This never happens!

Any of you who are short story writers will be familiar with the agony (and occasional ecstasy) of the submission process. The gap between sending a finished story out into the big wide world and hearing back from an editor can be as short as a day or two (though that’s rare) up to many months or years even (also, thankfully, rare). The longest time I had a piece out on submission before an acceptance was a little over a year.

That’s just a fact of life for short story submissions. Many of the publishing venues are run by enthusiasts who devote a considerable amount of their spare time to publishing their ’zine and it would be churlish of authors to expect fast turn-around times (but all credit to those that do manage it). Even the professional magazines work to busy schedules and have limited budgets and overworked staff which means it can take months to work through the submission slush pile.

Of course, if the submission outcome is an acceptance then the wait, no matter how many weeks, months or years, disappears in the unbridled joy of the moment. An acceptance! Yay! Though sadly, more often than not, the only result of all that waiting is a polite rejection.

So you’ll understand my amazement and disbelief at what happened last week. I began a writing session by sending off a previously completed story to a prime market. That job done, I settled down with my current work-in-progress. About 45 minutes later an email landed in my inbox from the publication I’d just submitted to. Of course, receiving a submission acknowledgement is pretty standard but when I opened it up… My story had been accepted for publication!

This was a pro market, too! (Probably best I don’t say which one at this time as the editor won’t thank me for setting expectations that may be difficult to meet on a regular basis!) The editor wrote me a very nice message saying that he happened to see the story land in the submission queue, read it and felt it clicked immediately and so sent the acceptance.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know just how rare an occurrence this is. From submission to return of a signed contract in less than an hour! This never happens! (And the fact that it’s a pro market that I respect highly is just icing on the cake. Something like this has never happened before and I doubt it will happen again – just a very fortunate set of circumstances. But all the same, I’m very happy that it did.

Going to Cymera 2022!

I’m really pleased to be heading off to the Camera 2022 event in Edinburgh next week, billed as Scotland’s festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. It’s taking place over the Jubilee weekend, 3rd to 5th June.

This is only the second full-blown SF convention/festival I’ve attended – the other being Worldcon, Dublin in 2019 so although this is on a much smaller scale, it’s no less exciting and there looks to be a packed programme of events. It’s also only the second time I’ve visited Edinburgh, the last being some mumblety-mumble years ago when I was definitely a lot younger and had more hair. So it’s a double cause for anticipatory celebration.

We’re heading up from London by train which is another fun part of the trip I’m looking forward to. Basically after two plus years (more or less) of stay-at-home misery, this feels like an excellent opportunity for some travel and adventures, plus the chance to meet some favourite authors and sit in on some great panel discussions.

“After the Gold Rush” anthology

I’m pleased to report that a story of mine called “Down on the Klondike” has been selected by the wonderful Juliana Rew for the forthcoming Third Flatiron anthology titled “After the Gold Rush.”

I love the Third Flatiron anthologies. They are published a couple of times a year and each anthology has an overall theme which is broad enough to spark a wide range of ideas and styles in the selected material. There’s always a great spread of stories covering different styles and voices which often push the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy and even light horror. Each story is unique in its approach but they are always compelling reads. Readers will be assured of a great mix – very much something for everyone’s tastes – including much needed doses of humour.

I’m lucky enough to be making my fourth appearance in a Third Flatiron anthology, alongside a host of very talented writers. You can check out my previous stories “Sweet Release”, “All Fuzzed Out and Fractal” and “Ephemeralities” – the details are on the Short Fiction page of my website.

I think the anthology will hit the stores round about mid July but I’ll update and post links once I have the details.

New story – “In the House of Geometers”

This week’s story up at Metaphorosis is my “In the House of Geometers.” If you’d like to read it, it’s available to read for free here or you can support this excellent magazine by purchasing the issue or a subscription here.

I owe a debt of gratitude to editor B Morris Allen who worked with me on several editorial iterations of the story. I’ve always been amazed by how much time and effort he invests with each and every author. His editorial eye for detail and sense of what makes a good story is second to none, and I think it shows in the quality of the magazine.

To put icing on the cake, there are audio narrations (podcasts) of each story which are published on the magazine’s website alongside the text. You can listen to the narrated version of “In the House of Geometers” here.

Matt Gomez is the podcast host and narrator and he’s done a terrific job, absolutely bringing the story to life. He nails the voicing of the different characters and the podcast’s production values are second to none. I couldn’t be happier! 

It’s a slightly strange (but delightful!) feeling, hearing someone voice a story that one has lived and breathed so intimately during its creation. 

Books read – 2021 edition

So the results are in and these are all the physical books I read during 2021.

Obviously, purely from a numbers point of view, I didn’t get to read that much during the year. For sure, some of that was down to that ‘other’ little thing that we’ve all been fretting about through most of 2020 and all of 2021. You know, that health-related thing that did a slam-dunk on the human race. What was it called again? I forget.

Anyway, I’m really not that fussed about the number of books. I don’t feel I’m in a competition to see who can read the most. Which is just as well as I’m never going to win something like that. But I’m interested to look back and see the mix of books in the stack. Strangely, it doesn’t feel representative of what I actually consumed during the year but that’s mostly because a large part of my fiction reading is consumed electronically. It has to be that way because the SF magazines I read are mostly online reads (e.g. Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Cossmass Infinities, Metaphorosis, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge – and plenty more besides). As you can see, I dallied with hard copies of Asimov’s and Analog for a few issues during the year because I miss the feel of those magazines in my hands, but it takes months for the issues to reach the UK and they’re five times the price of the e-versions.

For 2022, I’ll probably try to track what I read in e-format, and also what Audible books I listen to. (Stand out Audible book for last year was Andy Weir’s “Project Hail Mary” – loved, loved, loved that book and the narration.) I think it might be interesting to look back at the end of 2022 and see the full spread of things I’ve read. I’m also hoping that I’ll get the opportunity to read a bit more than I have the last couple of years, but things still look as busy as ever.

For comparison, this was the books-read stack for 2020:

Telescope deployments!

It’s great news that the the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope continues to go without a hitch. Such a remarkable feat of science and engineering.

Slightly closer to home, there has been another telescope deployment, used in anger for the first time two nights ago (which was the first time since Christmas that we’ve had clear skies in these parts). The DBGS (Dave’s Back Garden ‘Scope) is a magnificent 114mm Newtonian Reflector from Sky-Watcher. It cost roughly one hundred million times less than JWST but admittedly it won’t deliver results quite so impressive. That said, the crescent Moon, Jupiter and the Jovian satellites were a magnificent sight through it, as was the Andromeda Galaxy – although I need to get a bit better at knowing exactly where to point it to find the dimmer objects.

I have a long list of objects to visit next time we have clear skies, although the local light pollution is going to limit what’s possible I think.

Happy Christmas, JWST!

It seems a little bizarre – even to me – that one of the things I am most looking forward to this Christmas is a successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s been a long time coming. Early mission plans scheduled the launch for 2007 and its cost has ballooned by a factor of ten from original estimates. But now, in literally just a few hours from now, everything reaches a culmination of that huge investment in time and money.

I’ve followed the progress of JWST off and on for a long time. There’s no doubt that its successful launch and deployment will usher in a new era of astronomical and cosmological discovery. But it’s the sheer engineering challenge that I find equally fascinating. The much-reported 334 individual single-points-of-failure in the launch, deployment and commissioning phases underline just how daring a mission this is. (This is about three times greater than the single-points-of-failure for the recent US Mars lander programme.) The space agencies involved could have chosen to build several much lower risk missions, probably for a lower combined budget. And though they would have been worthy instruments in their own right, they wouldn’t have the breadth, power or reach that JWST will have if all goes well.

There’s undoubtedly a lot at stake today and over the next few months as JWST is gently coaxed into life. Things may not go to plan (though I fervently hope they do) but the sheer audacity of the vision and ambition of the JWST is a shining example of what humanity can achieve. Here’s hoping we give ourselves a wonderful Christmas present that in the coming years will reveal incredible new insights into the universe.

When Characters Decide

Lately I’ve been mulling over the importance of having fictional characters make decisions. It’s something that’s easy to overlook as a writer (I know I sometimes do), caught up as we are in the logical flow of the plot and trying to wrangle the story from this scene to that scene in order to reach a satisfying story conclusion.

The decisions a character makes within the context of a story paints a vivid picture of who they are: their ideals and motivations and all the things that matter to them. For a reader, seeing which way a character jumps when faced with a critical choice is probably far more illuminating than any amount of description or self-reflection through interior monologues. We cheer when they decide to act in a way that feels right to us, and we cringe when bad choices are made. The consequences of those decisions – right or wrong – are often what keeps us reading.

Pushing a little deeper, it’s not hard to see that there are many different kinds of decision, for example:

  • The unexpected decision which puts a character on the spot. What is their instinctive reaction to a situation (and what has shaped those instincts)? Do they trust their own instincts? Can they think on their feet or do they become flustered and confused?
  • The tortured decision. A character knows what they must decide, but it comes at a cost – often a great cost. Do they do the ‘right’ thing (and who has decided what the right thing is?) or do they rebel?
  • The head versus heart decision – perhaps not so different from the tortured decision. Does the character act according to rational principles based on hard facts, or do they throw caution to the wind and take a leap into the unknown?
  • The carefully planned (but oh so wrong!) decision. This slow unravelling of their hopes may be based on a character’s self-delusion or the lies and misinformation they’ve been fed by others – leading to dire consequences (or so we hope, as readers!)

I’m sure there are many other types of decision we could categorise, but the point is these decisions must be made in a way that is true to each character. If you’re a ‘plotter’ and have a story outline to follow, that may not always work out the way you intended. But let the characters decide in their own ways! Let them be true to themselves. Characters who make different choices about the same thing create the conflict that propels a story forwards.

Arguably, this is where those writers who don’t follow an outline (aka ‘pantsers’) have the advantage. Their stories flow from character actions (and interactions) – often in completely surprising directions – because the writing is drawing on an intimate understanding of their attitudes and behaviours which determine the choices they make. The danger is that the thread of the story wanders, or the plotting is vague and doesn’t hold together – which is where plotters score, because they always have a roadmap to refer back to, even if the story wanders away from it now and then.

So. Characters deciding things (actions, goals, how they feel about places, events and people, how to best achieve those goals) – these are the things that draw the reader along for the ride. They may not be decisions the reader agrees with – in fact, it’s often better if they’re not – but they need to be self-consistent with all that we understand about that character. Get that right and you’ll trigger the best possible reaction in your readers: And then what happened?

Places to write

Like many writers, I’ve done my time in coffee-shops, and I can make it work if I need to, but most of my writing gets done at home, sitting at a desk in my own little space. Which is fine. It’s convenient, I can shut the door and focus, and I don’t need to buy over-priced coffee to do it. But sometimes I do feel it’s nice to shake things up a bit and a change of (non-distracting) background can be energising.

Libraries (obviously) are a wonderful alternative. I used to frequent the Guildhall Library in London during my lunch hour. I also tried writing in the main space of the British Museum (usually crowded, no guarantee of space to sit) or outside on a bench (usually wet or cold!)

Driving somewhere remote but scenic and working in the car is another perennial favourite, but rarely executed. I don’t travel much, so can’t really say I work on planes or in hotel lobbies as I’m usually too caught up in the novelty of the experience.

For a few years, I got an hour’s writing done on the train travelling to work every day. (But not on the way home because I was invariably in a brain-dead state by then and only fit for dozing). At first, I felt incredibly self-conscious. Plenty of other commuters had their laptops out but they had spreadsheets open, or poked at what were obviously work-related documents, or just noodled away at their email. I, on the other hand, might be describing the scintillation of energy bolts in some space battle far beyond Earth’s orbit or plotting the subjugation of humanity by our AI overlords. I could never be sure what others on the 7.10 to Waterloo would make of it if they shoulder-surfed my screen.

So I bought myself a screen filter that made shoulder-surfing difficult and worked in a light grey font that was microscopically small – so that even I struggled to read my words.

Gradually things changed, or at least, my attitude changed. When some of those stories began to get published and I even won an award or two, the inhibitions dropped away. No stranger has ever actually approached me and said, “Excuse me but are you writer?” but I rather like the idea that they might.

A little while ago my wife bought my one of those notebooks with “Careful – or you might end up in my next novel,” inscribed on the cover in bold letters. I don’t flaunt it, but I don’t hide it away either if I’m out and about. (And it’s a lovely thing to write in). I’m still hoping for the day when someone (probably another writer) says, “Oh, are you a writer then?” and I can smile and say self-deprecatingly, “Why yes. As it happens, I do scribble now and then.”

But it hasn’t happened yet.

Music to write to

For the last few weeks, I’ve been putting music on in the background while I’ve been writing. That’s not something I’ve done much of in the past. I tend to find songs with vocals distracting, and often the tempo and mood of the song clashes with the ideas I’m trying to get down on paper (too upbeat, too downbeat, too much damn fun that I tend to stop writing to listen!). But ever since author Gareth Powell shared his “Writing” playlist on Spotify, I’ve changed my mind.

Almost all of the music in this playlist is instrumental, and that helps. A lot of it is drawn from film scores which seem especially good at capturing mood in a non-invasive way. It’s music that to some extent can disappear into the background (which is what I want) yet works its magic in terms of mood and inspiration.

And boy is there a lot of it! About 96 hours all told, so little danger of getting bored hearing the same tracks over and over. I’m familiar with some of the work, but much of it is new to me and there are some real gems in there–another bonus!

So if working to laid back, subtle-but-inspirational background music is your kind of thing, then I urge you to give it a try. (And many thanks, Gareth, for sharing!)

Here’s the link to the playlist: