do feel, now, like revisiting the manuscript as I feel it’s the one of the three I’ve given the least mental anguish to but in the time since I put pen to paper for The World Eaters I’ve read books such as the Expanse novels and they’re in a class of their own, and I can’t say I’m humongous interested in space opera, especially after reading that, but that’s something that could certainly change – I’d for a long time thought the Fallout games had done post-apoc so well there was no mileage I could take but here we are with the last edit of The Thaw before submission!
Reading over the manuscript to The World Eaters now, I think there’s some golden ideas there and some original worldbuilding but the vehicle the story is told through – the aging space freighter Urba Fawk, which naturally ends up in the wrong place in the wrong time, with it’s crew led by the devilish rogue Jack Dante (as character names go, however, this is one of my best) – screams Expanse to me now, and I worry if it would be considered too derivative.
For what it’s worth, I’m sure I’d just watched (and enjoyed a lot) Firefly…
Overall I think my experience with NaNoWriMo has been a positive one – I learned something from each project, and I tried to give something different a go each year. Initially, and importantly, it helped me gain a lot of writing confidence, enough to know I was capable of writing a 50,000 word story in 30 days! But reflecting on it in recent times… I’m not sure if I’d do it again. Certainly I wouldn’t bank on any of my three stories being “publishable” like I believe The Thaw to be, and that’s a book I feel has benefitted from a longer period of time in the oven. But I’ve even learned from that to not be too slow with that, which is something I’ll hopefully look to address in a new project I hope to start next year once The Thaw is being edited by someone who isn’t me!
For those endeavouring in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, let this not put you off, you’re doing something you should be proud of! It’s a fantastic accomplishment regardless, but my advice is there!
I’ve generally been trying to use my local library – Sutton Central Library – more as a workspace that inspires concentration as one of the worst traits I know I have is that I procrastinate like mad at home. Over the weekend I spotted a poster in the lift for an upcoming series of free creative writing workshops taking place over the summer. Intrigued, I signed up, and went along with Gary Thomas. The inaugural session took place on a couple of days ago.
I had previously attended a creative writing-themed session at Sutton Library some time ago, talking about self-publishing, which I still maintain an intrigue toward, despite my plans for my work-in-progress novel The Thaw to be traditionally published. That session was a bit of a let down as the speaker didn’t seem to have much faith in the aspects of self-publishing that I, certainly, held most interest in – their work was self-funded and the lack of an expression of faith in editors, or any discussion of online marketing, left me leaving underwhelmed.
Nevertheless I approached this new session open-minded. And I was pleasantly surprised! Walking away I was feeling, honestly, quite reinvigorated. It was a casual affair that took place in the library’s new Family Lounge and was hosted by Sutton Library’s writer-in-residence Rachel Sambrooks. We had a good group chat discussing why we write and that writing can be, and indeed is, an extension of ourselves. The conversation was good – there was a decent turnout of a diverse range of writers – from myself and Gary who are fairly experienced at the craft to people who’d read but never written.
I applaud them for having the courage, frankly, to come along as it can be daunting, even to someone like me, to face a group of people when it comes to one’s writing. Also in attendance was vlogger Aridja Kals – who came a fair distance to attend! – who made some great points in the discussion that Rachel led that we shouldn’t be afraid to fail at creative endeavours. The theme of the first workshop was based around a quote from Bennie Brown: that the search for instant perfection is the enemy of innovation. I definitely agree that that feeling is a barrier to writing that people seem to unfairly place upon themselves – there’s an expectation with creativity that things will emerge from the forge of one’s imagination perfectly formed, when it’s really not the case, and it’s absolutely fine! It’s so important to not reject one’s work off-hand and I was glad that was one of the first things Rachel imparted upon us – I certainly appreciated the refresher! But also I feel it was a good piece of advice to perhaps “mythbust” the craft of writing to those that might feel daunted at the prospect!
Aridja made a good point in the discussion that it might be useful to see the word “fail” as a retroactive acronym for First Attempt At Learning. I agree and Rachel made an important point that “failure” is perhaps not the best term for attempting something – which to some in the group proved totally new – and realising that a particular piece isn’t working. We as writers need to be willing to throw an idea against the wall to see if it sticks in order to create and develop from that.
From my own perspective as a writer I feel that’s really key, and I was pleased that this was discussed at the workshop. Sometimes it’s too easy to psyche oneself out of writing, especially if it’s either outside of their comfort zone or a totally new endeavour – but I try to counter that in my own mind by reminding myself nothing ventured, nothing gained. And it’s an important tool in all aspects of learning to attempt new things and then identify weaknesses and strengths and work on those areas. Sometimes a story or a piece of writing just won’t execute well and that’s fine; it doesn’t all boil down just to skill – identifying that a piece didn’t work is a skill in itself.
It was also good fun to have a go at a few writing exercises. Based on the earlier theme of “failure”, Rachel asked us to come up with a list of ten “failures” that might happen in life – an exercise that I found surprisingly difficult on the hoof! We used these scenarios to then have a go at some free writing – again, something I’ve not done since my university days! I was refreshed to see how quickly the words ended up flowing, and when the time was up I did want to continue!
We were urged to not necessarily rely on laptops for writing. I’d brought mine but had also packed a notebook and pen, almost foreseeing this. Writing freehand did feel a bit more personal and artistic, as if the words flowed in a purer sense through into my scrawl. It was definitely refreshing, even if my wrists were a little sore! I’m buoyed by what I had written and I may even continue it! Certainly the session reaffirmed in my mind that it’s fine to write pieces just for practise and not all pieces need be ones to submit or get out there. Writers need practise too – and if good ideas result from that practise, all the better.
The session ended with a game of lateral thinking that I found more useful than I’d otherwise expected – word association. Initially we started with a group effort but split into individual attempts and I found it a refreshing challenge – the most challenging part of both exercises being the plucking of ideas and snippets from thin air, though I will persevere! It’s a useful and key skill to keep supple in my writer’s arsenal.
Honestly on reflection now I found the exercises hard as it does tap into that ethereal ability to conjure ideas on the hoof out of thin air. This is always the hardest, but arguably most rewarding part of writing I find, and I appreciated having to stretch myself!
I was certainly glad that I went to the session at the end of it – it reminded me very positively of my university days where my peer group would workshop ideas together. Those were arguably the most valuable sessions from university. I’m definitely going to keep going to these sessions at my local library – they’re free and it’s no real trouble to get to, and it’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded writers again! Excited for next week now!
Hello! It’s nice to be back! Unfortunately I had to take a hiatus of a few months from before Christmas to now to deal with some important personal issues but I’ve resolved to get myself back in the game as my site was starting to collect a few cobwebs!
I’ve already got some new work in the pipeline but instead of jumping right in I wanted to discuss briefly my plans for March – the weather’s getting good again and the creativity is finally flowing once more!
I’ve been working on a new short story, a horror piece I’ve provisionally titled Entrance of the Gladiators, though this may change or it may not, we’ll see how this goes! This is a short story I’d initially planned to write and release around Christmas time but because of things that were going on in my personal life I wasn’t able to commit the time to, and honestly, I wasn’t in the right place to either.
Nevertheless, I’ve decided to resurrect the idea. I had initially hoped to have this piece ready to submit on 11th March to the BBC National Short Story Award but while I’ve been enjoying writing the draft, in my heart of hearts it’s far too rough at this point and I can’t see myself, barring some kind of miracle, being able to finish it to a standard I feel comfortable submitting it to. I’m disappointed to not be able to submit it but I’m being realistic. However, I will be finishing the piece and sending it off to a couple of wordsmith friends for some commentary and I will be researching some other competitions in the very near future to send it to.
Attended an exclusive book signing today with @rjpholliday 😉 Also traded editing notes and had a nice little catch up
I will say that I have really enjoyed writing it so far, I think I’ve got some really cool horror ideas going on and I’m enjoying the experience of being a fledgling horror writer! Also, I’m going to persist with writing shorts for competitions – even if I don’t win or get shortlisted, these are good exercises for working to a deadline I don’t have the liberty of being able to move!
I’m going to be posting a couple of pieces of short fiction from my university days on here, and I’ll reorganise the short stories menu thing at the same time. I can’t guarantee (indeed, I can say with almost total certainty that I won’t be able to) making this available as a print-on-demand book like The Landlady but the stories will be freely available in full on my website. So you will have to make do with staring at your phones on packed trains for reading them!
I will be posting a couple of book reviews this month also! I know no-one seems to really read them but it’s a good exercise to be getting into for my critical thinking and feedbacking abilities.
I’m also literally on the cusp of starting the next edit on my novel, The Thaw. I had a very productive chat with a fellow writer friend (and university classmate) that helped me focus on what I need to work on for this particular editing pass. I’m hoping it’ll be a lot less gruelling than the first edit, and my intention is to have The Thaw ready for submission to a professional editor, and maybe even agents, by the spring. So stay tuned!