Is it easier to sell short stories if you're a published novelist?

In short, God, no.

I haven't ever really submitted that many short stories since I started getting serious about writing way back at the start of the Nineties. But of those I did submit, I sold a few - a very few - to professional markets. Between 1990 and up to the present, I've sold a grand total of six stories - and three of them were placed only in the last nine months.

Five were sold to paying markets, and one is going to appear later this year in an unpaid anthology put out by my old writing group in Glasgow. One was reprinted in an Eastern European magazine back in the mid-90s, and then later appeared again, in another writing group anthology, given away free at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow.

I never saw myself as a short story writer, more of a novelist, but something changed last year and I started banging out short fiction for the first time in a long while. I've written four stories, of which two have sold, and the other two are still doing the rounds. Well...I say "short", but some of them are going past eight thousand words. I'm slowly figuring out how to get them down to more manageable levels.

Someone, who just recently made their first professional short story sale, told me they took some hope from the fact that despite having ten novels published, I still got a lot of rejections. Well, everyone does. And it's one of the good things about writing short stories. It doesn't just make you a better writer, it also gets you used to rejection.

Scienceville, which was in Interzone last year, had previously gone to Tor.com and Clarkesworld. Senseless, appearing in the latest issue of Shoreline of Infinity, went to several markets before that. I still have two other stories doing the rounds, one of which has racked up maybe half a dozen rejections.

So what you can you take away from this? Well, if you're a new writer, that rejection isn't about you. I always knew you shouldn't take a story rejection personally, but it's one thing to say it and another for it to be true. If you're thinking, but what if my stuff isn't good enough? Then, well, maybe it isn't, but maybe also it just hasn't landed in front of the right pair of eyes yet.

So take heart that even after working in the field since the early 2000s on a pro level, it doesn't automatically make selling a short story any easier. Nor, I suspect, should it be.


Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

It's been a while since I wrote a post about books I've read recently, and that I'd like to recommend (or, in one case, not recommend), so this is going to be a slightly longer post.

I've long been a fan of William Gibson's writing, but I started to lose interest from about the point he wrote Idoru. I've read several of his books that followed, including, most recently, Spook Country, but they felt terribly ephemeral and lacking in any real substance, certainly compared to his earlier, defining work. I'm aware those later books have numerous fans, but I had more or less reached a point where I thought it unlikely I would read him again.

I therefore only read his latest book, The Peripheral, on the recommendation of a friend who felt much the same way about Gibson's output over the last couple of decades. It's a return to science fiction, and somehow a return to the kind of truly gripping writing and world building with which I most associate William Gibson. If it's not yet quite my book of the year, it's certainly a close contender.

I've tried, and failed, on multiple occasions to read Thomas Pynchon, most recently Inherent Vice, which I picked up and abandoned partway through a couple of years ago. Curiously, it was catching the movie on Netflix that brought me back to the book and gave me a way "in". Once I heard actors portraying the characters, the voices in the book made sense in a way they hadn't before. I can't absolutely say, even now, whether or not I can recommend the book, though, because I came away from it with no clear sense of what Pynchon was trying to say, if anything. An addled, stoned detective in early 70s LA muddles his way through a muddled investigation littered with the broken and the eccentric...and then it ends. Pynchon is highly rated, particularly by writers I admire such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so I came away from the experience still feeling as if I were missing something.

Something I didn't expect to get around to reading was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Like, probably, a fair few of my own readers, Heinlein was part of my introduction to science fiction. I read Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and a pile of short fiction pretty much from the moment I first got my hands on a library card.

Heinlein, unfortunately, doesn't read so well from an adult perspective. Farnham's Freehold proved, on rereading, to be astonishingly racist, and Glory Road is, simply, crude, childish and ultimately unreadable.

The only major Heinlein book I hadn't read back in my youth was Starship Troopers, and I bought it only because the ebook was on sale for a quid, and because as a purported classic of the field I felt I should read it at least once.

What you get is less a science fiction novel than, for the first half at least, a fairly straightforward story about military boot camp, with the addendum that real boot camps neither have powered suits that can have you leaping around like a super powered grasshopper, nor do they, to my knowledge, regularly whip their soldiers, or have to suffer endless monologues by barely-disguised authorial stand-ins about the horrors of democracy. It's a genuinely and unapologetically fascist piece of writing.

Once the action moved into space, I started skipping pages because there's nothing more boring than reading about people and insects shooting at each other. Is it a classic? Hell, no. Is it a good book? Not that either. But it proved at least a salient reminder that Heinlein was exactly as bonkers as I suspected.

By far my favourite book of the year, however, is a Jack Womack novel I first read way back in the early or mid-Nineties. I already reviewed it earlier this year, and in terms of quality of prose, of characterisation, and of nuance, it's the diametric opposite to juvenile trash like Starship Troopers. Read it, enjoy it, and thank me later.

Sharyn McCrumb's novel, rather than being science fiction, is instead a crime novel set around a science fiction novel: a famous novelist, notorious for his utter contempt for his audience, is brutally murdered at a con. There are endless walk-on parts for pretty much the worst kind of people you can meet at a convention. I've met a lot of terrific people at conventions, and they can be a huge amount of fun, but it would be remiss of me to deny that I'd also met some of the worst people in the world at conventions, and it's clear that McCrumb's knowledge of, and experience of, the world of conventions is both deep and extensive. Like Random Acts, I read this one originally some time ago, but more recently picked it up on Kindle when it was going cheap. Definitely recommended. 


We materialised in another hangar

We materialised in another hangar, apparently identical to the one we’d just departed. In fact, the only hint we had gone anywhere at all was that the stage technician on duty was now a woman, and the sunlight coming through the open hangar doors behind her was of an entirely different hue.

I took a breath. Even through the respirator, the air smelled…strange.

The Pathfinders were the first down from the stage, and we followed them out through the hangar doors in a group.

Outside, I saw an unearthly blue and yellow forest spreading towards distant hills beneath a pink sky. Although when I say forest, these organisms bore an at best tangential relationship to any tree I had ever seen; instead of branches, they had long, whip-like fronds that spiralled up and around broad, twisting trunks. There were also preposterous growths like huge sea anemones, swaying in the breeze.

All of this riotous, alien flora came to a precise halt at the edge of the paved area, as if it had been neatly trimmed back that very morning. For all I knew, it had.

I turned to look behind me, and saw that the hangar was at one end of a huge, paved expanse perhaps a kilometre in length and half as wide, and scattered across which were about a dozen gargantuan metal-walled sheds, huge compared even to the hangar.

A dandelion seed drifted past me, except that no dandelion seed I had ever seen moved in sudden, sweeping motions with hummingbird rapidity. I caught a brief glimpse, there and gone, of a pale, grub-like body at the heart of a feathery cloud. In the next instant it had zipped away from me, almost too fast to follow.

Then I spied what at first appeared to be an enormous spider, several inches in diameter, wobbling on spindly legs in the shade of one of the anemone-like trees. A whiplike stalk extended upwards from its body, and it had something very like an eye on top. The creature rushed towards me, then fell back in a shower of sparks the moment it tried to cross onto the pavement.

I watched, stupefied, as it leapt back in amongst the anemone trees, screeching a flurry of bird-like notes as it fled out of sight. There must, I thought, be some kind of field separating the paved area from the surrounding forest.

The Soviets all had stunned expressions. Most likely I did too.

'Are we…are we still on Earth?' Boris asked plaintively. All that morning, his hand had constantly twitched towards his neck, until he finally had the good sense to take his crucifix off and simply carry it in one hand.

‘Sure,’ said Chloe. ‘Just one where evolution took a very different path.’ She spread her arms. ‘Welcome to Site A, Alternate Delta Twenty-Five.’


It lives, I tell you...it lives! Full wraparound cover for Survival Game

Well, it's only been two damn years since my last book came out in hardback, so it's good to know the release of SURVIVAL GAME, the sequel to EXTINCTION GAME is just a very few months away. I just got the full wraparound cover from the publisher, and here it is in all it's glory. You can click on it to see the small print, as it were.

Got to be said, a very nice collection of reviews there, and it behooves me to remind you that the one from Publisher's Weekly is the much-covered starred review.

Anyway, a truly stupid amount of work went into this book, and I really hope you like it. It'll be hitting your bookshops, e-readers and tablet-like objects of your choice some time in August.

You can pre-order it here.


Shoreline of Infinity

Shoreline of Infinity is a new-ish print and ebook science fiction magazine published out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and their fourth issue has a new short story by me running in it. The magazine looks smarter and slicker with every new issue, and the art for the forthcoming issue is downright spectacular, as you can see here.

My story is called Senseless, runs to about five thousand words, and opens like this:
Bill tasted the sweet, sharp scent of violence in the back of his throat just a moment before the fight broke out - although calling it a fight was stretching it, given O’Hare was a notorious sociopath from Hut Thirteen and Ade, the object of his ire, was a skinny little guy on crutches who could hardly stand straight, let alone defend himself. 
Bill heard O’Hare’s guttural roar as he grabbed hold of Ade and sent him tumbling to the canteen floor, his crutches clattering down beside him. 
Bill reacted without thinking. He threw his tin tray to one side and shoved O’Hare in the back as hard as he could with both hands. 
O’Hare lost his balance, his cheap prison-issue boots performing a complicated shuffle as he tried to stay upright. He collided with a kitchen trolley, sending dishes scattering across the tiles with a noise like cymbals thrown down a stairwell. 
Number Four is now available for pre-order and you can get it here. Or, you can check out previous issues


Free ebook and mailing list

I said a while back I was going to try and build one of those mailing lists everyone and their Uncle is saying writers need these days, and I finally did it. I tested it on a couple of people and, so far, it works. Hopefully that'll be the case for many more of you as well if you choose to sign up.

As mailing lists go, it's going to be pretty darn low key, meaning you'll get very, very occasional newsletters from me. And since I like to think you might get something out of it, when you sign up, one of the confirmation emails you receive will have links to download a novelette first published in Interzone magazine last year. You have the choice of downloading in either Kindle/mobi or ePub format.

All you need to do is click on the link at the top of the sidebar on the right, and that'll take you to a form where you can enter your email address.

EDIT: Some people are having trouble seeing the sidebar. If you can't see it, click on "contact/mailing list" in the menu bar (hopefully you can see that) and that'll take you to another version of the signup page. Alternatively, click here.

Note that, outside of buying the relevant issue of Interzone (which I also highly recommend, because it's Britain's oldest and best science fiction magazine and helped launch the careers of dozens of well-known writers), this is the only way you're going to be able to get hold of that story. For now, anyway.

Once you've entered your email address, you should get a confirmation containing links to the ebook emailed to you. I'm new to this, so any problems, let me know!



I suppose platforming could be seen as a variety of performing: creating a "platform" for your writing career and using it to reach out to an audience.

I mention this because Chuck Wending wrote a very good piece on his blog on the subject of whether or not it's worth it for a writer to have a "platform". His prognosis is it's nice, but it doesn't really make much difference, if any. I'd already come to that conclusion since I knew of a good number of writers, old and new, who were very successful despite, essentially, never blogging, face-booking or tweeting. On the other hand, someone like Nick Mamatas does quite a good job at promoting himself simply because he remains his typical acerbic yet entertaining self throughout. According to him, anyway, it gets results.

I only ever started this blog as a way to embarrass myself into getting a book finished. I figured if I started a blog about writing what came to be my first published novel and didn't finish that novel, I'd look like an idiot. So, essentially, writing the blog was a way of keeping me in line. This was long, long before anyone every talked about online activity as some kind of "platform".

Even so, I'm game for new tactics. I've redesigned the website and now I'm going to set up a mailing list through MailChimp. There: now I've said it, I'll look like an idiot if I don't do it. See how it works? God knows everyone else appears to have one, so I might as well get with the program.

But you need an enticement, apparently, something to make people willing to sign up. To that end, I'll most likely make Scienceville, the eight-thousand word story that appeared in Interzone last year, into a freebie giveaway. The intention is to get that all set up within the next month (he said) and in plenty of time for the release of Survival Game in August. More details soon.


New story in Shoreline of Infinity

I'm back! Well, I was never away, just indulging in my favourite pastime of not getting around to the blog.

As you'll see, the whole place has been reorganised a little and - hopefully - is both more logical and a tiny bit smarter-looking. Like that box with Survival Game inside it over there on the far right. That's my new book! Go click on the link and pre-order it, why won't you? Me? Don't worry about me. I'll be right here and waiting. Only a couple of months to go before it's in your sticky, sticky hands!

Glad to say I've sold another short story, called Senseless, to a newish UK science fiction (print and ebook) magazine called Shoreline of Infinity. Even better, it's a Scottish science fiction magazine, based out of Edinburgh. Senseless will be in their fourth issue, coming out in June. Go check out the link and buy a copy.

This last year has definitely been a relatively productive year for me, in terms of short fiction. Two other stories are doing the rounds of different markets, and a few more are lurking in the back of my head waiting to be written.


In Progress

I think that's at least the majority of the website tinkering done, although there's still lots of links to be fixed and the like. I've also decided to set up a mailing list, which is the next big thing I have to take care of.

I liked the way the website before, but it had two big problems: the way I'd set it up, for various under-the-hood reasons, was very hard to update outside of blog posts, which is why so much of it is still somewhat out of date. That had to change. The other big problem, at least to me, is that as much as I liked the static landing page with its artwork, it introduced an extra click for a user to make. I wanted them to get as much relevant information about me and the books as possible, which meant going straight to that information. That's going to mean another static landing page, probably combining the 'About Me' page with current news and forthcoming work. Hopefully I'll get to that in the next week.

In the meantime, the Work in Progress continues: the current word count is about seventy thousand words, and I can figure on getting this first draft finished, probably, sometime in early April. The working title is Field of Bones, but it doesn't exactly suggest a Hard SF planetary adventure, at least not to me. Probably I'm going to have some hard thinking on the title.

And it really is a rough draft. I'm not quite sure why, but for just about the first time in my life I've ploughed straight through the story without stopping to tinker and fix things. I've not gone back to rewrite anything, and instead of spending countless hours online trying to find some minute piece of information, I'm making use of textual placeholders and, basically, not worrying about it. This is good, I think, because that tendency towards tinkering is perhaps better suited to the editing process. And, in the past, I've spent inordinate times tinkering only to realise the section I was tinkering with had to be chopped.

So in terms of how I approach writing a novel, I think we can consider this an improvement. 



Temporary post: If things are looking a bit skewiffy around here, it's because I'm making some under-the-hood changes to the webpage. All back to normal soon.

UPDATE: Still fiddling, and probably will be for another couple of days at least. 


Quick review - Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

Books: way back in the mid-90s, I read Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence not long after it was published. I can't remember it made any particular impact on me, although I had already brought other books in his Dryco series (Random Acts is, I think, the third book written in that particular setting, but in terms of the story chronology sets out the path by which we got from here to there). Perhaps it didn't entirely stick with me because I had other stuff on my mind, which happens, but more recently I saw some commentary, possibly on Twitter, by people describing it as one of their favourite books. I'd meant to get around to rereading some of the DryCo books, and that seemed as good an excuse as any.

Random Acts turns out to be an astonishing piece of work, so astonishing I'm not quite sure how it skirted past my attention at the time I first read it. In fact, it's an outright classic. If you're not familiar with Womack's books, they're set in an increasingly hyper-violent, hyper-capitalist near-future USA. Later on, apparently, Womack went to visit Russia and realised everything he'd written about in the DryCo books had already happened, but in Russia. He went on to write another, non-genre novel based on those experiences, which I can equally recommend, called Let's Put the Future Behind Us. I liked it so much I stole the main character's name, Borodin, and used it for the antagonist in my next novel Survival Game.

What may have given Random Acts... a particular resonance is that it's set in an America that feels much like the America that might come about under a Trump presidency. It's also the story of an America on the verge of imminent social collapse. There's what I guess you could call a cyberpunkish sensibility to the books, partly because of the unique language Womack employs, a kind of street patois that might or might not be invented - I couldn't say.

I could say more, but it's easier to just point you to Jo Walton's detailed assessment over at Tor.com. I'm very glad I rediscovered it.


How I Write, Part Zillion, and Secret Project

What surprised me when I started doing this shit professionally was how often people genuinely asked me where I got my ideas from. Except I decided, unlike, apparently, every other writer on the face of the planet, that it was not in fact an unreasonable question and deserved more than an eye-roll. Obviously there's some kind of underlying psychological process, and how that process works for, say, someone who gets paid to write books or stories is to some extent different from how it works for most people sitting down to make stuff up for quite possibly the first time. 

The bad news is that it's all down to practise and persistence. That's it, no great secret. I also don't believe in writer's block. The real Jack Torrance wouldn't have sat there all day writing nothing but ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY. Noooo, he'd have carefully constructed a step-by-step description of precisely how he was going to slaughter his entire family in intricate detail about the same length as, say, a novel about a crazy person locked up in a hotel with his family who he's going to try and slaughter. 

Don't believe any one would actually be crazy enough to do exactly that? Here's an example from real life

When it comes to ideas, I just start writing whatever daft shit wanders into my head. I essentially talk to myself on the page, which has the advantage of not making people shy away from you in public or look up Wikipedia articles on how to get someone sectioned. Like this:

3 February
I like the idea that electronics - high-end stuff - doesn’t function well or at all on the island due to “interference”. This has three advantages: 1 - it means in many ways they’re pretty isolated. 2 - their cars have to be relatively low-tech without much in the way of fancy electronics. 3 - it explains how people don’t have much luck sending teams into the island because they find it hard to remain in contact.
Disadvantage: if there’s an international audience for this stuff, how do they get to watch it live? Maybe specially adapted low-tech cameras that can nonetheless upload? How?
Okay, I _like_ the idea of electronics not working well there. But people being able to watch the action is where I trip up. Could you build devices like, say, semi-autonomous camera drones that don’t require that same kind of electronics?
Perhaps it’s a distance thing. The cameras don’t work except on the coast, at a certain distance from the ‘rift’. Any closer, they fail. Okay, so it’s a gradation - that works!

What is this? Random unedited text from the "work diary" for an outline I'm putting together. I couldn't figure out how to get something in the plot to work, so instead of staring at the screen, as some people imagine writers do, I wrote that shit out. Once you get it down on the page and out of your head things can start to become a lot more clearer.

As I say, that above text is completely unedited - it's not actually intended to be seen, ever, by anyone but me. The last half dozen books I've written each have tens upon tens of thousands of words of notes like this where I try and work out, sentence by sentence, how something works, why somebody is doing something, how it'll affect the overarching plot, and so on and on.

So the lesson for today is: write it down. It doesn't matter if it's utter gibberish, because typing it up, spelling mistakes, dodgy grammar and all, will fire up the logic-driven part of your wet squishy brain until it wants to make sense of it.

As for where these notes come from, that's the SECRET PROJECT I'm working on. I've had SECRET PROJECT in my head for a good long time now, in one form or another, and I'm finally putting together a tentative synopsis. What's it about? Well...you'll have to wait. All I can tell you is that it just might be simultaneously the greatest and the stupidest idea for a book I've ever had.