Posts belonging to Category creative writing

Mental health in fantasy fiction – where to draw the lines and how to do the colouring in?

A #HoldOnToTheLight post


The best fantasy is always rooted in reality and often it’s exploring harsh reality. A hundred years ago, a young officer invalided home from World War One began writing the poems and myths that would lead on to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote from his own experiences amid predominately male colleagues, struggling against brutal forces threatening to end the way of life that he cherished. His work reflects that – among other things. In the decades that have followed, the best fantasy fiction has continued such exploration and has expanded to encompass so much more.

Successive writers have considered the challenges faced by those marginalised through prejudice towards gender or race, and by those struggling with physical infirmity without sympathy or support – alongside eternal battles between Dark and Light and other classic themes. Where these stories are most readable and most memorable, their authors have avoided the pitfalls of worthy moralizing by making these challenges intrinsic to the narrative they’re creating. Nowadays increasing numbers of diverse voices across SF&F draw on their personal experience to give such stories ever more realistic depth and complexity.

So what about mental health? Because that’s part of our reality. Not just for writers by the way, or artists or musicians or anyone else creative. This idea that we must ‘suffer for our art’ or that there’s some mystical inspiration to be found in depression or anything else is one of the biggest myths out there. Along with all the authors I know, I’m at my most creative and inspired when I’m relaxed and content with my life. Just like everyone else.

Challenges to everybody’s peace of mind are constant and recurrent and surely that’s going to be same for fully rounded characters in fantasy fiction? How does a writer tackle this? By drawing on our own experience? This is where it gets tricky and not just because there’s still such stigma attached to admitting to depression or some other mental health condition, not least for fear that will be wholly and only how people will define you ever afterwards.

I’ve had two significant episodes of clinical depression in my life, requiring medication, therapy and support from qualified professionals. Thankfully that’s decades behind me now but from a writerly point of view, drawing on that experience would be problematic. Not for fear of giving away too much about myself, but because I clearly remember how being depressed is so horribly tedious. It’s dull, it’s monotonous, it’s never-ending (or so it seems at the time). It’s such wretchedly hard work to just get through a day and the only reward is another unutterably wearisome day exactly like it. All those metaphors about being weighed down with burdens, about struggling through a morass? Bunyan’s Slough of Despond? They’re classics because they’re so true.

None of which will make for fun reading, certainly in a major point of view character. Spending an entire morning summoning up the mental fortitude to leave the house to buy a pint of milk isn’t really the stuff of high heroics and thrilling adventure. So how do we square this circle of accurately reflecting life in all its aspects, good and bad, without writing a dismal story that sinks under waves of gloom?

Well, there’s including a significant character in the overall ensemble who’s got through depression and come out the other side. I have travelled that road twice after all, thanks to the help I received. That enabled me to identify the causes of my depression, both those specific to, and different for, each episode and the more deep-rooted, underlying issues common to both. More than that, I learned to spot early warning signs; to realise when I might be going down those same paths again. The mental wellness toolkit I’ve assembled as a result has enabled me to steer clear of the worst ever since.

That’s all well and good from a writing point of view and could potentially make for an interesting character arc, as long as it was unobtrusively integrated into the story. Done badly, it could be clumsy tokenism. It would also be horribly easy for writing that character to tip over into seemingly saying ‘See? If you can just pull yourself together, everything will be fine!’ Hearing that advice, however honestly well-meant, is one of the few things that can goad a depressed person to exhausted fury. That’s just not how it works. I remember that vividly too.

So what do we do, as writers? Give up, because it’s too difficult? But isn’t being a writer all about tackling the difficult stuff through fiction, in order to make sense of real life’s challenges? And representation matters, as we see proved time and time again, as SF&F moves however slowly and imperfectly towards a more genuine reflection of modern life, with all our variations of gender, race and physical capability. Don’t those facing the unseen challenges of mental health issues deserve to see their reality reflected too?

So let’s take a second look at those ways in which SF&F has developed beyond the “great deeds of great white men” point of view. Let’s look at successful examples of representation in fiction for women, for people of colour and so many more. These are invariably the characters for whom those issues are merely one facet of their lives and personalities. Yes, these things inform their choices, their relationships and thus, influence their role in a story, but these characters are never solely or wholly defined by that one overarching trait. Just like, y’know, real people.

So let’s write characters experiencing ups and downs in their mental health as honestly as we can. Let’s have them alongside people with chronic physical conditions, or recurrently disastrous love-lives, or dealing with something else entirely, not as tick-box tokens but as part of the gamut of believable people playing their part in our stories. Let’s write these characters with friends and support that can help them with their struggles, because that’s how things happen in real life. Let’s not sugar-coat their difficulties or underplay those challenges, because that’s real life as well. Progress towards mental wellness is so often very hard-won, and with setbacks along the way. Let’s never forget to do our due diligence and research, where we’re writing outside our own experience.

Then just maybe someone trying to understand the plight of a friend with depression will gain some helpful understanding. Maybe someone in the midst of those throes will see a glimmer of unforeseen light in that particular reflection of the darkness they know so well.

Is this the answer? Well, it’s one answer. I’m working my way through such questions and this is where I’ve got to thus far. No, it’s not easy to find constructive ways forward but I intend to keep trying, as well staying open to other people’s comments and suggestions. Because I know that’s what will make me a better writer.

About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to and join us on Facebook

So epublishing’s great for short stories – but how exactly do you do an anthology…?

The advent of ebooks has made all sorts of differences to the publishing landscape. The resurgence of shorter form fiction is merely one example. Now we’re seeing standalone stories about our favourite characters. We’re seeing writers gathering up short stories they’ve written for widely scattered publications and issuing them as collections (like my River Kingdom stories). We’re seeing authors getting together to write stories around a common theme – with some uncommonly good results, as seen in ‘Alien Artifacts’. Readers can now enjoy all these different approaches via their phones and tablets, as they travel to and from work and/or in other bits and pieces of downtime which don’t necessarily suit the next chapter of a novel.

But as with so much in epublishing, just throwing something together and throwing it out there isn’t going to win success. There’s just as much hard work involved, requiring the application of specific skills, involved in making an anthology which people will read, enjoy and recommend, as there is in epublishing a novel. One key difference is – there’s all manner of useful advice out there on how to write a good book. How to put together a decent anthology? Not so much.

Realising this has thankfully prompted Joshua Palmatier to embark on a detailed and illuminating series of posts, drawn from his own experience editing anthologies first for DAW and more recently for ZNBLLC. If you’re thinking of doing any sort of collection, this is essential reading. Even if you’re not, I’ll bet you’ll learn something new and useful.

And since we’re here, let’s check on the latest ZNB Kickstarter – for three intriguing anthologies so far. At the time of writing? $16,899 pledged of the $20,000 goal with 8 days to go.

Close enough to be thrilling. Far enough away to be challenging. I really do want to see these anthologies funded, so if you haven’t already checked them out, do go and take a look!

ZNB-alien artefacts

Good things on the Internet – SFF Writers blog for mental wellness #HoldOnToTheLight

The best writing reflects real life and day to day challenges to mental health are a reality for everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. Through September and October dozens of authors will be blogging about mental wellness, mental illness, depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD treatment and related issues.

Gosh, that sounds like a whole load of fun… really?

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t some worthy gloom-fest. Look at that hashtag #HoldOnToTheLight. This initiative is about illumination, about exploration, about using the power of the Internet for something positive.

Few things are as isolating as the struggle for mental health. This campaign is already highlighting that whatever your particular challenge may be, you are not alone. If you’re desperate to help a burdened friend but don’t know what to do for the best, see what you can learn from the experiences of those who’ve already been there and done that, from both sides of the issue.

So check out that hashtag on Twitter. Keep your eyes open on Facebook and other social media. I’ll be writing my own post towards the end of this month.

Meantime, here’s more from Gail Z Martin about the project.


Why Golden Age crime writers banned ‘The Chinaman’ and other notes.

I spent the past weekend at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference, and as always, came away with a broad range of interesting notes and thought-provoking questions. This year, the papers explored the question of genre: asking just what is crime fiction? So here are just a few things that came up, necessarily in brief.

The conference opens on Friday evening with drinks, a dinner and a guest speaker. This year that was Ted Childs, the TV producer who brought ‘Morse’ to the small screen. It was fascinating to hear how that all came about, back in the day when ITV was still very much a collection of regional broadcasters. As well as an affectionate and nostalgic reminder of John Thaw’s talents, among others, his talk was also a reminder of just how ground-breaking the production was back then; two hour episodes on film rather than video, recruiting writers and directors from stage and movie backgrounds. Without Morse, it’s fair to say the TV landscape of today would look very different, and not just for detective dramas.

On Saturday morning, Elly Griffiths looked at the changes in domestic life, particularly domestic interiors from the Regency to the Victorian era when crime fiction first emerged. As her slides showed, the Victorians surrounded themselves with stuff in a way their forebears never had. In this age of uncertainty, as science challenged religious certainty, as new philosophies challenged political certainties, the home became a sanctuary, filled with all this stuff holding emotional resonance and value of its own. Thus invasion of this home, in an age that could feel so threatening, becomes all the more shocking and transgressive? The home itself could become claustrophobic and tyrannical, provoking extreme acts and emotions. There’s a lot to think about there.

Jane Finnis proposed various lines to be drawn between fairy tales and crime fiction and not just the restorative justice aspects, though that is certainly important. Consider how many fairy tales involve looking for clues and solving a puzzle. Once you start looking, you can find a lot of fairy tale themes that crime fiction has retold, reinterpreted and developed for the modern, mass-reading audience. Issues of trust, deception and self-reliance. Then there’s the formula of ‘a long time ago, in a land far far away’ which removes the threat, the abominable acts, the violent retribution, to a safe distance while still allowing the reader to see the value of using one’s wits and challenging evil. Consider how many people who read mystery fiction really do not like true crime writing and how many writers feel uneasy about drawing too closely on real atrocities and tragedies. ‘Far too close to home’ is a telling phrase.

This was of particular interest to me given I’m increasingly convinced that folklore and fairy tales are an undervalued precursor to epic fantasy fiction in its current form. Especially when you look back to the original tales as collected by Grimm, Perrault etc, rather than their subsequent sanitised forms. Where, incidentally, female characters can have a lot more agency than later versions allow them, as was remarked on at the weekend.

Conference Guest of Honour Lee Child went even further back. He proposed the thriller as the original fiction that everything else has stemmed from, thanks to its original evolutionary purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll be pleased to know that this was livestreamed at the time and you can watch the recording here.

And all that was just Saturday morning! After lunch, Martin Edwards looked at the resurgent interest in and fashionability of Golden Age crime fiction – principally those books published between the World Wars. He’s involved in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics now being republished, editing their anthologies and consulting on the series as a whole. A closer look at those writers, their themes and their villains does give the lie to the ‘snobbery with violence’, ‘Downton Malice’ interpretation based on partial knowledge of Christie, Sayers, Allingham et al. He drew on a good few parallels with concerns then and those of our own times, most notably distrust and disillusion with politicians and rapacious money men as villains and unsympathetic victims. Carol Westron explored the various ‘Rules’ for detective fiction that contemporary writers produced back then and once again, closer examination shows that the genre writing of that era was considerably more complex than a glance at these supposed guidelines might suggest. Most of the successful writers broke them wholesale.

Something both speakers touched on was the ‘No Chinamen!’ dictum of the time, which can and has been held up as a symptom of that era’s endemic racism polluting crime fiction. Except… looking at contemporary discussions of that point, a great many more interesting angles arise. ‘The Yellow Peril’ was the bogeyman of the age, to such an extent that at one point, no fewer than five West End plays in production were blatantly sinophobic, not to mention the on-going hostility and shock-horror stories about ‘orientals’ in the popular press. Genre commentary at the time warned crime writers off pandering to such ill-judged and unsubstantiated prejudice – and of the dangers of bad writing in doing so – by so lazily seizing on the villain of the moment. The parallels with contemporary islamophobia are striking. Of course, views on race and ethnicity nearly a century ago remain a world away from our own but this is a salutary reminder that the past is a good deal more nuanced than we might be tempted to think.

Further papers looked at the development of various sub-genres within crime and mystery fiction, from past to present. Andrew Taylor looked at historical fiction, while Shona MacLean considered the challenges of writing such books from the professional historian’s viewpoint. Kate Charles reviewed the origins and growth of clerical detectives as a niche while Chris Ewan looked at humorous crime fiction. Sarah Weinman reviewed the originators of domestic suspense – because these books were being written decades before the current slew of ‘Girl in/on/who’ best-seller titles as the ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ collections make very clear. Lastly but by no means least, Marcia Talley looked at murder least foul – the ‘cosy’.

I can’t attempt to summarise these papers as they were all wide-ranging and came with copious examples of writers laying the ground work for such varied writing as far back as the 20s and 30s. Many of them were women asking questions of women, which has now somehow been airbrushed out of popular memory. Looking at the ways in which each sub-genre is still reflecting and testing the core tenets of crime fiction, its central themes and archetypes was and will continue to be fascinating for me.

The frequently under-estimated skills required were mentioned more than once. The challenge of making historical characters both of their time and accessible to modern readers is significant. Using humour not to make light of the awful reality of murder but for example, to hold up the corrupt to ridicule alongside grim events, is no easy trick. Similarly there’s considerable craft in achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief to make an amateur sleuth work in this day and age without tipping over into the ridiculous. And given the protagonists and primary market for cosy mysteries are mostly women, it’s hard not to conclude there’s quite some misogyny in the disdain those books so often attract.

Regular readers here will be seeing the echoes and correspondences with ongoing debates within SF&Fantasy that I did. I found many of the same concerns we have about our own genre with regard to retail and publishing trends. This is primarily a conference about the fiction but you won’t be surprised to learn I had a few shop-talk conversations with other authors. Publisher mergers and restructuring have caused similar carnage of late, especially among the mid-list. Editorial decisions seem to be driven by marketing and retail assumptions based on highly debatable reasoning about what will or will not sell, with scant consultation of actual readers. Frustrating levels of risk-averseness were mentioned, all infuriatingly familiar.

But I shall try not to dwell on that. Instead, I shall start working my way through the list of authors and titles now added to my To Be Read List. Thanks to the magic of ebooks I can do a bit of that this week and next as I am currently in Holland, thanks to the demands of my Husband’s work colliding with our holiday plans and seeing us both head out here a week earlier than our planned trip to the Ardennes. So bear in mind I’m only going to be online intermittently – I’ll be very interested in your observations in comments here but won’t be replying or answering questions in a particularly timely fashion.

Do raise a hand in comments or somewhere online if you’re interested in details of next year’s conference. Then I can pass on the information as soon as I get it.

Guest Post – Gaie Sebold on Villainous Pleasures

With a week away now in sight at the end of the month, I’m stockpiling holiday reading. One book I’m very much looking forward to is Gaie Sebold’s ‘Shanghai Sparrow’. I really enjoyed her Babylon Steel books – an entertaining and intelligently different take on epic fantasy. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with the themes and ideas of Steampunk and I’ve invited her to share some thoughts on the book here. Over to Gaie.

Shanghai-Sparrow-smallVillainous Pleasures

When I started writing Shanghai Sparrow, the first book in the Gears of Empire series, I knew I wanted to write about the grimy, smelly, exploitative underside of the Victorian period. This may have been at least partly in response to a certain writer’s remark about Steampunk being ‘fascism for nice people,’ which, as a longstanding Leftie, I regarded as…well, more of a challenge than anything.

So my heroine, while originally from the most respectable of backgrounds, ends up surviving on the streets of London under the kind of circumstances that inspired Thomas Barnardo to set up his children’s homes. Evvie, however, did not meet Thomas Barnardo. She met Ma Pether, a woman who runs a group of female pickpockets, fraudsters and breakers-and-enterers.

I wasn’t expecting Ma. She created herself on the page, striding in, pipe asmoke, fidgeting dangerously with explosive mechanisms and creating bizarre aphorisms. She turned out to be a lot of fun to write. Almost too much fun – it was difficult to stop her taking over every chapter in which she appeared.

The same could be said to apply to the villainous Bartholomew Simms – though unlike Ma, he can’t really be said to have any redeeming features. At all. A thoroughly nasty, dangerous, sly, violent and brutal man – but with a certain style and turn of phrase that makes me look forward to writing him.

And then there’s Evvie herself – who occasionally aims for respectability but just isn’t terribly good at it. She’s too good at being bad, too good at fraud, deception, and thievery.

But she is the heroine. She has moral boundaries and dilemmas, she has struggles with her conscience. Just not always, perhaps, the same ones that most of us might have when faced with whether or not to nick something or rip someone off.

Yet she’s most fun to write, in some ways, when she’s just enjoying being good at what she does best – being a trickster and a thief.

And therein lies the question. Why are villains such fun to write? What is the appeal of going outside the moral boundaries within which I live quite happily most of the time in the real world?

I’m talking about my own personal moral boundaries, of course, which while they are going to overlap with many people’s are not always going to be identical. But I don’t steal, or commit fraud, or act violently to others. I don’t, as a general rule, want to. I fear the consequences, yes, but also, I don’t want to be a con-artist, a fraudster, a murderer. In real terms these are people who damage lives or end them, and I don’t want to do that.

And yet, on the page … it’s so damn much fun writing people who don’t have those boundaries. People who say those things, and do those things, and (sometimes) get away with it. But the point isn’t necessarily whether they get away with it in the long run – the fun part is that they get to say it and do it right now, right there, before our very eyes!

Some of it, certainly, is a form of wish fulfilment. I’d sometimes like to treat the law like the ass it occasionally, indisputably is. I’d often like to be able to turn the tables on our Lords and Masters, who rip off whole societies, whole countries, by outdoing them at their own game of fraud, deception and theft, but with a fraction of the resources and ten times the wits.

I might not want to murder, but I would like to be that bold, that scary, that tough. Especially when the vicious and violent of the world are making me feel threatened, I’d like, for once, to be the one who has conversations fall silent and glasses slip from trembling fingers when I enter the room, to be able to quell would-be opponents with a glance, to have my reputation go before me as someone not to be messed with.

I’d like the power that comes with going outside the legal and moral boundaries. But since I’m not going to do that, I have to find another way. And until the world becomes a place where (all questions of hard work and persistence aside), being nice and obedient and lawful is the best way for a woman to get respect, I guess I’ll keep on living vicariously through my villains, and enjoying every moment of it.

Gaie Sebold was born some time ago, and is gradually acquiring a fine antique patina. She has written several novels, a number of short stories, and has been known to perform poetry. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out in 2014 and the sequel, Sparrow Falling, in 2016. Her jobs have ranged from till-extension to bottle-washer and theatre-tour-manager to charity administrator. She lives with writer David Gullen and a paranoid cat in leafy suburbia, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and cooks a pretty good borscht.

Her website is and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold.

Interesting things from the last little while – and explaining the recent link posts

I’m doing a lot of background reading, world-building and story-plotting at the moment, as well as the admin and other stuff associated with getting the next ebook out. Then there’s all the domestic administrivia which is mostly down to me at present since Husband’s currently working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, on a demanding new project for a prestigious new client. So me finding time for reflective and interesting blog posts isn’t really happening.

Fortunately there are all sorts of interesting things crossing my radar online.

On the history front – “Vatican library digitises 1,600-year-old edition of Virgil”

The 1,600-year-old document is one of more than 80,000 manuscripts, running to 41m pages, in the library, which was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V.

A major project to digitise all 80,000 documents will ensure that scholars have less need to consult the originals, and also make the texts available to the general public.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

On the equality in SFF front – “Eisner Nominee Renae De Liz Shares Short Guide for Artists on How to De-Objectify Female Characters”

Renae De Liz, the Eisner-nominated artist and writer behind such series as The Legend of Wonder Woman, The Last Unicorn and Lady Powerpunch, shared her thoughts on how to draw women without objectifying and oversexualizing them. In her impromptu guide, she tries to dispel many assumptions people have when they set out to draw women because of deep-set trends in comics.

And I found this prompted me to consider the assumptions people make about writing women because of deep-set trends in SF&F

On the technology front – “Slow-motion replays can distort criminal responsibility”

“Researchers found that slowing down footage of violent acts caused viewers to see greater intent to harm than when viewed at normal speed.
Viewing a killing only in slow motion made a jury three times more likely to convict of first degree murder.”

As a lifelong crime and mystery fan, in books and TV/film, I found this very interesting. I’m also thinking about the ways in which perceived technological progress can turn out to be not so helpful after all. When I get round to a longer blogpost, that’s something I want to discuss.

On the SF conventions front – no, I’m not going to discuss the debacle of this year’s World Fantasy Convention programme. For those of you coming late to this story, this particular convention has a long-established lousy record for offering interesting or up-to-date panels and this year’s offering might just as well come with an introductory, explanatory note saying “Yes, we hear you explain how everybody gains from diverse and inclusive programming. WE JUST DON’T CARE”

So how about trying one of the many conventions that offer a packed programme of fascinating discussions between people with plenty of relevant things to say?

Fantasycon by the Sea 23rd- 25th September in Scarborough – guests of honour Mike Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, Scott Lynch, Adam Nevill and James Smythe>

Bristolcon – 29th October – guests of honour Fangorn, Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

Creative writing in Witney – our second guest speaker is Mary Hoffman

A further update for the Writers in Witney course. Our second guest speaker will be Mary Hoffman, sharing the breadth and depth of her experience in writing for children, teenagers and adults, as well as her perspectives on the changes she’s seen in publishing.

You can find an introduction to Mary and her work here.

You can find the full course programme here.

As before, please spread the word with aspiring writers you may know within striking distance of Witney.

Creative writing in Witney – this autumn’s first guest speaker is Ben Jeapes

You’ll recall me mentioning the creative writing course I’m offering in Witney this autumn? Since I know from my own experience how valuable a range of perspectives and experience is for writers, I planned to include guest speakers from the outset.

The first of these will be Ben Jeapes. For those of you who don’t already know his work, do check out

There’s an update on the Writers of Witney website here.

If you know any aspiring authors within striking distance of Witney, do please let them know 🙂

Writers of Witney – I’m offering a ten week evening class this autumn.

One of the very first things I learned as a debut novelist nearly twenty years ago, is how generous established writers are, up to and including household names, with their practical advice, cautionary tales and other essential tips and tricks to help anyone and everyone write their best possible book.

Since then I’ve learned for myself how rewarding it is to share such things – and not just in some altruistic, let-me-polish-my-halo way. Discussing and working through different aspects of writing skills and challenges is an excellent way to realise something key to improving your own work-in-progress. That’s happened to me time and again.

I began teaching creative writing in 2003, stepping in to help out when a last minute crisis prevented the scheduled tutor from leading planned sessions at a science fiction convention. I was working with that original tutor’s teaching structure and all the feedback was very positive so that was clearly an effective approach. That said, it wasn’t my approach. So I started thinking about different ways to share the lessons which I was continuing to learn myself with writers who were as hopeful – but lacking essential insights – as I had once been.

Since then I have taught seminars and day courses at conventions and literary festivals, by no means only limited to talking about science fiction and fantasy. It’s the same skill set after all, whatever genre you may be writing in. I’ve been a guest lecturer for creative writing degree courses at Lancaster University, Edge Hill University, and Anglia Ruskin University, among others. I’ve also taught week-long courses, including one for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. The next residential course I’ll be teaching is at Moniack Mhor this December.

When I’ve mentioned these various trips and classes to local pals, I’ve often provoked muted howls of frustration because the time, the place, the whatever simply didn’t work for them. So I’ve decided to offer an evening class in Witney this autumn, drawing on all the material I’ve gathered together, and tried and tested, over the past decade or so.

Full details of the class programme and on the venue can be found here – Writers of Witney and news on guest speakers and views about various aspects of creative writing will be forthcoming.

Spread the word!

Reflections on death and writing in the wake of recent, grim events.

Along with so many, I am profoundly troubled by the recent murders of gay clubbers in Orlando, Florida, and of Jo Cox MP in the UK. Consequently I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2011, as a guest for some website or other though alas, I have lost the details of precisely where. Because those of us who write about death for entertainment need to be very clear that what we are doing is the exploration of real world violence, not its exploitation.

I do not propose to add to the debates about the motivations, mental states or ideologies of these killers. Please do not make any comments along those lines here. Bluntly, you risk igniting the incandescent fury I currently feel for those who claim the right to take another’s life. If you wish to discuss those aspects of these atrocities, there are plenty of places to do so elsewhere on the Internet.

Meantime, I will fervently hope and work for a day when a post like this is no longer so horribly relevant.

Do you ever get writer’s block? No, but I do get stopped dead.

Writer’s block. It’s one of those questions we all get asked, those of us sitting up at the front on panels at conventions, libraries and literary festivals.

To be honest, no, I just don’t have time for writer’s block. With two teenage sons at school and college and a husband whose (very) full-time job keeps us all fed and sheltered, holding up my end of the family deal by running this household means my writing time is precious and I’m not about to waste any of it. Okay, there are days when the writing goes more smoothly than others but that’s different.

But some things stop me dead in my writing. Death. Real world death. There’s the personal. Last year my father in law died. In this past month two friends have died. Other years saw other losses. There will be more to come. I have learned that trying to set such things aside and apply myself to the book in progress simply doesn’t work. Sod the mandatory daily word count. I need to take the time to look squarely at such loss, to pay tribute to the departed through the rituals of such occurrences and with private recollection and appreciation of the part they played in my life. Then I can move on, knowing that I have given them their due.

Then there’s the kind of death that makes global headlines. Specifically the death wrought by human malice. Famine in Africa, the ongoing plagues of malaria and HIV, multiple fatalities in a Chinese train crash. These all give me pause for thought, and prompt donations to appeals as appropriate but they don’t stop me writing.

The Norway bomb and shootings stop me. The July 7th 2005 attacks in London. The Madrid train bombings 2004. The World Trade Centre 2001. The Admiral Duncan nail bombing 1999. Oklahoma City 1995. No, that’s not a comprehensive list but you know what I mean.

It’s not grief that stops me writing. Thanks to all the powers that be, I lost no one in any of these atrocities, though a couple of pals came frighteningly close. So claiming any sort of personal anguish is wholly inappropriate and frankly, in my opinion, insulting to those so appallingly bereaved and whose lives are truly changed. Those of us beyond the immediate impact can only offer sincere and honest condolence.

But every time, I have to stop and look at what has happened and then stop and look at my writing. Because I write about people killing each other, whether with swords or sorcery. Sometimes it’s up close and personal with a dagger or a wizardly duel. Then there’s the big-picture stuff when I sit down and draw up an order of battle, work out what twists deliver the outcome which I want and then calculate the losses on each side for the effect on the ongoing plot. Yes, really. I have the casualty numbers (killed/wounded) for every battle in ‘Blood in the Water,’ the second of the Lescari Revolution books. I’m currently looking at forthcoming events in ‘Darkening Skies,’ second of the Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, and working out who will die amid the sort of violent magic which would blow a summer blockbuster movie’s sfx budget. Even Harry Potter.

And I’m doing all that for the sake of entertainment. I’m killing fictional people off, right, left and centre, in the service of a thrilling story. But real world death isn’t thrilling or entertaining. It’s heart-breaking, infuriating, frightening. It has real world implications for our security, our laws, our freedoms, for the abuse of ‘others’ by the prejudiced and the opportunist in this age of global media and social networking. This stuff matters.

So I need to know that my writing matters. I need to be certain that my characters suffer loss in a way that doesn’t belittle a real bereavement. That the effects persist as they do in real life – or if they don’t, I need to be clear why that might be. When high heroic deeds deliver triumphant outcomes, I must always make sure that I acknowledge the cost to those who had no choice or chance to opt out. Not to the detriment of the story overall but just using enough light and shade to paint a realistic picture.

When I’m creating a villain, whether a loner or a leader, I must know and I must show what drives a man or woman to such corrosive spite, treachery, brutality or murder. In the context of my story at least. I cannot hope to uncover any universal truths of the human psyche that might explain such headline-grabbing carnage.

Then maybe, just maybe, I can leave my readers with something to think on, once they’ve closed the book? Something to help their own understanding of entitlement, arrogance, hatred, bigotry, the myriad impulses and experiences that result in a mindset that sees violence as some sort of valid solution? Something to help inform their opinions and their actions when politicians and special interests try to use these abominations to advance their own agenda?

To help to show, to quote Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister “… that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté. That is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.”

Then I can start writing again.