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…

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…

Writing Tools

Charles Stross has written an interesting polemic about Why Microsoft Word must Die over on his blog.

I broadly agree with him.  But this post isn’t to dwell on what’s wrong with Word, but rather to look at the alternatives.

Replacing Word is easy.  I’ve used LibreOffice (and its predecessor, OpenOffice) Writer for around 7 years now with few problems. Neither my publisher nor my collaborators appear to be aware of the fact that I’m not using Word, which makes me wonder why people say that Word is essential.  The sort of demands placed on a Word Processor when producing text based manuscripts are not particularly heavy.  I suspect an unwillingness to move away from Word is down to fear of the unknown rather than any solid reason.

The advantages of LibreOffice are that it’s free, it’s Open Source (if that’s important to you), and it’s sufficiently similar to Word to make the transition quite straightforward.  As an added bonus is it doesn’t have the Microsoft ribbon toolbar which I find irritating to say the least.

Of course, as Charlie points out, Word and LibreOffice don’t lend themselves to extended pieces of writing.  More and more writers are switching to software that allows you to structure your writing, a common example being Scrivener.  I’m a great believer in such tools.

Emacs and org-mode is one such tool.  I discovered org-mode for Emacs in 2008. I wouldn’t recommend Emacs to everyone, but I find it the ideal application for planning, structuring, writing and editing.  I’ve written my last three novels using org-mode, exporting the finished products to odt (Libreoffice) format when I’ve finished. You can find out more about my Emacs writing set up by following this link.  Aethernet Magazine is also produced using org-mode.  The magazine is marked up using org-mode codes and then exported to html for conversion to mobi format using kindlegen.  There’s more about Emacs over on my tech blog.

Finally, I use the Evernote App on my phone to record notes and pictures.  I’m a great believer in getting ideas and dialogue down “fresh”. They’re never as good if you try to recreate them later.  I’m actually writing nearly fully realised scenes now on Evernote, line by line, as the mood hits me.

Take a look at my monthly series How Writers Write to see other writer’s setups

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…

Cosmopolitan Predators! Dramatis Personae

Cosmopolitan Predators! appears in Aethernet Magazine


Billy Bunyan: teenage boy living in the skin of the Rock with his two fundamentalist fathers. Billy has a radio hidden behind his locker which he uses to listen to the spaceships that pass by outside. If his fathers ever find out he will be in big trouble…

Chelio: had his neocortex altered so that he can be friends with many, many people. He knows everyone on Eunomia and has slept with about half of them. So far.

The young man: wants to be the man with no name. He insists he’s not an assassin, even those he’s carrying several intelligent, high cachet weapons, and despite the fact he’s already killed two people.

Eli: legendary invincible soldier. He wants to be left alone to search the libraries on Eunomia for a particular book.

Mary-Ann Hodgson: naive new arrival on Eunomia Everyone exploited her back on earth, does she really expect things to be better on the Rock?

Jenny Solzhe: knows Mary-Ann from back on Earth (and has a tattoo just like hers). Very intelligent – she’s up to something.

Cosmo Lyttleton: devastatingly attractive, breathlessly charming and frighteningly intelligent. Ebony skin, a chiseled jaw and eyes so dark you can see your own reflection in them, eyes in which you could watch your own eyes melt as you lose your heart to him… He’s the new head of Buziness

Piper #320: engineer. She wants to get the job done properly, unlike most of her colleagues…

Graham Ian Stains: not really worth knowing. Don’t bother remembering his name.

Damon Masterson:  The Open Source Detective.  He’s interested in the young man, but why…?

Otis Memphis: Teenager.  Earns money incubating viruses in his body

Lisa Mortis: Professional Gambler

Szent-Gyorgi:  One of the second tranche.  Owns a cafe in the Zoshull district

The Backpack:  Former Security AI working in a jetpack.  Saving money to buy a ship to inhabit.


The Founding Family

Lipton Mercedes: Buziness

Brandy Marsalis: Zoshull

Mary Kenton: Civics

McConnel Hudson: Engineering

Zunel: Processing

Josephine “Farmer Joe” Daniau-Beauchene Wong: Agropower

The Seventh Founder:  Doesn’t exist.  Never has existed.

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.

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…

Cosmopolitan Predators!

… and now for something completely different.

Not a novel, not a series of short stories, but a little bit of both.

I had the germ of the idea for this years ago when I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.  I love many things about Maupin’s writing, but one of the things that really caught my attention about the Tales was that they originally appeared as regular instalments in the San Francisco Chronicle.

That struck me as a really different way of writing.  When I write a novel, I plan it out, write it, redraft it, change the beginning, change the end, redraft again… I’ve often wondered what it would be like writing a story as a serial, not having the luxury of going back and changing what I’d done.  What would that mean?  Would the characters evolve in a different way?  The idea has fascinated me for years, however there’s always been one drawback.  Nobody really publishes serial fiction any more.

I discussed this with Chris Beckett at Eastercon last year, and it turned out he was fascinated by the idea of serial fiction, too.  So, it turns out were Keith Brooke, Eric Brown, Juliet E McKenna, Philip Palmer, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ian Whates.  We all wanted to write serial fiction, but there was no outlet for it…

So I decided to do something about that.  My wife is an experienced editor, I have the IT skills and so…

Athernet Magazine will be launching on March 30th.  Aethernet Magazine is the magazine of serial fiction.  In it you’ll find serial fiction by the above authors, and by me.  Cosmopolitan Predators! is just a little but like Tales of the City in that it follows the lives of a series of characters, however it scores over Maupin in that it has more robots in it.

The concept behind Aethernet Magazine isn’t a new one, but perhaps its a concept whose time has come again.  See what you think…