Tales of the Emerald Serpent – reviewed by Lou Anders

In haste and in passing – but I want to flag up this particular review of Tales of the Emerald Serpent – among the good many favourable notices the book has been getting.

Lou Anders likes it and says why and pretty much sums up why I am so proud to be part of this project.

And y’know, we all had such good fun that we are chatting idly about the possibility of a second volume…

Mind you, I have some embroidery to finish first.

“All Sorts of Freedom” Childhood in the Library

Life continues busy… Congenial in Cambridge was indeed splendid fun and this weekend I am off to the annual St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Weekend in Oxford, to enjoy erudite papers and genial discussion, this year considering humour in crime fiction. And yes, obviously, when I put these things in the diary, the firm intention was to have delivered Defiant Peaks before now. Ho hum. Last lap starts Monday and at least I’m on track to deliver it without pulling any all-nighters. A few late nights, perhaps, but it’s been that sort of year.

Meantime, you may be interested in a piece I wrote for Erin Pringle, an American writer I met at the Phoenix Convention in Dublin the year before last. A very nice lady and a very talented and interesting writer as you will discover at her website/

She’s hosting a summer series of articles where various writers from the US and the British Isles are reflecting on our relationships with libraries. They make fascinating reading and my piece is now live, something of a memoir about my local branch library when I was a kid in Poole, Dorset.

Enjoy!

Brief update and how a picture of a cat can win you books!

I am currently extremely busy, but I imagine you’ve guessed that from the lack of updates. I’m currently finishing up Defiant Peaks, the third and concluding Hadrumal Crisis book – and that’s taking up most of my time and mental energy.

What’s over is being devoted to my Chair of EightSquaredCon (Eastercon 2013) duties, where I am pleased to say plans and arrangements are progressing very satisfactorily indeed. We’ve just spent the weekend on a site visit for recce and meetings with hotels purposes – which is why I wasn’t at Edge-Lit in Derby by the way.

I will be at Congenial in Cambridge, August 10th-12th by the way and that’s going to be a splendid weekend. If you can make it, do!

I have a busy diary from September onwards so I’m also trying to get ahead with a few other things, reviews, articles and such. And of course, it won’t be long before the next slew of Arthur C Clarke Award reading starts hitting the doormat…

And then there’s been more than the usual family and household stuff with both teenage sons at crucial points in their education/exam schedules over these past few months.

Like I said, busy, busy, busy. So while I haven’t forgotten about blogging, all too often when I think about a post, all I can come up with is … um, well this list of things keeping me busy.

Fortunately, there are other folk out there doing more interesting things. One of whom is the ever-charming and talented Kari Sperring (author of the highly recommended Living with Ghosts). Slide on over to her LiveJournal and see her adorable cat Ish. Offer up the best caption and you can win copies of Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies, Books 1 and 2 of the Hadrumal Crisis

And while you’re doing that, I’ll get back to writing Book 3.

So what’s it worth to you? What’s it worth to me? Some thoughts on the ebook price debate.

Price is the final debate to be had over ebooks. I really do have a great deal of sympathy with those readers who resent the notion of having to pay a second time for an electronic version of a book which they’ve already bought in hard copy. I wouldn’t want to do that myself, no matter how much I might prefer the convenience of having all my favourite titles to hand on an ereader when I’m travelling. The sooner the publishing industry takes heed from recent initiatives in music and video products and starts bundling electronic versions or a licence to get one with the physical product, the better.

Where I don’t have much sympathy is when I’ve heard people muttering that it’s somehow reprehensible/selfish/greedy for authors to profit putting from their backlist into ebook when they’ve already been paid for the original publication and hey, the books are still in the shops, so they’re still earning their cut that way. Why aren’t the ebooks free? Since they should be, why not find a free download?

As with so much in life, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Personally, one reason I’m epublishing my backlist is to try and recover some of the losses I’ve sustained over the past five years as hard copy sales of my early series have fallen off a cliff. Not only for me and not because people have stopped enjoying our books. Because these days, backlist titles by the majority of authors are simply not in the shops for a browsing reader to find and buy.

That was always a crucial element of the traditional publishing model; the way in which writers acquire new readers and any writer constantly needs to attract new readers because no series of books keeps all the people happy all of the time. Online retailing is simply not the same; it’s great when you know what you’re looking for but no amount of ‘other customers also bought’ and ‘look inside’ features replicate that browsing experience.

But some years ago, publishers stopped sending backlist books to shops on a sale or return basis, hoping to reduce both their costs and losses in an increasingly hostile economy. Booksellers responded by no longer stocking backlists, using their shelf space and promotions tables instead for the frontlist and best-seller titles, piling them high and selling them at a punishing discount for all concerned, hoping to retain some of the market share which the supermarkets were taking away.

And of course, there are far fewer bookshops for people actually go and browse in, especially after the demise of Borders. The cumulative effect of this for me and many other writers has been a significant loss of income. The past few years of financial turmoil have also had a significant impact on the foreign rights markets, where translation deals for midlist books are now increasingly hard to come by, once more reducing authorial incomes by noteworthy amounts.

Don’t mistake me. This isn’t whining or special pleading. The world doesn’t owe me or any other writer a living. This is just the way things are now. So if writers are to be able to afford to continue writing, we need to adapt. One such strategy is making money through epublishing backlist titles. That means not selling our titles for stupidly low prices, purely for the egoboost of being ‘An Amazon Top-100 Seller!’. At 99 cents a copy, that’s not such a big deal. Remember what I said about 100% of not-very-much still being not-very-much.

It’s also not in anyone’s interests to see the ebook price become fixed at an unsustainably low level. Apart from those shareholders in Amazon who don’t actually care about books or indeed any of their other product lines but who are only interested in gaining market share through predatory pricing, looking to cash out and retire with no great concern about the decline of a healthy market economy.

But I’m not interested in those people. I’m concerned about books and readers’ interests, since I was a reader before I was ever a writer and I’ll continue being a reader whatever the ups and downs of my writing career.

We’re in a period of transition and just at the moment, yes, it can reasonably be said that most of the income is profit for a publisher putting out an ebook for a backlist title that has long since earned out its advance. All the up-front costs, the author’s initial advance, the editing, copy-editing, proofing and production have been covered. Well, yes, and that would be the same for paper editions of that book, less the ongoing expense of printing and shipping the physical books. This is how publishing has always worked, with the publisher bearing those initial costs and hoping that enough of their titles earn out that advance payment and head into significant profit to cover those titles which don’t.

Bear in mind that most books take years to turn a profit, including in all likelihood titles here and there by a good many of your favourite authors, especially if your tastes are for writing somewhere off to either side of the mainstream bell curve. It’s the mega-sellers at the central peak of that bell curve which bring in the bulk of the revenue which gives the publishers the leeway to allow their editors to cut a writer some slack if a particular title hits the market at a really bad time or some other factor entirely beyond their control affects sales.

Why is this relevant to ebook pricing? Because books are books are books, whether you’re reading them by way of pixels, paperbacks or hand-illuminated parchment. There are up-front costs in producing them. Beyond the core of established best-sellers, there are no guarantees that the publishers will make their money back. If you as a reader want to continue to see a broad range of books for all tastes, well-edited, accurately proof-read and competently produced for ereaders and other platforms, the ebook price needs to become fixed at a point where doing all those things remains economically viable for publishers. Then publishers can support a broad midlist, where those writers who will emerge as future best-sellers learn their craft and build their readership through word of mouth recommendation, in person and online.

Ah but, I’ve heard it said, market forces will see best-sellers naturally emerge from the brave new world of independent epublishing, free of the dead hand of the past. Really? Like the Fifty Shades of Grey books? I have no opinion on the literary merits or otherwise of those particular titles because I have no intention of reading them, having no interest in that particular genre. I have no interest in quite a few things that are tremendously popular. I have never watched any of the X-Factor type talent shows or ‘reality’ TV (beyond a very few historical re-enactment things). Cookery, home-makeover or real-life-struggle programmes bore me rigid. I’d rather read a good book.

I have friends and family who love some or all of the above TV shows and that’s fine; I don’t pass any moral judgement on them, any more than they do on me for watching the SF and crime series which they would loathe. Fortunately there is still a sufficiently broad range of viewing for us all to enjoy the telly. As a reader I want to live in a world with a similarly broad choice of reading, where publishing professionals can offer me books to my taste, rather than being faced with a narrowing selection of titles determined by mob rule.

This is not to say that things should just stay the same, with ebooks simply priced like paperbacks. Not when the publisher is most definitely making a saving on warehousing, transportation and the other costs associated with physical books. The reader should see that reflected in the new economic model – and speaking personally, I’d like to see the authors’ share of revenues adjusted upwards as well.

Ebooks also offer publishers potential for using pricing intelligently to everyone’s advantage, their own as well as the readers’, with special offers, introductory discounts and so on. Although as some independent authors have already discovered, the dumb automated price-matching algorithms used by the likes of Amazon can cost them dearly, literally. An author offering an ebook directly at a lower cost, even temporarily, will see their Amazon prices cut, sometimes to zero, and it can take a long time for Amazon to put that price back up, if they ever do. As I said, Amazon are not interested in books. They’re interested in market share.

Then there is the problem of pricing for different markets where purchasing power is very different. Let’s not forget that half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. That makes even a 99-cent ebook a non-trivial purchase. Especially if Amazon adds a surcharge for buying some ebooks depending on where the purchaser’s credit card is registered – or simply refuses to sell the ebook to that particular customer in the first place. For more on this, do read Charles Tan’s highly informative blog post

This used to be covered by the different rights and territories granted in publishing contracts, ensuring that publishers could set prices suited to local conditions and no one else could come in and undercut them. That worked reasonably well, at least from a First World Publisher point of view, when books were physical objects, and is still one of the arguments advanced for Digital Rights Management. Alas, that particular argument, and indeed that particular traditional publishing model, now only stands for as long as it takes for someone to crack a book’s DRM and these days, that’s measured in hours.

On the wider issues of DRM, incidentally, you cannot do better than read this post by Charles Stross (and the earlier post on Amazon which he references is well worth a read as well).

To return to the question of price, this becomes an area where questions of piracy definitely become complicated. I remain vehemently opposed to elooters – the likes of Pirate Bay who steal other people’s intellectual property and offer it up solely to enrich themselves.

But what about people in the 3rd World for whom ebooks could be a game-changer in terms of the education and access to information that they so urgently need to improve their own conditions? I’m not talking about access to the latest crime or SF best-sellers. I’m talking about textbooks and academic papers and journals and the like. Isn’t insisting that they pay American or Western European prices as morally indefensible as insisting they buy life-saving medicines at similarly unrealistic prices for local purchasing power? But a realistic price for a text book in West Africa or Indonesia would be an economically unsustainable price for that same product in the US or UK, if author and/or publisher are to stay in business.

As I say, it’s complicated. I don’t know what the answers are but answers need to be found, in everyone’s interests, readers, writers and publishers alike – and a free-for-all is not the solution.

For the moment, thankfully, finding those answers is not down to me. What I need to decide is a realistic price for my own ebooks, to see me and my business partners rewarded for our work without gouging readers. Then it’s up to the reader to choose whether or not to buy. In that sense, the unspoken contract between story teller and audience remains the same as it has always been.

To market, to market… in which territories and do you even have the right(s) to sell your own book?

As I’ve explained in my previous post, turning a backlist book into an ebook is nowhere near as straightforward as some folk might like to think, especially for titles more than ten years old. Once that’s done, more work, decisions and potential complications remain.

An ebook is no use to anyone unless potential readers know it’s there to be bought as simply and as widely as possible. So once again, I have decided to contract this part of the process out, specifically to Wizard’s Tower Press. I’ve known Cheryl Morgan for a good few years now and have the highest regard for both her technical skills and her commercial acumen – and when it comes to ebooks and the so-rapidly changing world of books these days, a publisher really does need both.

Once again, this is a commercial transaction with Wizard’s Tower taking their percentage as per the contract we have signed. If I were getting the books to market myself, I wouldn’t be giving up that share of the revenue but once again, money=time+convenience applies. Moreover 100% of not-very-much is not-very-much. I would much rather have a somewhat lesser percentage of considerably-more, trading theoretical income off against benefiting in very real terms from someone else’s skills in getting my ebooks to market far more effectively than I could myself, via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and (ideally from my point of view, if you’re thinking of buying) through the Wizard’s Tower Bookstore where you’ll find a good many other excellent titles.

Ready to go? Not at all. The first conversation Cheryl and I had revolved around rights. Specifically, did I actually have the ebook rights to the works I proposed to publish? Specifically world rights because the aggravation of trying to manage geographical restrictions on ebook sales for Wizard’s Tower is simply not to be contemplated. The short stories and ‘Turns & Chances’ were straight forward enough but what about The Tales of Einarinn?

Referring back to my contracts with Orbit, there was no mention of ebooks at all. There had been a few addenda here and there over the years as Little,Brown and its various corporate overlords discussed what ebooks might mean in the short, medium and long term. The only certainty over this past decade has been uncertainty. Not so long ago, a solid case could be made for ebooks only ever being a sector of the market akin to audiobooks, only worth doing for the front-list bestsellers. Now it’s looking quite likely that ebooks will actually replace the mass-market paperback – though there are still debates about that, not least as to whether that will only apply to English language publication, with much slower uptake in translation. How territorial and language markets will be managed, with all the complications like unequal purchasing power dependent on local currencies remains a puzzle.

So amid all this uncertainty, in what has been a punishing decade for book sales for all sorts of other reasons, publishers have been scrambling to shore up their position, ideally securing ebook rights as widely as they can. In some cases this has led to authors being frankly bullied into giving up ebook rights retrospectively. In other cases, publishers simply haven’t bothered to ask, just putting out ebooks on their own initiative.

There have also been some extremely creative interpretations of clauses in contracts going back decades, as with the Harper Collins US vs Open Road lawsuit which hit the New York court system and the trade press back in December 2011. I won’t recap the whole complex case here but Harper Collins US claimed rights

to “exploitation” (counsel’s word) of the Work “through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented.”

In other words, even though that contract had been signed in 1971, when ebooks really were the stuff of Science Fiction, that interpretation was claiming ebook rights forty years later…

My own position with Orbit was thankfully straight-forward. When I had started considering epublishing my back list myself, I got in touch with the relevant people in the rights and legal departments and we established that insofar as limited ebooks rights had ever been granted in addenda to my existing contracts, all those options had long since expired, giving me control of any and all ebooks, and indeed, we began the process of reverting all other rights in my backlist.

Except… the US editions of The Tales of Einarinn are published by Eos, a division of Harper Collins US. These contracts remain in force. While there’s no mention of ebooks, there is a sub-sub clause granting them the right to ‘record, transmit and display’ the works by electronic means. Did that give them a claim on ebook rights, as with the Open Road case? Would we, at very least, need to put everything on hold, until there was a judgment in that case? What if Harper Collins US won their case?

I took legal advice through The Society of Authors, establishing that the clause’s wording had been explained to me as only granting the publisher the right to keep my work on their computer systems for editing, production and promotional purposes relating to the physical printed books. We also discussed the final line in that sub-sub clause explicitly excluding any grant of permission to create any multimedia product from my work.

I’d insisted on that line, reading that contract back in 1999, when the rising popularity of computer games had seen some less than ethical rights grabbing going on. Not that I have ever had any reason to consider Harper Collins US anything other than upright and principled but having worked in personnel management and dealt with employment contracts, I know exactly how important precision in contract language can be. Far better to avoid any misunderstanding from the outset.

There’s considerable discussion in trade circles at the moment relating to such matters. Is an ebook merely another format of a book, like hardback, trade paperback, serial or magazine publication, all of which rights, and more, such as audiobooks, were covered in the contract? If so, rights issues could remain complicated. Or are ebooks software and thus a multimedia product specifically excluded by that line? They’re licensed in the same way as software after all and taxed as such here in the UK.

More emails went back and forth and happily, the conclusion was reached with goodwill on all sides, that I do indeed have worldwide ebook rights to The Tales of Einarinn. Harper Collins US will continue to sell their print editions and hopefully we will both benefit from cross-promotion once the ebooks are available.

So we’re ready to get those novels on the road to epublication following Turns & Chances! Once we’ve decided on a price… more on that tomorrow.

“Put out your backlist as ebooks? Oh, it’s easy!” A few thoughts on that…

Today sees the epublication of Turns & Chances, the Lescari novella that leads on to the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution. You can find it at Wizard’s Tower Books through the link below and over the next few days, it’ll be available for Kindle, Nook, Kobo etc.

And as more and more writers are epublishing their backlists, with more and more keen readers eagerly awaiting them, I thought I’d mark this publication with what’s turned out to be a series of blog posts about just what this whole process involves.

That line, “Put out your backlist as ebooks? Oh, it’s easy!” came from a fellow writer some years ago when we shared a platform at a convention, just as the first ereaders were coming on the market.
“I simply make pdfs of my final drafts and sell those!” she blithely explained.
I remarked on the often significant differences in plot and character between my final own drafts and the eventual copy-edited text as printed.
“Oh yes, that’s the same for me but nobody minds,” she said cheerily.
Actually, the stony faces I was seeing in that audience made me think different, even back then…

Since then such conversations have gone; “Oh, just run your final electronic version through this particular software. It’s easy—”

Let me stop you there. What final electronic version? My first book, The Thief’s Gamble, was written in 1996, sold in 1997 and while yes, I typed it up on a computer, I still printed out and posted hard copy to my publisher. Everyone did in those days. Just as copy editing happened with paper and pencil. Cut and paste for revisions honestly meant getting out the scissors and glue. There really, truly is no final electronic version anywhere near close enough to what’s on the printed page.

So that’s the first step. How to get the book as printed back into a computer. I could sit down with the hard copy and revise that final draft file which I have carefully transferred from computer to computer. Doable but time consuming and demanding very close concentration for umpty-hundred pages.

Rekey the whole thing? That would actually be faster for someone like me who touch-types but still time-consuming and with the added danger of introducing new errors. That final text would still need proof-reading.

On the time-consuming aspect, could I contract either of these approaches out? Yes, I could, but the cheapest quote I could find for all that work was around £750 pounds a book. I have a nine book backlist to deal with so that’s one hell of an upfront cost to take on.

There are illegally scanned pdfs of some of my books out there on the Net. I know authors who have successfully downloaded those, to give them a starting point for this sort of project. Entirely valid but not an option I decided to pursue. There’s the very real danger of malware piggybacking on such downloads. File-sharing is how the majority of Trojans and viruses spread now and please don’t think that’s limited to music and video. Then you still have to export that pdf text into some word processing software, so it’s only a first step.

Which brings us finally to taking a scalpel to a book and scanning the pages in. Thankfully you can now get bulk-feed, double-sided scanners and OCR software these days produces much, much better results than in the gobbledegook days of yore. (Yore being ten years or so in this Computer Age.) So that’s the option I decided to go with, looking at budgeting to buy one of those bulk-feed scanners as well as working out how to find the time I would need to set aside from my actual writing schedule to scan the text, proof read the results for OCR errors, to re-establish all the correct formatting for such things as bold text and italics, scene and chapter breaks, so on and so forth.

Seeing online dissatisfaction with some of the early ebook backlists rushed out by publishers who didn’t pay sufficient attention to such detail makes it very clear that readers expect – and make no mistake, they deserve – the same quality of text in an ebook as they would get in a paper edition.

At this point, I had one of those serendipitous chats with Elizabeth Campbell, a long-standing fan of my books and as it happens, a capable and energetic woman looking to offer her text-conversion services to authors in my position. Having taken to ebooks early herself, Elizabeth had gone looking for her favourite authors’ backlists. When they were nowhere to be found, she had contacted those writers, to learn pretty much what I’ve already said here. Well, as far as Elizabeth is concerned, any problem exists to be solved and she has now set up Antimatter ePress.

So I have been absolutely delighted to contract out the dismantling, scanning and proofing of the Tales of Einarinn. I apply that universal equation of life: money=time+convenience. I could do it myself, not for free but for the cost of that bulk scanner. Or I can pay for that work to be done by someone else while I spend my time writing the book currently under contract for which a publisher has already paid me an advance.

While all that got under way, we decided to test the waters with an ebook short story collection, offering shorter fiction featuring characters from that series, to be titled ‘A Few Further Tales of Einarinn’ and to follow that up with an ebook of ‘Turns & Chances’, the novella that kicked off the Lescari Revolution.

So far, so excellent. Since I did have the final versions of the ‘Further Tales’ stories on my hard drive, we soon had an electronic version of the text, proofed and checked. Then it needed turning into the requisite format for ereaders, which is to say .mobi and .epub format, checked and tweaked to suit the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, Kobo, other devices and softwares. Let me tell you, that is nowhere as easy as it might sound, with the usual erratic and inexplicable glitches that arise whenever you’re transferring something from one platform to another. Any author doing their own ebooks will have exactly the same issues and if they’re like me, not computer illiterate but in no sense expert, learning how to solve those problems will be incredibly time consuming.

Ready to go? Not nearly. What about cover art? Yes, I know, it sounds bizarre when you’re talking about ebooks but you still need cover art. For ‘Further Tales’, I was fortunate enough to have the artwork I originally commissioned and paid for to go with The Wedding Gift portfolio project, including copyright. Matt Brooker’s coloured version of Jock’s illustration of Livak was perfect. Indeed, we decided we would use all those splendid black and wide drawings to illustrate the short story collection.

For ‘Turns & Chances’, I contacted Les Edwards/Edward Miller and for the ‘Tales of Einarinn’ novels, I contacted Geoff Taylor. Both were willing to licence their original artwork to me for ebook use and on very generous terms, but please note once again, these have been business transactions. Then of course, artwork presents its own quirks with successful transition between formats and devices. And so do maps, perhaps even more so than straight-forward pictures.

So far, so good. Phew. But now what? How do we get these ebooks to the readers? Uploading to Amazon for the Kindle? Uploading to Barnes & Noble for the Nook? Do I want to tangle with iTunes, especially when they will want a separate ISBN for each of their geographical territories. Where do I get ISBNs anyway – and they cost how much bought separately? Am I going to run my own author web-bookstore as well? What do I plan on doing about DRM?

Once again, the independently ebooking author can find answers to all these questions and take on all the tasks that follow but once again, depending on their level of internet skills and tech savvy, this part of the process can turn out to be incredibly time-consuming.

Okay, that’s enough to mull over for today. Details of my next steps, and the further complications still to be dealt with, will follow in my next post.

“Turns & Chances” and the twists that brought everything together…

As of next week, I’m delighted to say that you will have the opportunity to read my novella “Turns & Chances” as an ebook, available for all formats and through Amazon, B&N and Kobo. Like A Few Further Tales of Einarinn, this will be published by Wizard’s Tower Press and as before, I am indebted to Antimatter ePress for turning the original text into such a high quality electronic version. So to whet your appetite, here’s the cover for you to admire, with Edward Miller’s splendid artwork.

Turns & Chances - cover art by Edward Miller

People often ask authors where they get their ideas. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I explain that getting the ideas isn’t the problem. Writers find them everywhere. They turn up even when you’re not looking for them; plot hooks, what-if questions, intriguing characters, an atmospheric place, an unnerving thought. There are times, especially when you’re in the throes of writing an entirely different book, when you virtually have to beat off such distractions with a stick.

Besides, one idea is not enough. Any one of those things I’ve just mentioned can be the start of a new story but only if the other essential elements are readily to hand. A place needs characters to people it. Characters need a plot to prompt action and reaction. Both plot and people must be solidly rooted in and naturally arising from the places that have made them. It’s a complex alchemy.

So every writer I know has inert story elements hanging around in the back of their mind or in some notebook or a file on their hard drive, waiting for the catalyst which will turn them into story-telling gold. The country of Lescar was just one such idea for me. When I was writing the Tales of Einarinn, I had mercenary characters like Halice, Sorgrad and Gren. To give them that necessary depth of background, I sketched in this divided and fractious realm, Lescar, plagued by intermittent warfare thanks to six rival dukes all seeking the High King’s crown. So mercenaries had somewhere to learn their skills and earn their money and as far as the Tales was concerned, that’s all I or anyone else needed to know.

Only I couldn’t help thinking about Lescar, while I was writing about the Aldabreshin Archipelago. What was life really like for the ordinary people stuck there; the ones who weren’t rival nobles or mercenaries? It must be pretty grim… Was there a story in that…? No, not according to my husband, always an invaluable sounding board for ideas, and as necessarily blunt as only a writer’s beloved must be. His precise words were ‘It’ll be a boring story about peasants covered in mud.’

He was right. I couldn’t do anything more with this idea until I had those other elements which would make it more than a story boring peasants covered in mud. So I set it aside. Then, some while later, I found myself wondering what those peasants might do, if some of them decided they were as mad as hell and not about to take being covered in mud any longer? What could they actually do, to protect their own people and look after their own interests? After all, they would still be subject to these warring dukes who have these murderous mercenaries to call on to crush dissent? Perhaps they could find some way to take advantage of their overlords and those hirelings dismissing them as just peasants covered in mud…?

Now I had the start of a story but another thing a writer soon learns is that stories come in different lengths. Some ideas are short story ideas. Some are novel-length. I knew this was more than a short story but equally clearly, it wasn’t a novel. So what could I do with it? In 2004 PS Publishing kindly provided the answer, by inviting me to write a novella for them. Turns & Chances was the result, published in both hardcover and paperback with Edward Miller’s fantastic cover art, which he’s generously given us permission to use for the ebook as well.

Though of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. PS Publishing invite other authors to write introductions to their novellas and so Chaz Brenchley offered his insights into this story. As so often, a fresh pair of eyes showed me things which I would never otherwise have seen about my own work. That final and essential ingredient is what turned Turns & Chances into the source of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution. Chaz has also been kind enough to allow us to include his Introduction in the ebook, so you’ll be able to discover that final twist for yourself.

Chicks Unravel Time – and I’m one of them!

(And this is possibly the only circumstance in which I will be pleased, nay, delighted, to be called a ‘chick’.)

The sister book to the 2011 Hugo Award-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords has now been announced, to be published November 2012. Editors Deborah Stanish (Whedonistas) and L.M. Myles have gathered a host of award-winning female writers, media professionals and scientists to examine each season of new and classic Doctor Who, each from our own perspective.

Diana Gabaldon discusses how Jamie McCrimmon inspired her best-selling Outlander series, and Barbara Hambly (Benjamin January Mysteries) examines the delicate balance of rebooting a TV show. Seanan McGuire (Toby Daye series) reveals the power and pain of waiting in Series 5, and Una McCormack (The King’s Dragon) argues that Sylvester McCoy’s final year of Doctor Who is the show’s best season ever.

Other contributors include Tansy Rayner Roberts (Power and Majesty), Sarah Lotz (The Mall), Martha Wells (The Cloud Roads), Joan Frances Turner (Dust), Rachel Swirsky (“Fields of Gold”) and Aliette de Bodard (Obsidian and Blood series). Personally I can’t wait to see the full line-up – and to read all the other essays.

My piece is on Season 9 of classic Doctor Who, in which the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) tackle the Day of the Daleks, The Curse of Peladon, The Sea Devils, the Mutants and The Time Monster. Rewatching these stories made for fascinating viewing for me as this is pretty much the first season I really remember. I have those ‘snapshot’ type memories of Patrick Troughton (in black and white) but Jon Pertwee was (and always will be) my Doctor.

I’m not going to recap my essay here, obviously. Suffice it to say I looked at these stories through the twin lenses of ‘then’ and ‘now’ and found doing so rewarding and thought-provoking.

While doing so, I also had a great deal of fun, particularly noticing things which have no place in my piece for the book. For instance, who would have thought, forty years ago, that I would be cheering out loud today when the Doctor refers to his skills with Venusian Aikido and even demonstrates a recognisable technique? Who had even heard of aikido in the UK back then? Not that little girl in front of the telly, who’s now a second dan aikidoka – traditional style though, not Venusian.

That reference also reminded me of the SF I read as a kid, exploring the hot steamy jungles of Venus and skating along the cold frozen canals of Mars. It’s a shame in some ways that modern science has done away with such ‘scientifiction’. On the other hand, I often think that it’s not just my own generation of writers who were inspired by such reading. Isn’t current astronomy and extra-solar space exploration these days driven by a longing to find such places for real, inspired by that same ‘sensawunda’ which we all first encountered reading Asimov, Heinlein et al as kids and watching Doctor Who and Star Trek? If we can’t find strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations in our own solar system any more, let’s go looking elsewhere!

And that’s still at the core of the genre’s appeal for the modern generation – as well as the eternal appeal of good story-telling. It was very interesting discussing these particular stories with my own teenage sons, when they passed through the lounge and sat down to watch an episode or two with me. They appreciated the plot and the characters, especially the interplay between The Doctor and The Master, even if the production values were rather lacking to those accustomed to the revamped Battlestar Galactica. And here and there, harsher edges to the narrative did surprise them…

Mind you, there was one moment when I did wonder if they had been exposed to too much SF at an impressionable age.
Watching The Curse of Peladon, one son said, surprised, ‘Oh, it’s him!’
‘Him who?’ I asked.
‘Him off Robin Hood. You know, the one who played Much.’
‘You mean Sam Troughton?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘You do know this was filmed in 1972? So how could that actor look exactly the same when I was a kid as he did just a few years ago? You do know that the TARDIS isn’t real, don’t you…?’
After a very long moment indeed of them looking at me in baffled incomprehension, I relented and explained that the young King is in fact played by David Troughton father of Sam. (And the resemblance, especially in their voices, is remarkable.)

And of course, those two actors are respectively the son and grandson of the aforementioned Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Which if you think about it, is just one more of the many things that are so cool about Doctor Who.

(The) Avengers (Assemble) – Doing Women in Superhero Movies (Very Nearly) Right

The last film I saw in the cinema with Robert Downey Jr in had me hissing with irritation at its treatment of women most particularly The Woman. Yesterday we saw the Avengers movie and oh, what a cheering contrast. Not only with the second Sherlock Holmes but with so many of the other recent superhero movies, most notably, Green Lantern.

Let me explain, as far as I can without hideous spoilers. Because you don’t want this movie spoiled, trust me. You want to go and see it at your earliest convenience.

There’s Scarlett Johansson/Black Widow, a full member of the team, treated as a fellow professional, respected by her boss and useful in a fight. But definitely not because she’s essentially another bloke who happens to have boobs. Just to make that clear, she uses her femininity very effectively against someone who can’t see beyond the fact she’s a woman and therefore assumes he naturally has the upper hand. She contributes actively and continuously to the team’s fighting – and thinking – skills as they tackle successive challenges.

Yes, okay, the zip on her black leather superhero jumpsuit is defective, permanently stuck mid-cleavage but I did say the film gets it ‘very nearly’ right. And actually, when it comes to aesthetically pleasing visuals, I would say the female viewers get their fair share of entertainment, certainly those of us whose tastes run to muscular physiques.

So far so good but it gets better because Samuel L Jackson/Nick Fury’s second in command is Agent Maria Hill/Cobie Smulders, another significant female role wherein a woman is professional, trusted and effective. In a role where there is no intrinsic need for that character to be a woman – Marvel Universe continuity aside which the majority of cinema goers will know nothing about. But once you realise that’s noteworthy because the Boss’s Sidekick is so usually a man, you also see there’s no absolutely reason why that character cannot be a woman in this day and age. And that’s really worth thinking about. (Agent Hill also has a more functional zip on her jumpsuit and a vest underneath it.)

Let’s also consider what these two women don’t do. They don’t get captured. They don’t get rescued. Yes, they get into dangerous and difficult situations – and they get themselves out of them. They don’t, alas, get any interaction or conversation which would enable the film to really nail the Bechdel Test but their respective roles, and particularly the pace and plot don’t really offer any natural opportunity for that to arise.

All this is in such sharp contrast with Whatshername in Green Lantern, whose supposed power and influence running an aerospace firm is rendered utterly meaningless because we never see her actually being powerful or influential on screen before she is reduced to Damsel in Distress (who will naturally then spread her legs with gratitude for her rescuer).

Back to the Avengers, Black Widow and Agent Hill most especially don’t get casually killed just to motivate the Alpha Males. Indeed, we see a good-hearted man in the role of innocent suffering an undeserved fate – and well, I can’t say more about the way that movie theme/cliché is handled without spoilers. Suffice it to say, I can’t recall when I saw that particular plot element done better.

Possibly in an episode of Buffy or Angel? Maybe Dollhouse? I’d have to give that some thought. Because of course, we have Joss Whedon to thank for this awesome script. The man who when asked ‘why do you write these strong women characters?’ famously replied ‘because you’re still asking me that question’.

And before that, he said “Because—equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.”

Yes, as a woman, I expect and warrant equality for myself. I also want my teenage sons and their pals and their pals’ younger brothers to see equality in action, especially as a naturally accepted element of a superhero action movie. So they don’t see Black Widow or Agent Hill as in any way remarkable. I want the upcoming generation to be baffled by the notion that women couldn’t be in a story like this on equal terms with the men.

Edit: and as I have been reminded, let’s not forget Pepper Potts on the film’s roster of capable women treated with due respect.

Darkening Skies. Two reviews. Opposed on one key point. Who’s right?

With Darkening Skies now out in the UK and US, naturally I’m keeping an eye open for reviews. This week, I’ve seen mentions in SFX’s June 2012 magazine (#221) and in the Morpheus Tales online supplement. (Both well worth reading for a lot of other good stuff by the way).

This is very encouraging from a publicity point of view. But… amongst her other observations, Sandy Auden in SFX says:

The author has been attentive to the details too, especially in the smooth transitions between story threads. It’s the details that are the main drawback though. McKenna’s characters agonise constantly about their problems and it kills the pace.

Whereas, in the Morpheus Tales supplement, Adrian Brady says:

McKenna’s writing is excellent, both managing to evoke a rich world and characters, and moving the plot on speedily to keep the excitement levels raised.

So who’s right? And am I going to throw a writerly strop or mope ostentatiously about this insult to my misunderstood genius, either online or in public? Er, no. I don’t think I could do either and keep a straight face, not even for the entertainment value of seeing other people’s astonished reactions.

Besides, they’re both right. That’s how the story worked for them and they’ve both been objective, honest and courteous in expressing their opinions. That’s what a good reviewer does.

I also know how hard I worked to balance insight into the characters with the overall narrative pace as I wrote the book. I know I did the very best job that I could. Just as I knew at the time, I’d get that balance right for some readers and … less right for others.

You see, I’ve been here before. Back when I wrote Southern Fire, I delivered it to my editor with trepidation, explaining that of my test readers, one found the opening rushed, one found it too slow and one found it just right. Who was correct? They all are, he told me. It all depends on your perspective and readers’ reactions stem from a great many things beyond the actual words on the page. As a writer, you can only do the best job you can. So that’s what I do.

Besides, they both agree on one key thing. Adrian Brady says, ‘I’m looking forward to the third novel with whetted appetite,’ while Sandy Auden offers ‘It’s not clear what they’ll agonise over next though – after conclusive events here, book three could go anywhere.’

Writing the second volume of a epic fantasy trilogy that leaves long-standing genre readers with no clue what happens next? Now that’s a result. So as soon as I’ve done – and recovered from – Eastercon, I’ll get on with writing Defiant Peaks, all the more encouraged and inspired.