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: https://open.spotify.com/user/112472346/playlist/2Wg8GUdE42nN7usTMkRomo

Awards!

So–

While this blog has been frozen in the interstices between quantum wave-states (or dozing, if you prefer) for the last few months, there’s been exciting news for the Writers of the Future Volume 35 anthology.

There have been awards! Not one, not two, but three (count ’em!), which I’m told hasn’t happened before.

Of course, it’s great to get the buzz of recognition and achievement that an award brings. I’m sure all the authors and artists with work featured in Volume 35 are just as thrilled as I am. But these awards are also a testament to the fabulous work of many people behind the scenes: the contest administrators, organisers and many folk at Galaxy Press who work so tirelessly to promote the Writers and Artists of the Future contest and publish the anthology every year–not forgetting the illustrious roll-call of judges. It’s a huge team effort that brings equally huge changes to the lives of those authors and artists it boosts. Just look at the extraordinary number of successful careers it has kick-started over many years.

So what were the awards? In no particular order, Volume 35 won “Best Anthology” in the Critters Annual Readers Poll, The New York City Big Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Award (given by the Independent Book Publishers Association). Yay! Go us!

I’ve started to dip into this year’s award anthology – Volume 36 (ah, how time flies!) and the standard this year is also extremely high. I hope to post a review of these new stories here just as soon as I’ve read them in their entirety. I can tell you that based on what I’ve seen so far, I suspect there will be a strong award showing for this coming year, too!

Many congratulations to all concerned.

Here’s the link for the latest anthology, Volume 36: https://www.writersofthefuture.com/l-ron-hubbard-presents-writers-of-the-future-36-now-released/

A picture’s worth a thousand words….

But some pictures are priceless.

Case in point: I give you this wonderful piece of art by Vytautas Vasiliauskas, one of the twelve Illustrators of the Future winners this year. It’s the accompanying illustration for my story “Dark Equations of the Heart.”

But you’ll have to read the story (published in Writers of the Future, Volume 35) to understand just why this is such a clever and well-executed piece of artwork.

It captures all the key elements of the story in a way that is so vivid and yet subtle, that I would have scarcely believed possible.

Indeed, one of the highlights of the week-long Writers and Illustrators of the Future workshops is the ‘art reveal.’

This is the moment where, for the first time, all the winning authors get to see the accompanying piece of artwork produced by the winning illustrators.

The atmosphere in the room is absolutely electric – and it can be quite an emotional experience for all concerned.

Without exception, all the art was absolutely stunning – and yet at the same time, distinct and varied. The authors joked beforehand about what we’d do if any of us was confronted by something we didn’t like, but in hindsight it was obvious this was never going to be a problem. The talent and professionalism of this year’s group of illustrators is mind-blowing.

So if you’re into great works of futuristic art and you like reading great science fiction and fantasy stories, what are you waiting for? Writers of the Future, Volume 35 deserves a place on your bookshelf!

Publication Day!

I’m proud to announce today is publication day for Writers of the Future, Volume 35. I’m one of the 12 writers fortunate to have their stories published in this volume. Each story has been illustrated by one of 12 illustrators who won the Illustrators of the Future competition – and they are all fantastic works of art.

There really is something for everyone in this collection: a broad range of styles and themes in science fiction and fantasy.

Published by Galaxy Press and available to order from your local bookshop, or from online venues such as: