I'm a professional writer of epic fantasy novels and assorted shorter fiction which includes forays into SF, dark/urban fantasy and occasional tie-in fiction. I review across the speculative genre online and in print magazines, notably Interzone and Albedo One. I've also written genre criticism and related articles. I'm currently serving as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and for the James White Short Story Award.

World Fantasy Awards 2018 – as a judge, I’ll be doing a lot of reading…

In other news this week, the World Fantasy Awards Association has announced the judges for the 2018 World Fantasy Awards, and I am looking forward to serving alongside David Anthony Durham, Christopher Golden, Charles Vess and Kaaron Warren.

The categories are: novel, long fiction, short fiction, anthology, collection, artist, special award (professional) and special award (non-professional), as well as life achievement. So it’s going to be a lot of reading, which I’ll be approaching with keen interest as well as writerly rigour. The judging discussions promise to be very interesting.

You may be assured I thought long and hard before taking this on. It’s an honour to be asked, which made it all the more important to assess my schedule for the first half of next year, to be certain I could commit the necessary time to do a good job.

For more details, you can check out this File 770 post.

VATMOSS – the last post (?)

As promised, we’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of the promised VATMOSS reforms, over at the EU VAT Action Campaign.

Today, the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) signed off on the reforms. Here’s the official press release.

There are a couple of things in the small print that we’re double checking. Meantime, the tl:dr version is – we won! Below cross-border digital sales of €10,000, national VAT rules will apply, which in the UK means small businesses are free of that particular burden. And if you are doing that amount of digital business, there are now payment/transaction systems that are a viable overhead at that level. Up to €100,000 the rules are also simplified, again reducing costs and admin.

This doesn’t come into force until 1st January 2019, alas. But bear in mind on 4th December 2014, I was sitting in a meeting with the relevant department heads from HM Treasury, HMRC and a government minister, telling me and everyone else that there was nothing to be done, it would all be fine, and we should just go away and not worry our pretty little heads about it (I am paraphrasing slightly…)

Half a dozen of us self-employed women weren’t about to accept that, so we went off to find somewhere for lunch and the EU VAT Action Campaign was the result.

What does this mean in practical terms? If you’re new to the VATMOSS fiasco, here are a few reasons why the 2015 regulations, devised with minimal understanding of the current state of digital commerce, were so disastrous.

VAT rules to catch Amazon will incidentally crush small businesses.

The damage done to consumers by all this

Discrimination caused by these new rules

Why selling through 3rd party marketplaces isn’t an answer

The EU VAT Action Team’s impact study.

What does this mean for me personally? I am hugely thankful for my colleagues in the EU VAT Action Campaign, most notably Clare Josa who put in so many dedicated hours, and such effective, charming intransigence when faced with officialdom repeatedly trying to brush us off.

We owe an incalculable debt to Nicholas Whyte known throughout SFF circles, as a Doctor Who fan, an able Hugo Awards administrator, and indefatigable reader of a prodigous quantity of books. In his day job, as senior director, global solutions in APCO’s Brussels office, has more than two decades of experience in international affairs, advocacy and research. He counsels APCO’s clients on ally development and coalition building, advocacy, public affairs and strategic communication. He got in touch after my first blogpost about this, to convince me that yes, the EU Commission could be convinced this was a mistake, and here’s how to start going about it…

We can be very precise about the contribution made by Jason Kingsley of Rebellion . It was absolutely vital that we sent Clare Josa to the Fiscalis Summit in Dublin, in September 2015, to convey the full extent of the damage being done to the Finance ministers and chancellors of the European states. Jason stepped in to make sure we reached our fundraising target to cover the costs of sending her. As co-founder and CEO of one of the UK’s largest computer games companies, and of Rebellion Publishing, he really understands the digital economy. Outside the office, he’s also, quite literally, a knight in shining armour on a white horse. Seriously, click that link.

Given SF&F publishing took to the digital realm early and enthusiastically, this was set to hit our genre hard. The flipside of that was the widespread and ongoing support our campaign got from small presses, independent authors and fandom, in spreading the word, boosting the signal, writing letters and helping raise funds. Once again, I am very grateful to all.

Lastly, I was given the BFS Karl Wagner Award in 2015 for my work on behalf of authors and independent presses on this issue, alongside my writing. Today’s result puts the final polish on that. Okay, I didn’t imagine they’d ask for it back, if for some reason we couldn’t see this through but still…

A writing opportunities round-up, for SF&F and non-genre projects.

I’m currently reading and writing about Mars, for the ‘Second Round’ anthology coming next year from ZNB. Don’t forget that the current ZNB anthologies have open submission slots and the deadline is 31st December. You can find the full guidelines here.

THE RAZOR’S EDGE is to feature science fiction or fantasy stories that explore the fine line between a rebel and an insurgent. It is a military science fiction and fantasy anthology. We are attempting to fill half of the anthology with science fiction stories, and half with fantasy stories. Stories featuring more interesting settings and twists on the typical themes will receive more attention than those that use standard tropes. In other words, we don’t want to see 100 stories dealing with the general fighting insurgents who joins their cause at the end. If we do, it’s likely that only one, at most, would be selected for the anthology. So be creative, choose something different, and use it in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

GUILDS & GLAIVES is to feature sword & sorcery stories where a guild is featured somewhere in the story. So thieves, assassins, and dark magic, but with a guild or guilds incorporated into the story somehow. Obviously most such stories will be fantasy, but we are interested in science fiction takes on this theme. Stories featuring more interesting takes on the guilds, and twists on how they are integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with the standard thieves guild or assassins guild. So be creative and use your guild in an unusual and unexpected way. We are looking for a range of tones, from humorous all the way up to dark.

SECOND ROUND: A RETURN TO THE URBAR is to feature stories where the time-traveling Urbar, first used in the anthology AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE URBAR, is a central part of the plot. The story may start in the bar, end in the bar, or be in the bar somewhere in the middle, but at some point a significant plot point must involve the Urbar. Stories featuring more interesting historical settings for the bar, and twists on how the bar is integrated into the story, will receive more attention than those with more standard uses of the bar, or where the bar is only incidental to the rest of the story. So be creative and use bar in an unusual and unexpected way, preferably in an unusual or unexpected era of history.

I’m also thinking how amazing it is that I can access real photos of Mars from my computer here in Oxfordshire thanks to the assorted probes and rovers sent all that way. And rewatching The Martian is going to count as research, right?

In other interesting projects looking for submissions from unpublished writers, I spotted this from Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Hometown Tales aims to celebrate regional diversity by publishing voices from across the UK. Each book will feature work from two writers – one established and one previously unpublished, found through open submissions – both writing about the places they think of as home.

The first initiative of its kind to focus on regional diversity, Hometown Tales will provide a platform for new writers, helping them to launch the first step of their careers, edited and mentored by our team. The books will be published in paperback and ebook in June 2018

There’s a lot more information and full submission details here.

Then there’s The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 15 Call For Submissions. No, you don’t need to be a mechanic! Or to have any link with Birkbeck College where this is based.

The Mechanics’ is a literary print and ebook publication that aims to champion the short story as an art form, promoting diversity, inclusivity and opportunity while publishing new work of the highest possible standard. Thanks to funding from Arts Council England, The Mechanics’ has gone national, widening its reach to find and develop talent from throughout the country. We are looking for unpublished short stories of up to 6,000 words from both new and established authors. The deadline for submission is 5 p.m. on Friday 9 February 2018.

Once again, full details here.

It’s really encouraging to see opportunities like this out there!

A few thoughts on literary agents.

There’s a thing going around on Twitter, from a US small press saying that they only work with unagented writers now, and any agented writers they accept will be required to drop the aforementioned agent.

My guess is this outfit want to tap into the ‘real indie authors go it alone and stick it to The Man by making a fortune’ mythology that never mentions the millions of writers with shattered dreams to set against the very few high-profile successes.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this is a huge red flag, as umpteen people have pointed out, and has more usefully, started conversations about literary agents.

Are they essential? No. Are they extremely useful? Most definitely. Are the majority of writers well-advised to work with one? Absolutely. This is one reason why publishers who take on unagented writers usually recommend they get an agent at that point. It works out best for everyone in the long run, in most cases.

I did my first deal without an agent but I knew a fair bit about contract law from a professional qualification, plus I had back up from The Society of Authors. Anyone with a contract offer should get advice from them or a similar professional body.

In passing, I’ll just mention that I walked away from a publishing contract I was offered about a year ago, when SoA advice confirmed my misgivings. It was a perfectly legal and legit offer – but a lousy one in terms of who would earn what, and the backing the book could expect. If you’re working unagented, you need to be ready to walk away.

Back in 1997 I replied to that first offer letter/contract with 3 pages of clauses to add, clauses to amend and clauses to strike. This is not typical debut author behaviour. This is where most new writers find having an agent is essential, because if publishers can get away with minimising their obligations, they will. This is business and authors need to understand that. Agents do understand that, and that’s why reputable publishers are happy to work with them.

As my career progressed, I got a literary agent to handle all the more complex stuff like foreign rights etc to free up my time to write. That decision earned me far more than paying the agent’s commission cost me. It’s good business sense.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked succesfully without an agent and with different agents, as has suited me at the time. That has always been my choice. I will never work with a publisher who insists I drop an agent. There can be no good reason for that.

Yes, there are crooks and charlatans out there calling themselves literary agents, just like crooks and charlatans calling themselves publishers, Authors must always do their research and be alert for scams or bad deals. That’s a different conversation.

Forensic Fencing: What can damage on blades tell us about medieval swordsmanship?

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, who can be in Oxford for 2pm on Saturday 25th November, there’s going to be an absolutely fascinating talk by James Hester (University of Southampton) , courtesy of The Society for the History of Medieval Technology and Science.

“The martial arts of Europe were just as sophisticated as those of Asia. However, as the weapons concerned declined in use, the arts were gradually forgotten. Only in the last thirty years have efforts been made to study surviving sources in an attempt to understand, and perhaps re-create, these lost techniques.

We are fortunate in having a wealth of surviving late medieval arms and armour in collections throughout the world, including many beautiful and well-preserved swords. Closer examination of some of these reveals traces of their former use preserved as notches, rolled edges, and wear patterns on the blade. Having not been previously investigated in detail, this talk will discuss part of my PhD research in which I analyse these damaged blades to gain insights into medieval swordplay. Focusing on the period between 1350 and 1500, this includes the ways in which different parts of the weapon were used, the types of techniques that may have been most common, and also any possible shift in technique that could have taken place throughout the period covered.

Perhaps ‘reading’ the blades will prove a major key to recovering these lost martial arts.”

The talk will be in the seminar room at The Museum of the History of Science, Old Ashmolean Building, Broad Street, Oxford
Use the outside staircases to go down to glass doors and the seminar room. Free to Members and Students, all others £5.

I shall be there. If you are, introduce yourself!

Guest Post – Lucy Hounsom, Starborn, and reinventing epic fantasy

I’m reviewing Starborn, first volume of The Worldmaker Trilogy, for my next Albedo One column, and with the final book out in December, this seems an ideal time for a guest post from Lucy.

Upon discovering Tolkien at 14 years old, I knew I would lose my heart to fantasy. Some months and several authors later, I realised I wanted to write for a living. I’d been at drama school for six years, but decided to drop it all in favour of locking myself away with a notebook, computer and a handful of ideas, which I hoped to fashion into a story. The authors I read as a teen are considered giants of the genre: Brooks, Goodkind, Pratchett, Jordan, Eddings, Garner – to name just a few. They were also overwhelmingly male. I didn’t know it then, but this fact and the implications it carried, would have a profound effect on my own writing.

Constructing an epic fantasy can seem a herculean task. The temptation when starting out is to create a ‘world bible’ – an encyclopaedia of a world’s society, religion, customs and culture. While this works for some authors, I’ve taken a more organic approach, letting the characters discover the world as they go. It means I’m not tempted to cram in a lot of omniscient information my characters couldn’t possibly know and it prevents the worldbuilding getting in the way of the story. I also like to consider each chapter a mini story in itself, which I can then link together once I have the whole thing down. Otherwise the sheer number of words left to write feels insurmountable.

I suppose some might call The Worldmaker Trilogy heroic rather than epic; at 130,000 words a book, it’s hardly the largest fantasy ever written. But it owes a debt to one of the most famous epics, The Wheel of Time, which I discovered at the impressionable age of 17. I loved the sweeping sense of history in Jordan’s series, the personal stories played out against a backdrop of turmoil. It’s this fight against unknowable hostile forces – a reflection of our own grappling with the things beyond our control – that I found so compelling. It’s what fantasy does best.

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the predominantly male-authored epics I so enjoyed as a teenager are problematic. As a genre built on archetypes, fantasy is particularly vulnerable to becoming stuck in a loop of restrictive thinking. Archetypes aren’t negative in and of themselves – they’re universal patterns of behaviour. But they do provide a framework on which to hang stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that have the potential to damage. Fantasy is inherently nostalgic, often bent on recreating a lost world somehow better than the one we have now. This can lead to a sort of homogenised pseudo-past, in which we romanticise aspects of society that a. weren’t great and b. weren’t true. The European Medievalist world popularised by Tolkien is especially guilty of this and is so over-used that it now comes with its own predetermined settings, the most worrying of which are racial stereotypes, a lack of female agency and misrepresentation of the LGBTQ communities.

Growing up under the auspices of traditional western fantasy, it took me a full draft to realise I’d inherited some of these problematic stereotypes and copied others, notably the heroic male’s journey. The genre is saturated with the whole boy becomes a man narrative, which relegates women to the side-lines. I had made a subconscious decision to follow suit and the first incarnation of Starborn featured a male protagonist. Realising I could write an epic fantasy with a woman at its heart was part revelation, part no brainer. I’ve spoken a little about the process of switching Kyndra’s gender here.

Although it’s a decision I’m glad I made, that doesn’t mean to say I threw out every trope. After all, my trilogy is in large part an ode to old favourites like Dragonlance and The Belgariad. But they and their contemporaries are very much products of their time, a time we no longer live in. Speculative fiction should be a progressive genre and even backward-looking fantasy must adapt and change to survive. So I’ve kept recognisable tropes, choosing to reinvent instead of abandon. My chosen one is no shining knight, or noble-hearted farm boy, but a flawed young woman who steers her own destiny, sometimes poorly. The autocratic empire brings technological benefits at the price of cultural oppression. One man’s heroism is another man’s tyranny. Overall, I’m trying to show that there are two sides to every story and that evil lies in actions, not ideology.

Dyed-in-the-wool tropes also extend to gender. I’ve kept the love triangle, but reversed the usual roles, putting a man between two women. An older man manipulates a younger man instead of the traditional younger woman. Because my world is not patriarchal, women aren’t excluded from male-associated professions like smithing, engineering, the military and the merchant elite. There is so much more to explore when it comes to gender, sexual identity and societal roles; I’ve barely scratched the surface, acknowledging my own biases and inherited opinion in the process. Now, more so than ever before, we need to be aware of these concerns, to equip ourselves to better address them in our writing, so that they may be discussed openly without fear of censure or harassment.

I’ve grown up on a diet of blokes-in-cloaks fantasy – a feature publishing defends with remarkable tenacity given how much of it is out there and how tiring it is to pick up yet another testosterone-fuelled epic. But fantasy is still growing in popularity and the grimdark arena of Game of Thrones is no longer its sole setting. From scarred dystopian landscapes to the intrigues of faerie courts, young adult fantasy can offer a pacier, character-driven alternative. However, the twin rise of grimdark and YA has left an odd and unexpected gap in the market, making it tricky to find adult fantasy of the kind that helped birth the genre, fantasy in the vein of Le Guin, of Canavan, of McKillip and Hobb: fantasy that serves as a graduation of sorts from YA into adult, where the camera zooms out and world events play a more central role. ‘New adult’ is a term that never really took off, but I see it as an essential bridge between these two extremes. Focusing on character and storytelling, but without the brutal nihilism that distinguishes grimdark, this is where I’d like to think my trilogy sits.

lucyhounsom.co.uk
Twitter: @silvanhistorian
Facebook: lucyhounsom

Thoughts on ‘Bitten’ – the Kelley-Armstrong-inspired TV series

As a long-standing fan of the ‘Otherworld’ series of urban fantasy books written by Kelley Armstrong, I was naturally interested when Netflix UK flagged up this Canadian series to me. There are three series in total, of thirteen, ten and ten episodes respectively, broadcast from 2014 to 2016. I’ve been watching them from start to finish over the past month.

Elena Michaels is the world’s only female werewolf. Only men naturally inherit the condition and for some reason, at least until now, women seem unable to survive the trauma of ‘the change’ after being bitten. The Pack lives among mankind in a covert, parallel society with rigid, merciless rules. Elena is trying to find her own way to live free of such claustrophobic restrictions without condemning herself. Unfortunately, there are those within that hidden world ready to use the secrets which she cannot betray as a weapon against her. The desire for power, advantage and control turns out to be common to humanity and to werewolves.

Inevitably as a writer myself, and a fan, I’ve been watching with half an eye on the adaptation, and that’s been done very well. The cast of characters and the number of locations has been intelligently pared down with an understanding of the different, more linear nature of TV story-telling, when compared to a book. And yes, doubtless with a view to budgetary considerations but that’s only commonsense. New characters have been added to facilitate the exploration of aspects of werewolf pack life that could be conveyed directly in a written first-person narrative. Aspects of real life that have changed since the first book came out in 2001 are also deftly incorporated, such as the Net and the ubiquity of mobile phones

Overall, the atmosphere of the books is well maintained, and the adaptation does not shy away from the sensuality and the violence that are both integral elements of the written series. Crucially these two things are not confused or conflated, and the sex is both tasteful and even-handed in terms of point of view. For the viewer, the female gaze is assuredly catered for, with the quality and the quantity of well-muscled male physiques on show.

When it comes to the violence, the body count is substantial and there’s a good deal of gore. These deaths matter. The writers clearly understand that if a loss doesn’t have an impact for a story’s characters, then that doesn’t count for the viewer. Consequently, overall, I found the tone darker than the books, and still more so in the second and third series, where the stories diverge significantly from the written series. That’s by no means a criticism. It’s a distinct plus that I was kept guessing as to where the narrative might go. As a fan of the books, I was more than content to see this as an alternate timeline for already familiar characters. For those who don’t know the books, this also means that the narrative is more than sufficiently coherent and self-contained for viewing without that background reading.

So I’ve certainly enjoyed watching this series. I also now find myself contemplating a start-to-finish reread of the original books over the Christmas and New Year break…

Bonnie Greer: The Feminine, Africa, and Constructing an African Hedda Gabler

I wasn’t able to get to this year’s Lady English lecture at St Hilda’s, but thanks to the marvels of modern technology, it’s available online. I’m hoping to get to it over the weekend.

Playwright and arts commentator Bonnie Greer discusses her adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in which she casts Hedda as an African woman,as well as why she believes many male adapters have got Hedda wrong, what she thinks Ibsen intended, and the notion of ‘Africa’ and people of African descent in the ‘West’.

Click here for the St Hilda’s JdP Music Building livestream webpage.

In other news, I’m very busy! We’re heading into the final stages of preparing The Green Man’s Heir for publication. This is a modern fantasy novel that will be coming soon from Wizard’s Tower Press. I had great fun at last week’s Bristolcon, and am currently preparing for what promises to be an excellent weekend at Novacon. I also have my review column for Albedo One to write… So I’ll get back to all that.

Still more reasons why little, local museums are a treasure trove for writers

I’ve written before about illuminating discoveries in local museums, such as finding the works of Rolinda Sharples in the Bristol Museum and Gallery, challenging the notion (among others) that women historically stayed at home doing nothing much. Our recent week in Wales turned up some interesting evidence to counter assumptions about traditionally masculine skills and pastimes.

We visited Swansea Museum and in common with many local museums up and down the country at the moment, they have a sizeable current exhibition on the local experience of World War One. The displays cover life in the trenches, and on the home front, looking at the full gamut of lives affected and the contributions of men and women alike, in fighting on land and at sea, in nursing and in war work in industry and agriculture, as well as the experiences of conscientious objectors. The updates on the later lives of those who survived the Western Front made for very interesting reading, including men who’d lost limbs or survived other appalling experiences. Some never recovered, mentally or physically. Others simply went back to their families and former lives working in the coal mines, on the docks and on the farms, with or without artificial limbs, or lingering shrapnel working its way out of their flesh for decades after.

Part of the transition from the unreality of war back to civilian life was what we would now call occupational therapy. The display cases had a fine range of decorative pin cushions, embroidered keepsakes and belts etc, made by wounded soldiers and those on active duty alike, sent home to wives and sweethearts. A few were a bit rough and ready but most were made to a very high standard, showing both craft and dedication.

Fancy needlework? For manly men? Yes, and when you think about it, what’s so surprising about that? Every soldier’s kit included needle and thread, as making running repairs to uniforms would have been routinely required. This fancy needlework was a way of connecting with home, as well as occupying hands and minds amid the trials and tribulations as well as the extended periods of boredom that make up warfare. If books and newspapers were available, not everyone wants to read.

More than that, I remembered a piece I’d heard on Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few years back, about treating PTSD in soldiers suffering after modern wars. Therapists have been teaching patients to knit. They have discovered that patients benefit from talking through traumatic experiences at the same time as having their hands and part of their attention occupied with such a task. These memories become denatured, less intrusive, as the brain somehow reprograms itself in a way that doesn’t happen when talking without such activity allows the memory to replay awful events with undiminished horror.

It seems that the British Army may have cottoned on to this, whether or not they realised it, well over a hundred years ago. There were similar examples of embroidery from WWI and earlier in The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh Regiment in Brecon, as well as a very fine patchwork table covering made up of scraps from uniform tunics in scarlet, green and cream wool cloth.

Incidentally, while celebrating the heroic service of this regiment’s soldiers all over the world, and most notably at Rorke’s Drift, the particular museum wasn’t in the least bombastic or jingoistic about the ‘glory days of Empire’. There were clear and concise explanations of the short-sighted and divisive actions and decisions by British governments and generals which prompted local protests and unrest, resulting in the wars which young men were sent to fight across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. These days, such military museums have moved well beyond ‘My country, right or wrong!’.

There’s so much for the writer in all this. A reminder that what we might consider women’s skills and hobbies nowadays, weren’t always so. A reminder that life goes on before, around and after dramatic, traumatic events, both for whoever might be at the centre of it, and for their family and friends. A reminder that ordinary people cope in different ways with extraordinary events.

I’m not yet sure how these various things will work their way into my writing but experience tells me they will. Meantime, support your local museums!

Writing about a wizard called Shiv, and understanding why representation matters.

A while ago I got an email from a Tales of Einarinn reader, enthusing about the wizard Shiv. This is not unusual; he’s a very popular character. Let me tell you a bit about him. As I’ve said many times since The Thief’s Gamble was published in 1999, I wanted to write a high fantasy adventure challenging the more tiresome clichés of the genre in the 80s and 90s.

Shiv and Livak, art by Andrew Hepworth

So Shiv’s a wizard, and he’s a talented one, but not a pontificating greybeard who never actually does much magic. He’s got a sense of humour, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and get the job done by whatever means might be necessary. He’s alert, intelligent and a loyal friend.

Oh, and incidentally, he’s gay. That’s because I encountered a conundrum in the story I wanted to tell. I was determined to avoid all those fantasy romance clichés of Our Heroine doing all her brave deeds for the love of A Good Man. I was much more interested in friendship and mutual respect as motivation. So Livak and Shiv were never going to fall into bed together. However, I did want Livak to have a sex life that wasn’t yet another romantic cliché. The thing was though, given the choice between Shiv and the alternatives…?

Okay, I thought, that’s not an issue if Shiv is gay. I’ve always had gay and lesbian friends, and I was aiming to make Einarinn a realistic world, so no problem there. Could I think of other gay characters in SF&F back then? Bear in mind I was writing the first draft of this book twenty one years ago. Not many and all too often that sexuality was coupled with unpleasant character flaws. So that was definitely an ill-thought-out and over-used cliché that deserved a kicking.

Okay but… how, as a straight mother of two, could I write an honest and emotionally realistic gay character without leaving my gay and lesbian friends wincing or giggling? As it happened, I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference in Oxford when I was writing the first draft of Thief, and the crime writer Val McDermid was there. Val happens to be gay. We’d both been going to this conference for a couple of years and became friends, so I asked her advice back then.

She said ‘make no more of this character’s sexuality than you would of any other character’s.’ Which is one of those things that’s so blindingly obvious when someone says it, but until someone says it, it’s can be very hard to see! It was the key to writing Shiv for me.

Since then, I’ve discovered he’s a character who’s had far more impact on people’s lives than I ever expected. Since The Thief’s Gamble was first published, I’ve had letters and now emails from readers, telling me just how much they have valued encountering a positive example of a likeable, loyal, quick-witted, and when necessary bad-ass man who happens to also be gay. Far more younger male readers than I could have imagined, found reading about Shiv offered them a helping hand as they came to terms with their own sexuality, amid all the other complexities of teenage life.

Then there are the others, far fewer but also significant. Young men who’d been raised with unthinking homophobia, who were prompted to rethink those ideas after encountering Shiv. Young men who decided to leave such prejudices behind, as they concluded someone’s positive personal qualities are what really counts.

This is intensely rewarding as an author and also genuinely humbling because I never set out to Do Good in my writing, but merely to write honestly about emotionally realistic people caught up in fantastic events. But that’s the thing. This isn’t about me. A book is never only about the writer.

Readers see all sorts of things in fiction’s magic mirror which the author never expected or intended. All sorts of readers should see themselves reflected there. This is why diversity and representation in fiction matters. This is why what I’ve learned thanks to Shiv continues to inform my own work.