Unexpected Journeys – Editing an Anthology for the British Fantasy Society

This has been a whole new experience for me. I’m used to reading my fellow authors’ published work for review purposes, and I’m used to reading submissions from aspiring writers when I’ve been teaching. But putting on the Editor Hat and discussing work in draft from my professional equals? That’s not something I’ve done before…

Why have I been doing this? Well, I’ve been going to FantasyCon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual UK convention for the past decade or so and last year, Lee Harris, the current Chair asked me to edit a new anthology for the BFS with a particular focus on epic fantasy. I understood what he was asking and why. The BFS is a fan-run organisation with a focus on speculative fiction from horror to epic fantasy. It so happens most of the volunteers, who do all the very hard work without which such organisations simply cannot exist, have been personally more inclined towards the horror end of the spectrum and this taste has been reflected in the society’s publications – one of those unintended consequences.

Meantime, the growing attendance at FantasyCon (an event open to all, not just BFS members) has shown the keen appetite for epic fantasy among those attendees, not least in the packed-out rooms for the fantasy-discussion panels and the interviews with Guests of Honour such as (but not limited to) Raymond Feist, Gail Z Martin and Brent Weeks. So this year sees two anthologies from the BFS, one horror-themed, and one specifically epic fantasy, to cater to all tastes.

When I agreed to take this on, I had quite a few decisions to make. Some were easy. At the project’s outset, I was doing my second stint as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was Chair of the forthcoming Eastercon, EightSquared, scheduled for the last weekend in March 2013. So there was simply no way I could declare this an open-submissions anthology and give the necessary, critical attention to however many hopeful stories might land in my inbox. I just wouldn’t have the time. This was going to have to be an invitation-only anthology.

What sort of stories would I include? I decided I wanted tales which appreciate the core strengths of epic fantasy; compelling heroes (male and female), battles with swords and sorcery, facing down evil both intentional and accidental, a sense of myth and mystery. I also wanted to celebrate the way our beloved genre is currently flourishing with so much more than simple tales of high adventure or the concerns of kings and wizards. Epic fantasy now offers complex stories of personal growth, of mature reflection, exploration of the rights and wrongs of power. These novels feature people and places from hovels to palaces, enriched by so many more cultures and history than the genre’s original quasi-European inspiration. All threaded through with magic, danger and wonder.

But who to invite? This really was the hardest decision of all, because the collection was only going to have eight stories. I could so easily list a couple of dozen excellent authors currently writing the sort of stories I wanted without pausing for thought. So I have done my best to find writers with different styles and approaches spanning the current breadth and depth of epic fantasy. Hopefully there will be something to satisfy each reader’s particular enthusiasms alongside something they haven’t encountered in their reading thus far, whetting their appetite for more.

The stories are –

A Thief in the Night by Anne Lyle
Seeds by Benjamin Tate
Steer a Pale Course by Gail Z Martin
The Groppler’s Harvest by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet by Liz Williams
The Sin Eater by Stephen Deas
King Harvest Has Surely Come by Chaz Brenchley
The Queen’s Garden by Kate Elliott

Reading these in draft was definitely a new experience. I’m used to being edited myself but now I was the one looking to nit-pick and ask awkward questions as I put myself in the place of the reader unfamiliar with this author and their work. Fortunately, working with talented professionals, there wasn’t too much of that to do, and our discussions were very amiable. Then I had to pick up my red pen and copy-edit, looking at the fine detail of the actual word-smithing. Actually the main thing I had to do was put my red pen down and sit on my hands, to make very sure I was only highlighting things which needed to be changed for clarity and flow. The temptation for me as an author, to think how I might have written a sentence differently, had to be sternly resisted. Otherwise I risked overlaying the rhythm and character of another writer’s prose with elements of my own writing style. That’s most definitely not an editor’s job.

Then I had to find some cover art. ‘Oh… help…’ was my initial reaction – swiftly followed by ‘thank goodness for the Internet!’ I began browsing various genre artists’ websites and discovered that, as well as their published covers and other art, some were displaying pieces of work which had been commissioned but for some reason or other, had never been used. These were available to be licensed. So I began hunting in earnest for such a picture which would somehow simultaneously manage to reflect the very different stories now gathered together. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find ‘Soldier and Sword’ by Geoff Taylor – one of epic fantasy’s most enduring and admired artists (among his other work – if you haven’t seen his wildlife art, do check out his website).

And now we’ve been doing the final proof-reading and the book is due to go to print. That’s both a relief, as the job’s finally done, and unexpectedly nerve-wracking, as I must wait to find out how far readers think I’ve succeeded in my aims. In the first instance, those readers will be current BFS members and those who join in the forthcoming months. Obviously, the authors retain the rights to their stories and they will doubtless appear elsewhere to delight their fans. For the moment though, this book is a gift from the British Fantasy Society to those who support it and I am very pleased to have been a part of the project.

soldier_and_sword-geofftaylor4
Soldier and Sword by Geoff Taylor

My very first Science Fiction short story has just been published! Wait… what?

Let me explain. Yes, of course, I’ve had a good number of short stories published since I began writing professionally. Not nearly as many as some writers but then I’m not an instinctive short story writer. My natural length is the novel – and it’s been said – with justification, especially about my early short work – that my short stories often read like extracts from a longer tale. Less so as I’ve gone on writing, since my appreciation and understanding of the differences between various writing lengths and styles has grown.

But almost all of my short fiction has been fantasy – some lighter, some darker, a few even verging on horror. Apart from that I’ve had a crack at steampunk a couple of times and I’ve written a few media tie-ins, for Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. There’s a sort-of-time-travel one waiting for the relevant anthology to be published as well.

But Science Fiction? A modern-day setting with y’know, actual Science at the heart of the story? Not before this one. Yes, I was surprised as well. And I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to come up with a decent idea when Mahiri Simpson got in touch and asked if I’d like to offer a story about women designing the perfect man.

A fascinating premise… So what would I personally like to see… What are some personally memorable moments for me, in the ongoing battle of the sexes? Well, there was that famous tennis match, wasn’t there, between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King… And I keep reading news stories about women working in science having to fight for respect…

Well, if you want to find out where that sort of thinking led me, you can read my story, Game, Set and Match? in Tales of Eve (ebooks via Wizards Tower Bookshop), published by, and available in a range of formats from Fox Spirit books.

Alongside stories by Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Fran Terminiello, Colum Paget, Andrew Reid, Rob Haines, Ren Warom, Suzanne McLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky

Will I write more SF? I think that will depend if someone offers me a concept that intrigued and inspired me as much as this one!

Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.

A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?

This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.

I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.

Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.

Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.

Clockwork Universe – Steampunk vs Aliens Anthology!

Here’s something you may well be interested in supporting. You’ll hopefully recall the two splendid anthologies I have had stories in, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray – namely ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity’ and ‘After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar’. Well, they’re at it again and this time, via Kickstarter.

Initially, this will fund a science fiction and fantasy anthology – CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: STEAMPUNK vs. ALIENS, containing approximately 14 all-original short stories from established SF&F authors — including Bradley Beaulieu, Caitlin Kittredge, Gini Koch, Scott Lynch, Gail Z. Martin, Seanan McGuire, and Ian Tregillis. There will be others, obviously.

Including me? Dunno, just at the moment and that’s not what’s important here.

Because this project is more than that. It will help start a new small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC – a publishing house focused on original anthology projects open to outstanding authors, regardless of their publishing house affiliations and spanning the gamut from bestselling authors to new, previously unpublished voices.

So do check out the project, not least to see the splendid initial artwork for the Clockwork Universe anthology.

At the moment, you’ll see an excellent rate of progress towards the final goal, so now’s an ideal time to chip and see the project’s stretch goals reached – and to help establish this new publishing venture.

Further reflections on the writing life from Judith Tarr

After my own recent piece for Fantasy Cafe reflecting on changes in the UK book trade since I was first published, I have naturally been fascinated by this series of articles by Judith Tarr, hosted on Catie Murphy’s blog, considering the changes she has seen over her much longer career. Thoughtful writing, well worth reading, for all of us interested in book trade issues whether as readers alone or readers and writers.

Escaping Stockholm Part One

Escaping Stockholm Part Two

Escaping Stockholm Part Three

How ten years and more hard work is the basis for overnight success!

Have just heard from a chap I’ve known on and off for oh, a couple of decades, friend of family friends kindathing. He’s long wanted to be a writer. He’s written a few things I’ve seen and commented on – very overwritten, as I recall, but that’s nothing surprising in a writer’s development. We’ve all been there.

But an awful lot of would-be writers stop there, because they’re convinced what they’re writing is perfect. These days they go down the self-publishing route, convinced that ‘traditional publishing’ is biased against their genius or some such.

Not this guy. That last piece of his that I saw? He tells me “sent the book to an editor, got torn to shreds, learnt from my mistakes, moved on. . .”

He’s written plays to improve his dialogue – and had them published and performed. He’s sent out spec film scripts and got useful feedback from Hollywood. He’s been all through the cycle of agents’ letters saying ‘thanks for the novel, no, it’s not for us, but here’s a good deal of relevant feedback’.

Now he’s written The Novel that’s been picked up by a highly reputable agency, who offered it to some excellent publishers who ended up in a bidding war and a multiple book deal for very respectable money has resulted.

This really is splendid news to start a Monday, as far as I am concerned 🙂

And yet another instance of that arcane and mystical secret to publishing success – persevere and write a good book!

I’ll share more info as and when things go public.

Women in SF&F Month – Inequality of Visibility for Women Writers

Over at Fantasy Cafe, April has seen a truly splendid array of posts by female writers exploring a wide range of issues relating to women’s writing, recommending any number of great books, highlighting some of their own favourite authors, flagging up examples of favourite sorts of characters – and more besides. Treat yourself to a good long browse.

Given my year so far has been majorly taken up with the Arthur C Clarke Award and with EightSquaredCon – UK’s 2013 Eastercon, my contribution is what’s turned out to be a lengthy piece examining the lack of visibility for women writers – how it arises, what it means and why it matters. Because it does matter – to us all, irrespective of gender. You can find the piece here.

Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

Here’s an interesting question posed on Twitter by Sally Hyder – why are there no disabled female heroes in books? Is this because readers won’t accept it? Or is that the publishing fear, not the reality?

I’m indebted to Kate Elliott for flagging up Oree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms as an example of such a female – while acknowledging they are extremely rare.

Why is this? I don’t have any answers – but I am now pondering on my own, related experience. I have a crippled male hero in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution – in modern terms, he has cerebral palsy and is closely modelled on a friend of my teenage years with CP in what he can and cannot do, his attitudes, frustrations etc.

Neither editors nor readers have had any problem with him as a character – indeed, he’s been seen as an interesting twist on Alpha-Male heroes. But when we were discussing cover art, one major US book chain’s representative was very, very anti the notion of a man on crutches on a book jacket – he reckoned that would be the commercial kiss of death.

Well, we’ll never know. Subsequent reader reaction would indicate that was an unrealistic fear. But I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I’ve had too many well-informed Americans conclude that the (superb) cover art contributed to Southern Fire’s failure to find a US audience.

That’s a male disabled hero. What about a female one? I would be much more cautious about writing one of those – especially following some hostile reader reaction to Lady Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis books. More women than I would have expected have been infuriated by her inability to cope – in the first instance – with being widowed and subject to male domination in a patriarchal society. They have found her thoroughly dislikeable – without, thankfully, condemning me as a betrayer of the sisterhood. That would be difficult given the presence of a very empowered magewoman, Jilseth, in these books.

The thing is, I can understand that reaction to some extent. I have read far too many books in the past couple of years where a woman’s role is still to be marginalised, patronised, passive and victim – apart from the minority of instances where she’s a menacing and/or vengeful bitch.

So I personally would be very wary indeed of including a disabled female character in a book without her condition being absolutely central and necessary to the plot. And then I would have to work very hard indeed to make her absolutely not a passive victim – and that would be very difficult indeed, in a narrative set in any kind of pre-modern society where reader expectations would be set by their own assumed knowledge of the historical disempowerment and invisibility of such individuals.

Now, having friends and family who’ve lived and worked abroad, often in developing countries, I know for a fact that viewpoint is more than a little skewed. When my parents lived in West Africa, we would see men and women who’d lost limbs to accident or disease out and about, making a living. Because otherwise they’d starve. We would see the mentally impaired and infirm being cared for by their families. A society needs to attain a certain level of wealth before they can warehouse the disabled out of sight.

But how to convey to the reader that their assumed knowledge is wrong without the benefit of out-of-story footnotes? It would be a very interesting writerly challenge – and if I had the right story, it would definitely be worth trying. But it would have to be for the right story, not just trying something for the sake of it.

Oh and by the way, any writer wanting to tackle this challenge should start by reading books like Sally Hyder’s own memoir, Finding Harmony. Sally has Multiple Sclerosis, not that you’d ever know it from her online conversation, unless she’s in the middle of plotting something like getting to the top of Ben Nevis in a motorised wheelchair.

As I say, it’s interesting question – and I don’t have any answers. Anyone else got any comments or observations?

Aethernet – The Magazine of Serial Fiction

On 30th March, a new ebook magazine will be launched, offering you the first instalments of stories from an intriguingly varied handful of science fiction and fantasy writers. There will be ‘Gela’s Ring’ by Chris Beckett, the sequel to his 2012 novel Dark Eden, which has attracted much well-deserved praise. Philip Palmer is writing ‘Murder of the Heart’; a contemporary and spooky tale, and that sounds intriguing since his versatility as a writer includes detective fiction for radio and screen alongside his SF novels. ‘Spiderlight’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky promises a completely new epic fantasy, humorous in places, deadly serious in others, by way of a deconstruction of the traditional prophecy-journey-dark lord narrative.

Ian Whates is contributing ‘The Smallest of Things’ while I’m offering ‘The Ties That Bind’, an extended story set in the River Kingdom where I’ve written three (or possibly four) short stories in the past few years. Subsequent editions will see the start of ‘Bartholomew Burns versus the Brain Invaders’ by Eric Brown and ‘Cosmopolitan Predators!’ by Tony Ballantyne, who has set this whole enterprise in motion. You see, not all the stories will have the same number of episodes. Some will be longer, some will be shorter but all aim to prompt pleasurable suspense as you wait in between instalments to see how a story unfolds, to learn if your expectations will be fulfilled or confounded, to see if the characters you’re learning to love or to hate will face triumph or disaster.

Aethernet Magazine will run for 12 issues. The first issue will go on sale on 30th March 2013, and subsequent issues will be on sale on the first of the month from May 2013 onwards. Individual issues will cost £3 and a full year’s subscription for all 12 issues will cost £20.

So why did I have a good long think and then say, ‘Okay, interesting, yes, count me in,’ when Tony Ballantyne contacted me? Firstly, that’s a roster of authors with whom I’ll be very proud to share a Table of Contents. Secondly, serial fiction isn’t something I’ve written before, and I’ve lost count of the authors over the years who I have heard advise never passing up the chance to do something new. Constantly challenging ourselves as writers is how we avoid stagnating.

Thirdly, as a reader, I’ve always really enjoyed serial fiction. When Tony Ballantyne first explained the plan, like most bookish types, my thoughts immediately turned to Sherlock Holmes’s adventures in The Strand Magazine, and to Charles Dickens’s novels first appearing in various Victorian periodicals which no one but Dickensian devotees can now name. More recently, some of SF’s greatest names from Asimov to Clarke, Le Guin to McCaffrey published serial fiction in genre magazines such as Analog and Astounding Stories. And let’s not forget that this tradition of episodic story telling woven around cliff-hangers and tantalising anticipation goes all the way back to Schehezerade and The One Thousand and One Nights, one of the foundations of our epic fantasy tradition.

At the same time as those classic pulp SF magazines were on the news-stands, Buster Crabbe was on cinema screens as the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in those wonderful black-and-white space adventures with rocket ships apparently driven by sparklers and stories driven onwards by weekly last-minute betrayals and revelations. With a wonderful sense of the wheel turning full circle while moving forward, the advent of the DVD boxset and online streaming has seen TV drama return to serial formats after years of weekly reset-button writing, now that missing a scheduled broadcast isn’t the disaster for an ongoing narrative which it was in pre-VHS days.

In similar circular yet progressive fashion, ebook technology now offers us, readers and writers alike, new opportunities to enjoy the varied and shorter forms of fiction so popular in the past which the current costs and logistics of hard copy publication and distribution now make unfeasible for the most part. Not entirely, mind you. It’s worth noting that Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Daily? How on earth…?

That would be a challenge too far for me to contemplate but the notion of putting together a story over eight monthly episodes is an intriguing prospect. Not least because once an episode is in print (or pixels, in this case) I am committed. There will be no going back to the beginning and rewriting, as there is with a novel, until the final draft is delivered. How will that work out? At the moment, it’s an unknown quantity, especially since I’ve already found my ideas changing between my first episode’s draft outline and putting fingers to keyboard. On the other hand, I will have the chance to adapt what I have planned for subsequent instalments in response to far more immediate feedback. Dickens used to do that a lot, apparently. Will I? I honestly don’t know. For one thing that will depend on what feedback is forthcoming.

So have a look, have a think, and if you’re as intrigued as I am, sign up at www.aethernetmag.com

Serial SF and Fantasy Fiction

The Swordsman’s Oath. ‘Oh, it’s not Livak telling the story!’ No, and here’s why.

Today sees the ebook publication of The Swordsman’s Oath, thanks to the dedication and endeavors of my partners in this project, Wizard’s Tower Press and Antimatter ePress.

I’ve decided to mark the occasion by considering the most frequent comment by people coming new to The Tales of Einarinn when they open The Thief’s Gamble’s sequel. So why didn’t I simply continue writing this unfolding narrative from Livak’s point of view? There are several interlocking answers.

As I devised the plot for The Swordsman’s Oath, I was conscious of the infamous Second Novel Hurdle. Having been disappointed as a reader when I’d found follow-ups to debut novels lacking, I really, really wanted to avoid retreading the same story. I wanted to go further, both in story and scope. Fortunately I had plenty of promising leads thanks to questions left unanswered at the end of The Thief’s Gamble. What exactly had happened in Tormalin recently, to prompt the noble D’Olbriot family’s suspicions? Come to that, what had really happened in the last days of the Old Tormalin Empire? How could anyone, wizard or thief, find the truth about events so long ago, lost in myth and chaos?

I already knew a good many answers, even before I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. I had been working on the background for the world of Einarinn for a good few years. I’d previously written a massively detailed heroic epic which I now refer to The Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork, with irony as heavy as the laboriously dot-matrix-printed manuscript which went the rounds of agents and editors to garner a file of rejection slips. No one is more grateful than me that it never got published and I’m even more indebted for the professional feedback which showed me what I was doing wrong and how I could capitalize on the strengths elsewhere in my writing.

As I considered how to draw on that material for The Swordsman’s Oath, it soon became clear that telling the Tormalin side of this story from Livak’s point of view simply wouldn’t work. Having Ryshad tell her about events, recent and long past, would mean an awful lot of explanatory, static conversations which threatened to be as dull to write as they would be to read. That wasn’t the only problem. I’d already decided to tell the Old Tormalin story through someone directly involved, after blending two narratives together had proved so useful in The Thief’s Gamble. But Livak’s outlook simply wouldn’t mesh with the second viewpoint I had in mind. She’s an independent woman relying on her quick wits, with no allegiance beyond her close friends, whose motives for pursuing a quest are a world away from any clichéd epic fantasy battle between Dark and Light. The story of the Old Empire’s fall was going to focus on Temar who’d been the DBFM’s youthful protagonist; privileged, naïve and idealistic with the greatest tests of his character still to come.

But now I had Ryshad to work with, the confident, well-established swordsman who’d found himself caught up in Livak’s adventure. He would make an excellent counterpart to Temar while their common Tormalin heritage would give the overall story a far deeper coherence and unity. Better yet, I could now focus on Temar’s youthful inadequacies rather than trying to brush them aside; doing that had caused the most significant flaws in the DBFM. Between them, these two characters could uncover many more facets of being a hero, to further the exploration which I’d begun with Livak, a female hero rather than a heroine essentially defined by her relationships with men.

What sort of hero is Ryshad? He’s an honourable man with responsibilities and obligations which he is determined to abide by. So he’s definitely a good guy, and that’s a particularly interesting writing challenge. Villains and anti-heroes can be much easier for the author. The lure of the ‘bad boy’ is long established in fact and fiction while virtue is so often, unfortunately, rather dull. Consider Han Solo’s appeal compared to Luke Skywalker.

But was the anti-hero going too far, in the increasingly brutal protagonists I was seeing in film, books and TV? Is a man really a hero if his success depends simply on becoming more violent and more brutal than the bad guys? Some might let slip a troubled vulnerability afterwards, but that never stops them beating the next bad guy into a pulp. Then and now this rings false, set against my experiences of real life, in particular of the martial arts I’ve observed and studied. The strongest men I’ve met, physically and mentally, are comfortable in their own skins, much preferring to think their way through problems rather than battering opponents into submission. Such men only resort to violence when all other routes to a solution have been blocked, and then only use the necessary force, swiftly and efficiently. My bookshelves hold biographies and autobiographies telling plenty of such real-life heroes’ stories. These men are anything but dull, particularly under pressure and in peril. I wanted to offer readers a hero like that.

Telling the story from Ryshad’s point of view also set me the challenge of writing in an authentically masculine first-person voice, and keeping that voice and perspective distinctly different to Livak’s outlook. It also offered me the opportunity to see Livak herself from another person’s perspective, along with Ryshad’s opinions of her friends and allies like Halice. Wasn’t that an intriguing prospect? It’s hard to be certain, fifteen years down the road, but I think that may have been the clincher. I can be quite sure that he was definitely the right choice.