“You can teach craft but you can’t teach talent.” The most useless creative writing cliché?

I’ve worked with aspiring authors on an ad hoc basis for well over a decade now; running workshops at conventions and literary festivals, guest-lecturing at universities and colleges and occasionally running longer courses*. Most recently, I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable session with the Creative Writing M.A. students of Lancaster Uni, and had the distinct pleasure, and privilege, of selecting poems and prose pieces on the theme of ‘Monsters’ submitted by new writers, to feature in the new Mar/Apr/May 2016 edition of Mslexia magazine (now available!).

When I mention I’m doing one or other of these things, there’s a good chance someone will trot out this particular truism. It irritates me more and more, especially when you ask someone exactly what that means, and they say something vague about ‘well, people have to know how to spell and punctuate, but you can’t teach someone to have an imagination.’

Let’s examine both those notions.

There’s a whole lot more to writing craft than knowing where to put a full stop, or even the correct use of the semi-colon. An infinite amount; just look at the boundless variety of prose styles in published fiction. One of the workshops I run takes a wholly unremarkable sequence of dialogue and explores the different ways in which words can be woven around those identical spoken sentences to create significantly different effects for the reader, with regard to the place and the people. In one case, the addition of a single letter can be enough. Consider the implications of describing a woman as wearing ‘skirts’ as opposed to ‘a skirt’.

Then there’s the skill required to create atmosphere, whether that’s tension, sorrow, apprehension, excitement. It takes finely shaped prose to convey a character’s sorrow. passion, delight or fear. To indicate where the reader’s sympathies might lie or to hint that perhaps we’re not getting the full story quite yet? To write natural sounding dialogue – which is not at all the same as transcribing an actual conversation. To manage a narrative’s point of view, whether that’s in the first person or third person, and any transitions between perspectives. To convey vital facts and background to the reader without boring them rigid with a five page data-dump. I could go on but you get the idea. And that’s not even the half of it.

Once you’ve got all those words on the page, there’s the craft of cutting away the ones you don’t need. The more I write, the more eager I am to get the end of a first draft, to start refining and honing the piece, whether that’s a short story or a novel. Learning how to do that to best effect is a real challenge. Another workshop I run on such editing presents students with a piece of my work in draft and challenges them to get that down to a final version that’s on a par with my own. When I explain this means cutting those 388 words down to 117, hopeful writers’ faces vary from aghast to disbelieving. Because that first draft which they’ve just read is a perfectly good piece of writing, exactly as it stands. The craft comes in identifying the bits which the overall story can do without.

So let’s not get snobbish about the value of craft. Without a good carpenter’s skills, you’d be using splintery planks to board up that hole in your house instead of coming and going through a well-made and secure front door. Let’s definitely not accept any implication that writing craft is merely a toolkit of basic skills which a writer only needs to get to grips with once. I learn new twists and subtleties about different aspects of writing with every piece I write and frequently from what I read. Every writer I know says the same.

Now, about this notion that you cannot teach hopeful writers to have ideas, to have an imagination. The thing is, I’ve never, ever met an aspiring author who didn’t have an imagination. Surely that’s a prerequisite for being a keen reader, never mind for taking up a pen or keyboard to create original fiction? Would-be writers are never short on inspiration. Reviewing those Mslexia submissions proved that – not that I ever doubted it.

What writers need to learn is how to make most effective use of those plots and characters, scenarios and themes which are clamouring so loudly for their attention that the only thing to do is start writing them down. In some cases, the writer’s primary need is getting to grips with particular aspects of writing craft to make best use of their idea. As a teacher it’s very rewarding to see someone learning the skills that will turn their rough diamond of a draft into sparkling prose.

In other cases, in very many cases, the hopeful author needs to learn boldness. I see this time and again. I’ll be reading a well crafted piece, offering a solid foundation for a story, a character, an idea, but this particular writer hasn’t yet realised where and when they can take an extra step, or more often, a giant leap forward. Because all they can see is a leap into the unknown. Those of us who’ve already been through that learning process can now see it from the other side, where wide, new horizons open up before us. At other times, we take that leap and find a new vantage point to look back on a familiar idea and see it from a whole new perspective.

Here’s a case in point – without spoilers because this particular draft novel got all the way to publication and I don’t want to give anything away. The writer presented a confrontation between Our Hero and The Enemy. Our Hero used a recently acquired weapon to drive off The Enemy. I asked, why doesn’t he kill The Enemy? Because he’s not a killer, was the initial reply. No, I pointed out, but he doesn’t understand the weapon he’s got hold of. In this situation, he’s a toddler with a loaded handgun. He can still kill someone without any evil intent. What happens then? I saw the writer’s eyes widen, appalled at that notion, before they narrowed in thought… Even though that meant rewriting major chunks of the story to deal with the subsequent fall-out, both for Our Hero and for The Enemy’s Friends.

It’s that sort of boldness, offering some new angle, with some fresh take on places, characters or themes, which editors are looking for. Because they will have seen way more than enough slush submitted by writers who’ve been suckered into believing that the first idea they’ve had will take them all the way and once their genius is recognised, someone else will take care of full stops.

So let’s ditch this particularly useless cliché. How about we replace it with something someone whose name I alas failed to make a note of said? “Talent without craft is like fuel without a rocket. It may burn ever so brightly but it’s going nowhere.”

*For those interested in a week’s residential course focused on writing SF and Fantasy, I’m teaching at Moniack Mhor in Scotland, in December this year, alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Ken Macleod will be our guest writer. More details here

Discussing diversity & representation in SFF – links round up

My post on the erasure of women last Monday clearly struck a resounding chord, which I find extremely encouraging. Though I’m by no means the only, or indeed the most recent, writer to post reflections on this issue. Here’s a selection of pieces I’ve found well worth reading recently.

I’ve pulled some quotes to give you a flavour of the pieces – and I urge you read them in full. Then go and read these authors’ books. I personally enjoy all their work – the books are well written, engaging, intriguing, entertaining. Better yet, the way these authors really think through what they’re writing, about who, how and why, gives their stories satisfying richness and depth,.

Here’s an excellent piece by Judith Tarr over on Charlie Stross’s blog. “What goes around…”

It can get really, really tiresome to fight the same battles over and over and over again, and to watch the older battles and the women who fought them be systematically and consistently erased. But when I realize how deeply ingrained the silencing of women is, I find it all the more remarkable that there’s actual, perceptible progress. Women’s voices are actually being heard–and sometimes even being taken seriously.

“is my malfunction so surprising ’cause I always seem so stable and bright?” asks Elizabeth Bear.

See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people… we’re not types. We’re not categories. We’re individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.

So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.

And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it’s important.

Since it’s vital that this debate includes a fully representative range of voices, I am indebted to Stephanie Saulter whose Twitter feed alerted me to this next piece from Tor.com.

“Writing Global Sci-Fi: White Bread, Brown Toast” by Indrapramit Das

Growing up with these imaginative riches curiously absent from Indian contemporary art and media, I didn’t even notice all the white protagonists, writers, directors, and actors in this boundary-less creative multiverse I so admired and wanted to be a part of. Or I didn’t mind this prevailing whiteness, because I was taught not to. That, of course, is the quiet hold of cultural white supremacy.

It wasn’t until I was on a campus in the middle of Pennsylvanian Amish country, surrounded by young white undergrad creative writing students in a workshop class taught by a white professor, that I realized I mostly wrote white protagonists. I’d never felt less white, which made the repeated pallor of my protagonists blaze like a thousand suns.

I’m not apologizing for growing up inspired by so much science fiction made by white people primarily for white people. Hell, I think white creators should be proud that their work found fans across the planet, and acquired some shade of the universality that sci-fi is supposed to espouse in its futurist openness. Just as languages spread and mutate on the vector of history (I see no need for gratitude, explanations, or shame for the words I use just because they were introduced to India by colonizers—Indian English is no different than American English or Quebecois French), so too do genres and art, and it’s time to recognize that sci-fi and fantasy are so dominant in pop culture now because fans the world over helped make it so. But if international sci-fi is to change, instead of stagnate into a homogenous product for the algorithm-derived generic consumer, it needs to foreground the profuse collective imagination of the entire world, instead of using it as background color for largely white stories.

I’m also including this piece by Jim Hines – My Mental Illness is Not Your Inspirational Post-it Note for two reasons.

Firstly, diversity is about showing and allowing access to every marginalised group – and all at the same time. It’s long past time to do away with the ‘Highlander’ approach to representation, insisting “There can be only one!” so if people of colour (or any other group) want the single ‘Minority Seat’ at the table, white women (or whoever else might be sitting there at the moment, but oddly, never the white men in the rest of the chairs) must take a step back.

Secondly, the piece underlines the importance of getting things right and actually listening, if you want to be an ally, and even more so if you’re writing about a group you’re not personally a part of.

This is a group that’s set themselves up as advocates for people with mental illness…while ignoring feedback from the very group they claim to support. I don’t know the individuals behind Team Notashamed or their situation, but this feels like symptoms of Toxic Ally Syndrome, where you’re so determined to be an “ally” of Group X that you ignore or argue with members of Group X because you know best. This is often followed by choruses of, “Why are you getting angry at me? I’m your ally! Fine, if you’re gonna be so ungrateful, I’ll just take my allyship and leave!”

Right, that’s enough to be going on with. That said, feel free to flag up any other good pieces you’ve come across in comments.

EDITED TO ADD –

The Geek’s Guide to Disability by Annalee over at The Bias blog.

I want the science fiction community to be inclusive and accessible to disabled people. I want our conventions and corners of the internet to be places where disabled people are treated with dignity and respect. I’m hoping that if I walk through some of the more common misconceptions, I can move the needle a little–or at least save myself some time in the future, because I’ll be able to give people a link instead of explaining all this again.

for instance

The use of “differently abled” is especially a problem within the science fiction community because it feeds the myth the people with disabilities develop compensatory superpowers. Some of us read and watch so much bullshit about disability that we have to be reminded that Daredevil is a comic book and not a documentary.

I’m using DareDevil as my example ‘supercrip’ because a lot of folks honestly believe that blind and low-vision people develop heightened senses of hearing and touch. The evidence for that is, at best, inconclusive. (The National Federation of the Blind says flat-out that blind people don’t develop sharper senses).

Once again, I strongly recommend reading the whole piece.

Guest post – Simon Morden discusses Down Station and portal fantasy.

DOWN-STATION-SMA new book that I very much enjoyed reading this month is Simon Morden’s Down Station. For a fuller assessment, you can read my review in the next issue of Interzone.

For those of you unfamiliar with Simon’s work, his website is here – and for a chance to meet him, along with Tricia Sullivan, author of Occupy Me, they’re both signing at Forbidden Planet, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on 20th February, 1-2pm. Simon will also be a guest at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 23rd February.

One of the things that particularly interests me about Down Station is the fact that it’s a portal fantasy. So I invited Simon to share some thoughts on that particular topic.

In defence of Narnia and other portals
Simon Morden

I recently discovered that Narnia* is a real place. Quite how that fact has eluded me for my entire adult life is a complete mystery, but I have a sudden hankering to go there and make an in-depth investigation of their wardrobes.

Because you would, wouldn’t you? Or did you grow out of that urge? The ghost of the Susan argument rears its ugly head: wanting to escape this world, with its social and economic obligations and constraints, is something that a child would do, kicking against the goads of adulthood. When a person knows their place in society and accepts it, they no longer need such escapist diversions.

Lewis, however, was speaking of a more fundamental truth even as he got it hamfistedly intertwined with 1950s social mores. Rather than agreeing that wanting to escape to another place is a mere childish notion, to be discarded as we embrace a more mature understanding of our own world, he was proposing that it’s us – the grown ups – who are the ones who lose out.

The belief that our world lies side by side with others wasn’t invented by Lewis. It goes far back, beyond recorded history. In my native islands, the Celts believed the Otherworld was connected to us at certain times of year and in certain sacred places. People could cross over, usually by invitation rather than trickery, and sometimes even return. With the coming of Christianity, these became the ‘thin places’, where Heaven and Earth pressed together, but the result was always the same: those who came back were forever changed, either by their experience of the Other, or of the Divine.

Throughout history – and prehistory – the point of these stories was that the intrepid travellers to other worlds were never escaping: they were questing. They went for a reason – either to gain something which could be used in our world, be it wisdom, a skill, or an artefact, or to give something to that other world, to save it from evil or break a curse. That we’ve turned – some might say corrupted – an important facet of our mythology into a genre that adults shouldn’t consciously entertain is problematic, to say the least.

At its worst, yes, Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of everything is crap) applies. A portal fantasy can be all those things their critics say it is: cliche-ridden wish-fulfilment in which nothing is at stake. Perhaps, after a while, these overwhelm the market and the whole genre goes out of fashion. Certainly, anecdotally, portal fantasies have been a tough sell for years. There were always exceptions: May’s Pliocene Saga and Pullman’s His Dark Materials being perhaps the most notable. But here we are, like buses, with two coming along at once, my Down Station and Seanan Mcguire’s Every Heart a Doorway. We’re probably at the cutting edge of a new wave, and editors across the land will hate us in six months’ time for unleashing a torrent of portals across their desks. For now, though, they represent something different to the usual fare.

I would like to think I’ve done something new with my own portal(s). Featuring non-standard protagonists is a start, being chased across the threshold is another, and the world of Down itself owes more to Tarkovsky’s Solaris than it does Narnia. But I’ve done something old, too, as old as time itself. Down is a place of challenge – there are secrets to be uncovered, battles to win, knowledge to be retrieved, and two worlds to save – and change, both mental and physical. The three questions that recur in Babylon 5 – Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for? – are circumvented by Down, because it already knows the answers, even if you’re in denial.

At its best, portal fantasy offers us a narrative metaphor for seismic shifts in our cognitive landscape. Because our image is clearly reflected in the mirror, it can help us better decide if we like what we see. If we cross over to the Otherworld, we come back different people, if we come back at all. The portal is not a way out, but the way in.

The importance of thinking about ‘local values’ when you’re writing.

An American pal and her sister spent a few days here recently. A circuitous route to avoid some roadworks took us past Oxford Airport. Or, as I remarked, what locals still call Kidlington Airfield. I mean, the aircraft using it are twelve or twenty seaters.

‘Oh,’ says my pal, ‘big planes then.’ There was a ‘beg pardon?’ pause from me and a laugh from the car’s back seat. You see, these friends grew up in rural Alaska. As far as they’re concerned, a small plane is one where it’s just you and the pilot. Twelve seats? Luxury travel! Because normal is what you grow up with. As you can imagine, that led to a very interesting conversation.

And as is the way with authors, it’s started me thinking about the issues around local values when it comes to descriptive writing. I recall a conversation some time after Northern Storm was first published. In a bar, so after I’d given either a university or local SFF society talk. In that particular book, the magewoman Velindre spends time both in Einarinn’s frozen northlands, and later, in the tropical Aldabreshin Archipelago. The former is ‘bitterly cold’ and the latter is ‘oppressively hot’. I don’t recall what started the conversation but we were discussing exactly what those terms meant to us personally – and why I, as the writer, hadn’t included specific details to make it clear what a thermometer would say.

The first and most obvious answer is because I didn’t need to. With regard to ‘bitterly cold,’ the reader needs to know there’s snow on the ground and water is frozen. There was no plot or character related reason for me to indicate whether the temperature was minus three degrees or minus thirteen. Even a short paragraph going into more detail would have been wasted words and as far as I am concerned, every word in a book must count.

But it goes beyond that. My personal assessment of ‘bitterly cold’ is going to be very different to my Alaskan friend’s. Just as ‘oppressively hot’ means something entirely different to an author friend who lives in Hawai’i. At World Fantasy Con in San Diego a few years back, she was sitting in the full sunshine in a cardigan and considering getting a jacket while those of us just in from a UK October were grabbing all the shade we could find, sweltering in the most lightweight clothing we owned.

So going back to Northern Storm, adding more precise detail to either of those descriptions could well have been actively counterproductive. Specifying ‘oppressively hot’ in my own personal terms could very easily throw a reader used to a different climate right out of the story. Because their instinctive reaction would be ‘Wait, what? No, that’s not hot weather!’ And even something as apparently trivial as that could undermine the whole book for them. Because if a reader can’t believe in the background detail, how are they going to believe in the wizards and dragons?

On the other hand, you can turn this issue of local values to your writerly advantage, in the right place, for the right character. When I said minus three degrees or minus thirteen a few paragraphs back, I meant Celsius, because my local weather values are centigrade. When I come across temperatures given in Farenheit in US crime fiction, I always have to pause and do a quick mental conversion calculation. It disrupts the flow of my reading, so as far as I am concerned, that’s a bad thing.

But if I was a character in a book? If the author wanted to convey someone feeling unsettled and out of their usual place? Sure, that author could tell us ‘She felt unsettled by the unfamiliar numbers in the weather forecast’ but you could do so much more, and far more subtly, as a writer by showing the character’s incomprehension, having her look up how to do the conversion online, maybe being surprised by the result. It gets how cold in Minnesota in the winter?

It doesn’t just have to be about the weather. How about food? Anyone in the UK who travels to different cities and eats in Indian restaurants will know how much the chilli scale on menus varies. As I can attest from personal experience, what’s ‘medium hot’ in Bradford is a world away from ‘medium hot’ in Blandford Forum. There’s a lot a writer can do with that sort of thing.

It’s also worth checking your own local values/understanding against any historical or other background facts and resources you may be using. I was once attending a convention panel discussing the ancient world, when a genuinely baffled audience member sought clarification after a speaker discussed issues arising from the impossibility of telling slaves from free citizens in ancient Athens. But surely, the colour of their skin…? Because that questioner’s knowledge of slavery was entirely US-based and she was assuming central aspects of that were historically universal. Not so, by any means.

That’s perhaps an extreme example, but for instance, I’ve been caught out – though thankfully in a book’s planning phase, not in print – when assumptions I’ve made about growing and harvest seasons, based on my experience living in the UK, turned out to be nonsensical for the different climate and latitudes where I was setting some action.

So it really is worth taking a little time to consider what that well-known online phrase ‘Your Mileage May Vary’ could mean in relation to your writing, for readers and for characters.

Guest Post – Jacey Bedford on whether she writes SF or F?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m very much enjoying Jacey Bedford’s Psi-Tech novels, namely Empire of Dust and Crossways, which are thoroughly good space-opera ticking all the boxes that first made me love SF while also thoroughly satisfying to me as a contemporary reader. So I was both startled and intrigued to learn that her new book, Winterwood, is a historical fantasy, set around 1800, with pirates and spies and mysterious otherworldly creatures all entangling Rossalinde Sumner in their machinations. You won’t be surprised to learn I invited Jacey to tell us all about that, and she has generously obliged.

SF or F? Trying to work out the differences and similarities.

With Winterwood, the first book of the Rowankind Series, on the brink of publication, Juliet asked me to write about transitioning between writing science fiction and fantasy. I sat down to think about it, but the more I worked on the differences between the two, the more similarities I came up with.

For starters, from the outside it does look as if I made a switch in genres, but it’s not quite the way it looks from the inside. My first two books to be published. Empire of Dust (2014) and Crossways (2015), are science fiction/space opera, but it’s a quirk of the publishing industry that they came out first. Winterwood, my historical fantasy, was actually the first book I sold to DAW, back in 2013, but it was part of a three book deal. DAW’s publishing schedule was such that there was a gap in the science fiction schedule before the fantasy one, so Empire of Dust ended up being published first. The order of writing, however, was Empire, Winterwood, and Crossways.

Winterwood-smallConfused? I don’t blame you.

Let me backtrack. The road to publication is often slow and tortuous. Many of us who eventually make it have a drawer full of completed books before getting the magic offer from a publisher. These aren’t necessarily bad books or rejected ones, but ones that have not been on the right editor’s desk at the right time. The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is often, simply, that the unpublished one gave up too soon. I started writing my first novel in the 1990s without any hope of finding a publisher, and with no knowledge of how to go about it, even if I’d been brave enough to try. That, however, was all about to change – mostly because of the internet. Once I got online in the mid 90s I connected with real writers via a usenet newsgroup called misc.writing, and learned all the basics about manuscript format and submission processes. (And yes, I’m still in touch with some of those very generous writers two decades later.) While all this was going on I finished a couple of novels and made my first short story sale.

The two early novels, at first glance, were second world fantasies, but the deeper I got into them the more I realised that they were actually set on a lost colony world. There are places where science fiction and fantasy cross over to such a degree that it’s hard to see where the boundary is. My lost colony world had telepathy but no magic. So thinking about it logically, how did that colony come to be lost? What put telepathic humans on to a planet and then kept them there, isolated from, and ignorant of, their origins?

That was the question that I started writing Empire of Dust to answer (though it may take all three Psi-Tech books to do it). Because the story involved planets, colonies and space-travel, I was suddenly writing science fiction. I don’t write hard, ideas-based SF. I’ve always been far more interested in how my characters’ minds work than what drives their rocketships, though I’ll always try to make the science sound plausible if I can.

Characterisation – that’s always the crux of the matter for me. Take interesting characters and put them into difficult situations and see what they do. It doesn’t actually matter whether they are in the past or the future, or even on a secondary world, what matters is that the characters grow and develop via the story to overcome problems and reach a satisfactory conclusion. Well, OK, the setting matters, but it’s not always the first thing that hits me. The setting and the detailed worldbuilding grows around the characters and weaves through the story, adding context and interest, and sometimes becoming a character in its own right.

Untitled-6

So Empire of Dust, in a much earlier form, was finished in the late 90s and then began the rounds of publishers’ slushpiles. Remember what I said about persistence? Well, I’m dogged, but not always very pushy. Empire sat on one editor’s desk at a major publishing house for three years after the editor in question had said: ‘The first couple of chapters look interesting. I’ll read it after Worldcon.’ It took me three years to figure out I should withdraw it and send it somewhere else. Then the next publishing house it went to took another fifteen months. Those kind of timescales can eat up a decade very quickly. (I know one author who took to sending her languishing submissions a birthday cake after a year.)

In the meantime I kept on writing. It just so happened that the next three books were fantasies unrelated to each other: a retelling of the Tam Lin story aimed at a YA audience; a fairly racy fantasy set in a world not dissimilar to the Baltic countries in the mid 1600s, and a children’s novel about magic and ponies (not magic ponies). Why fantasy? I think I instinctively wanted to widen the scope of what I was doing to take in a wide variety of settings, however it was still mainly dictated by the characters.

If story and character are a universal constant, surely the difference between writing science fiction and fantasy is all down to worldbuilding. Right? Uh, well, maybe…. Science fiction can (to a certain extent) be fuelled by handwavium based on the accumulated reader-knowledge of how SF works. SF readers have an idea of how physics can be bent without being completely broken, whether you’re talking about the physics of Star Trek (warp-drives, photon torpedoes), or the hard SF of Andy Weir’s The Martian (which I love, by the way). When you write fantasy, you don’t have Einstein to fall back on. You have to work out how your fantasy world works from the ground up. If there’s magic, the magic system has to be logical and not contradictory (unless you build in a reason for the contradictions). If it’s set on a secondary world you might have strange creatures, races other than human, or even gods who act upon the world or the characters. Though, come to think of it, aliens, strange flora and fauna, and even ineffable beings are obviously common to science fiction as well. And when I said fantasy doesn’t have Einstein to fall back on, it does have the accumulated folklore of several millennia to point the way.

I think I’ve just talked myself round in a circle. So far, so similar.

So I started my next project, Winterwood, around 2008. By this time Empire of Dust had had three near misses with major publishers, but was still doing the rounds.

Winterwood almost wrote itself. I had the first scene very firmly in my mind – the deathbed scene – a bitter confrontation between Ross and her estranged mother. I wrote it to find out more about the characters and their situation. Ross hasn’t seen her mother for close to seven years since she eloped with Will Tremayne, but now her mother is dying. About halfway through the scene Ross’ mother asks (about Will): ‘Is he with you?’ Ross replies: ‘He’s always with me,’ and then follows it up with a thought in her internal narrative: That wasn’t a lie. Will showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind. That was an Ah-ha! moment. I realised that Will was a ghost. Ross was already a young widow. That led me deeper into the story and gave me another character, Will’s ghost – a jealous spirit, not quite his former self, but Ross is clinging to him because he’s all she has left. That sets the scene nicely for when another man finally enters Ross’ life, but the romance is only part of the story. Ross inherits a half-brother she didn’t know about, and task she doesn’t want – an enormous task with huge consequences. There are a lot of choices to be made, and no easy way to tell which are the right ones. Ross has friends and enemies, some magical and some human, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart. Even her friends might get her killed.

When that first scene came into my head, it could have been set in any place, any time. Parents and their children have been disagreeing and falling out for as long as there have been parents and children and, I’m sure, until we decide to bring up all our offspring in anonymous nurseries, it will continue well into the future. Ross took shape as I wrote, and I realised it was set in the past, or a version of it. In her first incarnation Ross was a pirate rather than a privateer, but I wasn’t sure what historical period to set the book in. The golden age of piracy was really in the 1600s, but I wanted to set this slightly later, so I decided that 1800 was a good time to play with. It’s a fascinating period in history with the Napoleonic Wars about to kick off in earnest, Mad King George on the British throne, the industrial revolution, the question of slavery and abolition, and the Age of Enlightenment. Of course I added a few twists, like magic, the rowankind and a big bad villain, who is actually the hero of his own story, though that doesn’t make him any less dangerous to Ross.

Historical fantasy is yet another subset of F & SF. If you’re writing in a specific historical period, you can make changes to incorporate your fantasy elements, adding magic for instance, or tweak one historical, point, but then you have to make sure that there’s enough solid historical background to make the rest of it feel authentic. You’re not necessarily looking for truth, but you are hoping for verisimilitude. I’m an amateur historian, not an academic one, but I did a lot of research: reading, museums, studying old maps and contemporary photos. I have several pinterest boards devoted to visual research, costume (male and female), ships, transport and everyday objects. Whenever I find something interesting I pin it for later consideration.

Crossways-cvr-400So where did we leave the publishing story? Oh, that’s right, Empire of Dust was doing the rounds of publishers’ slushpiles. While that was happening I submitted Winterwood to DAW and after about three months got that phone call that every unpublished author wants. Sheila Gilbert said: ‘I’d like to buy your book.’ One thing turned into another and before long I had a three book deal. As I said earlier, Sheila decided that Empire of Dust would be the first book out, even though it had been Winterwood that had initially grabbed her attention. Then she ordered a sequel to Empire, which was the book that became Crossways. If you want me to talk about writing a book to order, sometime, that would be another post altogether. Suffice it to say that Crossways came out in August 2015 and allowed me to take the stories of Cara and Ben to another level and move the setting from the colony planet to a huge, and vastly complex, space station, beautifully illustrated on the book’s cover by Stephan Martiniere.

Getting a book from writer to store shelf is a multi layered process. There’s the writing and then the edit – which usually means some rewriting with additions. The once the final story has been accepted as finished it goes through copy-editing where clunky prose and spelling mistakes are smoothed over, and in my case, my British English is translated into American. Once the copy edits have been done then next part that I’m involved in is the page proofing, the final check after the book has been put into its finished form. This is the last chance to catch typos and brainos, but there’s no real opportunity to make big changes.

During the various editing processes there are gaps while your editor reads and considers, or the copy editor does his or her thing, so you tend to be working on other stuff while you’re waiting. The beginning of one book overlaps the editing process on the previous one and will in turn be at the editing and copy-editing stage when you’re just beginning to write the book after that. So, you see, it’s not like you have the luxury of working on one book at a time. The whole process is plaited together, fantasy and science fiction running alongside each other.

Winterwood comes out on Tuesday 2nd February. I’m currently writing Silverwolf, its sequel, which is due out late 2016 or early 2017. After that I’m contracted to write a third Psi-Tech novel (the aforementioned Nimbus), so it’s back to another space opera to follow on from Empire of Dust and Crossways. After that I’d like to write a third Rowankind novel. I already have ideas and there will be a few loose ends at the conclusion of Silverwolf, though, don’t worry, I never leave books on cliffhangers.

So the transition between science fiction and fantasy is not neatly delineated. It’s all mushed up together in both my writing timeline and in my brain. On the whole I just write stories set in different worlds. Some of them happen to have rocket ships, and others have magic, but all of them have characters who have adventures, relationships, and make choices, good and bad. I’m happy hopping between the future and the past, and I’m super-happy that my publisher has given me the opportunity to be an author who writes both SF and F.


You can keep current with all Jacey’s news over at her website.

P.S I’ve just finished reading Winterwood and can recommend it as highly as the Psi-Tech Novels.

Creative writing articles – the latest link & a new permanent webpage to round up the rest

I’ve had a couple of invitations recently to write guest articles on different aspects of creative writing. You can find the first of them here at the SciFi Fantasy Network where I outline how I learned vital lessons about getting feedback, thanks to NOT getting published twenty years ago.

So that’s the first thing. Head on over and read that and feel free to pop back and let me know what you think. Meantime, on to the second thing here.

Looking for inspiration for these posts, I asked folks what would interest them and got a fine range of responses. Though in some cases, I thought, ‘hang on, haven’t I already written about that topic?’

A little research soon indicated that well, yes, I might well have written such an article but those pieces are not necessarily straightforward to find, especially when I wrote them over a decade ago!

It struck me pretty forcefully that a round-up was in order. I soon discovered that I’ve had good many and varied things to say over the years, but rather than bludgeon you with an endlessly scrolling blog post, a separate list would be more wieldy.

So here’s a dedicated page on the site to make everyone’s life that bit easier.

There’s a good range of reading for you to browse and dip into at your leisure, in roughly reverse chronological order, which is to say, the most recent at the top, oldest at the bottom, and including guest pieces by me elsewhere.

Below that you’ll find links to guest posts from other writers that have appeared on this blog.

Enjoy!

Western Shore. Mapping the Aldabreshin Archipelago and beyond.

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‘Where did this unforeseen enemy come from?’ That’s the central question in this third novel of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet. Swiftly followed by ‘how did they get here?’, ‘why did they come?’ and ‘why are they so brutal?’

Kheda and his allies, old and new, discover most of the answers as Western Shore unfolds but before I could write any of that, I had to work out all these things for myself. Not only deciding where these unknown invaders did come from but establishing what had changed to enable them to cross the vast western ocean, since they’d never been seen before. ‘Well, they just decided to,’ simply wasn’t an option, any more than ‘because they’re just evil,’ is ever a satisfactory answer to ‘what makes the bad guys so bad?’

At least I had a map of the Archipelago to start with. I’d learned my lesson after having to reverse engineer the original Einarinn map from accurately calculated travel details in the text and my (literally) back-of-an-envelope sketch not long before The Thief’s Gamble was published. Okay, my husband had to do the actual work – I was and remain thankful that he’s an engineer whose apprenticeship including training as a draughtsman. Incidentally, he’s the one who insisted the Einarinn maps have projection lines, when I explained I needed a map which I could put a ruler on anywhere to measure distances on the same scale. He naturally felt thoroughly vindicated when we got an enthusiastically appreciative letter from a Geography Ph.D student in Washington State, USA, for whom flat-earth fantasy maps were a personal bug bear. But I digress.

As you see from this far more extensive map, I had the upper half of the Archipelago mapped by the end of The Tales of Einarinn, so extending the island groups and chains southward was easy enough. But then I had to decide what lay out to the west. ‘Here be dragons’ might be literally true but I needed to know where and why, and crucially, why they were on the move for the first time in more than living memory.

Because ocean and atmospheric currents had changed somehow? That looked like a promising possibility so I went off to do some research, including but by no means limited to buying The National Geographic Atlas of the Oceans and doing detailed searches through my National Geographic Archive CD-Roms. I learned all sorts of useful facts about jet streams, thermohaline circulation, deep cold water flows, tectonic plates and undersea ridges, as well as weather patterns, and what causes trade winds, the doldrums and El Nino. All fascinating and all terms and systems it would be impossible to reference directly in an epic fantasy novel without ruining, well, the atmosphere. This is definitely a situation where the Iceberg Rule of Research applied. Only a tenth of this work shows above the surface, which is to say, appears in the final novel, but that couldn’t be there without the other ninety percent.

maps in progress

Now I had the key information which I could add to my map and integrate into the story. More than that, I was now seeing more ways in which wind and sea currents and the distribution of islands would affect travel and alliances within the Archipelago. This work was already influencing the course of the events I had planned for Eastern Tide. It ultimately contributed to The Hadrumal Crisis as well but that’s another story.

But all this work stayed on the papers on my desk. When the Aldabreshin Compass was published in paperback in the UK, we were all forced to agree that the scale and layout of the Archipelago meant reproducing the whole thing at that page size could only offer readers a scatter of uninformative dots. When Tor produced the US hardback, they had more room to work with and included a very handsome map but that could still only offer a section of the Archipelago, unable to show its relationship to the mainland.
tor compass map small
So only a limited number of fans got to see even that much. And as with the admirable Einarinn maps in the Orbit paperbacks, the copyright for that specific depiction of my original material remains with the publisher, not with me.

Well, that was then and this is now. As those who’ve bought Southern Fire and Northern Storm already know, these new ebook editions include a map of the entire Archipelago and now I’m adding it to the website. This time I have my elder son to thank, who took on the not inconsiderable task of cleaning up the digital scan of my master paper copy, with all its creases and pencil scribbles, as well as collating all the other bits of information jotted on sections I’d enlarged and printed off separately to cover with more coloured arrows and notes. Finally he added his own bit of artistic flair, deciding it needed to look like something found in a Hadrumal wizard’s archive, maybe left by some ambitious cloud mage seeing just how far up he could take a scrying spell. I reckoned he’d earned the right to do that.

So is this it? Well, as you can see, there’s still an awful lot of this world still to be mapped – and we haven’t even found out what might be happening in those lands we can already see but haven’t yet visited…

Guest Post – Tricia Sullivan on World Building and the Kobyashi Maru

Tricia Sullivan has a new book out this week, Occupy Me, and I think it’s fair to say her award-winning, idea-driven SF is worlds away from my own style of epic fantasy fiction. And yet, as is the case with a good many writers whose work is nothing like mine, we have a good few things in common; the foundation for our friendship and mutual respect. One of those things is a background in tabletop and computer gaming and Tricia’s written a fascinating article examining the relationships between that style of world building and truly creative writing.

Once you’ve read it, I’ll be very surprised indeed if you’re not prompted to find out more about Tricia and her work – if you’re not already familiar with her books!

TS-OccupyMe

“Kobiyashi Maru

Whenever somebody says ‘worldbuilding’ I think of Gary Gygax straight away. I think of polyhedral dice, graph paper maps for dungeons, hex paper maps for outdoors. I think of the languages I tried to invent and all that other good, ooky stuff.
I was a first-generation D&D player. My brother bought it in a box in 1979. I was in fifth grade, same year I read Dragonsinger, and I remember being genuinely scared by the giant spiders and ghouls in the sample dungeon. There were hardly any modules back then, so if you gamed you really had no choice but to make it all up yourself. D&D was a great enabler of storytellers. Its codification, numeration and classification of every damn thing both encouraged worldbuilding—by providing scaffolding—and also inhibited it—because D&D turned reality into a Lego set.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m very fond of Lego, but you have to admit the results are always pretty…well…square. D&D was square like that, too. I hated how designing anything in it was the equivalent of filling out 40,000 pages of requisition forms, ticking boxes all the way.

When you are building worlds, sometimes you want Lego, but other times you want Play-doh. Sometimes you want to be able to bend it and squish it. In the pre-digital era it used to be possible to express things without having to first establish the rules and the codes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that D&D was coming in at the same time as Apple and Atari—it was more flexible than writing code, but at heart the game was all about the rules. And taken to the limit, the rules of the world can become more important than the thing you are trying to do.

Fictional worldbuilding is like that, too. You want the story to take flight in the reader’s imagination, but you never want the reader to see the billions of robots running around behind the scenes pulling leavers and heaving things into position. You’ve got to convince the reader they are immersed. How do you do that? I reckon you have to play with what people already know about the world—but of course, most of us don’t know very much! It’s interesting to me that one of the least conventional writers I can think of, Diana Wynne Jones, nevertheless authored ‘The Rough Guide to Fantasyland’ as a plea for at least a little rigour. To work well, fantasy has to stand on the shoulders of reality.

But what does rigour even mean, these days? Culturally, we have a certain D&D-based shorthand when it comes to kingdoms, quests, character classes and expectations—all mainstreamed thanks to video games. These archetypes are pretty distorted and some of them are tired as hell, but whether the shorthand is played straight or torqued in some way, it’s pretty much embedded in the DNA of SFF across all the platforms that now deliver SFF content.

The shorthand can be a great facilitator. As a writer, it’s not hard to use a prefab world and tweak it a little for your own purposes. It doesn’t take a big deviation in initial conditions from the world as we know it to a world that seems strange and new. Once you open up the toolbox (of environment, economic systems, biological structure, culture, history, yadda yadda yadda) you have endless permutations at your disposal to experiment with ‘what if’ and to run simulations—alternative worlds to our own, if you will. This is the primary function of imaginative play. It is also very hard work.

But causal extrapolation isn’t the end game, at least not for me. In fact, it’s often a trap, a dead end, an unwinnable situation. No, the end game is imagination. The end game is magic.

Real magic—if I can indulge in the oxymoron—isn’t systemized. It’s outside our understanding, by definition. It comes out of flashes of insight, surprise, transformation. To make those kind of fireworks go off in someone’s mind is a very tricky business, and I’d argue that to make it happen as a writer, you need total control and this includes knowing when to lose control. When to let go of the wheel. A world you’ve built becomes its own organism, has its own mind, and to give it lift-off there’s a point where you throw out the rules, throw out what you think you know, and let the thing take you where it needs to go.

Gaming doesn’t teach this, and as far as I know it’s not in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I’ll bet artists know what I’m talking about because they build worlds, too—that’s what art is. Even as it’s using rules, art is a protest against the rules.

If you really want to fly, then just for a moment, get meta. Don’t accept the limitations you’re given. Reprogram the fucking computer that your world is running on. Beat the Kobiyashi Maru.

The dice and the graph paper will still be there when you come down.”

You can find out more about Tricia, her writing and this book in particular, over at her website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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