Recovering from burn-out: I can still do this

Today I finished the first draft of a short story. It’s not very good, which is fine: being not very good is what first drafts are for, so the later drafts can be better. Normally finishing a first draft wouldn’t be notable, but for me right now it’s a milestone in my writing life, so I’m going to write a bit about it. The story is a standalone, unrelated to any other work; but the thing that makes the story significant to me concerns my forthcoming novel, Belt Three.

I wrote Belt Three over the course of a few years, from 2009 to 2012. At the time I was writing it I had a fairly demanding day job which involved creative writing and story design, and that left me without much creative energy to spend on the novel.

Writing Belt Three nearly burned me out. There were moments of euphoria, of creative joy; I vividly remember one night when I stayed up late writing 3000 words (the most I have ever written in one sitting), listening to Explosions in the Sky, living my main character’s triumph as he outwitted the villain and achieved the personal insight that marks the book’s mid-point. There were also times when I despaired; times when I hated myself for not having the energy to write even though I had the time; times when I became perhaps unhealthily obsessed.

At the end of it I had a novel which I considered good enough to be published. My beta-readers agreed. I channelled my creative energy into writing synopses and covering letters, researching literary agents and the best ways of contacting them. I sent off batches of letters, waited for replies, and collected a stack of rejection slips. I was on the verge of giving up, of writing Belt Three off as a never-to-be-published ‘trunk novel’ whose value would be as practice for my later works, when I learned of the Harper Voyager open call for submissions. I’ll give it one last chance, I decided, and sent my manuscript in. Then I filed it away, assumed that continued silence meant rejection, and put my mind to other projects.

I think Belt Three did burn me out, for a while. I tried to write other stories but found myself unable to produce anything, and I no longer enjoyed the process. I convinced myself that Belt Three, into which I had poured so much of my soul, was not good enough to be published, and I no longer believed I would ever write anything that was. Writing became a joyless slog, something that I felt I had to do because of my self-identity as a writer. Eventually I gave up; I always intended to start writing again someday, but right then I needed a break. I stopped attempting to write stories and focused my creative energies in other directions: the creative writing I was doing in my day job, running a long and complex tabletop roleplaying campaign, and writing a (now likely never to be finished) indie computer game. Without the novel to obsess me, my social life improved and I became a generally happier person, but I still couldn’t write.

Then, earlier this year, I got the email from Harper Voyager saying they wanted to publish Belt Three. (I remember that moment vividly, too: I was in the middle of watching Iron Man 2 on Netflix, saw the email on my phone half way through, and watched the second half of the movie in a daze while my mind came to terms with the information.) My initial reaction was one of shock: I really had assumed that silence meant rejection and put it out of my mind. Over the next weeks I rewrote the next chapter in my mental life story. The indie game that had been filling my head would have to go; I would no longer have time for that. I would have to fill my head with Belt Three again, re-read the manuscript to refresh my memory, be prepared to implement the edits the publisher sent me, write new synopses and promotional materials, think about what to write next

Above all else, I needed to start writing again. I was worried that Belt Three really had burned me out, and that I wouldn’t be able to write anything again. That’s why finishing the short story draft today feels like an achievement. It took a good few weeks — as I get back into practice, I hope to write bad first drafts more quickly — but it proves to me that I’m still able to write new material. I’m over the slump; I’ve recovered from creative burn-out; I can still do this.

Now to see if I can still edit.

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Thoughts on Lady Vikings

According to this article on, as many as half of Viking warriors may have been female.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided to revamp the way they studied Viking remains. Previously, researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords and shields. (Female remains were identified by their oval brooches, and not much else.) By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons.

The discovery was of misidentified female warriors, but I’d speculate that if warrior-duty was shared equally between the sexes, their society might have been more equal than we assume in other ways, too. How many of the skeletons with oval brooches were actually men? Continue reading

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Announcing Belt Three

Harper Voyager logoI’ve been sitting on this news for a while, but now the press release is out and it’s official:

My first novel, Belt Three, will be published by Harper Voyager in summer 2015.

Belt Three is about the alien machines that destroyed the planets and left humans living in fragile cities in the debris; the space pirate who tries to strike back at them; and the grieving identity thief she kidnaps and forces to help her. It features brain implants, mind-controlled spaceships, solar sails, the social consequences of mass reproductive cloning, memory hacking, religion, doomed love affairs, nuclear missiles, a mad computer, robots that shoot laser beams, and the Remembrance of Clouds.

Belt Three was one of fifteen books that Harper Voyager picked up from their open submissions process in October 2012. It will be released initially as an e-book, with plans to follow it with a short-run paperback.

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Nine Worlds and Loncon3

Ugh. Next time there are two conventions within a week of each other I think I might just go to one of them. But Nine Worlds and Loncon3 were both amazing.


Nine Worlds was held at the Radisson Edwardian at Heathrow, an opulent, labyrinthine conference hotel that I knew from the 2010 and 2012 Eastercons. Nine Worlds describes itself as a ‘Geekfest’, and gives equal weight to a broad range of geeky subjects, rather than prioritizing sf/fantasy literature like a traditional con. It went out of its way to be inclusive, and that led to an extremely friendly atmosphere. Even though I was on my own most of the time (I had a few friends coming but they were only there for part of the con), I felt more welcome than I had at any previous con. It was also very smoothly run. Half-hour gaps between programme items meant that no one seemed to be hurried and I never had to miss a programme item in order to get something to eat; and there were big tables with free drinking water in the common areas. Small touches like that make a lot of difference.

The Nine Worlds programme items were good. Highlights for me included a discussion on self-promotion for writers with Tom Hunter of the Clarke Award (take-away message: it’s all about Twitter), a panel on privilege and Doctor Who, and a panel on cyborgs and gender which gave me a couple of story ideas.


Loncon3 was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, and was exhaustingly large. It was my second Worldcon, after Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. In the few ‘traditional’ cons I’ve been to (two Worldcons and three Eastercons), there has been a certain atmosphere of cliqueishness, with a pre-existing fan community of which a newcomer is not automatically a member celebrating its own history and giving itself awards. That was a very small element of this con, though, and didn’t make me feel excluded.

Loncon3 had an amazing variety of panels, of varying quality, but the best of them made me feel like the trip had been worthwhile. (Highlights: a panel on climate change narratives and science fiction; a series of items on interstellar travel; and a panel busting publishing industry myths with some hard numbers.) Most panels were packed, there were often several things I wanted to go to at once, and there were only short breaks between panels, which made it a little overwhelming. The Worldcon also had a number of big events, including a concert by the Worldcon Philharmonic Orchestra formed out of members of several London orchestras (amazing, especially the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka, beautifully accompanied by moon landing footage), a stage adaptation of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (fun but confusing, as I couldn’t always hear what the actors were saying), and of course the Hugo Awards. I don’t want to write a lot about the awards, but I am utterly delighted that Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has now picked up every major sf award.

And now I’m home, and I think I need to spend a day unpacking my brain of all the things I saw and heard and learned at the cons – and thinking about what con I will go to next!

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Ars Magica

The Ars Magica campaign I’d been running for a year and a half came to an end the other day. It’s been an interesting experience and I thought I’d share some thoughts about the game.

Ars Magica is a game about wizards in a fantasy version of mediaeval Europe. It has a detailed and flexible magic system, in which the expectation is that PC wizards will invent their own spells rather than learning from a list.

I’d never experienced Ars Magica as a player before I ran it, and I think that led me to make some mistakes when starting the game. I thought that the magic system’s flexibility would mean that I could run it as a rules-light game, where players would tell me what they wanted to do and I’d do the number-crunching for them. In practice that led to me taking an overwhelming amount of complexity, and led to unintuitive results for players who didn’t see the workings of the system themselves. I now think that Ars Magica works better when all the players are engaged with the complexity of the system.

For those who enjoy engaging with it, I think the complexity of the magic system contributes to the mood of the game. It’s a game about being a wizard of the type who spends months in magical study, and the fact that you as a player are trying to learn and understand the complex magic system does make you feel like such a wizard. A certain amount of min-maxing is even appropriate in-character: you as a player want to make the best spell you can given the magic system, which is exactly what your wizard character wants to do.

Even so, the system is still a little too unwieldy in my opinion. There are a lot of rules that make perfect sense when you read the rulebook through, and lead to elegant results, but are a pain to actually play. Inventing new spells is fun to do when there’s no pressure, but the spontaneous magic system requires you to do it on the fly during the game, which can lead to play grinding to a halt at dramatic moments. Rarely is everything you might need for a particular scene all in the same section of the book, so running the game without having memorised the system involves a lot of flicking back and forth. Down-time activities (in which wizards study, invent spells etc. between adventures) take up a lot of time if done live and are best done by email between game sessions.

Another problem with the system is that it has rules that push players towards roleplaying a particular kind of wizard, in a way that’s at odds with the flexibility that’s one of the system’s selling points. Specifically:

  • People can only become wizards if they are born with the Gift. A side-effect of the Gift makes other people react negatively to Gifted individuals. There are pages in the core book detailing how encounters between e.g. magi and innkeepers should go, due to the social effects of the Gift.
  • Religious belief generates a supernatural aura which strongly inhibits magic. This means that it is difficult to use magic in inhabited areas, since nearly everyone the setting is religious.
  • The Order of Hermes (to which all PC magi belong) forbids its members from interfering with the mundanes.

That’s three different system elements pushing groups to roleplay wizards in a particular way: as outsiders living in the wilderness at the edge of society, interacting with normal society via non-Gifted proxies.

The way that Ars Magica pushes players towards a particular style of roleplaying through the mechanics of its magic system has got me thinking about how magic systems can be used for this purpose. More on that in a future post, possibly.

The fact that the setting is ‘mediaeval Europe but with magic’, rather than a mediaeval European style fantasy world, also had an interesting psychological effect on me. I couldn’t resist trying to make the setting historically accurate; if I suspected I was getting something wrong, it harmed my enjoyment of the game. I read up on mediaeval history, which was enjoyable and worthwhile reading in itself, but which may have interfered with the fun for the players, who were expecting the setting to conform to the usual (actually highly anachronistic) fantasy fiction tropes. If the setting had been a mediaeval-themed secondary world, I would have accepted those anachronistic tropes more easily and been able to run the game more smoothly.

Ars Magica remains the most enjoyable RPG I’ve experienced just as reading material. The system, as experienced when reading it in the books, does feel elegant, and the background material is interesting. Several of the books can also be read as general-readership history books, if you strip out the supernatural and game elements.

In conclusion: Ars Magica is an awkward, but interesting and enjoyable game, to be recommended if the whole group knows what it’s letting itself in for.

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Valiant Hearts: The Great War

I’ve just finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War on the PS3, and it’s the best new game in a while. As a puzzle game it’s very good but not perfect, but it’s the game’s narrative approach to its subject matter that’s made me want to bring this blog out of hiatus to talk about it.

Valiant Hearts is set in the First World War; or, rather, since it’s a puzzle game, it’s set in cartoony version of the First World War in which both armies lock vital equipment behind elaborate lever/pulley mechanisms for no particular reason. For all its cartoonishness, though, it treats the subject matter with more respect than games that reduce war to endless repetition of the act of shooting.

For a start, fewer than half of Valiant Hearts’ levels take place during battles. We see towns (in various stages of ruin as the game progresses), countryside, and a prisoner of war camp. The excellent passages of historical information available from a pause menu illuminate various aspects of the period, as does the selection of historical objects that form the game’s collectibles.

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More interesting is the way the game sets up its conflict and ultimate antagonist. The first character introduced is a German farmer living in France and married to a French woman. War is declared, and he’s deported to Germany and conscripted into the German army. Immediately afterwards we see  his father-in-law conscripted into the French army, and the father-in-law’s basic training forms the game’s tutorial. This set-up forces the player to abandon their tendency (trained into them by most depictions of war, especially games) to see one side of the conflict as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. The enemy isn’t the Germans: the enemy is the war.

There’s also the moustache-twirlingly nefarious Baron von Dorf, but he always felt like a secondary villain: a necessary antagonist for the four characters’ personal stories, through which the overall story of individuals against the war was told. Because the player characters specifically have a conflict with the Baron, it doesn’t feel like they have a conflict with the German nation as a whole, and many other German characters encountered in the game come across as sympathetic.

I’d like to see more games take Valiant Hearts’ war-as-the-enemy approach with other wars (both historical and fictional). The Second World War is normally seen as more clear-cut, with Nazi ideology unambiguously evil, but there’s still a lot of scope for sympathetic characters who found themselves on the wrong side of national boundaries when the war began. It’s harder to imagine games taking the same approach with more recent historical wars, in which American troops are shipped half way across the world to fight a visually and culturally distinct Other with whom the soldiers have had no friendly contact; but perhaps this very difficulty means it’s more important for art to help us see the other side of the conflicts as human.

Valiant Hearts has been released close to the centenary of the start of the First World War. I hope it doesn’t take a hundred years for games to depict more recent wars in a similarly balanced light.


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The Burning Tower, Rune Mysteries, and Rune Memories

My newest piece of RuneScape content is live. It’s a two-part quest series, Rune Mysteries and Rune Memories, plus a prequel short story, The Burning Tower. I worked on the project as writer, designer and coder — I can’t take any credit for the excellent graphics and audio.

Rune Mysteries

Rune Mysteries

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