Reflections on NaNoWriMo

S l1600I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, in spite of my objections to the use of the word “National” in the title of what is by now surely a global event. GloNoWriMo works just as well.

Anyway, I squeezed out 50000 words, somehow, in this hard term for teaching with a workload to die for from.

Don’t know if I’ll finish it, or even if I could if I wanted to. I don’t know if I could come up with an ending. I’ve done it in the past: you just write and write and while you’re writing, inspiration can strike, and you suddenly get that hook, the thing that’s going to drive you towards some sort of ending. But it’s probably a symptom of general tiredness that I wasn’t really feeling it this year.

And yet: I dribbled out 50,000 words, by putting together a couple of ideas I’d had in the past and trying to make them work together.

You’ll be wanting to know what it was about. It’s about a widower who is presented with an opportunity to find out why his journalist wife was murdered fifteen years before. By resurrecting some old technology, he and a retired cop come across documents left by his wife which lead them in a direction previously unexplored.

That’s the bones. Which is all I really banged out in November, without knowing how it would end. I left it in the middle of things, on the South Bank of the Thames, with the red lights winking on the construction cranes. Just abandoned it, with relief, as I crossed the 50,000 word target.

In writing the material left by the wife, Jo, on old floppy disks, I was confronted with the problem of digging back to the turn of the century. What was it like back then? I mean, if you were travelling abroad in the summer of 2000, what network access would you have had, what phone would you have been using? How much was the internet a part of your life? I’m sure I’ve dropped things into sentences that make no sense in the world of 2000 or 2002.

I didn’t have a mobile phone till about six or seven years after that, although I did have a Palm Organiser with a colour screen and a stylus that I synched to my Mac. Had absolutely no use for it, of course (got it from Macworld for a Letter of the Month). Those days! As for the internet, I think we got that at home while I was doing my PhD, late 90s, but if I’d been abroad in 2000 (as I almost certainly was at some point), I’d not even have missed it back then.

But it’s by creating these problems and limitations for myself that I hope to unlock something interesting. I just have no idea what.


Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie – review

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TP-692x1024Winner of the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel, The Arthur C Clark award and the British Science Fiction Association Award, Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera about love and revenge, but it is also far more interesting than (even) that sounds. Some spoilers in what follows (of more than one book!), so don’t read on if you want to come to it cold.

If you ever thought there was nothing new to add to the space opera, this book should make you think again. Its narrator is Justice of Toren, an artificial intelligence that runs a vast military ship but also animates the stolen bodies of people not considered human by the vast Radch empire. (Some reviews put this as reanimating corpses, missing the crucial detail that the people reprogrammed with the personality of the ship aren’t dead, and are merely having their own individuality suppressed in a violent and traumatic way.) These stolen bodies are neither soldiers nor citizens: they are ancillaries, machine parts, mobile aspects of the huge and complex ship.

There are some echoes of the Roman empire in the Radch, but only to help the reader to grasp what they’re doing: absorbing and conquering other cultures, creating new citizens, adapting religions, all in service of the secret centre, which itself is ruled by a mad emperor who occupies thousands of different bodies.

What this idea allows the author to do is create a first person narrator who possesses some of the characteristics of an omniscient narrator. Justice of Toren is the ship, but is also planet side, in the temple, on the town square, in the barracks, or back on the ship, on every deck, in the cabin. This allows the narrative POV to shift around in a fluid way.

As well as multiple points of view (that are actually one point of view) the narrative takes place in three distinct time frames: a thousand years before, twenty years before, and the “now” of the story. The AI is more or less immortal. Except.

One of the narrator, Breq, is actually the sole survivor of the AI, after the ship was destroyed, and has been passing for human for twenty years, looking for what she needs to take revenge.

All of this is great, and complex and wonderful, and gripping, but even all of this is not the whole of what makes this book so great. The Radch, you see, don’t have gender-differentiated pronouns, so they don’t programme their AIs to distinguish people by gender. So Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren calls everybody “she”.

Now, one of the great strengths of science fiction is its ability to throw you out of the familiar and force you to understand different points of view. In Karen Travis’ City of Pearl, for example, we encounter aliens who see all fauna as “people” and are appalled that human people would eat other sorts of people: canibale! In Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, the novel is narrated by a teenage girl who relates the story of the coming of aliens to her home planet – and only towards the end do we realise that she is not, in fact, human, but the aliens who are coming are.

Ancillary Justice, throws you out of familiarity in a big way. There are strange names, strange words. You’re not sure whether Radch and the other people are human or not. The author dumps us in the middle of things without a great deal of background information. There’s a distinct lack of early exposition, so you’re forced to puzzle your way through. At first you don’t get it, but then suddenly you do. Everybody is “she”, even the anatomically male characters. And even when you learn that a character is anatomically male (from a non-Radch character who is amused that Radch struggle to tell the difference when people are clothed), the narrator continues to refer to them as “she”.

What this means is that you stop thinking of people in a gendered way. Or rather, you just read every character – soldier, citizen, farmer, doctor, emperor – as a she. The power of a simple pronoun actually stops you from putting male bodies on the characters as you read them. It’s like that Twitter joke about Dr Pepper: I bet it didn’t even occur to you that Dr Pepper might be a woman. In Ancillary Justice, everybody is a woman. Even the men. And apart from that one character, the one you’re told is male, you have no idea (and don’t care) whether people are male or female, or what. And if they’re sleeping together, you don’t know whether they’re a same-sex couple or not.

So. Far future space opera, interstellar empires, love and revenge, multiple narrative threads, multiple points of view, and a clever use of pronoun that absolutely boots you out of your gendered thinking rut. All this in a gripping story that leaves you gasping for the sequel. Brilliant.

Designing a cover for The Obald.

The Obald is available for Kindle (and in paperback form from CreateSpace – although that’s an expensive option, because the CreateSpace costs balloon as page counts increase). By the way, it’s not that I’ve written two novels in a couple of months, but that I wrote this one four years ago and inexplicably forgot about it. Over the Easter holiday, I fired it up and polished it off. If it has a genre (and it’s hard to say that I can properly write genre – much as I’d love to), it’s slightly more science fictiony and espionagy than French Blood, which is a bit more murdery and mystery.

The cover of The Obald can be seen on the right:

The Obald 2014 cover
The Obald 2014 cover

I designed it relatively quickly, using Pixelmator, which is all I have now that I no longer work in an environment where Photoshop is freely available (I do have Photoshop at work, but I obviously do this kind of personal stuff at home). I was just messing around with ideas, trying to come up with something abstract and simple, and I hit upon the idea of cogs (as in ‘the works’ or clockwork, or time) and an eye (as in surveillance). It came together very serendipitously, and although I could have worked longer on it and tweaked it some more, I kind of like the way it turned out as an original concept, and decided to go with it. The original, by the way, was on a white background. As I do so often, I just inverted the image to get the final design. I usually find that the inverted version works better! (See left for original design.)

the obald try 3

It’s very hard to say something meaningful about a book with a cover, and in this case, I think it works. The book involves a bit of time travel, a bit of spying/surveillance, and a bit of dystopian lid-lifting. It’s also something of a romance, though of course men aren’t supposed to admit to writing romance.

It was originally written four years ago, at which time I also experimented with some cover designs. Here are some of the others I came up with.

The first is a stark white background with a London Underground-style original obald covernameplate and the words “a novel”. The author’s name was originally done, like the title, in Johnston Underground, but here it’s in the similar Gill Sans. I then developed this idea further into the eventual proof paperback copy I had printed at CreateSpace, which I did in Illustrator, with a more complex scribbly background, using some of the ornament glyphs from the Johnston Underground family.


I quite like it, still, but grew concerned I’d get hassled by London Transport for taking their corporate identity in vain. If you read the book (and why not, at £1.02?), you’ll get the Underground connection, but it’s less significant in the 2014 version of this novel than it was in the original 1983 version. In the end, I think my final design (the one at the top) works better.

But wait! There are still more designs that I tried and rejected.

obald_coverThe worst of them uses a photo with some terribly amateur perspective applied to the text, and a font called Sinzano, which I purchased, but decided not to use. At the time, I was trying for something simple and effective. This is simple, but not effective. I then tried to do something using the Scrivener software I used to write the book.


I still quite like this one (left). I like the idea of a cork board and various graphics which bear some relation to the plot.

Finally (!), there’s one more design which didn’t make the cut. This last one was me trying to do something “classic”. The font you need for this kind of thing is Univers, which I don’t currently have installed, so (because I didn’t keep a JPEG of the original), it has been re-rendered today using a different font. If you know your book design, you’ll know what I was trying to do with this.obald cover 2

I still quite like it. You’ll note that it evokes the idea of surveillance quite successfully, but says nothing else about the story. And anyway, it’s masquerading as non-fiction by ripping off the Pelican design.

So, I’m happy with the one I went with, but have a fondness for a couple of the others. I won’t ask you to vote on these, because the decision has already been made.

(If you do read the book, I’d appreciate a review posted to Amazon. I think books with reviews stand more of a chance.)