How I Write: Charles Stross

Ahead of the publication of Dark State, the second book in the Empire Games Trilogy, Charles Stross shares his writing process. 

The second book in Charles Stross’s epic Empire Games trilogyDark State, publishes on 11th January 2018. Here, Charles shares his writing process.

Discover our edit of the best sci-fi books here. 

When people use the word "writing" a rich seam of associations spring to mind: fountain pen nibs scratching across the pages of a bound notebook, piles of manuscript pages, writers thoughtfully chewing on the end of their writing implements . . . 

Nope, that's not how I roll.

Roughly thirty books and twenty years into a writing career, I'm sitting in front of a computer, because my penmanship was always terrible, and in middle age has deteriorated to the point where I can barely write an address on an envelope. The computer has the brightest, sharpest screen I can get, because my middle aged eyeballs have also deteriorated, and it's hard to get them replaced. And it's plugged into multiple backup hard drives and an off-site cloud storage system, so that if a meteor strike takes out my office I'll still have my work. ("The dog ate my homework" isn't an acceptable excuse when you're over 50 and the homework in question has to be turned in on time if you're going to be paid next year.)

The computer is perched on the desk of a folding writing bureau of obscure Scandinavian design that I found in a charity shop in Watford in 1993. It's really designed for pen and paper, or maybe a manual typewriter, but I've been using it for a quarter of a century and have become attached to it, unlike any particular computer. It has innumerable niches for storing envelopes and stationery, which have gradually filled up with writers' kipple: old spectacles in their cases, bizarre obsolete memory cards, rolls of duct tape, flashlights for peering into dark and dusty niches, packets of pocket tissues (it's winter: the cold season), mugs full of pens, throat lozenges, and discarded five-year-old mobile phones. I make no excuses: I'm just terribly lazy about cleaning my desk. (Back when I worked in an office cubicle, cleaning my desk attracted management attention -- was I about to leave for a new job?) I pay more attention to my office chairs, because bad posture tends to trigger repetitive strain injuries. I currently have a Herman Miller Aeron chair (bought second-hand from a failed start-up because unlike start-ups with venture capital backing, my pockets are not lined with gold).

Confession: I'm a Macintosh user, but not for the usual reasons. I'm also a refugee from the software biz, and a long-time UNIX nerd, although I'm getting very rusty these days. Macintoshes are the last real UNIX workstations on the market, and I've never got on with VAX/VMS (the old-school minicomputer operating system modern Windows is descended from).

I'm also a confirmed hater on Microsoft Word, which the entire publishing industry expects me to work with. Word tries to be all things to all users, but mostly insists on helping you write your homework essays or a marketing memo. For books, it's not so great. Instead, I write my books using a program called Scrivener, which is a tool specifically designed for writing big, complex, structured documents like novels or doctoral theses, letting you keep track of all your research and view and edit your book using a variety of tools, from a cards-on-a-corkboard metaphor to an outline view to a classic word processor. (My new novel Dark State was written in Scrivener, along with the three books preceding it in the Merchant Princes/Empire Games series.)

Finally, process? I have sad news for you: I have no set process, either daily or at project level! Some books demand a lot of advanced outlining. Others start with a couple of key scenes in my imagination and an ensemble of characters I'm familiar with, and I sort of fumble my way between insights. And some start with me staring furiously at a blank screen wondering what's going to come tumbling out of my fingertips. As for my daily routine? I try to remember to take two days off work per week for R&R, otherwise I go stale. And I try to go swimming at least three times a week, otherwise I slowly slump into a couch potato. Beyond that ... sit down at the computer every mid-morning, read and reply to email, check my blog comments, read the news headlines until I'm too nauseated to surf the internet anymore: then switch virtual desktops, edit whatever I wrote the previous day, and start adding to it. Writing a book is like walking across an uncharted continent: you do it one step -- or word -- at a time, drawing a map as you go, and you'll only know you've gotten to the end when you see the ocean in front of you.

Dark State

by Charles Stross

Book cover for Dark State

Dark State is the second book in the thrilling Empire Games series – set in the same world as Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes series. Dark State publishes on 11th January 2018.