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A Writer Writes

We’ve all been through a ton of shit this year, and the outlook for the rest of 2020 doesn’t look any rosier. But the only two things that are going to get us through are:

1) caring for ourselves and others

2) DOING THE WORK

(I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone).

A bricklayer lays bricks; a skier skis; a writer writes; a painter paints.

Don’t be the noun; do the verb.

You can do it. I believe in you.

Exercising the storytelling muscles

I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I can’t stress how important it is to read and to take notes. These are probably two of the most important things a writer can do. Regular reading exercises the storytelling muscles of your imagination. It keeps your head in fiction mode and consciously or not, you will learn from what you read. You will see how to affect the reader, build suspense and craft a clean and effective sentence; you will also be able to identify those parts of the text that don’t work for you, and interrogate why that is. 

Note-taking is just as essential. As you go about your day, jot down interesting turns of phrase that you hear, plot ideas, character or place descriptions. Whether you use a paper notebook or a phone app, get it all down somewhere and you will find this serves a duel purpose. Firstly, you will be able to mine these notes for inspiration and detail; secondly, the act of translating what you see and hear into words will keep the writing part of your brain active and engaged, like an engine constantly ticking over, so that when you sit at your desk to write, you won’t be starting cold.

Rebellious Kindness

Back in 2016, as UK politics started to become ever more divisive and Twitter seemed to have become a hate-filled void of people shouting extreme opinions at each other, I got fed up. Reading my feed became some masochistic game of seeing how much stress I could take before I logged-off again.

Why can’t people be nicer? I thought.

And then, I remembered that I am a person (I can prove it and everything). If I wanted people to be nicer online, I knew I had a responsibility to lead by example. I had to be the change I wanted to see in the world. So, I muted all they key words that were causing dissent in my feed, and simply typed: ‘Is there anything I can do to help anyone today?’

The response was heartening. I was asked questions about writing and publishing. One person wanted a virtual hug. Others wanted encouragement or a kick in the pants. In fact, it went so well, I kept doing it, and have been regularly posting offers of help for aspiring writers ever since. I stay away from the drama and concentrate instead on helping people where I can.

I answer questions about my writing process, daily word counts, approaching agents and publishers, using flashbacks, chapter length, and many other writing-related subjects. I have provided character names to people who needed them, cheered writers on as they made progress, and told others to sit their butts down and get to work.

I’m a big believer that you get back what you put out into the world, and these acts of kindness on my part have resulted in a lot of goodwill from the rest of the writing community. Whenever I attend conventions, I get people coming up to me and thanking me for some piece of advice or kindness, or just saying how much they enjoy the positivity, and that means the world to me.

You can find me on Twitter here.

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction isn’t just about aliens and rocket ships (although those are a lot of fun), rather it’s a lens we use to tell stories about who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and what will happen to us if we do or do not take steps to address our behaviour. It’s a literature of ideas, but it’s also one woven into being using analogy and parable. It’s about OUR relationship to technology, nature, society, and the cosmos. And through it, we can address these things in ways with which mainstream fiction might struggle.

Look back at Mary Shelley, HG Wells or George Orwell. Look at the SF of the postwar years, the 1960s and 1970s. The flowering of cyberpunk in the 1980s… Our science fiction reflects who we are when we write it.

Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise.

W.H. Auden

As a writer, science fiction gives you one of the widest possible canvases: the whole of time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end. You can go anywhere, imagine anything, set up any social experiment or emotional “what if?” you desire. It’s a blank canvas wide enough for your imagination. It encapulates that “anything-is-possible” punk rock attitude. And in that freedom, that willingness to extrapolate what we see around us into tales that examine out relationship with the universe, it is possibly the oldest and purest of our storytelling traditions.

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

Octavia E. Butler

Where I Write

If you’re like me, you’ll be fascinated by other writers’ work spaces. From Dylan Thomas’ boathouse to the station platform where Paul Simon composed ‘Homeward Bound,’ there’s something inspiring about seeing where the act of creation actually takes place. And with that in mind, I thought you might like to take a peek at my current set-up.

My work station occupies one corner of the living room. The sofa is just out of shot to the left of the picture, which means instead of being hidden away in an office, I’m now right at the heart of family life. This means more distractions, but it also feels less anti-social. And as a single parent now, I can’t hide away all the time; I need to be available. Plus, I get to see the daylight, which I didn’t when I was in the office at the back of the house, so I don’t feel so much like some kind of troglodyte hermit.

I’ve had the desk for around forty years. My father bought it secondhand from an office supply company when I needed something on which to do my homework. It’s sturdy and has plenty of drawers for storing pens and stationery, and other odds and ends.

When my old computer gave up the ghost, I invested the money I received from the government’s self-employment income support scheme in a new iMac with a 27 inch screen. I also have an old iPhone 8, which means I can seamlessly work on notes and documents on both my phone and desktop, making it easy to write and work on ideas while on the go. It also means I can respond to texts and WhatsApp messages on my desktop as well as my phone. I use a cheap PC mouse because Apple’s Magic Mouse is too small for my large hands and causes cramp. Plus, I like an old fashioned scroll wheel.

I bought the microphone at the beginning of lockdown, when I was doing a lot of Zoom calls, online readings and virtual conventions. It cuts down the echoey effect of recording in a large open room, and its noise-cancellation screens out background noise.

I keep my previous books on the shelf behind my main monitor to remind me that however stuck I get with my current project, I have written before and I will write again. I keep my two BSFA Awards in the cabinet on the right for the same reason, and to remind me that I should ignore my imposter syndrome because it seems some people actually like what I write.

Other items of interest you might spot:

  • Cup of tea. The mug was given to me by the organisers of BristolCon. The tea inside is essential for stimulating tired synapses.
  • Millennium Falcon. Because I’m a huge nerd.
  • Bullet journal and main notebook to the right of the monitor stand for easy access.
  • Locus magazine. That’s the issue that contains an interview with me, and has my name on the cover. I keep it handy for the same reason as the awards, to help counteract my imposter syndrome.
  • Cardboard boxes containing canvas prints of my paintings.

The one item not pictured is my work chair. I bought it from Ikea. It’s a swivel office chair, but it has good adjustable back support and a headrest. Sitting down for long periods is disastrous for your health, so you need a chair that’s going to mitigate as much damage as possible, and as you get older, back support becomes more and more essential.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into my work environment. Feel free to tell us about your set-up in the comments.

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Science fiction is subversive

The act of imagining the future has always been a quietly subversive activity. Portraying a different or changed society cannot help but be a deeply political exercise. By doing it, you’re implicitly passing comment on our present world and the way it will be altered by coming events or technologies. From HG Wells onwards, SF writers have imagined what will happen if we continue down our current path. If things go badly, we get a dystopia to warn us of the consequences of inaction; if things go well, we get a utopia to which we can aspire and work towards.

One of the core messages of the genre is that, “this too shall pass.” The world we know today – it’s political, economic and social systems – cannot endure forever. Change will come. Some people don’t want to hear that, but come it will. As SF writers, we get to model a vast array of possible futures. To remake the world according to our personal fears and desires.

The forces of conservatism seek stasis and security. They fear change, but SF writers revel in it. We dream of better worlds. We are literally paid to imagine that things are different to the way they are today, and that can be a hell of a subversive act.

Fishing for Inspiration

Stop overthinking everything. Sometimes, you just have to stop trying to second guess yourself and just start typing (or painting, or playing music, etc.) You can plan and plan, but a lot of creative inspiration comes in the moment. Ideas are forged in the flow of the work, and improvisation is the mother of creativity. So, lay the groundwork and then just get out there and do it.

Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways but in my experience, it strikes hardest while I’m actually wrestling with the story in my net, and its important to capture its bounty before it slips back beneath the waves.

Our imaginations are like the sea. So much lurks beneath the surface, seemingly lost to us; but occasionally, a tempestuous thought or sudden fortunate confluence of tides will throw up a gem of an idea.

So, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Start typing and see what happens.

Standing on the edge of the world

In my fiction, I’ve been fascinated by the liminality of ports. They are where the everyday intersects with the extraordinary, the start and end point for thousands of journeys, and portals connecting this place with every other place.

Being a SF writer, I have a particular fondness for space ports. The idea that you can run away from life as a colonist, get to the port, and then have the whole universe open up before you…

In this sense, as in Star Wars, the space port is a bridge between the main character’s old life and the adventure awaiting them. Between who they were and who they are going to be.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the port city of Bristol, which historically served as a jumping-off point for merchants, pirates, explorers and (despicably) slavers. Standing on the quay in the late afternoon, you can imagine the ships slipping their moorings and heading for the gorge, and beyond it the Severn Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, and it feels as if you’re standing on the edge of the world.

In Conversation with Peter F. Hamilton

Peter Hamilton will be doing a number of online events in order to promote his new book, The Saints of Salvation (which I am currently reading), and I will be interviewing him when his virtual tour bus pulls into Bristol.

As you can see from the schedule, this event is already sold out (in fact it has a wait list), but if you’d like to catch Peter on his other stops, the links are below:

Titans of Sci-Fi with Waterstones Swansea, Thu 29 Oct, 6.30pm (Peter with Stephen Baxter, Temi Oh and Alastair Reynolds): https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125490522531 

Remaking the Future with SFX and Toppings, Wed 4 Nov, 6.30pm (Peter with Stephen Baxter, Laura Lam, Jonathan Wright): https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/125511443105 

Top Ten Twitter Tips for Authors

Whatever other social media platforms you may be on, Twitter seems to be the main one where writers hang out. Maybe we like the fact it’s almost all text based. Maybe we like the brevity.

If you’re an author setting out on your Twitter journey, here are a few do’s and don’ts that really seem to help.

1. USE A HANDLE THAT WILL STAND THE TEST OF TIME

Using a cute name may be an option if you want to stay anonymous online, but if you want to build an author platform, it’s probably best to use your own name (or pen-name) as your @ handle. You may also be tempted to use the title of your debut book, but I would advise against it. Hopefully, you’ll write many more books, and might regret being forever saddled with the title of your first, especially if those later books do much better.

2. CREATE A PROFESSIONAL BIO

People are going to need a reason to follow you, so give them one! Tell us who you are and why you’re here. If you’re an author, say so. And if you can tell us your genre, so much the better. There’s about a bazillion “bestselling writers” on Twitter, so you need to find some way to stand out. If you really are a NYT or Sunday Times Bestseller, then mention it. Also mention any awards or relevant experience. If you write sci-fi and once worked for NASA, mention that. If you don’t have anything like that, try telling us why you’re writing.

3. GET A DECENT PROFILE PICTURE

Your profile picture will be a huge part of your Twitter “brand”. People will recognise it as they scan down their feeds, and associate it with you. So, maybe ditch the picture of Garfield or Rick & Morty, and use something that epitomises who you are. I use a professional-looking headshot on my profile, because I am open and personable on Twitter. What you see is what you get. Others may choose to use book covers or caricatures of themselves, which is fine, but think long and hard about how you want to be perceived.

4. DITTO FOR THE HEADER IMAGE

A header image is another opportunity to give your tweets context and tell us something about who you are. It’s also a great chance to show off your book covers or post up an image that reflects the tone and subject of your work. So, if you write gritty murder mysteries, you could use a darkened city street. If you write international romances, maybe a yacht or a tropical beach.

5. PINNED TWEETS

Twitter allows you to ‘pin’ a tweet to the top of your feed, so it will be the first thing seen by visitors to your profile. This can be a handy way of posting links to your latest books, deals, or news. But agressive “buy my book” tweets can be off-putting, and the visitor may click away without reading the rest of your feed. So, try to be welcoming. Show off your wares, but don’t try to jam them down our throats. Also, it’s a good idea to change your pinned tweet every now and again. A pinned tweet dated six months ago gives the impression that nothing much of interest has happened since.

6. DON’T BE A JERK

There’s a line in Bugsy Malone that goes, “You give a little love and it all comes back to you / You’re gonna be remembered for the things you say and do.” And this applies double to social media. The way you appear online is the way people will think you really are. So, if you act like an agressive jerk, readers will assume you are one. And if those readers include prospective agents and publishers, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Nobody wants to work with an asshole, far less read their book or be friends with them, so be careful how you behave.

I try to treat Twitter the same way I would treat a bar full of people I want to get to know. I’m polite, respectful and try to be helpful where I can. I don’t wander around starting fights, or jump on the table shouting “BUY MY BOOK!”

7. DON’T SPAM

People don’t react well to a hard sales pitch. If I follow someone and they immediately hit me with an automated “check out my book / facebook page / website message, I immediately unfollow them. At the very least, I will mute them.

The same goes for hijacking other people’s conversations. If two or more people are discussing something, don’t leap in with an advert for your book. And don’t use popular hashtags to try and get exposure for your work, either. Not unless it’s relevant. If people are using a hashtag to talk about a political issue and you jump in with an advert for your murder mystery, you’re going to look like an idiot (however, if you’re a political pundit whose book happens to be relvant to the discussion, feel free).

8. QUALITY NOT QUANTITY

When it comes to followers, you want people who are interested in what you have to say. Trying to get a million randos to follow you won’t be nearly as useful as having 1,000 engaged and interested friends. The former may buy a book from you, the latter almost certainly will. At the very least, they’ll retweet your tweets and help you spread your message.

But how do we get engaged followers? The short answer is: post interesting posts on topics that may be of interest or use to the kind of people who will read your books. Ask questions. Share your journey. Take the time to chat to people and get to know them. Pay attention to those who like your work and retweet your tweets.

9. BE CAREFUL WHO YOU FOLLOW

Follow people who are relevant to your interests. Use the list function to segment your timeline. Have one list for agents, another for editors. Create a list for your most engaged followers, and your favourite authors. Choose successful authors and watch how they use twitter. Learn from them. Listen to what they’re saying and how they say it. Maybe even reach out to them to ask them questions about their craft.

But don’t just follow other writers. Try to follow readers and reviewers, bloggers and publishers. Anyone with an interest in your particular genre. Because it never hurts to know what’s going on in your field.

And for the sake of your mental health, block anyone who trolls you. Don’t try to argue with them, just block and move on (and report if necessary). Mute topics that stress you out, and try to cut as much negativity from your feed as possible.

10. FOLLOW ME!

You can find me @garethlpowell where I regularly host question and answer sessions for aspiring authors, post writing tips and offer encouragement, and occasionally share pictures of my cats.