March 31, 2024

What I’m up to - March 2024

In which I can finally talk about some stuff.

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.

March was quite a month. And there’s more to come soon.


New work and submissions

I’m reversing the usual order of this part of the newsletter because March was the month that my debut novel was announced!

A Reluctant Spy will be published by Headline Books on 12th September this year, a little over six months from now. As I said in the Bookseller and my own blog post about the acquisition, this is the fulfilment of a lifelong dream for me. It still feels a bit strange to have the news out there in the world, to be honest.

For those who have been subscribed for a while, this is what I’ve been calling PROJECT ALTHROP (one of the characters is called Jeremy Althrop) and there has been a lot going on behind the scenes to get to this point. Pitches, meetings, drafts, contracts, you name it I’ve been doing it. I’m planning to write posts about the process so far and the crucial buildup to launching the book, so I won’t go into exhaustive detail here, but keep your eyes peeled in future editions for links to those posts. Or you can subscribe to my RSS feed to have them delivered straight to you.

Of course, there are still things I can’t talk about (this is publishing, of course there are) but they are very, very exciting things. The kind of things that I wouldn’t have believed possible a few short years ago. One of the very odd things about writing as a career is that you have completely surreal, mind-blowing conversations about things that might happen, or receive potentially life-changing news in random emails, then you just have to… go about your business? The bins still need to be taken out and the cats fed. And life rolls on, even while you are hit from all sides by extremes of emotion you’re usually not very prepared for. It is wild. But also a lot of fun.

Writing and editing

In March, I actually wrote some stuff! New words! A little over 3,000 of them!

It’s really rare for me to have multiple months of not writing new words, and if I’m ever lucky enough to write full time I fully intend to split my days into drafting and editing portions, so that I am always getting some new words down. While I’ve grown to love editing, months of back-to-back editing on multiple projects is peculiarly enervating.

However, A Reluctant Spy is now at proof stage, having passed through structural edits, line edits, copyedits and proofreading since last October. So, for now, it’s off my plate in the writing and editing sense (though still very much on my plate in the holy shit my debut novel I have to tell people about it’ sense).

The new words I got in towards the end of the month were on PROJECT SHARD, my big SF generation ship novel. Once I’d collated all my beta reader feedback, I found there was a strong consensus that the book was a very good book that could be a really great book, if I went a little deeper on, well, basically everything. That’s a challenge though when the draft is over 130,000 words long already. I’ve got a couple of fairly major rewrites to do, an absolute legion of small fixes and changes to make and several new plot strands to draft, interweave and edit for continuity.

After farting about with non-linear editing for a week or so and making lots of tweaks, I’ve now bitten the bullet and started working through the manuscript linearly again. This is possibly the tenth or eleventh time I’ve read this book through from start to finish, editing as I go. But I know of no better way to do these kinds of continuity edits. When I’m inserting new scenes, altering character motivations, merging people, switching scene points of view and trying to make the whole thing fit together properly, I need to hold the book in my head as much as possible. And I can’t do that if I’m hopping around too much. So I will continue to work through it, scene by scene, until I get to the end. It will be a welcome drumbeat of work to keep me distracted from the Exciting Things I Can’t Talk About Yet. And I always find that these linear edits always go faster than I think they will, both because I get caught up in the story and the steady, visible progress in making the book better is really motivating.

Once that book is done and off to my agent, I’m going to be in the slightly odd position of not having an active project to jump into for the first time in literal years. I’m fairly sure I will have figured it out by the time SHARD is done, but there are questions of timing and other parties to consider that I didn’t have the last time I was in this position back in 2019, un-agented and unpublished, when the only opinion that mattered was my own.

I will absolutely, for sure, be writing another book this year though. Possibly two. We’ll see how busy the summer ends up being. Stay tuned for more cryptic updates soon.

Publishing and community

One of the (very) cool things about joining a wider writing community is that you begin to form a cohort of people who are entering the industry around the same time as you, going through many of the same challenges and exciting moments and who you end up celebrating and commiserating with as rejections mount up and exciting things begin to happen.

Eliza Chan is one such contemporary for me and we’ve been in touch since we both went out on submission at around the same time in 2022. Earlier this month, almost exactly two years since we first started chatting, I was lucky enough to go along to the Scottish launch of her debut novel Fathomfolk, which came out from Orbit on February 27th. Eliza was in conversation with fellow SFF authors L.R. Lam and Hannah Kaner, talking about dragons and gods. It was a fantastic evening, with strong attendance from key SFF communities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow (Edinburgh SFF and Glasgow Science Fiction Writer’s Circle respectively). And literally this morning, her book hit the Sunday Times Bestseller List at Number 1! Incredible. Congratulations Eliza!


Reading

I’m still mostly doing beta reads at the moment, but finished one book and started another this month…

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - I got this on audiobook after it kept coming up over and over again as a really interesting fantasy novel. I admit I nearly bounced off the first sixth or so - this is a dense, slow-moving novel primarily concerned with courtly politics that, at first glance, has more in common with 19th century Russian literature than it does with the more commonplace fantasy tropes crowding the shelves. But I persisted, drawn in by the excellent narration and the depth and breadth of the setting and characters. It was absolutely worth it. I’m not sure I’ve encountered a book that so effectively conveys what it feels like to be absolutely out of your depth and which had me rooting for the main character like he was an old friend by the conclusion. An absolutely fantastic book I wholeheartedly recommend.
  • The Emotional Craft Of Fiction by Donald Maass - I’ve read a lot of craft books over the years. Some are wonderful, deeply insightful and exciting to read. Others are dry, overcooked and read like thirty blog posts stitched together. This book was described to me by a fellow writer as a complete game changer’ that changed the way I looked at my work’. I’m only a little way into it, but so far it is living up to the hype. Many craft books focus on the technicalities of writing, voice, pacing and so on, while others focus on the mechanics of the publishing industry. This book is threading a needle between the two, from the perspective of a veteran agent. It is primarily concerned with the factors that make a book elicit emotion and response from readers, and includes a number of case studies looking at exactly why certain books provoked specific reactions. It’s fascinating and I really recommend it.

Doing

I kept up a reasonable walking schedule this month. March is famously variable here in the UK (and especially in Scotland) so we’re still not getting much time out in the garden, but hopefully that will change in April.

I also started doing some regular physio exercises to try and sort out my dodgy ankle (damaged while running) and dodgy shoulder (no idea how I hurt that). So far they seem to be doing really good things - I was able to dance two rounds of an Orcadian strip-the-willow (one of the most energetic of Scottish dances) at the wedding we went to last weekend and my ankle held up!


Planning

No events currently planned in April, but I will be going on my first writing retreat of the year, organised with friends from Edinburgh SFF. The last one I went on was our trip to Wales where I wrote the first 15,000 words of A Reluctant Spy, so I’m hoping for a similarly productive trip this time around. We’re going significantly less far this time though - to a farmhouse south of Falkirk.

I love these kinds of DIY retreats. Clubbing together, it can be possible to rent really amazing places that would be out of reach for most folks on their own, and I find it really motivating being away in a place where there’s a shared common goal (write a lot, maybe complete a jigsaw puzzle as a group over the week). Also I get to walk a lot and sleep a lot, which are two of my favourite things aside from writing. Plus, unlike bigger formal retreats, you are there with friends, so there’s less interpersonal getting-to-know-you stress about the whole thing.

This time around I will likely be finishing my edit, rather than starting something new, but I’m hoping the isolation and focus will help me power through it in the same way it helped me produce the start of my debut novel last year.


Linking

Lots of lovely links.


March is when we collectively realise, I think, that the year means business and is here to stay. Especially today, with the clocks going forward and the longer days in Scotland meaning we have light in the sky past seven PM.

It’s also when I personally start to realise how much is stacking up ahead of me for the year and begin to feel a teeny-tiny bit overwhelmed. But the fun thing about those days, weeks and months is that they will arrive one at a time. I’ve got some BIG stuff looming in my immediate future and it definitely feels like a lot. But I’ll do what I’ve always done, which is to make the best plan I can, assume I will need to adjust it and then sally forth, while hoping furiously for the best.

I hope you’re feeling the benefit of longer days and warmer temperatures and you’re facing the coming year with a similar mixture of planning and trepidation. And I also hope you’ve had some time this month to read, or write, or even just take a nap. And if you haven’t, I hope you will soon.

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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My debut novel A Reluctant Spy acquired by Headline I am delighted, excited and frankly still a little stunned to announce that my debut novel, A Reluctant Spy, has been acquired by Headline Fiction

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