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Are we there yet?

Electric Athenaeum, a New British SF webzine produced by staff at Anglia Ruskin University (UK), has just published my SF story, Good to Go, as part of Issue 01, which addresses the theme “For Future Generations”. To read this story, please follow this link:

The following notes summarise some of my thoughts about this story, which were originally posted as a thread on Twitter. Please be aware that they contain some mild spoilers.

Good to Go was a lot of fun to write, partly because of the narrator’s voice (it’s definitely a “voice” piece) but also because there were so many science, technology and socio-political angles to explore. I hope I’ve done them justice in the 3000 words I used.

The story’s concept came about from the argument I’ve had with myself (and others) over the decades about whether humanity should explore space or sort out our ailing planet first. Or can we do both? For context: I’m 58 and a child of the Apollo era.

Obviously, I wanted to be an astronaut or failing that then take a vacation on the Moon. Despite the best efforts of Space X and Bigelow Industries, that’s unlikely to happen soon enough to suit me. Ah well! Or, as a famous writer once wrote: “So it goes”.

But yes, we do need to sort out our planet. That cannot wait. I do think we can pursue some goals in space at the same time, but securing our home must have top priority. The characters in my story eventually understand that, but need a lot of prodding.

But having terraformed Earth back to a viable state doesn’t mean we should then terraform other planets to suit humanity’s needs. The story’s narrator learns that we may have to change what it means to be human if we want to live on other worlds.

As for the mechanism that boosts humanity into orbit… You can blame Jaine Fenn for that! My good friend and fellow member of the One Step Beyond writers’ group once wrote that every SF novel (or story) is improved by the presence of one. Discuss!

I wanted my narrator to be a project manager rather than a scientific genius or engineering wizard: someone who has to get other people to do her bidding, but who is (of course) stymied at every step along the way. Yes, I used to be a project manager….

Please visit the Electric Athenaeum website ( where you will find many other fictional, factual and philosophical pieces on the theme of “For Future Generations”.

A Writer’s Life (2016)


I received fifteen acceptances for my short fiction, twelve of which were for reprints. As in 2015, I took Deborah Walker’s excellent advice and made sure that, whenever possible, my pre-sold stories were “out there” seeking out gainful employment.

Original Publication

Three stories accepted in 2015 saw publication this year: Brown Cat Blues in Plasma Frequency Magazine; Collapsing into Life in Cracked Eye; Insider Art in Abyss & Apex. Sadly, by the end of the year, both Cracked Eye and Plasma Frequency Magazine had folded. Although Cracked Eye is no longer on-line, you can still see Rachelle Meyer’s stunning illustrations for Collapsing into Life, three of which are animated, here.

In what has definitely a good year for my micro-fiction, I saw my story POD People published in the debut issue of Speculative 66. This on-line journal publishes stories that contain exactly 66 words. Also, my story Peace on Earth received an Honorable Mention in the 200 CCs Christmas Contest. That’s the first time any of my stories have placed in a contest!

English Language Reprints

My Nature Futures short-short Dark They Were, and Strange Inside appeared in the Unintended Consequences anthology from WolfSinger Publications.

Another Nature Futures short-short Bee Futures appeared in issue 3 of The Singularity magazine.

Foreign Language Reprints

Dark They Were, and Strange Inside
was translated into Croatian and reprinted in Eridan magazine (please be aware that this link is to the PDF, which may download automatically).

Dark They Were, and Strange Inside
was translated into Estonian and appeared in Reaktor magazine.

String-Driven Thing
was translated into Polish and reprinted in Szortal.

Three cheers for my Nature Futures stories! Long may they find new homes.


February saw a wonderful podcast of my Mars-set SF story First and Third at StarShipSofa. This was recorded by Nikolle Doolin, who did a marvellous job.

Later in the year, C B Droege recorded a pair of my Nature Futures stories (again) for his Flash Fiction Podcast, again with highly entertaining results. If you have five minutes to spare, you could do much worse than listen to his readings of The Last Botnet and Bee Futures.

December saw two podcasts of my stories: Beam Me Up released Ron Huber’s excellent reading of Stars in Her Eyes, while at the end of the month 600 Second Saga released Mariah Avix’s equally fine rendition of String-Driven Thing.

“The Novel”

The scare quotes are deliberate. I spent a lot of time working on the third draft of Survival Strategies this year. The feedback from my readers was mixed. I am still pondering how to proceed.


My most important ebook project this year was editing and producing One Step Beyond, a reprint anthology of short stories written by members of the titular writers’ group, which has been in existence since 1998. One Step Beyond is published by Tower of Chaos Press and is raising money for English PEN, a charity that supports freedom of expression around the world. It is available from all the major ebook retailers.

This year I also produced my second collection of short stories, Sons of the Earth. This is currently available only as a Kindle ebook, although I do have plans to produce a paperback in 2017.


I thoroughly enjoyed attending Manunicon (aka Eastercon 2016) in Manchester. The four principal guests were either good friends of mine or authors of considerable interest to me, so I never lacked for programme items of interest to me. I also participated in my first ever discussion panel, on “Obscure British SF Television 1950s-1970s”. Talk about typecasting! But we had great fun in the tiny but packed-out room where the panel took place. I think we all left with expanded to-buy lists.

Extra-Curricular Activities

I continued to serve as first reader for a small (but beautifully formed) speculative fiction magazine. I hope to continue in this role, as I love reading the work of other writers, which also provides acute insights into my own writing.

I acted as proof-reader and on-line editorial consultant to Richard Lewis while he wrestled with issue 2 of Thoughtforms (the band-approved magazine for fans of British Indie band Lush). The results of his hard work were deservedly acclaimed.

Bubbling Under

I will be attending Milford Writers’ Conference in September. (Memo to self: must write some new stuff!)

I have several stories awaiting publication, including The Last Moonshot at Shoreline of Infinity.

As ever, please check my website’s news page regularly for the latest news!

In Memoriam

Sadly, two writer friends of mine died this year.

Like me, Sean Timarco Baggaley attended Liz Holliday’s One Step Beyond workshop in 1998 and went on to become one of the founder members of the group of the same name. A big physical presence, a talented writer and something of a Renaissance Man, Sean had a delightfully quirky sense of humour that found expression in his (sadly unpublished) fiction.

Many of the same adjectives could be applied to Philip E Kaldon. Another big man, Dr Phil as he was generally known on-line had a splendid sense of humour, as well as being broadminded on a wide range of political and social issues. He, too, was a fine writer, but unlike Sean a lot of his output did see publication. The widespread outpouring of grief after Dr Phil died was a good a measure as one could ever need of just how much he was loved and admired.

Rest in peace my friends.

And finally…

Wishing all my readers and visitors to this website a happy, productive and successful 2017.

Interpretation is everything

One of the aspects I enjoy most about the writing life is collaborating with other creative folk. Sometimes that collaboration is explicit, as when I’m kicking around ideas with my good friend Tony Hughes, who paints the covers for my ebooks. Other times, it is discovering how someone I don’t know interprets my work. Podcasts are case in point. Last year, Paul Cole produced an atmospheric five-part serial from my Everest story ‘The English Dead’ for his Beam Me Up podcast. Today, the award-winning StarShipSofa has released issue 424, which contains Nikolle Doolin’s wonderful rendition of my Mars-set SF story ‘First and Third’. To hear Doolin’s take on my characters was a mind-opening experience for me. I always had a view of how Masie (in particular) should soundand Doolin has nailed it. Whereas Joe sounds a little different to what I had in mind, but actually a lot better. In truth, I reckon Doolin has created the definitive version of ‘First and Third’and I am hugely grateful to her for doing so.

(Now, if only I could find someone to publish the sequel to ‘First and Third’… Any takers for ‘Second and Seventh’ out there in editor-land?)

Notes on ‘Bee Futures’

Most of my stories have come to be (sorry!) when two or more unrelated stimuli collide and interact. With Bee Futures it was more a case of a bunch of related stimuli stinging each other.

In the past I have conducted horizon-scanning studies for technology companies. Autonomous micro-drones were one of the many emerging technologies that caught my attention. Not surprisingly, the designs and prototypes drew inspiration from nature. Intriguingly, some research scientists were exploring whether insect-sized drones might replace natural insects for pollination tasks…

Then consider the ongoing catastrophic decline in bee colonies, which many scientists believe is caused by the use of potentially dangerous (to bees) agrochemicals…

Then consider the existing tensions between technology-driven and ethically-compliant modes of agriculture…

Then consider who would be the farmers in the future when so many present-day farmers are giving up, for one reason or another…

Then consider how corporate policies and consumer preferences can drive counter-productive behaviours…

That list comprises the set of factors and drivers that Bee Futures sprang from. The first version of this slice of absurdist SF – which I hoped would be somewhat in the John Sladek mode – took a single afternoon to write. My writers’ group (One Step Beyond) demanded that I radically improve the ending. Hopefully I succeeded.

Bee Futures was published in Nature Journal’s ‘Futures’ series in 2013. it It has since been reprinted by The Singularity magazine, also by Szortal (Polish translation) and Reaktor (Estonian translation), and podcast by Manawaker Studio. If you’d like to read it, it’s free on the Nature Futures website, or you can find it in my Sons of the Earth ebook.

Collapsing My Thoughts

I’m generally known (not well-known, but still) as a science fiction writer, but from time to time I do stray into other genres. In fact around 20% of my fiction fits elsewhere. My published work includes ghost stories, an eschatological fantasy, and other pieces that are plain unclassifiable. Collapsing Into Life is a case in point, but also a maverick in its own right. What is this story supposed to be? A case could be made for literary science fiction, but then again maybe it’s a psychodrama featuring a delusional protagonist. As the story’s author, I was never entirely sure, which in some ways was part of the fun of writing it. In any case, does its genre matter? After all, the story is the story, however I (or others) choose to classify it. But narrative ambiguity can make a finished piece difficult to market. Most editors prefer certainty, which is fair enough. So I count myself fortunate indeed that Cracked Eye took on Collapsing Into Life and assigned Rachelle Meyer to illustrate it. You can always tell the quality of a publication by the value that’s added. Cracked Eye and Rachelle added loads of value to this story. The illustrations some of them animated are superb throughout, giving the story a graphic novel feel.

Collapsing Into Life was long in gestation, passing through several distinct versions over the years. It was based–very  loosely–on the circumstances a close friend of mine found herself in way back when. To me, it felt like she was living in three places at once. No, she’s not Melissa, but her situation did stimulate my thinking for this story, which went well and truly off-piste. And yes, we remain close friends to this day.

Reading and Writing

For the last 18 months or so, I’ve been reading submissions for a longstanding but “small press” speculative fiction magazine. During that time, I’ve considered well over one hundred stories in the SF, fantasy and horror genres. I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences with my fellow writers, particularly those who like me receive many more rejections than they do acceptances.

First up, if you’ve not served as reader before, it’s a post (ahem, unpaid) that’s well worth considering.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t while evaluating the viability of a story in its submitted state, as opposed to a work-in-progress critiqued at a workshop or by a writers’ group. Also, there’s the principle of “giving something back to the community”. We can’t have too many good places to send our work.

What follows is a set of observations based on my experiences to date. Please take them for what they are: my experiences, which are not necessarily representative of the majority of submissions readers.

It ought to be obvious, but I’ll restate it here, that a first (or second) reader’s task is simply to pick out those stories that, in his or her view, the editor should seriously consider for publication. I forward maybe 15% of those I read. Most of those still get rejected by the editor.

If I send a form rejection, it’s usually because one (or more) of the following reasons apply:

  • This story is badly written.
  • The story is competently executed but it covers well-worn territory without doing anything new.
  • The story doesn’t fit the magazine’s guidelines, often because it has breached the word count limits.

I will provide feedback if I believe I can explain in a sentence or two where, in my opinion, the story’s problems lie. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me, although you’d be wasting your time if you email back to complain about my reasoning or decision. What I would say is this: if you receive several rejections giving similar feedback, such as “the ending doesn’t work for me” you might want to take a look at the story in the light of it.

It’s not a good idea to ask the first (or second) reader whether you can submit a rewrite. That is for the editor to decide.

Here are some tropes and techniques that I’d like to see less of in the submissions pile:

  • The underwhelming ending is the biggie. I’ve lost count of the number of well-written, engaging stories I’ve read that fell flat at the end. A key question for any writer to consider is: how will the reader react when she gets to the end of the story? Will she think “meh” or “wow”? If you’re not sure, ask fellow writers for an opinion.
  • The first person narrator who dies at the end of the story, but somehow manages to inform the reader that she has done so. I’m not saying this can’t be done, but it is really difficult to make it work. One way would be if the existence of an afterlife is central to your story.
  • Uncontrolled viewpoint switching.  One moment we’re in one character’s head, the next we’ve been swapped to someone else. This can easily jolt the reader out of the story’s flow. Now, if this happens after a section break, fair enough, provided the viewpoint transitions are essential to deliver the story. But are they? Usually they are not, althoughas ever there are exceptions. An alternating viewpoint can work well in a two-hander story. A viewpoint switch that occurs at the end of the story is a particularly difficult trick to pull off, although not impossible (I’ve done it myselfand sold the story).
  • Info dumping, which almost always occurs near the beginning of the story, can bog down the plot before it gets going. Drip-feed this stuff. Clever ways to do it include messages passed by a minor character, announcements over the PA in the workplace or a public area, adverts on street hoardings… (There are loads more. Be creative.)
  • The story’s plot is conveyed via a conversation between two characters, typically a pair of scientists going about their work. Generally, the results are dull. Again, this mode can work I’ve resorted to it myself and seen the story published but it’s difficult to pull off. There is a danger of resorting to info dumping via dialogue of the “As you know, Bob…” kind.
  • The story that only reveals its genre right at the end, i.e. it starts as mainstream and transitions into a horror, fantasy or speculative mode on the final page. Again, this can work, but it usually requires particularly vivid writing and, preferably a hint, perhaps noticed only retrospectively, of something out of the ordinary. I usually read to the end of a manuscript, as I always want to know how the story ends, but I can’t vouch for my fellow first readers.
  • Infestations of typos and egregious grammatical errors. Check your MS and then check it again. Read a hard copy. Read it backwards. Read random paragraphs. Let a friend read it. I won’t reject a submission because I’ve found a handful, but when I encounter them in the opening paragraph, someone hasn’t done their job properly!

Finally, a surprisingly large number of writers seem to have no idea how to write a submission letter. The most common mistake is to summarise the story. Very few editors want to see that. Your story should stand on its merits, without additional promotion from you. The best advice I can give is: keep your letter short, simple and polite. Like most readers and editors, I only look at the letter after I’ve made my decision and I don’t change my decision after I’ve read it.

Comments are welcome either here or on my Facebook page. Please note that I won’t be telling you which magazine I read for.

2015: A Writer’s Life

It’s been a somewhat schizoid year on the writing front, as I’ve made relatively little progress in terms of producing new material or finishing works-in-progress, but enjoyed plenty of success on the publishing side of things.

My limited productivity was almost entirely due to a protracted property sale/purchase/move scenario. Nothing terrible happened, but I had a huge amount of tasks to keep me busy–and still do post-move.

I did manage to finalise one previously drafted story during 2015 and wrote four new ones, all very short and mostly targeted at contests, which I found a useful source of motivation. None of this year’s crop has sold yet, but I did place four older stories at good markets: Invisible Touch sold to Daily Science Fiction and was published earlier this month; Collapsing into Life will appear in Cracked Eye; Insider Art is in Abyss and Apex’s inventory; and Brown Cat Blues will appear in the New Year Day’s issue of the revived Plasma Frequency Magazine. That’s a very pleasing haul.  PMF’s recovery after a successful Kickstarter campaign was one of the year’s more pleasing pieces of publishing news (IMO).

One highlight for me this year was seeing A Walk in the Woods (a reprint) and its sequel A Walk in the Rain published as a diptych in Breakout (aka Postscripts 34/35, from PS Publishing). Those stories are keeping very good company, judging by the anthology’s table of contents.

On the subject of reprints: I saw my Nature Futures story Bee Futures appear in Szortal (Polish) and Reaktor (Estonian), while Szortal also reprinted Dark They Were, and Strange Inside, likewise originally in Nature. Bee Futures will also appear in new British SF magazine The Singularity in due course. Another new magazine, The New Accelerator, reprinted Survival Strategies. This year also saw a story of mine podcast for the first time, with Beam Me Up producing The English Dead in five highly atmospheric segments. Another of my stories, First and Third, is set to be podcast by the award-winning StarShipSofa in the near future. Other previously published stories appeared on pay-per-read sites such as QuarterReads, AnthologyBuilder and The40p. I only released one new ebook this year, which contains my novelette Family Tree. I have tentative plans to release another ebook collection of my published stories at some point, possibly next year.

Also in 2015, I prepared and submitted a novel sample to Hodderscape’s call for unagented submissions. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m told that doesn’t signify anything. I also edited a reprint anthology of stories written by my friends in the One Step Beyond writers’ group. Our aim is to raise money for the English PEN charity. This ebook is complete except for some final checking and tweaking, so hopefully it will be released fairly early in the New Year.
As for 2016 projects, it’s really too early to say. But when I get some time, I’m sure my thoughts will turn in the appropriate direction!

Several of my writer-friends had great news to share this year, most notably Aliette de Bodard, whose Paris-set post-apocalypse fantasy The House of Shattered Wings was published to great acclaim, as was Al Robertson’s Crashing Heaven SF novel. Congratulations to both–and to everyone I know who had a successful year.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Insider Art

Hugo-nominated webzine Abyss & Apex published my short story Insider Art on April 1st. I was on holiday at the time so I’m only now getting round to blogging about this highly personal work.

Insider Art isn’t personal in the sense that the lead character is based on me or anyone I know; she isn’t. But I do know what it is like for someone to visit a loved one who has been in a persistently vegetative state for several years. But mostly it’s the story’s embedded themes that constitute the personal element, since they often appear in my work. So: Insider Art explores the challenges posed by creativity; ponders how people trapped by their circumstances strive to free themselves; and considers how technology might enable new but circumscribed forms of humanity to come into being. In that sense, it is probably one of my signature works. You can find other, often very different takes on these themes in stories like Slices of Life, Survival Strategies, Time to Play, A Walk in the Woods (and its sequel A Walk in the Rain), and others.

If you watched the final episode of the recent revival of The X-Files, you will have encountered the walking-versus-tennis communication protocol already. I felt that Chris Carter rather under-exploited the motif. I hope that Insider Art makes better use of it, particularly since reading about it in a science journal a few years ago inspired me to write the story in the first place.

I’m hugely grateful to my friends in the OSB writers’ group and the Milford Conference 2013 attendees for helping me to knock this story into shape, also to Wendy S. Delmater for agreeing to publish it in her excellent ‘zine. I hope you enjoy reading it.

TWTYTW (2014)

On the publishing front, the highlight of 2014 was receiving an acceptance for my short story ‘Supply and Demand in the Post-War Economy’ from Daily Science Fiction, who published it in October. Also of note was the reprinting of ‘Dark They Were, and Strange Inside’ in Futures 2 (from, a best-of of stories published in Nature Futures), also an acceptance from Quasar for the translation of ‘The English Dead’ into Italian. That story should appear next year, as should ‘A Walk in the Woods’ (reprint) and its sequel ‘A Walk in the Rain’, in Postscripts 34/35 from PS Publishing.

Although I have not been particularly active on the ebook reprinting front this year, it was good to see my previously e-published collection of SF stories, Moondust Memories, become available in a paperback edition, courtesy of CreateSpace. You can find it on Amazon and other sites.

I’m always on the lookout for new venues for my previously published short fiction. October saw the launch of a new publishing venture called QuarterReads. It employs a $5 for 20 reads model, with 88% royalties accrued to the author’s account each time their work is read. This website publishes both original and reprinted work: short stories, poems, essays and memoirs. There is a lot of good fiction by both established and less well-known writers on QuarterReads, which currently hosts
ten of my short stories.

On the events front, I greatly enjoyed Loncon3, my first World SF Convention. I attended the middle three days. I met many friends, showed my face at the ‘Futures 2’ launch party and applauded during the Hugo Awards ceremony. I also said “Hi!” and “Thanks!” to several editors who’ve published my work over the years. But my highlight was briefly talking to Christopher Priest after his reading. He’s one of my very favourite SF&F authors.

One negative aspect of this year has been my productivity, which was restricted by an unresolved shoulder and neck problem. Pleasing changes on the domestic front also caused some downtime. Similar issues can be expected in 2015, but I shall push on regardless. You will find news of my publishing adventures in the usual places, including on this website.


Flash fiction fail

I greatly enjoy reading flash* science fiction stories, as well as writing them. One can find some terrific examples in the Futures column of Nature magazine, also in Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, amongst others. Yet despite its increasing market presence, especially on-line, flash SF suffers from a less than stellar reputation, especially amongst author organisations. Clear evidence of this is supplied by the Science Fiction Writers of America’s recent decision to change its membership qualification rules. As a consequence, the usefulness of pro-rate flash fiction sales for qualification has been significantly downgraded. To me, this seems an odd thing to do. It’s almost as if someone on the SFWA board has thought “You cheeky blighters, trying to palm us off with these easy-to-write micro-fictions. Well, let’s put a stop to your little game…”

I can assure any doubters reading this piece that flash fiction isn’t intrinsically easy to write, at least not well, any more than, say, miniature portraits are easy to paint, or tiny clockwork mechanisms for wrist-watches are easy to design and build.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of bad flash fiction out there–dependent on cliché and twist-endings–but that’s true of any mode of fiction. There is nothing intrinsically stale, trite or undemanding about flash fiction. I shudder to think how much more intellectual effort I’d have to put into writing ten good flash stories, compared with a single story of comparable quality in the 5000-10000 words range.

Rather than simply complain about this state of affairs, I’ll make a specific proposal. As far as I’m aware, there is currently no specific award for SFF flash fiction**. I think there should be. I don’t know how a new award might be funded or administered, but perhaps the Hugo and Nebula committees could ponder the matter. And while they do that, perhaps they could also ponder the longstanding short fiction categories, namely short story (<7500 words), novelette (7500-17500 words) and novella (17500-40000 words). Are they still fit for purpose? To my mind, there is no intrinsic difference between a long short story (say, 7000 words) and a short novelette (say, 10000 words), whereas flash fiction is rather different in kind: a miniature short story***. In that respect, it is every bit as meaningful a category as novella (a short novel).

I’d be interested to hear what SF writers and readers think about this.

* Some still refer to such pieces as short-shorts.

** Please correct me if I’m wrong!

*** There’s no widely accepted definition for flash fiction’s maximum word-count. Some would argue for 1000 words, others 1500. I’ve also heard the argument that anything below 2000 words is not a proper short story.