July 31, 2023

What I’m up to - July 2023

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This is a cross-post from my current Now page. You can also get these updates (and other cool stuff) in your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

This might be a boring update because I wrote 40,000 words in July and my hands hurt.

Writing and editing

This month I was almost entirely full speed ahead on PROJECT ALTHROP, after conversations that were Very Exciting. I’m not sure yet when I can be less vague, but suffice to say for now that the energy from those conversations carried me through a month of really intense drafting work.

Apart from a couple of days early in the month when I edited the short story that I wrote right at the end of June (that’s currently second round at a pro market and I’m very excited about that too), everything was all ALTHROP, all the time in July.

That’s got me into a really good place. Before July, I’d written 42,000 words of ALTHROP, starting with 15,000 on my writing retreat in Wales, then 27,000 words in chunks over May and the first half of June. Then I put it down for three weeks or so to do short stories and wait for a crucial conversation.

Since then, I’ve got the word count up to 82,000 words. So I wrote nearly as much in July as I did in the whole previous four months, combined. That’s not some wild feat of productivity, it’s more that I was writing ALTHROP alongside other projects earlier in the year, whereas July was full-bore on the one project.

Another difference was that I did a wee bit of weekend writing. When I first established a regular writing habit, I began by writing every day for a full month. It was a good exercise in persistence, but it did not feel sustainable. Brains need breaks, in my opinion and experience, and for me writing every single day is actually counterproductive over the long term. So I cut down to six days a week. Then, after several months of procrastinating on writing every Saturday (because it felt like self-imposed homework and even twenty four years (!) after leaving high school, I hate homework), I stopped doing that too and I was much happier.

However one of the curses of getting older is that I’ve started waking up about half seven on the weekends, even when I don’t particularly want to. And when I’m on fire about a project and pushing towards a deadline, I end up having the urge to write at the weekends. And my other major rule, such as it is, is to listen to my motivation - write regularly, even when I don’t particularly feel like it, but also grab hold of those magic days where motivation is high whenever I can.

And that’s, I think, been a key part of the success of my writing routines. They are resilient and flexible - when I first started out, I was all about rigidity, but rigid, inflexible things have a tendency to break. Whereas a routine that can flex and bend and accommodate short term spikes and dips in motivation, energy and focus will work better, over the long term, than beating yourself with the stick of Productivity and Routine.

The upshot of that has been about a quarter of my word count for the month has been written on Saturdays, roughly 4,000 words on each of the two Saturdays I wrote. I don’t think I’ll write every Saturday from now until I finish (various birthdays and gardening projects will make that too difficult) but probably at least a couple more.

So now I’m staring down the barrel of two work trips this month and a bit of weekend working and the very strong possibility that I’ll have a finished draft of ALTHROP in about two weeks. Tune in next month to see if I pull it off!

Publishing and community

My second round listing for last month was for the Black Library Open Submission call. The Black Library is the publishing arm of Games Workshop, who make the popular Warhammer games and miniatures. This month I found out I didn’t make it to the next round, just in case you thought my writing life was one continuous stream of acceptances.

I’ve met a few Black Library authors over the years and read many a book from their stable and I’ve always wanted to try writing one (my brother was into the games when we were teenagers, but I was 100% there just to read the cool short stories in White Dwarf magazine and the little bits of flavour text dotted through the manuals).

Being an idiot, I wrote a 10,000 word novelette for the call (the sample I sent was 500 words for the first round and 1,000 for the second round), which I now can’t do anything with, since the Warhammer 40,000 universe is pretty unique (and heavily IP-protected), but it was a fun exercise in trying a different style.

This month was otherwise a relatively quiet one, with just an ESFF meetup near the start of the month in terms of real-world interactions. If you’re anywhere near Edinburgh (or even just want to be in a cool Discord server of genre-inclined writer types) check out the ESFF website - my fellow admin Shell, who runs the website, has made dozens of fantastic improvements to it recently.

Oh! I’m also on Bluesky now and there seems to be a critical mass of my writing contacts over there. I like it! And I think I’m finally going to give up on cross-posting across two or three or four social media sites and just post where I feel like it. Sad to say that means my Twitter presence, such as it is now, is probably going to wither on the vine, because that place is an absolute ghost town recently. Can’t think why.


Back on the novel train this month:

  • Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum - I picked this up for cough Reasons cough, but mostly because I’d seen a lot of people recommending it online. As a general primer to the modern publishing industry, it’s pretty good and exhaustive, although it’s pre-Covid and hence most of the numbers and time estimates are wildly off in These Times. It’s also very particular to the US book market and to the upmarket/book club fiction end of that market. Since I write in a couple of very commercial genres in the far smaller UK publishing world, big chunks of the book didn’t really apply to me. But it was still a fascinating read and I’d recommend giving it a go, especially if you’re a) American and b) writing more literary stuff.
  • Damascus Station by David McCloskey - Also for cough Reasons cough I’m trying to bend my reading over the next few months towards my Other Genre - spy thrillers and espionage fiction. I’ve got my favourites already (step forward John Lé Carre, Graham Greene and Mick Herron) but I want to try and broaden my knowledge of the genre and read some more recent books. Damascus Station is one that has come very highly recommended, and I can see why. McCloskey is a former CIA analyst and the authenticity that shines through in this book as a result is quite something. To top it off, he’s a very good prose stylist as well. I’ve read enough turgid books by former intelligence/military types to know this is actually a fairly rare combination without the aid of a ghostwriter. Recommended.
  • The Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami - This was a random Audible sale purchase and I really enjoyed it - the episodic essay format was really engaging. Murakami is one of those novelists who was breaking out in a huge way in the English-speaking world when I was in my early twenties and trying to broaden my reading horizons, but I never really clicked with his work at that age (I suspect because I was reading a lot of Heavy Novels as part of my degree) and never went back. But after listening to this, I may well give him another go. I suspect it will hit different at nearly-42 than it did at not-quite-23.
  • Nomad by James Swallow - This was another Audible book and an excellent narration by Colin Mace, recommended by a friend who read one of my drafts and said that it reminded him of this book. Although I found the multiple plot twists and four or five endings-which-weren’t-actually-endings to be a bit overwhelming, this was a really well put together thriller. And it handled multiple points of view really well.

Apparently I read a lot when I’m writing a lot?


Happily the intensive drafting has not impacted my daily walking too much, although the regular rain here in Scotland definitely has. I’ve also had a fair bit of work travel (I’m leaving on another work trip tonight, in fact) which has been a little bit disruptive, but managed to mostly keep things ticking along.

This month we finally got a cast-iron and wood garden bench assembled which has been sitting in our conservatory in bits for six months plus. We’ve got two raised beds left to fill and about a half-tonne of bark chips to put down for new paths, and then the major projects will be DONE in the back garden. Still plenty to do in the front (laying some slabs, another bench, a lot of weeding). But we’re starting to see the (literal) fruits of our labours - fresh raspberries, sweetpeas, tomatoes straight off the vine. In August we should have courgettes and a whole lot of lettuce to go along with that.


August is going to be busier than July, which is why I’m so glad to have got a really good momentum going on the drafting. I’ll be celebrating a friend’s wedding next week, my wife’s birthday two weeks later and going to London for work (twice) in between. There will also very probably be some Edinburgh Book Festival events and maybe even a Fringe show or two in there as well. Oh and of course the annual ESFF Festival Meetup too.

Even so, with all the extended train and hotel time, there’s a good chance I’ll actually get a lot done and may even finish the draft by the middle of the month. Then it’ll be a week or so to timeline everything (more on that in future posts) and write up all my editing notes, then I’ll re-read the whole thing and dive into edits, hopefully with some beta reader feedback to help me along.


Click click click:

In contrast to June, July was a barnstormer of a month. So much so that I had a couple of days where my hands ached and my brain felt like swiss cheese. But it was a good kind of ache, both in the brain and my mitts. The ache of work done and words counted. I can taste the end of this first draft and I am psyched to get into editing it.

This time last year I was midway through another novel, but I was fighting burnout, in a brand new job, the country was wilting under the hottest temperatures since the 70’s and I was recovering from Covid. It sucked, in brief.

This year, though those temperatures have moved further south and are battering the rest of Europe, I feel happier, healthier and more sustainable. And I’m eating fresh raspberries straight off the cane most mornings. It’s the little things that make the difference. It’s summer. I hope you can rest a little and enjoy the cool rain, the green of the woods and a little bit of a breeze somewhere. And pick a few raspberries along the way.

In the meantime, as ever, keep reading, keep writing and keep moving.

If you have a question, suggestion or something else you’d like me to write about, please get in touch over on Bluesky, Mastodon or Twitter, or send me a message on my contact form.

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