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Posted in creative writing culture and society good stuff from other authors Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade

The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2022

Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.

You can find out more about Rebecca and about the lecture series here.

Here’s the link to this year’s video.

I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)

Posted in Unexpected things about Juliet

A grand day out!

Last Wednesday, I headed into London with Husband to go to the second of this year’s garden parties at Buckingham Palace. Yes, really! It was certainly an experience.

Getting into London from Oxfordshire is so much easier now, using Oxford Parkway station near Kidlington. We got to Marylebone in good time – feeling a tad overdressed, even carrying my new hat in a bag. As we took the Underground, we started to see other people sufficiently frocked up that it was a fair guess where they were going. We got out at Hyde Park Station as the info said the queues at the palace back gate would be shorter. In fact, everyone was being marshalled towards the front of the palace instead, along Constitution Hill – which is pretty much level by the way. There was so much going on with Jubilee weekend preparations that clearly the normal routines didn’t apply. Anyway, since we were early we were thinking about taking a look at Hyde Park, but one of the many, many police around advised we go and get through the security check early, so we’d be at the front of the queue. This was extremely good advice. Waiting in the heat for about 45 minutes was a bit of a chore, but there were people to talk to, and things to look at – including many, many police with guns…

Once we got in, we had a pleasant stroll around the gardens, where there was lemon barley water or water on offer for anyone who might be thirsty. The grounds are big enough to have one military band by the palace (Welsh Guards) and another one (RAF) on the far side of the lawn, and for them not to be heard over each other. This is possibly why it didn’t feel overcrowded – even though there were apparently between 7000 and 8000 people there. Given the numbers, the way tea was served was astonishingly efficient. The main tea tent must have had twenty stations offering cakes, sandwiches and tea or Sandringham apple juice. Since we had gone for a walk rather than join the first rush, we queued for less than ten minutes – and when I asked what might be dairy free/vegan, the lady behind the counter waved at her elegantly morning-dressed supervisor who came over to talk to me. ‘Dairy free, madam? Of course. One moment, madam.’ He shimmered off like Jeeves and by the time the lady had loaded a plate for Husband and assured him he could come back if he wanted anything else, Jeeves reappeared with a dairy free plateful for me – which was lovely.

There were special presentations to the Royals up on the terrace, and then they (Prince Edward, the Countess of Wessex, Princess Alexandra, the Duchess of Cambridge) made their way across the lawn. The Yeoman of the Guard cleared the way – and Gilbert and Sullivan costumes notwithstanding, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of their pikes. There was also a contingent of tall men in morning dress and top hats who were divided into ones engaging the public with charming conversation and making sure people didn’t get over-excited – and the ones who weren’t smiling, who weren’t talking to anyone, and who were constantly scanning the crowd. We didn’t join the scrum of people eager for a handshake or a photo. It was much more interesting to find a chair in a shady spot by the RAF band and people-watch.

All human life was there. People are proposed by sponsors ‘to recognise public service and celebrate people who’ve made a positive impact in their community’*. I talked to people involved in youth sports, Scouting, the NHS, local government, food banks, local voluntary organisations. It was all very relaxed – once we were inside the grounds, the only police in sight were in dress uniforms as guests. (Okay, and the ones in black tactical gear up on the palace roof) There were also a good few military personnel of all ranks – a spotters’ guide to uniforms and insignia would have come in handy. There’s a diplomatic tea tent so I’m assuming that accounted for the morning-dressed folk. Clerics of all creeds, levels of eminence and gender were around as well. The invitation said national dress could be worn, so there were some striking African outfits and gorgeous saris to be seen. A green silk shalwar kameez decorated with silver embroidery and pearls caught my eye, and a young Japanese naval officer in full dress uniform was accompanied by his plus-one in a stunning kimono. Or he may have been her plus-one, of course.

Once the Royals had reached their tea tent, we walked around the gardens and the lake a bit more and then went to sit and listen to the Welsh Guards where there was a breeze. Quite by chance, that meant we were in an excellent spot when the Royals walked back to the palace, so we stayed where we were, and got a really good look at the Yeomen and their pole-arms. And, oh, yes, at the Royals as well. The Duchess of Cambridge stopped to talk to three British-Indian ladies from Northampton, all in beautiful saris, who were standing just in front of us. The nice ladies, especially the oldest, were utterly, utterly thrilled, and that was lovely to see. Prince Edward was chatting to some else not far away. Either the Royals are actors who deserve Oscar nominations, or they were genuinely enjoying themselves. I’m going with the latter – given all the nonsense they have to put up with, being somewhere familiar and secure, and meeting people who are so visibly delighted to meet them must make for a pleasant day.

And then it was time to wend our way home. By the time we got back, thunderstorms had arrived, but we didn’t care. We picked up fish and chips en route and that rounded off our day.

*The Society of Authors put me forward on the basis of my various endeavours on behalf of writers.

Posted in creative writing Links to interesting stuff Publishing & the Book Trade

Is it a steal? The questions to ask about paid-for publishing

The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.

‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.

Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.

Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.

Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets

You can read the Society of Authors’ article here, and download the full report.

Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.

Posted in creative writing News public appearances

A diary update

It still feels a bit strange to be putting in-person dates in the diary – in a good way. I’m also very pleased to still be putting online events into my schedule. We have learned how these can be done successfully now, and how important opportunities to participate have become to so many people who would be unable to join in otherwise. Hybrid events definitely need to be part of the future.

As far as my future plans go –

Thursday 7th April – London Book Fair
Talk: 10:45-11:30 Making a Living from Writing
along with Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon (Chair) Abie Longstaff and Katrina Naomi.

15th – 18th April – the 72nd Eastercon: Reclamation
I’ll be joining friends and fans at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, London Heathrow for what promises to be an excellent programme.

20th April – an online talk and conversation session with the Chalk Scribblers Writers’ Group.

7th – 14th May – Milford Writers Retreat, Trigonos, North Wales

1st – 4th July – Westercon 74
Thanks to the marvels of technology, I’ll be part of the international online programming organised by this convention taking place in Tonopah, Nevada.

Friday 16th September – Boston Book Festival (that’s the original Boston, Lincolnshire, UK btw)
At 7pm I’ll be talking about Myth and Modern Fantasy Fiction, and how I write the Green Man books, as well as taking questions.

And there will doubtless be more to add in due course.

Posted in News The Green Man's Heir

The Green Man’s Challenge – BSFA Award shortlisted, and The Green Man’s Heir ebook offer

The Green Man’s Challenge has made the shortlist for the BSFA ‘best novel’ award, alongside an array of splendid writing and artwork across the various categories. This is tremendously gratifying, as you can imagine.

I’m also delighted to see Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction from Academia Lunare is on the ‘best non-fiction’ shortlist, since Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press is one of the contributors to that.

The BSFA website now has the full Awards shortlists posted, along with voting instructions for members.

In a wholly fortuitous bit of timing, Amazon have decided to put The Green Man’s Heir on 99p sale this month. As before, Wizard’s Tower Press will be price-matching this across all platforms so readers can use their preferred retailer. So this is an excellent time to recommend your friends give it a try – click the link under the cover art to your left for links to buy.

Posted in author interviews forthcoming fiction New Releases

Curious to know more about The Cleaving? My take on Arthurian myth…

The enthusiastic response to this week’s news is tremendously encouraging. I will be doing my very best to reward readers with a book that’s well worth their time and money.

You can learn a fair bit about the approach I’m taking to the Arthurian legends, and why, in this interview with The Fantasy Hive. Enjoy.

If you want to be certain that you don’t miss out on any of the news between now and publication, you can register with Angry Robot to get all the updates, be first in line for review copies and suchlike.

And now I will get back to writing!

Posted in forthcoming fiction New Releases News

I’m writing an Arthurian novel. Yes, really.

It’s in The Bookseller, so it must be true! “Angry Robot Books has landed an “exciting and fresh” feminist retelling of the Arthurian legends by Juliet E McKenna.”

Now, it’s been a fair while since I was on a panel at a convention discussing the Arthurian myths, but those who remember such conversations may well find this a surprise. After all, my view was pretty clear; how can a writer bring something new to such an oft-told story? Especially when we all know how it ends – and that’s certainly not happily ever after!

So what has changed? Well, a few things came together in one of those accidents of serendipity that every writer will recognise. While I was doing background reading for The Green Man’s Challenge, looking for the roots of myths about giants in British folklore, one source was Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s one of the early sources for the Arthurian myths, and I found myself rereading those bits as well, and thinking about why Geoffrey told those tales in the way that he did.

I’ve also been reading Kari Sperring’s Arthurian novellas from Newcon Press. Those are as enjoyable as they are interesting, and they took me back to Malory’s version of these myths in the Le Morte D’Arthur for the first time in decades. I had forgotten how much magic, mystery and downright weirdness there is in those particular stories. I’ve had some interesting chats about that with Kari, and with Liz Williams, who’s currently writing rural fantasy that harks back to all manner of ancient British folklore.

At the same time, the wider conversation about epic fantasy within the SFF genre has continued. We see a fascinating range of heroes having adventures in fabulous worlds drawing on intriguing mythic traditions these days. But there are still those who try to insist that ‘true’ epic fantasy can only be white knights on noble steeds rescuing damsels in distress. There’s certainly no denying that a great many of the conventions and traditions of the genre can be traced back to these age-old myths. That doesn’t mean that out-dated ideas and themes can’t be challenged though. As anyone who’s read my epic fantasy novels knows, I’ve been doing that since The Thief’s Gamble was first published in 1999.

It was a smaller step than I expected to go from looking at these ‘heroic’ Arthurian stories from a woman’s viewpoint today, to wondering what the women caught up in that whole myth cycle would be thinking and feeling themselves…

The Cleaving will be out on 9th May 2023

(And just in case you are wondering, yes, I am also working on the next Green Man novel)

Posted in fandom Links to interesting stuff News public appearances

Join in the BFS 50th Anniversary celebrations on 26th February!

The British Fantasy Society is 50 years old this year! There’s going to be a day of celebration online on Saturday 26th February, and I’m delighted to say that I will be having fun discussing fantastical creatures with Anna Smith Spark and R J Barker at 10.15 am.

There’s a great programme of readings, panels etc soon to be revealed, so mark your diaries. You can find more details here.

Posted in good stuff from other authors New Releases reviews

Recent reads – The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford

I’ve enjoyed Jacey Bedford’s previous books; the SF Psi-Tech novels, and the Rowankind series. In both these trilogies, she shows a keen understanding of the core appeal of the tradition she’s working with, namely space opera on the one hand, and alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, for want of a better term, on the other. Accordingly, I’m very interested to see what she offers readers in this epic fantasy with a slew of classic genre elements apparent in the cover copy. We have a dead king, a lost queen, magic users on the fringes of society, and a scheming usurper setting up an innocent man to take the blame. Not to mention an assassin.

I note in passing that this is a standalone novel. I hope readers new to Bedford’s work are encouraged to give her writing a try by the reassurance that they’ll get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

This tale opens in Biela Miasto, the capital city of the insecure realm of Zavonia. King Konstantyn is dead and guardsman Valdas Zalecki must avoid being hanged for the murder while he hunts down his royal master’s killer. First he needs to find loyal allies which isn’t easy when so many of his friends have been executed on newly acclaimed King Gerhard’s orders. Meanwhile, far away, Mirza must claim her right to succeed her dead teacher’s place as the healer and witch of a Landstrider clan. That would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so unpopular with the clan, who would much rather have someone else. Lind the assassin just wants to be on his way out of the capital city with his payment. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with the new king’s vengeful advisor Kazimir sending men to turn the place upside down as they search for Valdas. Lind is glad to take on the mundane job of escorting a young mother-to-be to her family out in the countryside.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that these three narratives become intertwined. Bedford strikes a deft balance between hints and foreshadowing on the one hand, and unexpected twists and turns on the other. The scene-setting is equally assured, creating a world that’s very like but not quite our own, reminiscent of central Europe a few centuries ago. These similarities ground the narrative while the differences will keep readers guessing. The central characters and the supporting cast alike are satisfyingly three-dimensional, with their motivations and flaws stemming believably from their past experiences, good and bad. Crucially, Bedford’s portrayals are sympathetic without ever getting sentimental, so these people’s lives have realistic hard edges. Her villains are equally convincingly foul.

So far, so traditional, as far as epic fantasy goes. Bedford offers more to lift this story out of the genre’s well-worn ruts. As she works with classic themes and archetypes, she recognises where these have become outdated and even offensive, reshaping them to suit her story’s purpose. Newcomers to the genre will find a story with an up-to-date perspective. Those who have been reading these tales for decades with find a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing evolution of epic fantasy.

As I say, this is a standalone, and I am content to leave this story and these characters at their hard-won conclusion. That said, the rich potential of this milieu means I’d happily read another adventure set in this world.

Posted in creative writing good stuff from other authors Guest Blogpost New Releases

Guest post – Jacey Bedford on writing epic fantasy for modern readers

As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.

Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford

You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?

The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.

I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.

This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.

I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.

For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.

Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.

I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.

Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.

With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?

I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.

Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.

Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.

I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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The Amber Crown is out today,  Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW

Jacey’s Website

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Do check your own preferred retailers as well