All posts by Tony Ballantyne

MyKitaab Podcast

The mission of the MyKitaab podcast series is to help answer the question “I have written a book, how do I get it published in India?”

Here, host Amar Vyas talks to me about writing, blogging and Open Source software, especially  Emacs!

You can access the podcast as follows:

Or listen to it here:


From Eric Brown’s introduction…

THIS VOLUME CAME ABOUT ONE summer a few years ago when Tony came up to Scotland with his family. We were wandering around the pretty seaside town of North Berwick and talking about recent short stories we’d written. Tony happened to mention that he was working on some short- shorts, which he hoped to place with Nature, and I mentioned a short-short market that I’d recently sold to, Daily SF. I then suggested that, when we had enough tales to form a volume, we should gather them all together and attempt to find a publisher. Years passed; we wrote short-shorts between bigger projects, and Keith Brooke who runs Infinity Plus Books expressed an interest in publishing Microcosms.

Microcosms: 42 pieces of flash fiction by Eric Brown and Tony Ballantyne

Published by Infinity Plus

Buy the Paperback Edition on Amazon UK | Amazon US

But the Kindle Edition on Amazon UK | Amazon US


Six Reasons why Maintaining a Blog will make You a Better Writer

  • It will make you write regularly
  • It will make you finish something – you’re not a writer if you’re only producing half finished stories
  • It will make you publish something – no more constantly rewriting, trying to get something perfect
  • It will mean your stuff will be read by somebody else – no more stories silently gathering dust in the drawer
  • It will make you engage with feedback and criticism
  • It will let you move on – time to start something new … and better

See Also

How Writers Write: Chaz Brenchley

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I’ve bumped into Chaz in a number of places, but never had a chance to have a proper chat.  A real shame, as this article reveals…

How would you describe yourself? Writer, author, novelist, SF, Fantasy, Horror?

People used to say my mystery novels were really horror, my horror was really fantasy, and my fantasies were essentially a mystery recast. So, yeah: I’m a genre writer, but I mostly inhabit the murky areas where one genre blends into another.

What do you use to write?

20160609_085053I was a kid in the sixties, and learned to write with pencils and then biros and then fountain pens, all for values of “learned to write” that encompass so much awkwardness of process and ugliness of result that people kept asking me if I was a suppressed left-hander, and would I perhaps find it easier to do it backwards and upside down? Nope, and nope: I just have no gift for making marks on paper in any way that conveys or retains meaning.

catboxNevertheless: always and always, I meant to be a writer. And I loved stationery, despite my awful handwriting. In my early teens I filled notebooks and journals and exercise books and looseleaf binders with stories and poems and unfinished novels – and then blessedly my big sister wanted to learn to type. She borrowed a heavy office typewriter from one of our mother’s friends, and bought a teach-yourself manual. I am not sure if she ever did actually learn to type, but I did. I spent an Easter holiday when I was fourteen working through that manual, page by page. A schoolfriend hauled another discarded office machine home from the dump and refurbished it, simply as an engineering challenge, and thus I had a typewriter of my very own; and since then, I have typed everything I conceivably could. My handwriting has deteriorated further, for lack of use, and frankly I’m delighted to see it go. That was always an embarrassment, and typing is a delight. I have chronic RSI in hands, arms, shoulders, neck; people suggest dictation software, but they’re missing the point. I am very short of physical skills, and typing is something I excel at. (These days so do most of my friends because computers, programming, Silicon Valley, yadda yadda, but that’s okay: I’m not competitive about it. I don’t need to be best, I just need to be good.)

So, in succession: office typewriter, portable typewriter (when I started selling stories, when I was eighteen: my first paycheque, £36 for a teen romance in ’77, proved to be just enough for an Olivetti in a carrying case), electric typewriter (bought from a town-centre business that was closing down), electronic typewriter (bought with my first-ever bank loan: £625, which was a monstrous amount of money, but half price, and hence a bargain; and it had a one-line screen so you could see what you had typed before it hit the paper!), and then my first PC in the mid-eighties. Oh, how I loved PCs, in those early glory days! I was a DOS power-user; the command line was my proper home.

And then mouse-and-icon GUIs took over, and we’ve never had the same relationship since, my computers and I. We get along just fine, but the romance is gone. Windows made an idiot out of me, and I never recaptured that fiery splendour. Geoff Ryman nudged me towards Linux sometime in the ’90s, and I have repudiated Microsoft ever since – but even so. I can’t get up to speed again with a command-line interface, I lost too much through the bad years.

pcStill, I do what I can. The desktop runs Ubuntu, and I work in Textmaker, a word processing package from those nice German folk at Softmaker. In my DOS days I was a WordPerfect fan, like so many of us writers. When I worked in Windows I used Word, and hated it, and it kept crashing on me; then I fled to Linux and looked around and tried various word processors and didn’t love any of them until I found Textmaker in the early ’00s. It’s lightning-fast, and rock-solid (has it ever actually crashed on me, in fifteen years or so? Not that I remember), and brilliantly compatible with the industry-standard Word formats. I tested it once, with the same long text file on the same dual-boot machine: Word running in Windows took thirty seconds to open itself and then the file. Textmaker in Linux just did it, too fast to measure.

I’m not much of a planner. I always think I ought to be, at the start of major new projects; I’ll buy new stationery for taking notes, or set up a wiki for keeping track of the worldbuilding, or experiment with Scrivener to keep all my ducks in a row. But then the notes never actually get taken, because writing things down is such a pain and I never look back at them anyway; and the wiki grows dusty from disuse; and Scrivener crashes on me twice through the tutorial process and I abandon it because who wants to risk that when the project’s live? So I revert to old habits, and occasionally I’ll scribble something down on the back of an envelope but mostly I won’t, I’ll just hope to remember it; and when I don’t remember it I’ll think of something else. I’ve been working this way for forty years; it’s not ideal, but it seems to be good enough.

Except that I’m going to be working with Ken Scholes on a shared project, and my individual private brain really isn’t going to be enough, so we’ll have to find some way of notetaking that works for both of us. I suggested that wiki again, but I was on a panel this weekend about collaboration, and someone spoke in favour of Evernote, which had simply never occurred to me. Evernote is for shopping-lists, right…?

goes off to research other ways of using Evernote

When do you write?

Every day, every week, from January to March, whenever I can…

Pretty much all the time, if we can stipulate that “I am writing; I’m just not typing” is a valid mind-state. There are always stories, snatches of dialogue, betrayals and revelations going on in the back of my head. Used to be I’d work on one thing at once, but that is no longer the case. Sometimes I’m trying to keep half a dozen half-finished pieces live in my head at the same time. It’s awkward.

20160609_085042When it comes to actually getting those pieces written, I have a history of working very intensively for eight or ten or twelve weeks, and then slackening off until the next cycle. That doesn’t work so well now that I’m married and so forth, because I need to shape my life around priorities other than the work. Even so: I write every day through the week, and one or two days at weekends.

What history teaches us is that I’m good in the morning, slack water in the afternoons and good again in the evening. I used to work through the night and then sleep till noon, but that was long ago and again not conducive to conubial bliss. These days, somewhere between six and seven o’clock, I abandon the study for the kitchen and see about dinner; and I no longer work after dinner.

I’m trying to learn to be flexible and responsive, to grab ten minutes’ worktime here or there if that’s all there is available, but I’m not good at that. I like to have a long session ahead of me, at least a couple of hours if I can’t have all the day; I take time to settle into the creative mindspace. Also, these days, there is the damned internet. Used to be, when I sat down at the keyboard I was automatically in working mode, because that was all the keyboard offered. This is no longer the case, and I am as prone to displacement activity as the next guy, shock horror.

Where do you write?

Desk, coffee shop, wherever I lay my hat…

officeHere’s the desk with slightly fewer books on it, one step closer to the Platonic ideal of deskhood (which it does actually occasionally achieve, down to lemon-oil polish and everything; I’m good at projects, just really really bad at maintenance). Also, art on the walls: one Klimt vulture by Ursula Vernon, and my favourite picture of all time, Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer by Hippolyte Flandrin. I used to have a print of this in every room of my old house in England. When I moved here to California, K had this study all set up and ready for me, complete with required viewing. I also still have a copy of every book I’ve ever seen with it on the cover. Tragically, I didn’t realise the original was in the Louvre till we were passing through the gift shop on our way out. Hey-ho: just have to go back to Paris, then, sigh…

keyboardHabits change with circumstance. For twenty years at least, probably closer to thirty, I wrote at my desk at home, because that’s where the keyboard was. Demonstrably, I do still have a traditional desktop computer, on the traditional desk; and I do still work here. My evening writing happens here, and most of my internet engagement, so most of my actual typing. I’ve used ergonomic keyboards for the last fifteen years or so, but just a few months back I was seduced by the Das: it’s a lovely old-fashioned clicky keyboard with a solid aluminium plate and, as you can see, no letters on the keycaps. Pure anonymous unadulterated black. I love it.

laptopBut, back in the early ’00s, I fell in love with a laptop. Not that I needed a laptop, because I was not one of those writers who worked in coffee shops, no sirree. But this was the most beautiful machine-for-writing I’d ever seen: carbon-fibre, light as a feather, gorgeous matt black all over. I have it still, though it sits in the back of a drawer now. I spent more than I could afford, and thus it became my Laptop of Heavenly Perfection, and I had to justify that by actually, y’know, using it. Which meant actually, y’know, working outside the house.

It was like a revelation. Library? Tick! Coffee shop? Tick! Pub? Double tick – work and beer! Train? Tick! Airport? Tick!

Etc, etc. Apparently I am after all one of those writers who can work pretty much anywhere (though too much noise makes me grumpy, and other people seem to be inveterately noisy), and most of my actual new fiction writing now happens outside the house. Back home I had my regular desk in the Silence Room of a private library; I still miss that space. Here I have the window seat of my favourite coffee shop, those few times it’s available; apparently I don’t mind visual distraction at all, it’s just noise that bothers me. I guess I can look and think at the same time, I just can’t listen and think. And there’s always a seat in the public library, but they don’t have a Silence Room and their Quiet Areas are not policed and hence not quiet by any definition I’d accept. I am considering noise-cancelling headphones (though wearing headphones for the sake of not listening to anything has a kind of perversity about it).

20160608_151638In the afternoons, there’s always the temptation of the wine bar. Two till five is happy hour, because there’s never anybody in. Cold beer and quiet, what could be nicer on a hot afternoon? And I’ll get a hell of a lot more work done than if I kick around at home. Spending money is a great incentive; so is the lack of wifi. I do that as rarely as I can, because money, alcohol, yadda yadda. But sometimes you’ll find me there.

Inspiration isn’t a place, it’s a process; if I need to think, I’ll go for a walk. Usually with an end in view; back in Newcastle I used to walk laps around the city, because I couldn’t think when I was sitting still, but these days I tend to be going somewhere. With the laptop in the backpack. We’re up to the second edition of techno-heaven, the Laptop of Utterable Delights, even slimmer and lighter than the last, tho’ I don’t love the form factor quite so much. (I’m getting used to widescreen, necessarily, but like US letter paper, it’s not right…)

How do you write?

Much of this I seem to have said already, but I like silence or at least quiet when I’m working, or else consistent background murmur that I can tune out. I envy my friends who can work to music, and I’m intrigued by those who construct separate playlists for separate projects – but I find music a distraction. So of course is the internet; those times I can avoid it, I do better. Probably I should investigate wifi-disabling software, but – like those headphones that cut off sound rather than supplying it – it seems strange to step backwards, away from something so useful.

As above, I don’t have notes to work from; I don’t plan or outline or plot ahead in any way. A book is a journey, and I think it works best when it’s as much a surprise to the author as to the reader; it’s a journey undertaken hand in hand, stepping into the dark. Someone once said that being asked to write a synopsis of a book he hadn’t written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country he hadn’t visited. Me, I like to start with a title, a first line and often a last line too, a sense of where we’re going; it’s a journey and I like to know the destination. How to get there and in what company, I sort out day to day

Questions of style

catThe narrative voice of a story depends utterly on the story, its character, the effects I’m after. Of course I have my own voice – and I am not a writer who believes he should be invisible to the reader; I don’t do transparent prose, I like a strong sense of a narrator, authorial presence – and you can mostly spot a Brenchley by the rhythms, not the words. Nevertheless: each story is an individual artefact. First or third person, I’ll use either, depending. Present tense I mostly keep for shock value, because it tends to read artificial at full length – though there are no rules, and I did just finish a short story that is present-tense throughout.

Other people’s process is always weird, almost by definition, but I really don’t understand those writers who say they’re plot-driven. Plot is just what people do; for me, everything comes from the characters. Put a person in a situation, and plot will follow.

But honestly, I barely think about these things any more. I’ve been doing this so long, it’s pretty much second nature now. Title, first line, and I’m away. (I really, really like having the title first. If I know what it’s called, I know what it’s about, and I can write to that title from the get-go, so that it’s embedded. Finish a story without a title attached, and there are just so many options, and none of them will be truly rooted. I hate that.)

How many redrafts?

As few as possible. Growing up in the age of typewriters, where a new draft meant retyping every word, I learned to get it as right as possible as early as possible. Barring editorial interference, my first drafts are pretty much the story I end up with. I’ll fiddle endlessly with individual words and phrases, for I am all about the polish; but I rarely rewrite at any macro level unless required to. Having said which, I have a half-finished novel about Kipling on Mars which is so irretrievably broken I’m basically going to go back and write the whole damn thing again. I never do that.

How many readers?

I often say that I’m old-school, the last of those for whom writing really was a lonely business. We didn’t have creative-writing classes and MFAs and critiquing groups and beta-readers and such; before I was published, I barely met another writer. From choice, I still follow the ivory-tower model: I write a thing, and polish it, and send it direct to agent or editor. These days my wife does read everything at first-draft stage, but that’s okay; she tends to think better of my work than I do.

How easy is it to let go?

Letting go is easy; by the time a story’s been through edits and copy-edits and proofs on top of my own early rereading and polishing, I’m glad to see it gone. By then I’ve long been into the next thing, or the one after that. I don’t love them again until they’re actually in print.

Lastly, self promotion:

I have a Patreon! I am writing English girls’ boarding-school stories to the classic model, only set on Mars! I have also been writing grown-up stories in the same milieu. Basically the rubric is “If Mars were a province of the British Empire, so-and-so would so have gone there”, where “so-and-so” is a remarkable list of remarkable people: so far Oscar Wilde and T E Lawrence and more, and I’m working as I say on Rudyard Kipling. But I am a lifelong fan of the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer; and if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have had a sister-foundation there. So I’m writing it. “Three Twins at the Crater School” is half-finished, with a few short stories on the side, available to all my Patreon subscribers

But it’s not all Mars all the time, tho’ it can seem so on occasion. I just finished an SF bar-story for a David Bowie memorial anthology, and I have a space opera attack novel that I am totally failing to fend off (which is really Iain Banks fanfic, and why not?), and Ken Scholes and I are going to do great things together, and and and…




How Writers Write: Eric Brown

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

Eric Brown is my oldest SF writer friend.  When I met him in the year 2000 he was still coming to grips with the twentieth century.  Let’s find out how he’s dealing with the twenty first…

What tools do you use?

IMG_0681I work on Word on a Dell computer, a twelve year old machine that Keith Brooke gave me. It serves its purpose as a word processor. I’m not into technology: I’m not interested in tech and gadgets. I don’t have a mobile phone or whatever they’re called now. I don’t even have a watch. I carry a sundial around in my backpack.

I plot a novel – in as much as I plot anything – and make random notes freehand in an old jotter. These days I don’t do much planning, just some notes on characters and an idea or two, then I get going. It works for me. In my notebook, which I keep to the left of me when I’m writing, I scribble down anything from a list of phrases that people spoke in the nineteen-fifties (for the series of crime novels I’m writing set then), to a line of dialogue, to a detailed day-by-day breakdown of how may words I’ve written. (I’m anal like that).

IMG_0719When I’m working on a project, novels, stories or whatever, I work five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I might work on a Saturday and Sunday if my wife and daughter are off doing things. I walk the hound in the morning at eight-thirty, and get to my desk at nine-fifteen, work for two and a half hours. In that time I write two thousand words, or a couple of hundred under or over. Around eleven forty-five I knock off, take the dog for another gallop, have a green tea and a sandwich for lunch (yeast extract, peanut butter and beetroot, since you asked, or less occasionally Stilton cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, or sometimes Vegemite, tahini and cucumber, or probably once a month cheddar and hot lime pickle), then get to the desk again around one and work till around three-thirty, knocking out another couple of thousand words. Before I married, fifteen years ago, I’d work in the evening too, so that I could produce over six thousand words a day – and I worked at the weekends.

This meant that my early novels (From Meridian Days to New York Dreams) were written in around a fortnight, or just over. I’d stagger from my study a gibbering wreck and demand pints and pints of Timothy Taylor’s best bitter. Then, when I’d sobered up, I began the laborious task of rewriting the things.

IMG_0688(I walk the dog for two hours a day. He’s called Uther and he’s a red and white setter. He’s our first dog, and a life-changer. Having children is easy, a joy, compared to owning a dog. That said, he does exercise me. I wouldn’t get out otherwise, and while out walking the beautiful countryside of Berwickshire, around the village of Cockburnspath, I get lots of day-dreaming done. Uther was immortalised in Tony Ballantyne’s fine novel Dream Paris, in a scene which brilliantly encapsulates my relationship with the hound).

I write in my study surrounded by over three thousand tomes and air that smells of dog. I love books. I collect them. I collect SF, old and new, and fiction from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. I collect autobiographical books and biographies of writers. I collect the works of Rupert Croft-Cooke, G. K. Chesterton, Peter de Polnay, Miles Tripp, Elizabeth Ferrars, Michael Coney, Charles Bukowski, and many more. I don’t read on a Kindle, onscreen, or anything else like that. I detest Kindles etc. They’re just text, shorn of much of what a book is. A book is a beautiful object with its own history and associations. The abomination of Kindle renders every single book as a homogenised, soulless product – perfect for the homogenised, soulless world in which multinational companies and capitalist moguls would like us to exist.

Where do you write?

IMG_0667My computer sits on my ‘desk’, a nineteen-fifties Baird radiogram. I sit back in a armchair with the keyboard on my lap and tap away. My wife says that’s why I have backache. On my desk are bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years. Pens I love. A broken Wallace and Grommit mug. A tin rocket. A rock. A clay bee and a hippo my daughter Freya made. A hole-filled rock I found on Eastbourne beach while visiting James Lovegrove, which I use as a pen holder. Some reference books I hardly ever refer to. A statue of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. A Timothy Taylor beer mat. A clock. On the window sill behind my computer are some plastic dinosaurs, a couple of pigs, a robot salt- and pepper-pot (thanks, Becky), a BSFA award for a short tale, an ancient metal statue, probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, of a man holding his head in one hand and his penis in the other. He looks like how I often feel.

When do you write?

IMG_0670I only ever write in my study, but think about story all the time.

I like peace and quiet while I’m scribbling. I don’t like music when I’m writing. I don’t wait for inspiration. That way I’d never write a word.

I write by the seat of my pants. In the early days, forty years ago when I began writing, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to have detailed notes and plans and plots and lists of characters to shore up my under-confidence. Now I know how to write and I have no fear of writing. I have technique, and trust in that and in my subconscious. They get the job done. I often start with little knowledge of what I’ll be writing , but the old sub-con kicks in and dictates the words.

Questions of style

A novel or story dictates style, narrative viewpoint etc. I don’t much think about things like that beforehand, or about the actual prose style I’ll be using. I follow both characters and plot, whatever is dictated by my subconscious.

When the first draft is done I’m unutterably depressed for a while. Life seems pointless. The rush of creation is over, the endorphins run dry. Now comes the hard and dispiriting work of rewriting. While writing the first draft, I convince myself that the book or story is great, even exceptional. Then I finish and realise it isn’t – but it has to be made better. That’s bloody hard work. And I make lots of continuity errors and other ballsups which need fixing. Hey-ho.

How many redrafts?


How many readers?

Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.

How easy is it to let go?

IMG_0673It’s bloody fantastic to say au revoir to something I’ve been working on for months. I’m delighted to see the back of it.

At the moment I’ve just finished the first draft of Murder Take Three, the fourth book in the Langham and Dupré series of crime novels set in the fifties. So I’m at that depressed stage of creativity, the rush over. Plus my wife and daughter are away in Haworth visiting my mother-in-law so I’m rattling round the house with the dog, eating curry and sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself and staring balefully at the mound of the ms I’ve just printed out and shaking my fist at the bloody thing and threatening to rip into it with a red pen and cut it by nine thousand words and turn it from a sow’s lughole into a silken purse.

Also, the damned thing isn’t contracted for. I wrote it on spec, which I don’t normally do, as the idea came to me and I like the characters of Donald Langham and Maria Dupré and Ralph Ryland, the Cockney detective. I just hope Severn House want it.

Next, I’ll be rewriting the second half of Binary System, an action-adventure novel about a woman stranded on a very alien planet, and how she survives. The two halves of the novel will come out later this year from Solaris as e-books, and next year as a real paperback book which you can hold, fondle, smell, read and slip onto the shelf. Then I’ll be writing the fourth Telemass novella for PS Publishing, then a play for Big Finish, a few shorts stories, and later this year a big SF novel I’ve just sold to Solaris.

How would I describe myself?

Writer, curry addict, secularist, liberal, Leeds United fan, a man who increasingly finds the world a bewildering hell-hole, bracketed as we are by the bigoted Trump on one side and the religious fascists of Daesh on the other. No wonder I escape into my writing whenever possible.

My website is at:


How Writers Write: Chris Beckett

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I introduced myself to Chris Beckett at an Eastercon in Blackpool:  I wanted to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his short stories.  Here he tells us how they are written…

What tools do you use?

IMG_0581I write on my fairly aged laptop, using word. There was a time, long ago, when I found it hard to write directly onto a keyboard – which would then have been a typewriter– and liked to write by hand first, but now it’s the opposite. I’ve pretty much lost the knack of writing by hand, for anything other than short notes, and my handwriting is bad to the point of illegibility, even to me.

I do not plan things out in detail in advance. I just don’t know how to do that. I start with only the vaguest idea of a plot, and slowly batter it into shape, as characters start to come to life, and my fictional world starts to generate interesting possibilities. I do sometimes take notes on scraps of paper, usually just a list of things I don’t want to forget in that day’s writing. I also from time to time compile things like lists of minor characters as word files, so I can refer to them if I need to remind myself. When writing Dark Eden, I also used Paint to draw a couple of maps. (I had a pretty clear map in mind for the other Eden novels but found I was able to hold it in my mind.) A few times with short stories I have plotted the whole thing out, but even then they change in the writing.

I’ve just started using my phone to make voice memos when I’m walking, so as to stop myself having to endlessly rehearse ideas to prevent myself from forgetting them. That said, I am fairly relaxed about forgetting things. My son told me that Tom Waits (I think) said that he never worried about forgetting ideas because if any idea was any good it would reoccur. I agree with that.

When do you write?

IMG_0580I no longer have a ‘day job’, and it’s six years since I had a full-time day job. I try and write every day, for at least four or five hours, assuming that I haven’t got something else on. When something is really bubbling, and also when I am at the copyediting stage (work which is easy to pick up and put down), I’ll also write odd hours when I can fit them in.

Writing seldom comes easily to me (although editing I love), and when I sit down to it, it usually feels like the last thing I want to do, much like going for a run, or a swim, or anything that involves effort! If I waited for the spirit to move me I’d wait forever, and the only way I can make it happen, it is to make myself sit down and bang something out.

Oddly, given my reluctance to actually get on with it, I am incapable of not being a writer. There have been times in my life when I’ve thought, ‘Maybe it would be better if I gave this up and made something of the rest of my life’, but that thought simply cannot find any traction at all.

Where do you write?

I usually write at my kitchen table which is fairly well-lit and from where there is a view of the garden. We have a small study in our house but I haven’t used it since I stopped writing on a PC as opposed to a laptop many years ago.

FullSizeRender (2)I also quite like working in a café (no café in particular), where there is hum of background conversation. It’s company of a sort, it’s nice having someone else make the coffee, and social convention prevents you from getting up, pacing around and checking whether there is anything nice in the fridge at regular intervals. I remember I discovered the benefits of working in a place where other people were talking as a 19-year-old first year student, when I wrote my first (unpublished) novel. I started by writing in what was called the Undergraduate Reading Room (a kind of annexe of the library), but I found it suited me better to sit in the small common room there, where you could buy nasty (in a good way) black coffees from a machine and (in those days) smoke equally nasty cigarettes, while other people came and went. (I don’t smoke anymore, but I still love the hit of coffee. It is my favourite of all drugs.)

I don’t work in a cafe all that often, though, because conditions have to be optimal. I love the background white noise of people talking but if I can actually hear what they are saying I eavesdrop and that becomes distracting, particularly if I find the people irritating. Also, intrusive background music irritates me, although I can cope with something tinkly and emotionally bland like (to my ears) most jazz.

Another place I love to write is on a train. When I was working part-time in Norwich, I used to regularly have a 3-hour return train journey there, and sometimes I’d get more done in those three hours than in a whole day at home. Provided there’s space, and a table, and not too much noise and mess, I love trains. A table to myself in a train, a black coffee, the world going by outside: it doesn’t get much better as far as I’m concerned.

FullSizeRender (4)I suppose a lot of the work of writing takes place when you are not actually sitting at a keyboard at all. I don’t have any special way of accessing inspiration, but ideas come to me when I am travelling from a to b, or running, or swimming, or out walking the dog. I live in Cambridge and one of my favourite places to walk with him is the fairly nearby Thetford Forest. For a time it became rather a magical place for me, a place where I could almost routinely expect to free myself of the mundane and connect with the world of my imagination. Magic only lasts for so long in any one place, however, and now it’s just a place for me again, even though still a very pleasant one.

The other place I go is books. I sometimes have to remind myself that reading a lot is not an indulgence but actually part of my job as a writer, just as part of an athlete’s job is to exercise and get a good diet. I mainly read non-fiction. I don’t want to make fiction out of other people’s fiction.

How do you write?

Some people write with music in the background. I couldn’t stand that. How can I make up my own world with someone else’s imagined world blaring through my head? (But then I am very easily distracted and can easily be overloaded by sensory information. Sometimes I think there is something wrong with me!)

When it is going well, then I get entirely immersed. This can be embarrassing if I am on a train or in a café because I mutter the dialogue, complete with intonation, as I try to get it right. When immersed like that interruptions are horrible. As I say, I am easily distractible so it’s hard for me to reach a state of really focussed concentration, and it just feels cruel when I have finally managed to reach such a point, to be dragged out of it by external events.

I don’t make elaborate plans in advance. I’d be very happy to if I could but it simply doesn’t work for me: the story and characters emerge as I write. In order to ensure continuity and build up a head of steam, I will always go over the previous day’s writing before writing new stuff, and not infrequently, I will go back to the beginning and work back through to where I’ve got to as the story starts to get richer and I get more ideas. That’s often where the good stuff comes in.

Questions of style

FullSizeRender (3)I normally write in first person. If I write in third, it will be usually be free indirect style (ie still based on the viewpoint of a particular character). I dislike omniscient narrators. Ultimately stories can only be told from a point of view.

A story includes (a) characters, (b) a world/setting, (c) themes (ideas that the book is exploring) and (d) a plot. I generally start with themes, or with a world/setting that seems thematically rich (which is to say, a subconscious theme). My Eden books, for instance, start with a dark sunless world and the Biblical story of the Fall: theme and world together, which in turn tap into lots of things I want to think about and explore.

The imagined world is dull without characters though, and once you invent characters and place them in the world, you have to allow them to interact with it as their world, rather than making them mouthpieces for your ideas. This is the moment when the story comes alive. Plot to me is the least important element, and I kind of resent its artificiality. Real life doesn’t have a plot, and only rather narrow and driven people act in real life as if they were part of a plot (the reason I guess, that so many plot-driven novels/TV shows/films have narrow obsessive characters, such as workaholic detectives with disastrous lovelifes). Plot is nevertheless very important indeed (particularly in novels) –it’s what gives a story shape and structure– and I have to keep working and reworking my material until a plot emerges from the interaction of the other three elements.

For me, most of the process is unconscious. I don’t have a set of rules, and am intensely irritated when I see courses advertised for ‘How to write a novel’ etc. By all means teach particular techniques, or explore the techniques used by others, but there’s no ‘How to write a novel’ anymore than there’s ‘How to do a painting’.

When the first draft is done

FullSizeRender (5)In the days of word-processing, the concept of a ‘draft’ is much more elastic and hard to pin down than it would have been in the days of handwritten or typed manuscripts. By the time I reach the end of my ‘first draft’, many of the chapters will have been revised ten or even twenty times over, large chunks of material will have been added or deleted, and characters and scenes will have been added, removed or changed throughout the book. That is to say, the nominal first draft will include passages that have already been through multiple drafts.

Thereafter I put the entire thing through many more revisions, but I do find that, without outside advice, I am prone to revise too much and redraft too little. That is to say, I tend to be too cautious after that first stage, about major changes to the structure of the book. This is where other readers come in. I like to get advice from more than one friend, because tastes differ, and if one reader thinks a certain passage could be deleted altogether, while another thinks it’s the best part of the book, that gives you a certain perspective which you wouldn’t have got by listening only to one or the other.

The only novels of mine that have been edited by a full-time professional editor so far are my novel The Holy Machine and the three Eden books (it’s different for my short stories). Wonderfully helpful though friends have been, they are generally a bit too kind, and I have benefitted greatly from the cooler eye of a professional who has a vested interest, as I do, in the book’s success. Ultimately, though, it is my book, and I am not going to let anyone tell me it out to be about something other than I want it to be about.

What kind of writer are you?

I am equally proud of my short fiction as I am of my novels, so I would describe myself as a writer rather than as a novelist. My work hitherto has all been categorisable from a marketing point of view as SF, and I am happy with that: books have to be labelled so readers have some idea what to expect. However, I personally think of myself as a writer who happens to write SF, rather than an SF writer. By that I mean that my motivation is not to expand, develop or play with the genre of SF. My motivation is simply to take the stuff that’s in my head, get it out there in the world, and make something positive of it which I and others might find some use for. It just so happens that I’ve found the tools of SF very useful for that purpose.

Self promotion:

I have recently completed (bar proofreading) my third and final Eden novel, Daughter of Eden, which will come out in October. I’m very pleased with it. I’m pleased with the way that each of the three books is different from the others. I have also written a collection of new short stories which, unlike all my previous published shorts, could not be labelled as SF. I think this collection will come out around Christmas, though whether before or after I don’t know.