Universal Maxims

(And no, not the teenager’s magazine)

When I was at school, I took a very bizarre set of A-Levels, eventually swapping Maths for Sociology after a few weeks of trying out statistics. The head of our sixth form asked me exactly why I’d do something like that, to which I replied ‘I want to know why people do things’.

Well, Sociology didn’t really help with that, and to be honest, neither did my Psychology degree, but I tried my best – and took a number of Philosophy modules at the same time. After graduation, I thought I’d missed a trick by not studying more Philosophy, so threw myself into more studying – but I found it all quite abstract and theoretical. It took me a long time to realise that what I needed was a much more personal explanation and reasoning – perhaps only for my own actions and thoughts, rather than rules that ‘should’ or ‘could’ apply to others.

However, literature has also provided me with a couple of very simple ideas that I’m quite fond of. The first of these is one that a lot of you will already be familiar with – Journey before Destination, from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. It’s an excellent sentiment, and whilst perhaps not an entirely realistic one (any fans of 24 would certainly disagree in favour of a more Utilitarian argument) I’m a fan. I do believe that pursuing goals can be valuable, but since we spend a lot more time journeying than arriving, a purely goal-oriented view of life can be extremely harmful. After all, life is something of a journey, and how we spend that journey is definitely more valuable than the end destination!

My second favourite is Choose Again, from Dan Simmons’ Endymion duology. We grow up with so many fixed views on what is right and wrong, good and bad, shameful or worthy of respect, that often we forget that these views came from older times, times when we were children, or that they were inherited from people with blinkered views. Choose Again doesn’t necessarily mean choosing something different, but it does mean periodically revisiting the choices that you’ve made, as a (hopefully) increasingly-wiser adult. If you choose the same thing again, then that’s great. If not – then hopefully you’re choosing something better.

I’m not saying that these are the only principles that guide my life, but they’re certainly two that I value. I’d be intrigued to hear yours.

What happened in June? Dusk, Wild Court and Small Places progress, life issues and gorgeous books

June has been a fairly crap month writing-wise, and there’s not a lot to report on the writing front. I’ve written a measly eleven thousand more words on Dusk, the sequel to Parasites, taking it to 37k, and unfortunately progress on Wild Court has stalled again. Thankfully, despite not really being able to travel far, I’ve had a few ideas for the sequel to Small Places, and even tentatively titled it, but my structuring ran out of steam after what is probably the first third of the book!

After a fairly long dry spell, I’ve been writing more again in the last few days, but I think lockdown has definitely taken its toll. I suspect that, like others, needing to feel in control of my own life is something of a pre-requisite for functioning like a proper human being. I’ve really been trying to look after myself – running does actually help me, and I managed to see (socially distanced) friends the other day, which was a lovely slice of normality.

However, there’s still trouble brewing in my ‘real’ job. I’m working fewer hours, which is something of a double-edged sword. I have more time to write, but am slightly dreading my next paycheque! And despite working fewer hours for the last few weeks, I’ve just not been motivated to write.

Still, I’m hopeful. I’ve written more in the past two days than I have in the preceding two weeks, so with any luck it was just a small dry spell. As you might have seen from my Instagram, I’ve also been very lucky to get the Illumicrate version of The Last Wish and the Folio Society version of Howl’s Moving Castle. They’re both absolutely gorgeous and I’m looking forward to diving back into them – although I’ve also been reading the much-lauded Six of Crows and am just reading Crooked Kingdom, alongside Nora McKinney’s A Natural, which has been quite a change of genre for me!

Small Places is still being beta read, although one of my betas seems to have disappeared – so I can’t yet share a release date. I’m so keen for it to be read, but (especially since I’ve started to plan the sequel) I only want it out once it’s ready.

As ever, please take care, look after yourselves and read bloody amazing books.

What happened in May? Dusk, Small Places and Wild Court updates, pandemic problems and amazing books

April and May have been strange and difficult months, so I’ll start with the book stuff to avoid boring anyone with the personal updates if that’s not what you’re here for.

First up, progress on Dusk (Parasites sequel) has been a little slow – I’m on about 26k words, up from 15k this time last month. When I was working on Small Places, I once wrote twelve thousand words in two days over the Christmas break, so I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed at that … but in fairness they were very different times.

That said, I’m fairly pleased with how it’s coming together, although it definitely needs editing; I wrote a Basteel chapter that clocked in at about 4.5k words on its own! There’s a reasonable chunk of the book that takes place on the rest of Lyra, which was something I really wanted to do after finishing Parasites. You only really see Vega in the first book, so I wanted to explore a little more of the rest of the planet. 

We’re also coming close to the three-month deadline that I set for querying Small Places, so I may well be looking for beta readers and other bits and pieces soon, as well as setting a publishing date! With all the stuff that’s been going on, I tend to forget about it, then remember it quite fondly. I’m just not sure whether to do a last (sixth? seventh?) re-read before getting it out to a beta, but time will tell…

Finally, I’ve also started looking at Wild Court again, the low fantasy WIP I parked around the 50k word mark in the middle of last year. It’s now around 26k, although I’m finding that re-writing and re-editing a novel is much harder than writing it from scratch!

Onto the other stuff: I don’t know if any of you are gamers, but I remember when the first Baldur’s Gate game came out and there’s a narrated chapter break where there’s a reference to a journey being ‘an unfamiliar blur to your fractured nerves’, and that’s really how this month has felt. In mid-April, there were some difficult discussions at work where a few of my colleagues and I were faced with the possibility of a 40% pay cut. Thankfully that didn’t come to pass, but our physical office did close, so I had to go into London to pick up a few personal things that I’d left there.  

I was half expecting it to be apocalyptically quiet, but there were people around – lots of construction workers, and a small number of people travelling like me. There were maybe ten people in total on my train, so I was able to socially-distance quite easily.

My wife was furloughed fairly recently, which was initially stressful, but she’s now really enjoying it! We were supposed to be on holiday between two weddings a few weeks ago, and perversely, on the day my friend was supposed to be getting married (now postponed), he got hit by a car. He’s doing ok, thankfully.

I also found out that a guy I knew a while back had died, which was really awful. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but he was a great guy, impossible to dislike. The silver lining was that I did get to attend the funeral remotely, which was very sad – but I was glad I could.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, so I’ll also add that I’ve been reading a lot more during lockdown; I’ve just finished the slightly disappointing Agency by William Gibson, but did re-read the magnificent The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which is just a masterpiece. I’m now reading Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I’ve enjoyed before – I’ve got a weakness for South African Sci-Fi (Chappie and District 9, anyone?). As you might have gathered, I’m also a bit of a gamer and Terraria has been absorbing a lot of my time recently – the final update launches today, which I’m quite excited about – there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything!

I do hope that you’re all staying safe, well and healthy – take care.

On books, and change

Perhaps the greatest, most powerful story we hear, time and time again, is change.

Birth, live, death; beginnings, suffering and growth, endings. It’s a cycle that we all know, something that somehow feels etched in our bones, defines our living compass.

“Hamsters exist to teach children about death,” my wife once told me – I never had a hamster when I was growing up, but she was right. Experiencing life and death is something that we all eventually have to deal with.

Those who resist change, who try to keep things as they are, eventually seem unnatural – and usually fail; trying to hold the ever-draining sands of time static within their clutching fingers.

I used to think that we valued books because they were static; little pieces of constancy in our lives, adventures that we could turn to again and again. Despite their own changes, we know their patterns and rhythms, their protagonists and villains, their beginnings and endings.

But of course, this isn’t true. Books change because we change. The magic of a childhood tale can be worn away by cynicism, or because we see it for what it truly is – a simple story. New meanings come to light, once-common historic views are exposed for being dated or offensive.

Sometimes books become dearer to us, perspective giving us a different perspective on an old tale. I remember loving Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, falling in love with Phedre and Joscelin, feeling somehow disappointed by the second trilogy, following another character. Sometime later, I came back to it when I was having a difficult time, but found the first trilogy a little unsatisfying. Excellently written, yes, but not resonant with how I was feeling. The second trilogy somehow felt a little darker, a little more in keeping with how I felt, Imriel’s struggles more in line with my own.

And sometimes we simply aren’t ready for a book; I remember trying to read the Lord of the Rings at a very young age, getting far too confused with all the characters, sub-plots and sprawling explanations.

Of course, some books remain great, and grow greater as you read them, every crease and mark on their covers and pages mapping to your own life experiences, struggles and adventures. And as Iain Banks and Clive Barker both said, they’re greater for it. These are the books that are your true life companions, masterpieces that somehow manage to change with you – and they’re few and far between.

The Origins of the Stormworld

[Spoiler Alert – Contains mild spoilers for Parasites]

When I was growing up, I used to write down my dreams and take inspiration from them for stories. They didn’t always make sense, but more often than not, they did, telling stories themselves of places I’d never been, people I’d never met.

For some unknown reason, I can’t pinpoint most of the origins of Parasites, but without question, the stormworld episode comes from a dream. I’d seen the two huge storm fronts racing towards each other, a vehicle not dissimilar to the car in the book racing to escape them. I remember being absolutely convinced that if it could just reach a certain point, keep in the area between the vast clouds, despite the gap growing smaller and smaller, that everything would be ok.

It’s a brief episode in the book, and a mysterious one at that. We learn about as much about the origins of the stormworld as we do about the world right at the start, with the cabbages and the rotting biodome. That said, it’s not a huge leap to say that the world was probably something like ours – the road is testament to that. Whatever species lived there, they – like most of the abandoned worlds that Kael and Alessia find – have left their mark, in terms of both the infrastructure and damage to the environment.

I’d imagine that the race inhabiting the planet had followed a similar path to us humans, slowly destroying it and using up the resources, messing up the environment and causing the weather to become increasingly hostile to life.

As I’ve gotten older, I take less and less inspiration from dreams, although a little still works itself in there now and again. I certainly dream less vividly – I suspect it’s a condition of getting old – but they’re still there, particularly after a memorable, immersive or emotional experience.

Of course, sometimes dreams are entirely nonsensical, but as a child I was a firm believer that they meant something, that they were important. Today, I’m not so sure, but there’s definitely a part of me that would still like to believe. It feels a bit silly, particularly as an adult, but I’m also a firm believer in the saying that we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing. If we can’t hold onto a few ideals and concepts of meaningfulness from our childhood as we grow older, then we might as well just give up now! 

April Updates

Introverts in lockdown is already a bit of a tired trope and it’s definitely been an odd experience for this introvert. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s been easy!

My wife and I are very lucky that we moved to a fairly quiet house with a garden about two years ago and have no dependents (other than the cat!). Our families and friends are generally doing ok. My wife’s uncle and aunt both had Coronavirus fairly early on but seem to have made a full recovery; we spoke to them on Sunday on a Zoom call with four generations of her family and they seemed great. In the same way as everyone else, videocalls have become something of staple, although doing one with her 95 year-old grandfather was an interesting experience!

My side of the family seems to be doing ok as well. I played chess online with my seven year-old nephew last weekend, narrowly scraping victory on both occasions, despite a couple of mistakes. I’m really, really rusty…

Writing hasn’t been *that* easy, to be honest. Thankfully, my ‘real’ job is still ‘business as usual’, but everyone is just a bit more stressed and on edge than usual, which is completely understandable. Despite strict self-care routines – alternating between a walk in the park in the morning or a run in the evening, yoga, cooking and taking it easy – it’s been stressful, and I guess it’s the same for everyone.

Despite that, I’ve tentatively started a high fantasy title, even more tentatively titled The Witch-Lord’s Apprentice. It might not go anywhere, but the overall idea is to take a new slant on the everlasting battle between angels, demons and humans. I can already see Laini Taylor and Carol Berg’s influence there (I’m currently re-reading Transformation) but there’s loads of fresh stuff there as well.

It’s a month since I started writing Dusk (also a tentative title) the sequel to Parasites and the second book in the Navigator trilogy. I’m just over 15,000 words in, and I think it’ll be about the same length as the first one, but maybe a shade longer. It’s going to be a bit darker than the first book, but I won’t say anything more just yet! I think that 15k words in a month is a little on the slow side, but like I said, stressful times.

It’s late here, so I’ll just finish by saying that I hope that you and all of your families and friends are as well as they can be, and please continue to take care of yourselves.  

Found Family

One of the themes that I’ve always enjoyed in literature, film and TV is found family. I was absolutely enchanted by Monica Hughes’ Invitation to the Game as a child, reading it again and again, following Lisse as she and her schoolfriends live together and eventually band together into a strong, family-like unit in the dystopian future.

It’s a theme that pervades much of today’s literature and film, from The Gilded Wolves to The Fast and the Furious, the latter of which I’ll admit to being a firm fan of! The idea that you might not fit in with your regular – biological – family (or you can!) but that you can find another close group of friends, so close that it becomes like family, is an incredible one and speaks to perhaps some of the deepest pack instincts within us.

I can’t use that word – pack – without giving a shout out to the Assassin’s set of books by Robin Hobb, where Fitz and Nighteyes, his wolf companion, literally bond and become a very close, two-person unit, occasionally bringing in others as the journey requires.

In Parasites, Kael and Alessia (along with Basteel, and in previous journeys, Caroline) have become a kind of found family, albeit a small one. They’ve been through a lot together, weathering the last ten years and becoming close. Their journey in Parasites does begin to test the relationship, but one thing I’ve noticed is that family dynamics are almost the third (or N+1) person in the family group. The relationship between Kael and Alessia, their friendship, is essentially its own structure, and structures can be stronger or tested in bad conditions.

Basteel, their bodyguard, strengthens that family structure, and the presence of others tests it, putting pressure on the two to consider other goals and possibilities. We don’t really explore the duo’s past in Parasites, but there’s plenty of time for flashbacks and conversations about it – there’s a little at the start, about some of the more memorable experiences that the two have had together – but rest assured that there will be more revealed in books two and three.

I’ve thought about doing a short novella about them, but I’m leaning more towards the possibility of a Basteel and Caroline short story; the sturdy bodyguard and his agile partner have been through their share of scrapes, and their relationship is going to be an important sub-theme through the rest of the trilogy.

The events in Parasites certainly brought Kael – always the natural pessimist (well, he would say realist) – and Alessia, the more hopeful of the two, closer together, and taught the engineer a thing or two about optimism. It’s a fantastic thing to find ‘your people’ whether or not they’re as close as pack or found family. Relationships don’t come easily, especially when you’re not tied together by blood – but they’re definitely something worth investing in.

First Lines

The first lines of a book are vastly important. Lots of readers are very patient and willing to give books a chance, but when you’re reading something for the first time or from a new author, it can be make or break. And the first lines of certain books become famous in their own rights, like “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s the subject of pub quizzes and trivia games across the world!

I’ve fallen in and out of love with the first few lines from some of my books – and WIPs – but thought that it’d be fun to have a quick look at a few of them. Some of this stuff isn’t ‘in the wild’ yet, so hopefully it’s an interesting teaser rather than being cruel.

It’s a garden world this time.

Genetically engineered plants and trees, huge biodomes sprawling overhead; white metal honeycombs with transparent panels, most now missing or decayed.

This is from Parasites and I’m still pretty pleased with it. I really wanted to convey what Kael and Alessia do in the first line – exploring new worlds – but to also get across the emptiness, the silence and loneliness of the worlds that they explore.

“You know, for someone who hates people, you sure do care a lot about what they think,” the man next to me says slowly. He reeks of stale body odour and urine, overlaid with cigarette smoke and cheap alcohol.

We’re friends.

This is the first line from Wild Court, my paused WIP. It’s a fantastical look at the effect of declining empathy in our society, and opens with a conversation between one of the protagonists and their friend, who is experiencing homelessness. I’m really quite fond of this; the protagonist Ben is a quiet, isolated character with occasional anxiety, and I like the contrasts in this line. I’m keen to get back to the book at some stage, because I’m very fond of Alice, the nerdy archaeologist, and Matt, Ben’s laddish best friend. That said, there’s something that’s just not quite working for me in the book. I paused after about 50k words, which isn’t like me at all.   

As I remember it, and as far as anything really has a beginning or an end, it all began when I was ten. With childlike dreams of grandeur and adventure, my friend Sam and I got lost in the Royal Albert Hall at the prom one summer.

I’m slightly embarrassed about this one. It’s the first line from Aenigma, my first – and unpublished – book that desperately needs a rewrite. I’m assuming it’s how Christopher Paolini feels about Eragon in hindsight; great themes, lovely energy, but certainly not the work of a practiced writer. A lot about this book feels too personal, too emotional, and the pacing is way off at the end – but there’s definitely something there worth rescuing! I’m playing with a few ideas for it in the future; I could definitely see a grimdark interpretation of it working, but I’m not quite sure…

“But where’s the cake?” I blurt, staring through the window bemused and frustrated. “When did this happen? Why is there an antique shop here?”

Finally, this is from Small Places, my current WIP. I’m really undecided about it – the first two chapters are told from the perspective of the protagonist when he’s ten, so everything has to be from a slightly childlike-but-growing-up-fast perspective. I’ve changed it a couple of times, but quite like the indignation.

There we go; I’d be interested to hear of first lines that you love as well – what stands out for you?

What’s Parasites all about?

Parasites is about hope, adventure and found family, which are perhaps the three of the most important things in the world to me. It’s a science fiction novel in the genres of solarpunk and hopepunk; it takes place towards the very end of the universe, when the very fabric of space itself is cooling and contracting.

It follows two explorers, Kael and Alessia, in their exploration of thinnings: patches where two universes rub together, overlapping and allowing travel between worlds in different places. The discovery of thinnings has allowed the people on their resource-poor planet, Lyra, to survive and colonise other places in other universes.

Alessia’s father, also an explorer, died two years prior to the start of the novel, on a mission that – until now – she knew nothing about. But when Kael and Alessia find a message hinting at a ‘solution’ to the problems of the universe, she jumps at the chance to follow in his footsteps and uncover the secrets of the past, recruiting Basteel, a family friend and their bodyguard, to keep them safe.

Parasites is set across a weird and (hopefully) wonderful set of places; planets and space stations with their own cast of creatures and hazards. It’s a journey with friends.

I’m conflicted as to whether Parasites is YA: the protagonists are in their mid to late twenties, but the narrative is also fairly straightforward. It’s on the verge of being hard sci-fi, but my background in the sciences is flimsy to say the least: let’s just say that I’ve tried to make it accessible, which is something that runs through my fantasy books as well. There are no long lineages of characters to remember, no geography to memorise, no large casts, no tough scientific things to get your head around. There’s technology and magic, but it’s my aim to explain it all in a simple way that allows you to just be immersed in the story.   

You can read more about the book using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature. If you’re concerned about trigger content, you can find a list of trigger and content warnings for all of my books on this page.

You can also keep up with me and what I’m up to on this blog, my twitter feed and (less frequently!) my Instagram page. You can also email me on mail [at goes here] theabditory.co.uk.

One last thing – if you were hoping this book was something to do with the Oscar-winning Korean film, I apologise – but I hope that I’ve piqued your interest!

A weighty tome

That’s how my father would describe large books, and it always evokes images of ancient hardbacks, leather-bound spellbooks or something equally mysterious! For some reason, the phrase stuck in my head and made me wonder – just how weighty are the books that we lug around each day? And perhaps more importantly, what’s the heaviest?

Well, armed with my trusty kitchen scales, I set out to investigate. My mind first settled on A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the concluding novel in the Wheel of Time series. It’s a chunky one in a series of hefty books.

On the scales, it comes out at 1.16kg, certainly a noticeable bulge in your bag if you’re carrying it to and from work each day.

But I thought that we could probably do better, and given that we’re on Brandon Sanderson, I had a look at Words of Radiance, also in hardcover, which clocks in at a pretty impressive 1.52kg! I briefly had a look at Oathbringer, but the UK version scrapes in at 1.48kg, so was barely worth a mention. I do also have the paperbacks of the first four novels in the Stormlight archive, which together come in at 1.63kg – very much more transportable than the hardcovers.

But wait! As many of you will know, I’m a huge fan of Clive Barker’s work, and some years ago, picked up the hardback versions of his Abarat saga as they came out. The first one is a relatively swift read at just under 400 pages, but it’s printed on really heavy paper because it has Clive’s original illustrations in it. The second and third novels are a bit longer, so I fished them all off the bookcase and put them on the scales.

The first novel – Abarat – clocks in at a fairly chunky 1.1kg. The second – Days of Magic, Nights of War, hits 1.2kg, but the third is the undisputed champion, clocking in at a huge 1.58kg, an extra 60g on Words of Radiance, but with barely half the page count!

With books like this, who needs a gym membership, eh?