My mother gave me an inspirational present, many years ago, when I was in my early twenties. The title is A Room of Her Own, by Chris Casson Madden, and it’s one of those coffee table style books full of lovely photos. It contains offices, workshops, relaxation spaces, and others, belonging to wide variety of women: designers, artists, poets, TV presenters, etc.
For years I told myself that one day I would write. I had a daydream — the perfect office, the sort of lovely sanctuary that belonged in the pages of that coffee-table compilation. Time passed, and eventually I did dust off the writing dream. But by then I had kids, a husband, and a busy home life. The space and means (and time!) to indulge in a room of my own was not something that fitted in with my reality.
Since we bought this house in 2014, my writing office has been the kitchen table. I happen to like working at the center of things (I did try a desk in the bedroom, but it felt too isolated), so I didn’t mind the lack of my own room to work in, but I did find I missed having a space in the house that was just mine. After some research, and a lot of furniture shifting, we acquired a second-hand secretary-style desk with plenty of drawers and shelf space for my bits and pieces and my project folders, and found a corner of the kitchen for it, right next to my small indoor jungle of potted plants. I added some cork board to the inside of the doors for pinning things, and done! My space was born.
I love seeing writer friends post photos of their offices. And I thoroughly enjoy those pictures of famous authors behind their desks, sunlight streaming over full bookcases, with maybe a worn but comfy armchair in the corner and a couple of cats. (Yes, you all know the sort of photo I’m talking about!) But the truth is, most of us don’t have a spare room to lay claim to and call our own.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t carve out a little bit of your home for yourself. Perhaps it’s a desk in a corner of the living room, like the one belonging to Northern Irish sci fi and fantasy author Jo Zebedee. A repurposed coat cupboard, a corner under the stairs, a desk that does double-duty as a bedside table — the possibilities are endless. If you’re really pressed for space, how about a rolling cart that can hold folders, notebooks, and a laptop, and move to wherever you’re sitting at the time? I spent months looking for ideas on Pinterest before I figured out a solution that worked for me (here are some of the ideas I found), and believe me, there are a lot of creative options out there.
My little secretary desk might not seem like much, but it’s all mine. When I sit there, I feel like I’m in one of those magazine spread offices, comfy armchair and cats and all. It might look like just a piece of furniture, but to me, it’s an entire state of mind. So pick your spot and create a space for yourself. Go on. You deserve it.
Writing slumps — we’ve all had them. Times (days, months, years) where the words dry up and the joy sparks out. If the love for writing is still there, however, burning bright under the keyboard dust, then maybe all you need is a gentle push to get things flowing again.
Perhaps you’ve already tried all the tricks you can think of — long walks, browsing Pinterest, making playlists, writing to prompts, brainstorming with a friend… If so, why not take a chance and diversify your work to jumpstart the creative process?
Write poems, if prose is your thing. If you’re a novelist at heart, write a children’s picture book. Try an adult short story, if YA is your raison d’être. Write romantic flash fiction if you’re a hard science fiction author. Challenge yourself to come up with a haiku every morning for a week. You get the idea.
You don’t have to show your efforts to anyone. You don’t even have to be good at it (though you may surprise yourself). But you do have to give it your best shot. Focusing on a different genre, format, or style will help break your brain out of its holding pattern (hopefully, and not just break your brain!) and set the words free. Then you can return to your preferences, creativity once again on the loose.
A lot of writers do this; they publish picture books and YA, or YA and adult. They have novels and short stories, poems and prose. A middle grade sci fi novel simmers on the back burner while a fantasy novella is revised. A non-fiction think piece sits side-by-side with intricate fictional worlds. Authors alternate, or switch between projects, taking breaks and returning replenished to stalled work.
I’ve been stuck on the same YA story for a while now. I love it, but I haven’t found the right approach for it yet. I decided to take a good long break and set it aside until I’m ready. Instead, since April, I’ve reworked a short story as a poem, written two picture books (something I didn’t believe I could do!), and started my first adult novel. It’s been a good couple of months, overall. I won’t say that I’ve become an unquenchable well of creativity and energy — I still have slow days — but it’s helping. I’m writing again, and that’s enough for now.
I can’t promise this will work for you, but why not give it a try? At the very least, it’ll be a fun writing exercise. And who knows, you may even discover a love for something you would never have attempted otherwise.
Next week marks two months of staying at home for my family. While governments everywhere are beginning the slow process of reopening in a safe and viable manner, it’s pretty clear that the coronavirus pandemic is far from being resolved, and social distancing is here for the foreseeable future.
In some ways, time has flown by. In others, it has dragged on interminably. All of us have been forced to dig within and find balance, charting the things that make our new realities bearable. For writers and other creatives, there’s that added pressure of social media reminding us to take advantage of lockdown to, you know, create. But, as many of us are finding, it’s Not Quite That Simple.
Here’s a Top 10 of my personal do’s and don’ts as a writer in lockdown. (Emphasis on personal!)
1. DON’T read any of those posts. You know the ones. SHAKESPEARE WROTE KING LEAR DURING THE PLAGUE. Yeah, those ones. Between the general uncertainty, the incessant news updates, and the overall (very real) sense of fear, many of us are finding it hard to spark our creativity right now. Be kind to yourself. It’s perfectly fine to store ideas in your head (or a handy notebook) for now and wait until the world settles a little around you.
2. DO get a change of perspective every now and then. I’m lucky enough to live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where I can safely walk the dog AND social distance. Those moments spent outside the house help me reorder my brain. If you can’t go out, try using an unusual space instead. Sit on the stairs. Lie on the bathroom floor. Stand inside a closet in the dark for five minutes.
3. DON’T feel pressured to ‘use your time at home in an educational manner’. Sure, there are a ton of amazing webinars and author talks aimed at writers right now, many of them graciously offered free of charge. If your mind is in that place, go for it! My mind… is not. Every now and then I feel a stab of guilt when I see some cool online event advertised. But I ruthlessly squash it down. The only new skill anyone has picked up around here lately is the dog, who learnt how to roll over. And I’m fine with that!
4. DO take some time to have fun with your imaginary worlds. Just because you’re not necessarily writing doesn’t mean you can’t let your mind soar! Create a color palette. Build an aesthetic board on Pinterest. Curate a playlist for your favorite characters or bake them a cake. Be playful.
5. DON’T judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. If you need to fall apart sometimes and scream into a pillow, go do it. If you need to lock your family out and hide in the bedroom for a while, go do it. Find your own coping mechanisms. If those include writing — a work-in-progress or a diary or a prompt or two — that’s fine and great, but if not, don’t feel like you should be writing just because other people are channeling their fear and frustration that way. Seriously. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.
6. DO find analogies for creativity that anchor you in this difficult moment. For me, it’s plants. I’ve been expanding and repotting my small indoor jungle — I’m not much of a gardener, but container plants, I can handle. Watching my beauties grow reminds me that words, like plants, have periods of plenty and periods of rest. Yes, sometimes we do have to force ourselves to push through a block or a slow patch, but at other times it’s all right to let our work grow, well, organically.
7. DON’T feel obligated to connect. Yes, a lot of writers are moving online to get together as a community. We’ve all had to learn to use Zoom or Google Meets, among other tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Join an online meet if you want, but if it’s not for you, don’t feel pressured by social media posts or the latest Microsoft ad to jump on the meet-up bandwagon. A simple email or Facebook message to friends to let them know that you’re okay works, too. Or go old-school and send a card or a surprise treat.
8. DO seize the moment to break your own writing rules. The work-in-progress not doing it for you right now? Try something completely different. Pen some haikus. Dabble in fan fiction. Re-imagine your latest draft as scenes from a Regency romance. Pick the most absurd writing prompt you can find on the internet and go for it, purely for your own enjoyment!
9. DON’T forget to feed your writing brain. Put aside all your carefully crafted to-read or to-watch lists. Choose what you need right now, in this moment. Maybe it’s the comfort of reconnecting with a favorite book. Or the challenge of tackling a genre you usually ignore. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of watching the opening scenes of a dozen Netflix shows until you find one that lights you up inside. And again, don’t let anyone guilt you from enjoying what you want to be reading or watching.
10. DO take a break from life every now and then to create moments of mindfulness. We all need some inner peace right now! Light a candle and meditate. Collect stones on your walks and write yourself reminders. Pray a rosary. Do divination with crystals. Stand barefoot on the grass and breathe. Make dandelion wishes. Anything goes!
On February 6th, I headed down to New York City for the 21st SCBWI Winter Conference — one of two national events organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It had been a while since I’d been to the national conference — since 2014 to be precise — and I was looking forward to seeing the changes.
I arrived early, as the New England team (including myself and my regional conference co-director Casey Robinson) had a meeting on Friday morning. Business attended to, I escaped for a couple of hours to meet a friend from Brazil for a visit to the Met. Oh, important detail: my friend is a tour guide, so I had an amazing personalized glimpse at the museum’s permanent collection. If you’ve never been to the Met before, I thoroughly recommend this ‘taster’ version, where you get to sample a little from several different rooms and wings. After a post-museum lunch, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax with friends before getting ready for the Golden Kite Awards at night.
“Yeah… I’m so done with this!”
Watching the awards ceremony on Friday evening was definitely one of my personal highlights (and not just because of the strawberries and champagne reception!). Besides opening words from Kwame Alexander, who reminded us that “in the end, we answer for the children, to the children”, and James Patterson, who urged the gatekeepers in the room not to get in the way of kids reading for pleasure, we heard moving acceptance speeches from the award recipients, challenging us all to strive for more in our own work. Find a full list of the Golden Kite awards at: https://www.scbwi.org/announcing-the-golden-kite-and-sid-fleischman-winners/
Saturday began with a great keynote by author Kate Messner, centering on wonder and curiosity, and setting the tone nicely for the conference. This was followed by two workshop intensives that took place throughout the day. My first was on writing genre fiction, with Tor editor Melissa Frain. We talked through the challenges of worldbuilding and the subsequent perils of info-dumping, and then she walked us through an interesting first pages exercise.
I was particularly inspired by my afternoon intensive with agent Chelsea Eberly, who talked us through identifying our author brand. She broke this down into a number of key aspects, among which were to root our work in authenticity (what makes you YOU?) and to identify and focus on our strengths (where do you shine?).
The day’s programming concluded with a heartwarming keynote address by Jerry Pinkney, who talked us through his journey as an artist, starting from his earliest place of inspiration: his father’s basement workshop. Later, the evening centered around the traditional networking dinner, with regional tables set up so attendees could meet and mingle with others from their area, if they so desired. I lingered a while afterwards, chatting to friends (old and new!), but soon called it a night.
Sunday brought my last intensive session, with Harper Collins editor Tiara Kittrell. Tiara talked us through the key elements of a variety of genres, and shared tips on how to successfully blur the lines between them to create fresh ways to tell stories. I had to leave straight after, and was sorry to miss what I’ve heard was a wonderful final keynote with author Derrick Barnes, but I still carried home a head and notebook full of new ideas and inspiration to fuel my writing work. All in all, it was a fantastic, exhausting, amazing weekend, and I’m glad I decided to return to the New York conference after such a long break!
I’m stuck at the moment on a passion project. I have other things I could be — should be — working on. Like revising the YA novel I wrote over a year ago. Or finally getting around to finishing Star Blade, the last part of my Blade Hunt Chronicles trilogy. But over and over, I find myself drawn back to the fantasy work-in-progress I’ve been obsessing over for the past year or so.
Sometimes, stories arrive clear-cut and blazingly obvious. We can see where we have to go and how to get there, and the characters are set from the start. There will be ups and downs in the writing — there always are — but these are stories that almost lead us by the hand. They’ll need revisions, and edits, and sometimes a full rewrite or two, but their general structure is there from the very beginning.
Other times, there are stories that are nebulous. More gut feeling than sign-posted path. More essence than solid shape. We want — need — to tell them, but it’s hard when we don’t know exactly what form the telling should take. This is one of those stories. I can almost see it, but not quite. It’s been through a full draft and a partial rewrite, besides a one-chapter experiment that just didn’t work at all. Each of these ‘takes’ has been different, with only the bare bones of worldbuilding and characters in common. And now I have an idea for an entirely new version. Part of me thinks that I’m chasing moonbeams, and that this story either isn’t really mine, or that I’m not yet ready for it. But the rest of me just can’t let it go.
I think all writers have a story like this in their past, or perhaps waiting for them to stumble upon it in the future. One that grabs us by the heart and whisper-screams ‘look at me’, that teases and begs and demands to be told. One that just won’t go down easy on the page until we’ve ripped it to pieces to find exactly what part of it is actually ours to claim. This one, this frustrating, enticing, beautiful little tale? I’ll get it written, eventually. I just need to allow myself time, I think, to dig through all the images and ideas and find my story.
2019 is almost over, but hey! I get a whole new year tomorrow, brand new and sparkling with promise. (At least, I think that shiny stuff is promise. It could just be glitter. Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of leftover Christmas glitter lying around. And pine needles. Especially pine needles!)
Before moving forward, here’s a quick look at 2019…
The first draft of a fantasy novel written, which I then decided to rewrite completely; I’m now a third of the way through the rewrite.
Two short stories published in anthologies; another sold but only coming out in 2020.
Two Cons as panelist and one doing a reading (Boskone in Boston, Worldcon in Dublin, and Eurocon in Belfast).
An international book launch! We released our collaborative women’s sci fi anthology DISTAFF during Eurocon in Belfast. There were cupcakes and robot chocolates…
Attended the New England SCBWI conference and the NESCBWI ENCORE event.
I passed on organization of our local SCBWI meet and greets but took on a new role as co-director of the 2020 and 2021 regional conferences!
Con badge and con nails
Favorite books this year include Holly Black’s fabulous Folk of the Air series, S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, Peter McLean’s excellent Priest of Bones, and Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye graphic novels.
Some of the movies I loved were Captain Marvel and Charlie’s Angels. Shazam was a delightful surprise — lots of fun and one of the best found families I’ve seen in a while. The Rise of Skywalker was a good and satisfying conclusion to Star Wars. As for Endgame, no comment. I’m still in mourning!
TV shows! I finally caught up on the Netflix Marvel shows, and the last season of Daredevil was truly excellent. Derry Girls is fabulous and really good fun; thanks to my daughter for introducing it! We binged The Umbrella Academy as a family and thoroughly enjoyed it (great soundtrack). Other faves were Good Omens and Carnival Row, which I’m almost done with. And the CW end of year Arrowverse crossover has been a blast, with tons of fun cameos. Oh, if you like cooking shows, please go and watch Jon Favreau’s The Chef Show on Netflix! (I don’t even watch cooking shows and I love this one. I think my fave episodes so far have been Skywalker Ranch and the oyster farm…)
Personal bits and pieces
Our rescue pup Misty is now a year and a half, and tons of trouble but also absolutely adorable.
We went on a family trip to Washington DC in spring — my first time there. We arrived at peak cherry blossom time, beautiful!
Summer took me to Ireland for two weeks on my own to meet writing friends, attend a couple of conferences, and do a bit of sightseeing on the side.
We also had summer visits from my mum and my mother-in-law, always a good excuse to get out and do some local touristing.
I now have a child with a driver’s license… Scary stuff!!
We had a French exchange student come to stay for two weeks, a great experience for all of us.
I’ve joined a gym, am trying to eat more healthily, and am learning to do divination with crystals (a good meditation tool!) — investing in a bit of TLC for both body and soul.
Coming in 2020
In February, I’ll be at the NYC SCBWI Winter Conference and at Boskone, checking in with both my kid lit friends and the SF/F community. In May it’ll be time for the NESCBWI regional conference, which I’m helping to organize this year!
The Not All Monsters anthology from Strangehouse Books arrives sometime in autumn, containing my short story The Sugar Cane Sea.
Writing, writing, writing. Goals for 2020! I have a short story I’m rather pleased with that I’m polishing up to submit soon. I plan to finish the rewrite of my fantasy novel and get it submission-ready. I also plan to finish revising the SF YA I wrote in 2018, and get back to my stalled draft of Star Blade. Busy, busy!
I’d seen them in magazine spreads and lifestyle blogs: those glorious pin-board displays in home offices and studios, with ideas and inspiration for work in progress or projects soon to unfold. Vision boards — a beautiful and tantalizing glimpse into a writer or artist’s imagination. I’d always dismissed them for myself, though. I don’t have an office with a vast expanse of pristine cork ready to be filled; in fact, I don’t even have an office at all, or a desk (I work quite happily at the kitchen table).
Then, one day, my critique group decided to gather for a vision board exercise. We all brought magazine, glue, pens, and poster board. We flipped through countless pages, snipping and sharing, and marveling at some of the strange and wonderful things we found. It was a great afternoon. And… something interesting happened. I thought I had my writing project at the time all mapped out in my head. But a random picture of a Russian nesting doll, which had nothing to do with my novel, jumped out at me. I ended up incorporating it, making my work just that little bit richer.
I went home and shoved the vision board in a drawer. It had been fun and illuminating, but ultimately I had no place to display a big piece of poster board, so away it went. I moved onto Pinterest — far more practical for being virtual, I thought. And yes, Pinterest is great for finding images of things already in your head: what do the cliffs in my imaginary seaside town look like? What’s the perfect shade of violet for the rivers on my alien planet? What sort of wolf would my main character transform into? I carefully crafted online boards for all of my projects. I even downloaded a vison board app (PicCollage — my daughter’s recommendation) to prettily arrange my finds and set them as my desktop.
But Pinterest had a drawback. It was fun to forage for images that fit my plot and characters, but it lacked a certain serendipity. It wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped it would be. Something was lacking.
Let’s fast-forward a couple of years. Carrie Firestone, my critique partner who had led us in the first vision board exercise, offered to give a talk on the subject to a few local writers. She had piles of magazines and set us all to searching and snipping. I felt the spark: this was it! This was what was lacking in my online image searches! That moment of connection, when you find the perfect image, the one you had no idea you were looking for! My story, which had stalled because it felt as if the plot was lacking something, suddenly looked all shiny and new. I had found the missing elements, the ones I didn’t even know were missing, and now I could visualize what I had to do to make it all work.
I didn’t paste the images onto a board this time; I’d learned my lesson. I don’t personally have the space. So the images are in my story folder, along with all my worldbuilding notes and plot documents. If you have room for it, then have fun! Pin it all up and build your tale visually around you. And if not, don’t let it stop you from a little hard copy search in magazines and other places. You can use a folder, or if you prefer found objects as inspiration, you can set them up on a windowsill or store them in a project box. Whatever works for you.
If you’ve never tried this exercise, or have never ventured outside Pinterest or a Google image search, I thoroughly recommend it. The new year is almost here, and this is the perfect time to take a moment to reflect on your work and look for some new ideas. You never know what might turn up to enrich your vision!
Stephen Palmer is the author of fifteen novels, dabbling in a variety of genres from science fiction to slipstream, including steampunk, alternate history, and fantasy. He tells tales of the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-might-yet-be. His gripping and thought-provoking prose is both wildly creative and chillingly conceivable.
In the Factory Girl trilogy, Stephen Palmer brings us a meticulously constructed clockpunk alt-Edwardian world, full of bustling automata and a myriad of other tiny details. The story of Kora and Roka, different personalities of the same young woman, the ‘girl with two souls’, sweeps us along from England to Africa and back again in an intricate plot that centers on themes of identity and society.
The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul will be released today and throughout December 2019 in brand-new editions from Infinity Plus Press.
Hi Stephen, thanks for joining me on the blog. Congratulations on the release of the new editions of the Factory Girl trilogy! Could you tell me a little about the cover changes?
The trilogy got some good reviews, which I and Keith Brooke – my outstanding editor, and the man behind Infinity Plus Books – were pleased with. But afterwards I felt it could maybe do more. Last year I met Tom and Nimue Brown at the Asylum Steampunk weekend, and on the Saturday I got to see more of Tom’s artwork. Tom has a unique style of creating images, which I immediately fell for. Nimue hand colours the art for their graphic novels – they are a fantastically talented pair. With both of them being fans of the trilogy (Nimue reviewed it for her Druidlife blog), it occurred to me that the trilogy could benefit from being re-jacketed. I floated the idea to Keith, and he agreed. In due course the arrangement was made with Tom and Nimue. I saw them in Stroud a few months ago, and we had an enjoyable chat in a pub. Lovely couple.
After a while I sent Tom a few descriptions and other suggestions, and he came up with the images this year, all three of which we loved.Then it was a matter of firing up Photoshop to create the cover designs.
Identity is a key theme in the Factory Girl trilogy, as indeed with many of your other works, such as the excellent Beautiful Intelligence. What is it about this theme that fascinates you?
That’s a good question, a wise question. I’m going to have to think a bit about it. [Thinks for a few days…] Well, perhaps it’s because the main direction of my thinking life is the relationship between human beings and the real world, a relationship which, in my own life, has been conveyed by understanding. Understanding, for me, is the most fundamental aspect of individual and social life. It’s what motivates the majority of my life anyway. I think Kora’s need to understand the circumstances of her life is based in part on my own drive for meaning.
Human beings have two main ways to create meaning, including the meaning of other people, which is identity. We can create it ourselves from what we are told, or we can find it out from first principles. I would characterise the former as narcissistic and the latter as realistic. The former says: this is what I believe regardless of the real world. The latter says: I’ll test the real world, see what it tells me, then make a decision based on that. Most people form their identity from a blend of the two. They’ll be born and brought up in a particular culture, which they’ll adopt as the norm. But a lot of people will move on from that. I think this is why women in general are a better representation of humanity than men. Men take so much on faith. Women tend to communicate more, and better, which allows them to see themselves from other perspectives; and that’s a key to personal growth, I think, including for identity.
In Beautiful Intelligence this aspect of social life is more generally presented. Leonora is going for the individual, faith-based option via her AI, while Manfred decides to see what the BIs will tell him. His first scene, the cutting of the bonds between the nine BIs, is his answer to his thought process. Leonora by contrast has no idea what Zeug will do because she has imposed her own ideas onto it.
A lot of my work is about this split in human meaning and its relationship with identity. Even in my debut, Memory Seed, the priestesses of the Goddess realise at the end of the novel that their lives have been lived regardless of what the world was telling them. The story ‘First Temple’ in my recent collection Tales From The Spired Inn tells the same story in civic life. We cannot be saved. We have to save ourselves.
Your main protagonist is actually two characters in one: Kora and her ‘other soul’, Roka. What inspired her creation? Did you find you had to do a lot of research into subjects such as dissociative identity disorder to pull off this ambitious character?
About a year before I put the trilogy together I had an idea for a book title – The Girl With Two Souls. I don’t know why this title popped into my mind, unless it somehow represented ideas which interest me, and which are the philosophical theme of the trilogy: do human beings or other creatures and creations have a soul or spirit? Anyway, I wrote it down for future reference, as it seemed a particularly intriguing title for a novel. The year after, that title and the whole thematic template for the trilogy merged and came out in a single two hour splurge. I knew Kora was the girl with two souls, I knew she had one black African parent and one white British parent, and I knew she would alternate between Kora and some other character. Now, the strange thing is, this alternation of identity has been recorded in reality; there are some individuals with DID who alternate regularly, day by day. I was so astonished to read this that I remembered it much later, when it became the central aspect of Kora’s mental condition.
I did do a little research, but not much – just enough to make the grounding plausible. There are aspects of Kora which are my own invention, while other aspects are psychologically grounded. Also, I wanted to emphasise that the Edwardian society surrounding Kora would look at her from a Christian perspective, i.e. that she did have two souls within. There was very little understanding of mental conditions in those days – a theme of my WW1 novel Tommy Catkins. Freud, for instance, had in 1910 only been published for a couple of decades. So Kora is psychologically grounded, but also a person of my imagination.
I think this might be a good point to mention an aspect of the trilogy which some readers found perplexing, and that is the “second novel” which intertwines with the main one. This is Amy’s Garden by Reverend Carolus Dodgson. I can tell you that right from that opening splurge of ideas I knew Amy’s Garden had to be a central element of the trilogy. It is of course an alternate version of Alice In Wonderland – I’ve always loved that book, like millions of others. So I re-wrote it, using Dodgson’s love of logic in my own particular way, asking and answering questions about consciousness and the human condition. Amy’s Garden is a book Kora cannot live without. As she declares much later, it is her heart. I did everything I could to encapsulate in the smallest possible amount of prose, and as vividly as possible, ten central aspects of consciousness and the human condition: that is what Amy’s Garden is, over twelve brief chapters. Kora, lacking a steady identity, grasps at a deep level that the book speaks to her, which is why she carries it in her pocket and is never parted from it. And in Amy’s Garden itself I played with a kind of conceptual echo, since Amy herself carries a book in her pocket…
By the way, in Alice In Wonderland, Alice’s sister is not named, though some believe she is called Lorna. I called her Amy, and had Alice herself appear briefly part of the way through Amy’s Garden, alongside her parents. Now, in real life back in 2013, I knew two sisters called Amy and Alice, which is where Amy’s name came from. They were students at the college where I worked! I never told them, of course…
In your blog post ‘The Unemployment Problem’ you talk about your automata. Did you go through different models for employment in your world before settling on that one, or was it clear from the start which direction you wanted to go in?
The second line in my notebook from that two hour splurge says: touchstone, steampunk. I knew right away that I wanted to write a steampunk or steampunk-influenced work. So automata were the direction to go in. I think I was also influenced by a television documentary I watched presented by Professor Simon Schaffer called ‘Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.’ This was broadcast in autumn 2013, and I remember being fascinated by it, as at the time I knew nothing about how complex automata were in historical times. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, it really is an amazing documentary.
I particularly liked the idea of automata being the slaves underpinning the British Empire, as so much of the wealth and power of that real era came from exploitation: of the working class, of people in colonial nations like India, and, in previous centuries, of actual slaves, like those taken from West African countries. Linking these automata slaves with Kora’s father and his Factory seemed the perfect connection to me, and made for some great plot twists!
The Clockwork Garden is amazing! How did the idea for this come about? And additionally, what is your personal favorite Factory Girl location?
How strange that you should mention the Clockwork Garden in that way! It so happens I can remember exactly how it came about – no coincidence, maybe. I was at the day job, out for a lunchtime stroll – this would be autumn 2013 – and was walking back to the college through a place in my home town of Shrewsbury called the Quarry, which is basically an old sandstone quarry now converted into a beautiful green park adjacent to the River Severn. By this time I was putting together all the details for the novel, prior to writing the first volume December 2013 – January 2014. As I looked out at the trees and bushes I had a sudden mental image of them all made in metal. From that single thought came the whole idea of the Clockwork Garden. I remember being pretty excited about this idea – I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as I got back, then, later, made it more sophisticated to include clues about the Factory and other details. I love it when inspiration strikes in this way. As I’ve written on my blog and at SFF Chronicles, I think authors should always listen to their subconscious. It’s where a lot of the important work happens.
I think my favourite location is probably Dr Spellman’s house in Sheffield. It was very important to me because it was the first safe location for Kora after she was sprung out of Bedlam Mental Hospital. My version of Bedlam was inspired by an actual mental hospital, you see, and Dr Spellman’s house is topographically almost identical to a house I know. Because in those first two chapters you don’t know for sure that Dr Spellman is a good man, I intuitively hit upon the idea of using a house I have fond memories of. The reader of course wouldn’t be aware of any of this, but it was important to me; it affected the tone of my writing. I wanted to write from a position of knowing deep down that Kora was safe, not in peril as she was inside Bedlam. This all sounds a bit odd, I know, but when I created the template for the trilogy it all came out of my subconscious in one go, which told me that the whole thing was ready formed in there and just waiting for the right moment to emerge. So it felt right that Dr Spellman’s house should link to my own memories in some way, giving it extra depth and an aura of safety. From that house, Kora is able to explore. It gives her a solid foundation. There’s a scene at the beginning where Dr Spellman is waiting for Roka, and he is sitting half asleep at the top of a staircase; that’s directly out of my own visual memories of this house.
You also have a new novel on the way, set in the Factory Girl world. Could you tell us a bit about The Conscientious Objector?
After writing the third volume of the trilogy I had a year off, as I’d done a lot of work, felt exhausted, and needed a rest. But, as I rested, I realised Erasmus Darwin had a tale yet to tell, so in December 2015 I began The Conscientious Objector, which takes place in 1914 – 1915 and tells of Erasmus’ reaction to the outbreak of what even then was called the Great War (i.e. World War 1). Erasmus of course loathes physical combat, as evinced by his reaction to being given a pistol by his Uncle Frank when Frank’s house is under siege in The Girl With One Friend. I realised that in WW1 he would by inclination be a pacifist, and perhaps even a conscientious objector, though that would be a very dangerous position for him to take. Conchies, as they were known, could be shot by firing squad. Many were. (My subsequent WW1 novel Tommy Catkins went deeper into this soldiers’ dilemma.)
I wanted Erasmus to have a female companion, so the other main character is Claudia Cooper, a strange woman of very mysterious origin. As I thought about these two characters and their relationship I decided to use the notion of early childhood memory, focusing on that point when we have our first recallable memories – usually around the age of three or four – but for Claudia blurring them into something indistinguishable from fantasy. As a consequence, much of the novel is Claudia and Erasmus delving deep into her origin via a most extraordinary special mission given to them by the British generals on the Western Front. The novel ends with a revelation which, of course, I couldn’t possibly divulge here, but which presents both Claudia and Erasmus with a life-threatening situation the like of which neither has ever encountered.
This novel, like the trilogy, also has a second book intertwined with it, which I wrote shortly after completing Amy’s Garden. It is Amy’s Adventures In Narkissos, a much darker work, as is suggested by the scene in The Girl With Two Souls where Kora, via the Amy doll, asks a question about it, to her immediate shame. This second Reverend Carolus Dodgson book details more of Amy’s world, asking questions of its reader about the role of selfishness (or more accurately narcissism) in their lives.
Do you have plans for more work in this setting?
No. It’s done and dusted. I’m terribly restless creatively, and I have two other alternate history fantasy/steampunk works finished or in preparation. But I do feel great warmth towards the Factory Girl trilogy, and I feel very lucky that Keith published it. He’s been a tremendous support to me. Many thanks for asking these great questions Juliana, I had fun answering them!
And thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insights on your work!
Find Stephen’s work on Amazon (see links above); other buying options including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords available on the Infinity Plus website.
All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…
This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.
Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.
Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.
How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.
Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.
Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.
Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.
In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.
Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.
Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.
Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)
I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.
A while back, on Twitter, a question about revisions came up. I mentioned adding ‘breathing space’. See the tweet, below.
Why breathing space? When I started writing seriously, back in 2012 (seriously as in: outlining, sticking with my projects, and ACTUALLY FINISHING MY DRAFTS!), my manuscripts were a headlong rush of action scenes, with barely a pause between them. There was no time to deepen my characters, or their arcs. It was frantic, it was frenetic, it was… Yeah, it was just too much.
The first time I worked with a professional editor was when Heart Blade got picked up for publication. The wonderful Teresa Edgerton, who had the challenging task of coaching me through a full rewrite, taught me a lot about allowing my stories space to breathe. I picked that manuscript apart completely, and figured out (with Teresa’s help) how to put it back together with enough spare room for full emotional arcs, proper character development, and those all-important moments of stillness.
I’ve progressed in my writing skills (I hope!) since then and have learnt to find pleasure in slowing things down a little, and in those quiet spaces between all the action. But I still need to remind myself of the need for this at times, and that’s definitely something I look for when revising.
There’s a scene from Heart Blade that I love because it’s muted, hushed, and yet it adds weight to my story, grounding it. You can click here to read the full excerpt, but here’s part of it:
He was still by the doorway when she passed, and her arm brushed his lightly in the cramped space. He felt that tingle again like an electric jolt that ran all the way down to his toes. She flinched, and he was sure she’d felt it too. He put a hand out and caught hers. She stopped where she was, waiting. He was waiting, too, but he didn’t know what for. The doorway they stood in was a frame for a captured moment, a stolen image frozen in time.
Giving your words space to breathe can give your work that extra bit of depth, and allowing the reader time to process all that awesome action helps the words hit home harder. Music can’t be all chorus and bridges; you need the regular verses too, or else the rhythm is all off. Writing is the same. Take a step back, find the spots that need some quiet, and let your story take a long exhale.