Posts belonging to Category creative writing



The Classics, Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.

What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.

Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.

Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.

Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.

Historical Fantasy Event at Foyles Cabot Circus, Bristol on 12th November.

A quick update for those of you who prefer to keep in touch through the blog rather than Facebook or Twitter, I’ll be over in Bristol on 12th November for an evening event discussing the fun and frustrations of writing historically based fantasy fiction, and doubtless we’ll get onto actual historical fiction as well. It’ll be from 6.00 to 7.30 pm and it’s free, though booking is essential so they know what numbers they’re expecting. I’ll be chatting with Helen Hollick, Jack Wolf and Lucienne Boyce. You can find full details on booking here

Earlier that same day, I’ll be on Ujima Radio talking about the event and the subject.

I’m really looking forward to it all!

Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.

Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod - informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?

Ctrl-alt-delete!

“Don’t Do What’s New, Do What Never Gets Old.” Is This Good Advice For Writers?

I came across this while reading a book called ‘Rhinos on the Lawn’. It’s about the history of The Cotswold Wildlife Park which is well worth a visit if you find yourself within striking distance of Burford, Oxfordshire.

My first thought was, ‘ooh, that’s good advice for writers too’, swiftly followed (in Granny Weatherwax approved fashion) by second thoughts. ‘Hang on. Is it really?’

Because as many writers know from firsthand experience, myself included, you’re not going to get anywhere writing a book that simply ticks all the expected boxes. Like many others, I tried that with the Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork – aka my first novel which thankfully sank without trace beneath the weight of agently and editorial indifference to a youth-leaves-home-rites-of-passage tale. As one said at the time ‘there’s nothing to distinguish this from the half-dozen perfectly competent fantasy novels which cross my desk each week’. It wasn’t until I found something new and original to weave a story around that I wrote something warranting publication.

On the other hand, I was reminded over Loncon3 of something I said a good few years ago, when someone retweeted Patrick Nielsen Hayden saying on a panel ‘A trope is a cliché with PR’. He promptly and courteously acknowledged he remembered me saying that in Dublin in 2006. Thinking back, as I recall, my precise words were ‘A classic is often just a cliché with good PR.’

Which is the same thing in some contexts, and subtly different from other perspectives, so I think Patrick’s words stand on their own merit as well. Crucially thinking about that reminds me of something I heard from a commissioning editor at the very first St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference, back in 1996. ‘What we’re always looking for in publishing,’ she said, ‘is “the same but different”.’

Because there are common features to both the classic tales and to the new stories that seize a reader’s interest with original characters and fresh perspectives while still revisiting tales of heroes, jeopardy, quests, defiance (doomed or successful), rivalry, vengeance, good men (and women) in opposition etc etc. This stuff really never gets old.

On the other hand, once something has been a great success, from Harry Potter to Sookie Stackhouse and any number of other examples besides, there’s only so much time before the market for similar books is saturated. Given the lead times in publishing, most of those books will probably already be in production by the time you read one of those exemplars. So the writer starting out with a fresh blank page really does need to find their own ‘same but different’ instead of ‘just doing what’s new’.

Which brings me to something else I’ve had lingering in the back of my mind since Loncon3. Scott Lynch said something memorable, when we were both on a panel about writing professionally. Talking about ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ (if you haven’t read it, do!) he said ‘I wrote the book I didn’t see on the shelves’. In one of those light bulb moments, I realised that’s exactly what I did with ‘The Thief’s Gamble’: putting an independently minded solo female protagonist into a high fantasy setting.

Is that one way to find ‘the same but different?’ Maybe, maybe not. When I tweeted that, someone came back with the entirely reasonable point ‘maybe that book’s not on the shelves because it won’t sell.’ Which reminded me of something I heard Michael Marshall Smith say at a convention in Derby a few years back, so I’m guessing it was an early Edge Lit.

Paraphrasing because I can’t recall his precise example, when discussing how far you have to write what the market wants, he said, ‘You might write the definitive unicorn vampire serial killer novel. You might sell it to each and every fan of unicorn vampire serial killer novels in the world. But if there are only five hundred of those particular fans in the entire world, that’s not going to sustain a writing career.’

In other words, too different is none too good either. Incidentally, this is why every agent says how hard it is to sell crossover novels to publishers and every editor says how hard it is to successfully pitch crossover novels to booksellers. Not least because every bookseller has stories of the truly weird places where crossover novels get shelved by confused staff, to the further confusion of readers and to the detriment of the book’s sales.

So how do you write the book you don’t see on the shelves while telling your story in a way that’s the same but different?

How about this?

“Don’t go chasing after the latest new thing just to copy it.
Read it in hopes that it will inspire a fresh idea of your own.
Test that new idea against the classic elements which never get old in stories.”

Not as snappy but more nuanced.

(And incidentally, all this does show how and why I have always found it so useful going to hear writers, editors, agents etc talk at conventions, library events and literary festivals.)

‘Temporally Out of Order’ – how can you resist this new anthology via Kickstarter?

A while ago, I got an email from Joshua Palmatier (a fine writer, do check out his books) proposing a new anthology project for the small press , to be edited by Joshua himself, along with Patricia Bray (another fine writer).

Now, I’m always interested in any project which these two are proposing. I’ve written stories for them before, in After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar and for The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity. Not only did I find them excellent editors to work with on a personal level, these anthologies proved to be fascinating reads as a whole, with an excellent mix of stories from a very interesting range of writers.

The only reason I didn’t submit anything for their next project Steampunk Universe: Clockwork versus Aliens was lack of time due to other commitments – but you may be certain I followed the progress of that Kickstarter with keen interest. As you’ll see they ran a very professional, successful fundraiser and that anthology’s now available for Kindle, Nook etc, as you prefer (like the earlier titles).

So what’s the new anthology going to be about? Well, here’s what Joshua had to say in his initial email –

While sitting at the airport waiting for a flight, I saw a phone booth with a note reading “Temporally Out of Order.” Obviously it was a typo, but the mistake takes on a whole new meaning when viewed from a science fiction/fantasy frame of mind. This anthology will take on the challenge of interpreting what “temporally out of order” could mean for modern day—or perhaps not so modern—gadgets, such as the cell phone, laptop, television, radio, iPod, or even that microwave or refrigerator!

Doesn’t that sound intriguing? I can’t wait to see what the other authors involved come up with and have been musing on ideas of my own ever since.

But wait, there’s more! For the first time, as part of a Kickstarter, I’m a Stretch Goal! I’ll be contributing once the total raised reaches $15,000. There’ll also be the chance to get yourself into my story at that point, or at very least your (or some lucky friend’s) name, by means of a Tuckerisation – something I’ve never actually done before, so this will be another first :)

That’s by no means the only incentive on offer. All backers of $15 or more in the first 24 hours will be getting a free ebook called FOUR FOR MORE (with four short stories) from Jean Marie Ward. She’s another stretch goal author, along with myself and Jack Campbell (aka John Hemry).

There are a few limited pledge levels, such as tuckerizations in some of the authors’ stories, a “missed out on the first kickstarter for CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE, but I want to catch up” reward level, and a few other limited items, so get there early if you want those. The anchor authors for this anthology are: Seanan McGuire, Gini Koch, David B. Coe, Faith Hunter, Laura Anne Gilman, Stephen Leigh, and Laura Resnick (in no particular order because, honestly, how could you rank them against each other?).

Do you fancy seeing your own name on a Table of Contents alongside those authors? Once the project is funded, the remaining slots (a minimum of 7) not being filled by anchor or stretch goal authors will be filled by an OPEN CALL for submissions. Yes, ANYONE will be able to submit a story for a chance to be part of the anthology!

Excited? I am and you should be. So click on through, get a better look at that fabulous artwork, and get involved!

“Challoner, Murray & Balfour; Monster Hunters at Law” – my new ebook out today.

As established fans may remember, I’ve had three stories featuring these characters previously published; one in the BFS ‘A Celebration’ anthology and two in Murky Depths magazine. If you’ve read those, you will recall one tantalizing loose end. What becomes of poor Bertie? Well, now you can find out. As well as those three earlier stories, this little collection includes a whole new story, The Fate of the Villiers, in which the hunt continues…

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

You can find the book here at the Wizard’s Tower Press shop and it’ll be rolled out to other ebook retailers over the next few days.

But hang on, I’m an epic fantasy writer. Why am I writing adventure stories set in the 1890s with supernatural monsters and steampunk apparitions? Well, first and foremost, I write to entertain; to engage and thrill my readers. I can do that just as well in late Victorian England as I can in Einarinn. Because one of the great things about writing SF&F is the immense freedom it offers.

Wait, what? Surely that’s a bizarre thing to say about writing in a genre – any genre. Isn’t the whole point of genre following the rules? Well, yes, and no. Bear with me.

When I’m writing epic fantasy, I’m looking to honour that particular genre’s core traditions while at the same time examining, testing and driving those traditions forward to ensure the genre still stays relevant to the world today and readers who live in it. Which is why aspiring fantasy writers really should be reading Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Stephen Deas (among many, many other excellent current writers) as well as Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lord Dunsany – to see how the genre develops.

Er, how is this relevant to a book with a werewolf in evening dress on the front? Because as well as appreciating the roots of speculative fiction in Tolkien, Lewis and similar works, aspiring writers will also do well to read the classics of Victorian and Edwardian popular literature by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are at least as much a source for modern SF, Fantasy and Horror as anything Tolkien or Lewis wrote. They are as much part of our literary heritage as anything by Dickens, Hardy or the Bronte sisters – and written to be enjoyed in an age before artificial genre boundaries arose. Indeed CS Lewis was a passionate advocate for the values and virtues of popular reading, as his letters to FR Leavis reveal when the latter was determined to embed literary snobbery in university English degree courses between the wars.

So I wrote these stories – and may yet write more featuring these characters if this collection proves popular – to honour these other forebears of our genre. Also, as you’ll discover on reading, I wrote these tales with an eye to both recognising and challenging some of those forebears’ less palatable assumptions about men, women and their respective roles a hundred-plus years ago. Because such debates are still relevant today.

Because it is never enough to merely revisit our literary sources. We should all aim to be breaking new ground, not merely trailing after well-trodden footprints which will only bring us back to our starting point. That’s where the real challenge – and the most fun – lies in writing genre fiction.

(And once you’ve written it, if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll have the immense fun of seeing your creations envisioned by a talented artist, in this case Nancy Farmer.)

Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

I’m heading into London later today for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. No, I have no idea who’s won. But I can tell you one thing for certain. All the prize winners will be men because the shortlists are all male this year. No, I’m not criticizing the DGLA administrators for that, or scolding the thousands of fantasy fans who take the time to nominate and vote for their favourites each year, and I absolutely respect and admire the shortlisted authors, hard-working professionals all.

But this does nothing to help the ongoing problem of lack of visibility for women writing epic fantasy.

Yes but, I can hear someone saying, this is just one award. Look at the progress towards gender (and other) equality in other areas.
Three of the last four winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award have been women.
The Nebula Awards were dominated by female authors this year.
The British Science Fiction Association best novel award has been won jointly by Ann Leckie and Gareth Powell.
The Hugo Award shortlists are encouragingly diverse, despite blatant attempts to game the system by die-hard sexists (and worse).
Even the British Fantasy Society is offering a wide-ranging slate for 2014, including a Best Newcomer shortlist that’s all women after so many years dominated by male nominees and a definition of fantasy heavily skewed towards horror.

All that’s absolutely valid. And that means this whole issue is worth a closer look rather than simply deciding it just means these Gemmell Awards are an unfortunate aberration.

Look closer and you’ll see all these recent awards and shortlists I’m citing come from Fandom with the active participation of juries in many cases. These are driven by the high-volume readers (and writers) who actively engage with genre debates and developments through conventions and online venues, blogs and forums. This is where so much recent change to broaden diversity and inclusion within SF&F has happened and continues to be driven forward, not without difficulty at time and with profound thanks to the determination of those who refuse to be silenced.

By contrast, the Gemmell Awards are a popular vote and as such, these shortlists reflect the entirety of fantasy readers, the majority of whose tastes and purchases are driven by what they see in the shops, what they see reviewed in genre magazines and blogs, and such like. Where male writers dominate. I’ve written repeatedly about the gender skew in Waterstones (and a full blog post on that is forthcoming) and just this week, I got a ‘Top Fantasy Titles’ email from Amazon, offering me fifteen books by men and just one by a woman writer. Female authors are still consistently under-represented in genre reviews and blogs.

Why? Because of conniving hard-core sexists upholding the patriarchy? Er, no. Because retail is a numbers game and that means it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation. To revisit an example I’ve offered before –

When a non-fan bookseller, eager to capitalise on Game of Thrones, is making key decisions about what’s for sale, and all the review coverage and online discussion indicates a majority-male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay – that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, some editor will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, that passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work to prompt him to stock it at the front of the shop – because genre magazines and blogs have the same skew towards conservatism, on the grounds that ‘we have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the ones they’re clearly interested in.’

And so the self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete. Which how we end up with all male shortlists for the 2014 Gemmell Awards.

And it is absolutely no answer to say ‘oh well, look, there are plenty of women coming in at the debut stage now, so we just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ Because we have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring.

So how do we break this cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy? What would get women writers in SF&F noticed outside genre circles, which is what needs to happen if female authors are to have any chance of the sustained writing careers which their male peers can achieve.

How about a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize? Because prizes garner press coverage and column inches outside the genre in the mainstream press. Just google any of those awards I listed earlier to see that. Prizes get the attention of publicists and booksellers who aren’t specifically interested in genre – any genre. The same’s true for crime, romance, etc. Shortlisted books get reviews because a magazine or newspaper that might not have otherwise noticed them now has a specific reason to take a look.

No, I’m not volunteering to set this up. I know full well how much hard work goes into administering and fund-raising to support an award, year round. As a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award, I got a good look at the busy team behind the curtain and I’ve been a supporter of the Gemmell Awards since the first discussions about how to go about setting that up and whether it should be a juried or popular vote. Establishing a new award like this would not be an easy undertaking, even with the active support of genre publishers willing to supply yet more free copies of books, if this was a juried award rather than a popular vote. And that’s just one of the complex issues that would need discussing, alongside eligibility and other criteria.

This idea is still worth discussing though. And if you don’t think it’s a good idea, feel free to come up with some other solutions, to offer female authors of epic fantasy some reason to keep on writing in the current hostile retail climate.

Writing? As a Career? (The St Hilda’s Media Network Conference, May 2014)

As we planned this conference, we chose and briefed our speakers carefully. What we wanted above all else was to show the attendees the day to day reality of writers’ working lives here and now. The dedication to both deadlines and quality. The challenges and chances. Where we can compromise and where we hold fast. The flexibility that’s required more than ever as the publishing world adapts to new technologies and systems.

So they will have some answers when friends and family greet their ambitions with the incredulity or concern we so often encounter, as indicated by those question marks…

I’m delighted to say that all of our speakers delivered splendidly – and speaking purely for myself, it a fair while since I’ve heard so much solid good sense, and good advice offered, given how many sharks and charlatans I see out there in the ‘creative writing biz’.

What I can’t do is summarise everything that was said. Sorry, I’d be here for days. What I can offer is links to our speakers’ websites etc so you can have a browse for information and links of particular interest to you – along with my heartfelt recommendation that you take whatever opportunities you may have to hear them speak in future.

Hugh Warwick (ecologist, author & broadcaster) spoke on using specialist knowledge. www.urchin.info/

Discussing their own writing careers and also their work teaching creative writing
Julie Cohen (novelist & creative writing tutor)julie-cohen.com
Paul Vlitos (novelist & creative writing tutor at the University of Surrey) Paul at the University of Surrey
Nicolette Jones (journalist & literary editor) nicolettejones.com

John Simmons (copywriter & author) spoke about business writing – do check out Dark Angels for more on this very interesting topic.

Gill Oliver (journalist & copywriter) is really too busy doing all that to run a blog so I suggest you follow her byline at The Oxford Times and she’s @Justajourno on Twitter.
Charlotte Pike (food & cookery writer & blogger) can be found at Charlotte’s Kitchen Diary – and the samples of her baking on the day were a great recommendation for her recipes, especially the dairy and gluten free cakes.

You can find the latest news and updates from Justin Richards (SF novelist & scriptwriter) at justinrichardswriter.com
– and you don’t need a link to Juliet E. McKenna (fantasy novelist) since you’re already here!

Last but absolutely by no means least on the day, the panel offering the publishing perspective featured
Andrew Lownie (literary agent & author)of The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency
Andrew Rosenheim (publisher & author) is now editor of the Kindle Singles project for Amazon – more on this from The Bookseller.
Elizabeth Edmondson (novelist) elizabeth-edmondson.com

That should keep you going for a good while – and do free free to share and link to this post, for the benefit of other writers you know.

(Yes, I know this is a belated post, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to our home broadband going loopy for a week, now sorted)