The Beast of Times – The Year in Review

It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times. It was timeless, yet it’s gone on forever. How do you describe 2020?

Ernie’s Beach, the South Bank

Walking out of the FP office for the last time, laptop under my arm so I could work from home, waving breezily at my colleagues as we all thought this would be over in a couple of weeks… walking the empty South Bank and then across a silent Victoria station with the virus warning echoing from the tannoy. 2020, suitably enough, was the year our dystopian future finally broke through from fiction, and manifest as full reality.

The Dark Future

I confess, though: at the beginning, I was enjoying it. My life was utterly hectic – working commuting, writing, raising a teen – and the sudden slowing of pace let me see how tired I really was, gave me space to expand and think. The creatives of Twitter rallied round to make stuff up and share it out; we all shaved our heads and became bakers overnight. We clapped the NHS, meaning every strike of it, admiring those key workers who put their lives on the front line.


But the year congealed. The monochrome fingers of ‘come down’ began to keep in.The FP van came to get the laptop; the dread and isolation began to grow. The clapping became empty, farcial in the face of Government hypocrisy and incompetence; I lost my job, and crashed and burned.

Handiwork Office, photo by Jon Hodgson

Against a backdrop of increasing darkness, though, I’ve been fortunate. With huge thanks to Andrew Girdwood, and to Jon at the team at Handiwork, I had another job within a week (and counted my blessings, seriously). I’ve written more wordcount in a single year, this year, than I’ve done… well, probably since I finished Ecko Burning and that must be eight or nine years ago. And I’ve just finished the longest single MS I’ve written since I completed Artifice in 2016.

Funny – FP, the store, South Bank… now, they seem like another world.

Sophie Aldred

I’ve ended the year with (what looks like) a physical injury that’s making focusing difficult – but still counting my blessings, y’know? However we’ve got through this, whatever we achieved – even if it’s only to keep our heads down and reach the year’s end it’s enough. And to all those who have been on the front lines, who have lost family, or struggled through the disease themselves, or who’s been plagued by the dog (you know the one), my heart goes out to you.

Books – Sanity in a Crazy World

I’d wish everyone a better 2021, but I fear the darkness is going to get worse before it gets better. So spoil yourselves, love those close, appreciate the good things, take escapism where you can, and remember to look round at beauty. And cuddle your pets, because now more than ever, it’s the little things that matter. 

The Benefits of Character Generation

There’s always talk about how much role-playing affects writing and creation – world-building, storylines, motivations, whathaveyou. And it’s pretty-much a given that any RPG background is a fantastic way to learn how to (convincingly) create, visualise and share the things that live in your head.

And nothing more strongly than character development.

Fairly obviously, there are a multitude of systems that all handle this differently. Your basic D&D (‘fessing here that I’ve only ever played up to third edition), offers you feats and abilities, a selection of (weapons) skills that allow you to frame your character in slightly more detail than just their ‘to hit’ roll and/or how difficult it is to listen at a door. I love D&D, always have, but its characters can be quite flat – and there are many more ways to add dimensions to your favourite kobold-masher. 

D&D shows you only what they can do, not really who they are – they leave that very much up to you.

CyberPunk brings us the lifepath generator, now online for CyberPunk 2077. It’s adaptable to any system – or any fiction – and it’s a wonderful way to flesh out those past years, not only with skills, but with possibilities. Contacts, enemies and lovers gain names and backgrounds and gangs and grudges; they spawn scenarios in their own right. And they add depth and timbre to a character, and to their surroundings, that’ll come in handy over and over again. Generated contacts can also gain gravitas in their own right – those enemies or lovers can keep cropping up. If you cross-reference the lifepath with the much-beloved random encounter table, you can have hours of gaming fun.

A step beyond that, we find World of Darkness – Vampire, Werewolf, Kindred of the East, etc. And if you then fold in the basic ‘archetype’ concepts of Nature and Demeanour, and have a look at the Merits and Flaws list, you can add a good ol’ sprinkling of needs, weaknesses and distinctive traits that extend the character still further.

Going back to the D&D, WoD shows you who they are, as well as what they can do.

Any which way, character creation is a wonderful thing, and adding layers like these can bring us right out beyond ourselves (and beyond our favourite tropes!) and really make things striking. It can help us past blocks, give us chunks of history, or let us know how a character would react in any given situation. I’ve spent my morning rolling two lifepaths for the two central characters of the current WIP, finding out what they’ve been up to in the 25 years since the ending of the previous story. And, not only has it thrown up some fascinating results, it has helped me build the history of the setting and the intervening narrative.

One final word – about names. (I’m very fond of saying how Ecko (originally called Oxy) had to have a new name when I started Rising for real and how Caph kept his shortened family name as a nod to his essentially ‘public school’ background). We know that names are critical for our characters, but you can create a whole NPC from just the right name. So, all those lifepath contacts – name them. Look something up, give them a label. Call them ‘Gravel’ or ‘Lavish’ or ‘Dances-in Moonlight’ or ‘Vomit-Face Rick’ or something with an apostrophe. Whatever you chose to name them, it immediately brings them to life.

If you like, you can pick something from here – hands-down the single best N/PC name generator I’ve ever found.

But whatever you do – enjoy it!

An Admission…

Prior to lockdown, I was in panic mode, first thing every morning, because I had half-an-hour FLAT do my daily wordcount. Only 500 words, but I barely had time to even read it through. I (literally) had to sit down and plug myself straight back in.

When I came to sort out the edit, it was a bit of a mess. (I’d actually managed to write the same scene in two different places in the book – work that one out!)

Fortunately, I’ve had the time to sort it and was happy with it when I sent it in. Booyah.

When lockdown started, I was over the moon with all the time – I would be able to write all of the things that I wanted to write, and not have to panic…

But, of course, it’s not worked out that way.

Too much time, I’ve discovered, is much of a problem as too little. Yes, I can still write 2,500 words a day, with a full head of steam… but I have space to let in the doubts. When I have time to sprawl, I’m forever second guessing things, unpicking things, undermining my own plotlines, going back to earlier scenes in the MS because something else will work better, and then rewriting everything… honestly, I’ve been driving myself up the wall.

And (ironically) producing less total wordcount that I did on half an hour every morning.

I’ve also been hopping from project to project, which is crazy, and really hasn’t helped.

So, I’m having to bite some bullets, make some admissions. Schedules and structures really matter. Daily wordcount having to be a Thing, after all. Annoyingly, it’s not something I’ve ever previously believed in because, in a former life, I’ve ended up writing any old thing to just make the target…

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But, in the long run, it works!

The Wisdom of Bob

Since I’ve had a couple of people ask me about this…

Bob. Bobobobobob. Who is Bob?

When I got thrown into writing the Judge Anderson novella, a couple of years ago, my knowledge of the 2000AD universe was kinda rusty. I was never allowed to read it, as a kid (I got ‘Whizzer and Chips’ as a little’un and ‘Bunty’ as I got older), so I used to borrow the graphic novels from friends.

Being thrown back into it at almost fifty conjured a lot of mental imagery – particularly from our old roleplaying days – but little in the way of a remembered lexicon. And, with very little time to write, it was a pain in the arse to stop every bloody five minutes and look up something else – the big stuff was obvious, but it was the little things. Does she wear socks? What does she use as a toothbrush? How does she start her bike?

And then, going from that to the VAST mythology of WarHammer 40k… well, that was kinda daunting.

So, I started calling things bob. When I needed a noun that I didn’t know yet, and didn’t want to interrupt my flow to keep looking things up, it was bob. Augusta spent a lot of Bloodied Rose pulling out the bob and aiming at the bob and running along the bob. In Wreck and Ruin, there was at least one bob that sneaked past the final read-though and got picked up by the editor. And in the current WIP (working title ‘Bastion’ after the Keep in Diablo III), there are still bobs all over the shop.

I do keep an Excel spreadsheet of WH40k terms – a writers’ guide, such as it is – which gets longer with every book both read and written. But even then, there’s a galactic bloody fucktonne of terminology to remember, and to get right. 

Hence – bob. Bob is everywhere. Trust in the Bob. Believe in the Bob. 

Bob is your friend, and he will be there for you, even in the dark times. 

Black Library Weekender

Very happy to be going back to the Black Library Weekender, this weekend!

Had a fantastic time last year, met lots of wonderful people, and had the opportunity to see the BL authors I usually see at FP… all in their natural element. Which was a whole new perspective…!

This year, I’ll be there from Saturday early evening, so please do come and find me (probably in the bar). Or you can come and throw things at me on the Sunday, where I’ll be talking about my newest Sisters of Battle novella, Wreck and Ruin, and then signing from 12:30.

Wreck and Ruin will be available at the Weekender as part of the BL’s second novella series – plus there’s more Sisters goodness in the Event anthology. And you can always find more tales of Augusta and her intrepid squad on the Black Library website!

Cover Art by Nemanja Stankovic

Look forward to seeing you there!

Mental Health and Writing

Some thoughts, following on from World Mental Health Day, and from a conversation that sparked up, quite spontaneously, with a fellow author a few weeks ago…

Children of Artifice was written over one of the worst times of my life. I was struggling to sell my house, and having a nightmare with the associated paperwork. I was unsure where Isaac and I were going to go, and had (quite genuinely) no idea if we have enough money to actually put a roof over our heads, or whether we would have to resort to Social housing (what there is left of it), or leave London completely. At the same time, I was dealing with the long illness and then the death of my Mother, and then with another horrific mess of tangled paperwork.

At times, the whole thing felt like some bloody Quest – and I looked forwards to the day I defeated the Final Boss, and could be in my very own kitchen, safe and free from worry.

That day finally happened three years ago, but the journey really threw something into the light.

Artifice – Caph and Proteus and their unfolding – kept me sane. It was where I went to escape, to pull the covers of another reality over my head, and to escape the darkness of the world around me. Much of my relationship with my Mother, and how I felt about her death, poured itself into the book – I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s as emotional, and as intense, as it is. And when it was done, I was absolutely drained – my tanks were empty and I had no creativity left.

But it was there for me. All the way through.

And Ecko – particularly the first two books – were very much the same thing. Ecko’s savagery and rage were a reflection of the helplessness I was feeling at the time, and how angry it made me. It was an outlet, a release – not only the place I could bury my head and leave everything else behind, but it was hugely cathartic and I can’t describe how much it helped.

It’s not just about being an author. You may be an artist, or an actor. You may pour yourself into your crafting, or your music. And it doesn’t matter if you make the thing for yourself, for your friends, or for a worldwide audience – it’s still your panacea. Whatever that chosen form of expression, it’s the release valve we all need – the thing that will be there for us, that can take all of the darkness that we loose into it, and turn it into something miraculous.

When it comes to your art, it’s good to let the madness loose.

And that’s pretty cool!

Legends 3 for The David Gemmell Award

Very pleased to be a part of this one!

As the company has been working through it archives, many pictures of fascinating old events have come to the surface – among them, signings with David Gemmell. And while I was never fortunate enough to meet him, he always cuts a very striking figure.

I do remember reading Legend, though – as a teenager, long before I joined the Vike. And it’s a huge read, powerful and vibrant and full of the songs of war.

And – thanks, Ian! – very proud to be a part of this anthology.

Full line up: –

Introduction by Stan Nicholls
Blood Debt – Gail Z. Martin
A God’s Mercy – Richard Webb
Berserker Captain – Neal Asher
The Price of Passage – Keris McDonald
Summoner – Danie Ware
Pelicos the Brave and the Princess of Kalakhadze
The Timekeeper’s Tarot – Den Patrick
Her Grail – Ben North
Piercing the Mist – Shona Kinsella
Chosen of the Slain – K. T. Davies
The Dying Land – Nick Watkinson
A Hero of her People – Anna Smith Spark

Cover Art by Dominic Harman

More details on the Newcon Press website, or available on Kindle from Amazon!

Children of Artifice – now on Audiobook!

Completing a book is a magical thing.

You’ve fought your way through the Labyrinth of Doubt, across the Waters of Panic, and up the Mountain of No Time, but you’ve really made something – you’ve crafted a portal to Another Place.

And then comes the tough part, the opening of that portal – and this is where you need your intrepid adventuring party…

Editor/s – there to ensure that your book is the best book is can possibly be.

Artist/s – there to see through your portal, and to bring its first images of it to life.

And actor/s – to hear your characters for real, and to conjure them into a new dimension.

So huge thanks goes to Joe Jameson for hearing all those voices in his head, and to Neil Gardner at Spoken World Audio for his phenomenal production and editing skills.

Seriously – listen to this…

The audiobook is now available from Spoken World Audio. It will be coming to Audible – but Bezos really doesn’t need the money that badly, and Neil has cats (and Muppets) to support…

Judge Anderson: Bigger Than Biggs

“Six foot six and 100 tons, the undisputed King of the Slums…”

Getting the chance to play with the Big Toys has been one hell of an opportunity, and not a little intimidating.

This is the first time I’ve ever written for a character I didn’t create (the Battle Sisters are my characters, though the background is not), made all the more challenging by the fact that she’s omniscient, which is a right pain in the butt. How do you add mystery and tension to your plot, when your protag already knows everything?

But, I found my answer, and Bigger Than Biggs is out on December 4th. It’s my homage to the iconic CyberPunk of our youth, to its imagery and characters, to all the love and work that went into it, and to the bright threads of 2000AD, that, even so long ago, crept into our gaming…

It’s also based on one of my all-time favourite tracks – by Carter USM, the song that was Biggs’s theme tune, and that, to this day, ionises those youthful dice-rollings.

Judge Anderson Year Two: Bigger Than Biggs can be downloaded from the Rebellion site, and is available from Amazon. Or, if you don’t fancy giving that buttwipe Bezos any more money, there’s also a signed limited edition print novella. All with cover art by the fabulous Neil Roberts!

Sing it with me: –

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you…”


More Nuns With Guns!

And there it is! Out on November 1st, the second (slightly longer) adventure of Sister Superior Augusta Santorus and her intrepid squad of butt-kicking nuns – and this time, it’s nastier things than Orks!

Seriously, tho – very chuffed to see this loosed out to the Imperium, and with such amazing support from the Black Library. The cover art is gorgeous – it shows Augusta’s age and experience, and the colour of her armour stands out perfectly. When I wrote Mercy, I made the choice to write about a different Order of Sisters, to step away from the inestimable Martyred Lady, and to create something slightly different, something that I could make my own… (well, kinda!)

The rest of the novella run looks absolutely superb, as well – check them out!

I will be talking about this novella, and about Mercy, at the Black Library weekender in November, and alongside a truly spectacular line-up. Please do come and say hello!