Here we are. June 4th, 2019. Launch day.
The Ragged Blade is out.
Here we are. June 4th, 2019. Launch day.
The Ragged Blade is out.
The Ragged Blade
In stores from June 4th 2019
June 4th, team.
I’m still trying to get my head around that date. June 4th. Three weeks from now.
It’s been a long road we’ve taken, me and this little book. Twelve years since the first words hit the page. Five years of rewrites on what was then called Century of Sand. Two years of queries. Then Parvus Press gave me a chance and we dove back into rewrites for another 18 months, so extensive that the beautiful beast about to hit stores all across the US is something entirely new, all sleek and honed and ready for action.
I’m so proud of what me and my editor Kaelyn have created. It’s a bloody good book, and I can’t wait for you all to see it.
Three weeks. That’s all.
Now, here comes the sales pitch.
If you want to grab a copy of The Ragged Blade – and I sincerely hope you do – then the best thing you can do is preorder. Why?
You get the book as soon as possible
You do all sorts of magical algorithmic things that makes The Ragged Blade really visible on Amazon on launch day
You prove to my publishers that there’s a market for books 2 and 3
So grab your copy of The Ragged Blade today! You can do that direct from the publisher, or through:
Thanks, team. You’re all stars.
Back in 2010-2014 I was writing a lot. 3 novels a year, 3-4 drafts each, plus time for side projects like X-Com fanfic (I promise to revive the B-Team one day!), all while working as a design contractor and teaching part-time.
I felt like I’d cracked the code to productivity. That the energy would never fizzle out.
Then, in 2014, I went back to school to get my Masters of Teaching. In 2016, I began teaching high school.
Surprise! I fizzled.
This is partly because teaching consumes your entire life (80 hour work weeks, every week, forever.) But what I also found was that, even when I did have the time, I couldn’t make the words come. What’d once been so easy was now a struggle. I’d sit down with three hours to spare and end up with 200 limp words and a Youtube playlist of AGDQ speedruns.
Writing wasn’t an escape any more. It was extra work, and it was somehow harder than the real work.
From 2015-2018, I wrote one book (Rust Four), edited two others (The Ragged Blade, which I’m immensely proud of, and God Factory, which is getting better), and abandoned a lot of half-finished drafts along the way. At the end of 2018, I looked back at my output and decided this was officially Not Good Enough.
So, over Christmas, I decided to take a serious look at my work habits, figure out what was holding me back, and reboot.
For the past weeks I’ve been writing non-stop. Projects are moving fast. And I’m not smashing out junk words, either. This is good stuff, some of my best, and I can’t wait to show it to you.
Here’s what I changed. I hope it’ll help you too.
Take a look at all the places you write. Living room? Bedroom? Home office? Local cafe? On the train?
Now, in which of these places are you most productive?
For me, it’s a) the home office and b) on the train. Why? In my office, I’m at a desktop. I sit upright, professional. No distractions in line of sight, and my wife works in the same room as me so she’ll call me out if I get distracted by cat vids. As for the train, there’s no internet to pull me off-task.
Now, where was I doing most of my writing over the past four years?
In the living room, on my laptop. Slumped on the couch, TV in the background. Why? Because my laptop charger was in the living room. Because there was more space there for snacks. Because it was comfortable and nobody would poke me if I got off-task.
Shockingly, I didn’t get much writing done.
Your environment contributes to your productivity and you have to be honest about where you get your best work done. Are you avoiding that spot? Why? Because it’s less comfortable? Because it doesn’t enable your bad habits?
Find your most productive writing spot and stick with it.
What do you need around you to complete your best work?
Some people need mood music. Some people need white noise. Others, the scent of a vanilla-infused candle, and silence. You need to figure out what assists your writing, and what’s pulling you off task.
For me, music with lyrics destroys my productivity. Low-key ambient stuff is great. White noise is best of all.
And yet, I spent the last four years working with background noise, like the TV, Spotify or my podcasts (I’m sorry, Night Vale. You bring out the worst in me).
It wrecked my work.
It took time for me to acknowledge that I was using these things to fill the space in my head when words wouldn’t come. Pretty soon, there was no space left.
I’m back to white noise now. Or, on occasion, lyric free ambient tracks on low volume. The words come a lot easier now.
Create a sensory environment that supports your writing.
After twelve novels, I figured I’d conquered my fear of the blank page.
I was wrong.
From 2014-2018, I would sit down at my laptop with no plan in mind. Not for a chapter, not for a scene, not for a conflict.
I figured I’d written so much that the structure of a good story was innate. Spoilers: that’s bullshit. No goal means no direction, and soon you’re flipping desktops, catching up on AGDQ, re-reading the entire Achewood archives (twice…)
But I never experienced that problem while editing The Ragged Blade. Why? Because I had an excellent team behind me who gave me direction. They worked with me to identify problems, structure solutions, and give me deadlines.
Clear plans & pathways. Who would’ve thought it’d lead to quality writing?
I know many of my writing friends hate writing to a strict outline. I’m not asking for anything strict. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, after all. But walking into battle with no plan at all is suicide.
So I forced myself to switch up my routine. Now I always spend the first half hour of the day creating a handful of notes that will guide my writing. They aren’t extensive. Maybe a single scene, maybe a few linked scenes, maybe a single line of dialogue that sparks a conflict. But I never, ever, sit down at my computer without a plan.
Take a little time to plan your work and you’ll banish the paralysis of uncertainty.
A couple years back I wrote an article called Why 1000 Words a Day is Easy and Quick. The gist: 100 words is a small, achievable goal. 1000 words is 100×10. Do ten small things a day, and you hit your target. Do that every day for a year and you have 365,000 words.
Some time between 2013 and now, I forgot that lesson.
I used to do 3000 words on a bad day, 6000 words on a good one. So I stopped thinking about small goals. I’d wake up and say, cool, let’s do 1000 words before breakfast. 3k before lunch. Add another 1k after dinner.
But once my job started taking up more of my day (and evening, and night, and weekends…) I couldn’t find the time to write 1000 words. And I’d lost the habit of setting small, measurable, achievable goals.
Most days I didn’t write anything.
So I went back to basics. I don’t write 1000 words at a time any more. I do 100 (200 if I’m feeling feisty) and then stop, and congratulate myself, and do it again. I measure myself against the clock – can I do 100 words before 1pm? Okay, cool, that wasn’t too hard. Can I do it again? Not quite, but it’s a start. How about another 100 by 1:15?
And so on, and so on.
By focusing on small tasks, I’ve found myself reaching my daily wordcounts faster and with less stress. And I find I can fit these little tasks into small time slots. Five minutes before I have to leave for work? If I have a plan, I can do 100 words. Ten minutes at the end of a lunch break? Lock the door, close Chrome, open the planning doc, write 200 words.
Forget hitting 1k, 2k, 3k. Just do the paragraph. Set yourself a strict time limit. Get it done. Repeat.
Little, simple goals quickly turn into big achievements.
Intrinsic motivation: something internal that drives you to succeed. For example, writing a book because it makes you happy. Bashing out a draft because it improves your overall craft. Writing as personal therapy, and so on.
Extrinsic motivation: an external reward pushing you forward. Example: writing a book because you’re on a deadline, bashing out a draft because you’ll celebrate completion with a cake, and so on.
I believe the best (or at least, the most productive) authors have a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They want to improve their craft. They find satisfaction in good storytelling. But they’re also rewarding themselves along the way, either with chocolate, relaxation time, five minutes on Facebook, hard cash, etc, etc.
I write because I love writing. But I don’t always love writing. Some days it’s a trial. Some days I want to burn my manuscripts and go back to flipping burgers. And throughout 2014-2018, my intrinsic motivation fell through the floor.
That’s where extrinsic motivation comes in.
I got myself back in the writing seat by rewarding myself every time I hit a small milestone. What’s a good reward? That’s up to you, but I recommend the thing you wish you were doing instead of writing. If there’s nothing you’d rather do than write, then congrats! You don’t need any extrinsic motivation that day. But that feeling won’t, can’t, last forever.
My rewards: five mins of social media. Playing a single round on a mobile game. I get to do that every 200 or so words. Every 1000 words, I get something bigger. Lunch. A cup of coffee. A ten min slice of Pet Collective.
What’s absolutely necessary is that you don’t cheat. Extrinsic motivation doesn’t exist if you can break the rules and grab a cup of coffee any time you want. You have to work for it, or the pressure to write vanishes.
Extrinsic rewards shouldn’t overtake intrinsic rewards. I don’t mind treating writing as a job, but if you’re writing 100% for the next treat (whether that’s a snack or a paycheque), then writing becomes a bad job. But a balance between the two? That’s the sweet spot.
And the greatest extrinsic motivator of all time? The need to pee. Deny yourself the toilet until you hit a small wordcount goal and damn, you will hit that goal fast. (note – a SMALL wordcount, like, “I can’t go to the bathroom until I hit the next 100 word milestone.” Not “I can’t use the bathroom until I smash out this 3000 word chapter.” Be sensible. Don’t damage your body in pursuit of big wordcounts.)
By going back to small goals, rewarding myself regularly, and depriving myself of necessary things until I hit certain milestones, I pushed my writing output through the roof.
Use small rewards to keep yourself pushing to the next goal, but be strict and never break your own rules.
Get yourself in the right place to write. Somewhere without distractions, where you feel you can devote the necessary attention to your work.
Turn off the music, or at least find music that won’t interfere with your prose.
Start each writing session with a small plan that will banish the paralysis of the blank page.
Set small, achievable goals with strict time limits. Repeat them over and over.
Motivate yourself with small rewards, like a blast of social media, a snack, or a trip to the bathroom.
The result? I’ve gone from writing 1000 words in an average week to 3000 words a day. Century of Sand 2 is flying. The God Factory edits are going great. An as-yet unnamed fantasy novella is half-done.
I’ve got my groove back. If you’ve lost yours, I hope this helps you find it.
If this post was helpful, then I have a favour to ask. Can you share it around? I’d love to help more people, and have more folk discover me in the process.
If you really, really want to do me a solid, try one of my books! I do horror, scifi, fantasy, all sorts of stuff! Not to mention my big fantasy debut, The Ragged Blade, which comes out from Parvus Press in mid 2019 and is now available for paperback preorder…
How many times have I rewritten this sucker now? Too many. But I have a plan for this novel now, and I’m confident I can really make it sing. Just gotta find the time in between revising Century of Sand 2…
It’ll happen. I promise.
A YOUNG ADULT HEIST CAPER
I kept the pedal to the floor until the sirens had faded into the distance.
My brother William was in the back of the van, trembling, swearing every time we hit a pothole. I watched him in the rear view mirror. Sweat shone on his brow. His hands trembled in his lap. “They’re not gonna catch us, right? Right?”
Dad was sitting beside me, in the passenger seat. He couldn’t sit still. Looking left, looking right, twisting to look back behind us through the window, to see if the cops were closing.
His pupils were huge. I hear adrenaline does that to your eyes. Adrenaline, or fear.
“I think we left them behind,” he said, finally. His voice shook just like William’s hands. On his lap, zip bulging, was a duffel bag. Whenever the van bounced he clutched it tight, like the whole thing would fly away if he didn’t keep it hugged close. “Slow down a little, or you’ll get pulled over for speeding.”
“Yeah!” William called from the back. “Wouldn’t want to lose your learner license!”
My mouth was dry and my heart was smashing against my ribs so hard I thought it’d pop, but my hands were steady on the wheel. I’d been the getaway driver long enough to know how to keep the car moving in a straight line. “What do we do now?”
See, this wasn’t the plan. You have to have a plan if you’re going to rob a bank, and we’d come up with a pretty good one. But not all plans work out.
This job – our last job, we hoped – was one of those times.
A guard at the bank had spooked at the last moment. We’d gotten the cash but barely slipped the police net. The place we’d intended on hiding the car was about fifty miles behind us now, and there were probably twenty cop cars between us and home. Maybe more.
Worse, everything west of San Antonio was flat and bare. Nowhere private to ditch the car and change outfits..
“There.” Dad pointed left, off road. “That gully!”
The van almost went airborne a couple times as I pulled off-road, and my knuckles were white by the time we stopped in a gravel pit with tall, sloping walls. Just steep enough to hide us from the road, I guessed.
Dad was already unbuckling his seatbelt. “We have to burn the evidence. Move!”
We’d brought a spare can of gas, enough for a small fire. Dad and William’s orange hi-vis vests became plastic puddles and the paper masks we’d all worn as disguises turned to ash. Our wigs burst into blue flame and the BB gun slumped like a marshmallow, hissing in the heat.
“Clothes too,” Dad said.
William and I looked at each other uncomfortably, but we knew he was right. We took turns, changing in the back of the van and tossing everything we’d worn during the robbery into the fire. My old hoodie, the cap I’d used to hide my long hair, my purple summer top and my jeans turned into one big pile of nylon sludge. The sequins across the butt of those jeans made satisfying popping noises as they melted and turned black.
I don’t know why it felt to good to watch them burn. Old life gone, new life beginning, I guess.
Dad shoveled pebbles and dirt across the whole mess before we left. The sun was setting above the ridges to the west, thin dusk light shining on the buckshot wounds peppered across Dad’s shoulders.
He caught me staring. “Not a word to your mother,” he said. “You know what it’d do to her if she found out.”
I mimed zipping my lips. It helped disguise how sick I felt, looking at his wounds.
Dad nodded. “You’re a good girl, Caecey. Best a father could ask for.”
William and I hid in the back of the van as Dad took the long way back to town, winding south through dusty side-roads before joining Highway 37. Two patrol cars passed us on the way, but their sirens were off and we’d already swapped the plates. Just another boring unmarked van returning to the city after a long day’s work in the country.
At least, that’s what I hoped they’d think.
I tried to stretch out but my heels kept bumping the duffel bag of crinkling, bank-fresh hundreds. Will met my eyes from across the van. Young, bright eyes – he was two years my junior – but right then it felt like I was looking at someone totally new. Someone who’d grown up an awful lot in the past few months.
“That was the last one,” he whispered.
“No more banks.”
“That’s what Dad says.”
“Feels weird, doesn’t it?” He nodded at the bag. “It’s like our golden ticket.”
But it didn’t feel like a golden ticket. It felt like I was sitting next to something huge, something ticking. A nuke about to erupt and swallow the van in a blaze of pure white light.
Dad didn’t say a word to us, not until we hit the city outskirts. He dropped us near a bus stop about ten minutes from home. “You two get back safe. Hide the money in the usual place while I dump the van.”
“You sure you’ll be okay?”
Dad grinned, one arm slung over the back of his seat, all cocky like we hadn’t just robbed a bank, hadn’t just been shot at by security, hadn’t just incinerated our disguises and pellet-gun like wannabe Mafiosi. “Why wouldn’t I be okay? We’re set, kids. No more debts. No more being afraid. We pulled it off. All of us, we did it. Together.” He reached out, patted us each on the shoulder in turn. “I’m so proud of you both. This family gets things done. Right?”
“Right,” I said, but there wasn’t any feeling in it. I knew I was supposed to be happy. This was what I’d fought for, after all.
Safety. Success. Dad’s pride.
Even so, something was wrong. A twisting deep in my gut, like a premonition of bad times coming.
Dad drove away, tail-lights vanishing around the corner. The bus was already approaching. William brushed his long dark hair back from his face and slung the bag over his shoulder. “Times are good, Case. Smile, why don’t you?”
But all my attention was on the city below us, pearls of orange streetlights stitching the skyline. Thousands of grunting car horns. The whoop and whine of cop cars.
One and a half million people, and all it’d take was one who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who could connect Dad to the bank, the bank to the van.
I wanted everything to be perfect. I really did.
But life doesn’t work out that way. Because I’d messed up that day. Messed up real bad.
I just didn’t know it yet.
There’s good news, bad news, and more good news squeezed into this update. Indulge me, friends.
I recently signed a deal with Parvus Press, a relatively new but highly professional US-based publishing house, to revamp and republish the Century of Sand trilogy. I’ll be working with them closely over the next 12-18 months to restructure, edit and polish Century of Sand 1, 2 and 3 into a fresh fantasy epic. Each novel will hit ebook stores in six month increments starting (hopefully) late 2018.
This is awesome news. The Parvus team have been fans of Century of Sand for a while but it was coincidence that brought us back into contact at just the right time to make this deal. Together, we’re going to make the story of Richard, Ana and the Kabbah shine.
As part of this deal, Century of Sand 1 & 2 have been removed from all online retailers. The original editions are gone and won’t return in their new forms for at least a year.
This has also delayed the release of Century of Sand 3 from mid-late 2018 to mid-late 2019. This is so the team at Parvus have time to tear the manuscript apart and put it back together, as well as to give them the space they need to release and promote Century of Sand 1 & 2.
I’m so sorry to all those who’re waiting for Century of Sand 3: The Broken Daughter. I never wanted the time between releases to stretch into George RR Martin levels. What I can say is this: when Century of Sand 3 hits stores, it’s going to be the best possible book it can be, a cracking end to a long and fraught tale of family, forbidden magic and knife-edge survival.
By the time Century of Sand 1 lands in stores, it’ll be very different to the book you’ve already read. We’re not just talking spell checks and maintenance. We’re building characters, settings, and plotlines from scratch. The bones will be the same. The flesh will be almost unrecognisable. And as a thank you to you for supporting me through the years, Parvus will send a free e-book of the revamped Century of Sand 1 to everyone currently (as of 7 Nov 2017) on my mailing list, once it’s complete.
You’ve read the theatrical release. Now you, my long-time fans, get the Director’s Cut delivered to your door.
I’ll wrap up by extending a huge thank you to Colin, Kaelyn and John at Parvus Press for taking me on as their latest author. I’m incredibly excited to start work.
Together, we’re going to make this story amazing. I can’t wait to show you the results.
The question a lot of horror authors get is, “Why do you have to write such terrible things?” And my answer is usually, “Um, ah, well, it’s entertaining?”
But that’s not really why. I’ve been thinking about what drives me to write horror, and what inspired my series Rust. I could cite a lot of books and shows that I’ve loved (Uzumaki, Twin Peaks, The Ruins) but my love of horror goes all the way back to childhood.
And where’d that begin? The lazy answer would be, “My Dad let me watch Alien when I was six” (true) or “I read Pet Semetary when I was eight” (true) but that doesn’t get to the core of why I write horror. Why I want to scare people. Why I want to scare myself. What truly scares me.
So here are some images from my childhood that’ve never left:
I was on holiday with my parents in Queensland, staying with a family friend. I was maybe six years old. While browsing a bookshelf in a hallway I was startled by the image of a green claw reaching out of a rain-clogged drain. That was the original edition of IT.
On that same holiday, I watched a Saturday morning cartoon where a villain sprayed a city with a chemical that turned everyone into screaming, rooted plants. It kept me awake that night.
On my father’s bookshelf, while browsing for science fiction, I was transfixed by a howling face unwinding on an old cover of Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.
Finally, in my kid’s edition of Sleeping Beauty, there’s an illustration of the forest of thorns. A man hangs dead, skeletonised. Thorns twine through his eyehole.
The term “body horror” wasn’t in my lexicon when I was six, but those few core images were the beginning of a life-long fascination. I sought it out in books, films, comics. Themes of disfigurement, contortion, manipulation, and transformation were more fascinating and more terrifying than ghosts, werewolves or bug-eyes monsters. It wasn’t about pain – even as an adult that makes me squeamish.
As I write this, I realise it could come across as a “how I became a serial killer” confession. Not at all. I don’t like this stuff. James Patterson doesn’t like kidnapping or murder (I hope). Joe Hill doesn’t hurting children (I hope). These themes scared the shit out of me. They still do. But sometimes you can’t stop worrying at a loose, painful tooth. You understand what scares you better by drilling down to the core.
In all that drilling, I had an awful realization. The people in these shows/comics/books were fiction, but they had a basis in fact. They could be me. That you could escape a mummy/werewolf/Freddie Krueger, but you couldn’t escape a contagion, or a forest of thorns growing instantly around you, or a dimensional portal unzipping your body.
The helplessness that came with that realisation shook something loose in me. Monsters were known. The unknown, on the other hand, and the inevitable, the idea that you could see some sorts of horror coming and be unable to run, to hide, because it’s all-encompassing…
That freaks me out.
So when I set out to write Rust, those old themes boiled up. The manipulation of memories & bodies. The rain that reaches from horizon to horizon. Creatures laying eggs inside you. The blister-sickness. The things in the Pentacost Convent. Peter & Kimberly’s terrible evolution. Worms in eyes. Inevitability.
In many ways, I’m writing Rust so I can terrify child-me all over again. It might be the most honest series I’ve ever attempted. It’s a direct line into all the things that make me want to pull the covers over my head at night. And maybe it’s also a way to exorcise those fears. If they’re on the page, they can’t keep me awake. If I pass them on to you, I’m left free.
Maybe that’s why so many readers are enjoying Rust. To all who’ve already given it a shot, thank you. I hope you’re losing sleep like boy-Ruz lost sleep.
…and yes, I’m working on Rust 4 right now. Will it be done this year? Who knows. But it’ll be creepy as hell when it arrives.
“Madam Director? We have a problem.”
“Beethoven. A research squad was sent to observe his composition processes, but he wasn’t there.”
“1802 onward. He’s simply-”
“Calm down, Ms Hart. I’ve seen this before. Who do we have on staff who can play piano?”
“Well, there’s old Norris Friar. Works in time-stream stabilisation. He’s quite good, actually. I heard him play at the office Christmas party. And he knows a bit of German.”
“Does he have field experience?”
“Let me… oh. His records with the department are sealed. Sanitised temporal missions, most likely.”
“Perfect. Here’s what we’re going to do. Fill out form D-37 and schedule Friar for emergency facial surgery. Then run forms BB-2 and BB-5 to head office, have them signed in triplicate, and organise a cache of all of Beethoven’s sheet music, as well as period-appropriate currency. Friar will need, oh, say, eight hundred marks. If we don’t have enough in the store-room, send a team back to retrieve some direct from the bank of Hamburg. And an acting coach! He’ll need to pretend to be deaf.”
“You’re making Friar into Beethoven?”
“Classic bootstrap, Hart. Never fails.”
“What now, Hart?”
“We don’t know when it happened, but there’s simply no trace.”
“Do we have anyone else who can play piano?”
“Friar was our best. He’ll be back on Tuesday’s timestream, but he’s lived in the 1800s for twenty years. Much too old to play the part.”
“This is a problem. Do you know when Friar learned to play?”
“He said once he’d been practicing since childhood, but-”
“Listen, Hart. This is important. We have to go back and interact with an existing agent’s timeline, which means forms P-22, P-23 and XX-Lambda. All in triplicate. We need to locate Friar at an appropriate age… thirteen should do, accounting for slippage. And we’ll need to teach him period-German.”
“You’re taking a child and-”
“This is how bootstraps work, Hart. We only need him to play Mozart for ten, twelve years, and then he can come back as a young adult with a fat pension.”
“But weren’t Mozart and Beethoven contemporaries?”
“Shit. Fill out a form for emergency intersection and shoot an agent back five weeks to tell me to tell Friar not to speak to Mozart when he’s playing Beethoven.”
“The higher-ups won’t like this-”
“Hart, I’ve received more than enough communications from our department ten years down-stream to know that everything I do now only leads to more promotions. Our choices have been sanctioned by the future. Get it done.”
“Madam Director, I’m so sorry, but-”
“Who is it this time?”
“Jog my memory. Was he important?”
“He’s not remembered as well as Mozart or Beethoven, but he was instrumental in the creation of chamber music.”
“So we can’t just let him-”
“Also, he taught Beethoven.”
“This is getting complicated.”
“That’s what I said last week, Madam Director.”
“Quiet, Hart. Let me think. Haydn was twenty years older than Mozart. That means we can retrieve Friar as soon as he returns from his period as Mozart, put him under the knife-”
“That’s another D-37?”
“So long as he and the later Friar look different enough, he can be Beethoven’s teacher without ever knowing.”
“Forcing an agent to teach himself, in the field…”
“Well, now we know why his records were sealed. Make sure that, when Friar returns from playing Haydn, we dump him at least twenty-four months ago. Get him a job with time-stream stabilisation. Far enough back so I won’t know I did it.”
“We’re risking some major tangles, Madam Director-”
“Just get it done, Ms Hart.”
“Yes, Madam Director?”
“Are all the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century where they should be?”
“As far as I know.”
“Have we located the bodies of the original Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven yet?”
“Teams are still searching-”
“If they’d ever found them, they’d have reported by now. I don’t like not having control over the situation.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Something drastic. Get me three copies of form G-22.”
“You can’t be-”
“It has to be done. For consistency, for history, for the stability of the universe. Now, we’ll need a field agent with language skills, a talent for blending in…”
“Friar just got back from being Beethoven.”
“Do you think he can effectively dispose of a body?”
“He’s spent almost fifty years of his life play-acting in the reign of the Habsburgs. I think he’d relish the chance to kill his way across Germany.”
“I trust your judgement, Hart. Schedule three jumps – one to remove the original Mozart, one for Haydn, one for Beethoven. Oh, and Hart-”
“They can never be found.”
Friar was back, now almost seventy years old and sick to death of the Germans. He’d thrilled the Salzburg courts as Mozart, given birth to the modern symphony as Haydn, taught Beethoven before returning to become Beethoven, and then skipped back along his own timeline to vanish the originals. Three musical legacies secured. No major anomalies. Time had not imploded.
The director leaned back in her chair, content for the first time in months, and felt a ring of cold steel press against the nape of her neck.
She knew. “Ms Hart?”
“Madam Director. I’m sorry.”
“This is impossible. I’ve received reports from the future. I’m the director for another ten years-”
“Twelve, actually. But things got too tangled. Orders came from twenty years down-stream. You have to go.”
“Officially, or unofficially?”
“Your orders. You sent the command back. Form C-3, and a D-37. The C-3 is your kill-order, and the D-37…”
She nodded. “You take my face. Very neat. Which makes you the future director. Which means you authorised your own promotion.”
“You learned from the best, Hart. But what if I filled out my own C-3 and sent Friar back to stop you?”
Hart paused. A quaver of uncertainty crept into her voice. “You didn’t.”
“No.” The director closed her eyes and smiled. “Not yet.”
– – –
Enjoyed this short? Check out my other work on Kindle, such as my short story collection Future Tides, my fantasy series Century of Sand, or my horror serial Rust!
I don’t get choked up over celebrity deaths. I mean, they’re interesting people very far away, I’m just a fan of their work, we never shook hands…
But Sir Terry Pratchett passed this morning, and I feel I’ve been shaking hands with him my entire adult life, ever since a good friend gave me a hardcover edition of Hogfather for my eleventh birthday. I didn’t understand half of it, but I knew I’d been introduced to something elemental. A story that my parents didn’t mind me reading that was also deeply adult, unsettling, possibly dangerous.
Of course, I backtracked to his first novel and started reading forwards. I wasn’t even a teen and escapism was a survival tactic. Were there other authors I enjoyed at the time? Sure – Card, King, Brooks. All of them inspired me in some way to imagine further, to create stories in my head, but it was Pratchett who built in me the fanaticism required to put pen to paper, to understand that this was something I could do, that I had to do.
My first real attempts at writing were all Pratchett imitations. They were terrible but necessary. I saw, in his works, how he’d grown as an author, how his prose had tightened and matured between The Colour of Magic and Sourcery. I knew I could do the same.
I read Pratchett religiously until I was perhaps nineteen, when I decided I’d outgrown him. I put my books aside, in a box, for many years. It was my fiancee, also a great fan of Pratchett (probably a bigger fan than I) who encouraged me to pick them up again, and I discovered a whole new level of allegory tucked neatly inside the fantasy/satire wrapper I’d enjoyed throughout my childhood. I found myself knee-deep in Wyrd Sisters, laughing out loud in an airport lounge, remembering just how dangerous Discworld truly was for an eleven year old.
Because Discworld, and Sir Terry, was and will always be a scalpel. Fantasy? Yes. Satire? Sure, but something deeper than that. A surgical blade drawn across meat. It had the power to leave me laughing even as a knot of unease grew in the pit of my stomach, the slow understanding that this is not how things should be.
Sir Terry showed me injustice and class politics and systematic oppression. He took what I knew as a kid… and later, as an adult… and upended it. And he did it with a smile.
No other author ever did that for me. No other author ever felt so much like a friend.
Sir Terry is gone. I guess we should be glad we shared his company for so long, given his diagnosis eight years ago. And yet…
I don’t get choked up over celebrity deaths. Except this once. Today, I’m mourning.
There are characters in Pratchett’s work I grew so close to that they felt like friends – Carrot, Angua, Susan Sto-Helit, Vimes, and of course, Death. But they’ll always be close enough to touch. Sir Terry, though… there could only ever be one. The world couldn’t deal with two minds like that at once.
Vale, Sir Terry Pratchett. You’ll always be on my bookshelf. Is it too sappy to say you’ll always be in my heart? Probably. I said it anyway. Sir Terry taught me to speak the truth.
– – –
“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?”
Death thought about it.
CATS, he said finally. CATS ARE NICE.
I read a lot, and I enjoy most of what I read, but sometimes a book hits me somewhere deep and sets up root in my gut. It’s getting rarer – I read most of the books listed here when I was a child, and at that impressionable age when fiction seems far more real than reality.
These aren’t just books that I love. These are books that have embedded themselves so far into my brain that I spend my waking moments trying to figure out why they work, how they work, and how I can do better. I want to recreate all these worlds, or at least the giddy excitement of those worlds, through my own novels. I want to keep those ideas alive forever.
In no particular order:
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Maybe it’s the obvious #1, but Neuromancer will always be dear to my heart. Even re-reading it today, when so many of the ideas seem quaint (inserting gig-sticks of data into slots behind your ear? Adorable!) Neuromancer is still a breathless, non-stop story where every page reveals a new and dangerous concept. Often imitated, never equalled.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash did everything Neuromancer did, but with a wry, knowing smile. Once again, every page was packed with brilliant ideas, but always with tongue firmly planted in cheek – and for that, it was somehow more believable. It was less about tech and more about the cultures that result from that tech, and I’ve always wished I could recreate that authenticity in my own work.
IT, by Stephen King
I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old, on a friend-of-my-parents bookshelf. The cover – a rotten, clawing hand reaching up from a storm-drain – fascinated and terrified me. I didn’t get my hands on a copy for another four years, eventually borrowing it from the school library and hiding it under my bed. It gave me nightmares for weeks. It taught me that horror isn’t about blood and guts – it’s about isolation, and the things you can’t quite see, and the feeling of your friends turning their back. It showed me that horror isn’t just a genre, but a necessary aspect of the human psyche. Since reading IT, I’ve tried to incorporate aspects of horror into all my work, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing miserably.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein
It wasn’t the elves that won me over, or the songs, or the epic battles. It was the sense of distance and scale, and the realisation that you can’t just go on an adventure in your lunch break – the Fellowship wasn’t home in time for tea. They lost their lives to that journey. Discovering Middle Earth was beautiful and tragic at the same time, because I could see the destruction left behind wherever the Fellowship travelled. Also, Shelob scared the hell out of me.
Ubik, by Philip K Dick
I had no idea what was going on until the final page, and then I had even less of an idea, but I still loved it. Ubik took dreamscapes and made them tangible and dangerous. How Dick pulled it off, I have no idea.
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
A terrifying murder mystery set in an abbey, lashed through with biblical mythology and suspicion and more villains than heroes? I don’t know whether this book is more historical fantasy or detective noir, but it was an exercise in terror and tension from beginning to end, and a beautiful lesson in both plotting and the art of the red herring.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
I wrote like Cormac McCarthy for about a year straight after finishing this book, and it was a long time before I trusted in quotation marks. I’m still striving to emulate his starkness of prose and elegance of action.
The Stars my Destination, by Alfred Bester
Best anti-hero in literary history, period. The first novel that (for me, at least) combined space-opera concepts with a story driven entirely by one small, almost insignificant character. Exposition blended seamlessly with a balls-to-the-wall tale of revenge. From the moment I read this book, I knew I had to hurt my characters at every turn.
Feverdream, by Ray Bradbury
A short story about a teenager getting infected with a mystery space-virus that slowly takes over his body and mind? Pure nightmare fuel for little-boy-Ruz, but an incredible introduction to the concept of body-horror. My short story What You Bring Back, and much of Century of Sand, took their cues from this terrifying piece.
Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith
Finally, a novel about fingerless Russian women turning up in the snow. I don’t know why this book worked so well on me. Perhaps because the central mystery was, at its heart, about people with strange motivations more than any grand plot or twist. The world wasn’t changed by the investigation. No assassination was prevented. Just a small measure of justice in a troubled country. It wasn’t grand, but it was human, and all the more powerful for it.
Fill me in, guys! What books have sunk their claws into your brain? When you sit down to write, who are you wishing you could be? What scene are you wishing you could recreate?
I write my first drafts on the computer, but I edit on paper. Why? Because it’s better, that’s why.
No, but seriously, writing is editing and rewriting, and everyone needs to find a method of editing that works for them. As I’m approaching the end of my final draft of Century of Sand, I thought I’d take a bit of time to talk editing, and how I go about it.
First, I take a long break from my novel, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes. How long is long? For me, four to six months. That’s how long I need to forget everything that happens, to be able to read my first draft as if it were written by somebody else. Some people can do that within a few weeks – for me, half a year is best.
After that, I have a long sit-down with the book, re-read it quickly, and identify what was missing in the early draft. Reader feedback helps a lot with this – in Century of Sand, what all my test readers identified was a lack of character consistency, a lack of worldbuilding, and scenes that flew by much faster than they had right to.
So, I make a plan to fix it. I plan out a web of character development from the start of the book to the final page. I find points where the world is undernourished and fill it with detail, and then find ways to deliver that detail without resorting to exposition. I take a look at overall pacing, and find points where the chapters could be expanded or crushed down in order to inject more tension. Then, I print out a copy of the entire book and get scribbling.
As you can see, I scribble a lot. I cut a lot of text, mostly exposition and redundant phrasing. I try to pare everything down so it flows better. I find points where too many consonants grate on the ear, or where the rhythm of a sentence gets bogged down. I’m also trying to find points where things move too fast, marking them with ADD TENSION or similar, and little XXX marks where I need exposition but don’t have space on the page.
Why do I do this on paper instead of on the screen? There are a couple reasons. First, when I edit on screen I tend to only be able to work sentence-to-sentence. I can’t glance a page ahead and think, that paragraph would be so much better over there. I can barely think in terms of moving phrases a few paragraphs up or down. I can’t see that I’ve reused a term or expression twice or three times in the same five hundred word stretch.
Secondly, reading on paper will always feel different to reading on a screen. When working on my laptop, it’s easy to get distracted and tab away to Firefox, or MSN, or Facebook. When I return to the book, the pacing is lost. Working on paper ensures that I can at least feel out the pacing and structure page by page, instead of minute by minute.
Editing on paper allows you to be bold. Scratch that paragraph with a single wobbly line, and it’s gone. Delete it on screen, and there’s always the temptation to undo and slap it back into place, even though you know the piece would be stronger without it. Put simply, paper lets you kill your darlings. Editing digitally lets you resurrect them when they should have stayed dead.
So, once the page is scribbled to hell and I’m happy with the results, I retype with my notebook open beside me, making sure to edit in all those major changes I spoke about earlier, like character and world development. Sometimes the plot diverges so wildly that I scrap entire pages and chapters – that’s just the nature of the beast, I suppose. Other times, such as with the two scanned pages, I can keep the rough structure of what came before and just fill in the gaps.
I retype, and I proofread, and I retype, and at the end I have a shiny new draft. Then I send it out to friends, and prepare to get torn apart all over again.
So, that’s my process, but I’m still interested in how you folk go about editing. Paper or screen? Mass deletions or little tweaks?
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(Originally published in September 2011)
Part of being a serious writer is pumping out some serious words, day after day. You have to have the gumption to sit down in the morning and get a certain amount done regardless of outside distractions (like your university thesis, or… eating), and you need to do it every day of the week. I know some authors that work towards scene completions, or a page total, but most folk I chat to chase a word goal – 500 words a day, 1000, 2000, etcetera.
2000 words a day, every day, for two months, nets you a first draft of a novel. When you break it down like that it doesn’t seem so terrible. But some days you sit down to write and squeezing out even 500 words is an incredible trial. So, how do you do it?
I don’t know how everybody else manages it, but I do it by lying to myself.
See, I wake up and I open my word doc in progress and I look at the current wordcount. It says, for example, 21,562. That’s a lotta words! Not a novel, sure, but a fat bunch waiting to be added to. My goal for the day is 2000 fresh, delicious, plump-arse words. So I pick a point – any point at all – and begin with a small goal. A neat, clean 100.
Woah woah woah. Wait a minute, Ruz. You can’t just start on a shitty random number like 21,562! Make it round, first!
So I sigh, and I start writing, and when I hit 21,600 I relax a little and I say okay, now you start the 100. And I write. It comes pretty easy. I’m at 21,700. I say, lets set a new goal. Let’s work towards rounding that off a little more. Over the next hour, aim for 22,000.
That’s achievable. 300 words in an hour is about my usual rate. You might be thinking, dang, 300 words in an hour is piss-all. But if you apply that five or six times a day, you have a big chunk, and it doesn’t feel half so much like work, so 300 it is. I toil on, and on, and I finally hit my goal of 22,000. I get up, ready for a cup of tea.
Woah woah WOAH. Ruz! You’re in the middle of a paragraph! Sort that shit out before you make the tea!
So I hammer out a conclusion to the paragraph and leave the wordcount sitting at 22,036. Done. I make tea, come back. In my head, I’ve written 400 words so far today – the opening 100, and the 300 that got me to my tea. Time to aim for the big 500, that beautiful quarter-mark that’ll let you sleep well tonight even if you don’t go any further.
Woah woah WOAH WOAH. Stop right there! Round out that goddamn wordcount before you even start! It’s an eyesore!
So, I hit 22,100, and then I allow myself to aim for 22,200, which (in my head) marks the 500 word point. Except, of course, it isn’t. I convince myself I’ve only done a quarter of my daily total, when in truth I’ve already done a third.
There are a hundred little lies you can tell yourself to force out tiny pieces of extra. Like how I tell myself I can’t go piss with a paragraph unfinished, or that sandwiches taste better if the wordcount is rounded to the nearest 500. Or, if you’re an MSN chatter like me, don’t just turn the program off and assume it’ll force you into productivity. Use it. Make yourself write ten words between every reply. Just ten. Consider that over the course of a day, with three or so conversations going on MSN, you’ll have replied to different folk around 200-300 times. That’s a lotta words in the bank, boyo.
You’ll develop your own tactics, in time. All I know is that the method above has allowed me to write seven complete novel drafts over three years, while studying full-time and working to support myself. I make no claim to talent or quality, but those drafts are done. Because I’ve learned the value of getting ten words down at a time, and how important it is to always finish the paragraph before you piss.
Now, I’ve busted out 700 words and my morning coffee isn’t even done. Time to apply that to some real work. Ciao, and good luck. And if you have any of your own wordcount tips, please post them here. It’d be great to know all the tricks.
– – –
Want more info on the discipline of writing? Check out my collection of articles!
I write, minimum, 1000 words a day. I’ve been doing this consistently for three and a half years now, throughout my university career, moving home three times, travelling cross country, while writing my thesis. I do it because, after so long, it’s become easy. I know all the tricks.
Let me teach you.
I write 1000 words because 1000 is divisible by ten. That’s the secret. I never wake up with the intention of writing 1000 words, but with the intention of writing 100 words. I can usually figure out what those 100 words will be while I’m taking my morning shower, and I get them down before breakfast. 100 words takes about five minutes, less if I know what I want to type before I start typing.
How much is 100 words? This post is already 129 words, if that helps you to visualise. It isn’t much.
Here’s the trick, though. First – I never stop in the middle of a sentence. So, if I do a wordcount on the section I just finished and it adds up to 98, too bad. Add another sentence.
Second – if the wordcount is over 100, it still only counts for 100.
Third – I don’t allow myself to think, Hurray, 100 words! I think, Hurray, one out of ten! And I make a little stroke on a piece of paper, so I don’t forget.
This is important. You have to trick your brain. Ten is much less than one thousand. Ten is achievable. Ten lots of five minutes is a pittance, while one thousand words is massive. If you think in terms of ten, you can find opportunities all through your day – on the bus to work, in the lunchbreak (sometimes twice!), the bus home, during the sports section of the nightly news, in between ad breaks while watching NCIS. You don’t have to give up your whole day. Just five minutes, ten times.
The best thing about this method? Since you will almost always be a sentence or two over the 100 word limit for each chunk, you’ll finish the day thinking you have 1000 words… but you’ll actually have anywhere between 1100 and 1300. Don’t think that makes a difference? That turns 30,000 words at the end of the month into almost 39,000. It lets you finish a novel draft in three months instead of four. Four books a year instead of three.
Five minutes, ten times. Try it. Don’t let yourself get tied to any one part of your story, or even any one story. Got an idea for any scene, in any book? Jump to it. Add 100 words. Make a cup of tea. Do it again.