Brussels update. Now we need action from Westminster.

I’ve been following the debates on EU VAT and the digital single market in the European Parliament last night and this morning.

They now accept these new regulations are causing massive problems. However their timetable fortaking meaningful action is measured in months at best and years at worst.

We need immediate help for UK businesses. That means an Extra Statutory Concession to suspend this fiasco.

Please help the EU VAT Action campaign make enough noise to convince every government minister and MP to support this.

You don’t have to be running an online business to have your say on this. It hits everyone, buyer and seller alike. (See my previous post for links to articles on how far-reaching the damage is)

This is a very handy online resource to help you write to all or some of your local, national and international elected representatives at once – the ‘Write to Them’ website.

You can find details of your MEPs here.

MPs in UK Parliament

Scots – find your MSP
Northern Ireland – your MLAs
National Assembly for Wales – members

Consider contacting your local press and media, as well as national newspapers and broadcasters. One letter or email will probably get filed as trivial. A whole batch of letters or emails on the same topic suggests there’s a story to be had – and the UK’s relationship with the EU is very much a hot topic at the moment!

Why it’s a vital week for another round of email and letters about EU digital VAT

Today and tomorrow, the European Parliament will be debating –

– the problems they’re now aware of, relating to the new regulations on cross-border digital sales now needing to be taxed at the VAT rates applied in the customer’s country rather than the sellers.

– the impact this will have on hopes for a digital single market across Europe.

Since most companies are avoiding the many and varied problems with this new system by blocking sales outside their own country, ecommerce across Europe looks to be massively set back.

Thanks to 6 months of intensive lobbying, the EU Commission and various coalitions of MEPs now recognise the need –

– to review and revise these regulations to make them fit for purpose

– to establish a turnover threshold below which businesses are exempt from the frankly ridiculous costs and other burdens of compliance.

This really is a tremendous achievement when you consider that when this news broke last November, we were being told not to worry, the VATMOSS system had it all sorted out and everything would be fine…

HOWEVER the EU Commission are still talking in terms of a review process leading to new proposals which will take at least 2 years to see meaningful change.

The MEPs who’ve been most active supporting this campaign are making it clear that such delay is unacceptable with digital traders already forced to restructure their businesses or shut up shop.

What we need is an interim suspension while that review process is underway.

The more voices that support them, the better the chances of getting that suspension.

Please contact your MEPs – and if you get a stupid form letter full of Treasury waffle, send a reply straight back saying that’s unacceptable!

If we don’t get any immediate relief from the European Commission, then we need the UK Parliament to act. There is provision in law, and precedent, for an Extra Statutory Concession to save UK businesses from the destructive effects of this legislation.

Even though Parliament’s not yet sitting after the general election, MPs are in their offices, sorting out their priorities. You can help make sure this issue is high up on your MPs agenda. And if you get a stupid form letter full of Treasury waffle, send a reply straight back saying that’s unacceptable!

This is a very handy online resource to help you write to all or some of your local, national and international elected representatives at once – the ‘Write to Them’ website.

You can find details of your MEPs here.

MPs in UK Parliament

Scots – find your MSP
Northern Ireland – your MLAs
National Assembly for Wales – members

Consider contacting your local press and media, as well as national newspapers and broadcasters. One letter or email will probably get filed as trivial. A whole batch of letters or emails on the same topic suggests there’s a story to be had – and the UK’s relations with the EU is very much a hot topic at the moment.

There’s a whole lot of information available over at the EU VAT Action website now.

The damage done to consumers by all this

Discrimination caused by these new rules

Why some simple IT solution is not going to appear, now or in the future.

Why selling through 3rd party marketplaces isn’t an answer

The EU VAT Action Team’s impact study

Temporally Out of Order – more proof that I am still a writer!

Regular readers will hopefully recall the kickstarter for the proposed SF anthology, Temporally Out of Order. It was all inspired by a typo on a sign author and editor Joshua Palmatier saw on an airport phone booth. No science fiction/fantasy writer could possibly pass that without wondering what “temporally out of order” could mean for modern day—or perhaps not so modern—gadgets, such as a cell phone, laptop, television, radio, iPod, or even the microwave or refrigerator!

I was one of the ‘stretch goals’ and I wrote about what inspired my particular story idea here.

Well, we didn’t make that particular stretch goal but the anthology overall was funded (and then some!). So what was I going to do with my idea? Well, reader, I wrote it and submitted it for one of the collection’s open slots. To my intense satisfaction, it was accepted and will be part of this intriguing table of contents.

“Reading Lists” by Seanan McGuire
“Salamandar Bites” by Elektra Hammond
“Black and White” by David B. Coe
“Dinosaur Stew” by Chuck Rothman
“Not All Is As It Seems” by Faith Hunter
“Batting Out of Order” by Edmund R. Schubert
“Grand Tour” by Steve Ruskin
“A is for Alacrity, Astronauts, and Grief” by Sofie Bird
“The Spiel of the Glocken” by Laura Resnick
“The Passing Bell” by Amy Griswold
“Destination Ahead” by Laura Anne Gilman
“Where There’s Smoke” by Susan Jett
“Alien Time Warp” by Gini Koch
“Cell Service” by Christopher Barili
“Temporally Full” by Stephen Leigh
“Notes and Queries” by Juliet E. McKenna
“Temporally Out of Odor: A Fragrant Fable” by Jeremy Sim

The publisher’s currently designing the ebooks and paperbacks and we should see a summer release, maybe June, more likely July or August. Check out the ZNB online store for information on how to preorder. Otherwise, keep an eye on your preferred online retailer – and as soon as I know listings are up, I’ll pass that on.

Rune photos – a quick note

After a couple of queries from readers unsure if they’re visualising the Einarinn runes as intended, here are photos of the cardboard set I made to use when I’m writing a piece of fiction that involves them.

Hopefully these should clarify things.

An in-depth look at the world of documentaries – day conference in Oxford

If you’re interested in documentary film making – or know anyone who is – and within striking distance of Oxford, the St Hilda’s Media Network is presenting a day conference with a stellar programme.

It’ll be an in-depth look at the world of documentaries led by expert film-makers and radio producers. It is aimed at a broad audience, including students who are interested in a career in documentary-making, people who have just started out in the industry, and media professionals who are passionate about this fascinating creative sphere.

There will be five sessions that will explore different documentary genres:

HOW TO MAKE A DOCUMENTARY: FROM COMMISSION TO TRANSMISSION
(10:30am-11:30am)
Nicolas Kent, Creative Director Oxford Film and Television
Anna Hall, Freelance Series Producer/Director
Ian Michael Jones, Freelance Arts Documentary Producer
David Leach, Producer/Director and Development Writer
How do film-makers get a documentary on to television? This session will provide an overview of the processes involved, from the original concept of an idea, to delivery to the broadcaster. There will also be a focus on the particular challenge of producing arts documentaries in ways that are new and different.

FEATURE-LENGTH DOCUMENTARY: CREATING FACTUAL MOVIES
(11:45am-12:45pm)
Clio Barnard, Director The Arbor, The Selfish Giant
Nicolas Kent, Creative Director Oxford Film and Television
Mike Brett, Director Next Goal Wins
How does making a feature-length documentary differ from creating documentary for television? Some issues are unique to the feature-length documentary, such as development of ideas without commission, funding, distribution, and submission to festivals. Speakers will also consider its role as an art form which does not have the constraints of working to a channel brief.

LUNCH
(12:45pm-1:30pm)

ST HILDA’S LIVING HISTORY PRESENTATION
(1:45pm-2:00pm)
Alumna Elizabeth Dorsett presents a sneak preview of the incredible audiovisual project currently in progress which documents the social history of St Hilda’s, the last women’s college in the University of Oxford to go co-ed, through filmed interviews with former students from the 1930s to present day.

WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY: ALWAYS WORK WITH ANIMALS!
(2:00pm-3:00pm)
Bill Oddie, Presenter and Writer
Nigel Pope, Head of Keo North, Director Mara Media
Alexandra Griffiths, Series Producer BBC Natural History Unit
Ruth Sessions, Head of Operations Atlantic Productions
Why have British film-makers won worldwide recognition for this genre? This session will examine the filming techniques and aims of wildlife producers from the BBC and independent production companies. Bill Oddie will talk about his experiences of wildlife film-making over the last twenty years.

RADIO DOCUMENTARY: MAKING PICTURES IN SOUND
(3:15pm-4:15pm)
Simon Elmes, Former Creative Director BBC Radio Documentaries Unit
Neil Trevithick, Senior Radio Documentary Producer
Sara Jane Hall, Documentary Feature Maker
Christine Finn, Writer and Radio Producer/Presenter
What makes a subject appropriate for radio rather than for television or film? Our panel will look at the challenges of bringing very visual ideas to life in a purely aural medium, and at the tricky and often fraught process of achieving commissions for radio documentary ideas.

After this session on radio Simon Elmes has kindly offered to host a workshop for a limited number of interested attendees on the presentation of ideas for radio documentaries. This will take place in the Old JCR in South Building during the Observational Documentary session, and attendees who wish to take part should sign up in advance on Eventbrite by selecting the ‘additional workshop’ when filling in registration details. Seats will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY: THE BARE NAKED TRUTH
(4:30pm-5:30pm)
Anna Hall, Freelance Series Producer/Director
Nigel Pope, Head of Keo North, Director Mara Media
Ruth Sessions, Head of Operations Atlantic Productions
Why is observational documentary so popular and so controversial, and which subjects are most successful in this genre? We will look at the importance of in-depth research and good access to compelling contributors, as well as the issues and ethics of gaining trust. Our speakers will examine the special filming and editing techniques involved.

Ticket price includes mid-morning and afternoon refreshments, a light lunch and a post-event drink.

Click through to book – and spread the word!

Well, if BBC Radio 4 says I’m a fantasy novelist, it must be true!

Did anyone get the memo saying this was going to be the week for folk listening to me talk? I must have missed it…

Today sees the broadcast of an episode in the BBC Radio Four ‘A History of Ideas’ series where I was invited to contribute.

Philosopher Jules Evans is exploring Jung and the shadow inside all of us. Including archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe – and me.

(another nice reminder that life isn’t all EU VAT!)

The Skiffy and Fanty Show proves I am a fantasy novelist!

I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if some folk might be starting to doubt if I am actually still a fantasy novelist. Because there are days and weeks when I really do wonder amid all the VATmess stuff taking up my time, energy and word count.

But look! Here’s proof!

I had a lovely chat with the amiable and entertaining Skiffy and Fanty podcast crew at last summer’s Loncon3 WorldCon – and the episode’s just gone up.

It’s for streaming at the moment, the download will be along later.

Why the time lag? Well, I know they took full advantage of their opportunities to talk to as many writers as they could in London, so goodness knows how many hours of material they amassed from all sorts of fascinating people.

So that gives you every reason to bookmark the site and keep checking back, doesn’t it?

The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy 2015

The new website for the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy is now live!

Click on through and you’ll find this year’s nominations for the Legend, Morningstar and Ravenheart Awards.

Voting on the longlist opens tomorrow, 10th April and closes at midnight on Friday 15th May.

Voting on the shortlist opens on Monday 1st June and closes at midnight on Friday 17th July.

This year, the Awards presentations will take place at 8pm on Saturday 8th August at Nine Worlds Geekfest. This year’s choice of venue continues the Gemmell Awards’ ongoing quest to share enthusiasm for epic fantasy fiction as widely as possible, and to reach all those readers who’d like to join in and do the same.

Since I’m helping out with the Awards administration this year, and that brings a duty of impartiality with it, I won’t be commenting on any individual titles. Though regular readers of this blog will know pretty much where my personal tastes lie on the broad spectrum that our field now offers, and which I’m extremely pleased to say is very well represented in this year’s long list.

Regular readers will also know that if anyone else’s personal tastes are different to mine, that’s perfectly fine with me. I’ll make my case for what I like to read and I’m always interested to learn more about what other people see in, and get from, different styles of writing and types of story. We may or may not end up agreeing but on my side at least, I’m not going to fall out with someone for making different choices. It takes a broad field to make a horse race after all!

What I’m really hoping to see over the next few months is enthusiasm for all styles and types of epic fantasy fiction shared between keen readers. So head on over and if you see a book which you’ve read and enjoyed is listed, let your fellow fantasy fans know – about the book and about the Gemmell Awards. Check out the details of any books and authors you see listed who are new to you. Head for your local bookstore or library to try their work if you can. Have a look at the nominated authors’ and artists’ websites; that’s a great way to learn more about the wealth of talent currently working in our genre.

Most of all, go and vote. Everyone’s voice is equal and while our choices will differ, we’re united in our love for tales of epic adventure!

How to tackle the European Union if you’re used to living in the SFF universe…

A few not entirely serious observations on my trip to Brussels this week – but I’m not entirely joking either.

1. Familiarity with the apparently M.C. Escher-inspired architecture of SFF convention hotels will make the European Parliament building much less daunting.

(Radisson, Heathrow – Sheraton, Boston – (the old) Ashling, Dublin, I’m looking at you…)

Yes, we did get spectacularly lost but only the once, so I gather that actually makes us more legitimate as campaigners, not less.

Mind you, when you are wandering round the EU Parliament and wondering how exactly to find a way out, it’s probably best not to think too much about the similarity between that institution’s logo and the one from er, The Prisoner…

eu-logo

prisoner

2. The SFF convention rule of 6/2/1 is a good one to adopt. That’s six hours sleep, two meals and one shower in any twenty-four hours.

Those two meals may well end up being a working dinner and a working breakfast. And I do mean working – not just some excuse for a feed at the public’s expense.

Our first event on Tuesday was Clare Josa presenting our findings to the European Internet Forum, thanks to the support for our cause from Vicky Ford and Syed Kamall, both UK Conservative MEPs. Clare was one of five speakers invited to talk about barriers to European hopes for a digital single market to 90-plus people from the European Parliament, the Commission and businesses which will be directly affected. They all had interesting and relevant things to say and everyone was listening, not just eating.

There’s a whole corridor of dining rooms in the European Parliament where all sorts of these dinners were going on, getting people together. The following morning they were full of different groups of people having breakfast, swapping information and making plans about mutual concerns before heading off for a full day’s work in their respective offices.

On Wednesday we were guests at just such a breakfast, hosted by Eurochambres, where Clare presented our case again to a different group of MEPs and Commission officials. Talk across the croissant and coffee cups immediately turned to the nuts and bolts practicalities of getting this issue onto the official agenda, who to enlist in which Commission offices and across the different political groupings. Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP had already done a lot of work on making sure this was being raised as a cross-party and international issue, to counter any idea that this is a purely Tory concern being raised for domestic political consumption. Nothing could be further from the truth.

3. Think Vulcan not Klingon.

European politics isn’t two-party-confrontational. Think infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Table thumping and shouting, or expecting any kind of ego-stroking, will get you nowhere, not least because it just wastes time and no one has that to spare. The MEPs and their staff who’ve been helping us will be tackling upwards of twenty issues simultaneously at any one time.

One reason we’ve got so far and so fast with this is we have all our facts and figures prepared to show the damage being caused by this unworkable system and we let that information speak for itself. We weren’t there to play the blame game but were focused on working towards solutions. So were all the people we met.

And Clare’s presentation wasn’t far short of a mind-meld. There wasn’t a digital projector available so none of the speakers at our various meetings could be tempted to try Death by PowerPoint but the way Clare made our case was as far from that as it’s possible to get. She invited our audiences to imagine themselves as digital entrepreneurs setting up a successful business in 2014 and then took them step by step through the shock of discovering the successive costs, complexities and outright impossibilities now demanded by these new regulations. The sound of metaphorical pennies dropping around the rooms was deafening!

4. It can help to be a hobbit who just wants to get back to The Shire.

As well as being asked about the EU VAT issues, we were both asked at various times about ourselves, our wider involvement in politics, our plans…

Well, we just want to get this sorted out so we can go back to running our own businesses. It’s as simple as that.

Which isn’t to say it would have been a particular problem if we had said we had plans to set up some digital microbusiness organisation or had political party ambitions ourselves – but it does make life much more straightforward when the people you’re dealing with realise you don’t have any other agenda they should (perfectly reasonably and legitimately) be taking into consideration.

5. Just go with the plot-convenient co-incidences.

Another reason we’ve got so far so fast is I happen to live in the UK Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency. So I was able to make a constituency surgery appointment to brief my MP, David Cameron, personally about the problems this new regulation has created. He got it. We’ve found this time and again over the past few months – whenever we’ve been able to make the case in person, that penny drops within minutes.

Establishing this connection has opened doors for the campaign and got us invaluable practical support, not least for this trip to Brussels. No, I can claim no credit for this. There is no time travel involved which might explain why I moved to Witney in 1985 just to set this up!

And no, this absolutely isn’t a party-political issue. We’re dealing with the Conservative party at the moment because they lead the current ruling coalition in the UK. We’ve also had great support from the Greens and from the Lib Dems in Europe, notably Catherine Bearder who just happens to be based in Oxford, so I met her as well and once again, that penny-drop moment as we talked has made all the difference.

Another useful coincidence is the presence of Nicholas Whyte in Brussels. Those who know him in SFF circles are probably vaguely aware that he’s worked in and around (though not actually for) the European Parliament and Commission in various roles for a good few years. This means he’s been an invaluable source of practical information and support as we’ve begun to engage with European legislation policies and procedures.

Personally, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to head off to Brussels without his encouragement. When he first said, ‘you’ll need to come over to the Parliament—’, the squeak in my voice as I said, ‘really?’ probably startled passing dogs…

6. Settle in and prepare for further developments and surprises in the next film/series/book in the franchise.

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. This problem is being discussed at the highest levels now. There’s still a great deal of work to be done. Space stations and battlestars aren’t quickly or easily manoeuvred.

But even the smallest person can change the course of the future. And the more people who join in, the more change we’ll see.

(Some background for anyone coming late to this story – I am part of a grassroots campaign group EU VAT Action which is pressing for review and revision of the new EU VAT regulations on cross border digital sales which threaten tens of thousands of small businesses and are already doing untold damage to any hope of a digital single market to benefit customers and sellers alike.)

Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.