I missed October, so I've squashed two months together. I know I've been a terrible blogger, and I've received a number of ...

I missed October, so I've squashed two months together. I know I've been a terrible blogger, and I've received a number of e-mails begging for me to return, so here I am.

0 is a number.

Creating Character Arcs - K. M. Weiland

I read this book after seeing it mentioned on my favourite YouTube channel, Lessons from the Screenplay. Check out that guy's videos, they're great. I also read it on an iPad, which I wasn't a fan of. Just didn't feel right, reading on such a shiny screen.

Anyway, about this book. It's a good look at creating convincing characters who experience convincing changes in outlook as a result of the things that happen to them. It's all about the Lie your characters believe, the Truth that they need, the wound that made them like this...

I don't want to sound like a know-all, but I felt like a lot of this stuff was intuitive, like I already knew it but I just hadn't put it into words yet. That probably comes from reading a lot of good books - as any writer will tell you, if you read enough, it will become more and more easy to write well too. But still, there was also a lot of new stuff, a few "of course!" moments, and a couple of things I'd never even thought of before.

All in all, I'd say it's a very good book for anyone who calls themselves a writer. Especially if you like books that are badly edited - this one has loads of mistakes!


The story of a collapsing family told from four points of view: 33-year-old Benjamin, with the meandering mind of a 3-year-old; Quentin, the son whose Harvard education was paid for by selling some of the family's land; Jason, the piece of shit son so obsessed with money that he'd steal it from his own family; and their servants, who put up with more of the family's shit than I ever could.

More stream of consciousness from Faulkner, clouding up the story. And more of me not knowing how to feel about it. When you're in the midst of it, it's frustrating because it will go on and on and you have no idea what's going on but you keep reading because you have faith that it will become clearer at some point, even though it doesn't seem that the author wants it to become clearer.

And it does. By the end of the book you pretty much understand everything that's happened, even if you were still lost halfway through. But I just wonder if there wasn't a way this story could have been told that was a lot more friendly to the reader, and less pretentious. Was the reward so great that it was worth dragging yourself through all that punishment?

Obviously a lot of people think so. This book is constantly appearing in top 100 lists, so people love it. And apparently, it's better on the second reading. I won't be reading it again any time soon, but I didn't dislike it. I just wasn't blown away.


An anti-self-help book written by everyone's favourite mentalist. This book isn't about giving you a recipe to follow to achieve happiness, it's about all the ideas and thoughts that philosophers and writers have had over the last few millennia about how we can change our mindsets to live more happily.

So, instead of positive mental attitudes and asking the universe to give us what we want, we're advised to lower our standards and accept that sometimes things are going to go wrong, and that's ok, because we're prepared for it and we can just pick ourselves up and try again. Putting pressure on ourselves to try a load of different methods of forcing happiness is actually likely to achieve the opposite.

Just decide that everything is ok. If you do your best and things don't work out, accept that it didn't go your way and move on. Life is too short to aim for the stars and be crushed when we can't reach them. So stop worrying about things you can't control, and cherish the things that mean something to you while you have them.

I enjoyed the book overall, and the ideas inside it definitely wormed their way into my head. I feel like I can take something from it and be a bit more chilled about things now. But it was a bit too long - points were laboured and repeated until you felt like you'd been beaten into submission by them. I think it probably could have been half as long and still got its points across.

Also, the last hundred pages are about death. How to die well, how to be okay with your own death, how one might feel about becoming terminally ill... I went into those thinking it would be a bit much, and a depressing way to end a book; but it was okay in the end. Not as bad as I expected.

As with all things Derren Brown does, it's still great despite any minor flaws.


Sorry I haven't been around all month. I meant to write a Writing IRL post - it was really important, since I promised to do it mon...

Sorry I haven't been around all month. I meant to write a Writing IRL post - it was really important, since I promised to do it months ago - but I didn't. I don't have a good excuse, I've just let you down. I don't know if this makes it any better, but today, my book is 0% off on Amazon. That's right, it's only FULL PRICE! Go check it out.

Anyway, let's get on with this.

This is a lovely little story about love and friendship and the weird personality traits we all have. I loved it, so I read it all in one day. It made my heart feel warm.

One of my favourite things about it is that Kaufman let his imagination run wild and allowed himself to be silly. I have the capacity to be very silly, but I rarely let myself do so in my writing because I'm worried that I won't be taken seriously. It's really important to me that I'm one of those pretentious writers that write meaningful things. But you can be taken seriously and still be a bit silly, if you write something good. Like this.

A lot of people on Amazon and Goodreads just can't do silly though. They don't have the sense of humour for it. It's quite amusing reading the reviews of people who didn't get it, but think that that gives them a reason to be angry with the book. How dare it be funny to some people when it didn't make me laugh?! Fuck you, book!

Anyway. I loved it. Would recommend to anyone who wants a light, quick, wholesome read.


This is a Young Adult book which you might have heard of. In my experience, Young Adult books are generally too long, and they have mediocre writing and poorly formed, immature characters. This book is no exception.

It started out ok. It was fairly exciting, the characters were believable, there was stuff happening... then about 100 pages in, it slowed right down, and the characters became melodramatic and boring, and I was just left thinking that the book could have been shortened by about 50%.

I was also surprised that a book about racism could have so many stereotypes crammed in. Apparently, no white person has ever heard Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder. So my life must have been a lie...

It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, and it does have an important message, and I hope it helps some people become more tolerant. It’s just not a great literary achievement, I'm afraid. And, saying that, I'm lucky that no one reads this blog, or I'd suffer a backlash in the comments like anyone who doesn't give it 5* on Goodreads. Seriously, people go mad.


"It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That's how the world is going to end."

Addie Bundren is dying. Outside, her son Cash is making her coffin, without even considering if she can hear it. When she dies, her husband will put her in that coffin and travel miles to bury her with her family, stinking out the towns he passes through and putting his entire family at risk.

We all know I love a moody book, a pretentious book, and especially a book with long sentences, southern US accents and dirty horses. But this didn't grip me, because half the time I was trying to understand what the characters were on about. It's definitely not the book's problem; if I were cleverer, I'd have caught on quicker.

The problem is all the stream of consciousness stuff. I get lost when a character is rambling on and changing subjects mid-sentence and obsessing over stuff that doesn't make sense. I had the same problem with Umbrella by Will Self. My attention span just isn't sufficient.

But it was good. Even if I had to Wikipedia it afterwards to make sure I got it all right. I did, pretty much.


Wait a minute, that's not a book!  Well, I'd just like to sneak in a little mention for the new Queens of the Stone Age albu...

Wait a minute, that's not a book! 

Well, I'd just like to sneak in a little mention for the new Queens of the Stone Age album too, since we're reviewing stuff. If you like good music, check out Villains. I am obsessed with it at the moment.

Anyway, let's get back to books.

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I was looking forward to reading Ready Player One, because everyone you talk to about it loved it. But I was horribly disappointed.

Most of my criticisms have already been written by a load of other reviewers. The references were shoe-horned in, and useless to the story. He was always telling us things, never showing us. He over explains everything - the first 60 pages are just lengthy explanations of the world, the OASIS, those embarrassing references. The writing was below average and the love story was cringeworthy.

And yes, those references really were as bad as people say. So obvious, so over-explained. It made me wonder who he was writing it for - if you want it just to be a nice nostalgia trip for people who lived through the 80s, why explain every reference to death? If you want to appeal to everyone, why make the references so specific to someone who lived in the 80s and had a very limited set of interests? Choose your audience, and stick to it.

I also have another gripe that I haven't seen anyone talk about. The main character (or maybe just the author, since it's clearly just about him) really wants us to know how TOLERANT he is. He wants a big old pat on the back for it. He meets this person for the first time thinking it will be a white man, and it's a black woman! Gasp! And he's totally OKAY with that! Wow, what a lovely guy. Then he finds out his love interest has a birth mark on her face! Oh no! But it's okay, because he thinks she's BEAUTIFUL! YAAAAAY! If you need to make such a big deal of being a nice, tolerant person, you're not nice at all, it's clearly just an act.

Then at one point, he says that the OASIS was the best thing to happen to black women, because in that virtual world they can pretend to be white men. WTF?

Anyway, I've gone on too long now. It wasn't the worst book ever because it had video game stuff and it was easy to read. The film might be better. I just found myself cringing the whole way through.


Cities of the Plain - Cormac McCarthy

John Grady Cole (All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (The Crossing) find themselves working together on a ranch in the conclusion to the fantastic Border Trilogy. John falls in love, and as one might expect from one of these books, it isn't going to be easy to find a Happily Ever After sitch. It might change both his and Billy's lives forever.

Just another brilliant, profound, emotional book from Cormac McCarthy. What can I say? I bloody love the man. He's a living legend.

The only thing I wasn't mad about was the epilogue. Right at the end it picked up again, but most of it was a bit rambly, philosophising for its own sake without regard for whether conversations like that actually ever happen. But still, it's all very deep and meaningful, so who can blame him for leaving it in? He loves a bit of it, I love a bit of it, we're all happy.


Yes, this is my book, and I'm a self-centred dick for including it in this post, but I haven't sold a million copies yet, so I'm still trying to market it, okay? Give me a break.

@amybucklesbookshelf wrote a really lovely review of my book this week, and I'd encourage you to follow her on every social media channel you can find (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blog). I'd also encourage you to read the review and to buy my book because it would make me very happy.

If you're a book blogger or a bookstagrammer or a Hollywood producer, I might be throw a copy at you to review and/or option for a multi-million dollar film deal. Get in touch and let's see what we can do.

The fifth post in the Writing IRL series. So, you've finally done it. You've written several books (and yes, you need to writ...

The fifth post in the Writing IRL series.

So, you've finally done it. You've written several books (and yes, you need to write several - unless you're some kind of godlike genius, which you're probably not, your first book is not likely to be good enough), and your latest is the one that proves that you're ready to be A Writer. This is the one that might make a great film, that will have people desperate to give 5 star reviews, that you'd be proud to hold in your hands and tell people you wrote.

But where do you go from here? Which is the best route to take - self publishing, or traditional?

Well, in this two-part IRL post, I'll be listing the ups and downs of both routes, as I see them, so that you can make an educated decision on which path you want to follow.

So, what's so special about traditional publishing?

You're in the hands of the professionals

You might remember how dramatic I was about self-publishing in the first half of this two-part post, and how I kept ramming it home how hard you'd have to work to be successful. You'd have to do your own marketing, find and fund your own editor, get your own cover designs…

Well, with traditional publishing, almost all of that is dealt with by someone with a lot more experience and knowledge of the business than you (probably) have. 

So you don't need to worry about whether the freelance editor you've found online is really just an idiot with a PayPal account who speaks English as a second language, and you don't need to design your own cover in Paint because you don't have the money to pay someone to do it for you, and you might not have to market the hell out of the bloody thing on the Internet, where no one wants to be sold a self-published book.

That's a HUGE plus.

I wish someone would handle my marketing for me.

As a result, you lose some control

What if you don't like the cover that has been designed for you by your lovely professionals? What if they ask you to change the title of your book because your one (which you're really attached to, by the way) doesn't work for them? 

What if there are clauses in the contract that make you feel very uncomfortable, but the only way you'll get published is to accept them?

By taking the traditional route, you give up a certain amount of control, which you might not be able to get back. So while it's nice that professionals will be steering the ship for you, you have to be aware of what you're letting yourself in for.

…and some money-making potential

Oh, and your royalties will be lower. A lot lower. You can earn 70% on Amazon, but you might only get 8% going the traditional route. 

Real-world percentages may vary, but it's worth thinking about. If you end up selling 100x more books going the traditional route because your marketing team got you on Richard and Judy's book club or something, then it's worth the royalty difference, surely? You become more successful than you ever could have been on your own.

But if not… Well, you could always get another job.

It's free

Unlike self-publishing, which is only free if you do it badly or know some very skilled people who owe you favours, traditional publishing really is free. 

All these experts have enough faith in your work to print it for you with their logo on it, so of course they're going to pay for the editing, the cover design, and any other up-front costs. You might be their next cash cow!

But it's incredibly difficult to get into

Have you seen all those memes people post on Facebook and Instagram in which J.K. Rowling looks smugly into the camera at some posh event, and the caption says something like, "J.K. Rowling was rejected 275 times before a publisher picked up the Harry Potter series, and now she's basically a goddess"?

While I won't deny that J.K. Rowling is cool, that's really not all that amazing a story. Everyone who tries to go the traditional route is rejected many, many times. The amazing part is if you're ever accepted at all.

I know, I know. There are some really shit books out there, published by some really big houses. I can't explain the logic of what is accepted instantly and what isn't (although I know it helps if you're a celebrity who wants to publish a shit book with your name all over it); I just know that if you're looking for a literary agent, you should expect to be rejected. And if you're going straight to publishers, you should expect to be rejected. 

I read once that literary agents accept about 1 in every 1000 submissions they're sent. How true that is, I'm not sure; but I can believe it.

And even if you're accepted, one day in the distant future, you still might not actually be published.

The chances of success are as slim as they could be, but the prizes are potentially bigger. So it's up to you whether you think the struggle is worth it.

So, to summarise…

The traditional route promises fame and fortune, and can (but won't necessarily) deliver. The only problem is getting there in the first place - it will be hard and long and you will be rejected before you're accepted. And that's only if you're good enough to ever be accepted.

This route is for people who want the bragging rights, people who have the patience to keep trying and trying for the grand prize, or people who know they can't do it on their own.

I sent a few queries to agents once. Probably about 10. I would say I heard back from about 8 of them, and only 1 of them was a personalised rejection written by a real person. It made my day, actually. She liked what I'd written, just not enough to represent it. So, y'know, even the rejections can feel good…

I'm sure no one has been wondering why I haven't posted a book review for a while. Well, worry not, because I'm going to ex...

I'm sure no one has been wondering why I haven't posted a book review for a while. Well, worry not, because I'm going to explain the reason anyway!

It's partly because I don't want to find myself writing another big long review being horribly mean to someone, only to have them stumble across it. That's not cool. It's also partly because some books aren't interesting enough to inspire a long review, and who wants a whole blog post for one mini-review?

But mostly, it's because I want to spend more time writing fiction and less time writing reviews. I've mentioned before that my writing time is precious, so I want to use it wisely.

So, from now on, I'll post a monthly roundup of books I've read, with a short review for each. I might not even do it every month, because I'm a renegade who doesn't follow anyone's rules, not even my own. Deal with it.

Let's go.

Brandon Sanderson is really cool. He has a writing course you can watch for free on YouTube, and it's great. Check it out.

But I did not enjoy this book. It was cheesy, the protagonist was boring, the attempted comedy didn't work for me at all, and the weird fake swearing ("slontze!", "sparks!") was cringeworthy.

Sorry Brandon.


I read this book in a day. That's the first time I've ever read a novel in a day.

Not that that's necessarily a comment on its quality. It was good, but not life-changing. It's just that I was on holiday and it was cloudy and there was not much better to do.

It was good though. I enjoyed it. Utterly detestable characters making thoroughly stupid decisions, which always kept the plot moving. And nice big words so you feel like you're reading a big thick book when really if they'd just used a normal font size it'd be like 100 pages shorter.


No. Just no. I mean... I can't even bring myself to write about it again. If you really want to see what I thought about it, check out my Instagram post. The TL;DR is that this book should not have been published, at least not in its current form.


The brilliant story of a bad husband and the mess he's left in when his wife goes missing on their anniversary.

I loved the film already, which ruined the book a bit because I knew what was going to happen. But still, it was gripping, and the writing is genuinely excellent. This deserves all the praise it gets, I think.

Those characters though, they're almost all despicable. That seems to be the theme for thrillers.


The fifth post in the Writing IRL series. So, you've finally done it. You've written several books (and yes, you need to wri...

The fifth post in the Writing IRL series.

So, you've finally done it. You've written several books (and yes, you need to write several - unless you're some kind of godlike genius, which you're probably not, your first book is not likely to be good enough), and your latest is the one that proves that you're ready to be A Writer. This is the one that might make a great film, that will have people desperate to give 5 star reviews, that you'd be proud to hold in your hands and tell people you wrote.

But where do you go from here? Which is the best route to take - self publishing, or traditional?

Well, in this two-part Writing IRL post, I'll be listing the ups and downs of both routes, as I see them, so that you can make an educated decision on which path you want to follow.

So, what's so special about self-publishing?

You have complete control.

When you self-publish, you have complete control over your book. You control the cover design, the release date, the title, the content, the layout, the marketing, everything.

If you're sure you know exactly what you're doing, this is a huge benefit. No one wants you to change your story, no one is taking a cut of your royalties, and everything is done on your terms.

But if you haven't the time, knowledge or desire to think of absolutely everything, then this might be a show-stopper. Can you design a brilliant cover yourself? Do you know someone who can? If not, are you willing and able to pay for one to be designed?

Have you found an editor who can turn your good writing into great writing? Have you had enough impartial feedback to know that this book is definitely ready for prime time? Have you already written a tantalising blurb and decided on the perfect keywords that will bring people to your book in the hundreds?

The answer to all of the above has to be yes. If it isn't, then perhaps it's not time to self publish, yet…

The chance of holding your finished, published book in your hands is 100%.

Going the traditional route means selling yourself and your work to agents, then to publishers, then waiting around while people read and reread and suggest changes to your book, until at some point in the future, maybe you get published. Maybe.

With self-publishing, if you've already decided your book is going to be released, there is nothing holding you back, so your book is definitely going to be published. You are going to hold it in your hands.

So if fame and fortune aren't as important to you as just getting your work out there for everyone to see, this is the way to go.

It's easy and (can be) free.

It's incredibly easy to self-publish. Some would say too easy, considering the amount of crap that gets published on Kindle. I use KDP, but there are loads of services out there, and they're all in competition to make theirs the easiest to use. So you can do it.

You also don't have to spend any money up front. With all the services I've researched, it's free to publish your book, you'll just have to pay a cut of your earnings (but you'd have to do that whichever route you took).

But because it can be easy and it can be free, that doesn't mean it's right. You still need to have your book edited by someone who knows what they're doing, even if you think your command of the English language is out of this world. There will be something you've missed, and if someone spots something big that they don't like in the first chapter of your book, they're not going to read the rest. If your best friend isn't a professional editor who'll edit your book for free, then you'll probably have to pay for that.

And then there's the cover, and the blurb, and the marketing. While these things can be free, they probably won't be if they're done right.

A real world example: I won't go into exact figures, but I spent hundreds of pounds getting Gods and Conquerors ready for publishing, and at time of writing, it hasn't made all of that money back. But I don't mind, because it's out there, I'm proud of it, and it achieved one of its purposes already.

I repeat: you're in charge of marketing.

Yes, it's good to be in control of your work, but have you really considered how you'll market the thing, when everyone in the world is trying to sell something?

Your book could be better than Pride and Prejudice, bigger than Crime and Punishment; but if no one reads it, you'll only feel Disappointment and Sadness.

You won't have a major publishing house buying ads for you. None of the big newspapers will be printing reviews of your work anytime soon. Richard and Judy are a long way from including you in their book club. So you need to be a master of social networking, or an expert on going viral, or just the most popular person in the world, to make a dent in the Amazon bestseller list.

At time of writing, I have 330 followers on Instagram and 370 on Twitter. I post to #bookstagram every day and engage other bookstagrammers like a normal person, not a spammy marketing bot. I tweet, and advertise (a little bit), and even offer free copies of Gods and Conquerors to people who will review it. I'm no marketing expert, and I know I have a lot of room to improve here; but still, I reckon only about 2% of my followers even know I'm a writer, let alone that I have a new book out.

And even though the number of copies I have sold is in the hundreds, only 6 people have reviewed it on Amazon, and 3 on Goodreads. I'm pretty sure I haven't even convinced all of my friends to buy a copy!

People are busy, and there's a lot of media out there stealing their attention. Getting them interested in your work is the hardest part, in my opinion.

But, after all that, you might get rich!

But you probably won't. Without looking it up, can you name 5 millionaires who made their money self-publishing books?

You shouldn't self-publish because you want to be rich and famous, because you probably never will be.

But you could be. It's not impossible. You just have to work very hard. When you self-publish, the power is very much in your hands.

…And that's about it.

That's all I can think of at this point. To summarise: with self-publishing, you have the potential to get a lot of readers, on your own terms, at your own pace. But to really succeed, you have to work very hard and really know what you're doing, because no one else is going to do it for you.

This is the solution for people who want to put in that work, or those who just want to be published because they love writing, and not because they need fame and fortune. If you don't fit into either of those categories, self-publishing might not be for you.

Stay tuned for part 2 next month: Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing.

If you've read my new paperback ( Gods and Conquerors ) , or if you follow me on Instagram, or if you can just read the picture abov...

If you've read my new paperback (Gods and Conquerors), or if you follow me on Instagram, or if you can just read the picture above, you'll know that I used the dedication page to propose to my girlfriend.

And before I go on: she said yes. We're happier than we've ever been. Thanks for asking.

I've had a lot of questions since then, so I thought I'd answer them in a little blog post. Saves me repeating myself, over and over and over (though I'm sure I still will anyway).

What made you think of it?

We've always bonded over our love of books - in fact, one of the (many, many) reasons Eleanor went out with me in the first place was that I got my phone out and showed her my first book on Amazon while I was doing a terrible drunken job of chatting her up - so my proposal had to be bookish. I thought about trying to get myself published the traditional way, but that would have been years away, if it ever happened at all; so I self-published, and I did it right now, because there's no better time.

How did it happen?

We've had a stressful few months with trying to move house and stuff, so it was a good excuse for me to say we needed some alone time to just have fun together. So I organised a date day, and we went up to London to see a show and eat loads of food. At one point in the day, in private in a dimly lit bar, I asked Eleanor why she hadn't asked to see the paperback yet, when she knew it had been published; and I got one out of my backpack to show her.

She definitely thought it was weird that I had brought it up out of the blue and that I'd brought one out with me, but she flicked through it anyway, saying kind things about how well it had turned out. Then she turned to the dedication page, and her jaw dropped, and there was crying and hugging and all that nice stuff. It was beautiful, I wish I'd recorded it on the sly.

I notice the dedication is only in the paperback version of the book. Is that because it's twice the price?

No! In fact, I make a lot less money from each sale of the paperback because of the cost of printing them on demand, so it would work out better for me if everyone bought the Kindle version. No, I did that because I don't have a Kindle, so the only one on which I could test the Kindle version of my book was Eleanor's. So, obviously, I had to leave it out in case she saw.

That stone is huge! How much did that cost and why are you shoving your excessive riches in all our faces you disgusting piece of shit?

Whoa, chill out, there. The engagement ring pictured is a cubic zirconia placeholder ring, because I had no hope of choosing the perfect ring for her myself. It's not a diamond, it didn't even have a three-figure price tag, and she says it's too big for her tastes anyway. So sorry everyone, but you'll have to get your outrage fix elsewhere.

Did you do it for publicity?

Well I hadn't really thought about that until I did it, and then it seemed like it might cheapen the whole thing to use it to my advantage. But Eleanor told me I should, so I gave it a go; but I'm not very good at the whole Internet fame thing. Even when I get a few more Likes than I expected, it makes me more paranoid than happy. Why are so many strangers paying attention to me? What if one of them hates me? What if...

...So yeah, I'm struggling with that. I'll try again soon, but till then, I'm fine with the attention it's brought me so far. It did the job, and got me the girl. I don't need much more than that.

On the off chance that you're reading this and you are interested, you can find out more about the book here and you can read the first chapter here

How are you going to top a gesture like that?

Sigh. I've no idea. I'm out of over-the-top romantic ideas.

SPOILER WARNING : this is a short deleted passage from Gods and Conquerors , which would have appeared at the end of the chapter entitle...

SPOILER WARNING: this is a short deleted passage from Gods and Conquerors, which would have appeared at the end of the chapter entitled "April 26th, 2124" (around location 1422 on Kindle; page 95 in the paperback). If you're reading the book and you haven't reached that point, you might not want to read on. 

So Ballard left, on a rocket bound for a planet nearly a hundred light years away. In his absence, Matilda raised a family with her new man, and had two girls named Patty and Su. The children were intelligent and very beautiful, and Matilda and her husband Francisco were natural parents. The subject of the Conqueror missions came up only thrice during the children’s childhood, when they were taught about the subject at school; and Matilda never once told them that she had married one of their heroes or that they had even met. She thought about Jon rarely, much more rarely than he would have liked to imagine, and when she did it was fleeting and without consequence. What had been such a devastating wrecking ball for him was a marble in a bag for her, as her issues were differently placed and always would be.
She and her husband retired at eighty-two and seventy-nine respectively, and moved out of London to Hastings, where they sat out the rest of their days staring out at the freezing sea and starting conversations with arty young people whom they would never see again. Her husband died at ninety-eight, from a heart attack. Matilda died two years later, 103 years old, surrounded by her children, flowers and a whole lot of love that she would have had to work too hard to earn from Jon Ballard.

So why did I delete it? Mainly because my editor told me to. But that instruction was given for good reason - we don't see Olena's life without Shelley or Tobias's life without Verne, so why should we see Matilda's after Ballard? This might have given the chapter a strong ending and tied everything up nicely, but without it the chapter still ended strong, and the story was told a bit more consistently.

So the moral of the story, I suppose, is that you should always listen to your editor. They speak sense, guys.

The following is the first chapter from my book, Gods and Conquerors , which is now available to buy on Kindle and in paperback. I hope...

The following is the first chapter from my book, Gods and Conquerors, which is now available to buy on Kindle and in paperback. I hope you enjoy it!

It was like riding the fastest roller coaster he had ever been on, falling out of the sky like that. The kind of roller coaster that has a rickety wooden frame and rusty metal bars that hammer the bones and bruise soft tissue on every bend and twist; the kind that would be better suited to a museum than a carnival. The kind that has no lighting and no end, the kind that blinds you with terror. The fall had been fast but felt like a lifetime and it had made him feel as hot as being boiled alive and he had been sure beyond sureness that he was going to die, but he refused to be taken without a fight so forced his eyes to stay open until the craft reached the ground and everything went black and all that followed was darkness and silence.
But then he had woken, alive, in a desert. And only now, three sleeps later, was the constant reliving of it in James Verne’s mind beginning to fade.
He stared out at the expanse of rock, dirt, and weeds, so incredibly immense that it appeared endless, as the star at the centre of this system crept over the horizon, drenching the desert in orange light. There was a breeze, a breeze that never seemed to become wind or to fade away completely, which was so light that only the top layer of earth – the lightest, thinnest dust on the surface of this desert – was even slightly disturbed by it; and yet, far off, through telescopic lenses, it always seemed to have enough strength to blow great dust phantoms across the landscape with little effort.
The sky, as usual, was completely clear of clouds. The orange and purple and blue went on forever, only stopping to meet the desert at the vanishing point.
Far away, not too far to see but definitely too far to make out clearly, something crawled across the floor in rodentesque scuttles, stopping here, running a little further, pausing there; but however much it seemed like it might be life, it was not. It was another pebble, another weed, another leaf, fooling the eyes, teasing the mind.
To the west, far beyond the crash site, there were mountains. A rust-coloured formation of ridges poked out of the landscape and put on a beautiful show in the morning, as the shadow of sunrise crept down their sides, gloriously revealing these intricately carved sculptures of nature inch by inch, as if a curtain had been drawn to hide them until then. But they were the only feature in a brown and orange and yellow and grey sea of nothingness, infinitely smaller but just as empty as space.
On Earth, this was the kind of place one would hope to be passing through, not ending up.
But here, the Conquerors woke, still groggy from the journey, three days after landing in one of this planet’s many skin-peeling deserts. They had been sure they would reach civilisation within two days, walking at a brisk pace, sharing the load of their supplies between them; but they had not counted on the heat, the storms, the terrain, the crippling lag of cryosleep.
Cryosleep. Waking from it was like waking from a deep slumber very suddenly, in that disorienting way in which the brain first assumes it has not been asleep at all, but is forced to rethink its theory when it cannot account for its absence in the last few hours. Cryosleep was a total void, a colourless nothingness into which the mind disintegrated, losing all hope of returning to a conscious world again; so emerging from it was like waking from anaesthesia, completely unaware that the surgeon’s knife has paid a visit until the pain returns.
Like waking from the dead.
So, none of the crew had yet adjusted to the shorter days, or the unpredictable temperature of the nights. Their weary bodies were not yet accustomed to the way this system’s star, so huge in the white-blue sky, cooked the ground the instant it rose on the horizon. They had not known how their suits would weigh them down, their muscles would seize, their throats would dry to dust every ten steps. They left the wreck of the landing craft with their supplies tied to sleds and their guns strapped to their backs, and they stepped out into the desert before they knew anything about the world they had entered.
But now, they knew too well that the world they had entered was a cruel and barren one. Their sleds were gone, taken in the night by no one knew what; their supplies were dwindling; their ship was too far away and too damaged from the crash-landing to be worth returning to; and their destination was still unknown. They knew where a city should be – the ship had mapped some, but not all, of this area before it had prematurely launched their landing craft – but no matter how far they struggled, they never seemed to reach it.
However, one redeeming fact remained: they were still Conquerors. This world, this prize so far from the reach of any other humans who had ever existed, was theirs. They had made it. And it was this fact which held their morale together, as they peeled their sweaty bodies out of their sleeping bags and began to prepare for another day of trekking.
James Verne had been awake for some time before the others rose, and had watched this system’s sun peek over the horizon from atop a boulder a short walk away from the camp, his overalls unzipped to the waist and his huge feet resting on top of his discarded boots, enjoying the only cool air the day would offer. He now sat cleaning and inspecting his gun, his large, thick, calloused hands working over the body of the automatic rifle with the delicacy and precision of a brain surgeon. The concentration he devoted to the task was more religious than practical; the cleaning of the weapon and the deconstruction and reconstruction of all of its parts, just to check once again that they were all healthy and in full working order should they ever be needed, more meditation than precaution. A daily deconstruction and reconstruction of himself, to check he was all working.
After the inspection – the ritual – was complete, Verne slid his feet into his boots and walked back toward the camp, to find the group sitting in a triangle, heads hung in hangover emulation, slurping hyper-nutritious gruel from foil sachets. Movements sheepish and gazes lowered, shaven apes cowering from the blows of a cruel, invisible master. Verne smirked upon the scene as he cast his long, broad shadow across it, and for a while, none could even find the energy or the will to look up and acknowledge his smug grin.
Jon Ballard, the Brit, rubbed his eyes with his dry, chapped palms before pausing to examine the cuts and sores that plagued the dark skin on the backs of his hands, each one filled with stinging desert dust because he had forgotten to dress them. Stella Kojima, the tall, skinny mission commander who had expressed a reluctance to actually do any commanding now that they had arrived and were eight light years away from Mission Control, was already climbing out of her sleeping bag, stretching her body and cracking her spine. Wednesday Shelley, the youngest of the crew, was always happiest to be awake, and when she noticed Verne standing over her she gave a wide smile and held a sachet up for him to take, squinting at him in the sunlight. Verne ripped the top off the packet and gulped it down in one movement, crushing the thing in his shovel hand and mounting his heavy rucksack on his back.
‘Let’s move out,’ he said, half to himself, as he began to march away from camp.

They had been walking for an hour when they found the bones. There were two broken long bones, thick and beastly, snapped into spikes with their other halves missing; a curved piece of a flat bone, much like part of a skull, also broken into a jagged ashtray shape on the desert floor; and a section of what appeared to be a ribcage, half buried in sand and giving the impression that the complete chest would be bigger than any the crew had ever seen. The entire display lay strewn across an area of a few square metres, next to a dry desert shrub that stood impossibly still in the breeze, as if making an effort not to incriminate itself in the creature’s murder.
Shelley dropped everything and ran to the remains, forgetting her aching muscles and unbearable body temperature and tapping her temple to engage the camera mode of her implant.
‘Amazing,’ she whispered, the twitch of her finger against her temple a constant accompaniment to her wonder. Kneeling, twisting her head this way and then that way and then this way once more, she took tens of photographs each second, trying to capture every angle of the scene as quickly as she possibly could. She looked like a woman crazed by scenes of death. A crash-site groupie, obsessed with chalk outlines.
Verne graced the bones with only a short glance, before going back to scanning the horizon.
Jon Ballard put his rucksack on the ground and joined Shelley in her close-up examination of the bones. Unlike Shelley, he seemed unsure of what to do with their discovery – he knelt on the floor and stared at each bone in turn, his mouth gaping and his eyes wide as wells, but he took no action to capture the moment. After a while, he reached out to touch one of the ribs, and received a sharp slap to the back of his hand.
‘Don’t touch it,’ Shelley snapped, shooting yet another angle of the display from over his shoulder.
Kojima took the chance to rest her legs, placing her rucksack on the floor and sitting on top of it and pulling out a tiny bottle of synthesised water with which to moisten her tongue. She rolled her eyes at the desert ahead of them as if to ask it what the fuss was about, and then she sat staring out at it in silence.
Shelley was now scraping a sample of matter from each bone and placing the samples inside sealed plastic containers. ‘When the computer is repaired,’ she mumbled, mostly to herself, ‘we can analyse these.’
She had mentioned repairing the computer several times since the crew had arrived, but none of the other crew members were so sure that it would ever come to be. The computer had malfunctioned well before the crash had damaged it, that much was certain – it had initiated their waking from cryosleep when it was already in this planet’s orbit, when it should have woken them days earlier; and just hours later, without having fully mapped the terrain below or provided the crew with logs to review or even any kind of information on why it was doing so, it announced that it was preparing their landing craft for launch and that this launch was in emergency mode and could not be overridden. They had been forced to rush through their checks and preparations and strap themselves in, feeling flustered and panicked, and then they had been ejected into the atmosphere of this planet to find that the computer’s miscalculation of the distance to the ground and location of a safe landing site had hurled them into a crash course with hard ground and hot fire that could have left them just as damaged as the computer. Only a few small parts of it – the storage, a couple of sensors, a portable scanning unit – remained, and they sat useless, dented and scratched in Shelley’s bag, waiting for someone with the know-how and will to save them and find out what had happened.
Being a computer scientist by trade, Ballard could probably have done it on Earth, but where he would find the tools and the power and the resources to do so on this planet was anyone’s guess. Verne would not have known where to start. It was unclear whether Kojima cared if the computer was saved or not – when asked, she seemed to have no opinion whether it should be brought with them or left behind in the wreckage.
Either because he forgot his previous instruction or because he thought it no longer applied, Ballard reached out once again to lift one of the long bones, curious to feel its weight in his hand. But again, Shelley’s hand hit his away.
‘I said don’t touch,’ she hissed, ‘you’ll contaminate it. Besides, we don’t know why it’s here or how it died. Treat this like a crime scene.’
Ballard laughed nervously. Had the crew been given more time to get to know each other before they departed, he might have known that she was at most only half serious, and would not have felt so embarrassed. But he did not know this, so he sat feeling scolded and meek, like a child on the naughty step, while Shelley continued to scrape bone matter into her tubes.
‘We should move on,’ said Kojima, receiving an agreeing nod from Verne; so Shelley stood and closed her eyes tightly, sliding her finger along her temple, cycling through a slideshow behind her eyelids of the photographs she had taken. Satisfied that she had captured the scene sufficiently, she swiped down her skin to close the camera and opened her eyes once again. She added the vials she had just filled to the collection in her rucksack and followed excitedly, her slim legs skipping with the glee of finding something in this endless desert that was not just a rock or a weed.
When the rest began to walk on, Ballard was still kneeling by the bones. Before he stood to catch up, he picked up the skull-bone ashtray and slid the tips of his fingers over its surface, feeling its flawless smoothness, taking it in like a blind man might take in words embossed into paper. The bone had so much history, such a story to tell; and now it was his. He shoved it into one of the many side pockets of his backpack, and followed the team east.

Before evening had arrived, another storm began. They had survived two since they arrived, one bad, one not so bad; and both times, they could never have predicted it. Sun and clear skies gave way in an instant to a wall of hot, blowing sand stretched from floor to sky as far as the eye could see, and this wall tore through the landscape, scratching the face and hands and threatening to rip out the eyeballs and take them on its merry way. Not there, and then there in a second, and then an hour or so later not there again, like a natural marauder storming through desert villages. On and then off, like a switch. During the first storm, the bad one, they had still had their sleds, so they built a makeshift wall of defence behind which to shield themselves. The second, not so bad, they had slept through, and woken to find their sleeping bags filled with sand, dried leaves and sweat.
But this one looked like it might become worse than the worst that they had seen. The sand was coarser, its speed greater, its rage fiercer. The roar of it was deafening. They had been looking north at a large building that stood alone in the vast desert, wondering if they should expend energy trying to reach it when from here it just looked like ruins; and out of nowhere, before any of them had even had time to point at it on the horizon, the storm had been on them, around them, against them, trying its hardest to get inside them; and then they were running against it, trying to reach shelter, somewhere to rest and not drown in dust and sand.
Running, running, as close to running as they could get, each of them holding on to the closest body, a human chain shielding its eyes and forever pushing forward, forward, forward, they searched for a wall, a crevice, a rock to hide behind. One arm held against their foreheads, one holding on to the person in front, they followed Verne into the stream of hot dust, yelling instructions to each other, suggestions, directions, anything, and none were heard above the scream of the storm. Ghosts in the boiling blizzard, barely touching the ground as they howled toward safety.
Safety was a crack in the ground, twenty feet long and three feet wide, partially covered by a boulder the size of a minibus.
Verne stood at the mouth of that crevice, ushering them in, as the others climbed one by one into its darkness, allowing themselves to be swallowed by that rocky womb, dropping to the hard floor below where the storm above was just a gushing roar like a furious waterfall and a soft trickle of dirt down the walls within. Once inside the gap, so much more spacious underground than it appeared on the surface, the crew fell to their knees or buttocks, panting and thanking their gods or luck or nature for saving them. Verne stood with his hands on his knees for a long time, staring at the floor, seeming comatose, before sitting on a jut out of the stone wall and setting about emptying his rucksack of items and dust and then refilling it.
Shelley seemed to be taking the storm personally, huffing and puffing as she brushed the grey coating off her skin and clothes as if it had all been sent to inconvenience her. ‘I am fuckin’ sick of this desert,’ she said, her Australian accent thickening with frustration.
Kojima smiled darkly and said, ‘Well, if it keeps going like this, we’ll be leaving it soon, and meeting up in the afterlife instead.’
Ballard considered the possibility that they might die here, and was filled with a feeling of dread like none he had ever felt before.
Shelley smiled too. ‘Bullshit,’ she said, ‘we’ll find the city tomorrow. I’d put money on it.’
‘Your money is no good to me here.’
Shelley laughed. ‘Good point,’ she said. Her eyes were closed, her finger swiping across her temple.

That night, Verne woke alert, as if satisfied by the sleep he’d had, and after his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he watched a great long arm reach down into the crevice from above. It had fingers like yardsticks and an elbow as thick as a mechanical digger’s, and the entire arm was covered in a thin, black, matted fur. Its claws scratching the air, unable to grasp anything below, the owner withdrew, held its face to the crack, shone its deep black eyes like polished coal into the mouth of the Conquerors’ cave. The storm raged on, battering the creature at gale force with red-hot rock, but the hairy thing remained unfazed, eyeing the visitors to its land like it might be curious to find out how their skin would tear. Verne slowly, silently reached for his gun and raised it to point at the mouth of the cave as the animal stood on its hind legs, and from what Verne could see at this angle, it was ten feet tall and built bigger than five polar bears.
A chest the size of those ribs that lay half buried not five miles gone. A skull as thick as that cranium.
James Verne’s finger rested on the trigger of his gun, ready to bring this alien species one specimen closer to extinction, and the animal watched him do it without seeming to care. It stared down the barrel for a few seconds, most likely trying to work out what exactly it was looking at; but before it had reached a conclusion, its head jerked off to its right, suddenly alarmed, and then it was gone, bounding off in a huge stride that took it away so fast that it seemed as if it had dissolved into the sandstorm.
And then Verne was waking again, to find that his gun was still exactly where he had left it before he fell asleep, propped against the wall of the cave.

When the crew emerged from the crack in the ground the next morning, the sky and the land around them were so serene that one would seem insane suggesting that a storm had ever hit. Shelley stood in the sun, stretching her aching body, craning this way and that, looking up at the white-blue sky and sighing softly, as Ballard and Kojima climbed out in silence, heads hanging low with great post-storm exhaustion. Verne inspected his weapon, his face wearing the deep frown that his disturbing dream of giant monsters had plastered there. The crew wandered in spirographic patterns separately, aimlessly, for some time, looking like cats sniffing for food, licking their wounds, seeking warm spots in which to sit and not move again for the rest of the day.
‘Well,’ called Kojima over the implants, after a while, from behind the jagged boulder that topped the crack the crew had slept in, ‘I’ve found something you’ll all want to see.’
Joining her on the other side of the huge rock, the crew saw what looked like a half-buried, ill-maintained, but undoubtedly real road, which stretched for miles from this spot, the thick black snake of its form sneaking all the way to the brow of a hill in the distance, where it disappeared into a maze of large rocks that lined the horizon. The crack in which they had slept had been a central reservation in this motorway, before it had collapsed into the ground; and the boulder that covered it was a collection of whichever rock this civilisation had used to build the surface, bunched into a jagged lump as if a giant had squeezed the road like pastry and torn off the rest of it. Beyond the crack, back in the direction from which they had come, there was no road. Just grey and brown and red dirt. Shrubs and dirt and rocks, as far as the implant could capture.
They had found signs of civilisation scattered in the desert already. A scrap of woven fabric here, a broken pipe or severed wire there. Most remarkably, that building in the distance, big as an aeroplane hangar, the memory of which was now almost completely washed away by the drama of the dust storm. But those discoveries had all led nowhere. Roads, on the other hand, always led somewhere. To cities, life, society.
Shelley considered crying, but instead engaged her implant to record the sight. Ballard just stared, grinning. Kojima and Verne, with no time for this sentimentality, started walking toward the horizon.
Suddenly, things did not seem so hopeless. They were here at last, here as they had intended to be, and not here as God’s unwanted children, left to die in an alien desert. A black carpet had been laid, and this disused road would be their victory mile, leading them up to the civilisation they had come to visit, come to integrate into, come to experience like no other man could. The trivia of Earth, with its birth certificates and road tax and warring nations and beach towels and organised religion and homophobia and carpentry and adultery and financial markets and virtual reality and bukkake and insurance and gender inequality and Lou Gehrig’s disease and every other little thing, suddenly seemed so far below them; for now, more than ever, they were Conquerors, and all the infinite wonders of this world were just one road away.

It was forty-six degrees in the shade, and the road was long. Whatever it had once been topped with had melted away in the heat of a myriad of middays, and what was left behind was an uneven, rocky surface as dry and sharp as the heat that burned into their soaked foreheads; but the crew did not tire. They walked on, slowly, with purpose, sipping water from their synthesisers as fast as it could be created, forever soldiering on toward that hill on the horizon, over which they could already smell, but not yet see, civilisation.
Walking until it felt like they were being cooked in their clothing, potatoes in an oven, legs like lead.
Pushing on because the prize was in reach, over a hill, past some rocks, and all would be revealed today. Not tomorrow, and not at some unknown point in the distant future, but today.
When it was revealed, the brow of the hill and the rock formations that sat atop it conspired to reveal the visitors’ prize in stages. First, through a small gap in the top of the wall of stone that surrounded their path, came the tips and tops of buildings. Black and grey and midnight blue spires, wonky points and jagged corners, the dead-straight tops of flat roofs. Touching the sky with their immense height, lifting the spirits with their presence. Then, as a twist in the road left a foot-wide gap in the rocks through which their path snaked, smoke, and rising dust. Smog. Signs of life and activity, pollution and energy. All the ugliness of civilisation, so beautiful to the Conquerors who feared they would never see it again.
Next, as the road turned sharply and the boulders to their right were passed by, the edge of the city exposed itself to them, revealing sprawling suburbs. Smaller buildings, houses, bungalows, huts, as far as one could make out. The city was huge, spread like a quilt over a seventy- or eighty-mile plot. The grid of roads cut lines through the tiny roofs and vehicles and landmarks and who knew what else, all of those just dots from where the Conquerors walked, all patiently waiting for their arrival.
And finally, as they passed the final rock, the huge boulder which sat atop the hill and had, so far, obstructed their view of the city centre and the rest of the suburbs that surrounded it, the last marabou fan was lifted, and the sickening truth was revealed.
The buildings of which they had seen the tops were crumbling, falling, some of them tipping at odd angles and seemingly just waiting for a light wind to come and blow them the rest of the way to the ground. The dust they had seen was rising from buildings which had collapsed, which were collapsing, kicking up earth that would never settle until the city was a heap of dirt and gone forever. The smoke that they thought was man’s red fire was really God’s black death, rising from the windows of skyscrapers and the wrecks of vehicles and the back yards of suburban homes and drifting into the sky, unseen by any but the Conquerors and of no concern to any who had ever lived here. The towers that still stood were so covered in climbing plant life that they appeared to be great trees, grown hundreds of times bigger than they should have been. Though clearly once inhabited, this place no longer seemed inhabitable. The desolation of what looked to have once been a very large capital stretched as far as light could travel.
Civilisation had left this city decades, if not centuries, ago.
‘No,’ said Ballard, his throat tight, his stomach somewhere near his ankles.
Verne stood silent, expressionless, without movement.
‘I’m sorry,’ Kojima said, sitting on her rucksack once again and placing her hands on her knees and hanging her head as if she bore the blame for the wasteland they had found. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Shelley sank to her knees, and then to her buttocks, and wept on the hot ground.