What I’m up to - January 2024
A new year and a slow start.
January was a quiet one, as I set the board, get my ducks in a row and other metaphorical preparatory activities.
Writing and editing
A very quick reminder that nominations are now open for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I have some stories that are eligible. You can see the details in my 2023 awards eligibility post.
I wrote more in January than I did in December, but it was almost entirely ancillary writing, like blog posts, pitch documents and outlines. I got about 11,000 words of that kind of writing across the month, as well as putting together a couple of presentations for workshops I’ll be presenting at Napier University (more on that below). I worked on my writing for 21 days through the month, which is about standard.
Right now I’m in a little bit of a holding pattern. PROJECT ALTHROP is away being copy-edited and I suspect will land on my desk for review in the first couple of weeks of February. Things are beginning to pick up pace with that project, and it’s very exciting indeed. Hopefully fairly soon I’ll be able to talk publicly about ALTHROP and use the actual title. Stay tuned for that.
PROJECT SHARD is also waiting for input, but from beta readers. I was slightly overwhelmed with beta offers for this book, which is awesome - it’s gone out to eight people with five already coming back with their comments. I should have most of the remainder back in the next week or so, at which point I have the job of applying a modified version of my edit letter method to sort, categorise, consolidate and then task out the changes I want to tackle. The big difference when collating the responses of multiple people is that you need to do a phase of sorting through everything first to find the common threads, the outliers and the feedback that is at odds with each other, then reconcile that down into something actionable. I will tend to paste each chunk or bullet point of feedback into its own task card, then sort through them, grouping and tagging and merging them, until I have the five or ten or fifteen common points of feedback I actually want to address. It takes a while, but believe me, it is infinitely better than staring at a stew of Word documents, emails, Discord comments and bullet points from eight or nine different people and trying to take action on the raw feedback. That way madness lies. Plus, the action of sorting and categorising and merging lets you really think about the feedback for some time before you begin thinking about how and where to apply it.
While I wait for those two projects to rumble fully into view, I’ve spent most of January outlining and writing pitches. This is something I didn’t ever do as an unagented, unpublished writer, but spitballing pitches has become one of my absolute favourite parts of the writing process. These kind of documents are what you put together when you’re angling for a new contract with a publisher, either as part of a multi-book deal or as an ‘option book’. This is when a publisher has not contracted you for multiple books, but has put a clause in the contract that they get the first look at what you write (or plan to write) next.
Some authors don’t do this kind of thing at all - they write all their books ‘on spec’, writing the whole book, then trying to sell it. This is a confusing book/film term (scriptwriters talk about ‘spec’ scripts as well) that means ‘speculative’ not the opposite meaning of ‘to specification’. In book world, that’s called pitching or selling ‘on proposal’. There’s also book packaging, IP and tie-in novels, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish that I haven’t really engaged with yet.
Anyway - I’ve been writing pitches. Four of them to be precise. Two are potential sequels to PROJECT ALTHROP, set in the same context with mostly the same characters. I’m writing one pitch that is essentially ‘another mission by the same team’ and a second pitch that is ‘another mission but everyone’s roles are reversed’.
The other two pitches are brand new standalones. I already have a fairly good bench of standalone pitches worked up, but I also have ideas coming out of my ears, so I like to take things that have been lurking in my Obsidian ideas files and develop them into full pitches as often as I can. If you’re angling to (eventually) become a full-time commercial novelist, then it’s a good idea to develop the skill of pitching and generate a big reservoir of ready-to-go ideas.
Writing pitches is great fun for me now - I get the buzz of coming up with a concept, some characters, a little sample chapter and a rough outline, then I polish it up into basically a taster package. If it’s got legs, brilliant - I now have a running start on the task of putting together an actual novel. If whoever I’m pitching to isn’t in love with it, no biggie - it just goes into the pitch folder for possible use later. And it’s yet more evidence to myself that I do, in fact, have lots of ideas. Which is very reassuring when I’m tired or feeling creatively burnt out - knowing I’ve got stories waiting to be told calms me down and focuses me.
I’ve finished the two standalone pitches now, so I’ll take the first couple of weeks of February to flesh out the ALTHROP sequel pitches next - those are clearer in my mind and use established characters and settings, so I think they’ll go quicker.
New work and submissions
At the weekend, I learned that my story ‘Kardashev’s Palimpsest’, which Clarkesworld bought last year, has been bumped up in the production schedule and is coming out tomorrow! It had been due to come out in the March or April issue, so it was a really nice surprise to have it come out a bit earlier.
‘Kardashev’s Palimpsest’ is a novelette that tells the story of two people who become the first immortal humans, then meet and part many times over the billions (then trillions) of years as humanity slowly evolves into a galaxy-spanning Kardashev Type III civilisation. I think this is the most personal story I’ve written yet and was a departure for me in a bunch of different ways - structurally, stylistically and sheer scope. My critique partners were unanimous in telling me it was the best piece of mine they’d read yet and I hope Clarkesworld’s readers will enjoy it. Check the Clarkesworld Magazine website tomorrow to read it. Or better yet, why not subscribe? Gorgeous eBook editions, or even print if like, plus access to a thriving subscriber Discord.
Publishing and community
It’s been a quiet-ish month on the social side, which is probably a good thing given how busy the rest of the year is going to be (one of the challenges of a dual career in two genres that both have thriving conference scenes is that there’s basically not a month goes by that you’re not either going to a conference or feeling bad for missing one).
In the middle of the month I played a tabletop RPG with Marco, Tariq and Nick, my writing and podcasting buddies. This was my first in-person boardgame since 2020 and it was a delight. It made me realise how much I miss gaming with the guys that I spent half of the pandemic doing Zoom RPGs with, so I’ll definitely be trying to make that part of my regular social round in 2024.
In the last weekend of January, I also took part in the first Edinburgh SFF Workshop-a-palooza - a completely free, member-run day of workshops and talks over Zoom. It was a very long day and I ran three of the five sessions, which on reflection was possibly a slight over-commitment. I ran a session with Nick Binge on how to run a critique group, a session on my own about writing and selling short fiction, and I re-ran a more polished version of my Scrivener 101 introductory presentation. There was also a brilliant talk by Erin Hardee (of MK Hardy) on writing query letters and an eye-opening and inspiring presentation by L.R. Lam on author finances. It was such a great day.
I spent most of January beta-reading and getting caught up with the short fiction backlog I accumulated in November and December. I really enjoyed ‘You Dream Of The Hive’ by CM Fields in the January issue of Clarkesworld, as well as ‘To Carry You Inside You’ by Tia Toshiro in the November issue, which was a really accomplished debut.
Beta-reading wise, I was lucky enough to read Atomic Coffin by Benedict Anning, a fellow ESFF community member. I’ve been reading Ben’s stuff on and off for a couple of years now and this is a real creeping horror of a novel (in a good way). His three word pitch for Atomic Coffin is ‘Haunted Soviet Submarine’, but having read it, my modified pitch is something more like ‘Event Horizon meets Inception, on the set of Hunt for Red October’. It’s an absolute banger. Agents, look out for this in your inboxes soon.
We’ve had something like four named storms sweep through East Lothian in the past few weeks, rattling the window panes and making our old, rickety fence wobble alarmingly. Thankfully, so far everything has survived. Nevertheless, it has been another month of hunkering down and not doing much, a few brief trips into Edinburgh aside.
The garden is also extremely dead, the greenhouse empty and the raised beds barren. But our Subpod worm compost bin has survived its first winter very well and now handily chews through all the food waste we can throw at it. It’s pretty cool to be honest. Like an extremely low-maintenance, gestalt-entity pet. Or a low-budget Sarlacc pit.
February is going to be a bit busier and involve getting out of the house a bit more. I’ll be starting off the month with an ESFF meetup in Edinburgh, the first of what promises to be an extremely busy year for my local writing group. We’ll all be at Cymera in June and Worldcon in August, I suspect, plus regular meetups through the year.
Later in February I’m going to be doing two talks at Napier University, as a visiting speaker with the Creative Writing MA course. It is very cool to be doing this, for a university in my hometown, with students who were assigned one of my stories to read as part of their coursework. One of those little ‘wow I guess this writing thing might have legs’ kind of moments. I’ll be delivering a longer version of my community and critique workshop, as well as the ‘Writing and Publishing Short Fiction’ talk that I gave to ESFF last weekend.
Towards the end of the month I should, hopefully, be having dinner in London with one or two publishing people that I’ve been trying to link up with for six months or more - illness and travel changes have kept intervening, but I’m hopeful we’ll stick the landing in February.
Starting the year with some good fresh links.
- A lot of people read my post about how I tackle edit letters at the start of the month. I was particularly interested to see it begin to get posted and read in academic circles; apparently the edit letter process is very similar to the anonymous review process that academic papers go through.
- If you’ll forgive two self-promotion posts in one linkdump, Analog Magazine released an interview with me to go with my story ‘Hull Run’, which came out in the Jan/Feb issue. Click through for lots of rambling about writing process and my SF work.
- I really enjoyed this Missing Pages episode about how ‘brand author’ ghostwriting works (like books with Tom Clancy or James Patterson on the cover). A fascinating corner of the industry.
- Rolling Stone did a good list of the 150 best SF movies. As always these things, I care less about the ranking (the winner is deeply unsurprising) and more about spotting any films I haven’t watched or in some cases even heard of. Lists like this are a great source of inspiration.
- An excellent speech by Kelly Link on her advice to debut writers.
- Here’s a brilliant Reddit thread from the indispensable PubTips community on how to cut word count effectively.
- I enjoyed this blog post from the screenwriter of John Scalzi’s ill-fated ‘Old Man’s War’ adaptation at the SyFy channel - they say you shouldn’t ever see how the creative sausage gets made, but I must admit I find this kind of insider view absolutely fascinating. A lot of things which don’t get made are never spoken of again, so it’s cool to get this perspective.
- And finally, another great post from PubTips, this time about what to expect from the year before your debut comes out.
I sometimes think January gets a bad rap. After the excesses of the festive period, it’s all grey skies, snow and slush without the holiday cheer, plus the ghosts of all the things you put off ‘until next year’ coming back to haunt you.
But January is also when the light begins to come back. Hesitantly at first, a minute here, a second there. But one day in late January, you look up from your desk at 5pm and the sky isn’t pitch black. And February, which begins tomorrow, is when that awakening begins to speed up, temperatures start to rise a little and, I think, we all begin to accept that this year appears to be here for real and we should probably start getting down to whatever we need to get down to.
Remember, the first month of the year, in the middle of winter, is a terrible time to make big changes in your life. January 1st is an arbitrary line that carries far too much weight, I believe. This can also be a time for rest and gradually getting started. In a few weeks, the days will be substantially longer, the air warmer and the cold grittiness of a New Year will be behind us. That, in my humble opinion, is a far better time to think about what you want from the year to come. Spring is for new growth. And we’re nearly there.
For now though, go easy on yourself.
In the meantime, as ever, keep reading, keep writing and keep moving.