Many Moons Ago…

The Wings of the Dawn opens with an attack on the furthest inhabited outpost in the Solar System, a place – a real place, or so I thought – called ‘Karla’. When I wrote it all I could remember about it was the name, and it was always in the back of my mind to fill in some more of the fine detail. So, earlier this week, I went on to Wikipedia, hunting for a moon or an asteroid… and didn’t find it. There is no mention of a ‘Karla’ there.

This made me, as you might imagine, question myself. I was sure I remembered something called Karla. But I also knew that whenever this was, it was mentioned to me before I went to secondary school – which is now long enough ago to make me wonder if I had mis-remembered something else.

My first idea was this: I had misheard the name Quaoar. Quaoar is a dwarf planet half the size of Pluto (its diameter is about 1100km) that orbits the sun roughly 43x further away than the Earth (in other words, it’s about 401,907,000,000 miles away). Unfortunately, this doesn’t work – Quaoar wasn’t discovered until 2002, long after I’d heard about whatever Karla was.

This got me thinking – perhaps I should stop looking for the rock itself and start considering dates. The first trans-Neptunian object (i.e. a part of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune) found was Pluto, in 1930, and the second was Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in 1978; but the third wasn’t discovered until 1992. It rejoices in the name ‘(15760) 1992 QB1‘ – romantic, I know – but its discoverers, David Jewitt and Jane Luu, nicknamed it ‘Smiley’. They did so because as they waited for the computers to crunch through vast amounts of astronomical observational data they read John le Carré novels, and decided to name their first discovery after le Carré’s foremost protagonist, George Smiley.

This was the point at which all that reading of thrillers finally stood me in good stead: Smiley’s shadowy antagonist, his Soviet opposite number, is known as ‘Karla‘. So I plugged David Jewitt’s name, along with Karla’s, into Google, and found an Independent newspaper article describing the discovery of (181708) 1993 FW… which they nicknamed ‘Karla’.

It’s an unprepossessing piece of real estate, at only 155 miles in diameter, and it’s even further from the sun that Quaoar is. Light from the sun reaches us in 8 minutes; it won’t reach Karla for nearly 6 hours. It’s cold and barren and, therefore, a suitably remote station, in my books, for the safe refuelling of military starships. But what bemuses me in all this is the fact that I remembered it at all. There’s nothing special about it; nothing to thrill or excite. It was, presumably, mentioned at the tail end of the evening news one night in April when I was 9 years old. Yet for some reason it stuck with me ever since, and now it’s in my books – and, as far as I can tell, no one else’s. To me, if to no one else, it’s no moon – it’s a space station.

I can only hope doctors Jewitt and Luu approve…

Your moment of Zen for today:

D11 Marne & C1 Double-heading #1

Robinson D11/1 ‘Marne’ pilots an Ivatt C1 Atlantic through the cutting at the head of a heavy express train.

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 7-13 of…err…10: ’21 down, 9 more to go’

Good news, peeps; a little behind the deadline, perhaps, but I’ve finished the chapter!

And I can prove it:


A brief explanatory note. I write chapters of more-or-less 10,000 words each. There are two reasons for this. One is that I am ingloriously dreadful at maths and this makes the sums easy. But the other, much more artistically-relevant reason is that 10,000 words is enough to get happily involved with. You can do a lot in 10,000 words (among other things, in other contexts, you can write a Master’s thesis in 10,000 words). 10,000 words gives your characters room to breathe, your action room to advance and – most importantly – the consequences of your actions room to be explored.

This can happen in one of two ways. Either you can build the chapter around some big event – have it as the centrepiece, the focal point of the whole thing, with the lead-up and the aftereffects balanced – or you can plonk it right at the end, which gives you 10,000 words of a run-up, a cliffhanger, and then a nice big new chapter to explore things further. And if you’re really clever, you can do both, by having the event at the centre of the chapter and then have the aftermath of that event suddenly twist, and use that twist to propel the narrative in the next chapter.

I have seldom been that clever.But when it works, my friends, it is awesome.

Then, when you’ve written the thing, you start farming it out to your beta readers (obviously, you’re the alpha reader) – hey Jo – and get their feedback. I’m terribly fortunate in that the benighted souls on whom I inflict these first drafts are good at giving useful critiques. And, occasionally, they say things like “I think you’ve made a mistake here” and I get to say “Haha, I know why you think that, but you need to trust me on this one because I know what’s coming up 40,000 words down the line and it’ll all make sense.” That’s fun.

And now I get to carry on. ‘Rubicon Calling’ is written; ‘Nachthexen’ awaits. (On that note, incidentally, the book I was waiting for that was going to help with the chapter has arrived – and it’s no use at all. Back to Amazon I will go. Thank goodness it was payday recently.)

Research never ends…

Here is your triumphal moment of Zen:

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 5 & 6 of 10: ‘Oh, the weather outside is frightful…’

Sunday, 21:16 – After a day spent getting up to dickens – at least, as much as one can when stationed behind a drum kit in a Presbyterian church – I have written about a hundred words. I am too distracted to write, but I have at least kept some heat under the story: I know how I’m going to carry on tomorrow. That’s one small achievement; the other was taking the chapter across the 6,000-word mark. In other words, I’m 60% done with ‘Rubicon Calling’. On to the next thousand – tomorrow evening (and for a reward afterwards: the first episode of the next series of Game of Thrones!)

Monday, 19:34 – Time to start work…

20:57 – And time to down tools, 1,025 words to the good. ‘Rubicon Calling’ is now 70% done, and the pace suggests that I will indeed achieve chapter’s end by the end of the month. Oh, and I got to introduce ‘Task Group SYCORAX’. Finding cool names for things is one of the perks of this job.

And now, your moment of Zen for the day:


Driver leaning out of the cab, a Stanier 4P on a local passenger service crosses the water troughs.

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Parts 3 & 4 of 10: ‘The Late Late Non-Show, with G. T. A. Browne’

A late start, this Friday night – it’s after 10 already. But I don’t particularly have to get up for anything in the morning, so let’s do this. First, however, a quick moment of newly-possessive pride: a new Hornby coach arrived at my desk at lunchtime. It’s a green BR Mk1, and it’ll join my 1960s Southern rake – the beginnings of which you can see below:

BoB Winston Churchill Cutting Lupins Away

‘Winston Churchill’ heads off with the express. Observe the green coach…

Anyway, on with the show…

Friday, 22:30 – This was a bad idea. I can’t concentrate. I spent the day outside, standing in the rain, and then followed that with a great big meal, so I’m both tired and sleepy, and I can’t make that work. Tomorrow, however, I have the day to myself, and I know from previous experience that, if given my head, I can put down a lot of words in a single sitting. (I wrote all 12,500 words of the last chapter and epilogue of Ghost Among Thieves on a day off when working on the Logos II). I will pick this up tomorrow morning – 1,500 words don’t intimidate me… G’night.

Saturday, 11:15 – It’s a foul day outside and I am cosily inside admiring assorted sleet, snow and rain showers as they batter at the windows. I like to faff around on the computer for a bit before I start work just to get it out of my system, so why don’t you join me in listening to a hysterically funny 1958 recording of Gerard Hoffnung’s “Bricklayer’s Lament” (a masterclass in comic delivery), and then we can crack on.

11:22 – Oh, all right, one more: Bob Newhart’s “Inexpert Bomb Disposal“.

11:30 – Work begins!

13:05 – I plot in broad strokes only, which is why I’ve been able to do what I’ve just done: the scene in the newsroom (which you must have guessed was the setting I was writing about on Thursday) led perfectly to a scene featuring characters watching the news and deciding to do something about it, which in turn led perfectly to the people who had triggered the news report in the first place, which then led perfectly to the response against those news-creators, which finally (of course!) led perfectly into the next, tense set-up for those characters – all of which has made clear the protagonists’ next actions, as well as their antagonists’ response. None of this was plotted, as such; this was just me being willing to be led by the story. (The upshot of that willingness, incidentally, is very simple: better stories.)

13:45 – An opportunity occurs to refer to events that occurred in Ghost Among Thieves. I love when these little callbacks and pieces of connective tissue present themselves!

***Intermission, in which our hero has lunch and watches The A-Team***

15:55 – So I just blew up a city…

16:23 – I hadn’t even intended to. It just sort of happened. But several factors came together (the destructive power of the weapons used; targeting choices that were inevitable given two previous, failed attempts to eliminate one particular thing) in such a way as to make any other outcome impractical. Now, of course, I’m going to have to think hard about how this affects the rest of the book. My initial thought is that it will force the action – or at least the politics – to swing back to where I feel they always ought to have been, even if for a while that wasn’t a realistic option. Blowing up this city is a way of restoring the balance and re-centering the narrative. Sometimes being an author of war stories means you’re required to swing a big stick. It’s fun, but you have to do it sparingly, and with some idea at least of what the consequences might be if you do. (One immediate consequence is that I’m able to have a cameo appearance of a character we haven’t seen in the last 400,000+ words: that’ll be one for the really eagle-eyed readers to spot.)

16:46 – Now, at long last and 5,484 words into the chapter – hey, look at that, we passed the half-way point and I didn’t even notice – we get to the thing I actually intended to write about in the first place: an invasion. This is where all the reading I did some time ago on Operation Neptune will at last be useful. (There have already been little hints and allusions – the bombers are described as succeeding because they got to ‘point-blank’ range. ‘Operation Pointblank’ was the Allied bombing effort of the invasion areas in Normandy before the troops came ashore). But it does mean that I have to run a quick search of the other two books to make sure that the ship I’ve chosen as the vanguard – the Mollymawk – hasn’t been rendered invalid by some event I’ve forgotten…

16:56 – No, we’re good. Mollymawk is the minesweeper-in-chief.

17:47 – And that’s the target hit and surpassed. I’m finishing for tonight having taken the novel past 210,000 words (it’s 210,148 in fact) and having written 3,294 words in the last four days (which I’m pleased by, given that my target by this stage was 2,980). So we’re doing well, and now it’s time to think about dinner and maybe a movie for my evening’s entertainment. Until tomorrow…

And here’s your moment of Zen:


Two for one: a 56xx and a 45xx lead a heavy iron ore train out across the viaduct

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Part 2 of 10: ‘Shower Revelations’

Continuing on from yesterday, here’s today’s installment of “how to write a novel when you only have a rough idea of what you’re doing”.

07:15 – In the shower, pondering character development, I at long last solved a riddle that’s been bugging me for more than a year. There is a female character who has so far  served the ancient and honourable function of Moral Donkey, in that it’s been her task to carry some of the story’s moral weight. However, this has made her dull to write – especially because she doesn’t (yet) have much to say (and like I said yesterday, dialogue’s the fun part). But now I know what her narrative point is, I’ll be able to look forward to involving her a lot more and, when I come to redrafting, I’ll be able to perform some rewrites knowing what it is she’s eventually going to achieve. (As an aside, it’s always tremendously satisfying to have the rescued become the rescuer. Joss Whedon knows what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, go and watch or read literally anything Joss Whedon has ever done.)

20:07 – Finally manage to put away John Scalzi’s monstrously addictive blog and spend a few minutes reading what I’ve written recently. I know there’s a swerve to come in the narrative: I don’t want to veer into it too abruptly. By regaining my sense of the chapter’s trajectory I can make sure that it flows better.

20:16 – Finished the scene I abandoned last night; now on to a new one. This one will feature characters making subversive use of social and state media. Few things are more entertaining to write than characters who don’t know they’re being manipulated by some of Our Heroes… However, if said character is a new creation, and they are required to have a Gaelic name (because reasons), be prepared to spend an annoyingly long time with both  a book of Irish names and the special characters menu in Microsoft Word open in front of you. In the end (and this may provide too much insight into the way my mind works) I went with ‘Donelle Bròg’, because this character is a newsreader, and a newsreader I remember from BBC Northern Ireland is called ‘Donna Traynor‘, and ‘Bròg’ is the Gaelic for ‘shoe’…

20:46 – Go to iPlayer to watch the start of the BBC news not because I’m interested in the stories but because I want to capture exactly the framing sentences they use to introduce them.And, having done so, I now have to think up additional headlines. Rats.

21:36 – A brief excursion to Wikipedia to confirm that Oliver Cromwell’s title during the Interregnum was ‘Lord Protector’ (it was).

21:50 – Google: what’s the Gaelic for ‘Birdsong’? (Answer: nothing useful.) What’s the Gaelic for ‘Babble’? ‘Síor-rá’. Thank you Google – that’s much more helpful.

22:37 – Not an easy session tonight, but there we go: 796 words achieved. And I’m into the next scene, so I can pick up tomorrow knowing at least my starting point. G’night, all.

Here’s your moment of Zen:

J15 Pick-up Goods - Crop and Rotate

A J15 with a train of empty 13t opens clatters past the water tower and past some exceptional lupins.

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Novel-Writing in Real Time – Part 1 of 10: ‘Orange Liqueur’

I concluded my last post by saying that I needed to average 730 words per day for the next ten days in order to hit my end-of-chapter target for the end of the month. So tonight, I kept a small record of how my efforts today turned out. And here it is:

21:42 – Start work. Introduce the frigates: I’ve chosen Roxburghe, Wellington, York and Chandos. I’ve found a nice simile for how they operate – am very pleased with the imagery.

21:46 – Ironically, after all the hassle of figuring out the identities of those ships, I’m now done with the scene. Back to Proleo, to the Queen, for a scene I set up 1,486 words ago – not much, by my standards, but this chapter (literally) has a lot of ground to cover and I can’t afford to put things aside for too long. Besides, this also gets me back to doing the thing I like best: writing dialogue.

21:52 – A quick Google to find the name of an orange liqueur.

21:54 – Back to Google for a swift gander at FM 3-21.8 The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad handbook of the US Army, to double-check that my recollections of the accepted tactics for crossing open ground haven’t been superseded.

22:01 – Nope, we’re good. Nothing new to report. And, even better, I can put that information into the mouth of a character who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and present it as a terse, two-word put-down. I’m at 289 words of my 730, but I’ve spent a fair whack of the last 20 minutes not writing. I need to sort that. (And let’s not reflect too long on the fact that I’ve just spent nearly ten minutes working out how to say two words…)

22:24 – 800 words. Time to call it a night. And tomorrow, I can do it all again.

Here is your moment of Zen:

B17 Sandringham Waved Off

After spending a fair amount of time faffing around, Gresley B17 ‘Sandringham’ receives the signal to get underway…

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The Bloody Inches

The Bloody Inches are islands in the lower River Tay and I think about them quite a lot. Their name has fascinated me since I first heard it, although until recently I didn’t know how they gained it. It turns out that a Northern warlord (perhaps Danish, perhaps a Viking) called Ragnar Lodbrok (or Regner Lodbrog, or Ragnar Lothbrok, or possibly Great Aunt Mathilda – history is a little fuzzy on who exactly he was, what exactly he can be confirmed as having done, and who he eventually fathered) was defeated on those islands in the mid-ninth century and driven from Scotland. (Here’s a link, though I think it adopts a more authoritative tone than it can really justify. The story’s about halfway down the page.)

I like the name Bloody Inches. It speaks, very eloquently, to the grim-hearted striving after something that only sheer brute stubbornness is going to accomplish. And it acknowledges that whatever progress is made is only made in tiny increments.

It’s been going through my mind recently because I’m still plugging away at The Wings of the Dawn. Some of you may know that the current word count is hovering at around 207,000; of rather more import is the fact that I am now in the last third of the novel. In other words, it’s the final act.

This is enormously intimidating, because now I have to start putting my cards on the table. I’ve thrown out threads, plot notions, hints and suggestions for the last – gulp – 650,000 words and now it’s time to find out if, in fact, I’ve been all talk and no trousers. Now’s when I have to start justifying the faith of the people who will have read the story until this point. They’ve invested emotional capital in this story by choosing to care about it: now’s the point when I have to start coughing up the rewards for that dedication.

And here’s my confession – I’m worried. Scared, in fact. Because while I have a reasonable idea of where the next five chapters are going – well, four-and-a-bit if you include the stuff I’ve already written – it’s the five after that, the final five, that are a whole lot less clear in my mind. (One thing I’m clinging to: I know exactly what happens in the epilogue.)

Years ago I did a bullet-point plan for the trilogy. I still have it, and occasionally I look at it and laugh, because I fairly swiftly wandered comically far from it. But it was nice to have, in the same way that even if you’re a confident swimmer it’s nice to be able to look over your shoulder once in a while and see the lifeguard standing on the shore. Now that I am finally out of sight of land, I am intensely aware that there’s no one standing by to fling me a rope: now I get to find out if I will sink or swim.

Here’s the thing. On the days when the writing’s going well there is literally no better feeling that I know of. Days when the writing comes easily, when the story flows, when you can reel off 2,000 words – 2,000 good words – at the drop of a hat, are brilliant. There have been occasions when I have struggled to type because my hands were shaking from the adrenaline backwash of the world’s best feedback loop – the loop that says this is good – I can do this – I’m having fun – I like what I’m writing ad infinitum.

I had a day like that a few weeks ago. But since then I’ve been struggling. Nothing seems to flow (though looking at the words on the page, you can’t tell. There’s a reason for that, and it’s called ‘professional pride’.) There hasn’t been a clear path through the undergrowth in my imagination.

So, I’ve been doing what I do when this happens. I’ve been tidying the supporting documentation. I’ve been making sure that the ships in the file called ‘Ships’ (there’s a time and a place for creativity) are up-to-date – that the ones that have been destroyed are marked as unavailable, and the locations of their destruction are noted down. This isn’t busywork, incidentally – first of all it wards off continuity errors, the bane of every long story; and secondly it’s always easier to play any game if you know what pieces are left on the board. Good writing days are much more common when you’re not having to stop and think about what ships you can use or what characters are where. If all the tools are to hand, the task gets done a whole lot more quickly.

(A brief aside: it’s surprising how easy it is to lose track of this kind of stuff. For this book I introduced a whole new class of ships, Duke-class Stealth Frigates, and I gave myself a resource of 18 of them. It wasn’t until earlier this week, when I realised that I needed 4 for a scene and couldn’t remember which ones were still extant, that I discovered that no fewer than 13 had been written off. That made me blink and sent me scurrying to a list of Dukedoms on Wikipedia, so that now I have added more to the class and the Gloucester, Wellington, York, Lancaster and Argyll have been joined by the Roxburghe, Aumale, Chandos, Rutland, Montrose and Qwghlm.)

I also know the title of the next chapter – ‘Nachthexen’ – which is a reference to these formidable ladies. I also know I want to know more about the German response to their activities, which rather suggests that my next non-fiction book – once I’ve finished reading this biography of John Dee, which has been providing me with all kinds of useful information that will yet make an appearance in my novel and which will go some way to tying up some the threads I mentioned earlier – is likely to be this one. But that’s next month’s problem/opportunity/task. This month I’m still trying to achieve the basic, fundamental order of business for any novelist: finish the current chapter. I can do it, too, if I average 730 words a day for the next 10 days. So for the remainder of the month, I will be claiming, as best I can, the bloody inches.

And here is your moment of Zen for today:

J11 Cutting Detailed Obverse Desktop

A Robinson J11 ‘Pom-Pom’ emerges from the tunnel and shuffles through the cutting with a train of loaded Trout ballast wagons.

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