The hardest thing for me at the moment is dealing with frustrations of brain fog and tiredness. It comes in waves. More specifically, it comes in a twelve-week cycle based around my Goserelin (Zoladex) injection. I’ve been having this treatment long enough now to expect the two weeks after injection to be low energy and low achievement. I don’t have to like it, but it is a side-effect, and what I do like is that this, and my other, daily, medication, are what are keeping me alive.
Diagnosed with advanced, early-onset aggressive prostate cancer in December 2020, I seriously doubt I would be here today without these miraculous, if frustrating, medicines.
And thank you, NHS, for simply existing, for giving me the fast and comprehensive diagnosis and treatment and ongoing care all for free when I needed it. Never have I been happier to be a tax-payer. The NHS is a marvel, a national treasure, it cannot be restated often or loud enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I still don’t have to like it, but I know that like all things, this too shall pass. I’ll get my energy back and keep (most of) it as long as I don’t push it too hard. Reader, some days I do push it too hard. I don’t care, on those days I feel normal and that is a fine thing. By the end of the twelve weeks I’m mostly full of beans most days. Then along comes the next injection and switches it all off again.
My life has become more bounded in several ways, I simply can’t do some of the things I’d like to. I’d like to go LARPing (Live-Action Role-Play). My bones are weakened by these drugs, a fall, a blow, and I could fracture a vertebrae or some other major bone. Then I’m in a wheel chair, then I can’t exercise to keep strong, then it’s downhill from there on. There are ways round this, but It’s also a toss of a coin whether the effort of getting to an event, or back, will simply be too exhausting.
The problem with accepting these bounds is they slowly shrink unless you push back, and that takes energy, and energy, yadda, yadda, yadda.
That said, I’ve grown used to my simpler, smaller life. Not only do I accept it, I quite like it. We garden, I read, I write, we go for walks. At some point I hope to get back to leathercrafts. That’s parked for now, the idea of running a shop and making to order became too much. I’m doing some simple things here and there, just for myself. Asymmetric mouse-mats anybody?
The garden, writing, my friends and family, I feel lucky, and most privileged, that I can live a life like this, and spend my days with my lovely wife. She really is the best.
I didn’t have to work, so I stopped. It was absolutely the right decision and I’m fortunate that I could make it. I’ve always felt I was lucky where it really mattered, and still do.
And I work hard to keep well. Exercise is essential for health, physical and mental. It’s true when you’re well, and even more so for me now. Weights, walking, the rowing machine, all anchored around a weekly class run by the brilliant Emily and Chris at The Exercise Clinic.
I’m still quite productive as a writer, with a lot of short stories done, and some of them sold. This work is, I think, some of the best I’ve ever done. The best. I don’t know why or how this is, and I don’t really recommend it as a method, but somehow going through all this has made me a better writer. Every cloud.
I’m sorry if I’ve written about some of this before. The hardest thing for me at the moment is dealing with frustrations of brain fog and tiredness. It comes in waves.
1. Anyone who disagrees with this can kindly go poke it. Fuck off. ↩
So far it’s been a curate’s egg of a year. In the good news, my short story writing is going well. I’ve had some good sales, including Down and Out Under the Tannhauser Gate to ParSec magazine, which was then been selected for reprint in The Best of British SF 2021. Not only is this delightfully exciting, it’s the second year in a row this has happened. (The first time was for The Savages, published by Unsung Stories.) Just to get one story in an annual ‘Best of’ anthology was a huge lift to my confidence, a second one is kind of immense. I have no expectations of doing this a third time, but you never know.
I also have four, possibly five, stories accepted that I can’t talk about just yet. The reason for that is the same in each case – the publisher wants to give their anthology or magazine issue the best chance and use the publicity from us over-excited writers to good advantage when they are ready to announce the table of contents. What I can say is that three of the stories are UK publications, and the other two are to the same magazine in the USA. I don’t mind, it’s not as if these are secrets that can never be told. Watch this space.
On the other hand, my novels go nowhere, nobody seems interested. So it goes. This isn’t anything new. I keep trying to find an agent who likes my work, and submit to publishers that take direct submissions. Maybe my timing’s off, maybe my style isn’t what is wanted today, or maybe – and I think all writers need to ask themselves this question – they aren’t quite good enough. Of course, when I say this last out loud my wife grabs my collar in a two-fisted grip and tells me not to be so stupid.
I gave up the day job just over a year ago and have not regretted it for a single moment. It needed to be done, the time was right, the doctors told me I had, as best as they could tell, five years to live.
I think my writing has improved. I feel I’m just telling better stories in better ways. And here’s one of the great forever unknowns – would this have happened if I hadn’t had that advanced prostate cancer diagnosis. Once I’d begun to adjust to the new prospects in my life I wrote a couple of stories, in my own oblique way, about trying to process this news. I sold one of them too. Overall, I can’t help but feel there is a connection, but I can’t describe it.
That day job had to go. These days I marvel how I ever had the energy (hormone deprivation therapy does that to you). My leathercrafting has gone the same way, though I’m hoping this is temporary, but it’s turning into a long break. Running a successful little Etsy shop was feeling more and more like a burden than a pleasure. When I closed it to go on holiday for a couple of weeks I didn’t open it again, and this too felt like the right thing to do. I’d like to make a few beautiful or practical things at my own pace, and the fact I’m still thinking about this, about design and materials and finishes is, I think, a good sign I’ll come back to it.
Two months ago, my lovely daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. She acted on instinct, it was caught early and there’s no spread. Now she’s on chemo and she’s going through a treatment program far more intense than mine, with all the nausea, stress, hair loss and more that entails. I tell you, it’s bad enough having cancer yourself, but dealing with this at the same time. Man, it ain’t easy.
She’s going to get better. A year, and her oncologist says she be through this. I am pretty certain doctors don’t say these things unless they mean them.
My days usually begin with writing. An hour, two hours, maybe a little more. It all depends on how much energy and focus I have, and if I don’t do it then it’s unlikely I will at all. I exercise, quite hard and quite often. There’s increasing clinical evidence this extends cancer survival time and I’m motivated. And I garden.
The garden is beautiful. Truly, the more you put into a garden the more you get back. Nature will reward you ten times over for everything you do. I find so much pleasure in working in a garden humming with bees, butterflies, hoverflies, and the occasional dragonfly and incredible iridescent rose-chafer beetle, birds, and more. And there is nothing like food straight form the plant onto your plate. Nature is timeless. Lost in the moment, I am more than happy, I am content.
This Saturday I’ve an MRI scan, it’s not my first, the scan is no big deal, half an hour in a very clean room inside a very hi-tech and noisy machine. It sounds like an AI’s first attempt at Industrial Metal. I’m not going to stress about the scan, but I am about the result because it’s to see how well my meds are holding the cancer at bay. Is it still spreading? Has it been pushed back? What can I expect for the rest of the year?
I’ve been looking after myself well, better than in years. Food, exercise, and sleep. I feel well, I feel in good form, I hope this translates into a good outcome from the scan. What are my chances? Toss a coin.
Today the sun shines. Life is good, my daughter is going to get better.
Now you will feel no rain, for you will be shelter to each other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there is no more loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other
Now you are two bodies, but there is only one life before you.
Love is less about gazing into one another’s eyes,
Than standing shoulder to shoulder and looking in the same direction.
Soon you will go to your home to begin the days of your togetherness.
May your days be good, and carefree, and joyous upon the earth.
Is this a Christmas Missive? It’s long enough, but I don’t do Christmas Missives. A catch-up then, and a long one. It’s been a year, and I’m still around, triple-jabbed, writing, doing leather crafts, not doing enough gardening, and playing too much Warcraft.
One year on and in some ways I’m stronger and fitter than I have been for a long time. I’m running twice a week (rather gently and short distances), doing strength exercises with or without weights two or three times, mixed with aerobic exercise, stretches, and a little yoga. And I’ve lost weight, about 9-10 kilos, Peak Dave is in my past. I’m becoming the living definition of the difference between being healthy and well.
2021 has been the strangest, most terrible year, we all know that. If I am allowed to push the definition of a year back to December 2020 then I can safely say for me it has been my personal, solipsistic, best of times and worst of times. Yes, the past year has all been about me.
On Saturday, October 9th Gaie and I were married. This was something we’d planned since the summer of 2018 when, so nervous I didn’t actually ask her on the day I’d planned, I asked her and gave her a sapphire and diamond ring and she said yes. We were in Cornwall, on our favourite beach, between the cliffs and the ocean, sand under my knee, gulls wheeling above. A stranger heard us and as we walked past she grinned like mad and pretended to be reading her book. Whoever you are, middle-aged lady, bless you.
Our own natural inertia to start even the best things we want to do took over, followed by Covid-19, followed by fucking advanced fucking stage III fucking prostate cancer. One day early November 2020 I decided that the long slow decline in the strength of my stream of piss might be more than just middle age turning to old and had it checked out. I went to the GP and had the digital examination. It sounds slightly computerised, but it’s not, it’s a finger. I learned that my prostate, while enlarged, and somewhat hard, was not lumpy, and probably was not too much to worry about.
Two weeks later I was pissing blood. The day after that I was having my first scan.
I’ve learned a few things this year. One of the most important is that the NHS is beautiful, wonderful, amazing, magnificent. I knew this anyway, but to become the focus of its attention, while being emotionally and physically exhausting, and intensely distressful, was a wonder to behold.
Withing three weeks I had an MRI scan, a PET scan, an NMR scan, a thing I can’t remember the name of just now but involves a camera and your bladder – no, just remembered, it’s a cystoscopy – and a biopsy under general anaesthetic. And a diagnosis (see below).
And prognosis: Five years.
Men, get a digital examination, and get one early. If, for no other reason than to avoid having a cystoscopy. There’s only one straightforward way to look around inside your bladder and that is sliding a camera through your urethra. The NHS web site describes this as a thin camera. Maybe it is, maybe my own concept of ‘thin’ is off, but it felt like it had the girth of a telegraph pole.
Anyway, I got to see the inside of my own bladder. I don’t have bladder cancer (major, if transient win). What I do have is advanced stage III prostate cancer, otherwise known as metastasing prostate cancer, which has spread to my lymph nodes and my bones. Mean life expectancy: five years. I came home that day an, with difficulty, told Gaie. We just hugged each other and cried.
It has, I think, taken me entirely this long to process, having now passed the first anniversary of that diagnosis. I’ve always found those first anniversaries to be important. It feels like there is a calendar in my head, one that says ‘A year ago something terrible happened and you felt terrible. Feel terrible now.’ I’ve learned to hate that calendar, and also come to realise that as we go through life more and more bad memories get added to it. To hell with that calendar. Put it in the trunk labelled “Not Needed on Voyage”, then burn it and cast the ashes to the four winds.
Every morning I take my rather expensive drugs with a little ritual.
I take pill the first.
I take pill the second.
“Is not the day,”
I take pill the third.
“I shall die.”
I take pill the fourth.
On Fridays there is an extra pill, and I can’t have my morning cup of tea for thirty minutes. Oh, the Humanity.
On October 9th Gaie and I were married. A small ceremony at the local register office, with all the immediate family who could make it, likewise those of our best friends. Our wedding car was a white Ford Zodiac, owned and driven by Ed, who lives just down the road and who I have known since we were eleven. My three amazing children agreed to be part of the ritual as witness, reader of the blessing, and ring bearer. Our good friend Luke made the rings.
That day was one of the best, the happiest, most joyous days of our lives. We filled the house with flowers, with all those people we loved, with children. I bought way too much food. We drank champagne like it was going out of fashion. Tired but happy did not cover it. There are few days in a life that are just nothing but joy.
I love being married. It changes nothing, it changes everything. Gaie has been there for me for a long time, we were going through the thick and thin of it before marriage. Some days we still laugh like children, others it all becomes just too much, mostly we just get on with living. This past week, with multiple trips to the hospital was one of those stressful, horrible, weeks. It’s knocked Christmas into a cocked hat. Sorry. All is well, we carry on.
Over the year I’ve learned, or been reminded of, a few important things.
We are surrounded by love and care and affection. Friends, family, neighbours, I cannot over state just how much your words and deeds helped me through some of the darkest days of my life. Thank you.
Have a hug with the one you love every day. A long, quiet, close hug. Let the time pass until it’s gone.
Celebrate small things in a big way.
Accept the reality. Accept energy is in finite supply and you can only achieve so much in a day.
Emotions are there for a reason.
I do not want another cystoscopy, thank you very much. Not ever.
Up above the clouds the sun is always shining.
Having one more good, spectacularly happy, glorious and perfect day. That might, in the end, be enough.
There are still many things I don’t understand. One of them is why, when one in eight men in the UK will be diagnosed with prostate cancer – and one in four black men – is there still no preventative screening?
So there you have it. Like I said, pretty much all about me, (except not because everyone around us has shared the joy and agony of this year and who really knows where one person ends and another begins). I don’t really like being the center of attention because I don’t think a good life is all about you, it’s about what you do, and how you behave, and I’m no more important than anyone else. And all this, all this grand and dreadful stuff, it’s just life.
Anyway, it’s Christmas, and these missives are meant to end with Christmas messages, so here’s mine:
Men, let a doctor stick a finger up your bum. It could save your life.
Peace on earth, goodwill to all.
Take it easy.
 Friends in the USA, if you don’t understand how the British National Health Service works understand this: we pay our taxes and then our health care is free. All my treatment was, is, and will be free. From that first GP visit, to hospital referral, all of those tests and scans, and indeed my ongoing drug treatment and other care. Free.
When I reached home after seeing the Denis Villeneuve directed Dune I tweeted:
It was OK
I could go on.
Reader, I’ve decided to go on.
If you’ve not yet seen the film at this point you may decide not to read further, that’s fine.
I saw the film with my wife and we talked about the film all the way home, we talked about it in the evening, and more the next day. By that measure the film is a great success, and also by the measure of spectacle. Visually the film is grand, almost magnificent. Maybe not quite as magnificent as his Bladerunner 2049 because while it provided epic, sweeping landscapes, titanic vistas, and monstrous scale it was, in the end, very much what I was expecting from a film called Dune.
That’s no big deal. The film provides what it is supposed to provide in this respect, but elsewhere, for me, did it live up to those expectations? Not really.
Every actor felt as if they were, to the limit the direction allowed, deep into their character. Much to my surprise, Jason Momoa, hardly my favourite actor, did what I didn’t expect and gave me a nuanced and empathic performance. Josh Brolin, an actor I like, once again didn’t have the space to stretch and show himself and show his qualities, Dave Bautista was suitably, and entertainingly pantomime horrid.
But what was this story really about? Two enormously powerful, rich, and martial families fight for ascendancy over one another to gain more power and riches while exploiting an impoverished nation, one slightly less so than the other. And then there’s the white saviour thing. Hmm.
Despite its grand sweep, these are the fundamental limits of the story, but that’s all right, because the pleasure of the story is in the telling, and a good story teller will hook you with a detail here, a word there, reel you in, let you see the traps of wealth and power, in what is essentially a feudal society, that a good person can inextricably find themselves in.
Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t do that. The Atreides seem by turns amazed and bemused that their sworn foes would leave them next to nothing to work with and fulfil their duties to the Emperor – to harvest the spice vital to keep the vast, space-faring empire running. ‘I’s are dotted and ‘T’s are crossed, the story unfolds, and it’s engaging, with moments of real drama, and, less often, true wonder.
Despite all this every character lacks profundity and emotional depth and I found myself engaging with the supporting cast such as Momoa, Brolin, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays the ecologist Liet-Kynes, rather than the leads. They do far more with less in a film that is emotionally cold from the universally brutalist architecture to the limited emotions each character expresses.
That said, I can’t criticise the actors or the acting, this is Villeneuve’s film through and through. Timothée Chalamet is an engaging, competent chip off the old block, keen to play his part as scion of House Atreides in his enthusiastically gamine way. And Duke Leto? As with so much here you cannot but help draw comparisons with David Lynch’s 1984 film. These two Duke Letos could have been separated at birth, from personality to beard, and Lynch got there first.
This, for me, was a major problem, because so much of this well-acted, visually engaging but ultimately unsatisfying film felt like a retread. For all its faults, Lynch’s film had a passion, humour, and grandeur that Villeneuve’s film somehow lacks, and pushed through the equivocal basic story with more flair.
When epic SF and Fantasy works well on the screen it can be astonishing. After seeing the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy my feet barely touched the ground; Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers blew my mind with sheer scale. Partly it was the story, the story in both of these films is one of existential struggle: lose and all is lost. And while Jackson beautifully and brilliantly stayed close to the mood and tone of Tolkien’s books, Verhoeven did something different and made a wry, clever, cynical and observant film that was all about Heinlein’s book and yet at the same time not.
My first thoughts on leaving the cinema was that Villeneuve, for all the spectacle, entertainment, and good acting of his film had, in the end, brought very little new to the party. One of the great gifts, and sometimes great flaws, of cinema, is the freedom to reimagine the source material into something else. To stay true to it but change perspective. Shakespeare’s plays have by turns both suffered and enjoyed this for centuries. This didn’t happen here.
Another thought was would I go to the cinema and see part two? After seeing The Fellowship of The Ring is seemed somehow cruel that I now had to wait a whole year to see the next film, but it was exciting to wait too. Dune part two, meh, we’ll see. Maybe.
My wife said she’d like to see Dune told from the point of view of the Fremen, how they approach the replacement of one oppressor by another, their lives and ambitions. The story of Dune as told by the people of Dune. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. That is a revisionist, alternative Dune I would pay to see.
If you are like me there are things you know but you don’t realise you do until someone else explicitly puts it into words. They are ‘unknown knowns’ – not because we refuse to acknowledge them but simply because they have not yet explicitly been put into our toolkit of concepts.
A recent one for me was the concept of significance in story. By this I mean that the action, speech, encounters and locations in a narrative are not simply incidental moments, they are profound in that they are some of the building blocks of the story you are telling.
It took a character in the compelling Westworld TV series to bring this into focus. Why did people like visiting Westworld, the character asked? What fulfilment did it bring them that was lacking in their lives? The answer was significance. Visitors engaged with Westworld so strongly because every conversation, every encounter, every host they met was significant. For the human visitors Westworld was a gateway into a realm of stories. Each word and deed meant something and the way they responded steered them into and through one or more of those stories.
It struck me how similar this was to LARP (Live-Action Role-play). One of the great appeals of LARP is that the character you assume is filled with significance. You, along with your companions (some of whom may be your friends in real life) are not only involved in important events, often opposing great injustice, evil, or sheer nastiness, your words and deeds will make a real difference to the way the whole game world turns. You all, as you negotiate, chew gum, and take names, have significance.
True significance brings consequences. Fights are not always won, not everything goes your way. Make a mistake and you or other characters will die. When that happens a persona you may have spent years inhabiting, one that has developed their own web or relationships with other characters, is gone.
If the Westworld concept has a flaw it is exactly that – the park guests really can act without consequence and I think that, as players, makes them lack sincerity. For them there is no jeopardy in what they do. A bug or a feature? There was certainly emotional consequence for some. I could now very happily go down a very deep rabbit hole about what this implies for The Man in Black, because at least he took it all seriously; and how the journeys of hosts like Dolores and Maeve are not only an attempt to gain autonomy but also to claim a degrees of significance for their own actions. On the one hand guests enjoy free action without consequence, while the hosts suffer consequences without free action. Westworld is, after all, a nested rabbit-hole of stories within a story within a story.
It used to be a source of wonder to me that a person could pretend to be another person. Much later I realised that everything in human society is a story. We are our own stories, people tell stories about us, about history and science and politics, and everything. I think we humans may only really do two things: we match patterns (I’m fairly convinced everything we do and think is driven by pattern-matching)and we tell stories about them.
I didn’t write any fiction while I was a table-top roleplayer. I’d considered it, and perhaps everyone who reads voraciously and has adventurous daydreams has those thoughts, but at the time I never seriously wanted to. I enjoyed the playing, but I also ran my own games. I built worlds, I created conflicts and challenges to the best of my abilities. Looking back, I can see it was a different way for me to tell stories for the characters everyone else wanted to play. A short time after I stopped gaming I started writing.
That gaming and reading and later on LARPing helped me learn a lot about telling stories, as indeed did reading and watching good TV and film and theatre.
Subconsciously I knew things needed one form or another of significance. For me significance is profoundly important in story, just as important as all the other necessaries — including character, tension, and situation. Everything in a story should be significant. Not necessarily profound, or deep, or earth-shaking, but simply relevant to the story you are telling. And hand in hand with that significance for your characters there must be consequence. If there’s no risk, no potential or actual price, the moment is inconsequential and there is no tension. And what happens then? Reader, I stopped reading.
You can find significance in structure too. Another series I enjoyed was The Witcher, except that not only did it jump back and forth through the narrative timeline, there seemed to be no reason for it. I’ve seen this in fiction too, also often without bringing much to the party beyond an illusion of intricacy. Compare these to Westworld, which also dances back and forth in time, but with great success. The revelation that certain events preceded or were preceded by others was intrinsic to the narrative. It wasn’t just a clever sleight of hand, it was the best way to tell the story.
Why is significance so compelling? Perhaps it’s born of frustration with our own lives, perhaps we all want to be heroes and have grand adventures. For me I think living in a world where my actions lack significance gives me the freedom to decide what is actually important to me. Although there is always risk and consequence I also know I’m fortunate to be in the position where I have choices in my life. In fact I can choose to be insignificant, and that’s quite a nice thing. Some days the sun shines and I’m perfectly content growing parsnips in the garden as opposed to being sent off to fight the dread Lich King and risk my soul being enslaved in perpetual torment for all eternity. But perhaps that’s just me.
(Originally published on BSFA Focus magazine #71 as ‘The Significance’)
I believe there are only two rules of writing, true rules that are unbreakable in the same way ‘Ye canna break the laws of physics’. (Except with the laws of Physics we’re still not sure whether we have the full set of laws, or even, much like the three blind men encountering different parts of the same elephant, if we’ve a clear grasp of the beast entire.) With writing it’s easier, there are fewer fundamental particles and fewer rules. My Grand Unified Theory consists of:
There are no other rules
The interpretation of Rule #1 is obvious. If you write, you are a writer, however you chose to do, or be.
This article is about some good ways to behave towards yourself and towards your writing that I’ve found work for me. It is a condensation of things I’ve read, concluded from experience, and discovered in conversation with other writers— many of whom have been around the block several more times than me. One thing I discovered is that everyone has their own ways of being a writer. Here are some of mine.
Your writing, your rules
There’s a huge amount of advice out there. Much of it is good, and most of it is well-intended. Take what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. If, at some point in the future you feel the need to change the emphasis in how you work or what you write, do it. Don’t stick with rules that make you struggle.
Don’t get me wrong, many of these suggestions are excellent pieces of advice, and you should think long and hard about how and when you apply them to your own writing. There are some wonderful books on the art and craft of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the Craft is highly rated, so is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
Two other books I’ve found useful are Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and D.V. Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. These books are polar opposites in many ways. Vogler focuses on mythic structure and archetypes, Swain is pure nuts-and-bolts how to write, why you should do it that way, and importantly, why sometimes you should not. His rules are not rules but they are strong suggestions. This is one of the reasons I have found his book so helpful because I have a deep-rooted distrust of anyone telling me there is only one way of doing anything. (Which Vogler does and is one reason his book is just another tool in my toolbox.)
Take what you do seriously.
The more I treated writing as a job the more writing I did. Having a place to write can help, but what is much better is to find places where you can write. I used to co-run a London-based group called Million Monkeys based on just that idea – that you can write anywhere.
I like to write in the conservatory, and in the before-times in the local bookshop cafe. Very professional, that, I like to think, and I look forwards to those days returning soon. The walk into town with my writing kit in my bag cleared my mind, set the expectation I was going to work, and also put me somewhere where there was little else for me to do. (Full disclosure: I might have bought a few books.) If you’re stuck at home, try walking around the block before you start work, that ‘walk to work’ can work surprisingly well.
Finish what you start
If you don’t finish you can’t fail but if you don’t finish you’ll never be published. One early piece of advice I had was, ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’
Don’t worry about what comes next.
The story is your story, long or short. Worrying about submissions and the likely rejection will only reduce your confidence and pleasure in writing.
This is among the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing:
“Your entitlement is to the deed alone, never to its results. Do not make the result of an action your motive.”
Bhagavad Gita, 2, 47-51, trans. Sir James Mallinson.
This one I find difficult. From time to time I need to come back to it and remind myself not to stress.
Decide what your own successes are, and how you celebrate them. Finish a short story and I’ll walk around feeling satisfied for a bit; finish the first draft of a novel or actually sell that story and I might open a bottle of cheap fizz.
My self-confidence as a writer goes up and down. One thing that helps is having a shelf for everything I’ve had work in so I can see I’ve had my prior successes.
Get it out, keep it out
If you don’t submit work to markets you can’t be rejected. It’s another great way to avoid failure, but if you want to be published in paying markets you have to go through this process. I’ve sold stories to big and small markets, I’ve been rejected by those markets before and after those sales. I’ve sold stories on first submission, or on the tenth, or twentieth. Online resources like The Submission Grinder and Ralan are very good for finding markets and helping you keep your work on submission.
Calmness. Space. Timing
Too much time can be a bad thing. I’ve known writers who decided to live the dream, packed in the day job and wrote almost nothing for a year. One of the most useful productivity tools I’ve found is to divide my day up into chunks for 40 minutes or an hour. Set a timer and write until the tone sounds. Then reset the timer and do something else. Reset it again and come back to writing. I can achieve a lot in a day like this. However, there will be times when you must—
Life will inevitably intrude on your plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Beating yourself up about not being able to write never helps. Maybe you cannot sit down for hours, but perhaps you can grab a few minutes. A friend of mine wrote a prize-winning short story on his PDA (remember them?) standing up on a crowded train during his commute.
Perhaps you don’t have the focus to do even that. At times like that all I’ve been able to do is wait and hope for better times to come around again. Hopefully they will.
My daily word count spreadsheet is hugely motivating, but I had to learn how to use it. For some years I set my annual targets too high and never reached them. I realised this was de-motivating so I lowered it to something I knew I could achieve. The result was I actually wrote more because I felt good about hitting my lower target and felt even better when I carried on and wrote more.
I’m not a great fan of things like NaNoWriMo, and ‘A Novel in 100 Days’. I know my chances of hitting these target are very low and I can’t see the point in setting out to do something I know I won’t achieve. However, other people get a huge amount from these events. Your writing. your rules, set your own targets. One thing that helps me is:
Routine, Exercise. Sleep
I quite like being a creature of habit, though after a while I’ll drift out of them and have to reset. Keeping fit, eating well, getting enough sleep are all basic things but they are easy to forget and really help.
Drifting off to sleep thinking about the current work in progress is a nice thing.
I’ve met more than one person who is planning a book. They’re building the world, creating the characters, defining the back story, drawing maps and street plans, exploring culture and language. The months and sometimes years go by and still they have not started writing. Planning can become prevarication and besides, no plot survives contact with the characters.
I think of plotting in the same way as the plans you make before you go on holiday to a place you’ve never been before. You may pick all the things you want to do and see in advance of arrival, but once you’re actually there you find a whole lot of other interesting things you’d rather do.
Join in. Meet, talk, listen
My first novel would never have been published if I hadn’t gone to my first Milford. I met someone there who introduced me to someone else at an early EdgeLit convention. We leaned on the bar and had a beer and things went from there.
There are dozens of conventions, groups, and meetups, there’s probably one near you. Dip a toe into a few, find the ones that work for you. Hang out, meet people, get to know them. It really helps. I find a weekend at a convention can be quite tiring, I need to pace myself because I only have so many social beans, but it can also be hugely energising and motivating too.
Everything is different in Covid lock down for me at the moment, but I have found some great online writing communities. Including my own writing group, which transformed itself into a brilliant, supportive and energetic online group.
It’s a muscle.
Did I say twelve ways? Never mind. Like anything we do writing gets stronger the more we practice. Good luck with yours.
My latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is available in print and ebook. Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec:The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press. My short story, Warm Gun, won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. I am a past judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and former Chair of the Milford SF Conference.
This is an updated version of the article previously published on the Milford SF Conference blog.
I watched a couple of Viking-themed films on Netflix over the weekend, both were entertaining productions in their own ways.
Northmen – A Viking Saga is a fairly straightforward ‘band of disparate people thrown together battling against the odds’. In this case shipwrecked outcasts, a princess, and a warrior priest.
Led by Tom Hopper (Billy Bones from the brilliant Black Sails) this was fun, competent, and action-packed, with occasional mordant humour. Everyone played their parts with conviction as the brave band is slowly whittled down to a core of battle-hardened survivors. Everyone who distrusted or disliked each other resolved their problems in appropriate and satisfactory manly or romantic ways, and the bad guys were jolly bad and had sufficient reason for being so. There was even a rope bridge over a yawning chasm.
This sounds like it’s saga-by-the-numbers and while it’s by no means an original tale it’s an entertaining if undemanding take on the themes and I liked it.
Viking Destiny (aka Of Gods and Warriors) was an interesting surprise, I expected less and received more. The daughter of a murdered king fights to reclaim her legacy. I’m probably being unfair but while watching I thought it was a kind of live-action Brave. It’s not, it’s far more brutal and imaginative, and goes to unexpected places. Terence Stamp cameos a rather gnomic Odin, while Murray McArthur as Loki feels like he’s riffing strongly (and gloriously) off Nicol Williams’ Merlin from Excalibur. Anna Demetriou’s princess hero is suitably conflicted, tough, and competent with a bastard sword. And, as it turns, out, with a severed head in a spiked cage.
Despite the Norse gods this is not a viking story, far more a sub-Arthurian adventure that at times almost felt like a very high-budget role-play. Conceptually it’s a far more ambitious film than Northmen, which did what it did rather well but kept itself bounded by a standard narrative. Anachronisms abound (way too much lippy), and reach often exceeded grasp though in the right circumstances for me that can be admirable and very forgiveable. Nevertheless there was a mythic, fairy-tale vibe that I enjoyed, a decent script, and a surprisingly good supporting cast. I liked this as much for what it was trying to be as for what it was, and this made it my favourite of the two.
If you watch either of these I hope you enjoy them. Bring beer & snacks. Let me know.
Not only is Ian Whates a successful author, he also runs Newcon Press, a prolific and multiple award-winning publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the UK publishing genre landscape without Newcon.
Ian’s kindly agreed to answer a few questions of mine about Newcon and his own work.
1. What effects has Covid-19 lockdown had on Newcon Press?
From a personal perspective, lockdown has had little impact. My normal routine will see me go several days working slavishly at the computer without venturing into the outside world; this has just been an extension of that – somewhat extreme, admittedly. Regarding NewCon as a business, I was genuinely concerned at outset. Events we had invested in heavily, such as London Book Faire, were cancelled with little prospect of recouping our investment, and we’d sunk a substantial amount into commissioning and printing books for launches and conventions that were no longer happening. Thankfully, we’ve worked hard to turn that around, organising virtual book launches, discount sales, and other incentives. As a result, we’ve actually seen a healthy return during the past few months. The only lingering effect to date has been a delay in releasing some titles, which was necessary when the pandemic first hit to help ease cashflow pressures, and that’s had a knock-on effect with our publishing schedule.
2. You’ve mentioned you started Newcon ‘by accident’. How did that happen?
Ah yes… I helped organise a convention, NewCon 3, in Northampton in 2003, at a time when I had yet to discover the SF community. It was a great little con, but none of us knew what we were doing and it lost money. To recoup those losses, I hit upon the idea of publishing a one-off anthology as a fund raiser. Somebody said, “You need to think of a publisher’s name to publish it under.” Since this was never to be repeated, I simply opted for the name of the convention. The book came out and was well received, selling out and pretty much covering the debt. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. Having started, what was it that made you decide to carry on, and keep going?
Short term memory loss. When I held the finished book in my hand, all the woes, the mistakes and anxieties that had gone into producing the volume disappeared, and I thought: “I could do this again…”
What’s kept me going? A combination of stubbornness, the pleasure in bringing out books I feel genuinely proud of, the ability to work with writers whose work I’ve long admired and also the joy of discovering or helping to promote emerging authors. The privilege of working with really talented writers and artists lies at the heart of it, but also the question: if I wasn’t doing this, what the heck else could I do?
4. You write, you edit, you publish. What’s a typical week look like?
Honestly? There’s no such thing. I would love to say that I have a regular routine, that I write for a set number of hours and then edit or read submissions, and I seem to recall it started out that way, but now… Not so much. NewCon has grown far beyond anything I imagined, with over 140 titles published to date (23 of them in 2019 alone, which is a ridiculous number). In essence, each morning I get straight down to whatever job is the most urgent: if a cover needs to be designed and laid out, I’ll do that; if contracts need to be drawn up and sent to the authors for an anthology, I’ll do that. If payments for stories, cover art etc need to be made… if a novel needs to be line edited… if the text for an author’s collection needs to be laid out… if royalty statements need to be calculated, typed, and sent out… if printers need to be chased up… Whatever is most pressing, I’ll tackle first. I start work pretty much when I get up (anywhere between 6.00 and 7.30 am) and work through until 5.00 or 6.00 in the evening; weekends I tend to ease up a little and just work five or six hours a day. There have been long periods (often stretches of many months) when my own writing has had to go on hold, in order to keep NewCon commitments on schedule. That was never the plan, but it has become the reality.
5. Favourite Colour?
Purple; which, I understand, is said to be a non-colour, one that we all perceive differently. I had no idea that was a thing when I decided at a very young age that I liked purple, but it does seem fitting, given the nature of much that I write and indeed publish.
6. Please tell us about your own latest work.
In May I released Dark Angels Rising, the final volume of a space opera trilogy that began five years ago. At its time of release, the first volume Pelquin’s Comet became an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and, flatteringly, it returned to the top of sales charts with the third book’s appearance; in fact, at one point, all three volumes in the series were in the top 50 for ‘space opera’, which was completely unexpected. The series takes a couple of SF tropes and turns them on their head – most notably the idea of humanity making it to the stars with the aid of caches containing ancient alien technology – and is a combination of swash-buckling action, tight-knit character interaction and a dash of humour (with added aliens). The first book drew comparisons with Firefly, and the final book ventures into superheroes in space territory. I had a lot of fun with this series, which garnered some great reviews from the likes of the Guardian and the FT, and I’m sad to say goodbye to the characters.
Next, I’m turning my attention to a literary fantasy inspired by the artist Holbein, which has involved a great deal of research. The story has required me to create a number of different societies, basing some on historical periods and settings and dreaming up others from scratch, letting my imagination run wild in both instances. This one’s pretty much written – a standalone novel – but I need to rework various aspects following feedback from my agent.
7. Why do you want to tell the stories you do?
I have no idea. I’ve always told stories. As a young boy I loved to read, finding wonder in books that no film or TV programme could match (this was long before computers or more sophisticated media), because a book allows me the space to fill in the gaps with my own imagination, whereas in a film the director and producer have already done that for me. English was my favourite subject at school, essay writing the only homework I truly enjoyed. I always felt that I had something to say, my own accent to bring to the long tradition of story-telling, whether simply to entertain in one instance or make a point about society or humanity in another. Whether anyone cared to read my words was another matter, but I suppose I was vain enough to hope they might.
8. What’s the best advice you can give, or have been given, about writing?
Two things: don’t take rejection personally. Just because an editor or agent turns your story or novel down doesn’t mean it’s bad; it simply means this isn’t what they were looking for at that time. The second is to get feedback and genuine criticism from your contemporaries, from people who are not your friends or family. I did this via a writing group, and found the input invaluable, if not always enjoyable. You can learn a lot from critiquing the work of others, as well, from spotting a recurring fault in their writing and thinking: “Hey, I do that too.”
9. What are the best bits of writing and publishing?
Publishing: all of it. The process is akin to a tapestry, with threads interweaving and supporting each other. Pull one thread out and the whole thing can unravel. There’s satisfaction to be had in every aspect – returning edits to an author and having them agree to the suggested tweaks (and even thanking you), completing the layout of a cover and knowing that it works, delivering files to the printers… I suppose the best bit is holding the finished book in your hand. Of course, positive reviews always help as well…
Writing: finishing a story or a book and feeling satisfied, feeling that you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired the tale. I’ve heard it said that no story is ever truly finished, that an author can always go back and tinker with the wording here or the phrasing there, and I can appreciate the sentiment, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in and there comes a point where you know any further tweaking would just be cosmetic. Reader reaction is vital and can be very gratifying, but being content with the story I submit is at least as important, and is about as good as it gets.
There isn’t much crossover between the worlds of writing and leathercraft except in the broadest terms — they both improve with practice, attention to detail is all, a well-thought-out plot is similar to a good design, and so on. (I actually think there are more similarities between writing and gardening, but that’s something for another day.)
I’d love to write a story that involves leatherwork in a meaningful way. I have some ideas that have been kicking around for a while[i] but nothing coherent has taken hold. I think it needs one more seed for the whole thing to germinate and take root. And there I go with gardening metaphors again.
I was skiving in my workshop[ii] today and realised that although that was what I was doing, I wasn’t actually skiving off. Except I was, because I was skiving off the leather with my skiving knife. In other words, I was thinning the leather, specifically in this case so I could close a loop of leather and have the place where the ends overlap no thicker than the rest.
There are several different tools you can use to skive leather, from this simple and traditional knife, to ‘safety’ versions, and all the way up to rather expensive splitting machines. I’ve not had this knife for long, I’m still getting used to it, but I really like it. It’s handed, I use the right-handed version, and that angled-blade design has not changed for a long time.
Leathercraft might not be the oldest prefession but it can’t be far off. Archaeologists have found implements tens of thousands of years old that are immediately recognisable as leather-working tools. And in one case they were not even used by Homo sapiens. I really like the idea that there was a time when we swapped tips and tools with another branch of humanity. And perhaps language too.
‘Skiving’, or ‘skiving off’ escaped from something a craftworker did to their material to an expression that meant not pulling your weight, of slipping away from the job and leaving their co-workers to take up the slack. Skiving of that sort was seldom popular, shaving a little bit of time off at the end of the day, just like I was thinning the end of my piece of leather.
I wonder if the first person to use it as a criticism got a laugh, albeit a dry one. I hope so, it’s a clever use of language. Skiving might not a phrase in very common use any more, but leathercrafts is almost certainly[iii] where it came from.
Fin. [i] For ‘a while’ read ‘several years’. Writers are renowned for understatement. [ii] For ‘workshop’ read ‘conservatory’. Writers are notorious liars. [iii] Probably. Writers are always making things up.