The Magician's First Fumble

And here it is, my second newsletter. It’s in three sections:

1. Artificial Wisdom Publication Updates

Advance reader copies, audiobook narration… it’s all happening.

2. The Writing Mindset

How I wish I’d learned the writer’s mentality on drafts earlier in my professional career.

3. What I’m reading & watching

And what I’ve learned about exposition and dialogue as a result.

Artificial Wisdom Publication Updates

I’m finally holding the advance hardback copy in my hands, and honestly it doesn’t matter how many times I look at the cover, I fall in love with it all over again.

The inside needs work though: the font is, perhaps, 2pt too big, the top spacing not perfect, and I’m going to change grade of paper for the final hardback. It’s these little details to sweat in the final stages.

Audiobook-wise, I’m beyond thrilled to announce that the audiobook narrator of Artificial Wisdom will be the incredible Steven Pacey.

Steven Pacey, narrator extraordinaire

Steven was always my first choice of narrator. I discovered him, as so many have, as the narrator of Joe Abercrombie's wonderful First Law series, but found he'd also narrated my favourite James Herbert novel (The Ghosts of Sleath), Frederick Forsyth, JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun, Martin Amis, Ian Rankin, Ian McEwan, Andy McNab and so many other fantastic writers.

There was a moment, listening to Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, when I found myself gobsmacked by what he'd achieved: Steven had voiced one character, Glokta, with a lisp, due to his missing teeth... but then voiced his internal monologue — how he'd hear himself in his own head — without the lisp. The attention to detail shown in that one small part of his work has, frankly, ruined other audiobook narrators for me.

But don't take my word for how good he is. He has a fan base online bigger than some of the authors he narrates for:

"I've listened to hundreds of audiobooks and Pacey is by far the best. There's others that are really good and I rate them as 5 stars... but seriously, no one compares to Pacey."

Redditor u/pinkeskimo

"I've listened a lot of different narrators and Pacey is still on the top of the list for me... Most narrators have some good traits but Pacey seems to combine all of them and that's rare."

Redditor u/Mursu42

"F**k Steven Pacey. The man has ruined audiobooks for me. Every new audiobook I listen to I end up constantly thinking, 'This author can't do accents. Every character sounds the same. This would be better if Steven Pacey was reading it.'"

Redditor u/Loftyambitions5678

I got to meet Steven a few weeks ago and go through the manuscript in depth with him, and I can't wait to hear him bring characters to life that, to date, have only been heard in my head. We got slightly delayed due a studio tech malfunction, but are on track now for recording to start tomorrow.

Everything else now is focussed on pre-launch reviews. The book is out on Netgalley, an advance reviewer site, and we’re pushing it hard. My personal aim is to get to 1,000 reviews by a month after the official launch. It turns out actually reading reviews is harder than I thought it would be. My very first review said a lot of very nice things, and a couple of very tough things. And of course, you focus on the tough things, even though you know it’s all subjective, and not everybody will like every character. I’ve decided to stop reading them review by review and wait until I have a cluster of them.

The Writing Mindset - The First Draft

A classic mistake new writers make it to try and write the perfect first draft. It means they spend a long time crafting each sentence and paragraph as it comes or editing and changing as they go. This is a very hard way of writing a novel, since breaking empty space on a page is the hardest bit. The best advice my writing coach gave me is something I now which I’d known and applied all over my professional career: write a bad first draft. The true magic comes in the redrafting. It’s much easier to see the shape of things when you already have text on a page.

In my last newsletter I talked about Ian Fleming, writer of Bond, and his “lock-yourself-in-a-hotel” approach to writing books.

He used to plough through:

If you once look back, you are lost... If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain... I don't even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished."

Ian Fleming

For Fleming, the first draft is supposed to capture ideas and tone, not perfect prose. On writing Casino Royale, the author reflected:

"I rewrote nothing and made no corrections until my book was finished. If I had looked back at what I had written the day before I might have despaired at the mistakes in grammar and style, the repetitions and the crudities. And I obstinately closed my mind to self-mockery and “what will my friends say?” I savagely hammered on until the proud day when the last page was done."

Ian Fleming

Here’s my personal favourite writing advice on this:

People tend to equate speed with rushing, and equate rushing with shoddy work. My grandfather told me that any job worth doing is worth taking the time to do right. The whole idea that fast and good are mutually exclusive is embedded deeply in the modern world's psyche, especially among creative people. It's the pesky Puritan Work Ethic rearing its obnoxious head. If someone wants to prove how good and honorable a pursuit is, one of the most common things they'll do is to explain how long they slaved over it.

We disagree. Vehemently. In our opinions, slow is the domain of the internal critic, whereas fast is the domain of pure creativity. When you go slow, you're allowing yourself to focus on phrasing and grammar and possibly even theme. The first draft is an absolutely horrible time to focus on any of those things, and giving your critcal mind quiet space to ask whether you're doing good work or hack work is a mistake.

Keep telling the story and telling the story. Don't stop to think. Vomit onto that keyboard. Keep things moving. Don't worry about getting it right. Go faster. Faster. Faster. Writing fast helps you to capture your most natural voice. Done well, it also leaves you with copy that's easy to edit. Manipulating your thoughts into elegant prose takes a long time. Capturing unedited thoughts as they fly through your mind, however, can yield clean, concise copy, with clarity and voice.

Sean Platt and Johnny Truant, Write, Publish, Repeat

Now, I always try and create an imperfect first draft when I work on anything, including this newsletter, which took one draft to shape and one to polish.

I’m currently working on a new stealth tech project with my former co-founder and friend, Chris. We used exactly this mentality to build a rough prototype of an app. We very quickly saw it wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but it gave us the shape of something to manipulate and refine until we reached something much better.

You’ll never see that first draft. The magician polishes their tricks until it seems like magic. You’ll never see thire first fumble. It will seem like it’s always been that way. But it had to start with something rough, not something perfect. And that’s the value of the first draft.

What I’m Reading: Gardens of the Moon & What I’ve Learned

I’m currently re-reading the kind of book I struggle to recommend to anyone. Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson, is the kind of fantasy only people really comfortable with fantasy novels should read. The kind of people who roll with the odd misplaced apostrophe in the middle of a character name, like K’rathkrh’iss or something instead of Bob and Joe. Who are totally chill with learning the names of multiple races of long dead ancient people and their associated magic systems. Who nod knowingly when someone names their sword. It took me several goes over many years to get through it but when I did, the reward was huge.

So why am I reading it? Or, more to the point, re-reading it?

This book is a masterpiece when it comes to exposition, or rather the lack of it. Here’s my exposition primer for those that have no clue what I’m talking about.

Bob: I don’t get it.

Joe: Get what?

Bob: Exposition. Isn’t that when a character gets kicked out a manuscript for being too boring?

Joe: Look, you know how, in almost any average TV show episode, there’s a scene where all the characters gather round and one of them is confused as to what’s happening?

Bob: Not in The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. That show is sharp.

Joe: Fine, but we’re talking your average TV show here. Can you picture that?

Bob: Of course. There’s always a scene like that.

Joe: So the other characters explain it to the, right? And in doing so, you finally understand what’s going on too?

Bob, looking around with a shiver: I just had a weird feeling, like deja-vu.

K’rathkrh’iss: Me too.

Joe, sighing: Look, it’s just a storytelling device for explaining backstory to the audience, usually by the character thinking something or saying something to someone else. It can be done subtly or like a hammer through the audience’s skills. You see?

K’rathkrh’iss: this reminds me of when I got my new sword, B’lok’imar. I was coming home one day, when…

My favourite exposition pairing is Josh and Donna in The West Wing. Every episode, it seems, Donna harangues Josh as they walk and talk on why exactly they should care about the policy of the day. And Josh despairingly explains it to her - and in doing so, the audience.

Erikson’s debut is famously hard in fantasy circles because it eschews exposition completely. The characters all know what’s going on, and you don’t. There is no attempt to explain it to you. You’ll take five books to understand exactly what the weird magic system really is. To make matters worse, you’re thrown into the middle of a war and a convoluted plot with no idea as to who is who and how a bunch of seemingly powerful people just got wiped out and why everyone is so suspicious about it.

But here’s the thing. Writing feels magical when the author forces the reader to put the pieces of the puzzle together in their own mind. When they do, they get a lovely little dopamine hit. Spoonfeed the reader, and you don’t get that. Erikson shows just how far you can push this. You need to work really hard, but the payoff is then much greater when you work out almost anything. You feel almost as smart as the characters.

Here’s a great extract that maybe shows you what I mean:

The door flew open, carrying into the room a gust of steamy air and then Trotts. His coal-dark eyes met the sergeant's.

Whiskeyjack stood quickly. He went to the bed and retrieved his sword. At the table the others remained intent on their card game, their only betrayal of anxiety a subtle shifting of chairs. Whiskeyjack pushed past Trotts and closed the door to a crack, through which he looked. Across the street, at the mouth of an alley, two figures crouched, the larger leaning heavily against the other. Whiskeyjack's breath hissed through his teeth. “Mallet”; he said over his shoulder.

At the table the healer frowned at the two saboteurs, then carefully set down his cards.

The two figures in the alley crossed the street. Whiskeyjack's hand crept to grip his sword.

“Which?” Mallet asked, as he rearranged the blankets on one of the beds.

“Kalam,” the sergeant replied. The two men reached the door and he swung it wide to let them through, then shut it again. He beckoned at Trotts, who walked over to the curtained window, pulling back a corner to watch the street.

Kalam was pale, sagging against Quick Ben. The assassin's dark grey shirt was soaked with blood. Mallet moved to help the wizard and together they carried Kalam to the bed. As soon as the healer had him laid out, he waved Quick Ben away and began removing Kalam's shirt.

Quick Ben shook his head at Whiskeyjack and sat down in the chair Mallet had occupied.

“What's the game?” he asked, picking up Mallet's cards and frowning as he studied them.

Neither Hedge nor Fiddler replied.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson

There’s no attempt there, in Whiskeyjack’s internal monologue, to tell you what’s going on. Erikson could have said:

“Whiskeyjack stood quickly. Trotts’ arrival could only mean news of Quick Ben and Kalam.”

Whiskeyjack also could have said more explicitly what was going on:

“Mallet,” he said to the healer over his shoulder. “They’re back. Get the kit.”

The healer jumped up. “One of them is injured?”

“Kalam,” the sergeant replied.

But you get none of that, and the book is so much richer for it, so much smarter for it… but so much harder for it.

In my early drafts of Artificial Wisdom, I tried to explain as little as possible. I had one editor along the way who really made me spoonfeed readers, arguing that it made it accessible for all. But I soon realised the book was much poorer for it, and I ended up dialling it back. A little, but not too much, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. But still a small spoonful, after all. Because we want that dopamine hit.

What I’m Watching: The Marvellous Mrs Maisal

We’ve just finished the final season of the wonderful, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, on Amazon Prime. This is the show with the sharpest, wittiest dialogue I’ve seen since The West Wing. The responses are beautifully oblique: ie they rarely directly answer what was said before.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful bit of dialogue from the pilot. Joel, Midge’s husband, has just bombed on stage as a comedian, and, as you do after such situations, is leaving his wife as a result. Look at how acute this dialogue is. When he tells her he’s not happy, she doesn’t ask why. She tells him: “no-one’s happy.” And check out her first response to being told he’s leaving her. Again, it’s not why? It’s far more interesting.

Midge, now in her nightgown, hair and make-up still evening perfect, comes out of the bathroom. She sees something and stops in her tracks.

What are you doing?

Joel is stuffing clothes into a suitcase on the bed. He looks at her and stops.

I have to go.

Midge stares at him confused.

I have to leave.

Midge stares at him still confused.

You. I have to leave you.

That’s my suitcase.

It is?

You’re leaving me with my suitcase?

Joel looks at the floor.


But... tomorrow’s Yom Kippur.

(he doesn’t answer)



I’m... I’m not happy.

No one’s happy. It’s Yom Kippur.

I don’t know how to do this. I’m not good at things like this.

Things like what? Like leaving me?



Well, then don’t. Practice a little. Do it later when you’re more confident about the moves.





Joel... the rabbi’s coming.


I know he is.

Five years we’ve been trying to get the Rabbi. This year, we got him. We got the Rabbi!


I should go.

No. Please. I don’t understand.

I thought my life was going to be something different. I thought I was going to be someone different. But tonight was just so terrible... I mean, a room full of people just watching me bomb...

It was one stupid night...

And I’m up there dying and I’m thinking about last week. We’re in Temple and the Rabbi tells that stupid Sodom and Gomorrah joke and suddenly the whole synagogue goes nuts.



He got more laughs in five minutes than I did in five months.

You’re jealous of the Rabbi? He was in Buchenwald! Throw him a bone!

Did you ever think you were supposed to be something and then you suddenly realized you’re not?

Yes. Married.

The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, by Amy Sherman-Palladino