The Green Man’s Foe and a Legacy

The Green Man’s Foe is published tomorrow and since I’m not taking a laptop to the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, I’m posting this today, before I travel to Ireland. I want to acknowledge the part that my first literary agent, Maggie Noach, played in this story. One of the underlying themes of this particular novel is the idea of legacy, good and bad, and that has a particular resonance for me, in the unusual way this novel has come to be written.

As well as representing my epic fantasy fiction, while I wrote The Tales of Einarinn, and The Aldabreshin Compass, Maggie encouraged me to take my writing in other directions. She knew and loved the Cotswolds where I live, and more than once, we discussed the sense of history and folklore that’s so embedded in the local woods and villages. I wrote a draft of a novel about a country house being turned into a hotel, and a visitor from London who gets drawn into its secrets, that may or may not include the supernatural.

We were discussing how to improve on that, when all of us who knew and admired Maggie were devastated by her untimely death on 2006. Over the next few years, in between other projects, I went back to the novel a few times, and tried a couple of different approaches. Somehow, whatever I ended up with was never quite right. Looking at the dates on the files on the hard drive, I see that I last revised it in 2010 before finally setting it aside.

The success of The Green Man’s Heir in 2018 meant a great many people were asking me hopefully about a sequel. I certainly wanted to write one, but what would it be about? Frankly, I was at a loss until quite suddenly one day, when we were on holiday in the Lake District and I wasn’t even thinking about work, I remembered those drafts were still tucked away in my computer archive. When we got home, I searched out the back ups and realised I had the detailed setting, background characters and a framework of events that I could use for a whole new story, where Daniel has no doubt about the supernatural threat to this country house hotel project.

Once I stared writing, everything came together in a way that my attempts to rework that early draft novel simply never had. I only wish that Maggie was still with us to see the end result. I have no doubt what she would say. This all goes to show that no writing is ever wasted. That is most definitely part of her legacy to me.

Reflections on 2018

This has been The Green Man’s Year for me, and who could have predicted that a year ago? Cheryl of Wizard’s Tower Press and I were aiming to get the book out for Eastercon, with the expert input of Toby for editing, and Ben’s outstanding artwork. If we made oh, say, a few hundred quid over and above our meeting our costs, that would count as a success. Reader, we did that in the first six weeks… As the year draws to a close, we have sold over 8000 copies – and that’s before the current sale.

What has this meant for me, beyond the massive boost to morale after a few years in the publishing doldrums? For a start, I now have the budget for attending Dublin 2019’s WorldCon in the bank, and that eases my mind tremendously. I could also afford to go to Octocon in Ireland last October, and to travel to Baltimore for the World Fantasy Convention. I was able to replace my aging and increasingly flaky computer, and buy a new printer to replace the even older and more temperamental incumbent.

Beyond the practicalities, writing a book that’s reminded the publishing industry that yes, I can spin a yarn that a whole load of people love to read, has significantly improved my chances of placing a new fantasy novel/series. So that’s what I’m working on, alongside plans for a Green Man sequel from Wizard’s Tower Press. I’ve also enjoyed myself writing an alternate history short story for ZNB’s 2019 slate of anthologies.

Though those people who’ve said to me, with all goodwill, that the bigger publishers must be kicking themselves for not picking up Green Man, are somewhat behind the times, as far as the book trade goes. Something that this experience, and the year more generally, has shown me, is how massively the book business has changed in the twenty years since The Thief’s Gamble was first published in January 1999. Those who did turn The Green Man’s Heir down for the mass market did so after honestly assessing the commercial chances of this very different style of book from an author best known for epic fantasy, and concluding that the odds were against it. Who’s to say they were wrong, as far as that particular bookshop/supermarket sales environment goes? Not me. But these days, the mass market is by no means the only game in town and that really is the game-changer. We’re seeing time and again that small press and ebook-led titles can succeed online in a wholly new way. For writers, this underscores how vital a hybrid career is becoming; combining independent projects with mass market writing.

Serving as a judge for the 2018 World Fantasy Awards showed me still more aspects of the changing nature of publishing and the SFFH genre. Online publishing and publicity, as well as fans’ ever-evolving digital reading habits, have given shorter form fiction like novellas and short stories a massive boost. We saw a wealth of excellent submissions, both individually and in collections and anthologies. We also saw novels from small, independent presses as good as anything from the mass market publishers. A significant element across all the submissions, regardless of length or publisher, was the presence of voices hitherto minimised or excluded in the last decade or so of mass market, hard copy publishing where the blunt instrument of commercial pressures skewed everything towards what was perceived as the centre of the readership bell curve.

As a judge, I saw these new voices, from indigenous writers, from writers of colour and various diaspora populations, from authors across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and others besides, bring fresh perspectives and unexpected twists to classic SFFH themes and ideas, enriching and broadening the genre. This has definitely also invigorated white, western writers, encouraging them to explore new ideas and influences – as well as challenging them to up their game, because these more recent entrants really can write. If you think anyone got on this year’s WFA shortlists as any kind of token, or by being held to some lesser standard on account of some undeserved credit, think again. As judges we were unanimous on that score.

This trend towards an inclusive, expansive and diverse genre was a feature of all the conventions I went to this year, both in terms of programming, and in the informal conversations around the bars and restaurants, alongside discussions of the shifts in publishing and new opportunities arising from such changes. This really is an interesting and exciting time to be writing, though equally, it’s no time to be complacent. Decades of cultural inertia still take a lot of shifting. Thankfully, readers and fans are increasingly aware of that as well. My essay on challenges and barriers to broader participation on SFFH writing was shortlisted for a 2018 BSFA Award, which I find very encouraging, as well as a tremendous honour.

I could go on, but it’s Christmas Eve, and I have things to do. So now that I’ve looked back on this rewarding year, I’ll wish you and yours a happy holiday season, however you choose to celebrate at this time of year. I’m signing off social media pretty much till the New Year, so see you in 2019!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few New Year thoughts…

… starting with why you didn’t read this yesterday. I thought about posting something but when I took a glance at the Internet, the first thing I saw was a SF&F row swirling around. I thought briefly about trying to determine where the lines between misunderstanding and bad faith might lie on either side – and then logged out to spend the day with my family instead. We can call that a New Year’s resolution, if you like. There’s more than enough negativity around at the moment, so I’m not interested in looking for more.

I’m currently appreciating my family, those nearest and those further away. 2017 saw some ups and downs but overall, both the sons and the husband are on an even keel, hopefully set fair for 2018. My parents and step-parents continue pretty hale and hearty – and long may that continue. I really appreciate being the off-spring of a teenage romance these days, now that so many good friends are supporting increasingly elderly and infirm parents with all the practical and emotional challenges that brings, up to and including bereavement.

Somewhat unexpectedly, 2017 also saw me branching out into editorial services. Two writers whom I’d taught on residential courses contacted me asking if I ever worked one-on-one with authors. Knowing that both were tough enough to take realistic appraisal of their writing, I accepted this new challenge, and it’s been very rewarding. They’re two very different writers, with two very different and interesting projects. Both have been applying themselves diligently to addressing the issues I’ve highlighted, drawing on my own twenty years in this business. Both projects are progressing and improving. And yes, this added income stream is welcome amid the ongoing flux of the book trade that sees author advances and earnings continue to fall. (And no, I’m not touting for trade – the time that I can spare for such work is currently fully committed.)

All such ticks in the plus column are all the more welcome against the bigger picture that’s been so uncertain and troubling throughout 2017. Here in the UK we have the divisive and destructive idiocy that is Brexit, whose equally destructive economic impact is only just beginning to be felt. Across the Atlantic, US pals have the horror show that is the Trump administration. If ‘administration’ is the right word for such a shambolic and nakedly predatory presidency.

All of which makes it very tempting to bar the front door, stop reading/watching the news, and opt out of social media beyond staying in touch with family and real-life friends. The thing is though, one of the last things 2017 handed me was confirmation that individuals really can make a difference. In December 2014 new regulations on the taxation of cross-border digital sales across the EU looked disastrous for the person-to-person digital economy. All the small traders who would be worst affected were told there was nothing we could do. I was one of half a dozen self-employed women who refused to take that for an answer and spent 2015 and subsequent years lobbying and campaigning for change. December 2017 saw the changes we need signed into law, effective 1st Jan 2019. In legislative terms, we achieved pretty much the impossible, far more quickly than might be expected.

Not without cost. For me and Clare Josa, it meant pretty much abandoning our own businesses throughout 2015 in favour of campaign work. It was the first year since 1997 that I didn’t write a full novel – though I wrote around two novels worth of words in blog posts, letters, reports, and submissions to organisations like the OECD and legislative bodies like the House of Lords. The other women of the EU VAT Action team similarly sacrificed time they’d otherwise have spent on work and family, according to the contribution they were able to make.

But we did it, and that’s something to take forward into 2018. We can make a difference and we can bear the cost. Let’s make our voices heard against the selfishness and greed that’s leaving so many destitute and desperate. Let’s reclaim the reins of power in the interests of the many, not merely the few. Write letters, make phone calls, protest.

What else will I be doing in 2018? Reading. A lot of reading. I’m serving as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards, which promises to be fascinating and demanding in equal measure.

I’ll also be reading for the background and research required for a new publishing project, of which more details in due course. After several years of primarily small-press and short-story publication, this New Year sees the prospect of my work on the mass-market shelves in 2019. As I say, there will be more news about all that later on. There’ll also be a few short stories from me here and there through the year.

Meantime, and more immediately, Wizard’s Tower Press will be publishing my next novel shortly. The Green Man’s Heir is a modern fantasy, drawing on the folklore of the British Isles, and prompted by looking at urban fantasy from a few different angles. Once again, I’m indebted to Cheryl Morgan’s technical and publishing expertise. Ben Baldwin’s artwork is fabulous, and Toby Selwyn has done a stellar job as the book’s editor. All of which reminds me of all the positive, supportive and constructive people there are in SF&F fandom, always there to far outweigh outbreaks of negativity and back-biting.

So I will get back to checking over the ebook version Cheryl has sent me, as my first task of 2018. Watch this space for more, and soon!