This New Hope needs a working title

Still working on the New Hope story. Not ready to begin writing the words yet.

oil painting of a woman in Victorian costume, thinking


I’ve decided to give it a working title, similar to Project AR for SHADOWBOX.

A proper title will come later, once I’ve worked through a few options.

THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN began as Whitechapel Women, and that name stayed until the story ended up as speculative fiction with a mystical theme, far fewer women and not so much Whitechapel.

SHADOWBOX began life as The Amber Room, then became Chamber of Shadows, then SHADOWBOX.

The Petticoat Katie novels began with their final titles: MAIDEN FLIGHT, BOOM TOWN and MONKEY BUSINESS.

N.B. I can’t find a suitable title for the fourth novel in the trilogy: the one with the many goats. It ought to fit into the sequence – two words, a common phrase. I tried GOAT WARS, but who the blazes has heard of GOAT WARS? And DRY SPELL is more to do with my writing output than the story.

This lack of title is only part of the reason I haven’t finished it. Although I am also tempted to veer wildly off track and name it ONE OF OUR GOATSUCKERS IS MISSING.

The New Hope story has a will of its own and has already chosen its working title: Project NEVADA, which is suitably memorable but also meaningless in the sense of it actually having any link to the story.

Look out for more posts when I have progress to report.

A New Hope

I’m writing again, after ages of not having a story I cared about enough to finish.

There isn’t scope in this brief post to cover why I stopped because the reasons are many and belong to the real world, not here. Maybe some time later I’ll cover this, when the need to explain exceeds the joy of writing. But…

…I’ve started preliminary work on a new story.

Illustration by Waltrich - a human figure reading a book

Trying not to be overwhelmed by stories outside the book…

It’s that phase of creative excitement where ideas pour out onto the page, spilling over into short passages of text and the sort of questions that just keep adding richness to the story.

Characters begin as silhouettes with no more detail than a line drawing. As I ask them why they are here, and what they want, their wishes and plans and needs start to fill in that outline. They become people, with hopes and dreams and guilty pasts, irrational urges, emotional triggers – recognisably real.

More characters appear. They have their own plans and urges and histories, and the ways they interact with my first characters reveals more about the story and the people involved.

Some of the characters are not really who they seem.

There’s a very real, physical threat to my protagonist, with the risk of destroying all those hopes and dreams I’ve just uncovered.

The location is charming, simple and a little shabby around the edges. It’s a combination of places I’ve been, places I’ve read about, and places you can really only see in the cinema.

And there’s a deep, dark mystery in the very foundations of the story.

There’s more work to be done before I can start to write up the story as a novel.

I’ll make up a storyboard to stop the characters from haring off into odd places beyond the story, or disappearing without trace. (Readers notice these things. I notice too, getting bogged down in backstory or sidelines. A storyboard allows all this to run its course at the planning stage, before I commit to writing 80K-120K words on the page.)

A map, too, of where interactions happen, so I can keep track of who knows what and which secrets have yet to come out. Hopefully not as complex as this one, from The Count Of Monte Cristo (click on the image to see full size):

Character relationships in The Count of Monte Cristo - from Wikipedia

Character relationships in The Count of Monte Cristo – from Wikipedia

When the ideas start to flow it’s best to let them. Rinsing out the duds can come later.

It feels good to be writing again.

Project Albatross: Sources And Influences

Reading through Project Albatross, my long-lost post-apocalyptic novel, after a gap of more than twenty-five years, is a little bit of personal time travel.


I remember where I lived when I wrote the story – which city, which house, who I shared with, what my rooms were like, and a fantastic big writing-desk that must have come from a bank.

The music I listened to, which is a major key into certain scenes, is a strong influence.

Likewise the subjects I was studying – which included a scenic diversion from European prehistory into some British archaeology up to the early Mediaeval period. (It’s no surprise that was the year I had no exams, giving me the time and mental space to write a novel.)

The locations I’d lived in and travelled by then also played their part. Poetry, art and arty films.

But it’s the books I’d read, more than anything else, which show up in my memories.

Belmarch, a slim and peculiar novel of the First Crusade by Christopher Davis, an author whose other works I never sought out.

A good handful of Aldous Huxley, from school-years study of Brave New World to his light early comedies such as Crome Yellow, via The Doors of Perception (of course) and The Devils of Loudon*.

Educational gore from Stephen King, and magical horror from Peter Straub’s Shadowland (still one of my favourite dark fantasy stories).

Madness and oddments and weird structural components from The Ring Master by David Gurr.

All of these strands surface more or less in the story, which I’m still typing up and trying to make sense of my later additions (thank you, Scrivener, for making this easy).

Once I’m finished and have the whole story to push around, it might become clear whether I ought to publish.

Or not.

More to follow on this. Not sure when.

*Having searched Goodreads for this one, I find out there is a novel on the same subject by Alexander Dumas which, of course, I must now read. #fangirl

Published in: on April 19, 2017 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Project Albatross: Sources And Influences  
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Project Albatross: Rediscovery

In the middle of 2016 I rediscovered what I’ll call Project Albatross: my post-apocalyptic novel written in 1990, a wild crazy drama laced with climate change and socio-political upheaval on the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967)

My memory of the story played me somewhat false, however.

The storyline hangs together pretty well.

Some parts are written in present tense, some in the past.

Elements of the prose are lyrical as poetry – and just as obscure.

Other elements are clumsy – stilted dialogue, head-hopping, transitions awkwardly phrased.

My punctuation is wildly creative. From my current perspective, 25 years on, I can only wonder why I chose to use so many commas and semi-colons when the obvious thing to do is shut the flippin’ sentence off with a full stop and start a new one.

Literary paragraphs, running on and on without pause, without dialogue, without line breaks. Even when there’s a change of character speaking. I’ve read novels like that and given up on them halfway through (I’m looking at you, 2666).

Single-sentence chapters.

Typing it out from longhand sheets where very little alterations have been made – and very few crossings-out – it’s like reading a story I once knew by heart. While I’ve forgotten the complexity of the story, and some of the iconography, sometimes a phrase leaps out at me from the page as if fresh in my memory and I know exactly how it ends, like a quotation or a prose poem.

Overall, I’m surprised at the scope of my ambition, even if the 25-years-ago version of me fails to deliver on some of that. Huh: everyone’s young once.

It’s also undeniably different from the novels I’ve written since.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Published in: on February 15, 2017 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Project Albatross: Rediscovery  
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Plumber’s Muse required, must bring own grommets

There’s a meme, a theory, call it what you will, that writer’s block is a poor excuse for laziness.

This is based on the premise that there’s no such thing as – for example – plumber’s block. That is, someone who makes their living as a plumber doesn’t spend days lying on a chaise longue wafting a scarf over their fevered brow while waiting for their Muse to turn up with a sink plunger and a set of tap grommets.Joseph Bazalgette (c) Science Museum London

I agree.

There is no such thing as plumber’s block.

Because, you see, when a plumber has had enough of plumbing, be it for the day, the week or for life, he hangs up his kneepads and overalls and goes out to the pub – or the beach, or nightschool, or whatever takes his fancy.

Without feeling guilty about Not Plumbing.

If he’s been successful, he will likely have a bunch of other plumbers working for him in the pipework technician equivalent of James Patterson blockbusters.

If he hasn’t been successful, one might ask why the blazes he bothered becoming a plumber in the first place if he hated the work so much (the usual answer is either money, or self-determination).

Nobody becomes a plumber in the hope they’ll become the next Joseph Bazalgette.

Plumbers, on the whole, are practical fellows. If plumbing isn’t floating their boat, the resourceful amongst them will look to start another line of work.

Often, the less resourceful are quite happy being told by someone else when to turn up, what to fit and how much they are going to be paid for the work.

Sounds like my day job.

But here’s the difference between plumbing and writing (if you haven’t already thought of at least one).

Writing novels is not my day job. I’d be surprised if it was yours (if it is, can I have the email addresses of your readers?).

Once the first twelve hours of the working day are over (prep and commutes and aftercare included), who has the energy to commit to creative works month after month, without respite?

That way lies burnout.

Those of us with office jobs know only too well how that feels. Even if you haven’t endured your own, you will know someone who has broken, or is currently resisting collapse.

If you work a day job where this is rife, you’ll know how the fracture lines spread from person to person like a flaw in a cut diamond – invisible to the naked eye, until the wrong knock in the wrong place and suddenly the world is just… splinters.

I’m not broken.

I’m not even close. But I’ve seen it too often, been close in the past when tight deadlines and project goals combine with the satisfaction of doing an enjoyable job, and you spend more time than is healthy on completing a task which doesn’t bring you much personal kudos and takes you away from family, friends and fun.

Maybe that’s the problem I’ve had this year, with the fourth Petticoat Katie story in the trilogy. This novel was never meant to be written right now.

Like the novel I killed in 2012, I’ve spent so much time making excuses to myself for not finishing it, I’d have been better off ditching it and splurging on short stories and poems.

Novels are great fun to write.

But they aren’t the only outlet for my creative energies, and while there is no such thing as plumber’s block there is also a contingent activity known as filling the well.

The phrase is attributed to Julia Cameron, she of The Artist’s Way, and she also says this:

During a sustained period of work, artists require special care. We must be vigilant to not abuse our health and well-being. We must actively nurture ourselves.

While it sounds like the plumber’s chaise longue and floaty scarf again, I’m also thinking of Dean Wesley Smith’s insistence that his perfect chair is ergonomically-fitted. Or, to take a different elemental allegory, there’s Terri Windling’s timely reminder that re-kindling the fire within is feasible, even when the spark seems damped.

So where does this take me?

I’m still ahead of the goals I set when I asked where will I be in ten years time? back in early 2012.

And I promised myself a “leisurely pace of production”.  This does not involve NaNoWriMo, nor does it involve thrashing myself into a tizzy because I haven’t spawned a set word count in any particular time frame, nor does it involve me using those creative energies to come up with elaborate reasons why.

I’ve done my words for this year. The current story’s limp, a steaming pile of spaghetti I don’t have energy to pick through, and my chopsticks are broken.

Other worlds are calling me, worlds where my imagination is happily designing people and cities and a very Scottish mythology underlying stories more graphic, more elaborate, more Gothic than anything I’ve ever written.

Would you rather explore them with me, or laze around while I kick holes in the pipework?

Reclining male nude, Bristol Art Gallery

Published in: on October 28, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Wild crazy drama, anyone?

With the announcement by Pope Francis that climate change is upon us, I wondered whether it might be time to dust off the post-Apocalyptic novel I wrote back in 1990.

Climate change isn’t the point of the novel. It’s an unusual mixture of WW1, religious upheaval and forbidden love.

OR (if you want the Hollywood version – you’ll have to imagine the accent however):

“One woman’s struggle against the forces of a world in crisis.”

It was hand-written, longhand, and I can’t remember if I even typed it up or just filed it away with my (two) previous unusual novels.

It was also the last novel I wrote without a structured plan. Chances are the storyline is all over the place.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967) That usually means a lot of work – far more than I’m inclined to take on.

My heroine set off through the story with a map which came straight out of “Albatross” by Judy Collins, a haunting song brimming with imagery both rich and powerful.

Somewhere in the middle was a scene of intense barbarism.

Somewhere parallel to my heroine was an anti-hero she was destined to meet.

Somewhere in my world-building, climate change had ruined the global economy and turned Britain into a poisoned, depopulated, pseudo-feudal state.

And the ending, that I spent (IIRC) 60,000 words charging headlong towards across a blasted near-prehistoric landscape, owed more than a little to Leonard Cohen‘s “Joan of Arc”.

Wild crazy drama and big scenes of bloodshed not dissimilar to (what I’ve heard about) Game Of Thrones.

But I’m not sure where I’ve put the flippin’ thing.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Wild crazy drama, anyone?  
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One Down, Many More To Follow

A couple of months ago I wrote a post justifying why the wordcount’s low on my current work-in-progress.

Basically, my creative time is limited – as is my creative energy. And I’ve been busy paving over my garden so I can free up more of my creative time and energy to write, instead of controlling parts of the garden that aren’t productive.

This work is now over, thankfully.

Summer is heading full-tilt towards us, less than a week before the solstice. The grass has gone, the paving is laid, and the remainder of the work falls under the heading of general pottering about – in other words, no heavy lifting.

Like finishing a novel, it’s been a long task, enjoyable, stretching, with a few false starts and moments of trepidation. Now it’s done, I can sit back and admire it look at all the bits I’d do differently if I had to do it again.

Bee on white oregano flower

My imagination hasn’t been idle, though.

I’ve sketched out a few short stories on rainy days when working outside was impossible, and pondered the work still to be done on the fourth Petticoat Katie novel with a view to finishing it as soon as I can.

More stories await. Characters clamour to say their piece, to have their lives imagined into being, to take me on their travels as if I were their own personal Boswell.

And now, of course, I have a neat and tidy garden space within which to imagine new tales while watching the bees amongst the oregano.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on One Down, Many More To Follow  
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Must be something in the air…

This weekend is Crimefest 2015. I’ll be there. Crimefest 2015

It would be daft not to. International crime fiction festival in your local city, a bare half-hour bus ride from home? Certainly, madam, don’t bother wrapping it.

Hot on the heels of the General Election last week, crime fiction writer Val McDermid exhorts the Guardian to help bombard England with Scottish books to help save the UK. I’ve lived in England now for more than 25 years and still have my accent, but I don’t think that counts.

McDermid is calling on a cultural assault on England, and a little vice versa.As she says in the article:

“What struck me again and again during the [2014] referendum campaign was the staggering depth of ignorance on the part of most English people about the state of Scotland.”

She’s got a point. I wouldn’t have stayed in England all these years if it didn’t suit me, but I still find it remarkable how little the people of England realise that Scotland is different. Maybe that’s what peeves Scots so much about their neighbours.

Same language, sure, but different nuances. Different laws. Different education system. I spent the first five years of my time in England explaining the subtleties of Highers versus A-levels.

Then there’s the food.

Haggis, deep-fried in batter. Italian ice-cream, commonplace due to the immigrants of the early 20th century. High Tea. Cullen Skink. Porridge (with salt).

Don’t get me started on bagpipe music.

I once encountered a young bagpipe player busking in the shopping centre of a major town in the south of England and wondered whether his parents had given him enough money for a single fare only, with the instruction to busk for his fare home. I also wondered whether anyone else in the town realised he wasn’t only not very good, but almost criminally bad.

At least I don’t have to busk my bus fare home from Crimefest.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Why The Word Count’s Low

This is a long, long story. There’s no point skipping to the end, because the length of the story is part of the journey.

About a year ago, about the time when I was finishing the final chapters of SHADOWBOX and preparing for Crimefest, I took a good hard look at how I spent my time.

Now where did I put my wossname? Painting by Adolf von Menzel, although this is not its title.

Most of my time wasn’t spent writing.

This was not what I wanted.

So I decided to reduce the amount of time I spend pottering in the garden and hire someone in to pave over the grassy half. There were a couple of other requirements in the work, but nothing I thought was too onerous. I started early, asking for quotes in June.

“That’s more than enough time to have the work done before winter,” I thought.


The festive period came and went, with no firm decision on the scope of the work and no progress. Winter came, gently and without snow, but still no work took place.

Spring began, very slowly. Green stuff began to sprout in places where I’d expected to see paving by that point in the year.

Still no final agreement.

This project block was worse than writer’s block. I asked around and others told me I’d regret hiring someone who wasn’t interested in sticking to the schedule, or the requirements, or the scope. Like I’ve done with writing projects in the past, I decided to call a halt to the proceedings – and just do the work myself.

Since the start of the recent good weather I’ve been shifting earth and digging up small rocks and disturbing ants and discovering more muscles than my deskbound self thought existed. It will take me months to finish at this pace, in the time I have to spare.

I wanted this work done before winter.

I want more time to spend writing, adding to my body of work, learning how to tell more entertaining stories. Creating new characters, spending time with old ones, going to this year’s Crimefest to meet up with other writers.

But in an odd way, spending time outside doing manual work has freed up the creative side of my brain, and I’ve been writing more than I did when I was waiting for the work to start.

Isn’t there some sort of lesson in there?

Published in: on April 22, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Why The Word Count’s Low  
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Flight of the Sibyl

RIP Sir Terry Pratchettterry-pratchett_c_heathcliff_o_malley

I met him twice, in the early Nineties, around the time that Equal Rites (his third Discworld novel) came out in paperback in the UK.

He’d come to talk to a couple of SF societies I was on the fringes of, in Birmingham, when I was at university, the first of those where I met people who were to become my greatest friends.

In hindsight those early books are stories told while building up the Discworld universe. The witches, wizards, trolls and dwarves; the Unseen University, the Broken Mended Drum, the Counterweight Continent; geography and history and the rules of magic…

Later books played in that world, adding new technologies like a fast-forward version of British history since the Reformation. The witches became less prominent, making way for Lord Vetinari, the City of Ankh-Morpork Watch and Commander Sam Vimes.

And, of course, Lady Sibyl Ramkin, after whom I named the little airship in my Petticoat Katie stories.

But one thing I remember from the talks I heard Sir Terry give: his dedication to Story.

In his own words, from the opening of Witches Abroad:

“Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling … stories, twisting and blowing, through the darkness.

“And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story the groove rubs deeper.

“… a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.

“So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

“It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

“Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats.”

And, of course, that the story never ends

Published in: on March 18, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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