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.

“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.

My Schedule for Eastercon

Public service announcement kindathing

Friday – I’m arriving mid-morning/lunchtime and looking forward to a day of being in various audiences for some interesting programme items as well as helping staff the EightSquared 2013 bid desk. I won’t be sitting up too late in the bar because…

Saturday 10 am (Edwardian) ‘Sufficiently Advanced Magic’ – discussing the role of magic in fantasy fiction, with Marcus Gipps Stephen Deas, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Christ Wooding and Shana Worthen

Saturday 11 am (Commonwealth) ‘How pseudo do you like your medieval?’ with Anne C Perry, Jacey Bedford, Anne Lyle and George RR Martin

Saturday 12 pm (Commonwealth) ‘Gender parity on panels at conventions’ with Paul Cornell, Farah Mendelsohn, Emma Peel, Kari Sperring and Kat Takenaka

(and then some lunch!)

Saturday 5 pm (Royal) ‘How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing’ – I’m moderating and very interested to hear what Penny Hill, Amy McCulloch, Ian Sales and Tricia Sullivan have to say – and I have been gathering a good deal of info in the past few weeks. If you’ve had an email from me – and you know who you are – many thanks.

Sat 9 pm – I’ll be signing in the Winchester Room

Sunday 11 am (Room 12) – Eastercon 2013 and 2014 bid session – I’ll be there with the 2013 EightSquared Bid Committee, alongside the Satellite 4 2014 team – come along and see what you think of plans for the next couple of years.

Sunday 2 pm (Winchester) – A Fantasy Clarke Award – discussing an entirely theoretical shortlist with NIall Harrison, Nic Clarke, David Hebblethwaite, Erin Horakova and Edward James.

Sunday 6pm – Commonwealth – Having had the honour to judge the James White Award (short story competition) this year, in conjunction with Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Andy Cox and Andy Hedgecock of Interzone, I’ll be at the BSFA Awards.

Sunday 8 pm – I’ll be in the Tetworth Room signing session.

Monday – once again, I’ll be enjoying the convention without programme responsibilities. Or sitting at a con desk.

Then we’ll be heading home for a Chinese takeaway.

Traditional British Reserve 0 Readerly/Writerly Enthusiasm 3

Being involved in a Kickstarter is a decidedly unusual experience. Writers have not tradtionally stood up and asked directly for money for their work. We contract that out to our lovely agents, publishers, booksellers and so on. British writers especially are pretty reticent when it comes to shameless self=promotion on the web or at conventions. There’s generally more of an unspoken ‘if you would care to buy my books, to y’know, help keep my children fed and shod, that would be very decent of you’ vibe.

So me posting another update about Tales from the Emerald Serpent… is that ‘quite the thing’?

Yes, but, look, here’s a taster from Martha Wells’s story – and since I’ve been lucky enough to read the whole thing, I want to share it with everyone. (And if you’re not already reading Martha’s Books of the Raksura click here to see why you should be.

From her Emerald Serpent Story –

REVENANTS

by Martha Wells

They made an odd pair for a number of reasons, but one was that she was tall for a Jai-ruk and he was short for a Kin. They were dissimilar on all counts, except for their interest in the past, and in strange myths, and mysteries, and how the world had looked before they set foot on it. They talked of things no one else cared about. Rather than an odd pair, everyone thought they were just odd.

“This is a job that will pay us well,” Kryranen said. “Up in the Golden Jaguar District.” She added unnecessarily, “Where people like the Vash live.”

“You’re supposed to be keeping the notes,” Jelith pointed out. Most inhabitants of Taux assumed Jai-ruk were too brutish for scholarly pursuits, but Kryranen’s handwriting was better than his. Her hands were large but her fingers were slender and dexterous; his notes looked like the scratchings of a child next to her elegant script.

She leaned forward to look at the book and her grimace suggested she agreed. “I’ll recopy it later.” Exasperated, she said, “You just don’t like working for money. It’s too bad we can’t eat history.”

“You would eat history if you could,” Jelith felt he had to say. It was true.

She folded her arms and gave him the long-suffering look.

He sighed. “What is this job?”

“They want us to lay a ghost.”

Jelith stared. “Are you out of your mind?”

You can find out a whole lot more abou the Jai Ruk (and other cool stuff) on the Emerald Serpent Updates page

And then there’s this terrific video, put together for us by Shane Wheeler, one of our pledged supporters, for sheer love of the project.

Incidentally, check out the Kickstarter page and you’ll see the bonus level for further volumes is now set at an additional $5000 per anthology. Why yes, all of us involved are that keen to get the chance to write more in this world.

(For anyone clicking through expecting this post to be anything else, you clearly missed the memo about Arthur C Clarke Award judges not making public statements about the shortlist or anything else. Sorry about that.)

A Tale of the Unexpected…

My sons have grown up with me writing epic fantasy. They can browse the bookshelves for non-fiction titles on biological warfare in the ancient world, women scientists in the Enlightenment, the folklore of trees, modern asymmetric warfare and that’s just some of what I can see from my desk. Fiction? Start with Aeschylus and go on through to Watchmen and beyond. We have originals of Geoff Taylor’s fabulous cover art hanging on our walls, along with Japanese wood block prints of samurai, sundry other pictures, aikido blackbelt certificates and such.

So it’s fairly rare for one of them to stop by the study and say in astonished tones, ‘Mum, what is that?’
To which I replied, ‘A cross-stitch pattern for a phone case.’
‘You’re making a case for your phone with a skull on it? Cool.’
‘No, it’s not for me…’

So I explained that one of the rewards we’re offering on the Tales of the Emerald Serpent Kickstarter is a slipcase for a smartphone with the Beyond the Black Gate medallion embroidered on it. Because ever since I first saw that art, I thought what a great design it would make. And I like to embroider. I find it relaxing, just small projects, nothing too time-consuming. But truth be told, there is a limit to how many bookmarks one house needs, even a house with this many books. There are only so many times you can give family and friends some piece of your handiwork without them starting to look sideways at you.

Beyond the Black Gate medallion

And then I remembered how people say that part of the fun of Kickstarter is offering unusual rewards by way of a thank you to supporters. Hey, CE Murphy offered to personally sing ‘You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings’ to the highest-level backers when she Kickstarted the ‘No Dominion’ Walker Papers novella. A little needlework is nothing to that!

So far? I’m on the hook for making four of these. Or am I? The thing about Kickstarter is, unless the project goal is reached, that’s the end of it. Fall short by ten dollars and nothing happens. And that would be such a shame – not because I wouldn’t get to do some embroidery. Because the world is intriguing and the stories are awesome and this could be the start of something truly fantastic in every sense. And there are great rewards on offer, including signed prints and even originals of the terrific artwork.

We’re doing nicely so far – I think. There’s all sorts of lore and graphs and charts about Kickstarter progress which I don’t pretend to understand. What I do know is we can’t look at the numbers at any point and take anything for granted. So if you have been thinking about chipping in to support the project, please do, at whatever level suits your pocket and your interest. Buying some embroidery isn’t compulsory.

A Few Further Tales of Einarinn – now available!

Yes, today’s the day! You can now buy my very first ‘independent’ ebook from Wizard’s Tower Press, in the format of your choice, worldwide without DRM.

Listings on Amazon and Barnes & Noble will follow shortly, as you prefer.

I am so excited about this on so many levels. It’s great to think that fans of the Tales of Einarinn have a further chance to read these stories, now available so much more widely than before. I’m also hoping the book will serve as an introduction to my writing and to this world for new readers. Finally, I really am thrilled to be including the splendid artwork first commissioned for The Wedding Gift portfolio project.

To recap, the stories are:

Win Some, Lose Some tells the story of that first encounter with Arle Cordainer which Livak mentions from time to time in the Tales. Find out why she’s intent on revenge.
A Spark in the Darkness sees Halice, Livak, Sorgrad and Gren coping with Halice’s injury between The Thief’s Gamble and The Swordsman’s Oath – tricky, when someone wants them all dead.
Absent Friends details Livak’s first introduction to Ryshad’s family, and what followed – this story’s first publication Why the Pied Crow Always Sounds Disappointed explains why Sorgrad and Gren were in Solura before The Assassin’s Edge – and why leaving them to their own devices is seldom a good idea.
The Wedding Gift sees Livak and Halice looking forward to the future, just as long as they can tidy up a few loose ends from their old lives.

And when I say ‘independent’, do please note that this project would never have happened without the invaluable assistance of Wizard’s Tower Press and Antimatter ePress.

Enjoy – and spread the word!

The Appeal of Dog-Headed Men, or, Exploring the Non-Human Condition

When I was invited to write a story for Tales of the Emerald Serpent, I was sent some fascinating background material on the city and its inhabitants. My attention was instantly drawn to the Lowl, described as ‘dog-headed humans’, taller than an average man, with some fire magic and an inclination to warrior and mercenary lives.

My university degree’s in Classics, so I immediately recalled Hesiod and Herodotus’s tales of the Cynocephali, the dog-headed tribes encountered by Greeks exploring the mysteries of Africa and India. More than that, I remembered the pictures in the books of myth and folklore which I’d read many years before. I recalled those wonderful maps where pictures of such half-human races separated known lands from the wilderness where all the mapmakers said was ‘here be dragons’. My love of fantasy fiction, as reader and writer, most definitely has its roots in such stories. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if there truly were such creatures?

A Lowl from the city of Taux, art by Jeff Laubenstein

This may well surprise fans of my novels. Readers observe from time to time on the absence of non-human races in my books, curious rather than critical. It’s a valid observation and that was a definite choice I made at the outset. Then as now, I’m looking for new perspectives on epic/high fantasy, those tales of princes, heroes and wizards – and in the ones I write, any and all of those characters can be men or women. I chose not to include ‘classic’ fantasy non-humans like orcs, dwarves or elves because they come loaded with so much baggage. So many readers will instantly see such characters through the prism of their own preconceptions. Some writers work very well with that challenge but I knew it wasn’t for me. I aim to test assumptions on class, gender and political power-structures in other ways in my stories, best done in an all human world. Along with writing a vivid, fast-moving story of course, with whatever sword-play, trickery, magic or dragons seems best suited to that particular adventure.

Writing short fiction offers me opportunities to do different things. Exploring the non-human condition is something I’m increasingly interested in. I considered dryads in my story for ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity’; nigh-on immortal beings whose life is nevertheless lived in a constant here-and-now. Bound to the natural world and its seasons, their concept of time, life and love is utterly non-human – which is all very well until they’re forced to deal with humans intent on building a road through their oak grove.

Lowl are something else again. Their dual nature fascinates me, not only when considering how humans will react to them but wondering how Lowl see themselves. Are they neither one thing nor the other? Or enjoying the best of both worlds? Or something else entirely? What will that mean for an individual’s opportunities and choices?

Help our Kickstarter reach its target, and you’ll be able to read my story as part of a truly fascinating collection. The minimum buy-in is $5, for readers world-wide, and if you have more cash to spare, there are a whole range of bonus benefits after that.

Here’s a taste to whet your appetite.

Zhada was heading instead for the Emerald Serpent, first and most famous of all the Black Gate’s taverns. Whoever had first claimed that half of the long building had known a trick or two about keeping customers coming back even more readily than they visited the neighbouring Silk Purse and that house’s fragrant courtesans.

The pastry triangle in his hand was still warm plump with hotly spiced meat and fruit. He wolfed it down, relishing the bite of the pepper pods. So much human food was tediously bland to Lowl tastes but Mistress Talleran was Taux born and accustomed to using all the Free Coast’s bounty in her cooking.

‘Here comes a hound for hire!’

Zhada halted as he rounded the corner into the wider thoroughfare cutting straight towards the stadium.

‘Varrach.’ He let his hand rest lightly on the hilt of his sword. ‘Don’t you find the day a little chill?’

Like the rest of his followers, Varrach was shirtless despite the season. Zhada noted that three more had now followed his lead and gone under the needle for tattoos. At first glance the ink extended the Lowl pelt covering their heads and necks right across their human-framed shoulders and down their chests. A closer look would show they were no more furred than any particularly hairy human.

He also saw Varrach’s gaze drop to check that knotted ribbons secured his sword’s hilt to its scabbard, to signal that Zhada had no intention of duelling today.

The tan-furred Lowl squared his impressively muscled shoulders and stared straight into Zhada’s eyes. ‘I choose not to soothe the humans’ fears through wearing their clothes.’

‘Then shouldn’t you be going bare arsed?’ Zhada’s riposte was as swift as any blade.

Varrach clenched a fist beside his tattered ulama trousers, the loose cotton fabric cut short above his knees and bare feet. ‘And throw the ball straight into the merchant guild’s hands? Their Sturgeons would chain me like a cur in their lock-up for goading humans into unsanctioned fighting. Who would challenge their claim on this city then?’

‘But you don’t care to challenge them in their own language.’ Zhada interrupted with a gesture towards the men and women walking past, fewer than half of them sparing curious glances for this exchange in incomprehensible Lowl speech.

Varrach’s scarred muzzle wrinkled as he drew dark lips back from his canine teeth. ‘I have nothing to say to such stunted specimens, as good as deaf and noseless.’

Zhada cocked his head. ‘Why do you feel so threatened when Vitcoska’s blessing has given us so many advantages over them? She chose to form us from humanity. Doesn’t denying that kinship insult her? Don’t you see it every time you look in a mirror?’

Truth be told, he wasn’t speaking to Varrach now but to the pack of younger Lowl loitering behind him. Then he noticed that a couple of those fool pups had done something to their eyes. No longer manlike, their gaze was as dark and featureless as any beast’s.

The fur on the back of Zhada’s neck bristled with irritation. He took an angry step towards the closest, ready to grab his scruff and shake some sense into him. ‘What are you going to do next? Cut off your thumbs so you’re left with useless paws and start scurrying around on all fours?’

Varrach moved to intercept him, both fists clenched. Zhada halted. He didn’t have time to waste on this nonsense or on trying to explain himself to the city’s blue-liveried guards.

Taking a swift sidestep to wrong foot Varrach, he went on his way without another word.

Taken by surprise, the tan-furred Lowl settled for shouting a last insult. ‘Be sure they reward you richly for putting their leash round your neck!’

Zhada ignored him, lengthening his stride. He didn’t want to be late for his meeting and the sun had already risen above the vast stadium. He hurried into its shadow, heading straight for the Emerald Serpent.

When he entered the tavern though, he saw Lareo already deep in conversation with some human. Zhada approached nevertheless, to make sure that the aging Eldaryn had seen him. The diminutive individual was barely two thirds the height of most humans, even sitting on his tall stool.

Catching the human’s scent, the Lowl’s nostrils flared. Magic. A Tome Mage. One of those cheats peddling magic-wrought fakery on the basis of some supposed kinship with true wizards. As if such mountebanks had any link with those scholars who lived unseen in the Star Tower across the harbour.

‘Zhada, good day to you.’ Lareo waved to him over the human’s shoulder.

He shucked his backpack and dropped it on the floor to land with a solid thud. The man turned around in his chair, startled.

‘Good day.’ His smile widened. ‘Ah, I am looking for one of your kinsmen. Do you know a—’ he hesitated ‘—one called Durrau?’

Zhada had the Tome Mage’s measure in an instant. Newly arrived in the city from one of the New Kingdoms. While he’d have heard of Lowl he’d never have seen one beyond the seas. He didn’t know how to pronounce their names, just as he didn’t realise that Zhada now baring his teeth was nothing akin to a human smile.

A Lowl from the city of Taux, art by Jeff Laubenstein

You can find out a whole lot more about Lowl through the second of our Kickstarter updates.

You can read excerpts from Harry Connolly’s story and from Lynn Flewelling’s tale
You can also join the The Art of the Genre Facebook group if you’re so inclined.