What I’m up to - June 2023
Sometimes you live the month, sometimes the month lives you.
Despite being a day shorter than many months, June felt a million years long. But I got some words done, went to the best SFF festival in Britain and did a lot of outlining.
Writing and editing
After various bits of excitement last month, this month was a little more… bitty. I wrote about 17,000 words across the month, the majority of that on a short story. That’s a quiet-ish total for me, I average 20-25,000 words per month when drafting. But events conspired to make things a little slower than usual.
At the start of the month I spent a week or so polishing up the draft-so-far of PROJECT ALTHROP and sent it off to A Person to read. We had A Very Exciting Chat about that this morning. More soon, as soon as I’m able to share it.
Before that chat, I needed to have a good think about ALTHROP and the other work I had on my plate, so I decided to spend the rest of the June doing a mixture of outlining, brainstorming and short story drafting.
Over the years I’ve swung back and forth between very detailed outlining and no outlining at all, and now I do something in the middle - a high level bullet point outline for the whole story, covering the main plot beats, which I then break down in detail on a scene-by-scene level as I go, outlining 2 or 3 chapters ahead. I say ‘chapters’ here, but I don’t actually put things in chapters per se until I’ve written them - I think in scenes, so I’m writing beat-by-beat outlines for the next 8-10 scenes each week as I work. The chapterising can wait until later, when it might make sense to deploy scenes in a different order.
So I spent another week developing the upcoming scenes in ALTHROP ready to work on post-chat. Then I decided to work on short stories.
One of these was a reactive response to being shortlisted for something! I submitted a sample and a pitch to an open call, and I was very chuffed to find out I’d been shortlisted for the second round. Being a completionist, I’ve already written the whole thing, but I sent them the next thousand words or so along with an outline and an offer to send the whole thing on if they want to read it. We shall see if that goes anywhere hopefully fairly soon. It was very gratifying to be shortlisted anyway.
The next piece of writing is a new (old) short story. Sometimes an idea or a setting embeds itself in my consciousness and just won’t go away, like a splinter or an earworm song. This story is one of those that didn’t even go away once I’d written the damn thing. The first draft of this story was written waaaay back in 2014. I put it through a critique group that I ran at the time, but it wasn’t working and I didn’t really know how to fix it, so I trunked the story.
However, the concept and the setting wouldn’t go away. So I decided to give it another bash, although I rewrote it from scratch. It’s got a new POV, a new ending and a completely different set of plot beats, but I think if you read them side by side you’d be able to see that it’s essentially the same story, just executed differently. This is actually the second time I’ve done this recently, reworking a story from scratch and hoping that ten plus years of experience and practice will make the difference between the story I wanted to tell and what I actually managed first time around. I think it’s quite often worth having a scratch around in your Trunk or your ideas file and seeing if something appeals to you - it’s extremely common to have a perfectly good idea that you’re just not ready to write yet. Obviously you can take things too far, endlessly rewriting the same idea or the same few chapters of a novel. But the compost heap of ideas you will produce as a working, practicing writer can be fertile ground.
Publishing and community
June is one of my favourite months in the publishing and writing calendar, because it’s Cymera Festival month, the best SF, Fantasy and Horror book festival in the UK. And, quite possibly, the world. Cymera is still relatively new (the first one was only in 2019 and the second and third years were digital-only) but it came back strong in 2022 and absolutely rocked in 2023. If you live anywhere near Scotland, I strongly urge you to come along.
Once again, the event was blessed with extraordinarily nice weather and the courtyard of the Pleasance complex in central Edinburgh became a hive of bookish nerds, authors, editors, agents, illustrators and craftspeople of all stripes. The festival operates on a ticketed model, but you can also buy a weekend pass that will get you into most panels. Plus there’s the Creator’s Hall, BarCon in the Pleasance bar and courtyard, workshops, a boardgames hall, industry Q&As and more.
Just like last year there was fantastic representation from my local writing group, Edinburgh SFF, including panels by my friends Nicholas Binge and Shauna Lawless. I also got the chance to say hello to dozens of writers I respect and admire and have some long and fascinating discussions with people from across the industry. And Cory Doctorow showed me his very cool modular laptop! Next year is going to be a busy one for SFF in Scotland, with Worldcon coming to Glasgow among other events, but I will always make time in my schedule for Cymera.
Back on the novel train this month:
- The Fall of Koli by M.R. Carey - I saw Mike Carey at Cymera and really enjoyed his panel, which prompted me to dive into the final book in the Ramparts trilogy, which I’ve really enjoyed reading. I’ve described this series before as ’an accessible Riddley Walker’ and so far that’s holding true in this book. It’s also building up the final-book-in-the-series tension nicely. I’ve no idea how he’s going to land this plane, but I’m enjoying the ride.
- The Words of Kings and Prophets by Shauna Lawless - Because I’m a Very Lucky Boy (we’re critique partners and friends), I’m getting to read the second in the Gael Song series while also doing chapter-by-chapter critiques on the third. It’s a real joy to get to read these books in their finished forms and as they go through the editing and refinement process. If you enjoyed The Children of Gods and Fighting Men you are going to love the second book. Gormflaith and Fódla are both back and both kicking arse in very different ways in tenth century Ireland. Pre-order now, you won’t want to miss this one.
I’m fully recovered from my foot injuries and the horrible cold I picked up on my last work trip down south and back to daily walking. It’s warm and sunny here in Scotland, so I’m able to scoot out of the door each morning in a t-shirt and I’m loving the woods at this time of year, bursting with new growth and active wildlife.
At the weekends I’m sweating my way through the last of the heavy lifting and landscaping in our garden - we’ve got another two raised beds in place now and I’ve finally cleared the last remnants of an old chicken enclosure that took up one side of our garden when we moved in and was absolutely taken over by raspberry canes. That’s now the home of a greenhouse, stepping stones and a cold frame raised bed. And we’re already eating raspberries from the little patch I left. I even built a little wall from the leftover monoblocks we had from when our heat pump was installed a couple of years back. I’m so close to being able to sit in the back garden and just enjoy it (maybe even do some writing?) without a half dozen major landscaping projects staring me in the face.
July is going to be a quiet and focused month on the writing front. I’ve got the ESFF meetup on the 9th (join the server and come along!) but apart from that nothing else writing-related on the social docket.
And I’ll be entirely focused on PROJECT ALTHROP writing-wise. As I noted above I’m hoping to clock in 20-30k words in July and position myself well for a gentle amble to the first draft finish line in August and September. I’m editing-as-I-go for real this time, which slightly reduces my pace, but massively increases the quality of the first draft.
In fact, all going well, the next three months should be a straight trend line upwards on that first draft. The only things that might disrupt that plan are short story sales (and attendant edits and proofs) or further rounds in the shortlisted story call that I just submitted. Or, who knows, something completely unanticipated! Writing is like that sometimes.
So many links, so little time:
- I thought this was a great newsletter from Gen Dimova about the importance of pacing yourself and taking breaks. Plus cute pictures of her cat. You should subscribe.
- A fascinating Publishing Rodeo interview with Daphne Tonge of Daphne Press and Illumicrate. I really hope other editors and publishers also speak with the PR crew about the business side of things. It’s so good to understand the raw economics and decision making in the business and to hear it directly from the people we’re dealing with.
- A sobering post from TR Napper about how the exact same book can be reviled and win awards, with the dividing line being very thin indeed. I’m not sure I’d have had the fortitude to continue if I’d been on the receiving end of some of what he describes.
- I am always so curious about the working spaces and practices of artists (of all kinds) and this LRB article on the topic by Tom Stammers was a joy to read.
- Via Charlie Stross, I wasted a good hour scrolling through Wikipedia’s List of Unusual Deaths.
- Jane Friedman with some tough-but-good advice on why paying someone to edit your book isn’t a guarantee of anything except a reduced bank balance.
June was a great month mainly because of the sheer joy of Cymera. On the writing front I pushed along at a reasonable clip, but it wasn’t a barnstormer of a month by any means. Occasionally it felt a bit like pushing fog up a hill with a pointy stick. But I will persevere.
We’re past the midpoint of the year now, which is kind of wild. And June felt both very short and very, very long. July and August are warm, sleepy months here in Scotland as a lot of people go on summer holidays and the streets of my quiet village are filled with kids on bikes enjoying the sunshine. I’m hoping to spend a lot of the next month or two in the garden, typing away on ALTHROP. Wish me luck!
In the meantime, as ever, keep reading, keep writing and keep moving.