Authors in the Digital Age – a few observations and reservations about an article worth reading regardless.

Just found an interesting article about writing and selling books in this new online reality – from a marketing guru so I read it with salt cellar to hand. Firstly, the guy seems blind to the fact that a talent for writing and a talent for selling yourself are not the same thing and a lot of folk do not have both skills sets. Also he seems to assume that every potential book-buyer is fully accessible online, and the more I talk to people, the more I think that’s a myth.

That said, among the most useful advice I had when setting out, was how important it was to understand the business of writing, as well as the craft of writing. Working for Ottakar’s for a couple of years brought that home to me like nothing else could have done – and made a crucial difference to me taking that step from hopeful writer with a file of ‘thanks but no thanks/good but not quite good enough’ letters from agents and editors, to getting that amazing phone call from the man who wanted to publish my book – in fact, let’s talk a two book deal…

In particular, there are some undeniable cold hard truths in this article which the sharks and charlatans of the ‘creative writing biz’ work so hard to hide. Namely misconceptions about writing.

* The publisher will do the selling for me (Those days are long gone).
* I’m a literary purist and selling is below me (Good luck making money off of snobbery).
* I’ll post a free e-book on Amazon and wait for everything to take care of itself (Enjoy the long wait).
* I don’t have time to write and sell my work (The problem isn’t time; it’s prioritizing your time)

Full article here.

Who Gets to Escape? Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown ask a fascinating question.

These two extremely talented authors are currently working on Kaleidoscope – an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy. This is a crowd-funded project, or hopefully it soon will be. Click that link to get involved.

Meantime, Sherwood and Rachel have written a thought-provoking post considering the nature of protagonists in fantasy fiction, taking a quotation from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” as a starting point.(Longer than my excerpt here)

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?

The key word here is ‘he’…

As the post goes on to say –

While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape.

Furthermore –

…the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination.

These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.

I urge you to read the whole piece, and you’ll see why this has particularly struck me, especially at the moment when the focus on epic fantasy seems to be defaulting to male writers and male stories for no good reason at all. This has been particularly notable in some conversations I have had about The Hadrumal Crisis, a trilogy where two of the three main point of view characters are women and yet interviewers ask me about ‘the hero’ Corrain. While they recognise how flawed he is as a hero, that’s apparently still his default designation.

At the same time, reader and reviewer reactions to Lady Zurenne, a woman whose story is driven by the fact that she cannot escape, are varied to say the least. Patrick Mahon’s joint review of Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies in the latest BSFA’s ‘Vector’ magazine describes her as ‘manipulative and calculating’. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing with this review – it’s a thorough and thoughtful analysis of those books which I’m delighted to see – and he’s not wrong. He also sees why she acts as she does, going on to say ‘- although this is to some extent understandable, given her need to secure the future of her two daughters…’

The thing is though, I’ve spoken to readers and seen comments from men and women alike who have even less sympathy for Zurenne, while they’re able to give Corrain much more leeway when his attempts at manly heroics don’t succeed. And again, just to be clear, I’m not arguing with those readers’ reactions. I don’t get to dictate those, writer or not and none of those folk I’ve spoken to are making unfounded assumptions based on anything other than the story in hand. From the books as written, that is an entirely valid response.

Yes, I’ve been a little surprised, since that’s not what I expected – but it doesn’t bother me, since there are plenty of other readers with immense sympathy for Zurenne. I am certainly intrigued though, wondering why this might be so. And I think this question ‘Who Gets To Escape?’ may well hold some element of the answer.

Definitely something to think on.

Unexpected Journeys – Editing an Anthology for the British Fantasy Society

This has been a whole new experience for me. I’m used to reading my fellow authors’ published work for review purposes, and I’m used to reading submissions from aspiring writers when I’ve been teaching. But putting on the Editor Hat and discussing work in draft from my professional equals? That’s not something I’ve done before…

Why have I been doing this? Well, I’ve been going to FantasyCon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual UK convention for the past decade or so and last year, Lee Harris, the current Chair asked me to edit a new anthology for the BFS with a particular focus on epic fantasy. I understood what he was asking and why. The BFS is a fan-run organisation with a focus on speculative fiction from horror to epic fantasy. It so happens most of the volunteers, who do all the very hard work without which such organisations simply cannot exist, have been personally more inclined towards the horror end of the spectrum and this taste has been reflected in the society’s publications – one of those unintended consequences.

Meantime, the growing attendance at FantasyCon (an event open to all, not just BFS members) has shown the keen appetite for epic fantasy among those attendees, not least in the packed-out rooms for the fantasy-discussion panels and the interviews with Guests of Honour such as (but not limited to) Raymond Feist, Gail Z Martin and Brent Weeks. So this year sees two anthologies from the BFS, one horror-themed, and one specifically epic fantasy, to cater to all tastes.

When I agreed to take this on, I had quite a few decisions to make. Some were easy. At the project’s outset, I was doing my second stint as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was Chair of the forthcoming Eastercon, EightSquared, scheduled for the last weekend in March 2013. So there was simply no way I could declare this an open-submissions anthology and give the necessary, critical attention to however many hopeful stories might land in my inbox. I just wouldn’t have the time. This was going to have to be an invitation-only anthology.

What sort of stories would I include? I decided I wanted tales which appreciate the core strengths of epic fantasy; compelling heroes (male and female), battles with swords and sorcery, facing down evil both intentional and accidental, a sense of myth and mystery. I also wanted to celebrate the way our beloved genre is currently flourishing with so much more than simple tales of high adventure or the concerns of kings and wizards. Epic fantasy now offers complex stories of personal growth, of mature reflection, exploration of the rights and wrongs of power. These novels feature people and places from hovels to palaces, enriched by so many more cultures and history than the genre’s original quasi-European inspiration. All threaded through with magic, danger and wonder.

But who to invite? This really was the hardest decision of all, because the collection was only going to have eight stories. I could so easily list a couple of dozen excellent authors currently writing the sort of stories I wanted without pausing for thought. So I have done my best to find writers with different styles and approaches spanning the current breadth and depth of epic fantasy. Hopefully there will be something to satisfy each reader’s particular enthusiasms alongside something they haven’t encountered in their reading thus far, whetting their appetite for more.

The stories are –

A Thief in the Night by Anne Lyle
Seeds by Benjamin Tate
Steer a Pale Course by Gail Z Martin
The Groppler’s Harvest by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet by Liz Williams
The Sin Eater by Stephen Deas
King Harvest Has Surely Come by Chaz Brenchley
The Queen’s Garden by Kate Elliott

Reading these in draft was definitely a new experience. I’m used to being edited myself but now I was the one looking to nit-pick and ask awkward questions as I put myself in the place of the reader unfamiliar with this author and their work. Fortunately, working with talented professionals, there wasn’t too much of that to do, and our discussions were very amiable. Then I had to pick up my red pen and copy-edit, looking at the fine detail of the actual word-smithing. Actually the main thing I had to do was put my red pen down and sit on my hands, to make very sure I was only highlighting things which needed to be changed for clarity and flow. The temptation for me as an author, to think how I might have written a sentence differently, had to be sternly resisted. Otherwise I risked overlaying the rhythm and character of another writer’s prose with elements of my own writing style. That’s most definitely not an editor’s job.

Then I had to find some cover art. ‘Oh… help…’ was my initial reaction – swiftly followed by ‘thank goodness for the Internet!’ I began browsing various genre artists’ websites and discovered that, as well as their published covers and other art, some were displaying pieces of work which had been commissioned but for some reason or other, had never been used. These were available to be licensed. So I began hunting in earnest for such a picture which would somehow simultaneously manage to reflect the very different stories now gathered together. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find ‘Soldier and Sword’ by Geoff Taylor – one of epic fantasy’s most enduring and admired artists (among his other work – if you haven’t seen his wildlife art, do check out his website).

And now we’ve been doing the final proof-reading and the book is due to go to print. That’s both a relief, as the job’s finally done, and unexpectedly nerve-wracking, as I must wait to find out how far readers think I’ve succeeded in my aims. In the first instance, those readers will be current BFS members and those who join in the forthcoming months. Obviously, the authors retain the rights to their stories and they will doubtless appear elsewhere to delight their fans. For the moment though, this book is a gift from the British Fantasy Society to those who support it and I am very pleased to have been a part of the project.

soldier_and_sword-geofftaylor4
Soldier and Sword by Geoff Taylor

My very first Science Fiction short story has just been published! Wait… what?

Let me explain. Yes, of course, I’ve had a good number of short stories published since I began writing professionally. Not nearly as many as some writers but then I’m not an instinctive short story writer. My natural length is the novel – and it’s been said – with justification, especially about my early short work – that my short stories often read like extracts from a longer tale. Less so as I’ve gone on writing, since my appreciation and understanding of the differences between various writing lengths and styles has grown.

But almost all of my short fiction has been fantasy – some lighter, some darker, a few even verging on horror. Apart from that I’ve had a crack at steampunk a couple of times and I’ve written a few media tie-ins, for Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. There’s a sort-of-time-travel one waiting for the relevant anthology to be published as well.

But Science Fiction? A modern-day setting with y’know, actual Science at the heart of the story? Not before this one. Yes, I was surprised as well. And I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to come up with a decent idea when Mahiri Simpson got in touch and asked if I’d like to offer a story about women designing the perfect man.

A fascinating premise… So what would I personally like to see… What are some personally memorable moments for me, in the ongoing battle of the sexes? Well, there was that famous tennis match, wasn’t there, between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King… And I keep reading news stories about women working in science having to fight for respect…

Well, if you want to find out where that sort of thinking led me, you can read my story, Game, Set and Match? in Tales of Eve (ebooks via Wizards Tower Bookshop), published by, and available in a range of formats from Fox Spirit books.

Alongside stories by Paul Weimer, Alasdair Stuart, Fran Terminiello, Colum Paget, Andrew Reid, Rob Haines, Ren Warom, Suzanne McLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky

Will I write more SF? I think that will depend if someone offers me a concept that intrigued and inspired me as much as this one!

Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.

A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?

This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.

I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.

Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.

Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.

Clockwork Universe – Steampunk vs Aliens Anthology!

Here’s something you may well be interested in supporting. You’ll hopefully recall the two splendid anthologies I have had stories in, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray – namely ‘The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity’ and ‘After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar’. Well, they’re at it again and this time, via Kickstarter.

Initially, this will fund a science fiction and fantasy anthology – CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE: STEAMPUNK vs. ALIENS, containing approximately 14 all-original short stories from established SF&F authors — including Bradley Beaulieu, Caitlin Kittredge, Gini Koch, Scott Lynch, Gail Z. Martin, Seanan McGuire, and Ian Tregillis. There will be others, obviously.

Including me? Dunno, just at the moment and that’s not what’s important here.

Because this project is more than that. It will help start a new small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC – a publishing house focused on original anthology projects open to outstanding authors, regardless of their publishing house affiliations and spanning the gamut from bestselling authors to new, previously unpublished voices.

So do check out the project, not least to see the splendid initial artwork for the Clockwork Universe anthology.

At the moment, you’ll see an excellent rate of progress towards the final goal, so now’s an ideal time to chip and see the project’s stretch goals reached – and to help establish this new publishing venture.

Further reflections on the writing life from Judith Tarr

After my own recent piece for Fantasy Cafe reflecting on changes in the UK book trade since I was first published, I have naturally been fascinated by this series of articles by Judith Tarr, hosted on Catie Murphy’s blog, considering the changes she has seen over her much longer career. Thoughtful writing, well worth reading, for all of us interested in book trade issues whether as readers alone or readers and writers.

Escaping Stockholm Part One

Escaping Stockholm Part Two

Escaping Stockholm Part Three

How ten years and more hard work is the basis for overnight success!

Have just heard from a chap I’ve known on and off for oh, a couple of decades, friend of family friends kindathing. He’s long wanted to be a writer. He’s written a few things I’ve seen and commented on – very overwritten, as I recall, but that’s nothing surprising in a writer’s development. We’ve all been there.

But an awful lot of would-be writers stop there, because they’re convinced what they’re writing is perfect. These days they go down the self-publishing route, convinced that ‘traditional publishing’ is biased against their genius or some such.

Not this guy. That last piece of his that I saw? He tells me “sent the book to an editor, got torn to shreds, learnt from my mistakes, moved on. . .”

He’s written plays to improve his dialogue – and had them published and performed. He’s sent out spec film scripts and got useful feedback from Hollywood. He’s been all through the cycle of agents’ letters saying ‘thanks for the novel, no, it’s not for us, but here’s a good deal of relevant feedback’.

Now he’s written The Novel that’s been picked up by a highly reputable agency, who offered it to some excellent publishers who ended up in a bidding war and a multiple book deal for very respectable money has resulted.

This really is splendid news to start a Monday, as far as I am concerned 🙂

And yet another instance of that arcane and mystical secret to publishing success – persevere and write a good book!

I’ll share more info as and when things go public.

Women in SF&F Month – Inequality of Visibility for Women Writers

Over at Fantasy Cafe, April has seen a truly splendid array of posts by female writers exploring a wide range of issues relating to women’s writing, recommending any number of great books, highlighting some of their own favourite authors, flagging up examples of favourite sorts of characters – and more besides. Treat yourself to a good long browse.

Given my year so far has been majorly taken up with the Arthur C Clarke Award and with EightSquaredCon – UK’s 2013 Eastercon, my contribution is what’s turned out to be a lengthy piece examining the lack of visibility for women writers – how it arises, what it means and why it matters. Because it does matter – to us all, irrespective of gender. You can find the piece here.

Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

Here’s an interesting question posed on Twitter by Sally Hyder – why are there no disabled female heroes in books? Is this because readers won’t accept it? Or is that the publishing fear, not the reality?

I’m indebted to Kate Elliott for flagging up Oree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms as an example of such a female – while acknowledging they are extremely rare.

Why is this? I don’t have any answers – but I am now pondering on my own, related experience. I have a crippled male hero in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution – in modern terms, he has cerebral palsy and is closely modelled on a friend of my teenage years with CP in what he can and cannot do, his attitudes, frustrations etc.

Neither editors nor readers have had any problem with him as a character – indeed, he’s been seen as an interesting twist on Alpha-Male heroes. But when we were discussing cover art, one major US book chain’s representative was very, very anti the notion of a man on crutches on a book jacket – he reckoned that would be the commercial kiss of death.

Well, we’ll never know. Subsequent reader reaction would indicate that was an unrealistic fear. But I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I’ve had too many well-informed Americans conclude that the (superb) cover art contributed to Southern Fire’s failure to find a US audience.

That’s a male disabled hero. What about a female one? I would be much more cautious about writing one of those – especially following some hostile reader reaction to Lady Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis books. More women than I would have expected have been infuriated by her inability to cope – in the first instance – with being widowed and subject to male domination in a patriarchal society. They have found her thoroughly dislikeable – without, thankfully, condemning me as a betrayer of the sisterhood. That would be difficult given the presence of a very empowered magewoman, Jilseth, in these books.

The thing is, I can understand that reaction to some extent. I have read far too many books in the past couple of years where a woman’s role is still to be marginalised, patronised, passive and victim – apart from the minority of instances where she’s a menacing and/or vengeful bitch.

So I personally would be very wary indeed of including a disabled female character in a book without her condition being absolutely central and necessary to the plot. And then I would have to work very hard indeed to make her absolutely not a passive victim – and that would be very difficult indeed, in a narrative set in any kind of pre-modern society where reader expectations would be set by their own assumed knowledge of the historical disempowerment and invisibility of such individuals.

Now, having friends and family who’ve lived and worked abroad, often in developing countries, I know for a fact that viewpoint is more than a little skewed. When my parents lived in West Africa, we would see men and women who’d lost limbs to accident or disease out and about, making a living. Because otherwise they’d starve. We would see the mentally impaired and infirm being cared for by their families. A society needs to attain a certain level of wealth before they can warehouse the disabled out of sight.

But how to convey to the reader that their assumed knowledge is wrong without the benefit of out-of-story footnotes? It would be a very interesting writerly challenge – and if I had the right story, it would definitely be worth trying. But it would have to be for the right story, not just trying something for the sake of it.

Oh and by the way, any writer wanting to tackle this challenge should start by reading books like Sally Hyder’s own memoir, Finding Harmony. Sally has Multiple Sclerosis, not that you’d ever know it from her online conversation, unless she’s in the middle of plotting something like getting to the top of Ben Nevis in a motorised wheelchair.

As I say, it’s interesting question – and I don’t have any answers. Anyone else got any comments or observations?