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.

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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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.

When to write and when to edit

There’s a piece of writing advice that goes around and around, and it says: “Write first, edit later.”

What this means, is that you should concentrate on finishing the story before you start tinkering with it, or you’ll never finish. And on the whole, it’s sound advice. You need to get the first draft finished before you can really see the shape of the thing, so that early chapter you spent so long revising might not even be needed anymore.

However, I’m not one for prescriptive advice. You can do it that way, or you can do what I do, which is sort of halfway between the two extremes.

I try to get my first draft finished before any major changes, but if there’s something huge that affects the rest of the book, I’ll go back and change it there and then. Also, if I’m finding it hard to get going, I might go back and edit some earlier scenes to ease myself back into the flow of the story.

Using this approach, I tend to produce fairly clean first drafts. They may need some structural edits, but they’re not a complete mess.

Social Media Pressure

Scrolling through other people’s feeds can make you feel inadequate. You might think their lives look so much better than yours, or they’re working harder than you and being more successful. There’s this insidious pressure to keep up, and make your life as perfect as theirs appears to be.

But remember: you’re only seeing what they want you to see. You don’t see their hard times, their struggles and insecurities, their setbacks and disappointments. You don’t see the years of effort it took them to get where they are today.

Stop comparing yourself to others’ ideas of perfection. We all have different paths to walk, and the only person you should be competing with is yourself.

Becoming a Full-time Writer

Lots of people want to quit their jobs to become full-time authors. It’s one of the subjects I get asked most about. So, I thought I’d write a quick post detailing my experiences.

Twelve years ago, I was a marketing manager for a large European business software company. I had a small team of direct marketing people under me and co-responsibility for a £ half-million marketing budget. When the company restructured and my role became impossible, I left because a) I was sick of the stress and b) I wanted to write.

(Annoyingly, if I’d have stuck it out for another eight months, I would have been made redundant and received quite a nice redundancy package, as I’d been at the company for ten years. As it was, I left with nothing. But at least I didn’t have a heart attack or stress-related nervous breakdown.)

Since then, I’ve written and published 12 books, numerous short stories, and a fair few articles. I’ve also been a stay-at-home dad for my kids.

However, it’s been a financial rollercoaster. I’ve done freelance work as a copywriter and journalist and done some part-time work for local organisations in order to bring in some money, and there have been periods of barely scraping by, accompanied by many sleepless nights.

I don’t think I would have survived the past two or three years without the support of my awesome Patreon community, who have been extremely encouraging and loyal.

But since Embers of War was published in 2018, money has started to trickle in from foreign sales, royalties, audio rights, and TV/movie options. Not megabucks, and certainly not as much as I earned in my previous job, but enough to provide a little breathing space.

So, if you’re thinking of giving up a reliable income in favour of an artistic life, think long and hard about what that means.

The average advance for a novel is somewhere around £4k-£5k, and that’s not usually paid all in one lump sum. You get half when you sign the contact and half when the book is published, which might not be for another year, depending on schedules. So, after spending a year writing your debut novel, you could be looking at an annual income of £2,500, which is certainly not enough to live on.

An agent can help. They might be able to negotiate a better deal, and they will let help you hang onto your foreign publication rights, which can then be sold to generate more income.

But you are still going to need to find a way to generate more income, especially if you have dependents and a mortgage. So, you may have to consider a part-time job, or spend part of your writing time hustling as a freelancer.

You can also look at diversifying your channels. If you’re primarily a novelist, you might also consider writing comic scripts or screenplays. If your novels are traditionally published, you might consider self-publishing some shorter fiction.

Once you start to get established, you may be offered a fee to attend a literary festival, or host a writing workshop. But you have to accept the first few months, and maybe years, are going to be an uncertain time – unless you have a patient spouse with a well-paying job.

It’s taken me twelve years to finally start earning decent money in this business, and I’d still be lost without Patreon. So, think carefully, make a plan, and diversify your income streams.

And the best of luck to you!