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.

The Green Man’s Foe – publication date 15th August 2019

Wizard’s Tower Press and I can now confirm that the ebook of The Green Man’s Foe will be published on the 15th August 2019. If you’re interested in an eARC, contact @WTPress on Twitter or email.

That’s the first day of the Dublin Worldcon, so I look forward to celebrating there with friends old and new.

Paperback, hardback and audio editions will also be available. Firm dates on those will be announced as soon as possible.

It’s Wednesday and that means #BookQW on Twitter and Facebook, so here’s this week’s taster to whet your appetite.

New fiction, and a new look for some other books.

The latest anthologies from ZNB are now out, and my story The Echoes of a Shot can be found in Alternate Peace. These tales of alternate history look at what might have happened if something dramatic didn’t happen; a war, an assassination, a battle that we know was pivotal in our timeline. My starting point was thinking about the way that warfare accelerates technological change. What could it mean for politics on both sides of the Atlantic, if progress in key areas never happened in the second decade of the 20th century? The 1930s could look very different…

I hope you enjoy this story along with the others, and do take a look at this years other anthologies Portals and Temporally Deactivated.

In a new look for existing books, I am pleased to say the next six weeks will see ebook editions of The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution coming out from Gollancz Gateway. I’m very much hoping these books will find a new audience, so spread the word!