Finding Ideas: 50 steps to success

Okay, so you want to write a book. But what’s it going to be about? Here’s a quick tip to get your creative muscles warmed-up.

Open a spreadsheet (or use a Sharpie and a roll of paper, whatever works for you), and write the numbers one to fifty in the first column. Done that? Okay, now the fun starts.

We’re going to write one idea for every one of those fifty numbers. It doesn’t matter how good they are. This isn’t the time to be critical. This is the time to be creative.

Start with number one and write the first thing that comes into your mind. I like to frame these as ‘What if?’ questions, but you can use whatever format you prefer. So for me, the first few ideas might be,

  1. What if cats developed telepathy?
  2. What if grass became poisonous?
  3. What if a ghost found itself haunted by a living person?
  4. What if sand had an agenda?
  5. What if everybody in the world suddenly developed the ability to travel in time?

As you can see, some of those are fairly random. But we’re not here to judge. The purpose here is to fill those fifty slots with the most off-the-wall creative ideas we can come up with. Only when we’ve done that will we go back and see if any of them start to suggest stories.

And if one suggests a partial story, try mixing it with another off the list. Sometimes you have to smash two story ideas together to achieve a critical mass.

Using my list above, imagine a story about a telepathic cat who helps a ghost that feels haunted by a living person. Or a world in which everybody could travel in time, but the food chain had crashed because grass had become poisonous.

Not all of your 50 ideas will be good, but some will be workable, or at least suggest interesting possibilities when smushed together with other ideas from the list. At worst, you will have spent fifteen minutes clearing some of the crap out of your brain, leaving you free to come up with even better ideas next time around…

A typical writing day

When answering questions at conventions and workshops, I’m invariably asked about my routine. People want to know how, where and when I write. Do I do it in coffee shops or at home? Do I use Scrivener or a notebook? Do I write in the mornings or evenings? To help answer those questions, and maybe give some sort of insight into my creative process, I’ve decided to write this account of a typical working day.

I rise at 6:20 am. I never sleep restfully, so I always struggle awake feeling like something washed-up on a beach. I get out of bed and go downstairs to make my wife a packed lunch. She leaves for work at 6:50 am. Then I feed the cats and make lunches for my daughters. When they leave for school at 8:00 am, I run a hot bath and spend half an hour soaking in bubbles, reading a book. This reading time is important, as it helps my brain ease into fiction mode. It gets the storytelling impulse fired-up, and I often have many of my best ideas while in the bath.

When dressed (I don’t work in my pyjamas like some novelists I could mention), I’ll fix myself a light breakfast. This morning it was houmous on toast. Then I’ll make a cup of tea and be at my keyboard by 9:00 am.

My office is an extension on the back of the house. It used to be a granny flat, so it has its own toilet and shower. Bookshelves fill one wall. The window looks out at the garden. And my desk-a solid old wooden one that I’ve had since I was a teenager-rests against the other wall. I keep copies of all my published books beside the computer, to reassure me when I need it that I can write and have written. I keep my BSFA Award on the shelf above the printer for the same reason.

My work area

If I’ve had a brilliant idea in the bath, I’ll open Word and start typing immediately. If not, I’ll check my email, Twitter and Facebook first. Twitter is important to me because it helps me stay in touch with friends and the latest goings-on and gossip in the industry. It serves the same function for me as an office watercooler. I have various private lists set-up which enable me to quickly check what’s happening with industry news feeds, editors and agents, other authors, and booksellers.

The other great thing about Twitter is that it lets me interact with readers. As I work alone at home for most of the day, it’s great to get feedback on my work, even if it’s just a quick, ‘I liked your last book.’ It keeps me going on those days when I feel as if I’m shouting into a void.

[Click here for my Twitter page]

Tea consumed and Twitter consulted, I then open my current project in Word. Today, I’m working on the first draft of Fleet Of Knives, the second book in the Embers of War series. I’m around 75k words into it, and getting close to the end, which I hope will be around 90k. I have the remaining scenes mapped out in an Excel spreadsheet, so I know exactly where to pick up the story.

All eight of the novels I’ve so far written have been composed in Microsoft Word. It suits my way of working. Maybe because I grew up using manual and electric typewriters. I have the screen set to print layout view, so it looks as if I’m typing on a piece of paper.

I do have a copy of Scrivener, which I use when I’m working on screenplays or comic scripts-I’ve just never felt comfortable using it to write a novel. I prefer to have the whole thing in front of me and write from start to finish. When I’m working on a book, I feel as if I’m creating a thing. A whole object. Not a bunch of components that will only be compiled together at the end.

I find background sounds helpful while I’m working. Music can be good, but can also be distracting. I used to listen to Brian Eno’s ambient albums, but found them too relaxing. Now, I’ll either listen to instrumental jazz-such as the album Something Else by Cannonball Adderley, which I’m currently listening to-or background noise. There are many YouTube videos offering ambient sounds, and I find this one particularly helpful. For some reason it helps me concentrate and focus on what I’m writing.

Around midday, I’ll stop to fix myself some lunch. Usually some soup and cheese. I try to stay away from sandwiches, as I find carbs at lunchtime make me drowsy in the afternoon.

I eat at my desk while replying to emails and checking social media, then it’s back to writing again.

Of course, when I say ‘writing’, I don’t mean I’m constantly typing. There’s a lot of thinking and research involved. An afternoon of hard thinking might look unproductive from the outside, if judged purely in terms of number of words produced, but can be vital to the overall success of the work-in-progress.

‘Writing’ can also encompass a host of secondary tasks, such as producing blog posts, responding to interviews; talking via email with my agent, Alexander; editing manuscripts; maintaining my Patreon page; writing my monthly email newsletter (you are all signed up to that, I hope!); and updating my website.

During the day, the cats provide various levels of company and distraction.  One of the kittens is particularly fond of pacing back and forth across the keyboard while I’m trying to type. The older cat sleeps on the sofa in the office, and snores loudly.

My army of house panthers

Ideally, I’ll work through until the kids come home from school at around 3:40 pm. Then I switch back into parental mode and start working on an evening meal.

If I’m feeling particularly inspired, I might come back to the keyboard later in the evening, and often write from 9:00 or 10:00 pm until around midnight. Then I might read for little while before going to sleep.

I mentioned having a lot of good ideas while in the bath. Well, I also have a lot while lying in bed, on the cusp of falling asleep. That’s why I keep a notebook and pen beside my bed. I’d hate to lose a good idea because I was too sleepy to get up and write it down. With a notebook on the nightstand, all I have to do is reach out my hand and scribble a couple of sentences.

And that’s it. That’s how I spend my time. I’m not saying my routine is the best or that it might work for anyone else; if you asked a dozen authors how they spent their working days, I suspect you’d get a dozen different answers. I just hope I’ve answered your questions and given you a little glimpse behind the curtain.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider clicking on the links below.

Many thanks!



I’m giving away a signed paperback copy of my new short story collection, ENTROPIC ANGEL, which features twenty stories drawn from the past twelve years of my career, plus an introduction from the Nebula Award-winning author, Aliette de Bodard.

This competition is open to Patreon supporters and subscribers to my email newsletter, and means you could get your hands on a copy of the book a week or so before it’s officially launched by NewCon Press!

To enter, all you have to do is:

1). Support me on Patreon and/or subscribe to my email newsletter

2). Message me (via Patreon or email) with the answer to the following question:

The first short story I sold to Interzone appeared in the magazine in February 2006. But what was the title?

The closing date for entries is Friday 7th April. On that date, I will put all the correct answers in a hat and randomly select a winner.

Good luck!

Hint: If you don’t know the answer, you might be able to find a clue here.

Video Tutorials

I’ve relaunched my Patreon page. And this time, I’m offering something new. Each month, I’m going to upload a new video about some aspect of the writing experience. These mini tutorials will give an insight into my writing process, as well as be a valuable resource for aspiring novelists who want to know how I approach the process of writing a book, from start to finish.

If you’re an aspiring writer, this is your chance to hear how it’s done, straight from the horse’s mouth. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of my work, this is a great opportunity to see behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the way I write.

These videos are exclusively for Patrons only, so please sign up if you’d like to come on the adventure with me.

New Short Fiction Collection Available for Preorder

Exciting news! You can now preorder my new short fiction collection in paperback or limited-edition signed hardback.

(Those hardbacks are going to go like hot cakes, so be quick if you want one!)

Find out more, and preorder direct from the publisher: Click here.

EVENT: BristolCon Fringe Feb 20th.

On Monday February 20th, I will be reading at the BristolCon Fringe, which is being held in the function room on the first floor of The Famous Royal Navy Volunteer (or “Volly”) on King Street in Bristol.

I’ll be reading a selection of work from my new short fiction collection, Entropic Angel, which will be released by NewCon Press in April.

This will be a very personal evening for me. Back in the early 1990s, when I lived in Bristol, the Naval Volunteer was my local, and holds many special memories for me.

Doors at 7pm, with readings starting promptly at 7:30pm.

The event is free to attend and there will be a Q&A after the readings where the audience will have an opportunity to ask questions.

All welcome.

How to keep being creative in a crisis

As writers or artists, we’re often preoccupied with our work. But sometimes, real world events intrude and leave us feeling unable to summon the energy to be creative, or leave us questioning the value of art in the face of tragedy.

When there’s a disaster or an unfolding crisis on the news, it can sometimes paralyse us. Why am I writing books about spaceships or painting pictures of abstract nudes, you might think, when there’s been an appalling disaster or terrorist attack, or when the economy’s tanking and the threat of global warming seems so pressing and bleak? How can art possibly matter in such a world? What’s the point?

How do we, in short, keep functioning in a crisis?

When I start to feel that way, I think back to everything writers and artists have had to contend with in the past. Our Paelolithic ancestors daubed handprints on the walls of their caves, and carved figures from stone and wood. The Vikings told their sagas. Even as Rome fell, there were poets writing and sculptors sculpting. In the Dark Ages, people were still singing songs and telling folk tales. Poets wrote in the trenches of WWI. While the Cuban Missile Crisis raged, people were still reading and writing novels and short stories. In 1984, at the height of the Cold War, with nuclear obliteration seemingly imminent, movies and TV programmes were made and watched, books were written and paintings painted and sold.

Art doesn’t stop for history. In some ways, art is history. It’s the way we record how we feel about our present, and a window on the thoughts and feelings of the past. And it’s also one of the best means we have to influence the future.

The language of a civilisation determines its development. If that language is one of fear and exclusion, oppression and hatred, the phrases and concepts those words encapsulate become ingrained in the fabric of everyday thought. They become normalised, and therefore more readily accepted. But if the language employed is one that favours tolerance and empathy, it can be those qualities that come to the fore.

Art and fiction are important because they put us in the shoes of others. They create empathy and understanding, and promote education and intelligence. They allow us to share ideas and discuss what it means to be human, and unpack the fundamental commonalities we all share. They can reveal truths, expand our minds, and provide lifetimes of enjoyment. But most of all, they encourage us to dream of other, better worlds, and begin to imagine how we might reach them.

No single painting or novel can change the world, just as no single drop of rain can wash away a town. We may feel we have no control over global events. But culture is a cumulative phenomenon, and every drop helps create the flood.

We all need a little escapism sometimes. Life would be a drudge were we unable to escape into fantasy worlds now and again, and there’s nothing frivolous about providing readers with fictional boltholes. Indeed, it’s a vital role that bards have been playing right back into the dawn of prehistory.

As artists and writers, our work allows us to express what’s in our minds and hearts. As consumers, it can comfort and distract us; but it can also educate and inspire, and nourish our souls. If we ever lost our art and fiction – or simply gave up producing them – we’d have lost a fundamental part of ourselves, and be all the poorer for it.

Art is one of the candles of civilisation. If we abandon it, the bad guys win.

So, pick up that paintbrush. Open that Word document. Every stroke of paint or line of prose you make is a blow struck against entropy and ignorance, and a contribution to the net beauty of the world. You are not being self-indulgent, you are communicating – and communicating is what people do. We’re a social species, and we need you to help bring forth and express our shared inner lives. To add your voices to the chorus of those who have gone before, uncounted, into the darkness, and simply say to the universe, “WE ARE ALIVE!”

Silversands v.2.0

My first novel was published in hardback by a small press in 2010, and there were only 300 copies printed. Since then, I’ve had a few people ask me how they can get their hands on the book. Well, rather than pay £14+ for a secondhand copy, why not treat yourself to the brand new paperback edition, which clocks in at only £4.99? Yes, for the price of a pint in central London, you can get your grubby mitts on a paperback of my very first foray into novel writing!

And just check out that gorgeous cover by Terry Wiley!


If this book proves a success, I plan to follow it with a reprint of my first short fiction collection, The Last Reef.

So, as I’m publishing this myself, I’d really appreciate it if you could RT, buy and review the hell out of it:



What Is Science Fiction?

At the start of November, I gave a talk on science fiction as part of a schools conference organised by the UK Space Agency and the University of York. One of the first things I had to do for my audience (mostly school children and parents) was define what science fiction means.

The trouble is, genres can be slippery to pin down, and there are almost as many definitions of science fiction as there are critics writing about it.

I started with this slide, quoting Isaac Asimov:


It’s a pretty good quote. The “changes” it mentions can be changes in technology, sociology, politics, or biology (among others), and the consequences of those changes can certainly drive a story. Take Neuromancer or The Stars My Destination as examples. I’m not so sure about solutions, though. Since Asimov’s time, science fiction writers seem to have become more wary of offering solutions to the problems they write about. Perhaps life seems more complex now. Perhaps we’ve lost that postwar optimism and faith in science.

In contrast to Asimov, JG Ballard (writing in his memoir, Miracles Of Life) described his initial reaction to the genre:

“… science fiction was far closer to reality than the conventional realist novel … Above all, science fiction had a huge vitality that had bled away from the modernist novel. It was a visionary engine that created a new future with every revolution, a hot rod accelerating away from the reader, propelled by an exotic literary fuel as rich and dangerous as anything that drove the surrealists.”

For him, science fiction was a means to stretch and warp reality. It was a tool for examining ourselves. If the business of art was to hold a mirror up to the world, Ballard’s idea of science fiction was that of a funhouse mirror, able to distort and exaggerate certain features for narrative, comedic and metaphorical impact.

For me, good science fiction should blow a reader’s socks off. It should take that whole cupboard of toys and use it to tell stories that just can’t be told within the confines of mainstream literature. And in an increasingly bizarre world, maybe SF is the only literature capable of addressing the things we see on the news every night: cyber warfare; cloning; urban decay; ubiquitous surveillance; global terrorism; encroaching dystopias; etc. Which could be why more and more mainstream writers are finding themselves having to borrow from SF’s toy cupboard in order to tell their stories. But more than all that, it should show readers something they’ve never seen before. It should entertain and stretch their minds, and open them to new possibilities. It should combat prejudice and ignorance. It should educate and provoke and ask the questions no one else is asking, and it should have something to say about what it means to be human in an increasingly baffling world.

Writing in the introduction to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, Bruce Sterling put it like this:

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless. […] Very few feel obliged to take us seriously, yet our ideas permeate the culture, bubbling along invisibly, like background radiation.

Maybe because of this ability to seem “harmless”, science fiction also has a secret history of protest. Soviet writers snuck subversive ideas into their science fiction, and writers in the US and UK have long used the genre to air critiques and grievances.

Historically, science fiction has been the literature of subversion and defiance; and as our world continues to change, it will doubtless be again.

“We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.” – Ursula K Le Guin

Science fiction shows us other worlds: worlds for us to fear, and worlds to which we can aspire. It can entertain, provoke and infuriate. In the past, it has been dubbed the ‘literature of ideas,’ but it is more than that; it is the literature of humanity interacting with itself, its inventions, and the wider expanses of time and space. In short, it chronicles our struggle to understand why we’re here, why things are as they are, and how those things might change.

Which brings me back to Asimov’s quote.

Definitions are difficult, and rarely encompass everything they set out to define. Sometimes the only way to find out what a genre is, is to write it. If you want to see whether my work measures up to the definitions above, take a look at my books.

Ten Tips For Novelists

Over on Twitter, I’ve been sharing my top tips for aspiring novelists.