Tag Archives: writing

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:

Snapshots: Kim Lakin-Smith interviewed

[Kim Lakin-Smith's Autodrome is reviewed by Keith Brooke in today's Guardian]

Autodrome by Kim Lakin-Smith

How would you describe your latest novel, Autodrome?
Death Race with a soul. Autodrome is my wink to the gear-nut and the petrol-head, from rusting rat rods to caterpillar-tread wheelchairs to howling V8s. Its action-adventure with a hefty dose of Indiana-style questing. It’s also a story of survival against the odds and trying to not just beat but better the system.

On one level, it’s a fairly straightforward quest story, what makes it stand out for me is the lovingly detailed backdrop. Tell us a bit about the city of Autodrome.
Everything I write has a strong basis in fact; for me, it is what makes a story engaging and, ultimately, believable. While researching Autodrome I read up on MotorCity, a retail, sporting, recreational and residential development in Dubai. (Incidentally, this was prior to the evolution of the ‘Autodrome’ that now takes pride of place in the development – science fiction becoming science fact, god damn it!) I wondered what would happen if race fans and vehicle enthusiasts flocked to MotorCity in droves; it would soon outgrow itself and be forced to relocate.

At the same time, I needed to consider the geography of a new UAE redevelopment. Given the arid climate, the siting of the city next to a water source – Lady Luck Lough – was essential, as was keeping it in a country rich in oil.  Next came the inner workings of the city, and this was where I really got to have fun just imagining all of the out-there possibilities for a future world dedicated to racing. Equally, I wanted the environment to have its roots in real-world commerce, for instance advertising revenue comes from MasterCard, Antram, et al.

For me, cities are characters in their own right.  If characters are to come to life for the reader, they have to live in a world that feels gritty and all-encompassing and tangible. This meant giving Autodrome a seedy side; while the west of the city revels in the spoils of the sport, the east is drug-addled and desperately poor, its young people siphoned off to race for cash and perpetuate the dream.

The novel’s protagonists are mostly 15 to 18 years old, and so could the book be read as a young adult novel; but then it’s equally easy as an adult novel and it’d be a shame if it was overlooked by anyone not wanting to read “kids’ stuff”. Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Autodrome exists very much in the ‘crossover’ between YA and adult. The decision to focus on teens was based on some early feedback which suggested the story would have more punch with a younger cast of characters.  I really hope that readers who have enjoyed my work in the past will agree that, stylistically, Autodrome stays firmly in my ballpark. I haven’t indulged my characters’ youth; rather, they are expected to earn a crust from an early age, and they have the pride, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness to keep going when older competitors end up dead or jaded.

Something that is always really important to me is to retain my political stance as a writer. The crossover potential of Autodrome allowed me to feature a multicultural society and explore gender, disability and sexuality as part of the natural human condition rather than makes them the sole focus of the plot.

Your research and knowledge show through in the best possible ways – was it an easy book to write, or tough to hit that level of verisimilitude?
I did a lot of research before and during the writing of Autodrome. The race scenes were intrinsic to the book’s success, of course, and I did get carried away with the numbers of those, eventually cutting a few scenes that had taken a fair amount of time to write. I was also very conscious that not everyone shares my love of mechanical detail, but I figured there had to be a balance. This was, after all, my ode to the hotrodder scene and I wanted there to be a level of retro-cool and gear-geek self-indulgence. I had the added bonus of being friends with Lee Whitmore, petrol-head and rodder, who didn’t seem to object to spending many an evening drinking beer and talking shop.

My real hope with Autodrome is that it fires the imagination of readers, even if they don’t have a vested interest in vehicles. I also wanted to create a world where girls race just as hard as boys and on an even playing field.

What are you working on now?
I am working on my next adult book with the provisional title of Curtain Falls, but I’m sure that will change. It is a challenging book to write because it will cross time periods and has its roots in the notion of man as animal, the value of the written word, and fascism. Some pretty heavy subjects which make my head spin! Its early days so I don’t know how the book will pan out, but it feels like a book I should push myself to write, no matter how terrifying the prospect.

What have you recently finished?
I have just completed two children’s books, The Mouse Morrow Map and The Wylde Witches. They are part of a six part fantasy series featuring 12 year old Scarlet White and her adventures next door in Lone Hall, home to sorcerers, elder spirits, boggles, ghouls, sprites and meddlesome mice. I love writing the series between my adult stories; it is freeing to let the imagination flow, no holds barred.

What’s recently or soon out?
My debut novel, Tourniquet, is being released as a limited edition by Jurassic London in 2014. I am very excited to see what Jurassic are going to do with Tourniquet; there is talk of including artist plates and the cover art is a striking take on the religious iconography which features in the book.

Newcon Press recently launched Looking Landwards, an anthology commissioned by The Institution of Agricultural Engineers and which includes my short story, ‘Soul Food.’ This is a prequel piece to my novel, Cyber Circus.

Describe your typical writing day.
After the school run, breakfast and a stalk over the fields with Drake, our fat lab, my writing day starts at 10.00am. I write long-hand, in notebooks or on scraps of paper, and go through a lot of pens. If I am writing a new story, I sit in my ‘writing chair’ beside a window that looks out over the garden and some gorgeous old trees in nearby gardens and I think or write. The best stories flow very quickly, and I research extra details as I go. Other days, I’m in the office trying to make sense of my scrawls and typing up on the laptop. I’d like to say I break for lunch – more like I eat at my desk while catching up on news.

By 4.00pm my daughter Scarlet is back from school and it is time for homework, housework and slaving over a hot stove. Work begins again at 7.00pm until 9.00pm, at which point I pour a large wine or several, listen to music and chat over plot ideas with my husband, Del, or collapse on the sofa to watch some spectacularly bad sci-fi.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
I really liked the idea of packaging my novel, Cyber Circus, with a sister novella, Black Sunday; there are overlapping themes and, while both are stand alone, this lent an extra dimension to both stories. I would like to publish Black Sunday in its own right in the future as it garnered good reviews and it is my personal favourite of my stories.

My short story, The Island of Peter Pandora, is a steampunk reimagining of Peter Pan and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I think Peter is one of my most disturbed characters to date! The story first appeared in Resurrection Engines (Snowbooks, 2012) and was selected for The Best British Fantasy 2013 (Salt Publishing, 2013).

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
I am overwhelmed that I get to meet so many incredibly talented writers, editors, publishers, marketers and artists. Everyone works so hard and I am always amazed by how supportive the writing community really is.

To highlight a few real contemporary gems, I’d say authors Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nina Allen, Gareth L Powell, and Den Patrick are among my favourites. I am a huge fan of Philip Reeve’s YA series, Mortal Engines, and I can never get enough of Diana Wynne Jones’s mischievous fantasies.

I would also like to give a special mention to Ian Whates (writer, editor, publisher and all round talent) of Newcon Press, and Jared and Anne Shurin of Jurassic London. Both small presses are doing amazing work with both established authors and exciting new talent.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Just the one? ;-)

Plot is everything.

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?
This is such a difficult question. In terms of large publishers, commerciality is key, which means, more than ever, the independents are home to books which push boundaries or fall just outside of the traditional remit.  Authors need to have lots of fingers in lots of pies if they are to make any kind of a living out of writing; the majority have daytime jobs and write when they can. I like the idea that publishing will evolve into a far more autonomous model where writers are solely responsible for their output, but, at the same time, this is already a solitary profession.

I am horrified by the return percentages from the behemoth which is Amazon – if ever there was a science fiction horror in the making, it is the story of Amazon’s monopoly over book consumerism. But I am a realist, and I am excited by the evolution of publishing in one of two directions. The first will be a much more stripped back art form. Gone the palpability of book production; instead the sole focus will be the consumption of words. The second will be the enrichment of the eBook format through reader interaction and all manner of artistic content.

As for what readers will be reading, I’m hoping that teenage boys will find a voice and either refute the belief they don’t read or find a renewed interest in books. I think this is where the virtual format may come into its own.

More…
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-SmithKim Lakin-Smith is the author of Tourniquet, Cyber Circus - shortlisted for the 2012 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel – the YA novella, Queen Rat, and Autodrome. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Interzone, Black Static, and Celebration: 50 years of the BSFA.  2014 sees the release of Tourniquet as a limited edition run from Jurassic London.

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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

The story behind… authors on writing their books

Story Behind the BookThe 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.

All proceeds will be donated to Epilepsy Action.


Stickatitivity – a key part of the writer’s toolkit

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.


Snapshots: Frank Chadwick interviewed

How Dark the World Becomes by Frank ChadwickWhy science fiction?
I think science fiction is the most optimistic genre of writing, because it is about what is possible. Even when it deals with dystopic futures, as it often does, it’s essentially optimistic because, as Marx said, “Everything seems pregnant with its contrary.” The writer would not bother telling a tale of an unavoidable future, so stories about how bad things can become are incantations against their realization. Even that famous pessimist, H.G. Wells, must have had hope that his stories would deflect our trajectory somewhat. Otherwise it’s all just howling in the night. The simple notion there will be human beings centuries – even millennia – from now, recognizable to us as of the same spirit, with similar values, similar emotional needs, is itself a proposition engorged with optimism.

Why fiction at all? What do you think it is that makes a person have to make up stories and write them down?
My formal higher education was first speech and rhetoric, and then later communication, so my earliest serious academic grounding involved Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Since I have a wandering mind, I read the rest of Aristotle, and that was many decades ago so much of it is lost now. But something which stuck with me was Aristotle’s disdain for the study of history, but his deep appreciation for poetry, which for him included drama and what we would call historical fiction. History, he said, was simply a recounting of what “had happened,” a meaningless listing of “what Alcibiades did, and what he suffered.” Poetry, on the other hand, dealt with what was possible, and when it recounted historical events, it did so to reveal what the gods expected of us – what constituted right acts.

I have a better opinion of history than did Aristotle, but in part that’s because we expect more from its study these days than he did. But I’m still with him in believing fiction is a better vehicle for exploring what is possible, and what constitutes right acts. Why? Because it enables readers to put themselves in the place of the hero or heroine, live their struggles and learn their lessons, in a more intimate way than they can with historical figures already passed from the scene. We can imagine knowing Voltaire, but we cannot as easily imagine being Voltaire.

Describe your typical writing day. 
I prefer to write in the morning. I’m much more productive if I can start my day with writing, when my mind is still uncluttered. Later in the day it’s harder for me to tune out the distractions, so that’s when I do the more mundane stuff.

When I’m working on a project, I usually start writing in the morning as soon as I’ve showered and have a cup of coffee in front of me. I like to get about 250-300 words down before I stop and have breakfast. Then I spend the rest of the morning trying to hit or exceed my daily target of 1500 words. I’ll do some revision and rewriting as I go, but my target is 1500 net words: today’s final tally minus yesterday’s final tally. If I’m on a roll I’ll keep rolling until noon, but I always like to quit while I still know what’s coming next. That way when I sit down the next morning I can pitch right in, not sit there looking at a blank screen as if I’m hypnotized. If I’m being very good, I’ll write a short synopsis of what I’ll do the next day. I’ve found that writing a synopsis of what I’m going to write next pays off in greatly increased daily word count.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Write simple stories about unforgettable characters.

Do you think writing can be taught?
The craft of writing can absolutely be taught. I don’t think the artistry of writing can be, nor can inspiration be taught, nor can you teach someone, by the numbers, to have a unique writer’s voice. Genius cannot be taught, and genius is what separates truly great writers from most of the rest of us, but there are some wonderful writers among “the rest of us.” I think you can learn to be an accomplished writer who reliably produces stories with compelling characters and intriguing worlds, stories which satisfy and enlighten readers, and that’s something worth aspiring to. I don’t think you can learn to be Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemmingway.

How did you learn to write?
Here’s how you learn to write (or at least how I did):

First, read. Read a lot and read the best writers you can find, but make it a joy, not a burden. Find good writers whose words you enjoy. Read different writers in different genres, with different strengths and with distinctly different “voices.” Pay attention to what works in their writing and what doesn’t, and think about why that is.

Second, write. Write a lot, write poorly, but write.

Third, read about writing. There are some excellent books on writing. None of them are gospel, but many of them will help. They aren’t magic doorways to success, but they can make the lessons you are learning slowly, as you write, come more quickly and in sharper focus.

Fourth, keep writing until you write better. Eventually you will – some people say about a million words down the road. I don’t know that there’s a magic number. Just write a lot, and then write a lot more.

Some people can write timeless prose their first time at bat. You are not one of those people. Accept it, and don’t beat yourself up over it.

You’ve collaborated on a few books, particularly in your gaming-related work. How does collaboration work for you?
I’ve collaborated on a couple ebooks in Untreed Reads’ “Space 1889 And Beyond” series as well as the game books, and those ebooks are probably closer to what you’re after here. One of those, “Dark Side of Luna,” was a sort of collaboration-after-the-fact with J.T. Wilson, but “Conspiracy of Silence” was a true collaboration, planned from the start,  with Andy Frankham-Allen. What made that an easy collaboration was there were two distinct plot threads, with two principal protagonists, which finally met late in the second act. After we roughed out the plot, Andy wrote the Nathanial thread and I wrote the Annabelle thread, and then I wrapped things up after the two thread merged. I did an edit on his chapters and he did an edit on mine, but both of us had written in the series before and so we were already on the same page with respect to style and tone, and we both knew the characters quite well.

One of the things which made the collaboration go so smoothly is that Andy and I write the same sort of stories, what I call (for lack of a better term) “shipwreck” stories. In a shipwreck story, everything starts out on an even keel, then things happen to upset that. There follows an escalating cascade of disasters which the characters are always caught off guard by until, finally, they manage to get mentally out in front of what’s going on, and come to grips with it. The suspense lies in the fact that, for most of the story, neither the readers nor the protagonists know what’s coming next.

I contrast that with what I call “mountain climbing” stories. In this sort of story the challenge facing the protagonists is enormous, but fairly clearly known at the start of the story–this looming mountain facing them which they must climb. From the start the readers and protagonists have a clear idea where everything’s going and (usually) not much question about the story ending successfully. The protagonists usually know how they will accomplish this from the start, but they don’t let the reader in on their thinking. Instead the suspense lies in how the protagonists manage the climb, revealed gradually, ledge by ledge.

By way of classical analogy, Xenophon’s “Anabasis” is a shipwreck story. Arian’s “The Anabasis of Alexander” is a mountain climbing story. A more modern analogy would be “Die Hard” as shipwreck story, and almost any episode of the old TV series “Mission Impossible” as mountain climbing story.

If you could pick one dream collaborator for a story, who would it be?
I think if I answered that right now, it would sound too much like ass kissing. Ask me again when I have a few more books in print.

I will say I think it would be harder for me to collaborate with someone who prefers mountain climbing stories to shipwreck stories, but if it worked, it might make for a pretty good read.

More…

This interview is a companion piece to my interview with Frank over at SF Signal.

How Dark the World Becomes by Frank ChadwickFrank Chadwick has designed or written over one hundred games and game–related books. In the science fiction field he is probably best remembered for his work on Traveller and Space: 1889. He also writes military history and his Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) reached number one on the New York Times best–seller list. His debut print novel, How Dark The World Becomes, was released by Baen Books in January of 2013, The Forever Engine, will appear in January of 2014, and he is currently working on the sequel to How Dark The World Becomes. He lives in east–central Illinois.

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War Stories: a new anthology from Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War stories… I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with them. My kind of SF is the polar opposite of all those gung ho militaristic right-wing wet dreams that are pretty much a sub-genre in their own right. I’d hate to write anything that might be seen as glamorising combat.

And yet… I loved war stories as a kid, whether they were the adventures of Biggles or the Combat! TV series and all kinds of war movies. And looking back on my writing career, I can see that a fair proportion of my output has explored various aspects of war, from my angry young man first novel Keepers of the Peace to my post-war fantasy Lord of Stone and my recent Nick Gifford ebook, “The Ragged People”.

Fiction is all about conflict, after all, whether it’s the tensions of a love triangle, a murder thriller or a courtroom drama: it’s the conflict that makes things happen, that creates story; and conflict doesn’t come much more dramatic than warfare.

Just announced is an anthology of war stories, edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates. Not stories that glamorise or sensationalise, but fiction that explore “the cultural, social, political and psychological repercussions of modern war”. The editors have already had strong interest from some great authors, including  TC McCarthy, Karin Lowachee, F Brett Cox, Laura Anne Gilman, Will McIntosh, Joe Haldeman and yours truly (they’ll be including my story “War 3.01″). They’ll also be running an open submission period later this year. It looks like being a really interesting – and no doubt entertaining – book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

War Stories will launch on Kickstarter in early September, with a variety of perks for backers, ranging from an ebook / physical copies of the anthology, to prints of the cover and other exciting things to come!

To follow the progress of the anthology’s planning, and to get sneak peeks, excerpts and news from around the military science fiction world, you can visit the project’s website, follow the project on Twitter (@warstoriesantho), or like the anthology on Facebook.


Work in progress

So I’m back in the thick of it and loving it: working on the final edits for the serial I’ve written for Aethernet, the magazine of serial fiction.

It’s the story of colonists on an incredibly placid planet. Getting on for a century since colonisation, the biggest upheaval encountered in that time was a storm, about forty years ago. Not much of a storm, even, but it was notable because, otherwise, the place has been so welcoming.

So when a wall of storm clouds stretching from horizon to horizon approaches Edge City one morning, people are slow to catch on, and even slower to take it seriously. Even Greta Arbonne, a trained scientist researching possible reasons for the planet’s environmental placidity, can’t really grasp the devastating scale of the approaching storm until it strikes; meanwhile, runaway rebel Shenita gets caught up in the novelty and excitement of raindrops the size of her fist and winds you have to lean into just to stay on your feet. But when the storm intensifies, ripping off roofs and destroying buildings, plucking people up into the air and away… Greta and Shenita are faced with their own journeys through the devastation and the horrors of past and present.

And then there is Luther. A man who regains consciousness in the ruins of a flattened building as the storm wreaks havoc all around. A man who has woken with recollections of distant Earth when no-one on Domus could possibly have such memories. A man who could be the answer to questions neither Greta nor Shenita have yet realised they need to ask.

The stories in this serial are:

Memento 1: From Out of a Blue, Blue Sky
Memento 2: There Came a Storm
Memento 3: To End All Storms
Memento 4: A Cleansing

It’s great to be working on big SF ideas again, lovely to be writing in a form I’ve not tackled before, the serial. My first reader loved it, providing only a fairly brief list of line-edit queries. And ever since I got to work on this set of stories, my head has been buzzing with what comes next, as the story continues and becomes novel-length…


Ebook pricing, again; or “Fifteen quid for an ebook?”

So here’s the situation…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Snapshots: Jessica Rydill interviewed

Malarat by Jessica RydillTell 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.

More…
Malarat by Jessica Rydill

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.

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