Category Archives: guest blog

The nature of creativity, the creativity of nature

[Guest post by Stephen Palmer]

What makes a man go out into his local wood to take photographs of fungi?

In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy the main character, Monique, a resident at Shrobbesbury Orphanage, is a young woman with a talent only men are supposed to have. She encounters great resistance from those believing she is a freak – perhaps a dangerous freak, because she isn’t a man – and her story follows her attempts to understand why she is talented and why she is different; and then, what to do about that. Resistance comes from the Reifiers, men able to make real the contents of their minds.

Stephen Palmer

These novels are set in 1899-1900, and one of Monique’s closest friends is a French painter, Henri Manguin, a real person who I encountered whilst reading a book about the Impressionists. Monique and Henri engage over the course of the first two volumes in a conversation about what creativity is, especially in the field of art. Monique paints buildings and other structures with a modernity and zest which takes Henri’s breath away. He, meanwhile, paints evocative images of the orphanage pool, in which he sees ethereal images of his childhood in Paris.

At first, Monique is wary of Henri, despite him clearly being in awe of her. In fact, Henri soon realises Monique’s talent is a gift, which he nurtures, not least because she is an orphan with absolutely no prospects other than servitude. Yet the two, as their relationship develops, begin to tease out the characteristics of visual art, and when in the second volume Monique meets a certain Mr Bleakmonger, her education improves further.

Art, Henri says, “is following nature, yet interpreting it also… to make a painting we grasp what is inside our mind, we splash it out upon the canvas.” Later he says, “We take nature as it is, though we interpret what we see for our canvases. But a Reifier, he take what he believes to be nature from his mind, which we would never do – which we could never do. And such a man therefore can on occasion be wrong.” To this Monique says, “Then I must be open to the world, not closed to it.” When with Mr Bleakmonger she says, “I was thinking of my creativity. Mr Bleakmonger, it could be one of two things. On the one hand is the selfish option – forcing your will upon the world to make real the mind’s fancies. My creativity is the same process, making real my mind’s images, yet it’s the selfless option. I reach into my mind, to create… I do believe I see the difference now! A Reifier reaches into his mind, but he doesn’t interpret the world. He doesn’t allow the world a chance to affect his sentiments. He blocks it off. He denies it… An artist allows the world to have a profound effect deep inside them, because they’re sensitive. When I paint, I welcome the world into me, and then I interpret it.”

What then of our photographer? It is surely the fungi and the atmosphere of the wood which affect him: Nature. He is sensitive to it. The wonder and beauty of the wood, and the things growing in it, affect his deeper mind – “We take nature as it is, though we interpret what we see for our canvases…” – which in turn gives him the impulse to create, interpreting the wood through his lens. And although photography is a technique of capturing reality, the person behind the camera uses insight and sensitivity to choose and frame what they wish to photograph. Photography is Art. To quote Monet: “Every day I discover more and more beautiful things, it’s enough to drive one mad.”

Monica Orphan, book one in the Conjuror Girl trilogy:

Buy this ebook from: Amazon US – Amazon UK – Barnes and Noble – Kobo – Apple – Smashwords
Buy this book in print (ISBN: 9798759486374): Amazon US – Amazon UK – and other booksellers

All three books in the trilogy are now available.

Details of Stephen Palmer's blog tour

Extract: Hell’s Ditch by Simon Bestwick

Hell's Ditch by Simon BestwickThe dream never changes: a moonless, starless night without end. The road she walks is black, bordered with round, white pebbles or nubs of polished bone; she can’t tell which but they’re the only white in the darkness, marking her way through the night.

In dreams and nightmares, Helen walks the Black Road. It leads her back from the grave, back from madness, back towards the man who caused the deaths of her family: Tereus Winterborn, Regional Commander for the Reapers, who rule the ruins of a devastated Britain.

On her journey, she gathers her allies: her old mentor Darrow, the cocky young fighter Danny, emotionally-scarred intelligence officer Alannah and Gevaudan Shoal, last of the genetically-engineered Grendelwolves.

Winterborn will stop at nothing to become the Reapers’ Supreme Commander; more than anything he seeks the advantage that will help him achieve that goal. And in the experiments of the obsessed scientist Dr Mordake, he thinks he has found it.

To Winterborn, Project Tindalos is a means to ultimate power; to Mordake, it’s a means to roll back the devastation of the War and restore his beloved wife to the living. But neither Winterborn nor Mordake understand the true nature of the forces they are about to unleash. Forces that threaten to destroy everything that survived the War, unless Helen and her allies can find and stop Project Tindalos in time.


Extract: Hell’s Ditch by Simon Bestwick

No sound. Somehow that’s the worst part of it: the silence.

She can’t even hear her footsteps click on the Black Road’s cobbles. Normally, when she finds herself walking of nights, when she sleeps, that sound’s the one bit of company she has. Now even that’s gone.

Colour begins bleeding into the night. Or at least grey does. It fills up the space on either side of the road, then covers the road itself. She feels it, soft and cushioning, underfoot.

The sky lightens. The sky, too, is ash. Somewhere beyond it there might be a sun, but it’s no more than a rumour of light. In the distance, the City, or what’s left of it. It’s only recognisable because it breaks the horizon in the right spot.

She stops and looks about. All is ashes. Here and there, the crumbling remains of a tree, a body, a gun stick clear of the dead grey carpet. Then she sees motion. Things crawling. They’re people, she realises. Or they were. It’s hard to be sure what they are now. The ash coats them – their clothes, their skin. And many of them are incomplete, missing fingers, hands or entire limbs, sections of faces stripped away. She can’t tell where their flesh ends and the dust begins, especially as they crawl in it, flounder in it, sink into it, some vanishing from sight to never rise again. Their faces – their faces are wads of ash and dust, with black gaping holes for mouths and eyes.

And the worst thing, the worst, worst thing, is the absence of sound. When those faces lift and gape wider to howl their prayers and agony to the uncaring, dying sky, she sees chests and shoulders heave as they try to scream. But there’s nothing. One figure kneels and screams and screams as its hands dissolve into streams of ash, waving the diminishing stumps of its arms about as if to extinguish the invisible fires devouring it.  But there’s no sound. It tries to rise, trips and falls into the ash. A grey cloud billows up. When it settles, the figure has broken apart like a toppled statue, its fragments either crumbling into or being swallowed up by the soft blanket that is the end of everything. A couple of the pieces are still moving.

Darkness falling, over her and them; an end to this at last? But no, in the distance the sky is still grimily pale. And this darkness has its edge, its contours. A shape. It’s the shadow of something vast and alive.

Slowly she turns and stares upwards. She doesn’t want to, but, as is common in dreams, she can’t stop herself.  She looks up and sees something vast and hunched and black blotting out the sky, sees its huge head turn and tilt downwards, feels whatever serves it for eyes come to bear on her.

She wants to wake up. She wants to wake up. But she’s still there, staring up at it from the plain of ash as the black shape leans down towards her, a scream building in her throat she knows will go unheard.

And then there’s one sound. Just one. The hiss of a wind through stone; the great shape’s whisper of its name:



Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned.

Facebook Author Page:
Twitter: @GevaudanShoal

Guest post: 52 Songs, 52 Stories by Iain Rowan

52 Songs, 52 StoriesIt was quite a simple idea. Every week for a year, I’d set iTunes to shuffle, let it pick the next song at random, and then I’d sit down and write a story inspired by that song and publish it on the web.

In part it was a bit of fun, but in part it was also a really useful lesson about discipline, and not waiting for inspiration. I was working on a novel at the same time, plus the usual family and day job commitments, so I didn’t have much time to spare. No time for writer’s block. No time for procrastination. No time for mulling over ideas or scrapping and starting again, no time for second or third drafts. Just listen. Write. Quick scan for typos. Publish.  Repeat.

There were times when it was hard, but I learned a lot about not waiting for inspiration, instead just writing and writing until something took shape, and I could discard what I didn’t need, and keep what felt right. Just start writing, and trust that something would come. It’s always a satisfying feeling to have written, but it’s even better when the writing process itself is enjoyable. I enjoyed writing the stories for 52 Songs most when the words and ideas just flowed, as if already shaped before I thought them. But exactly where was all this coming from?

Some of my favourite stories from the project are those that just seemed to appear from… somewhere. Re-reading the year of stories with a critical eye, I can’t see a difference in quality between the ideas I sweated over, and those which arrived, fully formed, almost before I knew it. I’ve always been cynical about the idea of waiting for the muse, as it’s an excellent excuse not to write and I really don’t need any more of those. Sometimes though, in those moments when the ideas just rush in from nowhere, I can at least imagine the muses gathered in a corner, nodding approvingly.

But that’s just an all-too human trait of ascribing outside agency, to what comes from within. I’ve always been fascinated by how we can better feed the subconscious, stoke up its fires and let it run riot with its tools: everything we have ever been, or thought, or known.

I’m also fascinated by how we listen to what it’s telling us. That’s the trick, and creative artists have found many ways to do it: long walks in the country with the dog, long walks inside their head with drugs, running (or in my case, cycling) long and hard, drinking long and hard, losing themselves in music, the shower or the bath, staring out of windows on trains. The endless chattering monkey mind settles for a moment or two, the subconscious seizes its chance, there’s a shuffling and a clicking, the puzzle pieces move a little further into place, and the words flow.

Of course, as soon as the hard work of revision starts, the muses and your subconscious all shrug, pretend to look busy, and mutter, ‘You’re on your own now, pal’. But for 52 Songs, 52 Stories, I learned better ways of getting that first part out, and onto the page.

52 Songs, 52 Stories is available now:

Guest post: Jason Erik Lundberg on the strangest of mammals

Strange Mammals by Jason Erik LundbergHuman beings are strange mammals. Just thought I’d get that out of the way.

In the animal kingdom, all mammals eat, sleep, mate, and fight to defend themselves. (This, of course, applies to non-mammalian animals as well.) But human beings are the only type of mammal that also questions their own existence and identity. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do with the limited time allotted to us?

Evolutionarily speaking, intuitively, this is exceedingly odd. On the face of it, wondering what you want to be when you grow up should actually interfere with, rather than aid with, your continued survival; debating the merits of becoming a fireman versus an astronaut is not entirely helpful if a lion is chewing through your stomach. But this strange and constant questioning has actually done the opposite, and led to human beings, as comedian Louis CK famously pointed out, successfully pulling ourselves out of the food chain. We have survived as a species not in spite of this preoccupation, but because of it.

These questions have spurred on both miraculous innovation and horrific atrocities, but regardless of the results, they are at the fundamental heart of humanity. Literature is one of the few avenues so thoroughly equipped to examine these questions, and speculative fiction is particularly keen, through its slanted focus, on transcending mere fact and approaching truth. (Although anyone with a definitive answer is selling something.)

My very first story was published ten years ago, but I was writing with the active goal of publication for the decade before that, and writing because it was a joyful and fulfilling activity for the decade before that. In all of that time, my fiction has approached these fundamental questions in various ways, lightly or heavily, obliquely or head-on. It is a life-long project, what Zoran Zivkovic calls “the noble art of fiction writing”.

Take the title story of my new collection, Strange Mammals (published this month in paperback and ebook formats by Infinity Plus). The central animals that the protagonist encounters over the course of the narrative—a wombat, an ocelot, a fictional Borgesian catoblepas—can be seen as various aspects of the narrator’s psyche, but the wonderful (and, yes, noble) thing about this kind of story is the ambiguity that allows for all these bizarre animals, and others besides, to exist independent of mere mental projection. This dual existence, which is only possible within the arena of the fantastic, opens up those fundamental questions to scrutiny. If an alcoholic talking wombat with a penchant for Greek food can take over our lives so completely with its forceful personality, where does that then place us on the food chain? Can we still think of ourselves as existentially superior in the face of such a creature? Or else, if it only exists as a hallucination, what does its presence mean for human consciousness itself?

This may elevate literature (and my own in particular) to too lofty a height. After all, stories have to entertain, right? (And, in all honesty, “Strange Mammals” is probably the funniest story I have ever written; it’s difficult for me to read it even silently without bursting into laughter.) One must be engaged with the story or else it becomes discarded in favor of an endless number of diversions and distractions. But this entertainment factor is what makes the fiction so profoundly lasting, that viral insistence which leads to the injection of higher considerations.

What could be stranger than that?

“Jason Erik Lundberg’s stories, launched from the real world on a trajectory to the surreal, fuse the idle daydream with the desperate heart. You should read them.”
John Kessel, author of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories

The Strange Mammals ebook is available from: Amazon US – Amazon UK – Kobo – Apple – Smashwords

And the print edition: Amazon US – Amazon UK – CreateSpace

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.

Sad Songs, With Lots Of Drumming – a guest post by Ian R MacLeod

The White Heather ClubYou have to be of a certain age to remember The White Heather Club. Back in the times when the TV was still in just one room in the house and you had to wait for it to warm up, vague grey shapes sword-dancing to tiddildy-dee music or singing about speeding bonny boats was what passed for light entertainment. Not that there was any choice, but it was a favourite in our family, my father being a typically nostalgic expat Scotsman. The first record that was bought for me (rather than that supposed landmark; the first you buy yourself) was a single of Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier, which I remember enjoying a great deal. I also liked the theme tune to The Lone Ranger, which I didn’t then know was Rossini’s William Tell Overture. That, and Perry Como singing his way through the states of the USA (although I didn’t realise that either) in What Did Della Wear?

It’s easy to groan and try to shut the doors on the embarrassing things we thought we liked before we really knew about music. The novelty records and one hit wonders. But they’re there — they’re part of all our heritage — and their influence remains. My co-ordination is poor to this day, but apparently one of my favourite toddler pursuits was to go into the lounge and bang the poker against the coal scuttle and the fire grate; I’ve always been a frustrated drummer. I think I can still just about remember the noisy pleasure of those sessions, and perhaps that rat-a-tat martial drumming was the appeal of Andy Stewart’s song. That, and the solider dying.

Music was played each day on some big old gramophone as we marched into assembly at infants’ school, and again as we stomped around pretending to be dinosaurs or curled up like the seeds of flowers in something called “Music and Movement”. I have no clear recollection of what the music was, but it was “improving” and classical, and I reckon it may well have included some of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the much more jagged Romeo and Juliet. He’s still a favourite composer. There always did seem to be something about classical music that I found interesting. My next “bought for me” single, actually an EP, came from my elder brother after I’d been to see Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which takes its music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I remember being a bit disappointed as we sat waiting for “the tune”… but also how much I liked the nice lady ballet dancer photographed on the cover. One of my pleasures was to dress up in my sister’s old ballet costume, and pretend to be a fairy. I even went to school dressed that way once or twice when the occasion seemed to demand it. In those days no one seemed to worry about such behaviour.

After that, up through infants’ and on into secondary school, music, and dressing up, took a back seat. I had no great interest in what was becoming the “Top Ten”, but listened as most kids then did to Junior Choice on the BBC Radio’s Light Programme. I enjoyed songs such as The Little White Bull and The Ugly Bug Ball because they told a story, and particularly liked Puff the Magic Dragon, because it ended so sadly — “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…” But my two biggest favourites were Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Great songs by any standard, and both filled with sad yearning. I suspect that this was the first music to make me cry, and to realise what an oddly glorious feeling that was.

A still from SnodgrassMy elder sister, meanwhile, had noticed this group called the Beatles, and I was very happy to dance along with her to the singles she bought and played on our new radiogram that sat in the lounge on the far side of the fireplace from the telly. Jolly, melodic stuff, and Mum and Dad liked the Beatles as well. In fact, everyone seemed to like the Beatles. But that very likeability made me wary. That, or perhaps their songs simply weren’t sad enough, and lacked the right kind of drumming. But I played Rain on the B side of Paperback Writer often, fascinated by the hypnotic way it drawled and jangled. My elder brother’s tastes went in the direction of Harry Secombe and Andy Williams, but there was one track on an LP of his that I also played and played. It was from an “original cast” (i.e. – not the people from the movie) recording of West Side Story, and was called The Rumble — a modern ballet piece, all jagged angles and mis-shaped chords. Then, and now, it struck me as fresh and sharp and brilliant.

School, being school, still involved random bits of exposure to music. We even used to get so-called “music lessons” each week for no reason any of us could understand, least of all the teacher. Still, one day he set about demonstrating the capabilities of his nice new stereo by playing us a surprisingly lengthy piece of classic music. To his credit, he explained how this symphony started sadly because the composer had had to travel to America without his family, and how it might help if we imagined him arriving on a big steamer into New York harbour, and to try to feel his spirits lifting as he sees the city skyline. I thought this was fabulous stuff, a story told in sound. And there was this churning sadness, those slow drums rolling…

A week or so later, I bought my first record with my own money, an LP of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the music was even more fabulous than I remembered. In those carefree days, and I and most of my mates used to go home for lunch from our secondary school. As everyone else was out, I’d take my white bread and mashed banana on a tray into the lounge, turn on the radiogram, and let this music flow around me. This is it, I thought. This is something that I love. The sixties had moved on, and my mates were also buying records of their own. Not classical LPs, but singles from the charts by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and Sonny and Cher. I didn’t have any problem with much of this — I watched Top of the Pops just like everyone else — but at the same time I was happy to tell them that it was all a bit… well, simple.

So there I was, my head in the clouds and following on Dvorak with Holst’s Planet Suite and a compilation called Classical Fireworks which wasn’t quite on the same level. No easy decisions, seeing as LPs cost a lot. I liked being different — I liked liking stuff that other people didn’t know or understand or care about. As the radiogram had to remain in its sacred place in the lounge, I was also regularly inflicting my music on the rest of my family, or being told to turn it down, or evicted so they could watch telly. The Beatles, meanwhile, had gone a bit odd, and my sister seemed to have lost interest in them. Another of my random musical experiences at school was when our geography teacher took it upon himself to play their new LP called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of telling us about towns of the Potteries. I can remember hearing Lennon singing For the Benefit of Mister Kite, and thinking it was strange and wonderful, and like nothing I’d ever heard, least of all She Loves You and those other sugary hits. Not that I bought the record, of course. After all, I only bought classical stuff, didn’t I?

I had the radiogram in the lounge mostly to myself now, as my bother had left to get married and my sister was off at university, and my Dad only had a Black and White Minstrels LP and some Scottish pipes and drums stuff he played at New Year or when he got sentimental. When my sister returned with a boyfriend in tow, they were gracious enough to take me with them to see a film called 2001 A Space Odyssey, and my world was changed. Partly, of course, because of the look of the film, and the mystery of whatever story it was telling, but at least as much because of the music. Not just the iconic stuff by the two Strausses, brilliant though that was, but the other, weirder, pieces. When I played one of my mates some Ligeti from the 2001 soundtrack, I remember him commenting that he would, genuinely, rather listen to Mrs Mills on the piano. Which was great as far as I was concerned. More of this strange and wonderful music left just for me.

But, alarmingly, I found that I now rather liked some of the singles from what was now called the “Top Twenty”. Between buying Richard Strauss tone poems and exploring Karl Nielsen’s symphonies, my secret shame was that I thought some of Deep Purple’s stuff, and Alice Cooper’s, not to mention Cream and the Stones, was actually pretty good. I liked the drumming, and the riffs, and the sense of risk, and the jangling, twisting melodies. And then there was David Bowie. Not because of the way he dressed — my own dressing-up days were behind me — but because of the music. I particularly loved Life on Mars, with its soaring wistfulness, and Space Odyssey, because of Major Tom dying.

Maybe this pop and rock thing had something going for it after all. Not the stuff you heard all the time on daytime Radio One, of course, but by now I was listening to John Peel as I played with my Airfix soldiers on Sunday afternoons, and enjoying a new, different, sense of exclusivity. I never bought singles, but the first rock LP I bought was Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The classical link was obvious, but at least as important was that it came in Island’s cheaper Help series instead of at full price. That, and the cool gatefold cover. But it was great, and I absorbed it with the same edge-of-the-seat enthusiasm I’d had for Dvorak, Richard Strauss and Ligeti. I loved the shrieking, atonal bits where Keith Emerson attacked his keyboard. And then there was the drumming…

Ah! Drumming. It wasn’t something you got much of in classical music. Even Holst’s Mars doesn’t have the same propulsion as Karl Palmer at full tilt. My next LP, and the first live act I saw, was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Drumming aplenty there, and brilliant solo playing. One of my favourite live musical memories is of John McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty trading fours (although I didn’t then know what it was called) on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon. That, and Michael Walden’s thirty minute drum solo. For a long while after that, by now a sixth-former, then a college student, I bought complex jazz-edged rock music, often with very little singing. This was the era of prog rock, and there was plenty of this stuff to go around, although to my mind, as ever a musical snob, a lot of it was still a bit simple-minded. The Floyd, for example, who I liked for a while, at least until the NME laid into them for being lazily commercial. Not to mention Genesis. And as for Supertramp… Actually, I secretly loved my tape of a friend’s Crime of the Century because it was such a sad album.

From here on in, it probably all gets much more predictable. Step forward Henry Cow. Step forward Keith Jarrett and pretty much anything on the ECM label. That, and Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell, along with a slow return to the classical stuff I’d always loved, especially the great, sad, romantic composers, combined with all the folk, ambient and avant guard music I began listening to. Thanks in major part to Richard and Linda Thompson’s brilliantly pessimistic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which starts with a song about suicide and ends with the fabulously bleak The Great Valerio, I finally realised that there was elegance and profundity in seemingly simple music. But probably the last great aha moment in my musical life came when I purchased, for no exact reason I can now remember, a copy of King Crimson’s Red. I already had In the Court of the Crimson King, but, if you discount the great cover and Twenty First Century Schizoid Man, that’s a surprisingly quiet album. I took Red from its sleeve, opened up the record player, which still sat in my parents’ lounge opposite the telly, and played it, and played it, and played it, and played it. Again. And again. I could play it now. In fact, I will…

The prowling thunder of the title track. The jagged, free-form of Providence. Above all, the churning mellotron chords which begin Starless, with that yearning guitar theme and those bleak lyrics about grey hope and sunsets that quitens to a riff which builds over clashing drums until the main theme returns in a howl of saxophones. Complex, intelligent music, played with a ferocious mixture of joy, anger and passion. Maybe it helped that Fripp and his band were imploding. Who knows? To me this is still, and always will be, earth-shatteringly brilliant. I could cry. I am crying. It all seems a very long way from Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier. But then, I always did like sad songs, with lots of drumming.

Guest post by Ian R MacLeod

Ian R MacLeod’s “Snodgrass”, a story telling the life of a John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living in Birmingham and working for a while in the civil service will be shown in the UK on Sky Playhouse on 25 April.

Open Road Media will shortly be publishing all of Ian’s novels as e-books. They’re starting with a “Best Of” collection of short stories called Snodgrass and Other Illusions, featuring some favourites from his whole career, a few rarities, and individual afterwords.

For all the latest news visit Ian R MacLeod’s website.


The Long and Winding Road – a guest post by Colin Murray

No Hearts, No Roses by Colin MurrayThere are many roads to becoming a published author. This was mine.

A few years ago, I found myself with some time on my hands. This happens quite often when you’re freelance: it seems that it’s either feast or famine. You complain about both but you much prefer feast. On this occasion, I was feeling just a little bruised as a new number-crunching, pie-chart-eating CEO decided that the publishing company where I had been successfully running an imprint for about eight years could no longer afford me and had ended what had been a mutually beneficial arrangement. (They had a vastly experienced editor at a cut-rate and I had some element of stability in my income. For what it’s worth, I had the last laugh: the bookseller who replaced me lasted just five months. I’d told the CEO that it would be six, but I didn’t mind being wrong.) So, while I was looking for replacement work (which came in surprisingly quickly), I, for no good reason, sat down and started to write a novel.

Of course, I should have known better.

I’d worked in publishing for long enough to know that it was rarely the path to fame and fortune, and that, far more often, it ended in tears and recrimination. But I had an idea and time on my hands and I’d also heard that a major publishing house was actively looking for new crime writers.

The writing went surprisingly well but, by the time I’d written the first hundred pages, I had a living to make and work to do and so I sent that chunk of the book off to one of the editors at the publisher and got on with my life, while continuing to write whenever I could.

Some six months passed before I received a very pleasant letter from an assistant editor, apologizing for taking so long and asking if there was any more to be seen as she thought the novel was pretty good and was planning to talk to her boss about it. Which sounded promising. As I had, in fact, more or less finished the book. I duly sent it off.

At that stage, having set things in motion, I thought it might not be a bad idea to contact an agent. I made a tentative enquiry and received a very positive response so I told him of the publisher’s interest and hoped that things might happen.

I guess I should have been even more wary than I was because in the publishing world, as in most areas of human activity, little is simple and straightforward. When my often elusive agent peered through the cloud cover on Olympus long enough to say, ‘Nothing would please me more than selling this for a hundred thousand pounds but that’s not going to happen,’ I understood him to be making a realistic judgement on the book’s worth. But I was wrong. What I didn’t hear was the suppressed clause, ‘and I don’t bother with anything that sells for less than that.’ My fault, of course, for not being cynical enough.

I knuckled down to some revisions and, after a while, my agent did arrange a meeting with an editor from the publishing house I had sent the novel to. He told me that my book was one of the most accomplished first novels he’d come across and I left the meeting with a warm glow, expecting my agent to hammer out a deal.

However, it turned out that the meeting was the one and only thing he did for me.

I rewrote again, sent the new draft off to him and the editor and then waited. And waited.  After five months of hearing nothing, I tried to contact the great man on the phone. I failed. I tried again. And failed again. In fact, I kept on trying for a month. And kept on failing. Eventually, I decided that maybe I wasn’t the client for him and that, ipso facto, made him not the agent for me. I wrote accordingly and, eventually, I received a gracious reply, admitting that he had not served me well.

Meanwhile, times had changed and the publishing house that had been interested in new crime novels was no longer looking for them.

However, this where the long story becomes a short one. I decided to represent myself and looked at lists I liked and sent the book off to Constable & Robinson. I received a very favourable reaction in weeks, an offer soon after and then a contract. Of course, I didn’t get a hundred thousand pounds but I was consulted on the cover and the blurb, the copy-editing was superb, everyone was enthusiastic and the rights people even placed the book with an American publisher.

And, no matter, how jaded and cynical one pretends to be, there is nothing like holding a copy of your first book.

What had I learned, apart from that? Not a lot that I didn’t know already. Agents and publishers can be very dilatory and can’t always be relied on, but there are some good guys out there.

Oh, and I now know that first-time novelists have long memories and nurture and cherish grudges. There’s one agent who won’t be getting any referrals from me, and British crime reviewers (who, for the most part, simply ignored the book) probably shouldn’t look to me for any favours for a decade or two.

But there are things that make it all worthwhile: a reviewer describing my book as ‘riveting and suspenseful’ and then exclaiming ‘What a terrific first novel!’; another saying that it was ‘brilliant’; and another talking about its ‘pounding suspense’. The fame and fortune are probably never going to happen, but I’d made a little money, I was a member of the Crime Writers’ Association, some people had read my novel and they hadn’t been disappointed. What more could I realistically have hoped for?

Summer Song by Colin MurrayColin Murray’s first novel, After a Dead Dog, a contemporary crime novel set in rural Scotland, was published in 2007. No Hearts, No Roses (‘quirky, engaging, Chandleresque’ Booklist), appeared in 2011, and September Song in 2012. Both are set in London in 1955 and feature the same main character.

September Song:

No Hearts, No Roses:

After a Dead Dog:

The Penny Dreadnought Files: Transcript of the Debriefing of Agent #742C – a guest post by Mr Everington

“So, what can you tell us about these so called ‘Abominable Gentlemen’, Agent #742C?”

“It’s worse than we thought, sir.”

“What do you mean? I thought they were just writers?”

“Well sir…”

“And not even proper writers, but – and I can barely bring myself to say this – genre writers. People fixated not just on what isn’t, but on what can never be.”

“I’m not sure how we could ever truly know what can never be, sir”

“This isn’t a philosophy class Agent #742C. This is you telling me whether these Gentlemen really are Abominable. Or Gentlemen. What are they each like individually, when they’re not calling themselves damn silly names?”

Alan Ryker is a cad, Sir, and Iain Rowan a rotter; Aaron Polson is a ruffian, and James Everington a n’er-do-well.”

“Hmmm. And are they really writers, or is it all just a cover for nefarious activities?”

“Well they do publish fiction sir. Both separately, but also as a group in a series of themed anthologies called Penny Dreadnought…

“Well, it’s a nice title I give ‘em that. But no – genre writers. Can’t be any good.”

“And they’ve recently published all sixteen stories from the first four volumes in an Omnibus volume, sir. You can buy it on places like Amazon and Amazon UK – I’ve checked and it is legitimate sir. Proper artwork and formatting and all that. But…”

“But,  Agent #742C?”

“But I don’t believe a word of it sir! They’re supposed to be horror writers! This Penny Dreadnought thing should contain stories about zombies or romantically inclined were-bats! That’s what horror readers want, isn’t it? It’s what Mrs #742C reads sir, and…”

Penny Dreadnought“I have no desire to learn the squalid secrets of your marriage, Agent #742C. So if it’s not that sort of thing, what sort of stories does this Penny Dreadnought Omnibus contain?”

“There’s ambiguity sir. Things that are unclear and make you think, long after you’ve finished the story… and… ”

“Don’t falter now Agent #742C.”

“And strong prose and characterisation – like real books! There’s even stories based on the theme of ‘epistemic doubt’ sir! They reference Descartes.”

“Good Lord!”

All the stories are like that sir. Literate and street-smart”

“You’re right, these can’t possibly be horror writers! What possible justifications can they give?”

“They claim they are part of a long line of ‘literate horror’ sir…”

“Wash your mouth out Agent 742C!”

“… which includes such people as Shirley Jackson, T.E.D. Klein, and Algernon Blackwood sir. They claim they grouped together as the ‘Abominable Gentlemen’ because they all shared similar sensibilities as writers, and wanted to band together to put out the best of their stories…”

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a case as bad as this before. I don’t mind admitting to feeling some nausea.”

“They claim publishing their work together in this way allows them to increase their audience and allows their readers to find new and exciting authors. Further issues might even feature guest Gentlemen sir, of either gender, who are also writers of unashamedly high-brow horror…”

“I think I’ve heard enough. You’ve read this abomination – what do you suggest we do Agent #742C?”

“Nuke the site from orbit Sir?”

“Oh, you will go far Agent #742C.”

The first Penny Dreadnought anthology is available now and more information is available on the PD website. The Gentlemen themselves have been conspicuous by their absence since this debriefing took place, but hope to be bringing you more tales of nefariousness soon.

Whippleshield Books – a guest post by Ian Sales

Rocket Science, edited by Ian SalesI didn’t intend to set up my own small press. I had this science fiction novella which I thought was good enough to be published, but every small press I approached had a couple of years’ worth of material scheduled. I didn’t think a magazine would publish the novella because it has an extensive glossary – and the glossary is important to the reading experience. And, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced editors would actually like my novella. I hadn’t written it in a science fiction mode… though it’s set in an alternate 1980s, is about astronauts stranded on the Moon, and makes use of an unexplained Nazi “Wunderwaffe”. But it’s not the sort of science fiction you see each year on the Hugo and Nebula shortlists. Besides, my novella was also the first of a quartet, and I’d sooner have sold all four as a single package… even though I hadn’t written the other three.

And then I agreed to edit Rocket Science, an anthology of hard science fiction, for Mutation Press (which was responsible for the Music for Another World anthology in 2010). The plan was to launch Rocket Science at the Eastercon in London in April 2012. It occurred to me this would be a perfect time to also launch my novella…

But the only way I was going to manage that would be to publish it myself. No existing small press, even if it agreed, would be able to turn it around so fast.

Self-publishing an ebook is one thing, but I wanted to do it properly. That meant making the novella, titled Adrift on the Sea of Rains, available in both paperback and limited edition hardback. Since I was going to all that trouble, I decided I might as well set up an actual small press, and make Adrift on the Sea of Rains its first publication. I especially liked that this gave me complete control over how the novella would appear in print.

However, I am unfortunately poor at art. I could have looked for suitable cover art on the Internet. Or perhaps used a photograph from the Apollo Moon missions. I did, in fact, experiment with some covers using both. But I wanted Adrift on the Sea of Rains to stand out, to not look like just another self-published science fiction novella. One night, I was watching MichelanAdrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Salesgelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, and in it a character picked up a paperback book. Red Desert was released in 1964, and though the paperback in the film is Italian, it reminded me of the Penguin Modern Classic paperbacks on my bookshelves which used to belong to my father. I wanted something which resembled those books. After some experimentation, that’s what I ended up with: a cover filled with a grid of line-drawings of an Apollo LM, one of which is in grey. The art is actually relevant to the novella’s plot.

I asked a number of published sf authors I knew if they’d provide back-cover quotes. Those that agreed I emailed a PDF of the novella to. By the time I had the front cover finalised, all the quotes, ISBNs from Nielsen, and quotes from the printers, it was the beginning of March. I submitted print-ready files to the printer, and then fretted.

The first set of cover proofs had mistakes on them – made by the printers, not me. The second set were correct. A week before the Eastercon, a courier delivered five boxes of books, three of hardbacks and two of paperbacks. I was pleased to note the book had come out better than I’d expected. It’s not perfect, and if I could I’d make a few changes and release a new edition.

Since its publication, the response to Adrift on the Sea of Rains has been overwhelmingly positive. So far about ten reviews, all positive, have appeared online; and several people have tweeted that they thought it was really good. Of course, this means the pressure is now on to make the second book of the quartet even better…

As for Whippleshield Books… Yes, there are the other three books of the Apollo Quartet yet to see print. But I’m anticipating six to nine months between each one. Since I plan to publish two or three books a year, I’m going to need more material, so Whippleshield Books is open to submissions. But only of a specific type: novellas or very short linked collections, hard science fiction or space fiction, of high literary quality.

It’s likely I will be rejecting lots of submissions. I learnt doing Rocket Science that the definition of hard sf I was operating from wasn’t one shared by many of the people who submitted stories to the anthology. I have a very particular type of story in my head for Whippleshield Books – which, unsurprisingly, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, indeed the entire Apollo Quartet, sort of exemplifies – but I expect to be sent a lot of submissions which are very much not like that. The guidelines for Whippleshield Books can be found on the website.


Guest post: Worldbuilding… what’s not to like? by Richard Ford

Okay, I confess: I hate worldbuilding! Do I think a map is important in a fantasy novel? No, not really. Should a writer develop their own version of Elvish? Don’t be daft!

Now, before you leap straight to the comments at the bottom in a flurry of righteous indignation to demand how I can claim to be a fantasy writer without a deep and abiding love for all things ‘backgroundy’, let me explain.

Firstly, it’s not that I can’t do worldbuilding, it’s just that other people do it so much better. Having worked in the pen & paper RPG industry for several years, I’ve come across a lot of games with rich, lush backgrounds, created over decades by scores of contributors. How am I meant to compete?

The world of Faerun, in which the Forgotten Realms RPG supplements, computer games and novels are set, was originally devised by Ed Greenwood, but since then he has passed on the mantle to other creators who have gone on to develop its rich history, cultures and cataclysmic events, spanning centuries. Warhammer 40K’s Imperium of Man was first developed 25 years ago, but has since evolved into a behemoth of a background with scores of codices, computer games and over a hundred novels filling the gaps in the vastness of its space. One of the earliest RPG backgrounds was RuneQuest’s Glorantha, which has had not one, not two, but three ages. Count them! And trust me, I’ve worked on some Glorantha products and may well have let slip some continuity errors. Trust me when I say, the long time fans weren’t happy, but in my defence there’s a hell of a lot to know if you’re new to it.

And it’s not just RPGs. Star Wars now goes beyond the limits of the movies, crafting an intricate Expanded Universe which tells its tales across various media and in various timelines that cover thousands of years. These new stories from dozens of contributors are arguably as deep and abiding as the tales of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, to which anyone who’s ever played computer games in the Old Republic, or read the novels and comics that continue the background well beyond Return of the Jedi, will attest.

Skyrim, the latest Elder Scrolls computer game (number V, I believe) is the latest set in a world that continues to grow and expand as much, if not more, than any novel series or pen & paper RPG you might delve into.

But other novelists manage to build convincing worlds, I hear you cry, you’re clearly just a lazy git.

Well, that’s one explanation, yes. And you’re correct, other novelists do create their own living breathing worlds. Tolkien, the granddaddy of fantasy himself, as well as writing detailed appendices for his seminal works completed a twelve-volume history of Middle Earth (albeit released posthumously) as well as the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and more. George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is as close to a historical novel as you’ll get in the fantasy genre, and Brandon Sanderson has been developing the background for his Stormlight Archive series, starting with the doorstep-sized The Way of Kings (which to my shame I haven’t yet read, but it’s on the list) for the past ten years. Even Joe Abercrombie, who professes to spend little time on background, has still managed to craft a nuanced setting with an ancient and mysterious history.

So your books have no background? No world for us to dive into a swim around, all the while appreciating your worldbuildy unctuousness?

Well, not exactly.

As a fantasy writer you’ve got to at least develop a cursory background, even if your world is just a mirror for the one we live in. My first novel Kultus is set in the steam-powered metropolis of the Manufactory, although there is a world beyond its walls. With steampunk you’ve already got some recognisable aspects, some tropes that are familiar to the reader and some technological aspects that are at least similar to our own. Still, I think I’ve at least created a living world, even if I haven’t laid it out for the reader like a smorgasbord of historical events.

With epic fantasy on the other hand, which generally takes place in a medieval era of technology, you do have to develop a deep history, magic system, economy, etc. And here lies my problem – I’m currently writing a stonking great trilogy of the most epic of epic fantasies!

So what are you going to do? It’s going to be terrible! A shallow two-dimensional shell of a series!

Piffle and tosh I say!

It’s not just that other people do it so much better, that I’m not ready to flagellate myself for my lack of worldbuilding proficiency. At the end of the day books are about characters! Contrary to what you might have heard, characters are the foundations around which a novel is written. In fact they’re more than the foundations, they’re the bricks and mortar. Maybe even the roof too.

Background is merely window dressing, it’s the context within which you’ve created the book, but it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all. You can have a great novel with poor worldbuilding as long as the characters are living breathing people who leap out of the page and grab you, pulling you into their adventures and making you care for them. A world can be as rich and detailed as you like, but if the characters are two-dimensional, if you couldn’t give a monkey’s whether they live or die, the novel is ultimately doomed!

Saying all this (and at the risk of contradicting myself) the best novels in the genre are the ones which combine a strong, developed, fictional universe with strong, developed characters. And in many ways, these two things work hand-in-hand.

From my own experiences I’ve found that a world will develop organically around your characters and plot – which should always come first. When you’ve got a character who’s lived a life (at least in your head) you need to know where he’s been, what he’s done and who he’s done it with. That’s not to say you need to know the thousand year history of your world, but at least an idea of your characters’ experiences is crucial to building their depth.

So will I be developing the world for my epic fantasy? Will I be building its cultures and races and cosmology? You bet your britches I will. But I probably won’t beat myself up if I haven’t detailed who the king’s great, great grandfather was or what his capital city was called a thousand years ago. These are things that can be firmed up during the writing, and if the reader doesn’t need to know, then I don’t have to tell them. All they need to know about is the characters, and they should want to follow them through the story.

Oh, and they need to love them too… or at least love to hate them!

Richard Ford’s Kultus was published in October 2011, and is available from:

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