Stark Holborn is a novelist, games writer, film reviewer, and the author of Nunslinger, Triggernometry and the forthcoming Ten Low. My review of Ten Low follows Stark’s post. I got to ask her about her writing by asking: What did you learn about writing while writing this book?
I studied literature at university, and critical reading formed a large part of the course. It’s something I loved at the time; digging into prose or poetry with a group of people and hearing their individual takes on the piece. I still do it now, in that I learn most about writing by reading. There’s something electric about coming across a passage that makes you sit up as a writer. I experienced that recently while reading How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang. Her prose is both terse and teeming with rich description that resulted in so many goddam it that was great moments.
The best part of writing for me, one of the reasons I do it, is for the flow – that glorious feeling when you lose track of time and everything around you because you’re so immersed in the story. It’s addictive, and I’m fairly sure that’s when I write my best stuff.
A decent chunk of Ten Low was written that way. It actually began as my 2019 NaNoWriMo project; something I was going to write purely for myself, with no strings or ties to the publishing world. I wrote about 55k words that month in a headlong, heady rush.
Then, then, I had to turn it into a novel. I’d sort of planned it as three interlinked novellas originally, and demolishing that idea and pulling the story together into a whole was easier said than done. I have no idea why it was so hard, now. Maybe the pandemic? Can I blame the pandemic? But at the time it had me lying face down on the floor, fretting, stalling, deleting and generally failing for a good month. That’s never happened to me before; usually the first 30k words are the hard bit, then it’s downhill cycling.
Eventually – and ironically in-keeping with the novel’s themes – I was so desperate I resorted to a form of augury by picking up the dictionary, closing my eyes, and jabbing at random words. Horribly, it worked. (Although I think, rather than spiritual intervention it was a case of giving myself permission to seize on an idea and run with it, without preconceptions.) In this case, it was the word “buzzard”. That word gave me the idea for a character, a scenario and then I was off… I managed to finish a draft of the book within a couple of weeks.
The editorial process is incredibly important to me, and I’ve been lucky to work with two amazing editors on Ten Low – George Sandison and Tasha Qureshi – who took that messy, dusty manuscript and helped to shape it into its best possible form. I truly couldn’t have done it without them. (Just don’t remind them about the 14,000 track changes…)
Ten Low is an ex-army medic, one of many convicts eking out a living at the universe’s edge. She’s desperate to escape her memories of the interstellar war, and the crimes she committed, but trouble seems to follow wherever she goes. One night, attempting to atone for her sins, she pulls a teenage girl – the sole survivor – from the wreck of a spaceship. But Gabriella Ortiz is no ordinary girl. The result of a military genetics programme, she is a decorated Army General, from the opposing side of the war to Ten. Worse, Ten realises the crash was an assassination attempt, and that someone wants the Ortiz dead…
I’m seeing that the book is garnering comparisons with Mad Max Fury Road, Firefly and Dune and, although it is a mad chase across a desert planet that feels kinda post-apocalyptic, I’m not sure it’s fair to the book to suggest it’s at all derivative. It’s very much its own thing. I think it dips into the same well of influences and does something different with them.
Factus (the moon where the book is set) is a bleak setting and the last outpost before the void. A war has raged and has only recently been won by the Accord and the enemies of the Accord have been sentenced. Ten Low (her name is her sentence) was on the losing side and is now atoning.
It’s a great piece of worldbuilding, with great characters, with a plot told with skill at great pace. It’s a western in space and therefore at its heart is a question of justice. (What else would you expect from Stark Holborn’s SF? There’s even a hint of mathematical possibility, and a hidden presence that thrives upon it, for fans of Triggernometry)
I very much enjoyed this and have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it. In fact it’s going to be the kind of book I place in people’s hands encouraging them to take a trip to the frontier. It manages to feel classic SF and yet fresh at the same time – a wonderful and heady mix.