Fire in the Night – an Aldabreshin Compass short story

There are always loose threads in stories. This is by no means a bad thing, as long as there aren’t so many the reader ends up confused, and provided they’re not too vital to the plot. Real life never wraps up everything neatly so why should fiction?

Then there are the twists and turns in the action when it would be really interesting to see someone else’s point of view but where the overall narrative needs to stick to its established path, not get lost in some digression or diversion. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Readers invariably amuse themselves speculating on those untrodden roads.

Then there are the characters who appear to play a small part in some chapter, only to disappear, never to be seen again. They’ve served their purpose and a writer must be ruthless, if they don’t want their novel to sink beneath the weight of a cast of thousands.

Writers often find inspiration for further stories in all these things. I can point to any number of incidents or plot elements in my four series of books thus far which have stemmed from a fan’s email asking ‘What happened about…?’

It’s not just the fans who wonder. While I was preparing Southern Fire, first of the Aldabreshin Compass books, I came across Dyal, who I’d completely forgotten about in the decade since I wrote the books. He’s a young Daish domain warrior who bravely plays his part in defying treachery… and vanishes into the darkness, his ultimate fate unknown…

My work on cleaning up the text came to screeching halt. WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM???

Well that turned out to be one of those questions I just couldn’t let go. So I’ve written a short story beginning the tale of his adventures as he becomes involved in other events that happen during the course of this series of books, which only ever get referred to in passing, given the necessary focus on the main story. It should be fun for those of you who are already familiar with the books and for those of you who’ve just started to read them.

For those of you who are still wondering about this series, it’ll give you a flavour of the Aldabreshin Archipelago and the tribulations and treacheries first encountered in Southern Fire, continued in Northern Storm and still to come in Western Shore and Eastern Tide, all to be published in ebook through the invaluable Wizard’s Tower Press, and available through your preferred online retailer.

Click here to read Fire in the Night , first of the Quartering the Compass stories.

Southern Fire.  Artwork by Ben Baldwin
Southern Fire.
Artwork by Ben Baldwin

Here Be Dragons! Northern Storm’s new cover and associated thoughts

As you can see from the second of Ben Baldwin’s superb new covers for the Aldabreshin Compass series, this book has dragons! Big dragons. Dangerous dragons. As those who’ve already read The Thief’s Gamble can tell you, dragons in Einarinn can be truly devastating. And for those who’ve read The Thief’s Gamble and still have a whole load of unanswered questions about dragons in this world, rest assured you will find answers in this book. Some answers, anyway.

artwork by Ben Baldwin
Artwork by Ben Baldwin.
Click to see more detail

Dragons really are the archetypal epic fantasy monster. They feature in some of my very favourite books and series, as far back as I can recall. Was Smaug the first one I encountered? Smaug the Terrible, as proved by his merciless destruction of Lake Town, for all that he amused himself chatting to Bilbo beforehand. Or was it the Ice Dragon, Groliffe, in the Saga of Noggin the Nog? He’s Honorary Treasurer of the Dragons’ Friendly Society, you know. So dragons that communicate and co-operate were among my earliest childhood encounters as well.

That duality’s been there through my subsequent fantasy reading. Anne McCaffrey’s dragons on Pern; mighty beasts yet telepathic and empathetic. On the other hand, the massive, murderous creatures of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and subsequent books. The devastating dragon out to destroy Ankh Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, alongside the pathetic swamp dragons of Lady Sybil’s Sunshine Sanctuary. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series has any number of breeds of dragons, ranging from the brutish and violent to the intelligent and cultured – and just as many different ways for humans to interact with them. Dragons in the Harry Potter universe on the other hand, all seem to be terrifying and lethal, whatever their breed. Robin Hobb’s dragons will co-operate with humans as long as doing so suits their own purposes, or just their current whim, but any ‘keeper’ who thinks they’re in charge is likely to get a surprise. Morkeleb the Black offers Jenny Waynest untold gifts in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, but at what cost? We’re still waiting to see which side of the scales George RR Martin’s dragons will come down on, in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Daenerys Targaryen really had better keep her wits about her, don’t you think?

What about the myths that spawned all these fantasy beasts? Manifestations of the Universal Monster Template? I’ve been reading about them in books of folklore for just as long as I’ve been reading fantasy fiction. Not only the tales of Fafnir and Siegfried and such which inspired Tolkien and CS Lewis in varying ways, or the umpteen variations on St George’s story. Every English county seems to have its own local subspecies of dragon – The Lambton Worm (County Durham), The Mordiford Wyvern (Herefordshire), The Wantley Dragon (Yorkshire), to name but a few. The iconic red dragon of Wales, intertwined with the myth of Merlin and Arthur, is only one Celtic dragon myth, alongside the Dundee dragon, the Oilliphéist in Ireland fleeing St Patrick, and many more. Towns and villages right across Europe have tales of similar local beasts, usually spreading blight and destruction, with an appetite for young maidens. All so very different to ethereal oriental dragons with their ties to nature and the elements.

It sometimes seems a wonder that any fantasy author would write about anything else. I’ve only mentioned a few of the best known books on my shelves here, so feel free to flag up your own favourite books with dragons in comments. Fellow authors, by all means offer a brief introduction to your own take on the beasts.

What does using such an iconic monster mean for a fantasy author? Well, as with so many of these archetypal genre elements, the challenge is staying true to the core tradition while still finding something at least a little new and different to bring to the mythology. Above all else, as a reader, I find it’s essential for the beast have a convincing role within a fantasy world and an integral reason for its presence in the story. Not just being shoehorned in because someone once said a book with a dragon on the front sells more copies…

So what’s this particular dragon’s role in Northern Storm? You’ll have to read the book to find out, and all being well, the ebook edition will be rolled out across the various sellers over the next week or so. Keep an eye out for updates.

EU digital VAT campaign update

I don’t imagine you’ll be surprised to learn that we have cancelled all plans to visit Brussels between now and the end of the year. Not without giving this decision serious thought, since we are very well aware of digital businesses’ need for interim relief while a threshold and other details for revising this legislation are negotiated. However, after the Paris attacks, it was self-evident that we simply wouldn’t get access to the high-level decision makers who could enact this while so many, far more urgent concerns are taking up their time and focus.

The security situation was a further consideration, though this time last week we were thinking more in terms of getting caught up in evacuations and/or delays prompted by alerts after someone’s shopping got forgotten on a train or some joker phoned in a bomb threat. Well, the Brussels lockdown over the past few days serves to confirm this was the right decision.

What we will be doing is writing a report on the current situation, a year on from the start of concern and campaigning over this new system. The EU Commission has specifically asked the EU VAT Action Campaign to do this, to contribute to their ongoing impact assessment. We will also be sharing it far and wide with everyone who could help secure interim easements.

Watch this space for further details on how you can help us supply key data to the decision makers.

Work in progress and the value of constructive criticism

I’m currently revising a piece of short fiction in the light of a test reader sending a draft back with numerous comments on bits that aren’t as clear as they might be, things that seem clunky etc.

I’m not complaining in the least. Not even hinting that this is a hardship. Quite the contrary. I’m feeling a whole new rush of enthusiasm for this story now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on it, thanks to someone else’s eyes.

Especially since, to quote the accompanying email from the test reader “I’ve been setting the comb’s teeth quite fine.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted. Exactly what this piece of work needed.

When people ask for writing advice, I’m inclined to reply with the qualifier, ‘well, this works for me…’ because no two writers I know work in exactly the same way and some things which work for my favourite authors would never suit my writing in a thousand years.

But if there’s one universal rule for writers, this is probably it. No matter who you are, no matter how long you have been at this game. Get feedback. No piece of work is so good that constructive criticism can’t make it better.

What’s the story? Well, do you recall many months ago, I was wondering whatever became of the young Daish warrior who fell off a battlement to be lost in the night’s shadows below…?

Right, back to it.

When’s the right time to write a story?

As is so often the way, a few things cropping up in rapid succession got me thinking. One was interviewing Brandon Sanderson at Fantasycon last month, when (among many other things) we talked about the way you need to wait until a story idea is ready to be written.

This was already in my mind after turning up the original proposal I sent to my then agent and editor, outlining the Aldabreshin Compass sequence. Or rather, not outlining nearly as much of it as I vaguely recalled.

And then of course, Sean Williams had written that very interesting guest blog post here on things he’s learned, taking the long view as he looks at his writing career thus far, for lessons to apply to his work yet to come.

So you can read my experience and conclusions on learning to let the seeds of a story ripen in full over on Sean’s blog.

Meantime, I’m aiming to get my Alien Artefacts short story written just as soon as I can carve out some time from VATMOSS stuff. Not to mention the ongoing ebook project.

Waterstones Watching – a brief note on recent emails bearing out our previous research.

With the holiday season looming, the promo emails are coming thick and fast from all sorts of retailers. I’ve had two from Waterstones this week.

Here, their best history books of 2015 promote thirteen men and three women. With all the women below the scroll line, let’s note.

A quick glance at this list shows us titles that are already pretty familiar through reviews and other media exposure, particularly for the Big Name Authors.

Meanwhile the eight books on the Book of the Year shortlist are by six female authors and two men.

This list is voted on by the booksellers themselves. So people who love books and who are seeing all the books that come into their shop and cross their counter before heading out of the door with keen readers. A varied selection for all tastes, some familiar from the media, others not so much.

So this is pretty much a snapshot which indicates the same underlying issues with visibility and representation that we saw a year ago, when I analysed a year’s worth of promotional emails and so many people helpfully surveyed their local branches to see what books where being promoted, so we could look at that.

When promotion relies on recycling review, media and PR coverage, the gender balance skews badly against women.

When it’s based on what people who engage with books are actually reading and enjoying, it’s much more equal.

(And yes, personally I’d have liked to see 4 men and 4 women on that Best of 2015 List. But given other persistent inequalities? I’m not about to complain when a selection skews against the prevailing trend!)

Building the world of The Aldabreshin Compass

while searching through the dusty attics of the hard drive for something else entirely, I came across this piece from 2005, summarizing the research I did for this series. Hopefully of interest to those of you who like to know where we writers find the smoke and mirrors for creating our illusions.

The Aldabreshin Archipelago first appears in The Swordsman’s Oath, second tale of Einarinn. To paint a convincing civilization where autocrats enjoy absolute power within their borders and face ruthless rivals beyond them, I blended what I knew of medieval sub-Saharan states with elements from Japanese, Polynesian and Meso-American history. But far more detail was going to be required to sustain a whole series set among the Archipelagans. Fortunately, I’m a history buff, and with research habits learned as an undergraduate ingrained for life, wider reading was no hardship.

I updated my knowledge of medieval Africa. I read books on the courts of the caliphs, a history of the Arab peoples and another on the rise of Islam. To ensure variety within the Archipelago, I studied the Byzantine Empire, finding influential queens as paradigms for the powerful wives of Aldabreshin warlords. Eunuchs are mentioned in The Swordsman’s Oath, so I found analysis of their role in Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire. The ruthless methods those Emperors used to be rid of surplus sons also suited my purposes. I learned some Persian history and went as far as Moghul India. Archipelagans keep slaves, so I added reading on medieval Islamic servitude to my knowledge of Greek and Roman slavery. With conflict between the mainland and the Archipelago set to be significant, I read more on Mayan and Inca interactions and clashes with Spanish conquistadors, and about the spice trade that first prompted Columbus to sail.

Archipelagans condemn wizardry as abomination, punishable by death. In The Swordsman’s Oath, I’d explained they believe it corrupts the natural order, distorting omens to be read in the flight of birds or conjunctions of stars in the night sky. To build a coherent belief system supporting that, I researched Babylonian and Egyptian astrology, combining that steady-state cosmology with Greek Pre-Socratic philosophy as well as aspects of Middle Ages scholarship where astrology, astronomy and science converged. I read up on prediction and portent from ancient Rome through to New Age mysticism, as well as symbolism, to create an original zodiac, or compass of the heavens.

Needing colours, textures, sounds and sensations to bring everything to life, I visited museums to look at art, artefacts and textiles from the historical cultures I’d researched. I read Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Indonesia and the Pacific. National Geographic’s CD-Rom archive supplied travellers’ recollections of exotic places and peoples before the advent of mass tourism. The Internet supplied David Attenborough’s books on his Zoo Quest expeditions of the 1950’s and Michael Palin’s travels similarly stimulated my imagination. I discovered a book about Robert Drury, enslaved in Madagascar in the early 1700’s, who published his memoirs in 1729. Friends and family who’d visited Indo-China, Africa and Polynesia were encouraged to share photos and stories.

Don’t worry. You won’t be bored rigid by all this. If first drafts stray into irrelevancies, my test readers and editors soon get me back on track. Research should be like icebergs: only a fraction ever showing above the surface. It’s the telling detail, the vivid image, the logical underpinning for the fantastic briefly revealed that convinces readers that imagined worlds are real. And much as I enjoy doing my research, I know as a reader myself that the finest created world is an empty façade without vibrant characters and an engaging plot. As a writer, that’s where the fun, and the challenge, really starts.

Robert Drury Journal Title Page (1729)
Click here to learn more about Robert Drury

There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice cream.

Apparently the latest ‘jokey’ sneer about books with a range of racially, culturally, sexually diverse characters – when there’s no compelling plot reason for people having such differences – is to call this ‘adding rainbow sprinkles’. No, I haven’t bothered tracking this idiocy back to its source. Why waste my time? Anyone who thinks this snide soundbite is any kind of wisdom has clearly led a very sheltered, not to say blinkered and limited life. I doubt we’d have much in common.

For a start, they’ve never been in an ice cream parlour with small children. They really didn’t think this through, did they? Why do kids add rainbow sprinkles, caramel or strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes or chopped nuts to their dessert? All of them at once if they can get away with it. Because it makes things so much more interesting!

Plain vanilla is perfectly fine ice cream but it’s a one-note dish. And after you’ve eaten it the first time, you pretty much know what you’re going to get the next time. There’s only so much difference between premium brands using hand-picked authentic Madagascan vanilla and Sainsbury’s Own. So let’s see what happens if we add something else!

Why stop at putting something on top of plain vanilla? Take a look in the freezer section the next time you’re in a supermarket. Neapolitan. Tutti Frutti. Raspberry Ripple. And those are just the store brand flavours where a mix of different flavours is integral to the enjoyment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have built a global corporation on expanding ice cream lovers’ taste horizons. Their ice creams have blueberries, cherries, brownies, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin – yes, really, I’ve been looking at their website.

Plain vanilla isn’t the whole or only story, any more than it’s the whole or only story walking down any High Street. We live in diverse and varied communities, whether or not those differences are instantly visible. Even I do, here in the depths of rural England, specifically the Cotswolds. In a district where school inspectors add notes to their official reports to highlight this is an area of very limited cultural diversity. Even here you’ll see black, brown and Asian faces when you’re out and about these days. Granted, not very many but their presence no longer turns astonished heads – which was absolutely the case when I first moved here thirty years ago. And there’s a Polish delicatessen now.

So why this ongoing insistence in books, TV and films that the white, male point of view is the only one there is and the only one that matters?

Cultural inertia. Everyday sexism. Institutional racism. Call it what you like, we all know it when we see it. And if things are going to change, we have to call it out and challenge it whenever we see it.

Intent is irrelevant. ‘We didn’t mean it like that,’ doesn’t matter. The small child in the ice cream parlour assuredly didn’t mean to knock their bowl of ice cream onto the floor when they weren’t paying attention. It still makes a mess that someone has to clean up. So we point out how the accident happened and encourage that kid to be more careful, so they don’t do it again. That’s how children learn. It’s not hard.

Maybe not for five year olds. Some older people seem to struggle. Let’s consider this week’s news about the new UK passport design with its ‘Creative United Kingdom’ theme, featuring William Shakespeare, John Constable, Anish Kapoor, Sir Antony Gormley, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage and John Harrison – along with Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Scott. Seven men and two women. One person of diverse heritage. (Anish Kapoor’s background is fascinating.)

Institutional memory has evidently forgotten the bank notes row.

And how has Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office responded to criticism?

‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.

“In trying to celebrate the UK’s creativity we tried to get a range of locations and things around the country to celebrate our triumphs over the years, so there we are.”

Asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: “Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book.

“We’ve got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we’ve got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of the UK – Shakespeare, Constable and of course Elisabeth Scott herself.”

The decision to include two women and seven men was signed off by ministers, and the figures included were a “good representation” of artists and designers, he added.

(via the BBC)

Which shows just how those people, primarily privileged white men, who are making key decisions which shape the cultural landscape around us, can miss so many vital points by such an astounding margin. Anyone with the relevant Bingo card can pretty much score a Full House before the end of that article.

Absolutely no one is saying this was done deliberately. But it still reinforces the thoroughly Victorian idea that history, culture etc are only about the great deeds of great white men. With women and visible ethnic minorities very much the exception. And apparently the Welsh who seem to be completely unrepresented in any of the images chosen for this new passport.

Which completely misses the point that these great white men were also the exception. Almost everyone lived and lives thoroughly unexceptional lives. What made the difference to people’s achievements historically was not gender or race itself but access or not to the opportunities which were inextricably tied to race and gender. Even so, women and those from minority communities still managed to do remarkable things. Feel free to flag up your favourite examples in comments.

Moreover, that was then and this is now. If we are serious about commitment to equality of opportunity in real life, we need to show equality and diversity in our cultural background noise. So that what was once considered so astonishing that people genuinely stopped in their tracks to stare, like seeing a black person walking down a Cotswold High Street, becomes no longer worthy of comment. It becomes just the way things are. So no one gets the subliminal message that access to and participation in any area of life is somehow simply not for them.

And to go back to ice cream, those who don’t like different flavours don’t get to sneer at the rest of us who enjoy them. I can’t actually eat anything from Ben & Jerry’s since I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance. That doesn’t give me the right to insist that everyone only ever eats the same soya iced desserts as me. Even with sprinkles and as many different flavours as I can find.

This piece owes a good deal to insightful comments on a Facebook discussion. My thanks to all those who contributed.

Reading the UK sky using the Aldabreshin Compass.

Just last week, the BBC was highlighting the unusual conjunction of Venus, Mars and Jupiter in the night sky.

With the ebook of Southern Fire now available and work on the rest of the series well in hand, this inevitably caught my eye. This is exactly the sort of event that Aldabreshin astronomers would predict and which everyone in the Archipelago would study for particular significance.

Okay, I’ll play, for my own amusement and to entertain existing fans of the series.

In the Aldabreshin sky, this would put the Diamond, the Ruby and the Topaz in the arc of Marriage, with the constellation of the Hoe. Checking the day and date, I find the Lesser Moon, the Pearl would be in the arc of Children with the stars of the Walking Hawk, along with the Amethyst. The Greater Moon, the Opal would be in the arc of Siblings with the stars of the Winged Snake. The Emerald’s in the arc of Travel, with the Mirror Bird while the Sapphire is in the arc of Parents with the stars of the Spear.

Which is definitely the sort of night sky that would get an Archipelagan interested. That puts the Emerald approaching its zenith in the north, then an empty arc, crucially the arc of Death, then a conjunction of three heavenly jewels in the east, an empty arc, then a conjunction of two heavenly jewels, then two successive arcs with a single jewel (going clockwise).

What would this all signify? Well, that would very much depend who was reading this sky. For the sake of this entertainment, let’s suppose that’s an Archipelagan warlord who’s keen on improving communication and understanding. (If you’ve read all of my books, you’ll guess who I mean but No Spoilers!)

The triple conjunction’s the most significant so let’s start there. The Topaz guides towards creativity and new ideas. The Ruby offers strength and courage. The Diamond brings clarity of purpose. That’s all very encouraging if some new plan’s being contemplated, though the Hoe’s a reminder that it’ll be hard work. Portents in the arc of Marriage relate to more than romance; they’re significant for all one-to-one relationships. Whatever this plan might be, it’s going to need the help of a committed partner. Directly opposite, the arc of Self is empty, so personal concerns must be set aside, with the Net offering hope of support.

What does the second conjunction have to add? The Walking Hawk’s a warning of adversaries, an encouragement towards watchfulness and gathering one’s strength. Amethyst calms anger and promotes inspiration. The Pearl balances emotions and focuses the mind, encouraging intuition. All this is in the arc of Children, where omens about love affairs can also be found. So that willing partner may well not be a family member. In fact someone closely related by love or affection may well be opposed to this project. The empty arc of Friendship opposite holds the constellation, the Vizail Blossom, and that’s a symbol of femininity. Lover or wife? Better make sure to keep calm and to look for ways around their objections.

The Opal in the arc of Siblings reinforces this; an omen for seeking harmony in dealings with those close to you, along with the Winged Snake which is symbol for compromise and things intertwined. All the more so because that lies opposite the Emerald for peace and progress is in the arc of Travel which also signifies learning, with the Mirror Bird, symbol of wisdom and higher knowledge. Looks like new ideas and new information are going to be key – and sharing them openly and honestly. Sapphire for truth and communication sits alongside the Spear for strength of purpose in the arc of Parents where all those with responsibility for others can find portents as they seek security for those they watch over.

So whatever this character might be planning, the omens are favourable – while advising being well prepared for opposition from nearest and dearest. This project is well worth doing but it’ll be hard work and he’ll need to stick to his purpose.

I wonder what it is…?

If this means nothing to you, there’s a whole section on Aldabreshin Divination here.

To see how such stargazing colours the Archipelagan world view, try the opening chapter of Southern Fire here.

Guest Post – “Death by a Thousand Shortcuts” according to Sean Williams

As well as getting out and about talking about things elsewhere on the Net, I’m inviting other authors to share their thoughts here to entertain you. This week, Sean Williams has obliged with a particularly interesting piece taking the long view of the writer’s life.

Sean Williams was born in the dry, flat lands of South Australia, where he still lives with his wife and family and a pet plastic fish. He has been called many things in his time, including (somewhat ostentatiously) “the premier Australian speculative fiction writer of the age” (Aurealis), the “Emperor of Sci-Fi” (Adelaide Advertiser), the “Lord of the Genre” (Perth Writers’ Festival), and the “King of Chameleons” (Australian Book Review) for the diversity of his published output.  That output includes over forty novels for readers all ages, one hundred-plus short stories across numerous genres, the odd published poem, and even a sci-fi musical. He also likes making up new words. He is a multiple recipient of the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards and has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Seiun Award, and the William Atheling Jr. Award for criticism. He received the “SA Great” Literature Award in 2000 and the Peter McNamara Award for contributions to Australian speculative fiction in 2008. His latest series are Troubletwisters, a fantasy for middle grade readers co-written with Garth Nix, and Twinmaker, a near-future thriller for young adults (and old adults too). Over forty bonus short stories set in the Twinmaker universe are available online here. In 2014, Sean and Garth co-authored the third novel in the New York Times bestselling Spirit Animals series, Blood Ties.
Sean Williams was born in the dry, flat lands of South Australia, where he still lives with his wife and family and a pet plastic fish. He has been called many things in his time, including (somewhat ostentatiously) “the premier Australian speculative fiction writer of the age” (Aurealis), the “Emperor of Sci-Fi” (Adelaide Advertiser), the “Lord of the Genre” (Perth Writers’ Festival), and the “King of Chameleons” (Australian Book Review) for the diversity of his published output.  That output includes over forty novels for readers all ages, one hundred-plus short stories across numerous genres, the odd published poem, and even a sci-fi musical. He also likes making up new words. He is a multiple recipient of the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards and has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Seiun Award, and the William Atheling Jr. Award for criticism. He received the “SA Great” Literature Award in 2000 and the Peter McNamara Award for contributions to Australian speculative fiction in 2008. His latest series are Troubletwisters, a fantasy for middle grade readers co-written with Garth Nix, and Twinmaker, a near-future thriller for young adults (and old adults too). Over forty bonus short stories set in the Twinmaker universe are available online here. In 2014, Sean and Garth co-authored the third novel in the New York Times bestselling Spirit Animals series, Blood Ties.

A funny thing happened on the way to finishing my first novel.

I realized that writing is hard.

Every writer has that epiphany. It’s important because without it we’re doomed never to improve. If writing a first novel seemed easy to you, then you’re either a flat-out genius or you weren’t paying attention. Hint: there are precious few people in the former category.

Saying that writing is hard is not to say that it can’t also be fun. It can also be all-consuming, therapeutic, any number of other things. But it’s tricky getting the words in the right order. Imagine lining up 80,000 dominoes so they’ll fall exactly the right way. (If you’d done that in the 70s, that would’ve earned you a world record.) Why should it be any different with words? Not to mention the fact that words come in all different shapes and sizes, and fall in so many different ways . . .

The good news is that, as with everything, you get better with practice. I learned this by writing a second novel, and a third. I sold my fifth, and I kept writing. By book ten or so I began to suspect that I had grasped the basic premise of the novel as a thing one spins out of nothing, as opposed to something one buys in a bookstore, fully formed. My books were being picked up by publishers, and they were even occasionally winning awards and appearing on bestseller lists. Practice was demonstrably making better.

And then, around book twenty, another funny thing happened.

It came upon me suddenly that, when writing, I wasn’t really thinking about stuff that had caused me great concern back when I was new. Sentence structure, dialogue, metaphors . . . all that stuff seemed to have vanished from my conscious process, leaving me feeling as though I was mechanically stringing words in a line. It didn’t feel hard anymore.

Fearing self-delusion (and the collapse of my career) I immediately stopped to read the ms over from the beginning, braced for the terrible news that I would have to find something else to do with the rest of my life. Interpretive dance, perhaps.

What I saw on the page amazed me.

Sentences were shaped, dialogue was natural, metaphors were not just present but effective . . . Where had all this come from? If I hadn’t written it, who had?

The answer is obvious in retrospect. My subconscious, honed by more than a decade of producing publishable material, was beavering away even when it felt as though the words were pouring forth without effort. Writerly chores had become instincts that I barely needed to think about anymore.

I had grown a writer-brain inside my ordinary brain. To get it working all I needed to do was give it a nudge like a clockwork toy and let it wobble across the page.

Having a writer-brain felt like a levelling-up gift from my former self. It was as though I’d finished an apprenticeship. Or built a supercharged motor. Now I could get into the driver’s seat and peel out.

It was around then that I started experimenting in new ways, doing things like having characters speak solely in the lyrics of British electro pioneer Gary Numan or trying to create my own religion Writing is supposed to be hard, I figured. Playing it safe is the art-killer.

And while this is absolutely true, I don’t think it’s true in the way I thought it was back then. Because another funny thing happened just recently, this time around my forty-third novel . . . something I’m still coming to terms with.

Aside: Let me just say that writing careers are like the words they’re made of, in that each is unique. There are lots of different trajectories across the creative landscape. I like to write lots of different kinds of things and I like to write quickly. It’s possible I would’ve written better if I’d written more slowly, but it’s equally possible I would’ve gotten bored and pursued that dance career. You’re not going to tell me that I’m a failure for churning out so many books just like I’m not going to tell you that you’re a failure for having fewer. Or more. Or whatever. You measure your successes and failures your way. You’re on your own journey. We’re waving as we go by, checking out each other’s scars.

I say this because, whether you’re a career writer who’s written forty books or four, you might one day go through a year like the one I’ve just had, where I sincerely felt as though I’d forgotten how to write novels. Not short stories, film scripts, or poems (I was never particularly good at the last). Just novels. And it wasn’t that I had suddenly lost the ability to string a sentence together or any of those basic skills. The writing-brain was still there. I had simply forgotten how to maintain it.

To go back to the car metaphor, it was as though I’d built a Lamborghini from scratch, but then done nothing but drive it around. I hadn’t tuned it. I hadn’t changed the oil or the tyres. I had relied on my subconscious to do the work without realizing that it was getting tired and I was getting lazy.

And eventually, after one lap too many, the engine light came on, a puff of black smoke coughed out the exhaust pipe, and everything juddered to a halt.

There’s nothing as startling as running headlong into a glass wall. It took me months to work up the courage to try again. In the meantime, I read a bunch of wonderful books and experimented with new forms, which might be the equivalent of getting back under the hood and replacing the spark plugs (I don’t know that much about cars, to be honest). I began to pay closer attention to what I was doing, and noting where mental shortcuts were causing problems I wasn’t seeing, because if the process of creation is subconscious, then sometimes our critical engagement with those creations is out of our conscious control. Which is bad. We can’t fix what we don’t understand.

Me and my writer-brain, I realized, we’re like an old married couple. We grew apart. That’s what happens when you take each other for granted. Every relationship requires nurturing, even your relationship with your art, and I forgot that, to my detriment.

When my writing-brain started up again, I found it to be just as capable as before . . . but different, which I guess is inevitable after a year of fallow time and introspection. In that frustrating time, I learned a lot about myself, about the kind of stories I like and the stories I want to tell.

Writing is hard. It takes effort and concentration. There’s no right way to do anything, only the way that works right now–which may never have worked before and might not ever work again.

But that’s not a disincentive. Not at all. Because if funny things didn’t keep happening to me along the way, my writing career might start looking a lot like work . . .

Sean’s new book, Hollow Girl is the conclusion to the Twinmaker trilogy, hailed as “mind-boggling” (Locus), “a philosophical marathon” (Kirkus), and “a gripping sci-fi story of friendship, identity + accidentally destroying the universe” (Amie Kaufman).

And just look at that cover art! (Click to see it full size)

HollowGirl-HC-Cover