Tag Archives: SF

I Used to Worry About Finishing Stories…

I’d plan them in minute detail, I’d obsess over the twists, the climax, the ending.

And then I learned, as I’ve written in many other places, to just turn off my mind and to follow my characters. I learned to let my subconscious take over and to let the story go where it wanted.

But even though I’d learned this way of writing, I was still gripped by the worry that the story I was writing was going nowhere, that I would write myself into a corner, that the story would just crash. 80 000 words into a novel and I would have to abandon my work and start again on something else.

I was so gripped by this worry that I planned my first novel, Recursion, in quite a lot of detail. My second novel, Capacity, was also minutely plotted, but it veered off course halfway through. I took a deep breath and followed it and, hey, it worked.

Twisted Metal started off as one novel; it ended up being split into two when one character, Kavan, broke free and refused to do what I wanted him to. By the time I started Blood and Iron, my fifth novel, plotting beyond the bare minimum had gone out of the window.

Even so, I worried if the thing would end properly. I’ve written most of my short stories without plotting, but there’s less risk there, only 5000 words stand to be lost if things go wrong.

When I started on my most recent novel, I still worried about the ending, but yet again, everything worked.

This time, however, I realised whilst I was writing that it always will. I know it will.

Because if you’re following your characters and letting them be themselves then the story will resolve itself – maybe not how you want it, but there will be an ending. After all, that’s the way it works in real life.

The trouble comes when you try and force your characters to be what they’re not. When you twist them and make them act in arbitrary fashions to satisfy your plot. That’s when the contradictions build up and the story crashes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t plot. I still write structured outlines, particularly after I’ve written the first draft. That way I can see how to make the story better.

What I am saying is that, in my experience, problems with stories come with too much plotting, not too little.


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


How Writers Write: Tricia Sullivan

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 first met Tricia Sullivan on a panel at Loncon 3. A fascinating panelist and excellent writer, here she gives an insight to the creative process…

How would you describe yourself?

trish1I’ve been a science fiction novelist for twenty years. More recently I’m an astrophysics student and mother of three, and I work part-time doing other bits and pieces.

Where do you write?

trish2Right now I’m standing in the hall window at my laptop. Behind me is a wall with two big flip charts covered with the multi-coloured scribbles that pass for structural work on my new SF novel This is the Sea, which is midway through its first draft. The laptop lives here when I’m working on the Plot Wall.


trish3I had a much bigger and more complicated Plot Wall for Occupy Me. With three flip charts studded with multi-coloured post-its, a corkboard covered in index cards, and about seventeen different colours, it was a thing of madness. I took a photo of it to show a workshop of young writers just how many unseen gears and levers there may be lurking behind the sentences of a novel. But I’ve lost it. The new Plot Wall is not as funky (yet).

But do you actually write standing in a hallway?

trish4No, but I do most of my thinking on my feet, away from the computer. I guess it’s a bit of a cliché by now that many writers, especially novelists, are keen walkers. I also run, but I find that if I’m going at any sort of speed at all I can’t really think about anything except, you know, not dying. Walking is much better for thinking.

I go out in all weathers, for as long as time permits. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful, rural area.

I like to take in the detail of my surroundings. I’m fascinated with the way the shape and the meaning of a thing can change depending on scale and perspective. I like to look at things that are very small from very, very close up and imagine what it would be like if they were gigantic in relation to me. Science fiction is well-known for painting on the broadest of possible canvases. The thing is, though, there is ‘plenty of room at the bottom’, too .

One of really big ideas in Occupy Me came from looking closely at the structure of wood and seeing termite holes. It sparked something. I was all like Mike Myers going, ‘Yo, let’s have Space Termites! And dude, they can time-travel!’ (kidding)(sort of).

Yes, but what about actually putting words down?

trish6Oh, words. I do most of my drafting on a laptop in our sitting room, in the beanbags or on the rocking chair, which is no longer used for nursing babies but if you want to sit there you have to depose the cat. The beanbags look kind of like Jabba the Hut, don’t they? They’re super-comfy.

What about process?

trish7I keep lots of notebooks, of course. I start the serious writing in Word and keep a ‘daily work’ file for every writing session because I skip all over the place—I never write a first draft in linear order. It’s a giant pain, but it’s my way.

At some point I put all this mess into Scrivener in the form of scenes. I arrange these and then add to them and cut lots and add and cut lots more. I may colour-code plot strands a bit because I like the illusion of control this gives me. I’ll work and cut and rework and rearrange a few more times in between stints at the Plot Wall and jags of crying and sending whining e-mails to my writer friends. Very occasionally there’s Drink. Chocolate figures prominently in my methods.

trish8I use headphones and specific music for each book, both to drown out household noise and to kick the brain into gear. Occupy Me was mainly written to Heavy Horses, Steve Roach’s Dream Tracker, and All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun by Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser. So far This is the Sea is being written to the eponymous Waterboys album and Enya.

Upcoming work?

trish9 Occupy Me is out 21 January from Gollancz. It’s designed to break your brain and rebuild it in fun ways. I also have a story in Improbable Botany, which is a new anthology celebrating the tenth anniversary of Wayward Plants, a very cool urban green project based in London.

Thoughts on Cosmopolitan Predators!

Aethernet Magazine Issue #12 was published on Saturday, and with it the last episode of Cosmopolitan Predators!

What was the experience of writing a piece of serial fiction like?I’ve already already posted on this blog about writing serial fiction as well as the experience of working to deadlines. The various writers who contributed to Aethernet Magazine have also written about their experiences. I think it’s fair to say that none of us expected writing serial fiction to be quite so different, nor so difficult. But was it worth it?

Definitely! Writing serial fiction was enjoyable, exhilarating and frustrating. Every writer should always be pushing themselves, be trying something new, doing whatever it takes to keep improving. To borrow an excellent piece of advice from the musical world, “never put down your instrument until you’ve done something new with it.”

I’m now working on Dream Paris, the follow up to Dream London. I’ve set myself a target of 10 000 words a month (a bit more than the typical 7 – 8 000 words of each episode of Cosmopolitan Predators!) and I intend to deliver a complete episode to my first reader, Barbara Ballantyne, on the first of each month. Okay, I won’t be under quite the same constraints as when writing Cosmopolitan Predators! as I will have the luxury of going back and changing things. Will Dream Paris be a better book for being written this way? Well, I’m very pleased with how things are going so far, but then the final say on the book is not really up to me. For the moment though, I’m trying something new, and that’s what I love to do…

Blog Chain: All the Things You Are

Thanks to Chris Beckett – Arthur C Clarke aware winning author of Dark Eden and too many excellent short stories – I’m a link in a chain. The idea is that writers answer four questions on their blog and then nominate one or two other writers to do the same thing. You can see Chris’s answers here.

And here are mine:

What am I working on?

I’m just completing Cosmompolitan Predators! for Aethernet Magazine, after which I’ll begin Dream Paris, the followup to Dream London. I’m also working on a series of stories set in the Recursion universe, the first of which will be appearing in print soon. And lastly, Penrose 3 continues its slow progress towards completion

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

How does it differ? I must admit, I’m more fascinated by the similarities. What is it about a genre that means you can take two very different works like, for example, the Foundation Trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale and say that yes, these are both SF (even if one of the authors may claim otherwise… ).

As for differences? I don’t write heroes, I tend not to write competent people. I’ve always been struck by a line in a Pulp song “Do you want to see how common people fail?”. Golden age SF featured competent scientists and engineers solving problems. Those were great stories, but the protagonists never struck me as being particularly authentic or representative.

There are problems to be solved in my stories, there is (I hope) fascinating technology, but the protagonists don’t understand how things work, there are no easy answers. I don’t write about sewer operators saving the Earth, I write about how groups of people make a difference, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Why do I write what I do?

Because that’s the way my mind works. I get ideas all the time and I write them down to be used later, but every so often one idea collides with another and I suddenly get really excited and I just have to begin writing.

How much of the path of a book is made up, and how much is fixed by my experience and personality? I feel as if I’m creating when I write, but often when I rewrite I think of a good idea and I include it, only to find a few pages later that I’d already done that on the first draft.

I think that a lot of writing is just improvising around a well established series of chords. To take a Jazz metaphor, we’re all just blowing to “All The Things You Are”.

How does my writing process work?

Basically, I write something every day. I write down ideas, I write down scenes, I write down conversations I’ve overheard on the tram and then I keep redrafting. I’m always writing in time snatched between other responsibilities, but I still need to book in longer stretches when I can draw things together undisturbed.

If you’re interested, there’s lots more on my writing process here on my blog.

And so that’s me done. Here are the next links in the chain, two excellent but very different writers at two very different stages in their careers:

Philip Palmer is a screenwriter, radio dramatist, novelist and producer. His screen credits include THE MANY LIVES OF ALBERT WALKER and THE BILL. For radio his plays include THE KING’S COINER, BLAME, and THE FAERIE QUEENE. As a writer of SF novels he is responsible for considerable galactic carnage; his five published books are DEBATABLE SPACE, RED CLAW, VERSION 43, HELLSHIP and ARTEMIS. Philip is the founder of Afan Films.

He has a part time role as a lecturer at the London Film School, on the MA Screenwriting course.

Fletcher Moss was an Alderman of Manchester who upon his death over a century ago, bequeathed a beautiful botanical gardens to the people of the city; a noble and generous gesture. This Fletcher Moss has significantly less to recommend him – he’s an Assistant Headteacher at a school in Greater Manchester who needed a pseudonym for the writing he fits in between lesson planning, marking and rattling around the M60 in his second-hand Citroen. The Poison Boy (2013) is his debut novel. The Night Wardens (2015, fingers crossed…) is on the way

Working to Deadlines

If you’ve been reading this blog you will be aware that in between Marching to Time I’ve been writing a serial, Cosmopolitan Predators!  for Aethernet Magazine.

Aethernet Magazine was launched so that readers could rediscover the joys of serial fiction. One side effect has been that the writers are rediscovering the joys of writing to deadlines.  Take, for example, Ian Whates who pulled out all the stops to complete the final part of The Smallest of Things in style, or Juliet E McKenna whose fascinating take on the process of writing The Ties that Bind is detailed here on her blog.

What has my experience been like?

I went into Cosmopolitan Predators! with the story half planned. This is my usual way of writing. I find if I’ve planned a story in too great detail I lose interest in writing it, besides which, my stories tend to have a habit of wandering off course when the characters take on a life of their own. Even so, my original aim was to keep two episodes ahead of the current issue, and I’m now barely one issue ahead. This is not so bad, as I tend not to write stories in a linear fashion but rather in a random order: filling in scenes that interest me here and there and adding them to the finished piece or dropping them as the mood takes me. This means that as deadlines approach I find that I’ve already got half the story written.

But what about the deadlines? I like to follow my subconscious – my muse clearly has a butterfly mind, but nothing focuses her attention like a deadline. Cosmopolitan Predators! is a better story for being written to a deadline, I’m sure of it.

Deadlines are a writer’s friend. Deadlines focus the mind. Deadlines get you writing. Deadlines are the difference between a completed novel and three years spent with nothing more than a file detailing your imaginary world and no actual story to speak of.

I sold my first SF short story ten months after I made an agreement with myself to write one 2000 word story a month. I wrote my first novel after making an agreement with myself to have it completed by the end of 2002. I only wrote Dream London, my first Fantasy novel, after realising that if I didn’t set a deadline I would just keep on piling up ideas indefinitely.

And now the deadlines on Cosmopolitan Predators! are bringing out the best and the worst in me. Have you read the latest episode? I originally had that final line pencilled in for the end of the penultimate episode. But as the deadline for Episode 7 approached something began bubbling inside me and little voice whispered “Do it now! Shoot him now!”

“But that’s too soon!” my sensible self replied.

“No it’s not. Listen to your subconscious. You know you should.”

So I did. And I think it was right. I got Episode 7 finished and I’m now working on Episode 8. All the balls of the plot have been thrown in the air and I’m working to catch them in their new order and go on juggling, but my subconscious is having a great time and my sensible self is reluctantly agreeing that it was right.

I just hope I can rely on it as the next deadline approaches…

21st Century Science Fiction

21st Century SFStanFeaturing  “The Waters of Meribah” by Tony Ballantyne (Originally published in Interzone 189)

One of the most creepily memorable stories in modern SF

-David G Hartwell

Buy on Amazon UK | Buy on Amazon US

A bumper crop of 34 stories from authors who first came to prominence in the 21st century, compiled by two of the most highly respected editors in the business….Grab this book. Whether newcomer or old hand, the reader will not be disappointed.

–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

In my more than 40 years working in the science fiction publishing industry, I’ve seen this notion crop up every 10 years or so: ‘Science fiction has exhausted itself. There are no good new writers coming along anymore. The genre is finished!’ Tor editors Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden thoroughly refute such claims….Twenty-First Century Science Fiction will certainly be recognized as one of the best reprint science fiction anthologies of the year, and it belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the evolution of the genre.

–Gardner Dozois

Follow this link for more short stories by Tony Ballantyne

Writing Serial Fiction

I’m currently just over half way through Cosmopolitan Predators! and I can’t help thinking what a different story it is for being written as a serial.

The big thing that I’ve noticed is how much the serial form encourages plot. I’d originally intended the story to be much looser, a collection of characters who touched on each others lives to a greater or lesser extent. Yes, there was a back story to the founding of Eunomia, the asteroid where the action takes place, and yes, there was an ending in sight. What I hadn’t planned for is on just how intricate the plotting would become. There seems to be something about the serial form that encourages me to pick up old points and to explore them further a couple of episodes down the line. Perhaps its something to do with the urge to include a cliff hanger at the end of each part. After all, if you’ve set one up, you have to resolve it next time.

Is Cosmopolitan Predators! a better book for being written in this way? It’s hard to be objective about this. The book that it might have been will never be written now. I can’t compare the two different stories, as one of them doesn’t exist. Naturally, though, I think what I’ve done is a better story, I wouldn’t be writing it otherwise. Now, though, I’m too close to it to see all its faults. Maybe in a couple of years time I’ll have a better idea.

What I do know, however, is this: I’m very tempted to write my next novel as a serial. To commit myself to writing 12 parts over twelve months, and to give those parts to my first readers for comments. Yes, I’ll rewrite the whole thing at the end of the process, but my next novel will be heavy on plot, and I think this approach may well benefit it.

We shall see…

Serial Fiction

Just in case you haven’t seen the other posts, tweets, adverts or fliers…

This Easter my wife and I launched a new magazine called Aethernet.  Aethernet is intended to be the magazine of Serial Fiction.  You can read more about Aerthernet (and maybe buy a subscription) by following this link:  www.aethernetmag.com

But before you go, why Serial Fiction?

The idea for Aethernet came from a conversation Chris Beckett and I had at Eastercon 2012.  We were discussing the pleasures of reading serial fiction.  I grew up reading comics where the stories were presented over time.  V for Vendetta had an extra excitement when I read it in its original form in Warrior as I spent a couple of years trying to guess who V actually was (there was also an element of frustration when the magazine took longer intervals to appear and then finally folded.)  Now, if you’ve only ever read the graphic novel, the mystery would have lasted only a couple of hours.  When you have to wait a month between episodes, there is more time to consider the story.  Both Chris and I agreed that Serial Fiction afforded an extra dimension to the reader…

But then we began to think about writing Serial Fiction.   When I write a novel I start roughly at the beginning and then work through roughly to the end.  Roughly is the word.  I jump backwards and forwards, constantly changing things when I write any story, whether it’s 1000 word short or 100 000 word novel.  More than that, the story I end up writing is never the one I had planned.  What would it be like to write a story in the way Dickens and rest used to?  How would a story evolve if there was no going back, if you had to follow the characters where they went?  Would it be difficult?  Would it require a different way of writing?  Would it be a new challenge?  Mostly, would it be fun?

Well, we’ve tried it, and I can report that the short answer to all of the above is a resounding yes.

The long answer is available in Aethernet Magazine.  Most of the stories in there are still being written.  We’re about four episodes in front of you due to the editorial process, and the twists and turns continue to surprise and delight us.

I’ve been inspired.  My own story, Cosmopolitan Predators! starts in issue 2, and I’ll talk more about that another time.

Finally, one last piece of serial fiction.  The Loving Heart is a spin off from Cosmopolitan Predators!  and will be told through tweets.  Follow @aethernetmag to read it.  It will be starting in a couple of weeks…


Plot and Character

8SquarePanelMarcus Gipps asked an interesting question on a panel at EightSquaredCon: do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it?

Since genres such as SF tend to be plot driven, I think there is a tendency for people to believe this to be the case, but it’s not the case.  Plot and character drive each other.

Even the simplest of plots have characters, clichéd though they might be. If the hero is attacking the dark lord, you have two characters there right away, a good guy and a bad guy.  You couldn’t have the plot without the characters: if the bad guy wasn’t bad, the good guy wouldn’t have a reason to attack.  If someone just attacks someone else, the reader will just think why? If you take away the characters from a story, all you’re left with is machinery. You are, in effect, describing how a steam engine or a canal lock works.  Both of these things are interesting,  but they’re not a story.

Of course, just having a good guy and a bad guy doesn’t mean that you can tick the box marked character and then get on describing the world or the spaceships or the fighting.  You may be writing a story but it won’t be a very interesting one, and this was what Marcus was really asking when he posed his question do writers think of the plot first and then try to think of characters to go with it? My answer?  The plot suggests the characters, the characters suggest the plot.  Listen to the characters, and they will tell you where the plot is going.  Follow the plot, and the characters will react accordingly.  If you don’t know what your characters will do, then you haven’t understood them properly, and neither will the reader.

EightSquaredCon was a great event, by the way.  Superbly organised, there was a great atmosphere throughout the hotel.   Well done to all involved!