My flying visit to Sweden – an absolutely excellent trip

I’ve been pals with multi-faceted writer Steven Savile for years now, so when he asked if I might be interested in doing an event in Sweden, naturally I said yes. A little while later, Jan Smedh of The English Bookshop in Uppsala got in touch to invite me to the evening he was organising for the city’s annual Culture Night. When everything was finalised, we had a mini-SF-Crime convention, with me, Steve, Stephen Gallagher and RJ Barker being interviewed together by way of an introduction, followed by us discussing crime fiction and then a session on fantasy fiction, since one way and another, we’ve all written across both genres. There were intervals for book signing, and to give fans of one genre or the other to come and go as they felt inclined – not least because there were so many other events going on. The city was packed all day.

Now, I’ve only ever met Stephen Gallagher on a handshake-and-hello basis before, and never crossed paths with RJ Barker, but once we met up on Friday, it soon became apparent that Saturday evening would go with a swing, as we chatted about what we write and what we read. That’s exactly how it turned out, as we had different things to say as well as enough interests in common to generate really interesting conversations. We were also made wonderfully welcome by Jan, his wife, and the bookshop staff, as well as by Uppsala’s SF and Fantasy fans. Feeling so at ease made Saturday evening even more fun, and the time simply flew by. The audience certainly seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did.

Those of you who couldn’t make it will get a flavour of the event in a little while, as Stephen, RJ and I were all interviewed on video by Magnus, another of our new friends, earlier in the day. We did that on the deck of the floating hotel Selma, where we were staying, moored on the river. I’ll post links in due course. Those of you who travel to European conventions should also note that Uppsala fandom are putting in a bid to run the 2023 Eurocon – follow @Uppsala2023 on Twitter to keep in touch with their progress.

Before that – yes, we really did make the most of our time – Jan had arranged for us to have a short introduction to the city’s history and a guided tour of Uppsala Cathedral with a brief visit to the museum now housed in one of the original University buildings. The cathedral is beautiful and full of fascinating memorials and stories – and something of more personal interest. Thanks to local Swedish fan Jonathan, who I first met at the Worldcon in Dublin, I knew to keep a look out for the Green Man carved on a pillar capital as we went round. I could go on and on, but I’d be writing this all day if I attempted a full recap. Put Uppsala on your own holiday destination list, that’s the best idea. Seriously. There are great places to eat as well as everything else to see in the city.

The museum was equally enthralling, and has one of the most ornate and astonishing examples of a Cabinet of Curiosities in the world – the Augsburg Art Cabinet. Other treasures include the original prototype Celsius thermometer. Carl Linnaeus is by no means the only globally renowned scientist that the university is rightly proud of. Mind you, the students Linnaeus sent out worldwide to collect his samples often came to an unexpected and early end… Of course, as authors, we love this sort of thing, so I suspect echoes of our trip will appear in all our writing one way or another over the next little while.

So that was Saturday, and on Sunday morning, Steve, Stephen and I took a train to Stockholm to walk around and get a flavour of the city, old and new, before it was time to head for the airport and our flights home. Now I must find time to rewatch my DVDs of the original Swedish TV series adapting the Millenium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc.) and see what I can see differently.

But now I must get some work done today. Still, I know that will come all the easier after a trip like this. Not only did we see countless things to fire the imagination, but meeting keen readers and enjoying so many varied conversations always inspires me to do my very best for the people who I ultimately write for.

Dates for my diary and maybe yours?

I’m off on a mini adventure this weekend, joining authors Steven Savile, Stephen Gallagher and R J Barker at The English Bookshop, Uppsala, Sweden on Saturday 14th September for an evening discussing writing crime novels and fantasy fiction, from 6 pm onwards. I’ve never been to Sweden, so I’m really looking forward to the whole trip.

After getting back on Sunday, I’m on the road to Bristol to take part in the Bristolcon Fringe on Monday evening, September 16th. Alongside Rosie Oliver, I’ll be reading and chatting, from 7:30pm in the function room of The Gryphon (41 Colston St, Bristol BS1 5AP). Doors open at 7.00.

Next up, I’m heading for Scotland and FantasyCon 2019, to be held in the Golden Jubilee Conference Hotel, in Clydebank, Glasgow from 18th to 20th October. Among other things, The Green Man’s Heir is shortlisted for this year’s Best Fantasy Novel Award which is an honour in itself. Programme details will follow in due course.

Then I’m back to Bristol for Bristolcon itself, on 26th October at the Hilton DoubleTree Hotel, Bristol. The Guests of Honour are authors Diane Duane and Gareth L. Powell, and artist Andy Bigwood. It promises to be a great day – as always.

So hopefully our paths will cross somewhere – and my fabulous publisher Cheryl Morgan is making sure that my Wizard’s Tower Press titles will be on sale at all these events.

Review – Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer

Today’s the official publication date for Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer, and I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of this intriguing and engaging book. Though I approached it with a degree of … reservation, I suppose is the best word. Even experienced writers are setting themselves a high bar when it comes to finding an original and unexpected perspective on a myth as well-known and as oft-told as Robin Hood. Moyer more than succeeds in this, and does a whole lot of other interesting things with this story as well.

We see events from Maid Marian’s perspective, and an older Marian at that. The days of high adventure in the greenwood are long behind her and all the Merry Men. Marian is now raising Robin’s children on her own, and not by her own choice. Robin has retreated to a monastery, to atone for his sins. This is the first of many sideways glances the story takes at the notions and conventions of heroism in old-fashioned tales – as well as too many modern ones. Robin’s solitary self-sacrifice has serious costs for other people. The flip-side of that heroic coin is plain selfishness, and his retreat soon looks a lot like cowardice.

Marian copes because she has no choice, and because she has a community to support her. Not just the erstwhile and no longer so merry men, but also the wild animals and faery folk of the forest. It turns out she has unexpected resources to draw on, and no need to conform to heroic story expectations of damsels in distress. However, it’s increasingly apparent that her friends and family are under threat. Tackling this menace means finding Robin and making him face up to his past and his present. Other people’s stories don’t end just because he wants to lay down his sword/bow and walk away. Now Marian must find other ways of dealing with this danger besides picking up those weapons herself.

All this plays out in a vivid and immersive setting that’s somewhere uniquely effective between well-researched medieval historical accuracy and the world of Robin Hood as seen in old British folklore instead of more recent film and TV portrayals. The fabulous cover art evokes this wonderfully, as it mirrors those old fashioned, pictorial maps that show both the practical detail of towns, roads and rivers as well as an artistic, atmospheric portrayal of a living world.

Highly recommended reading.

News of another writing project

It’s time to share some news about a writing project I started around five years ago, to broaden the scope of my writing in these challenging times for authors. As a lifelong crime fiction fan and an erstwhile classicist, I reckoned historical mysteries set in Ancient Greece between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, had potential. There are plenty of good books set in Rome after all, so how about a change of scene?

I started my research, and thirty years after my undergraduate days, it was fascinating to see where thinking had changed, and what discoveries had been made. I plotted out a story, wrote a draft, sought no-holds-barred feedback from selected academic friends, and revised that draft. Then I started sending the project out on submission, working my way through a list of selected literary agencies.

A year of so later, I found an agent as keen on the project as I was. With the benefit of his fresh viewpoint, I reworked some aspects of the book, and he started pitching it to publishers. Six months later, we had a two book deal, with a view to launching an ongoing series. The plan was I’d write these books alongside my SF & fantasy, using the pseudonym J M Alvey to keep these books separate from my other work.

Things have not gone to plan. Not for any reason to do with my writing. Circumstances arise in publishing that authors can do nothing about, despite the seriously adverse impact on their careers. There’s no point in me going into the details. That would be unprofessional as well as unproductive.

I would simply like readers who might be interested to know these books are there to be enjoyed. Advance readers and reviewers have certainly taken to Philocles, a writer for hire in 5th century Athens who dreams of making his name writing comic plays for the great festivals. Check out the quotes on Amazon.

In Shadows of Athens, Philocles discovers a murdered man outside his front door, a few days before his new play is to be performed in the Dionysia drama competition. Is it just a robbery gone wrong? If so, why didn’t the thieves take the dead man’s valuables? Philocles wants answers, even though he has no idea where his investigations will lead. But who else is going to see justice done? Ancient Athens is a city with no police force, still less any detectives.

In Scorpions in Corinth, Philocles and his actors have travelled to the Isthmus, gateway to the Peloponnese. They are relying on a local fixer to help them stage a play there, to promote ties between the two cities. But Eumelos is killed soon after the Athenians arrive, and it’s clear that someone is out to wreck their performance. Philocles must find out who, but how? He knows his way around Athens but making enquiries in Corinth is a very different story.

Please feel free to share this and boost the signal.

ZNB anthologies – an excellent opportunity for first publication

As regular readers will know, I’m a great fan of ZNB’s anthologies, both as a writer who regularly contributes and also as a reader. The themes are always intriguing, drawing out entertaining stories, while the rigorous editing ensures a high standard indeed.

Add to that, ZNB always hold open submission slots for debut writers. They hold these stories to the same high standard and that means this is a publishing credit well worth having. So I invited Joshua Palmatier to share a few thoughts for the benefit of those looking to place a story with one of this year’s proposed publications.

Zombies Need Brains’ latest Kickstarter started up on August 7th and, with the possibility of an open call for submissions if we fund, I thought that I’d spend some time talking about how you can better your chances of getting from the ZNB slush pile into one of our anthologies.  The competition is pretty steep and only getting worse with each Kickstarter.  (Last year, PORTALS had 550 submissions alone and we ended up taking seven; we had a lot of anchor authors for that one, though.)  I’ve talked before about how to brainstorm your way to an idea that isn’t standard, but also isn’t so far out there it’s off theme.  So let’s suppose you already have an idea of what you want to write.  A core concept.

As you can guess, that’s not enough.  We get a ton of stories submitted where, when I’ve finished reading the story (and I usually read all of the stories all of the way through, just in case), I end up saying, “OK, that was a cool concept, but there isn’t a story here.”  In essence, the author wrote out their idea, but they haven’t yet taken the time to develop a story around that idea.  And that’s key.  It’s extremely rare for ZNB to accept a submission based on idea alone.  This is why we rarely accept stories less than 2500 words or flash fiction–it’s not that the writing isn’t good, it’s that it’s difficult to get across a completely developed story in that short a timespan.  It’s possible (I think we’ve accepted one or two in our past anthologies), but it’s rare.

The biggest element missing from the “only an idea” story is a character arc.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s usually a character in the story, but the character is only there in service to the idea.  The story needs to be turned around.  The idea should be in service to the character, causing the character to change in some way throughout the course of the story.  That’s what’s typically missing in the stories that I read from the slush.  I want to be drawn into the characters and change along with them.  So the character needs to be interesting, sympathetic, and above all engaging.  

After capturing my attention, you need to hold it, so the pace needs to be fast.  Remember, this is a short story.  Each word needs to matter, so keep things tight and focused.  Don’t let yourself wander into subplots and secondary threads or secondary characters, as you would with a novel.  Keep yourself on track with the main idea.  You can always expand the story later on into something larger if you want, but for now, focus.  If you’ve already written the story, then during revisions you need to look at the main idea and cut everything else out.  Narrow the story down to whatever is needed for the idea and the character arc.  Everything else must go.  Tighten, tighten, tighten.

Along the way, make sure that the character arc you’ve developed actually relies on the story concept.  They can’t be two separate threads that you just happen to have woven into one story.  If you remove the cool idea from the story, does the character arc still hold up?  If the answer is yes, then you haven’t really found the story behind that idea.  The character arc should collapse when the cool idea is removed, making the story impossible.  The character’s change during the course of the story should come about BECAUSE of the cool concept.

So, when thinking about submitting a story to ZNB’s slush pile, start with a cool concept.  Build an engaging character arc around that concept.  Mesh the two together.  Tighten the prose.  Let it sit for a few weeks, then go through and tighten it again.  Because that’s what we’re looking for:  a tight, focused story where a cool concept and interesting character arc merge into a stunning work.
Now, take these words to heart, sit down, and write that story.  Good luck!


This post is brought to you by the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter currently going on at tinyurl.com/ZNBApocalypse. Swing on by and check out the details for the three new anthologies we’re hoping to fund, including APOCALYPTIC, GALACTIC STEW, and MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK. Pick a reward level that suits you and back our project! We can’t do an open call for submissions unless we get funded. And once we are funded, sit down and brainstorm a cool idea, write it up, and send it in!


JOSHUA PALMATIER is a fantasy author with a PhD in mathematics. He currently teaches at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York, while writing in his “spare” time, editing anthologies, and running the anthology-producing small press Zombies Need Brains LLC. His most recent fantasy novel, Reaping the Aurora, concludes the fantasy series begun in Shattering the Ley and Threading the Needle, although you can also find his “Throne of Amenkor” series and the “Well of Sorrows” series still on the shelves. He is currently hard at work writing his next novel and designing the kickstarter for the next Zombies Need Brains anthology project. You can find out more at www.joshuapalmatier.com or at the small press’ site www.zombiesneedbrains.com. Or follow him on Twitter as @bentateauthor or @ZNBLLC.

The Green Man’s Foe and a Legacy

The Green Man’s Foe is published tomorrow and since I’m not taking a laptop to the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, I’m posting this today, before I travel to Ireland. I want to acknowledge the part that my first literary agent, Maggie Noach, played in this story. One of the underlying themes of this particular novel is the idea of legacy, good and bad, and that has a particular resonance for me, in the unusual way this novel has come to be written.

As well as representing my epic fantasy fiction, while I wrote The Tales of Einarinn, and The Aldabreshin Compass, Maggie encouraged me to take my writing in other directions. She knew and loved the Cotswolds where I live, and more than once, we discussed the sense of history and folklore that’s so embedded in the local woods and villages. I wrote a draft of a novel about a country house being turned into a hotel, and a visitor from London who gets drawn into its secrets, that may or may not include the supernatural.

We were discussing how to improve on that, when all of us who knew and admired Maggie were devastated by her untimely death on 2006. Over the next few years, in between other projects, I went back to the novel a few times, and tried a couple of different approaches. Somehow, whatever I ended up with was never quite right. Looking at the dates on the files on the hard drive, I see that I last revised it in 2010 before finally setting it aside.

The success of The Green Man’s Heir in 2018 meant a great many people were asking me hopefully about a sequel. I certainly wanted to write one, but what would it be about? Frankly, I was at a loss until quite suddenly one day, when we were on holiday in the Lake District and I wasn’t even thinking about work, I remembered those drafts were still tucked away in my computer archive. When we got home, I searched out the back ups and realised I had the detailed setting, background characters and a framework of events that I could use for a whole new story, where Daniel has no doubt about the supernatural threat to this country house hotel project.

Once I stared writing, everything came together in a way that my attempts to rework that early draft novel simply never had. I only wish that Maggie was still with us to see the end result. I have no doubt what she would say. This all goes to show that no writing is ever wasted. That is most definitely part of her legacy to me.

The Green Man’s Foe – news and views.

Three things make a post, so here we go.

Firstly, I am very pleased to confirm that there will soon be an audiobook edition of The Green Man’s Foe. I’ll share the release date when I have it.

Secondly, for those of you who will be at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, there will be copies of both The Green Man’s Heir and the Green Man’s Foe for sale copies at Francesco Verso’s Future Fiction stall, which I think is #51 in the Dealers’ Room.

Third and lastly, we have another very positive advance reader’s verdict for your perusal over on The Middle Shelf – SF and Fantasy reviews blog.

The Green Man’s Foe is the second in a fantasy series but you could dive into it without having read the first (though I recommend it!). It’s one of McKenna’s particular strength: she lets you catch up with ease.
For those of you coming back to it, you’ll be delighted to know that Dan is back and in fine form, along with all the things that made The Green Man’s Heir so entertaining.”

Do read the full (non-spoilery) review for more.

A week to go to Worldcon and an update on The Green Man’s Heir

The Green Man’s Heir has just hit 125 reviews on Amazon UK, with a 4.5 average rating. That’s quite the milestone. Over on Goodreads, we have 60 reviews, 532 ratings, and 3.92 average. Sincere appreciation to everyone who has been boosting the signal 😀

We’re also seeing a flurry of sales, presumably to readers keen to get up to speed before The Green Man’s Foe is published this time next week. We have three enthusiastic early reviews for the new book on Goodreads if you’re curious.

And to whet your appetite, here’s this week’s taster…

My Dublin 2019 Worldcon Schedule

I’m just back from a week away, and I’m currently dealing with the post-holiday admin pile up. While I do that, here’s what I’ll be doing in Dublin and when. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Fantastical travel guide

15 Aug 2019, Thursday 15:00 – 15:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)

Do you fancy a trip to a fantasy realm? Want to avoid stumbling into Moria or falling off the edge of the Discworld? Our panel of authors are here to help you by roleplaying as one of their characters and trying to persuade you to travel to their fantasy worlds.

Autographs: Friday at 11:00

16 Aug 2019, Friday 11:00 – 11:50, Level 4 Foyer (CCD)

Is epic fantasy conservative?

16 Aug 2019, Friday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)

Back in 2013, Gollancz’s Twitter account made the claim that: ‘Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality’. The question sparked a discussion that is still relevant and ongoing. Is epic fantasy politically conservative and, if so, what does this tell us about the genre?

The lack of technological progress in fantasy

18 Aug 2019, Sunday 11:00 – 11:50, ECOCEM Room (CCD)

From the cotton gin to the printing press, technology doesn’t seem to advance in many fantasy worlds – despite hundreds of years of history in which an industrial revolution could happen. Why doesn’t it? Does magic replace the need for technology? What about the growth of magic-powered technology within a fantasy world? What does it take to get a little scientific progress?

These islands: exploring Irish and British fandom

19 Aug 2019, Monday 11:00 – 11:50, Liffey Room-1 (CCD)

For decades fans from Britain and Ireland have participated in and even run each other’s cons. Has this created a shared British and Irish con culture, or does each country have its unique traditions? And have modern social media and travel options diminished or enhanced our close ties?

Reading: Juliet E. McKenna

19 Aug 2019, Monday 13:00 – 13:20, Wicklow Room-5 (Workshops) (CCD)

And yes, in case you were wondering, I will be reading from The Green Man’s Foe.

Speaking of which, one of my admin tasks this morning was picking up a box of books. Don’t these look good together?

cover art by Ben Baldwin

The Green Man’s Heir – shortlisted for a British Fantasy Society Award!

I am naturally delighted to see The Green Man’s Heir shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society’s ‘Best Fantasy Novel’ award, alongside a selection of extremely fine writing. Thank you to everyone who has enjoyed the book and boosted the signal to help make it such a success.

Also, as far as I am concerned, this nomination is for the whole team – publisher Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press, editor Toby Selwyn and artist Ben Baldwin.

You can find the full list of nominees here on the British Fantasy Society website. As you can see I’m shortlisted alongside a selection of very fine writing from extremely talented authors. I’d also encourage you to read down through all the categories and shortlists, to see the excellent work being done in all sorts of ways. The UK fantasy reading and writing community is so very served these days.

One last thing. I’m not sure which agents represent every author on this best novel lists, but I reckon it’s definitely worth noting that Max Edwards of Apple Tree Literary is working with two of us.

Better sort out going to Fantasycon.