When I set out to write the Embers of War and Ack-Ack Macaque trilogies, I had to decide how to structure the plot across three books. So, I took a lesson from Star Wars.
Book One establishes our heroes and sets up their world and the background to the coming conflicts, but it’s also an adventure in its own right, with our heroes triumphing at the end.
But then along comes Book Two, and everything gets turned upside down. Gains made in the first book are lost; the characters find the rug pulled out from under them; Luke finds out who his real father is…
So, the start of Book Three finds our characters at their lowest ebb. Their plans are wrecked and they’ve seemingly lost everything. And that’s right when the forces opposing them seem to be ascendant. A new Death Star is built. Han is delivered to Jabba. Leia becomes a slave. They have reached rock bottom and the only thing to do now is fight back. Their trials in Book Two have changed them, and they have new strengths and new goals. They understand themselves better.
The end of Book Three pulls together all the threads from One and Two, and resolves all the character arcs to create a satisfying conclusion.
At the age of ten years old, I scribbled a story into the pages of three spiral-topped reporters’ notebooks. Covering both sides of each page, it must have totalled somewhere in the region of 30,000 words. Heavily influenced by Star Wars and Blake’s 7, the story recounted the adventures of a crew of intrepid space traders and their aged vessel, The Argo. As it was handwritten, there were no rewrites. The story progressed episodically, with new adventures or plot twists thrown in whenever the pace started to lag or I watched a particularly exciting episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who. Sadly, I’ve no idea what became of those notebooks. I can’t even remember the title of the story. The books went astray decades ago. I suppose they may be hidden away in a dusty corner of the attic, but I haven’t laid eyes on them for 40 years. Maybe they’ll show up one day – but on the whole, it’s probably for the best if they don’t.
Writing has always been a solitary profession fraught with disappointment, poverty and self-doubt. Even during the best of times, it can play havoc with your emotions and sense of self-worth. Rejections, bad reviews, writer’s block . . . add these to financial insecurity, lack of exercise and long hours spent alone at a keyboard, and it’s not hard to see why some authors become depressed or disillusioned.
But now, in these times of pandemic, those worries are amplified, and joined by a whole new set of stresses. Some of us are finding our creativity frozen because we’re overwhelmed by the situation. Some are lonely and find the lack of human contact dulls our desire to work, while others are suddenly stuck in a house filled with people who never leave, and never give us enough peace to be creative.
Faced with all this, it’s vital we learn to look after ourselves – for the sake of our mental and physical health as much as for the sake of our work. And the first step in looking after ourselves is to learn to put ourselves first.
Putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I seem to be one of those people who looks after everybody else but can’t ask for help when he needs it. Not that this is a bad thing. I have people in my life who need a lot of looking after. But I also need to get better at learning to relax.
One of the things about being a writer under deadline is that I feel guilty for every minute in which I’m not writing. My inner voice tells me I should be working every spare moment to earn money and keep us afloat. And if I’m not writing, I should be cleaning the house or doing the laundry . . . It’s easy to get sucked into a constant whirl of competing tasks, to the point where you feel you aren’t succeeding at any of them because you’re too busy worrying about the others.
Recently, all this got on top of me and I lost the ability to write. So, I started taking time to do small things to help take care of my mental and physical health. Here are Ten Self-Care Tips you might like to try:
1. Schedule in an hour a day for recuperation and relaxation.
Read a book, play a game, grab forty winks. It’s on the schedule, so you don’t need to feel guilty. You’re not slacking off; you’re investing in your ability to keep functioning.
2. Meet friends online.
I’ve been using Zoom and Skype to have face-to-face conversations and online parties with friends, where we dress up and drink wine together, and it has helped me feel like a participant in life again, rather than a bystander. Plus, as a writer, it’s good to talk more. Talking to people provides raw material when creating characters. It’s also good to step outside your own head sometimes.
Go for a walk, if you can do it safely. Steer clear of shops and busy areas and enjoy the way the air smells fresher. It will stop you feeling imprisoned in your home and boost your mood and your immune system.
4. Brighten up the place.
I have a vase of fake roses on my kitchen table. They look real but they don’t trigger my allergies. I’ve also put some fan art I’ve received up on my wall to remind me that people enjoy my books.
5. Feed your body as well as your brain.
Try to be imaginative with what food you have and vary your diet as much as possible. Keep it interesting. Cooking can be as much of a creative outlet as writing.
6. Try to worry only about the things you can control.
Easier said than done, but it helps if you avoid the constant barrage of news and maybe only tune in once a day for the headlines, rather than exposing yourself to the firehose of anxiety and drama.
7. Make playlists to help you write and keep you cheerful.
Make one filled with songs that make you want to dance around the room, and another to screen out background noise and help you concentrate. Personally, I find café noise helps me focus on my writing, and there are many two- or three-hour long videos of ambient coffee shop noise on YouTube.
8. Expose yourself to different media.
You can’t spend all day and all night cooped up with your novel. You need to give your brain time to absorb other ideas and make new connections. So, read as much as you can. Binge watch your favourite shows. View some art on the Internet. Everything is fuel to your writing fire!
9. Make a housework rota to stop it feeling like it’s all getting on top of you.
That way, you’ll have a specific and achievable task for each day, rather than a huge avalanche of outstanding jobs.
10. Embrace family life.
Rather than seek solitude, I recently moved my work desk into the living room, so the kids can keep me company while I work, and because it’s brighter and less like a cave. This puts me at the heart of family life, even when working, so keeps those feelings of being a hermit at bay.
I still have a long way to go. I need to lose a bunch of weight and my diet still has room for improvement. But even making small positive steps has brightened my general mood considerably and helped me get my writing mojo back. A bright, tidy house provides a more relaxed environment, which in turn leads to a calmer, more creative mood.
But whatever you do, stay safe, stay well, and don’t put yourself under too much pressure. This will pass. All we have to do is look after ourselves until it does.
I have had to make a number of long car journeys recently, and I’ve found that while my body and one part of my mind are occupied with driving, there’s another part of my mind that’s freed to churn over ideas and come up with stories and characters.
In the past, if something really worthwhile occurred to me, I would have to either pull over to make a note or try to remember the details until I reached my destination. Now, however, I’ve come up with a new way of working.
When I’m driving, I leave my mobile phone on the passenger seat. That way, when I get inspired, I can simply say, “Siri, take a note…” and then dictate my idea to my phone without taking my eyes off the road or my hands off the wheel.
And the best part is, as my phone and desktop are synched, those notes will be waiting for me on my computer when I get home.
If you’re starting out on your writing journey, you might be wondering what a literary agent is, and whether or not you need one. To help shed some light on the matter, I had a chat with my agent, the brilliant Alexander Cochran from C&W Agency.
How did you become a literary agent? – When I started to look for work in publishing, I thought I wanted to be an editor (primarily because it was the job I’d heard of). While trying to get a foot in the door, I did placements at a small press, a literary agents, and with a literary scout. I quickly realised I found the agent side most interesting, and was lucky enough to eventually land a job as an assistant to a literary agent at C&W. I’ve been there ever since.
In short, what does a literary agent do? – It’s a really varied role, but in the simplest terms we’re a combination of cheerleader and managers for our authors. We negotiate agreements on our author’s behalf, match them with the best publishers, make sure their books are published as successfully as they can be, and help to shape and steer their writing careers.
What are the advantages of having a literary agent? – A good literary agent is invaluable. In a very basic view, they ensure an author is treated fairly, and gets the best terms possible, when dealing with a publisher. But they also give huge amounts of advice and guidance on the business focussed side of the industry, helping to negotiate tricky situations, giving editorial guidance, ensuring your work is seen by the right editors, and maximising an author’s options in their writing career. We handle the nuts and bolts that authors shouldn’t need to deal with.
What would you advise authors to look for in an agent? I’m taste driven when it comes to deciding what I represent, so I’d always say look for someone who shares a similar reading taste to you, or represents authors you admire. If there’s a novel you love, it’s worth skipping to the acknowledgements to try and figure out who the agent is. Beyond that, it comes down to trust. Although it’s a creative industry (and those of us who work in the industry do so because we love books), an author’s relationship with an agent is primarily a business relationship. You need someone you trust, both in terms of how they’d work for you but also in terms of having a shared vision for your career.
What genres do you represent? My list is primarily SFF, and my taste tends towards the weird and subversive, but I’m also interested in crime, thriller, literary fiction, and serious non-fiction. It’s one of the joys of being an agent that if I love something, I can represent it.
When you receive a submission, what are you looking for in it? It depends a little on genre (what I’m looking for in a literary novel is probably different to what I want in a thriller) but I’m always keen for a voice that grabs me from the first page, a killer hook that keeps me reading, or beautiful writing that pulls me in and doesn’t let go.
Do you accept proposals, or does the book have to be already written? For fiction, I almost always need to see the full novel. For non-fiction, proposals are fine.
What’s your top tip for approaching a literary agent? Do your research and be friendly but professional. Every literary agent will have slightly different requirements when it comes to submitting, which can be frustrating, but they’re there for a reason. A submission that gives a good reason as to why it’s coming to me will always make me pay more attention. If someone shows awareness of my list and my taste in their approach, it’s a sign they’re taking their submission seriously.
What’s a definite no-no? Copying in numerous agents to one submission letter. It happens way more often than you’d think.
Do you still find time to read for pleasure? I try to carve out time whenever I can, and normally have a book or two on the go at any time.
What have been your favourite recent reads? THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead, A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine, EXHALATION by Ted Chiang.
Thank you for your time!
You can contact Alexander at C&W and find him on Twitter at @a_cochran
One of the hardest things about writing a novel or screenplay is succinctly summing up the plot–but that’s exactly what you need to do if you’re going to pitch it to an agent, editor or studio.
To help you out, here’s the formula I use. I find it incredibly useful to fill it out at the start of the process, before I start writing, in order to make certain I’ve got all the essential ingredients of the story in place.
Here it is:
In order to [avoid problem] a [flawed character] must [try to achieve goal] but when [complication] they realise they must overcome [antagonist] and [personal flaw] by [action] before [deadline].
Wherever you see brackets, insert the relevant parts of your plot.
Want an example? See if you recognise this:
In order to ensure others haven’t fallen victim to the monster that killed her crew, a trauatised spacer must return to the planet where the killings started, but when she and her marine escorts are trapped on the surface, she realises she must defeat the aliens and her own feelings of loss for her daughter by facing the queen alien and escaping before the nuclear power plant explodes.
Yes, it’s ALIENS. How about this one:
In order to respond to a distress call from a princess, a naive farm boy must travel to the stars in order to return the plans she hid in his newly acquired R2 droid. But when his hired ship is captured by the Empire, he realises he must deliver those plans to the rebellion and exchange the cynicism of his uncle for a belief in the Force before the rebellion is forever destroyed.
Still not convinced? Here it is applied to my novel, EMBERS OF WAR:
In order to redeem herself a disgraced warship who accidentally developed a conscience must rescue the passengers of a crashed star liner. But when she comes into conflict with former comrades, she realises she must learn how to outhink rather than outfight her opponents, and solve the mystery of the alien objects in the star system known as the Gallery, before their skirmish sparks another devastating war.
Try it with your work-in-progress. It might point out gaps in your plot, and it will certainly make your pitching easier!
Fiction is a conversation with itself, with the present and with the future. Even if everything goes wrong and the human race dwindles away to nothing, at least we will have had books. We will have recorded and shared our thoughts and ideas. Our experience of being human in a vast, cool and unsympathetic cosmos. We will have lived, and said to the world, “This is who we were and what we dreamed of and wondered about.”
And then, of course, there’s the possibility our words might inspire others to change our future. Our hopes, empathy, and warnings might galvanise young readers to go into engineering, politics, science, agriculture…
For me, to quit writing would be to give up on life. It would be to admit defeat. Because, after all, who really wants to live in a world without the beauty of books?
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, excuse me if I keep right on imagining futures in which we’ve survived the challenges currently set out before us. For my children’s sake, and for my own sanity, I have to believe that somehow, we’ll get through. And so, I’m going to keep on writing and hoping and talking as honestly as I can about what it means to be human and alive.
Literature is the soul of a civilisation, and I fully intend to keep that flame burning.
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
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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