Death and a Quick Pen

I write fast.

When I start a novel, I write two thousand words at a sitting, twice a day. There was a time when I wrote every day until I finished whatever I was working on. Now, older and married, I write five days a week and keep the weekends free. That still means that writing four thousand words a day I chalk up twenty thousand words a week. I complete the first draft of a novel in four or five weeks.

Admittedly, I feel pretty jaded by then – but the hard work is done. All that remains to do is the fiddly work of the rewrite.

And the reason I write so fast is that, when I was sixteen, I thought I was dying.

I’d left school at fourteen when my parents and I emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. At that time, in the mid-seventies, pupils could leave school in Victoria at fifteen. As I was not in the slightest academic – let’s face it, I wasn’t very bright – I opted not to tread the groves of academe, but work in my parents’ corner shop instead.

I was fifteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer.

But how did a working class lad with ne’er two brain cells to rub together, with no formal education to speak of – and whose first attempts at writing a story dispensed with commas and full stops – hope to write books that people might want to read?

Well, I didn’t ask myself that at the time. With a degree of ignorance and blind faith which in retrospect is frightening, I began scribbling short crime stories set in the English countryside that, sequestered in the outback, I missed so much.

I began my first novel a year after discovering the works of Agatha Christie, and a week later developed wracking chest pains and cramps. I was convinced, with the unshakeable certitude of the hypochondriac that I would remain for the rest of my life, that I was not long for this world. In fact, I gave myself six months.

Now I’d read somewhere that most novelists took a year to write their books… and a quick calculation brought me to the realisation that my magnum opus – a murder mystery set aboard the Titanic – would still be unfinished at the time of my early passing.

Galvanised, I alternated between periods of morose teenage melancholia and bursts of frenetic writing activity in a manic effort to finish the novel.

I did, all sixty thousand words of it – and I even outlived my self-prophesied six months. In fact, I had time to rewrite the novel, which I did too.

Then it came to me – when the chest pains abated – that I’d written a novel pretty damned quickly. And that ability to write at speed has never left me.

And the novel of fiendish multiple murder and cunning detection set aboard the doomed passenger liner?

It was terrible, and languishes still in my files – probably the worst whodunit in the history of literary creation, but a manuscript which I think of with fondness and gratitude.

Now the bouts of hypochondria visit me rarely, but I still write like a man possessed. When an idea grips me I make copious notes, daydream for hours on end, and live with the characters and their travails until the pressure builds and I can no longer hold it in. At which point I sit at my desk – a big, old 1950s Baird radiogram – and start writing.

I’d like to go back in time and tell the sixteen year old that I was – homesick for England and suffering the certainty of an early death – that nearly forty year later not only would I still be in the land of the living, but that I’d be a published novelist and a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper. I’d tell him that he had nothing to fear but fear itself, and thank him for teaching me that it’s fine to write fast, despite what the literary elitists might say.

And I like to think that he’d be proud – after he’d overcome his initial disbelief, of course.


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Piracy etc…

If it isn’t hard enough these days attempting to scrape a living as a freelance writer – and a freelance writer of fiction, which is even harder – you have various obstacles in your path. One of many are the websites which offer your work for free, or sometimes at a minimal charge. These sites have scanned your books and stories and offer them for download.

I saw one site which vaunted that it was providing the reading public with a ‘service that all book-lovers will love!’. Which claim is, of course, rubbish. These sites are run by opportunistic pirates. They are stealing authors’ works – novels and stories it has taken us weeks and months and sometimes years to create. Far from offering a service, they are depriving writers of income. As a book lover, the reading public should avoid these sites.

The other obstacle to a freelance writer earning a crust is publishers who steal your work.

I’ve been fortunate, on the whole, in only having had a few short stories and one book stolen in this way.

Galaktika, a Hungarian SF magazine, was infamous for ripping off foreign authors (and Hungarian authors, too, presumably). Twenty years ago it came to my notice that my short story “The Time-Lapsed Man” had appeared in translation in Galaktika 163, April 1994. I’d not been contacted by the editor, one Kuczka Peter, for permission to translate the tale, and of course I wasn’t paid for it. I managed to track down a copy of the magazine and found that I was in good company: the contents list included the likes of Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Bayley, Clarke and Watson. I wrote to the editor, asking for recompense, and heard nothing.

So it goes.

In 2000, the indefatigable Molly Brown emailed me to ask if I knew that the Japanese magazine ‘S-F’ run by Hayakawa Publishing had published two of my stories: a collaboration with Stephen Baxter “The Spacetime Pit”, and “The Time-Lapsed Man”, in issues number 471 (September 1995) and 499 (January 1998) respectively. Molly had had a tale printed without payment – and sure enough the powers that be at Hayakawa had neglected to pay me (and, as it happens, a host of other foreign authors).

Molly had a lawyer friend who kindly drafted a form letter, demanding payment and interest from the company. I sent the letter to the address supplied, expecting to hear nothing back. Imagine my surprise when I not only received a letter expressing consternation and apologies at ‘this unfortunate oversight’, but full payment for the published stories, plus a numbers of years’ interest.

All’s well that ends well.

It wasn’t such a happy ending with the only book stolen from me. Back in 1998 I signed a contract with the French publisher Henri Dhellemmes, who ran DLM Editions in Montpellier, for a short story collection entitled Odyssées aveugles. It duly came out in a neat paperback edition – but the payment for the book (only four hundred pounds – but money I’d rather be in my bank account than Henri’s) never appeared. I emailed the fellow, of course, but he deigned not to reply.

I’ve since had a couple of holidays in or around Montpelier, and I really should pop in and see him.

Failing that, Henri, if you ever read this – have the decency to cough up.


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Forgotten Authors

My fascination with forgotten authors began back in the early eighties when I discovered a writer who was to become a major influence on my work.

I came across Rupert Croft-Cooke’s The Drums of Morning – the third volume of his twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World – in a junk shop in the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, an inspiration.

Rupert Croft-Cooke is a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote more than a hundred and twenty books: thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name of Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wine, cooking, and biographies of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But The Sensual World is his lasting legacy to English letters, a brilliant evocation of his life and times, concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met.

Skip a few years and I’m in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, when I find on their discount table a hardback copy of the Elmfield Press edition of The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G. Coney. I’d never heard of the author, but I liked the blurb. I bought the book and started reading it on the bus back to Haworth, and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those rare and epiphinal moments when you know you’ve come across a writer whose voice, whose worldview, meshes with your own: I knew from that very first reading that I had to collect Coney’s work. Over the years I did so, reading everything he’d written – fewer than twenty novels and around forty short stories. His best work, novels like Hello Summer, Goodbye, Brontomek!, The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers, and the short stories “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel”, “The True Worth of Ruth Villiers”, “The Cinderella Machine”, combined good writing, interesting characterisation, excellent story-telling and an evocative sense of place, often his beloved West Country transported to the stars. His work spoke to me, and still does, even after countless re-readings. Back in the mid-nineties I began writing to Coney, and around 2000 I suggested that we collaborate on a short story. “The Trees of Terpsichore III”, published in Spectrum SF 8 in 2002, was the result.

I came across the novels of Peter De Polnay in the mid-1980’s, in a second-hand bookshop in York. For much of his long writing career he was published by the same company who brought out many of Rupert Croft-Cook’s novels, W.H. Allen – a third-rate stable where ailing mid-list writers were put out to grass. De Polnay is certainly a mid-list writer, a stalwart of the lending libraries of the 50s and 60s, who produced around seventy novels and half a dozen or so volumes of memoirs in a career lasting almost fifty years.

He led an interesting life, chronicled in Death and Tomorrow – about his time in France during the German occupation, and his role in the resistance there – and in The Moon and the Marabou Stork, detailing his time as a planter in Kenya. After the war he settled down and devoted himself to producing, at the rate of sometimes two a year, detailed accounts of mainly middle-to-upper-class protagonists and their tortured psychological lives. His characterisation is second to none, though his attention to style and structure is less assured; you receive the impression when reading De Polnay that he was more interested in the content of his books than in their form: his stories, while fascinating glimpses into the minds of his protagonists, are often rushed and sometimes superficial. However, I find rewards in his best books, among which are Not the Defeated, A Permanent Farewell, and Blood and Water. His autobiographies are well worth seeking out, too.

I’ve been asked, more than once, why I have this fascination with the halt and lame of the literary world, those forgotten scribes little lauded in their own lifetimes and hardly read now. Some people have suggested that I see my own career reflected in these neglected wordsmiths, and while I don’t deny that there might be a smidgen of truth in this, I’ll also claim that my interest in the above writers (as well as others like Robin Maugham, J.T. McIntosh, Norman Levine, Arthur Sellings, Miles Tripp, James Wellard… the list goes on) has more to do with a reaction to the populist and consumerist world in which we live, where the latest best-seller is the must-read title, where celebrity books – ghost-written, for the most part – flood the market. It’s nice to get away from all this, to discover writers who laboured away for years with little reward, and to bring to life their lost visions, even if it is only upon the stage of my own imagination.

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Next year will see the publication of Jani and the Great Pursuit, the second volume of the Multiplicity series, which will see Jani, and her friends Alfie Littlebody and Anand, fleeing for their lives around the globe from London to Tibet…

The third volume of the Telemass Quartet, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, will be out from PS Publishing, followed later in the year by the fourth novella, as yet untitled.

A planned collaboration with Tony Ballantyne is in its early stages. He came up to Scotland last year and, as we were strolling around the seaside town of North Berwick, we started chatting about the writing of short-short stories. We discovered that we both loved writing them – as a relief from the writing of novels – and that we’d written a couple of handfuls each. Immediately the idea of a collaborative collection came to mind, with the title of Microcosms. Of course no big, commercial publisher would be interested – collections don’t sell, after all – but we thought a smaller press might be interested. We parted with the promise that we’d write more short-shorts in the interim – and, by early next year, we should have enough to launch the book.

On the short story front, “The Ice Garden” will be appearing in Gary Dalkin’s Improbable Botany anthology later this year. Five or six other short stories are currently doing the rounds of magazines and anthologies.


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This interview, conducted by Mark Chitty, first appeared on The Speculative Scotsman website in 2011. My thanks to Mark Chitty and Niall Alexander.

MC: If I may, I’d like to start by talking about The Kings of Eternity. You mentioned in my last interview with you in 2010 that you had “…been writing the novel, on and off, for ten years, and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.” It certainly was a great novel, and from the reviews I’ve seen from around the internet I’m not alone in that. Both Mark Yon and Rob Bedford over at named it their favourite science fiction release of 2011. How have you found the reaction to it?

Thanks for your kind words – I’m pleased you enjoyed it.

To my delight, the reaction has been uniformly excellent. I don’t think I’ve come across one bad review… yet. When one of my books is published I’m pretty resigned to reviews running the gamut from good to bad and everything in between. When a book goes out there, I know that some people will love it, some hate it with equal passion, and many people won’t give a damn either way. The response to Kings is especially rewarding as of all my books it’s the one I’m most pleased with. I loved writing it, I loved rewriting it, and, when I dip into it very occasionally, it’s the novel that picks me up and carries me along – it’s almost as if I didn’t write it. It’s certainly the novel that means the most to me, of all my stuff: I identify with the characters, their predicaments, and the sentiments expressed. Because I wrote it over such a protracted period – over ten years – I think it had time to mature, and I certainly had the opportunity to go back to it again and again and tinker, fix, cut…

MC: I believe your next novel due out, The Devil’s Nebula, is a venture into a shared world setting with Abaddon Books. Can you tell us a little about the novel?

The Devil’s Nebula is about a small starship, ostensibly a salvage ship, and its crew of almost-criminals in a future fascistic, human empire. They sail close to the judicial wind, keeping just to this side of the law – until they land on a world within the out-of-bounds territory of the alien Vetch, searching for art treasures. Caught by the Terran authorities, they’re given an ultimatum: face the death penalty, or take your ship beyond Vetch territory to the Devil’s Nebula, in search of a colony ship that left human-space a century earlier… It’s out-and-out space adventure, of the type I love to read, set in a universe where an evil alien life-force, the Weird, are bent on invading our universe through portals from another dimensions. It’s a space opera with Lovecraftian overtones.

MC: How did you find the process of creating such a setting knowing that other authors would be writing within it at a future date?

That will be one of the delights of the project: setting up the background – the ground-rules, if you like – and seeing where other writers will take it. I’m looking forward to reading the novels in the series and taking inspiration from them, borrowing ideas maybe, riffs, and hopefully writing more in the series. It has great scope for many fascinating adventure stories, of many types, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. The first novel, while complete in itself, sets up the series, leaving many ideative avenues for others to explore.

MC: After The Devils’ Nebula we’ve got Helix Wars to look forward to, a sequel to your 2007 novel, Helix. Is there anything you can say about that yet, and why the choice to return to that setting?

Helix Wars is set two hundred years after the events depicted in Helix. Humankind has settled on New Earth, the colony is thriving, and the alien Builders of the Helix have conferred upon humanity the mantle of Peacekeepers – the monitors of the six thousand-odd alien races who inhabit the Helix. However, the Builders ceased communicating with the human colonists around a hundred and ninety years ago, retreating into virtual quiescence. The humans have been going it alone for that long and successfully keeping the peace between the various races – until now. On the circuit of the Helix below where New Earth is situated on the fourth circuit, an alien race known as the Sporelli has invaded the peaceful world of Phandra and the neighbouring world of D’rayni, and the central character, Jeff Ellis, is caught up in the conflict when his shuttle crash-lands on Phandra and he is saved by the elfin, pacific natives. What follows is a story of personal loyalty – as Ellis attempts to save the life of the woman who saved him, when she is kidnapped by the Sporelli – and the destiny of various races on the Helix.

The Helix is a vast playground, and it was great to return to it. I’ve had great fun writing this novel – I love SF adventures featuring humans and aliens, exotic settings, fabulous inventions, crash-landed starships, strange cults… I can see myself (if my publisher so wishes) returning again and again to the world(s) of the Helix. The amount of fun I can have there is never-ending.

MC: Any further novels planned, and if so can we get a sneaky bit of info on them?

The novel contracted for after Helix Wars is The Serene Invasion. It’s an idea I’ve had for years, and one I’ve wanted to write for ages. And it might be the most difficult I’ve ever tackled. The background is that an alien race, the Serene, come to Earth and abolishes the act of violence, our capability for violence, for the better of the human race. The novel will follow the consequences of this over the course of approximately forty years. It will focus on three or four characters and chart not only how their lives have changed, but how society and the race as a whole have been transformed. I want to write a novel of character, like Kethani, and a big novel of ideas. Sometimes I’m daunted by the task I’ve set myself. I’m confident of depicting the characters to my satisfaction, but it’s the societal examination of the premise that will be a big challenge.

After that… As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to do another Weird Space novel. And I’m always working on short stories. I’ll be writing a novella soon with Keith Brooke, and finishing off my Salvageman Ed story cycle, which very possibly will be appearing as a book in France before anywhere else.

I have a collection (Ghostwriting) of my horror stories due out soon, as both an e-book and a real book, from infinity plus books. I’ve just had a proof copy through, and it looks great. It contains my eight horror/ghost stories to date – though they’re not bloody, gory, macabre tales, rather examinations of characters in stressful/horrific situations. Depending on how well Ghostwriting sells, infinity plus books might also do my e-book SF collection, The Angels of Life and Death, as a pod book.

I wrote a crime novel last year, set in 1955 – it’s still doing the rounds – and I’d like to write further novels about the central character.

All in all, what with moving up to Dunbar in Scotland earlier this year, I’m more than a little busy.

MC: You’ve recently had some of your older novels and novellas come out through the ebook imprints Infinity Plus Books and Anarchy Books. Have you updated any of these, and are there any plans to get the remainder of your backlist out via this format?

I’ve not updated anything that’s gone into e-book format, other than correct of few errors or typos and things. Most of my longer work is available in e-books, I think – with the exception of my two Web books for children, Untouchable and Walkabout. Solaris brings out e-books all my novels; PS Publishing brings out all the novellas I’ve done for them as e-books (or will do soon); and Anarchy Books do the Virex trilogy.

MC: Speaking of ebooks, the success of the Kindle and other devices has brought a flood of self-published books to the market. What are your thoughts on the ease in which books can be published like this, especially with many of yours available in e-versions only?

Well, it does mean that the market is flooded with unedited material, so it’s harder for the reader to wade through the dross to find the good stuff. And, I suppose, that means my e-work will be buried under the flood. But I’m not complaining. I often wonder if, had the internet and e-publishing, and POD, been around when I started writing thirty-odd years ago, I might have gone down that road to start with. What I did was put all my unpublished – and unpublishable work (some twenty-odd novels and three hundred short stories) – under my bed, where it didn’t get edited, or read.

I’ve read three authors recently who self-published their stuff as e-books, sold – or had downloaded – millions, and achieved real publishing deals as a result – two Americans and a Brit. All three books were of low quality, and I despise the respective publishers for jumping on the band-wagon.

I still think Alfred Bester’s dictum should be seriously considered by every writer (and I’m paraphrasing him here): Write a million words, and only then try to sell.

MC: You mention that you’re always working on short stories, and you’ve had some collections of these out in the past (Kethani, The Fall of Tartarus). I like the idea of these collections that focus on the same setting and/or characters, and I’m aware that you have other short stories and novellas that fall into this category (the Starship stories, Salvageman Ed). Can you see these being collected either as a print or ebook edition in the future?

Ideally I’d like to see them as print books. PS Publishing is doing all four Starship novellas in one volume – so it’d be lovely to see a mass market paperback of that. It’d work, as in total it’s around 120k, and reads like a novel. As for the Salvageman Ed tales; they stand at 70k at the moment, and are almost finished, and it looks as if they’ll be coming out in France as a print book from the people who publish the Bifrost SF magazine, where some of the tales have run.

MC: Finally, where would you recommend a new reader to your work to start?

Mmm… that’s a difficult question, because it depends what the reader likes. For readers who prefer space opera, I’d recommend Helix, Penumbra and Engineman; for those who like more quiet, introspective, character-driven SF I’d recommend The Kings of Eternity; Kethani; The Fall of Tartarus; and the Starship novellas, and the novella Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, featuring G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Rice Burroughs on the red planet. Then the Bengal Station trilogy (Necropath, Xenopath, and Cosmopath) combines both space opera and character – in fact, in terms of characterisation, I think Vaughan in those books is my most successful creation, in that I managed to achieve – I think – exactly what I set out to do in starting with someone who had very little to live for, was a nihilist, and through his experiences over the course of the three books came to some degree of happiness and contentment.


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I’ve been a reader of crime fiction from the age of fifteen, when I began reading novels. I’d somehow managed to avoid reading fiction before then, but in 1975 discovered Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, quickly followed by Robert Silverberg’s Sundance and other stories. And if Christie was a revelation, you can imagine what effect Silverberg had on my innocent young mind.

After reading his Sundance, I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

Seventeen years after that, my first SF novel, Meridian Days, was published, and for the past twenty-odd years all my output, other than a few children’s books, has been in the genre.

But for over twenty years I had an idea for a crime story. It involved an embittered writer and his murderous scheme to get even with critics, colleagues and editors (and no, it isn’t autobiographical). The central conceit – which I won’t give away here – meant that it had to be set before DNA testing came into use, or the crime would have been discovered in a few hours.

About five years ago I wrote the tale as a short story, not a novel, “The Human Element”, and it sold to Pete Crowther’s excellent Postscripts magazine/anthology. A year or two later it came to me that I could expand the story into a novel.

Not much remains of that early effort, other than the core idea of an embittered author. The central character, not the embittered author but a successful writer of crime thrillers, becomes embroiled in a series of murders. Around him, fellow writers, editors and critics are being despatched one by one – and our hero Donald Langham, ably assisted by his literary agent Maria Dupré, attempts to solve the crimes.

It’s set in 1955 – because DNA testing wasn’t around then, and because the fifties is an era I find interesting. Britain was emerging from the privations of the pre-war years, and change was in the air. London was still the Smoke, and the countryside was relatively unspoilt.

I wrote the first draft in a month – about the average time I take to write a novel these days. I found writing about the nineteen-fifties, writing about the ‘real’ world, as opposed to an invented future world, incredibly liberating. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about, because they lived in it from day to day.

I let the ms of the crime novel lie for a few weeks, then rewrote it and sent it off to my agent, with a couple of recommendations as to where to send it. I forgot about it and concentrated on other projects – The Devil’s Nebula and Helix Wars.

Weeks elapsed, then months, and when a year had passed by without any news from the publishers, I nudged my agent (who had been nudging the publishers in turn), and heard back from Severn House. Their response was, “Haven’t got round to reading it yet, but will do soon…”

I reconciled myself to another long wait – par for the course in this line of work – and was surprised when a week later I heard from the editors. They very much liked the novel, but felt that the mystery and intrigue element could be ratcheted up in the last third of the book. I agreed, and duly rewrote the last third, and a chapter near the start, adding two new characters and ten thousand words.

Thankfully the editors were happy with the rewrite. But one sticking point remained: the title. I’d called the book The Grub Street Murders – which I thought pretty well summed up the story. However, the powers that be at Severn House considered it too abstract, and thought that the ‘grub’ in the title wouldn’t go down well in the US, where much of their market resided. We passed through a period of batting alternative titles back and forth before someone in the Severn House office came up with the excellent Murder by the Book which, while not wholly original, did fit with the content of the novel and sounded good.

So my first crime novel, Murder by the Book, came out in June 2013, the opening volume of what I hope will be a series of ‘Langham and Dupré’ mysteries. The second book, Murder at the Chase, was published this year.

Next on the cards, it’s back to SF with a follow-up to my steampunk novel Jani and the Greater Game; and following that the fourth novella in the Telemass Quartet.

And then… Well, I have the vague, first stirrings of the third Langham and Dupré mystery niggling away in my back-brain.

This piece first appeared on Upcoming4me.


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Space Opera

My first love in science fiction, both reading it and writing it, is space opera, or as Brian Aldiss termed it, wide-screen baroque. I’m not sure I’ve done anything very wide-screen, but I’ve written my fair share of space opera, starting with Engineman back in 1992. That was followed in 1999 by Penumbra. There was another longish wait until 2007 when Helix came out, and proved to be my bestselling title ever (with almost fifty thousand copies sold to date). After that I did the Bengal Station trilogy which, though set mainly on Earth, did in each book visit the stars. These novels were followed by The Devil’s Nebula, Helix Wars, and Satan’s Reach. Salvage, published last year, is a space opera fix-up of linked short stories.

I like writing about starships, aliens, and exotic planetary locations. I like writing fast-paced adventures using all three. Recently, however, I’ve been writing a couple of crime novels and the first and second volumes of the steampunk Multiplicity series, starring Jani, a plucky Anglo-Indian woman and her adventures in a very different 1925.

I’d like to get back to writing space opera, however, and for the past year, on and off, I’ve been daydreaming about just such a project. It will be called The Engines of Eternity trilogy, and each book will be longer than any I’ve done before, around 150,000 words. The trilogy will feature a human expansion, a host of alien races, vast alien artefacts from millions of years in the past, a war or two, colonies under threat, telepathy, sentient starships… and, above all, characters the reader will come to care about and root for.

So, I hear you say, what’s new?

A good question.

And the answer is, I don’t know. My counter question would be: what does it matter?

What does matter is that the story is gripping, the characters real and moreover believable and sympathetic, the action fast, the settings exotic…

That will do for me, and, I hope, for prospective readers.

Of course, The Engines of Eternity project might never come off; might remain as a daydream bubbling away in my back brain.

Only time will tell.



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