What I’m up to - March 2023
Welsh mist, new novels, podcasts and a lot of words.
This month I went away on my first ever writing retreat (!) finished a novel edit (!!) and wrote 15,000 words in a week (!!!). I also went on a very lovely podcast and had some very exciting conversations.
March was an extremely busy month, writing-wise, not least because I spent a week of it dodging feral goats in the Welsh mist. That’s right, I went on a writing retreat!
Going on some kind of retreat was one of my goals for the year, but I’d anticipated a long weekend by myself in an AirBNB somewhere. However, I’m in a group DM with a number of other writers from ESFF who are all currently on submission to publishers (we post a lot of screaming GIFs) and one of the members of that group, Lorraine Wilson told us she’d managed to secure a grant for some research in the north of Wales, and it was going to pay for a cottage for a week, and there were some spare bedrooms and would anyone like to come?
So, that’s how four of us ended up at the amazing Nant Gwrtheyrn, a former granite quarrying village on the north-west coast of Wales. It was abandoned in the 1970’s when the quarries closed, but reoccupied and reopened as a centre for Welsh language learning starting in 2007. The old quarrymen’s cottages have been beautifully restored and there’s a wonderful cafe, shingle beaches and some (extremely steep) walking paths and woodlands. We were there to write, so we weren’t too sad when it rained for five of the seven days. There were also a bunch of these guys roaming around outside, so I didn’t want to stray too far lest I be eaten…
I’d planned to spend most of the week working on PROJECT SHARD, my big SF novel, but a combination of factors (I got through my edits way faster than I thought, plus I had an exciting conversation early in the week) meant I was done with it by Tuesday and instead jumped onto a completely new thing, which I’ll call PROJECT ALTHROP for now.
Starting something new is always difficult, but the Nant turned out to be an ideal setting. Working in a slightly spartan room with steady Welsh drizzle outside, a ready supply of toast and tea, a jigsaw on the kitchen table to procrastinate over when taking a break and the company of three other writers was, bluntly, amazing. Between the two Sundays of the trip I wrote about 15,000 words, which is approximately double a typical drafting week for me. It was wonderful to be in such an amazing setting with nothing to do except write. And being in the company of three other writers working in the same way was really inspiring. We’d convene for teas and chat and jigsaw puzzling and cooking of joint dinners, but most of the rest of the time we were hammering away on keyboards and gazing out of windows. An incredible experience, all round.
Lessons learned, however - iPad Pros are amazing devices, but writing 15,000 words on one is not recommended. My hands felt like I’d been hitting them with a rolling pin by the end of the week. I think I may start saving towards an actual laptop, since I’m away for work at least two days a month (at home I work on a Mac Mini with a lovely big screen and a mechanical keyboard).
Across the whole month I wrote just over 23,000 words and cut about 4,000. Easy come, easy go. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that individual words are both the only things that matter and don’t actually matter at all. You need words to build sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters and whole books. But the intrinsic value of any particular chunk of writing is near nil - writing publishable work involves drafting and cutting thousands upon thousands of words. There’s a kind of freedom in realising that. It takes the pressure off any particular sentence to be perfect in the moment. You can always fix it later.
I’ve actually read some published (and soon-to-be published) work this month! Hooray!
I spent a chunk of time down in Wales getting caught up with recent issues of Clarkesworld Magazine. I’ve been published by Clarkesworld twice, so I’m slightly biased in their favour, but I genuinely think they’re putting out some of the best short SF in the world at the moment. You can read and listen to every story for free on their website, but they’re also dealing with the fairly calamitous combination of Amazon ending their Kindle subscription programme and pushing them onto a Kindle Unlimited style model AND a massive upsurge in junk submissions from people using ‘AI’ generators to try and make a quick buck. There’s never been a better time to subscribe if you’d like to support short SF fiction. Plus you get beautiful eBook and PDF versions of the magazine (or even print if you like that sort of thing!) and access to the thriving Clarkesworld Discord server. Highly recommended.
When I got back from Wales, I finally cracked and started reading Ascension by Nicholas Binge. Nick and I are in the same critique group and both live around Edinburgh, so I’ve been witness to the extraordinary buzz for this book. It’s coming out in less than a month (!) which is wild. I joined the critique group after Nick had finished and submitted this novel, so I’ve never actually read it until now and I’d been saving it until I got the extremely pretty hardback edition from HarperVoyager. But with the reviews rolling in and the buzz building, I couldn’t wait any longer. It’s fantastic. I’ve read at least three of Nick’s subsequent novels through our critique group and I can see the same mixture of mind-bending ideas, deeply flawed and human characters and quite a lot genuine dread in Ascension. Nick has a real talent for asking deep questions about what drives us, presented through breakneck, pulse-pounding action and quieter moments of creeping tension.
This is a smashing book. You should buy it. And if you’re in the Edinburgh area, you should come to the launch on the 27th of April. It’s currently sold out, but I’m reliably informed they’re looking for a bigger venue.
I was extremely chuffed to be invited to come on the Tiny Bookcase podcast, which is a really unique writing show hosted by Ben and Nico. Each guest appears in two episodes - a ‘story’ episode where the guest and both hosts all write to the same story prompt, followed by an interview episode.
Both of mine are up now, including my short story written to the prompt of ‘Illumination’ (I took a fairly different tack to Ben and Nico) and my interview episode, in which I blathered at length about editing, writing motivation, being a writer in Scotland and why I read a lot of SF.
Also I got a really nifty hand-drawn line portrait of myself, which is extremely cool. Thanks Nico!
In other news, I’m about to hit Week 9 of Couch to 5k, which I’m very happy about. Last time I hit this stage, I badly injured my ankle, then caught Covid, so I’m hoping not to repeat either of those experiences. I’ve been sticking to nice flat paths without any tree roots to avoid the former and generally still being cautious of long periods indoors with people I don’t know for the latter. But it’s great to be building up my fitness again. And as a bonus it’s a perfect time to listen to really absorbing audiobooks - if the narrator and story is good enough, I barely even notice I’m on a run (or at least I can mostly forget about my burning legs and wheezing).
I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do in April - I’ve been so focused on the new thing in March and the exciting conversations around it that I haven’t really thought about the next couple of months. I’m also extremely distracted by the imminent visit of the American contingent of my critique group for Nick’s launch, which is going to be so much fun.
I have completed the first major edit on PROJECT SHARD, bringing it down from an absurd 187k to a much more readable 141k. But I’ve only fed about the first quarter through my critique group, so I think I will continue to do that, while also continuing to stravaig back and forth over the manuscript myself, doing all the nitpicky stuff that I’ve previously neglected to do (like making a proper timeline, fact-checking the stuff I handwaved in the first few drafts, cleaning up the typos and errors where I’ve changed and combined characters). So that will probably involved repeatedly exporting, reading and editing the book. RIP my TBR. They never tell you that being a writer means reading your own stuff until you’re sick of it and don’t have time to read anyone else’s work. On the plus side, if you spot a crap sentence in your own work, you can make it better.
Lots of links this month:
- Loved this post from Anna Britton about being on submission - very close to my own experience and her advice is spot on.
- This is a barnstormer of a thread from Isabel Yap on consciously improving your prose.
- Grist 2200 is open for submissions again - here’s Paolo Bacigalupi to tell you more
- Speaking of Grist, fellow ESFF’er Jeremy Pak Nelson has an amazing story in the current edition - you should read it.
- Loved this pair of Publishing Rodeo episodes with m’colleague Richard Swan.
- AND this episode of Publishing Rodeo with Michael Mammay, which we listened to while we were in Wales, all four of us nodding along. Look, it’s an amazing podcast, really, just subscribe, okay?
- Finally I loved this article about the weird fascination various billionaires have with the anarcho-communist utopias of Iain M. Banks, despite the fact their extractive ilk are viciously parodied in several of them.
It’s been a real barnstormer of a month for me as a writer - retreats, new novels, podcasts, lots of lovely books. After a bit of a drab, slow-moving start to the year, it’s been a real tonic. And April looks like it’s shaping up to be even better.
Whatever you’re up to, I hope your year is beginning to slowly awaken in the same way, as temperatures rise, you can open the window for a bit of fresh air and the stories in your head begin to unfurl after their winter hibernation.
In the meantime, as ever, keep reading, keep writing and keep moving.