Posts belonging to Category public appearances



Bristolcon – my schedule and your chance to hold ‘Shadow Histories’ in your hand.

Bristolcon is a splendid one-day, regional SF&F convention in, unsuprisingly, Bristol. This year it’s on Saturday October 29th, at the Doubletree Hotel, which is convenient for travel by car or by train – within easy walking distance of Bristol Temple Meads station. Membership is £25 in advance or £30 on the door.

This year’s Guests of Honour are the artist Fangorn, and authors Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

The full programme can be found here – click on through. Always bearing in mind that this is a month away and such plans are potentially subject to change.

My panels look very promising.

17.00 – Running the World / Cleaning the Toilets – One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. How can we build believable and effective governments in SF&F, and how can we prevent our utopias becoming dystopias (and should we try)? And while we’re focussed on the action at the top, who’s cleaning the toilets?

Ken MacLeod (M), John Baverstock, Ian Millsted, Juliet E McKenna, Jaine Fenn

18.00 – After the Heroes Have Gone – We all enjoy a big battle, especially on the big screen, but what happens afterwards? Who’s picking up the pieces of New York after the Avengers have smashed it up, who’s living in the wreckage of a Godzilla-stomped Tokyo and what are the Alderaanians who were off planet at the time supposed to do next? Wars have knock-on effects that aren’t always explored – we ask our panel to think about the fate of the ordinary folk, after the heroes have gone.:
Danie Ware (M), Joel Cornah, Juliet E McKenna, Chris Baker, R B Watkinson

And most exciting of all,and with thanks as ever to the wonderful Wizard’s Tower Press, we’ll be launching Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom that weekend! since this will be both an ebook and a print-on-demand publication, there’ll be copies on sale which I’ll naturally be happy to sign 🙂

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

What I wrote on my holidays – stories for Novacon!

This year sees Novacon 46, the UK’s longest running regional SF convention and I have the considerable honour of being the Guest of Honour. As programme and other plans are now being finalised, it’s safe to say I’m going to have a hugely enjoyable weekend on 11th-13th November, along with everyone else.

But there’s still more to this particular honour. Novacon has a tradition of publishing a special, limited and numbered edition of a chapbook by their Guests of Honour each year. So while I was away for the past few weeks, I polished up my own contribution to this series. I’ve written two stories. One’s a fantasy set in the River Kingdom, exploring another facet of this new world I’m currently creating. The other’s a science fiction tale, to honour the Birmingham SF Group‘s fine tradition.

And this is where it get’s even better. David A. Hardy is doing the chapbook cover – and what I’ve seen thus far is awesome. That’s not the only reason I’m so thrilled though; as an epic fantasy writer, it never occurred to me that I’d be lucky enough to have him illustrate my words.

I’m a huge admirer of David’s work, seen on so many of my favourite SF novels for literally decades – and in so many other places. Just this week, I learned that he did the planetary backgrounds for the second series of Blake’s 7! I seriously recommend you find the time for a good long browse of his website. If you’re ever at a convention where he’s the Artist Guest of Honour, do NOT miss the opportunity to see and hear him explain his working process. Even for non-artists like me, his slideshow and commentary is utterly fascinating.

So what’s this particular SF story about? Well, it’s another tale set on Titan Lagrange Four, the deep space industrial facility I first visited in my story for ‘Eve of War‘. I do find space stations fascinating. The notion of an enclosed environment. What happens when a situation prompts ‘fight or flight?’ The need for multiply redundant and fail-safe systems, because if something goes badly enough wrong, there’s a good chance that everyone will die. Except, the people out there can’t let things like this prey on their mind or they’d never be able to function. I remember having a fascinating conversation along these lines with a scientist working on North Sea oil rigs, when I was visiting the Aberdeen SF society many years ago… And then there are all the different possibilities for a space station’s functions? These aren’t the only reasons why Deep Space Nine is my favourite Star Trek series, but it’s definitely a factor. The same goes for Babylon 5.

So I’m really looking forward to Novacon. If you fancy joining the fun, you can find out all the details here.

And incidentally, if you’ve read The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, you may like to read Helena Bowles’ review of the series in the convention Progress Report 2 – downloadable here. She not only gets what I’m aiming for with these books but also highlights relationships between some aspects that I hadn’t consciously articulated to myself, if that makes any sense. I do like reviews that show me something new about my own work!

Authors’ views, viewing the authors & audio too – Fight Like A Girl multimedia!

Over at SFFWorld, the assorted authors of the Fight Like A Girl anthology have been having a say about oh, all sorts of things. Part One of the mass interview is now up and Part Two will follow at the end of this week.

Meantime, Roz Clarke has posted her video highlights of the launch day in Bristol over on YouTube. You’ll want to settle in with a tea, coffee or other beverage of choice as it’s 50 minutes worth of readings, discussion and sword/knife fights. In which I demonstrate various things including how to get someone to cut their own throat without leaving any of my fingerprints on the weapon 🙂

To enjoy the day’s reading and panel discussions in audio, head over to Cheryl Morgan’s blog, where you’ll also find the panel discussion.

And if after all that, you want to buy the book?
Amazon – paperback
Amazon Kindle

There’s also a Goodreads giveaway running till April 30th

FLAG

The Knee to the Nuts Paradox, and other tips when you fight like a girl.

A while ago I wrote a post commenting on an article on the reasons why women smile at men who harass them. I explained how, from a martial arts point of view, that’s a winning strategy. To de-escalate a situation and leave without a fight. But that’s not always possible, so I think a follow-up post may be useful, in particular for those without any martial arts or self defence training.

(And if you’re free this coming Saturday, 2nd April 2016 and within striking range of Bristol, do come along the Fight Like a Girl anthology launch, where I’ll be demonstrating some of the self-defence principles I discuss in this article. As well as what to do if you’ve brought bare hands to a knife fight.)

If unwanted attention turns into being grabbed, that’s very definitely the time to fight like a girl. Which is to say, not by meeting force with force but by identifying and exploiting the ways in which your attacker cannot use superior strength or in ways that make such strength irrelevant. Because the aim of the game is not to stand crowing over your defeated, bloodied enemy like some cut-price Conan, but to get free of a hold and to get clean away as quickly and effectively as possible.

This post is also prompted by recent thoughts and discussions I’ve been having with fellow aikido practitioners about gendered responses to attacks. Though these observations aren’t exclusively for women’s benefit. My thoughts apply equally well to men who find themselves shorter and less physically imposing than an attacker. As well as to men who are tall, well-muscled, physically fit and more than able to leave an aggressor bleeding on the floor – but who know full well that will see them charged with assault. So, this should make useful reading for everyone.

However, this post runs long. I’m also aware that there will be those with no interest, for whatever reason, in reading even a theoretical discussion of the practical application of violence. So I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut. Click here to continue reading

“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Guest post – Simon Morden discusses Down Station and portal fantasy.

DOWN-STATION-SMA new book that I very much enjoyed reading this month is Simon Morden’s Down Station. For a fuller assessment, you can read my review in the next issue of Interzone.

For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.

One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.

In defence of Narnia and other portals
Simon Morden

I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.

Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.

Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.

The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.

Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.

At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.

I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.

At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.

Fight Like A Girl – the anthology and the launch event!

I honestly cannot recall what started that particular Twitter conversation. I’m guessing it was probably something about ‘fight like a girl’ being used as some throwaway insult, prompting derision from the very many of us women with hands-on experience of a broad range of martial arts and skills. Somehow – rather splendidly – the discussion morphed into ‘how about an anthology…?’

The rest is history. The future is this splendid book from Grimbold Books, who ask

“What do you get when some of the best women writers of genre fiction come together to tell tales of female strength? A powerful collection of science fiction and fantasy ranging from space operas and near-future factional conflict to medieval warfare and urban fantasy. These are not pinup girls fighting in heels; these warriors mean business. Whether keen combatants or reluctant fighters, each and every one of these characters was born and bred to Fight Like A Girl.

Featuring stories by Roz Clarke, Kelda Crich, K T Davies, Dolly Garland, K R Green, Joanne Hall, Julia Knight, Kim Lakin-Smith, Juliet E McKenna, Lou Morgan, Gaie Sebold, Sophie E Tallis, Fran Terminiello, Danie Ware, Nadine West “

Fans of The Tales of Einarinn might like to note that my story, ‘Coins, Fights and Stories Always Have Two Sides’ takes place in during the Lescari Civil Wars, before the events of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution.

When can you get hold of a copy? Well, we’re launching the anthology with an event in Bristol on Saturday April 2nd from 1-5.30pm, at the Hatchet Inn, 27-29 Frogmore St, Bristol, BS1 5NA in association with Kristell Ink and Bristolcon. (Isn’t the collaborative, supportive nature of SF&F great?)

It’ll be a sociable and fun afternoon including swordplay and display, discussing the role of women in SF&F (both as characters and authors), excerpts from the book, and a buffet. Whether you’re a budding writer, established author or genre fan, there will be something for everyone!

You can book tickets here – please note that the £5 is to cover the cost of the buffet (and the 95 pence is Eventbrite’s administration fee). Overall, the event is being funded by the Bristolcon Foundation.

I’m really looking forward to it. See you there, to help fly the FLAG?

Key differences between Literary Festivals and SF Conventions when it comes to payment

I’m extremely pleased to see Philip Pullman making a stand on the issue of literary festivals not paying writers – when everyone else involved gets paid – and to see a host of other authors backing him.

But I am also seeing a degree of confusion, particularly from SF&Fantasy fans/writers who think this is a call to pay programme participants at SF conventions. Some clarification may be useful. As well as regularly attending conventions, I’ve long been involved with non-genre literary festivals thanks to working with The Write Fantastic and also as a committee member for my old Oxford college’s Media Alumnae Network. Consequently I have observed how very different their approaches are.

Literary festivals organise their programming primarily around publishers’ schedules and offer one or two writers per slot an opportunity to publicise their current book. The biggest names with the highest media profiles get the biggest venues and the best time slots because these are commercially-minded enterprises whether or not they’re structured as charities like the Oxford Literary Festival. Everything from venues to publicity to technical support must be paid for and that means selling tickets to fill the seats. None of this is criticism. I always enjoy hearing a talented author share their enthusiasm for their work, fiction or non-fiction, as I sit in a quietly attentive audience. And yes, the big name events do help fund the lesser known and special interest authors’ events – such programming is assuredly valuable for readers and writers alike.

But make no mistake; this is work for an author. It’s essentially an hour’s professional performance or presentation. It’s just not treated as such. Over the years, as a contributor at assorted festivals, I’ve turned up, got a cup of coffee in the green room, done my thing, and that’s pretty much that. Depending on the time of day I might be offered access to a buffet lunch (problematic for anyone with dietary issues). I’ve generally had my travel expenses covered but in all but a very few cases, I haven’t been paid for my time on the day or for the essential preparation. And no, the royalties I might get from however many of my books are sold at the festival wouldn’t come anywhere close to a reasonable fee. I might get a ‘goody bag’ with something like a bottle of wine, maybe some perfume, and a couple of books (which alas, I seldom actually want). I would usually get one or two complimentary tickets for my own event, nice for friends and family, but if I want to go to any of the festival’s other events, I have to buy tickets like any other punter.

SF conventions are very different. From their earliest days, conventions have been fan-led events. Readers and writers alike are encouraged to get involved, exploring their shared enthusiasm. Those going to SF conventions pay for memberships rather than tickets. People aren’t buying a seat to passively attend a one hour event. They’re investing in the funding of a collective enterprise over several days, run by volunteers for fellow enthusiasts.

A weekend’s membership gives access to dozens, even hundreds of programme items. There are fact-based sessions, where fans and authors alike share their knowledge and expertise on everything from science in all its ramifications to historical, linguistic, political and psychological scholarship – just a few disciplines which underpin the ever-broadening scope of speculative fiction. As well as sessions exploring creative writing, programme items explore visual skills and disciplines from fine art providing inspiration to writers and artists alike, to comics and graphic novels. There’s discussion of SF and fantasy in film, TV and audio drama, from author and audience perspectives. Then there’s the fun programming, including but not limited to games and costuming events, ranging from the admirably serious to the enjoyably daft.

At a literary festival it’s rare to see a handful of writers talking more generally about their writing, about the themes and topics which their broader genre is currently addressing, about on-going developments in their particular literary area, comparing and contrasting their own work and process with each other and with the writers who’ve gone before them. It does happen, particularly with crime writers, but it’s still nowhere as prevalent as it is at SF conventions. I think that’s a shame, because audiences so clearly appreciate such wide-ranging discussion. It’s rarer still to see a fan/reviewer taking part in literary festival panels to broaden the debate with their perspective whereas such participation is an integral and valuable facet of convention programming.

Traditionally, at SF conventions, no one gets paid for the considerable amount of time they contribute, by which I mean none of the organising committee or any of those people who help out with such things as Ops, Publications, Tech and any amount of other vital support. Membership revenues cover the costs of venues and the various commercial services essential for the event to take place. Those authors who have been specifically invited as Guests of Honour have their expenses covered as a thank you for what will be a hard working weekend but they’re not paid a fee as such. Some conventions offer free memberships to other published authors on the programme and believe me, that’s always very much appreciated, but even then, those writers are expected to cover their own travel, hotel and sustenance expenses.

Is that fair? Well, an author assuredly has the opportunity to get far more from a convention than they do from a literary festival and not just a thoroughly enjoyable social event. It’s a weekend of networking and catching up on industry news, of benefiting from other writers’ experiences and perspectives, of learning things that are often directly relevant to whatever they’re working on or which will spark their imagination for a new project, of engaging with established fans and readers new to their work, often getting valuable feedback and usefully thought-provoking questions. Opportunities for paying work often follow from contacts made and conversations had.

Which is great – as long as you can afford to get to the convention in the first place and with authors’ incomes dropping year on year, that’s becoming an increasing issue for many SF&F writers. Plus the line between fan-run, non-profit events and overtly commercial enterprises has become blurred in some cases in recent years. I’ve been invited to SF&F events where I’ve discovered media guests are being paid fat appearance fees but the writers are expected to participate for free, in some cases without even expenses paid. You won’t be surprised to learn I declined. Then there have also been events where I’ve discovered some writers’ expenses are covered at the organisers’ discretion – but not others. That’s wholly unacceptable as far as I am concerned.

So do I think writers appearing at literary festivals should get paid? Yes. They’re doing a job of work to a professional standard and everyone else involved is getting paid.

Do I think programme participants at SF conventions should be paid? In an ideal world, yes – but doing that would force up the cost of convention memberships far beyond what the other fans could afford, especially once their hotel and other expenses are factored in.

Should all conventions factor in the cost of free memberships for programme participants? Personally, I’d very much like to see it. It’s saying ‘this is the value we put on your contribution and thank you’ as opposed to ‘kindly pay us for the privilege of working this weekend’ but once again, that would force up the cost of membership for everyone else with implications for levels of attendance and thus funds for essential expenses. Some conventions will decide their event can sustain this, others will decide that they can’t. As I know from my participation in running Eastercon 2013, a big convention’s budget is a dauntingly complex affair.

But the crucial distinction remains. Literary festivals and other commercial enterprises should pay the writers without whom there’d be no event. Non-profit conventions where readers and writers are sharing their common passion as fans are something else entirely.

Contemplating 2016 – some thoughts on the year ahead

Well, I know this much; my year will be bookended by teaching. I’ve got a trip to Lancaster University scheduled for late January and in early December I’ll be tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt at Moniack Mhor’s residential creative writing course on Science Fiction and Fantasy. I’m very much looking forward to both trips. George Green at Lancaster is both a good friend and amiably shrewd educator. Pippa and I have been bouncing ideas back and forth for a while now and finalising/integrating our workshops promises to be most rewarding.

In fact my diary is already fuller for the end of the year than it is for the early months. In November I’ll be the Guest of Honour at Novacon in Nottingham; an unlooked-for honour, offering interesting opportunities to discuss our genre and related issues. In between times, I have a couple of new short story commissions and some of my last year’s writing will be published. All things being equal, I hope to be at Bristolcon in October.

What else will I be doing with my time – alongside getting the latter two Aldabreshin Compass books out in ebook editions? I think this is where the flip side to my last blog post becomes relevant. Listing my achievements in 2015 was as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s, because I’m very conscious of the things I had planned a year ago and which simply didn’t get done, given all the other calls on my time.

I didn’t write a full length work of fiction last year – for the first time since 1997. To save you counting on your fingers, yes, this does mean I have already-completed, as-yet-unpublished novels sitting on my hard drive. Finding the right agent/editor for one or more of those, to get the fresh professional eyes and input needed for a final rewrite so they make the mainstream publishing grade, is something else that didn’t happen last year. In two cases I already have ideas for significant revisions but it’s been impossible to schedule the necessary time and mental space to do such work.

I have assorted short stories and the novella ‘The Ties that Bind’ set in the River Kingdom milieu which I want to see published as ebooks, as well as novel proposals complete with opening chapters set in that same world which I want to get in front of an agent/editor. That didn’t happen last year either. Nor did investigating crowd funding systems such as Patreon – beyond establishing that crowd funding’s handling of EU digital VAT is a confused mess on all sides.

All of which has had a significant impact on my professional cash flow. If you’re wondering why I’m not listing any other convention trips as currently planned, bluntly, I cannot afford them as the writerly finances stand.

I didn’t contribute to any of the ‘Best Read of 2015’ pieces I was invited to take part in towards the end of the year, because I cannot recall when I was last so woefully under-read in both fiction and non-fiction. The folders of unwatched television drama and documentaries on the DVR tell the same story. As does the folder of internet bookmarks and notes for a good few blogposts that never got written.

Just to be crystal clear, this is an assessment not a lament. There’s no need for anyone, however gently and/or well-intentioned, to point out that I made my own choices and set my own priorities last year. Quite so. I’ll be doing the same in 2016 and I rather think those choices and priorities will be markedly different in this coming year.

Fantasycon 2015 – the good, the great and the startling.

Getting ready to go to Nottingham for Fantasycon last Thursday, I told myself resolutely that this was going to be a weekend about the art, craft and business of writing. If only for a few days, I was going to be an author again, not an EU digital VAT campaigner. Not just for my own sake and sanity – though that was a large part of it – but because the convention deserved my full focus. I was going to be Mistress of Ceremonies and that’s not a gig I’ve ever done before so I was intent on not making a hash of it.

Making that conscious decision soon paid dividends. On the drive up, I found I didn’t want to listen to the radio or any music. Solitude and lack of distractions meant I could think through various ideas I’ve been mulling over for my forthcoming story in ZNB’s Alien Artefacts anthology. Being away from email, social media and those stacks of paper on my desk about EU digital VAT really helped. By the time I reached the hotel, any number of things were slotting into place. Excellent. Better yet, on the writing front, I woke up on Saturday morning and about two minutes later, suddenly realised what I need to do to rewrite the opening chapters of the As Yet Unsold Novel which I had out on submission to a few agents earlier this year but which only gathered ‘interesting, thanks, but just at the moment, no thanks’ responses. Which means it needs more work but I’ve been struggling to find the time to even think what that might be, uninterrupted, in recent months.

That said, it seemed an awful lot of people at the convention wanted to talk to me about VAT once I got there. That was fine, though. Actually, it was a lot more than merely fine. I got involved in this campaign because I could see just how many people I know personally and professionally, working in independent and small press publishing, were going to be hit really hard by such badly framed legislation. So having them take a moment to say how grateful they are for all the EU VAT Action Campaign is doing was welcome validation for all that time and effort.

My first MC duty was hosting the convention’s opening ceremony where I covered the practicalities briskly and focused on introducing the Guests of Honour. This was always going to be a pleasure. I’ve admired and liked Jo Fletcher since first going to conventions a decade and a half ago – and she publishes excellent books. I met John Connolly some years ago in Dublin and found him as rewarding to talk to as his books are to read. While I’ve never met Brandon Sanderson before, I find his work very enjoyable and mutual friends have always spoken very highly of him. The four of us talked a little about what brings us to conventions, and keeps us coming back. It was immediately apparent that the weekend was going to be about sharing our enthusiasms with established pals and with the new friends we’d be making.

The programme was packed with good things as well as new faces and voices. Alongside the full schedule of readings and book launches, the Fantasycon 2015 organisers’ efforts to broaden participation meant 170 of the 500 pre-registered con members were on panels. Bringing new perspectives and different experiences to even the most familiar topics does make such a positive contribution. My own panels were extremely rewarding; on the uses writers make of history in fantasy (and pitfalls to beware of); on writing fight scenes, and on the uses writers make of religion in genre writing, which has a different array of pitfalls. These were all wide-ranging and constructive discussions, with keenly engaged audiences. As seemed to be the case through the entire programme for the whole weekend, judging by the chats I had with other writers at various times in various bars.

As MC I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Brandon Sanderson, who really is a thoroughly nice guy as well as a consummate professional. It’s great to get a chance to ask the particular questions that have intrigued you about an author’s work and career. Like why has he written about Evil Librarians when most writers see them as heroes? What sequence of events led to him taking on the challenge of completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time? How does he manage to write so many different things?

There was one question I didn’t have to ask. We talked about Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane – the book which got him back into reading as a teenage boy after so many stories had disappointed him. I remember the impact it had on me but I’m ten years old than Brandon and have been reading fantasy for as long as I can remember. What was the book’s appeal to someone without that grounding in the genre to see how Hambly was challenging conventions? It turns out a large part of that was Jenny Waynest’s struggle to choose between family and wizardry, since young Brandon could see the choices and challenges women face over pursuing careers in action in his own family. Enthralled, he headed straight for the library’s card catalogue to see what titles came after Dragonsbane. Turns out those were Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn. So that made the ‘what’s the origin of strong female characters in your work?’ question wholly redundant!

In between times, as MC, I got to play with the venue’s tannoy system, to announce the Guest of Honour programme items. Oh…. the temptation. I mean, it’s just cruel giving a writer that sort of job. Granted, I don’t have the baritone for ‘This is the voice of the Mysterons’ but how about ‘Warning. You have ten minutes to reach minimum safe distance.’ in calm and cultured tones? The possibilities are endless – but I resisted as that wouldn’t have been professional. In any case, there was more than enough hilarity to go round. Particular highlights on Saturday night included a live edition of Tea and Jeopardy with Brandon Sanderson as the guest. If this writing thing doesn’t work out for him, I’d say he’s got a good chance at a career in sitcoms. Then Gillian Redfearn chaired a game of Just a Minute with contestants John Connolly, Jo Fletcher, Juliet Mushens and Gareth Powell. Hilarity doesn’t begin to describe it. If you ever see a group at a convention hysterical with laughter over the word ‘boudoir’ you’ll know that they were there.

Sunday was back to serious stuff, for me at least. The MC’s role included presenting the British Fantasy Society Awards and this year, I was to do pretty much the whole thing, rather than having guest presenters for each award. So I had some thinking to do. It’s been a year of controversy over the Hugos which has spilled into conversation about genre awards in general. I didn’t feel I could ignore that – but at the same time, this ceremony wasn’t about that. So here are my opening remarks.

“There are a great many science fiction, horror and fantasy awards. Different countries, different conventions, different communities use them to celebrate their particular interests and enthusiasms and as a rule, those of us looking on take the opportunity to make note of books or writers or artists working in whatever media which we might not have come across before. This all contributes to the wealth of shared knowledge that makes speculative fiction such an endlessly inventive genre.

Which is why this year has felt so exceptional, and not in a good way, to so many of us. We’ve been unwilling onlookers as those who for whatever reason have felt excluded from one particular convention’s awards decided that the way forward isn’t dialogue but attempts to direct and to dominate the conversation across our genre.

What has that got to do with today? Well, as far as I’m concerned, it makes it all the more important and all the more pleasing, to celebrate the British Fantasy Society’s ongoing determination, with all the hard work that entails, to broaden participation at all stages in these awards in recent years, to welcome newcomers to nominating and to voting, to encourage everyone to have their say and to feel included. And let’s take a moment to honour the memory of Graham Joyce who was absolutely bloody determined that was going to happen.

Which is why it’s a genuine pleasure and an honour for me to present these awards today, on behalf of the British Fantasy Society and the ever growing Fantasycon community.”

I’m pleased to say nods and applause around the room endorsed this view. So on I went with the Awards. You can find the full list of winners here and it was lovely to see the recipients’ mingled astonishment and delight, as well as hearing the cheers and whoops from their families and friends. As well as the applause and heartfelt congratulations from everyone else with no personal stake in this year’s nominees but simply there to celebrate and reward their peers and colleagues.

Okay, I’m clearly a bit slow on the uptake. I genuinely had no thought of being honoured with an Award myself. Yes, alright, I knew Ramsey Campbell would be presenting the Karl Edward Wagner Award but I didn’t think anything of that. Ramsey’s the BFS past-president and it’s the Committee’s special award so I assumed it would be going to someone Ramsey’s worked with or has some other significant connection with. Then he started reading the citation and I realised he was talking about me. As well as editorialising and embellishing the words he’d been given as only Ramsey could, so if he writes something spine chilling about a monstrous creature rising from a vat of eldritch mess, you’ll know where he got the idea. And everyone cheered and clapped and well, if I don’t say so, Jo Fletcher will repeat her editorial note from Facebook saying I should mention the standing ovation…

I didn’t know what to say. I was utterly astonished. To the extent which my elder son describes as ‘I cannot brain!’ I suppose that’s because over this past year, my writing and my VAT campaigning have been so entirely separate in my own mind. Yes, I’m doing this because of the legislation’s disastrous impact on the book trade but I’m working alongside people striving just as hard because their own industries and interests are equally if not even more badly hit. And to get things done about it requires complete focus on the matter in hand. So as I say, the two things have been wholly separate for me. While the BFS Awards are for writing and allied trades in artwork and editing, surely? Well, evidently the Committee knows better and chose to honour me for both my writing career and for this past year’s work on the EU digital VAT issue, on behalf of all those affected.

You may rest assured that I am deeply and sincerely honoured. And if I’d been able to brain on the day, I would have said something rather more coherent along these lines.

So that was my Fantasycon 2015. Memorable in so many ways!

BFS-award