Delays: Not Always a Bad Thing

 

I have some bad news. Or some might say good news. There has been another delay to The Strategist, which will now be published on ebook in May, instead of January.

This means it will be released about a year after the initial planned publication date. That’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things – it’s less than two years after book one, which isn’t the end of the world.

Still, I’m a bit annoyed about it, especially as I know my legions of readers (both of them – hi mum and dad!) are receiving emails from Amazon etc telling them it’s been delayed. However, I definitely think the delays have been worthwhile, and everyone involved has been very patient and supportive.

The Strategist
Soon …. soooooooooonnn

The Strategist is the second book in the trilogy, and that has thrown up unique challenges. In book one, you are laying the foundations of the story, introducing most of the major characters, etc, so it evolves in quite a natural way. Plus, if you don’t have a book deal, you can really take as long as you like on it (I could anyway).

In book 3, you’re winding everything up, so again, all those big climactic events you’ve been thinking of start to click into place and help steer the narrative. (I think – I haven’t written a book 3 yet. I’ll probably be delayed with that too!)

But Book 2 is (obviously) somewhere in between. You know what’s supposed to happen in the story, but there are all sorts of other considerations beyond the major building blocks. You’re taking the story further, so can show more of the world. This is quite liberating, but it also presents challenges, especially in books like mine where I want to keep a high level of mystery. Similarly, I want to show more of the history of the world, and more of what makes the characters tick, while still keeping some of that hidden away. It’s tricky hitting that balance.

I think the point is that these things take as long as they take, and there’s no sense in rushing them. I am definitely much happier with the way it’s shaping up, so hopefully it will be worth the wait!

 

 

 

Setting Out: Attending Conventions

 

The second in the ‘Setting Out’ series is a guest post from my friend Bishop O’Connell, author of the ‘American Faerie Tale’ series. Here, Bishop shares a very funny and informative post on what he’s learned about attending conventions over his years as an author (and before).

 

Extroverts in their Natural Environment

 

My first comic convention was in San Diego; I was an attendee. Don’t get jealous – this was long before San Diego Comic Con became the pop culture behemoth it is now. I recall it being fun, though quite heavy on Star Trek—The Next Generation was at its height at the time—but I was too young and broke to really appreciate it. The second convention I attended was a gaming convention which I found much more fun and I think actually had a larger attendance; like I said, a long time ago. This was also a time when geek culture was still much maligned, and the term itself was still a pejorative.

 

profile
Bishop O’Connell: A man who loves conventions, but far from a conventional man!

When my first book, The Stolen, was published (many years later), I was invited to attend the New York Comic Con (NYCC) by my publisher and attend a panel. Let’s just say I was a bit excited (read: out of my geeky mind in delight). Not only had I not been to a con in a couple of decades, I was going to be a guest speaker! I’d be on the other side of the table! I had no illusions about my status, but I’d be lying if it didn’t feel a bit like I’d been invited to a celebrity party and was, by association, a minor celebrity myself. I knew there’d be no adoring crowds of people eager to meet me, no long lines at my book signing, but I really felt like I’d made it, in a small way at least. It was incredibly exciting and I couldn’t wait.

Now to briefly digress, I am and have always been an extrovert. I like to think it’s less the “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I NEED EXTERNAL VALIDATION!” kind and more the “I just like people” kind, and I’ve paid my friends well to agree with me. I was never the little kid who put on shows for my family or anything, but in my early elementary school days, I did write short stories which the teacher would read at story time. Even as a little kid I’ve never been uncomfortable speaking in front of groups or to strangers (much to my parent’s dismay). When I got older I discovered theater and actually had a respectable resume for a starting actor. I briefly majored in theater, was part of a professional acting troupe, and even a professional improvisation group. Don’t look at me like that, it was the 90s. I soon discovered I was doomed to fill a particular role, namely the funny fat guy. At that point I shifted my focus to writing and changed my major to philosophy. Yeah, I know it’s ironic that I chose writing; an extrovert in a job that is, for the most part, quite solitary. But then I’ve always enjoyed irony. I of course knew shy people, but didn’t really understand the concept of an introvert. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy getting laughs or applause? Turns out, in the literary world, I’m the oddball. That’s a very strange realization to come to, and I think it’s helped me to empathize and understand others all the better. However, that oddity served me well at NYCC and all other conventions.

Back to New York: it was 2014 and the attendance that year was 133,000 people. It beat out San Diego for the largest con in North America (due entirely to the fact that I was attending, I’m sure). Until you see it, it’s hard to conceive of that many people all in one place. That’s more than the population of many cities. When I arrived, I was stunned. Even on Friday (Saturday is usually the biggest day) it was so crowded there was barely room to walk for an average size person. I had to squeeze between people almost the entire time. I know many authors who find that kind of crowd overwhelming, but for me, it was all the more exciting. See above regarding oddball.

I’ve heard people say, and I agree, that when you attend a convention you feel part of something, a sense of community. When you’re a guest—even an unknown—it’s even more so. You’re part of what all the people are there to experience. My panel was sort of a dream panel. My fellow panelists included Naomi Novik (who has remembered me each time I’ve seen her since), Nicole Peeler (whom I consider a friend now), Harry Heckel (a fellow Harper author and I’m convinced we were somehow separated at birth), as well as Brian and Wendy Froud. I sat next to Wendy, who along with her husband, are not only the co-authors of many faerie books, but longtime designers at Jim Henson’s Creature shop. In fact, they designed Yoda. YODA! I sat next to Yoda’s mom! I was a little star struck. But I felt at ease on the panel (Not your Mother’s Fairytales). I was a new and unknown author, but I was, in a very real sense, on stage once more. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I did well. I got several laughs, and even generated some interest. I sold a few books at my signing, including one young lady who was incredibly excited to meet me. She turned out to be the younger sister of Lexie Dunne (another Harper author) and I enjoy giving her grief about it to this day.

I walked the floor for a bit but spent much of my time at the Harper booth. This is where I found being an extrovert really came in handy (see above about talking to strangers). How did it go? Well I sold out of all the stock Harper had brought, on the first day. Luckily this was New York and their offices were a short drive away so they were able to bring more in. I met a ton of people who wanted to be authors, and so I told them how I’d gotten my publishing deal and encouraged them to never give up. In one case, I clearly remember one young lady literally shaking when I signed a copy of my book and handed it to her, she was so excited. That’s an odd feeling. I’m just me, Bishop. The idea anyone is excited to meet me or have talked to me was quite surreal, in the best way imaginable, but surreal nonetheless.

The first day was exhausting. Aside from being “on” I was also on my feet almost the entire day. That night when Harry and I ventured out to get some dinner, we were both recognized by a trio of cosplayers heading home. That was also a delightful surprise. I’m not exactly someone who blends in (6’3” and over 300 lbs) and while I often hear how I look just like someone everyone knows, I don’t have much experience being recognized as myself. To say it was very cool is an understatement bordering on criminal. The rest of the convention went much the same, and while I was exhausted every night, I was energized all day.

It wasn’t until much later, while attending another convention, that I heard from other authors about how hard conventions were for them. The concept mystified me until I brought it into a context I could understand. I don’t like heights (another understatement). So I imagined what it would be like to spend an entire day standing on a narrow bridge. Over a massive chasm. In high winds. Being under that kind of stress for extended periods is tough on the human body, and I realized just how lucky I am. I also imagine it’s terribly annoying to my introvert author friends; me being the guy who walks the steel girders of a sky scraper without shoes or a safety belt.

Since then I’ve attended conventions of all sizes. In each, I tend to follow a similar path. When I’m not on a panel or at a signing, I’m probably at the bookseller offering up my books to strangers. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting those who are likely to find them interesting, and I’ve developed a decent elevator pitch. I don’t sell to everyone, but I meet a lot of interesting people, make some new fans, and meet lots of other authors. It’s exciting, but the downside is that cons have lost their luster in a way. I’m not a fan attending anymore, I’m a professional and it’s a basically work. Work I enjoy, but work all the same. I still love attending conventions and all it entails: people watching, turning strangers into fans or friends or both, meeting authors I respect and admire, and discovering all kinds of cool new stuff. I have no idea what it’s like attending as an introvert, I can try and imagine but I’ll never really know, so I just do my best to be understanding and accommodating. Sure, sometimes that means I soak up all the spotlight and attention to give them a break, but isn’t that what friends are for?

 

the-returned_hires

 

You can read excerpts from ‘The Returned’, the latest entry to the American Faerie Tale series, here: PrologueChapter 1 Chapter 2Chapter 3

Available on ebook here:
HarperCollins
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Google Play
iTunes
Kobo

Also available in paperback here:
HarperCollins
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Books a Million

Preorder signed paperback here (they will ship):
The Fountain Bookstore

 

 

Setting Out: Routine Beats Talent

computer-pic
Hard at work. Not my hands. Pic by Thomas Lefebvre – https://unsplash.com/@imthebear

 

This is the first in a new series of posts aimed at writers setting out on the path to publication. I call it ‘Setting Out’. I didn’t say I was good at blog post titles.

The series will cover themes and experiences that might be useful to new writers. However, a range of topics will be discussed – from editing to agents to conventions – which could be of interest to writers of all stages. Others I’ve met in different parts of the industry will chip in, too, including writers, agents, reviewers, editors, etc, so there will be a good depth of knowledge.

There will be a natural SFF tint to the posts, as that’s the genre I’m in, but I think there will be something here for authors in different areas, too.

Routine Beats Talent

When people hear I have a book deal, they tend to ask a number of questions. These can be anything from ‘how on earth did that happen?!?’ to ‘were no other novels written that year?’ However, the main focus is often on the nuts and bolts of writing – along the lines of, ‘where did you find the time?’

I think this is the most important and difficult issue for any would-be writer. Most of us live very busy lives, filled with work commitments, family responsibilities, and finding time to eat and sleep. It can be extremely hard to simply find the time to sit in front of the computer and work on a book, particularly when you don’t know if it will be successful, and are aware of how hard it is to crack into the industry. You wonder if you are sacrificing time that could be better spent elsewhere.

When I started writing The Machinery, I really struggled with this problem. I had the idea for the book in the summer of 2008, but I definitely didn’t get cracking on it right away. I would sit in front of my computer, write a short amount, and then give up. I would decide I didn’t like this one paragraph I had written, and lose heart, which would have a knock-on effect, dissuading me from returning to the computer the next day.

It took about a year and a half before I got into the flow of it. I remember sitting down one day, typing a short amount, and agreeing with myself that I would return the next day and do a bit more. I don’t think any of the text from those early days and months made it into the final manuscript. However, it was a very important period for me – I discovered a routine that worked.

That is the important thing. You should not worry too much about the habits of other writers. You need to find a schedule that is suited to you, which could depend on all sorts of things: whether you’re an early morning person, whether you’re a night owl, etc. I did a little bit every day before I went to work – we’re talking twenty-thirty minutes tops, and none on weekends. However, for others, it may make more sense to spend all day Saturday hammering away on the keyboard, or doing a little bit after dinner every night. It doesn’t matter, so long as you keep to your routine. Even then you should cut yourself some slack – if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up about it.

I’ve written about this before in other blogs, because I really think it is important. I can’t see how anyone could write a book – or indeed embark on any project – without some kind of discipline, no matter how haphazard their routine might look to others. In fact, I would put it above talent in terms of importance. Of course the ideas and the skill etc are necessary. But if they are completely unused, what’s the point? On the flipside, you can pick up skills as you go along, if you apply yourself. I think that the moderately talented, disciplined person will beat out the undisciplined genius every time (if you can break talent down into different categories like this).

I think the key is to take it easy on yourself. If you only have fifteen minutes a day, then do fifteen minutes a day. It’s a bit like saving money (not that I can claim to be an expert on that) – an amount that seems small on a weekly or monthly basis can really add up over a year or two. As I said, I spent a year and a half floundering without a routine. If I had written just 100 words a day on weekdays, that would have worked out at anywhere from 35,000 – 40,000 words, allowing some wiggle room for holidays or days being skipped. Even at the lower end, that’s a decent chunk of text – getting on for half a novel or so.

The last thing I’d say is that getting into the routine itself can be useful, in and of itself, even if you’re not published. You may decide to take on another extracurricular project in the future, for example, whether writing-related or not. So even if it’s no more than five minutes or two sentences a day, doing something regularly is better than doing nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Media Suffering

Blogging, social media, etc, etc. It’s a mind-numbing, soul-destroying chore. There, I said it.

I know you’re not supposed to think like that these days, but I do. I don’t tweet as much as I should, and even then it’s usually to retweet someone else. I have tweeted so few tweets in my tweeting career that Twitter tells me the exact number of tweets I have sent. Most people I know have their tweet haul rounded to the nearest thousand.

I’m also pretty terrible with my website and blog, if truth be told. I note that this is the first blog I have put up in 2016, WHICH IS MORE THAN HALFWAY OVER. I’ve done a few blogs for friends’ sites, but not enough to make up for this general slackness.

Why is this? I don’t think it’s a general aversion to self-promotion. I have worked as a freelance journalist for the past nine months or so, and much of that involves putting yourself out there and meeting people and generally selling your wares. I’m happy enough with that – in fact I’d say it was one of the things that attracted me to going solo in the first place.

The Strategist
Available for pre-order, which you might not realise as I am terrible at social media. 

Maybe it’s because I’m busier than usual? Perhaps. As I said, I’ve started working for myself, and that does suck up a lot of time. Still, I’m not sure it’s much of an excuse, as I’ve always been pretty rubbish at it.

The most successful social media folks seem to use it ALL THE TIME, a dozen or more times a day. They find funny, pithy things to say, or they just tweet about what they’re up to in a certain moment. It just never crosses my mind to do that. Sometimes I can be on my way back from an event or something and it will suddenly strike me that I should have sent a tweet out. To be honest, even when the thought does arrive on time, I often just don’t bother.

I think part of the problem is a kind of mental block. I still think of social media like standing in a big room of people. How would I act in such a situation? Would I just start shouting out my thoughts, jumping into conversations etc? Well, yeah, probably, depending on how much I’d had to drink. But in general, probably not.

Then there’s the sheer range of options. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start – how could I fit Twitter, Facebook, my blog, Goodreads, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, etc, etc, into my day?

The worst part though is when you start to compare yourself with people who are masters of the game. They follow three people but have ten million followers. They link their posts across different accounts. Every tweet translates directly into ten gold watches worth of new book sales. (Maybe not, but you get the drift). Where do they find the time? And I’m not talking celebrities here, with their own team of people composing their posts for them. These are normal people that I know. In fact, probably most people I know, at least in the journalism/fiction games.

I find that all these factors in combination just make me freeze. I look at all the sites, at the effortless success of other people, and it just puts me off. I start scrabbling about for things to tweet about, fail to think of anything, and go back to whatever I was doing before.

Well, this has to stop, so I’m going to do something about it. I’ve realised that it’s just the same problem that confronted me when I started writing fiction, and which I know others also experience. You think about the enormity of what you’re going to do. You compare yourself with people who have been doing it for years. You turn away from the computer and give up.

The only way to conquer this, I found, was to develop a sensible routine. I would write for 20 minutes a day or so every weekday, even if I didn’t feel like that. After a while I started to enjoy it, and that’s really the trick – once you enjoy something it doesn’t feel like a chore any more.

I was chatting with someone else about this at a course recently, and they said the best way to approach social media if you’re not a natural is to send something like three tweets (or whatever) a week. That sounds very doable, and I’m going to give it a go – not that exact plan, but something similar and easily manageable.

Then maybe it’ll seem like less of a chore and you won’t be able to shut me up.

‘Without Light or Guide’

Today I’m delighted to host an excerpt from Without Light or Guide, the second book in the Los Nefilim series by my friend Teresa Frohock. She’s a really great writer, as you can tell from the below. Enjoy!

 

WithoutLight cover

The story ….

The hero of Los Nefilim is Diago Alvarez. He, and his lover, Miquel, are part of a secretive group known as Los Nefilim (Spanish for The Nephilim–say it like “The Mob” and you’ve got the right idea). This group of angelic Nefilim monitor daimonic activity for the angels.

The only thing is: Diago is not fully angelic. He is part daimon, part angel, and his very unique form of magic is sought by both sides in the conflict between angels and daimons. Diago moves through a world of espionage and partisan warfare with a rogues’ gallery filled with angels, daimons, and mortals.

In the first novella of the series, In Midnight’s Silence, the reader is introduced to Diago’s world. We meet Diago, Miquel, and Diago’s son, Rafael. We get a brief glimpse of the shadowy world of Los Nefilim and its king, Guillermo Ramirez.

In Without Light or Guide, Diago’s story continues as he tries very hard to fit in with Los Nefilim, but his daimonic heritage follows him, and seeds distrust among the other Nefilim. Guillermo assigns Diago to work with another Nefil by the name of Garcia, who is Guillermo’s plant within the Urban Guard.

In this scene from Chapter 2, Diago has just experienced a tense encounter with his dead father, Alvaro, on the subway. He did not mention seeing his father to Garcia, but Garcia suspects something happened. Hoping to avoid Garcia’s questions, Diago walks ahead, but Garcia isn’t quite ready to let the incident go …

 

EXCERPT 

 

Diago’s musings were cut short when a hand gripped his arm. Startled, he turned to find Garcia had caught up to him.

 

Diago tried to pull free without drawing attention to them but Garcia’s grip tightened. “What—?”

 

“Just shut up and move.” He steered Diago into the mouth of an alley.

 

Diago jerked free and put his back against the wall. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

 

Garcia jabbed Diago’s shoulder with one sharp finger. “I asked you a question on the train and you lied to me. I’m going to pretend it was because of the mortals. You’ve got one more chance to get right with me. What happened?”

 

Be careful. You need him. You need him to vouch for you. Diago evaded the question and kept his tone even. “I don’t report to you.”

 

Garcia coughed a humorless laugh. “You’re confused, my friend.”

 

“We’re not friends.”

 

Garcia’s tone turned sly. “Then you’d better make some, Alvarez. You might have fooled Guillermo, but the rest of us see you for what you are. You’re daimon and you’ll wind up just like your father. You did in your firstborn life and you will here, too.” Garcia punctuated his last statement with a hard jab to Diago’s shoulder.

 

You’ll wind up just like your father. The accusation sealed any doubts Diago had about telling Garcia what happened at the bridge. “Don’t touch me again.”

 

Garcia ignored the warning. “You report to whomever asks you a question. Do you understand me?” He stabbed his finger in Diago’s direction.

 

Diago’s temper overrode his reason. He caught Garcia’s fist and squeezed until Garcia’s knuckles popped.

 

Why did Garcia push him? Does he want me to lash out? Of course, he did. This was probably how he provoked Miquel into punching him. The whole discussion was nothing more than an attempt to rouse Diago’s temper. And it’s working. Except Diago wasn’t quite as hotheaded as Miquel. This altercation didn’t need to progress any further than it already had.

 

Striking Garcia wasn’t necessary. Let him feel my power, acknowledge it with his face. Holding tight to the other Nefil’s fist, Diago waited until Garcia’s lips thinned to a single white line. Only then did he speak. “Until I know who I can trust, I report to Guillermo. No one else.” He opened his fingers.

 

For one tense moment, Diago was sure Garcia intended to escalate the confrontation. Something in Diago’s eyes stopped him.

 

Garcia looked away and fumbled for his cigarettes. When he struck the match, flakes of sulfur cascaded to the sidewalk. “I’m going with you to see Ferrer.”

 

No. Not now. Not even if you begged. Diago wasn’t going to be monitored by the likes of Garcia. “No.”

 

“You’re going to botch this without help.”

 

Or you’ll make sure the interview goes badly for me. Garcia would love nothing more than to report Diago’s incompetence to Guillermo. Work around him. “How can I earn your trust if you are always looking over my shoulder? I go in alone or not at all. Then you can explain the situation to Guillermo.”

 

The tip of Garcia’s cigarette glowed like the fire in his eyes. He exhaled a cloud of smoke as caustic as his words. “Go alone. But I’m watching you.”

 

Diago didn’t flinch from the inspector’s stare. “Fair enough.” So much for Guillermo’s hope our working together would cement trust between us.

 

***

 

Throughout Barcelona, the mortals Diago has known are dying gruesome deaths. A daimon is loose in the city, and Diago’s only clue to her identity is a mysterious phrase written in smoke: She Hunts.

 

The year is 1931.

 

The city is Barcelona.

 

The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind.

 

The hunt begins.

 

***

 

T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

She is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and numerous short stories. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is from Harper Voyager Impulse.

You can find out more about T. at her website, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Amazon     Apple     Barnes and Noble     HarperCollins     Kobo

Cover reveal: GOLDENFIRE by A.F.E. Smith

Take a look at the cracking cover for Goldenfire, the second book in the Darkhaven series from my friend A.F.E. Smith. It will be released by Harper Voyager on 14 January, but if you want to read it sooner, you can enter the giveaway for your chance to win an advance ebook copy!

Goldenfire cover copy

In Darkhaven, peace doesn’t last long.

Ayla Nightshade has ruled Darkhaven for three years. With the help of Tomas Caraway, her Captain of the Helm, she has overcome her father’s legacy to find new confidence in herself and her unusual shapeshifting abilities.

Yet three years ago, a discovery was made that could have profound consequences for the Nightshade line: a weapon exists that can harm even the powerful creatures they turn into. And now, that knowledge has fallen into the wrong hands.

An assassin is coming for Ayla, and will stop at nothing to see her dead.

Preorder Goldenfire:

HarperCollins
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Google play
iBooks

Catch up with Darkhaven:

HarperCollins
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Google play
iBooks
Kobo

Why you should write the sequel, even if you haven’t got a deal

Book two down the hatch - woohoo!
Book two down the hatch – woohoo!

Yesterday I handed book two of The Machinery trilogy – The Strategist – in to HarperVoyager UK. It got me thinking about sequels. I asked myself: would I have ever written this book, if I hadn’t got a book deal? The answer is probably ‘no’. I realise now that this would have been a shame, and bad news for my writing.

I wrote The Strategist in a much shorter timeframe than The Machinery. That’s just the way of it with sequels. Obviously you’re writing book one into kind of a void, and you don’t face any deadlines. But the tighter timescale wasn’t a bad thing. I had a solid idea of how the story would progress, and much of the worldbuilding was already done for book one.

Still, the process wasn’t easy. Writing a sequel poses challenges you just don’t face in book one. You have to sustain the reader’s interest when much of the novelty may have worn off. If you’re writing the second book in a trilogy, as I was, you have to build a bridge between the beginning and the end of the story. There’s also the dreaded ‘second album’ worry: “will this be as good as the first one?!”

On the other hand, it’s very rewarding, and I think it’s been good for me in different ways. You get to delve further into the world you created, exploring new parts of it. Things you’ve thought about for years finally appear on the page, often in ways that surprise you. I have added the perspectives of two established characters, and it’s been great writing from their viewpoints.

It’s also just good for your writing. Obviously, the more you write, the better you get. Writing in a world you already know, with dialogue from characters you have already introduced, hones things in a way that starting afresh might not. At the very least, it makes it easier to see yourself get better. What might have been a struggle in the early stages of writing book one comes much easier in book two. I suppose that’s just the way of it with writing.

I took a different approach after I finished the original manuscript of The Machinery, and wrote an entirely different novel in an entirely different genre. It didn’t really work, in all honesty. I don’t see it as time wasted: time spent writing is of course going to be beneficial. Still, I now think that even if I hadn’t got my deal with HV, it would have been a good thing to plunge into book two of The Machinery. For a start, if I ever did get a deal, I would have been further along in the process. I could have handed two books over straight away. Of course, much of book two would change depending on the editing of book one. Still, a lot of the legwork would already have been done.

So to any writer who’s planning a series of books: go ahead and write the sequel, even if no one has bitten yet. It won’t ever be a bad thing: the hours spent writing will pay dividends. You may discover ways of improving book one. That was certainly the case for me – I wrote book two while I was editing book one, and it really helped, though it may have been better if I’d already had book two in hand.

Remember, you are pitching a series to agents and publishers. You should have the confidence to push on with your work. Otherwise, why should anyone else?

New writers: Don’t torture yourselves!

I had a great time at FantasyCon. And no, this is not my muse.
I had a great time at FantasyCon. And no, this is not my muse.

Last weekend I attended my first ever FantasyCon. It was a terrific event, and hats off to the British Fantasy Society for organising it. The highlight for me was taking part in a panel on the practicalities of being a writer, which reinforced something I’ve been thinking about for a while: the importance of routine.

Whether you’re a struggling debut author or an established name (or somewhere in between, like the vast majority of us), there is nothing that beats a routine. It may sound obvious, but it took me a long while to realise it. I would pick up a book and think: how on earth is a pipsqueak like me supposed to write one of THESE?

I first had the idea for The Machinery about seven years ago, but it wasn’t until five years ago that I actually got cracking on it properly. What was it that held me back? I think the problem was that I had the wrong idea of how a writer’s life actually works. I had a vision of terrific bouts of artistic effort, preferably accompanied by absinthe, in which I would sweat my way through at least one draft of my work of genius over the course of a week. This would probably take place somewhere in Paris.

But then when I sat down on a wet morning in South London in front of my computer, reality hit. I would knock out a paragraph, and look at it with a savage eye, comparing it to the work of whichever titan of the field I had been reading before I took my seat. I would grow discouraged, and limp away from my desk, returning after a few days, or perhaps even after a few weeks, to rearrange the guilty paragraph. Sometimes I would venture to write a new paragraph, or even an entire chapter. But it was useless. I would allow myself to get downhearted, and that was the end of it until the next time I randomly opened the document again.

Eventually I broke through this, and it really was like shattering some kind of wall. I swore that I would write until I hit a certain (unambitious) word count: it didn’t matter if the words were no good. In fact, it didn’t matter if they were total dross. I would do it every day.

So my main piece of advice to anyone who would like to write a book is this: set aside a small amount of time every day in which to do it. In fact, you don’t even have to do it every day: do it five days a week, and give yourself the weekend off. That’s what I did. It’s pretty amazing how it all starts to add up after a while, and you don’t even notice the time going by.

Set yourself a realistic goal, and lean towards the smaller end of the scale. If you’re not sure you can do 500 words or two hours a day, set your target at 200 words or 30 minutes or whatever sounds easy to you. Even 100 words and 15 minutes a day is fine. It really doesn’t matter. This is your first novel: you have a life you need to live, and you aren’t just writing a book, you’re allowing yourself to learn the best routine for you.

You may find after a while that the goal is too small, and that you are more than capable of writing twice as many words or for double the length of time. That’s great – bump it up. But at the same time, don’t worry if it’s not doable. Just lower the target.

The muse never came for me, but something better did: routine. The version of my novel that has been published bears very little resemblance to the first draft I completed, or even the second, third or fourth. But those drafts seemed to go by quickly, as I set myself a realistic routine. Even if I hadn’t got a book deal, I’d still be glad I did it, if only for what I’ve learned about discipline.

So to anyone who would like to write a book, but is intimidated by the enormity of it all, just do what I did: take it in small chunks, remember there’s always a delete key, and most importantly, take it easy on yourself. You’re a writer, but you don’t have to be tortured.

How much mystery should a fantasy novel have?

It’s now just over three weeks since The Machinery was published, and I’ve started to get some feedback on the novel (all of it welcome!). It’s so interesting to hear what people think. Often they highlight things you never considered, and enjoy the elements you were concerned about.

One thing I’ve noticed is a range of differing attitudes to mystery, or how much is revealed of the world and magic of the setting. The Machinery is the first in a trilogy, so naturally there are parts of the story and the history of the world that will only be revealed in books 2 and 3. Still, it has a few layers of mystery that I would have retained even if The Machinery were a standalone novel.

Some people liked this. Others, however, were left frustrated, and would have preferred to know early on exactly how everything worked. There’s nothing wrong with either point of view, but I think it highlights a big divide in how people like their stories.

Personally, I like not knowing everything. If I have a choice between two horror films, one of which is a gory, special-effects-laden slasher, and the other a bumps-in-the-night type creepfest, I’ll always opt for the latter. I like the idea that there is a giant world beyond the page or the screen, and that I’m only seeing part of it.

What is the attraction of not knowing? Firstly, there’s the fun of being surprised. If there’s a vast world out there that is only being revealed piece by piece, then you know that anything could come next. I think that’s certainly the case in the Harry Potter novels, where Rowling teases out the history of Voldemort over seven books. But there’s more to it than that. We know she has worked out a lengthy history for her magical world, and that the central conflict in the books is only one sliver of it. It means there’s a lot more to explore. There’s no doubt that part of the reason for the huge success of the books is Hogwarts itself, and its buildings. Every kid loves the idea of going to school in an ancient building full of secrets. It wouldn’t quite work if they knew every single nook and cranny as soon as they put on their uniforms.

That being said, I completely understand the other side of the argument. Sometimes when you’re watching a film or reading a book, you want to know exactly how things work. You may even load up your computer and do some research into the subject. Some stories just wouldn’t work without some explanation of how the whole thing operates.

I think a good way to illuminate the divide is to think about the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Do we need to know how the Force works, to enjoy the story? I don’t think we do. However, I think it’s important that the creators of Star Trek go to such lengths to explain the concepts behind the science in the show. Of course, these examples aren’t perfect – there’s plenty of science in Star Wars and shadowy mystery in Star Trek – but you get the point.

Maybe it all comes down to how the author sets out his or her stall in the first place. I suppose that with a name like The Machinery, there might be an expectation of a straight-up science fiction story, in which the machine itself sits in the centre of a metallic building, bells ringing and pistons pumping. Of course, that’s not the novel I wrote: I wanted it to be like shining a torch into a giant, darkened museum, where you only see a few ghostly statues looming out of the shadows at any one time. Books 2 and 3 will add extra torches.

Anyway, there’s one undeniable thing about mystery in fantasy novels – hopefully it will make people want to buy the next one! Did I mention that The Strategist is now available to preorder?!?

Top ten reasons to buy ‘The Machinery’!

The Machinery is out today and is available in all good electronic bookshops! Here are ten reasons you should buy it …

  1. It has a great cover that you should judge it by.
  2. It costs 1p less than two pounds.
  3. Reading it will increase your understanding of books 2 and 3.
  4. Did I mention the cover?
  5. It’s out today so you can read it as soon as you buy it!

    Surely this is reason enough?
    Surely this is reason enough?
  6. It fills a huge demand for novels with ‘machinery’ in the title.
  7. That cover.
  8. It’s a cheery, laugh along dystopian fantasy.
  9. I tried to think of ten reasons you should buy it, so you should reward my efforts.
  10. You can tell your disbelieving grandchildren that you bought a first edition (erm an electronic one).