Writing the first draft

Usually when I write, I have a habit of editing on the go. That means on a good day I might get out seven hundred words, which I'll go over and check, re-write and re-type, adjust and mull over, and so forth. At the same time I'll jump back into the body of a manuscript and fix whatever apparent errors or mis-phrasings I happen to come across, as well as checking things like continuity errors. All this can stretch the time needed to write a manuscript of about a hundred and thirty thousand words to several months at the very least.

I've been trying a different approach with Dakota book number three, a method other writers apparently swear by, of writing an almost entirely unedited first draft at a rate of no less than two thousand words a day, every day. That can produce a hundred and thirty thousand words in about sixty-five days, or just a little over two months. I haven't managed to hit two thousand words every single day; just most days. Nonetheless I've gone from just under ten thousand words at the end of October to just under sixty thousand about a month later.

For someone like me, this approach can't really work without having a very, very good idea of how the story is going to progress, as well as what's going to happen to whom, when, where and the reason why. I have an eleven thousand word synopsis sitting on my hard drive, which I don't often need to refer to since by now it's all pretty much tattooed onto the inside of my skull.

Now that I've tried it I find this approach quite refreshing, actually, since it's really nice to end a month with the knowledge you've produced almost half a novel in about thirty days. That it's 'National Novel Writing Month' in the USA (and everywhere else,I guess) is purely coincidental.

Another reason it's nice to produce that many words so quickly is it makes up for the niggling conviction over the previous several months that when you were working out the details of the plot you were really just sitting around and doing nothing. But it's been a hard genesis for this book, which will be my fifth published book when it comes out in - good grief - 2010 (the expected hardback publication date for Nova War, the second book, is September 2009).

The original plot featured a brand new central character, with Dakota a little more on the periphery of things. The plot centred around this new character's life and how they'd got to be where they were, and indeed there are one or two places and events in Nova War and even as far back as Stealing Light which were intended to foreshadow this character's appearance. I worked up an intricate arc for this character, and three months ago I had about twenty thousand words of fiction down, a little over half of which introduced this one person.

And then I chucked almost all of it out. Once I got to twenty k, I realised it just wasn't going to work and I was going to have to effectively start again. But if you're serious about your writing, you don't cry about it or gnash your teeth. You just knuckle down and figure out what it is you have to do to come up with a story that feels 'right'. And by 'right' I mean sufficiently dramatic and engaging as well as having whatever it is that propels a narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

So out he went. Sayonara. I heavily restructured the plot and replaced him with another character with a different background and different motives, and at the same time I brought Dakota far more into the centre of things.

But I hate to completely waste old stuff. Before I wrote Stealing Light, I submitted several prospective novel outlines to Pan Macmillan after completing Against Gravity. One of them looked hopeful so, rather than just sit around until they made their decision about whether to take it on or not, I wrote nearly forty thousand words of a novel. Then Pan decided they wanted something else (which turned out to be Stealing Light) and I abandoned those forty thousand words. Several thousand words of it, however, eventually ended up in Stealing Light; I lifted the Freehold out of the abandoned work and inserted them into SL. Various other bits and pieces of prose from the abandoned story were also lifted effectively wholesale and dropped into the new, contracted book (such as the conversation between the pilot and Dakota on the way down to Redstone on her first visit there in Stealing Light). That pilot was the central character of the abandoned book, but he gets a few brief appearances in Stealing Light.

I'm not at all sure right now what I'm going to do after the third Merrick book. I could write more books set in that universe, or I might come up with something different. That depends on a lot of factors, not least whether Pan are interested in them. But at some point I might resurrect that abandoned plot outline or rip bits out of it to put into other, future projects.

Anyway, I was talking about taking a different approach to writing books. It's working for me, basically, which is nice, the payoff of course being that you have to spend a lot more time editing that rapidly written first draft once it's completed. I'm also trying to make the most of the opportunity I have to write full-time here in Taipei before going back to Scotland next spring, and I especially want to get this book finished before then.

Now if I could only think of a damn title for it ...


Stealing Light on the Iphone

Apparently Pan Macmillan have launched a new initiative to sell non-drm ebooks specifically tailored for the Apple iphone/itouch, in a deal with the makers of the Stanza book-reading software. Although I prefer e-ink devices like my Sony Reader, apparently a lot of people like to use their iphones for reading e-texts on the go. I picked up the details of the following press release by way of Walker of Worlds and Teleread:

"Clive James, Peter F. Hamilton, China Mieville and Neal Asher Among the Authors Available to 500,000 Stanza Users

London, UK – November 24, 2008 – Pan Macmillan and Lexcycle, the maker of the highest rated electronic book reader for the iPhone, today announce the availability of the first set of Pan Macmillan titles for Lexcycle’s popular Stanza electronic book reader for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch.

Stanza users will have access to free excerpts from selected best sellers. Over the course of the next 12 months, more of the Pan Macmillan ebook catalog will be made available on Stanza."

So there you go. And it's nice to see I'm still prominent on that iphone display .



Neal Asher wins the no-prize for being the first in the previous posts's comments to spot something curiously Chris Foss-like about the cover illustration for Nova War. That's no accident.

Years ago, I remember hearing the now-deceased Glasgow sf writer Chris Boyce talk at cons about how he kept putting Fossian space ships into his books. The reason he did this was that no matter the content of your book, if it was published anytime in the Seventies it had a very good chance of getting a typical Chris Foss illustration of big spaceships shooting at each other. But when Chris described distinctly Foss-ian craft in his own novels by way of a small in-joke, it seemed to guarantee he would never get covers to match.

So when I was writing certain scenes in Nova War, just for fun I described them in Foss-like terms, not really imagining anything from them would wind up on the cover. Surely, I thought, they'll immediately spot what I'm up to. But oh no.

I think I've probably had Foss on the brain ever since I got hold of a copy of 20th Century Foss when I was a teenager. I had a look at that book last year for the first time in many, many years and discovered something curiously relevant to the Moebius illustrations for Jodorowsky's never-made '70's version of Dune that have been floating around the internet. What a lot of people don't realise is that Chris Foss was also commissioned to create many concept paintings for that movie; many of which can be found in 20th Century Foss and are, frankly, incredible (he's also responsible, er, for the original illustrations in The Joy of Sex). In fact, the book in many ways is worth finding for its introduction, which is written by Jodorowsky himself (21C Foss, you idiot, not Joy of Sex). You'll love the man's ideas, but you'll be glad he never got the chance to make Dune.

Some of you may be interested to know that fellow GSFWC alumni Hal Duncan has a new book, Escape From Hell!, out from MonkeyBrain in December. Go buy. Mike C's epic space opera Seeds of Earth should be out by Easter next year, I think.


Nova War

I think this is about as final a cover as it's going to get, and Tor were good enough to send me initial sketches and drawings of the concept for this cover and ask my opinion. This is the kind of thing that can cause some authors to gnash and grind their teeth with envy, since it's more common in the world of publishing for an author to be entirely ignored when it comes to the cover art they're going to get. Mostly I've been just fine with the art Tor have given me. There was one initial design for Against Gravity that had me nearly running screaming in the streets, but Tor were kind enough to listen to my gibbering pleas for mercy and your eyeballs were saved from a terrible fate as a result. At the same time, of course, I don't want to be too pernickety.

As yet, I have absolutely no idea what the release date for this is, bar that it's sometime next year. At a guess, I'd say about July. What you see below here is the full wraparound cover for the hardback. If you want to see them in more detail, click on each image and it should open up much larger than you see it here.


Kitty Overload

Presidents: Well, America actually got what appears to be a halfway decent President for once. By 'decent' I mean 'capable of forming a coherent sentence or thought while on national TV'. With any luck, he'll turn out to be everything the people who voted for him are hoping for. A bit like we thought Tony Blair would be, but unfortunately wasn't. Knowing our luck, Britain'll lose its free national health system just about the time America finally gets one.

Mike Brotherton is a hard sf writer who enjoys the wonderful distinction of being a working astrophysicist, which means he actually knows what he's talking about when it comes to the science behind his stories. I've found his blog to be very enjoyable reading. I stumbled across him because, according to the US Amazon website, people who buy Stealing Light also most often buy his latest book, Spider Star. His previous (and first) book, Star Dragon, is available in full as a free download from his website, if you fancy trying before you buy.

Look at this picture below.

Terrifying, isn't it?

Every now and then I fly from Taipei to Hong Kong and back again. Most often my departure lounge is the Hello Kitty! lounge. To get the full effect of the picture, it's best to put on a cd of punk-pop hits as sung by midgets overdosing on helium. The stand-out 'kill me now' track pumped out regularly at the Hello Kitty! departure lounge (at Taipei's Taoyuan airport) is "Ça plane pour moi", originally a hit in '77 for Plastic Bertrand. I don't actually wait in this lounge, I hesitate to add, I wait as far from it as I can humanly get before making a fast dash through it and onto the plane as quickly as possible.

If you're very unlucky, one of these days I might post a picture of the Hello Kitty! passenger jet.

Television: if I were to trace the exact moment at which I decided my life might be better without a television set, it would be the moment when, slumped on my couch in Glasgow about five years ago, I found myself watching - remote in hand - as a couple with a failing relationship were offered 'relationship advice' by an 'expert'.

This 'expert' advised that they should listen to opera in the bedroom while the lady in question reclined upon silk sheets. The gentleman in question, despite not having an artistic bone in his body and all the verbal sophistication of a nightclub bouncer, was required to sit at an easel and paint his girlfriend's portrait. He sat there dabbing at the canvas like a bored four-year old stuck in the house when it's raining outside, making random marks with a brush. I watched his cheek twitching spasmodically with the promise of incipient violence. I knew he had the same image in his head that I did; that of sawing the expert's head off with one edge of a blunt easel. It was one of the most cringe-worthy things I've ever witnessed.

The point of this is the obvious contempt not only for the couple in question, but for the audience watching. I wondered if I really wanted to keep on paying my TV licence, which costs me about £140 quid a year. And yet I did keep on paying, since outside of visual slop like the aforementioned, the BBC, in particular, is capable of some stunningly high quality programming.

So imagine my joy when I recently discovered that the license only relates to live television. If you don't have a TV receiver, but you do have a computer with a biiig monitor and a broadband connection, you're not required to pay. Instead, you can stream programming from both the BBC sites and the various sites that cater for the independent UK channels, since these don't qualify as 'live'.

Even before I left the UK I was using a DVR to pre-record only those shows I wanted to watch to a hard disk. So when I get back to the UK, the TV goes. And in comes a bigger monitor. Or maybe even a table-top projector.