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.
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)
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
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
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.
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.
The Amber Crown is out today, Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW
Do check your own preferred retailers as well
There are now two well-established annual summer highlights from ZNB LLC as far as I am concerned. First, here are the new anthologies to read. This year, I’ve contributed to The Modern Deity’s Guide to Surviving Humanity with a story about classical Greek gods discovering the Internet. There are a host of other great stories by established authors and new voices alike.
The other collections in this year’s trio are equally intriguing. There’s Derelict where a tremendous array of writers offer their takes on the ghost ship, the abandoned vessel drifting through space or over the trackless seas… In When Worlds Collide very different people and cultures meet with a whole array of consequences. As with all ZNB anthologies, the three themes have prompted an incredible variety of entertaining stories.
If you’re one of the many readers who’ve found settling into a novel a real challenge amid the ongoing everything, I can say I’ve found short stories a real boon when that has happened to me.
But wait, there’s more! The second fun thing from ZNB each summer is the new Kickstarter for next year’s anthologies. This will be launched on 11th August, and you can find out about the new themes right now, as well as take a look at the cover artwork.
Since the days of Raymond Chandler and Dorothy B. Hughes, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, the down, but not quite out private eye has been an archetype of literature and cinema. Some of the most memorable of these lone investigators have been found in fantasy and science fiction. In the filthy lanes of an ancient magical city or the sterile corridors of a lonely outpost in space, there are always crimes to be solved.
SHATTERING THE GLASS SLIPPER:
Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years, but it’s time to turn these age-old stories on their head. Let’s step into realms where princesses plan their own rescues, where princes find a better line of work, and falling down a rabbit hole may be a deliberate act of sabotage…or a trip through a wormhole. Come explore roads less traveled and meet the little match girl determined to light the fires of revolution.
BRAVE NEW WORLDS:
Humans have dreamed of traveling to the stars for generations. Their hope? To discover verdant new planets where they can build new societies or escape past persecutions. Follow our prospective settlers’ uncertain paths—from the heart-wrenching departure from Earth, through the unknown dangers of the long flight through the cold vastness of space, to the immigrants’ final arrival on an alien world.
Remember, ZNB is committed to offering debut authors their first chance at publication when the Kickstarters fund an open call for submissions. You can read some advice on making the grade from ZNB Supremo Joshua Palmatier here.
Amid the ongoing everything, talking to fellow writers and readers does make for a welcome change of pace.
Over on Facebook we went away to the unseen realm as James Chambers, Angel Martinez, Joshua Palmatier, Tamsin Silver and I talked with host Gail Z. Martin/Morgan Brice about the faeries in our fiction. I’ll post a YouTube link when that goes live.
Over on YouTube, you can enjoy Mihaela Marija Perković, Adrian Tchaikovsky and I in conversation as part of the charity event, ConTribution.
If you’re curious about the next Green Man book, you may pick up some clues…
I first met Juliet as one of my tutors at a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor back in December 2016. Oh, what a glorious luxury it now seems to travel all day by train to a remote location and spend a week in face-to-face workshops with a whole group of other writers! I really hope that can become a reality again sometime soon.
Anyway, on this occasion, Juliet ran a series of excellent workshops throughout the week, in tandem with the other tutor, Pippa Goldschmidt. The theme of the week was Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, which was exactly in my wheelhouse. I remember the workshops being very inspiring and the atmosphere at the writing centre very convivial.
The most important lesson I took away from that retreat was the value of external feedback on my writing. Both tutors gave detailed comments on a piece submitted by each writer, and we also had the opportunity to share our work amongst the group to get further opinions. I’ve always struggled with identifying how to improve my writing on my own, so it was great to be able to gather fresh perspectives and utilise them to make the story I had chosen immeasurably better.
Writing can be an isolating activity and getting together with other writers to share and collaborate is always a joy.
I was at an interesting stage in my writing journey at that point. I had completed a draft of my first novel at a similar retreat the year before and was starting to focus more on writing original short stories and trying to get them published.
Reading my newly expanded and polished short story out to the group on the last night of the retreat was a daunting experience, but it was a very supportive group and the enthusiastic response I received really boosted my confidence in my writing.
I also applied the lesson about getting feedback to my novel and sent it out to a group of beta readers, as well as a professional editor, over the course of several rounds of revisions.
The confidence I gained through attending the Moniack Mhor retreat bore fruit over the next few years, as I submitted more and more short stories to various publications and started to see my writing getting accepted for publication. I’ve now had nearly 40 short stories and articles published on fiction sites and in print magazines and anthologies
And, in February 2021, my ultimate dream came true when I finally held a copy of my first novel in my hands.
The military science-fiction short story I refined at Moniack Mhor is still one of my favourites. Even though it’s been rejected by more than twenty different editors, I still have faith in it and I still keep submitting it, because I have also learned that perseverance is the key with writing. I’ve had stories accepted on the first submission and the fifteenth, and I know the perfect home for that little story is out there somewhere. I just need to keep looking until I find it.
Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.
Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!
The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.
So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.
But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.
Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!
The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.
Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.
So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.
I grew up with folklore as a core element of my reading. I don’t just mean the fairy stories that everyone knows, taken from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, commodified and sanitised by Disney. My local library and the primary school bookshelves had numerous collections of folk tales alongside other reading – and as I was reminded just last week by Simon Spanton posting this Book of Goblins cover on Twitter, they were often collected by authors who had written other books on those shelves. Then there were the older books; the collections of fairy tales by Andrew Lang, and George Macdonald’s stories. Victorian editors had softened the sharp edges of these tales, but they couldn’t do away with the strangeness, and that was so often reflected by illustrators like Arthur Rackham in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill.
Some of these collections were themed – goblins, giants, witches – while others were regional – tales from the Orkneys, from Cornwall or Wales, to name but a few that I recall. Either way, these stories belonged in the world where I was living rather than some fantasyland, even if I couldn’t see what was going on in the shadows. As a voracious reader, I saw no division between these traditional stories and the fantasies written by Tolkien, Lewis and Garner. There were the same otherworldly beings in the Hobbit, Narnia and underneath Alderley Edge after all: wizards, goblins, elves. The folklore books also had darker, scarier things, and stories with uneasy endings that didn’t offer the consolation of some of those fictional narratives…
As an adult, I turned to reading scholarly and still very readable analyses of folklore, by writers such as Diane Purkiss. As a fan of local museums, and of National Trust and English Heritage visits, I would pick up books of local tales collected by antiquarians and enthusiasts. I began to see the depth and breadth of the folklore that still endures in rural England. I continue to see the extent of such mythology’s influence, as I recognise these stories from passing mentions in literature from Shakespeare to Kipling and right up to the present day.
At the same time, I come across half-tales and references that make it clear how many stories have faded away for lack of telling, leaving only tantalising traces. I discovered that mystic beings we think of as ancient archetypes have been recreated comparatively recently. The Green Man, the Horned Hunter, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Oh, the images are ancient, but the tales that went with them have all but vanished. Looking at the ways these things have been reimagined, when and by whom, is an ongoing fascination.
All told, these varied aspects of our folklore legacy offer me tremendous scope as a writer. I am able to draw on a familiarity with traditional fairy-tale creatures and themes that readers may not even be aware they have acquired. At the same time, I have a free hand to weave in those stray fragments and the strangeness that I come across to enrich my new story with surprises. As I write these particular books, I become more and more aware that I’m working in an age-old tradition as I do so.
Hopefully you’ll have noticed that the excellent small press ZNB (Zombies Need Brains) are running a Kickstarter to fund three new anthologies, titled THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY, DERELICT, and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, containing approximately 14 all-original (no reprint) short stories each from established SF&F authors in the field and new voices found through an open call. The fundraising is going well, so we can hope to reach some stretch goals. Do check it out!
Regular readers will know that I’m a regular contributor to these projects, sometimes as an invited author, sometimes through submitting to the open call. The thing is though, I’m really not a natural short story writer…
A great many authors will tell you they have an instinctive length when it comes to writing. That can be novel, novella or short story. It’s the sweet spot for their imagination, where ideas come together most effectively. For me, that’s most definitely the novel. It has been said, with perfect justification, that my early short stories read like excerpts from a longer work.
So that’s the first thing. I want to improve my skills in this particular area. Short stories, in anthologies and as standalones are having a resurgence just at the moment. That’s thanks to the ease of digital downloads, a smartphone in every pocket or bag, and the way short-form fiction is ideal for a commute. That makes the short story an ideal way to introduce readers to my writing, so if they like it, they can look up my novels. But it has to be a good short story, and that’s why I always want feedback from professional editors so I can learn how to create my very best work. I get that advice from ZNB projects, without fear or favour! That advice doesn’t only help my short stories. Learning more about the differences between different forms of fiction hones my novel writing as well.
The second thing? Ask any author where they get their ideas from, and they’ll tell you lack of ideas is never the problem. The challenge is knowing what to do with them. My wide-ranging research reading turns up a whole lot of interesting possibilities which are often nowhere near novel-length material. Short stories offer me the chance to get these intriguing tales onto the page. My story for last year’s Alternate Peace anthology is a case in point. I’d read Bill Bryson’s book on the remarkable summer of 1927, and quite some while later read a much less amusing book on the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-1919. These books had nothing to do with each other at first glance, but that’s not how this works. If I put together that piece of information from one book and a passing footnote from the other, as well as a few more ‘what if?’ possibilities from both, I got an intriguing idea… I wasn’t sure it would make a novel though, and in any case, my other writing commitments would make that impossible. But this idea was ideally suited to this collection’s theme.
Thirdly, you never know where a short story will take you as a writer. Before ZNB was born, Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray edited a couple of anthologies for the US publisher DAW. One was The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity where I found I had an entertaining idea about dryads in the English countryside facing a road being built through their oak grove. There’s a passing reference in that story to dryads having sons with mortal fathers. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I did find myself thinking about it later though. Long story short? That did turn into a novel-length idea, and that was The Green Man’s Heir, followed by The Green Man’s Foe. Next month will see The Green Man’s Silence published by Wizard’s Tower Press.
So these are three of the things that writing short stories offers me as a novelist. Why not see what these projects can offer you as a writer – and a reader, obviously.