Robin C.M. Duncan is a Scot born and living in Glasgow. A Civil Engineer by profession, he has been writing for decades, but ‘seriously’ only for the last ten years. Robin has completed six novels, numerous short stories, novellas, novelettes, and poems. His ‘The NEU Oblivion’ was long-listed for the 2019 James White Award. His first published works, the novellas ‘Dew Diligence’ and ‘The Bibliothek Betrayal’, appear in the ‘Distant Gardens’ anthology (2021 pb/eb/audio) from Space Wizard Science Fantasy. Robin belongs to the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle, the British Fantasy Society, the British Science Fiction Association, and the Reading Excuses critique group. Presently, he is working on his Quirk & Moth series, with three novels planned, beginning with ‘The Mandroid Murders’. Here’s what he said when we asked him about ‘The Mandroid Murders’
How would you describe your writing?
In one word, ‘entertaining’, I hope. In writing Fantasy or Science Fiction—and anything in between or adjacent—I aim to be entertaining. But that’s according to my taste, of course, so hopefully, I’m not too much of an outlier when it comes to what entertains me. I believe entertainment comes mostly from characters, and the way to make characters come alive is through dialogue. I’ve read fantastically clever and well-plotted books that have left me cold because I felt the characters were missing that vital spark. I hope I can surprise the reader through dialogue and internal monologue. My desire to push language in interesting directions came from falling in love at a young age with the writing of Jack Vance. Oh, and my upcoming novel’s a bit sweary, but that’s fourteen-year-olds for you.
Tell us about your latest project…
My first novel, The Mandroid Murders, is due from Space Wizard Science Fantasy in August. It’s Book One of a series featuring Quirk and Moth, who first appeared in my novella The Bibliothek Betrayal, published last year. In fact, TBB is Quirk & Moth #2.5 because the first two novels are set before the novella (which does stand-alone). So, in a way, this novel is an origin story. It’s set in the near future (2099) and features a space elevator, something that Arthur C. Clarke planted in my head with his novel The Fountains of Paradise, the protagonist of which is a Civil Engineer, as am I.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process?
I’d say reading the comments of my critique partners in the Reading Excuses group and sitting in the quite exquisitely terrifying Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle. Writing the story, of course: nothing happens without that, but I would write whether I shared it or not. No, you cannot beat the rush of someone saying they loved some aspect of your story, of someone getting what you were going for, or laughing at a piece of dialogue. In fact, I think I’m a frustrated stand-up comic: my former therapist likely would say something about a need for external validation.
Have you always written in this genre?
I started writing at 14 or 15, in the early 80’s. Over 15 years, I wrote a 165,000-word secondary world fantasy with no magic, no fantastical creatures, and a white CIS cast. Over the next 10 years, it became a 225,000-word version of the same thing. I had no clue what I was doing other than trying to emulate my favourite authors. I’ve learned a lot since then, and not just about writing. I’ve written six novels. One is contemporary fiction, set in Glasgow’s West End, around media types; two fantasy novels; two SF, and one that I’m not sure what it is: it might be supernatural romance, actually.
What has been a highlight of the publishing process so far, and what are you looking forward to?
My first publication last year, as one of five authors, each with two novellas in Space Wizard’s Distant Gardens anthology: that was an incredibly satisfying experience. The book emerged from the Reading Excuses writing group, folks I’ve known for 10 years online until we met at WorldCon 2019 in Dublin. Space Wizard is Bill and Heather Tracy: they did everything very professionally, but the book had to be self-funded, as Space Wizard wasn’t really off the ground yet. Everyone contributed to everything: critiquing, procuring cover design, blurb, audiobook editing, and marketing. It was such a team effort. To be part of a book that was, for a few days, Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in LGBTQ+ SF and #2 in SF anthologies (behind some guy called Andy Weir): was ridiculously satisfying. I’ve still got those screenshots.
What I’m looking forward to now is for people to see Quirk and Moth together in my upcoming novel, The Mandroid Murders. I’m especially excited for readers to get to know Moth properly, as she only has a bit-part in The Bibliothek Betrayal. Their relationship has a whole arc through the first three books. It’s not static like some duos; it evolves through some pretty heavy emotional stuff, and there is an underlying history that one of them knows nothing about, not until Book Three (The Rigel Redemption). They are such fun to write.
What was your journey to publication like?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say the last lap of my journey was unique. The Distant Gardens anthology group Discord opened in late 2019, and, in 2020, we each began writing our two novellas. In April 2021, I had my first COVID vaccination. Shortly afterwards—with my second anthology story (Dew Diligence) almost drafted—I started losing sensation in my hands and feet. I was admitted to the hospital in June. At the point of treatment starting, I could not support my own body weight. I had been diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome*. In a nutshell, your immune system attacks your nervous system, destroying the nerves. It’s a very treatable condition, but the effects are unbelievably scary. I feel very fortunate, as some people are far more debilitated; they can be completely paralysed. The care I had, and still have, from the NHS is amazing. The snag was Space Wizard had set a publication date of Distant Gardens for August, and everyone was working to that. I had two novellas to edit, and I was doing it from my hospital bed on an iPhone8 (not a ‘Plus’ either). That was awkward, and I could barely hold a pencil to make notes in my notebook. Somehow, I got through one novella, and then my wife started bringing my MacBook when she visited so I could edit for an hour before she took it away again. As usual, she was my rock.
What have you learned from your journey as an author so far, and what advice would you give your past self?
What have I learned? Never stop writing. It can take many forms, of course: writing can be planning, editing, researching, critiquing, reading, etc., even just thinking about your project, but make it what you do, every day. Always. Be. Writing. (Yes, Glengarry Glen Ross is one of my favourite films.)
Advice to myself? Get advice from other people! On the process of writing, that is. And I would say the best way to do that is to join a writing group straight away; start sharing your work and getting critiques. There is no correct way to write, of course, but there are more and less effective ways to progress, to improve. I wish I’d had the confidence to do that decades ago, but I was always a shy sort. Probably I needed a lot of those years to come out of my shell and gain confidence in my writing, but writing groups don’t bite, not actual biting anyway. GSFWC and RE are full of people at all stages of a writing career who are very generous with their help and support. In fact, I’m just about to submit an article on writing groups to a magazine. It’s a hobbyhorse of mine and a passion. I cannot begin to convey the help I’ve had from those two amazing groups and how much I’ve learned. I hope I’ve managed to give something back through my contributions.
What are you writing next?
I must edit my short story for the next Space Wizard anthology, Farther Reefs, which is due in October. The tagline is “a ten-story anthology of ocean adventure, new relationships, and nautical mystery.” There are ten authors now, instead of the original five, which is exciting. While writing my story, The Vermillion Lady, I was listening to Jack Vance’s fourth Demon Princes novel (The Face) as a deliberate strategy to try and dial into that richness of language that I adore. Then, I need to get to work editing the second Quirk & Moth novel, The Carborundum Conundrum, which Space Wizard has slated for publication in mid-2023. Somehow, that doesn’t seem very far away!
* After recovering 95% of function with treatment and daily physiotherapy, I had a relapse in late 2021. Turns out I have a chronic form of GBS, which is called Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), but I got back to 95% function and now have 5-weekly maintenance medication. If we meet at a con, feel free to stand on my toes. Chances are, I won’t feel a thing!