How I’m writing my 3rd novel – pencil, watercolours, and oils. And a question for you.

This is the first in an occasional series tracking my thoughts as I write my next novel. Expect ideas, speculation, research, and thoughts about the process itself.  Sometimes I will ask you questions to help with my research.  Please help if you can.

Subscribe to the mailing list to follow me as I excavate and shape the story. 

The working title of my new book is ‘Threads’ but it could just as easily be ‘What the hell is going on?’

I’m approaching it as if I were a painter preparing a huge canvas. Some parts are just marks, placeholders for sections not yet written or only vaguely outlined; other areas are light colour washes showing that somebody will stand here – there will be a window there – this will become a different city – whilst others have already received a first coat of oils revealing a face, a landscape, a meal. All these images float across the space and nudge each other like the gliding parts of a digital jigsaw.

I’m doing it like this because right now, in this world of Brexit and he-who-shall-not-be-named, so many people are complaining that they don’t know what the hell is going on. Neither do I. And my academic critical training is not much help in working it out, so I’m going for the vaguer more wishy-washy stuff. What can I bring to the surface if I open my mind to methods and approaches I have disdained before?

That is why, every morning, I work back and forth across my literary canvas, strengthening some parts and scraping away or overpainting others.  I annotate it with smells, sounds and colours to be described in more detail later. There are some parts which are pretty much set by now – I doubt I will change the dimensions of the picture because I know the time frame (June-November 2016) and I know the countries where the story happens.  I think I have the characters decided, although each of them has proved to be quite the shapeshifter.  Only a week ago, after a period of meditation followed by freewriting, I discovered one character waking up to find that her hair had grown much longer while she slept. That was as much a surprise to me as it was to her!

This sounds chaotic, but next to the narrative that I’m cultivating in the myriad files and folders of my  Scrivener garden,  I also keep a detailed Excel chart of where and when everything is at any one time. This way,  I never lose sight of the overall picture.  Many entries in the chart are only pencil marks on the painting at the moment, because they’re waiting to be worked up into a scene once the area around them has settled, but others are almost complete.

I like doing it this way.  Not only am I creating a story, but I’m excavating one too. I’m reading widely and following trails. When I hit a new field of enquiry I research it, but I might also try to dream an answer, or meditate it into being. Sometimes that works and sometimes it just feels plain ridiculous. But the whole thing is hugely enjoyable, and I have allocated as much time as I need to finish it. Maybe it will be ready next year, maybe the year after. Who knows? So, on I go.

I plan to share my thinking while I work, and I’ll write about my research too, so please follow me for occasional updates. People I’ll be writing about include David Abram, Paul Stamets, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and lots more. The next piece will probably be about Esalen.

And sometimes I will have questions. If you have answers,  I’d love to read them.  Either leave them in the comments, or contact me privately.

Here is my first question:

Do you enjoy watching live webcams of wildlife? If so, which ones and why? (Links welcome if you don’t mind sharing them.)

Thank you! I hope you’ll make the journey with me. With luck it will be pretty interesting.

Image by Andrian Valeanu from Pixabay


A Landscape History of Brexit, Orion Magazine.

My short essay ‘A Landscape History of Brexit’ was published this week in Orion Magazine, Winter 2018, Volume 37, Number 4. It was behind a paywall, but now it’s not! So please enjoy it here.  You can also read short extracts of the opening and closing sections below.

This article has been in production for months but as I write, on 9th March 2019, I’m beginning to dare to hope that this foolish and irresponsible venture will never take place.  Fingers crossed.

Pending Storm over Hengistbury Head - -
Pending Storm over Hengistbury Head –

1. Extract from the opening

Some say the sea connects us, others that it divides us. Of course, both are true.

I live on the south coast of England, close to the English Channel or, as the French call it, la Manche. France is less than one hundred miles away across the busiest shipping area in the world. Day and night, tankers and cruise ships ply across it while fishing vessels and oil rigs mine its depths. Viewed from any window in my apartment, the winter sea stretches out as still as a landscape painting, a paintbrush sweep of gunmetal blue blurring into the horizon and fading into white clouds.

But this view has not always been so watery. The Channel rests upon a lost world. Below its surface lies an ancient forest floor, criss-crossed by old pathways created by the feet of thousands of people travelling to and fro across a vast nameless wilderness. Once, this stretch of terrain was part of continental Europe, a landscape of forests, plains, and rivers. And just a mile along the coast from my home, a hill called Hengistbury Head still holds that history fast in its stony cliffs.

Twelve thousand years ago there was no Channel, just a wooded landscape of broad valleys and intersecting rivers. But Hengistbury Head was a landmark even then. Five hundred feet above sea level, it provided a vantage point for Stone Age hunter-gatherers following migrating herds of wild horses and cows, red deer, Arctic hares, reindeer, mammoths, wolves, and antelopes. On the flatter and more sheltered northern side of the hill, there was space for the camps of multilingual buyers and sellers, craftspeople, and travellers.

Human activity continued at Hengistbury for thousands more years. But during this time the icecaps were slowly melting.  As it got warmer, the ground became increasingly swampy, the rivers wider, the lakes deeper until, in 6,100 bce, disaster struck. The pressure of rising water levels in Norway triggered a series of landslides, which in turn caused an area of landlocked sea to burst its banks. The resulting tsunami rushed southward toward what was then a peninsula but would soon become a separate landmass. Mesolithic people looking down from Hengistbury Head must have been terrified to see the flood surging past. And when the waters finally levelled out again, the island I now live on had been created—no longer joined to the landmass now called Europe.

2. Extract from the closing

Today, Hengistbury Head is a dramatically beautiful nature reserve. Travellers come not to hunt or trade, but to watch heritage farm animals grazing peacefully, or spot rare natterjack toads breeding in shallow ponds, or thrill to the songs of larks rising in the evening air. But, just like those Stone Age hunter-gatherers, the visitors still speak many languages. These days they include the Polish, Portuguese, and Romanian of local workers and the foreign tongues of tourists from France, Germany, and elsewhere. Will Brexit finally silence them? We will soon find out. It is not the sea that divides us from each other, but ourselves.

Read the rest at Orion.

Orion Magazine

2019: New book, old book, and a Landscape History of Brexit

Wishing you a belated Happy 2019! Here’s a quick update on my current projects – a new book, an old book, and an upcoming article about the landscape history of Brexit.

New Book

Last summer in London, I heard Rupert Sheldrake in conversation with Douglas Rushkoff at a Team Human event.  In the first few minutes, Sheldrake casually remarked, as if it were obvious, that “Our minds stretch out far beyond our brains.”

That comment made instant sense to me, because for some time I’ve been trying to reach out beyond my own brain in an effort to disentangle my academic training from my real experience of everyday life.

It’s ironic that, whilst some kinds of teaching and research enable us to think wild new thoughts, there is also an undercurrent which encourages academics to dismiss other strands that do not meet certain criteria.  Unfortunately for me, I was often guilty of wandering  those forbidden paths, which is why I frequently  found myself unable to fit in. That was often quite painful, but since leaving my job as Professor of New Media at De Montfort University in 2013, I’ve felt liberated to explore modes of thought which might not be admissable in standard academic research. I’m allowing my mind to stretch out beyond my brain and, for once, I’m not feeling guilty about it.

The result of that freedom was a very enjoyable 2018 spent writing my first novel for two decades. It’s only halfway done and it doesn’t have a name yet. but perhaps by this time next year it will be finished. Or perhaps not. I’m having a good time putting it together and don’t really want the process to end, so it could take a good deal longer than that.

What’s it about? I can’t really explain yet, but it’s fed by the work I’ve been doing for years on technology,  on nature,  and on the future of life in general. Perhaps even the future of people.  I’m putting it together rather like an oil painting, beginning with faint outlines followed by sketches, then pale washes,  then darker washes, then brushing in stronger definition in some parts, and painting out other areas to start them again. The story is expanding and contracting as I go, so much so that I can almost feel it working between my fingers as it comes to life.  I’ve written quite a few books but this process is very different. I hope it works. We shall see.

I came across the image below and somehow it felt like the novel, so I keep it beside me. I’ve no idea why it seems that way, it just does.

Vegetation in the city of Bam is green and stone-covered desert has various tones of gray. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

Old Book

I’m very excited that the SF Gateway is republishing my first novel, Correspondence, which was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1993.  I’ve written a brief introduction to the new edition, which will come out this Spring.  I’m also working on an article about the influences behind the novel, and how it has foreshadowed much of my work to date.

The SF Gateway has republished many science fiction and fantasy titles in this ‘portal to the classics’. It’s financed by Gollancz, a publishing house that many will remember not least for its distinctive yellow book jackets. I certainly owned quite a few. I’m very proud to be included.

A Landscape History of Brexit

I’m a regular contributor to Orion, ‘America’s Finest Environmental Magazine’. This February they will publish my piece about a landmark coastal hill near my home, Hengistbury Head, and how it was an international trading post even before a tsunami came down from Norway in the Stone Age and divided what-would-be Britain from what-would-be Europe. Now we are facing another tsunami, this time entirely of our own making, but I’m still hoping that common sense will prevail and someone will put a stop to this sorry and embarrassing self-mutilation.

In the meantime, I wish you a happy 2019 as the storm gathers.

Pending Storm over Hengistbury Head - -
Pending Storm over Hengistbury Head –


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Featured Image: Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1899; Instituto Cajal, Madrid, Spain. Public Domain,

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