August – On Recovery

My, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I suppose it’s been a mad month so far. A mad few months, actually, seeing as July came with a lovely little bout of COVID, which (in my humble opinion), rather takes the cake.

Yes, I was double vaxxed. Yes, I did (and am continuing to) wear my mask in public places. And yes, I still managed to catch the Big-C, which not only knocked me out flat for about a week, but also gifted me the lovely lingering effect of debilitating fatigue. At least the timing was ideal — my symptoms cleared up and we were released from self-isolation a full week before our planned trip to Brighton. But even now, some month and a half after the illness has passed, I can’t go a full day without collapsing into bed around 9pm.

But so it goes. I suppose it may have been a bit overly-optimistic of me to expect to be fully healthy while juggling shifts at the bookshop and a 30k Camp Nanowrimo, never mind edits for my current MG WIP.

Speaking of which, with or without the post-viral fatigue, Adderix Charms Takes on the Human World is now approaching the end of it’s second major draft, and I am having a lot of fun stitching the pieces back together. This edit required some huge, major structural changes. Time lines were up-ended, motivations were undone. All of that means that the ending is still a bit of a mess, but day by day, it’s starting to come together. I think with another month’s work, I’ll be able to start looking at the scene and line-level of editorial things, hopefully to be able to be out on sub with it by October/November.

In any case, August has only just begun. Let’s see what it brings.

Last Month’s Reads: Wise Children | The Gilded Ones | A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue | Insurrecto

March – On Rejection

There are things they don’t tell you about being an agented fiction writer. Some of this stuff, I learned the hard way when I briefly picked up the interest of an agent’s assistant on my first novel, way back in 2012. The interest proved to be short-lived. When you’re in the querying trenches, it seems so simple: one yes is all it takes, and then it’s smooth sailing, right?

Some of this stuff, I’m still actively discovering. One thing I will say is that the publishing and writing process once an agent is involved is so very different from when you’re a lone novelist chipping away at a manuscript. This year, I’ve managed to turn around a manuscript in about five months from conception to agent draft. Certainly being on furlough from work helped, even if the ongoing pandemic didn’t — but still, that’s a record for me.

Of course, some of that difference comes from simply being a more experienced writer. Your first novel might take several years to develop, as you learn exactly how your process works. But being signed (and debuted!) on the first novel you’ve ever written is a rarity, and more likely you’ll have a second or a third novel under your belt before an agent takes notice of your work.

The main thing that you end up learning, though, is that the rejection doesn’t stop once you’ve signed. There will be ideas you have that your agent may not fully get behind, and other books that die on sub or in edits. There will be editors who love your work but still pass. Once you get a deal and all goes to print, there will still be those readers who hate your words.

I guess what I’m trying to come to terms with is this: as writers, we face a career path paved with rejections. That never, ever stops. Everyone cites that She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named faced a whopping 21 rejections before HP was picked up by Bloomsbury. And yet for most of us, that’s a mere drop in the bucket. I hate it every time someone brings that stat up. 21 rejections? They make it sound so easy.

More encouraging is Pierce Brown, who ramped up more than 140 rejections on various projects before Red Rising was published. Indeed, I cling to the truth that, if you haven’t collected upward of at least 75 rejections or so over your writing career, you likely haven’t been doing enough of the work: not just writing, but writing, finishing, editing, submitting, editing and submitting again.

So for everyone in the querying trenches right now, and my fellows in the submissions bunkers: hang in there. All you can do is do the work.

February – Lockdown Updates and Worldbuilding Questions

In the midst of a third lockdown without sight of any sort of relief on the horizon, things have felt a lot more grim lately. I didn’t think that I’d be missing parties and my bookselling job all that much, and yet, here we are, and all I really want is to actually hang out with humans other than the Boy. Don’t get me wrong, the Boy is wonderful, but if variety is the spice of life, then we’re kinda looking forward to at least another two months of blanched cauliflower. No salt.

That said, there have been a few good things while we’ve been in lockdown. This past Tuesday, I gave a webinar for Jericho Writers on developing speculative elements for fantasy and science fiction for their Genre Month series of online events. I must admit that my anxiety was well through the roof for at least three days beforehand, but once I actually started presenting, it was an amazing experience that I would love to do again. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to answer all of the questions that came up during the presentation, so I thought I might as well take the opportunity to share a few more insights here.


Question: How would you differentiate between fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction?

Genre is its own minefield (more on this in a future post!), but in general, the main difference between fantasy and sci-fi is that sci-fi tends to build on the laws of reality as we already know them. In short, sci-fi usually takes what we already know to be true and adds things on top, whereas fantasy tends to change the basics and build entirely new frameworks for understanding the story. Finally, speculative fiction is an umbrella term that contains both sci-fi and fantasy, as well as more subtle forms of reality-defying work, such as magical realism or dystopian fiction without a spec element.

Question: When submitting, how do you describe your book’s genre accurately, especially if it crosses traditional genre lines?

In this case, comp titles are your best friend. If you can find something that mixes stuff up and breaks down the boundaries in a similar way to what you’re working on, then you should lean into that when you’re querying. The other option would be to think really hard about which types of readers are most likely to appreciate your particular style of worldbuilding and storytelling, and pitch it as appealing to that audience.

Question: What tools do you use for writing and worldbuilding?

I’m a great fan of Scrivener for multiple reasons, but if you’re at all scatter-brained like me, it is an absolute godsend for getting your manuscripts into some kind of order, all while being super flexible, so you can still skip around in your process. As for more arty world-building focused stuff, It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I love maps. I’ve recently discovered Inkarnate for map-making, and it is SO FUN.


Anyway, hopefully it’s just a couple more months of cauliflower before we get to add some more spices back into the mix. Until then, I’m wishing all of you the best February possible under the circumstances.

We got this.

Visitor’s Guide: Ravenscourt Manor

About an hour’s drive from Eboracum in the north of Anglia, deep in the pre-historic forest known as the Blackwood, the crumbling ruins of an ancient manor house lie abandoned to the elements. The oldest stones of the house that once dominated Ravenscourt Manor were laid back in medieval days. Between then and now, however, the estate saw numerous additions and reconstructions, slowly transforming into a labrynthine, ever-evolving structure of magnificent proportions — at least until it was abandoned sometime in the late 1800s.

No one really knows what happened to the Crowes, the family that occupied Ravenscourt from its medieval founding until the days before the turn of the century, but rumours abound. The family is thought to have dabbled in illegal magic, and so the decline of the family and the abandonment of their estate may merely have been an unsurprising outcome of Brytannia’s War of Inquisition. But if the local farmers are to be believed, there are still places within the manor grounds where the world turns strange, and the possibility of stepping into the Feyrealm becomes more than mere imagination. Given that no records exist documenting the last of the Crowe family to inhabit the house, perhaps, it is up to us to draw our own conclusions.

In any case, my warning to those who might be interested in following my footsteps: tread carefully. The manor, though abandoned, remains a place of many tricks and surprises.

Finding the Site

The main approach to the house is well hidden amongst the hedgerows of the main road south out of Eboracum. Following the drive, which is fairly overrun by blackberries and over-grown shrubs, the house appears through the trees like a fairytale castle, its high north tower looming above windows dark and shattered by time.

The house itself lies in mournful disrepair, front door hanging off its hinges. The foyer, grand as it once was with its twin staircases curling up into darkness, is now cluttered with dust and debris — the remains of what were once masterworks and artifacts from all over the world. The rest of the house has suffered a similar fate, though there are still several places of interest that may be worth a closer look for those of us inclined to ferret through others’ abandoned lives.

Points of Interest

Straight through the double doors off the main foyer, the Grand Hall remains set-up for some grand soiree, though the champaigne flutes and gold-edged plates now lie tented with cobwebs, the canapés dissolved to dust and mould. The hall is expansive, with a vaulted ceiling and alcoves along the walls for private entertainment. French doors open to the house’s central courtyard, and it’s easy enough to imagine this space hosting parties of several hundred guests in its heyday. More intimate gatherings would’ve been held in the nearby Dining Hall, which plays host to a single enormous table, which could easily have been outfitted for several dozen guests.

The rest of the manor is a maze of sprawling hallways — corridors laid out at strange angles to each other, rooms and galleries placed as if by the mind of some madman. The Upper Halls, where the family itself would’ve resided, is by far the most derlicit part of the house, windows smashed and the rooms turned over to the elements — with one room even completely overtaken by weeds. The Middle Halls, on the other hand, are where the Crowes would have entertained up to a couple hundred guests. These rooms are sparser, and by consequence seem to have weathered the years less dramatically. It’s here that you can find the portraits of all the former residents of Ravenscourt Manor, from the original founder of the house to its last resident, Dr. Edward Crowe.

The Lower Halls are overtaken by a warren of servants quarters, kitchens, scullaries and storage rooms, including a smashed-up laboratory tucked into the base of the North Tower. The only thing that’s still intact here is a full-length mirror with a gilt frame — though why anyone would’ve left such a thing in a laboratory is beyond me. The stairs into the tower, as well, seem to have been bricked off long ago. If any of you, dear readers, manage to ever get a peek at what’s up there, I do hope you let me know.

Finally, the manor’s back gardens are reached through the overgrown Greenhouse. This magnificent structure, built in an art-neuveau style, moreso than any other part of the house has stood the test of time. Its exotic flowers remain preserved against the harsh Anglian winters, a veritable jungle of flowers and fronds. Beyond, the tangled branches of what may once have been a rose-hedge maze stands bristling with thorns.

Finally, a note on the wider Manor Grounds. As mentioned, the estate lies on the outskirts of the Blackwood, and venturing too far into this old-growth forest is definitely risky. There are few paths, and it is all too easy to get lost among the ancient trees. However, if you’re brave enough to attempt the wandering trails, you may find yourself at the edge of Blackwood Lake. I’ve also heard rumours of a cottage that once belonged to the groundskeepers, and of a grove of aspens deep in the old-wood, where the world tilts strange, but if you are brave enough to seek those places out, I should be glad to read your account of it.

As for myself, I ended my trip to Ravenscourt with a pint at the nearest pub, The Magpie Inn, situated in the nearby village of Corvick. I should think it a far more comfortable fate than that of the Manor’s former residents. Though what would I know of that?


A dead father. A missing spirit. An ancient manor with way too many locked doors. Buy A Murder of Crows in paperback through Waterstones, Bookshop.org, or Hive.co.uk | Also available on kindle or at amurderofcrows.online.

The Absolute Beginner Writers’ Guide: Freewriting, or how to get started with creative writing in just ten minutes

Every morning for the past three years, I’ve had the same daily ritual. First thing after breakfast, when the world is quiet — or just as I’ve sat down on the train for my commute — I take out a little notebook or open my laptop, and I write.

The topic doesn’t matter. Neither does the artistry. All that matters is putting words on the page. The prose might be dire, but this practice of writing on demand has, without a doubt, made the process of developing stories, novels, and scenes easier in the long run.

If you’ve never done any sort of writing before, this type of writing (that is: freewriting) provides an easy and risk-free way to take your first dip into the waters. Freewriting can seem daunting at first, but the point of the exercise — whether you do it daily, weekly, or whenever you have a few minutes to spare — is to take the fear out of the blank page.

Freewriting as Practice

My particular brand of freewriting routine was first and most widely popularised by Julia Cameron as “morning pages”. In her book The Artist’s Way, Cameron promotes three pages written by hand first thing in the morning as a way of emptying your mind of distractions and obsessions, readying both the conscious and subconscious for creative action. As a sort of journaling exercise, it provides the foundation for the rest of Cameron’s creative practice.

For me, the more important bit is the combination of discipline and freedom that morning pages provide: the time and imperative to simply sit down, and now, write, without worrying about quality. Your only goal is to fill the page. If you’re just starting to explore writing as a creative outlet, freewriting is a key skill to practice in order to take the challenge of the blank page head on.

For those who are more experienced at writing, you may find that freewriting helps as a tool to overcome writer’s block. By removing the pressure to produce anything good or even readable, you separate the act of writing itself from the performance of creating something publishable, and allow yourself to create without judgement.

Which all goes to say, writing, like any other skill, is something that needs to be practiced. Freewriting is the easiest and gentlest of writing exercises, a way to build up your creativity and writing stamina without critical pressure. And the best part about it is that it can be done anywhere, any time, so long as you have something to write with.

So let’s try it right now.

The Basic Freewriting Exercise

Ingredients

  • A timer
  • Anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time (though 5 minutes will also do in a pinch)
  • A writing medium: notebook and pen or pencil; the wordprocessor on your computer or laptop; a typewriter with fresh tape and a blank sheet of paper; a cafe napkin and stub of eyeliner
  • Courage and curiosity
  • Optional: A starting prompt such as “I remember…”, “Right now, I feel/think/see/hear…”, “I hope…”, “Yesterday…”, “When I was a child…”, “In the beginning…”, “Once upon a time…” etc. For more ideas, you might try a prompt generator like this one or a questionnaire such as this.

The Process: Open your notebook or laptop, or prepare your typewriter. Set your timer for ten minutes to start with. Take a deep breath, and begin by writing whatever comes into your head at that moment — use a prompt if you’re having trouble knowing where to start. Once you’ve started writing, do not stop until your timer goes off.

If you get stuck: simply write the word you’ve gotten stuck on over and over until your mind latches onto another word, image, or idea.

Remember: it doesn’t matter if your ideas are cohesive, if your grammar is correct, if your spelling is wrong, or even if you’re writing in sentences. The only goal is to build the connection between your two major writing instruments: your brain and your fingers.

Once the timer is up, finish whichever thought you’re on and put down the pen. If you never reread the words you’ve just written, that’s absolutely fine. On the other hand, you may find that one or two of the thoughts you’ve dashed down have real meaning and poignancy for you. There may be words or phrases that point to themes you hope to explore, or situations you might want to include in a story. Whether or not your freewriting has brought up anything inspirational, acknowledge the accomplishment of simply having written!

Building your Practice

For maximum impact, try to engage with this exercise daily if you can. I have a dedicated morning pages notebook that I use for my daily freewriting. In any case, this exercise is only the first step to developing a creative writing practice, though it’s a technique that you can come back to no matter where you are in the process. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of writing wherever and whenever you have ten minutes to spare, you can try using freewriting for more complex tasks such as plotting, character creation, idea generation, and even structural editing. No matter what, writing only becomes easier the more you do it. So get out those notebooks, and start freewriting.

Goodbye 2020, and Moving in the Midst of a Pandemic

So, wise children that we are, in the middle of the last lockdown, the boy and I finally enacted our move to Nottingham. It’s been an interesting time getting used to living in a new city while in the midst of lockdown, nevermind tier three, when most everything worth doing is still shut down.

Mainly, we’ve managed to get by with long walks around the city’s numerous green spaces. Our place is smack dab in between two amazing parks, with the grounds of the University of Nottingham on one side and Wollaton deer park not too far away. I’ve also managed to do quite a bit of writing before being called back in to sling books full time — NaNoWriMo saw me finish a 50k rough draft of a new middle grade project that I’m hoping to be able to shape into something useful over the next month.

All in all, this season has given rise to a strange mixture of stress and ennui. The new year arrives with more of a wet flop than a bang this time around it seems, but I’m still hopeful for everything that lies ahead. So here’s to new years, new lives, new possibilities. I sincerely hope you’ve got a few things to light the road ahead of you as well, no matter where you ended up in 2020.

Salvaging Stories: On the Publication of Like Clockwork

Click Here to read Like Clockwork.

Back in 2007, I found myself in a place that was becoming all-too-familiar in the worst possible way. Once again, my mind and body had betayed me, and several weeks removed from the flow of my life was the result.

From the barred window of my room in the intensive psychiatric unit of Bellvue hospital, I could catch a narrow glimpse of the original facade of New York City’s first “pavilion for the insane”. Here’s a truth that perhaps you’ll understand better these days, having lived through this year and the pandemic. When you’re locked up inside, with none of the expectations and pressures of every day life to contend with, time stretches.

The effect is compounded by a lack of electronic devices: no computers, no phones, a single fuzzy old-school tv that you’re only allowed to work with assistence. Paper and pen become your best friends, the only way to really escape. So I watched the street from my window, drew portraits of the other patients, wrote scraps of stories that I wasn’t sure I would ever find the end of:

Thursdays, Mother would clean the shop. Mira would often watch from the back window as her Mother and the girl, Adne, took unwound springs and bent gears out to the alley…

It was only years later, and after several more encounters with the mental health system in the US, that I finally found something that worked, to some extent: a little round pill — ten milligrams of some unpronouncable chemical compound — that balanced the dopamine in my brain. It took the edge off of the darkness and prevented me from spiralling into the deepest of my moods, so long as I made sure to take it every day. It was at that point, as well, that I finally looked back over all my old stories, and found a few things to salvage.

Like Clockwork turned out to be the story of a girl who felt the way that I did, locked up in that mental ward all those years ago. A girl who wants the freedom of exploring everything that life has to offer, but finds her own body turned against her. Worst of all, even the people most concerned for her welfare seem intent on thwarting her ability to live a free and meaningful life.

Mira’s story was one of the first I ever wrote, and now, after five years in publishing limbo, I’m so excited to be sharing it with you, courtesy of the wonderful editors and volunteers who run Ember, a Journal of Luminous Things. I sincerely hope that you enjoy it.


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An Advent Calendar of Prose Poems 4

It’s officially the beginning of The Season. This year, I’m challenging myself to write a piece of prose poetry for each of the days leading up to Christmas. This is week four — for days one through six, start here, days seven through twelve, here, and the previous days here. Check back for new ones regularly, and let me know your thoughts!

19 | Gingerbread

‘Tis the season for sweets, from almond cookies and marzipan rounds, to gingerbread cut out in the shapes of men and houses. Candied chestnuts roasting on the street corners, the smell of burnt sugar carries its own siren song. Christmas treats come in all shapes and sizes, tiny German gingerhearts and delicate Belgian spice cookies, thin as lace, jam-filled window biscuits, piled high next to chocolate drizzled macaroons. Sugared almonds and spiced plums, liquored fruit baked into dense, chewy-sweet cakes, puddings that we steam for hours on end, to bring them out, with a flourish, at the end of our shared meal.

20 | Darkest Night

Shadows gather, long and creeping, and the lamps burn small and weak. Winter snakes its way in through every crack; the season has arrived. With frost and rain and chill, this night stretches — it arches its back into the high reaches of heaven and makes even the stars glare cold. Tonight, there is no escaping the ice and gloom. On this, the longest night of the year, darkenss reigns.

21 | Solstice

Thwarted day, brief candle. How quickly it fades. Not even a glimpse of sun between lashings of rain. But tomorrow will be longer, brighter. Tomorrow, the sun will rise.

22 | Yule

In ancient times, we sheltered from the cold, wielding firelight and story against the dark. These long, withering nights heralded the turning of the year, the hope of brighter days yet to come — for after every winter there must be another spring. But for now, for today, there is only the threat of death and hunger in the air, the crushed leaves, the frozen streams. There is only the late dawn and the early dusk, the wasted fields, the frost-bound boughs, and yet still, somehow, somewhere, the trill of birdsong on the wind.

An Advent Calendar of Prose Poems 3

It’s officially the beginning of The Season. This year, I’m challenging myself to write a piece of prose poetry for each of the days leading up to Christmas. This is week three — for days one through six, start here, and days seven through twelve, here. Check back for new ones regularly, and let me know your thoughts!

13 | The Marketplace

At the furthermost edges of the square, the flowerstalls burst with winter blooms — delicate heather and nodding pansies and bright yellow stars of fresh-scented jasmine. Through the tight-twisting aisles, the rest of the market beckons, tables crowded with porcelain and metal, canisters of tea and beeswax candles, cakes and vases and potpourri. Despite the winter chill, the crowds have descended, and though we keep our distance, our excitement hums through the air.

14 | Christmases Past Part II

Afterward, Christmases are spent in other people’s homes. Aunts and cousins, friends and their families, all of them open their arms to me. One season, I cross the continent in a sleeper train to observe midnight mass in Warsaw, tour the frozen marketplaces until my feet go numb from cold, join Christmas dinner as the thirteenth guest, taking my place at the setting meant for passing strangers. The next, I visit a friend at the edge of the Austrian alps, warm my hands around mugs of gluhwine, and join his family for shots of schnapps and liqueurs. I drift, alone and anchorless, yet somehow, every Christmas, I find a place.

15 | Migrations

What if, instead of the cold and dark, we basked ourselves beneath the light of a summer sun? What if, as soon as the air began to bite, we fled and made our way to warmer climes? What if we did not tie ourselves to this piece of land, these four walls, this familiar shore? What if those borders meant nothing? What if we wandered where we wished, following the light, with no thought to spend on visas, passports, tickets, baggage? What if we simply migrated like birds?

16 | Winter Flowers

Heather lifts its buds even in the chill winter winds, tiny florets of purple blooming beneath the frost. Primrose petals still unfurl beneath the ice-steel skies. Poinsettas flame bright around doorways and garden gates, though the violets have only just now started to wither. While everything else dies, the hellebores bloom. Even here, in this aching darkness, there is life.

17 | Snow

In the heavy gray clouds, the threat of it lingers. In the edges of the chill, tiny crystals begin to form. The rain comes down, misting and delicate. It needs only the slightest shifting of degrees to turn it into snow.

18 | Lights

In every window and over every door, the twine of greenery and lights shines bright. Beneath the eerie cold of the gray-setting sun, they twinkle to life, glittering and shifting by whims. Above us, the sky is blank, a dark quilt heavy with the threat of snow. But here, down below, in the cold and dark and gray, the night is alive with fairylights and bells. They cast their glow on our faces. They brighten even this lingering dark. Tonight, the heavens are empty and all the stars are here.

An Advent Calendar of Prose Poems 2

It’s officially the beginning of The Season. This year, I’m challenging myself to write a piece of prose poetry for each of the days leading up to Christmas. Here comes week two — for days one through six, start here. Check back for new ones regularly, and let me know your thoughts!

7 | Christmases Past part 1

I grew up opening presents under the silent watch of a plastic tree, with snow gathering upon the eaves and the howl of winter winds filling the attic. We spent one Christmas in the distant summery lands of my mother’s childhood, singing carols under the harsh sun and lighting fireworks to celebrate the season. When we returned, the blizzard had thrown up walls — I wandered between the snowbanks, the familiar neighborhood turned into a labyrinth. At eleven, we left it behind.

The years following, we celebrated in a bigger house, further south, in warmer lands, fields and suburbs stretching away as far as the eye could see. We hung garlands and lights from the peach trees, and made our own fascimile of winter snow. Away to university, I came back on trains, on over-night sleepers, on long, exhausting red-eye roadtrips to make it back in time for Mom’s turkey, for the carols, for midnight mass. All of that came before.

8 | The Tree

Delivered to our doorstep, she stands to my shoulder, leaning and bowed in the winter chill. I haul her into the house, where she fills the space with the fragrance of pine forests, wrapped in a snow-white blanket. My first real Christmas Tree sheds needles onto the floor, even as we tend to her roots.

9 | Christmas Presents

It’s hard to break our magpie habit; though we’ve been hidden away most of the year, still the pile of trinkets in our closet has grown. Sweets and candles and cups and scarves, a treasure trove for all the people we have loved. Day by day, they are wrapped and ribboned; day by day, we tuck them into stockings and underneath our lopsided tree. In time, they are revealed, with gasps and hugs and thank-yous all around — yet we know that the unwrapping is not what matters.

10 | These Days

We count down our hours of daylight, measuring it against the dark. But the dawn is long in coming, and night creeps in too soon. It will be days yet before the nights start growing shorter. It will be days yet of waking up to the dark

11 | Nothing Grows…

beneath the frost. No new leaves unfurl to catch the few wan hours of winter sun. The grass remains ice-bound and stunted. The flowers have long since withered away. And yet, in the wilted petals and the last clinging leaves, in the bitter chill of the air, there is an expectancy. Nothing grows, and yet we wait for something wonderous to be born.

12 | Night comes…

On soft-shod feet, the gray sky turning suddenly gold and rose. But beneath this marvelous cape, darkness encroaches at the edges of things, too soon. Too soon, the unfeeling stars will pierce the tattered clouds, and the moon will shine down it’s ice-cold light on the gathering frost. However we draw the curtains, the night still creeps its way in.

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