Never be accused of being normal.

Could you imagine being labelled “normal”? It’s the ultimate insult.

Never be accused of being normal. Refuse to stand for it. Resist it with every fibre of your weirdness, especially if you believe in creativity. Normality and mediocrity share a bland, grey office cubicle, in a company where business never gets better than average.

Do you think Lovecraft, Shelley or Stoker ever worried about how their writing was perceived by the societal normal-o-meter? Did Dali lose any sleep wondering how people would relate to his work, or Black Sabbath ponder the acceptance of an audience before they started up?

Monty Python aren’t still selling out live venues in seconds because they pandered to the mainstream. Star Trek and Star Wars have endured because they carved out their own genres with lasers. Lasers powered by cores of pure nerdium crystals. They avoided normality like some kind of astro-plague.

These towering (possibly hovering) cult monoliths didn’t become household names by creating work to slot into some perceived demographic. They just put their finest, weirdest work out there and created, and sure enough their audiences came to find them.

Never be accused of being normal. Never worry that your ideas might not be fully understood. Tone it down and create things for mass acceptance, and you might never know how many people like your truest, weirdest work.

 

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Three important things you won’t learn on a creative writing course.

A creative writing course can set you up with all manner of useful things to help you make a start on your writing career. You could be a copywriter, a lecturer, or carry on your studies and apply your writing ability in medicine or law. In your spare time you could, like me, decide to try writing your first novel. (Beats the crap on TV, anyway.)

But there are a few things you won’t learn in a seminar setting. There are things your teacher, lecturer or group leader won’t bring up during the class unless you ask them directly (at least in my experience, anyway). The strange thing is, these were things I learned on my course. But it took hindsight and a couple of years’ experience to realise I’d learned them. So what are these hidden truths?

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Not if you want to make any money from your writing. If you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re just not trying hard enough. Your mind won’t help you out if you give it all the time and space it needs to chance upon a stroke of genius. Picture your mind as a dog, your canine companion. You can either train it to get to work and sniff out the next great idea; or you can let it laze around, run you in circles, wander where it likes, and occasionally bite you on the ass. With a trained mind, there is no writer’s block.

This is the only time in your life when you’ll be surrounded by so many people who love words as much as you do. Make the most of it. The world of work may give you a colleague or two who shares your passion for language. But for every one of these people you’ll meet fifty or a hundred others who see your carefully crafted articles as just more filler in a sea of fluff. It’s nothing personal; they’re just completely indifferent. No one will know how good a writer you are until you bring in concrete results; be it your own students’ grades, or an increase in sales thanks to the web articles you produce. In the world of work, the quality of your writing is judged by your employer’s return on investment for hiring you.

Procrastination is the greatest evil you’ll face. Getting work done for your boss is easy. Getting work done for your client is easy. Why? Because you’re afraid for your livelihood if you don’t come up with the goods. It only gets hard when you’ve only got yourself to answer to. There are many, many writers who are loathe to admit that they fall prey to procrastination. If you put work off, you worry that you’re not really a writer at all. Just someone pretending at being a writer. But lots of people procrastinate. Why? Because it’s easy. It’s the choice between doing something quite challenging and not doing anything at all. But there’s no pride in doing nothing at all, and there’s no success to strive for either.

I’m a great procrastinator when I want to be. A master procraster. But overcoming the urge to just not write after getting in from work is actually really simple. All you need to do is beat yourself up about being lazy, and to beat yourself up really, really hard. Feel every ounce of guilt and sloth it’s possible for you to feel. Feel every bit like the great pretender at writing that you fear you are. (We’ve all been there.) Torture yourself over it. And suddenly, you’ll get to work. All it takes is to write or type one word, and the rest come tumbling out after it onto the page. Procrastination may be a fearful and darkly beast, but it’s nothing compared to the spectre of guilt and self-loathing. So pour all those fears into that ideas engine in your head, and use it. And one day, we’ll write ourselves up to the top of the pile (or die trying).

So, what about yous guys? What have you found out as a writer that you didn’t know when you started out? Where are the pitfalls, and what are the fixes? Please leave your replies in the comments and let me and others know how to hone our writing!

Routine part II: having a nearly-written novel.

Well, the nightly writing routine worked out — Tabitha is pretty much written. It’s my first full-length novel, so the whole process has been a bit lot of a learning curve. This blog post is really just to note down things I’ve noticed during the novel-writing process, before I move on to editing. Maybe if you’re a novelist, or you’re starting out too, you’ve found out similar things?…

Some chapters are much easier to write than others. Not because I didn’t enjoy the prospect of writing them, but because I wanted to do them justice. But really, the only way to make masterpieces of your ‘climax’ chapters is to start them and then build on them — even if you’re only throwing words at the page that you consider distinctly average, and your first attempt is unreadable. What’s most important is that you get to the end of the story, and have a rough draft to work with. Even the roughest finished draft is way, way better than one perfectly polished chapter finished, and every other chapter waiting to be started.

A novel gets both easier and harder to write as it goes on. Easier because you get to know your characters, and you know how they’re going to react to the circumstances you put them in. Harder because many of your early ideas get overruled, overwritten, and chopped out in favour of something better — and this creates room for doubt. As I’ve invested more and more time into writing Tabitha, I’ve become more and more conscious that I want every idea in the story, strange though it may be, to make sense to the reader. In essence, I’ve found myself becoming more and more concerned with doing the story and the characters justice. But… don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. If you’re starting out as a novelist too, bear in mind that many famous authors wrote many, many novels before they found real success. That’s not to discourage anyone — just a reminder that a first try is, inevitably, going to be a first try. Even Hendrix had to suck at guitar when he started out.

Have a deadline in mind, but don’t sacrifice your best work in favour of work done on time. In a job, it’s important to have work done to a deadline. But writing a novel, for me at least, isn’t a job — it’s the thing I do when I’m not in work, and it’s the thing I’d do even if it never makes me a penny. It’s important and very useful to have a deadline in mind, but don’t be afraid to put it back a little if it’s going to give you more time to finish a final draft you’re happy with. You’ve spent this long writing it; don’t rush the final straight just to get it published on the day you said you would. That said, however, nor can you allow a deadline to become an endlessly flexible guideline. Only put off publishing if it’s going to give you something better to publish later.

So, those are my findings so far. What have you guys found out while you’ve been writing? Maybe you’re starting out on your own novel too, or you’d like to — or maybe you’ve already got fifty books under your belt. Wherever you’re at as a novelist, please let me know your own experiences in the comments!

Routine creates better stories, faster.

I used to dip into writing fiction as and when I could, between work and other responsibilities. But I wasn’t happy with how much I was getting done, because I was being lazy about it. It was taking too long to get anything finished. But with a few simple changes the past few months, I’ve become much more focussed and I’m racing toward finishing my first full-length novel. How?

Routine.

I removed distractions and left more opportunity for writing. I don’t watch TV or play videogames any more; my writing has become my nightly entertainment. By making writing a nightly routine after work, my brain kicks into fiction mode because it’s trained to expect it. And quite simply, a thousand words a night means more story, faster — and more time practicing to get better at it.

The routine builds a mind set too. If you set up a word count to complete every day, you’ve set yourself a problem to overcome. Humans are accomplished problem solvers thanks to our huge brains — so exploit it. Set yourself the enjoyable, achievable problem of overcoming a word count on your story, and ideas start to pop into your head on a daily basis.

Try this routine:

  1. A really hot shower after work. This gives your mind time to switch from work mode into fiction mode, and the ideas start.
  2. A cup of coffee at your desk. Overrule that natural urge to rest with a hearty dose of a legal, taxable drug — caffeine!
  3. Put on your favourite musique du jour and just write. What? No. Just start. Start it. Start with a rude word, whatever. Just start.

If you set yourself a routine for your writing, then ideas become a habit. When ideas become a habit, you’ll find it easier to write. And when you find it easier to write, chances are you’ll be happier with what you’re writing — and will want to write more.

Tabitha Grey, monster hunter

This is a follow-up book sample to an older post starring Tabitha, the supernatural star of my upcoming sci-fi novel. In a post-apocalyptic world where alien spiders have all but killed off humanity, one woman survives by a billion-to-one chance: her body has adapted to the alien venom she was injected with, and it’s started to give her some very strange powers. Her metallic hands and newfound strength are a match for the alien spiders lurking in her home town, but she’ll soon encounter an altogether more terrifying threat…

The rain spat down cold and hard, lashing against broken windows and tumbling down them in paper-thin waterfalls. For one sudden second, lightning struck the whole world blind. Thunder followed right after, filling the tomb-grey sky. The toppled buildings of the city in the distance turned the horizon into jagged concrete teeth. Tabitha walked on alone down the street, pulling the hood down further over her wet and shadowed face. On either side of her the abandoned cars lay dead and mangled. They had been parked through lamp posts, bus stops, walls and one another. They’d been given the fastest five minutes of their lives down the road out of town, hitting speeds they’d been built for but never dreamt of, only to be ploughed into obstacles by drivers senseless with fear. Here and there Tabitha saw bite marks in the cars’ bodywork. The marks were scraping gouges, twisted and torn out of side panels and roofs. Molten metal had been drooled around the bite marks and set hard like solder. One car’s bonnet had been torn half off. The car bled oil down the road. Looking into the dark cavity, something had gorged itself on half the engine block. The alien’s fading motor-oil footprints led off up the road ahead, into the heart of the toppled city. But these footprints weren’t the small, neat, countless dots of spidery feet that she’d expected. They were big, heavy, clawed, brutal. Bigger than both her feet pressed together. They were the footprints of a predator.

   The city was a stinking grey tomb. Tabitha smelled drains overflowing. The leaden sky gave everything a mood, and the rain pummelled any peace out of the scene. Whatever buildings weren’t toppled and lying dead on the road were cracked and shattered where they stood; crumbled and half-demolished into ragged standing shells. There weren’t any spiders here – it looked like they’d been and gone long ago. There was nothing here, street after street, and that’s what spooked her the most. A city centre should never have nothing in it, she thought, even if it was half-destroyed. Wispy tufts of grass had grown up in the cracks all over the road, and were bent and dripping in the rain. Plastic bottles and wrappers still filled the city streets, browned and sullied in the rain-soaked mud of brick dust that coated everything. Looking around at the rubble of civilisation, part of her wished she’d seen it all come down. She’d always believed that some part of human nature drove them to watch things go horribly wrong. But there had been no great last stand here; no tragic battlefield, or fallen monument to the defiant human spirit. Her first glimpse of humanity took the same form as it had in her own town – a rotten empty skin on a doorstep, caught by the spiders and drained out dry.
   The square in the city centre was a vast open space with a huge statue at its centre; enclosed by towering shops and offices, half of which still stood upright. But nothing seemed to live here. Here and there, a greying human skin flapped in the wind, or lay half-buried in the thin coat of mud that covered the pavements. She tried not to look at their stretched rubber-mask faces, contorted in hole-eyed screams. She tried not to look at their soaking tangles of hair, hanging in clumps from decaying scalps, on heads creased and crumpled like popped balloons. She tried not to think about how humanity could be reduced to empty wrappers, to blow and soak and rot amongst their plastic bags and soiled newspapers. Her next footstep was slippery and soft. She didn’t look down; she couldn’t. The square was carpeted in muddy grey skins, laid out and overlapping like fallen cardboard cut-outs. A sea of skin. It was the small skins that caught her eye though; they made her stare. And the very small skins. She felt the warm sting of tears once she’d noticed the very small skins. She looked up and kept on walking, had to keep on walking. She wiped the tears from her eyes so she could see her way. She had to find whatever had done this. She wanted to let it know that it had missed one. She wanted to make it wish that it hadn’t come to this world.
   Through the world-filling whisper of the rain, Tabitha heard a noise. Thunder split and broke overhead like a god growling, but that wasn’t what she’d heard. What she’d heard sounded like a car crash, around the next street corner and off down the road.

   She didn’t make out its shape at first. It was only when it drooled glowing molten metal as it fed that she noticed it, sprawled out and gripping close to the side of the city tram, like it was making love to it. Its molten slather beaded and slopped from its mouth and hit the wet road in a hissing cloud of steam. Its white eyes stared at the sky, unblinking, while it shredded sheet metal and devoured it with grinding black jaws. Everything about it was black and heaving. It swallowed its mouthful of molten metal so loudly that Tabitha heard it up the road. Some kind of exhaust jutted out of its back then, a glowing growth that hissed and sighed a great jet of steam. The monster’s rubbery black metal body gleamed in the rain and the grey daylight, dripping and hulking as it dropped down to the road and rested. Suddenly its head snapped around in her direction, white eyes staring. She’d hidden behind a half-eaten taxi, its bodywork covered in messy welding where the creature had bitten and slobbered. She peered around from the wheel arch – looking through the doorless back door, through the taxi’s torn-open front, to where the alien stood in the distance. It hadn’t moved; it hadn’t turned its head. It was just staring, eyes glowing like fairy lights, staring down the road for any sign of the intruder. Tabitha didn’t dare breathe.

   Her legs had cramped up. She didn’t know how long it had been; it felt like an hour at least. The thing hadn’t moved; frozen like a watching statue, staring down the road, dripping in the never-ending rain. Tabitha was freezing; she couldn’t take this any more. But she couldn’t face it either. Her hard hands may have been enough to dent those silvery spiders, but not this thing. Its own hands were huge; black and clawed and cruel. It was bigger than a bear. It could crush her, skin her, vomit molten steel over her… whatever it was going to do if it found her, she wouldn’t be able to fight it. Now she understood why the city was empty – everything had to run from it. Or try to. And still it stared into the distance; unmoving, unblinking, just breathing in the rain.
   Tabitha wasn’t sure how long it had been. She couldn’t feel her feet any more, and she’d never thought that she could shiver so much. Still the thing hadn’t moved; hadn’t come to look for her. She couldn’t take it any more. Tabitha reached into the back door of the taxi and pulled out a shard of glass, and getting a good grip on it she sent it spinning up overhead, high over the creature, and it shattered on the road behind it. Tabitha watched it wide-eyed from behind the taxi. As soon as it turned away to search down the road, Tabitha was up and running. Instantly she regretted it; her cramping legs wobbled and stumbled beneath her. You idiot! You stupid woman! She said to herself, dragging herself up from the pavement to run on numb feet, looking over her shoulder down the road. The creature still had its back turned, prowling down the road. Suddenly it swung its huge arms and flung a car across the street in search of her. Tabitha stuck to the kerb, where the cars and bins could hide her while she put some distance between her and it. The thing glanced back up the street and turned away again; she hid behind a bin in the middle of the pavement. She couldn’t just run – she was far away from it now, but there was a clear line of sight down the road. It would chase her down. Instead, she looked over to her right, to the door of an old pub that was hanging open. She didn’t care who or what might be inside – it couldn’t have been worse than being hunted out here. The thing turned again to look back up the street, but Tabitha had already darted inside the open door of the pub.
   It was dark in here, very dark. She was glad. She made straight for the bar, hiding away behind it. She’d hesitated at first when she saw a figure, but it was just her reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar. She sat down on the floor and pressed her back against the wood, facing the fridges, facing away from the front door. It was a solid old bar, made of good, strong, dark wood. She told herself this as if it mattered, as if it would protect her. There just had to be something big and solid and safe between her and that… thing. She was so frightened she could hardly think. The only thought in her head was an instinct – hide. The only sound was her heavy breathing; the patter of the rain outside. And then, a pounding on the road. Footsteps. And a sound like sniffing, deep and hungry. Tabitha peered around the bar, and saw white eyes in the half-open doorway. She heard a heavy panting, massive and furious. Tabitha pressed her back against the wood of the bar where she sat, and clutched her grey metal hand to her mouth. She prayed to whatever gods were up there, whatever cosmic forces had anything to do with anything, that she wouldn’t hear the sound. The sound of a heavy foot creaking on the floorboards inside the doorway. The sound of death coming for her… The floorboards creaked. Tabitha felt her chest pounding. Everything sped up and slowed down at once, and fresh adrenaline surged every time the creaking footsteps drew closer to the bar. Tabitha looked up from the floor, eyes wide with terror, as the wooden bar-top creaked and groaned under the weight of a gigantic black hand. The smell of burning wood filled her head as the alien drooled molten metal down on the bar, peering right over Tabitha’s head at its reflection in the large mirror. Tabitha watched its white eyes in the mirror, drifting as it swayed its head, figuring out the image of itself. She watched its reflection look down at her, hiding behind the bar. She saw its white-circle eyes shrink to murderous dots. The last thing it saw was a blinding white cloud, as Tabitha emptied the fire extinguisher into its face. She crawled out from behind the bar as the monster smashed it to splintered pieces, roaring and spitting red-hot metal. Blinded, the creature spun and pounced on the spot where it heard her footsteps, demolishing the floorboards. Tabitha bolted out of the door and off up the street, back the way she’d come, back to the square. There was a dust-cloud explosion behind her as the thing burst out of the brick wall, roaring and blind, punching a car into wreckage. But she was already far up the street, looking back at the huge black thing thrashing around on the road, colliding into cars and walls in an unseeing rage. She had to get away from here, out of the city.
   She stopped running when she reached the square, and looked around her. The greying skins soaked in the mud beneath her feet; countless corpses, stretching on forever. She saw the small skins too, and the very small skins. Far down the street she saw the black monster, clawing at the blinding foam on its eyes, but only managing to smear it around. That thing had so many lives to answer for, and she’d managed to trick it and trap it. Maybe it was time the aliens learned something about humanity’s talent for vengeance. Tabitha clenched her metal fists, gritted her teeth, and started walking down the road back towards it.
   ‘Ready when you are.’

 

Tabitha novel: Tabitha goes shopping

Tabitha had a good view of the city from the top of the motorway bridge. The whipping wind blew the smell of human shit up from the sewage treatment works down below. Off to her left sprawled a consumers’ paradise, a roofed shopping centre the size of a town.

There was no sign that the creatures had come here; but then there weren’t any cars here either. Trudging through acres of car park as the sun rose, Tabitha pushed her red hair from her eyes and squinted at the far entrance to the shopping centre. Huge, heavy shutters stood solid behind the glass doors. There was no sign of entry, no evidence of looters. The place seemed to have been locked up one night and never opened again. Tabitha willed her hands to become black alien metal, cold and clawed. She slammed her fist into the locked glass doors, slipping in through dented metal and cracking shattered glass beneath her boots. Looking at either wall she spied a red light flashing on a little box. Rather than set the alarm off by forcing the steel shutters up, she punched a black fist through them and tore a jagged door for herself. She bent the steel back into place behind her as best she could and realised she was still the cautious type, superpowers or not.

She was a dust-darkened wanderer in a pristine white palace, as bright and silent as heaven. The shopping centre was spotless, untouched, a temple to everything the creatures didn’t need. The place was colossal, a roofed city. Tabitha stood before a large map telling her that She Was Here, and studied it carefully even though she’d been here a dozen times before. Perhaps the place felt so alien now, she thought, that the shops could have moved around somehow. Over on one side of the centre lay a gigantic food hall. On the far side, past fake streets lined with shops, stood a courtyard with an artificial sky. Her stomach growled at the prospect of real food, and she set her heart on the burger place.

Escalators lay frozen as she passed by streets of shuttered shops. Daylight gleamed against unsullied shop windows, pristine and spiderless. A giant fountain stood motionless, its pool of water still as a mirror. Beneath the surface she spied a hundred tossed coins, and thought how they’d never mean anything again.

‘Hello?’ she said into the empty white around her. She didn’t know why; she knew no one was there. Maybe she just needed to hear a voice, after a week of solid silence.

‘What did you wish for?’ she said, sitting on the edge of the fountain and looking at the nearest coin beneath the water. It was only when she couldn’t pick the coin up from the bottom that she realised she still wore alien hands. She fumbled with the coin edges, but it was useless. These were hands for killing, hard and brutal. It was strange how much more comfortable they felt than her own. She pulled her black claw from the clear water, and felt sorry that she’d even rippled the surface. The coins’ owners were dead now. She could at least leave their wishes to rest in peace.

Tabitha sequel: opening scene

I’m currently working on my sci-fi novel Tabitha, a follow-up to my short story of the same name. Here’s a sneak preview at the (experimental) opening scene…

Lindsey watched the bustle of New York rush past outside the cafe, arms crossed, wishing she was somewhere else. Like back in Adam’s apartment, wearing nothing but his bedsheets.

‘I don’t understand you sometimes.’ said Greg, leaning towards her across the table. After four years together, she said to herself, he’s finally hit the nail on the head.

‘You enjoy this.’ he concluded, giving up and sitting back, sipping his coffee. ‘You enjoy getting into these arguments. Why should I even try to make things up with you?’ God, how she hated the smell of his coffee breath. He slurped it too. Every single time, well almost every single time. He was a slurper.

‘I enjoy it?’ Lindsey snapped back, looking away from the neverending crowd of passers-by outside. ’So why am I the one who has to patch things up again?’ she said, lowering her raised voice to a harsh whisper as a man by the bar looked over. Neither of them believed in airing their laundry in public.

‘Look, I’m sick of wondering about this.’ said Greg, pausing, chewing over the words in his head. ‘Is there someone else?’ Lindsey felt a hot rush like her blood had turned to molten lead. Something twisted in her stomach. She couldn’t find the words. Just what was her thing with Adam, anyway? Could she rely on him to move her into his apartment? Or was she just a toy to him? She lost track of time in her silence. How long had it been since he’d asked her the question? Was it a couple of seconds ago, or a couple of minutes? …Why not just tell him?

‘Greg, I  –

Something shot through the window like a golf ball. The cups and plates rattled as Lindsey’s head hit the table, steaming and bleeding.
‘Lindsey!’ he shouted, jumping up from his seat. He leaned her back; she was dead. A few feet away, a meterorite had buried itself in the vinyl floor tiles in a tiny smoking crater. Shreds of Lindsey’s scalp were dotted around the floor beside it. No sooner did Greg look around for some kind of help, something to make sense of this, than the yellow taxi parked outside exploded, slamming passers-by against the walls and windows.

‘What the hell’s going on!?’ screeched the waitress behind the counter. Everyone ducked down as the cafe floor shook beneath their feet. Outside was a hailstorm, an assault of mach-speed rocks. The blue sky was filled with shooting stars. One roared out of nowhere and tore through an office block across the street, sending a mountain of stone and brick dust crashing down onto the busy sidewalk below. The streets filled with screams against a chorus of rumbles and bangs. The air filled with dust and flames. All across the city, black smoke twisted into the sky. Across the bridge, a skyscraper fell to its knees as a meteor ploughed through it. The whale-sized rock bounced and tumbled through city streets in a cloud of dust and death, like God had tossed a marble. The skyscraper crumpled into a dust storm, and the blocks beneath its fallout disappeared.

The whole world was wounded. There was more disaster than the news could hope to report, until TV transmissions blinked out one by one. Today was the day the sky fell. Beyond it, black ships waited in the stars.

 

About my blog

Welcome to my own weird patch of the internet, a floating island among a billion more adrift in an ink-cloud ocean sky. Fiction’s my hearthfire, my addiction, that hot red lightning bolt called ‘purpose’ you sometimes feel in your chest. When I’ve had nothing else, I’ve had words to read and more to write. So I bought myself this allotment to grow my words, some far-flung patch of virtual dirt in the back of beyond where the trees are twisted and black. If anyone happens to read this, please let me know what you think of my stuff. It’s the only way I’ll get better at writing, and it’ll stop me talking to myself.

Well now. Stories. What are they? Stories are the Big Thing. We think in stories. We talk in stories, dream in stories, order and direct our lives by shaping stories in our heads. Stories turn rumours into legends, radical thinkers into gods. We put our favourite people and things they’ve done into mental montages; editing out the bad times and the boredom and leaving only the choicest cuts. Our memories aren’t files in a cabinet but seeds in a twisted garden. Left alone they grow unchecked in the weather of mood and the sunlight of imagination. One day you’ll go back to a long-lost memory and find it mangled, altered, better and worse than you remember; bigger and bolder and further away. You’ve turned something real into a story, people into characters, everyday events into epics because that’s how your mind likes to work. In essence, our brains are wired towards stories. News, gossip, fiction, non-fiction; movies, celebrities, consumer goods and games. Everything that appeals is built on stories, or helps to build them more. Stories aren’t just what make the world go round, they’re what gives us our idea of the world at all.

Anyway, have a look over some of the stitched-together cack-handed garbage I call my writing and let me know what you think. Who knows, with enough feedback I might even start making sense one day. Stranger things have happened.

Empire

Brass tanks steam-punked over vast dead land. Heaving and hauling they mauled and came crawling; clattering mud-spattered death. Half-shrouded in grey lazy fumes, they dragged their sulphur-stench smokewall behind them. The steel-slab chainlinks in their mud-caked tracks clank-clank-clanked into grey forever, crushing trenchman and horse corpse alike. Their enemies felt the cold wind and had no fight, and danced and jumped at the screaming lead in their meat, and lay down in the mud to look without seeing at the big white sky.

The tanks never stopped. No Man’s Land was a crawl in the park. Machine gun bullets that could murder a million only bounced off their armour in fairy-dust sparks. The shining hulks trampled all, and stamped and crumpled what was left. Leaving trails of mile-long gouges in the mud they punched their victory into the field, and turned their guns on civilisation. Their finely-wrought cannons cracked-vicious and spat death. The town toppled like sandcastles. Screams of life extinguished are hard to hear beneath the god-roar of guns. It helped the men in the tanks pretend it was only buildings they were killing. Another town reeled and tumbled at the shots, another patch of Empire freshly won.

‘Tabitha’ novel: the aliens

A filthy woman dug for food in the rubble of Earth. A city lay in ruins all around her; a concrete graveyard, a grey desolation. She thought herself well-hidden but the shapes stalked her from fallen walls and blown-out windows, silent as death, crawling close. Steel flashed and jutted, and a spidery silver plant punched one sudden, silent stab in her leg. The woman kicked and ran; looking back with shaking vision and jarring panicked thoughts as the pack of chittering killer things chased her down, leapt upon her limbs and weighed her down onto the road. She struggled soundlessly as they wrestled and stabbed. She slumped and gargled as they injected her. Alien fluid coursed through her, liquefying living muscle and bone. The spiders drank her contents out, left her empty skin blowing down the road in the wind.

Across the world on a sun-bleached plain, a man spied a black shape in the distance. An alien predator. He knew there was no running from it; no one could ever run from it. A dust cloud rose behind it as it galloped towards him. He took up his gun and let rip, rattling every round into it. They punched through its rubbery metal skin, but did nothing to slow the monster down. Within seconds it was on him; pulled his head apart to lick out the gold fillings in his teeth. It bit the buckle off his belt and crushed the gun down into its red-hot mouth. Then it dropped the body, and kicking up another dust cloud, it was gone.

In the established alien hives of North America, the lanky black lurkers walked out from the Potomac River. There were few of them; they were the upper order. Scuttling silver spiders paused and backed away; hulking predators ground to a halt and bowed as their masters stalked by. They had come to the humans’ white palace, where their leader had been closed away in his room of command. The predator guarding the man-leader’s door let its masters through. The lurkers looked around constantly at such alien surroundings, wondering how such a race could ever function. There were no solar cells on the walls, no wind turbines on the roof. Nothing in these human hives created energy; they only sapped it away.

The human leader himself was weak and afraid, unable to strengthen himself with sunlight, water or wind. It was reported that the humans had to digest other organisms to survive, like the lower orders of life on their homeworld. Such inefficiency sickened the lurkers; this was a planet so much larger and more plentiful than anything they’d ever dreamt of. It was a paradise, and it was diseased by humans. Here their race could flourish, and explore other distant worlds. The humans’ leader was making pleading sounds. It was a vocal communication, much like their own, but like the humans’ bodies their speech was flimsy and inefficient. The lurkers gathered around him, and wondered why they’d ever asked for him to be left alive. There was no great secret to the hairless apes, no higher knowledge that they possessed. They were intelligent and aggressive, like themselves; but the humans were the poorer player, and they would lose. They even fought amongst themselves, destroying one another. They were redundant, a failed mutation, adept at reproducing but completely unsustainable. It was best for them to be removed from the ecosystem. The animals they’d bred to consume would be freed; the crops they’d farmed would grow wild again. The lurkers would preside over a world of peace, where no living thing died before its time. There was much to learn from a planet that enjoyed such long days; such strong sunlight. Their own race was stronger here than on their homeworld; happier and more productive, breeding in half the time. Earth was a paradise. The lurkers had nothing to gain from prolonging the life of the human leader. The tallest amongst them came forward, lifted the human into the air by its neck, and blew it apart with a bolt of light.