A Follycon comedy video and a podcast on The Green Man’s Heir.

I had a splendid weekend at Follycon, the Eastercon up in Harrogate. Listening to Guest of Honour Nnedi Okorafor in conversation with Tade Thompson was a particular highlight, among many excellent programme items. Listening to Professor Farah Mendlesohn’s presentation on Robert Heinlein makes me increasingly keen to read her forthcoming book on the author. My own contribution included panels on the ways economics is handled and mishandled in SF&F, and a discussion of employment, present and future. As has long been the case, I find SF&F conventions pretty much the best place these days to find informed social and political debate based on sound analytical thinking.

Alongside the serious stuff there was plenty of fun. Alongside estemeed authors Jaine Fenn and Jacey Bedford, with our glamourous token man Adrian Tchaikovsky, we tackled the thorny questions besieging Men in Science Fiction. For those of you who couldn’t be there to gain vital insights, this trenchant debate has been immortalised on YouTube.

Personally and professionally, the enthusiasm I found for The Green Man’s Heir gave me a real thrill. Copies in the Dealers Room sold out swiftly, while established pals and new acqaintances alike took the time to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Given the book is quite some departure from the epic fantasy I’m best known for, that’s all the more gratifying. Keen readers are already asking about a sequel… well, that’s one area where the facts of life are constant in publishing, from the multinationals to independents like Wizard’s Tower Press. Sequels stem from sales, so if you’d care to boost the signal with reviews on Amazon UK and US, and Goodreads, as you prefer, that will be very much appreciated.

Talking of The Green Man’s Heir, quite literally, before I went off to Follycon, I was able to have an enjoyable chat with Joel Cornah about the book, about the differences I found writing a novel set in this world, in the present day, and oh, all sorts of stuff. That’s now available as a special episode of the Writers of Fantasy podcast from the Scifi Fantasy Network.

Enjoy your viewing and listening.

My Follycon/Eastercon programme, and your chance to play Suffragetto!

I’ll be off to Harrogate on Friday morning, to spend the weekend at Follycon aka this year’s Eastercon, where my programme items are interestingly varied and where I’ll also have plenty of time to chat and enjoy the programe myself, so that’s a win-win. If you’d like to say hello, feel free.

Edited to add – I can now confirm paperback copies of The Green Man’s Heir will be for sale in the Dealers Room 🙂 If you’d like me to sign one, or any other book I’ve written (however well read) I’ll be happy to obliged.

I’ll be at the BSFA Awards on Saturday evening, appreciating the honour of being shortlisted for the Non-Fiction Award. Incidentally, for those who are interested, there’s an excerpt from my paper on ‘The Myth of Meritocracy’, discussing gender-related barriers and associated issues in SF&F writing and publishing in the current edition of Books from Scotland, since Luna Press who published that collection of essays are Edinburgh based.

On Sunday morning at 11 am, I’ll be running a masterclass in SF criticism, looking at ‘The Moon Over Red Trees’ by Aliette de Bodard. It’s an excellent story with plenty of layers so there’s lots to discuss. If you’d like to participate, sign up at Registration, where hard copies of the story will be available. You can also read it online here.

On Sunday evening, at 6 pm I’m part of Follycon Fast Forward. This takes as its premise “all the best Eastercons fit into an hour” and offers entirely serious compressed programme items, including the whole of The Empire Strikes Back. Intrigued? I know I am…

On Monday afternoon, at 3 pm, I’m discussing Genre Economics, specifically the role that economics plays, or so frequently doesn’t, in SF&Fantasy. We’ll discuss the implications of not including economics in plots and world-building, and hopefully find some examples of books and screenplays etc actively benefiting from an understanding of economic principles, and how this can be done without boring everyone rigid with explanations of post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory.

At some point, I’ll be in the Games Room, as the Husband and I have just spent this past weekend making up two sets of Suffragetto! The board game which sees martial arts trained suffragists taking on the police in the fight for votes for women. You can find out more about all this here, at the Suffrajitsu website.

1st Chapter Friday – The Assassin’s Edge

Yes, I know I’m early with this but I’m off on a train to Durham tomorrow, and very much looking forward to the Nerd East convention at the university on Saturday.

If you’re around at the event, feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the opening chapter of The Assassin’s Edge!

When I get back, now that I’ve got a significant and tedious tranche of seasonal administrivia off my desk this week, I should have a chance to write a few more interesting blog posts.

1stChapterFriday and Nerd East News

Okay after last week’s trial run, we’re going to go with #1stChapterFriday – that’s singular, no ‘s’ – on the interests of disambiguation. We’ll also see how we get on with that hashtag on Facebook as well as Twitter.

And for sake of completeness and for those who don’t use either of those platforms, here’s my link to the first chapter of The Swordsman’s Oath, free for you to read, your friends and family etc.

In other news, I’m very much looking forward to a trip to Durham for the 3rd of June where I will be a guest at Nerd East, the North East’s original Roleplay and Gaming mini-convention, running since 2010.

Nerd East 2017 will be runing on the aforementioned Saturday 3rd June in Durham Students’ Union, New Elvet, Durham, DH1 3AN. I’ll be talking about books, games, film, TV and how they all relate to each other in current SF&Fantasy culture. Plus, y’know, whatever other interesting things come up for discussion. Did I mention I’m looking forward to this?

For those within striking distance, click here for the Nerd East website.

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.