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.

What’s in a name? Better ask Google! (plus ‘The Green Man’s Foe’ excerpt)

One thing about writing a book set in the modern world is the challenge of finding character names. The business of naming epic fantasy characters is straightforward by comparison. Make sure they’re easily pronounced, and coherent for the society where they belong, and you’re pretty much good to go.

But when you’re dealing with the current day, the first thing you must do is stick whatever combination of name and surname you’re using into a search engine. Believe me, you will find pages of people called exactly that – and you need to take a look at the results to make sure you’re not inadvertently libelling anyone. This is particularly important when it comes to villains.

The cautionary tale for authors is what happened to Jake Arnott, in his crime novel, Johnny Come Home, published in April 2006, pulped in August 2006. It turned out that unknown to Arnott, there was someone with the same name as his appalling bad guy, working in the same industry, at the time when the novel was set. You can read the details here.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been finishing up The Green Man’s Foe. In particular, I’ve noticed how much things have changed since I wrote the very different novel that’s given me the setting and a few other things that are now the basis for Dan’s new challenge. Those other things include some minor characters. When I first wrote that other novel, I made sure even the most passing named characters had no presence online. Double-checking as we did the edits, I found a whole lot of instances where that’s no longer the case. So many more people are online these days that you can lose hours trying to find a no-results combination.

Well, I’ve changed a few names, and left ones where there really is no chance of a non-villain being mistaken for someone who lives in a different country and works in an entirely different industry. But even so, I will be careful to make sure that the standard disclaimer is in the book’s front matter, making it clear this is a work of fiction and no resemblance to any real people, living or dead, is intended.

Well, apart from one cameo appearance – but that would be telling…

Moving on, this week’s Book Quote Wednesday word is ‘luck’, and Dan’s got a new job, but will this turn out to be a stroke of good fortune? You’ll find out in due course, and meantime, here’s this week’s taster.

We walked along the corridor that ran in a U shape around this floor, with windows overlooking the mossy courtyard at the heart of the house. As Franklin opened successive doors, I saw that all the bedrooms had views looking outwards to the gardens and the woods beyond.

Something occurred to me. ‘This must be a listed building?’

‘Grade two.’ Franklin was unconcerned. ‘We’ve been through everything with the planning people. The Suttons did extensive alterations before there were any regulations to stop them, putting in dressing rooms which will be ideal for bathrooms. They had all the panelling to work with, so you can’t even see the joins. Old Aunt Constance’s father, John, had political ambitions, and plans for hosting house parties with the rich and powerful. Luckily he lost all his money before he could ruin the place.

He continued walking. I followed him around the next corner and came face to face with a display case of stuffed birds, where a mangy ferret glared at me with baleful glass eyes. Those could go straight in the skip.

The trans visibility conundrum for writers – how to demonstrate that something’s unremarkable?

They say three things make a blog post. Here’s one. A few weeks back at the World Fantasy Convention, as part of a good programme with respect to diversity discussions, courtesy of the hosts, the Baltimore SF Society, I sat in a packed audience for a ‘Gender 401’ panel. Trans, non-binary and gay writers discussed approaches to better representation in SFF, and recurrent mistakes – like worlds where dragons or sentient computers exist but apparently there’s no one who’s gay, nor ever has been… It was a very informative panel, and the room was full of authors like me who want to get this stuff right, but don’t have lived experience to draw on. I’m not going to recap the discussion – the panel recommended checking out Tiptree Award winners and recommended books, so start there if you want to know more.

Two was the recent Trans Awareness Week here in the UK, highlighting the issues that trans people face, as well as showing positive instances of trans lives for those who might be unaware that trans people are pretty much the same as the rest of us. The third thing followed soon after – Trans Remembrance Day, highlighting how persistent ignorance and prejudice leads to the appalling deaths of trans people who just want to live their lives in peace like the rest of us.

All of which underscores just how much representation matters – as we have seen over the decades as fictional portrayals in print and on screen have helped tackle sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism etc. Sometimes these portrayals tackle that central issue head-on, and that’s important work. It’s not the only option though. Time and again addressing prejudice is done very effectively by making a key character female/black/gay/disabled etc, and having no one remark on it, as that character plays their part in the story on equal terms with everyone else.

So here’s the thing. If I want to write a story with a diverse range of characters when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation or disability, that’s straight-forward at the most basic level. There are women around, and character descriptions make passing reference to skin tone as well as hair, eyes, clothes etc. A male character mentions his husband, or a female character refers to her wife, or people being poly or non-binary is apparent. Someone is deaf, or has mobility issues, and that’s accommodated rather than being an issue for them or anyone else. Yes, as the author, I must then do the necessary work to make these characters ring true for readers who have the lived experience I lack, but simply having them present on the page is easy enough.

How do I do this with trans characters in a book? Because a trans woman or man living their life in an accepting society is going to be unremarkable. As we increasingly see with trans actors in film and TV, until the fact that they’re trans crops up as a plot point, it’s impossible to tell. I’m thinking in particular of recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med. I’ve also had people in real life tell me with absolute conviction that they don’t know any trans people, when I know for a fact that they do. They’re just not aware of it.

Yes, of course I keep my mouth shut in those situations, because it’s not my place to out anyone – and that’s going to be exactly the situation in our aforementioned accepting society that I’m writing about in my putative SFF novel. Trans people are going to be there. There’s going to be nothing to distinguish them from other men and women. No one’s going to remark on their presence because it’s unremarkable. Which means me mentioning it as the author is going to be so out of place that I might just as well add ‘LOOK AT ME BEING DIVERSE – GIVE ME COOKIE!’

So far I’m unable to come up with an answer here, but that’s not going to stop me trying to find a way. Because inclusion and representation matter for trans people just as much as these things matter for everyone. So if you have any useful thoughts, suggestions or observations I’m interested to know more. (Non-useful comments will be binned.)

A few thoughts on reviews, the good, the bad, the unfavourable, and what to do about them

As of today, The Green Man’s Heir has reached 100 reviews on Amazon UK, and is similarly gathering favourable ratings and reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere, like this appreciation in F&SF. So first and foremost, my sincerest thanks to everyone who’s shared their enthusiasm for this book.

Regardless of algorithms and suchlike, knowing that readers appreciate what we do is what keeps us authors writing. It’s great to see, and to share, a positive review, whether that’s a closely detailed essay showing that this reader really understood what you are aiming for in the story, or if it’s an enthusiastic ‘Loved it, a really great read – five stars’. Either is fine, because good reviews are an uncomplicated delight. What to do about them is simple for an author: be grateful and if the opportunity arises, say thank you.

Of course, not all reviews are good… and just to be clear, I’m looking back over twenty years and sixteen novels, as well as a lot of other writing. I’ve plenty of experience here, which is why I make a distinction between bad reviews and unfavourable reviews.

A bad review is one that is pointless. One that says nothing about the book. ‘Don’t like the cover – one star’. ‘Didn’t realise this was the second book in a trilogy – one star’. ‘Was buying this as a gift, but Amazon delivered it too late – one star’. You know the sort of thing I mean. A waste of everyone’s time.

An unfavourable review is different. It engages with the book. It says what the reader didn’t like and hopefully, gives some idea why. Sometimes this says a whole lot more about the reviewer than about the actual book. Back in 1999, you could find a review of The Thief’s Gamble condemning me as a ball-breaking, man-hating feminist, and a few mouse-clicks away, another one equally insistent that I was a patriarchy-enabling betrayer of the Sisterhood. That was an early lesson for me, demonstrating that the author has no control over the assumptions a reader will bring to a book, or their ability to read into it what they want to see, and which the author never intended.

But unfavourable reviews can also engage with exactly what the writer hoped to convey. They absolutely get it, and they really don’t like it. For instance, in The Gambler’s Fortune, a fair few readers had a real problem with the character Jeirran, who is deeply flawed, seriously unpleasant, and the leader of an oppressed minority. Readers who felt that such a leader should be a heroic figure were badly jarred, and some were thrown out of the story completely. Ten books later, and Zurenne in Dangerous Waters divided readers again. A widow in a paternalistic, patriarchal society, Zurenne is utterly unable to cope when a devious, manipulative man exploits and abuses her for his own gain. Some readers found her passivity exasperating, and that really doesn’t make for an enjoyable book.

But here’s the thing. For everyone who wished Zurenne would just grow a backbone and stand up for herself, someone else would comment that her plight made them realise even a benevolent patriarchy is ultimately no good for women, because when the going gets tough, they have none of the skills they’ll need to cope. For everyone who hated Jeirran so much that he ruined the book for them, someone else was prompted to ask why do we make assumptions about ‘heroes’ and the potentially dangerous consequences of doing so. So I learned early on that unfavourable reviews must always be seen in their wider context. Some readers may well not like a particular aspect of a story. That doesn’t mean the author wasn’t making a valid point by including it.

Writers should remember they can’t please all of the people all of the time. What’s way too fast-paced for someone can be a plodding plot for someone else, while it’ll be just right for a whole lot of other readers. Views on what’s too much violence, or too little action, or too much politics, or not enough depth of background vary similarly. The author has no control over any of these reactions, any more than the three bears could anticipate what Goldilocks might want in a bed or a bowl of porridge.

Of course, that isn’t to say that a writer should just ignore unfavourable reviews. If the majority view is that some aspect isn’t working, that’s something to look at more closely, especially with regard to whatever you’re writing at the moment. This is how we increase our understanding of our craft, and develop our skills.

What else should a writer do? Once again, that’s easy. Nothing. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with, or even debating, bad or unfavourable reviews, whether that’s in person or on the Internet for all the world to see. As one best-selling author explained to me, early in my career, and well before social media. ‘It’s starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself will not be worth it.’

So when I see someone didn’t find The Green Man’s Heir to their personal liking, I privately wish them happy reading elsewhere, and move on. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of good books for all tastes, after all. Meantime, I shall continue working on the sequel for all those who have enjoyed Dan’s adventures thus far, all the more encouraged by to those who’ve found a few moments to say so. As I said at the outset, many thanks for that.

Off to North Wales for a writers’ week. Meantime, a writerly warning.

The very briefest of updates as I am racing around getting stuff done before disappearing to the Milford SF writers’ week in Snowdonia tomorrow. I expect to be largely absent from social media until I get back.

So I don’t have time to write a lengthy takedown at the moment, but this is worth flagging up. I’ve noticed that vanity/predatory ‘publishers’ are co-opting the term ‘hybrid’ in an attempt to veil their scams.

As widely understood in the booktrade for a decade or so now, ‘a hybrid author’ is someone combining self-published and small press projects with traditional writing contracts from major publishers. Someone like me, and any number of others I could name.

It is NOT an author paying an exorbitant sum of money to some outfit with no record of measurable success in the marketplace, for unspecified services that won’t be properly accounted for, under some exploitative ‘partnership’ contract that will see the scammer pocketing the cash while the writer ends up with an unedited, shoddily produced ebook that will never sell to anyone but family and friends.

And as a new pal on Twitter pointed out, it’s also muddying the waters as follows: “They may be yoinking its academic article publishing definition. There, money never flows to the author anyway and a “hybrid” journal is partially unpaywalled, funded by authors paying $$$ to make their article open access.”

All told, remember that con artists preying on writers haven’t gone away, they’ve just evolved for the digital age, along with other such vermin.

Do your due diligence, check with reputable author organisations for red flags, talk to other authors, check out Writer Beware!
Right, I’ll get back to getting on 🙂

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab’s Tolkien Memorial Lecture – video available. Does not contain Tolkien.

For those who couldn’t be in Oxford last Tuesday, the video of this year’s Tolkien Memorial Lecture is now available. Victoria (V.E.) Schwab gave a fascinating talk entitled ‘In Search of Doors.’ Set aside an hour for her thoughts and then the Q&A. It will be time well spent.

This an excellent series of lectures exploring many facets of fantasy fiction, as varied as the speakers who have delivered the talks thus far. You can find videos of the full series here.

Meantime, my life continues to be divided between World Fantasy Award reading, and my own writing. Along with being inordinately thrilled by how popular The Green Man is proving. 🙂

If you’ve been writing while I’ve been reading? Links of interest…

The WFA reading continues absorbing and yes, time-consuming. I am also writing and there’ll be news of new projects in the fullness of time 🙂

In other news, from Tor.com

On May 1, 2018, Lee Harris, Carl Engle-Laird, and Ruoxi Chen will be reading and evaluating original novellas. We are reading from May 1 around 9:00 AM EST (UTC-1:00) to May 15 9:00 AM EST (UTC-1:00).

This open period is intended for authors who have completed works ready or close to ready for submission. We will reopen slush a second time in July 2018 for authors who are actively working on (or beginning) something that would fit our list. In other words, don’t panic if you’re not ready to submit in May! We would rather see a polished novella in July than a rushed one in May.

Until the end of this open period, Tor.com Publishing will be considering novellas of between 20,000 and 40,000 words in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. If it’s speculative and fits the bill, we want to take a look at it.

Lee Harris, Carl Engle-Laird, and Ruoxi Chen all actively request submissions from writers from underrepresented populations. This includes, but is not limited to, writers of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, class and physical or mental ability. We believe that good science fiction and fantasy reflects the incredible diversity and potential of the human species, and hope our catalog will reflect that.

In addition to reviewing the guidelines, we also encourage you to take a look at our existing list to get a sense of the work our current authors are producing and Tor.com Publishing’s vision and tastes. Good luck—we look forward to reading your work.

Over at Mslexia

We are proud to launch the first Mslexia Women’s Fiction Awards – a stable of competitions that includes our popular Short Story and Novel competitions, our second-ever Flash Fiction competition and our all-new Novella competition in association with Galley Beggar Press!

As well as cash prizes, we also offer publication, mentoring, writing retreats, manuscript feedback and personal introductions to editors and literary agents for winners and finalists. As a result, many have gone on to see their work broadcast and/or published beyond the pages of Mslexia, and to achieve agent representation and publishing deals.

Open for entry now, and all with a deadline of 1 Oct 2018.

>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Flash Fiction Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Children’s Novel Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Short Story Competition
>Women’s Fiction Awards 2018: Novella Competition

For those looking for a SF&F writing course, check out The Arvon Foundation course tutored by Emma Newman, Peter Newman with guest author Gareth Powell.

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
How to build worlds and develop your writing
Aug 20th – Aug 25th 2018
The Hurst

Science fiction and fantasy encompass a dazzling array of potential worlds and stories. The scope is so wide it can be hard to know where to begin. Designed for budding writers of SFF, this course gives you the tools to understand the opportunities these exciting genres can offer. We will cover specialised techniques such as world building, the creation of magical and technological ‘systems’, and a robust grounding in aspects of the craft – storytelling, character creation and writing style. This course also gives you the opportunity to examine and overcome your own writing blocks.
Single room price: £800

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!

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.

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