Articles from January 2013



How and Why Test-Readers/Copy-Editors/Any Fresh, Thoughtful Eyes Improve Creative Writing

This is really interesting. If you look back at the short story I posted yesterday, you’ll see that I have now edited one word. I have changed the line in question to

noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

Because in the comments on my main blog, a reader wondered why only girls should be directed towards those books, as the initial text implied. That’s a very good question and the quick answer is self-evident. There is no good reason why only girls should read Austen and the Brontes. Indeed there are many good reasons why boys should read the full range of such classic literature.

The longer answer is more complex and more revealing. Writing this story, I was drawing on my own memories of A Level English, where, yes, we studied Keats. This is particularly the case because that first impulse to write this story was prompted by a friend I have known since that very class. It was her helpful phone that turned ‘varifocal’ into ‘verifcation’. We went to the same girls’ grammar school, so in my mind’s eye, the class I’m recalling is entirely female.

Then there’s the Twilight angle which you’ll see in the story. Again, I’m drawing on my own experiences going into schools these days and teaching creative writing. It’s invariably a dreamy-eyed girl who askes me if I’ve read Twilight. (To which my answer is always,’No, I haven’t got round to it yet, but I do read Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and now you’ve read all the Twilight books, why not give them a try’.) So once again, in that particular paragraph, my writerly subconsious is full of girls.

The key thing here is that while the longer answer is very illuminating, the shorter answer is the one that counts. Because there is no good reason why this line should only refer to girls. In fact, changing the word to ‘pupils’ actively improves the story in several subtle ways.

So there you go. A real-life, real-time example of the editing process and what it contributes to the books we read. Isn’t that great?

A short story prompted by predictive text’s idiosyncracies.

Yesterday I remarked online that I keep finding I’m peering over my glasses or shoving them up on my head for close work now. Assorted pals put up their hands, admitting to their bi-, tri and varifocal lenses these days. One long-standing friend was caught out by her helpful phone which declared she now wears ‘verification’ glasses. The consensus was those sounded a lot more interesting than the usual opticians’ offerings.

As is the way of writers, I found myself thinking idly, doing the washing up and on the school run this morning. So here you are.

Insight

She entered the classroom, put her handbag on the desk and opened it, taking out her glasses case. ‘Good morning, everyone. Settle down please.’
11JW did as she asked, with greater or lesser alacrity.
Swapping her everyday glasses for the ones in the case, Maeve reached for the textbook and opened it. ‘Keats, please. St Agnes Eve.’
‘New specs, Miss?’ Amy looked up from the front row.
Maeve smiled. ‘They’re verification lenses.’
Sitting next to Amy, Emma laughed. ‘You mean varifocals, Miss.’
‘Do I?’ Maeve smiled again before looking up to survey the class. ‘Well, now, I hope everyone has read the poem and made some notes after last time. Who wants to start today’s discussion?’
‘Oh, Miss, it was so romantic. Like Twilight.’ Becky propped her chin on her hand, eyes dreamy.
‘Romantic?’ In the row behind Becky, Josh laughed lewdly. ‘It’s all about some bloke sneaking in to a girl’s bedroom to give her one.’
As the other boys sniggered though, Maeve saw the silver thread of yearning stretch from the centre of Josh’s chest to hover, stopping just short of caressing Natalie’s exuberant, black curls.
‘Do you think that sort of coarseness will improve your chances with a girl, Josh?’ she asked mildly.
As the boys subsided, abashed, Maeve nodded, satisfied. ‘Though you do have a point, Josh, and we’ll consider that when we reach that part of the poem. Becky’s also raised an interesting question. Where do we draw the line between romantic pursuit and stalking? Why do some remarkably old-fashioned ideas persist in modern literature?’
That prompted a lively debate between the Twihards and the rest. Maeve let it run for a few minutes, noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.
‘So—’ she raised her voice to reclaim the class’s attention ‘—let’s get back to Keats. Oliver, you haven’t had anything to say so far. Did you do your homework?’
‘Yes, Miss,’ he said defensively. ‘Just didn’t like it.’
He was lying, obviously. Maeve could see the tell-tale crackles of black suffusing his aura.
‘Appreciating literature is just as much about understanding why we don’t like a piece of work,’ she said sternly. ‘I will expect you to set out all your reasons with relevant quotes in your essay. Vicky, bring your phone to me.’
‘What?’ Vicky looked up, aghast. ‘Miss?’
‘Your phone, Vicky.’ Maeve held out her open hand.
Blushing furiously, Vicky heaved herself out of her seat and slouched to the front of the class. She handed over the phone with an exaggerated sigh.
Maeve noted the furtive shuffling of the others who had imagined they could keep their phones unseen in their laps beneath the tabletops. Doubtless they could, when they were dealing with other teachers who couldn’t see right through the tables.
‘Thank you. Collect it from the office at the end of the day.’ She smiled at the rest of the class. ‘Now, let’s start with the poem’s first stanza.’
The rest of the lesson proceeded according to plan and by the time the bell rang, Maeve was well satisfied with the class’s contributions.
‘Thank you, everyone, and I will expect your essays first thing on Friday.’ She closed her text book with a sharp slap as the teenagers began leaving their seats and hauling their bags up from the floor.
‘Sarah, one moment.’ Maeve raised her hand to command the girl’s attention. ‘You’ve got a free now, I believe? Could you take this note to Miss Williams in the library for me, please?’
‘Yes, Miss, of course.’ Sarah tried to hide her relief.
Maeve handed the envelope to the girl, walking to the classroom door with her. ‘What are you three waiting for?’ She looked sternly at Jade, Tasha and Jenna who were loitering in the corridor. ‘Get to your next lesson!’
Maeve stood in the doorway, her expression expectant, until the vicious trio retreated. The acid green tendrils of their spite which had been coiling around Sarah all through the class shrivelled as they departed. They were bullies but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t risk cornering this week’s chosen victim when she was running an errand for a teacher.
‘I’ll go and start work on my essay, Miss.’ Sarah turned in the other direction, heading for sanctuary in the library.
As 9FW surged noisily through the double doors at the end of the corridor, Maeve smiled, satisfied.
She knew that Jade, Tasha and Jenna called her an old witch behind her back. What the girls didn’t know, of course, was they were perfectly correct. Though not an old witch. Maeve was merely a middle-aged one, and perfectly capable of taking the necessary measures when her third eye’s vision started to feel the passing years’ effects.

*Edited to change ‘girls’ to ‘pupils’… analysis and explanation to follow in the next blog post.

Some thoughts on debut novels, mine 14 years ago, and others today.

This morning I am particularly taken with this review of The Thief’s Gamble over at Fantasy Review Barn. Not because it’s a gushing outpouring of praise – it gives the book three and a half stars. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and the reviewer here has read the book thoroughly and thoughtfully.

What really makes me smile is reading “I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.” and ” It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.”

Okay, that’s the view of this book by a new reader in 2013. Back in 1999, the reviews said things like “pleasing to find a female lead who’s properly representative rather than the usual tepid mix of heroine and victim.” and ” a beautifully drawn world with a rich history, interesting and realistic characters and a plot that drags you along at breakneck speed.”, “What’s different and interesting about this book is what Ms McKenna does with it.” And more besides.

So why am I smiling? Because this shows just how far the epic fantasy genre has grown and developed in this past decade and more. Readers are used to so much more in terms of realism and depth of plot and characterisation, more complex themes and subtext.

Not that this should come as any particular surprise to fans of our genre. I’m currently assessing four debut novels for my next Albedo One review column. To be specific, I’m reading The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe, Earth Girl by Janet Edwards and Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett. Time and again, while reading, I have noted down some instance of an interesting new take on what have become standard, even over-worn plot or character elements since I started writing myself.

I think this is really great.

Right, I had better get on with some writing on my current projects.

(Meantime of course, if you’re curious to read The Thief’s Gamble for yourself, you can now get it in your preferred ebook format from Wizard’s Tower Books (worldwide DRM free) or your ebook retailer of choice. This message brought to you by the Jules Convention Travel Fund 2013)

“It’s a Literary Festival but not as we know it, Jim!”

I’ve just posted a piece on the EightSquared Blog thinking about the distinctive depth and breadth of programming at SF conventions, compared to the more typical lit fest.

You can find it by clicking here.

Incidentally, I hope to blog as usual here rather than just posting links, but as I’m sure you appreciate, between now and Eastercon, I am going to be pretty busy. In a good way.

If you want to offer your own perspectives, you can do that here or on the EightSquared blog as you prefer.

Right back to the To Do List. This morning? An updated introduction for the ebook of The Swordsman’s Oath…

A few thoughts on costuming at SF conventions…

…over on the EightSquared/Eastercon 2013 blog, details of our costume event and some thoughts about costuming in fandom generally. Plus photos of a giant samurai rabbit, and me dressed up as a space admiral, together with my close protection detail.

How I met the Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As regular readers will know, I rarely blog between Christmas and New Year. As well as the holiday season, we have a slew of family birthdays from 20th December onwards so it’s a very busy time of year. This year however, I did write a guest blog for Jonathan Green, who’s been running a Kickstarter to fund a book celebrating thirty years and exploring the history of Fighting Fantasy Game Books. I’m thrilled to say the project is now funded – but there’s still time to get involved, and there are some great rewards up for grabs here.

And while you’re thinking about it, here’s that blog post, to explain why I’m backing this particular project.

I encountered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks not too long after they first appeared. I’d gone up to university in 1983 and that’s where I’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Aftermath, Toon, Heroes, Car Wars and other tabletop role-playing games which instantly appealed to my lifelong love of fantasy and science-fiction. Such gaming offered me a whole new interactive and participatory way of engaging with such stories. After all those books which I’d read, wanting to slap some sense into the hero who persisted in doing something so dumb that surely only an moron would go ahead. Now I could shout across the table to stop the idiot paladin about to open the grim portal or ominously rune-engraved box. I could be the one suspiciously interrogating the apparently helpful peasant giving directions to the dragon’s den. Now I could be the one rolling a critical fumble and getting skewered by a kobold. (As with just about everyone playing AD&D in that era, our group played a highly personalised and modified version of the rules).

I have wondered since why SF&F meshes so well with table top gaming. I think it’s because speculative fiction invites engagement with the narrative to a far greater extent than other fictions. SF&F isn’t reflecting the world as we know it, offering us insights into the reality we inhabit. It’s constantly asking us to imagine ourselves somewhere else, where the rules we think we know don’t necessarily apply, whether those are the laws of physics or society. The eternal question of SF&F is ‘what if…?’ That wish to step through the barrier of the pages and participate directly in the stories ourselves naturally follows. Indeed, portal fantasy has been a staple of the genre since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole and Lucy entered the wardrobe. Who would have imagined that a handful of weird-shaped dice could satisfy that longing?

Which was great as long as I was at university. But come the end of term time, I had to go home and in those long-ago pre-Internet days, there was no way of finding like-minded souls back in Dorset. How could I continue that direct participation in story-weaving that I’d got so used to enjoying?

Fan fiction? That was also something I’d encountered for the first time at university, through the dubious medium of a much-copied photo-copy of ‘Spock in Manacles’… Setting aside the literary merits of that particular work, I was familiar with the motivation behind fan-fiction. More than once, during a particularly tedious English lesson discussing the Romantic Poets, I would stare out of the window and indulge in a light reverie about Blake’s Seven, mentally writing myself into an episode never to be seen outside my own head. The thing is though, such episodes weren’t particularly satisfying and not only because I still had such vast amounts to learn about characterisation, pacing, exposition and all the other facets of writing craft. The main problem was, there were never any surprises. I knew what was hidden behind the curtain or in the talking box because I’d thought it up in the first place. All in all, I found such indulgent daydreams as unsatisfying as playing chess against myself.

Then someone lent me a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I forget who it was but I’m pretty sure they were in the same fix as me outside of term time. Now we had a solution! Solo gaming within a system that played fair in the sense of punishing stupidity as well as rewarding intelligent thinking and still with the added edge of unpredictable dice rolls landing you in no-win situations. Because game systems should be fair but as the Goblin King reminds us in Labyrinth, real life simply isn’t. Which was great, because the endless variations and possibilities meant you could play the book time and again. Even once you’d won, you could go back and see where the roads not taken might have led.

I love the way these books endured despite the arrival of computer games. I remember playing early attempts at those and being very unimpressed, both by the quality of the writing and plotting and by the inadequacies of the graphics. Fighting fantasy game books offered far superior game play for a good long while as well as the fabulous pictures inside my own head, spun off the wonderful cover art and the line drawings inside. It’s only in recent years that computer games have come anywhere near matching such visuals, never mind such intricate storytelling and replayability.

So of course I’m backing this project. I am intrigued to learn more about the history of these books. How the idea first originated, how they came to be published and who was involved in their creation and development and why. Quite apart from anything else, I bet I’m not the only one currently writing epic fantasy fiction with such fond memories of flipping through an increasingly creased paperback, pencil between teeth and dice ready to hand.