Family plans were interrupted when our grandkids came down with a tummy bug and were unable to travel so 2023 didn’t start out so well for either us or them, but on 6th January my mum, Joan Lockyer, celebrated her 98th birthday and we were able to skype with kids, their spouses and children. No one threw up, so that was a win.
Mum’s fast losing her short-term memory, but she can still tell the tale of riding back home from a dance in the next village on the bonnet of her friend’s father’s milk float – in such a dense fog she had to call out where they were in relation to the wall. No lights, of course as it was during the Second World War blackout
She was quite a stunner in her youth.
So, birthday over, it’s time to work. I’m currently editing my first YA book, The Midnight Rose, based on the Tam Lin traditional ballad (as collected by Francis James Child in the middle to late 1800s). It’s a tale of captured knights, a vengeful fairy queen, a determined heroine, and the question of who is to be sacrificed to Hell at the end of seven years. I’ve added a few twists without taking it too far from the original story, and I’ve set it in the present day. Too heavy for YA? Maybe. We’ll see what my usual publisher says. I’m just writing it at the moment. Where it fits in the market is not for me to speculate (yet).
I first heard the ballad on an old Fairport Convention album, in the days when the late Sandy Denny took lead vocals. Powerful stuff. Have a listen.
I’ve blogged all my reading (and listening) over on my other blog at Dreamwidth https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/ so if you want detailed reviews, please go check it out. Several of these books were absorbed via Audible, especially the Lois McMaster Bujolds, Terry Pratchetts, Diana Wynne Joneses, and T Kingfishers, which were all re-reads, as were some of the Jodi Taylors. Yes, I admit to doing a lot of comfort reading in 2022. It seemed like a good idea given all the external news. (But I’m not going to get into politics here.)
This list is mostly fiction. I tend not to include much non-fiction reading because if I’m reading for research I don’t tend to read from cover to cover in a linear fashion. There are three exceptions.
Standout fiction includes (not counting the re-reads) several books by John Scalzi – in particular The Kaiju Preservation Society. I loved tMartha Wells’ Murderbot books (thanks for the recommendation, Tina Anghelatos). At long last, I managed to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, which was excellent. There were some new Jodi Taylors, A Catalogue of Catastrophe (St Mary’s), About Time, and Santa Grint (Time Police), which are always on my pre-order list I read the second Naomi Novik: Scholomance book (The Last Graduate) which was very enjoyable. I finished the last two Janitors of the Post Apocalypse by Jim C Hines. I’d like to include a special mention for Sebastien de Castell;s Tales of the Greatcoats – a collection of short stories about the Greatcoats, which is a sequence that I love. I must mention Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, a first contact story with a difference. oh, and I almost forgot Dennis E Taylor’s We are Legion (We are Bob), the first book in the Bobiverse.
Three writer friends had new books out this year. Liz Williams (Embertide), Juliet E. McKenna (Green Man’s Gift), and Karen Traviss (Mother Death.) Embertide and Green Man’s Gift are set in rural England, Mother Death in a post apocalyptic Earth, and colony world. All very different, all worth reading.
Marshall Ryan Maresca is last but not least. I’ve read a couple of his Maradaine books before, but The Holver Alley Crew is particularly engaging.
I’ve probably missed some that I should be giving special mentions to. Go and read my reviews if you want more. Here’s the full list;
Scalzi, John: Fuzzy Nation
Lois McMaster Bujold: Paladin of Souls – Five Gods #2
Simon Beaufort: Deadly Inheritance – Sir Geoffrey Mappestone #6
Genevieve Cogman The Untold Story – Invisible Library #8
Una McCormac: Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope
Terry Pratchett: Mort – Discworld #4
S J Bennett: The Windsor Knot
Terry Pratchett: Night Watch – Discworld #29
Terry Pratchett: Equal Rites – Discworld #3
Jacey Bedford: The Amber Crown
Adrian Tchaikovsky: Elder Race
Sebastien de Castell: Tales of the Greatcoats – Greatcoats #5
John Scalzi: The Dispatcher – The Dispatcher #1
John Scalzi: Murder by Other Means – The Dispatcher #2
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters – Discworld #6
Meagan Spooner: Sherwood
Peng Shepherd: The Cartographers
Sean Lusk: The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley
Anna Harrington: A Relentless Rake
John Scalzi: The Kaiju Preservation Society
Jodi Taylor: A Catalogue of Catastrophe – St Mary’s #13
Lianne Dillsworth: Theatre of Marvels
Elizabeth Vaughan: Warprize – Chronicles of the Warprize #1
Bernard Cornwell: The Winter King – Warlord Chronicles #1
Olivie Blake: The Atlas Six – Alexandrian Society #1
Davies, Russell T and Cook, Benjamin: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter
Thanking Jacey for her kind invitation to write a guest blog entry I would like to tell you a little about German (language) SFF literature. This does not claim to be in any way complete, of course.
We have quite a large number of German (Austrian, Swiss etc.) writers in the fields of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and assorted subgenres. Internationally, you will, however, never come across the large majority of books produced in German.
Whereas many English novels get translated and published in German, only very few German books find their way into the English book market, mostly those few which became huge bestsellers in German, like e.g. Frank Schätzing (The Swarm) or Michael Ende (The Neverending Story).
To be honest, we writers of German fiction sometimes find it just a tiny little bit aggravating to be crowded out by this vast English language book market. But then I, too, read more books in English than in German. So I suppose I am in no position to complain.
Since the situation is not likely to change, some of us have started to self-publish our books in English – German contracts permitting. Of course, we employ native speaker editors. We feel we should at least make an effort to give the international readership a chance to take a look at what we have to offer. Maybe it would make a nice change?
In the SF and alternate history sector it Dirk van den Boom comes to mind whose books (a Prussian steam warship of the 1900s gets lost in the Roman Empire) are available in English through his own and his small press publisher’s efforts.
The lucky pros who recently made it: Bernhard Hennen succeeded in getting some of his multi-volume “Elfen” saga published in English. Markus Heitz also got a small selection of his novels onto the English market. Wolfgang Hohlbein managed to find a school book publisher who published some of his books in easy English for those school kids who would rather read about dragons than about the “Catcher in the Rye”. Cornelia Funke evaded the problem by being a US resident and thus perceived as a native speaker.
I wrote my early novels in English first and then – when I had finally grasped the fact that I would not be able to sell them to the English market – translated them into German and got them published by German publishers. The English manuscripts have been sitting on my computer for years and only when Covid started sweeping across the world I was reminded of this “mortality thingy” and thought it would be a shame to have those novels rot in a file. Morbid, I know. But then I am German.
So my historical fantasy series “Steam Age Quest” is out in English – with the last novel still being edited. The novels are stand-alone adventures, so even if the last one is not out yet, the others can be read without coming up against a cliff-hanger.
The books are set in the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Austrian Empire from 1865 to 1867: This is the period in which King Ludwig II started building all those wonderful castles in Bavaria, while in Austria a rather unruly Empress Elisabeth struggled with Imperial etiquette and more often than not ignored it. In Germany and Austria these monarchs are as famous as maybe Queen Victoria in England: they set a framework of a romanticized historical era known (at least superficially) to pretty much everyone. They are, however, only the stage setting for my characters.
I grew up in Bavaria, know Austria quite well, and I also hold a university degree in history. Choosing this period and location therefore came natural.
Of course, I also just can’t resist intrepid heroes and heroines struggling against fate, monsters, misunderstandings, magic and sometimes temptation. The characters in my books may be evil or good, or at least trying to be the latter ‑ with varying degrees of success.
“The Fey” or “na Daoine Maithe” are the universal terms for every non-human monster or supernatural critter that haunts reality in the here and now or intrudes from different planes of existence. The educated class of the era believes neither in their existence nor in otherworldly locations. The preceding Age of Enlightenment has eliminated a lot of “superstition” and so magic is seen to be sordid or simply a fraud and best not mentioned in polite society. Much easier to close your eyes and think of… steam power.
Most steampunk or historical fantasy stories tend to take place in London. But as much as I love London it seemed already a little crowded with adventurers and spooks of the most diverse kinds to be in need of my menagerie of monsters, men and magic.
I love going to the cinema. My Best Beloved? Not so much. He’s set up a home cinema in the recording studio (his domain) and prefers cinema to come to him. So my cinebuddy, H, and I go to the cinema on Tuesdays, either morning or afternoon, to see every SF and fantasy movie we can find (though not horror). We go to the Showcase, Leeds, which to confuse matters is actually closer to Batley. It’s one of the posh cinemas with fully reclining chairs and plenty of room for people to walk past even when you are fully reclined. No more having to stand up, grab your coat and handbag, and scrunch back when Mum, Dad and five kids shove past you, scattering popcorn, and muttering excuse-me-sorry-thank-you to get to the other end of the row.
But the comfort of the cinema, nice though it is, can’t make up for lacklustre movies, and that seems to be all that’s been on offer for the last few months. Maybe it’s because we’re still in the shadow cast by Covid, but there have been very few recent movies we’ve emerged from with that wow feeling. Yes, OK, maybe the Bond movie, No Time to Die, was predictably high-stakes, and the new Top Gun: Maverick was excellent, of course. There was Thor Love and Thunder in August, which I liked, but H wasn’t so keen on. The Railway Children was quite sweet – it was a slow week and there were no SF/F movies to be consumed.
I was away and then H was away through most of September, but then we were looking forward to October because Black Adam looked as though it was going to be good. Sadly, it wasn’t, though I’ve seen reviews that say the opposite. There was a lot of action – so much that it became boring. I like Dwayne Johnson, he’s got great comic timing – what a pity he wasn’t allowed to use it. Then last week we made the mistake of going to see Ticket to Paradise with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. (Yes, another slow week for SF/F. It was all horror movies for Halloween.) If you’ve seen the trailer, don’t waste your money on tickets, you’ve already seen the best bits.
Yesterday we went to see Deus. A mysterious black sphere appears in orbit around Mars and an intrepid six-person crew of explorers are sent to investigate. I have mixed feelings. Set in space, the visuals were decent. It was lovely to see Claudia Black (Farscape, Stargate) in a major role. She aced it. Sadly the plot had enough holes to drive a bus through, but though the pace was measured (a euphemism for slow) I wasn’t bored. There was an exam at the end. I had to fill in H on the plot because she fell asleep. Luckily she didn’t snore. There were only four of us in the cinema. The other couple were on the same row with a four or five seat gap between us. The chap was snuffling, sniffing and blowing his nose. Hopefully a cold, not Covid, but since lockdown I’ve not only been Covid-free, I’ve been cold and flu-free, which is marvellous. If I catch a snotty cold, I’m blaming you, Mr Snuffly-Man.
Anyhow there’s a new Knives Out/Benoit Blanc mystery due on 23rd November. The first one was good, so I guess I can suffer Daniel Craig’s American drawl if the plot is tight. The trailers promised Avatar: The Way of Water soon. Fingers crossed that there are some WOW movies coming up between now and Christmas. I’m particularly looking forward to Wakanda Forever which should be on next week.
Have you got a BOB? What’s in your Black Out Box? Are you prepped? This winter is already looking like another Winter of Discontent
This was the first one. On February 15, 1972, the Central Electricity Generating Board announced that many homes and businesses would be without electricity for up to nine hours a day for the foreseeable future due to the miner’s strike.
I’m old enough to just about recall those power cuts when our local library brought in huge things that looked like canons which were some kind of paraffin heater crossed with an electric fan. They were hugely inefficient and, quite frankly, stank. I honestly can’t recall what we did at home during the power cuts. I suspect we toughed it out with extra layers of clothing and flasks full of hot water for tea.
I suspect that’s what we’ll be doing again.
Except this time, I’ll be making sure my laptop is fully charged and my main work drive instantly swappable from my desktop machine. (I’ve already got a UPS unit to make sure I can close my computer safely. My kindle will be close to fully charged and also my phone (which goes on charge every night) and which I use for downloaded audiobooks (amongst other things). That should keep me going for a while.
Keeping warm. I already have some fingerless gloves which I often wear while I’m typing. With the current and projected cost of gas and electricity we’ve already cut down on the time we have our central heating on. It does an hour in the morning, an hour at lunchtime and then comes on at teatime for a few hours. I have a snuggle blanket over my knees in the office and a thick jumper on top of a thin one. (Layers are the way to go.)
Jumpers? (Sweaters to my North American friends.) Yes, I knit. Quite a useful hobby as it turns out. I don’t do anything fancy, but I can churn out a warm sweater in a few weeks if I plod through it while I’m watching something like QI on TV in the evening. If it’s a simple enough pattern I don’t need to look at my fingers while I’m knitting.
We still have a coal fire in the living room and bags of smokeless fuel in the cellar. Usually, we only light it at Christmas or when we have winter-visitors, but it’s lovely in a power-cut. Our central heating is gas-powered, but of course, the boiler requires electricity to run the timer and the impeller, so it will be coal fire or nothing in the event of an electricity outage. My mum lives next door to us, separate but connected. She is 97 and feels the cold (even when it’s not cold). Her heating is always on at about 24 degrees, way too warm for us. We’ll have to bring her into our living room and give her a quilt and a hot water bottle in the event of the power being out.
Our cooker has an electric oven, but a gas hob, so we should be able to fill hot water bottles, make tea, and boil up a stew from tinned ingredients. Not haute cuisine, but warm and filling. We also have a spare gas bottle for the barbecue, and it’s under a shelter, so we can use it throughout the winter
As a writer and reader of science fiction, some of it post apocalyptic, you’d think I’d be up to speed on what to stock in for the apocalypse.
I have a tinned food stash, not our usual fare, but it’s quick and easy. What else do I need? Water should be fine as the cold water is gravity fed, though having a few bottles wouldn’t be a bad idea. Candles, of course, preferably in safety lanterns – check. Rechargeable torches with extra power packs – check. Cheap battery-run Christmas tree lights (white, not coloured) and a glass vase to put them in for ambient light – check. First aid kit – check. I have masses of first aid stuff from painkillers and burn salves to cough medicine and dressings of all sizes. I’ve also got an emergency box labelled ‘One big bloody accident,’ as my best beloved has, more than once, come in from a DIY misadventure dripping blood. Actually, he and I are almost equal in the number of times we’ve needed the big bloody accident box. Don’t ask me to show you the gory photos.
But having said all that, when the power goes out, being cut off from the demands of everyday life can be good. When our kids were young, we had an unexpected power cut one winter evening. We huddled around the open fire in the living room, toasting bread over the hot coals (yes, we have an extendable brass toasting fork, doesn’t everyone?) and telling stories. The kids were deeply disappointed when the power came on again, and asked if we could have another power cut – soon please.
I guess you simply have to decide how to tackle a power cut. My recommendation is to settle down and enjoy it.
I’m currently writing a YA adventure set partly in the real world, present time, and partly in the land of faerie (not a nice place to be unless you happen to rule it or be a favourite of the one who does). One of my main characters is a schoolgirl, coming up to her eighteenth birthday. She’s quite shy and slightly envious of her best friend who attracts boys, is outspoken, and takes risks. The other main character is a young man who has been held in thrall by the Queen of Faeries for (in our world) five hundred years, but his own timeline he’s been there for only five years.
My agent’s comment is that I need to dig deeper into my characters. Originally, I wrote the whole book from Jenny’s viewpoint, but now I’ve added scenes from Tom’s. Only true love can save Tom from a gruesome fate and though he’s not trying to trick Jenny, he knows she’s his only chance and so in a sense he’s manipulative, while at the same time treading a fine line between natural attraction and coercion. There are some juicy grey-areas in their interplay.
I always try to dig deep into characters. In my most recent book, The Amber Crown, I have three main characters, each one being the hero (or heroine) of their own story. Valdas failed as the King’s bodyguard, and spends the whole of the book trying to make up for his mistake as a usurper king takes over and the whole country is plunged into unrest. Mirza can speak with the dead in the spirit world, and Valdas’s assassinated king sets her the task of helping Valdas to nurture the seen that he, the king, has sown. Lind is the assassin who killed the king, but he’s having second thoughts now that it’s way too late. All three of them have backstories that make them what they are. Mirza’s fight for acceptance amongst her people; Lind’s abusive apprenticeship at the hands of a master swordsmith; and Valdas’s upward fight through the ranks to find a family of fellow soldiers, more welcoming than the bitter family he left behind him. We learn Mirza’s story early on, but Lind is much more reticent about sharing his secrets until, in a massive confrontation, Valdas draws it out of him. Lind’s is the longest and most painful journey through the book. Does each character get wat they want by the end of the book? Probably not, but they get what they need.
Digging deep into character was probably easier in my Rowankind trilogy, (Winterwood, Silverwolf, and Rowankind) because I wrote that in first person. Digging deeply into Rossalind (Ross) Tremayne’s character from her first-person viewpoint. In the first book, she’s a young widow, captaining her own privateer sailing ship accompanied by a bunch of barely reformed pirates and the jealous ghost of her dead husband.
When I started writing my Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways, and Nimbus) I originally planned to write it in third person point of view from Cara Carlinni’s viewpoint, but I couldn’t do that without intercutting chapters from Ben Benjamin’s viewpoint, too. I even ended up with some of the bad guy’s viewpoint. It was, in the end, the only way I could dig deep.
And so began the letters we were taught to write as a child. It was boilerplate stuff. We didn’t actually care about Aunt Polly’s state of health. As children we all believed that grown-ups were immortal. We barely knew about death, let alone understood it.
Now we are returning to the polite enquiries of our childhood, but the meaning has intensified. I hope you are well means something all too real now that we are two and a half years into a pandemic. Because, believe me, even if we don’t have daily broadcasts from Downing Street giving us the latest death toll, Covid is still with us.
Statistics are hard to come by. There are no longer testing centres. The lateral flow tests are not 100% reliable. My daughter and family are currently going through their fourth or fifth bout of Covid and until today her LF test was cheerfully saying negative when she quite clearly wasn’t. The statistics are, to a certain extent, the result of self-selection. How many people have had a relatively mild case and not reported it?
These statistics are what I’ve found on the government website today.
My best beloved and I have now had all available boosters, as has my ninety-seven-year-old mum who lives with us. She’s the main reason we’ve steered clear of anything that might be a super-spreader event, and still get our groceries delivered (thanks Tesco). My son-in-law’s grandmother died from Covid early in the pandemic when a staff-member brought it into her nursing home and infected eleven elderly residents. Mary had just had her first vaccination, but it hadn’t had time to kick in. So near, yet so far.
The ghods only know what Liz Truss’s government will do about it. They have too much on their plate wrecking the economy to bother with a little thing like a global pandemic. Honestly, I despair! Apparently, they are predicting that the coming flu season will be a bad one. So get your Covid jabs and your flu jabs and stay safe. I’m happy to have any vaccination that’s available. Pneumonia, Shingles. The lot!
Last Sunday we had our first face-to-face Northwrite meeting since January 2020 Only five writers came, in person, out of a membership of twelve, and one member chose to join us on Skype rather than travel to Yorkshire from the Isle of Arran. I connected my laptop to the TV and it almost felt like he was in the room with us. So, with a total of six we critiqued all six submitted pieces, had a leisurely lunch (cooked by me), and generally enjoyed chatting face to face again. And, so far, no one has reported coming down with anything nasty. That’s a win!
So, dear reader, I really do hope you are well, and that you stay that way.
I’m in North Wales in the middle of another Milford Writers’ Conference, a workshopping week for 15 science fiction and fantasy writers from all over the world. This year people have travelled from Japan, California and Nigeria, as well as from the UK. We’re just reaching the end of the week’s critiquing workload. It’s always an exhausting week, but tomorrow we get a day off, and a bunch of us are going into Caernarfon for a wander around and a pub lunch.
My own piece was critted on Wednesday, and I got some very useful feedback which I’ll be incorporating into my revisions. Critiques are always done with the intention of making the pieces better, not tearing them down. It’s not as scary as it sounds. What did I submit? The first 12,000 words of a young adult fantasy novel called The Midnight Rose which I’m really excited about.
We’re having a great time. The group has bonded very quickly. Five of the fifteen of us are newcomers but you wouldn’t guess it from the conversation.
Last night in the library was hilarious. We always manage to get some interesting snippets of conversation taken entirely out of context…
‘I just googled patriotic corset to see what you get.’
I would buy a Milford corset.’
Who doesn’t love Space Jesus?’
I’m sorry, I’ve just had three glasses of wine, my filter didn’t kick in.’
‘My unexpected noise moment was a very different scenario.’
‘Don’t poke the mathematician.’
‘Talking about aliens in swimsuits.’
And that’s not the half of it… I love this week.
While I was here my friend Steve sent me this pic as he found my latest book in the bookstore in Owen Sound, Canada. I love shelfies.
Milford is coming up in September, a week-long workshopping and critiquing week for fifteen published writers of speculative fiction, which covers science fiction, fantasy and horror. Those of us who are going are already sending out our pieces for critique. We can submit one or two pieces aiming for a loose total of ten thousand words (with twelve thousand being the hard cut-off point).
Our venue is Trigonos in Nantlle, North Wales, a wonderful place with its own lake frontage, set on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park.
This is the Milford Method, used by critique groups worldwide, with a few modifications.
Milford rules allow even the shyest member’s voice to be heard.
Constructive rather than destructive criticism is strongly encouraged. It’s the work being critiqued, not the individual authors, so no ad hominem attacks.
The group meets in a comfortable room with chairs drawn up in a circle.
Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand.
Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting.
No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
This is followed by a more general discussion.
It’s customary for the critee to scribble copious notes, but the critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit, anyway, or emails it afterwards.
Milford has had a lot of writers pass through its portals since it came to the UK in 1972, brought across the pond by James and Judy Blish. Anne McCaffrey was the first Milford Hon. Sec. and attendees included Brian Aldiss and Chris Priest. Milford in the USA dates back to 1956, when it was started by Damon Knight and Judith Merril in Milford Pennsylvania. We’ve come a long way since then with hundreds of writers passing through including Alastair Reynolds, George RR Martin, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Liz Williams and Neil Gaiman.
That’s the background, but what’s it all about?
For starters it’s a sociable week. Writing is often a solitary occupation, and so spending a week with a bunch of like-minded people all happy to geek out on SF, writing, publishing etc. is wonderful. Mornings are your own, in the afternoons we have our crit sessions following the Milford Method (above) and after dinner we socialise in the library.
It doesn’t sound like much when you say it quickly but the core of the week is critiquing and being critiqued. In the days before email, writers used to turn up with enough copies of their work for everyone. On the Saturday evening everyone grabbed a copy of every story and the hard work began. We had to read and crit each piece, often barely ahead of the critiquing timetable. The mornings were crammed with words and more words. Now we can distribute our pieces in advance which is much more relaxed. Milford starts in just less than two weeks and I’m already halfway through the critiques. It really does make sense to do as much as you can before the week starts.
Everyone has a different way of critiquing. One friend’s first question is ‘What does the protagonist want?’ Another writer critiques with an emphasis on grammar and writing style. Yet another is looking at the philosophy of a piece, and another is weighing up its commerciality. (Is that a word?)
Personally, I like to give a ‘first read-through’ crit. If a reader isn’t hooked on reading the first few pages of a book or a story, they aren’t going to finish reading. If they are browsing in a bookshop or online, and the first page doesn’t grab them, then they aren’t going to buy it. So… I read through and jot notes in the margin each time I come across something that trips me up, whether that’s a grammatical glitch, or a line of dialogue that’s not attributed, or something that I don’t follow.
We can all make mistakes. No matter how many times we read our own words, we miss the fact that the character has just rubbed his nose four times on the same page of dialogue, or someone has walked through the same door twice in two paragraphs. It might go deeper than that. It could be that there’s a whole page of exposition that’s pure bullshit. I recall one Milford some years ago where a writer had his priest sacrifice a cow by simply plunging a knife into its ribs. We happened to have another writer in the group who was a farmer, and his crit consisted of how to kill a cow with a long blade – in great detail.
Once I’ve done my first read through crit, I go back over the piece to look at the thing as a whole to see how it succeeds (or doesn’t) in what the writer was trying to do. I’m mostly looking at plot, characterisation, and style.
When it comes to my own piece, I look forward to getting micro and macro crits. I want to have all my little mistakes caught as well as to be challenged on ‘what was she thinking?’ or ‘not enough worldbuilding’ or ‘too much worldbuilding in one infodump.’
The thing about Milford critiques is that you get a variety of comments. Not everyone likes everything, of course, but you can be sure that critiques are aimed at making your piece better, It’s the piece being critiqued, not you personally. And at the end of the day you can use the critiques you think are helpful and ignore the others.
This is a blog post full of questions. I don’t have any answers. If you do, then I’m sure you’ll be right. Everyone is right from their own point of view, just like everyone is the hero of their own story.
But also, everyone has a right to disagree. Isn’t that what free speech is all about? But when does free speech become hate speech? When is something not allowed in your country? In your religion? In your opinion?
No one should be above criticism and reasoned response, but say something (write something) that someone takes exception to, and social media quickly amplifies it into a virtual mob with pitchforks.
Does that mean that writers should tiptoe around controversy? Or should they go charging headlong into the middle of it?
If you disagree with something a writer has written, that’s fine, as long as you don’t back up your disagreement with death threats and actual violence. I am horrified by the Charlie Hebdo murders and the Salman Rushdie attack, but also deeply disturbed by reports of death threats to a certain writer recently outed as a TERF. Whatever you think of a person’s personal or political stance, violence and threats of violence are not the answer.
As a writer, I worry about diversity, inclusion, and cultural appropriation. I worry about wokeness and cancel culture. I want to get it right, but there is no single definition of ‘right’. There is no safe space for writers. If someone wants to have their toes trodden on, all they need to do is stick their foot out and some writer, somewhere, will trip over it.
I write genre fiction. I am an entertainer. I’m not here to blow the lid off the latest scandal, or highlight the horrors that are happening in the world today, though I might take a sideways pop at a regime which sends women to prison for thirty-four years for the crime of using Twitter. What’s the worst that can happen? Oh, right.
My characters might or might not hold opinions which are diametrically opposed to my own liberal, leftie leanings. They are entitled to do that, and I’m entitled to let them express their beliefs as the plot requires—preferably without a mob turning up at my door.
In these flammable times, please be kind to each other.
Over on Goodreads there’s a fantasy and sci-fi celebration, each genre list contains 72 books that have ‘ruled’ the field in the last three years. I’m always wary of best-of lists. What good do they do? Sure, they promote a few books, but the vast majority of published books never get a mention.
Anything that increases awareness of science fiction and/or fantasy has to be a Good Thing, but appearing on best-of lists is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get on one, achieve visibility, and suddenly some books by some authors become flavour of the month and are on every list that’s going. Is it really because they are better than anything else out there? There are thousands of brilliant books that are never listed.
I’m not knocking best-of lists, but I see some books on there that I’ve read and consider decent but not brilliant, while some books I’ve read are brilliant and never make the lists at all. Of the ‘72 Most Popular Fantasy Novels of the Past Three Years’ I’ve read seven, and I would only put one of those into a best-of list. Of the 72 ‘best’ Science Fiction books listed on Goodreads, I’ve read precisely two.
So here’s my Best Of list, not in any particular order.
Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes science fiction and fantasy. The Curse of Chalion is the book I would grab as I ran screaming from a burning building. If you haven’t read it yet I envy you because I has such pleasure in discovering it for the first time. It took me a while to get around to reading her Vorkosigan series, but I was wrong to wait. Start with Cordelia’s Honour (an omnibus of Shards of Honour and Barrayar detailing the love affair between Cordelia Naismith and enemy soldier Aral Vorkosigan. Another great starting point is Warrior’s Apprentice, featuring Miles, the son of the aforementioned Aral and Cordelia, who is born stunted and frail into a militaristic society, so he has to think his way out of situations. Admittedly they are usually (but not always) situations of his own making. I’m currently re-reading all these, or rather re-listening, via Audible, and loving them (again)..
Anything by Sebastien de Castell. In particular his Greatcoats books which feature three travelling magistrates appointed by the late king, and still trying to carry out his wishes. Falcio, Kest and Brasti are fabulous characters These four books: Traitor’s Blade, Knight’s Shadow, Saint’s Blood, and Tyrant’s Throne can be read as one long story. There’s a new short story collection out now called Tales of the Greatcoats.
Anything by T. Kingfisher. This is the adult pen name for the beloved children’s Author Ursula Vernon. Mostly she writes fantasy though a few of her stories are on the edge of horror. Definitely in the fantasy camp is Swordheart – my favourite by a short head, though I also adore her Saint of Steel books, Starting with Paladin’s Grace. You’ve got to love a sword-wielding hero who knits his own socks.
Anything by John Scalzi I confess I haven’t read everything by John Scalzi, but based on the fifteen books I have read or listened to, all have been highly entertaining from the six books of the Old Man’s War series, or the three books of the Interdependency, to the standalone books Fuzzy Nation, and the Kaiju Preservation Society.
Anything by Jodi Taylor. Ms Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s are about a bunch of time travelling historians documenting historical events in contemporary time. Disaster magnets all, but a nice cup of tea will often sort things out. Maddie ‘Max’ Maxwell PhD is inaugurated into St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The institution is chaotic and dangerous. Eccentric hardly begins to cover it. Dark, exciting and hilarious in turn, this is a real page turner and yet delivers some real laugh-out-loud moments. The first book is Just One Damned Thing After Another. They are worth reading in order. If you are an Audible fan Zara Ramm is the reader and she captures the ‘voice’ beautifully. Ms Taylor has also written a spin-off Time Police series featuring Max’s son, Matthew, and a thriller series beginning with White Silence set in the same location but with a different set of characters. I’ve enjoyed all of them.
Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series. This is urban fantasy, set in London and featuring mage Alex Verus who always seems to be on the wrong side of the White Council, having once been apprenticed to a dark mage. Alex is an engaging protagonist, a genuine nice guy with decent values, but as the series progresses, he has to examine his affiliations and face up to his dark past if he’s going to have any future. Comparisons with Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels are inevitable, and also with Kevin Hearne’s Atticus O’Sullivan (Iron Druid) books, but it stands up well. The series begins with Fated, and is now completed by the twelfth book, Risen.
Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duo, and her Grisha books including King of Scars. These are magical fantasies written for the YA market all set in the same world, centred upon Ravka. Of all of these, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are my favourites. They are set in the ‘anything goes’ town of Ketterdam, and feature Kaz Brekker and his gang of criminals undertaking a dangerous heist. Kaz has a brilliant criminal mind but a broken soul, which makes him a fascinating character.
Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books The Lies of Locke Lamora is a brilliant book. Locke is a cocky child who grows up into a cocky adult, devising elaborate schemes for his gang, the Gentleman Bastards to part the rich from their money. It’s followed by Red Seas under Red Skies, and The Republic of Thieves. A fourth instalment was rumoured, but it’s been almost a decade and fans are still waiting. But don’t worry, you won’t be left with a cliffhanger after Republic of Thieves, so go for it. Highly recommended.
I could go on: George R.R. Martin, Karen Traviss, Terry Pratchett. Joe Abercrombie, Patricia Briggs, Liz Williams, Ann Aguirre, Paul Cornell, Nnedi Okorafor, Lisa Shearin, Andy Weir, Rod Duncan, Tanya Huff, Genevieve Cogman, Suyi Davis Okungbowa, C.E. Murphy, just to mention a few.
If you follow my blog you might recall I extolled the virtues of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) which has a glorious rundown of Georgian/Regency slang which is invaluable for those of us writing in that period. It’s also a bit of a laugh, trotting out phrases for concepts we did not realise we needed phrases for, such as: A flying pasty is a turd wrapped in newspaper and thrown over your neighbour’s wall.) Maybe that was a thing in 1811. You can download Captain Grose from Project Gutenberg for free or buy a print copy from Amazon.
Yes, project Gutenberg contains some gems.
And then there’s this, written in 1917:
Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases – A Practical Handbook Of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, And Oratorical Terms, For The Embellishment Of Speech And Literature, And The Improvement Of The Vocabulary Of Those Persons Who Read, Write, And Speak English – by Grenville Kleiser (1868 – 1953)
Born in Toronto, Kleiser wrote a multitude of self-help books on writing and public speaking, but Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases is probably the pinnacle of his achievement I often come across inexperienced writers who seem to have swallowed a thesaurus and never use a simple word where a complicated word is available.
If you’re into purple prose then Kleiser is for you. If you want to remind yourself of what to avoid, I recommend taking a look at this. The introduction says: In the present volume Mr. Kleiser furnishes an additional and an exceptional aid for those who would have a mint of phrases at their command from which to draw when in need of the golden mean for expressing thought.
In May I took a week off from real life and went to the Milford Writing Retreat in North Wales. It’s held at Trigonos, a centre for conferences, courses and retreats on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. We hold our annual Milford SF Writers’ Conference there in September, and a retreat week in May. What’s the difference? The September conference is a critique week where 15 science fiction and fantasy writers get together to workshop works in progress. The retreat week is simply time to write, in pleasant surroundings, in the company of other writers at mealtimes and breaks. Everyone has an ensuite bedroom with a table and chair. There are also other quiet corners of the house, or in the grounds, where you can hunker down with a laptop.
This year there were ten writers, all with different work plans, some intensive, some allowing for ‘holiday’ trips out. We missed two retreats in 2020 and 2021 because of Covid, but in a previous retreat Catie Murphy set the word-count record by writing 33,000 words in a week. We decided, then, to make that a new unit of measurement – a murphy being 33,000 words. This year Mike Lewis did 57,000 words in the week, only 9,000 short of a double murphy.
My own ambitions were much more modest than Mike’s this year. I had a very productive talk with my agent on the Friday before the retreat and as a result I had a load of editing to do on my book ‘The Midnight Rose’ which is aimed at the YA/New Adult market. It’s a riff on the Tam Lin story as portrayed in the Child Ballads. It’s a story I’ve always loved, as both a story and a song. My two main characters are musicians and there’s music implicit in the story. Since I’ve lived in the music world as a professional singer with the trio, Artisan, I’ve tried to weave music thoughout the plot.
I did one pass through the story to remove some of the domestic stuff which was not propelling the story forward, and started on adding in some extra scenes to heighten the tension. In total I only ended up with about 3,000 extra words to the total word-count, but by the time the week ended I felt as if I’d really got to grips with the story, and I’m ready to continue working on it.
The company was excellent. I knew all the writers there from various previous Milfords, and it was lovely to catch up with them at mealtimes, and after dinner in the library. Everything is very relaxed at Trigonos. We’re left on our own in the house.and 18 acres of grounds. We can stick in our rooms, inhabit the library, wander down to the lake, or go and sit in the (not so) secret graden. This was the view from my bedroom window. The taller of the two peaks in the far distance is Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales.
There were distractions, of course. On Tuesday we all went out to lunch at Castell Deudraeth, in the grounds of Portmeiron (yes, that’s where The Prisoner was filmed many years ago). We met up with Jaine Fenn who has attended Milford many times, but coincidentally was staying in Portmeiron for the week. It was nice to have a good catch-up.
My other distraction was this little chap – a bushy-tailed tree rat intent on munching its way through all the seeds on the wych elm tree outside my window. Yes, I know squirrels are vermin to most people, but you’ve got to admit they’re cute. I’m not sure whether it was the same one who visited two days running. I’d like to think so.
Trigonos is the sort of place that allows you to feel as though you are outside the real world. It’s a three and a half hour drive for me, across the Pennines, past Chester and along the North Wales coast road with increasingly spectacular scenery. There’s a new Caernarfon bypass, which trims about ten minutes off the journey and avoids potential traffic jams through Caernarfon itself. As soon as you turn on to the narrow road that takes you through Penygroes towards Nantlle, you can feel the stresses of the journey start to lift.
Everyone got something out of the retreat week. Several people (including me) signed up immediately for the retreat in 2023, which means we can. go ahead and confirm the booking with Trigonos. The week is in my diary already: 14th – 21st May 2023.
During lockdown I had the time/opportunity to write two novels. Did I do it? Of course not.
I guess the reason is multi-layered and complex culminating in writerly inactivity. I didn’t exactly stop writing, but I ceased to progress. I edited instead of writing new words. The only new things I wrote were short stories for anthologies I’d been invited to write for.
March 2020 In my other life I’m a music booking agent for folk, world music and Americana artists. As you can imagine, the music industry fell off a cliff when Covid hit. Performers, venues, sound and lighting techs, and agents, too, were all instantly out of work, except, of course, for those of us who were frantically trying to make the best out of the situation, by reorganising dates and work schedules. And that was twice the work for no money. (Agents don’t get paid until after the gig when the artist gets paid, so we do the work months, sometimes years, in advance of being paid for it.)
When Covid struck, I had a solo musician on tour in the UK from Canada. He’d just spent a couple of nights with us to sleep off jet-lag and collect his tour book (full details of all the gigs), then he’d headed out, by train all the way from Yorkshire to Devon, done the first two gigs on the six-week tour… and then BANG! Lockdown. The Canadian government advised citizens who needed to fly back to Canada to do so immediately or risk not being able to get in. He flew, at a vastly inflated price. (Thanks for nothing Air Canada.)
My immediate job was to try and rebook all his cancelled gigs for 2021 (because surely this pandemic would all be over by next year). Then I had to cancel and rebook tours from abroad that were supposed to be happening later in the year, and also move dates for UK artists. Of course, you’re all ahead of me. Rearranged dates from 2020 to 2021, all had to be re-rearranged into 2022, and in some cases 2023. In one specific case I rearranged tour dates three times and then the artist decided not to tour at all. Three times the work for none of the money. One agent I know was stacking shelves in a supermarket to keep the wolf from the door. Things were about as bad as they could get in the entertainment industry, and are still not back to normal (whatever Boris says) but we’re getting there. I just had a duo from Canada complete a successful tour, and my solo Canadian artist is back again and on tour as I write. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains Covid-free and has no cancellations.
So… against that backdrop… writing.
April 2020 Everyone in the publishers’ office went on to home working, so things began to slow down.
My husband and I stayed in – self isolating – because my mum, who has the granny-house-next-door was ninety-five, so we couldn’t risk her coming down with Covid. (This was before vaccinations, remember.) My daughter’s grandma-in-law caught it in her nursing home and died just as vaccines were becoming available. So we locked in, and tried to get supermarket delivery slots. I tried Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda, Ocado/Waitrose, all with limited success. Tesco was the first to get its act together. I discovered that if I sat online at midnight, in a queue of some sort, hovering over the book-a-slot icon, I could usually get a booking for four weeks hence as they released one more day. But I had to be quick, as all the slots had generally gone by twenty past midnight. On one occasion all the slots had been booked by twenty seconds past midnight. Booking the next grocery slot, and the next, and the next became a necessary obsession and took up way too much of my attention. Watching the nightly Covid statistics on the news also took up a lot of my mental energy. How many hundreds had died today; how badly affected was our own county, local authority, parish? It all took on nightmare proportions. I’m a science fiction writer. Was this the beginning of the end? Was this pandemic about to become one of apocalyptic proportions?
Did I write? Not much. I did a final edit on The Amber Crown, but didn’t write anything new.
June 2020 Things were moving forward with The Amber Crown. My agent had made some editorial suggestions, which I’d addressed. My agent and publisher were talking and I was delighted to hear that it would be coming out in either hardback or trade paperback with a mass-market paperback to follow sometime later.
October 2020 Despite not having received notes on the final edits from my editor, it was time to discuss the cover for The Amber Crown. I’m very lucky that DAW gives me some input into what kind of cover I would like, though I’m sure they’d not indulge me if I asked for something totally uncommercial. This time I asked for a graphic-type cover rather than an illustrative one, and sent an example of another book cover that I liked. My editor agreed with my ideas – graphics covers seemed to be popular – and within weeks I had the final finished cover drop into my inbox. I LOVED it.
May 2021 With The Amber Crown written to the best of my ability, and delivered, I was hanging about waiting for editorial comments, anticipating having to make some alterations, subtractions and additions, so, somehow, I didn’t seem to be able to get my mind out of that book and into a new one.
October 2021 With publication slated for January 2022 I was still worrying about having time to address any editorial queries when I received an email to say there were no editorial issues with the book and that The Amber Crown was going through to the copy-editing stage immediately. Wow! No editorial queries! I was amazed, and possibly a little worried. I’ve always regarded the publisher’s editing phase as my safety net, and here I was on the high wire, without one. But, of course, my agent, who is vastly experienced, had already done an editorial pass, so I shouldn’t really be surprised.
November 2021 Copy-edit checks and the final proofread, came hot on the heels of each other. These are the last chance I have to make any alterations I feel necessary, though by the time the book has been designed and typeset, those changes had better be small. Done. Book out of my hands now… except, now begins the seemingly endless round of trying to get it noticed. Yes. my publisher has the use of PenguinRandomHouse publicists. I was assigned both a publicist and a marketing person, both of whom were happy to communicate. I began to write endless blog posts for a blog tour, and blog-swaps. Some were sourced by my publicist and some by me – mainly blog-swaps with authors I’ve ‘swapped’ with before. There were interviews (in writing and via Zoom).
December 2021 I asked my publicist about an online book launch. Yes, she said, they would do that for me… and then she proceeded to tell me how to do it myself. So… my book did get an online launch, thanks to fellow author, Tiffani Angus who was cajoled into ‘interviewing’ me online, straight to a Facebook video. I was very nervous of the tech stuff which was finally resolved by using a service outside of Facebook… and there I was… The Amber Crown was launched. (And, yes, I’d love you to buy it, and to write reviews, and tell your friends.)
And that, my friends, is why I didn’t write two new books during lockdown.
They do if we choose to stop the tale at the point where the prince slips a golden ring on Cinderella’s finger, or where Beauty kisses the beast, or the princess kisses the frog and he is instantly transformed.
But what about the happy ever after?
I’m reminded of the closing lines of a song – The Ballad of Erica Levine by Frankie Armstrong: And a happy ever after life is not the one they got But they tended to be happy more often than not You can hear the song here::https://youtu.be/oFGj_bXhZb8
Did Cinderella and Prince Charming really have a life without arguments, disagreements, silent tension with neither of them saying what they really wanted to say, in case the wrong word shatters their fragile relationship? What about illnesses or accidents? Might she have a dangerous pregnancy and deliver a stillborn child, or deliver a healthy child but suffer terribly from postpartum psychosis? Might he fall from his horse, hit his head and turn into a very different man from the one she married. (This is a theory about what happened to Henry VIII to change him from the dashing young king into the man who changed his wives more often than his socks.)
Even if the happy couple have a wonderful life together, in the end everybody dies. But that’s OK, we don’t need to put it in the story. It’s all a matter of perspective. Stop the clock on this story at the time of most hope for the future.
One of my favourite books is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, in which Cazaril, a broken man at the beginning, rebuilds himself and in doing so rebuilds the lives of those around him. He breaks the curse, brings two nations together and (almost incidentally) gains the love of a good woman, and there the story ends. It’s a hugely satisfactory and well worth reading because though I’ve told you Cazaril succeeds, you’ll have to read the book to find out how and why. But that’s not quite the end of Cazaril because the next book set in the World of the Five Gods is Paladin of Souls which features Ista, a minor character in The Curse of Chalion, given free rein here to complete her own story. Cazaril does not appear in person, but several times Ista mentions him as being the Chancellor, successful and highly regarded. Though I’d love to read more about Cazaril, I’ll take what I can get. He lives on in my head, well and happy, doing the job he was meant to do.
Because that’s what happens to happy-ever-after characters; they live on in the reader’s head. And they live on in the writer’s head, too. I don’t know what happens to Valdas, Mirza and Lind after the end of The Amber Crown, but I’ve set each of them on a new path, redemption delivered where it was due. It’s a standalone book, not part of a series, so the rest of the story is up to the reader.
When I wrote Winterwood, I wrote it as a standalone, but with an idea that if I managed to sell it to a publisher, I had a follow-up book in mind. Ross and Corwen could have ridden off into the sunset together at the end of Winterwood, but the story hadn’t finished with them. In Silverwolf there are unforeseen consequences from Ross’ actions in Winterwood, and she and Corwen have to deal with them, which leads into the third book, Rowankind. The story came to a solid end with Rowankind, but Ross and Corwen still have a lot of living to do. I imagine they are currently tearing their hair out with an unruly brood of infant shapechangers. Will I ever write that story? Probably not, though Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Corwen’s journals get a brief mention in a YA story that I’m working on, so we know he and Ross lived to a ripe old age and were the ancestors of at least one young witch.
At the end of the Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways, and Nimbus) the universe, or rather humankind’s place in it, is very different from the position at the beginning. I can’t tell you exactly why without spoilering it. (Is spoilering even a word?) The reason for the change is threaded throughout the trilogy and takes centre stage in the third book. I leave Ben and Cara in a secure, but very different place from the one they once imagined they would end up. Will I write more? Possibly. Two secondary characters, Max and Gen (and their daughter) get their own short story – Plenty – in Brave New Worlds, the upcoming (2022) anthology from Zombies Need Brains Press. You can order it here: https://zombies-need-brains-llc.square.site/
I don’t mind a few loose threads, but just for the record, I’m not a lover of cliffhanger endings in series. Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden books (Ill Wind etc.) drove me nuts. Each book would almost resolve and then right at the end another problem would crop up. I was reading these in real time, so I’d have to wait for the next book to be published to find out what had happened, by which time I’d forgotten where the cliffhanger left me. Now that the whole series is available to binge-read, that might not be too much of a problem.
Do endings have to be happy to be satisfying?
I don’t think they do. Heroes can die, and as long as it’s in a good cause, or a death concludes a solid redemption arc, that works for me, though I confess I prefer a happy ending of some kind. I’m trying to think of books that everyone knows as examples, and apart from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, all I can think of are TV and movies. So what do you think about the ending of the most recent Bond movie, and the ending of Game of Thrones? Have your rant in the comments section.
You absolutely can’t write science fiction and fantasy without knowing what’s being published. It’s always better not to reinvent the wheel unless you can make your wheel very different. Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education begins a new trilogy about the Scholomance – a school for magicians – but forget about Hogwarts, this school is deadly and only the best (or luckiest) survive the everyday perils. When graduation comes, they will all be chucked in a pit with a bunch of powerful mals, hungry for flesh and for magic. Those who get out alive are deemed to have graduated.
Like everyone, I have my list of favourites – buy-on-sight authors whose books I will drop everything else to devour. This list includes: Lois McMaster Bujold, Jodi Taylor, T Kingfisher, Leigh Bardugo, Patricia Briggs etc. I’m not going to name the whole list here, and besides it’s flexible.
Sometimes I’ll rush to buy everything in one specific series by a certain author, such as Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus books, but as that series comes to an end (which it has just done with Risen) I’ll wait to see what’s next from Mr. Jacka. He’s starting a new urban fantasy series according to his web page, so I’ll certainly give it a go.
I adore Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats books and have just found a collection of Greatcoats short stories: Tales of the Greatcoats #1. I galloped through it, delighted to revisit some of my favourite characters.
I need to catch up with Juliet E McKenna’s back catalogue, but I’m really enjoying her Green Man books – four so far, starting with The Green Man’s Heir.
I try to read not just my favourites, but also books that are slightly out of my comfort zone. Sometimes this leads me down interesting pathways. I recently read The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, book #1 in a sequence called, Her Majesty the Queen Investigates. This is certainly not the type of book I would normally read, but it caught my attention on an Audible two for one sale and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. It’s lightweight and cosy, a whodunit in which the investigator is Queen Elizabeth II at the age of eighty-nine, going on ninety. The reading, by Samantha Bond, is superb, she captures the voice of the Queen beautifully.
Last year I found books by K.J. Charles and I quickly read my way through her Will Darling books, starting with Slippery Creatures, set in post World War I Britain. I read this because of a good review on Goodreads from someone whose opinion I trust, and I’m glad I did. It’s not my usual reading fodder, but I really enjoyed it. It’s well-paced, and the characters are complex and multi-layered. On top of the adventure and the violence there’s an emerging m/m romance (with explicit sex) that plays out alongside the adventure.
Because I blog everything I read – here on Dreamwidth [https://jacey.dreamwidth.org/] I’m registered with Netgalley [https://www.netgalley.com/] which means I can get advance reading copies of upcoming books. I usually stick to science fiction and fantasy and occasionally some Regency romance (my guilty pleasure).
I’m delighted to say that I just got an advance reading copy (ARC) of Jodi Taylor’s upcoming St Mary’s novel, A Catalogue of Catastrophe. I have this on advance order from Amazon, anyway. It’s publication date is 28th April 2022, so I’ve got it a few weeks in advance of its release day, and I’m more than happy to review it. I’ve dropped everything else to read it, and I’m loving it so far.
I review everything I read on my own blog, on Goodreads, and usually on Amazon as well. It’s important to review and spread the word about books. I ask people to put reviews of my books on Amazon because fifty reviews (no matter how short) or more gets my book shown to more potential readers. So I do the same for others. What goes around, comes around.
So what else have I read recently? Checking back over my list of books read in 2021, I realise that I’ve read a lot of John Scalzi’s books – his Old Man’s War sequence and his Interdependency trilogy, plus standalones such as his Fuzzy Nation (a riff on H Beam Piper’s Fuzzy) and (most recently) The Kaiju Preservation Society. Plus a couple of shorter works which I think are exclusively on Audible – The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means. I haven’t yet caught up with all Scalzi’s back catalogue, but he’s rapidly approaching my buy-on-sight list.
Of course I don’t love everything I read, and I confess that these days I’m less inclined to soldier on through something I’m not enjoying. I have a book-meets-wall file, but the least said about the books in it, the better. Sometimes it’s not about the book, it’s that it doesn’t suit my mood at the time.
When I’ve finished A Catalogue of Catastrophe, I have Nettle and Bone by T Kingfisher lined up, and then perhaps David Tallerman’s The Outfit: The Absolutely True Story Of The Time Joseph Stalin Robbed a Bank for Lenin’s Revolution. As always there are too many books and too little time.
I’m in a Facebook writers’ group for writers of all levels. Someone asked what the POV (point of view) limit was on a traditionally published debut novel.
The answer, of course is: there isn’t one. Sometimes you find prescriptive pieces on writing offering advice to new writers, but treat them as guidelines, not commandments. Sure, you don’t want hundreds of viewpoint characters, but you need the right number to tell the story you want to tell.
First Person I wrote the Rowankind Trilogy (Winterwood, Silverwolf, and Rowankind) in first person all the way through. Ross Tremayne, my cross-dressing female privateer captain, is my only viewpoint character. In a way it’s limiting because I couldn’t write anything that my viewpoint character didn’t know, or experience personally, but it did mean that I could really get under her skin. The second book, Silverwolf, really belongs to my other main character, Corwen, but I still tell it all from Ross’ point of view.
There isn’t necessarily a limit to first person viewpoints in a book. There could be alternating chapters from two (or more) different first person viewpoints. If I recall correctly Andre Norton did this very successfully in The Crystal Gryphon.
Second Person Mostly you wouldn’t write a full length novel in second person, though you might get away with it in a short story. (See what I did there?)
Third Person These days it’s more fashionable to have one or multiple tight third person viewpoints: s/he did this; s/he did that etc.Avoid changing viewpoints in the middle of a paragraph. I change my viewpoints at a scene ending, or even a chapter ending.
I would recommend avoiding scene-stealing secondary characters suddenly popping up once or twice as a viewpoint character and then never again. The main viewpoint characters should tell the story. There is no limit, but I suggest only introducing a new viewpoint character if they have a necessary perspective on the story that no one else can tell.
My first trilogy, the Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways, and Nimbus) is in tight third with multiple viewpoints. When I was writing it I started out with one VP character, Cara, but to a certain extent she was an unreliable narrator as things had happened to affect her that she didn’t know about. I had to add in another main viewpoint character, Ben. So Cara and Ben do the heavy lifting throughout the trilogy, but I had to let the antagonist have a few viewpoint scenes throughout the whole trilogy in order to build tension.
My latest book, The Amber Crown, started out with four viewpoint characters, but it was obvious after the first few early chapters that the fourth (though I liked her) was bloating the story. So now it has three viewpoint characters in tight third. They take alternating chapters with the headings, Valdas, Mirza, and Lind, instantly telling whose viewpoint we’re in. It does mean that I’m able to tell the story from different angles. Some of the characters know things that the others don’t find out until they need to know for the sake of the story.
I didn’t set out to have three writing projects utilising different viewpoints, it just worked out that the stories wanted to tell themselves in those ways
Omniscient Writing in omniscient viewpoint used to be very popular. These days it tends to be known as head-hopping. Every character, main or peripheral, has thoughts that hit the page.
This is a quick example:
Fred thought Lola was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He wanted to sweep her off her feet and take her home immediately. Lola thought Fred was the creepiest psycho she’d ever met. If he came any closer she’d have to pepper-spray him. PC Plod thought Lola was overreacting. Fred seemed harmless enough.
There’s a thread on one of the writers’ groups on Facebook as to whether you need to pay for a professional editor before you start punting your book to agents and traditional publishers. Some people are adamant that you do, but I disagree.
This is not denigrating the excellent job that a professional freelance editor can do. I can fully see the point of hiring an editor if you are self-publishing – in fact I would thoroughly recommend it – but if a traditional publisher sees promise in your book, they will buy it and then edit it. The editing process might be one pass or several. Also, if a good hands-on agent sees promise in your work they will sign you up to their agency and offer suggestions for revision before they submit it.
If you hire an editor before submitting your book to a traditional publisher, the publisher’s editor might have a very different idea of how your book should be and you could easily have to edit it again. For example: My agent (not my current one) thought my first book, Empire of Dust, was too long for a first novel at 190,000 words. She asked me to cut it down to less than 120,000. I gulped, saved the long version, and got it down to 123,000. Then I parted company with that agent and (some years later) sold the book to DAW. My editor’s suggestions ended up with me putting back in most of what my agent had asked me to take out. The finished book was 173,000 words after edits and suggestions. (DAW likes long books.)
I think it’s important here to note the difference between a developmental editor and a copy editor. Most people think an editor checks that commas are in the right place, but that’s the job of a copy-editor, and copy editing usually happens after the developmental edits. A developmental editor will tell you where your characterisation is weak, or note that you’ve thoroughly sidelined an important character for a quarter of your book, or that the ending really doesn’t work, or THAT scene needs to be beefed up, or watered down. They tend not to be prescriptive, but they ask a lot of questions and if you answer them in your text, your book is immeasurably better. My editor won a Hugo. She knows the business inside and out. She doesn’t make me change things, she makes me want to change things.
Writing can be a lonely occupation, so I can absolutely see that a first time writer wants feedback. Heck, I’ve had seven novels published and I still like feedback. While I’m in the process of writing, I get it from my writers’ groups and from a few trusted beta readers who are writers themselves.
You can go online and find groups such as Critters – http://www.critters.org/ – which is a site that has now been running for 25 years. Writers get together to review and critique each others’ work.
While I was in the process of stumbling through writing my first book, I was in a small group who passed pieces for critique around by email. There were eight of us, based around the world, Scandinavia, New Zealand, the UK and North America. We stuck together for eight years. I’m still in contact with some of them. I’d particularly like to give a shout out to James Hetley who also writes as James A Burton. He was the first of us to get a publishing deal.
I’m the secretary of Milford Writers, an annual face-to-face workshopping week for 15 published SF writers. (To qualify you need to have sold at least one short story.) The intelligent and constructive critique offered by fellow writers is invaluable, but also having to critique their pieces as well makes you a better writer because you can then apply what you’ve learned to your own writing.
I’m also part of a quarterly critique group (Northwrite) which works at the same high level. We’ve been meeting online during the pandemic, but hope to see each other in person soon. Building a core of critiquing first readers can also help, but make sure they are experienced readers if not writers. You’re not looking for pats on the back. So don’t have your Aunty Ada critique your book unless she also reviews for The Times.
And always remember that free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. If someone says one thing, and another person says completely the opposite, you are still the author and it’s up to you to decide whether or not to make alterations.
My favourite short SF story ever is ‘They’re Made out of Meat’ by Terry Bisson. It was published way back in 1991, but it hasn’t aged. It’s short, less than 800 words, but it perfectly encapsulates what a short story should be. It’s a single idea, delivered succinctly and it has an original premise. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
I’m not a great short story writer, though I’ve had over forty published on both sides of the Atlantic. I don’t mean I write bad short stories (well, there are the ones I couldn’t sell, but I digress) I mean that my main writing thrust is novel length – and long novel length at that. I’ve often tried to pack too much into a short story, and that doesn’t work. They are not slimmed down novels, but an art form in their own right.
Sometimes you see writing advice which recommends baby writers start with short stories and then progress to novels, but I’d disagree with that because short story writing and novel writing demand different techniques. My first writing attempt, age fifteen, was a novel. It was actually a terrible post-apocalyptic novel peopled by my favourite pop stars, thinly disguised. You can be relieved that I never got beyond chapter six, and even more relieved that all trace of it is long gone. I only tell you this because even at the age of fifteen, I never considered writing short stories first, and still don’t think it’s good advice to start there. Yes, oaky, my first publication was a short story and the novel publications came much later, but I’d written three novels before I wrote my first short story.
My advice is to write what you want to write when you want to write it. If you don’t feel as though you can tackle a novel, but have story ideas that are simple enough to explore in a piece that’s 500 – 7500 words, then you might be a natural short story writer. If you have a head full of twisty plots and sub-plots, simply get stuck in to that novel.
The first short stories I wrote were very much on the 7,500 word end of that scale. I couldn’t seem to condense what I wanted to write. It’s taken me the best part of twenty years to be able to write a 500 word short-short or a 950 word story short enough to be accepted for publication in Nature Magazine.
My first short story publication came via my music connections. I used to be (and still sometimes am) one third of vocal harmony trio, Artisan. My friend Felicia Dale (of the folk/sea-shanty duo William Pint and Felicia Dale) was over from America on tour in the UK. I’d arranged their tour and they were staying with us. Felicia had been offered the opportunity to contribute a story to an anthology called Warrior Princesses, being edited for DAW by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. I didn’t think I could write a warrior princesses story until Felicia said to just treat it as a writing exercise. I emailed Annie and asked if I could submit a story for the antho, and it turned out she was an Artisan fan, so she said yes. She figured if I could entertain an audience on stage, I could probably entertain one with my writing. I actually wrote two stories and gave her a choice. One was a jokey story about a bunch of warrior princesses on a day trip to Blackpool in the 1950s, and the other was a twins-separated-at-birth story, called The Jewel of Locaria, and that was the one Annie chose. I didn’t know enough about writing to know that you can’t sell twins-separated-at-birth stories because they’ve been done to death, so hopefully I put a different slant on it, different enough for Annie to accept it. I got paid well for it, too, which is not always the case with short stories. (The other story, called Aunt Agatha’s Agency, was later bought by Liz Counihan for Scheherezade magazine in the UK.)
I’ve always done better selling short stories to anthologies rather than magazines. Out of my first six short story publications, five of them were to anthologies. Of course, if you’re going to sell short stories to magazines you’ve actually got to write them and send them out and I’m very bad at submitting shorts for publication… except…
I was at Milford Writers’ Conference in 2014 and one of the other attendees, Debs, wrote and sold masses of short stories. Her output shamed us all. At any one time she had fifty stories out on submission and her success rate was phenomenal. Her motto was ‘submit until your fingers bleed.’ So I took this to heart. My first book came out in late 2014 and I’d written the second and was waiting for editorial coimments, so I decided to take some time and send off some of the short stories I’d written but not found homes for. I determined that if they came whooshing back with a rejection, I would send them out again immediately. I had about thirty short stories and within a couple of months I’d sold fifteen of them, doubling my short story count. Debs also alerted me to the joys of being published in translation, and some of my reprints have been translated into Estonian, Catelan, Polish, Italian, and Galician. How cool is that?
Isn’t it funny that the harder you work, the luckier (and more successful) you become.
Of course, I got busy with the novels (my seventh, The Amber Crown, has just come out) and my enthusiasm for writing and sending out short stories waned along with my available time. Surprise, surprise, I sold fewer and fewer stories. In the last few years I’ve only written short stories to order, many of them for anthologies such as those published by Joshua Palmatier’s Zombies Need Brains press. In fact I’ve just finished writing my sixth one for Joshua which will come out in the summer in the Brave New Worlds anthology.
So my advice to novice writers is to only write short stories if you want to. Write them as well as you can. Polish them and send them out. It will help if you read short stories so you know what’s out there already and what type of short stories are being published in specific magazines or online markets. If you read some of the magazines of e-zines that you are submitting to it helps you to assess suitability.The site for serious short story writers is Duotrope, which is a fee-paying, internet listing of over 2000 markets for fiction and poetry. Market entries are searchable by genre, pay rate and manuscript length. The other good one is Ralan which is comprehensive, but not searchable. But the one I use is the Grinder at Diabolical Plots.com The Grinder is searchable and it also logs response times, so it makes sense to send your stories to not only the highest paying markets, but also the ones that reply quickly.
The best magazines pay pro-rate which at the time of writing is considered to be 5 cents a word or higher. Lower than 5c a word is semi-pro rates, and then there are magazines and websites that pay a token amount or nothing at all. If it’s a physical magazine they might pay in contributors’ copies. It’s a good idea to send your precious story to the highest paying markets first. and then work your way down the list. Some have a fast turnaround, others might take months to get back to you.
Just because you get a few rejections, don’t get disheartened. Send yiur story out again. Selling a story is often down to the luck of landing the right story on the right desk at the right time. Yours can be the best fae-in-a-spaceship story ever, but if the editor has just bought one of those, she’s not going to buy yours. Always remember the ‘money flows to the writer’ Never be tempted to pay for publication or for someone to fix your writing (unless you’re paying a professional editor to edit a book you plan to self-publish, but that’s a whole other blog post).
If you’re going to take writing seriously you might want to take a look at Heinlein’s Rules.
I was commiserating with an author published by a small press who said, “Small press books without a lot of push behind them don’t get noticed.” I replied: “If it’s any consolation, traditionally published books don’t always get a lot of push either, hence all my efforts with The Amber Crown.”
And it’s true. When my first book, Empire of Dust, came out I didn’t realise how much work I needed to do. I naively thought that getting a book published was my ultimate goal, but that’s where it starts, not where it stops. I was so green I didn’t even realise that I had a publicist. She got me a decent review in Publisher’s Weekly, which was nice and it very briefly appeared at number 3 in the Locus best seller lists (paperbacks) the week it came out. Okay, it sank without trace the month after, but still it was good to see it up there.
When my second book, Crossways, came out, my publisher put me in touch with my allocated publicist at PenguinRandomHouse, Nita Basu, who was lovely, but then she moved on and the last few books have had a different publicist every time, some seemingly more effective than others. I’ve come to realise just how important social media and word of mouth is to the success of any book. I started to wake up to the idea of blog tours and interviews, and I continued through the publication of four more books, to do my best to publicise them without resorting to annoying buy-my-book posts. Though every blog/interview/tweet is, in fact a buy-my-book post, but hopefully more interesting than a mere advert. For The Amber Crown I’ve done blog posts on the historical elements, on sex, on characters, on costume, on worldbuilding, on the origins of the story…
The Amber Crown, came out on 11th January 2022, so I started my campaign in December and am continuing it through January and February. I’ve been very grateful to my new publicist at DAW / PenguinRandomHouse, Stephanie Felty, for all her hard work. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Stephanie, but I hope it isn’t the last. She got me a spot on John Scalzi’s Big Idea blog, and I arranged to do a post for Chuck Wendig, and for others including Juliet McKenna. I’ve also done interviews (which I really like doing) and a video virtual book launch and a video interview with Joshua Palmatier of Zombies Need Brains Press. Next up I’m going to do a video reading on Facebook.
This, dear reader, is where you come in. In order to get bumped up by Amazon’s algorithms it seems that books need a minimum of fifty reviews. Once they get to that stage Amazon starts to show the book to potential readers. At the moment there are ten reviews on Amazon.co.uk and seven on Amazon.com. Reviews need only be a sentence or two – or even a word or two – it’s the number of reviews that count for the algorithms. (Though obviously you should do an honest review.) So please put something on there. This is not just for me. Review all your favourite authors in the knowledge that helping to spread the word is great for us all. I do the same for my favourite authors, too.
Talk about your favourite books. Word of mouth is wonderful. Spread the love. Thank you.
“Solid epic fantasy that understands the genre’s core appeal at the same time as offering fresh twists and perspectives. Assured and effective worldbuilding, believably complex characters.” – Juliet E McKenna
” I loved the complexity of the story and the characters, the way everything unfolded little by little and the way it was all tied together and came to a full circle.” – Pure Magic
“An elegantly told story of intrigue, steeped in detail and rich character.” – Adrian Tchaikovsky
“…a rich tale of magic, loyalty, and adventure. From the point of view of three very different characters, this novel swept me away on their separate, yet entangled, journey in the wake of the death of the King of Zavonia.” Utopia State of Mind–Review
I’m a smol disaster bisexual who likes cats and doesn’t like sunlight. I’m writing pretty much constantly, in between being a university student, being an artist, and playing a truly excessive amount of video games.
How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I started writing back in middle school when I decided to write bad InuYasha fanfiction after having read a bunch of stuff on Quizilla (yeah, those were my origins, feel free to shudder with me). I stopped writing for awhile in high school and then started again my first year after graduating, this time with video game fanfiction. Eventually, I moved to original stuff, and Bluebird is my very first published piece of writing!
What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
For me, there’s an element of freedom to it. While all good fiction (in my opinion) needs realistic and believable characters to ground it, in SFF you can then go on to do some absolutely wild stuff around those characters. Sure, we all know that in fantasy, magic can be used to handwave things, but it’s more than just that. If you’re writing about spaceships, there’s nothing requiring you to obey actual laws of astrophysics. Even in handwave-y fantasy magic, there’s no style or brand of magic you have to adhere to. You can start with whatever completely insane premise you want and there’s nothing stopping you.
What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?
I think being an artist for so long has brought that to my writing. When writing a lot of scenes, I have an strong image of what they look like in my head. Not just what the characters are physically doing, but other more cinematic things, such as: what sort of dramatic lighting effects would be added, what’s the camera angle here, is this in slow motion, ect. I like to think that adds a certain something, though I’m sure that’s up for debate.
Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project.
My current writing project is pseudo-victorian gothic vampires, featuring polyamory, excessive swordfights, and a really big escape room. Who knows if it’ll ever make it out into the world proper, though.
Hopefully, many more books. Apart from that, life is a mystery and who’s to say what’ll happen next.
I should have asked this question earlier in the process of publishing, but I left it until the last minute. The answer from the office was, ‘No. If Sheila had thought it needed a map she would have said so.’ That’s okay, then.
But The Amber Crown is situated in an analogue of the Baltic States. My country of Zavonia, has unruly neighbours, and the new king is playing politics and risking a war on two fronts. So just for my own sanity, I do have a rough map on paper as well as in my head. It’s vaguely Baltic-shaped and I’ve either changed the name of each country or used an older name.
The Baltic itself has become the Narrow Sea – and yes, if you look at my map, the Narrow Sea is narrower than the actual Baltic. That’s deliberate, it’s not just that I’m a bad cartographer.
My invented kingdom of Zavonia roughly occupies the space where Latvia and Lithuania are today. Vironia is Estonia. Sverija is Sweden, Suomija is Finland. Posenja is Prussia, Kassubia is Poland. Zavonia’s powerful neighbour, Ruthenia (Russia) has recently annexed Bieloria (Belarus). I should be careful what I write because the news is currently full of Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine. And like the rest of the world, I’m sitting here hoping that no one does anything silly. If Ukraine was on this map it would be just south east of Bieloria.
So when King Konstantyn is killed (that’s not a spoiler, it happens on the first page) the killer could be someone close to the seat of power in Biela Miasto, or from one of the neighbouring countries. All of them, with the possible exception of Sverija, would benefit in some way from destabilizing Zavonia. Why not Sverija? Sverija’s king has recently married off his sister to Konstantyn of Zavonia. Sverija, the biggest and hungriest power on the Narrow Sea, has already annexed Suomija and has designs on Vironia.
Ruthenia is held by the Tsar and currently Bieloria is held by the Tsarina as a vassal state of Ruthenia. The Tsarina happens to be Konstantyn’s sister, so it’s not likely that she would have had her brother assassinated, but she has sons who will one day inherit Ruthenia’s territories, and Ruthenia would like a port or ports on the Narrow Sea. It’s possible that Ruthenia will take advantage of Konstantyn’s death to push through from Bieloria into Posenja, taking a narrow strip on the Zavonian/Kassubian border as a gateway to the sea.
Kassubia has been itching to take back Zavonia since the split of the Zavonian-Kassubian Commonwealth, when an earlier Duke of Zavonia seceded from the Commonwealth and declared Zavonia a kingdom in its own right.
So the political situation is complicated. There isn’t a map in the book, so here is my working map for all map-nerds like me.
After what seems like an age, the Amber Crown is out today. I’d already written a first draft before I sold my first book to DAW in 2013. That sale led to six books (two trilogies), so I didn’t have time to go back to The Amber Crown until I’d finished all the books that were under contract. Once I delivered Rowankind, I dug out The Amber Crown and started a major structural edit, swapping things around, writing in extra backstory, and completely rewriting the ending.
Why is it set in the Baltic? A few years ago I was sitting at my desk, falling down a google-shaped rabbit hole, hopping from one random factoid to another when I came across an article on the Livonian Brothers, the Teutonic Knights, and the Northern Crusades. Like most people I always thought of the Crusades as being exclusively Jerusalem-focused and featuring Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in a hot, arid landscape. But the Northern Crusades were the Christian colonisation of the pagan Baltic peoples by Catholic Christian military orders. Separate crusades came in waves from the late 12th century through to the 14th. Until then I’d assumed that Christianity had continued to spread northwards, much as it had spread through the British islands. How wrong I was. Although I considered it, I didn’t set my book in that exact period, but one thing that stuck with me was that the Baltic lands were Christianised late and that pagan beliefs (and magic) lasted longer there. That gave me an opening, so my book is set somewhere around the 16th century in an imaginery country, Zavonia, that’s approximately where Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are today.
Research I researched the architecture, the clothing, the food, and tried to capture a Baltic feel, though I changed the names of the countries. Of course I’m not writing history, but I wanted the flavour of history. Verisimilitude.
They say if you are going to steal, steal from the best. I stole the Polish Winged Hussars from history, and transplanted them to my Zavonia. If you want to be amazed, look them up. These guys rode into battle with enormous wings made of eagle feathers on an iron frame strapped to their backs; the shock troops of their day.
Characters and Conflict A story is all about conflicted characters in difficult situations, and this one has plenty of character conflict, with three main protagonists, Valdas, Mirza, and Lind. They start out separate and come together as the book progresses.
Valdas was the first character who presented himself to me. As the story starts he’s captain of the High Guard, King Konstantyn’s bodyguard. He’s a good soldier, solid and responsible. He didn’t rise to his position by being ordinary. He’s a decorated hero of the battle of Tevshenna (complete with wings) but that doesn’t help him when the king is killed and he’s accused.
Lind, the clever assassin, dispassionate and cold blooded, presented himself to me next. His thoroughly professional exterior hides a mess of a man with more hangups than your average wardrobe. I really enjoyed writing Lind. He’s the character who goes through the biggest change, from a terrible childhood to… well I can’t tell you that, you’ll have to read The Amber Crown.
So where does the magic come in? Mirza is the witch-healer of a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s tasked by the ghost of the dead king, to travel with Valdas because he doesn’t believe in magic (which is unfortunate as it turns out). There’s a dark power rising in the capital city of Biela Miasto and Mirza is the only one who can stand against it – though she can’t do it alone.
Launch Event If you read this in time and you fancy coming along to the virtual launch event on Facebook Live, it’s at 8.00 p.m. (UK time) – that’s 3.00 p.m. in New York – on Tuesday 11th January 2022. I’ll be in conversation with Tiffani Angus and there will be a Q&A session too. You’ll find it here: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer If you’ve missed the actual event by the time you read this, the video will be up on Facebook and Youtube afterwards.
Reviews I hope you’ll buy the book and enjoy it, and if you do it would be a tremendous help to me if you can review it, shout about it, mention it anywhere, your own blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, Bookstagram. Once a book gets more than 50 reviews on Amazon it’s bumped up in the algorithms and shown to a lot more people. Your review doesn’t have to be reams of purple prose, just a few words will be fine. It’s the number of reviews that count on Amazon, not the length. Though, of course, I’ll be doubly grateful for thoughtful words.
Only one week to go to publication of The Amber Crown, and there’s still so much to do. I’ve been writing blog posts for John Scalzi’s Big Idea, and Chuck Wendig’s blog, plus a piece for Jean Book Nerd, Paul Weimer’s Six Books blog, Sarah Ash’s blog, Cheryl Sonnier’s blog, Mark Bilsborough’s Wyldblood Magazine, and The Nerd Daily. I’ve had lots of lovely offers from other writers to host me on my blog tour to support the new book, so I’m looking forward to writing pieces for Juliet McKenna, Nancy Jane Moore, Gail Martin, Pete Sutton, Joshua Palmatier, Jim Anderson, Russell Smith, Gaie Sebold, and Ju Honisch in Germany.
Eight down, thirteen to go.
I’m trying to write something different for each blog post, or, at least, to cover the same things in a different way. It’s much easier for me if I get a list of interview questions. I probably end up writing more in terms of word-count than I would if I wrote a straightforward blog post, but intelligent questions can spark new trains of thought, and send me off in a different direction, or maybe make me consider something I hadn’t thought of before.
And Paul Weimer sent me questions for his Six Books interview.
So right now I have my head down, writing furiously about different aspects of The Amber Crown, from character studies to fashion and worldbuilding.
My blog post next week will be on publication day. If you have any questions for next week’s blog you can put them in the comments below or email them to me at email@example.com and I’ll try to answer them.
Also on publication day Stephanie, my publicist at DAW, is arranging an online book launch via Facebook which is likely to take place at 8.00 p.m. UK time (GMT). That’s 3.00 p.m. New York time, so work out your own timezone from that. My author facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer
I’ll send more information via my mailing list before the launch, so either sign up to my facebook page or join my Mailchimp author mailing list here: http://eepurl.com/ds8f2P
Anyone who joins the mailing list before Sunday 9th January will get an exclusive sneak preview of Chapter One of The Amber Crown as a thank you.
With the year drawing to a close, here’s my list of books read in 2021. There are 73 in total, including re-reading a couple of my own. I’d like to give a quick shout-out to T Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon, particularly for the two Saint of Steel books I read this year; also to John Scalzi for his Old Man’s War series. Special mention to Benedict Jacka for wrapping up his twelve book Alex Verus series in fine style. New to me this year was K.J. Charles’s trio of excellent Will Darling adventures which I read one after the other. Julia Quinn, author of Bridgerton which hit TV screens this year, provided some lovely fluffy Regency romances – my guilty pleasure. There were single books from some of my favourite authors: Liz Williams, Juliet E. McKenna, N.M. Browne, Sebastien de Castell, Kari Sperring, and Lois McMaster Bujold. I had a great reading year, topped off by Leigh Bardugo’s Rule of Wolves which at the very end promised another Kaz Brekker book. He’s my favourite character from the Six of Crows Duology. Here’s my full list. You can get my thoughts on these by going to my reading blog at Dreamwidth, blog. HAPPY NEW YEAR and happy reading in 2022. (Don’t forget my seventh book, The Amber Crown, is out from DAW on 11th January.)
1) Simon R Green: The Best Thing You Can Steal
2) Liz Williams: Blackthorn Winter
3) Georgette Heyer: Venetia
4) Hannah Matthewson: Witherward – Witherward #1
5) Julia Quinn: Mr Cavendish I Presume – Two Dukes of Wyndham #2
6) Charlotte Anne: The Unworthy Duke
7) T. Kingfisher: The Hollow Places
8) Julia Quinn: Dancing at Midnight – Splendid #2
9) Julia Quinn: Minx – Splendid #3
10) Patricia Briggs: Wild Sign – Alpha and Omega #6
11) T Kingfisher: Paladin’s Strength – Saint of Steel #2
12) Julia Quinn: Everything and the Moon – Lyndon Sisters #1
13) Julia Quinn: Brighter than the Sun – Lyndon Sisters #2
14) James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes – The Expanse #1
15) Ben Aaronovitch: Takes from the Folly – Rivers of London
16) Elizabeth Chadwick: The Wild Hunt – Wild Hunt #1
17) Elizabeth Chadwick: The Leopard Unleashed – Wild Hunt #3
18) A.J. Lancaster: The Lord of Stariel – Stariel #1
19) N.M. Browne: Bad Water
20) Ian Mortimer: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain
21) Jodi Taylor: Another Time, Another Place – Chronicles of St Mary’s #12
22) Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway: The Lady Most Likely – Lady Most #1
23) M. Verant: Miss Bennet’s Dragon (Jane Austen Fantasy #1)
24) K.M.Peyton: The Right Hand Man
25) John Scalzi: The Ghost Brigades – Old Man’s War 2
26) John Scalzi: The End of All Things – Old Man’s War 6
27) John Scalzi: The Last Colony – Old Man’s War 3
28) John Scalzi: Zoe’s Tale – Old Man’s War 4
29) Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
30) Lois McMaster Bujold: The Assassins of Thasalon
31) John Scalzi: The Human Division – Old Man’s War 6
32) Michelle Magorian: Goodnight Mister Tom
33) Fran Bushe: My Broken Vagina: One Woman’s Quest to Fix Her Sex Life, and Yours
34) Darcy Burke: A Rogue to Ruin – The Pretenders #3
35) K.J. Charles: Slippery Creatures – Will Darling #1
36) K.J. Charles: The Sugared Game – Will Darling #2
37) K.J Charles: Subtle Blood – Will Darling #3
38) Jacey Bedford: Crossways – Psi-Tech #2
39) Jacey Bedford: Nimbus – Psi-Tech #3
40) Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Wayfarers #1
41) T. Kingfisher: Nine Goblins
42) Stephen Aryan: The Coward.
43) Catherynne M Valente: The Past is Red
44) Ursula Vernon: Black Dogs Part One: The House of Diamond
45) Ursula Vernon: Black Dogs Part Two: The Mountain of Iron
46) Stephanie Garber: Once Upon a Broken Heart
47) Jodi Taylor: Long Shadows – Elizabeth Cage #3
48) Sebastien de Castell: Way of the Argosi – Spellslinger #0.5
49) Burgis, Stephanie: The Raven Heir – Raven Crown #1
50) R.W.W. Greene: Twenty Five to Life
51) Juliet E McKenna: The Green Man’s Challenge – Green Man #4
52) Sabaa Tahir: An Ember in the Ashes – An Ember in the Ashes #1
53) Katherine Buel: Heart of Snow
54) Genevieve Cogman: The Secret Chapter – The Invisible Library #6
55) Sherwood Smith: The Phoenix Feather – Fledglings #1
56) Kari Sperring: The Rose Knot
57) Andre Norton & Sherwood Smith: Derelict for Trade – Solar Queen #6
58) Stephanie Burgess: Scales and Sensibility – Regency Dragons #1
59) Martha Wells: All Systems Red – Murderbot Diaries #1
60) Jodi Taylor: Saving Time – The Time Police #3
61) T Kingfisher: Paladin’s Hope – Saint of Steel #3
62) Lois McMaster Bujold: Knot of Shadows – Penric and Desdemona #11
63) Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
64) Gaie Sebold: Bad Gods – Babylon Steel #1
65) Mary Jo Putney: Once a Laird – Rogues Redeemed
66) R J Palacio: Pony
67) Benedict Jacka: Risen – Alex Verus #12
68) T. Kingfisher: The Raven and the Reindeer.
69) Georgette Heyer: Sylvester
70) Naomi Novik: A Deadly Education
71) Leigh Bardugo: Rule of Wolves – King of Scars #2
This is my last post for 2021 and the penultimate post leading up to The Amber Crown. If you already have it on pre-order, thank you very much. If not, you can pre-order it now (see links below).
Because I have a different deal with DAW this time, The Amber Crown is available on Kindle in the UK (unlike my other books which were only available in hard copy as American imports).
So what has the past year been like? I finished writing the Amber Crown in May after doing some structural editing, adding a few scenes and changing the ending (a bit). Then I did the obvious read through (several times) to catch awkward sentences and spelling errors.
When do you count a book as finished? I’m not sure you ever do. There simply comes a time when you say, “It’s as good as I can make it,” and so you send it off, knowing your editor will catch things that you’ve missed. Once you’ve sent it off you have to avoid thinking up new plot twists if you can. The book stays in your head though, and sometimes it won’t leave you alone.
In the summer my editor asked me what kind of cover I would like. This is really mind-blowingly wonderful because many publishers don’t let you have a say in your own cover. I said I’d like a graphic rather than an illustrative cover, and she agreed with me that graphic covers were trending at the moment. This is what came back from Bose Collins. I was gobsmacked. It exceeded my expectations. I love it.
In the autumn I got the copy-edits to approve. Shoshana Seid-Green did a really sensitive copy edit, adding and correcting punctuation etc. but nothing too invasive. Americans use a lot more commas than Brits do, but I’m getting used to that. Then came my final proof-read, after which DAW did another one, just to make sure.
And then just a few days ago, right before Christmas, a box of author copies arrived.
You can place an advance order now, and from 11th January 2022 onwards, you can get a copy here…
The Amber Crown is out on 11th January and TODAY my author copies arrived.
I have so many people to thank for this book. I only wrote it. Luckily I get the opportunity to name names in the book’s acknowledgements… as follows…
This book has been a long time in the making. Though an author’s name goes on the front cover, behind the scenes many people work to bring the book into the world. I owe a huge debt to my editor, Sheila Gilbert, managing editor Joshua Starr, and all at DAW, copy editor, Shoshana Seid-Green, proofreaders and publicists. They are simply the nicest people to work with.
Also thanks to Donald Maass, my agent, whose writing advice is always excellent, and always valued.
Thank you to my beta readers and people who have addressed specific research questions, including Carl Allery, Mihaela Marija Perkovic, Sue Thomason, Martha Hubbard, and Scarlett de Courcier. Some of those research questions ended up with me taking things out of the book rather than adding them in, but that’s okay. Also to my long-time friend and band-mate, Hilary Halpin, who takes it as a personal challenge to find as many typos in my manuscript as she possibly can!
Thank you to the members of Northwrite SF who suffered through many versions of this: Gus Smith, Terry Jackman, John Moran, David Lascelles, Tina Anghelatos, Shellie Horst, Liz Sourbutt, Sue Oke, Tony Ballantyne and Cheryl Sonnier. Special thanks to Kari Sperring for helping me to find the right title.
Also thanks to attendees of Milford SF Writers’ Conference (MilfordSF.co.uk) who critiqued chunks of this at different stages of its development, from the first twinkling of an idea in 2006 to the final revisions.
More than thanks are due to my family, who put up with a lot when I’m obsessively up to my ears in a manuscript. Love you.
A huge thank-you to you for reading. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my other novels, the Psi-Tech trilogy, and the Rowankind trilogy. Details of my books and short stories are on my website www.jaceybedford.co.uk, where you’ll also find my contact details. I’m always happy to hear from readers, writers and reviewers. I do answer all emails personally, though not always immediately. You can also follow my writing blog at jaceybedford.wordpress.com/ (here) or my twitter feed at @jaceybedford, or my facebook page: www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer.
But mainly… I would really love you to sign up to my mailing list. www.jaceybedford.co.uk/contact.htm. I promise I’ll not flood your inbox with emails, but I will send news of new short stories and books.
It’s here is just four weeks! Published by DAW on 11th January 2022 my seventh book is already getting some good reviews/previews, and I’m revving up to do a blog tour. It’s available in Trade Paperback or e-edition, with the regular sized paperback following sometime later in 2022.
I’m delighted to say that I’m getting an online book launch on 11th January. If you want notification and details, go here to sign up to myMailchimp mailing list, or keep an eye on my website.
Publishers Weekly calls it a ‘spellbinding fantasy,’ and says, ‘Fantasy readers will find plenty to enjoy.’
Druid Life says,‘I always enjoy stories that make me complicit with problematic characters, and Jacey does an excellent job of persuading us to like the assassin. All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions. The story is compelling and nicely paced.’
I can’t believe publication is coming up so soon. I seem to have been working on this book forever. I already had a first draft completed in July 2013 when DAW bought my novels Winterwood, Empire of Dust and the still-to-be-written Crossways. Another three books followed (Silverwolf, Nimbus and Rowankind) which pretty much accounted for all my writing time between 2013 and 2018. With Rowankind delivered to DAW, I was at liberty to take another look at the book which I called ‘The Baltic Novel’ for such a long time. Even after I finished redrafting it I still didn’t have a good title until I finally hit on The Amber Crown which fitted like a glove. I adore the cover DAW has given it.
Here’s the back cover copy.
The king is dead, his queen is missing. On the amber coast, the usurper king is driving Zavonia to the brink of war. A dangerous magical power is rising up in Biela Miasto, and the only people who can set things right are a failed bodyguard, a Landstrider witch, and the assassin who set off the whole sorry chain of events.
Valdas, Captain of the High Guard, has not only failed in his duty to protect the king, but he’s been accused of the murder, and he’s on the run. He’s sworn to seek justice, but his king sets him another task from beyond the grave. Valdas doesn’t believe in magic, which is unfortunate as it turns out.
Mirza is the healer-witch of a Landstrider band, valued and feared in equal measure for her witchmark, her scolding tongue, and her ability to walk the spirit world. When she’s given a task by Valdas’ dead king, she believes that the journey she must take is one she can never return from.
Lind is the clever assassin. Yes, someone paid him to kill the king, but who is to blame, the weapon or the power behind it? Lind must face his traumatic past if he’s to have a future.
Can these three discover the real villain, find the queen, and set the rightful king on the throne before the country is overcome?
Gideon Smith, son of a Whitby fisherman from Sandsend is an aficionado of the true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the British Empire, so when his father’s fishing boat is found floating, abandoned, with all the crew lost, Gideon goes looking for answers. There’s a strange creature walking the night, one that’s scarily reminiscent of a mummy described in one of Trigger’s tales, and strange goings on at Lythe Bank. He meets writer Bram Stoker, himself investigating another unexplained abandoned ship and the strange tale of a fierce black dog that came ashore. Unconvinced that Stoker’s quest (with Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Dracula’s widow) is tied to his own Gideon heads for London to seek help from the redoubtable Captain, on the way rescuing Maria, an automaton powered by pistons, but with a human brain. Once in the capital, a city of stinks, mechanical marvels and plenty of reminders that the British Empire is enormous following the failure of the American War of Independence, he and Maria seek Trigger with the dubious help from a potty-mouthed Fleet Street journalist, Bent. They are bound for disappointment, but gradually a story unfolds that draws all the separate strands together. A super, steampunky romp with vampires, mummified beasties, airships and automata that starts in Whitby, moves to London, Egypt and back to London again. Well-paced this is only the start of Gideon’s adventures due to a large dangling thread at the end.
Nancy is sent to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children because her parents can’t cope with her. They think she has a screw loose and don’t believe that she’s been through a portal into another world, a world of the dead which has left her both changed, and longing to go back.
Nancy discovers all the students there have their own story, their own world (each one very different from the others) and their own longings to return. Miss West is, herself, a returnee, so she understands and knows that for most of the children a return to their particular world is impossible, so she teaches them how to get on with life in the only world they have.
Nancy is barely unpacked when the first murder happens. The authorities generally turn a blind eye to happenings at the school, but they can’t totally ignore a murder, and they certainly wouldn’t ignore two… or three.
It’s up to Nancy and her fellow students to catch the killer. There’s a good cast of somewhat unusual characters who don’t fit in, not only because of their fairyland experiences, but there’s some gender fluidity – a trans teen, an asexual teen, etc. Even so it doesn’t feel as though Ms McGuire is simply ticking the diversity boxes, all the characters have a part to play. I’m not entirely sure if this is aimed at YA. It would certainly be suitable for older teens, but reads well for adults, too. This is a novella, but perfect at the length it is. Very enjoyable.
I read each of these novellas as they were published. Each one stands alone, but together the five novellas make a complete story cycle.
The Witches of Lychford A neat novella set in a sleepy Gloucestershire town threatened with the coming of a supermarket. Opinion is divided as to whether it’s a good idea or not, But Judith, the town’s resident witch knows that it will be a magical disaster of epic proportions. Building a new supermarket and altering the roads around the town centre will open ancient gateways and let in evil, potentially causing the apocalypse. At the heart of the supermarket proposal is a man–if man he is–who embodies the evil. All that stands against him is a seventy-something year old witch with no friends, the local magic shop proprietor with a reputation for mental health problems, and the town’s new (female) vicar with a tragedy in her past and a crisis of faith looming over her.
The Lost Child of Lychford. The three witches of Lychford are challenged once again when a ghost child finds its way into Lizzie’s church. What does it want? When Lizzie realises that it’s the ghost of a child still happily living in Lychford she enlists the help of her two witchy friends, Judith Mawson and Autumn, the local witchcraft shop owner, to track down the significance of the apparition. They’re on a deadline. Christmas is coming and unless they can do something about a magical incursion it may never arrive. Each one of them faces a personal challenge. This is the second of Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas and the characters continue to develop. Lovely.
A Long Day in Lychford. Lizzy, Judith and Autumn are the three resident witches of Lychford, a sleepy Gloucestershire town. It’s up to them to solve disappearances, but 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, if a little uncomfortable at times as the three women’s sentiments are laid bare.
The Lights Go Out in Lychford. This is the fourth of Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas featuring Lizzie, the Anglican vicar, Judith Mawson, elderly hedge witch and wise-woman and Autumn, her apprentice wise woman and magic-shop owner. The three of them keep Lychford free of magical threats. The not-so-sleepy village lies on a confluence between magical worlds, and threats seem to come out of nowere. Judith, always a little ‘odd’ has Alzheimers. She has moments of clarity but also moments of confusion. Her son, Shaun, who knows about his mum’s magic, is contemplating putting her in a home, but for the moment is waiting to see how things develop. When Autumn figures out that there’s a magical threat and she and Lizzie track it down to a woman named Picton who is offering ‘wishes’ with all the potential damage they can do if carried out literally.. With Judith only intermittently helpful, they think they’ve discovered what Picton is and neutralised her, but the threat much more than they thought, and might even change reality itself. In the end it’s Judith who is the key. I love these novellas. There’s a delightful interplay between the three main characters. I admit I had to brush away a tear or two at the end.
Last Stand in Lychford. With Judith gone, it’s up to Autumn (magic shop owner) and Lizzie (vicar) to save the sleepy Cotswold town of Lychford from an incursion of enemy magic which will not only destroy the town, but the universe as well. Right, then… better not muck it up, ladies. The enemy intends to destroy all borders between worlds to the detrement of the fae and the humans. Judith might be gone, but she’s certainly not forgotten, and she’s left help. There’s a new viewpoint character, Zoya, a Ukrainian immigrant single mum who has mysteriously been unaffected by the magical rain which made the townsfolk able to sense magic (which makes her wonder “why everyone here is now bugfuck crazy in the head”). Expect exploding fairies, the return of a previous antagonist, a message from beyond the grave, some gruesome deaths, and three brave women trying to save the universe. It’s a satisfying end to the Lychford cycle.
Though it’s not due out until 11th January 2022, ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) are going out now, and the first review of The Amber Crown is here on Nimue Brown’s blog. It’s a very considered and thoughtful review without giving away any spoilers. Go and take a look.
“All of the characters are engaging, well rounded and interesting people. All of them are messy and flawed in their own ways, and driven by their own issues and obsessions.”
“If you like your fantasy on the dark side without it glorifying the more horrific elements, this book will suit you well.”
“I found the approach to language exceptional and highly effective. But then, Jacey is steeped in the folk tradition and it shows in the work.”
If, like me, you are a fan of not only Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing in general, but her Vorkosigan series in particular, you probaby grabbed it on its first day of publication. I jumped the gun and shelled out for the e-arc from Baen in advance of the official publication day on 2nd February 2016. I’m so glad I did. Every book that Ms Bujold writes is subtly different. Stories set in the Vorkosiverse have varied from military SF, through murder-mysteries, conspiracy plots and even Regency romance in space. Apart from the first two, now offered as the omnibus: Cordelia’s Honour, most of the others feature the hyperactive Miles Vorkosigan, stunted runt with a brain the size of a planet. This book takes us back to Cordelia, some forty odd years after the events in Cordelia’s Honour where as captain of a Betan astronomical survey ship she unwittingly landed her ship and crew in the middle of a war and met the love of her life Aral Vorkosigan.
Cordelia has been there throughout Miles’ adventures, often on the sidelines, but always a force of nature. Now, three years after Aral’s death, she’s back in her own right. Yes, that’s right – kudos to Ms Bujold she has a heroine in her seventies (though Cordelia’s lifespan could well reach 120 or more as she’s a Betan, so seventy is the new fifty). Even so, a fifty year old heroine? Respect! (Bujold has, of course pulled this off before in her fantasy novel Paladin of Souls, set in her Five Gods version of Earth.)
So Cordelia, three years a widow and still Viscerine of Sergyar, ruling in the name of Emperor Gregor, decides that it’s time to make some changes. Aral’s death has left a hole in her life and in her heart, but with a potential fifty years left to her it’s time she did something for herself. It’s no accident that the cover has strands of DNA twirling across it as Cordelia decides it’s time to give forty-something year old Miles some siblings, courtesy of frozen eggs and sperm which she and Aral ‘banked’ many years earlier, and which she now has legal control over.
Admiral Oliver Jole, Aral’s one time protégé and now admiral in charge of the Sergyar fleet, finds himself unexpectedly drawn into Cordelia’s plans which, in turn, causes a re-examination of his own life and aspirations.
Miles, now Count of the Vorkosigan district since Aral’s death, but also a ferociously dogged Imperial Auditor, comes to investigate his mother’s plans and finds more than he bargained for.
No further spoilers. Read the book. Compared to a lot of Vorkosigan books this one is quite domestic in nature, but it manages to cover the ins and outs of developing a colony on a planet with bio-systems still barely explored, plus the reproductive technology that Cordelia introduced into the Barrayaran system and which – forty some years ago – saved baby Miles’ life.
It’s also a thorough character study of old and new protagonists. I don’t remember Jole from other books (though he appears to have been a very minor character and I must go back and re-read) but now in retrospect we see that things were somewhat different to our imaginings. We learn a lot about the retrospectives of Aral, Cordelia and Jole’s lives, together and separately, and so – to his surprise – does Miles.
While not a comedy this is funny and sweet while remaining intriguing. Highly recommended.
I galloped through this book in two days, ignoring my own pressing work and letting the family sort itself out because I couldn’t put it down. I’m sure everyone has heard the plot by now: astronaut, Mark Watney, left behind on Mars when a mission has to be aborted suddenly, and then finds himself having to ‘science the shit’ out of everything in order to stay alive until the next Mars mission arrives. First he has to make running repairs to his EVA suit in order to get back to the habitat, and then he has to stitch the puncture wound in his side. After that he has to work out how to feed himself after the mission supplies have run out and has to repair and repurpose everything he can find. Nothing is wasted, from human waste to the tiniest little bolt or clip. Every page (written mostly as log entries) presents a new problem to be solved and one by one Watney solves them while the whole population of earth waits with bated breath to see whether the various ideas for a rescue mission are going to fly. (Sometimes literally!) It’s an absorbing read, an extreme ‘man against the environment’ story. I read the book after seeing the movie and even though I had a fair idea of what was going to happen, I was still thoroughly gripped. Probably the best book I’ve read in a long time.
Thoughts on writing a first person narrative when that person isn’t you.
Early reviews for The Green Man’s Challenge are coming in, and readers are commenting favourably on the way Dan Mackmain’s character comes vividly off the page. This isn’t the first time; an email from a satisfied reader of The Green Man’s Foe remarked about one incident, ‘honestly, Daniel’s such a bloke!’ This is intensely gratifying for me as the author, because Dan is so many things I am not, and as the central character in these stories, if he’s not believable, the whole book will fall apart. So how does a happily settled mid-50s woman write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 who works as a self-employed carpenter moving from place to place?
It certainly helps that I’ve been writing for over twenty years and more than twenty novels. My first book, The Thief’s Gamble, was centred around a first-person narrative, but Livak was a woman a decade or so younger than me, so I could draw on my own experience, and on my enduring friendships with other women. I faced a considerable challenge when I wrote the following novel, The Swordsman’s Oath, from a male character’s point of view. As I said at the time, I owed a great deal to my male beta readers; particularly my husband and close male friends who didn’t hesitate to tell me what I needed to know about the male perspective, ideally over a pint or two.
Writing those early books, it helped that my hobbies have included a good few male-dominated activities. At university and through my twenties, I enjoyed Live Action Role-Playing. I’ve done tabletop gaming since university, and also studied the martial art, aikido. I wasn’t consciously studying the men around me at the time, but when I was writing a scene where I needed to portray a convincing male reaction or interaction, I could frequently think back to some occasion where a conversation or disagreement showed me the best line to take. This is still the case. Add to that, over the years I’ve had some interesting chats with police officers, paramedics, nurses, social workers and door staff over post-aikido pints. These professionals frequently find themselves dealing with young men behaving unwisely to say the least, when aikido skills are invaluable for staying safe without having to meet aggression with aggression. Their anecdotes offer me further insights into attitudes that are a world away from my own.
Then there are the resources I have closer to home, namely my twenty-something sons, godsons and their assorted friends. I don’t interrogate them, notebook in hand, because that would be weird, but I can check what I am writing against the way they speak, the references they use, and the concerns they have about work, relationships and money. All these aspects of their lives are very different to the decades when I was their age. And yes, if I’m not sure I’ve got something right, I ask. Grounding any fantasy solidly in reality is essential if readers are to make that step into believing in the monsters and magic. That’s a challenge writing a secondary world, epic fantasy. It’s twice as hard when you’re writing about this world, in the here and now. Thankfully my sons are as helpful as they are amused by such queries.
For writers who don’t have esoteric hobbies or convenient relatives, endless information can be found in non-fiction. I’ve read any number of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers, sailors and airmen, explorers and adventurers, from historical eras to the modern day. There’s recently been a flurry of very interesting books written by doctors. Obviously Dan’s not a medic or anything of those other things, but such books show me the different ways in which a range of personalities will address a particular challenge. Since Dan’s concerned with rural affairs, I’ve recently been reading James Rebanks’ writing, and (heaven help me) watching the Clarkson’s Farm series from Amazon Prime video. Documentaries offer further ranges of perspectives – unlike ‘reality’ TV which is as artificial as its participants’ smiles.
All this has shown me something very interesting about writing from Dan’s point of view. Very little of his outlook outside the bedroom is specifically or intrinsically related to his gender. People are definitely influenced by the different expectations and pressures they face from an early age, and many of those are undoubtedly based on whether they’re seen as a boy or a girl, but those things come from outside, not from within. Whether someone’s lively and outgoing, more reserved, or somewhere in between, isn’t determined by one particular set of chromosomes, and the same is true of other character traits. External factors like family circumstance, upbringing, social class, education and life experience play a hugely significant role in shaping anyone’s personality.
So the fact that I am a happily settled mid-50s woman does not mean I can’t write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 – or from the perspective of anyone else who isn’t me. However it does mean that I have to put in a good deal of work to do it well. Whatever I write, the further a character’s life might be from my own experiences, the more research I need to do. Above all else, I need listen to people who know a lot more about the reality of their own lives than I ever can. As I do that, I learn far more than simply how to write.
I’ve always been a big Modesty Blaise fan, coming to the novels first (in my teens) long before I realised that the character originated from the serialised graphic strip which first appeared in The Evening Standard (one of the Beaverbrook newspapers) in 1963. This collection of four stories reprinted from the original newspaper strips features black and white artwork by the late Jim Holdaway. (Literally black and white, not greyscale.)
I often have trouble with graphic novels because I’m not used to the style and I find some of the artwork difficult to ‘read’. Whether that’s my fault for poor interpretation, or the artist’s fault for poor execution, I don’t know, however with this simple line-drawing style I have no trouble at all. Holdaway’s characters are very easily differentiated from one another and the action is crystal clear.
The stories: La Machine, The Long Leaver, The Gabriel Set-Up and In the Beginning are typical Modesty stories. La Machine is her first introduction to the British Secret Service’s favourite civil servant, Sir Gerald Tarrant and his sidekick, Fraser.
Modesty is a capable female protagonist in her own right, kick-ass but feminine, sexually independent, fiercely intelligent and with a background in organised crime but a sound moral compass. Her sidekick, the equally capable Willie Garvin has been reborn in Modesty’s service. Starting out as a mean fighting machine, Modesty has given him her trust and he’s picked it up and run with it, turning into her loyal right-hand man. Their non-sexual love story underpins the whole Modesty Blaise oeuvre. They are partners who trust each other totally, but they are capable of working independently and they don’t own each other. There is no hint of jealousy when they take lovers, long term or one-night stands. They love each other, but they are not in love, neither are they lovers.
Three of the stories are set in Modesty and Willie’s present, but in the beginning is Modesty’s origin story as a refugee child walking through the Middle East in the aftermath of war, educated by life and a displaced professor whom she protects. Modesty ends up running a crime network and for six years Modestly and Willie fight and scheme and bleed together, tending each other’s hurts and growing very rich. The Modesty Blaise stories are set after Modesty and Willie have retired from their life of crime and realised that settling down is difficult for a pair of adrenaline junkies.
I recommend the novels heartily and this reproduction to the early comic strips is a lovely way to revisit Modesty’s adventures.
We still have places for the writing retreat in May 2022.
All places for the Milford critique week in September 2022 are booked up but we operate a waiting list system. We are now accepting bookings for the Milford retreat and Milford critique week in 2023. See the website.
On the deserted world of Nevermore, a family of archaeologists labours to uncover ancient mysteries despite the threat of funding cuts which will lead to the United Planets stripping the planet’s resources in a legal invasion.
Nevermore presents a conundrum. If the people of this world had suffered a wipeout after some apocalyptic upheaval there would be evidence, but there isn’t. The buildings have crumbled, but all the records, statuary, art and artefacts have all disappeared. There are no skeletons, nothing to say whether the inhabitants were humanoid or alien. While her parents struggle to understand the mystery of the ruins and fight to retain the funding that will protect the project, and the world, Aisha accidentally blows the top off a mountain revealing a strange being, a living tyreasure. Human in appearance, Rama is even stranger than he first appears. Dressed in rags, but wearing enough gold artefacts to stock a small museum, and quite mad in a compelling way, he begins a quest to find Nevermore’s missing population. They’ve only been gone for five thousand years, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Aisha’s Aunt Khalida, a Military Intelligence officer is on leave after a mission that broke her. She’s living with the burden of guilt too big for any one person to carry and Psycorps patent fix hasn’t taken. Now both the MI and Psycorps want her back on duty. She’s forced to return to Ariceli, the world where she committed the ultimate war crime, to negotiate a peace – at least that’s what they say. It just happens that Ariceli is also Rama’s first port of call… and Aisha is not letting him go gallivanting round the universe without her. She’s desperately trying to find a justification for the continued funding of the Nevermore expedition and Rama is the likely key.
The question of who is Rama? turns into the question of what is Rama? Aisha may be the only person tying together disparate strands which all belong to the same puzzle.
Of course it’s all a lot more complex than that. Everyone has their own agenda: Rama is still searching, following a trail of breadcrumbs; Khalida has to prevent one of the factions in her peace negotiation from blowing the whole planet of Ariceli apart; Aisha is searching for anything that will help her parents.
When the three of them rescue an enslaved sentient ship a chase across the universe ends up as a journey through the multiverse. Rama must not only find his people but must also fulfil an ancient prophesy, one that’s likely to kill him and anyone who helps him.
Psionic powers and magic mesh with science in this enthralling adventure. Characterisation, human and non-human, is complex and layered. Determined Aisha. Cocksure Rama. Damaged Khalida. They all have a part to play. The setting is a multiverse full of diverse worlds from Nevermore to Ariceli and Starsend via a free-trader’s hub in the company of a worldly wise opera singer, a renegade Psychorps lieutenant and a boatload of angry scientists. The writing is often lyrical without being overblown, the tension is well-wrought and the pace fairly rattles along. Highly recommended.
It finally happened. After last year’s Covid cancellation, Milford 2021 is finally happening. I drove across to North Wales on Saturday morning with Georgina Kamsika. We picked up Terry Jackman on the way (at Lymm Services) and had an uneventful drive along the coast road to Caernarfon, and then just a little further to Nantlle, where Trigonos sits on the edge of the lake.
Throughout Saturday afternoon fifteen writers gathered – this year from all over England, though some are Americans living in England. We usually get a few people from overseas, but wisely the people coming from America and Japan deferred to 2022 because of Covid travel restrictions.
Milford has a policy of reserving five of the fifteen places for Milford newbies, so I know ten of the writers well, but it’s lovely to welcome new people. I’m pleased to say everyone fits in really well. After dinner we all gathered in the library. It’s a Milford thing that we take conversational utterances out of context – just because we can. These are some of the ones from Saturday night in the library.
“The best thing about a question is how it illuminates the questioner.” “What do you think about postage stamps?”
“It’s like my entire three hours of life coaching counts for nothing.”
“I can’t even say, ‘Hopefully people don’t die,’ in my line of work.”
“Mine’s like a drunken spider on its way to Odd Bins.”
“Did you say critgasm?” “No, I said crit-induced aneurysm.” “I like critgasm better.”
The real work started on Sunday with the first formal critique session, and my story was up first. I brought a potential novel beginning called The Long Long Time of Jornish Marum.’ I wasn’t nervous, even if people don’t like your story they give constructive critique to help improve it. Luckily people seemed to like this, though there were many suggestions, helpful, of course, and some of them sparked off more ideas, so later that evening I started in on a new chapter – only a couple of thousand words, but enough to get the creative juices flowing.
Milford always recharges my writerly batteries. I wish I could say the same for my watch battery – which died yesterday morning. I keep glancing at my empty wrist – most annoying. Liz’s partner Trevor is going into Penygroes this morning, so he’s taking my watch to see if the ironmonger does batteries. Fingers crossed.
We’re just over halfway through the Milford week, now. Two more days of critique and then, on Friday, a day out, though we haven’t decided where that will be, yet. It partly depends on the weather. If it’s really wet we sometimes end up at Electric Mountain, the hydro-electric power plant built deep inside the mountain at Dinorwic. They give you a hard hat and then take you into the mountain on a bus. The turbine hall is big enough to swallow St Paul’s Cathedral. When you come out you have the distinct feeling that you know what it would be like to live inside a hollowed-out asteroid. Yes, I’ve been before, three times, but quite a few of this year’s Milford have not, so I don’t mind going again. Last time (2019) we went to Criccieth for a look at the castle and lunch at Dylan’s a superb fish restaurant almost on the beach. We don’t all have to go to the same place, but it’s fun when we do.
It starts next Saturday so I’m deep into reading and critiquing the 23 pieces submitted by the fifteen attendees. I’m obviously not going to comment on any of those pieces because that wouldn’t be fair, but I can talk about critiquing in general.
I belong to two groups/organisations which exist to critique. One is Milford, established in the UK in 1972 by James Blish who brought the idea over from Milford Pennsylvania. Milford’s conference week for published SF writers happens once a year in September, and I’ve been attending most years since 1998. Eventually they had to give me a job to do, so I’m the current secretary. Milford is open to any published SF writer. (And by published we mean at least one short story to a recognised market.)
The other group I belong to is NorthwriteSF, a small quarterly face to face group that meets at my house, or by Zoom in these Covid times. We take our lead from Milford in the type of critiquing we do. All our members (eleven in total) have been published. Most have attended at least one Milford, though that’s not a prerequisite.
Milford is limited to fifteen participants who are allowed to submit up to 10-12,000 words in one or two pieces. Northwrite has a limit of up to 10,000 words in just one piece. Not every member attends every quarter, but we usually have seven to nine people attending. As you can appreciate the reading load is heavy for both Milford and Northwrite. We had one applicant who came to one Northwrite meeting as a trial, but it was obvious that we weren’t going to suit each other. After the meeting she admitted that she’d felt like a fish out of water because the level of critique was (in her words) like a masterclass.
I think that’s because a lot of our critique is aimed to make a piece (short story or book) more saleable. The ultimate aim of every author who attends either Milford or Northwrite is to have their book or story published, and the ultimate aim of people critiquing is to help the book/story on its way.
The Milford Method
Milford rules allow even the shyest member’s voice to be heard.
Constructive rather than destructive criticism is strongly encouraged. It’s the work being critiqued, not the individual authors, so no ad hominem attacks.
The group meets in a comfortable room with chairs drawn up in a circle.
Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand.
Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting.
No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
This is followed by a more general discussion.
It’s customary for the critee to scribble copious notes, but the critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit or maybe their original MS with notes, or emails it afterwards.
There is no One True Way
I used to be on the (long list) selection committee of the Carnegie and Greenaway medals (for the best written and best illustrated children’s book of that particular year). For the Carnegie Medal we had to assess on plot, characterisation and style. They are still three great building blocks, and well worth examining closely.
We all take a slightly different approach to critique and from this wide variety of reactions to a story (or book excerpt) we get a good spread of feedback. I tend to give crits based on reactions to a first reading because a reader of a magazine, or someone who has just picked up your novel in a bookshop (or on Amazon) and read the first few pages, won’t give your story a second chance if it doesn’t grab their attention immediately. I make notes as I go though, picking out things I don’t quite get, or things that are not explained clearly enough. I’m looking for places where a protagonist acts out of character, places where the pace flags, or perhaps where it gets too frenetic, and places where the author has missed an opportunity to let the character show how the events are affecting him/her (show not tell). Sometimes my critique might say that this idea doesn’t support a 7,000 word story but if the author can cut the flab and get it down to below 5,000 words, it will be more saleable a) because the pace will be much better, and b) a fair proportion of short story markets will not accept submissions of over 5,000 words, so there will be more places to send it to.
These are the way some of my writer friends approach a critique in the first instance:
J.M. always starts his crits by asking: what does the protagonist want? He analyses the story and asks whether the protagonist gets what he wants. Sometimes the answer is: no, but he/she gets what he/she needs.
S.T. analyses a story from a philosophical standpoint and assesses character motivations and the rights and wrongs of characters’ actions.
J.F. is a wizz at plot logic and can pick holes in any plot that has holes to be picked.
T.J. looks at (amongst other things) grammar and spelling and tends to do a copy edit on a manuscript which is amazingly helpful.
Critiques should build rather than destroy. So though there is no one true way to critique just as there in no one true way to write, there are starting points. What will yours be?
Space opera, adventure, treasure hunting, a motley crew, aliens and some corporate intrigue are the building blocks that form this science fiction tale from Ian Whates. Pelquin is a free trader/ The Comet, his ship, and motley crew, bear some resemblance to the Fireflyesque scenario (no bad thing in my book) in which a rag-tag bunch of adventurers skirt the barely legal side of free trade amongst a collection of worlds. Pelquin, the captain has a lead on a cache of valuable alien artefacts, but to get at them he needs to finance his expedition with a hefty loan from the First Solar Bank. He gets the loan, but also acquires a sharp-suited banker, Drake, who is a lot more than he seems to be, and, when his engineer, Monkey, is injured, Pel casually acquires a young woman replacement who’s not quite sure who or what she is, but super-soldier wouldn’t be far off the mark. This is a set-up book for more adventures and so there are a lot of potential avenues unexplored, but on this first showing I’d be happy to read more books set in the dark Angels universe. Some questions are answered, more are asked, so if (like me) you like your spaceship crews a little rough and ready. Morally ambiguous while retaining the general designation of good-guys, this is for you. It’s well-paced, twisty and gives a good glimpse into the possibilities of Pelquin’s universe. Oh, and it’s got a gorgeous cover – art by Jim Burns.
I’m very busy with the day job this week. I’m a music booking agent for folk-type artists from a Canadian-Cowboy bluegrassy duo called Over the Moon, to a troupe of Zulu singers and dancers from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, called Zulu Tradition. There are performers from the USA and Canada as well as British artists. I have to find gigs for them UK-wide and organise their tours. This is my current crop of lovely performers.
I’m also a UK Government licensed sponsor, which means I can issue Certificates of Sponsorship (think of them a electronic work permits) for artists coming in to play in the UK from abroad. After eighteen months of no music agency work other than rearranging gigs from 2020 to 2021, and then from 2021 to 2022, everyone has suddenly woken up and I’m getting lots of requests for CoS. There are two different ways of using them. Nationals from countries whose citizens don’t require a visa for leisure travel to the UK can come in and work in Tier 5 (entertainment) on a Certificate of Sponsorship. These include citizens of America, Canada, Europe, Australia etc. But nationals from countries whose citizens do require a visa for leisure travel, also have to get a visa to work here. So they need to take the CoS that I issued and make an application for a visa (called entry clearance) before travelling. This includes countries like Russia, China, African countries and some South American countries. It’s not straightforward and in these days of our ‘hostile environment’ visas are sometimes (very frustratingly) refused on the flimsiest of reasons, even if the musicians were only coming in for three days to play at a major festival. (Some of you might remember that in 2018/19 the WOMAD festival had half its artists denied visas.)
So that’s what I do when I’m not writing.
I’m busier than usual because I’m trying to cram three weeks of day-job work into one week because I’m going to Milford in September and I’ve set aside one week to prepare for it and one week to attend. Why so much preparation? Milford is a week of peer-group critique. There are no leaders and no followers. Fifteen writers are kettled up together in a not-so-secret location in North Wales. We each take something that we’re currently working on, up to an upper limit of 12,000 words, in one or two pieces. Mornings are free time to catch up with reading and critting. Afternoons are formal crit sessions, and evenings are social time. The standard of critique is high, but remains professional and delivered as supportively as possible. Fifteen people attend which means each one of us has to read and critique up to 168,000 words. (14 x 12,000) While it’s possible to use mornings for critiquing, it would be mad not to do as much critiquing as possible beforehand.
I attended my first Milford in 1998 before I’d ever sold a book. I had, however sold one story to a DAW anthology – which is the minimum qualification for attending Milford. The story I took later became my first published book, Empire of Dust, though it underwent many edits in the intervening years. I can say, though, that without Milford I might never have sold that first book, as my introduction to my editor came through a writer I met at Milford.
James Blish brought Milford to the UK in 1972 (it had been running in Milford Pennsylvania since 1956.) It settled in Milford on Sea to begin with, and then moved around to several different locations. It was in Devon when I first attended, but for the last 15 or 16 years it’s been at Trigonos in a tiny Welsh village called Nantlle. Trigonos has lovely grounds and marvellous views. It even has its own lake frontage.
Many of the best known names in SF/F writing have attended including: George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman, Alastair Reynolds, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling, Christopher Priest, Diana Wynne Jones, Samuel R Delany, and Liz Williams. If you write science fiction and/or fantasy, you should consider applying to attend Milford, not only for critique, but for networking, and for a jolly lovely week in the wilds of scenic Snowdonia. I’m looking forward to it, especially after last year’s covid-cancellation.
This is the first in an ongoing series, and a terrific starting point.
As an ex librarian I have a fondness for anything library-oriented so I wanted to like this a lot – and I did. Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel is a delight.
Irene is a junior librarian – an agent of the Invisible Library which exists between dimensions, but has access to all the alternate earths in the multiverse. It’s purpose is to collect and preserve all the alternate versions of important books that have been published in the various dimensions and the librarians are, essentially, book thieves (or sometimes book-buyers). Getting hold of the book seems more important that the morality of their methodology.
Sent to a steampunky alternate London to collect an important copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales Irene is given the bare minimum of information and saddled with a trainee, the elegant and handsome Kai, who is eager (maybe over-eager) to have a field assignment since he’s been cooped up in the library for the last five years, learning the ropes.
Irene is bonded to the library which gives her certain powers, including being able to speak the language of the library which enables her to convince (mostly) inanimate objects, such as locks to unlock. Kai is not yet bonded but seems to have a skill-set of his own, which is a puzzle to Irene at first.
Irene is wrong-footed, even before crossing over into the alternate London, by Bradamant, once her mentor and now a rival. Bradamant wants the gig of finding the Grimm, but Irene suspects both her motives and her authority, and manages to cross over and leave her behind. In the alternate she’s given, yet again, a bare minimum of information. This steampunk alternate is inhabited not only by humans, but by fae, werewolves and vampires. It’s been infected with chaos, and chaos magic and the library’s own powers don’t mix. The book’s owner, a vampire, has been murdered and the book is missing. Irene goes to investigate and quickly meets Silver, a fae who wants the book, and Vale, the Great Detective – that alternate’s analogue of Sherlock Holmes.
Irene and Kai battle mechanical crocodiles, werewolves, silverfish, Bradamant (again) and, most terrifying of all, a renegade librarian who is known for returning the vital organs of those librarians whose paths have crossed his – mostly in separate, neatly wrapped packages. Zeppelins and mechanical hansom cabs are involved as well as a very proper policeman called Singh and an elderly blackmailer. The action takes place across London, including, of course, the British Library and the British Museum It’s well-paced, inventive and a very satisfying read, with Irene and Kai both being engaging and well-drawn protagonists with their own strengths, weaknesses and backstories. Yes there’s a hint of attraction between them, but this is anything but a corset romance. It’s well worth reading the whole series to see how things develop.
I’m not going to be able to teach you how to write a book in the twelve hundred or so words in this blog post – even presuming I have the skills. Yes I’ve written books, seven published so far (including The Amber Crown due in January 2022 from DAW) and a further four that I’m editing. The more I write, the more I realise I don’t know, but here are a few basic tips that I’ve assimilated.
The Big Idea You need an idea which will give you scope. Sometimes ideas don’t translate into novel length stories. A rich entrepreneur builds a space rocket is an idea, but it’s not a story. A rich entrepreneur has always wanted to walk on the moon since he was a raggedy street urchin, and now he has the resources to build a rocket, but dark government forces are working against him. That’s more of a story because the basic idea has conflict. Person lands on wondrous new planet is an idea, but person lands on wondrous new planet and immediately has to defend it from big corporation wanting to strip its mineral resources is a plot. There has to be the opportunity for forward momentum and maybe a couple of reversals before the book reaches its climax.
Writing Great Characters We all like our heroes and heroines to be super competent, but let us not make it too easy for them. Give them flaws, physical or mental. Make them work for their good outcome. Litter their path with obstacles; throw in a dollop of pure bad luck; have someone they trust betray them; injure them; hurt (or threaten to hurt) someone they love. Sure they are mostly super competent, but make them human (if they are human). Make us care about them by making them care about something/someone else. Give your character opinions, ideals and standards that will be put to the test. Put your character outside their comfort zone. Give them an emotional reaction that drives them to action. (You could do a lot worse that read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels to see how she takes a four foot six runt with brittle bones, living in a society that values militaristic physical perfection, and has him succeed despite sometimes making bad choices and having to think his way out of potentially deadly situations.)
Building Fantastic Worlds Even in the most mundane, earthly books, you have to build your world. It might be a Delhi slum, or a central London office, but you still have to define your story’s setting. In fantasy and science fiction your worldbuilding can be extensive, but it has to seem real. You have a fantastic green city in the middle of a parched desert, but what is its history? How was it built? Is it self sufficient? How many people live there? Where does the water come from? Where are the food crops grown? Are there local businesses? Is there industry? Where do raw materials for manufacture come from? How does the city trade? What is the level of science and medicine? What kind of transport is there – both in the city and across the desert? What is the social structure? How is the city governed/policed? What is daily life like? What do people wear? Is there a city-wide religion? Is there magic, if so what are its rules? Are the people content? If not, why not? Patricia Wrede has a series of fantasy worldbuilding questions much more extensive than mine. See here: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Conflict A book without conflict is like a meal without salt. Conflict is a clash between two opposing forces, internal or external.
Person versus self (The Nothing Girl)
Person versus environment (The Martian)
Person versus person (Night Watch)
Person versus bad guys (Harry Dresden)
Person versus supernatural (The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep)
Person versus society/government (Little Brother)
Person versus mystery (A Morbid Taste for Bones)
Person versus aliens (Independence Day)
Person versus war (Old Man’s War)
Person against time (Freeze Frame Revolution)
Person versus love – or lack of it (The Other Miss Bridgerton)
Person versus history (Azincourt)
Or often a combination of some/all of these things. I’m sure you can think up more examples, and subsets of the above. You have to give your characters a meaningful challenge and see how they rise to meet it.
To Plot or to Pants I didn’t plot Empire of Dust. I just started writing and let the events happen, though I did have an idea of how it was going to end. Winterwood was tightly plotted in advance, which made it faster to write the first draft. Mostly I prefer a mixture of pantsing and plotting. (Pantsing, by the way, is writing by the seat of your pants.) You need to work out whether you want to plot your book before you write it. Some people feel that once they’ve committed a plot to pixels or paper, they’ve done the hard work and there’s no fun to be had in writing the whole thing out. Others like the structural framework that a preconceived plot has. I like to have a rough idea of where the story is heading, but I want to know that there’s enough flexibility for me to follow a new idea. I usually get a scene in my head, or a situation and I write to explore where it’s going. Sometimes I get ten or twenty thousand words in and then sit down to plot it out. I usually have an idea of the ending, but the middle bit is sometimes covered by stuff happens.
Stuff Happens If your story is an unconnected series of events it will feel flat. Each event should lead on to the next. Cause and effect. This happens, and because this happens Character does that, which leads to this happening, which causes Villain to take action, which leads to Character doing something spectacular in the story’s climax. See here: https://youtu.be/vGUNqq3jVLg – it’s two minutes of invaluable advice on plotting featuring and then, therefore, or but. Don’t rely on coincidence to get your characters out of trouble (though you can use it to get your characters into trouble). Don’t rescue your characters with a deus ex machina (literally god in the machine) where something pops up to make everything all right without any kind of build up or foreshadowing.
Story Stakes What will happen if your character/s don’t succeed? Story stakes can be high concept or personal, but there should be a high price for failure. The end of life as we know it. Cruel regime takes over the world. Character (or Character’s loved one) dies. Character loses the love of his/her life. Whether global or personal make the stakes high so that your characters have something to strive for.
Loved this. Margrit Knight, a lawyer and negotiator in New York City gets involved with a world she never knew existed when she meets Alban – a gargoyle and one of the Old Races.
Someone is killing women in Central Park and Alban has been framed. Who and why? That’s the big question. Margrit’s homicide detective off-on lover, Tony, thinks he has the answer. Margrit helped to give it to him, but when she listens to Alban’s side of the story she realises that she was too hasty. She also realises that she’s powerfully attracted to the gargoyle (no, he’s not always made of stone) and her rocky relationship with Tony is going to suffer even more.
This is a whodunnit and a whydunnit, but it’s also about race and acceptance. Margrit is black, from a privileged family and has to examine her own prejudices when she discovers beings in NYC who may not be human but dammit, they’re still people. The characters are powerfully drawn, Margrit is a compelling heroine, fiercely intelligent, dedicated to her job (and her clients) and fearless in the face of danger (even when she probably shouldn’t be). The setting and set-up is fascinating and though I’m not usually a sucker for police/lawyer type crime novels the urban fantasy aspects of this drew me right in. I’d like to read more about Margrit and Alban.
I write science fiction. I’m pretty sure my sub-genre is (so far) space opera. I’m happy with that definition.
I grew up reading my dad’s Lensman books and the distinctive Gollancz yellow jacketed SF which (sadly) I only have a hazy memory of, probably because I was far too young to be galloping through that kind of stuff. I wasn’t aware, then, of any distinction between science fiction and space opera, and I’m still not so sure, now, so I thought I’d look it up. This is what I found.
Apparently the term, Space Opera, was coined back in 1941 as a pejorative in a fanzine article by Wilson Tucker. He defined it as ‘a hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’. The term was a play on ‘soap opera’ and ‘horse opera’. Indeed some critics likened space opera to cowboy stories set in space – a concept that began with EE Doc Smith’s Skylark books, which were first published in the 1930s. The cowboy in space came full circle in 2002 with Joss Whedon’s much-missed TV series, Firefly.
By the 1960s the term was regarded as less pejorative, and in 1975 the anthology ‘Space Opera’ edited by Brian Aldiss redefined it. Space opera became accepted as ‘the good old stuff.’ The Del-Reys challenged the term yet again, completely rejuvenating it when Del Rey books reissued titles as unashamed space opera.
Following on from Star Trek came the huge popularity of Star Wars and the transformation was complete. Space opera was no longer outmoded and hackish, but was (and still is) riding the crest of a wave in popular culture. By the early 1980s not only the cognoscenti, but the wider public understood the term, and by 1990 it became a legitimate subgenre of science fiction, no longer scorned. Amazon lists over 10,000 books in the Space Opera category featuring authors such as John Scalzi, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert A Heinlein, David Brin, EE Doc Smith, James A Corey, Frank Herbert, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Peter F Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Arthur C Clarke. There are still huge gaps in my reading. I read Heinlein and EE Doc Smith such a long time ago. I’ve read everything I can find by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I’ve recently been enjoying John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War sequence and his Interdependency books. I loved the Expanse on TV and I’ve made a start on the books, thoroughly enjoying Leviathan Wakes and looking forward to reading the rest of the series..
So what defines space opera? The accepted definition is an adventure story set (mostly) in outer space, but with the added expectation that it will be large in scope, plot and action, colourful and dramatic. Characters will be heroic and sympathetic and romance might be involved. It isn’t always hard science fiction in that it doesn’t always acknowledge the laws of physics and the nature of space as we understand it (though it can do). The galaxy – or even the universe – is no longer constrained by physics. Faster than light travel and wormholes abound, and space battles are often in evidence, so much so that military SF has become a popular sub-genre of space opera in itself.
I’m still finding my way around this fascinating genre. I think my Psi-Tech trilogy falls broadly into the space opera category, though your take may differ. What makes it space opera? Sympathetic characters, space ships, galaxy-spanning, gates through the void (not quite wormholes), space stations, space battles, peril, adventures and a touch of romance. Sounds like space opera to me.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me the best part of forty years and two TV dramatisations to read this book. Perhaps because it was written in the 1940s I assumed the prose style would be a little stodgy, but not a bit of it. This reads like a much more modern novel. Winston Graham had a light touch
In 1783 Captain Ross Poldark, a gentleman, returns to his Cornish home from the American wars. Headstrong and volatile when he left, he’s now more seasoned and prepared to take on the near-derelict family home, Nampara, after the death of his father. He’s anticipating that Elizabeth, the love of his life, will be waiting for him to sweep her off her feet and marry him, but arrives to find her on the point of marrying his wealthier cousin, Francis.
He buries himself in work, repairing the house, cultivating the land, with only his plain cousin, Verity, as a friend. But Ross has the common touch. Despite the Poldark name, he’s always been equally comfortable with the common folks who work the land and the tin and copper mines. He rescues a waif of a girl, Demelza Carne, and takes her in as a kitchen maid, not realising until several years later that she’s grown into a lovely (and loving) young woman. marrying beneath his class causes scandal in the neighbourhood; the Poldarks are considered to be Cornish aristocracy while Demelza is the daughter of a drunken miner.
The story will not be new to anyone who has seen either the Robin Ellis TV version or the current Aidan Turner one. The first season of the current televised version takes incidents from the first two books in the series (there are 12 altogether), but this book ends before the birth of Ross and Demelza’s first child.
Themes include love and loss, class struggle and rivalry, both personal and industrial. (Though in the first book the enmity between Ross and George Warleggan seems relatively unimportant. Graham’s historical background and setting is well-researched. He captures the world of eighteenth century Cornwall well.
And yes, I did resist using the TV tie in cover with Aidan Turner’s face all over it. Disappointed? Well, here you are then. Ross Poldark as played by Aidan Turner. You’re welcome.
C-19 Lockdown hasn’t been a very productive time for me, writing wise. When self-isolating should have given me loads more time to write, for some reason I simply couldn’t get started on anything. I’m not alone in this. Talking to other people it seems that many of us spent too much time studying the C-19 statistics and watching the rolling news.
What could I have done?
I could have written two new novels in fifteen months, or at least two first drafts. I’m not a linguist, but surely I could have found an hour a day to learn a new language, or brush up on my schoolgirl French. When all my shopping had to be done online, I could have made sure that I eliminated biscuits and soft drinks from my weekly grocery delivery. I could have, but I didn’t. I could have taken half an hour a day to walk on the treadmill. Yeah, right!
What did I do?
There were other things besides the rolling news to suck up my time and energy. My day job is booking gigs for musicians. You might think, since no gigs were happening, that I would have had to mothball that, but no, I spent time rearranging gigs from spring 2020 to autumn 2020, then into 2021. Though there are a few gigs going ahead (socially distanced) in summer and autumn 2021, they are few and far between, so I’ve been rearranging yet again from 2021 to 2022. Since an agent doesn’t get paid until the performer does the gig and gets paid themselves, it’s been three times the work for none of the money… but it had to be done.
I knitted two jumpers while watching TV, mostly re-runs of QI on the Dave channel because I like intelligent comedy.
Also my mum, now 96 years old, developed short term memory loss and started to get very confused. It’s only a couple of years since she used to do my accounts, so she’s done well for a long time. I reckon if you get to 96 you’re allowed to get a little quirky. Luckily, though there’s not much to be done about the memory, the confusion lessened when we figured out that she wasn’t taking her meds regularly. So getting her back on her meds eventually reduced the confusion. So now we have to do meds and meals on a daily basis, and also persuade her to go to bed at a sensible time. Since she lives next door it’s not such a hardship, but it’s one more reason not to write.
Then, after a year of spinning my wheels, writing-wise, I managed to get started… not on a new project but on an old one. A few years ago I wrote a novel for children called Your Horse Sees Dead People. It features magic and horses. Initially I aimed it at the older end of middle grade, but all along it wanted to be YA, so early this year I made a start on up-aging it. My heroine became 17 rather than 15 and the boy-next-door became 19. Everything suddenly fell into place. I did a structural edit and without changing the basic plot, it grew up and came of age within a couple of weeks of concerted effort.
But I couldn’t get the right ending. I actually wrote two endings, couldn’t decide which I liked best, so used both of them. Yes, you’re right. It didn’t work, so I chopped out one of the endings and now I have 20,000 words saved for a possible second book which I’m calling A Head Full of Magic Stuff. I polished Your Horse Sees Dead People and sent it off to my agent, so now I’m waiting for his comments. I hope he likes it.
Ah, the very last Terry Pratchett and a farewell not only to the author but to one of his most endearing characters, Granny Weatherwax who sets her affairs in order, cleans the house, weaves her own coffin and meets Death as an old friend, leaving her cottage, her boots and her steading to young witch Tiffany Aching.
Tiffany is a powerful young witch, yes, but stepping into Esme Weatherwax’s shoes (while not giving up her own steading on the chalk) is a very big step and there are some senior witches, particularly Mrs Earwig, who would deny her the opportunity. Indeed, people are always underestimating Tiffany. She’s young, working class, she comes from the chalk, not from Lancre (and chalk is ‘soft’) and her kind of witching largely consists of going round the district dealing with births and deaths and cutting old men’s toenails because that’s what needs doing. And that’s what a witch does. It’s not flashy magic, in fact, it’s not always magic, but it’s what’s needful.
Tiffany has allies. Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax’s long time friend, knows that Tiffany wouldn’t have been named as Granny’s successor unless she was worthy, and the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first Tiffany book – a cross between miniature Scottish Nationalists, Glasgow boys on a Saturday night out, and Braveheart extras with double woad – are her staunch supporters and protectors. And then there’s Geoffrey, the boy who wants to be a witch, and also Tiffany’s long distance boyfriend who is learning to be a doctor in Ankh Morpork at the Lady Sybil Free Hospital.
All this comes together when there’s another major incursion from the Elves, those Lords and Ladies repulsed by the elder witches in the novel of the same name. Elves are nasty and dangerous. They live by their glamour and take delight in doing mischief from ruining beer to stealing children and tormenting and killing humans in various despicable and painful ways.
Needless to say Tiffany deals with the Elves in her own way and becomes her own witch in the end, not following exactly in Granny Weatherwax’s bootsteps, but making her own.
This is a delightful book, a fitting end to Terry Pratchett’s oeuvre. I have to say that right from the start there were moments when I could hardly read it dry-eyed. Tiffant has a lot to say about humanity, but she leads by example, working it out for herself as she goes.
When I finished the final page I was left with a hope that somewhere, in some reality, Terry Pratchett and Esme Weatherwax are sitting in the sun enjoying a substantial cup of their favourite tipple together.