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.
As I get The Green Man’s Silence ready for publication, this is very much on my mind. One of the central elements of these books is showing recognisable, everyday normality alongside the supernatural that’s so close even if most folk can’t see it. That’s a key part of their appeal. I’ve been careful not to date these stories so far too precisely, but they have essentially reflected the years when they’ve been written. I researched and wrote this forthcoming book through the winter of 2019-2020 and that’s what you’ll see on the page.
What do I do now? If I show Dan’s life as it would be without the current pandemic, then the next book becomes a fantasy that’s far more distinct from the new abnormality that we now realise will be with us for an ongoing and indeterminate time. Will readers want that added escape, or will the disconnect with their current lives be too jarring amid the ongoing everything?
But is the alternative even worse? Not going to lie, I have been thinking about the ways that the UK lockdown, and the dire economic consequences we’re now looking at, will affect Dan and Blithehurst where he works, as well as the people he knows – and yes, how the dryads and others will react. I have quite a fun short story idea…
Except none of this is remotely fun. My family are so far unscathed, but the total of people I know personally and professionally, who’ve suffered a family death due to Covid-19, is now into double figures. This is serious for us all, and heart-breaking for tens, if not hundreds of thousands, in the UK alone. Won’t putting that grim reality on the page alongside myth-based puzzles and perils simply wreck reader suspension of disbelief?
I am reminded of the rewrites to the end of Western Shore, the novel I had finished writing just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. A tidal wave formed a large part of the backdrop to the conclusion. My editor and I agreed that had to be changed, no question about it. Readers seeing awful news footage in their mind’s eye as they read would ruin the book for them. Add to that, as happened to at least one writer whose book with an incidental tidal wave was just about to hit the shops, there was the risk of being accused of callously cashing in.
So I am pondering these questions, and thus far, not finding any answers. Your perspectives and observations are welcome.
I’m making a concerted effort to have less news and more fiction in my non-work time, for overall morale reasons.
So I spent some time this morning reading a rural contemporary crime novel I will not name because it is so poorly written. By page three it was already an exercise in noting ‘what not to do’. E.g. slang from my mother’s era from contemporary teens, data dump on every page, and DO NOT get me started on the detective protagonist’s alleged martial arts skills. (Yes, drink problem, wrecked home life and ‘maverick’ attitude to authority forgiven on account of results.)
Zero evidence of research was evident throughout the quarter I managed to read before giving up. Knowledge of current police procedures appeared to come from assiduously viewing Midsomer Murders. Swearing added for grittiness had all the subtlety and ultimate pointlessness of a half brick lobbed into a garden pond.
Why am I mentioning this? Because perversely, it should be a encouragement to aspiring writers. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has been better than this! And yet, this saw print and numerous sequels for the very easily pleased. This author sells by the shedload in the US apparently. As an astute publisher realised would likely be the case.
No I’m really not going to say. That would be unprofessional as well as unkind. This author clearly gets a great deal of pleasure from writing as well as interacting with their readership. Horses for courses and all that.
Instead I will wholeheartedly recommend Alex Grey’s ‘William Lorimer’ crime novels set in Scotland. Read one of those yesterday. Very readable indeed. Well constructed and fast paced, solid characterisation and the right balance with contemporary true crime in the news.
As regular readers will know, I’m a great fan of ZNB’s anthologies, both as a writer who regularly contributes and also as a reader. The themes are always intriguing, drawing out entertaining stories, while the rigorous editing ensures a high standard indeed.
Add to that, ZNB always hold open submission slots for debut writers. They hold these stories to the same high standard and that means this is a publishing credit well worth having. So I invited Joshua Palmatier to share a few thoughts for the benefit of those looking to place a story with one of this year’s proposed publications.
Zombies Need Brains’ latest Kickstarter started up on August 7th and, with the possibility of an open call for submissions if we fund, I thought that I’d spend some time talking about how you can better your chances of getting from the ZNB slush pile into one of our anthologies. The competition is pretty steep and only getting worse with each Kickstarter. (Last year, PORTALS had 550 submissions alone and we ended up taking seven; we had a lot of anchor authors for that one, though.) I’ve talked before about how to brainstorm your way to an idea that isn’t standard, but also isn’t so far out there it’s off theme. So let’s suppose you already have an idea of what you want to write. A core concept.
As you can guess, that’s not enough. We get a ton of stories submitted where, when I’ve finished reading the story (and I usually read all of the stories all of the way through, just in case), I end up saying, “OK, that was a cool concept, but there isn’t a story here.” In essence, the author wrote out their idea, but they haven’t yet taken the time to develop a story around that idea. And that’s key. It’s extremely rare for ZNB to accept a submission based on idea alone. This is why we rarely accept stories less than 2500 words or flash fiction–it’s not that the writing isn’t good, it’s that it’s difficult to get across a completely developed story in that short a timespan. It’s possible (I think we’ve accepted one or two in our past anthologies), but it’s rare.
The biggest element missing from the “only an idea” story is a character arc. Don’t get me wrong, there’s usually a character in the story, but the character is only there in service to the idea. The story needs to be turned around. The idea should be in service to the character, causing the character to change in some way throughout the course of the story. That’s what’s typically missing in the stories that I read from the slush. I want to be drawn into the characters and change along with them. So the character needs to be interesting, sympathetic, and above all engaging.
After capturing my attention, you need to hold it, so the pace needs to be fast. Remember, this is a short story. Each word needs to matter, so keep things tight and focused. Don’t let yourself wander into subplots and secondary threads or secondary characters, as you would with a novel. Keep yourself on track with the main idea. You can always expand the story later on into something larger if you want, but for now, focus. If you’ve already written the story, then during revisions you need to look at the main idea and cut everything else out. Narrow the story down to whatever is needed for the idea and the character arc. Everything else must go. Tighten, tighten, tighten.
Along the way, make sure that the character arc you’ve developed actually relies on the story concept. They can’t be two separate threads that you just happen to have woven into one story. If you remove the cool idea from the story, does the character arc still hold up? If the answer is yes, then you haven’t really found the story behind that idea. The character arc should collapse when the cool idea is removed, making the story impossible. The character’s change during the course of the story should come about BECAUSE of the cool concept.
So, when thinking about submitting a story to ZNB’s slush pile, start with a cool concept. Build an engaging character arc around that concept. Mesh the two together. Tighten the prose. Let it sit for a few weeks, then go through and tighten it again. Because that’s what we’re looking for: a tight, focused story where a cool concept and interesting character arc merge into a stunning work.
Now, take these words to heart, sit down, and write that story. Good luck!
This post is brought to you by the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter currently going on at tinyurl.com/ZNBApocalypse. Swing on by and check out the details for the three new anthologies we’re hoping to fund, including APOCALYPTIC, GALACTIC STEW, and MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK. Pick a reward level that suits you and back our project! We can’t do an open call for submissions unless we get funded. And once we are funded, sit down and brainstorm a cool idea, write it up, and send it in!
JOSHUA PALMATIER is a fantasy author with a PhD in mathematics. He currently teaches at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York, while writing in his “spare” time, editing anthologies, and running the anthology-producing small press Zombies Need Brains LLC. His most recent fantasy novel, Reaping the Aurora, concludes the fantasy series begun in Shattering the Ley and Threading the Needle, although you can also find his “Throne of Amenkor” series and the “Well of Sorrows” series still on the shelves. He is currently hard at work writing his next novel and designing the kickstarter for the next Zombies Need Brains anthology project. You can find out more at www.joshuapalmatier.com or at the small press’ site www.zombiesneedbrains.com. Or follow him on Twitter as @bentateauthor or @ZNBLLC.
The Green Man’s Foe is published tomorrow and since I’m not taking a laptop to the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, I’m posting this today, before I travel to Ireland. I want to acknowledge the part that my first literary agent, Maggie Noach, played in this story. One of the underlying themes of this particular novel is the idea of legacy, good and bad, and that has a particular resonance for me, in the unusual way this novel has come to be written.
As well as representing my epic fantasy fiction, while I wrote The Tales of Einarinn, and The Aldabreshin Compass, Maggie encouraged me to take my writing in other directions. She knew and loved the Cotswolds where I live, and more than once, we discussed the sense of history and folklore that’s so embedded in the local woods and villages. I wrote a draft of a novel about a country house being turned into a hotel, and a visitor from London who gets drawn into its secrets, that may or may not include the supernatural.
We were discussing how to improve on that, when all of us who knew and admired Maggie were devastated by her untimely death on 2006. Over the next few years, in between other projects, I went back to the novel a few times, and tried a couple of different approaches. Somehow, whatever I ended up with was never quite right. Looking at the dates on the files on the hard drive, I see that I last revised it in 2010 before finally setting it aside.
The success of The Green Man’s Heir in 2018 meant a great many people were asking me hopefully about a sequel. I certainly wanted to write one, but what would it be about? Frankly, I was at a loss until quite suddenly one day, when we were on holiday in the Lake District and I wasn’t even thinking about work, I remembered those drafts were still tucked away in my computer archive. When we got home, I searched out the back ups and realised I had the detailed setting, background characters and a framework of events that I could use for a whole new story, where Daniel has no doubt about the supernatural threat to this country house hotel project.
Once I stared writing, everything came together in a way that my attempts to rework that early draft novel simply never had. I only wish that Maggie was still with us to see the end result. I have no doubt what she would say. This all goes to show that no writing is ever wasted. That is most definitely part of her legacy to me.
One thing about writing a book set in the modern world is the challenge of finding character names. The business of naming epic fantasy characters is straightforward by comparison. Make sure they’re easily pronounced, and coherent for the society where they belong, and you’re pretty much good to go.
But when you’re dealing with the current day, the first thing you must do is stick whatever combination of name and surname you’re using into a search engine. Believe me, you will find pages of people called exactly that – and you need to take a look at the results to make sure you’re not inadvertently libelling anyone. This is particularly important when it comes to villains.
The cautionary tale for authors is what happened to Jake Arnott, in his crime novel, Johnny Come Home, published in April 2006, pulped in August 2006. It turned out that unknown to Arnott, there was someone with the same name as his appalling bad guy, working in the same industry, at the time when the novel was set. You can read the details here.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been finishing up The Green Man’s Foe. In particular, I’ve noticed how much things have changed since I wrote the very different novel that’s given me the setting and a few other things that are now the basis for Dan’s new challenge. Those other things include some minor characters. When I first wrote that other novel, I made sure even the most passing named characters had no presence online. Double-checking as we did the edits, I found a whole lot of instances where that’s no longer the case. So many more people are online these days that you can lose hours trying to find a no-results combination.
Well, I’ve changed a few names, and left ones where there really is no chance of a non-villain being mistaken for someone who lives in a different country and works in an entirely different industry. But even so, I will be careful to make sure that the standard disclaimer is in the book’s front matter, making it clear this is a work of fiction and no resemblance to any real people, living or dead, is intended.
Well, apart from one cameo appearance – but that would be telling…
Moving on, this week’s Book Quote Wednesday word is ‘luck’, and Dan’s got a new job, but will this turn out to be a stroke of good fortune? You’ll find out in due course, and meantime, here’s this week’s taster.
We walked along the corridor that ran in a U shape around this floor, with windows overlooking the mossy courtyard at the heart of the house. As Franklin opened successive doors, I saw that all the bedrooms had views looking outwards to the gardens and the woods beyond.
Something occurred to me. ‘This must be a listed building?’
‘Grade two.’ Franklin was unconcerned. ‘We’ve been through everything with the planning people. The Suttons did extensive alterations before there were any regulations to stop them, putting in dressing rooms which will be ideal for bathrooms. They had all the panelling to work with, so you can’t even see the joins. Old Aunt Constance’s father, John, had political ambitions, and plans for hosting house parties with the rich and powerful. Luckily he lost all his money before he could ruin the place.
He continued walking. I followed him around the next corner and came face to face with a display case of stuffed birds, where a mangy ferret glared at me with baleful glass eyes. Those could go straight in the skip.