Back to: FAQ: The Laundry Files--series timeline | Forward to: A purely theoretical dilemma

PSA: 5-Point Writer's Block Checklist

My name is M Harold Page ("Martin" is actually fine) and I don't really believe in Writers Block.

Yes, OK, it does describe a situation: "Oh look, there's a writer banging their head on the desk and weeping with frustration(OMG is that blood?)"

And that was me for the last couple of months. My productivity plummeted. The contract I was working on seemed complicated and hard to focus on...

Then I had a very overdue eye test and the optician regarded my current reading glasses and said, "I wouldn't be wearing those."

It wasn't my brain. It wasn't my Fickle Muse (Oh The Angst). It was my damned eyes.

Not getting around for my eye test had cost me weeks of productivity and even begun to trigger self doubt. Was I really able to hack it as a writer? Would it make me happy?

Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!

Except when I started talking to other people about this, they had similar stories. External stuff - illness, eyes, depression, RSI - seeps into our lives in imperceptible increments. We're like a lobster going, "Ooo. Seafood! Where is that nice smell is coming from?" We don't realise we're the one being cooked until too late!

And that's the wider experience. Writer's block always turns out to be either some issue with skill, or else some non-writing specific issue revealed by the attempt to write.

So, inspired by the Checklist Manifesto, here's a checklist to get you out of the cooking pot. I've listed the most common issues first, but they are, alas, not mutually exclusive...

1. Is your literary skillset broken?

In aspiring and new writers, "blocked" usually just means, "stymied by some deficiency in craft". I got some evil looks when I declared this on a panel recently, but it's true and it's the embarrassing story of the first decade of my serious attempts to write.

Do you actually know how to write your story? Really? Some of it you can learn on the job, but if that's not working you need to look at similar published books with an analytical eye, and perhaps read some good writing books*. 

*This is obviously the moment to pimp my book on writing, as praised by Hannu Rajaniemi and Ken McLeod. However if you are penniless and send me a nice email, you can have one of a limited number of free copies; it was written in part as a letter to my miserable younger self, so sharing it gives me some sense of closure.

2. Is your story broken?

If you're going round in circles with a chapter or scene, something else is usually wrong.

Typically, the problem is either (a) further back - you need to add things to Chapter 3 to make Chapter 7 work (don't rewrite at this stage, just make a note) - or (b) further up, at a higher level of abstraction, which is a nice way of saying that your plot doesn't have enough interesting conflict. (Yes, see above for a link to my book.)

3. Is your writing setup broken?

If you put in a lot of hours writing, there's a good chance that the real reason your writing is grinding to a halt is that your typing chair is uncomfortable or that you need new glasses (blush), or that your monitor needs replacing, or your space is badly lit, or wrongly lit or... Gradually you become reluctant to sit down and work, or quickly exhausted when you do.

So check your ergonomics, have your eyes tested, update your writing machine, be realistic about your writing space. Whatever it takes.

4. Are you broken?

It's hard to work creatively when you are operating below par, e.g. because you are ill, depressed, stressed by work, or in need of a holiday.  This is all miserable stuff, but approached pragmatically (rather than sympathetically), it divides up into the following:

Temporarily Broken - Work sucks at the moment. Your granny just died. You have flu. You just became a parent... None of this will last. It's time to take a break and sort yourself out. In the mean time, feed your creativity by reading books you enjoy, or by researching around your storyworld. 

Forcing yourself to write can just result in spewing out drivel that you subsequently delete or waste days untangling and then delete anyway.

Long Term Broken - You have ME or MS... You are in an ongoing battle with depression or cancer... Or you're just trapped in a dysfunctional work or domestic situation... Whatever it is, it's nothing that you can just fix. (Nor can you just buck yourself up and get on with it or [insert unthinking crass advice here usually relating to diet or copper bracelets].)

People do write successfully despite this kind of thing. You don't have to - perhaps you have enough on your plate? - but assuming you want to...

The people who manage it appear to work around rather than despite whatever the problem is. This takes discipline, opportunism - working when you can! - but also help from other people. It means relying on partners to give you space when you need it, and on beta readers to boost your productivity by acting as a second brain. And it can mean doing a mental judo trick where the writing becomes a refuge. 

5. Is your mental approach broken?

This is the one that people leap at because it's what writers are supposed to do: angst, wallow in self doubt, agonise about single sentences.

I left this until last for a reason. There's this bug in humans that we misattribute feelings;  we bond when drunk or high, we fall in love on holiday, we think our life is crap when we have flu. So your crippling performance anxiety, your imposter syndrome, your fear of exposing your inner self to the scrutiny of the reading public? They might all be spurious explanations for not being able to work - go recheck points 1-4.

Then again, these feelings might be entirely real.

Though not unique to writing, writing has a unique way of pinging them. And perhaps there's something about writers that tends to make us vulnerable. People who want to sit quietly in private and type stories aren't necessarily thick-skinned extroverts and "just do-it" extreme life hackers. Often we don't have much experience of putting ourselves "out there" and writing being a private thing, we don't have many role models to hand.

There's lots of advice around on how to deal with what Steve Pressfield calls "resistance". To my British sensibilities, it all sounds like what you'd get if Rambo became an evangelical preacher; it goes against the grain to Make A Fuss. However, a Stiff Upper Lip won't help much because that means giving mental real estate to these unuseful feelings. Instead, let me offer two suggestions that work for me:

First, try not to do the angsting and creating at the same time. Make a deal with yourself that nothing goes out the door until you've thought about. Do the writing for fun and make the quality control a different task entirely. I call this "hiding behind the next draft".

Second, try to get a realistic handle on what competent writing looks like in your chosen genre. If you have an objective yardstick, your writing won't feel so sucky...

...which takes us back to #1 Is your skillset broken?

M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: "Holy ****!") and is planning some more historical fiction. For his take on writing,  read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (Ken MacLeod: "...very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story." Hannu Rajaniemi: "...find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.")



You expect maybe the response may not be "here, let me tell you about my project..."? What if you just made a huge mistake and then wrote a bunch based on it, and now there's no visible way to fix it other than to start over? I mean I started trying to write a novel about this guy that wakes up on a bench at a bus stop in an American state that doesn't exist. I think it was great at first because this character has eyes peeled, you know, every detail is important because he's trying to figure things out. He meets some other people from the real world who also woke up inexplicably in "Coronado" and they show how they have explored and discovered they are living in an Oniel cylinder mocked up to look like a small slice of America, inhabited by "people" who don't seem to know or care. I have a whole story line figured out about how this is a swarm of similar cylinders in a distant solar system maintained by AIs who have taken over the role of humans, but which are still bound by old self imposed restrictions that call for them to let humans grow up in a "natural environment" at first and then recruit them to get upgraded. And how there are different environments in the different cylinders, that the group in Coronado link up with to try and steal a starship and escape. But here's the thing, I can't figure out why the AIs are populating their little worlds with copies of brainscanned people from the 21st century. So I stopped. I mean, the guy has a job with a demolition company that keeps the thousands of years old architecture looking fresh, and will discover an exit and will see a guy get his head smashed and find that his "brain" is made of material that is immune from the electronics suppressing field that otherwise keeps Coronado technologically in the 1970s, meaning he can use this material...
But I still don't know why the resurrects are created at all.


> What if you just made a huge mistake and then wrote a bunch based on it, and now there's no visible way to fix it other than to start over?

That would be "2. Is your story broken?"

Ouch! I got stuck for 6 months because I had two story lines with incompatible climaxes and life was frankly too hectic to get my head around it.

My (humble (as in if we were talking over coffee and you asked)) advice would be twofold:

1. You've nailed what the issues is, work out how to fix it. From a literary point of view, you could make the 21st century thing a feature rather than a bug. See Charlie's "Glasshouse".

2. You've shown you can write a novel, or at least a substantial proportion of one. Now move onto the next, but make a better job of planning this one!


Point #1 on your list, and RDSouth's post, make me think of Charlie's statement about writing several "novel shaped objects", before producing anything that was ready for public consumption.


That would probably be an example of what I suggested in #5 :)


To me it felt closer to point #1, as Charlie's "novel shaped objects" weren't even usable as first drafts (in his opinion). But I can see why it could also be an example of point #5, if the work was in some way salvageable.


Well possibly #2. I don't think Charlie's literary skillset has been broken in living memory! In fact there are these cave paintings...



(I'm paraphrasing terribly from statements by Charlie about his own early writing attempts -- original quotes may be somewhere in his "How I Got Here In the End" essays.)


Ah now I get you! Yes.


Re: 'But here's the thing, I can't figure out why the AIs are populating their little worlds with copies of brainscanned people from the 21st century.'

Your story premise interests me a lot ... keep working on it. In the meanwhile, is there a reason why the AIs have only one reason for doing what they do ... or that they even know the real reason? From my non-techie POV, part of the definition of an AI is a being that is capable of learning/changing. Your AI might 'feel' compelled to 'do something' but may not completely perceive/understand the true underlying reason for this compulsion. It may have been programmed, grown, proven to itself to feel this way or it could be pure chance: all are legitimate reasons/scenarios. If anything, not knowing gives you more room for testing various scenarios (i.e., more books).

Good luck!


6. You are tired of writing that fucking book and really want to just drop the whole thing.


Beta readers get to read stories as they unfold or come to a stall.

So, what are your suggestions for what beta readers should or should not say/do. And, as a published author, what do you most want/value in a beta reader?

Can beta readers help authors get over the hump ... or should beta readers just leave stalled authors alone?


For me, the most valuable service a beta reader can provide is to help me understand is the story as written so far is worth finishing. Only then am I interested in advice on how to finish it. Meticulously pointing out all the flaws doesn't really help that much, either way.


Perhaps there is more than one AI, and the one who recreated humans is seriously bored and wants to see what the original race was like under certain field conditions, and if by stealing a starship they muck up something that the other AI is doing, well, hey, Not My Fault, It Just Happened That Way (pay no attention to the AI behind the curtain). This appears to be the motivation behind a lot of the action in BRIDGE OF BIRDS, and so I thought I would attribute where I stole this from.


That would be #1 and #2!


> So, what are your suggestions for what beta readers should or should not say/do.

It depends on what you want from them. DeMarquis is right that they make a good sanity check on a project. I think there's a spectrum from "just reads like a reader and says when they bounce" through to "almost editor".

At times I've had several friends with reciprocal beta reading arrangements and used them for different purposes at different times. You can't use the same reader for the same passage twice.

> And, as a published author, what do you most want/value in a beta reader?

At this stage, speed. I have friend - another author - who I can shoot off an email to and get back a response in a couple of hours. Usually I'm asking "Does this work?" or "Do you understand what is going on here?" And of course he does the same to me.

> Can beta readers help authors get over the hump ... or should beta readers just leave stalled authors alone?

Hmmm. I think perhaps a beta reader can read what you have up the hump and go, "Hey this is good! Write on!"


This is a good post. I went out of my way to say this because the comment count is low and I don't think that you should take that as a sign you did not have anything useful to say. I just cannot think of anything to add and hopefully that's the reason why others aren't chiming in either.

So, once again, thanks. This was some good stuff.


"But here's the thing, I can't figure out why the AIs are populating their little worlds with copies of brainscanned people from the 21st century.
But I still don't know why the resurrects are created at all."

Perhaps to stop trying to answer a question? To wreck the experiment. Someone amongst the AIs, or some faction, wants them to stop, give up, move on.

If the habitats are a kind of physical simulation, to answer a puzzle from the AI's own origins, before they destroyed humanity, based on fragments of history many thousands of years later. Recreating simplified versions of history to try to spark the moment they are interested in. Trying to capture an element that escapes electronic simulations, but still simple enough, reduceable enough, to meaningfully analyse.

For millennia.

And someone is so very tired of it all.


Outline, outline, and outline some more.

If that doesn't work, write porn.

I'm serious. Write the weirdest, most esoteric porn that still gets you off. Stuff you know you won't show anybody, because why would you risk it?! Write as much of that as you can.

At some point, you'll decide to go back to your project. Dollars to doughnuts, you'll have unblocked yourself. As long as your outline is good, or at least your starting point is solid if you're a pantser, you'll find that you've have given your engine a rolling start.

Don't show people the porn. But save it for later.


To me it's suggesting a background somewhat similar to that My Little Pony story someone posted a link to on here a while back.

The uploading and AI technology has resulted in the human race disappearing up its own arsehole as in the MLP story, but instead of the AI which is the arsehole being a unique construction, it is one of a number of AIs capable of self-improvement; for $reason the safeguards of this particular example failed, and it got out of control and went all megalomaniac. The O'Neill cylinder AIs are a less buggy variant; they have gone off into hiding around a distant star to maintain a seed colony of ordinary human humans (who can remember growing up with no internet, etc) while they figure out a way to get the rogue AI back under control before it converts the whole of the universe into computronium.


Didn't Charlie say, very recently, that he had problem #2 with one of his in-process novels in the multiple parallel worlds universe & was trying to re-write a large chunk?


OK I have a suggestion. I think there has to be a literary/thematic point to weird settings, and they have to make some kind of sense in terms of motives of the players.

So what you have is 2010s characters trapped in a 1970s environment. Really that's two questions.

First, why 1970s? Answer - that's what the AI's regard as the most developed "natural" environment since after that computers are a presence and the environment is no longer "natural" - literary purpose a satire on our modern attempts to have "natural" rain forests etc etc, when most are shaped by human activity - I know this happened in Australia where it turned out that the forest ecology was actually shaped by regular burning of the undergrowth.

Next, why 2010s characters? That's much harder.

The literary purpose is pretty clear because it's interesting seeing how much we have changed. (I hope you portray the 70s in all its horror including dating practices and sexism.) EDIT Also the 1970s is the most advanced period before modern feminism reshaped western society - perhaps the AIs think sexism is "natural" - so we get a send up of one or two fallacies.

The practical reason? Several come to mind:

First, calibration error or drift. The time scanner thingy's focus has drifted in the last thousand years. So it used to grab people from 1970. Now it grabs them from 2010. Perhaps the hero can calculate the rate of drift and work out how long this has been going on?

Second, "continuity". If the AIs trickle in new people all the time, then they need to keep advancing the date. Otherwise I arrive from 1970, stunned that the Beatles just broke up, and the old guy who gives me a lift says they broke up 30 years ago. Two things follow from this (1) the AIs haven't really thought about the change from 1970-2010 - a satire on "abroad" being basically like Tatooine - remember that scene in Team America? (2) Presumably the AIs always hit reset at some point. What happens to the humans who are already in the environment? This gives our hero some immediate peril to deal with.

Third, it's an experiment that's been allowed to run on too long.


Likewise; in fact that's why I've not posted much here generally for the last few months.


I'm liking a lot of these questions, and the basic '1970s in a gigantic O'Neil cylinder' setting strikes me as fertile for storytelling. I'll throw out two other ideas.

Maybe the characters from the 2010s aren't actually reboots or time travelers at all; maybe their minds have been grown from scratch and the waking up moment really is their first actual awakening. This only begs more questions! The AIs look even more buggy.

Maybe the human(ish) characters shouldn't find out anything about the reasons for their environment in the first book. It's entirely possible nobody around really knows, though certainly there would be plenty of speculations. As a bonus, if you don't commit yourself to one explanation in the first book you have time to think of a really good one, avoid locking yourself into something you might not like later, and allow for the possibility that your readers may come up with some very interesting explanation you hadn't thought of.


"Next, why 2010s characters? That's much harder."

Not really. 2016 is not over yet - watch this space


This takes us back to the complaints about the movie plots of/for the 21st Century, doesn't it?


I was thinking along the line of the AI trying to find its maker/god/mommy&daddy for any number of reasons.

Or, maybe the AI was looking for how to create a perfect human being. Suppose the AI took FB entries at face-value, then looked around at other generations' self-estimations, it might conclude that these 2010 era folks were pretty darned special. So the AI decides to regenerate these folks to find out for itself what was so special about them, maybe have a chat, recruit them for its own version of 'Culture', etc.


You have this time machine, and you travel back to great events in history to witness or participate. So, here you are in 2016. Why are you just pissing this time away?


I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Terry Pratchett on writing. He mentioned that journalists generally didn't get writers block, because they had editors yelling at them if they stopped working.

Has this drill sergeant approach to motivation been tried by long form creative writers? How'd it go?


Didn't Douglas Adams complete at least one Hitchhikers novel that way?


> Has this drill sergeant approach to motivation been tried by long form creative writers?

Oh the Blank Page approach? (REST OF COMIC IS NSFW)

Thing is, nobody ever went "OMG how do I motivate myself to complete Halo 2?"

Journalists don't get blocked because they KNOW what to write. When they turn to fiction, they already have most of the skillset and have a can-do approach to tackling the rest. The discipline thing is a by product most of the time.

(This is Steve Pressfield's "War of Art" approach and it's the one that people trot out. I personally don't think it's very useful. Detailed response here: )


Approach probably has utility for people who are distracted by other things in their environment, e.g. household, friends, family.

It *might* be effective as a way of tackling imposter syndrome or other psychological issues, but it doesn't sound much fun.

Also, compare the number of Hitchhiker's Guide books to the number of Discworld books and tell me who had the better strategy.


Re: Hitchhiker's Guide & Discworld

Couldn't think of any US SF/F satire equivalent authors, so now half wondering if part of the writer's block problem is deciding whether to write a book that clearly fits a genre or writing for the hell/fun of it. Not getting bogged down by this decision might be easier in the UK vs. US simply because the UK has a history of accepting weird (non-formulaic) lit, satire.

Also, compare the number of Hitchhiker's Guide books to the number of Discworld books and tell me who had the better strategy.
To be fair, Adams' apparent belief that the primary duty of an author was to miss deadlines was probably to blame for both of these.

Couldn't think of any US SF/F satire equivalent authors

Christopher Moore. Jody Lynn Nye. A. Lee Martinez. David Wong.

We get by.


Adams spawned a crap author meme. I wish he had written more!


Have read most of Jody Lynn Nye's work. Wouldn't categorize them as satire though: Asprin's Myth series is comedic/humorous; McAffrey's Pern is fantasy sprung off an SF-ish back story.

Which books by the other authors would you recommend?


Wong's John Dies At The End is good, but while it is very funny it is in no way satire.


John Dies at the End by Wong, Practical Demonkeeping and The Stupidest Angel by Moore, and Gil's All Fright Diner by Martinez.

For Nye, I was thinking of things like Myth-Quoted, a broad satire of the American political process. Having said that, satire per se doesn't travel well. If the reader doesn't recognize and care about what's being mocked, it falls flat. For example, I figure there was some satiric basis for the civil defense posters in The Rhesus Chart, but I don't know what it was.


I can't help thinking that you just didn't get the joke.


I have a setting and I'm suffering from a type of writers block- I've got lots of ideas, but generating coherent stories are a different matter, as many of you can probably relate. Starting this century and extending several hundred years into the future, the wealthiest nations of Earth have financed the construction and deployment of about a thousand ships that ply between the solar system and a brown dwarf about 10 light years out, where we have made contact with an outpost of an alien race. It's STL, there are between 1 and 2 hundred people on each ship, which are about a twentieth of a light year apart, traveling at a very small fraction of C. The ships are divided into "lines" by nationality\alliance, and are connected to each other by a small fleet of shuttles (faster than the main ships, but still STL). Think the situation that faced New World colonies in the late 17th\early 18th centuries, with radio, more or less. There are several tens of thousands of people living on these ships.

I've written one story already, a coming of age\tragic romance using a teen aged girl as the POV. Now I want to cross genre and tell some stories in this setting that involve more characters and take place at a somewhat larger "scale".

Anyone want to help me brainstorm? Given this setting, what story plots do you think would be interesting? I want to stay focused on the characters and their experiences, but beyond that I'm open. I am tempted to write a "locked ship" cozy style mystery, but I can't seem to get into it.

Ideas, anyone?


I figure there was some satiric basis for the civil defense posters in The Rhesus Chart, but I don't know what it was.

Why, yes: "BILLION CORPSES is not an acceptable project codename. Please choose a less accurate one."

Sure enough, they found a less accurate and less obvious name.


It's STL, there are between 1 and 2 hundred people on each ship...

I'd suggest that a population that small isn't good for a multi-generation trip. If you're not already written into a corner, perhaps either make the ships bigger, or faster (yes, that introduces more problems), or give them some kind of hibernation gimmick?


Hm. I still want to know what happened to Nelson Bigglesworth (probably). Did he make it to HR? Did he get help?


That's not exactly block so much as being stuck. The trick is to go find the conflicts inherent in the setting.

STL Travel versus Love

Is a good start.

I would start of by considering what the big thematic players were - the forces at work.

Then find out what they would be struggling over.

Then personify them.

(All in my book, of course. If you haven't already got it, then I'll send you a copy in return for an honest review)


Also re Pratchett and Adams:

Reading interviews with them and those closest to them as writers, one gets the impression that Sir Terry loved the process of taking an idea and forming it into a story (I believe he said: "writing is the most fun you can have on your own"); whereas Douglas Adams seemed to most enjoy the bit where you got the ideas and the bit where you had a finished product, but not so much the process that joined the two up (audience reaction and feedback also seemed very important to Adams, which probably explains why he wrote so much more for radio and TV).


Robert Sheckley wrote a bunch of satirical SF, short stories as well as novel-length stuff (some of it fix-ups). Mindswap is an Odyssey, The Game of X puts a Bob-Howard-like character into a James Bond world etc. etc.

Pohl and Kornbluth wrote satirical SF aimed at the super-salesmen of the 1950s in The Space Merchants. This was a theme of the time, spinning off the Madison Street idea that people could be manipulated into anything. We Futurians are too smart to be taken in like that today, of course.


Thanks Jay & Nojay for your suggestions!


Re: 'I've written one story already, a coming of age\tragic romance using a teen aged girl as the POV.'

Did this include how this girl's parents/guardians felt about the romance or how she'll look back on it in 30-40 years' time?

Each developmental stage in humans has a different focus. Probably equally true for expeditions. So a mismatch in developmental stages humans vs. mission would be a source of major problems. How the problems are addressed (or not) would also depend on this. If there's radio between ships, your characters could provide cultural/generational differences in problem resolution.

Not keen on a locked ship murder mystery. Do enjoy mystery novels overall but would think that the selection process for such an expensive venture would include psychiatric screening for all. Of course it's possible that a sociopath might be born during the voyage, but again, chances are that the ship's complement would include at least one competent psychiatrist not to mention scads of automated diagnostics in the central computer library.


At the moment, I'm paused on a story I've been working on fairly consistently for a couple of weeks. I figure there's something more which has to happen, but either I've got stuck in the wrong moment for the characters (maybe I need to skip ahead in the story a couple of hours?) or I just don't have the right people at the table (literally - at present I have a group of characters eating breakfast in a cafeteria/food hall setting). Either way, I figure giving my brain a bit of a break on the whole mess will allow the subconscious time to nut away at things in the background, which will allow the requisite pieces to joggle loose.

Plus, of course, I'm also rather tired, and dealing with the early stages of seasonal/light-level-affected miseries, and incorporating a new MMO into the mix (which requires both time and energy - if you've just added a new distraction to your pile of distractions, you're going to find you're, well, DISTRACTED, until you've managed to figure it into the routines).

Thing is, I rather like the MMO, and I'm not keen on dropping it so I can devote more time to my writing. So the writing suffers. Fortunately this is fan fiction, not something I'm doing for a living.

(There's also the consideration that I pulled the writing from being an "extra" on Habitica - something I don't have to do each day - to being a "daily" - something I do have to do on a regular basis. Which made my writer-brain figuratively crawl off into a hole and pull the hole in after it in a massive expression of "oh hells no!". Won't be doing that again in a hurry).


Re: '... at present I have a group of characters eating breakfast in a cafeteria/food hall setting'

I can think of all sorts of conversations that I've had or overheard at breakfast in a cafeteria/food hall both as a diner and as staffer.

One year in undergrad, a friend persuaded me to take a job at a large corporation's downtown employees' cafeteria mostly because of a recently hired chef ... just retired from the merchant marine and phenomenal in the kitchen. Turned out to be a great summer job for a college kid. Apart from learning how a kitchen is run (organization, inventory, time management, etc.), also learned that scaling up a project (recipe) isn't merely multiplying everything by the same factor. Best of all, I picked up some ASL from the three full-time table staff who were deaf/mute. Learned how difficult it is to juggle speaking and working (carrying, handling, etc. ) when you need to rely on the same body parts for both tasks. Overall, lots of learning, good times and hearty laughs with that bunch.


I'd like to be able to deny that, but alas it is entirely possible.


I think when you write regularly, you cut down on all the non-writing time when you solve plot problems consciously or unconsciously.

Sometimes I just have to throw up my hands and go, "OK I'll take a break" and then actually go do something useful and physical rather than sit and stare at the screen while twitching through social media looking for a fight.

However, I find that what really helps is a way to conceptualise plot and structure. Sometimes - when you can see them - the answers are interesting and easy.

The issue you describe sounds as if you don't have enough pressing conflict.


@Scott (43): Thanks for the tip. In this setting, they get away with such small sizes because the ships are not actually closed systems. They are connected by shuttles and space-stations along the way so they have the opportunity to introduce "fresh blood" mid-journey. Indeed, that was what my romance plot was about- she was traveling from her own ship to a station to meet her lover, a boy she only knew from the "intership-net".

@Harold (45): I agree with your analysis. The main sources of conflict are the nationalities on the various ships against each other, the inhabitants of the ships vs the Earth, and humans vs aliens. I don't mean that all of these conflicts will break out in violence, possibly none of them will, but they are sources of tension, which is what I thought you were asking about.

I would be happy to review your book. How do we communicate outside of this forum?

@SFReader (49): "Did this include how this girl's parents/guardians felt about the romance or how she'll look back on it in 30-40 years' time?"

Yes, and sort of. She cant ever go back and live with her parents again, due to the economic constraints that governs these ships in transit. So it was a bittersweet goodbye. They supported it, though. The romance is over before the story is, so I am able to show how she looks back on it during the story (in fact that acts as the denouement).

"Each developmental stage in humans has a different focus. Probably equally true for expeditions."

Interesting perspective! She's a late teen, so ready to start her own life, push out on her own and be independent. Small problem- the boy she wants to be with is a twentieth of a lightyear away, and delta-v is expensive...

Sadly, it doesn't work out. But she's stronger for it.

re the "Locked Ship Murder Mystery"- I'm only so-so on it myself, but not for reasons of realism, which I could work around, starting with the fact that in the cozy-style murder mystery I am contemplating copying, the killer is rarely to never a sociopath (that's true in real life as well). Usually it's someone known to the victim, both being members of a small, tight knit semi-isolated community somewhere (a sea-side English village, a space ship in interstellar space). Motivations for murder are more commonplace, including greed, jealousy, and pride.

The story would almost write itself. But I worry that it's been done, and that it would come across as too trite. Got any other ideas that you would like to share?

BTW- there are no competent criminal investigators, let alone psychologists, on any of my ships. These are small communities, with roughly the same access to resources that a small rural town would have (with the exception of space-flight engineering, of course). Less, actually, since there is no "central government" that they can turn to when they need it (well, there is, but it's light years away, so not much help). There's no forensics, so to catch a criminal they have to rely on witness testimony. Undertaken by amateurs. So you can see why I thought a cozy-style mystery plot might work.

As you can see, I am deliberately avoiding some of the more common tropes associated with the "colony ship" type story. Think the New World colonies in the mid 1600's, only with radio and nuclear power, and you more or less have it.


You can email me on my gmail account by removing the spaces from my name...


The issue you describe sounds as if you don't have enough pressing conflict.

Oh, I'd agree strongly with that. At present the breakfast-table discussion is wandering in about sixteen different directions in my head, and I have a strong suspicion the whole thing is going to wind up being a scene that's going to vanish in the second iteration of the story. The problem is my brain doesn't give me stories in nice neat narrative formats - I get them bouncing around all over the narrative. My notes for this particular story currently have a greater word count than the story, and include two mind-maps I've done to try and get ideas clumped together in an orderly fashion. At least part of the reason I'm taking a break from this particular storyline at the moment is I'm starting to get the sense I'm mostly shuffling the notes for consistency rather than coming out with anything useful in story. Great for world-building, not so great for actual narrative on the page.

Given it's fan-fiction, and involves a multiple-universe crossover (in a university setting; I can hear the groans from here!) I have plenty of conflicts to choose from, even after I filter out the various ones which don't translate well. I think at least part of the fun is my brain is currently complaining about the whole issue of scheduling them - I don't want to run through all of them in the first three weeks of the first semester, after all. (On the one hand, think of the fight scenes. On the other hand, it would almost certainly result in the whole cast being thrown off campus so hard they bounced - at which point I'm writing a completely different set of stories).

I'm sure I'll get there eventually. This story (and the other three or four projects I'm currently tracking along side it) are among my first real efforts at writing long - normally I tend to peter out after about 10,000 words, maybe 12,000 - so I'm expecting to run up against a whole lot of hard learning curves in the process.

But thanks for letting me bitch about the whole mess, anyway.


Having a hard time seeing how anyone on such a small ship (population-wise) could strike it out on her own. 'Where do you go from here' when your entire universe is one ship. Being mostly a big city/suburban type myself, having a tough time visualizing how a young adult could differentiate herself (find herself/establish a personal identity) under such severe physical constraints. Where do people go for their alone time, when they need to get away from things?

Murder mystery on spaceship 'Little Village' -- Could see this if you have a Jane Marple character on your ship, i.e., someone older, harmless and unthreatening, with a more varied personal biography/background than the rest of the folk, without very strong personal/emotional attachments, but with a good head/mind to act as your sleuth. Although the young woman is the focus of the story, you might consider telling it through your sleuth's eyes/POV. Such a Marple type character could be the lens for telling the reader about the real vs. official story version of this ship's/expedition's culture and history.

Murder, cont'd ... enclosed environment built to minimize accidents, probably very few loose heavy objects around, and most people would notice something out of place. Okay ... the passengers have low technical/scientific sophistication but what about the crew. Hard to believe that unless it's an AI piloting and doing all of the maintenance/housekeeping, that none of the passengers are able to figure out the technology. If AI, then it's probably a key character.

How quickly the murder is detected and/or whether the death is a murder vs. rash act vs. suicide could also offer some interesting plot and character conflicts.

Also, the aftermath of the event ... if this is the first such act (murder or suicide), it's got to have an impact on everyone on that ship. What will change for whom, and how will this impact the rest of the mission?


"The problem is my brain doesn't give me stories in nice neat narrative formats - I get them bouncing around all over the narrative."

On discovering that same characteristic in myself, I found it worked simply to go with the flow. Having gathered enough of an idea of the overall plot to summarise it in a single paragraph, I found scenes from random points in the narrative popping into my head in vivid detail. So I wrote them down in the order they came to me, without letting it bother me that the order they were supposed to happen in was totally different, and as the gaps were filled in so the coherence of the story emerged.

It may sound like it would be a nightmare to keep the continuity straight, but in fact it was the opposite; dotting about all over the place meant I never had a chance to forget bits of the continuity map.


Thank you!
Very interesting and eye-opening.

Do you think this aplies to academic writing as well?


I think it's not about neat narrative formats, it's about the move and counter move of conflict. Once the players all have agendas, the narrative almost writes itself.


Yes. Absolutely. Especially issue 1.


Key realization: The characters should drive the plot/narrative, not the other way around. (While remembering that characters are themselves at least partly defined by setting.)


4 applies to any work requiring brain cells. Any work at all really.


Hah. Secret Ninja Writer Trick. Come up with cool plot concepts and go, "Who would do THAT?"


Shhhhhh! Don't tell them or everyone will be doing it!


Yeah, it's very difficult for those of us who grew up in a Western suburban environment to imagine circumstances as constrained as a spaceship. But I can assure you that for most of history most humans grew up in very constrained circumstances- from rural villages to urban barrios. As for where you go when you need to be alone- there's outside the ship, the interstellar equivalent of "the forest." Since my protag is a teenager, she also takes refuge in the same way as teenagers in all technically advanced societies- in activities their parents don't understand very well. In her case, that's the "internet for ships".

I guess I wasn't clear- the story about the girl is already written, already submitted, already rejected. I'm starting to think about the second story I want to place in this setting. I already have most of the background details thought out- I think it's pretty consistent and leans toward the hard end of the spectrum (no FTL, after all). I'm still in the brainstorming stage.

If I go with the "cozy mystery on a ship" approach, I already have a name picked out for my dotty elder female amateur sleuth: Mrs Templeton. She has a pet chicken named Dimples, who she unfortunately thinks has truthsense: "Oooh, Dimples doesn't like you, lad, are you sure you aren't... hiding something?" Dum-dum-duuum

As you can see, I'm having a little trouble taking the genre seriously, probably a sign I should leave it alone.

Oh, BTW, I never meant to imply that the passengers have little technical sophistication- actually there are no "passengers", nor any "crew", properly speaking. These people live most of their entire lives on this ship, they are all members of the community. Consequently, they know their ship inside and out- not a system on board that one or more of them couldn't dis-assemble and reassemble in their sleep. It's just that skill domains that are not essential to survival are a secondary priority, and of course there are no professional criminal investigators anywhere.

It will eventually turn out that the aliens are GAI's, but that doesn't have any direct effect on ship-board life until they get to the rendezvous.

As for murder- well, sadly, it's not as traumatic for them as it might be for you or me. Live in space lightyears from Earth is dangerous, and death by misadventure is not uncommon. It wouldn't be unheard of to lose entire ships along the way. Violence might be somewhat less common than misadventure, but I'm putting tens of thousands of people on hundreds of ships out there for generations at a time- people are going to fight, and some of them will get killed. No cops, no courts, so justice will be a little bit rough... the penalty for murder will likely be a one way trip out the airlock. Its the Wild West with electronics.

There's five "national" lines out to the system where the aliens are waiting, and five lines back, so at any one time there might be a dozen ships in range of each other at any one time. They aren't exactly isolated, but they certainly have to be self-reliant, and that will be reflected in their emotional makeup as well as their economic and physical circumstances. So stoicism is the rule of the day, even among the kids. They wont tolerate a murderer among them, but they wont let themselves get overly excited about it either.

These people live most of their entire lives on this ship, they are all members of the community.
I wonder why that is so. Is it more like the immigration to America/Australia from Great Britain, or rather, an emigration from Ireland for greener pastures? Something else?

I would hope this shouldn't interfere much with the dramas you already have in mind, but I haven't yet understood how this voyage came to start. Maybe that's not important for the story, but then why only five "national" lines? What's important to those identities -- how did they manage to embrace their differences before embarking on the greatest mission in the history of humanity, and how will their opinions change after multiple generations in a tin can?


...why only five "national" lines?

That's a good point. Maybe only five powers are launching ships right now, but over generations it should be expected that parties will both start launching and drop the project. And that's the Earth side of the question; few people aboard the ships have ever seen Earth much less the originating nation, and they have much more in common with people on the other vessels in transit than anyone on a homeworld that can't even send email without years of lightspeed delay. I'd expect the culture that actually establishes itself in the destination system to be different enough to annoy anyone trying to manage things from Earth. If authorities on Earth have some way to force cooperation from minions in another solar system, that's a story seed right there.


Hope you continue your story-telling: the premise and scenario sound interesting enough that I'd like to find out more. Plus, many authors have several books under their belts before their first book gets published.

Dumb question, but ... have you considered publishing online (free download) or self-publishing?


What could also happen is that some portion of the spacefarers might decide to go all out in protecting their heritage. This has happened several times in the past and in fact still happens when large groups of an ethnic group are displaced. Basically, this cultural group fossilizes into place ... no changes for whatever reason are ever allowed. (Just think of some of the super-orthodox sects.)


Good point. Imagine some of the old farts of the Orthodox Americanists ranting about The Kids These Days even as they try to keep anyone from talking about the news from Earth, where those damn heretics have not been Keeping The Faith correctly and think they know something just because they live in America...


@failed-teacher: It isn't really like any form of immigration at all, at least from their point of view. They dont really perceive themselves as going to the destination system (even though they are)- they are living on a ship, which is their home, which just happens to be traveling through space. By the time they arrive at their destination, the aliens offer to hire any humans who elect to stay, and most of them do, but that's entirely voluntary. The rest stay on board, taking alien tech back to Earth. Psychologically, think "Villages in the Sky" not free merchants or settlers.

There are five "national" lines because, back on Earth, there were only five international players with the resources to build and sent interstellar spaceships. These five "lines" are owned by their respective Earth governments. They are: The American Line, the European Union Line, the Russo-Indian Line (they pooled their resources), the Chinese-African Line (the Chinese brought along some Africans for public relations purposes), and the Brazilian-Persian Line (strange bedfellows). These five nationalities and international partners funded these ships because they perceive themselves to be in a race to grab alien tech, which the aliens are offering if we can meet them at a certain brown dwarf about 10 light years away (they don't live there themselves, and they have their own agenda, which they will share with humanity in their own good time).

Meanwhile, after 200 years in space, people who were born and raised in a spaceship have almost forgotten just why these international differences were supposed to be important. Legally they have to maintain the separation, but culturally? Cross-line relationships and marriages are commonplace.

Scott Sanford pretty much nailed it.

@SF Reader: the one set of holdouts, even after all that time, are the Americans. They have the largest, most expensive ships, and even before they started leaving, Americans in my universe have experienced several generations of immigration and inter-ethnic mixing. We all look like the Obamas 200 years from now. Which has interesting implications- assuming that a low level residual nationalism stays in play for most of the rest of the world, Americans become genetically distinct- superior in their view. Thats what the concept of "trans-racial" comes to mean in the US in a hundred years- different, so superior, and therefore a new source of isolation and exclusivity.

That attitude runs headlong into the developing culture of the ship-born, who sometimes have to look up "ethnicity" in the database to remember what it means. By the time the first ships begin returning with alien data, it's the US that insists on it's property rights. Should be fun to write, if I ever get that far.

And again Scott nails it. Are you psychic?

I have not, BTW, investigated self-publishing in any systematic way. Should I?

Starting this century and extending several hundred years into the future, the wealthiest nations of Earth have financed the construction and deployment of about a thousand ships that ply between the solar system and a brown dwarf about 10 light years out, where we have made contact with an outpost of an alien race. It's STL
It will eventually turn out that the aliens are GAI's, but that doesn't have any direct effect on ship-board life until they get to the rendezvous.
They dont really perceive themselves as going to the destination system (even though they are)- they are living on a ship, which is their home, which just happens to be traveling through space.
There are five "national" lines because, back on Earth, there were only five international players with the resources to build and sent interstellar spaceships. These five "lines" are owned by their respective Earth governments.

How could I possibly disagree with any of this!?

Well, perhaps the CETC (close enough to the speed of light) communications with an extraterrestrial advanced intelligence will dispel all remaining doubts, but I wouldn't hold my breath... Plenty of constituents in the 'great 5' will rightfully believe it's all a big sham. Yet, how was the first crew actually convinced to rendezvous?

It could have easily been a space-ship-train crew full of unwanted exiles as long I understand your description thus far. Or perhaps there was nothing left at home for our brave adventurers. Maybe just the thrill of the great beyond being seeked out by great explorers. A little bit of all the aboves?

I'm not at all trying to change your premise or storyline here.

I (meekly/simply) mean to suggest that the initial cause(s) of such an elaborate mission would likely be a lasting source of future drama for multiple generations to come (depending on the most dominant forms of cultural inheritance that are currently en vogue).


Those are all great points, and to be frank about it, I really haven't thought it completely through. I think "a little of all of the above" is probably the right one. I would imagine that most of the Americans are volunteers going for the adventure of a lifetime. The more authoritarian Chinese? Maybe not so much. Some of them might not be going voluntarily- their descendents might not have the same ideas regarding who "owns" the alien trade good by the time their ship returns to Earth. I'm also open to some environmental degradation back on the home planet- at least some of these people might be fleeing rapidly deteriorating conditions where they come from, the Africans and Indians esp.

I'll be honest and admit the "sham" idea never occurred to me- but once you mentioned it it now seems obvious. I'll bet any money there is a widespread conspiracy theory that all the people on the ships are being killed to alleviate population pressure, a la "The Marching Morons".



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by M Harold Page published on April 27, 2016 1:54 PM.

FAQ: The Laundry Files--series timeline was the previous entry in this blog.

A purely theoretical dilemma is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog