Mothers of Dragons, Brothers of Dragons. What to read in the Game of Thrones’ books hiatus?

I’m very much looking forward to the return of A Game of Thrones on the telly. Though it will be a different experience this year. I won’t have to spend the next couple of months trying to telepathically divine if an article I’m about to read will include a massive potential spoiler from someone who’s already read the books. Because while I’m up to date now, I hadn’t read any of the stories behind the series before it hit the screens.

Wait, what, how? I’m an epic fantasy writer, surely… But here’s the thing. I find it incredibly hard to read epic fantasy for enjoyment while I’m actively writing a novel in that genre myself. I’m too focused on issues of craft and analysis to just lose myself in a story. I did buy a copy of A Game of Thrones back in 1999 but it sat on the TBR shelf for years…

Until word of the television series spread. At which point I very firmly put it aside. Because I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity of seeing an epic fantasy on the screen where I didn’t already know the plot. One of the things that’s stayed with me ever since watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my then-young sons, was how very different their viewing experience was to mine, since they had no idea what was coming next. As far as they were concerned, Gandalf was dead and done with. In The Two Towers, they were on the edges of their seats with anxiety over the outcome of Helm’s Deep. Actually, one of them ended up on my lap. I wanted something of that for myself for a change. By and large, I’ve mostly succeeded.

Then, at the end of each season, I’ve read the books up to the point the TV story has reached. That’s been extremely rewarding, as a reader and as a writer. I’ve had the visuals and voices from the production’s designers and actors to enhance my imagination. I’ve also had the chance to appreciate the adaptation’s choices and to assess the different opportunities and impacts on offer through written versus visual storytelling.

What now, though? I won’t have The Winds of Winter to hand when the end credits on Series Six’s final episode roll. Happily there’s plenty of other epic fantasy to read, so how about we share a few recommendations? Need not necessarily contain dragons. I’ll kick things off by recommending Stella Gemmell’s The City – with the review I wrote for Albedo One magazine below.

Though you needn’t write a lengthy analysis in comments yourself – the title and author is sufficient. That said, feel free to share what makes you particularly enthusiastic about a book and/or to flag up a review elsewhere.

Stella Gemmell – The City (Bantam Press/Transworld)

The reader’s double-take here will be because while Gemmell is a name synonymous with the gritty, realistic tradition, this story is written by Stella, not David. Surely this makes the debut novel hurdle ten times higher than it is for most writers. How many people will read such a book primed to dismiss it as shameless cash-in or pale imitation? Even though it’s a matter of record that Stella Gemmell is a journalist in her own right and worked with her husband on his Troy trilogy, concluding the last one after his death. Well, I didn’t read the Troy series; as a Classics graduate I very rarely read anything derived from texts I studied so thoroughly at university. So I’m coming to The City entirely new to her writing.

Stella Gemmell’s skills as an author are immediately apparent. There’s a sophistication in the story-telling as the episodic structure commands attention and engagement from the readers. A disparate and separated cast of characters are initially wandering the sewers beneath a great city, reminiscent of Byzantium but with a character all its own, and troubled by the first hints of slow-moving disaster. Though the flood that sweeps through the sewers is anything but slow-moving, sundering and reassembling the men, women and children who we’ve just met. Bartellus, former general, disgraced and tortured for a crime he’s not even aware he committed and no one ever explained. Elija and Emly, fugitive and orphaned children who barely remember daylight. Indaro, warrior woman, torn between her duty and her longing to escape what she’s seen and done.

When the flood has come and gone, the story has leaped forward and the reader must work out how this fresh narrative relates to what has gone before, and fathom links between old and new characters such as Fell Aron Lee, aristocrat and famed general coming up hard against the unwelcome realities of life as an epic hero. Meantime, readers must also piece together the emerging pieces of the plot, by which I mean both the story itself and the conspiracy that’s developing to challenge the Immortal Emperors. It’s their insistence on perpetual warfare which is ruining so many generations’ lives. Gradual revelation poses successive questions which prove to have unexpected answers. From start to finish, the tale is impressively paced with constant surprises, not least where apparently trivial elements seeded early on come to fruition, and as the scope of the storytelling goes beyond the City itself, to show us its place in the wider landscape and the history of this world.

There’s more than enough death and brutality to satisfy grimdark fantasy fans but from the outset there’s something more and richer. There’s compassion in Stella Gemmell’s writing that’s all too often lacking in current epic fantasy, leaving those stories sterile and readers distanced. Here, readers will be drawn into caring over the fate of even minor characters. More than that, the rising death toll isn’t merely there to thrill readers with vicarious slaughter. Just as Gemmell assesses the cost to common folk of selfish noble ambition, she also reveals how the suffering that results is essential to creating men and women with the dogged endurance, physical and mental, needed to challenge their Imperial masters. Especially since this is epic fantasy, not alternate history, and that means magic at work. Gemmell thinks through all the implications of the Immortals’ sorcery with the same mature intelligence, right to the very last page, leaving the reader to ponder what might follow after the book is closed.

This is the most satisfying, intelligent and enthralling epic fantasy I’ve read in many a year. It stands comparison with the finest writers currently developing and exploring the enthralling balance between realism and heroism in the epic fantasy tradition that David Gemmell pioneered.

Authors’ views, viewing the authors & audio too – Fight Like A Girl multimedia!

Over at SFFWorld, the assorted authors of the Fight Like A Girl anthology have been having a say about oh, all sorts of things. Part One of the mass interview is now up and Part Two will follow at the end of this week.

Meantime, Roz Clarke has posted her video highlights of the launch day in Bristol over on YouTube. You’ll want to settle in with a tea, coffee or other beverage of choice as it’s 50 minutes worth of readings, discussion and sword/knife fights. In which I demonstrate various things including how to get someone to cut their own throat without leaving any of my fingerprints on the weapon 🙂

To enjoy the day’s reading and panel discussions in audio, head over to Cheryl Morgan’s blog, where you’ll also find the panel discussion.

And if after all that, you want to buy the book?
Amazon – paperback
Amazon Kindle

There’s also a Goodreads giveaway running till April 30th

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Throwback Thursday – Junior Son and Star Wars Cosplay 2000-2015

Digging around in the hard drive for something else entirely, I found some photographs which prove the now-Student Son’s interest in Star Wars cosplay really is nothing new…

(posted with his permission)

Mummy’s little Sith, at the Art of Star Wars exhibition, the Barbican, London. August 2000.

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Return to the Light Side, fancy dress birthday party, June 2002
(Light saber blade courtesy of Dad and some photoshop-type software…)

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ComicCon 2015 All grown up… and yes, that’s now a ‘real’ light saber…
I never imagined I’d have so much in common with Leia Organa

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Darth Gibson

Why knowing the history of history is vital for any writer drawing from the past

I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?

Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.

For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?

According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.

The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.

More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.

So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.

Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.

Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.

Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.

These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.

Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.

So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.

And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?

Where to find my thoughts on Tropes and more Anthology news

Over on Kate Elliott’s website, I’ve contributed a piece on Tropes to her Worldbuilding Wednesdays series of posts – all well worth reading, incidentally, just like her novels.

Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?

It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.

Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.

Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction.

Click here to read the whole piece

Meantime, over on Joshua Palmatier’s blog, the Table of Contents for ALIEN ARTIFACTS has been announced.

What’s this particular anthology about? Well, here’s the back cover copy…

What might we run into as we expand beyond Earth and into the stars? As we explore our own solar system and beyond, it seems inevitable that we’ll run into aliens … and what they’ve left behind. Alien artifacts: what might they reveal about us as we try to unlock their secrets? What might they reveal about the universe?

In this anthology, nineteen of today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors explore how discovering long lost relics of alien civilizations might change humanity. Join Walter H. Hunt, Julie Novakova, David Farland, Angela D. Penrose, S.C. Butler, Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin, Juliet E. McKenna, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Andrija Popovic, Jacey Bedford, Sofie Bird, James Van Pelt, Gini Koch, Anthony Lowe, Jennifer Dunne, Coral Moore, Daniel J. Davis, C.S. Friedman, and Seanan McGuire as they discover the stars and the secrets they may hold—both dark and deadly and awe-inspiring.

My story now has a title, The Sphere, and if you click through you can look for clues in the list of tales from everyone else. As well as seeing the very fine cover art and for details on the book’s publication date and how to order it.

And by the way, do check out Joshua’s books, and novels from his alter ego Benjamin Tate, the next time you’re looking for a good read.

Out and about, in person and online

They* tell you that writing is a solitary occupation. Only when it comes to the pen on paper, fingers on keyboard bit. They* really should say how much fun and inspiration there is to be had in this writing life when you get together with other writers and with readers.

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In the Olden Days~, that meant meeting up in person, and we still have many and varied ways of doing that in SF& Fantasy circles. This Saturday past I was in Bristol at The Hatchet Inn, for the Launch Extravaganza celebrating the publication of ‘Fight Like a Girl’. (ebook also available). This is an anthology I’m really pleased to be part of, sharing my take on this particular theme alongside established voices and newer writers in SFF.

Isn’t that such a great cover? And for the curious, those are my battle axe earrings on the right hand side. They seemed like appropriate jewellery for the day.

We had a great time, with readings from Lou Morgan, Sophie E Tallis and Danie Ware, a panel discussing this anthology’s inspiration in particular, and wider issues facing women in genre publishing, and then Fran Terminiello and Lizzie Rose (of The School of the Sword) demonstrated some fascinating swordplay, by way of a speedy run though the evolution of swords from the Medieval to the Renaissance. Great stuff.

And yes, as promised in my previous post, I demonstrated some aspects of aikido to prove that fighting like a girl may well be different to battling like a bloke – but it’s no less effective 🙂 With thanks to Fran for allowing me to demonstrate that bringing bare hands to a knife fight is not necessarily a problem, as well as the chap whose name I didn’t catch, who had done some aikido and generously allowed me to put him on his knees a few times and to show how being shorter is no disadvantage when it comes to getting a 6’3″ man off his feet. At which point gravity does pretty much the rest of the work…

(There may be photos/video in due course. If so, I’ll add links)

But that’s not all! These days we can meet up and swap thoughts, ideas and recollections online and a whole bunch of us writers are currently doing that over on Marie Brennan‘s blog. She’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of her first publication with a series of posts Five Days of Fiction, sharing her own thoughts on a series of questions and inviting others to chip in. I always find seeing what other people say in this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.

*’They’ being people whose knowledge of the writing life extends as far as repeating cliches and no further.
~ Twenty years ago.

The Knee to the Nuts Paradox, and other tips when you fight like a girl.

A while ago I wrote a post commenting on an article on the reasons why women smile at men who harass them. I explained how, from a martial arts point of view, that’s a winning strategy. To de-escalate a situation and leave without a fight. But that’s not always possible, so I think a follow-up post may be useful, in particular for those without any martial arts or self defence training.

(And if you’re free this coming Saturday, 2nd April 2016 and within striking range of Bristol, do come along the Fight Like a Girl anthology launch, where I’ll be demonstrating some of the self-defence principles I discuss in this article. As well as what to do if you’ve brought bare hands to a knife fight.)

If unwanted attention turns into being grabbed, that’s very definitely the time to fight like a girl. Which is to say, not by meeting force with force but by identifying and exploiting the ways in which your attacker cannot use superior strength or in ways that make such strength irrelevant. Because the aim of the game is not to stand crowing over your defeated, bloodied enemy like some cut-price Conan, but to get free of a hold and to get clean away as quickly and effectively as possible.

This post is also prompted by recent thoughts and discussions I’ve been having with fellow aikido practitioners about gendered responses to attacks. Though these observations aren’t exclusively for women’s benefit. My thoughts apply equally well to men who find themselves shorter and less physically imposing than an attacker. As well as to men who are tall, well-muscled, physically fit and more than able to leave an aggressor bleeding on the floor – but who know full well that will see them charged with assault. So, this should make useful reading for everyone.

However, this post runs long. I’m also aware that there will be those with no interest, for whatever reason, in reading even a theoretical discussion of the practical application of violence. So I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut. Click here to continue reading

Guest post – Zen Cho on ‘My Year of Saying No’.

You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.

My year of saying no

Photo credit - Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

Photo credit – Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography.

In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.

What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.

I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.

But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.

A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?

But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.

I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.

I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.

You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.

But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.

“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – a review

SorcerertotheCrownUKcoverlargeIn Regency London, the Royal Society for Unnatural Philosophy has its first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Unsurprisingly, this does not please the great and the good (self-proclaimed) of English Magic. Zacharias, erstwhile child slave and later ward of the former Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, is well aware of their enmity but has far more urgent concerns. English magic is being steadily depleted and relations with Faerie, a vital source of power, have somehow been dangerously compromised. Add to that the British Government is pressing Zacharias to endorse and support their imperial ambitions in Indonesia. This raises the very real danger of French sorcières deciding such actions breach the longstanding gentleman’s agreement against magical involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.

So the last thing Zacharias needs is the eruption into his life of Prunella Gentleman, half-Indian orphan and pupil-teacher at Mrs Daubeny’s boarding school, where well-born girls unfortunately afflicted with magical talent are trained to restrain such unseemly impulses. After all, everyone knows that women are unsuited to thaumaturgy. Well, everyone except Prunella. And the witches of the Banda Strait. What with one thing and another, Zacharias can’t even find refuge in the congenial surroundings of his club, The Theurgists.

This is an entertaining and original addition to the Regency fantasies we’ve seen expanding and enriching the genre in recent years. Not least because Cho is drawing on up-to-date historical sources, including non-Eurocentric views of that era, as well as the literature of the period rather than anyone else’s later and potentially anachronistic interpretations. She evidently knows her Austen, and her Thackeray and more besides, I shouldn’t wonder. The attitudes of the English aristocracy, both in terms of class and race, are entirely of their time, as indeed are Zacharias’ and Prunella’s reactions to the prejudices and insults they face, whether incidental or intentional. Their friends and foes are similarly, satisfactorily rounded and believable.

Crucially, none of this exploration of attitudes to sex and/or race is mere set-dressing or clumsy polemic. It all drives the fast-paced plot by informing decisions and plans on both sides of the growing conflict. Action prompts reaction and dangers escalate. Now Zacharias’s outsider status gives him a different perspective on non-English and non-European magical traditions. Meanwhile Prunella’s determined to put her own magical resources to best use, to learn what she can of her parentage and to make a satisfactory marriage. However her naivety means she has scant idea of the consequences of her actions. Some of these outcomes are comical; Cho has a deft touch with humour. Others are chilling. Cho doesn’t compromise over the grimmest implications of the opposition to Zacharias, or the measures that must be taken to defeat it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s absorbing and well written fantasy enriched with a meaningful hinterland. So I am not surprised to see enthusiastic cover quotes from writers as diverse as Naomi Novik, Ann Leckie, Charles Stross, Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.

To find out more about Zen Cho and her books, click here for her website.