Writing process

Gateway books

There has been a lot of talk in the Twitterverse lately about gateway books. These are the books, or book, that you read that makes you a fan of a genre.

Harry Potter is a gateway book. Many fantasy fans grew up reading Harry Potter and progressed to reading other fantasy. If we include film and television, Star Wars and Star Trek can be considered gateway stories as well.

Many people—particularly older people—will recommend the classics. “You’ve got to read Lord of the Rings.” (I read it in secondary school, and enjoyed it, but I have never read it since.) Or, “Robert Heinlen is the grand master of science fiction. You must read him. Stranger in a Strange Land.” (Never give someone a sixty-year-old book as a gateway book. Few last the tyranny of time.)

Not only that, different people have different gateway books. You can’t—and shouldn’t—recommend the same books to everyone.

Being a science fiction writer, people often ask me for recommendations. They also, sometimes, ask whether they would enjoy our books. My answers are the same for both the recommendations, and the should-I’s. I have a little mini-quiz I ask.

  • What do you read?
  • What television shows do you watch?
  • What movies do you like?
  • Not everyone reads books, but if they do, I ask about some of their favourite books.

After that, I’ll recommend some books if I can come up with any I think they’ll like.

I try to make them:

  • Published within the last twenty years, the last ten, if I can
  • Strongly character-based.

For most people, but not all, I also try for lighter stories rather than serious ones.  Few people are ready for heavy tomes as entrees into a genre. That often comes later, when they start to enjoy the genre.

Likewise, the classics come later, too. Sometimes they even come after someone has watched a television series. That’s what I did with Pride and Prejudice. Couldn’t get into it until I watched the BBC version (I’m sure I don’t need to say which one, it’s the classic). After which I finally read the book right through.

Writing process

How did you go with last week’s quiz?

Last week I gave you twelve images from book covers to see if you could guess the cover.

How did you go?

Here are the covers, in order of image.

How many did you get?

Writing process

Quiz: Science fiction and fantasy covers

Sherylyn is on the engagement committee at her workplace, and recently they had a competition they call ‘I Spy’. You take a photo of part of an object in the workplace (usually close-up) and the teams have to guess the object is. I’ve adapted their competition to create a quiz on book covers.

We’ll show you part of a book cover. You tell us, in the comments, which books these are from.

To make it easier we have restricted it to:

  • Novels that were published, or will be published, between 2018 and 2020. Some of these novels are coming, not yet available. Dates are from, so North American publish date.
  • Science fiction and fantasy only.
  • The covers are available on That is, US covers, rather than UK (or Australian or any other country).
  • Covers may be paperback, hardcover or Kindle.

There are twelve book covers below. Answers next week.

twelve book covers

(Sherylyn says the work prizes were a box of chocolates. We can’t send out chocolates, so we’ll eat the chocolates for you. Sounds fair? No?)

Writing process

Interesting conversations only partially heard

The restaurant was crowded.

The woman at the large table across the room had one of those loud voices that older people often have when they’re going deaf. She raised her voice. Everyone in the restaurant could hear her, even above the crowd.

“Science fiction. You can buy it from Amazon.”

Naturally, I turned my head to see who was speaking. Wouldn’t you?

Her (adult) daughter was mortified. She deliberately avoided my eye and looked away from me, trying to shush her mother.

I wanted to go over and tell her not to worry. Let her mother talk. Sometimes the other people in the room hear what they have to say.

The daughter’s husband came in then, with birthday cake, so the conversation turned, but I really wanted to go over and tell the younger woman not to worry. Sometimes, when someone hears a loud voice, they just want to know what the loud-voiced person will say next.

Writing process

The under-rated subconscious

We have a routine in our house, where most mornings we grab the paper and do the quiz while we drink coffee and wake up.

This morning I was doing the quiz and the question came up, “Name the author who wrote five books featuring Tom Ripley.”

Total mental blank. I knew Ripley was a con artist and a murder, but I didn’t know who created him.

Then, two questions later, when we’re trying to work out who came bottom of the ladder in the A-league two years ago (neither of us had any idea), up pops a name. “Patricia Highsmith.”

The subconscious is an underrated tool. Give your mind a puzzle to solve, then sleep on it. You’ll often wake up next morning with the problem solved. That’s provided you can manage not to worry about it so that you keep yourself awake all night.

For a writer, it’s a boon.

We’ll often talk out writing problem of an evening, not come up with a solution at all, but next day—after we’ve done the quiz—one of us will say, “Suppose this happens”, or “Suppose we move that part to earlier in the book, where our character has more of a reason to want to …”.

It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like serendipity. But your subconscious has been working away in the background, coming around to that conclusion.

Writing process

Why are our characters always eating?

Come to our house, you won’t get a feast like this. Sadly.

Is it just me, or are purple book covers a thing right now?

I think it’s only because I haven’t noticed them before, but ever since Stars Beyond came out, all I see are books with predominantly purple covers. I can remember when talking cover colours for Linesman, we said we’d like it to have some blue in it, for every science fiction novel at the time seemed to have red or orange covers.

Looking at the covers coming up, I’m predicting brown will be the new purple.

It’s all about food

We’re currently editing a scene in our new novel where the protagonist’s uncle serves hard-to-eat food to embarrass one of his guests.

Food is a constant in our novels (along with drinking). From Ean’s dinners with rulers and the military, to Rossi’s less-social dinner with Janni Naidan, all the way down to Sale’s sandwiches in the linesman’s survival pack. From Jacque’s spicy flatbread to garfungi soup. So much so that you’d sometimes think that food—and drink—is all we think about.

You might also think that based on our novels we lovingly prepare gastronomic masterpieces every night for dinner. Not so. Once, before some close friends retired and moved to the country, they used to come around for dinner every month and we’d scour the magazines to find something new and experimental (but that looked good) to cook. But that was then, and we haven’t brought out the good dinner service since they moved away.

Those dinners were legendary, by the way. We experimented, and while most meals were successful, some went down in history as monumental flops. We all still joke about the infamous Mars Bar dessert, which was so hard we couldn’t even cut it with a knife. I don’t recall if any of us ate it. I think we would have broken our teeth.

But experiments notwithstanding, most of our dinners are of the “what’s for dinner” variety five minutes before we have to prepare it. It often turns out to be salad and a meat, or meat and potatoes and peas (important standby in anyone’s pantry). Or pasta. Tuna and noodles (tuna in oil and whatever pasta is in the cupboard) is a favourite. Tuna is another cupboard staple.

As for going out to dine, how to get home afterwards is always more important than how good the food is. The restaurant needs to be close.

So although we write a lot about food, but we don’t always think about it.

Writing process

Hugo nominations are open

The CoNZealand email that popped into my mailbox last week mentioned that Hugo nominations were open.

I can only nominate stories I have read and liked. Here are some novels I am thinking of nominating.

The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons. This is one of those books I picked up, read a bit, flicked to the end, read the end, went back to read the middle, moved on to read a bit more that I hadn’t read, and so on. I didn’t read it in sequential order, but despite that, enjoyed it.

Kihrin is an orphan who grew up on storybook tales of long-lost princes and grand quests, but when he is claimed against his will as the long-lost son of a treasonous prince, Kihrin finds that being a long-lost prince isn’t what the storybooks promised.

Finder by Suzanne Palmer. We were interviewed recently by Paul Semel and he asked us to recommend some space opera that we’d read recently and liked. This was one of them.

Fergus Ferguson goes to out into the far reaches of human-inhabited space to repossess a spaceship and gets caught up in a civil war.

Another story we recommended in the interview was Michael Mammay’s Spaceside, book two in his stories about Carl Butler.

Former colonel Carl Butler is now a civilian and he’s asked by his company to investigate a breach in a competitor’s computer network.

I also read and enjoyed Jackson Ford’s The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind. It’s set in modern-day LA. I suppose you’d call it an urban fantasy. Or would that be science fiction set in today’s world?

Tegan Frost can move things with her mind. So far as she knows, she’s the only person who can, so when a body turns up murdered using powers like hers, she’s the logical suspect. She has 22 hours to clear her name.

Looking through Goodreads’ list of 2020 Hugo-eligible novels, I see that T. Kingfisher’s Minor Mage is nominated. This is a story about a 12 year-old boy, and I know Ursula Vernon, who writes as T. Kingfisher, said editors considered it too black for a children’s novel, but technically it is a middle grade story. To me, anyway. If it is eligible, in any category, I will nominate it. This is definitely a book worth reading.

Oliver is twelve, and a very minor mage (he knows three spells), but while his mother is away the villagers ‘encourage’ him to take a journey to bring back the rain.

Writing process

The Untamed

It’s hot

It’s super-muggy here. We’ve just had a massive hailstorm (hail as big as golf balls) but the temperature didn’t drop so now it’s so muggy, and even the big hailstones are gone. The hail was so loud the first few landing on the roof sounded like gunshots. As more arrived it that changed to continuous popping, more like New Year’s eve fireworks.

If we’d had any peaches left on our tree they would have been ruined. Sadly, it never gets that far nowadays. The possums and/or cockatoos finished those off a while ago. Little beasts wait until things are ripe and juicy, then strip the tree overnight.

Publication day

Stars Beyond is published on Tuesday. We hope you enjoy it.

The Untamed

Before Christmas I started watching I binge-watched the fantasy c-drama The Untamed.

“You have to watch this show,” I told Sherylyn. “You have to.”

When we recommend books (and tv shows) to each other, there are degrees of recommendation. Mostly it’s, “This book is okay. I think you’ll like it.”

“You have to watch,” translates to “I love, love, love this show, and you will too.”

It’s a zombie story about greed, ambition, and revenge. It’s heart, though, is a story about brothers. About family and friends, and supporting each other, even if the person you are supporting doesn’t know that you are.

It’s all about the characters and they are awesome.

It’s based on a fantasy called Mo Dao Zu Shi (The Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation) written by Mo Xiang Ton Xiu.

I appreciated the story both as a reader (or viewer, in this case)—loved the characters—and as a writer. It’s well plotted and it slowly gives out information (conniving and emotionally manipulating, but in a good way) via flashbacks that totally changes how the viewer interprets an earlier scene. It’s so clever, and you don’t feel manipulated. Not like stories where a point-of-view character knows something but holds it back from the reader. In this case you usually find out more via a flashback, often from a different point-of-view character. There were a couple of times where I totally changed my view of a particular scene (and hence opinion of someone) as a result.

The first couple of episodes were confusing. So much so that I’m going to quote directly from something @TriviaLove tweeted on 17 January 2020.

Yes, the first few episodes are confusing, but like any good story, you get sucked in. You have to watch and wait for it to make sense. By episode five you are hooked.

They show that same scene again in episode 33, only with a lot more detail. By then you know what went before. As @TriviaLove says:

Later, I went back and watched those first few episodes. (Let’s be honest, I rewatched the whole thing, no mean feat given it’s 50 episodes.) They made a lot more sense, and I picked up so many things on the rewatch.

Come for the exotic fantasy, stay for the characters.

p.s. Sherylyn watched it, too, and she’s now rewatching.

Writing process

Money as a stereotype

Today I paid cash for a notebook to write in. It’s the first time in six months I have paid cash for anything.  Tap and go is a boon for me. I no longer have to worry about finding an ATM, or always having to check if I’ve been to a bank before I go out with friends for coffee. 

I think there will always be a place for cash, but I think we are heading toward a mainly cashless society.  I think it’s inevitable. For most people not having to carry cash makes things easier. Over the last week, for example, I purchased online one item in US dollars, and one in Euro online, not to mention spent lots of money in local stores in Australian dollars. All on the same card, without having to do anything except either hand the card over, or provide the card number.

That’s a lot simpler than it would have been a generation ago, where for local purchases I would have required cash, while overseas purchase would require a cheque or money order in the currency I purchased the item.

At the same time, it’s becoming more difficult to get cash when you need it. Even ATMs are less common than they used to be.

Here in the modern world we think we’re the first to come up with a cashless/credit society, but we’re not.  The Mesopotamians and Harappans (Indus civilisation), for example, used clay tablets as a form of credit.  One might say there’s nothing new under the sun.

Many science fiction writers use a credit system for money in their stories. We did, in both the Linesman and Stars Uncharted series.  We called them credits. Original, huh?

It wasn’t until we were working out the monetary system for the story we are currently writing—a fantasy—that that I realised just how much of a stereotype credits are.  I mean, we’ll go to the trouble of creating money for a fantasy world—sure we’ll often use gold and silver, but not just ‘gold’ and ‘silver’—but all we use in science fiction is ‘credits’.

“A thousand platinum bars,” Viggo said.

A thousand!  He moistened his lips with his tongue. “A thousand platinum?” …

“Bars,” Viggo said, as if he wouldn’t know the difference between bars and pieces.

S. K. Dunstall

Credits, for us, are a lazy way of writing.  In the fantasy above I know exactly how many pieces a loaf of bread costs (two), but I have no idea how much the equivalent costs in credit. Surely, there are some basic things you should know about your society, like how much it costs to buy food to live on.  And I do have an idea of this, sort of, but it doesn’t translate to the page. You, the reader, don’t even know if credits can be fractions of a whole (for example, 2.2 credits) or only integer (22 credits).  Or maybe they’re like Vietnamese dong. Last time I looked there were around 23,000 dong for one US dollar.

So, next time we create a science fiction world (outside of the Linesman or Stars Uncharted universes), we’ll know exactly what our money system is, and how it works. And we’ll try not to use credits.

Writing process

I have internet

I didn’t plan such a long blog silence, but I mucked up on the internet connections here and New Zealand, and refused to pay shipboard prices for more internet. Not only that, I forgot to download many of the books I planned to read onto my iPad.


I have internet back now, and it feels good. We’ll be back to our regular Sunday blogs soon.