We went to the Earth Trust/Dig Ventures festival of discovery on Sunday. We listened to two talks by teams of young, enthusiastic archaeologists discussing the finds from digs around Wittenham Clumps. One was on everyday objects, and the other was on ancient animals. In between, we had a very nice lunch, strolled around the local landscape, and went to the pop-up museum where a small selection of the thousands of finds was on display.
I expect many of us have seen Roman tiles with cat and dog prints left when the clay was still wet. This is the first time I’ve seen a fox leave its mark.
Then there were the mystery objects, such as this. I always ask Husband what he thinks. After studying it for a few moments, he proposed a use that one of the archaeologists confirmed is their experts’ current best guess.
Apparently a feature of Bronze Age sites is ‘pots in pits’, and there’s much discussion about what deliberate deposits of selected items might mean. Rituals linked to ‘end of use’ are generally proposed, though it’s impossible to know whether these marked, for example, a death, the demolition of a dwelling, or moving away from an area. One such pit here is particularly interesting as the objects deposited are a well-used, smashed pot, broken loom weights and a 4 year old sheep. When swords and other weapons are deposited in water or pits, they are deliberately broken to put them beyond use. Is this a similar ritual involving objects associated with textile production? Sheep for meat were usually slaughtered by the end of their second year. Beyond that, they were primarily kept for wool. What does this tell us about spinning and weaving and those who did it? That these women and their skills were respected with such rituals? What does that tell us about these ancient people and their society? Maybe it wasn’t all mighty-thewed warlords defending helpless women and children?
Another speaker observed that ‘hillfort’ is increasingly considered a misnomer for enclosures ringed with ditches and banks, as modern archaeology increasingly indicates they weren’t built for defence, not primarily at least. People could retreat into them at need, but for most people, most of the time, these appear to be trading and gathering centres, possibly seats of power for tribal leaders. Where did the people come from to trade and meet? DNA work on burials on this site is still pending, but at least two skeletons have been interpreted by bone experts as likely of African heritage.
This got me thinking about where that term ‘hillfort’ had come from. Field archaeology pioneers from the 1850s onwards started surveying and excavating these landscapes. The British Empire was at war with someone or other through most decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. How much did that background noise of perpetual conflict influence these men to see such earthworks as military and defensive? What assumptions followed? You only build defences when there’s an enemy out there. Therefore anyone new must be an invader! But what if that initial assumption is wrong? The the whole framework collapses. Finds that have been interpreted to fit that world view should be reassessed. This is just one reason why I find current archaeology so fascinating.
Since one of my personal lenses for viewing history is its use in world-building for fantasy writers, it’s apt that the next creative writing article from my archive is on this very topic.
The Uses of History in Fantasy
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.
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.
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!
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
My last post highlighted the biggest misconception I see about being a author these days. Feedback has included people asking perfectly reasonably and politely what I might have to say about the reality of being a writer in 2023. Fair enough. Here are some of the things that come up most often in conversations about this.
A lot depends on what you’re looking for as an author starting out these days. Do you have to pay the rent/mortgage/bills? Are you looking for a secondary income? Most authors start out part-time. A few go full-time later.
Authors supporting themselves through writing alone work extremely hard – and I mean flat out – at some combination of writing for multiple publishers, in multiple genres/media i.e. comics, film, TV, audio drama, computer games, franchise and tie-in work, ghost writing and more besides.
They often also write e.g. general or specialist non-fiction, newspaper features, articles for trade press and corporate in-house publications, advertising copy, greetings cards – anything that involves communicating with words basically. The list is endless.
Writing alongside a day job is absolutely valid. There’s a good chance your writing will be better for that lack of pressure. ‘Succeed or starve!’ is not a good motivator. Where access to healthcare depends on employment, you need a job. One day you will need a pension.
I know writers with just about every conceivable day job, including being house spouse/duty parent/carer. Writing around other responsibilities does not make your writing a hobby. Nor does having a supportive partner. Professional is a state of mind. It is not defined by earnings.
By all means submit to the big lists, but also look beyond the lure of the mass-market, global publisher deal. Find out about smaller presses publishing books like yours. Their deals may well offer better returns for the writer per copy sold and more regular payments, as well as more personal and committed working relationships. Initial publication with a reputable, professional small press is a well established and respected route to a deal with a big publisher. Writers can learn a lot and hone their skills. Look at recent literary and genre prize short lists and those authors’ subsequent careers.
Always do your research and never sign a contract without getting professional advice. Always remember if a deal looks too good to be true, then something somewhere is wrong. Beware of sharks and charlatans and just plain incompetence.
Print on demand and ebooks have changed the business models on backlist income and shorter form fiction. Digital audiobooks have changed that market. Digital-first publishing is another innovation. The pace of change is rapid, which is why you need to keep up to date.
Retain as many rights as you possibly can, grant rights for a defined number of years and make sure all rights have a clearly set-out reversion clause. If none of that means anything to you, or if contract negotiation really isn’t your thing, get professional advice. Talk to the Society of Authors or your local equivalent writers’ organisation. Contact some literary agents. Yes, having a agent will cost you, but having 75% of a decent chunk of change is better than getting 100% of a pittance.
By all means consider self-publishing, in this age of ebooks and print on demand. Be aware that success defined as making a living doing this means non-writing tasks will demand minimum 50% of your available time. Offering a quality product is crucial. You must pay for professional editing. Unless you have the skills, you’ll need to pay for layout, cover art, design. Discoverability is a massive hurdle. Marketing is hard.
In conclusion, bearing in mind I signed my first publishing contract is 1997? Write because you want to write. Write because you enjoy it. Write because other folk enjoy reading your stories, however long or short they may be. Write to make money on the terms that work for you personally. You don’t have to justify those choices to anyone. Good luck!
The publishing trade press has been discussing the stresses and disappointments felt by debut novelists these days. The response on social media from established authors has been … not unsympathetic but it has certainly been bracing in offering a reality check. This article from David Barnett is a good reflection, and contains much good sense.
There’s one aspect I’m not seeing mentioned though, and this is important.
My greatest concern is the new writers I meet who have been taught by magazines, books and creative writing courses, to believe that the old business model of advances plus royalties from backlist will equal a modest living after a few years – as long as your well-written and edited book finds a readership and nothing disastrous happens.
That business model is dead as the dodo and has been for years. It relied on an ecosystem of multiple mass-market book shops in the high streets which has disappeared, and the book sellers we still have don’t carry backlist because well over a decade ago, publishers decided (for good reasons for their business model) to make titles over 18 months old firm-sale only. I frequently have to explain what that means. That came as a huge relief to one several-books published writer baffled by the lack of sales for her earlier books because no one had ever told her this.
The book trade has always relied on the 5-12 books a year reader, and a great many of those readers now make their choices from the limited selection of perfectly good books they are offered in the supermarkets. So the old rule of thumb that 20% of titles make 80% of a mass market publisher’s profits no longer applies. It’s more like 5% of titles bring in 95% of the revenue these days, and mass market publishers focus their efforts accordingly. They’re in business to make money.
Yes, this is a highly simplified view, and there are a whole lot of other factors at play, as I’m sure many of you reading this will be very well aware. The thing is though, I meet far too many new writers who don’t even know this much. Would-be authors have a responsibility to educate themselves about the realities of the book trade, from publishing to retail – but agents and editors could do more to check what misconceptions debut novelists have brought with them, and to make sure they’re up to date.
So that’s how the book trade doesn’t work these days. How can authors hope to make a living then? That’s a perfectly reasonable question, so I’ll consider that in my next post. After all, I’m still writing after all these years. Here’s my latest book for your consideration.
It’s all go at the moment, and in the best way. This coming Saturday 18th February, I’ll be taking part in the British Fantasy Society’s online February event. I’ll be on a panel at 1.45pm GMT discussing Hard vs Soft Magic Systems, with LR Lam and Steve McHugh.
Before that, at 1.30 I’m on the Author Readings schedule when I’ll be reading from The Cleaving for the very first time anywhere.
There’s a whole roster of great writers reading through the day, plus another panel on approaches to world-building, and an interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is always worth listening to. You can find out full details and more besides on the BFS News page – click here.
On 14th March, I’m on a panel for the Society of Authors At Home event, discussing making a living from writing with children’s author Abie Longstaff and poet Katrina Naomi, chaired by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (also known as the crime writer Sam Blake). This will be a reprise of our very successful event at last year’s London Book Fair where we lay out the realities of the book business and suggest ways to maximise your earning opportunities. Full details here – and like all online SoA events (apart from the AGM) this will be open to members and non-members alike.
I’m also having a lot of fun recording some interviews this week, with the Fantasy Fellowship for their YouTube channel, and for the Read Write podcast. I’ll post links when those are available for you to enjoy.
And there’s more to come!
The ongoing Twitter fiasco makes it harder and harder for authors to connect with readers in the ways we – and publishers – have come to rely on. So please share your enthusiasm for recent books you’ve enjoyed on whatever social media you use. Whatever the route, word of mouth recommendations sell books and those sales keep writers writing.
Another response seems to be a revival in blogging. Not that it ever went away. I’ve had the opportunity to answer some interesting questions from The Big Bearded Bookseller and you can read that interview with a click here. Readers, writers and illustrators as well as booksellers should definitely be aware of this website which offers a wealth of information.
I will now do my bit with a review of The City Revealed by Juliet Kemp, published by Elsewhen Press. The hardback and ebook are out and the paperback is published on 20th February.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever reviewed the fourth book in a series without having read the others. Why do that now? Well, I find Juliet Kemp an interesting writer to talk to, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of their work. So when they offered me an advance copy of their forthcoming novel I was quick to say yes. Obviously, I could have gone and read the previous ‘Marek’ books first – The Deep and Shining Dark, Shadow and Storm, and The Rising Flood, but I decided not to. One of the serious tests for an author writing the next book in a series, is not demanding a reread of what’s gone before. I’m pleased to report that Kemp more than meets this challenge with unobtrusive recap which reads as naturally as backstory in a first volume.
The city of Marek faces multiple challenges. Declaring independence from the neighbouring ruling power hasn’t gone down well with those erstwhile overlords. Whose will now hold the highest authority in the city itself is hotly debated, and not only among the powerful Houses of the ruling Council. The Guilds are determined to have their say, while other factions in the wider population have plenty to say about the Guilds. There are different schools of thought on the different schools of magic which come with various limits and costs. When it comes to sorcery, what some see as opportunity, others see as threat. But magic is central to the city’s defences, and there’s every reason to expect an attack.
Marcia, House Fereno representative on the Council, is trying to handle all these things at once, while she’s in the final weeks of a pregnancy. She still has to work out how she’s going to co-parent the baby with her friend and sometime lover Andreas while sustaining her relationship with her girlfriend Reb. Just to make life that bit more complicated, Reb’s a sorcerer. This is one of a range of relationships among the characters, along with varied expressions of gender and sexuality. Why? Because that’s simply how life is in this particular fantasy world and it’s not the world we live in. This facet of the book shows how far epic fantasy has come since the days of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. Other aspects of Kemp’s world-building have moved on from such default settings. There are guns and broadsheets and the complexities of trade and geography, all conveyed with a deft touch.
At the same time, Kemp understands and shares the fascination with the core themes which have sustained this genre for so long. We see different characters’ responses to change and upheaval. We see tensions between moderates and radicals, and the struggles of those longing for progress with those who seek security in the status quo. Some people look for allies, others only want personal advantage. Others just want to shut their eyes and hope it all goes away. Kemp makes these people solidly believable, in their flaws as well as their strengths, through well-written dialogue and convincing interactions. Readers will care about these characters, even when some miscalculation leaves us wanting to shake someone till their teeth rattle. This makes for an eminently satisfying narrative where the personal, the political and the magical are multilayered and interlocked. A book – and a series – well worth checking out.
Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.
However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.
Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.
In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.