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A good while back, I did a post here pontificating about how the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ was not a particularly good query to fire at a writer.

This is the sequel to that post, in which I answer the question in question. Just thought it’d be fun. Might also help to illustrate my case that ideas are the easy bit, coming as they do from everywhere, all the time, unpredictably.

So, here’s where the idea for every piece of fiction I’ve sold came from, in chronological order of publication.

Farm Animal, my first published story, appeared in the UK’s venerable sf magazine Interzone a long, long time ago. It has a unique, and unusually simple, origin in the context of my fiction output: it’s loosely based on a dream I had. It was a kind of creepy, not very nice, dream so we won’t go into any more details except to say it involved a human-pig hybrid. The hard bit, as ever, was turning that seed into a narrative of some sort, and in the process the story became about the transformation of a human into a pig. (Sidenote: I remember being quite pleased with myself, at that presumptuous age, for coming up with a title that reverses Animal Farm, in which pigs transform into humans, just as my story reverses that transformation. Doesn’t seem quite so clever now.)

Gibbons, my second published story, appeared in another UK magazine: The Third Alternative – still going, under the new title Black Static. Its origin is also unique in this list, in that it comes from my own direct, personal experience. In my early twenties I spent three months in Borneo, finding, following and sound-recording gibbons in a remote part of the rainforest. In hindsight, as you might expect, it was a powerful, rather formative experience in various ways (including career-wise, since it would later result in me getting a job that sent me to many other unusual, out of the way bits of the world), though at the time – as with many such experiences – I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. What did imprint itself on my mind even then, though, was the potent atmosphere and character of the place. It took years for the story that gave voice to my impressions of the Bornean rainforest to take shape, but Gibbons was the eventual result.

Winterbirth, and the Godless World trilogy of which it is the first part, has a messy kind of idea-origin. I knew I wanted to try writing novels, and I was instinctively interested in the possibility of a fantasy trilogy. I needed an imaginative nudge of some sort to get the process of world, character and story development going, and it came from the TV, in a way. This was way back when the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia in particular, were in post-Communist meltdown and filling our TV screens and newspapers with stories and images of horrendous and cruel violence. Because I was even then a history nerd, I knew a lot of what was happening was the indirect fruit of bitter rivalries, enmities and events that went back many, many hundreds of years, and I was struck by the thought that it might be interesting to write about a fantasy world similarly torn apart by long-suppressed, half-hidden enmities that were somehow allowed to re-emerge.

Now, that initial idea got considerably complicated and diluted by the aforementioned process of world, character and story development. It provided the impetus for the process, but was itself changed and elaborated by it. Such things happen, once you get into the flow of turning a small spark into a fully fledged fire. But that’s what ideas are for really: they start the process, but unlike a chemical catalyst, they don’t have to survive that process unchanged.

Beyond the Reach of His Gods is a short story that appeared in the anthology Rage of the Behemoth, from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Much to my delight, it’s since been reprinted in the excellent online magazine Lightspeed, so you can read the whole thing for free over there if you like. This was the first time I’d been invited/commissioned to write a story for an anthology, and the brief was highly specific: heroic fantasy involving a giant monster set in one of several specific environments. I had no pre-existing ideas that fitted the bill (hardly surprising!), so the idea for this story had to be kind of ‘forced’. Except it came to me very easily, very quickly and very completely. I’ve no idea how that happens, but now and again it does: I just looked at the brief, thought about it for a bit, and the setting, characters, monster and the basic skeleton of the plot just turned up in my head. Very nice, and forunate really, since I would probably have turned down the invitation had things not bubbled up so easily, and had the story they suggested not struck me as being fun to write.

Flint was another short story for an anthology – Speculative Horizons, from Subterranean Press, edited by Patrick St-Denis. Again, I was asked if I would contribute, but this time there were no prescriptions regarding subject matter or even specific genre. So I pulled out a partially developed idea I’d been keeping on a mental shelf for ages, and used this as the opportunity to turn it into an actual story. That idea had its roots in my non-fiction reading: books like The Golden Bough, After The Ice and Shamanism. In learning and thinking about early magical beliefs, hunter-gatherer societies and the deep, deep past of human society and imagination, it struck me that a Stone-Age shaman would make an interesting central character for some kind of story. I knew very early on that his name would be Flint, but much of the detail of his adventures only got filled in when Patrick asked me if I fancied writing a story for his anthology …

The Edinburgh Dead has a very clear and fairly simple idea-origin. Having grown up in Edinburgh, and living there again now after a good few years away, I know a lot about its history and geography. Mind you, even people who’ve never been here have heard of Burke & Hare, the infamous baddies who murdered a lot of people so that they could sell their corpses to lecturers for dissection in anatomy classes in the early 19th century. For whatever reason, one day while musing on Edinburgh’s rich and complicated history, I just asked myself: ‘What if there were other people around back then, who wanted corpses for a different kind of experiment?’. From that question, after a good deal of research and the addition of a good many other influences, the whole novel emerged. And, inevitably, Burke and Hare stayed in the mix as characters in the story.

Rogue Trooper, the comic I’m writing for IDW (first issue in comic shops and on Comixology on Feb 26th!), is a different kettle of fish, idea-wise. This is a pre-existing character and milieu that I was asked to re-imagine. So the ideas required are of a different kind: what games can I play, what details can I add or subtract, what themes can I develop, with this already-established character? Those kind of ideas just come from looking at what’s there already, thinking back or re-visiting all the previous Rogue Trooper stories I read as a youth, applying my personal instincts as a writer to the property. To be honest, lots and lots of possibilities presented themselves to me as soon as I became aware of the opportunity, so it wasn’t too difficult. When someone else has done the hard work of creating a strong character, setting and framework, riffing on it is pretty straightforward (at least in terms of ideas, if not execution; believe me, I can now say from personal experience that writing comics is not straightforward or effortless!).

The Free will be published this October by Orbit, and it’s kind of fitting that it comes last on this list because in one sense it’s an extreme example on the original idea front. This book, alone of all the fictions on this list, has shed its originating idea like a snake shedding a skin. Literally no trace of the idea to which it can trace its roots remains in the novel that will be published. Weird, huh? Anyway, one day – or night, I think perhaps I was trying to go to sleep – a scene just popped into my head. In an underground cavern, someone discovers a prisoner, trapped in a huge cage. That was it. This was way back when I was still writing the Godless World trilogy. I had half a notion I might try writing another trilogy after I was finished with that one (a notion I soon thought better of!), and that single, unformed scene became the seed from which I gradually grew the outline of a whole plot, world, magic system, characters – I didn’t have a full trilogy worked out in detail, but I had a lot of stuff churning around in my head.

Except, I wrote The Edinburgh Dead instead. But the story-stuff that had sprung from that single imagined scene kept stewing in my thinking parts, and kept changing. In the plot I’d loosely imagined, there were a set of secondary characters – mercenaries – who struck me as interesting. To cut a long story short, I ended up pitching an idea focused upon them to the publisher as a stand-alone novel. The Free. The world in which they operate is not the one I dreamed up for that trilogy; the magic system is utterly different; there’s not a single character who has survived from my earlier musings into the text of the The Free; at no point does anyone even go underground, let alone discover a subterranean chamber with a caged prisoner in it. (But who’s to say what might happen, should I ever write any more stories about The Free?)

So there you are. I get my ideas from dreams, from personal experiences, from current affairs, from history, from commissions, from non-fiction books, from other people’s creations, from random scenes popping into my head. And I could add, in respect of fictions I’ve thought about or am currently pondering, which may or may not ever see the light of day: I also get them from idle reflections on the under-use of particular mythical creatures in fiction, consciously setting myself the challenge of coming up with an idea for a TV/radio series, writing tasks based on a single word set by tutors on a short course I did many years ago, looking at maps, etc. etc.

All seems clear enough. Question answered.

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Now online, in its entirety and entirely free, is my short story Beyond the Reach of His Gods.  You can inject the whole thing into your brain, via your eyes, by heading on over to Lightspeed Magazine.  It’s an adventure story of the heroic fantasy sort, in which exiled warriors take their longship up a jungle river, and discover that there’s a whole lot more trouble awaiting them than they expected.

Also over there, you can read a bit of an interview with me, in the form of an Author Spotlight.

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I have a short story en route, for your reading pleasure (should you so desire).  It’s called Beyond the Reach of His Gods, and it first appeared in the anthology Rage of the Behemoth.  Now, I’m pleased to say, it’s going to be appearing in the jolly good Lightspeed magazine, an online publication from one of speculative fiction’s leading anthologists, John Joseph Adams.

It’ll be available for free online reading in a couple of weeks (and you can be sure I’ll be pointing noisily in that direction when the moment comes), but for those who want to get it, seven other stories that are at least as good (and quite possibly better), plus some exclusive digital-only goodies, in a convenient package without having to wait, you can buy an epub of the whole lot right now for a measly $3.99.  (You can actually get even better value digital subscriptions to Lightspeed for your preferred e-reading device, e.g. here for US Kindle users).

What is Beyond the Reach of His Gods about, I hear you ask?  No, really, I heard you ask.  Don’t look at me like that.

It’s about an exiled warrior taking his longship up a jungle river and encountering something way, way out of his league.  It’s relatively straightforward, uncomplicated heroic fantasy intended to entertain in the (approximate) style of the Old Masters of that form.  I predict that if you like Conan, you might like this.  No refunds will be issued should that prediction prove unfounded, however.

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Okay, we’ll get to the fun stuff in a minute, but first let’s tidy away a little bit of linkage:

I write about When Genres Collide over at the Orbit blog.  Marvel at my delusional hubris as I demonstrate conclusively that crime and horror fiction are exactly the same!  (Incidentally, should anyone feel tempted to comment on my half-assed theories, I’d appreciate it if you did so over there rather than here …)

The Edinburgh Dead is reviewed at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist (“not a dull moment … should satisfy even jaded genre readers”!)

And also at the Wall Street Journal (“compelling mix of horror and sci-fi”!)

I write about the Dark Side of Edinburgh’s history over at the SFX Magazine blog.

And – now the fun bit – alert readers of that last article might notice that there’s a link at the end leading to …


Yes, you, dear reader, have the chance to win a stay in an Edinburgh hotel, along with a creepy tour of the city’s secret history (and a copy of The Edinburgh Dead, too, but that’s kind of secondary in this case, I have to admit).  This is pretty much the jolliest wheeze my esteemed publishers have yet come up with for promoting one of my books, and I think it’s kind of neat.  Go and enter, why don’t you? Closing date is 15th September 2011.

Not for the first time the inimitable John Scalzi kicked off a bit of an internet fuss recently. The particular feline lobbed unceremoniously into the pigeon house on this occasion was this post laying into a new short story publisher for offering dismally tiny payments to writers. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in various bits of the internet (both for and against his views), a nice sample of which can be found in this post, and particularly the lengthy comments thread attached thereunto.

Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of the whole kerfuffle – that I’ve seen, anyway – is a couple of livejournal posts by Anne Leckie that are, I think, well worth the attention of any aspiring writers out there. Especially writers of short fiction, but wannabe novelists as well. The first explains why getting your short stories published in certain types of venues will not help your nascent writing career, is such a thing is your goal; the second delves into the much more nebulous question of what makes for good fiction. Both are worth a read: there is a good deal of stuff in there that I think aspiring authors (and published ones like yours truly, too) could profitably ponder, whether they agree with it or not.

Much of what’s discussed in the links above made me think about where my head was at when I was actively writing and submitting short stories to magazines (note that what follows is decidedly not advice; my route through the thicket of obstacles facing the aspiring writer was my own, and does not remotely constitute a generally applicable map).

Back then, I was just starting to take the idea of one day being a professional writer seriously – i.e. thinking about what was involved in getting there, rather than just daydreaming about it. The crux of it, to my simple and innocent brain, seemed straightforward: if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to be able to write to a professional standard.

So I worked on some stories – most of which were never submitted anywhere because I was never quite satisfied with them – and sent a few out to magazines. I only sent them to what I thought of as professional-standard magazines, i.e. those paying towards the upper end of the general scale for stories, or those that were clearly high profile and respectable and publishing stories of a certain quality.

I didn’t try to place stories with non-paying markets, or obscure magazines making token payments; not because I’ve got anything in particular against such publications, but because I had a project, and it wasn’t a ‘get a story published anywhere‘ project. It was a ‘learn how to write to a professional standard‘ project. So I was only interested in the judgement of those – the editors and publishers – who set that standard by their acquisition decisions. To paraphrase Anne Leckie: I was interested in being a pro, so I aimed for the pros. Aiming lower, I reasoned, would only teach me how to miss my chosen target, not how to hit it.

Now things worked out OK for me, because I did sell a couple of stories in the 90s (which sounds hopeless, but actually wasn’t a bad hit rate, because I only ever sent out a handful). But just to prove that mine is not necessarily the example to follow, having tasted that tiny little bit of success, I stopped trying to write and sell the things entirely. Why? Because I’m nuts? Not entirely, though it’s arguable. (As it happens, I do often wish I’d held onto the short story habit a bit more firmly. It’s got a lot to recommend it.).

No, I stopped for my own, possibly rather eccentric, reasons. The second story I sold (to what was then called The Third Alternative and is now Black Static), was one that, before I sent it out, I was pretty sure was good enough to be publishable in the kind of markets I was interested in. For the first time, I felt I could instinctively identify a piece of my own writing as meeting a basic professional standard. Turned out, I was right.

More importantly, if I’m remembering things rightly, I submitted one further story after that sale. And it was rejected. At which point I basically stopped writing and submitting short stories. Not because I was discouraged, but because I had known, in my heart of hearts, before I sent it out, that that last story was not quite up to the necessary standard. It was OK, with some nice ideas and passages, but it didn’t have that feel. Turned out, once again, that I was right.

That was good enough for me. I’d more or less learned what I wanted to. I could, at least on occasion, write to a professionally publishable standard; and I could identify the necessary quality – and its absence – in my stories before the editors passed their own judgement. (Yes, two is a ridiculously small sample size to base such sweeping conclusions on, and I was building on some very dodgy foundations there, but I did say mine wasn’t an example to follow). What does that quality consist of? Ah, well … that’s a whole other, decidedly complicated story, and one I’d need a whole other post to even start picking away at. But I do think Anne Leckie’s second post offers much food for thought on the subject.

And I will say this – and I guess this, despite what I said earlier about not giving advice, is advice of a sort: irrespective of what mysterious bricks that ‘quality’ is built from, one of the most important skills anyone who wants to turn their writing into a career can acquire is that of recognising its presence, or absence, in their own work. And the only way you do that is by writing for, submitting to, and probably being rejected by, the markets which define the level of quality you aspire to.

To be honest, there are already enough short fiction podcasts to make it tough to keep up with them, but the latest addition is far too cool to ignore: TTA Press, the publishers of the UK’s major sf/fantasy and horror fiction magazines, as well as a rather good (if excessively infrequent) crime one, have launched Transmissions from Beyond, podcasting selected stories from their huge, multi-genre back catalogue. I’ll be listening.

Another new podcast: Reality Break is putting out interviews with authors, most of them originally done for radio in the 1990s. Some notably big guns have already been deployed: Will Eisner, Cory Doctorow and the late Robert Jordan.

Free Fantasy Reading: you can download a free pdf of Black Gate magazine no. 12. Got to admit I haven’t actually read it, but the magazine’s got a pretty good reputation, and there’s certainly a lot of content: 224 pages of it.

Since Watchmen featured in the last post here, thought I’d mention an interesting transcript of a 1988 round table discussion about the series. But first: BEWARE! This is as SPOILERIFIC a discussion as could possibly be contrived by the wit of Man. If you have not yet read Watchmen, or if you want to see the upcoming movie without actually knowing every last detail of the plot in advance (and, believe me, you really do), FLEE! The imminent link will utterly and completely ruin the whole thing, including all of the many surprises the story has up its sleeves. Seriously. For those who have already read Watchmen, it’s a fascinating discussion, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are involved, and it unpicks in great detail a lot of the story’s many layers, influences and concerns. It can be found here.

An interesting historical side note: The Picts appear to have had a whole lot more going on in their part of the world (Scotland) than was previously thought.

Thanks to everyone who’s e-mailed asking about a release date for Fall of Thanes. It’s nice that people care enough to be interested! I wish I had a more definitive answer to offer, but at the moment I don’t. It’s taken longer than I hoped and intended to finish the thing off, for a mixture of writing and non-writing related reasons, but it is almost done. Should be going to the publisher for consideration in the next few weeks. In the past, it’s taken about a year to get from that point to publication. Sorry I can’t be any more specific than that yet. More news as and when it’s available.

It has been raining all day. Raining hard, for a lot of it. Frankly, it’s all a bit disappointing, as the weather has been for weeks and weeks. So I thought I’d post a photo, grabbed in one of the few sunny interludes I remember from the last couple of months. It commemorates the chance discovery of a wonderful country lane, thick with wildflowers, bees and butterflies. As I sit here listening to the rain gurgling along the gutters and down the drainpipes, perhaps it will provide a little remembered warmth, and remind me that we do still notionally have things called summers, even if these last couple of years the only possible description of that season has been ‘damp squib’.

A Few Quick Links

Blogger Play is a website that consists entirely of a slideshow of photos people have recently put up on their blogs. Clicking on any photo takes you straight to the relevant blog post. It’s completely pointless, but an interesting way of going on a random walk through the world’s blogs for a few minutes.

After many delays, including last-minute printing palavers, Black Static magazine has finally made it off the starting blocks. I’ve not seen the first issue yet, but I confidently predict it’ll be worth checking out for those who like their fiction dark and unsettling. It’s the successor to what I thought was the most interesting UK short fiction mag of the 1990s, The Third Alternative, so it ought to be good.

There’s a bit of a mini-eruption of Winterbirth reviews around the interwebs at the moment, a couple of which have caught my eye for one reason or another.

I particularly like this one, because it says about the battle scenes: ‘if Braveheart was put into writing, I think it would be something like this’. I like that partly because I was consciously trying for a vaguely cinematic, vivid feeling in the action scenes, and it’s nice to see it working for at least one reader. Secondly, I loved the battles in Braveheart: at the time, I thought they were the most exciting and convincingly vicious imitation of medieval combat I’d ever seen in the cinema. Not sure they’ve been surpassed even now.

The other review I found particularly interesting is this one. It’s brief and very positive, but what surprised me about it is that it’s been put out by the Associated Press news agency. I, in my ignorance, hadn’t even registered that organisations like AP or Reuters put out reviews like this – I guess I assumed they just did news items. Anyway, will be interested to see if the review turns up anywhere else now it’s gone out on the AP ‘wire’ or whatever it is that happens to such things …

The Short Stuff

Short story ideas wriggle about in my head like seductive caterpillars, tempting me to try and catch them and turn them into butterflies. More often than not, when I’ve attempted that transformative trick in the past, I’ve ended up with … well, not butterflies. Still, the siren call of those caterpillars is persistent. It reminded me that I’m a bit out of touch with the world of UK sf/f/h magazines, so I had a mini spending spree.

Interzone is an old acquaintance, but it’s still pretty much the gold standard for this kind of thing, and has now reached its 25th anniversary. That’s an immensely advanced age as sf magazines go, and well deserved given the quality of its design, fiction and non-fiction.

There are some newer mags around these days that tickle my fancy too, though. Postscripts has been going for a little while, and seems pretty well thought of. Judging by the one issue I’ve now read, it’s a class act: good, varied stories, a clean and clear layout and really nice covers. It’s the most expensive of the magazines, but then it is a bit chunkier than the others. The next issue, #10, looks to be a giant-sized cornucopia of dark fiction.

Hub is the really new kid on the block, with only one issue out so far. It’s got a distinctive design and layout – which maybe needs a little tweaking – but there’s some decent stories there, and a ton of potential. Definitely deserves the chance to establish itself. Dark Tales and Forgotten Worlds are rather more basic productions, though Dark Tales in particular is quite nicely put together. Both of them quite appeal to me, for their enthusiasm as much as anything.

I haven’t managed to get hold of a copy of Farthing yet (I did try, honestly), so all I can say about it is that I love the covers. Gorgeousness. And the magazine I most want to buy, I can’t, because it doesn’t exist yet: Black Static, the much-anticipated reincarnation of The Third Alternative, which was arguably the best UK short fiction magazine of any kind in the 1990s.

My main, earth-shattering conclusion: I like sf/f/h short story magazines. I like them as objects, I like their enthusiasm, I like the whole idea of them. There’s a lot of people putting in a lot of effort to produce these things (much of it for minimal, or negative, financial reward, I imagine) and it warms the cockles of me heart it does. Short fiction is the fertile humus of the genre (certainly for sf, somewhat less so for fantasy maybe) where many of its innovations and quite a few of its novelists germinate.

What the long term future for print magazines is, who knows (see this for one view), but personally I’m a fan of the whole paper and ink thing. As Cory Doctorow has pointed out, there’s reader resistance to e-books, and in my case that resistance extends to e-zines. I’m happy to read all kinds of stuff from a computer screen, but not, it turns out, fiction. I think I find the whole exercise of reading fiction on a monitor too cold and non-immersive. The technology seems to have a distancing effect that a good old-fashioned book or magazine doesn’t for me. It’s irrational in many ways, but a physical magazine somehow feels to me less disposable, more deserving and more demanding of my attention. Maybe that makes me a dinosaur, but if so I’m happy in my dinosaurhood, for now at least.

Anyway, there’s 42 stories in the magazines pictured, each one of them a different world and different voice. You might not like all of them – in fact it’d be downright odd if you did – but somewhere in there is stuff you’d love: go on, give one or two of them a test drive.

There’s a very friendly review of Winterbirth over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. If all goes according to plan, I should be doing an interview for that site soon, too.

A PS to my last post about Interzone: I discover (via the excellent UK SF Book News) that there’s an ambitious newcomer on the UK sf/f/h short fiction scene: Hub Magazine. While idly poking about their website, I further discover that they have a competition in their first issue, in which they seem to be giving away copies of Winterbirth. Now if that doesn’t tempt the masses into subscribing nothing will. Maybe. Or not. Anyway, quite aside from their excellent taste in competition prizes, any new fish in the small pond of UK genre magazines is to be welcomed.

Plus: Looks like another European sale of the Godless World trilogy is sorted out, this time for the Czech Republic. Hooray.

And finally: I’m looking forward to this. Rumour has it, it’s pretty good once it gets going.


Twenty-two years elapsed between the publication of these two issues (#s 9 and 207, the first I ever bought and the most recent) of INTERZONE, Britain’s leading sf short story magazine. In fact, next year is Interzone’s 25th anniversary. That kind of longevity, given the nature of the UK short fiction market, is a frankly astounding achievement. Much of the credit belongs to David Pringle, who was a key player in the magazine’s creation and, from the late 80s on, its sole editor and driving force, and to Andy Cox who took over the reins a couple of years ago and re-invented it (perhaps even saved it) for the 21st century.

#s 206 and 207 are the first issues I’ve read cover to cover in a while, and they’re good enough to make me think I should get a subscription again, having let my last one lapse years ago. I’d almost forgotten how much I like a good short story mag – there’s a particular kind of uncertain, optimistic anticipation, since you never know quite what you’re going to find inside, and somehow reading a magazine always feels to me like a more participatory experience than reading a book. Anyone who likes their sf varied, well-written and nicely presented (not to mention accompanied by some good non-fiction) should give at least one issue of INTERZONE a try.

That illegible list of contributors on the cover of #9, by the way: Brian Aldiss, JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, M John Harrison. Wow. Those were the days.

I bought my Interzones from Transreal Fiction (doing my bit to support my local independent bookseller and all that) which gives me a tenuous but convenient excuse to mention the signed copies thing. I didn’t imagine there’d be any particular interest in getting my autograph on copies of Winterbirth, which just goes to show how little I know (fortunately, I’m sufficiently accustomed to being proved wrong that it came as a mere surprise rather than some kind of terrible shock). There’s still just about time to join in. Contact Transreal – details on their website – and they’ll willingly sell you a signed (and dedicated, if you like) copy: the perfect Xmas present, since it not only makes the giver and receiver happy but also me and the guy who runs Transreal. Everybody wins!