About robjtriggs

Currently based in Oxfordshire but with links to Belfast, Bradford and Norwich, I'm a writer of speculative fiction and a dreamer of dreams. Including that one which starts out nice and then turns on you like a twisty-turny thing

Signifying nothing

Union Market

Mural at Union Market, Washington DC. Artist, at least by me, unknown

I’m beginning to think I can’t do this any more. The whole writing thing, I mean: I just have no ideas left. Aside from a few unedited short stories I haven’t knocked out anything new for over a year.

This is the 250th post I’ve written for this site. Not all of those have been posted – some, indeed, are files with but a single line in them. But still, 250 posts. Let’s say the average word count is 400. That’s 10,000 words on words, and, at a rough estimate of an hour and a half per post, that’s 16 days solid writing. That’s before we get to the whole stress it provokes.

You gotta ask yourself what the point is, dontcha? My only consistent writing is on a blog about writing.

I‘m not saying this for reasons of moaning, or despair, or to beg attention (though that’s always nice) but because this is something I’m sure most writers experience at some point: that sense that they have nothing, that they’re just going through the motions, that they’re a fraud.

And of course I’m in a privileged position. I’m going to be published (and I rather hope my publisher isn’t reading this right now). I’ve got the whole impostor syndrome thing to look forwards to. Right now, though, I’m in the whole ‘Oh God, I’ve got to do something better for a follow-up,’ hole. And circumstance is making serious brain-work a challenge.

I also compensate myself with the thought that all this blogging must be good for something. True, the edifice is hollow. But all words written are useful – just not as useful as the creation itself.

Hopefully this will be a temporary feeling and I’ll find a way to write what I want to write in the near future. And my post-modern writing about writing with no writing to write about self-reference-o-thon will soon be over. But for now the struggle continues.


A touch too much


Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

Trigger warning

Tower of destruction

The book was actually called Tower of Destruction, but there is no universe in which this is not better

So I had a blog-post all ready. I was going to write about the expectations a cover gives a reader and how these expectations can give a good book bad reviews; I was just dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s when this happened.

Goodkind 2

Originally taken from TG’s Facebook page but now widely shared online. Don’t be that guy, mmkay?

There’s a lot to unpick here. First and foremost I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to act like this. Criticising your own publisher is not a move conducive to success. As is pointed out by cleverer, more knowledgeable people than me, a book design is a collaborative effort. The artist works to a brief provided by a publisher. Sometimes an author will be consulted, but it’s not a given.

Secondly, Terry Goodkind has previous. If you’re in the mood, read this. Indeed, type ‘Terry Goodkind is an asshole’ into Google. See where you end up. Shout-out to Chuck Wendig for that top tip.

But let’s just roll back and ask: has TG got a point? Is this a bad cover? What makes a bad cover? That’s not such a simple question as it seems; Fire and Fury has a terrible cover – but that’s a good thing as it works for the genre. “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” says Clare Skeats in this article.

Fire and Fury-FINAL mech.indd

Design by Rick Pracher; copyright Henry Holt & Company

TG’s cover is, to my eyes, a good piece of art. Maybe stylistically it’s a bit old fashioned; it’s a traditional fantasy cover. But to really judge the merits you’d have to know the story (and artists/designers don’t usually read the story they’re producing work for). It would indeed be a bad cover if it failed to reflect to tone of the book – not only specific characters or events but the way the story feels.

The cover above suggests a novel of swords and sorcery and that it’s written in the style of that particular subgenre. Contrast that with a version of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

Blade itself 1

Copyright Orion Books; I couldn’t find an individual artist to credit

We expect a different type of read from Terry G’s novel. The language we expect to read changes. And though both could be described as high fantasy (font choice, the semi-hidden symbols, the ripped parchment), we’re told to expect a marked difference in the experience we receive.

If someone chooses your book to read it’s (unless they’re compelled by education or work) because they want something from it. They might want to be scared; they might want to be thrilled. They might want wonderful wordplay. They might just want to switch off their minds for an hour or so. They have a motive, a goal, and they’ve chosen your story because they think you’ll give them that.

That choice is influenced – if not determined – by the book’s cover. It’s down to your artist – be that yourself or a design team or a freelancer – to give the audience the right cues. You have to tell your readers what they’re about to get. You can judge a book by its cover, and this is why.

There’s an interesting article on cover design here, if you’re interested.

A cover doesn’t have to tell a story. It doesn’t have to show specific events, or characters, or anything at all: a blank page is a choice in itself. It doesn’t have to be ‘good’ – it just has to help sell books.

Your cover is your trigger warning. It’s there to tell your readers what they’re about to get into. And (in most cases) to reassure that it contains not a single morsel of Trump.

Bitter poetry

Anita Nowinska Turmoil II

Anita Nowinska; Turmoil II

You can’t talk. You open your mouth and nothing comes out. You want to scream but that’s what the morons do; share every little thought heedless of the consequences. You have a reputation. You care for it. You work hard and nurture it. If you let go now then you’ll have nothing, nothing.

Besides, if you start talking you might never stop.

You have so much to do. You have the time, for once. A lacuna, an eternity; the sort of space that’s bought with death. But the words won’t rest on the page. The eye flits from perch to perch, never quite getting a sense, never quite knowing what’s solid and what’s the Grimpen Mire.

And you can’t start anything new. It’s there; it comes into focus; it’s swept away by the very attempt to gather.

So time flows in gossamer drifts, swirling and swimming through the great cavity in the skull. It’s lost as soon as it’s seen; lost forever, that perfect moment always just out of reach and you can never stop moving: forwards, forwards, ever forwards. To cease is to die. Virtue measured in achievement, purity in production.

The furnaces are cold today. Rats scurry on the foundry floor. They chew on your leftovers, on the parts you discarded, all the skins you’ve set aside. You always kept them – just in case, just in case. But you’ll never wear them again. You can’t look back; too late to heal the wounds.

The bullet’s the wrong calibre. You were sold a pup. You’ve been lied to – mostly you lied to yourself. But that’s okay; you can just rip this face and start again. Maybe this time the dice will land sixes. About time the luck ran your way, huh?

This is bitter poetry. This is a silent scream. This is weakness masquerading as determination. Quitter, quitter, quitter. You’ve turned your back so many times you don’t know which way’s forwards. You’ve convinced yourself you were strong because you kept it all inside, a sin-eater, a martyr.

You put a hand to your forehead and find the seam. You pull and great necrotic scabs scatter the vermin. They return twofold for a feast. The flesh falls and it falls and it falls.

Your shadow steps away. All that’s left. All that remains.

Step into the shadows. Disappear.

Disappear again.

On the mystery of shorts


Planet Stories ran from 1939-55; this artwork was probably produced by Allen Anderson or Kelly Freas

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Ray Bradbury

I’ve never really got short stories. I’ve read quite a few collections in my time but, with rare exceptions, they’re from authors I know and like rather than miscellanies or speculative picks.

There’s no good reason for this: I totally (like, totally) respect short stories. I guess I’m just used to the long form: a short story, for me is either experimental (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman), and couldn’t be sustained over 300 pages, or feel to me just too short. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what came before. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – some are perfect. Pratchett (‘Final Reward’) and the aforementioned Gaiman (‘Chivalry’) have written some wonderful short fictions. Asimov is at his (inconsistent) best when writing shorts, and all ‘classic’ SF writers seem to have collections in their libraries.

But when I hear a favoured author has a new release on the way I’m always a little disappointed when I find it’s ‘just’ a collection. I want more. I want depth. I want the classic forms of storytelling.

It’s not you, little stories, it’s me. I want more than a casual fling. I’m looking for commitment.

So why have I suddenly started writing them myself?

The quick answer is that I have no idea. I just found myself struck, last September, by an idea that seemed to work best in the short form. I wrote it down. I struggled with it, toyed with it, put it down for later reworking.

And then, a few weeks later, I wrote another.

Now I find myself with four of the little blighters and an expression of puzzlement on my face like a veteran punk-rocker who suddenly wakes to find he’s the far side of forty, has four kids and a job in telesales.

How has this happened?

I guess partly it must be because, with a freshly-minted youngling of my own, I’ve not had a chance to really get to grips with a new novel. The short form is merely my creativity seeking some kind of release.

Another reason is that I’ve had a lot of time to ponder little things: the rise of fake news, for example; or the changes in technology and attitude that have led inexorably to the Fitbit. These have given rise to little ‘what if we take this to its logical conclusion?’ questions – in other words, speculative fiction. These thoughts are often inconsequential, whimsical: they can’t on their own sustain a novel-length plot but strike me as – well – fun.

I struggle with fun. Humour is one thing that my novels really lack. But in short fiction I can play. I can (by my own standards) be witty. I can be Douglas Adams or Pratchett; I can embrace lunacy and surrealism the way I’ve never managed before.

I’m also writing purely for my own pleasure. Short stories: the literary equivalent of masturbation, or modern jazz. I’m not going to seek publication; there’s no great message I’m trying to impart. I’m just enjoying myself in a way I’ve never done before.

That’s not to say that if I see the right competition or submission criteria I won’t chance my arm. I’m also aware that enough material might lead to a compilation of my own. These stories are words in the bank, so to speak. But I’m not writing with any particular aim in mind.

I’m simply having fun. And this is a revelation. No-one ever told me writing could be enjoyable.

Now: back to the thorniest issue of the day. Why didn’t King Arthur wake during the second world war?

Sex & violence

halsey-tattoo-Romeo and Juliet

This arm belongs to someone called Halsey,  who is apparently famous. The quote’s from Romeo and Juliet

So I’m back at The Nasty Scene. I’ve written about this before – repeatedly, in fact (see here and here) – but it’s still vexing me. If you’ve neither time nor inclination to check those links, this is my scene of sex and murder. It is, deliberately, deeply unpleasant. And I’ve decided to cut it.

I’ve been considering deleting it ever since I initially wrote the damn thing. Before, in fact; it was nearly killed at birth by the guardians of taste that dwelleth within. But write it I did and ever since I’ve been wondering whether it should remain.

Without going into too much detail, my justification was that this scene matched the characters of both killer and victim; that the novel needed a dose of visceral horror at this point (it forms the mid-novel pivot); and that it served to propel the story forwards. These are all true. So why have I decided to get rid of it after hours of writing, rewriting, testing on colleagues and rewriting again?

Well, the short answer is that I read of a new prize for thrillers that avoid sexual violence against women. Now I didn’t immediately think ‘Hey, I can win this is I just rewrite this one scene.’ For one thing Oneiromancer ain’t a thriller except in the loosest terms. It’s more that this was the last piece of evidence I needed for a conviction. It brought home to me that I was/would be perpetuating a trope that I dislike.

I don’t believe in censorship. I’m glad that people can self-publish material even if I find what they’re saying objectionable (though of course it’s people’s right to complain about such material). I’m not saying that I would never write another scene of sexual violence, should the story demand it.

But I also have to live with myself. I’ve never been happy with this scene, and that should be enough to tell me that it needs revisiting. Everyone censors themselves every day (all the things you didn’t say or do) for a whole host of reasons: writers call it editing. I’m not happy with something I wrote so I’m doing something about it.

I’m glad I tried. It proved a good exercise, pushing me beyond the safe and into new territory. It made me focus on a new kind of language and imagery; a (literal) nightmare of sensation and emotion I’ve never tried to conjure before.

But now it’s time for it to go.

Of course, this means I’ll have to find something to replace it. But that’s an entirely different matter.

The rotting carcase of the word-whale


Ideas. I don’t trust ‘em. Sneaky little beasties, creeping in where they’re least welcome, turning your world upside down and then glancing apologetically at their watches and sidling out when you need them most.

I’ve been working on my Problem Child of a manuscript for five years now. I’ve written two others in that time so it’s not been wholly consuming, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had unfinished business with this one. Now I’ve had an idea that might – might – just help me fix this horrible quagmire of a nearly novel.

Five years is a long time. Long enough for the Earth to die in. I could have saved myself the pain – and all the time spent scowling at an uncooperative manuscript – if I’d just abandoned the thing long ago.

Or if I’d self-published it.

And this is the question: even without the re-write I’m contemplating now this novel is better than the one I originally drafted. But would I have been better off just moving on and working on other things?

I’m a perfectionist, but then isn’t everyone? No-one sets out to put out bad work. I know writers who self-publish and I admit I envy their way of moving forwards; they somehow seem to know when a book is ready for the wider world. Do they have the agonies of chances missed? Do they ever feel uncomfortable about the material they’ve shared with the world?

I guess the envy really is in their resolution to say ‘That’s done. It is what it is. Onwards.’

Because the alternative is to endlessly circle the basin and never quite fall down the plughole. I know there really is no such thing as perfection; the basic conceit will always have a flaw somewhere. There’ll always be descriptions you can’t bring forth because you have to keep the story moving. There’ll be times when you have to bend the characters to your will. There has to be a beginning and an end and these are never the true start or finish, just the place the telling demands. There’ll also be the things you never saw but the readers will leap right on.

And that’s before we get into plot-holes, clichés, stereotypes and all the other things we’re going to hit in our first, roughest drafts.

How long can you keep at a piece before the structure beneath you starts to sag with the weight of rewrites, bolt-ons, new characters, new locations? How long before you’re left with nothing but the rotting carcase of a word-whale?

Maybe you should have self-published years ago. Maybe that really is the better option.