History Lends Perspective

I had an email from a reader who asked:

Empire of Dust

Empire of Dust – Cover

Just finished Empire of Dust. Enjoyed it very much. I’m confused about an allusion to Dunkirk you made on page 478 in Daw paperback. Ben states that Dunkirk was something that happened “during a civil war.” What civil war? Ben is referring to WWII. Did you mean to infer that it happened so long ago that Ben was just misinformed?

My answer:

Thanks for asking.

Yes, you got it. Ben wasn’t exactly ‘misinformed’, but when you live and work is space and there are many colonies, wars that are localised to one planet are seen, from a distance, as a civil war. WW2 looks a lot smaller from a thousand light years away and a timespan of 500 years.

Bear in mind that between the 1940s and Ben’s ‘now’ there has also been a multiple meteorite strike that almost knocked humanity back to the stone age, destroyed most of the USA and a big chunk of China and put earth through the whole ‘nuclear winter’ thing. (Which is why Pan-Africa and Europe are the main superpowers.) If it hadn’t been for the colonies sending aid and helping with the rebuild, the meteorite strike could have been an extinction event – at least as far as humans-on-earth were concerned.

Still clanking the keys. I’ve just finished the final edits on Nimbus – the third in the Psi-Tech series after Crossways – and I have another Dunkirk reference in that.


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Ambition and Poison – a Guest Blog by Gail Z. Martin

What would it take to drive you to murder?

Maybe you’d never think about it unless someone harmed your family, threatened your way of life, blackmailed you or a loved one. How about money?

It’s not unheard of for people to murder for money. Not just paid assassins or hitmen, but impatient heirs or the husbands of gullible heiresses, business partners who want a bigger piece of the action, corporate rivals in a situation where only one can win a high-stakes role. For the ruthlessly ambitious, murder is just another tactic.

Gail Martin ScourgeThe world of my new Darkhurst series (first book Scourge debuts July 15) rewards ruthless ambition in its ruling classes. It’s not set in our world, but the Medici Family of the heyday of the Italian city-states would feel right at home, as would Machiavelli. Everything hinges on the trade agreements that bind the ten city-states of the kingdom together. Not only do the fortunes of the city-states themselves rise and fall depending on whether the best partners and best terms are won, but so do the power and money of the Crown Princes, Merchant Princes, nobles and Guild Masters.

And when the guys at the top screw up, the tradespeople at the bottom pay in blood.

Ravenwood is one of the ten Darkhurst city-states, and it’s where Scourge takes place. Assassination is a common tactic to handle disagreements. Those who serve the ruling class are at risk as ‘proxies’ who can be killed or wounded in order to send a message to their patrons. The old grudges and pissing matches of the nobility spill over into consequences for everyone who is beholden to them.

Corran, Rigan and Kell Valmonde are undertakers, members of their trade Guild, and oblivious to the politics and intrigue occurring within the ruling class. But when monsters savage the dark streets and kill family and friends, and the Lord Mayor’s guards do little to stop them, the tradespeople take up arms themselves to defend their neighbors–even though doing so is a crime worthy of hanging.

Undertaking is a hereditary profession, and each of the Guild trades has its own trade-related magic. Rigan, Corran and Kell possess the grave magic necessary to send the dead to their rest, but Rigan has additional forbidden magic that not only poses a danger to himself and others until he learns to control it, but could get him burned as a witch. Magic either serves the Guilds or the ruling class, or it is outlawed.

When the brothers and their friends begin to hunt the monsters to protect those they love, they discover that the monsters have masters, and that the schemes of the Lord Mayor and the Merchant Princes are far darker than anyone dreamed. Everyone is a pawn in a ruthless game of profit or loss that is corrupt to its core, and they may have to burn down their world to save it.



Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

About the Author: Gail Z Martin

The Hawthorn Moon is the annual summer blog tour for Gail Z. Martin, and features guest blog posts, giveaways, surprises, excerpts and more on sixteen blogs worldwide. Find the master list of posts and goodies at www.GailZMartin.com

Gail Z. Martin is the author of Scourge: A Darkhurst novel, the first in a brand new epic fantasy series from Solaris Books. Also new are: The Shadowed Path, part of the Chronicles of the Necromancer universe (Solaris Books); Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novels Deadly Curiosities .  Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.

Gail is also the organizer for #HoldOnToTheLight, authors blogging about depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, self-harm and other mental health topics to encourage inclusiveness in fandom and stand in solidarity with fans. Learn more at http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com

Find her at http://www.GailZMartin.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/GailZMartin and  free excerpts on Wattpad http://wattpad.com/GailZMartin.

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Life, Death and the Writer’s Pen


Vin Garbutt

Last Tuesday, 6th June, I awoke to a world without Vin Garbutt in it – a world less bright, a world less funny. For those of you not in the folk music world, Vin was a unique performer, A Teessider who for nearly fifty years sang about (mainly) social issues in a deeply personal way, but between songs had audiences in stitches with his hilarious patter which often lasted longer than the songs. He took his music around the world and had legions of staunch fans who consistently filled venues wherever he played.

Vin was not only a singer I admired greatly, he was also a client on my music agency roster and, more importantly, a personal friend. This is not the place for an obituary. I’m told obits will be out soon in the Guardian and the Telegraph.

Vin’s untimely exit from the stage (at the age of 69) set me musing on life and death and how we sometimes portray it in the fictional world.

As a science fiction and fantasy author I often put my characters through hell. Indeed, one piece of advice is to work out what the worst thing that might happen to your characters in any given situation, and then write it. This is usually a whisker short of death for main characters (unless their death is significant, i.e. Has Meaning ™) but there may be any number of other characters, good and bad or somewhere between, who kick the bucket, buy the farm, pass over, or any other euphemism for die.

I’m not advocating not killing off characters when it’s necessary for the story, but my thoughts this week have taken me in the direction that everyone is someone’s child, or father, or lover, or brother, or friend, and that killing characters should not be done lightly or without consequences.Nimbus front cover

Some books and movies have body-counts in their thousands, simply dismissed as collateral damage. As readers (or viewers) we shrug it off, but as writers we should think more about the consequences.

In Nimbus (due in October from DAW) I killed a relatively minor character in the first draft and then ‘unkilled’ him in the revision. His life was in the balance in Crossways, too, though he survived to the end (once more having been killed and unkilled). I always had it in mind that he probably wouldn’t reach the end of Nimbus alive, but I think I’m going to let him live to enjoy a peaceful retirement. He deserves it, and my main characters deserve to see a friend survive.

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Some Random Thoughts on Revisions and Edits

Nimbus front coverI’m in the final stages of checking over my upcoming book, NIMBUS, before sending it back to my editor with all the editorial changes she asked for.

A few weeks ago I posted on my overall publication process. Pretty early on in that process there’s a short point that simply says: I send the first draft to my editor.

It sounds easy if you say it fast, but there’s probably nine to twelve months of writerly perspiration, imagination, self-doubt, writer’s block, galloping progress, whinging calls to writer friends, and groans as I discard 8,000 words from a segment after I’ve made a wrong turn in the plot.

So when I send off my first draft to my editor it isn’t actually a raw first draft. By that I mean, I haven’t written it in a linear fashion from start to finish with no alterations, additions or subtractions. Oh no. It’s been written and revised—several times. In fact, I’m not even sure if I ever end up with a true first draft because by the time I get to the end I’ve changed things in the earlier pages many times.

Everyone works in their own way.

One hefty chunk of writerly advice is to begin at the beginning, write until you get to the end and stop. Don’t go back, revise or re-read, or otherwise make alterations, until you have a whole story. Well, that would indeed be a true first draft, but I can’t work like that.

Jacey Office 4

Jaey’s messy office

I’m messier than that. (And so is my office.) I do rolling revisions. Firstly I have to have a beginning I’m happy with. It’s the platform that provides a leaping off point for the rest of the story. If I’m not happy with the beginning (say the first chapter) then it shows in what I write next. So even if it takes multiple tries, I have to get the opening right. It might not be the opening that ends up in the book, but it’s an opening I can work with.

In the case of Nimbus I wrote about five different openings, starting at slightly different points in the story, before I settled on the one that I felt carried most promise. I knew where the story was going, and where the whole thing was going to end, though possibly not quite how I was going to achieve that desired end. I had several plot incidents that I wanted to include along the way, and arcs for my main characters, some of which had begun back in the first Psi-Tech book, Empire of Dust, and had been simmering gently throughout the second book, Crossways.

With rolling revisions, my first draft often looks like: two steps forward and one step back, or if I’m really lucky, eleven steps forward and two steps back. I’ve talked about rolling revisions before, here. Eventually I get to the end, but even though It’s gone through the rolling revision process, there’s still a lot to do. Very few writers produce a first draft they are truly happy with. Most of us get to the first draft stage and loathe every single word we’ve written. The rest of us don’t hate it all, but we know it could be better.

You might almost think that it’s the job of a first draft to suck, and you wouldn’t be far off. When I got to the end of Nimbus I knew that it was a hot mess. There were a lot of things in there that I liked, but they weren’t all in the right order. And I knew there were things that I hadn’t explained properly, or had maybe over-explained (I know that’s a failing of mine, so it’s something I’m always checking for.)

Luckily I have a few writer friends who have kindly agreed to beta-read said hot mess, and while they were reading it also gave me the chance to sit back and take a break, so that next time I looked at it, I had some perspective. I love my beta readers and am eternally grateful that they don’t pull their punches. (Please note that I reciprocate when they have a manuscript in need of reading.)

I work in Scrivener, which I love with a deep passion. I used to work in Lotus Word Pro and then in Word, but Scrivener allows me to drag and drop scenes in a different order if I need to, and it gives me three columns which… Look I could go on about Scrivener all day, but why don’t you go and look for yourselves. It’s $40 and if you’ve completed NaNoWriMo you can often get it at a discount. Okay, I admit it may take you a few days to get to grips with Scrivener, but it’s well worth the effort. And when You’ve finished, you can export it all in Word, ready formatted for delivery to your editor, or to send off on spec.

So once my friends have delivered their critiques, I look hard at the actual structure, because revision is not about polishing the prose (that comes later) it’s making sure you have all the right elements in the right order, and that they flow as a story. It’s making sure your worldbuilding works without glitches.

Sometimes things happen in fiction that would seem unrealistic in life. It’s unlikely that one person’s story would come to a satisfactory conclusion at more-or-less the same time as another. And, of course, until we die, our real life stories never end. In fiction we have to help those story arcs along. Our characters’ lives have to reach a point where we can leave them. Maybe they do die (in a fictionally acceptable way, of course), or maybe we leave them at a happy-ever-after point. Real life rarely has a happy-ever-after because there’s always a what-happens-next element. Most of us are grateful to get mostly-happy, or happy-more-often-than-not, but that’s not what fiction is all about. We need to know that our characters have overcome their problems, and that at least they have the potential for happy-ever-after.


Sheila Gilbert

So, having reached the end, I send my not-quite-first-draft to my editor, Sheila Gilbert at DAW. After a few weeks I get an email to arrange THE PHONE CALL. Sheila doesn’t send me written edits, she phones me and talks while I scribble notes as fast as I can. This time I’m delighted to have no more than four pages of closely written notes on NIMBUS, which range from: You’ve left Olivia dangling—we need some resolution, to: who is the person firing from behind the dead body in the Red One fight? The first needs a whole new scene, the second can be corrected with half a dozen words in the right place. Sometimes something she says, or a question she asks, sparks off an idea that’s so perfect, I’m surprised this is the first time it’s crossed my mind. It’s last minute, but suddenly it makes sense of a character who has been present throughout the whole trilogy.

So now it’s late May.  I’ve dealt with Sheila’s edits and I’m reading NIMBUS out loud to myself to see if it all fits together properly. It’s obvious why I’m reading it again. As for the reading out loud thing, my mouth stumbles over glitches that my brain might miss.

If Sheila likes what I’ve done with the edits then the next time I see the text will be after it’s gone through the hands of a copy editor, but that’s another blog post.

If you want a reminder when Nimbus is published, you can sign up for my Mailchimp opt-in mailing list here or you can sign up to follow this blog by email, or add it to your reading page if you’re a WordPress user. If you like this article, please leave me a comment so I know you’re out there.

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Due Process

My publishing process goes like this:

  • Empire of DustThe publisher offers a contract (negotiated by my agent) which may be for one, two or three books, and on signing I get half the advance. My agent takes the agreed cut and I get the rest, upfront. (Don’t get excited, it’s really not squillions of dollars.)
  • I write the first draft (sometimes with input from my agent.)
  • Depending on the publishing schedule, I sometimes get a request for cover blurb and ideas for cover art before the first draft is finished. My editor asks be to identify a couple of scenes which could be illustrated for the cover and to send (if applicable) character descriptions and an extract from the relevant scene together with significant world-building details. For my Psi-Tech series, my editor suggested illustrator Stephan Martiniere (whose work I adore) and for the Rowankind books she asked me whether there was anyone I particularly liked. I suggested Larry Rostant and she agreed—and I love the results. I get to see the actual illustrations long before I see how they are used in the final book design.
  • CrosswaysI send the first draft to my editor.
  • There’s a waiting period while she reads it, so if I’ve been contracted for multiple books, this is when I start thinking about the next one. (Even if I haven’t got a new contract at that stage, it’s time to plan ahead.)
  • A few weeks later I get editorial comments, usually in the form of a long and detailed phone call during which I scribble notes like mad.
  • I revise: add lumps, subtract lumps, Move sections around, rewrite sections, and polish the new version. (Note revision is often structural, not just a question of polishing prose.)
  • I send it to my editor. (This can be a rinse and repeat situation until she says she’s happy with it, though in most cases—so far—the revised version has been okay.)
  • During any gaps while my editor is considering the work in progress, I spend more time working on the next book.
  • I get to see the final cover, i.e. the illustration with added graphics, and when I get permission from the publisher I do a cover reveal on my blog, and the cover is released into the wild to settle on the advance ordering page on various bookseller websites: Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc.
  • Nimbus front coverOnce my editor has okayed it, the manuscript goes to the copy editor who licks the basic prose into shape–changing my British English to American spellings, and adding a ton of commas because Americans tend towards heavier comma usage than most Brits.
  • I get the manuscript back with the copy edits marked as track changes in Word, and the occasional comment on research (checking for anachronisms and historical inaccuracies).
  • I can accept or reject changes. Mostly I accept the punctuation changes because the copy editor is much better at that kind of thing than I am, but sometimes a comma—though technically correct—spoils the flow of what I’ve intended the sentence to sound like, so I have to discuss it with the publisher. That happens most often when it’s in speech and it’s more about character voice than technical accuracy. Very occasionally, a comma added in the wrong place can change a meaning, so I have to reject those changes.
  • Winterwood front cover-smallOccasionally I have to re-word something because I’ve used a Britishism that my copy editor clearly doesn’t get, so it’s wrong for the American market. (Dry stone wall in Winterwood; tannoy in Crossways, and trug in Silverwolf.)
  • The copy edit stage is my last chance to make any small but significant changes. No one would thank me for doing a major rewrite at this stage, of course, but this is my chance to catch any repetition or anything slightly out of order.
  • So once I’ve made a few minor changes and agreed the copy edits, the manuscript goes back to my publisher. Once they confirm that no further changes are required, the book is classed as ‘delivered’, which is a good thing because this triggers the second half of the advance payment for this one book. Yay!
  • The publisher prints a few ARCs – that’s Advance Reading Copies. These still have some typos in them, but they are close enough to send out to reviewers (who are used to getting the not-quite-final version).
  • silverwolf-final-cvr-400The next thing I’ll see are the page proofs. I usually have between three to ten days (or if I’m lucky, a couple of weeks, depending on the publisher’s schedule) to check the proofs. At this point I can only make very minor alterations – say – if I spot a typo or maybe the occasional word error. Once I’ve returned the page proofs, my part in the writing of the whole thing is done, though it still goes through another typo check at the publisher’s end before being committed to print.
  • Then the book goes through printing and distribution ready for the launch, which, for some reason, is always the first Tuesday of the month. This is now the time to step up work on that next book – but, hang on, there’s promotion for this one. I have a publicist who essentially works for PenguinRandonHouse and deals with a lot more authors besides me. She helps to organise interviews and reviews and (sometimes) guest blogs and blog tours. I also arrange some guest blogs myself (and do blogswaps with author friends). It takes a surprising amount of work to come up with ten original ideas for blog pieces, so I’m always relieved when I get interview questions.
  • VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200Publicity is ongoing after publication, but usually, well before publication day, I’m working on the first draft of the next book.
  • Before the official publication day I get a box full of author copies, promptly take some selfies with book (or maybe some shelfies) and post them on Facebook and Twitter usually with me grinning like a big grinny thing, because seeing the actual finished book for the first time is fantastic.
  • Then it’s ‘book birthday.’ YAY!
  • And the publicity continues with more interviews and guest blog posts.
  • And then it’s time to get on with writing the next one.
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Worldbuilding for a Series

In the last blog I talked about Committing Trilogy, but glossed over the worldbuilding aspects so I could talk about them in this blog entry. I’m going to (mostly) talk about the worldbuilding involved in my futuristic SF trilogy, though at the moment I’m in the process of completing two trilogies. The Psi-Tech trilogy started with Empire of Dust, continued with Crossways and concludes with Nimbus, due out in October 2017. The Rowankind trilogy (historical fantasy) at the moment has two books published: Winterwood and Silverwolf. I hope that there will be a third, Rowankind. As yet there’s no date set for that, but I’m just beginning to pull ideas together for the first draft.

So let’s talk about worldbuilding in the Psi-Tech trilogy.

Crossways ship-01

Detail from Stephan martiniere’s cover illustration for Crossways.

The big picture is (usually) easy. Broad brush strokes quickly conjure a canvas of space ships, colony worlds, interstellar trade, transport hubs and jump gate travel. Then I have to interrogate the setting to find out how it got to be that way. I need to know more about politics, history and economics. What happened to human history from the present day to the time of the story? A third world war? A cure for cancer? Climate change? Development of AIs. The Middle East aflame? Colonising Mars. Russia marching into Poland? Donald Trump dropping a nuke on North Korea. Catastrophic meteor strike? Eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone?

The setting is space, so many colonised worlds within our galaxy. There are no alien civilisations out there, at least, none that are known. Though our galaxy is a pretty big place and it may be that we simply haven’t bumped up against them yet.

DCover detail: trikalla

Detail from Stephan Martiniere’s cover for Empire of Dust: a trikalla

In a story that contains multiple worlds I have to figure out what colour the skies are on each of them. Are there any strange creatures such as my trikallas (weird floating beasties on the planet Olyanda, lighter than air and with a taste for copper)? Is the basic topography of a place going to drive the way my human characters interact with the landscape. Are there earthquakes or volcanoes? What are the weather patterns? Is there potable water? How long are the days? Are there any wild seasonal swings? How many moons? How do the moons affect tides? Is native flora and fauna compatible with what humans require for subsistence? How will the planetary ecosystem react with imported flora and fauna? What natural resources are available?

And just as important: what steps might have to be taken to protect native wildlife and ecosystems from the invading humans?

In the Psi-Tech trilogy most of the colonies are controlled by one or another of the megacorporations which have become more powerful than any one planetary government, even that of Earth. Some colonies are well established, home to humans for three hundred years or more. Others are raw; their first generation settlers still struggling to come to terms with a new (and sometimes hostile) environment: fifty hour days; solar storms that render simple radio transmissions unreliable; incompatible botany and biology.

That’s all part of the broad canvas, but what about the detail?

My morning ritual is a small bone-china cup of milky coffee laced with honey and topped with a layer of double cream, plus a warm pain au chocolat. Healthy breakfast? Hey, I’m a writer. That is a healthy breakfast. It contains two of the five major food groups, coffee and chocolate. Three if you count the bread.

So when adding the detail into Empire of Dust I wondered what my main characters, Cara and Ben, would drink in the morning and what the logistics, politics and economics of providing their preferred beverage might be.

If there’s a trade in coffee the megacorporations will want their cut. They have grown powerful following on from what’s historically known as ‘The Great Colony Grab.’ (Earthlings take note: that’s what you get for not investing in national space programmes; the commercial boys take over and do it bigger and better.) Since pioneer Abelard Henning made the first successful foldspace jump between Earth and Mars using a pair of prototype jump gates in 2190, humans have spread across the galaxy. But there’s a technical problem that no one has yet been able to overcome.

Crossways detail-06

Detail from Stephan martiniere’s cover illustration for Crossways.

Platinum is required as a catalyst for jump gates. Unfortunately with each jump a small but significant amount is lost. Now, platinum isn’t particularly rare, of course. It’s found everywhere, but only in small quantities. It takes eight to ten tons of raw ore (and six months) to produce just one pure ounce of platinum. Even now in our pre-jump gate society, platinum is used in commercial applications in about 20% of all consumer goods, yet platinum-flow is tight. In fact, if platinum mining ceased today, we would have reserves of less than one year. All the platinum ever mined throughout history (so far) would fill a room of less than 25 cubic feet. Add jump gates and interstellar trade into that equation and the ceaseless quest for platinum is going to be brutal.

Platinum keeps the whole interconnected colony system functioning. If my guys want to drink coffee and eat chocolate on a space station, there’s a cost in platinum of getting it there, so it had better be worth it. The cheapest beverage to transport is made from dehydrated powder, vac-packed, and massively concentrated so that a pinch is enough to make a pot-full. Does it taste good? That depends on your viewpoint.

Cara Carlinni is an Earth girl even though she grew up being dragged around the galaxy by her parents, a marine biologist (Mum) and a hydro engineer (Dad). Her tastes run to real coffee when she can get it, but if she has to settle for Coffee Flavoured Beverage, she’ll make it nice and strong. Otherwise, if it’s all that’s available, basic, bland CFB will have to do.

teapot-691729_640Reska (Ben) Benjamin grew up in a farming community on Chenon drinking readily available (and cheap) CFB. He likes it. Real coffee tastes bitter to him, so he’ll sweeten it with whatever’s available and soften it with cream if he has to drink it at all. Yes, he knows most people consider it a luxury import, so if they serve up the real thing he’s going to be polite and choke it down, but really he’d rather have tea.

Where does coffee come from? Not from Earth, not any more. Some of the best coffee-growing regions were devastated when multiple meteorite strikes rearranged the geography of the planet in 2375. One huge meteor was shattered on its way inbound. Most of the fragments missed Earth. The ones that didn’t miss were (eventually) survivable. However there were several years of no summer leading to global devastation that would have knocked humankind back to the stone age without help from the colonies.

close-up-coffee-bean-large-cup-38432891Earth produces enough coffee for her own use. Away from Earth, the best coffee now comes from a planet called Blue Mountain, in the Tegabo system. It was settled by a breakaway bunch from Drogan’s World, so it isn’t owned by, or affiliated with any of the megacorps. That means there’s an extra tax if the coffee producers want to distribute coffee via the regular trade routes. Fortunately for them there are some irregular trade routes courtesy of independent shippers. Smugglers? Who said anything about smugglers? Let’s call them free-traders.

Is all that in the book? Not really, except for Cara and Ben’s opposing taste in beverages and the pressing need for platinum. The thing is, dear reader, you don’t need to know all that to enjoy reading the book, but I need to know the background in order to write it. I need to know all of Earth’s history from the first successful moon base, engineered by the Chinese in 2051, to the Five Power Alliance which emerged as a global federal government in the reconstruction following the meteor strikes.

And what has happened to humans in five hundred years? Some have been genetically altered to be able to survive on marginal worlds, others have brain implants which enhance psionic abilities. And then there are those who haven’t had their genes tweaked, or artificial enhancements, who consider themselves pure. That in itself is a starting point for conflict.

400x270Writing future science fiction offers an unlimited number of possibilities and as the series develops, I’m able to explore more new worlds and new situations. But one of the major considerations is that whatever worldbuilding I put into the first book will still be there in the third. Maybe that’s a good thing. Or maybe something I dreamed up in book one will actually be a liability by the time I get to book three. Hence the need to plan ahead when worldbuilding.

Nimbus front coverAs I write this blog, I’ve just finished the first draft of Nimbus, the third psi-tech book. (Due in October 2017 from DAW.) Thankfully the worldbuilding from the first book is still holding up. What’s happened to my characters and my worldbuilding as the books have progressed? Cara and Ben started out working for one of the biggest of the megacorps, the Trust, but they have now left the Trust behind and gone rogue. More and more of the colonies are pressing for independence, and humans are discovering more about their universe. Something dark is moving in the depths of foldspace.

It’s all very exciting and I can tell you that by the end of Nimbus, the goalposts will have moved for humans in space.


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Committing Trilogy

As I write this blog post I’m editing and polishing my third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, the last in my trilogy of space operas (though there may be more ahead set in the same universe—it’s too early to tell, yet.) It’s due from DAW in October 2017.

The groundwork that I laid when writing Empire of Dust (DAW 2014) still dictates what I write three books later. Once the first book of a trilogy is published I can’t retrospectively change the big idea, or even any of the basic principles, so getting the world-building right (and consistent) in the beginning is really important. I there’s something to be revealed as the trilogy progresses then it needs to be foreshadowed in the first book.


The Psi-Tech trilogy is set 500 years in the future. Building that universe is a task which crops up early in my writing/planning process, though maybe not right at the beginning. (I’ll be talking about world building in a future blog, so I’m going to skip some of that detail now.).

Which comes first, writing or planning? I’m a half-and-half writer—not quite a plotter, not quite a pantser (i.e. a discovery writer who writes by the seat of their pants to find out what happens next). When I first get an idea I’ll often sit down and write without a plan of any kind. Then, when I’ve done a bit of story exploration, I’ll outline the structure in broad detail. I have been known to have the beginning reasonably well detailed, the ending clearly stated, and between those two extremes I have a lot of wibble labelled: stuff happens, with maybe one or two pivotal scenes sketched more fully. I don’t tend to outline plot points chapter by chapter in great detail. (I’ve tried that and it makes me feel as though I’ve written the book once already when I come to write the first draft.)

Putting a specific character in a specific situation is probably what gives me the initial idea; someone with a dilemma I can get excited to write about. It’s an acorn from which I hope to grow an oak tree. In Empire of Dust, the opening scene features a lone telepath, in fear for her life. She’s been on the run for a year, and her pursuers are catching up with her. When I started, that was all I had. The surroundings that coalesced out of my imagination were bleak and grey, utilitarian, though a little shabby, and largely featureless, except where humans had tried to imprint their personality with improvised artwork on the doors of their one-room apartments. A space station, I thought, and the world building grew from there.

The character building also grew from there. Who was my telepath? What had she done to make herself into a target. Was it her fault? How was she going to get out of the initial dilemma? Ah right… she was going to hustle for a ride out of the space station with someone, a stranger. She didn’t know him, but as the author I needed to know who he was; what his background was; where he was heading for; what his own problems might be. These two characters had to be interesting enough to hold the attention for a full book, or, as it turned out, three books. They had to have room to grow, but their growth had to arise from their backstory. They didn’t appear out of nowhere. Cara was estranged from her mother. He father was dead. Ben’s parents were dead, but he had a grandmother, a brother and two nephews. We get to meet them in the first book, but they become important in the second book and continue to be a solid presence in the third.

A writer doesn’t simply need to know enough about setting and characters to deliver a single story, they must inhabit their world more fully and know the people who exist there. The book shouldn’t feel as though the universe it’s set in popped into existence just a few minutes before the first scene. It should feel as though there’s a history, even if you don’t describe it in great detail. When the book ends your reader needs to feel as though the universe is still carrying on beyond where you wrote ‘the end’ and left your protagonists living happily ever after (or not).

And what goes for a standalone novel goes three times as much for a trilogy.

I’ll be honest I didn’t plan that Empire of Dust would be the beginning of a trilogy. It could quite easily have been a stand-alone novel, though I did have some ideas of how it could progress into two, then three books. The reason for that is purely practical. When I wrote Empire, I did it purely on spec. If you are an unpublished writer seriously aiming at publication you shouldn’t waste time writing a sequel or a trilogy until Book One has sold, because if you can’t sell Book One, those sequels are dead in the water, and you’ve wasted precious time (years, even) when you could have been writing something that a publisher would buy. Been there, done that, got the T shirt. However, at the same time as writing your standalone, you have to spend a little time thinking about the possibility of continuation because, if you are lucky enough to sell a book, your new publisher may ask: ‘What else have you got?’ or, ‘Is there a book to follow this?’

My first three book deal from DAW was Winterwood (historical fantasy in the Rowankind series), Empire of Dust (space opera) and an unspecified sequel to Empire based on a one page story synopsis that they asked me for. That sequel became Crossways. My second deal was for the second Rowankind book, Silverwolf, and the third Psi-Tech book, which became Nimbus (Due October 2017.)

When planning a trilogy you need three separate books with beginnings, middles and ends, while the whole three books form an arc of their own, again with a beginning, middle, and end. You have to decide on the structure, and how the books are linked. Are you going to have the same characters continuing the story throughout the three books or each story going to be a linked standalone? Or maybe the first two books feature two different protagonists and those protags are going to come together in the final book.

If it’s one megastory told in three books, how are you going to deal with your (probably large) cast of characters? Unless you kill everyone on the last page, you need to decide which characters are going to survive the whole three books and which are going to be sacrificed to the god of plot. (You may literally kill them off or just remove them from the storyline in some manner when their role comes to an end.) Your long-lived characters, the ones who are front and centre throughout the three books, need to remain consistent from the first to the last page. That doesn’t mean your character can’t grow and change, but it means that you can’t suddenly have someone behave out of character unless you have foreshadowed it and inserted good reasons.

Your overarching three-book story may be obvious from the beginning, or it may grow out of events that are foreshadowed in the first book. Whatever you decide it has to be consistent and logical. What you decide to do in the first book is going to be with you for a long time.

In Empire of Dust I mention the visions that pilot-navigators have when transiting through foldspace. That foldspace theme develops in Crossways alongside dangerous problems caused by human antagonists. In Nimbus it becomes pivotal. The developments in foldspace will eventually mean that the human problems have to be solved in order to solve the foldspace problems.

2book-RowankindThe Psi-Tech books form my first trilogy, but my historical fantasy series beginning with Winterwood and continuing with Silverwolf looks like growing into the Rowankind Trilogy, too. Maybe after that I’ll write a standalone. I already have ideas…


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