Zoo City

I’ve got a lot of unread books on my Kindle. It’s just too easy to buy them. Whenever I come across something interesting on the web, and it’s on the Kindle and not too expensive, I end up buying it. So when I finally finished Aegypt (which will be the subject of another post) I decided to read one of the unread ones sitting enticingly in my home screen.

Unfortunately I didn’t like many of them. I started three or four, and just gave up after a few pages. Some self-published books are that way for a reason, I found. One book had about three pages of exposition and back-story before anything happened. And all of this detail seemed to have been lifted straight out of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Others just dumped me into an incomprehensible world of weird names and unfathomable things, with no hint that it would be worth making the effort to understand. So it was a great relief to finally start reading Zoo City.

This is the Arthur C Clarke award-winning novel by Lauren Beukes, a South African writer. Now if you think great SF can’t take place in South Africa, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the District 9s of the world. And like that movie, Zoo City has the gritty authenticity of life in South Africa. I can vouch for this, because I lived in Johannesburg for most of my life. And I felt like I was back there.

The story is told in the first person, hard-boiled noire style, with all of the laconic wit that one could hope for. Beukes has an outstanding way with similes, absolutely nailing the descriptions with acute observations. First-person is hard to pull off, but the heroine’s voice is utterly believable and compelling.

The conceit is clever: in an alternative reality, some people have developed a psychic connection to a particular animal, something like the familiars in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. This endows them with a specific sort of magical power. Zinzi, the heroine, has a Sloth that gives her the ability to find lost things. But in using this gift she becomes entangled in a murder...

This book is available in paperback and Kindle versions. At time of writing it’s cheaper on the Kindle.

How I Write

I’ve always wanted to write. I was one of those kids who loved to read. I remember when I first learned to read, I would go to the school library at first break, take out a book, read it in the break, and then go back at second break to get another book. I read everything I could lay my hands on. So I naturally wanted to be one of those amazing people who wrote the books that I loved. But for a long time I didn’t think I could do it.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was waiting for someone or something to come along and say, “Now you can be a writer.” Or I was waiting for inspiration to strike. Or for the time to do it.

I dabbled with writing at times, writing a short story, or a screenplay. But there was always this sense of uncertainty. It’s almost as if I wanted a guarantee of success before I put in what I imagined to be the enormous effort required to write a book. I was scared by all the stories of rejection after rejection. I was too focused on the external result.

But finally, late last year, I decided that if I was ever going to write something, I just needed to do it. There was never going to be a perfect time, I was never going to have the luxury of the perfect writing space, with lots of free time in which to do it. Now is all I have, but it’s enough.

I decided to write every day, and to use the one, consistent chunk of free time that I had every day, my morning commute on the train. I have to spend more than an hour commuting each way, every day, time which I usually spend reading, but I realised it would be great to use it for writing too.

The only question was how. I thought of using my little netbook, and even experimented with it a bit, but its short battery life and tiny keys were frustrating. Also, typing on a keyboard held in your lap is really uncomfortable. Your wrists are bent too much. And there aren’t any tables on my train.

Balancing the computer on a bag on my knees worked better, but it still wasn’t great. I also didn’t like the attention I felt that someone working on a laptop got from the other commuters.

So I decided to try to write on my iPhone. I’ve had an account with the amazing Dropbox service for some time now. Dropbox lets you back up your files online, and also share them across computers and devices like iPhones, keeping everything synchronised automatically. I knew there were some apps that use Dropbox to save their files - I needed an easy way to get my stuff off the iPhone, and I’m also paranoid about backup.

I tried a few apps before settling on Elements. It uses a special subfolder of your Dropbox account, and you can create subfolders and text files very easily. So I started to write Aeropolis. I already had an outline on index cards, so I simply started with card one, created a new document, and wrote.

I’ve had my iPhone for many years now; in fact my current iPhone 4 is my second one, I had one of the original, first-gen iPhones first. So I’m very used to the soft keyboard. It does take a couple of days to get used to, but once you are used to it, it’s pretty nice. Obviously I cannot type on it nearly as fast as I could with a “proper” keyboard, but holding the iPhone in my hands on the train is a comfortable thing to do, and I’m not copy-typing anyway; I’m thinking up what to write as I do it, so if it takes slightly longer to actually type, it’s not a big problem.

I listen to music on the iPhone as I write, to block out anyone who is talking on the train. Some days I can write to anything but other days I prefer classical or electronic music with no lyrics.

I wrote Aeropolis in a number of small documents, usually starting a new document when I started on a new index card from my outlining. There were a number of reasons for this: I didn’t want to have to scroll down to the bottom of a long document each morning to start writing, and I was also concerned about backup. When you are editing a document, Elements constantly saves the document up to your Dropbox. But while travelling on the train, there are long periods, in tunnels, when there is no connectivity, and I worry about Elements losing some of what I have written, or (nightmare scenario) overwriting the entire document with a blank one when connectivity is restored. So by breaking the writing up into lots of little documents, I would be limiting the damage.

(I’ve never actually lost an entire document. But I did once lose a few paragraphs when I started a new document, and connectivity was lost before I had written anything.)

So that’s how most of Aeropolis was written, or at least the first two drafts. It worked well for me at the writing stage. But it was a pain to copy and paste those individual docs into a single Word document, and revising is also difficult with such a long doc. Fortunately, by this time I had heard of the amazing Scrivener! More on that in the next part.

Coffin Dodgers

I’ve just finished Coffin Dodgers, a debut e-book by my friend Gary Marshall. It’s a book which is hard to categorise: it’s a thriller, because people get killed and there are gangsters and guns and so forth, but it’s also very funny. I frequently laughed out loud, which I’m told can be quite irritating, so you’d probably be best off reading this on your own...

It’s very well-written, with characters that feel like old friends within a few pages. The plot moves forward at a frenetic pace, keeping you guessing and the pages turning, and it builds to a satisfying climax.

Coffin Dodgers is available at Amazon.



Welcome to my new blog! I’ll be talking about my adventures in writing, discoveries about the publishing business, interesting book news, and also what I’m currently reading.

I am writing my first novel, Aeropolis, about James Samson, a fifteen-year-old airship fanatic who gets the chance to go to Aeropolis, an enormous flying city. But things don’t go entirely according to plan...

I’m currently working on the third draft, and I think this could be the final major draft, the one where it all comes together. I hope!