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 To save you counting on your fingers, yes, this does mean I have already-completed, as-yet-unpublished novels sitting on my hard drive.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.

Looking back at 2015

To say this past year went in unexpected directions for me is a dramatic understatement.

This time a year ago, the UK government was just starting to understand the full, disastrous ramifications of the changes to EU VAT regulations on digital sales. Along with a handful of other women in various different sectors, I began writing letters and blogging about this and we soon realised we needed what became the EU VAT Action Campaign.

Since then, the Campaign has convinced the UK government to introduce various easements, to avoid putting small online traders out of business entirely and convinced the European Commission of the need to introduce a threshold for these regulations, to avoid killing the grassroots Digital Single Market stone dead. Over the course of the year, we’ve helped resolve any number of queries from affected businesses and managed the fallout from various cock-ups by different tax authorities. Consequently, governments across Europe are now aware of the need to substantially improve the ways in which they communicate and consult with the small independent traders and companies which now make up such a significant sector of the economy. The team I’m working with have all been invaluable allies; Clare Josa, Rosie Slosek, Megan Kerr, Rachel Andrew and Lorraine Dallmeier. We’ve also had essential support from umpteen others, including but by no means limited to Wendy Bradley and Nicholas Whyte.

All of which has entailed me writing tens of thousands of words in blog posts, letters, briefings for government ministers, European commissioners, heads of state and journalists, as well as writing up evidence submissions for the House of Lords and the OECD. Plus spending hours on phone conversations and dealing with thousands of email. I’ve visited the European Parliament in Brussels, No.10 Downing Street and made repeated visits to HM Treasury and HMRC in Whitehall.

All of which goes a long way to explaining why my fiction output this year has been a handful of short stories. I am intensely thankful to the various editors who gave given me at least that much opportunity to get writing!

In other fantasy fiction news, we’re now half way through releasing The Aldabreshin Compass series in a new ebook edition from Wizard’s Tower Press. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in this project than Cheryl Morgan, or for more perfect artwork than Ben Baldwin’s pictures. Not forgetting the contributions and support of fans and friends like Michele and others.

In fandom and related news, I administered the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy and helped organise and run the Awards Ceremony at Nine Worlds Convention in August. Then I was Mistress of Ceremonies at the UK’s Fantasycon in Nottingham – where I was the startled and incredibly honoured recipient of the Karl Edward Wagner Award.

In domestic news, as of December this year, my beloved husband and I have been together for 30 years – 26 of them happily married, as of September. I turned 50 years old and decided to mark that by preparing for and successfully grading to 3rd Dan blackbelt in aikido, the martial art which we both study.

Is that it? I think so.

Then that’ll do.

I shall now spend the rest of Christmas Eve doing some baking, before welcoming various family members here for Christmas Day tomorrow.

Very best wishes to all, however you celebrate the season, and I’ll see you in the New Year.

The Lays of Marie de France in relation to short stories and the history of epic fantasy fiction

As mentioned previously, this has been a year of writing short stories for me, so I’ve been thinking rather more about shorter form fiction than I would have done if I’d been focused on writing a novel.

So naturally I seized the chance to contribute to SF Signal’s Mind Meld on ‘What Makes the Perfect Short Story?’ There are a whole load of other excellent contributions by very fine writers, including a good number of recommendations for you to follow up – since, as many people have been noting over the past year or so, short form fiction is currently going from strength to strength as people are finding it very well suited to reading on smart phones and tablets etc, on their daily commute and in other snatches of downtime.

The thing is though, this is nothing new – and I don’t only mean we should celebrate the role of magazines and periodical publications, especially in creating popular genre fiction, from The Strand Magazine publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories through to Hugo Gernsback and the launch of Amazing Stories.

My pal Julia recently lent me this book; Lays of Marie de France and Others. According to the author biography Marie was, ‘Born circa 1140, probably in Normandy. Spent most of her life in England. Died circa 1190.’

MdFr_0002

Not much to go on there. Well, (published in 1966, so now rather dated), the book’s cover flap copy gives us a little more –

She wrote in the last quarter of the twelfth century in a dialect known as the Langue d’öil but she may have come from any part of Northern France between Lorraine and Anjou, she may have been a Norman or Channel Islander, an Anglo-Norman or Norman-Welsh. After all the academic debate of the last sixty years her identity remains as misty as ever. But this lady, who seems to have composed her tales for the very sophisticated court of King Henry II, was an admirable narrator, and the justness and fineness of her sentiment in all that concerns the delicacies of the human heart are also remarkable. A more excellent writer of romances it would be hard to find. It was something of a feat alone to have written a story about a werewolf neither horrific nor disgusting.

The werewolf story was the one Julia and I were discussing – and believe me, a retelling would easily find a place in any modern urban fantasy anthology – but obviously I read the others. I was struck time and again, how well they tick all the boxes for what we consider to be the merits and appeal of modern popular short fiction, once allowances are made for the archaic language and the fact they were meant to be recited aloud rather than silently read. Which shouldn’t really be a surprise, since these were the popular fiction of their day. Let’s not forget that taking the long view of humanity’s relationship with narrative fiction, the novel and private reading are both comparatively recent developments.

I’ve always been interested in looking for the origins of fantasy fiction beyond the founding fathers who are usually cited. And yes, I use that term advisedly because so often it’s the female writers who have historically been ignored or dismissed for writing ‘women’s stuff’. That’s not in the least to disparage those male writers. Anyone looking for the origins of epic fantasy should assuredly go back to Beowulf, and to The Song of Roland, The Arthurian Cycle and all the rest.

But as this book makes so very clear, that’s by no means the whole story. Marie’s tales are full of action, treachery, tragedy, love, betrayal, magic and high heroics by men and women alike. Everything that keen readers are looking for in the best of modern epic fantasy writing – long and short. My understanding of the history of our genre becomes so much richer and more complex when I come across authors like her.

So many authors are getting their backlists out as ebooks!

As an aside from flagging up my own books, it’s great to see so many authors making their backlists available as ebooks now, and by a variety of routes.

Just this week, Kristine Smith’s Code of Conduct comes out again, courtesy of Book View Cafe – an authors’ co-operative which you really should check out for new and backlist work from any number of excellent writers.

One reason Code of Conduct particularly caught my eye is I reviewed the original paperback release, so if you’re curious you can read what I thought of it here

Smith-CodeofConduct

Other writers such as Liz Williams and Kate Elliott are partnering with companies like Open Road Media.

Elsewhere, authors are epublishing independently, with all the fun and games that entails. Walter Jon Williams’ experiences making his Praxis novels available as ebooks for UK readers make for an interesting read. The full – and impressive – list of his works now available is here. Go, browse, it’ll be well worth your while.

Glenda Larke’s Isles of Glory trilogy and a standalone Havenstar are now available from the usual ebook outlets and similarly well worth checking out. To learn more about Glenda, visit her blog and her website.

Likewise Martha Wells has made her four out of print books available via Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc. That’s The Element of Fire, City of Bones, The Death of the Necromancer, and Wheel of the Infinite. Incidentally her Raksura novels are very well worth reading, as is her blog where she regularly posts quick updates/reviews of recent fantasy fiction.

So if there’s an author whose early work you’d really like to get hold of, it really is well worth keeping your eyes open, checking in with their websites from time to time, maybe running a few web searches, to see what you turn up.

Feel free to add details of other authors’ backlist availability in comments.

Fire in the Night – an Aldabreshin Compass short story

There are always loose threads in stories. This is by no means a bad thing, as long as there aren’t so many the reader ends up confused, and provided they’re not too vital to the plot. Real life never wraps up everything neatly so why should fiction?

Then there are the twists and turns in the action when it would be really interesting to see someone else’s point of view but where the overall narrative needs to stick to its established path, not get lost in some digression or diversion. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Readers invariably amuse themselves speculating on those untrodden roads.

Then there are the characters who appear to play a small part in some chapter, only to disappear, never to be seen again. They’ve served their purpose and a writer must be ruthless, if they don’t want their novel to sink beneath the weight of a cast of thousands.

Writers often find inspiration for further stories in all these things. I can point to any number of incidents or plot elements in my four series of books thus far which have stemmed from a fan’s email asking ‘What happened about…?’

It’s not just the fans who wonder. While I was preparing Southern Fire, first of the Aldabreshin Compass books, I came across Dyal, who I’d completely forgotten about in the decade since I wrote the books. He’s a young Daish domain warrior who bravely plays his part in defying treachery… and vanishes into the darkness, his ultimate fate unknown…

My work on cleaning up the text came to screeching halt. WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM???

Well that turned out to be one of those questions I just couldn’t let go. So I’ve written a short story beginning the tale of his adventures as he becomes involved in other events that happen during the course of this series of books, which only ever get referred to in passing, given the necessary focus on the main story. It should be fun for those of you who are already familiar with the books and for those of you who’ve just started to read them.

For those of you who are still wondering about this series, it’ll give you a flavour of the Aldabreshin Archipelago and the tribulations and treacheries first encountered in Southern Fire, continued in Northern Storm and still to come in Western Shore and Eastern Tide, all to be published in ebook through the invaluable Wizard’s Tower Press, and available through your preferred online retailer.

Click here to read Fire in the Night , first of the Quartering the Compass stories.

Southern Fire.  Artwork by Ben Baldwin

Southern Fire.
Artwork by Ben Baldwin

Here Be Dragons! Northern Storm’s new cover and associated thoughts

As you can see from the second of Ben Baldwin’s superb new covers for the Aldabreshin Compass series, this book has dragons! Big dragons. Dangerous dragons. As those who’ve already read The Thief’s Gamble can tell you, dragons in Einarinn can be truly devastating. And for those who’ve read The Thief’s Gamble and still have a whole load of unanswered questions about dragons in this world, rest assured you will find answers in this book. Some answers, anyway.

artwork by Ben Baldwin

Artwork by Ben Baldwin.
Click to see more detail

Dragons really are the archetypal epic fantasy monster. They feature in some of my very favourite books and series, as far back as I can recall. Was Smaug the first one I encountered? Smaug the Terrible, as proved by his merciless destruction of Lake Town, for all that he amused himself chatting to Bilbo beforehand. Or was it the Ice Dragon, Groliffe, in the Saga of Noggin the Nog? He’s Honorary Treasurer of the Dragons’ Friendly Society, you know. So dragons that communicate and co-operate were among my earliest childhood encounters as well.

That duality’s been there through my subsequent fantasy reading. Anne McCaffrey’s dragons on Pern; mighty beasts yet telepathic and empathetic. On the other hand, the massive, murderous creatures of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and subsequent books. The devastating dragon out to destroy Ankh Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, alongside the pathetic swamp dragons of Lady Sybil’s Sunshine Sanctuary. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series has any number of breeds of dragons, ranging from the brutish and violent to the intelligent and cultured – and just as many different ways for humans to interact with them. Dragons in the Harry Potter universe on the other hand, all seem to be terrifying and lethal, whatever their breed. Robin Hobb’s dragons will co-operate with humans as long as doing so suits their own purposes, or just their current whim, but any ‘keeper’ who thinks they’re in charge is likely to get a surprise. Morkeleb the Black offers Jenny Waynest untold gifts in Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, but at what cost? We’re still waiting to see which side of the scales George RR Martin’s dragons will come down on, in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Daenerys Targaryen really had better keep her wits about her, don’t you think?

What about the myths that spawned all these fantasy beasts? Manifestations of the Universal Monster Template? I’ve been reading about them in books of folklore for just as long as I’ve been reading fantasy fiction. Not only the tales of Fafnir and Siegfried and such which inspired Tolkien and CS Lewis in varying ways, or the umpteen variations on St George’s story. Every English county seems to have its own local subspecies of dragon – The Lambton Worm (County Durham), The Mordiford Wyvern (Herefordshire), The Wantley Dragon (Yorkshire), to name but a few. The iconic red dragon of Wales, intertwined with the myth of Merlin and Arthur, is only one Celtic dragon myth, alongside the Dundee dragon, the Oilliphéist in Ireland fleeing St Patrick, and many more. Towns and villages right across Europe have tales of similar local beasts, usually spreading blight and destruction, with an appetite for young maidens. All so very different to ethereal oriental dragons with their ties to nature and the elements.

It sometimes seems a wonder that any fantasy author would write about anything else. I’ve only mentioned a few of the best known books on my shelves here, so feel free to flag up your own favourite books with dragons in comments. Fellow authors, by all means offer a brief introduction to your own take on the beasts.

What does using such an iconic monster mean for a fantasy author? Well, as with so many of these archetypal genre elements, the challenge is staying true to the core tradition while still finding something at least a little new and different to bring to the mythology. Above all else, as a reader, I find it’s essential for the beast have a convincing role within a fantasy world and an integral reason for its presence in the story. Not just being shoehorned in because someone once said a book with a dragon on the front sells more copies…

So what’s this particular dragon’s role in Northern Storm? You’ll have to read the book to find out, and all being well, the ebook edition will be rolled out across the various sellers over the next week or so. Keep an eye out for updates.

EU digital VAT campaign update

I don’t imagine you’ll be surprised to learn that we have cancelled all plans to visit Brussels between now and the end of the year. Not without giving this decision serious thought, since we are very well aware of digital businesses’ need for interim relief while a threshold and other details for revising this legislation are negotiated. However, after the Paris attacks, it was self-evident that we simply wouldn’t get access to the high-level decision makers who could enact this while so many, far more urgent concerns are taking up their time and focus.

The security situation was a further consideration, though this time last week we were thinking more in terms of getting caught up in evacuations and/or delays prompted by alerts after someone’s shopping got forgotten on a train or some joker phoned in a bomb threat. Well, the Brussels lockdown over the past few days serves to confirm this was the right decision.

What we will be doing is writing a report on the current situation, a year on from the start of concern and campaigning over this new system. The EU Commission has specifically asked the EU VAT Action Campaign to do this, to contribute to their ongoing impact assessment. We will also be sharing it far and wide with everyone who could help secure interim easements.

Watch this space for further details on how you can help us supply key data to the decision makers.

Work in progress and the value of constructive criticism

I’m currently revising a piece of short fiction in the light of a test reader sending a draft back with numerous comments on bits that aren’t as clear as they might be, things that seem clunky etc.

I’m not complaining in the least. Not even hinting that this is a hardship. Quite the contrary. I’m feeling a whole new rush of enthusiasm for this story now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on it, thanks to someone else’s eyes.

Especially since, to quote the accompanying email from the test reader “I’ve been setting the comb’s teeth quite fine.”

Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted. Exactly what this piece of work needed.

When people ask for writing advice, I’m inclined to reply with the qualifier, ‘well, this works for me…’ because no two writers I know work in exactly the same way and some things which work for my favourite authors would never suit my writing in a thousand years.

But if there’s one universal rule for writers, this is probably it. No matter who you are, no matter how long you have been at this game. Get feedback. No piece of work is so good that constructive criticism can’t make it better.

What’s the story? Well, do you recall many months ago, I was wondering whatever became of the young Daish warrior who fell off a battlement to be lost in the night’s shadows below…?

Right, back to it.

When’s the right time to write a story?

As is so often the way, a few things cropping up in rapid succession got me thinking. One was interviewing Brandon Sanderson at Fantasycon last month, when (among many other things) we talked about the way you need to wait until a story idea is ready to be written.

This was already in my mind after turning up the original proposal I sent to my then agent and editor, outlining the Aldabreshin Compass sequence. Or rather, not outlining nearly as much of it as I vaguely recalled.

And then of course, Sean Williams had written that very interesting guest blog post here on things he’s learned, taking the long view as he looks at his writing career thus far, for lessons to apply to his work yet to come.

So you can read my experience and conclusions on learning to let the seeds of a story ripen in full over on Sean’s blog.

Meantime, I’m aiming to get my Alien Artefacts short story written just as soon as I can carve out some time from VATMOSS stuff. Not to mention the ongoing ebook project.