“Drive Through” by Keith Brooke: The quirky detective had run through all the standard questions. The vehicle’s make and colour, the driver’s description, the victim of the hit and run … But he had missed one very important question: Did you recognise the driver?
One of the most often-repeated pieces of advice to writers is that you should write the book you would want to read, rather than chasing some idea of what readers might be looking for.
That’s good advice for anyone wanting to write their best work, but not necessarily good career guidance. Taking my own career as an example, I started out a little over thirty years ago with a gritty, anguished post-cyberpunk thriller. I followed this with a horror novel that never sold, and then a high-SF duology, and then a fantasy novel about the death of fantasy (and therefore one that didn’t feature a lot of actual fantasy), and then a contemporary crime novel.
If I’d chosen to follow up that first novel with a direct sequel, a top US publisher was willing to publish me at the top of their list, but I held to my artistic principles and followed my muse. No regrets, but my career would have been very different. Hell, if I’d even stuck a little more closely to a single genre groove my career would have been very different. But I genre-hopped and never quite settled – and probably had a far more interesting career as a result.
Anyway, this is a rather long-winded introduction to an idea that occurred to me recently. I’ve written a lot of fiction over the years, and now I’m very far-removed from actually writing those early books. What would it be like to re-read some of them? Would I find that it all came rushing back and it’d be something akin to that umpteenth editing pass where you’re sick of the words you’ve written and don’t believe anyone might find them even vaguely interesting? Or might that distance actually allow me to read the books with fresh eyes?
So I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m not intending to slavishly reread every word I’ve ever written, but there are some interesting concepts back there. Like that fantasy novel about the death of fantasy and belief. It’s an idea that’s been explored elsewhere, of course, but this was my take on it: a story set in the tail end and aftermath of a brutal civil war, where some people rally around faith while others question any kind of god who might allow such carnage. Early drafts went by the title Scar Tissue, and my lead character was called Blair, in acknowledgement of George Orwell, whose Homage to Catalonia was one of the big influences on the setting and dramatic tensions. The novel was a very near miss, with interest from a major publisher taking it right up to the point where it was listed in their Forthcoming Titles catalogue, but internal changes at the company before signatures hit the contract led to it falling through the gaps. After that, it was a difficult book to place – for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it didn’t fit any neat publishing categories, being neither mainstream nor out and out fantasy. It ended up coming out under the title Lord of Stone from Cosmos Books in the US in the late 1990s, and then I republished it through infinity plus a few years ago.
Rereading it now has been an interesting experience. The book is full of familiar echoes, like a movie rewatched after several years. There are scenes I remember vividly, and others that have surprised me; characters who are like old friends or colleagues, and others who I had totally forgotten.
Within a very short space of time I was totally absorbed in the story of a young man in the thick of a foreign war. First a bystander, Bligh (as I renamed him, because by the time the book came out a certain other Blair figured large in UK political life) soon becomes passionately involved in the struggles of people he has come to know and love; and before long he’s fighting in the international corps, while powerful forces of the old religion close in around him, and he is clearly being marked out as something special. The fantasy element remains ambiguous – just like the characters in the novel, the reader can choose to believe or not, a fine balance that, for me at least, draws me right into Bligh’s struggles to understand what is happening to him.
It’s odd. This is a book I wrote. These are words that occupied a year or more of my life back in the early 1990s. And yet I’ve actually enjoyed reading this novel as much as any other novel I’ve read this year. Does that sound egotistical? Arrogant?
Perhaps. But remember that piece of writing advice. Always write the story you would want to read. And by setting Lord of Stone aside for a couple of decades I find that I’ve given myself enough distance to prove that true. This novel might not have the same resonances, or power to move, for you or anyone else, but for me this is exactly the book I would want to read. And regardless of career trajectory, marketing, or any other aspect of a writer’s life, you can’t really ask for any greater success than that.
Trace: a country where magic is dying out. A country at war with itself. A country where the prophecies of the Book of the World have started to come true.
Bligh: a young foreigner, drawn irresistibly to the war in Trace. A man who has rejected religion, yet appears to be possessed by one of the six Lords Elemental. Bligh thinks he’s going mad, but if he is then it’s a madness shared by others…
‘Satisfying prose … well realised and visualised characters … powerful and vivid portrayal of the conditions of war.’ –Eric Brown
‘Keith Brooke’s prose achieves a rare honesty and clarity, his characters always real people, his situations intriguing and often moving.’ –Jeff VanderMeer
Ten years ago today, the first ebook title from infinity plus was made available. (Well, actually, Amazon lists the publish date as 23rd November rather than the official 24th, because it went through their systems faster than expected and became available a day early.)
In that decade we’ve published a total of 95 infinity plus titles; this figure includes a series of 20 standalone short stories, the infinity plus singles, so that leaves 75 full-length books – novels, collections and anthologies. We’ve also published a further 20 titles in our infinite press imprint.
So I make that a grand total of 115 titles in a decade. Not bad!
Our authors include winners of World Fantasy Awards, Hugos, and most of the other major awards. A fabulous set of people to work with.
And we’re still going strong. We’ve just published a fine collection from Tony Ballantyne (‘Superb’ The Guardian), and we have another collection, including an original novella, from Garry Kilworth in the new year.
Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 collects over 30 non-fiction essays from some of the most exciting authors working today. Chronicling the process of writing and editing speculative fiction, these essays provide a unique glimpse behind the scenes.
Contributors include Ellen Ullman, S.M. Wheeler, Laurie Frankel, Paul McAuley, Marcus Sakey, Neal Asher, Ian Tregillis, Edward M. Lerner, Will McIntosh, Madeline Ashby, Nina Allan, Ken Scholes, Keith Brooke, Jasper Kent, Yoon Ha Lee, Ted Kosmatka, Daniel Abraham, Erin Hoffman, Samuel Sattin, Jack Skillingstead, Douglas Nicholas, Paul Tobin, Jill Shultz, Jay Posey, Eric Brown, Samit Basu, Gina X. Grant, Elizabeth Massie, Tom Vater, Django Wexler, Bradley Beaulieu, Jason M. Hough, Lou Morgan, Paul S. Kemp.
Cover art: a photograph of Hoechst stained non-small cell lung cancer cell. Finding cure for cancer is part of daily work for one of our journalists but similarly to Volume 1, all proceeds from Volume 2 will be donated to Epilepsy Action, in our opinion an equally important cause.
Story Behind the Book: Volume 2 is available from:
With contributions from Joe Haldeman, Linda Nagata, TC McCarthy, Ken Liu and more, this looks like a really interesting project. And yes, I have a story in there, too: “War 3.01”, a near-future piece exploring social media warfare.
An anthology of Military SF, exploring how warfare might affect the soldiers and civilians of tomorrow.
War has been speculated about in science fiction literature from the earliest days of the genre. From George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds & War In the Air to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers to Karin Traviss’sWess’har Wars series and Dan Abnett’s Embedded, science fiction literature has long had something to say about war. Now, it’s time to tell some new stories. War Stories is an anthology that looks to the modern state and the future of war through the words of some of the best short fiction authors writing today.
Our cover art is by the fantastic, Hugo Award winning artist Galen Dara, who’s worked for such places as Fireside Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Geek Love and Apex’s own Glitter and Mayhem anthology. She’ll also be contributing some additional, interior artwork.
War Stories isn’t an anthology of bug hunts and unabashed jingoism. It’s a look at the people ordered into impossible situations, asked to do the unthinkable, and those unable to escape from hell. It’s stories of courage under fire, and about the difficulties in making decisions that we normally would never make. It’s about what happens when the shooting stops, and before any trigger is ever pulled.
We’ve grown up reading stories from authors such as Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, Orson Scott Card, Timothy Zahn, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold and others that have laid the foundations for ‘military science fiction’ as a distinct genre.
We want to tell some different stories. Science Fiction, and military science fiction in particular, is a good look at the world today, where military actions are certainly relevant. We aim to tell some new stories that look at the future of warfare, and the people, robots and aliens involved.
The guys over at the excellent Upcoming4.me website have just published a book of essays by speculative fiction authors about the writing of their books, and it’s a book I’m delighted to be a part of, with my own entry about the writing of Genetopia.
What’s more, it’s not only a great book for anyone interested in what goes into producing SF and fantasy novels, all proceeds are going to Epilepsy Action, a cause particularly close to my own heart, as EA have been fantastic in supporting my daughter Molly as she faces the challenges presented by the condition.
The ebook is a bargain (I just picked one up from Amazon for less than £2), and a paperback will follow very soon, so why not pick up a copy or two?
Story Behind the Book: Volume 1 collects nearly 40 non-fiction essays on writing and editing speculative fiction written by some of the most exciting authors and editors. Essays cover everything from getting an initial creative burst, worldbuilding, tackling writer’s block, to the final process of publication. Some of the essays are personal, some rather technical but all of them, without an exception, provide an unique and fascinating insight into the mind of an author.
Contributors include Ian Whates, Michael Logan, Mathieu Blais and Joel Casseus, Mark T. Barnes, Lisa Jensen, Lee Battersby, L. E. Modesitt Jr., Keith Brooke, Joanne Anderton, Jo Walton, F.R. Tallis, Ian R. MacLeod, Guy Haley, Gavin Smith, Francis Knight, Eric Brown, Clifford Beal, Susan Palwick, Rhiannon Held, Ben Jeapes, Nina Allan, Mike Shevdon, Mur Lafferty, Norman Lock, Seth Patrick, Gemma Malley, Freda Warrington, Freya Robertson and more.
Someone once said that aspiring writers are easily discouraged, and and followed up by saying “and they should be”. There’s a lot of bitter truth in that: writing is a very up and down business, and it’s certainly not a happy environment for the easily discouraged or the thin-skinned.
There’s also a sad truth in that observation: a lot of writers who have plenty of talent fall by the wayside just because they don’t have the resilience that this business needs.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of work with new writers, and one of the messages I hammer home (perhaps too much) is that stubbornness is a key part of a writer’s toolkit. We’ve all heard the stories of now-bestselling authors whose first novels were rejected dozens of times before finding a home. I’m not in that league, but my own first novel accumulated those rejections until the point where I had the choice of either consigning it to experience and a dusty box in the attic, or sending it to the last publisher on my list, one that really didn’t publish that kind of thing very often at all. I ended up with a three-book deal.
I was struck by this today, when I came across a piece on resilience on the excellent marketing blog, Wordofmouth. Yes, it’s about marketing and business, but the principles are the same. In the blog post, Mitch Joel argues that it’s not about winning or losing, but about resilience; in my experience, and the point I drum home when I’m teaching, it’s not about winning or losing, but about increasing your chances of getting that one victory that makes the big difference.
Pitching a novel isn’t about winning every time, it’s about winning once and resilience/stubbornness is a key part of how you can improve your chances of hitting that one victory that makes the difference between your book appearing, or it being consigned to the attic.
I’m partway through Eric Brown’s crime novel Murder by the Book, and loving it. I’ve been encouraging Eric to write crime for years and now he has and it’s a great read, full of fantastic characters and lovely 1950s London period detail.
And then, yesterday, when I was about to return to it… where in hell was that book? We turned the house upside down, but couldn’t find it. It literally is a mystery. I have every confidence that it will turn up again at some point: accidentally picked up with someone else’s books, knocked under the sofa, whatever.
But I want to know what happens next!
Simple, I thought: I popped over to Amazon to get a copy for my Kindle, happy to spend a few quid just so I could keep reading without break.
Two problems with that, though:
Although the hardback came out in March, the ebook won’t be out until July. What reason is there for this? There can’t be a logistical explanation: the ebook hardly needs physically shipping to distributors, and it’s not exactly labour-intensive to produce; I’m sure the file is just sitting there, gathering virtual dust while it awaits publication. I can’t see any way they would gain sales by the delay; if anything they’d lose them, as people like me go looking for the book, find it’s unavailable, and then move on to other things.
It’s priced at £14.90. Come again? Fifteen quid for an ebook? This is where I’m completely baffled by the publishers’ policy. Who do they think is going to buy an ebook at that price? Is there some kind of logic that says “While it looks good to have an ebook version available, we don’t want people to actually buy this format”…?
I get the reasoning for pricing the hardback at £19.99. Presumably the vast majority of sales at this price are to the library market, and the higher price makes sense given that each copy of the book will get multiple readers. But £15 for an ebook at Amazon? I’d love to know which part of the market publishers Severn House are targeting with this strategy.
The only possible explanation I can think of is that they think potential buyers will be horrified at the price and opt to buy the slightly more expensive hardback instead. But that makes no sense: the profit margin on the hardback is so much lower, because of production and distribution costs. They could price the ebook for a fiver and make just about as much as they make from the hardback, and they’d actually, erm, sell copies.
An Eric Brown crime ebook at £5 would sell. If anyone could explain to me how even a novel as good as this is will sell ebooks at £15 I’d love to be enlightened.
Tell us about Malarat.
Malarat is the name of a person and a place. It’s the title of the Duc de Malarat, a powerful nobleman who plans to put a puppet king on the throne of Lefranu. The Duke wants to rule the whole country so he sets out to attack the independent southern states. He’s backed by the Domini Canes, an order of monks who are a cross between the Inquisition and the Crusaders. The name means ‘Hounds of God’ and was a nickname for the Dominicans historically, when they staffed the Inquisition. They are commanded by a young man called Valdes de Siccaria, who is stunningly beautiful but malevolent.
Their main problem in attacking the south is the shamans, a group of humans with magical powers sufficient to drive them off. Siccaria develops a secret weapon called the Spider, made from iron. Shamans, being magical, react badly to iron, so he discovers a way to neutralise them and sets out to do so. He believes that they offend against the natural order of things, so he is determined to eradicate them.
The shamans learn about this through intelligence information but have no idea how bad it is until they experience it first hand. And then they’re in trouble. Only a handful of them are powerful enough to fight – most shamans just do healing, otherwise you can imagine – kerpow! So it’s an immediate problem for them as a group, and for the people they’re trying to protect.
In addition to that there’s a demon on the loose – no-one knows how it got out (or in). It tends to go round possessing people and hiding out, occasionally emerging to cause trouble.
How does it relate to your earlier work? It takes place in the same world and the same country. I have ret-conned a few things, such as the name of the country (Lefranu). A lot of people thought it was set in Eastern Europe, but in fact it’s an alternate version of France. I wanted to emphasise that detail. The confusion arises because of the large number of characters with Russian names. In fact, they are all exiles or émigrés of various kinds. Climate change plays an important part in the background of the novel! A mini Ice Age has just ended, and some places have been left technologically and culturally stranded. It’s like the Victorian era with bits that are stuck in the past.
Though the story follows on from the events in The Glass Mountain, my second book, it can definitely be read on its own. It’s not a children’s book. There are some graphic scenes and the themes are dark. It continues to explore my interest (or obsession) with the underworld, and two of the narrative threads take place in the afterlife or spirit world, from the shamanic point of view. I use elements from Russian and Jewish folklore, together with some origin myths about the English. There’s an Anglit (or Englishman) with a mad and spectacular plan to colonise Heaven. He believes that his countrymen are the true Israelites (Ya-udi), as opposed to the Wanderers, and sets out to alter history accordingly.
Are there more Malarat stories to come? There could be sequels. I’m working on something at the moment, but I’ve zoomed the perspective out a bit and brought in two more parallel worlds, one of which is supposed to be this one – up to a point. I hope the next one will be lighter.
What is the significance of Goddesses in your work? Many years ago, I was hugely influenced by Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess with its ‘eternal theme’ of two men fighting for the love of one woman. And then after a life-long interest in the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau, made famous by Holy Blood and Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code, I came across the legend that Mary Magdalene had sailed to France with a group of companions that included two women also called Mary (a tradition still celebrated in the South of France today).
This triggered the idea of a hidden and heretical goddess-based religion in France, starting with the two Marys who settled in Arles with their Egyptian servant Sara. Not unlike the syncretisation of African gods and goddesses in Vodou, Candomble and Santeria!
That lay behind the creation of several goddess-based sects. Doxa, the state religion, is similar to Christianity with the Virgin Mary as part of the Trinity. Though it’s a matriarchal religion, men hold positions of power. The other religion is worship of the Lady, who appeared in Children of the Shaman as two separate divinities – the Bright Lady and the Cold One. They are aspects of her, dark and light, and in Malarat the Goddess has been reunited with herself. But she’s an ambiguous character– is she good or evil? What is she up to? She has her own way of being, her myth, and some of the characters get caught up in it. So though she seems benign, she’s ambivalent.
Describe your typical writing day. I don’t have a typical writing day, but I find it easiest to write late at night when there are fewer distractions.
Some reviewers have suggested that your writing is filmic, or even designed to be filmed. What films have influenced you? One of my all-time favourite films is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. It is a historical film with elements of magic and is really scary in places. It becomes a fight to the death between a young boy and his really horrible step-father, the Bishop, who is one of the scariest characters in film. I also like cartoons and anime and would love to be filmed by Studio Ghibli (in my dreams!). I wanted to convey that atmosphere of a fairly realistic world where nonetheless some strange things happen. And I enjoyed Cronos by Guillermo del Toro – I’d love to have seen what he made of The Hobbit!
What would you draw attention to from your back-list? I’m planning to reissue my first book, Children of the Shaman, as an ebook – and its sequel, The Glass Mountain. They are both out of print now and I’d like to bring them back. And also to harmonise the language with that of Malarat. Some people criticised me for using untranslated French and I think that’s absolutely fair, so I want to remove some of the French and otherwise provide translations, as I have done in Malarat.
Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug? There are so many good people out there. I love the work of Kari Sperring, who writes intelligent and thoughtful fantasy novels that deserve to be published in this country – her latest title is The Grass King’s Concubine. I’d like to mention Adele Abbot, whose novel Postponing Armageddon, an alternate history, is due to be published as an ebook in June. And I enjoy the writing of Meyari McFarland, whose Matriarchies of Muirin tales have been issued as a series of ebooks on Amazon.
Publishing is going through a period of rapid change. How has this affected you as an author, and what are your plans? My plans are to carry on writing, and to see whether Malarat finds an audience. It is hard to predict how things will turn out in future. I would love to be published in a traditional manner, but the digital format gives me an opportunity that would otherwise be missing. The real problem is bringing readers to the novel – there is so much out there and readers are spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice you are initially given about using social media is flawed since, as someone observed, the result can be writers trying to sell their books to other writers. (cf. ‘WRITING ON THE ETHER: Writers in the Inferno’ by Porter Anderson, guest-posting on Jane Friedman’s blog.)
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be? Not to self-censor on the first draft but once that is done to edit and re-edit. And then edit some more.
Jessica Rydill was born in Bath in 1959. She read English at King’s College Cambridge before training as a solicitor. In 1998 she gave up work to write. Her first two novels, Children of the Shaman and The Glass Mountain, were published by Orbit in 2001 and 2002. She lives just outside Bath with her husband and her collection of Asian Ball-jointed Dolls, some of which resemble characters from her invented world.