Articles from January 2016



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?

Creative writing articles – the latest link & a new permanent webpage to round up the rest

I’ve had a couple of invitations recently to write guest articles on different aspects of creative writing. You can find the first of them here at the SciFi Fantasy Network where I outline how I learned vital lessons about getting feedback, thanks to NOT getting published twenty years ago.

So that’s the first thing. Head on over and read that and feel free to pop back and let me know what you think. Meantime, on to the second thing here.

Looking for inspiration for these posts, I asked folks what would interest them and got a fine range of responses. Though in some cases, I thought, ‘hang on, haven’t I already written about that topic?’

A little research soon indicated that well, yes, I might well have written such an article but those pieces are not necessarily straightforward to find, especially when I wrote them over a decade ago!

It struck me pretty forcefully that a round-up was in order. I soon discovered that I’ve had good many and varied things to say over the years, but rather than bludgeon you with an endlessly scrolling blog post, a separate list would be more wieldy.

So here’s a dedicated page on the site to make everyone’s life that bit easier.

There’s a good range of reading for you to browse and dip into at your leisure, in roughly reverse chronological order, which is to say, the most recent at the top, oldest at the bottom, and including guest pieces by me elsewhere.

Below that you’ll find links to guest posts from other writers that have appeared on this blog.

Enjoy!

Western Shore. Mapping the Aldabreshin Archipelago and beyond.

ac-map-sm

‘Where did this unforeseen enemy come from?’ That’s the central question in this third novel of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet. Swiftly followed by ‘how did they get here?’, ‘why did they come?’ and ‘why are they so brutal?’

Kheda and his allies, old and new, discover most of the answers as Western Shore unfolds but before I could write any of that, I had to work out all these things for myself. Not only deciding where these unknown invaders did come from but establishing what had changed to enable them to cross the vast western ocean, since they’d never been seen before. ‘Well, they just decided to,’ simply wasn’t an option, any more than ‘because they’re just evil,’ is ever a satisfactory answer to ‘what makes the bad guys so bad?’

At least I had a map of the Archipelago to start with. I’d learned my lesson after having to reverse engineer the original Einarinn map from accurately calculated travel details in the text and my (literally) back-of-an-envelope sketch not long before The Thief’s Gamble was published. Okay, my husband had to do the actual work – I was and remain thankful that he’s an engineer whose apprenticeship including training as a draughtsman. Incidentally, he’s the one who insisted the Einarinn maps have projection lines, when I explained I needed a map which I could put a ruler on anywhere to measure distances on the same scale. He naturally felt thoroughly vindicated when we got an enthusiastically appreciative letter from a Geography Ph.D student in Washington State, USA, for whom flat-earth fantasy maps were a personal bug bear. But I digress.

As you see from this far more extensive map, I had the upper half of the Archipelago mapped by the end of The Tales of Einarinn, so extending the island groups and chains southward was easy enough. But then I had to decide what lay out to the west. ‘Here be dragons’ might be literally true but I needed to know where and why, and crucially, why they were on the move for the first time in more than living memory.

Because ocean and atmospheric currents had changed somehow? That looked like a promising possibility so I went off to do some research, including but by no means limited to buying The National Geographic Atlas of the Oceans and doing detailed searches through my National Geographic Archive CD-Roms. I learned all sorts of useful facts about jet streams, thermohaline circulation, deep cold water flows, tectonic plates and undersea ridges, as well as weather patterns, and what causes trade winds, the doldrums and El Nino. All fascinating and all terms and systems it would be impossible to reference directly in an epic fantasy novel without ruining, well, the atmosphere. This is definitely a situation where the Iceberg Rule of Research applied. Only a tenth of this work shows above the surface, which is to say, appears in the final novel, but that couldn’t be there without the other ninety percent.

maps in progress

Now I had the key information which I could add to my map and integrate into the story. More than that, I was now seeing more ways in which wind and sea currents and the distribution of islands would affect travel and alliances within the Archipelago. This work was already influencing the course of the events I had planned for Eastern Tide. It ultimately contributed to The Hadrumal Crisis as well but that’s another story.

But all this work stayed on the papers on my desk. When the Aldabreshin Compass was published in paperback in the UK, we were all forced to agree that the scale and layout of the Archipelago meant reproducing the whole thing at that page size could only offer readers a scatter of uninformative dots. When Tor produced the US hardback, they had more room to work with and included a very handsome map but that could still only offer a section of the Archipelago, unable to show its relationship to the mainland.
tor compass map small
So only a limited number of fans got to see even that much. And as with the admirable Einarinn maps in the Orbit paperbacks, the copyright for that specific depiction of my original material remains with the publisher, not with me.

Well, that was then and this is now. As those who’ve bought Southern Fire and Northern Storm already know, these new ebook editions include a map of the entire Archipelago and now I’m adding it to the website. This time I have my elder son to thank, who took on the not inconsiderable task of cleaning up the digital scan of my master paper copy, with all its creases and pencil scribbles, as well as collating all the other bits of information jotted on sections I’d enlarged and printed off separately to cover with more coloured arrows and notes. Finally he added his own bit of artistic flair, deciding it needed to look like something found in a Hadrumal wizard’s archive, maybe left by some ambitious cloud mage seeing just how far up he could take a scrying spell. I reckoned he’d earned the right to do that.

So is this it? Well, as you can see, there’s still an awful lot of this world still to be mapped – and we haven’t even found out what might be happening in those lands we can already see but haven’t yet visited…

Guest Post – Tricia Sullivan on World Building and the Kobyashi Maru

Tricia Sullivan has a new book out this week, Occupy Me, and I think it’s fair to say her award-winning, idea-driven SF is worlds away from my own style of epic fantasy fiction. And yet, as is the case with a good many writers whose work is nothing like mine, we have a good few things in common; the foundation for our friendship and mutual respect. One of those things is a background in tabletop and computer gaming and Tricia’s written a fascinating article examining the relationships between that style of world building and truly creative writing.

Once you’ve read it, I’ll be very surprised indeed if you’re not prompted to find out more about Tricia and her work – if you’re not already familiar with her books!

TS-OccupyMe

“Kobiyashi Maru

Whenever somebody says ‘worldbuilding’ I think of Gary Gygax straight away. I think of polyhedral dice, graph paper maps for dungeons, hex paper maps for outdoors. I think of the languages I tried to invent and all that other good, ooky stuff.
I was a first-generation D&D player. My brother bought it in a box in 1979. I was in fifth grade, same year I read Dragonsinger, and I remember being genuinely scared by the giant spiders and ghouls in the sample dungeon. There were hardly any modules back then, so if you gamed you really had no choice but to make it all up yourself. D&D was a great enabler of storytellers. Its codification, numeration and classification of every damn thing both encouraged worldbuilding—by providing scaffolding—and also inhibited it—because D&D turned reality into a Lego set.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m very fond of Lego, but you have to admit the results are always pretty…well…square. D&D was square like that, too. I hated how designing anything in it was the equivalent of filling out 40,000 pages of requisition forms, ticking boxes all the way.

When you are building worlds, sometimes you want Lego, but other times you want Play-doh. Sometimes you want to be able to bend it and squish it. In the pre-digital era it used to be possible to express things without having to first establish the rules and the codes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that D&D was coming in at the same time as Apple and Atari—it was more flexible than writing code, but at heart the game was all about the rules. And taken to the limit, the rules of the world can become more important than the thing you are trying to do.

Fictional worldbuilding is like that, too. You want the story to take flight in the reader’s imagination, but you never want the reader to see the billions of robots running around behind the scenes pulling leavers and heaving things into position. You’ve got to convince the reader they are immersed. How do you do that? I reckon you have to play with what people already know about the world—but of course, most of us don’t know very much! It’s interesting to me that one of the least conventional writers I can think of, Diana Wynne Jones, nevertheless authored ‘The Rough Guide to Fantasyland’ as a plea for at least a little rigour. To work well, fantasy has to stand on the shoulders of reality.

But what does rigour even mean, these days? Culturally, we have a certain D&D-based shorthand when it comes to kingdoms, quests, character classes and expectations—all mainstreamed thanks to video games. These archetypes are pretty distorted and some of them are tired as hell, but whether the shorthand is played straight or torqued in some way, it’s pretty much embedded in the DNA of SFF across all the platforms that now deliver SFF content.

The shorthand can be a great facilitator. As a writer, it’s not hard to use a prefab world and tweak it a little for your own purposes. It doesn’t take a big deviation in initial conditions from the world as we know it to a world that seems strange and new. Once you open up the toolbox (of environment, economic systems, biological structure, culture, history, yadda yadda yadda) you have endless permutations at your disposal to experiment with ‘what if’ and to run simulations—alternative worlds to our own, if you will. This is the primary function of imaginative play. It is also very hard work.

But causal extrapolation isn’t the end game, at least not for me. In fact, it’s often a trap, a dead end, an unwinnable situation. No, the end game is imagination. The end game is magic.

Real magic—if I can indulge in the oxymoron—isn’t systemized. It’s outside our understanding, by definition. It comes out of flashes of insight, surprise, transformation. To make those kind of fireworks go off in someone’s mind is a very tricky business, and I’d argue that to make it happen as a writer, you need total control and this includes knowing when to lose control. When to let go of the wheel. A world you’ve built becomes its own organism, has its own mind, and to give it lift-off there’s a point where you throw out the rules, throw out what you think you know, and let the thing take you where it needs to go.

Gaming doesn’t teach this, and as far as I know it’s not in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I’ll bet artists know what I’m talking about because they build worlds, too—that’s what art is. Even as it’s using rules, art is a protest against the rules.

If you really want to fly, then just for a moment, get meta. Don’t accept the limitations you’re given. Reprogram the fucking computer that your world is running on. Beat the Kobiyashi Maru.

The dice and the graph paper will still be there when you come down.”

You can find out more about Tricia, her writing and this book in particular, over at her website

Are we finally seeing the long-overdue examination of what’s gone wrong with the book trade?

Philip Pullman and those writers backing him (referenced in my previous post) seem to have prompted an important – and to my mind, long overdue – examination of exactly what’s gone wrong with the book trade in the past five or ten years.

From Nick Cohen, on his experience of being asked to appear at The Oxford Literary Festival. ‘Why English writers accept being treated like dirt’

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing just at the moment, the key quote for me is as follows:

If the system does not change, readers will suffer for a reason that cannot be repeated often enough. The expectation that workers will work for nothing is leading to the class cleansing of British culture. Everywhere you go, you hear culture managers saying they want ‘diversity’, while presiding over a culture that might have been designed to exclude the working and lower-middle classes. Whether you look at journalism, the arts, the BBC, photography, film, music, the stage, and literature, you see that those most likely to get a break are those whose parents are wealthy enough to subsidise them. The generalisation is not wholly true. Young people from modest backgrounds can still break through. But every year their struggle becomes a little harder. Every year, an artistic career becomes a little less viable to potentially talented writers and artists.

From Philip Gwyn Jones, laying bare the implications for readers. ‘The civil war for books; where is the money going?’

Though this post isn’t just about money. It’s about the ways changes in bookselling influence publishing decisions and ultimately limit readers’ choices. Once again, until you can find the time to read the whole thing.

as a commissioning editor and publisher of some 25 years standing, I hope I have some authority to make the claim that certain stars are missing. They are just not being born. It seems to me that there is a universe of self-censorship out there, even if it is invisible to the naked eye. We’ve had perhaps five years now of good writers taking their next ambitious project to their agent who in turn excitably puts it in front of publishers only to be told that it’s perhaps a little too bold an idea for these austere and shape-shifting times, and might there not be a more reader-friendly project up the writer’s sleeve? The agent sheepishly reports this back to their beloved writer, who then either conforms to the market’s demands or slopes away to nurse their wounded ego, and think hard about the purposes and pleasures of writing. The next time that writer comes up with a bold, unorthodox, unprecedented notion for a book, what happens? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, they decide before they start in earnest that it’s a no-hoper and they ought to play safe, so they bin it without telling anyone. And another bright star never shines.

Social reading is the coming thing, we are told, where our reading devices and apps will allow us to communicate with others who are reading the same book we are, share notes and queries with them, correct and conject, exult and excoriate together as if we online readers were round a digital dining table, and even involve the writer in that conversation if they are willing. But for such Social reading to work, everyone has to be reading the same thing, so it tends to favour the popular, the shared, the already-known. Hence the ubiquity of Most Read and Most Liked lists. There is a lot of barked coercion out there in cyberspace. So the online sharing book economy will coalesce around, well, winners. But what happens to the losers: the unshared, the jagged, inimitable, harder-to-chat books?

And the next time you’re in your local High Street or supermarket, take a look at the books on offer and I’m pretty sure you’ll see all these forces already at work.

Which incidentally, brings me back to something important about SF conventions and the genre small press. Both continue to support and promote writers and books outside the mainstream, thanks to the support of readers looking for something beyond mass market fodder.

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.

What do you suppose other supermarket customers make of my reusable bags?

I was out and about this morning, doing domestic administrivia – when it occurred to me to wonder just what other customers might make of the bags I routinely take shopping…

sff-shopping

In which I’m interviewed at the Scififantasy Network

A brief post amid doing a whole lot of other stuff. I’ve been chatting to the SciFiFantasyNetwork folk and you can now read the interview here

Enjoy! While I continue doing the aforementioned whole lot of other stuff…

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.