My best books of 2017 – A personal overview of my reading year

There are inevitably lists of ‘Best SF Books of…’ such as this one from Barnes and Noble  but with the amount of books on offer from this year and from previous years, it’s almost impossible for any one person to keep up with everything that’s on offer, so this is my very subjective list of the best books I’ve read this year. Some are newly published, others aren’t. Most are SF, but not all.

Rivers of LondonBen Aaronovitch: Rivers of London – Peter Grant #1
This was my year for catching up with Ben Aaronovitch and his Peter Grant series. I’d been meaning to read them for several years, and not managed to get round to it, but I’m so glad I finally made the effort. In fact though I’ve only names the first I would like to include the whole lot in this recommendation. So far that would be: Rivers of London, Moon over Soho , Whispers Underground, Broken Homes, Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree (books 1 – 6). I also read the novella, The Furthest Station which slots into the sequence at #5.7 and the graphic novel, Body Work which slots in at  #4.5. What can I say? Marvellous. A mixture of urban fantasy, police procedural and the supernatural with young British policeman, Peter Grant, suddenly falling into the world of magic when he sees a ghost while helping with a homicide investigation. That brings him to the notice of Nightingale and The Folly, the Met’s department of magic that no one likes to talk about. I love all these books and read them quickly, one after the other. Especially good is Peter’s cheeky voice, often with added pop-culture references, but quickly snapping to attention when things get serious,. Nightingale as the mentor is very old school British but the rest of the cast of characters run the gamut of inclusivity. As you would expect in multi-cultural London the characters are multi-ethnic, too, from Peter himself who is mixed race to Guleed and Kumar. And it doesn’t stop there. There are half fae plus a housekeeper who has more teeth than seems strictly necessary and a strange culinary relationship with offal. The overarching story is a puzzle to be solved and I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.

 

Wedding Bells Magic SpellsLisa Shearin: Wedding Bells, Magic Spells – Raine Benares #8

I didn’t realise there was going to be another Raine Benares novel after everything seemed to be all set for a happyeverafter in Book 7, but I’m delighted to find that there is. All the old favourites are back again as Raine, Elf soldier Michael and dark Goblin lord Tam Nathrach try to prevent peace talks between the various kingdoms from being undermined. If Raine thought she’d given up her magical powers when she parted from the soul-sucking stone, the Saghred, she’d better think again. If it sounds as though it’s too much of a leap to start with book number #8 I can thoroughly recommend the whole series, starting with Magic Lost, Trouble Found. They are second world fantasy books that read like urban fantasy with a quick-talking but vulnerable heroine in deep trouble from the word go. The pacing is breathless and each book picks up where the last one left off.

 

BintiNnedi Okorafor: Binti – Binti #1 and Binti Home – Binti #2

#1 This is very short – novella length – telling the story of Binti, a mathematical genius, who is the first of the Himba people (Namibia) to leave home and travel to university on another planet. Her customs are strange to her fellows. She uses otjize paste made from butterfat and ochre paste on her skin and hair – which is traditional because of the lack of water in the hot desert climate. On the way to the university, the ship she is on is invaded by the alien Meduse. Binti is the only survivor and must use all her skills to effect a rapprochement between the Meduse and the people of Oomza University who have inadvertently wronged the Meduse through not understanding their culture.

Binti – Home is the second in the series. When I read Binti, I wasn’t aware that it was the first part of a series of three novellas, and when I read Binti: Home I wasn’t aware that there was still one more novella to come. I’m going to state right at the beginning that I hate cliffhanger endings, so I’m looking forward to the third part to finish off (I hope) the story arc. Basically the Binti novellas are about acceptance of other cultures and miscommunication. When Binti returns home to Namibia of the future with her Meduse friend, Okwu, the first of his people to come to Earth in peace. Binti has become an oddity. Her family never wanted her to leave, now they aren’t sure about her return. It may be the old story of ‘you can never go back’. The third Binti book just dropped into my Kindle, but I haven’t had chance to read it yet.

 

PerditionAnn Aguirre: Perdition – Dred Chronicles #1

Almost a spin-off book from the Jax books, taking a minor character, Jael and making him one of the two central characters along with the Dred Queen. This is set on a prison ship in space where the inmates are left to their own devices and death takes the weak and the meek very quickly. Jael is a new fish, straight off the prison ship, and Dred is one of the bosses who have carved out little kingdoms for themselves. No one there is innocent. Mostly the inmate population consists of psychopaths, sociopaths and mass murderers – those considered beyond redemption. Jael and Dred both have secrets, but no one here is interested. A person is what a person is. This is the sort of book that makes you want to climb in the shower after reading, but it stays with you for a long time. It’s full of blood, guts and excrement, but there are moments of human emotion, too and it’s certainly a page turner, like all of Ann Aguirre’s Jax books. (Also highly recommended.)

 

Mira's Last DanceLois McMaster Bujold: Mira’s Last Dance – Penric and Desdemona #4

This picks up immediately after the last Penric Novella, Penric’s Mission, and should be read after it. Not without cost to himself, Penric has succeeded in rescuing and healing the betrayed General Arisaydia and they are now fleeing across the last hundred miles of hostile Cedonia with Arisaydia’s widowed sister Nikys. And Penric is falling in love. Penric is complicated. He’s inhabited by a demon, Desdemona, who carries the echoes of her previous ten human riders and at any moment they can pop up in Pen’s head offering help, advice, or sometimes unhelpful suggestions. When the trio takes refuge in a whorehouse, Mira, one of the aforementioned previous riders, a courtesan, comes to the forefront with some rather alarming knowledge. No spoilers because it’s funny and sweet, and Penric certainly has to step out of his comfort zone to get them all to safety. Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold is buy on sight. She’s one of my all-time favourite writers (perhaps at the very top of the list, in fact). If you haven’t read any of the Penric stories yet, I heartily recommend them. I would suggest reading them in chronological order, but just to confuse matters there are two more Penric novellas that have come out since this one, and one (Penric’s Fox) slots in before Penric’s Mission, while the other, The Prisoner Of Limnos, carries the timeline forward.

 

LongbournJo Baker: Longbourn

This is supposedly the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants point of view, except it isn’t, really. Yes it’s set Longbourne, and the story of Pride and Prejudice is happening in the background, but it doesn’t do a full Rozencrantz and Guildenstern. I was expecting something like Tom Stoppard meets Jane Austen and in that I was disappointed. The story doesn’t spin round pivotal scenes in Pride and Prejudice and, in fact, continues beyond Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. This is a completely separate story that just happens to be running parallel to the romantic adventures of the Elizabeth and Darcy. Mrs Hill, the cook/housekeeper is keeping everything together while Mr. Hill quietly drinks the sherry and gets on with his somewhat unexpected lifestyle. The story really belongs to Sarah the elder of two maids (though still in her teens) and to James Smith the enigmatic new footman in the household. This is a realistic look at life below stairs. The main characters are the people who have to scrub that white muslin dress clean after Miss Elizabeth has trailed it through the mud. There are fires to light, floors to scrub, chamber pots to empty and monthly rags to wash. We are spared no detail of the minutiae of daily life in the early 1800s. Unlike P&P the Napoleonic Wars feature in a long  middle section detailing James’ backstory, revealing the hardships of the ordinary soldier for whom life is never fair. A measured pace filled with rich detail does lead to a satisfying ending.

 

BoundBenedict Jacka: Bound – Alex Verus #8

Number eight in the series is not necessarily a good place to start and I would recommend reading all of these in Series order. Each book is complete in itself, but an overall plot arc emerges and by the time we ghet to #8 it’s in full swing. Alex Verus is in trouble – again. Or perhaps that should be Alex Verus is still in trouble, because this is a continuation of the trouble he was in last time, under a death warrant from the Mage Council. He’s only managed to sidestep it because his old boss and longtime enemy Richard Drakh has once again got him in his power and this time Anne is involved as well. Alex feelings for Anne are… complicated. This story is spread over a longer period that previous Alex Verus books, but the pacing is still smart and the twists many and various. At last Alex is starting to be proactive and (prompted by Arachne) starting to plan long-term. There’s a twist in the ending that makes me eager to see what happens is Alex Verus #9. I galloped through this in less than a day. Highly recommended.

 

And the rest is historyJodi Taylor: And the Rest is History – Chronicles of St Mary’s #8

I adore Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary. I recommend you start at the beginning with One Damn Thing After Another. This is the eighth and she’s not running out of places to take the story. Still quirky, this is darker than the rest because Clive Ronan is back and he’s even more determined to inflict pain and suffering on Max, her family and all the staff at St Mary’s. There’s some gut-wrenching stuff in this as well as Jodi Taylor’s usual wit. It’s a laugh-and-cry rollercoaster and not everyone makes it to the last page. The history side of it is, as usual, fascinating, from the Egyptian desert to the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

 

Going GreyKaren Traviss: Going Grey and Black Run – Ringer #1 and #2

This is a near future techno-thriller featuring illegal science, military contractors, family values and ethics. When Ian Dunlop’s gran dies suddenly and unexpectedly the teen is faced with a problem. Ian is either going nuts or he has a talent that will make him the target of huge corporations, and he doesn’t know enough about the world or himself to make a plan. Luckily the first people to find him are a pair of military contractors, Mike Brayne and Rob Rennie, with resources, connections in high places, and a conscience. Mike and Rob, though coming from opposite sides of the Atlantic and opposite branches of the magic money tree, are buddies in the way that has been forged by military comradeship. Ms Traviss has always been able to get under the skin of the common (and uncommon) soldier. Though the pacing of Going Grey is measured, it never loses interest, and I leaped straight from this to the sequel, Black Run.

In the sequel, Black Run, Rob’s son and ex, back in England, are threatened by an unseen stalker, so both Rob and Mike have families to protect and Ian’s unique chameleon skills could prove useful, but neither man wants to put him at the sharp end if things get dangerous. Ian proves difficult to keep down, however. He’s learned a lot from his two mentors, the main thing being that if you have friends, you make sure you have their back. You can class this as a near-future thriller, or military SF, but the characters are the heart of the story. Another hugely enjoyable book from Karen Traviss. The third book, Sacrificial Red, is out in 2018.

 

Long Day in LychfordPaul Cornell: A Long Day in Lychford

This is the third Lychford novella from Paul Cornell and I heartily recommend all of them. Lizzy, Judith and  Autumn are the three resident witches of Lychford, a sleepy Gloucestershire town. In the wake of Brexit Autumn is questioning her place in Lychford because of her skin colour, and Judith is struggling to keep herself together and pass on her knowledge to Lizzy and Autumn before it’s too late. When people start to go missing, our trio discover that they are being pulled across boundaries. There’s political trouble at home and trouble in the world of faerie, too. Each woman is on her own to rescue a particular group of strayed humans. Cornell managed to bring real world concerns into the magical world and the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment affects Lychford, too. A thoroughly enjoyable read, though not particularly cosy as the three women’s sentiments are laid bare.

 

ArtemisAndy Weir: Artemis
I finished this yesterday, and haven’t even done a proper blog write up yet, but it’s certainly a page-turner. This time the main character is Jazz (female) who has lived in the Moon’s only city since she was a small child. She’s fiercely intelligent, but pretty much a delinquent, doing a low-pay courier job while running a smuggling racket on the side. She takes on a job that she should walk away from (the money’s too good to refuse) and after that she’s scrabbling to recover frim the consequences. If you enjoyed the problem-solving in The Martian, there’s problem solving a-plenty in this, plus intrigue and nail-biting peril.

 

Mississippi RollGeorge R.R. Martin (Editor): Mississippi Roll – A Wild Cards Novel

I hadn’t read any Wild Cards books before this, but the blurb said it was a good jumping-on point for new readers. It’s the story of a Mississippi riverboat, the Natchez, in the not too distant future. It’s a future in which humanity has been changed forever by a plague which either kills or turns the survivors into Wild Cards – jokers or aces. Aces have superpowers, whereas jokers might have a fox’s ears and tail or maybe half of them has turned into a fish. Each affliction is different. You get the idea. Edited by George RR Martin, the writers are Stephen Leigh, David D. Levine, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Cherie Priest, and Carrie Vaughn. Each writer takes a particular character and sees them through their part in the story. So… the story. The central character in this ensemble piece are Steam Wilbur, the ghost of the builder and first captain of the Natchez. The Natchez herself is both setting and character. She’s steaming up the river with an illicit cargo of illegal joker immigrants. A vindictive immigration officer is close behind. But it’s not only the immigrants who are in trouble, the Natchez herself is in danger, which also puts Steam Wilbur in jeopardy. This is the story of how the ensemble cast fights a triple threat. I now have a dilemma. I can’t decide whether to wait for the next Wild cards book, or whether to go back and start reading the series from the beginning.

 

So that’s it. As the year finishes I’m reading Sandra Underman’s Spellhaven and I already have a number of books lined up on my kindle… some re-reads of Diana Wynne Jones and Andre Norton, Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky, Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, which I managed to miss when it first came out. So many books – so little time.

Do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve enjoyed reading this year. What have I missed? What should I be loading onto my Kindle next?

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My Top Ten Children’s Books – a Personal List

I used to be a children’s librarian (way back) and I’ve always retained my love of books for all age groups. Many of these are from my own childhood, some from before I was born and a few from more recent times, but all of them stand out as personal favourites.

No Going BackMonica Edwards: No Going Back
I loved all of Monica Edwards’ Romney Marsh stories when I was a kid. They are very gentle and of their time (written in the 1940s/50s/60s, though remaining in print and ‘current’ for many years.) Ponies, boats, adventures, a cast of interesting characters. The children are central, of coursem but the adults aren’t conveniently shuffled off in unlikely fashion so the kids can have adventures. Choosing a favourite is difficult because there are so many good ones. (Special mention to Storm Ahead based on the Mary Stanford of Rye lifeboat disaster which Monica Edwards experienced as a child waiting on the shore.) No Going Back is the one where the four protagonists are beginning to grow up and a special relationship develops between Tamzin and Meryon. Well, about time, too. Sadly these books are all long out of print, but you can pick some of them up from used bookstores at wildly varying prices.

PennK. M. Peyton: Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer
Patrick Pennington (known as Penn) is the school’s bad boy, out of control, self destructive, and heading for disaster, but he’s also a musical prodigy – a pianist with huge potential. This book has dated a little, especially the details of Penn’s secondary school (1970s) and the power the teachers had to make a student’s life miserable, but read it as a historical novel. The characterisation is excellent. Penn, despite being everything you should hate, is actually a sympathetic character because, despite all, he has a good heart. This is the first in a series.

J.K.Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
What can I say? The Potter phenomenon was well underway before I was tempted to read the first one and I was hooked. I didn’t enjoy them all equally (Harry was a bit of a brat in Order of the Phoenix, and the final book suffered from the endless camping trip) but I liked them sufficiently to grab the later ones as soon as they were published.

Horse & His BoyC. S. Lewis: The Horse and His Boy
At the time when I was reading my way through every pony book in the children’s library I stumbled across this. It’s always been my favourite Narnia book. It was my gateway from pony books to fantasy. Lucy had to climb through the wardrobe to get into Narnia, but all I had to do was to open this book.

Alan Garner: Weirdstone of Brisingamen / The Moon of Gomrath
Breathless fiction that sucked me straight in. Visceral writing. A great sense of place. The scene in the tunnels with the backpack gave me nightmares (and still does). My all-time  favourite Garner books. Should both be read consecutively.

Eagle 9thRosemary Sutcliff: Eagle of the Ninth
I’ve always enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing, but this tale of the Romans in Britain and what might have happened to the lost Ninth Legion which marched north from York, never to be seen again, is fascinating. I recall that the BBC children’s adaptation for television was much better than the recent Hollywood movie ‘Eagle’. Just read the book, it’s better than any screen version!

Marguerite Henry: King of the Wind
A Newberry Medal winner. The fictionalised story of how the Godolphin Arabian (one of the three ‘fathers’ of the English Thoroughbred) came to Britain, told through the viewpoint of Agba, the horse’s mute handler. Whether Agba existed or not, the Godolphin Arabian is real. I adored this book as a child.

DogsbodyDiana Wynne Jones: Dogsbody
The first Diana Wynne Jones book I ever came across. I became a fan of hers immediately and remain one to this day. When Sirius, the Dog Star, makes a mistake he’s sent to earth to rectify it – as a dog. Very neat.

Elyne Mitchell: The Silver Brumby
I loved this book so much during my pony phase that I’m almost scared to try and read it again, though it’s still sitting on my bookshelf. It’s all from the horse’s point of view – about a wild stallion, a brumby in the Australian Outback.

Dodie Smith: The Hundred and One Dalmations
The book from which the Disney movie was adapted, featuring Pongo, Missis and Perdita, the evil Cruella DeVille and missing puppies. Perdita and Missis were rolled into one character for the Disney animation, but in the book they are individuals.

ElephantsDavid Henry Wilson: Elephants Don’t Sit on Cars
The hilarious adventures (and misadventures) of Jeremy James, episodic in nature, chapter by chapter. The first chapter (the title story) is a gift to anyone who has to read a story out loud. I dare you to do it without breaking into fits of laughter. It’s about poo (and the elephant on daddy’s car). I bought another copy this Christmas for a small person in my life.

 

Oh, that’s eleven out of ten already and I haven’t even mentioned Leon Garfield’s The Ghost Downstairs, or Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, or even Each Peach Pear Plumb by Janet Ahlberg, which I read so often to my kids that I can still remember it word for word and recite it as a poem.

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NaNoWriMo – almost the halfway point

My current project is the third book in my Rowankind trilogy, due for publication by DAW in November 2018, but because publishing always takes longer than you think it’s going to, I need to send in my finished piece (for editorial comment) by the end of February. I’m aiming at a finished length of 130,000 words, but I’ll be happy with 110,000 words because I always tend to add a bit more detail at the editorial stage.

So, it’s November and I’m busy writing like mad to keep up with the NaNoWriMo target of writing 50,000 words in thirty days. Today is 14th, and I’m pleased to say that as of last night (13th) I’d hit 26,135 words, just slightly ahead of the curve. Fifty thousand words in a month sounds like a slog, but it’s not really, as long as you write every day. If you can manage 1,667 words a day, consistently, you can do 50,000 in a month. I’m aiming for 60,000 by 30th November, which, I think, is a realistic target.

Of course, though I’ve cleared the decks as much as possible, I still have the day job (my music agency) so It’s not a question of sitting writing all day every day. On the days when I get the opportunity to do that I can manage an easy 4,000 – 5,000 words a day without pushing too hard. On a normal working day I can manage 2000 words.

Chantry today

I would, however, get more work done if I didn’t stop to do a bit of research along the way. I’ve been writing about Ross and Corwen having to solve the problem of  a troll occupying a bridge. They say write what you know, so the bridge I’ve chosen is Wakefield’s Chantry bridge. The chapel, one of only a handful still surviving in Britain, is built into the structure of the medieval bridge (which is probably what has saved it from demolition over the years)

. I lived in Wakefield in my late teens and early 20s so I thought I knew the bridge, however I needed to know what it looked like in 1802. So here, I’m sharing some of my research…

Chantry 1793 Philip Reinagle

The St Mary the Virgin Chantry Chapel was built between 1342 and 1347. Chantries, built by bequests, were established as places where priests prayed for the soul of the deceased. The chapel underwent major renovations in 1848. So I needed to know what it looked like before the renovations. There’s a paining by Philip Reinagle (1793) which gives me the river bank as well as the nine-arched bridge and the little house at the far end, which was built as the priest’s residence.

This is what it looked like from the water in this century. There’s a new bridge now, but the old one is carefully preserved. This old postcard is (I guess) from around the 1950s.

Chatry chapel from the water

It turns out that I passed the original frontage of the old chapel every time I took the bus into Wakefield because the original facade of the Chantry is on the grounds of Kettlethorpe Hall on the outskirts of the city. I don’t know if it can still be seen as I haven’t been back for many years, but you used to be able to see it from the top deck of the Wakefield bus.

Chantry-Chapel-old-facade-pc-l

The chapel fell into other (non religious) use before being restored to the Church of England, and as far as I can tell, in 1802 at the time of my story, it was in use as a library… oh good, a troll who likes books

 

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It’s Official!

With the Psi-Tech Trilogy completed, and Nimbus now in the shops, I’ve signed a contract for the third Rowankind book, called simply: Rowankind, and due for publication in late 2018 from DAW in the USA.

Winterwood front cover-smallIt follows on from Winterwood and Silverwolf, as Ross and Corwen try to stop the Mysterium’s persecution of magic users, particularly the rowankind, in the Britain of 1802. If they don’t succeed, the Fae will take action, and their solution might be radical enough to obliterate King George and Parliament, and leave a smoking hole where London used to be.

The declaration of peace between Britain and France poses a serious problem for the crew of Ross’ ship, the Heart of Oak as they have to make a change of occupation from privateering to something more peaceful. When Ross suggests they find a legitimate trade, she doesn’t mean smuggling.

In the meantime, Corwen’s shapechanging brother, Freddie, is an unhappy wolf which makes him dangerous. Without locking him up, or worse, how will they calm his violent temper?

silverwolf-final-cvr-400Corwen’s sister Lily has fallen for a handsome Mysterium officer, and he for her, but can their love survive the revelation that she’s the very thing that he’s hunting?

It seems that the only young member of the family not in trouble is Ross’ Fae half-brother, David, but wait… David wants to marry his childhood sweetheart, the rowankind girl, Annie, while his Fae father, Larien, has a noble marriage alliance in mind.

At least Aunt Rosie and Leo are happily together now, and no one is threatening the good blacksmith of Summoner’s Well, and his new wife. But Aunt Rosie is worried about Walsingham, mortal enemy to the whole family and to all magical beings in Britain. Ross and Corwen trapped him on a ship and sent him into enemy waters to rot in a French prison, but the same inconvenient peace that scuppered the Heart of Oak’s activities, has released the prisoners, so Walsingham is free again. He may be blind and maimed, but don’t think he’s harmless. The notebook with all his dark spells is missing. Does the pirate Old Nick have it? Can Ross and Corwen find it before Walsingham does?

So there you have it. That’s what i’m writing now. Watch this space.

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The Writer’s Pen

This in not a blog post about writing, it’s about writing implements, specifically fountain pens. You can blame Karen Traviss, because she reminded me how much I used to enjoy writing with a fountain pen, and… well… one thing led to another and now I have a pot of seventeen fountain pens and a bank of fifteen bottles of different coloured inks.

Yeah, okay, they are not going to improve my prose, but I’m really enjoying writing with them.

I keep a bullet journal by my right elbow. It helps me to organise my life because it’s a to-do list, a day book and a things-done list all in one, plus a diary. If you want to know more about bullet journals take a look at Anne Lyle’s blog. All I can say is that it works for me. I’ve been keeping a bullet journal since 2015, and I’ve got my daughter hooked, too. We both keep slightly different styles of journal, but once you acquire the general principle, you can adapt to suit. She has a handbag sized notebook, I have a desktop sized tome. Something with at least 31 lines to a page works best because at the beginning of each month, you write a forward calendar for the coming month with reminders that you can transfer to your day by day journal. (At the beginning of the year you do a twelve month forward-plan, number your pages, and leave space to index the important things you might need to refer back to.) Your daily entries consist of bullet points of appointments, reminders, messages and things to do, either crossed out or with a forward arrow if you’ve not managed to do something but need to move it forward to another day.

All that is by way of saying that I do a fair amount of handwriting. One of the nice things about bullet journals is that they are a pleasure to use if you use a good quality notebook and – yes – a fountain pen.

So, back to Karen Traviss’ reminder and the fountain pen saga.

Karen was crooning over a new Jinhao pen, so it set me thinking, so I wandered out of the office and  rummaged through the top drawer of the desk in the living room – a desk I don’t use for actual work, so things can sometimes sit in the drawers for years. In this case for decades. Right in the back of the drawer I found the pens I knew were there, but had rarely looked at in later years: my late father’s Parker 51, and my own Parker 61. The former was the pen Dad treated himself to when he got his first management job in the 1950s. He lent it to me to do my Eleven Plus exam (yes, I am that old!) and when I passed the exam and got a place at the Barnsley Girls’ High School, he bought me my very own Parker Pen, the 61. In those days – before the availability of the kind of felt tips that are almost indistinguishable from fountain pens – ball points were forbidden in school. It was pencils for writing in our cheap ‘rough books’ and fountain pens for everything else. My Parker 61 has seen some mileage. I may have sat my Eleven Plus with the 51, but I took both O-Levels and A-Levels with the 61, and probably used it throughout college as well. (I have a weird memory gap about that.)

Parker Pens

If not the Rolls Royce of pens, Parkers were certainly the BMWs of their time. Sleek cigar-shaped bodies, hooded nibs and the elegant and distinctive arrow clip on the cap. They wouldn’t still work after decades of residing in a drawer, would they? Surely the ink reservoirs would have perished by now, or the ink so dried up in the nibs that I’d never get them writing again. I had a trusty bottle of Quink Ink (Parker’s standard blue) so with paper towels handy in case of leakage, I filled the 51, and lo… no leakage and it worked perfectly. The 61 has a different fill-system, a weird vac fill that no one seems to understand, but it worked, too. Both pens write like a dream. They glide over paper, smoothly and my sloppy handwriting is suddenly more considered… neater.

My dad died in 1987, but here I was, suddenly writing with his prized pen. It almost gave me the shivers.

As I said, one thing led to another, and my pen pot now contains pens by Pilot, Jinhao, Lamy, Platinum, and Kaweko. I have cartridges in a multitude of colours, and ink pots from Basic Quink and Watermans to Diamine Shimmertastic Enchanted Ocean. Yes, sparkly ink, but subtle, as opposed to my-little-unicorn glittery.

Maybe I’ll write more about some of my newer pen and ink acquisitions in future blogs, but if you’ve never tried using a fountain pen, I urge you give it a try. There are many good starter pens on the market for just a few pounds. It makes writing more of an experience and less of a chore.

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Happy Book Day To Me!

Nimbus front coverMy new book, NIMBUS, is out today.

Let me say that again because it never gets old.

My new book, NIMBUS, is out today!

It’s my fifth published book, and the third in my Psi-Tech universe. It represents a milestone because it completes my first trilogy. I’ve written over half a million words of space opera, and those are just the words that made it to the final cut.

It’s been a learning curve, sometimes a steep one. So what have I learned?

Writing short and adding takes a lot less time than writing long and cutting.
That may seem obvious, but a lot of us tend to write our way into a book, sometimes because we aren’t quite sure of the right starting point. We have ‘story’ in our heads but not necessarily in the right order. I started NIMBUS  four times before I found the right place to start. The other four beginnings were not necessarily scrapped, but they were not suitable as beginnings. One of them ended up being broken for scrap… err… backstory, and two ended up being middle chapters.

Even a pantser can plan when she has to.
Yes, even me.
I’ve always been a discovery writer, writing by the seat of my pants (a pantser, not a plotter.) My usual method of tackling a story is to start with a scene that presents itself particularly strongly. I sit down and write to see where and how far it will take me. At some point, usually between 10,000 and 25,000 words (yes it really does vary by that much) I reach a stopping point, and at that time I sit down and look at what I’ve done and where I think this might be heading. By this time I usually know what the end is (at least roughly), so I scribble a few notes and – hey presto! – that’s my plan. Now, that might work reasonably well for the first book in a series but what about the overall story arc? Exactly! I hear you say. Yes, you’re right. If you’re writing a trilogy, you need to plan. You need a story arc that can be delivered in (more or less) three equal segments, each with its own beginning, middle and (satisfying) end. And the climax of the final book has to provide a payoff, not just for that one book, but for all three books.

Writing the opening of a second or third book is monstrously difficult.
You hope that readers who liked the first book will come back for a second and third helping so that you’re writing for people who already know your world, but there are always those who pick up the second or third book, either without realising that they are coming into a story already part-told, or maybe they’ve just taken a fancy to the cover and the cover copy. So you need to dripfeed in enough backstory to set the scene without giving the whole game away. After all, you really hope that they’ll go back to the first book and play catchup.

You have to like your characters to write half a million words about them.
Fortunately I’ve enjoyed spending time with Cara Carlinni and Reska (Ben) Benjamin. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of telepathy and associated skills. Are they ever likely to exist? biologically, there’s no evidence to suggest that they will, but with a neural implant? Who knows? Cara is an implant-enhanced telepath, able to sling a thought across the galaxy. Ben’s telepathy is weak, but he’s a navigator, that is, he can find his way from anywhere to anywhere else. Cara has trust issues, which isn’t surprising given the nature of her one-time relationship with Ari van Blaiden. Ben’s trust issues are entirely the opposite. He tends to believe the best in people, which either means he’s horribly let down, or the people he believes in truly step up to the plate and become trustworthy. Sometimes he gets a good surprise. I also became fond of some of the supporting characters, so I enjoyed accompanying my characters through a landscape filled with trials and tribulations.

Psi-Tech 2015 6x4sm

Some readers are wary of buying the first book in a trilogy until all the books are published.
Yes, I can understand that. Like many readers I too have invested in the first two books of a trilogy, or the first five only to discover that the author and oublisher have parted company and the concluding part will never see bookstore shelves. No need to worry about the psi-techs. Cara and ben’s story is now complete. It’s available from all good book retailers in the USA and Canada:
Amazon.com (paperback and kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Paperback and nook)
Amazon.co.uk (paperback)

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IAm/Am Not a Word Machine

A reprint from a blog I did for Emerald Musings back in February 2017 – with updates.

Douglas Adams famously said: ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ That may have worked for Mr. Adams and for those writers who have reached that elusive peak in their career where their publishers are grateful for their output, even if it arrives late, but for most of us deadlines are something that we should stick to.

Jacey Office 4At the risk of pointing out a tiny fact that we all know: writing is hard. We do it in a vacuum. There’s no instant feedback for a writer. Nothing that gives us a pat on the back for producing excellent prose, or a tight-knit plot, or solving a particular character problem with a brilliant stroke of imagination. We get exactly the same feedback for three lines of hackneyed prose dragged out of our brain letter by painful letter as we do for five thousand words of sheer genius produced in one wild outpouring of fevered creativity. That is to say: none—at least not at the time.

We stare at a screen and type. The screen stares back. It’s not even grateful for our attention.

So why do we do it? Why do I do it?

To be honest, half the time I don’t know. But the other half of the time I know that it’s the best thing I could possibly do. I write because I have to. I write because I simply can’t NOT write. Sure, I can take a few days off from writing every now and then, but leave it too long and I start to get twitchy. I’m sure a lot of other writers go through the same thing.

Once you get to the stage where someone is paying you to write, however, you encounter deadlines. I love writing. I don’t necessarily love writing fast. I often have other demands on my time: a day job, family commitments, cooking dinner, entertaining guests, taking my mum to the supermarket, walking the dog. Somehow all those things try to take priority over writing because the words can wait. They’ll always be there when I need them. I can take the time to stack the dishwasher and then start to write… can’t I?

The answer is yes… and then, possibly, no. No one is forcing me to pay attention to my writing. The computer screen isn’t screaming at me. The notebook isn’t jumping up and down demanding to go for a walk around the block, however… At the back of my mind, there’s that itchy-scratchy feeling that tells me my characters are at the starting gate and ready for off—anxiously waiting for whatever I’ve decided to put them through today. I need to listen to those voices.

I need the ability to say: sure the dishwasher needs stacking, but no one is going to die because the pots sit around in the sink for a couple of hours. On the other hand, last night I left my characters in a burning building and who is going to get them out if I don’t?

Writing is what I do. It’s a part of me and I need to give it space to breathe. (Listen to John Cleese speaking about creativity and getting into the right headspace to allow it to happen: https://youtu.be/5xPvvPTQaMI) Making time for writing is harder before you’ve achieved publication, of course, because sometimes families/partners/spouses don’t get it. My family didn’t always get it, but they indulged me. Or perhaps thought I was indulging myself, but they went along with it anyway, for which I am eternally grateful.

Like most published writers I spent many years as an unpublished one. I learned that if you don’t finish a piece/story/book and send it out, it will never be published. So if you’re serious about publication you need to apply the seat of your pants to the office chair, and your fingers to the keyboard, and write. You must not only write, but you must finish what you write, revise it, edit it, polish it, and send it out. If it comes whistling back with a rejection, send it out again. And again.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the more stories you send out the more you sell. (Yeah, who’d have thought it?) At the beginning of 2015, I had a spurt of submitting hitherto unsold stories to magazines and anthologies, and also some previously sold stories to reprint and foreign language markets. (I’ve been translated into Estonian, Polish and Galician. How cool is that?) Altogether I sold about seventeen or eighteen short stories in that three-month burst of activity, but after that, I got really busy with the novels and stopped sending out story subs. Surprise, surprise, my short story sales tailed off dramatically.

3bookpsitech

Nimbus, my fifth novel (the final novel in the Psi-Tech trilogy) is out on 3rd October 2017. It’s the fifth novel I’ve sold for publication. If you count the ones I wrote before I got my publishing deals it’s my tenth. Plus around fifty short stories—more than thirty of which have been published. That’s a lot of words. At a rough estimate 1,500,000 words, and those are just the ones that made it to the final edit.

People ask what motivates me. I can only say that it’s a mixture of enjoying what I do and knowing that I have signed a contract to deliver the next book and that I’ve agreed a timescale. If I didn’t enjoy doing what I do, I could never have committed to doing the work. It is work. Enjoyable work. Work I love to do, but it’s work. I have to respect it as such.

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Winner’s Badge 2008

I did NaNoWriMo 2016, that’s National Novel Writing Month. (I first did it in 2008, and I’m doing it again in 2017.) During the month of November, you sign up to the NaNoWriMo website and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. If that sounds a lot when you break it down to a daily rate that’s 1,666 words per day. That sounds much more manageable, doesn’t it? It’s just a tiny bit longer than this blog piece. Of course, it doesn’t always work out at a steady 1,666 words per day, but I finished my 50,000 words on 29th November 2016. NaNoWriMo was originally for inexperienced writers, however, I know a lot of published writers who now pace themselves alongside NaNo, entering daily word counts into the meter on the web, racing their NaNo friends and other writer colleagues. You only count the words you write in November, of course, but since I started out with 19,900 words on 31st October, by the time I got to 30th November I had 70,000 words of my upcoming novel in the bag. I had a few slow days, but there were also days in the high two thousands, one day at just over four thousand, and one day at just over ten thousand. What I’m saying is that I’m not a word machine. I have poor days and brilliant days, but I keep my eye on the target and get there in the end.

2book-RowankindAnd that’s what I have to do when I have a book to write and a deadline looming. These days it’s the fashion for science fiction and fantasy books to be long. DAW, my publisher, tends towards long books. My historical fantasies, Winterwood and Silverwolf, are 133,000 and 134,000 words respectively. My science fiction (space operas) are around and 170,000 words, and I’m just beginning work on Rowankind, the third in the Rowankind fantasy trilogy. I’m aiming for 130,000 words, but I’ll be happy to finish the first draft on 100,000 – 110,000 words, at which point I’ll look and see where the gaps are and add in extra on the first revision pass. I used to write long and cut, but now I tend to write short and add.

Revision is all about getting the book’s structure and plot right, making sure the characters are well fleshed out and there are no great, gaping logic holes. I’m one of those writers who enjoys working on revisions and edits, adding in, moving round, taking out, smoothing off. Writing would be a difficult job, indeed, if you only liked one aspect of it.

Advice? Well, the one thing I would say is to stick with it. Being a writer is not an easy option, but if it’s for you, then you already have the drive to write. Listen to your inner writer and get those words down. The one thing you should know is that all writers have slow days and fast days. We are not machines, so don’t expect miracles of yourself, but do expect that if you keep going you will get there in the end. Good luck.

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