This guest post is part of the Descendant Machine Blog Tour.
Gareth L. Powell was born and raised in Bristol, where he still lives, and his early mentors included Diana Wynne Jones and Helen Dunmore. His novels have twice won the BSFA Award, and been finalists for both the Locus Award in the US and the Seiun Award in Japan. He is probably best known for his acclaimed Embers of War space opera series, which includes the novels Embers of War, Fleet of Knives, and Light of Impossible Stars. He is a popular guest and speaker at conventions and literary events, and can often be found on Twitter @garethlpowell giving free advice to aspiring authors.
Stars and Bones #2
by Gareth L. Powell
From the award-winning author comes a gripping, fast-paced and fascinating science fiction adventure. Vividly imagined and sharply written, fans of Ann Leckie and Becky Chambers will be engrossed.
When Nicola Mafalda’s scout ship comes under attack, she’s left deeply traumatised by the drastic action it takes to keep her alive. Months later, when an old flame comes to her for help, she realises she has to find a way to forgive both the ship and her former lover. Reckless elements are attempting to reactivate a giant machine that has lain dormant for thousands of years. To stop them, Nicola and her crew will have to put aside their differences, sneak aboard a vast alien megaship, and try to stay alive long enough to prevent galactic devastation.
Guest post: How Descendant Machine Got Written Twice by Gareth L. Powell
So, Descendant Machine is finally out, and I can hardly believe it. There were a few moments back there when I seriously worried whether I would ever finish it. First, I lost the original file. Several months’ work just vanished from my computer. I tried everything to find it, but to no avail.
Shortly afterwards, I came down with a hefty dose of COVID, during which I moved house during a record-breaking heatwave and had to do all the heavy lifting myself as I didn’t want to infect any of the friends who had offered to help. I ended up testing positive for COVID for 20 days. I should have rested.
When the dust of the move had settled and I began to feel mentally and physically recovered from the plague, I opened a new Word document and began writing Descendant Machine again from scratch—a prospect that was initially so demoralising I could have wept, but with Dianne’s belief and support, I managed to rebuild what had vanished. The result wasn’t the same as the lost book, but I think the experience of starting again and going off in different directions than first time around made it a stronger book overall.
The way I wrote was the same way I have written every other novel. I started at the beginning and wrote through to the end. I develop the story, characters and plot as I go along, and I’m very conscious of the pacing and rhythm of the text, so would find it almost impossible to write scenes out of order.
As mentioned above, I use Word and am unlikely to change any time soon. I’ve tried other ‘specialised’ software but it always ends up feeling more like data entry than writing, which is a very organic process for me. I need to have the whole novel in one document the way a potter needs the whole lump of clay on the wheel—so I can shape it and mould it and see it take form.
Now that I’ve overcome the tribulations enumerated above, what will be next? Finishing a book always provokes a bittersweet reaction. You've spent months, perhaps even years, working in that world with those characters, and now it's all over. You've been aiming at the ending for so long, you don't know what to do with yourself now it's here.
There's a definite Sisyphean element to being a writer. You give everything you've got in order to scale the peak of each book, only to find yourself right back down at the bottom of the hill again as soon as you've finished, with the next peak looming before you.
Sometimes, it can be hard to shake off your last book. You find the ideas you're getting for the new one are suspiciously familiar, and the characters have the same sorts of attitudes and backstories as the ones to whom you've just bid adieu.
As seven of my novels have been space operas, I sometimes worry about becoming repetitive. But those books have been well-received and have attracted an enthusiastic audience. How do I produce something new and startling while also giving that established readership what they want, which is more of the same?
I remember seeing Iain Banks talking at a convention some years back. He described his process as six months of very hard thinking followed by six months of frantic writing. But those months of hard thinking were every bit as much a part of writing a book as the actual composition. He had to find and refine his ideas until he had something worth writing.
Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” I sort of know what he meant. Usually, I have a vague notion of what the book will feel like, so it’s a case of chipping away until I find the right sort of setting and concept to match that feeling.
And that's what I'm going to do now. I'm going to think very hard. I'm going to read a lot, take long walks, browse science and tech newsfeeds, and ask What if? questions until inspiration strikes.
It won't look like writing, but it will be.