On writing Writing process

What do you hear or see when you read?

Progress report – there’s always one last-minute fix

Sherylyn is doing a final read-through before we send our completed Stars Beyond manuscript in to our editor.

There’s always one change that you have to scramble to fix before the final send.

In this book, it’s this:

Our heroes have defeated one of the bad guys (bad girls) by knocking her out with a strong tranquilizer. Four paragraphs later (at the end of that same fight) up she pops, trying to kill them.

She’s supposed to be unconscious.

Hmm. It needs a little work, I think.

These are the embarrassing mistakes we hope don’t make it into the book. Thank goodness for editors. They pick up a lot of these things if they slip past us.

Now, back to the blog

A few weeks back, on Twitter, @shingworks asked people to vote on whether they heard words or saw images when they read novels. The comments are interesting.

It made me think about what I see/hear when I read books.

I lean toward the visual myself. I see the story as a movie, in scenes—with three important exceptions.

What do I see?

It’s like a dream, where you’re watching something unfold. People speak, and action happens, but I don’t hear them speak, I see their mouths move and know what they’re saying, but there’s no sound. Their words are automatically in my brain.

I also notice that even if the author provides a description of a character, I visualize my own character according to how they ‘sound’ in my head. (‘Sound’ here meaning how I visualize them.) I can sometimes go back and reread a book and find a character is, say, blonde with fair skin where I had imagined them as darker, with dark hair.

Interestingly, as I write this, I find I am reading the words aloud in my head, so I think that I write differently to the way I read.

What are those three exceptions?

I said there were three exceptions.

If the author describes sounds in the book, I often hear the sounds. Cars honking, street noise, the blast of a rocket taking off. Music in the background. (Although, if you describe specific songs that have iconic film clips, I will then also see the film clip. The graveyard and the wedding in Guns ‘N’ Roses November Rain, the faces in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, driving into the country town in Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees.)

Secondly, if I hear an audio-book, sometimes I will hear the characters after that. I know that after hearing Emily Woo Zeller read Stars Uncharted, I have now started to hear Jacques and Carlos speak. They’re great. (The others are too, but she really added an extra dimension to these two.)

And of course, there’s the lines. In the Linesman books the lines have always sung for us.

On writing Writing process

Deleted scenes

Sometimes, the scenes we delete are simply that, scenes. Other times we rub out a whole character.

We don’t know about other writers, but when we write novels, we delete as much as we write. Sometimes we delete more.

The problem is, some of these deleted scenes are great. We like them, anyway.

Some of them aren’t so great, either. Back when we first started writing Linesman we deleted a lot of Rossi scenes. Looking at those scenes now, they had to go. They were boring, and didn’t add to the story at all.

But there are other scenes we delete because the story turns in a direction different to that in which it was going.  Or you write yourself into a hole, realise something can’t happen. Or you write a scene that happened way too early for the book.  Those sorts of things.

We do keep deleted scenes. We have massive OneNote file with pages and pages of deleted scenes in there.

We like some of these scenes. Sometimes we were sorry we couldn’t do anything with them.

Earlier this year we started a newsletter.  Newsletters are good for letting readers know what we’re doing without them having to look for that information, but what’s the point in a newsletter if it doesn’t give you something you can’t get elsewhere?

We considered writing short stories about the characters in our books, but neither of us are great short story writers. And having to write four a year.  Nope.

If we can write any short stories we might still put them into the newsletter.  Meantime, what a perfect place to put up our deleted scenes.

They’re not great, because most of them are little more than a first draft, but they are a look into our writing life. Particularly if we can continue to show the deleted scenes of characters we really like. You never know, they might turn up in a later book in a different guise.

On writing

Speech tags and other stuff

Today’s blog comes to you a little late, as we were traveling this weekend. We used to travel a lot, but since Mum died, not so much. As a result, we find we’re no longer in the habit of it.  It’s more exhausting, and we can’t to do a 500km (300mile) round-trip in one day now.

Especially not this weekend, where it took us six hours to go one way, because of roadworks. The car gives a ‘take a break’ warning when you’re been driving for two hours without stopping.  We hadn’t even made it a hundred kilometres from home by the time the warning light came on.

We’re out of the habit of traveling.  Took our bags into the motel, settled down to wash and freshen up.  “Where are the toothbrushes?”

“Ah.  Forgot them.”  It was my job to pack the travel toiletries.

“Okay.  We’ll sort that out later.  Where’d you put the hairbrush?”

“Ah.  Forgot that, too.”

And that was just the start, which culminated in the realization, as I got ready for bed last night, that I had also omitted to pack any nightwear.

I was so totally disorganized.

But, I digress.

What I really planned to talk about today was speech tags.  “She said, he mumbled, Jacob yelled.”

Over the years there’s been a real trend away from using any attribution other than said.

But that wasn’t always the case. Charles Dickens, for example, used a lot of saids, but he also used a lot of other attributions as well.  Take A Christmas Carol.


“A merry Christmas, uncle, may God save you,” cried a cheerful voice …

… “If I could work my will,” said Scrooge, indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled in his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew,” returned his uncle, sternly …

… “What else can I be?” returned the uncle …

… “Because you fell in love,” growled Scrooge.

From A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens


Dickens wrote such beautiful, evocative language, and he described how people said things. Uttered, growled, observed, returned, replied as well as said. He also used adverbs a lot—sternly, gaily—which are less popular nowadays, as they’re considered ‘telling’ rather than showing

Nowadays the commonly accepted attribution is ‘said’. If you use anything else, you’re likely to have a reviewer come back and say, “Do you need to use this word? Why don’t you just say ‘said’, it doesn’t jump out as much.  That same reviewer might also say, “You have a lot of ‘ly’ words, are they all necessary?”

There was an interesting thread on twitter the other night about the use of said, which summed it up well, I thought. Scott Pack (@meandybigmouth) said:

“Most of the time, just putting ‘she said’ after some speech will do the job.  When you are constantly mixing it up—she murmured, she argued, she added—it stands out, and not in a good way.”

Scott Pack, 27 July 2018.

Interestingly, a later tweet in the same thread by John Scalzi (@scalzi), pointed out that reading is not the same as listening, and that ‘he said’ stands out in audiobook narration. That while for a reader ‘he said’ blends into the background, it stands out when hearing the story narrated.

I agree.

That’s why it’s so helpful to read your novel aloud before you send it to the editor. It’s amazing how some things that are fine as read, really jar when read aloud.

As a general trend, though, as the audiobook audience grows as a percentage of total audience, I think we’ll see even less ‘he/she saids’ in stories and more working the dialogue around what else is happening in that paragraph, and the unique voice of that particular character.

Which can only be a good thing. Isn’t that what most writers aspire to? A story with characters so unique that you know immediately who is speaking just by how they say it.

On writing

The same old themes crop up again and again — even when you don’t plan on it

I find that many of our favorite writers have themes, or story ideas, which they carry across from series to series.  I don’t know if themes are conscious or not.

For example, the female protagonists written by one author are always in formerly abusive relationships.

Our stories?  Well, we didn’t think they were alike, but then we thought about Alliance, where people are trying to kidnap Ean, and Confluence, where—even though it happens late in the book—Yu’s people sort of try to kidnap Ean too.

Or even with Stars Uncharted, which most of you haven’t read yet, where hopefully we’re not giving too much away by saying that one of our protagonists is on the run and that some of our antagonists want her to do something for them.  It gets even worse in Stars Beyond, the book we’ve just handed in to the editor, where they really are after her.  (A bit cryptic, but I’m trying not to give plotlines away.)

Hmm.  Pot calling kettle black?  Definitely.

At the moment we’re tossing up over which stories to send to our agent next.

There’s Acquard, of course, but series books aren’t flavour-of-the-month right now and while Acquard’s not an Ean Lambert story, everyone’s favorite(?) other linesman, Jordan Rossi, does get gig, so that may be a hard sell.  (There’s no guarantee she’ll like Acquard anyway, but we’ll see). We’re considering what else we can send her as well.

She wants space opera. So do we.  And we do write ahead a little.  Not much, but enough that we know whether it’s a story we can write or not.  Which means we need to have written ten or twenty thousand words, minimum, and know how the story is going to finish.  Enough to send samples and a synopsis.

“What about Arrax?” I suggest.  “It needs a major rewrite, but it’ll be a good space opera, and the science behind the story is neat.”

Except … as we propose it, Arrax starts off with someone being captured, and fairly early in the book someone else gets kidnapped.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it.

Not only that, the basic story is about some people going to a planet to look for some MacGuffin. Well, it’s not really a MacGuffin, but people will call it that.  A chase—in space and on planet—looking for some kind of treasure, fighting bad guys to get their prize, and so on.  Lots of fun.

Sound familiar?

Maybe not, but let me reproduce the Goodreads blurb for Stars Uncharted.  (My emphasis on the last paragraph.)

Three people who are not who they claim to be:

Nika Rik Terri, body modder extraordinaire, has devoted her life to redesigning people’s bodies right down to the molecular level. Give her a living body and a genemod machine, and she will turn out a work of art.

Josune Arriola is crew on the famous explorer ship the Hassim, whose memory banks contain records of unexplored worlds worth a fortune. But Josune and the rest of the crew are united in their single-minded pursuit of the most famous lost planet of all.

Hammond Roystan, the captain of the rival explorer ship, The Road, has many secrets. Some believe one of them is the key to finding the lost world.

Josune’s captain sends her to infiltrate Roystan’s ship, promising to follow. But when the Hassim exits nullspace close to Roystan’s ship, it’s out of control, the crew are dead, and unknown Company operatives are trying to take over. Narrowly escaping and wounded, Roystan and Josune come to Nika for treatment–and with problems of her own, she flees with them after the next Company attack.

Now they’re in a race to find the lost world…and stay alive long enough to claim the biggest prize in the galaxy.

Now does it sound familiar?

Yes, well.  Time for a rethink.  Let’s bring out another book we have on the back-burner.  Fergus Burns, with the best bad guy (girl) we’ve written to date.  Alis Mack Carroll.

Meantime, back to the drawing board to rethink why we have so much kidnapping and chasing people in our own stories.

On writing

An exercise in editing—from first draft to second

Please, bear with us. The first example is bad. It’s meant to be. The second isn’t much better. This is designed to show the drafting process. Two drafts is never enough. At least, not for us.

Email, me to Sherylyn:  What do you think? Unlikeable?


Eliud Frank was building a stark arrangement of human bones when Alaric finally got to his office.

“You’re late.”

He’d got the message at lunch time.  It had taken three hours—two public buses and a maglev ride—to get here.  “No one gave me a time.”

Eliud placed a bone carefully at cross angles to another, stepped back to view the result.

“It’s off-centre,” Alaric said.

“When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”

Alaric shrugged, and watched in silence as his boss’s boss’s boss finished the arrangement.  The pieces had the creamy-white porous brittleness of real bone.  He thought they might be real.

Eliud placed the final piece.  “What do you think?”

It was still off-centre, but Alaric shrugged.  “Can’t say I’d like a bunch of bones in my office.”

“You don’t have an office.”

“Rub it in.” Not that he wanted an office, and he shouldn’t be talking to his boss’s boss’s boss like this anyway, given it was the first time they’d met, but there was something about the man that felt as if Eliud was deliberately provoking him.  Alaric was contrary enough to poke right back.

Where was Tina, anyway?  You didn’t meet with superiors this high up the tree without your own boss in attendance.

She’d probably gone back to their branch office, disgusted with him for being so late.  If that was the case, she should have offered him a lift.

“Survive or fail,” his grandmother had told him, “But don’t think that I’m going to interfere for you.”

So far, he’d been just treading water.

Eliud cracked a smile.  His teeth were the same colour as the bones.  “Hurts a bit, does it.”

No, it didn’t.  What hurt more was being plucked out of a life he’d enjoyed and forced to take a shite job like this because his grandmother had ordered it.

“Konrad Deens,” Eliud said.

That little shite.  “What about him?  I hear he took over his uncle’s business.  Been quite successful.”

“Somewhat of an understatement.  While you’ve been saving the worlds and making music, he’s become the de-facto ruler of three worlds.”

That sounded like Deens.  He’d always been ambitious.

“You went to school with him.”

“He was a bully.  We clashed.”

“Nevertheless, you went to school with him.”


Note by the question I ask in the email I’m pretty sure Sherylyn won’t like him.  Sherylyn has final say on characters. If she doesn’t like them they’re either out, or we work on them until she does.

Email reply, Sherylyn to me: Very confusing.

Another email reply, Sherylyn to me: And maybe not so likeable.


So we discuss this little piece over dinner.

“I like the bones,” Sherylyn says.  “Otherwise, there’s too many people, I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even like the swearing.  Who’s Tina? What’s his grandmother got to do with it? He didn’t have an office.”

“I know he didn’t have an office.”

“Well you make it sound like he did.  In the first paragraph.  Also, would he call him Eliud or Frank?”


Okay. It needs a lot of work. Sometimes Sherylyn does the edits. But not this time. Partly because it’s only the first page, and partly because she doesn’t have any feel for Alaric yet.

What does she like?

The bones.

So, our next draft becomes:


Eliud Frank was building a stark arrangement of human bones when Alaric finally arrived at Frank’s office.

“You’re late.”  The Chief Superintendant placed a bone carefully at cross angles to another, stepped back to view the result.

“It’s off-centre,” came out before Alaric could stop it.

“When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”

Alaric watched in silence as Frank finished the arrangement.  The pieces had the creamy-white porous brittleness of real bone.  He didn’t know why he’d been called here, and that fact that his own boss—Tina—wasn’t here, worried him.  You didn’t see someone three ranks removed on a social call.

Frank placed the final piece.  “What do you think?”

It was still off-centre, but Alaric shrugged.  “Can’t say I’d like a bunch of bones in my office.”

“Konrad Deens,” Frank said.

“I hear he took over his uncle’s business.  Been quite successful.”

“Somewhat of an understatement.  While you’ve been saving the worlds and getting your face in the tabloids, he’s become the de-facto ruler of three worlds.”

That sounded like Deens.  He’d always been ambitious.

“You went to school with him.”

“He was a bully.  We clashed.”

“Nevertheless, you went to school with him.”


Email, me to Sherylyn: What do you think?

Email reply, Sherylyn to me: Better. Still needs more work. Good to see you fixed the office. I like the bones, but are they important? Or are they symbolic? What happened to the maglev?


Ready for round three.

On writing Talking about things

Speculate 18

From the Dungeons & Development: Character Under Pressure panel
From left to right: Ben McKenzie (moderator) and dungeon master (and dragon), Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman, Andrew McDonald and Brooke Maggs.
I didn’t get a picture of the band, there were too many heads in the way. The band leader was Maize Wallin ( Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the names of the band members, either. (I didn’t write anything, to be honest, but I took a photo of the intro slide, so at least I can name the speakers.) Music and effects were great.

Yesterday I went to the Speculate 18, which is a speculative writers’ festival, held here in Melbourne.

It was pretty good.

As festivals go, it was small. One stream, five sessions. But they were good sessions. Three in the morning, two in the afternoon.

The most fun session was the first one after lunch.  Dungeons & Development: Character Under Pressure where our four panel members and the moderator did a D&D role play live on stage, with a band to add sound effects on the side.

It was lots of fun, and the dynamic between everyone worked really well.

I couldn’t pick a standout session in the more serious topics.  They were all uniformly good, and I liked bits from all of them.

Two of my personal favourite bits were from Science Fiction: The Past, the Present, and What’s to Come.  One was Dirk Strasser’s summary of the current state of science fiction.  The most popular trends at present, he says, are climate fiction, generation ships, space opera, and gender themes.  Plus Laura Goodin’s point that back in the Victorian era, genre didn’t exist. Writers like Dickens happily wrote across genres.

The audience questions from this session led to some really thought-provoking answers, too.  One audience member asked whether the pace of scientific change would make science fiction irrelevant. No, Laura Goodin says, science fiction is a lens by which we see ourselves through fiction.

I have to agree with her.

A lot of people get this idea that science fiction is only about the science, and that somehow there’s no science left to discover.

I think most of us would agree that’s not true. Sure the mobile phones, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars and other things dreamed about in the forties, fifties and sixties are finally here, or nearly here, and the rate of change of some of these things has increased almost exponentially, but what about genetics? What about climate control? What about massive ocean farms?

Plus, science fiction isn’t really about science. It’s about people.  As Laura said, it’s a way to see ourselves. Fahrenheit 451 is still just as relevant today as it was when Ray Bradbury wrote it, even if instead of burning books they’re burning data stores. The Handmaid’s Tale shows us a bleak, dystopian future.

Science fiction is still doing what it set out to do. Entertain us, but also make us think.

The audience questions on all panels were good. (Kudos, too, to how they kept the questioners on track. No statements, just questions.) A question on an earlier panel sparked a discussion about the things writers take out of their books.  (What Sherylyn and I call our pet words.) Sadly, that got cut off because we’d run out of time.

Now, we just have to go back to our own manuscript and check for ‘somehow’. Which is, as was pointed out, a lazy way of having something happen without the author having to explain it.

Sherylyn (who came along, too), pulled her notebook out at the start of the first session. She started writing, and kept writing through the whole of session one.

“You took some comprehensive notes there,” I said, while they set up for the next session.

“Not notes,” she said. “The first thing they said, about describing the woman walking down the street. This whole idea popped into my head. I had to write it down.”

All in all, it was a good day.  I was exhausted by the end, I admit. Five sessions were enough.

On writing

Worlds colliding. What happens when your imaginary worlds bleed together?

Sherylyn is editing Stars Book 2.

“They jumped through the void,” she said to me last night.  “They can’t do that.”

“Yes, they can,” I reply.  “They’re escaping. I know we talk about external forces here, but we’ve set it up so they can jump.  Here, and here.”

“They jump. Through the void,” she said to me again.  “In fact, I checked, and through the whole book they jump through the void four times.”

I didn’t get it.

“Tell me about the void,” Sherylyn said.

“Well, it’s this massive anomaly in space and … they shouldn’t be jumping through it.”

“No. That’s the vortex.  Tell me about the void.”

Other than the fact that our naming convention is a little stupid?  I mean, who names two important things like that so similarly?

“Well, it’s hyperspace, and you have to jump through it. Faster than light, you know.”

She knows all this, she designed the galaxy with me.  What am I missing?

“… and you use line nine to enter it and line ten to move you while you’re in there and … that’s in the Linesman universe and Stars Uncharted and its as-yet-unnamed sequel is not part of the Linesman series.”

“So what do they do when they what to travel faster than light?”

“They nullspace.”

Mumble, mumble, goes back to change it, finds Sherylyn has already done so.


Keeping the worlds apart

Stars Uncharted is not part of the Linesman universe. One series has linesmen, and world governments. The other has body modders and worlds controlled by companies.

We tried to make the experience of the two galaxies as different as we could. In one series they open their comms (often swiping on and later off) to talk. The comms system works via line five.  In the other they link in to a network that’s available galaxy-wide.  In Linesman we used lines for faster than light travel, in Stars Uncharted they nullspace.  If you get badly burned in Linesman, you have regen on the affected area. It takes a bit of time.  In Stars Uncharted they pop you into a genemod machine and you come out in a couple of hours better than new. (The role of the doctor changes, as a result.)

Some things we kept the same.  Gravity on ships, for example.  Screens of data. Ships that can be any shape, because they don’t normally land on worlds, their shuttles do.

But we try very hard to keep the world building separate.

Sadly, it still creeps in.

It’s another round of editing we need to do.  “Does this work in this universe, or is it valid for the other one?”

Let’s see how well we do.

On writing

Write drunk, revise sober

Famous writers, including the below-mentioned Papa. But can you identify the others?

Hemingway supposedly once said, “Write drunk, revise sober.”

I say supposedly, because there is no real evidence that he said it, and certainly no evidence that he drank while writing.  In fact, another famous quote attributed to him is:

“Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner…”

Hemingway drank. There’s no doubt about that, but I’m inclined to believe he did it after he’d finished writing for the day.

I mean, have you ever tried to write while drunk?

Write drunk

Let’s define drunk.

One glass of wine is not drunk.  Two glasses?  Not sober, but no, not really drunk either. Three glasses? Probably.

Let’s say you’ve shared a bottle of wine.  (A standard glass of wine is 100ml. A standard bottle, 750ml.)  You’re a little under the weather.

(We did this last night, which is what gave me the idea for this blog.)

“I’ll think I’ll finish that chapter I was writing earlier.”

You go in, open the document. Stare at it.  Write a couple of words. Stare at it some more.  Your head droops.  Droops a bit more.  Eyes cross.

“I can’t do this. I’m going to bed.”

Some people may be able to write drunk.  Neither of us can, we’re in our respective beds, snoring loudly.

Revise sober

That’s pretty much common sense really. You need a clear head to revise properly.

Interestingly, though, when we do the read-aloud, the almost-last revision of the book, we’d sit down with a glass of wine (one glass, not three) and make it a fun social event.  Especially back when Mum was alive and could read with us.

On writing

Genrecon – we’re here in body, at least

Life has been somewhat hectic lately. We weren’t sure if we’d get up to Brisbane for this weekend, but in the end we decided to come—admittedly, later than we planned—but here we are at GenreCon.

We chose a different hotel this time, as we didn’t plan on doing anything except go to the conference.  This one is as close as we can get to State Library of Queensland without camping out at the library itself.

It’s an older hotel, a cheaper one, and it has this vibe that makes it feel like a motel in a country town.  Part of that is because the road (bridge, actually) outside is so busy. Part of it is the old High Surf motel sign across the way. It isn’t actually a motel, it’s a sculpture for Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), but it took a while to work that out.

Nevertheless, all combined, it feels like one of those old towns, back before the freeways bypassed them, where there was a motel on either side of the highway.

With the continual traffic, it feels like one too.

GenreCon highlights, day one?

Claire Coleman, in the plenary session, “The Art and Business of Genre”, talking about editing.

“No one ever finishes editing, they just take it off you.”

Nalini Singh, same session, talking about squirrels as a way to stay engaged and enjoying writing, even when you’re writing to a deadline.

“Give yourself time after your writing day to write the squirrels.  Don’t focus only on what you have to do … you have to keep them secret.”

All in all, an enjoyable day of panels.

On writing

Don’t let your age put you off trying to publish your novel

At Conflux a few weeks back, at the ‘Starting Writing Later in Life’ panel, an older member of the audience asked something along the lines of, “You talk about how long it takes to write a book. What’s the point in someone my age starting now? I’ve likely only got one good book in me before I run out of time.”

I’ve thought about that question a lot, since. I can’t remember what was said at the time, but here’s what I think.

Don’t put off your dream because you think you’re too old.

While you may find some dreams harder to do as you get older, if you have the determination, you can do almost anything. Sure, it becomes more difficult. Yuichiro Miura was 80 years old when he climbed Mt Everest, and he probably did it harder than someone half, or even a quarter of his age, but he still did it.

True, too, most people wouldn’t bother.

But we’re not talking hard, physical exercise here, we’re talking writing a novel, which older people can do as well as younger people.

“Sure,” you may say. “But we’re not talking about writing a single novel. We know we can do that. We’re talking about making a writing career out of it.”

And it’s true, some of us might die or become incapacitated before we got any further than the first book. But we don’t have to get old to do that.

Would I go through the hassle of writing a book and having it published if I knew I was only going to have time to publish one book?

Most definitely.

There’s something magical about having that first book published. It’s an experience worth having.

Sure, we’d all like to have it again and again, but don’t stop just because you think there might be only time to do it once.

Believe me, it’s worth it, even just for that once.