I'm a professional writer of epic fantasy novels and assorted shorter fiction which includes forays into SF, dark/urban fantasy and occasional tie-in fiction. I review across the speculative genre online and in print magazines, notably Interzone and Albedo One. I've also written genre criticism and related articles. I'm currently serving as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and for the James White Short Story Award.

Eastercon down, Clarke Award to go… meantime, here’s something to read.

So, that was a tremendously successful Eastercon, thanks to the dedication and hard work of a great many people before and during the weekend. I will write more fully about it all later – when I have completely got rid of the truly vile cold that I came down with last Friday. I’m over the worst but the post-viral fatigue is proving particularly vicious. Fortunately my main responsibilities this week have been addressing the Clarke Award shortlist and that can be done from the sofa without too much physical exertion. The cat approves.

Meantime, you will recall me mentioning Aethernet, the ebook serial fiction magazine I’m writing a story for. That was successfully launched at Eastercon and you can get a taste of the story which Adrian Tchaikovsky is writing here. Er, unless you’re an arachnophobe – it is called Spiderlight…

You can also read interviews with and extracts from the stories by other contributors – and there’ll be something from me coming soon.

Things I don’t want to be doing by torchlight on a freezing night at 11pm

Examining my car to see what damage might have been done by Snr Son hitting a badger while driving Jnr Son’s girlfriend home.

He is adamant there was a thud, but none of that ghastly crunch you get when a wheel goes over something. We think it must have been a glancing blow. There doesn’t seem to be visible damage to the car and he couldn’t see an injured beast at the side of the road when he stopped.

This is good on both counts, because many years ago, a pal did substantial and expensive damage to his car in such a collision. Badgers are solid beasts – so hopefully that means Brock will survive as well.

I am now going to bed. Most likely to dream of blizzards wrecking Eastercon if last night’s anything to go by.

I have a haircut booked on Wednesday. I am expecting the hairdresser to remark how much faster I’m going white of late.

A week to go to Eastercon and I’m thinking a decade ahead.

Those of you with any experience of con-running won’t be in the least surprised by my lack of posts here lately. For those of you who haven’t ever been involved in a convention committee, I can tell you that these past few weeks have been like trying to play a game of 3D chess while the Enterprise is under fire and taking evasive manoeuvres. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. But busy doesn’t begin to describe it – since Christmas – for me and for the rest of the EightSquared Committee and Staff whose endeavours are absolutely heroic.

However I have just posted a very long piece on the EightSquaredCon blog. Because this past year has drawn my attention to the things which quite a few fans simply don’t know about conrunning. That’s no criticism, of conrunners or of fans. It’s just a fact I’ve become aware of. I’ve also realised some of these things could do with discussing, on the one hand before a real problem arises and on the other hand, to see UK fandom well-placed to move forward as next year’s Loncon 3 World SF Convention in London prompts a influx of new, enthusiastic people.

And yes, I am well aware that in some quarters, doing this is pretty much lighting a blue touchpaper and risking fireworks. It’s still worth doing. Because conventions are important to us all, readers, writers and fans of all aspects of the genre.

You can find my post on TheoretiCon 2023 here.

Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aethernet – The Magazine of Serial Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serial SF and Fantasy Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How and Why Test-Readers/Copy-Editors/Any Fresh, Thoughtful Eyes Improve Creative Writing

This is really interesting. If you look back at the short story I posted yesterday, you’ll see that I have now edited one word. I have changed the line in question to

noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

Because in the comments on my main blog, a reader wondered why only girls should be directed towards those books, as the initial text implied. That’s a very good question and the quick answer is self-evident. There is no good reason why only girls should read Austen and the Brontes. Indeed there are many good reasons why boys should read the full range of such classic literature.

The longer answer is more complex and more revealing. Writing this story, I was drawing on my own memories of A Level English, where, yes, we studied Keats. This is particularly the case because that first impulse to write this story was prompted by a friend I have known since that very class. It was her helpful phone that turned ‘varifocal’ into ‘verifcation’. We went to the same girls’ grammar school, so in my mind’s eye, the class I’m recalling is entirely female.

Then there’s the Twilight angle which you’ll see in the story. Again, I’m drawing on my own experiences going into schools these days and teaching creative writing. It’s invariably a dreamy-eyed girl who askes me if I’ve read Twilight. (To which my answer is always,’No, I haven’t got round to it yet, but I do read Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and now you’ve read all the Twilight books, why not give them a try’.) So once again, in that particular paragraph, my writerly subconsious is full of girls.

The key thing here is that while the longer answer is very illuminating, the shorter answer is the one that counts. Because there is no good reason why this line should only refer to girls. In fact, changing the word to ‘pupils’ actively improves the story in several subtle ways.

So there you go. A real-life, real-time example of the editing process and what it contributes to the books we read. Isn’t that great?

A short story prompted by predictive text’s idiosyncracies.

Yesterday I remarked online that I keep finding I’m peering over my glasses or shoving them up on my head for close work now. Assorted pals put up their hands, admitting to their bi-, tri and varifocal lenses these days. One long-standing friend was caught out by her helpful phone which declared she now wears ‘verification’ glasses. The consensus was those sounded a lot more interesting than the usual opticians’ offerings.

As is the way of writers, I found myself thinking idly, doing the washing up and on the school run this morning. So here you are.

Insight

She entered the classroom, put her handbag on the desk and opened it, taking out her glasses case. ‘Good morning, everyone. Settle down please.’
11JW did as she asked, with greater or lesser alacrity.
Swapping her everyday glasses for the ones in the case, Maeve reached for the textbook and opened it. ‘Keats, please. St Agnes Eve.’
‘New specs, Miss?’ Amy looked up from the front row.
Maeve smiled. ‘They’re verification lenses.’
Sitting next to Amy, Emma laughed. ‘You mean varifocals, Miss.’
‘Do I?’ Maeve smiled again before looking up to survey the class. ‘Well, now, I hope everyone has read the poem and made some notes after last time. Who wants to start today’s discussion?’
‘Oh, Miss, it was so romantic. Like Twilight.’ Becky propped her chin on her hand, eyes dreamy.
‘Romantic?’ In the row behind Becky, Josh laughed lewdly. ‘It’s all about some bloke sneaking in to a girl’s bedroom to give her one.’
As the other boys sniggered though, Maeve saw the silver thread of yearning stretch from the centre of Josh’s chest to hover, stopping just short of caressing Natalie’s exuberant, black curls.
‘Do you think that sort of coarseness will improve your chances with a girl, Josh?’ she asked mildly.
As the boys subsided, abashed, Maeve nodded, satisfied. ‘Though you do have a point, Josh, and we’ll consider that when we reach that part of the poem. Becky’s also raised an interesting question. Where do we draw the line between romantic pursuit and stalking? Why do some remarkably old-fashioned ideas persist in modern literature?’
That prompted a lively debate between the Twihards and the rest. Maeve let it run for a few minutes, noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.
‘So—’ she raised her voice to reclaim the class’s attention ‘—let’s get back to Keats. Oliver, you haven’t had anything to say so far. Did you do your homework?’
‘Yes, Miss,’ he said defensively. ‘Just didn’t like it.’
He was lying, obviously. Maeve could see the tell-tale crackles of black suffusing his aura.
‘Appreciating literature is just as much about understanding why we don’t like a piece of work,’ she said sternly. ‘I will expect you to set out all your reasons with relevant quotes in your essay. Vicky, bring your phone to me.’
‘What?’ Vicky looked up, aghast. ‘Miss?’
‘Your phone, Vicky.’ Maeve held out her open hand.
Blushing furiously, Vicky heaved herself out of her seat and slouched to the front of the class. She handed over the phone with an exaggerated sigh.
Maeve noted the furtive shuffling of the others who had imagined they could keep their phones unseen in their laps beneath the tabletops. Doubtless they could, when they were dealing with other teachers who couldn’t see right through the tables.
‘Thank you. Collect it from the office at the end of the day.’ She smiled at the rest of the class. ‘Now, let’s start with the poem’s first stanza.’
The rest of the lesson proceeded according to plan and by the time the bell rang, Maeve was well satisfied with the class’s contributions.
‘Thank you, everyone, and I will expect your essays first thing on Friday.’ She closed her text book with a sharp slap as the teenagers began leaving their seats and hauling their bags up from the floor.
‘Sarah, one moment.’ Maeve raised her hand to command the girl’s attention. ‘You’ve got a free now, I believe? Could you take this note to Miss Williams in the library for me, please?’
‘Yes, Miss, of course.’ Sarah tried to hide her relief.
Maeve handed the envelope to the girl, walking to the classroom door with her. ‘What are you three waiting for?’ She looked sternly at Jade, Tasha and Jenna who were loitering in the corridor. ‘Get to your next lesson!’
Maeve stood in the doorway, her expression expectant, until the vicious trio retreated. The acid green tendrils of their spite which had been coiling around Sarah all through the class shrivelled as they departed. They were bullies but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t risk cornering this week’s chosen victim when she was running an errand for a teacher.
‘I’ll go and start work on my essay, Miss.’ Sarah turned in the other direction, heading for sanctuary in the library.
As 9FW surged noisily through the double doors at the end of the corridor, Maeve smiled, satisfied.
She knew that Jade, Tasha and Jenna called her an old witch behind her back. What the girls didn’t know, of course, was they were perfectly correct. Though not an old witch. Maeve was merely a middle-aged one, and perfectly capable of taking the necessary measures when her third eye’s vision started to feel the passing years’ effects.

*Edited to change ‘girls’ to ‘pupils’… analysis and explanation to follow in the next blog post.

Some thoughts on debut novels, mine 14 years ago, and others today.

This morning I am particularly taken with this review of The Thief’s Gamble over at Fantasy Review Barn. Not because it’s a gushing outpouring of praise – it gives the book three and a half stars. Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and the reviewer here has read the book thoroughly and thoughtfully.

What really makes me smile is reading “I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.” and ” It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.”

Okay, that’s the view of this book by a new reader in 2013. Back in 1999, the reviews said things like “pleasing to find a female lead who’s properly representative rather than the usual tepid mix of heroine and victim.” and ” a beautifully drawn world with a rich history, interesting and realistic characters and a plot that drags you along at breakneck speed.”, “What’s different and interesting about this book is what Ms McKenna does with it.” And more besides.

So why am I smiling? Because this shows just how far the epic fantasy genre has grown and developed in this past decade and more. Readers are used to so much more in terms of realism and depth of plot and characterisation, more complex themes and subtext.

Not that this should come as any particular surprise to fans of our genre. I’m currently assessing four debut novels for my next Albedo One review column. To be specific, I’m reading The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe, Earth Girl by Janet Edwards and Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett. Time and again, while reading, I have noted down some instance of an interesting new take on what have become standard, even over-worn plot or character elements since I started writing myself.

I think this is really great.

Right, I had better get on with some writing on my current projects.

(Meantime of course, if you’re curious to read The Thief’s Gamble for yourself, you can now get it in your preferred ebook format from your ebook retailer of choice. This message brought to you by the Jules Convention Travel Fund)

“It’s a Literary Festival but not as we know it, Jim!”

I’ve just posted a piece on the EightSquared Blog thinking about the distinctive depth and breadth of programming at SF conventions, compared to the more typical lit fest.

You can find it by clicking here.

Incidentally, I hope to blog as usual here rather than just posting links, but as I’m sure you appreciate, between now and Eastercon, I am going to be pretty busy. In a good way.

If you want to offer your own perspectives, you can do that here or on the EightSquared blog as you prefer.

Right back to the To Do List. This morning? An updated introduction for the ebook of The Swordsman’s Oath…