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.

Nigella – a perspective from a woman with 30 years martial arts experience.

I don’t often blog about political issues and I can’t recall ever commenting on a ‘showbiz’ story before. This is different.

My responses to those appalling photos of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella Lawson being attacked by her ‘millionaire philanthropist and art collector’ husband Charles Saatchi have been rather different to most. ( For those of you abroad, the story is here).

I haven’t been sitting here muttering (or tweeting) ‘she should have slapped his face/punched him in the nuts’. I haven’t even been muttering ‘I would have kneed him in the nuts’. Firstly, both those responses come uncomfortably close to victim blaming as far as I am concerned. Secondly, I know exactly how difficult doing either of those things would actually be, especially from a hold like that, with both participants seated at a table. That’s setting aside the risks that a violent response from the weaker participant in a physical quarrel will simply generate more and worse violence from the stronger assailant and that’s not going to end well.

Which is not to say there aren’t things you can do in that situation. I have studied the martial art Aikido for thirty years now, which specifically enables smaller, lighter, physically weaker individuals to get the better of any sort of opponent,. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that anyone trying to grab my throat across a dinner table will end up face down in the crockery. For someone without any such experience? That’s a very different matter indeed.

As an instructor, one of the first things we must do with new students is get them accustomed to being attacked. The ‘fright-freeze’ response is deeply ingrained and it short-circuits conscious thinking pretty much entirely. Learning not to panic under attack takes time – and that’s in a friendly, relaxed dojo atmosphere, where senior coach/my husband Steve and I have already demonstrated that however hard and fast we might launch a blow, we have the experience to make sure we won’t actually make contact, if the new student fluffs the response. Most usually by standing still, wide-eyed and mentally gibbering ‘ohshitohshitohshitI’mgoingtodie’. Incidentally, gender or physical size has nothing to do with this. The biggest, strongest chaps will respond in the exact same way, especially when they are taken by surprise. Which is something I do every so often, just to make the point. That they’re being unexpectedly menaced by a grey-haired, middle-aged woman in glasses half a foot shorter than they are, makes absolutely no difference to their instinctive response.

So one of the most important things we teach from the outset, is how NOT to get grabbed. Once your opponent has a solid hold, your options are much more limited and depending on the nature of the hold, getting free will require a higher level of skill and experience. We very rarely practise neck holds – not least because they are so dangerous. I once saw a very experienced black belt try, and fail, to get out of a strangle and end up unconscious on the mat. So primarily we teach people how to NOT get caught by the throat, and only examine escapes from dangerous holds with senior students with considerable care.

The other thing about neck holds is they often involve nerve strikes to inflict pain. We do teach more advanced students to use attacks on nerves as part of other non-neck-gripping techniques which involve controlling the freedom of movement of an attacker’s head. A good many of these nerve points are underneath and along the inside edge of the jawbone. Looking at those vile photos, I think it’s perfectly possible that Charles Saatchi could have struck one by accident. You don’t have to have martial arts skills to get lucky. When we’re training students in pins and holds that involve nerve compression, we always caution them to go slowly at first. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t get it agonisingly right by complete fluke.

The point of nerve strikes is not to inflict pain for its own sake. It’s to inflict pain in order to completely short circuit the attacker’s thought processes. To turn the tables entirely, so they’re now the one under attack, and crucially derailing their aggressive intent with a good dose of ‘ohshitohshitohshit-she’s going to rip my arm/head/leg off and club me to death with it.’

Not that we do things like that in aikido, the clubbing to death bit, I mean. The central aim of aikido is not to break your attacker’s ability to attack (by breaking their arms, legs, faces and ending up in court charged with assault) but to break their will to attack, by various means such as not letting them even make contact in the first place and thereafter, taking the initiative in the combat away from them so they end up being thrown or pinned as the aikidoka prefers. But I digress.

Learning how to do that calmly and effectively, especially when you’re caught off guard, particularly if a nerve strike is involved, takes a good deal of time and application. Advanced cookery skills will be little or no help.

So much for that. Why are we even talking about what Nigella could or should have done? Let’s talk about what Charles Saatchi actually did, as proven in those photographs. He grabbed her throat, hard. Are there any circumstances when doing this is a legitimate part of a conversation between two people, irrespective of their ages, gender or relationship? No, there are not. He assaulted her, as anyone with even passing knowledge of the law knew yesterday, even before news of his police caution broke. He assaulted her. I have no interest in Charles Saatchi’s self-serving version of events thereafter. Playful tiff? Fuck off. He assaulted her.

According to the papers, Nigella has now left home. I hope she gets all the support she needs amid all this furore and I am very glad to think that she has the money to take whatever action she sees fit, legal or otherwise.

But let’s just take a moment to consider all the victims of domestic violence who don’t have the protection of money, fame and influential family and friends. The refuges and services that have offered them quite literally a lifeline, have suffered sustained and increasing cuts in funding. Tory party thinking has long been that charities will take up this work, funded by wealthy philanthropists, the great and the good whose interests they so assiduously protect. Patrons of the arts, like, oh, Charles Saatchi for instance. Do we think that he will be donating to unglamorous causes like domestic violence charities? Well, he might well do so now, for the PR value. He is an ad-man after all.

But should vulnerable women’s lives be dependent on the capricious generosity of supremely privileged individuals like him? No. They should be protected by the society of which we are all members and by the government which is supposed to act in all our interests.

A Knight in the Silk Purse update – wow!

Let’s just have a quick look…

Well, as of this morning, 6th June, here in the UK, we’re already a third of the way to our first target in under twenty four hours. Whoo hoo. Though of course, that’s not nearly the sum of our collective ambition. As you will see from the stretch goals, we really want to see this as a whole series of books, and we’ve been kicking around some awesome ideas between us these past couple of months.

Incidentally, thanks to Martha Wells, here’s a link to buy Tales of the Emerald Serpent on Nook if you prefer, or hard copy via Lulu so you can see exactly what we’re doing.

Meantime, I will go and get on with writing the next instalment of my Aethernet Magazine story, The Ties That Bind.

And yes, I will be sorting out a blog post about what I’m currently writing and why, just to bring you all up to date.

A Knight in the Silk Purse – a second Kickstarter from the team who brought you Tales of the Emerald Serpent

Do you remember Tales of the Emerald Serpent? The shared world anthology I was part of last year, alongside Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Todd Lockwood, Mike Tousignant, Martha Wells, Julie Czerneda, R Scott Taylor and Rob Mancebo? Successfully funded via Kickstarter?

Which committed me to a summer of cross-stitch which was fun to do with the added bonus of having unsuspecting folk come to see what I was doing, such a nice genteel hobby, er, oh, you’re embroidering an ornately decorated skull, how, er, quaint etc.

You can now buy and read that first book any time you want, by the way, paperback or ebook, on Amazon UK, or Amazon USwhere you will also find enthusiastic endorsements from a bunch of happy readers.

Well, we’re at it again and this time we have ambitions to write more than just one more book. Though that will do to be going on with in the meantime. Once again, we’re taking the Kickstarter route, so you can find out more at A Knight in the Silk Purse Kickstarter

Further reflections on the writing life from Judith Tarr

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

Escaping Stockholm Part One

Escaping Stockholm Part Two

Escaping Stockholm Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?