The Devil Thorn method of planning a book

I’ve started planning my new book. I always do a lot of planning before I even start the outline, and a lot of outlining before I start the first draft. And no matter how much planning I do, I always have to go back to the drawing board halfway through that first draft, because, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

I used to use the Dog Walking method of story planning. This meant going for lots of long walks with my dog, Pippin, while I thought about the story. Now Pippin is a little bit sick and twelve years old, and not really up to hour-long walks anymore. This forces me to use the Devil Thorn method, which involves clearing our neighbourhood of every single devil thorn plant I can find, while I think about the story.

Don’t worry though, I still take Pippin for walks. He gets into our car via a ramp to save his hips and spine from jumping, and gets driven to Park Island or the Vlei for short outings.

And the book? It’s not a sequel to any of the books I’ve already written. It’s something completely new.

Backyard wildlife

I got the concrete removed from our backyard. At the moment the biggest plant is the dusty miller, and it’s just flowered, and is popular with the bees. I watched this one do a complete grooming session and then tuck into the flower 🙂

The Bullet

We’ve been living in Costa da Gama for about a year and a half now. It’s quite a change from Woodstock. For example, about a year ago, we found a small and unexpected hole in the roof above my writing room.

This was the hole before we patched it over.

We’d just had work done on that part of the roof and had inspected it thoroughly, and this was definitely a new hole. I suspected it was a bullet hole, partly because the taxi war in the area had been heating up and it’s not unusual to hear shots fired.

Well – today I found the bullet.

I found it behind the compost bin, next to the wall just  under where the hole had been. It must have gone through the roof, and then down the outside of the wall. If it had gone just 5 cm to the right, it would have come out into my writing room and gone through the budgie cage.

Just as well it didn’t.


Thank You!

Thanks so much! To * everyone * who came to my book launch, you have no idea how much I appreciate your support. Also to Brendon, Andries, Marijke, Tallulah, Nerine, all the members of the Skolion Street team (you rock!).
Thanks as well to the venues: The Field Office in Woodstock (and especially Genevieve, who tracked down some escaping wine glasses all the way to Calitzdorp, but that’s a whole other story) and Rolling Wood in Muizenberg, such a great vibe.
And of course – last but not least – to all my readers out there in the world 

I’m now all book-launched out, and will be creeping back into my shell for a bit. I have an idea for a new book…

Eroded Language in “The Strange”

My favourite part of world building — the process of creating a setting for a story — is making sure that any words or names I have to make up are convincing. Most of us have a keen an intuitive sense for when a word is “fake”, and when you come across a name for a place, a person, or even a type of food that seems obviously made up, it pulls you out of the story. I wrote about the layered use of language in The Babylon Eye here, to explain how the words, titles, and place names reveal the history and hierarchy of that world. In The Strange I had an even bigger challenge, creating not  just one, but an entire universe of alien worlds. These worlds had to feel deeply foreign and, well, strange, without being so distant, removed, or alien that they don’t evoke an emotional response.

For example, consider Orm Embar, the name Ursula le Guin chose for one of the dragons in her Earthsea series.  We don’t know the etymology of this name but  to me, “Embar” evokes “ember”, a quiescent seed of fire that might flare up if breathed upon, and “Orm” has echoes of the word “orb”, which seems large, timeless, and ancient. Both are appropriate for the dragon they describe.

I could never create this kind of resonance with completely made up language, so my Strange World had to use words that sounded familiar, and drew on existing languages from our world. The names and terminology also had to show evidence of history. For example, in our world the names of letters, numbers, the days of the week are from ancient cultures that used to have great influence but have now faded into obscurity. The symbols and names that remain are the teeth, the bone fragments, the stone beads that are left behind when the body itself has been eroded away.

As was hinted at in The Babylon Eye the Strange is not a single world but a network of many places that have been conquered, colonised, freed, vanquished and re-colonised. Multiple civilisations overlapped, blended and erased one another. Some places have multiple names, old names, drawn from ancient language like Aramaic, Accadian and Somali, as well as the newer names given to them by conquerors. The newer names are often latinate, as Latin was a bridge language between warring foreign cultures in the Strange.

Traces of this history can be seen in the architecture of places like the Gremium (the Gremium is another Eye, a sort of hub between the worlds), where ancient infrastructure is layered on top of even older carvings. But its history is also evident in the name itself. “Gremium” is the new name, and is derived from the Latin word for “lap”.  The old name was Samad Uurka, which is a warping of the Somali words for “Sky” and “womb”.

There are many worlds, all with names, and all the world names are preceded by  the word “Dhulka” which is Somali for “ground” or “soil”. So for example, the Strangeworld name for our world is Dhulka Serragio. “Serragio” was derived from the Latin word for sawdust, a substance used in arenas to mop up the blood of gladiators. That name seemed, to the Strangers, appropriate for our world. The people in my stories tend not to use the word “dhulka” for “world”. They refer to the various worlds as “niches”, which evokes an entirely different attitude and set of associations.

There are many examples of this layering throughout the book. Titles of petty prison officials are derived from numbers in ancient, twelve-base systems: esseret is Accadian for “ten”. Military titles are from the more modern Latin-base languages: for example the para-military slave-train guards in The Strange are called pugios, which is Latin for “dagger”.

Why are the prison-officials’ titles rooted in the language of the older, conquered civilisation, while the enslaved slave-guardians bear titles in the language of the conquerors? I can guess, but I’m not sure, just as nobody can every really be sure of the etymology of many of the words and titles in our own world.

Keeping the Stakes Personal

In fantasy, and science fiction to a lesser extent the stakes tend to be ridiculously high. The quest must succeed or THE UNIVERSE WILL END or ALL HUMANITY WILL LOSE FREE WILL.  While I appreciate that as a reader, it doesn’t work for me as a writer because I embed my stories in a world similar to the one we live in.

And here’s the thing about the world I live in:

The doomsday scenarios are real and multiplying. Climate change. Species extinction — I could go on but I won’t. Imagine reading about a heroine who is fighting climate change. It’s tough, it’s exciting, but in the end she succeeds! Yay! Climate change is reversed. You close the book and glance outside to see your half empty rainwater tank and smell the fumes of your neighbour revving his car.

It makes the story seem empty and fake.

That’s why, while I write about the very real problems that we all face, they are not doomsday events that needs to be vanquished. I prefer to keep the stakes personal and intimate, the kind of thing anyone might believably face and care about. Protecting your little brother. Finding a missing person. Or looking for a lost dog.

“The Strange” is published!

And it’s live! The Strange, the final book in the now completed “Linked Worlds” series is published and available on Amazon.  If you’ve not read the first two book yet, don’t despair 🙂 They are on sale right now: The Babylon Eye and The Real are both available for 99c each.

It’s taken me more than two years to write this book and there were times when it seemed like an impossible task. It was a challenge to create a whole new world for my heroine to explore, a world that is both strange and believable. As usual, the characters grabbed hold of their own story and got themselves into such difficult situations that at times I despaired of getting to anything resembling a resolution. But now that it’s finally done, I’m proud of this story.


Biopunk SciFi in alternate-world South Africa where cyber-beings and

biomechanical hybrids blur the borders between technology and nature.




Book Launch: “The Strange”

It’s book launch time!
I’ve finished my new novel, The Strange, the final book in my science fiction “Linked Worlds” series. The Babylon Eye was the first, followed by The Real, and I’m really pleased to have completed the trilogy with The Strange.

I have readers on both sides of the mountain now, so I’ve arranged two events:

  • 22 November at the Field Office coffee shop, 34 Salisbury Road, Woodstock
    – Wine and snacks 6:30 for 7pm
  • 29 November at Rolling Wood, 4 York Road, Muizenberg
    – 6:30 for 7pm.
    If you want an early dinner we’ll be serving a special “The Strange” veggie ravioli.
    Book your plate at at The pasta is R100 per person.

Print copies of The Strange will be for sale, as well as all of my other books.

Please come!

Cover Reveal: “The Strange”

Here it is! The cover of The Strange. 

And the print version:

The hand belongs to Kiran Ghatak, a new character who makes her first appearance in this book. Things happen to her hands, arms and wrists, so it seemed like a good motif to use for the cover. The actual hand is, of course, mine. I started with a picture of my hand:


Then I had to match the colours, fonts, and layout with the other books in the series.  Here is an early version. Far too dark overall! The image just didn’t “read” well.

Diseases and infections feature prominently in the story so it seemed appropriate to layer in images of infected lungs and viruses. These were some of the source images I used. Not so pleasant in their raw state, right?

The ebook of The Strange will be published on the 20th of November – watch this space, I’ll post a link. It’s the third in the series, but if you’ve not read the first two, don’t despair! Both The Babylon Eye and The Real  are for sale right now, 99c  each, so you can get up to speed before the launch 🙂


Silvermine Morning

For the first time in ages, we went for a morning walk at Silvermine. Windy! But beautiful. I think the walk was a little long for Pippin (he’s twelve, so not quite the hiker he used to be) but he didn’t complain one word, and seemed to be loving every moment. The picture below of his nose happened while I was trying to take a picture of a tiny plant, and he promptly butted in and ate the plant. 🙂

Garden in Progress :)

Tiny garden progress:

All of that used to be just grass! My water-wise garden 🙂
We moved here a year and a half ago, during a severe drought.  It was a challenge, finding plants that can survive here. This patch  faces north, which in the southern hemisphere means direct sun all day long. Harsh!

This front area used to be the only bit of garden I had. Now, the backyard is becoming more plant friendly, since I had all the concrete removed from it. It’s the domain of Pippin the Plant Squasher though, so we’ll see how that goes.


“The Strange” is complete!

One year later than planned, but I’m finally turning my book The Strange into an ebook. :: happy sigh :: I enjoy formatting. And it’s such a good feeling that this book is finished at last. I hope to publish it in the second half of November. Watch this space! 🙂

“The Real” is shortlisted!

I’ve just heard that my book “The Real” has been shortlisted for the Ilube Nommo Award for best speculative novel by an African. How about that!
Other people on the short list:

Deon Meyer FEVER
Nnedi Okorafor AKATA WARRIOR

That’s quite a list.

In the next three months, apparently all of these books will be made available to Nommo members so they can vote for a winner.  You can read all about this competition at the Nommo site:

Writing progress “The Strange”: First Draft Complete!

The first draft of The Strange is complete!

This is the most difficult, complex book I’ve ever written and the longest, too. I had moments when I doubted that I would make it this far.  This draft is nearly 140 000 words. The first two books in the series are about 70 000 each 🙂 It’s such a great feeling. There’s a lot of work to do still as it’s a very rough draft, BUT IT EXISTS!
* happy dance *

Mosaic progress

Since we are no longer renting but own our own house I can DO STUFF. Current project is to turn the concrete backyard into something a bit more lively. Mosaic in progress. Just applied grout. Tomorrow, I’ll polish it off.

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