Since you may have missed these pieces I’ve written recently, and you might find them interesting reading.
Myth-making has never stopped and that can be useful – Guest Post for Sarah Ash
Why you must be your own, first, and most ruthless editor – Guest Post for the British Fantasy Society
Looking at the male gaze in the mythic foundations of fantasy fiction from a 21st century perspective. Guest Post for The Fantasy Hive.
Tackling The Guinevere Problem in The Cleaving – Guest Post for Sarah Ash
In other news? Life has been extremely busy, personally, professionally and socially, through October and November. Now the pace has slowed somewhat, I can start thinking about the upcoming holiday season and hopefully get that sorted out at a leisurely pace. We’re also looking ahead to changes in the life-work balance hereabouts as my husband officially retires on 31st December. Next year promises to be interesting in all sorts of ways.
This month’s a busy one. On 15th October, I’ll be running an online writers’ workshop for the British Fantasy Society, looking at revising your own work. I’ll share examples of ‘before’ and ‘after’ drafts of a piece I wrote some years ago, and discuss the changes I made and why, to highlight the underlying principles of being your own editor. Full details here on the BFS website.
As I imagine you already know, The Green Man’s Quarry will be published on 21st October. You can pre-order paper editions from the Wizard’s Tower Press bookstore (UK only) which includes the ebook free.
You can pre-order ebook editions from your local Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook in the US and Kobo. Paperback and hardback editions can also now be pre-ordered through Amazon and in the US from Barnes & Noble. Bookshops, chain and independent, should be able to order through their usual wholesalers.
We will be launching the book on the Friday evening before Bristolcon, 20th October, at the Hilton Doubletree hotel, Bristol. By the way, Wizard’s Tower Press are starting their own newsletter as social media fractures. You can sign up here for all their updates.
The first enthusiastic reviews are appearing on Goodreads – spoiler-free, which I very much appreciate.
Alas, I cannot stay to take part in Bristolcon on the Saturday. The diary gremlins have got me good and proper this year. I’ll be travelling to Sheffield to join dear friends as they celebrate a notable anniversary with family and friends, theirs and mine.
Looking further forward, I’ve selected the short stories for my Polestars collection, coming from NewCon Press. Choosing those and writing a short note for each one has been fascinating. More news on that in due course on the NewCon Press website.
Readers may recall the anthology Fight Like a Girl, from Kristell Ink. I’m delighted to say a second volume is on its way. Following extremely helpful feedback from the editors, I’ve revised my story and I am very pleased with it.
I’m currently working on my story for Ampyrium, the shared world project for the American small press ZNB, now that this year’s Kickstarter has funded. The open call for submissions for their other two 2024 anthologies, ‘Familiars’ and ‘Last-ditch’ has started and will run until December 31st. Remember, ZNB are committed to giving debut writers opportunities.
Looking back, long-standing pals may recall the days when I wrote a review column for Albedo One, Ireland’s foremost SFFH magazine, founded in 1993. As with so many genre publications, this has been a labour of love, and as happens for many reasons, the project has reached the end of this particular journey. Issue 50 is the final, valedictory, fiction edition, and that’s an honourable number for such a conclusion. My story is called ‘The End of the Road’, and you can buy the magazine through Amazon here.
Social media update: I’m using Twitter-as-was less and less as it becomes more and more pointless, and I look forward to the day when I can bin it, frankly. You can find me on Facebook at facebook.com/jemck, on Bluesky @julietemckenna.bsky.social, and on Mastodon @JulietEMcKenna@wandering.shop.
The Green Man’s Quarry will be published by Wizard’s Tower Press on 21st October 2023, following our launch on Friday evening 20th October at Bristolcon. Artwork once more by the supremely talented Ben Baldwin.
So what’s this story about? Here’s the cover copy…
“The Green Man sends Daniel Mackmain to stop threats from folklore making trouble in the everyday world. Now a naiad and dryad want him to deal with the big cat they’ve seen prowling in their woods. Reports like this turn up in the tabloid press from time to time, though no one has ever caught such a cat, or even found evidence of a large carnivore’s kills.
Can Dan discover the truth behind this modern myth before social media turns his hunt into an internet sensation? He knows that not all animals are what they seem. A huge cat which can appear and disappear without a trace must be more than meets the eye. Dan knows one thing for certain. He’s on the trail of a killer.’
Pre-orders are open. Here are the links so for. For more buy links as soon as they become available, check the Wizard’s Tower Press website.
Feel free to spread the word!
Cover art – Ben Baldwin
I’ll be heading off to Fantasycon in Birmingham (UK) shortly. If you’re there, feel free to say hello, even if we haven’t met before. I’ll have some copies of of the Green Man books so far with me. If you want to buy one or more of those, ping me on social media or catch me after a panel. I also have some sets of the Lescari and Hadrumal trilogies to give away to interested readers.
My programme is as follows:
Saturday 9.30 am – readings. I’ll have the title and draft cover for the next Green Man book to share, along with a short reading just to give those who can make it a taste… Plus a short reading from The Cleaving to give a flavour of the different approach I’m taking with this Arthurian retelling.
Saturday 11.30 am – Fantasy in Contemporary Times. This promises to be an excellent discussion.
Signing – straight after this panel, I’ll be heading for the Angry Robot table in the Dealers Room. They’ll have copies of The Cleaving for sale, and I’m happy to sign other books as well.
Saturday 2pm – The Muse. We’ll be exploring ways to sustain your creativity as a writer through a writing career.
It’s pretty much my ideal convention schedule. A chance to share new work, a couple of really interesting panels, and a good few programme items where I’ll be in the audience. Plus plenty of time for chatting about all and sundry to established pals and newly made friends.
Must be a day with a Y in it. Yes, well-informed readers are pushing back against this particular dated, limited and male-dominated list, and no, I’m not going to link to it and argue the toss over every title. There’s a wider point to be made.
Women SF&F writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns that erase us ‘personally’. We object because they damage us professionally. The same is true for every under-represented group excluded from these lists. And yes, the male authors writing the progressive, informed and thought-provoking SF&F which is being ignored have a right to feel aggrieved as well.
When newcomers to fantasy fiction see the most easily-found review coverage and online discussion is all about grimdark books from big publishers, with stories about blokes in cloaks, written by authors like Macho McHackenslay, that’s what they will buy. Or they will be completely put off and go elsewhere in search of fiction where they see themselves and their concerns represented. They will never know what they’re looking for can be found in SF&F.
Either way, six months down the line, the big publisher’s accountants at head office look at the sales figures and see Macho McHackenslay is one of their bestsellers. The order goes out to ask literary agents for more of the same. Because big publishing is a numbers game, and it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation.
Meantime, an editor will be arguing the case to give another contract to P.D.Kickassgrrl. He insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent work will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans, as well as whole lot of other readers. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her books get far fewer reviews and other mentions. Genre magazines and blogs can have a similar skew towards established successes, arguing they have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the writers readers are clearly interested in. The self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete.
It is absolutely no answer to say ‘but there are plenty of women, writers of colour, non-binary, gay, disabled authors (etc.) coming into the genre with debut novels. We just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ We have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring. If it did, you would see far more female and other routinely excluded authors enjoying the same sustained writing careers as their male peers.
More than that, erasing women and other excluded authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today, and by discouraging potential future writers.
Which is why this matters. Every single time.
If that’s the problem, what’s the solution? What can we do to push back more generally? We can boost the signal on our social media for those smaller presses who are publishing innovative books. We can do the same for the websites, podcasts, reviewers and blogs which offer a balanced and nuanced view of the amazing breadth and depth of current SF&F. There are so many wonderful books out there to be read!
I see in the news that reparations have been paid to the relatives of the Maids Moreton murder victims. This is the case recently dramatised on TV as The Sixth Commandment. That’s right. A real crime with legal proceedings still ongoing following the killer’s conviction has already been turned into entertainment. This makes me very uneasy, and no, I didn’t watch the series.
Of course, a major source of inspiration for writers has always been the daily news, in print, on the radio, on the TV or now the Internet. In the 1950s, the cop drama Dragnet on radio and TV promised “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The TV show Law & Order began ripping ideas from the headlines in 1990. Regular watchers would pay close attention to episodes carrying the disclaimer that “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” That would be entirely true. It would also often be possible to identify the real-life case raising key issues which this week’s story would address. The same can be true for crime and mystery novels going back decades. I’ve often heard authors talk about the specific case that stirred their imagination.
These days though, direct dramatisations of real crimes are everywhere. Actors play killers and victims who were real people. Some of these killers and victims are still alive. Their families and friends often still live in the areas where very real horrors occurred. They’re seldom considered or consulted. Occasionally an article highlights the distress some docudrama has caused these blameless people. However those affected can expect little sympathy. Consider the often aggressively hostile response online and in the media when Amanda Knox highlighted the way her life and trials have become common property for writers and film makers. They can reinterpret and rewrite some thinly veiled version of events as they see fit, without any reference to her.
Some of these dramas carry a second disclaimer at the start, to the effect that events and individuals may have been altered for dramatic effect. This doesn’t only apply to crime dramas. Biopics can offer a version of someone’s life that doesn’t tie up with events as remembered by those who were around at the time. As a decades-long Queen fan, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody leaps to mind. Why do screen writers do this? Because real life almost never offers up a coherent, well-constructed plot with the characters required to make it truly effective. One reason I rarely watch these true crime dramatisations is because far too many sink into a morass of second-rate drama that’s also factually incorrect. That’s not only bad television. Where criminal convictions and prison sentences might still be appealed, some fudge that creates misleading impressions for the sake of ratings is callously irresponsible.
The line between exploitation and exploration is extremely narrow. As writers, we must tread very carefully. Our stories must reflect real life, if readers are to relate to our work. However I remain convinced that the most effective way to explore emotional truths is to stay firmly in the realm of fiction.
As regular readers will know, I’ve written stories for various themed anthologies published by this splendid US small press over the past decade. Each year they produce collections of original (no reprint) short stories from a mix of established SF&F authors and new voices found through an open submissions call. Editorial standards are rigorous, and ZNB is a SFWA-qualifying market. Each year, these books offer high-quality reading, as well as the pleasure of encountering writers new to you.
This time around, with the Kickstarter running until 14th September 2023, the projects are as follows:
Animals have been our companions since the dawn of time, but in science fiction and fantasy, often that bond is taken one magical—or technological—step further. From the ubiquitous black cats in witchcraft to the treecats in David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe, Anne McCaffrey’s dragons of Pern to Mercedes Lackey’s horse-like Companions in her Valdemar universe, familiars have played a part in stories since paper met pen. In FAMILIARS, we ask writers to stretch their imagination and give us their most inventive furry, feathered, or scaly companions in tales of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, or horror.
Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, FAMILIARS will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include Jacey Bedford, Jim C. Hines, Gini Koch & Bebe Bayliss, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Seanan McGuire, Kari Sperring, and Jean Marie Ward.
In the heart-pounding world of espionage, it’s the spy that gets the dirty work done. From a longshot gamble to reverse the tides of war to a secret operation escaping with stolen plans, the task is often left to the double agent. Whether it’s for King and country or a private backer, the lone operative gets in and gets out…if only it was that easy.
Edited by Troy Carrol Bucher and Gerald Brandt, this anthology will explore Science Fiction or Fantasy stories of back-against-the-wall, desperate purpose–Hail Marys launched when hope seems lost. The actions of the secret agent can change the tides for good or evil; it all depends on which side you are on.
LAST-DITCH will contain approximately 14 stories with an average length of 6000 words each. Anchor authors include: Jason M. Hough, Tanya Huff, Elaine Isaak, Blake Jessop, Lee Modesitt, Jr., Derryl Murphy, Steve Perry, and Edward Willett.
Then there’s the project I’m involved with – AMPYRIUM
Welcome to Ampyrium, a city of a thousand wonders! May the trading be always in your favor.
Powerful magicians called the Magnum have created a massive city contained within eight walls, each with its own portal to another world. Here, eight different magical lands collide. In these streets, all of the races from those worlds come to trade, to politic, to carouse, and to murder. Merchants and royalty, thieves and assassins; caravans and envoys, armies and entourages. Everyone…and everything…can be found in Ampyrium. Every dream can be made real. Every vice is available. Every wish can be fulfilled. All you have to do is stay clear of the Magnum…and their Eyes are everywhere.
Edited by Joshua Palmatier, AMPYRIUM will contain approximately seven stories all set within the shared world of Ampyria with an average length of 12,000 words each. Authors include: Patricia Bray, S.C. Butler, David B. Coe, Esther M. Friesner, Juliet E. McKenna, Jason Palmatier, and Joshua Palmatier.
I’m currently working with my fellow authors on creating the peoples, the places, the customs and practises which will underpin this city and frame the stories we will tell within it. Once that groundwork is done, the plans for future anthologies will include open calls for submissions.
ZNB Kickstarters generate the base funds needed to produce their anthologies — payment for the authors, payment for cover art, production costs etc. The reward levels for the anthologies are set to more closely resemble the cost of the final product when it goes on sale to the general public. In essence, backers of the project are preordering the anthologies, although there will be a special mass market Kickstarter edition produced for backers who help fund the project at the paperback level. This special edition will have a limited print run to cover the orders made by the backers and will not be printed again. After that, a trade paperback edition is issued for the general public with an unlimited print run.
In some ways, writing for a shared world is as close as most SF and Fantasy writers will get to writing for TV, a comic series, or a movie franchise. The creative challenge is intriguingly different from working on a solo project like a novel. You’re asked to tell an original, dramatic story with vivid, compelling characters, while you’re working within the restrictions of people, places and backstory drawn from other people’s imaginations, which you cannot change.
I’ve written a bit of short fiction for Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Warhammer 40k, as well as contributing to an anthology set in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt world, and writing a novella for the Tales of Catt and Fisher collection, set in Solaris Books’ “After the War” fantasy world. Devising and writing stories on these terms is great fun. Plus there’s the chance to sneak your own invention into the background lore or history, to leave a permanent reminder that you were there…
The more backstory or ‘canon’ there is, the greater the creative challenge can be. You must find a tale that hasn’t already been told. Your story cannot contradict established rules or precedents. It must not clash with a narrative someone else is working on, even if you’re not aware of it. If you’re told to dump your idea and find something else, you have to accept that, even if no one explains.
I wrote one Doctor Who story for a Christmas anthology, only to see my contribution yanked and spiked for reasons I couldn’t be told. You’ll understand when you watch the new TV series, they said. They were right. You can read more about that here.
I’ve particularly enjoyed being invited into the start of a new project, where a world’s rules and precedents are first being laid down. Working on The Tales of the Emerald Serpent, set in the mysterious city of Taux, I could help shape the common ground where we would all be working. Everyone’s creativity contributed, as that group of writers and artists explored concepts and possibilities, creating a collective vision as our individual ideas blended and melded.
The benefits that a shared world can offer an author more than balance those restrictions. This framework of detail becomes scaffolding as you build your story. With people, places and backstory already established, you don’t have to stare at a computer screen trying to think up cool names and concepts. A tangled plot problem can unravel itself when you seek input from whichever author is the designated authority on some element of the scenario. When another writer comes to you, their question can strike sparks from your own imagination to illuminate some unsuspected aspect of this world.
When different authors reference the same people, places and events, they bring their individual characters’ perspectives to these things. Every writer brings their unique voice to relating what is said and seen and done. This ties a shared world together like nothing else. For me, as both reader and writer, this gives shared world anthologies their distinctive and unique appeal.
Why am I thinking about this just now? Because it’s that ZNB time of year! This fabulous small press will be launching this year’s Kickstarter later today. There will be two themed anthologies, with an open submissions call and slots for debut authors as per established custom. There will also be a whole new shared world project which I am involved in. Details to follow soon!
Time flies when you’re busy! What have I been doing? First and foremost, I am very pleased to report that this year’s Green Man book is currently being honed and polished with the invaluable input of Editor Toby.
My next major task will be reviewing twenty-plus years of my short fiction to choose the stories for a collection to be published by NewCon Press, as part of their new Polestars series. I am tremendously honoured to be invited to be part of this, as you will see from the list of authors involved. The first three volumes are now available.
My Arthurian novel, The Cleaving, is being very well received, and I’ve written a couple of pieces about my thinking as I wrote this female-centered take on the classic myth. Sarah Ash will host the first of those on her blog tomorrow, and the second will be my contribution to the Fantasy Hive’s Women in Fantasy Month – where you’ll find all sorts of fascinating posts. This makes the Kindle offer on the ebook very timely. Until 14th July you can snap that up at a bargain price – £0.79 UK, €0.79 Fr, $1.99 US, $1.99 CAN, and I believe there are comparable discounts elsewhere. Check your local store.
The last couple of months haven’t all been work. I took a day off yesterday to see the Labyrinth exhibition at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. This is about Crete, Knossos, the Minotaur and such. The Ashmolean and the Bodleian Library have lots of stuff about Arthur Evans and his excavations to share, as well as exhibits looking at the Minotaur and the Labyrinth as cultural images and ideas through the ages.
These include a video installation from Ubisoft showing a character going into the ruins of Knossos in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with a written commentary track highlighting the research they did into the site, the archaeology, and the classical literary references to the Minotaur in their monster concept. I think this is very cool.
Then there the little ceramic figures of what are reckoned to be priestesses in ornate headdresses doing some sort of snake ritual. The card earnestly told us that while a cat had been found buried where these figures were found, it’s not believed that the ritual was actually conducted with a cat sitting on someone’s head. Personally, thinking of some cats I’ve known, let’s not be so hasty…
Among the photos of fashions at the Met Gala, this is what caught my eye. In 2022 singer/musician Lizzo wore a Thom Browne coat that took 22,000 worker-hours to create, including 1200 hours for the gold embroidery. Highly skilled needle-worker hours.
Epic fantasy (and other) writers should please note this aspect of the historical elite’s clothes/furnishings. These things are a visible display of wealth’s ability to command other people’s time and labour in a world without today’s brand name status symbols.
I have no idea of the price tag on Lizzo’s coat, and still less how much of that reached those needle-workers. I’m guessing the deal was as exploitative as that seems to be the norm in this particular area of the fashion industry. That’s a separate conversation.
I have written about this before – click here