Monthly Archives: April 2013

Almost as Big as The Hollies… An interview with Ian R MacLeod

Ian Hart as an aging John Lennon

Ian Hart as an aging John Lennon in the Sky Playhouse adaptation of Ian’s story ‘Snodgrass’.

Your alternate-Beatles novelette ‘Snodgrass’ has been filmed as part of the Sky Playhouse series (first aired in the UK on 25 April, with repeats over the next few days). Tell us a bit more about the story.
The story features an embittered John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living a life of urban obscurity whilst his band became “almost as big as The Hollies.” In it, a rich and successful Paul McCartney attempts to make contact with his old friend, who meanwhile is trying to get work. It’s set in the 1990s. I’m not a great Beatles fan, although my sister was very much part of Beatlemania, but I’ve always been fascinated by those people who left big bands just before they became famous. To put John Lennon in this situation, and see how he got on, seemed like an interesting and amusing way of examining ambition, talent and failure.

How did it come to be filmed by Sky?
It was thanks in part of Kim Newman, who apparently gave the scriptwriter David Quantick a copy of the In Dreams anthology that he and Paul McAuley put together with a recommendation that he read the final story, “Snodgrass”, knowing he was a Lennon freak. I don’t think that David and the production company North of Watford Films were actively looking for Lennon material, but if fits in with some of the things they seem to like and I can see why it might have intrigued them.

What was your involvement in the screen adaptation? Were there many changes between print and screen versions? 
I had very little involvement. With some other stories of mine which have had some interest displayed (all of which, so far, have yet to make it any further) I’ve expressed some interest in working on the script, but to be honest I couldn’t quite see how Snodgrass was going to work at all – there are just so many flashbacks. I have been up to the film set and what they were doing looked very impressive, and I’ve seen the script but I haven’t yet seen the finished piece. The emphasis is somewhat more on the humour, I think, but we’ll have to see if that’s really the case, as that’s the hardest of all things to judge. This is actually only about a third of the whole story (which isn’t that long) so the hope is for further productions. Unlike me, David Quantick who wrote the script is also a huge Beatles fan, and he and the people at the production company really revere Lennon. Talking to them, we agreed that someone like me, who admired Lennon’s work but didn’t have a very strong connection, could have written debunking such as Snodgrass. Having a story you’re written bought to life and dramatised by someone else is a bit like being invited back by the new owners to take a look at a house you used to live in. You’re really interested to see what they’ve done, but at the same time, you’ve got your fingers crossed and you know it won’t be quite the same. I’m hoping they haven’t knocked down too many walls or installed purple toilets, but we’ll see.

“Snodgrass” is also the title story for your ‘greatest hits’ collection, published by Open Road this month. Tell us how you went about selecting them for the book. 
Not that easy, especiSnodgrass and other illusions - the best short stories of Ian R MacLeodally as not many writers have “hits”, me included. I thought it would be good to go for a variety of themes and settings, and a selection which covered my of my career. To be honest, I am most fond of my oldest stuff. But I think that’s what happened with most writers, musicians and artists. So I’ve done my best to cover the ground. To be honest, I don’t really like looking back. You either think the stuff you’ve done is great, and wonder if you can do anything as good again, or not so good, and wonder why you’re bothering. But perhaps that is just me!

What else is recently or soon out?
I have a couple of novellas due out, both in the autumn. One, The Discovered Country, is in Asimov’s and the other The Reparateur of Strasbourg is being published as a stand-alone chapbook from PS Publishing. Also I’ve just done a Borgesian fable that I’m not quite sure what to do with.

What are you working on now?
Just finished another longish SF story, this one set in a happy future where the human condition has seemingly been solved, and I’m exploring more of the vampire theme from The Reparateur of Strasbourg, but in other parts of history, which should end up as a novel. I have hopes that the world of The Discovered Country, where the virtual dead dominate the living, will also work as a novel. And I have a beta version of a young adult novel that I’d like to try out on anyone who’s prepared to read it. It’s called Lisa Moon and the Leonardo Timepiece. E-mail me via my site if you’d like to see and/or comment on an extract – although the plan is to put up a link to a pdf so people can download it direct pretty soon.

Describe your typical writing day.
If my day is free, ideally (ie – it doesn’t happen as often as it should) I write in the morning, do other stuff in the afternoon, and reflect a bit in the early evening. Oh, and I walk the dogs.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
Wake up and Dream by Ian R MacLeodEr – I think I’d say everything! But, if there’s one novel of mine which I feel deserves more attention than any other, it would be The Summer Isles. I think it deals with important issues, especially about being English, and reflects some of my best work. But good luck in getting hold of it – at least until the e-book comes out as  part of complete set of my work, which is also in the channels from Open Road Media, so should be within months. Otherwise, I think my alternate LA novel Wake Up and Dream should provoke thought and enjoyment in equal measure. Go out and buy a paper copy, or listen to the excellent audio book.

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I’ve just enjoyed The Islanders by Chris Priest, but he probably doesn’t need my plug. I think Maureen McHugh is an interesting writer. Also Elizabeth Hand. I like thoughtful, well-written fiction. But I’m terrible with keeping up to date, and a lot of what I read comes from junk and charity shops. Not because I’m mean (or not entirely) but because I like to find things I’m not really meaning to look for. I’m just discovering D G Compton at the moment, and his stuff is well worth a look. I read much more outside the genre than in it, although I do keep coming back.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
At least some talent and a feel for language is necessary if you want to be a fiction writer, but it’s pretty common; probably five or ten percent of people have it. What really makes the difference in getting yourself known and published is being stupidly determined. It’s the same with footballers. The ones who make it are the ones who have the drive. Oh, and don’t – there are enough writers already. Just move on and do something else.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
I still think, as I’ve thought throughout my career and most of my reading life, that “SF” is a silly and outdated term. I’d like to think that the way other media have moved on with the fantastic, films especially, some broader sense of what can be done with non-naturalistic fiction, and what it should be called, will gain currency. I know the western had to pretty much die before it was resurrected, but nowadays no one dismisses that genre as shallow escapism. Meanwhile, I reckon the rise of e-books is unstoppable, and that I’ll miss the paper ones as much as I miss vinyl, although paper books will probably have a similar niche collectors’ following. Some inroads seem to have been made in preventing illegal downloading, but the main worry remains that the “for free” culture of the internet will mean that us writers will be reduced to wandering from village campfire to village campfire, telling tales in exchange for some food and a bed. I mean that figuratively, of course – unless things carry on getting worse.

Ian R MacLeod has been an acclaimed writer or challenging and innovative speculative and fantastic fiction for more than two decades. He grew up in the English West Midlands, studied law, spent some time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry, and now lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley. His most recent novel, Wake Up and Dream, won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History, whilst his previous works have won the Arthur C Clarke, John W Campbell and World Fantasy Awards, and been translated into many languages.


On rewriting

Great stories aren’t written; they’re rewritten.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but that’s because it’s generally true. Very few writers are slick enough that they can get away with an unpolished first draft (okay, journalists are a class of very specifically-skilled writers who often have to do this, but I’m talking about my kind here, the ones who have the luxury to take more time over their lovingly crafted prose); many won’t even let anyone else see their first drafts because they’re aware of just how much needs fixing. I’m definitely in that category: I hate it when an agent or editor asks me to just send over my first draft when it’s ready. For me that’s like the dream where you’re out in public in your pyjamas or your underwear and suddenly everyone is looking and pointing.

I don’t want people to see how bad a writer I can be!

So what kinds of things should you look for when you’re doing your best to cover up how bad a writer you can be?

Of course, we’re all different. Most writers cut their first drafts, often quite drastically. I’ve always tended to under-write, though, so while careful pruning is nearly always required I’ve learned also to look for those places where I’ve skimped and which need to be given a bit more space.

Here’s a checklist of things that I look for (ignoring the obvious things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, typos, continuity and so on). Some of them may work for you, too.

  • Should I show or should I tell?
    This is one of those things that can make a big difference to your word count, not to mention the quality of your story. In my case, I’ll find passages that I’ve skipped through by telling the reader something instead of describing the scene so that the reader sees it. Usually, showing takes more space than telling, which is more of a precis of a scene. Looking for these passages that need more space, dramatising those elements where in my first draft I’ve just summarised – that’s where a lot of the dramatic tension comes from, and for me, rewriting is very much about making the highs higher, the lows lower, and the tension tensioner. 
  • Yawn…
    Conversely, there are always scenes that don’t pull their weight. Am I skim-reading as I go through my story? If so, is this because I haven’t made the most of a scene (see above), or because I’ve made too much of it? Sometimes you have to describe the little girl approaching the ancient, cobweb-covered door and reaching for the handle even though she’s always been told not to open that door… and sometimes you just want to say “Lucy opened the door and went outside”. It all depends on the story, and the effect you’re trying to achieve.
  • Cut brutally, mercilessly and effectively
    And any other adverb. When my old friend and collaborator Eric Brown lived a lot closer to me than he does now, I used to drag him down to my university to do guest writer sessions with my students. One of the tips that students and ex-students have reminded me of most often is very simple: when you think your manuscript is just about done, do a search for “ly”. That will pin down almost every adverb in the piece (are there adverbs that don’t end in -ly?), and 90% of the time you can cut those adverbs without detracting from the story, and nearly always you’re improving it. The improvement comes either from the simple fact that the adverb added nothing in the first place, or from the way it forces you to make sure you’re using the most precise, appropriate verb. Adverbs encourage you to use lazy verbs. Why write “he ran quickly” when he could just have sprinted? The “quickly” has not only – ironically – slowed things down, it’s encouraged you to use a dull verb instead of one that is more specific. Again, why write “he burst into the room explosively”, when bursting into the room is more than enough? (Or even “exploded into the room” if you really want to use that image.)
  • Amplify!
    As I said above, getting slightly ahead of myself, one of the main things I look for when I’m rewriting is the opportunity to make the highs higher, the lows lower… to amplify things. Twenty years ago, Stephen Baxter read through the manuscript of my third novel for me, and one of the most useful things he said was that I should remember what I did to the protagonist of my first novel: in that novel I’d succeeded in taking my protagonist right down to the lowest of lows before building him back up again; in the manuscript Steve had just read, he told me I should do the same again – take Katya low, before bringing her back up again; make readers care, and they always care more when the stakes are higher, the risks and costs greater. The result was a character who took centre stage in a book with three main viewpoints, and one of my favourites of all my characters.
  • Recombine
    Maybe a flat scene still has something to contribute, in which case the obvious solution is to rework it until it’s earning its keep. And one way to rework it is to combine it with another scene. What is it that that particular scene contributes to the story? Can’t that happen in the scene before or the scene after? The same goes for characters, particularly in short fiction where every prominent character really has to justify their existence. Could the guy in scene one who helps the victim also be the witness brought in three scenes later? Making those two entirely separate characters might, of course, be more true to life, but true to life means messier, more confusing, more complicated. Sometimes a story will work far better if you’re more economical with your characters: recycle, reuse, recombine.
  • Shake, baby, shake!
    That scene that persists in being a bit flat? That character who never shakes of the two-dimensionality of the page? Sometimes you can analyse and work out exactly where the problem lies. Other times… well, other times you just have to suck it and see. If that scene in the restaurant doesn’t work (just how many scenes have we seen in restaurants and bars?), then put your characters in the queue waiting to go in, getting soaked by the rain and hassled by people who want their place in the queue. That character who really just makes you yawn? Well, simple and crude, but why not make the girl a boy, or the boy a girl, make the young man a wizened old leper. Totally change some aspect of that person and suddenly you have to reassess everything, from simple descriptions to your understanding of why they are now standing in the middle of that scene with a gun and a hostage, surrounded by aliens in long black coats. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but that scene is totally different if the central character is a young girl out of her depth, a heroic – and probably rather bland – action hero, or that old leper. Shake things up and make them interesting again!
  • Incomplete sentences
    I see this so often, both in my own writing and in the work of students. A sentence that’s not quite complete, a sentence that dispenses with connectors like ‘and’ and ‘the’. Sometimes this kind of thing can work well for effect, but only when used sparingly. More often than not, it interrupts the flow and forces the reader to re-read to make sure they haven’t missed something. Isaac Asimov used to talk about transparent prose, writing that is like a sheet of glass that you look through, rather than, say, a stained glass window that you can’t. While I’d argue that there’s a place for flashy, clever, lit’ry sentences (some of my favourite writing would fall into that category, and I’ve even – much to my surprise – been accused of committing literature), there’s also a lot of value in Asimov’s argument. Indeed, if you look at any great prose stylist, it’s a fairly safe bet that most of them use a hell of a lot of transparent sentences to wrap around the pyrotechnics. We just don’t see them. What I aim for is exactly that: transparent prose that works, with the occasional perfect phrase or metaphor that will resonate. And clunky, failed, arty sentences ain’t that.

Oh, there are probably a lot more things that I look for and find, but these are the main ones that I’m aware of, developed from a couple of decades or so of getting familiar with my own bad writing and trying to make it better. What are your  failings? What do you look for to make sure you’re not going to be that person out on the High Street in his or her underwear with everyone pointing and staring?

E-publishing: Think Three Times – a guest post by Tony Daniel

I’ve been on the road a bit this spring to SF conventions and such, and I’ve noticed a minor frenzy about self-published ebooks among writers, both published and unpublished. There are many blogs and newsletters out there that claim to be following a revolution, and I read several of them regularly. I’m also daily involved in the acquisition and publication of ebooks myself.

On one hand, I’m happy to see turmoil, as it frightens the hidebound publishing industry into attempting new things, which helps authors and readers. On the other hand, it seems to me that there’s a cultural bubble that has formed. There is certainly a big change, driven by the Kindle and the computer tablets, that is going on. But it is going on within established publishing for the most part. In a way, this is as it has always been.  Printing technology has been relatively cheap for thirty years, and self-publishing is well within the means of anybody with a decent job and some savings. But distribution of books is not.

This is not some industry conspiracy or technological limitation, but the fact that nobody, no individual reader, wants to read through a giant mountain of crap to find a couple of gems.  They surely don’t want to pay ninety-nine cents, or two or three dollars, per book for the opportunity to do so.  These essentials have not changed. Now a couple of friends of mine, such as Bob Kruger of, are working on automated vetting systems (with a human component) and other ideas of various sorts that are totally legitimate and have a lot of promise.  Maybe technology can come to the aid of a reader trying to make a good selection on what book to read next.

But, and I say this with utmost conviction: most of the various ebook services—perhaps particularly the well-funded ones that look great and talk revolution, and may even be connected to mainstream publishing in some manner—are nonsense enterprises.  I don’t think they are crooked; not at all.  Just deluded.

At the moment, in a general sense, self-publishing your ebook will make you next to nothing and nobody will read it.  Even if you are the world’s best self-promoter, I would ask: are the people you gin up into buying the thing going to tell others to read it?  This is the real power behind publishing, for all its idiotic cronyism and decrepit practices.  It generally doesn’t put out absolute dreck.  Oh, it puts out a lot of dreck.  No argument there.  But it is generally trustworthy enough for a reader to take a chance on its products.  That reader then recommends the book to an acquaintance who crosschecks the friends judgment by determining if the book has a familiar publisher. And, since I’m convinced word-of-mouth sells ninety-five percent of all books, that moment of real, actual, not made-up legitimacy, is a huge advantage.

So I would say think three times about self-publishing.  Then think again.  And then, just as you’re about to press that “send” button, don’t do it.  Unless, that is, you want to start the small business of being a publisher yourself.  That is a different story, and it involves a commitment of years of effort that is not writing effort.  Most writers think they can do anything, of course, and are convinced in romantic fashion that they will have infinite energy to do so.  Some do.  I know a few successful small press entrepreneurs, such as, for instance, Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press.  They are a rare breed. I know many others who have thrown away money best spent elsewhere.  I don’t know the path ahead, but I understand the current moment well enough. There’s a bubble that is about to deflate because there is just not enough money—which, despite desperate social analysis to the contrary, generally signifies interest from readers—to sustain it.

Tony Daniel is an editor at Baen Books, which is distributed by Simon and Schuster, and has an ebook retail site at He is the author of seven science fiction novels, and several award-winning short stories.

The return of the serial story

Serial fiction is not exactly a new form. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Henry James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… they were all at it a long, long time ago. In the last few decades the serial story has been very much out of favour. Indeed, in most genres short fiction itself has dwindled to almost non-existence.

The Ragged People: a story of the post-plague years - post-apocalypse fiction from Nick GiffordShort science fiction has persisted, and while short stories often return to previously-used characters and settings, true serial fiction has been a rarity.

Is the rise of the ebook changing this?


Serial fiction, and short fiction, have generally been viewed by commercial publishers as dead areas, but one significant change with the advent of e-publishing has been the rise of the long tail: previously unviable niches are now sustainable, with production costs minimised and global reach maximised.

For the writer, serial fiction is an intriguing proposition.

For starters, the form is different. Serial fiction isn’t just a novel cut into shorter blocks and published at intervals. With a novel, the reader has generally invested up front and is more likely to give a book a chance. With serial fiction, readers have only invested one episode at a time: if that chunk doesn’t deliver, and if it doesn’t hook the reader, then why should the reader bother with subsequent episodes? Think of serial TV drama: most aim for that Eastenders ending, the set-up for a big revelation or dramatic conflict that the viewer can’t afford to miss and then, duh, duh, d-d-duh the theme music kicks in.

Some writers will wing it with their serial fiction: write an episode, wait until it has been published and then write the next one – real seat-of-the-pants writing. Others take a more planned approach. But however you do it, the considerations are different, and for me that makes it fun.

It also lets you try new things. You’ll often find that writers really push the limits with their short fiction, while their novel-length work plays it a bit safer. This is partly a result of commercial pressures, of course, but is also because a one-off short story gives you the opportunity to push boundaries; failure with a short story does not usually end careers.

Serial fiction lies somewhere in between: in my Ragged People serial (written for teenagers with my Nick Gifford pen-name), I’ve started with a fairly self-contained story. I have some ideas for what will happen next, I have characters I want to write about, and I’d love to carry on, but then there are lots of writing projects I’d like to work on. By publishing the first story I can gauge response before committing to writing more. (Or, of course, I can ignore response and just plough on regardless…) My hope is that I’ll keep getting nudged for more episodes until I find that I’ve written a novel, almost by accident.

The new Aethernet Magazine showcases serial fiction from some fabulous writers (Eric Brown, Chris Becket and Tony Ballantyne for starters) taking a variety of approaches, from the carefully plotted to the winging it approach, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops. What’s more the Aethernet blog is publishing interviews with the authors about their approaches to serial fiction, which promises to be particularly interesting for writers interested in the form – most recently Chris Beckett, talking about his serialised sequel to Dark Eden (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award).

As a writer, it’s great to see serial fiction getting a new opportunity. Let’s just hope that readers find it just as exciting!

Grumpy Old Writers, or The Grampa/Grandma List: promising speculative fiction authors over the age of 40

It started with a tweet in response to the publication of Granta’s Best Young Novelists list for 2013

It is the most shattering experience of a writer’s life when he wakes one day and says quite reasonably, I will never make the Granta list.

For, alas, if a writer is past the age of 40 he or she is deemed too old to be promising.

Some of us would set that benchmark differently. Far too many years ago, for example, I had to ask the editors of Interzone to stop referring to me as a ‘promising young writer’ as I had turned the grand old age of 30.

But then seven years later I was suddenly young and promising again: back in 2003, in my YA guise as Nick Gifford, I was on Waterstones’ list of bright young things, aka Faces of the Future (sneakily published a few weeks ahead of Granta‘s list for that year).

So, to narrow down the criteria… For an alternative list we’re looking for promising writers over the age of 40. Or 30. Or something in between. Let’s say 40 – that’s Granta‘s glass ceiling, so let’s re-use it.

Genre? Well much as I’d like to set no such limitations, let’s face it: I know far more about genre authors than I do about the lit’ry mainstream, speculative fiction authors in particular. Even then, there are lots I’d be likely to miss out, purely through my own oversight.

Nationality? I’d rather not, but it’s convenient, so as I’m UK-based let’s keep it local by sticking to authors who are based here, published here or have some other strong claim to being promising in the UK.

But then, as the Twitter exchange developed, we started referring to Grumpy Old Writers.

Woah, there!

Stamping down on the danger that we would branch into two rival lists almost as soon as we’d got started, let’s merge the two, and here are our criteria:

Promising speculative fiction authors with a UK presence, 40 or older, who I’m aware of and haven’t momentarily forgotten to include, and able to be grumpy about all these young upstarts invading our turf.

So who gets onto this list of significant oldcomers?

The Grampa List (first draft)
[also, please be reassured that I could be completely wrong here, both about the levels of grumpiness and the age…]

  • David Barnett (has published some interesting stuff already, but destined to make a big splash with his forthcoming steampunkery from Tor)
  • Chris Beckett (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke and BSFA awards, perhaps he’s getting too much attention already)
  • Eric Brown (the perennial professional, like bindweed he keeps on putting out superb stories, occasionally getting lots of attention and then just keeping on plugging away)
  • Jaine Fenn (first novel only appeared five years ago, so definitely in the youngish upstart category)
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood (ooh… controversial: surely Jon’s profile lifts him above the promising category? Well yes, I’d hope that would be most people’s response, but has he really achieved the acclaim he deserves?)
  • Dave Hutchinson (SF stalwart, capable of brilliance, and I wish he’d write more; and he’s promised to keep the grumpiness quotient up if others fall short)
  • Liz Jensen (dark, creepy, slipstream, always interesting)
  • Juliet McKenna (the kind of author this list could have been made for: a top-notch fantasy author who deserves a lot more success than a bunch of other fantasy authors I’m not going to name until you buy me another drink)
  • Jeff Noon (bright young star who went quiet, but now is bursting back onto the scene with an anniversary edition of his classic Vurt, lots of reissues, online experimentation and pushing of limits, and new books, too)
  • Ian Sales (such a fixture on the UK SF scene that most people probably think he’s published more than he has; winning this year’s BSFA short fiction award is surely the start of greater things)
  • Anna Tambour (okay, the link is tenuous: she’s based in Australia but has had much of her work published in the UK; I’ve no idea how old she is; and anyway, I love her writing so she’s on my list – in fact, I like her work so much that I talked my way into writing a foreword for her first book and have subsequently produced ebook editions of two of her books)
  • Jo Walton (too successful already? Perhaps, but much of her success has come in the US – over here she’s one of those who deserves more…)
  • Liz Williams (…as is Liz Williams, a fabulous author who shrugs off genre limitations, and has also published the non-fiction Diary of a Witchcraft Shop)
  • Neil Williamson (like David Barnett, Neil is a genuine old upstart, with some impressive short fiction publications behind him and a much-anticipated first novel due out in 2014)

Because of the rather unscientific approach taken here, I know this list is not comprehensive, hence my labelling it ‘draft’. Who else should be on it? Who shouldn’t? And what would an equivalent list be without the UK-ish restriction, or with some other arbitrary geographical limits?

The Harmony buzz

I’ve written here before about how it often feels as if we publish into a vacuum: a book goes out, you get a handful of reviews, eventually some sales figures, and that’s it.

Harmony by Keith BrookeOn its publication last June, my alien alternate-history novel, Harmony (UK title alt.human), definitely followed this pattern. There were a few nice reviews, a handful of nice comments, and then… nothing.

This year, though, things changed. First there was the short-listing for the Philip K Dick Award, which was pretty damned nice. Then, in the last two or three weeks the book has picked up some lovely responses.

There was the Battle of the Books, for starters, an interesting review format that pairs books up into a knockout competition where the book hardest to abandon gets through to the next round. Harmony was up against the likes of China Miéville’s Railsea in one round. Given the competition I’d have been more than happy with just being reviewed in the same bracket as some of these books; to go on and win was a lovely bonus.

Earlier this month a reader posted about Harmony:

I just finished reading Harmony and I was enthralled by the story. I want more! I was intrigued to see that you mostly publish via Kindle. I don’t have one, but because I want to read more of your stories, I’m going to go get one. Please keep writing! Just my two-cents worth.

You don’t get a much better response than that!

Then, following this run of good comments, Bridget McKenna (a rather good author and one of the Philip K Dick Award judges) posted a review at Amazon, which said, among other things:

The English language is a remarkable thing, and Keith Brooke is a remarkable writer who can make it do his bidding with the best of them. In alt.human (US title: alt.human aka Harmony) he has not only created an exciting and believable world full of fascinating, realistic characters and situations using his native tongue, he has also dug down into the nature of language itself and brought back surprises (and prizes) to create layers of meaning and subtlety and emotion in a way most writers would’t have thought to approach. … You won’t soon forget Brooke’s cast of characters or the world he created to test their resolve to be human on the brink of extinction, by whatever ways and means they can create for themselves. You won’t soon read a better, more completely realized science fiction novel.

And then Tony Daniel (one of my favourite SF writers, who very kindly stepped in on my behalf to do a reading from Harmony at the PKD Awards ceremony), said to me on Facebook:

Harmony is a dense, rewarding vision of a possible future and the story of a young man’s quest for human-graspable meaning in a highly expanded, often incomprehensible world. It’s got echoes of all sorts of great influences. Very Dickian, but also very Dickensian. It’s real science fiction, and it’s a success as a novel. The whole thing is a grand philosophical view of a weird-yet-plausible reality that you got across marvelously, with marvelously chosen words. I’m just glad of the fact that you trusted me to read a bit of it aloud and talk about it with people, or I might not have gotten around to reading it through. Everybody who likes science fiction should read it soon if they haven’t.

Most of the time, yes, we work in a vacuum. After all, writing is not a spectator sport: we shut ourselves away and hit that keyboard for hours on end.

And no, we don’t write for the acclaim and the praise.

But hell, when they come along, all those little pats on the ego that tell you someone out there has got what you were doing, it really is appreciated!

Nick’s back! New teen fiction from bestselling author of Piggies

‘The king of children’s horror’ – Sunday Express

After a bit of a break, Nick Gifford (alter ego of infinity plus proprietor Keith Brooke) has returned to teen fiction with a short story: The Ragged People – a story of the post-plague years.

The Ragged People: a story of the post-plague years - post-apocalypse fiction from Nick GiffordThe story is set in an England ruined by terrorists’ biological warfare attacks; it’s a standalone tale, but if there’s enough demand there will be further installments, and maybe even a full-length novel. Further full-length titles are also due from Nick; details to follow as they become available.

Here’s the jacket copy:

Life in the refugee camp is hard for Dan and his brother Rick. They sleep huddled together with a thousand other refugees in an enormous warehouse, and they spend all day queuing for food and water and medicine, watched over by soldiers in anti-contamination masks. And all around them, people are dying: dying from hunger, dying from one of the new plagues, or dying simply because they have lost the will to live.

Selected from a line-up by the intimidating Mr Wiley, the boys leap at a chance to leave the camp and go to live in the Brightwell Community, but their hopes are soon dashed. Is a life of forced labour in a land at the mercy of raiding gangs and ever-mutating plagues really any better than the UN refugee camp had been?

A gripping post-apocalypse story of two brothers struggling to survive in a Britain devastated by biological warfare, from the author of the bestselling vampire novel Piggies.

Praise for Nick Gifford’s work:

‘Guaranteed to scare your socks off’ – Glasgow Herald

‘A bold, shocking and completely unputdownable horror story’ – Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

‘A cut above the usual horror tale’ – School Librarian

‘Really spooky! I’d definitely try out other books by this author as Nick Gifford makes you want to keep reading’ Teen Titles

‘One of the most original horror tales of recent times … you’ll have to go back quite a way to find a debut novel that is quite as striking as Piggies‘ – Rhyl and Prestatyn Journal

Nick Gifford is the bestselling author of Piggies, Flesh and Blood, Incubus and Erased, and he has been described by the Sunday Express as ‘The king of children’s horror’. His work has been optioned for movies and has featured on various bestseller lists, at one time out-ranking JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

Snapshots: Linda Nagata interviewed

What’s recently or soon out?
The Red: First Light by Linda NagataIn any other month, the big news would be the publication of my short story, “Through Your Eyes,” in the March/April double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a near-future story with a theme focused on technology and civil rights, and it’s the first story I’ve ever had in Asimov’s, so I’m pretty pleased about that. But the news that supersedes this is that I have a new novel also out this month, called The Red: First Light—and in a nice bit of synchronicity, “Through Your Eyes” was the direct inspiration for the novel.

Sometimes characters just walk on stage and demand attention. That was the case with James Shelley, the protagonist of “Through Your Eyes.” Though I was done with the short story, I was not done with the character, and within a week of sending the story off to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, I was writing the novel. Like the story that precedes it, The Red: First Light is concerned with the impact of evolving technologies, but the novel takes a different approach. It’s a boots-on-the-ground military thriller that engages with warfare, politics, and other, stranger things.

Near-future fiction has its own special challenges. Given the ongoing, rapid rate of technological change in the world it’s easy to imagine a near-future novel becoming obsolete almost overnight—or perhaps reclassified as an alternate history. Despite the risk, I like the immediacy of the subgenre. I’ve written in the near-future before, in particular with my novel Tech-Heaven, but also with the more recent Limit of Vision. I’ve also written about armed conflict on occasion, but The Red: First Light is my first true foray into military science fiction. That was pretty intimidating for me, but I really wanted to write this book—for the adventure, for the tech, for the politics.

What are you working on now?
Mostly I’ve been working on promotion for the new book. The Red: First Light is an indie book, published under my own imprint, so the responsibility for getting the word out is all mine—and of course I’m finding that publicity is even more challenging than writing a novel. But I’m also well begun on the follow up to First Light. No publication date yet for The Red: Trials, but the goal is to have it out within a year, and sooner if possible.

I also have several short story ideas brewing. In my early career I was never very interested in short stories, but over the past year and a half all that has changed and I’ve really come to enjoy reading and writing them.

Tell us about your experiences with publishing – both traditional and the new e-publishing environment that’s emerging.
Looking back, my experience with traditional publishing seems like a psychological experiment designed to test my sanity, with each incident of sublime luck countered by disaster. On the plus side, my first four books sold to Bantam Spectra, where I had terrific editors. The books had great covers by Bruce Jensen, most were picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club, one won an award. On the downside, I had three different editors for the first two books. All were published as mass-market originals, and despite good reviews, they were out of print in short order. At Tor I was better paid and I had hardcover editions, but a failure of communication made it a tough ride.

As far back as the nineties, though, I was interested in being a publisher. At some point I decided to learn the page layout program InDesign, thinking I would do a new print version of my novel, Vast. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how to make that work economically, but circa 2010, the technology arrived. I’d spent nine years working in web development, and ebooks are just HTML (web) pages wrapped up in zip files. So it wasn’t a big leap for me to start putting out my backlist in electronic format. I remember being shocked when some of my books sold in the first week they were available. I put out everything in ebook editions as quickly as I could, and by early 2011 I released my first print book, using the print-on-demand services at Lightning Source. Bruce Jensen, the original cover artist for the Nanotech Succession books, very generously let me re-use the cover paintings, even putting together new front covers for me. Now almost all my books have print editions.

Sales are modest, but I’m happy with this new approach. With traditional publishing, my work was in someone else’s hands. I had no real input on the production of the books, and simply had to accept the result, whether it turned out good or ill. Now I’m in control and I like it a lot. If I mess something up I’m in a position to fix it, which is also grand. Book covers that don’t work out can be changed, book descriptions can be revised. It’s wonderful. I would like to find a solution to the distribution issue—right now you will not, to my knowledge, find any of my print books in bookstores—but new options may be emerging. We’ll see. For now, I intend to stick with indie publishing.

Describe your typical writing day.
Up very early, regardless of when I went to sleep. Consume coffee and squander time on the Internet. Note in shock that a large portion of the morning has slipped away with nothing accomplished. Force myself away from the big, beautiful Mac desktop and plant myself in front of the aging Toshiba laptop that I use for writing. Try to get into the zone. On good days this happens very quickly. I become completely involved in what I’m doing and it’s hard to pry myself away to fulfill other obligations. On bad days every word is a struggle. When I’m working regularly on a draft I do try to produce some minimal word count. A thousand words is the goal, but sometimes I have to be happy with five hundred. Much of the time I don’t know what will happen in the next scene. It takes time to work that out.

At any rate, if it’s a good day I’ll generally keep writing well past my goal, taking advantage of the zone while I can. If it’s a bad day, I’ll struggle along until I get my thousand words. If it’s a really bad day, I’ll quit early and go mow the lawn.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
For those new to my work, the first back-list book I point to is The Bohr Maker, which won the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and is the first book of The Nanotech Succession story world. As an alternative, and especially for those new to science fiction, I recommend Memory, a far-future, coming-of-age tale. Or for something completely different, the Puzzle Lands books, starting with The Dread Hammer—my experiment with fast-paced, scoundrel-lit fantasy.

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
Chaz Brenchley recently re-released his novel Dispossession through the writer’s cooperative Book View Café, of which I’m a member. Mildly curious, I started reading it, was immediately hooked, and enjoyed it immensely.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Flee! Run away while you still can! …but if it’s too late for that and writing is already in your blood, then don’t stop. I more-or-less stopped writing for roughly ten years. It’s true I was intermittently working on a fantasy novel during this time (The Wild, now being serialized on my blog), but I wasn’t publishing anything, I wasn’t diversifying, I wasn’t learning anything new about writing, I wasn’t even following the genre, and I fell way behind. What readers I had must have assumed I’d given up and gone away. So don’t stop. Keep pushing yourself to try new things.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
Ha! Well, in my best scenario, droves of readers will be preordering the next Linda Nagata novel (FYI, preordering isn’t currently possible for indie print-on-demand books or ebooks). But I suspect the future of publishing will be a diversity of options, with more and more writers working both sides of the fence—indie and traditional—along with the ongoing development of some cool new trends like enhanced ebooks that include more art and maybe even music. As always the big question will be how to earn a living from our creative endeavors. That’s a question I’ve never managed to answer, but during my occasional bouts of optimism, I keep imagining it will work out.

The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata is a Nebula-award-winning author of both science fiction and fantasy, with multiple novels and short stories. She grew up in Hawaii, in a rented beach house on the north shore of Oahu, and has been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and lately a publisher and book designer. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui.

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After the Dick, what next?

I wrote here last year about how I felt tired with writing hard and not getting much response, and the need to recharge after twenty-five years in the business:

All this work, all those fantastic reviews, and yet still I seem to be the kind of writer very much admired by a smallish number but unknown to most; I’ve published regularly, but have rarely had a regular publisher for more than a few years; I’ve had at least one pretty big bestseller, but that was nearly ten years ago now; I think I have a reputation as someone who works away and achieves a lot; and I think my last four novels are among the best things I’ve written.

Is that enough?

I don’t know. It’s not that I’m craving awards and media attention (although it’d be nice not to feel that each book is published into a vacuum), but I really do wonder if all the personal sacrifice is worth it.

… I’m just bone-tired of slogging away writing on spec when my editing and pseudonymous writing bring more regular and guaranteed response and reward, even when what I regard as ‘my own’ writing is what I really love to do.

So I said I was taking a break from writing new me material and concentrating on other work, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. This decision did also coincide with a long period of depression and all kinds of other crises, which did nothing to put me in a writing place.

And I concluded by saying that while I felt that way at the time of writing the blog post, it was entirely possible that I’d change my mind at some point.

So: have I changed my mind?

Not entirely, but I’m wavering.

Getting shortlisted for this year’s Philip K Dick Award was a big ego boost: people out there really got what I was doing with that novel (Harmony, aka alt.human). And beyond feeling flattered and understood, it did something else, too.

You know those little nagging thoughts writers get? Those what if…? moments. They started happening again. And I had that writers’ equivalent of restless feet.

The bug was biting again.

I’m still torn about committing to an on-spec novel (although if someone was to drop me an email commissioning one I’d certainly consider it), but I think at least some short fiction will be committed this year.

In particular, I’ve agreed to write a four-parter for the new serial fiction magazine Aethernet. My take on serial fiction will be a set of three stories giving different perspectives on a momentous event, and a concluding story pulling them all together. So not serial fiction in a linear sense, but certainly in spirit.

And now that part of my brain is starting to nag me again, I think more might happen. It’s like starting all over again.

It’s a good feeling, and it’s good to be enjoying life the way I am right now.

Now I think I’ll just sit back and wait for that flood of emails asking me to write something new. I can dream. I’m a writer, after all; a science-fiction writer.

The People of the Sea – a novelette of mermaids, smugglers and alternate worlds by Keith Brooke

The People of the Sea - an alternate history novelette by Keith BrookeJust published: a standalone ebook edition of my novelette, “The People of the Sea”. It’s a story of duty and adventure, in an eighteenth century England where worlds collide and mermaids might just wash up on the beach. The ebook includes an afterword about where the story came from.

A brief extract:

He paused where the scrub gave way to salt-marsh. He would be a fool to follow the trail any further. A few years ago, when he had first been employed as a Riding Officer, he would have mounted his horse and set off in search of one of the regular patrols of dragoons and they could have returned to confront the smugglers on the beach. But circumstances had changed: the soldiers were in Europe, fighting the French, the Spanish and the Prussians over the succession to the Austrian throne; those that remained were too few for the protection of a mere officer of the Revenue.

He tied the mare deep in a thicket of gorse and pine, then emerged and climbed to the top of a low ridge, from where he could survey the saltings. The overgrown mud-flats extended for maybe three furlongs ahead of him, before being cut through by the silver ribbon of a tidal creek. Beyond, the shaggy grey-green mat extended to Pewit Island and across Hamford Water and more saltings to the earth cliffs of the Naze three miles away, now smudged grey by the clouds and drizzle.

He was about to go for his horse and ride out to investigate when he saw a line of dark figures returning across the marshes. He had decided there must be nobody out there, but they had merely been obscured by a ridge of dunes formed where the first creek joined a larger one. Wheatley scrambled back into the thicket. If he rode off now he would be seen and pursued. His best hope was to stay hidden with his horse and hope they would be too distracted to notice him.

He waited for what seemed like forever and then he heard the voices growing steadily louder. He had guessed right: they had been drinking while they worked, the liquor part of the payment for their labour.

Wheatley peered out from his hiding place. It was a group of about thirty — men, women and children. Most would work on the farms: their pay — and other benefits — from a few hours unloading boats in the saltings would probably double their week’s wage. He watched closely, willing his horse to remain quiet as he committed the evidence of his eyes to memory. He had only been in Harwich for a year, but still he was able to identify a number of those who paraded so unwittingly before him. Tall, cadaverous Robert Ames from Little Oakley was a man they had suspected for some time. So too were Robert Crompton and Forbes Clay from Dovercourt. And although he was not here in person, Wheatley was certain that the single chaise loaded with several half-ankers of spirit and two mud-daubed infants belonged to Thomas Cann, landlord of the King’s Head in Harwich.

As he watched, Joseph Wheatley considered that if he could prove charges against these people, they would be transported to the colonies and all their goods seized and sold. He knew they would do almost anything to stop him.

He froze, aware that movement would be the surest betrayal of his presence, as he saw four men following a little behind the main party. They were talking and laughing, but there was something in their expressions that marked them apart from the group they trailed. That, and the guns and broadswords they carried. The locals were merely the paid labour: these men were the real bandits, along with their colleagues out at sea.

If these men saw him, they would kill him without compunction. Under the Act of 1736, the penalty for any assault on a Revenue man was death on the gibbet, but he knew that the King’s law carried little weight out here. This was smuggler’s country and the laws people obeyed were the laws of the smuggler. The gangs were far more efficient than any force marshalled by the King or his Parliament.


The People of the Sea is available from: 

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