Worldbuilding (Part 5: Rivers 101) (11/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

By now, the world has oceans and mountains and some climate and weather patterns. I look at rivers next because I want to know where the water is going to be, because generally water means life and the more water there is, the more life there is, and how much water there is controls how much life there is (glibly, but then all of this is glib, and temperature and sunlight have a big influence too – provided there’s water). Rivers also have another purpose though, because rivers can flow through places where there is little rainfall and yet be the basis of civilisation (ancient Egypt revolved around the Nile, and other early civilisations of the middle east revolved around the Tigris and Euphrates). Rivers are also a means of navigation, a relatively easy way to get from one place to another through what might otherwise be hostile territory, be it dense forest or desert.

This may sound stupidly, obvious, but I’ve see maps that fail to obey all of the following simple rules: Rivers flow from high places to low ones. They tend to get bigger and slower as they move from mountains to the sea. In places where the incline is steep, rivers flow fast and tend to be in steep-sided valleys, gorges or even canyons. Rapids and waterfalls are more likely to appear in such places (but some of the world’s largest waterfalls don’t). Rivers merge together rather than diverge, the exception being deltas. In places where the gradient is steep, the course of a river is determined by the topography; in places where the gradient is shallow, rivers flow slowly and have wide gentle valleys and/or floodplains and are likely to meander. Map your rivers with these in mind, but also considering that rivers in warm places will likely be the arteries of the early civilisations of your world.

As usual, when it comes to basic geography, the simple way of finding out how stuff works it to look it up on wikipedia :-)

Wikipedia on rivers. More basic river formation articles here and here. Also Deltas, Canyons and Valleys

Next maybe something on glaciers and fjords, because I like them. And then ecologies and the tricky stuff starts…

Vampires and Werewolves and Witches, Oh My (4/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The random jottings on world-building had got as far as where rain falls and was about to get on to rivers. Then something about living things and ecologies and eventually I might have gotten around to to some humans and cultures and histories and social structures and all that sort of thing. But a blurb I had read to me today makes me want to just zip ahead for a moment, just for a moment, for the benefit of those for whom world-building seems (apparently) to be an utterly pointless exercise.

If anyone who reads this is thinking, even a little bit, about writing a story with a contemporary setting with vampires, werewolves or witches in it, please please please for the love of all things supernatural, give at least SOME thought as to the impact and interactions such creatures will have on society at large. I can think of so many examples where this has been done and done well, to the point of being the dominant theme of the book, but even paying some simple lip-service to the idea that the fact that witches/vampires/werewolves exist might mean something more than having a touch of supernatural to add to ones feisty go-getter heroine or tall dark mysterious hero is probably a really good idea. Or am I missing something. Is it just a guy thing to wonder why vampires burn in the hidious light of the day-star but seem to be just fine in – and in fact positively enjoy -  the reflected hidious light of the day-star that is otherwise known as the full moon. Or indeed in the hideous light of the night-stars which is basically exactly the same. Or to wonder what an immortal super-powered creature might do over the centuries to protect themselves and their interests and how they might do it, and how they might struggle (or not) with the advance of technology. Or wonder what their lives might have been like for the last four hundred years? Or to watch a typical werewolf transformation scene and even before the inevitable nope, special effects still can’t make this not look stupid, think hey, that violated the law of conservation of mass!

Is it just a guy thing to think that creatures such as vampires and werewolves and witches should carry more meaning than merely character with dark yet sexy allure.

It’s just me, isn’t it.

I’ll get me coat.


Oh, and your fairies too.

Gig Celibacy (2/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Once upon a time, when a man wanted to go and see his favourite band play, he would get himself to the venue box office and queue up for a bit and hand over some money and walk away with a ticket. My, how ancient it makes me feel to rememember doing that. And then came telephones and credit cards and buying things from the comfort of your own home, and then after that came ticket agencies and credit-card surcharges and boy did you PAY for the comfort of paying from your own lounge. I won’t get too ranty about that though, because it would have been a damn sight easier and cheaper sometimes to get on the phone and pay the damn rip-off surcharge than to travel to the venue.

However . . .

I do believe the spirit of Ryan Air has grown too large. Firstly, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I don’t really think it’s very fair to throw in a “delivery” surcharge or whatever it is you’ve decided to call it when there is not one single option that doesn’t actually cost money. Not box-office collection, not printing it out myself, nothing. So it’s not so much a “delivery” surchage as a “being able to have something to present on the night to prove that you’ve actually bought a ticket” surcharge, which I might just as easily call a “letting you in to see the band you paid to see” surcharge, which doesn’t, to be honest, fell like a surcharge so much, y’know, and more of a bog-standard charge sort of charge. I’m looking for the sur, but I’m really not seeing it here.

Why, though, why does it cost the same to have you e-mail me the ticket so I can have the privilege of printing it out with my own paper and ink and electricity as it does to have them sent through the post? WHY? WHY? IT MAKES NO SENSE! Aaaagh.

So through the post it shall be. I can only assume that Sheperd’s Bush Empire has shares inthe post office.

Worldbuilding (part 4: Climate Change 101) (31/4/2012)

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Until I get to populating the world with some people and setting up their societies and their myths and histories, this is possibly my favourite part of building a world – figuring out the climate. I think, if you’re trying to make something that feels plausibly earth-like, this is one of the hardest parts to get right. It’s pretty abstract, but also very definitely driven by hard physical rules and the topography of the world.

I start with the prevailing winds. Earth, prevailing winds are largely tied to latitude and there’s a pleasantly simple map of them. Without turning into a climatologist, the most important thing to keep in mind at his stage of building a new world is how water is distributed from the sea to the land, the basic rule being that the prevailing winds generally pick up water from the sea and carry it with them to the land and the flatter the land is, the further it will get spread about to fall as rain. So if the prevailing wind hits a fairly gentle expanse of lowlands rain gets spread over a wide area with a bias towards coastal regions (Western Europe is a reasonable exampel of this), while if the prevailing wind hits a mountain range, nearly all the water picked up from the sea will fall on the mountains and on the seaward side, resulting in a very wet climate on one side and a very dry climate on the other (South Island New Zealand for example).This is sort of explained in detail in the Wikipedia article on prevailing winds.

This is all very glib generalisation, but it’s probably good enough to work with two rules of thumb:

1. The prevailing winds carry the bulk of an area’s rainfall. The first mountain range they hit will steal that rain. The land beyond will likely be dry.

2. The further from the sea a place is, the more extreme the temperature change will be between summer and winter (particularly true for coastal regions in the path of the prevailing winds, less so for those where the prevailing wind blows from land to sea).

By far the easierst thing to do is simply find a part of the real world with a similar latitude and a similar topography and then steal its climate :-)

There are plenty of useful resources for this: A world precipitation map, A world climate map, and various other maps from the same site. Or any decent atlas.

Also note that where the rain falls doesn’t necessarily equate to where the people will be.

Next up: rivers.

Worldbuilding (part 3: Topology 101) (31/3/2012)

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Orright orright, we can get to the map now, and from here on in I’m going to assume that that everything is mostly earth-like (barring any features whose origins have already been covered). That is, the world is round, orbits a sun, spins on its axis and has evolved over a very long period of time to become what it is. Just a few notes on the alternatives:

a) If the world is flat then you clearly have a fundamentally difference cosmology and nothing you do from there on in will make any less sense, so I reckon you might as well go to town. Just give it some sort of underlying logic for how the universe works and apply that logic rigorously and you’ll do fine. I had a world that was a 10000km diameter mushroom once. It had an underside that consisted of canyons and ridges all hundreds of miles deep and a 10000km stalk. And really, that was about as far as it went and it worked just fine for what it was intended. Not sure I’d write a novel there though.

Also, a flat earth will struggle to have a magnetic field. Stuff like that.

b) Orbits a sun – see above. If a world does orbit a sun and doesn’t spin on its axis then it ought to be tide-locked to its sun and most of the world will be uninhabitably cold or hot; and if it somehow manages to have an atmosphere that doesn’t simply freeze solid and fall out of the sky on the cold side, the temperature variations are likely to cause constant storms of apocalyptic proportions. To be honest, I haven’t ever looked at this possibility in detail before and it sounds kinda fun, but that’s not where most fantasy worlds go, so that’s not where I’m going with these posts.

c) Didn’t evolve? That how was it made? Created out of nothing by the gods? Fine. Then do what you like. Give your god or gods a little personality and make a world that they would have made. But then we’ve covered this already.

Right. Mountains and seas. Very basically, mountains basically get made by tectonic plates crashing into each other and getting all surly about things (Andes, Sierras, Himalayas) or by volcanic action through soft spots in the earth’s crust (Mid-Atlantic Ridge). These often occur together. Go to wikipedia and read a bit about Plate Tectonics and Formation of Mountains and really you’re about done. Very basic basics? Mountains come in ranges. They can be long linear ones or patches. Old mountains tend to be less steep and thus more habitable and passable, having been eroded over time, while young mountains tend to be sharper and more jagged. Volcanoes can appear in mountain ranges or on their own. They also tend to last a good long time, so old mountains might have been volcanoes once but are now extinct. About the only way you can really go wrong with mountains is to pock-mark them over the world like crates on the moon, to the point where they look like they’re some sort of cosmological acne.

Seas? They fill in the low bits. If you want them to. A world with a much greater proportion of its surface covered in sea is largely going to follow recognisable earth-like behaviour for climate. A much lower proportion and it probably isn’t and the difference is probably going to be less moisture in the air and less rainfall and much larger areas of lifeless desert land. But that’s just an educated guess.

It’s very unlikely that anyone (except maybe me) is going to pick at your map and start pointing out the underlying flaws in your geology. Do what you like, but do the mountains RANGES and the coastlines first because what comes next is the climate and what comes after that are the rivers and the wildlife and that starts to tell you where the people will be, and all that starts with the mountains. If you want the odd solitary mountain added later, that’s not going to upset anything om a wide scale, unless what you add is a solitary mountain that happens to be a hundreds of miles long and twenty miles high.

Done with mountains now. Climate next.

Awards are Always Fun (29/3/12)

Posted in Critical Failures

Go HERE for some good old-fashioned bitching about this year’s Authur C Clarke Award. Don’t see why a man can’t express his opinion, although I don’t see why a man can’t be a little more of a gentleman about it either. Sympathy to Mark Billingham. Should all make Eastercon fun. Please don’t heckle the award judges on any of the panels I might happen to be doing with them.

Anyway, we’ll all forget about it in a week or so, and then in June it’ll be our turn (by “our” I mean “us fantasy writers” when the Gemmell awards come around. Chances of that passing without someone venting their spleen? Not very high. Seemly spleen-venting this year, please? It just sits wrong with me to lay into fallible but well-intentioned enthusiasts when there NHS Bill are News International so many banker bonuses more everything at all to do with the Republican Party right now deserving heck, even the chair on which I stubbed my toe this morning targets for such bile.

The first round of Gemmell nominations closes shortly. Please vote.  Do it now. Be a part of the controversy :-)

Best epic/heroic fantasy novel of 2011

Best debut epic/heroic fantasy novel of 2011

Best epic/heroic fantasy novel cover of 2011 (But not the Rothfuss cover, please not the Rothfuss cover unless you actually physically try and stand in that stance and hold the sword the way its held like I did and can really, truly convince yourself that Kvothe isn’t about to either a) scream in agony as his straining ligaments finally snap, b) cut his own face off the moment he swings his sword because he’s holding it the wrong way round or c) simply flail a bit and then topple over sideways).

Do it. Do it now. Pretty pretty please? (the vote thing. Not the Kvoth pose thing. Do that at Eastercon in the bar where I can watch)

Lightening Cannon (28/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

When I was doing MopNoWriMo back in February and blogging about it every day, that was because something was happening every day. Or most days. Five thousands words is easily enough for your entire story to either explode in a cacophony of wonderous possibilities or implode into Black Hole of Failure, resolutely impenetrable behind the Event Horizon of Contradition.

In the last month, I’ve been editing and polishing. That is to say, taking on board editorial suggestions from my editor for The King’s Assassin, and polishing up Dragon Queen and Sodium Hydride Volume I getting them ready for submission. In general, these days are nowhere near as exciting as the ones where that raw first draft gets laid down. However, I’ll do my best to pass on a few lessons over the next few days.

Lesson 1: When writing a story in which lightning has a significant presence, for example, say, as an attempted defence against a marauding dragon, DO do a Wordprocessor search for lighting and lightening. Not that either of these are necessarily wrong at any given time, but as substitutions for lightning, they’re damn hard to spot by eye on a read-through. There are probably some other word-pairs that merit a search too. From/Form for example, but I’ve had most fun with lightning errors:

“Sir! The dragon’s coming right for us!”

“Fire the lighting cannon, soldier!”

<soldier fires cannon>

“Excellent work, soldier! Now that the scene is lit up with special effects lighting, the shattered shards of our flying glassips and the trailing burning remains left as our zeppelins plunge to their doom are vastly more aethestically pleasing! And truly, that dragon is now far more terrifying to behold now that a carefully designed interplay of light and shadow accentuates its size and savagery. Soldier? Where are you going? Soldier! Come back! There could be an oscar in this…”

Or else the lighting cannon unleashes a hail of Ikea lampshades and other assorted fittings. I’m not sure.


“Sir! The dragon’s coming right for us!”

“Fire the lightening cannon, soldier!”

<soldier fires cannon>

“Excellent work, soldier! Now that the colossal still-heading-right-for-us-and-apparently-undetered-in-any-way dragon’s colours are now all pale and washed out, surely it is no longer a threat… Soldier? Soldier!”

Some typos are worth it though.

Baros Tsen levelled the wand at the intruder. “You will never get out of here alive!”

“I will kill you first!” The assassing leapt to one side. Tsen fired. Despite the assassin’s speed, the bolt of lightening hit him squarely in the chest. The two of them stopped and regarded one another, breathing hard.

The assasin frowned. “Actually, this is a pretty heavy scene, dude. Couldn’t we just, y’know, chew on a couple of pieces of Xixic and maybe talk our differences instead”

Tsen shook his head in relief. he started to laugh. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone to say that. I’ll open the apple wine. Strictly’s on in a bit if you want to stay.”


Worldbuilding (part 2: Bob the Builder) (20/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Oh yes, and another thing before you rush off to your map – how did the world begin and what massively major events have happened to it between then and now? It needs a moment of thought at least, and I’m not talking about the creation myths of the peoples who will one day inhabit it, I mean who actually made it? If the answer is has something to do with Professor Brian Cox and Higgs Condensates, then fine. If the world was sneezed out of the left nostril of the Creator during an allergy attack that’s fine too. Everything’s fine, but I ask you to think about it before putting pen to paper in case there are any significant events that would affect either the map or the mythologies of the people who live there. If the world was made by some intelligent design, then why, and was there anything in that reason that cause the physical shape of the world to be a particular way. If there are god-like entities extant in the universe, have their actions at any point drastically shaped the world (the world in which my dragons exist was ripped apart and then badly stitched back together again. Not that you see very much of that in the early books but the consequences are there in the background). If the world was struck by a very large meteor that brought magic/aliens/pot noodles to the world, should there perhaps be a crater on the map (maybe, maybe not)?

The answer to all the above might be don’t know don’t care and that’s fine. All I’m saying is give some thoughts to any (possibly literally) earth-shattering events that might affect your world before you start drawing the map. You can still just add the Great Crater From Which All Pot Noodles Were Spawned later, but honestly really, sorting it out up front is a lot less hassle. [1]

Next week, on to the map, finally.

[1] OK, standard world-builder map-making tip here: Drop some interesting features about the place for which you have no explanation whatsoever.

Worldbuilding (part 1: How to Start) (12/3/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I keep coming across posts and articles on Worldbuilding and they keep on annoying me because they either don’t do it right (my idea of right which on this matter is objectively and unquestionably and mathematically provably correct) or else (more common) they do some bits but miss out a whole swath of Stuff That Really Matters.

People who say that worldbuilding starts with a map: I’m looking at you.

So I’m going to do my own set of posts on worldbuilding. Nyer. Just so that anyone who wants to can grumble about all the bits I don’t do right and all the stuff I miss out.

I’m going to start with where you start, which isn’t with a map, dammit!

I find there are two distinct places to start with building a world, but they both stem from the question of what it’s for. So start there. Some worlds (particularly those for RPGs in my experience) are built for the purposes of being explored. Neither the builder nor the explorers really have any idea what they specifically want from the world other than for it to be a generically fun place to explore with quirks and features that will inspire ideas for stories. Other worlds are built with the same general premise but with one or two sweeping constraints (I want a desert world; I want an archipelago, that sort of thing). Yet other worlds are built with a whole series of specific constraints (in my experience these tend to be the worlds built after the fact to support a specific story or collection of story-lines). For example a world that needs to have a desert and then an impassable range of mountains that can only be crossed by getting hold of a flying carpet, both of which are littered with the ruins of an old civilisation; and one ruin in the mountains contains a gem deep inside it that can be used to trap the soul of the wicket djinn that’s rampaging about somewhere: and there are probably more constraints in there than are immediately obvious. The physical terrain has simple enough requirements (a desert with some ruins, some mountains with some more), but the mythology and history of the world now have to deliver an ancient society, flying carpets, djinn, soul-trapping gems and the mechanisms by which all these things work and the people who know or knew how to built and maintain them. And then it has to deal with all the logical consequences that follow from these, and that can be excruciatingly tricky and can easily lead to a logical consequence that buggers up the story the world was supposed to support in the first place.

Oh yes, and another thing: context. This is probably a thing that most world-builders take for granted, but chances are that whatever you’re building exists within a greater context. Mostly the greater context is assumed to be “like the real world works” and left at that, and it that’s the way it’s going to be than fine: The world is round, it orbits a sun, tides are made by the moon(s), mountains are made by plate tectonics, valleys are made by rivers and glaciers, apex predators are relatively sparse compared to their prey etc. etc. If any of these things are not true it would beg the question why, but then again if you’re building a fantasy world with either magic or actual real gods (i.e. magic) then they don’t have to be, just as long as there are logically consistent consequences for all deviations. Mountains aren’t made by plate tectonics but are in fact were all brought into being when the God of Being a Git punched the God of Eating Too Much Ice Cream really very hard in the belly and the latter vomited mountains from the sky? Why not? And because it was ice cream than they’re really cold, right, and that’s why they’re covered in snow . . . But then your mountains will be scattered across the world in the shape of barf-splats instead of linear ranges and if you want any volcanoes or earthquakes or tsunamis then you’re going to need to find a new cause for them. Not that that should be hard but it’s not to be taken for granted either.

This isn’t about what the people of your world believe at this point either. This is about how your fictional world was really made. Want a giant inverted mushroom flying through space to be your world? Fine. How did it get there? Are there others? Etc. etc. Maybe you don’t need the context beyond. Doscworld manages well enough without it – but note that it isn’t just a disk. It has its elephants and A’Tuin and that makes all the difference . . .

So three things before you start with the map:

What is the world for?

What constraints are being applied to it?

In what context does it exist?

Russian Problem Solving Technique and the Art of Writing (17/1/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

A long time ago in galaxy far far away, or so it feels, I once learned about a Russian methodology for solving technical problems. Genrich Altshuller’s Teoriya Resheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadach, or the Theory of Inventive Problem solving. At the time I found much that appealed to me in this, and rather rated it. As a means to solve purely engineering problems, I still do, but it’s been an increasingly long time since I’ve had much call for it. Odd, then, that after reading that Strange Horizons review and the comments that followed it, I should find myself thinking of poor old Altshuller.

I’m not saying anything about the review itself. I’ve had worse, although perhaps not so coherent in its condemnation. The ensuing debate in the comments got me thinking, though. See the foundation of Russian Problem Solving Technique was an immense statistical analysis of Russian patent applications, and the thing I got reminded of was this:

  • About 1% of patents had breakthrough science at their core – i.e. they were based on something fundamentally new.
  • About 10% of patents were new applications of existing science – i.e. the technology was original but the underlying principles were not.
  • The remaining patents were modifications and refinements of existing patented technologies. I.e. they contained nothing really functionally new.

The Strange Horizon comments got me thinking how this applied to books. Now and then something startlingly different comes along, but its actually not all that often, and most books, really don’t push any boundaries. Same epic fantasy tropes, different magic system. Same space opera, different tech dressing. And if they tell their stories well, I think that’s OK, isn’t it?

I say poor old Altshuller, by the way, because he spent a good chunk of his time in the Gulag for his troublesome theories and later wrote a few science fiction novels, some of which doubtless received 1-star Amazon reviews.

Bore of Duty Modern Warfare 3 (30/11/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

I like first-person shooters, I really do. If I’ve got my chronology right, then so far this year I’ve played Crysis 2, Call of Duty MW2 and both Battlefield Bad Company 1 and 2 in the last twelve months. Of all of those, in hindsight, COD MW3 was the worst. Or maybe, to be fair, the least good. The least engaging.

And that, at first, struck me as a bit odd, because MW2 was awesome, if a bit short, and the graphics and settings and well the whole audio-visual experience of MW3 was as good as I remember, possibly better. And the settings! Paris, London, Prague, Hamburg. Beautiful, all of them. And all the little flips out into calling down airstrikes – yes! Explosions! Sense of god-like power! Not to mention getting to shoot the living shit out of the NY stock exchange. I seem to remember using up an awful lot more grenades than strictly necessary on that one.


But but but.

Thing is, we all know, really, that even the prettiest FPS is frequently, in essence, a long corridor with a bunch of corners. Far Cry and others kind of moved us away from that, but y’know, honestly, mostly I just get in the jeep and drive along the convenient road and then it’s a corridor again. Just bendy, instead of with corners. But dammit, Sledgehammer, these magnificent urban environments of yours do end up feeling a hell of a lot like corridors, you know. Would it have hurt to have had a few more alternative routes kicking about? Crysis 2 was probably every bit as bad, but it didn’t feel it.

The kicker, though, are the missions. Follow this bloke, follow that bloke, occasionally protect someone, but them mostly follow someone. And sometimes it’s knuckle-clenching heart-thumping action, but mostly it isn’t, and I can hide around a corner in the corridor and everything very loudly waits for me to get back to following someone.

In the final mission, there’s a sequence at the end where you have to press the right buttons at the right time to get the right outcome. At each critical moment, the game tells you exactly what to do. Kind of like a cut-scene but more irritating unless you’re good at remembering button sequences. Other shooters do the same, but it’s perfectly why MW3 was kind of disappointing. Because well over half of the game felt much the same. It’s a game that allows you to participate in its glory as a bit of a walk-on extra when you were supposed to be the star.

Fifa – a considered opinion (18/11/11)

Posted in Critical Failures

So anyway, there’s this new character I was thinking of introducing into The Black Mausoleum who comes to a fairly unpleasant end…


National Novel Writing Month (11/11/11)

Posted in Critical Failures

So it’s that time of year again and my Twitter stream is full of #NaNoWriMo hashtags and people jumping up and down about wordcounts. The jumping, I’ve noticed, tends to start off mostly happy at the start of the month and the gradually grow more forlorn. By the end of the month, I don’t see much jumping at all.

I have reservations about NaNoWriMo. I’ve never tried it myself because it’s never happened to fit into my schedule. When I look at my schedule now, I’ll be trying to write a novel in a month in February, and then again in May, and frankly the prospect scares the crap out of me. I’ve written probably twenty novels now (if you count all the first drafts that were completed but never went any further) and I’ve never written one in a month. I’ve never written a first draft in a month. I’ve got it from somewhere that the challenge for NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words, which is more like half a novel for me (a quarter of the one I’m beating myself up with right now). Well I’ve done that. I’ve written new material at about 15,000 words a week, and it was bloody hard work and took a long time to get there.

I guess what I’m saying is that 50,000 words in a month is a big challenge, and particularly so if you have other demands on your time, like a job or a family. If you can do it, you have my admiration. If you can’t, well just keep going. Look at what you did at the end of November and consider it a success and keep going. Because that’s the other reservation I have about NaNoWriMo – writing isn’t just a thing you do for a month. Even if you finish a novel in a month, there’s rewriting and more rewriting and there’s the next novel and the one after that. Writing is for life, not just for November.

So good luck, don’t be a slave to wordcounts, and remember: It’s supposed to be fun!

Panels, YA and Twilight (4/10/2011)

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A thing I’ve noticed these days, ever since The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice came out, is that whenever I go to a convention and offer myself up for panel work, I get asked to talk about YA in some form or another. I don’t mind this at all. I’d probably be better at speaking about dragons, about which I know somewhat more, but hey ho – there are certain aspects of YA I know a little bit about. I know a little bit about who reads it (or who buys it) and I know what I do differently for a YA book as opposed to an adult book and why, and what my editor asks me to differently and why. I suppose that might be interesting to anyone trying to get a handle on what makes YA different to not-YA, but then you might figure that out for yourself by just reading lots – and most genre readers who go to conventions and show up to panels have almost certainly read more recent genre fiction than any authors on those panels (this is a generalisation, but I suspect largely true).

Anyway, Twilight, because it comes up at every panel on the subject. I have no views of any real interest on Twilight other than I wish it would go away from YA panels. I know that’s hard, what with it being a massively massively successful YA series that probably single-handedly accounts for a significant percentage of YA sales (now that Harry Potter is gone), but it gets in the way. And actually it’s quite interesting, since the genre elements are clearly (to me) pertinent to the success of the series. But it gets in the way, partly because if you avoid it, it becomes the elephant in the room, and partly because everyone seems to hate it (although sales figures tend to suggest otherwise). I haven’t read it, so I don’t get to hate it, but I think the panel at Alt-Fiction spent about twenty minutes dissing Twilight (and by panel, I mean the entire room, not the panellists). At Fantasycon, I think it was more in the region five to ten. Which I suspect would have been time better spent either talking about why Twilight is so successful, or simply talking about something else. The trouble is with talking about why it’s so successful is that it’s at odds with what what I think a lot of people want to believe.

Ah hell, let’s do it. I haven’t read it so you’re at liberty to shoot me, but best I can tell, Twilight mostly appeals to women who want to buy into the fantasy of being obsessively desired (the word stalker crops up a lot, but from memory, teenage desire being obsessive is pretty much the norm) by an outsider (so the desire is strong enough to overcome the outsidery-ness and aloofness from normal society, i.e. strong enough to run against his nature and yet still prevail) and powerful (i.e. he can choose anything and he chooses you). And ladies, a lot of you, at least in some part, want this. [1]

There: probably what the panels at Fantasycon, Alt-Fiction and (I think) Eastercon should have said but didn’t. And then maybe we could have moved on.

[1] If this offends you, please accept it is meant as a generalisation, and is certainly not meant to imply that everyone thinks the same way about this. If you’re still offended, well then maybe you should be. Modern society: telling women to measure their worth by how much men want them.

Review: The Ritual by Adam Nevill (13/9/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Publisher: Pan-MacMillan

ISBN: 978-0-230-75492-8

Four former university friends, now in middle age, go on a walking holiday together in Sweden. Two of them are not, perhaps, as fit as they should be. Certainly not as prepared. It seems obvious, now they are in the wilderness, that the route they had planned is too much of a challenge, so they decide to take a short cut. Just a quick detour through a few miles of primal untouched pine forest and they’ll almost be home. A few miles, that’s all. And that’s where it all starts to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Colours to the mast: Adam Nevill writes the kind of horror I like. His tongue isn’t rammed into his cheek. There are no wry knowing looks. There isn’t much gore and the horror isn’t thrown in your face. Nevill’s approach is subtle and straight and rooted in his characters – a creeping unease, little whispers that something isn’t right the slowly build into an understanding that something is, in fact, terribly wrong. The “monster” is never fully revealed, only ever glimpsed. For the most part, the atmosphere of unease is built and maintained by seeing the world through the eyes and imaginations of story’s protagonists. This is the kind of horror I like, it worked for Nevill’s first book, Apartment 16 (except for the chapter towards the end where Stephen explains everything, grrr, Adam, grrr!) and it works for The Ritual.

For the first half of the book, there are no characters apart from the four hikers themselves. Four middle-aged men with middle-aged lives and middle-aged problems; Nevill picks them up, one by one, and squeezes them until they break. They are lost, short of food and shelter, creeped out by the discovery of various old pagan remains and the growing sense that something is in the forest with them. It’s expertly done, with the focus very much on the characters and their own degeneration, and reminded me of early Stephen King, The Fog in particular. Where Nevill breaks into descriptions of the disquieting relics they find, the language is positively disturbing and crafted to make the reactions of the four protagonists all the more believable as the true nature of the forest and their plight unfolds. This part of The Ritual has some of the best horror writing I’ve read in a very long time.

After the tautness of the first half, I found the second somewhat less compelling. There’s a change of setting and some new characters are introduced along with a lashing of nordic death-metal culture. Neither the setting nor the new characters used in the second half achieve the depth and the claustrophobia of the first. The continued degeneration of the lead character continues to work well, though, the forest itself continues to exude menace and the ending is delightfully ambiguous.

A finely crafted, creepy and disturbing piece of horror.

(originally written for Vector)

Conan vs. Druss (31/8/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

For various reasons, I’ve found myself giving a lot of thought to what is ‘heroic’ fantasy – possibly because this is the sort of fantasy that the Gemmell Awards aim to laud and I happen to have been reading some Gemmell of late. Possibly also because I’ve been reading Robert E Howard again, on and off, and it certainly hasn’t been helped by starting off on both Prince of Thorns and Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand of late (and that, in part, because I’ve heard it said that if anyone should win an award for writing like David Gemmell, it should be Paul Kearney).

If anyone nailed me to the floor and refused to allow me any ice cream ever again until I came up with a couple of icons of heroic fantasy, I guess I probably would have said Conan and Druss. That’s what I would have come up with before I did all this thinking. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Is Conan a hero? Is Druss? They’re quite similar characters in a way – big, strong men who are as good as invincible in single combat, and they have little to no grasp of the concept of either compromise or backing down. They not characters who will turn tail and slink away to fight another day. They will stand up for what they believe in no matter what the odds. Now that last bit ought to make them heroic, oughtn’t it? But as far as I can make out, Conan believes in Conan, in Conan getting lots of treasure and hot babes and respect, and, y’know, stuff. And not much else. There’s nothing very heroic in there – one might conclude that Conan is simply a big bully. A hip-hop star in the worst traditions of babes-and-bling.

Druss is a bit different, but in the end his motivation is a selfish one too – he simply doesn’t want to die like an old man, weak and feeble and no longer in control of his faculties. So yes, he goes off one last time to face up against the impossible odds, only he does it because he wants to die. He has nothing to live for any more. There is no sacrifice, because all he’s giving up is something he no longer wants. The difference, to me, exists in the way they are written. When Conan’s about, other characters exist (largely) to die, either to fall into the horrible trap so that Conan doesn’t, be murdered so that Conan isn’t, or, most commonly, be slaughtered by the man himself. What makes Druss different is that characters around him have lives of their own. They have hopes and fears and aspirations. They have reasons to carry on living. These are characters who have something to lose, and sometimes they do, and yet they put themselves in danger’s path for the greater good, or for love, or some sense of forgiveness or having done one good thing. What makes Druss differ from Conan is not what he actually does, but what he inspires in others. And that, surely, is what Heroic Fantasy is about.

So if I have to give the ‘Heroic Fantasy’ crown to one of them, it’d be Druss, but to be honest I’d rather give it to Rek. I rather wonder who else might deserve it. In fact, I’m rather wondering where the heroes in my fantasy have gone.

Is Fantasy Relevant to the Modern World? (1/8/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Synopses in pictures - American Debt Crisis (insert your own names)

Synopses in pictures - American Debt Crisis (insert your own names)

This is basically a pictoral synopsis of King of the Crags too. Since this is (mostly) an apolitical blog, you canuse your imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s possible I’m wrong about there being any people in Congress whose source of power is making other people bleed. Possible. Or they may just be called republicans.

The dragon was as good as traced from one of the preliminary Stephen Youll sketches for the cover of The Black Mausoleum, which is why it doesn’t look totally rubbish.

News of the (Alternative) World (13/7/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

I’m left thinking, after the events of the last week or so, about what genre fiction, and particularly fantasy, have to offer that’s relevant to the contemporary world. For me, fantasy is about a good story and about escapism, but the stories that have lingered most have generally been about individual men and women who’ve stood up for what they believed in against sometimes terrible odds and have somehow made a difference by so doing. I’m sure someone who can spare more time to think about it could sketch out an alternative version of Lord of the Rings with Rupert Murdoch as Sauron, or News International as the numberless hordes of the Nadir. Personally I get stuck when Hugh Grant becomes Frodo Baggins, or Nick Clegg becomes Druss the Legend, neither of which particularly work for me. It does seem, though, that the Forces of Darkness(TM) have had a blow struck against them by the combined might of a lot of  cheesed off hobbits, barbarians and peasant-folk who, on the whole, prefer to quietly get on with their own lives, but who have, for once, raised their voices. Signing petitions and e-mailing MPs is hardly a trip to Mordor, but if there was a meta-message running through the fantasy genre as a whole back when I used to read a lot more than I do now, it was that when your back was pushed against a wall, you damn well stood up and fought for what you believed was right, and if you were going to be an aspiring Lord of Darkness, you made damn sure not to piss off the hobbits. Litfic, you can stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Oh, and the other meta-message, because every good fantasy epic has its sequels, is that the Dark Lord and the Wicked Witch WILL RETURN just as soon as everyone lets their guard down.

Don’t Kick the Puppy (21/6/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

It’s the middle of June. Must mean it’s time for the Gemmells and for all its detractors to, well, detract I suppose. It all strikes me as very disingenuous, but I’m sure to those who think the Gemmells are A Bad Thing, there is some sort of deeply important underlying issue at stake, well worth risking the ire of all those who work to make it happen, usually out of their own time and pocket.

Trouble is, three years in, I’m still trying to see what it is. None of you have convinced me that it is A Bad Thing. Flawed, yes, but that fantasy literature would be better off without it? No. What I do think I see, is meanness of spirit and the use of the Gemmells as a pawn in some rather larger and more important debates within the genre. So I challenge you, detractors, to convince me that you’re right, that these awards are, somehow, harmful to our genre, or indeed to anything at all.

No, wait, that’s not going to fly, because then all I’m going to hear are the same things I’ve already heard, and since those arguments haven’t convinced me yet, we’d all be wasting our time. So I’ll trot out the arguments I’ve already heard and tell you why I think they’re either plain wrong or simply irrelevant and disingenuous, and then you can come back to me with how I’ve misunderstood or somehow missed the point, or with some argument that I’ve never heard before. I’m easy to convince of almost anything, provided you can back it up with evidence and don’t talk in absolutes that are easily shown to be false by reductio ad absurdum.

The mission statement for the award is up on their website, as are the criteria for eligibility. “Traditional, Epic, Heroic or High Fantasy and/or in the spirit of David Gemmell.” If you want to argue that this isn’t the same as “rewarding excellence in the field [of the fantasy genre]”, that the scope of the award is too narrow, that by both their choice of scope and the way the winners are chosen by open public vote, the Gemmells reward mainstream commercial fantasy and neither encourage or reward diversity or novelty, go for it. I’ll not disagree. The scope is what it is. It’s narrow. My only question when you’re done will be so what?

So there’s no award for fantasy that doesn’t lie within the scope of the Gemmells. So? The world is full of awards and they all have their own scope, some of them broad, some of them narrow. Does that make them all wrong? Are awards fundamentally bad for having a scope and thus excluding some things from eligibility? Where is the right place to draw a line and say ‘this scope is broad enough and that is not’ and why is your opinion on where that line should be better than mine or those who administer the Gemmells? Criticize the DGLA for their choice of scope if you like – everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Maybe there should be an award for ‘fantasy that doesn’t fall within the scope of the Gemmells.’ Great. I agree. Within reason, I’ll even help.

Criticize the choice of winners if you like. Speech is free, and yes, it’s pretty obvious that if you can gather enough of your friends and fans around you to support you, you can skew the vote, it being a public and open one. So? I don’t hear much criticism of Polish or German or Icelandic or French or Black Library fans for voting for their first choice, and I don’t hear much noise de-crying the apathy of people who didn’t vote. Just the outcome. It’s not perfect. Fair enough. Neither are juries, for that matter (cue endless Booker-Prize-doesn’t-like-genre acrimony).

It is what it is. Criticize it for that by all means. Maybe it could be better. It’s certainly not without its flaws. Complain that it’s not as good as it could be. If the kind of book it seeks to applaud isn’t your cup of tea, you might see very little good in the award. If the money it has raised for charity [1] and the potential for a little social networking between fans and authors and editors[2] leaves you cold, you might see it as having no value whatsoever. A complete irrelevance. I could say that about plenty of things that exist in the world in which I have absolutely no interest whatsoever but which seem to make other people happy, and I’m sure you could too. If it does no harm, so what? Any genre fan who chooses to jump up and shout about something like that would benefit, I suggest, from a little more self-awareness. The world does not revolve around any one of us and what we like. It mostly stopped doing that when we were about five.

That’s if it does no harm. If that’s not true, well then shout and jump and make noises all you like and I’ll shout and jump with you, but so far, I haven’t seen a single convincing argument that says the DGLA is any way bad for anything or anyone.

First complaint: The DGLA encourages mediocrity. Tosh. The Gemmells may by default reward commercial mainstream fantasy of a certain type (and the “of a certain type” is defined by their eligibility criteria). Anyone is entitled to think that commercial mainstream fantasy is all mediocre (“middling or average in quality or performance; rather inferior” – Chambers). That’s a subjective opinion on ‘quality’ and almost by definition incorrect as far as performance goes. In the sum of all opinions, ‘mediocre’ and ‘mainstream’ doubtless overlap to some degree, but neither is a subset of the other. It only takes one person to consider one ‘mainstream’ fantasy book to be of excellent quality for the idea that mainstream = mediocre to be provably false. I don’t need to go very far to find such an example. The idea that the DGLA is somehow in any way responsible for dragging fantasy down towards mediocrity strikes me as ludicrous. How? How does such an award achieve this? Even if you accept the argument (and I don’t, and I cite The Name of the Wind and The Lies of Locke Lamora as counter-examples[3]) that publishers control what is successful, then take issue with that (and I’ll be keeping very quiet and listening very hard at that point). Publishers are fairly conservative and will tend to publish what they think will sell based on what has sold before (sad, but they’re businesses that have to make money to survive). Book-buyers are fairly conservative and will tend to buy what they liked before (sad, but that’s basic human nature). The desire for greater diversity in fantasy, in what fantasy is and what it can do, is laudable, but I don’t see the logical link that goes from that desire to the DGLA being in any way bad. Maybe it does nothing whatsoever to further that desire; well neither do any other literary awards. Neither do grass or trees. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad, it just makes them not relevant to that particular aim.

Note, in passing, that the winners, up until this year’s Way of Kings, were not the great commercial successes of the year in any country. In a way that’s by the by, but note it anyway.

The DGLA encourages mediocrity? Discourages any other kind of fantasy (presumably any kind outside its scope)? Those who think either of those things, I suggest have stepped off the reality train and been seduced onto a branch-line of some other agenda, because really, the Gemmells simply aren’t that significant. As an author, as someone who’s spoken to a lot of other authors, some successful, some still aspiring, the idea that any kind of award has any kind of influence on what we write seems ludicrous. The award that matters most is a contract. Maybe, just maybe, if the DGLA was an award for arthouse books far removed from the mainstream that would struggle to achieve viable sales figures, then you might have an argument to say that whatever its eligibility criteria were, they could influence what authors choose to write. But it isn’t. It rewards the kind of fantasy that already tends to be rewarded by success because it’s the kind of fantasy that sells; in that context, the DGLA and its selection criteria are irrelevant. Yes, a miniature axe and a pat on the back are nice, but besides selling enough copies to make an independent living, irrelevant.

The DGLA is an award for a certain kind of fantasy, and that’s a kind of fantasy that tends to sell well. If you don’t like that kind of fantasy, good for you. If you do, good for you too. I don’t see a shred of evidence to say it has any affect on what gets published and what doesn’t, what gets written and what doesn’t. I challenge its critics again: prove me wrong. Not with unsubstantiated opinions, but with concrete examples. Otherwise, to claim that the DGLA has some bearing on what the fantasy market looks like, that’s just like kicking a well-natured puppy because you don’t like what its master does for a living.


[1] In previous years. This year’s auction was to fund the award.

[2] Yes, I’m reaching a bit – but the potential is there.

[3] Very commercially successful debut novels that were certainly not pushed extremely hard on their first release. Pushed a bit, as many debuts are, but not like, say The Passage. And yes, publishers do control what is successful by what they choose to publish; still, they will follow trends in what people choose to buy. Maybe we’d all like them to be more adventurous, and they’d probably like it too, if someone could just show them how to do it without going bust.

Promotional Artwork for Alt.Fiction (2/6/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Unstable Authors

Alt.Fiction: 25-26th June. Somewhere in Derby. Beware of deranged writers trying to surf large rocks through the sky.

Yes, yes, lazy I know – next week you can have a short story and some proper blogging.

Grounds for Divorce (10/5/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

To a man on a diet, “So, I guess you don’t fancy joining me for a Chinese Takeaway” clearly and unarguably consititute un-reasonable behaviour.  That is all.

Eastercon Genre-fiction X-factor (a proposal) (3/5/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Not exactly a rant, but every Eastercon I find myself on panels about how to be an author, about finding an agent, about what you have to do to get published. Every time, I find myself thinking how unfortunate it is for writers that it’s all such a long, dull, dour process, with a such a long pay-off. There’s nowhere to showcase what you can do in a five-minutes-of-fame sort of way. Imagine it was the X-factor: Show up, perform for a few minutes get judged, vanish into obscurity if you lose, winner is published by Simon Cowell and gets to be a best-seller.

But does it have to be like this? Could we not try to showcase our hidden writing talents? So I’ve been giving it some thought and I’d like to propose the following straw man to be poked at as an attempt to give genre writing a (very) vaguely equivalent platform.

Some pre-selection process occurs to which I’ve given no thought at all, resulting in a maximum of twelve entrants. Each entrant is submits:

  1. A movie-trailer style pitch for whatever they’re writing of no more than 500 words.
  2. A synopsis for whatever they’re writing of no more than 1000 words
  3. An opening chapter or partial chapter of approximately 1500 words

Eastercon (I pick Eastercon because it’s a four-day event and I see this going over three days) – Friday afternoon (say), in a one-hour panel, all pitches are read to whoever shows up as an audience  and a panel of judges. There will be one reader who reads all the entries. Anyone who comes to the readings gets a voting card, allowing them to vote for whichever pitch is their favourite.

The panel of judges (ideally a genre editor, a genre agent and a genre reviewer) get to ask a few questions after each reading if they want to. Afterwards, the judges select the four trailers they like the best. Those four and the two most popular with the audience (probably needs a minimum number of votes) go forward to the next stage. I’m imagining a short panel on Saturday morning to announce the results and take some Q&A on the reasons for the selection.

Saturday afternoon (say), in another one-hour session, repeat the same for the six synopses. Single reader, audience get to vote on which ones they like the best, two synopses go forward selected by the judges, one by the audience.

Sunday afternoon has a final panel. Each of the three surviving entries is introduced with a little about why they’ve made it this far, both the pitch and the synopsis. The opening chapter is read. There is no final ‘winner’, but maybe the audience gets to vote.

And there you go. The Eastercon Genre-Fiction X-factor. Worth trying to make it fly? Or not. Please feel free to comment.

Why Comparisons are a Good Thing(TM) (8/3/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Various quotes from the internet:

“Your review should … make comparisons to other authors or works that may be better known…” (no, the missing words aren’t ‘not’).

“The danger with mentioning comparisons to other authors is that …  you’ll mention an author that somebody doesn’t like.”

“It is good to make comparisons to other authors, but do so with care…”

“I don’t like to make comparisons to other authors, but…”

And my personal favourite: “Comparisons to other authors, however, are Halloween masks for critical thought.”

I can see why some authors don’t like to be compared to others. None of us are the same. We all think we have are own unique shtick that makes us special and unlike anyone else, and it’s probably true that we do. Being likened to some other, more established author is both being put into a box that we don’t quite fit and a reminder that we are still small-fry, struggling to establish ourselves in the big wide world. I can’t say what it’s like from the other side of the fence, being linked to every other upstart new author, but if I think about it, mostly what I imagine is eye-rolling. Mind you, I reckon if that ever happens to me, I’ll be immensely pleased about it the first few times. Sign of having become a pillar of the genre and all, so maybe not eye-rolling after all. On the whole, though, as a relative newcomer, I’ll take what I can get. I think, so far, my books have drawn comparisons to Joe Abercrombie, Anne McCaffery, Robin Hobb, Paul Kearney, George RR Martin, Naomi Novik, Oscar Wilde, and Christopher Paolini on a meth-fuelled bender. Do any of those bother me? Not at all. Bemuse me? I suspect one or two might simply refer to the fact that I have dragons in my book and little else. But on the whole, I don’t see anything for me, as an author, to object to here.

Reviewers then: That’s easy though – you’re job is to serve readers, so you don’t get an opinion :-p

And as a reader, yes, I’ll take a comparison. I like things that are new and I like things that are familiar, and some days I want one and some days I want the other, and if I’m after something familiar, then why not try an author who’s (allegedly) similar to another that I like? It’s patently obvious that the bulk of what people read is driven by a desire for more-of-what-I-had-before-that-I-liked, and that’s exactly what these comparisons serve.

So I have no problem with comparisons at all, provided they’re done well. The point of a review is largely to tell the audience enough about a book that they’re able to draw a conclusion as to whether they’re likely to enjoy it, and if the review is thoughtful and well-crafted, that conclusion ought, largely, to be correct. Comparing X to Y is a perfectly acceptable shorthand for doing exactly that. Fussing about the rightness or wrongness of doing so strikes me as missing the point: A review with a poor or lazy comparison is a poor or lazy review, and those who are minded to fuss about such things would serve the rest of us better if they fussed about that instead.

None of which is to say that they’re not Halloween masks for crical thought – merely that they don’t have to be, and if you take a mask away from a man who wants to wear one, well then he’ll likely just pick up another one instead.

The Unbearable Fleetingness of Things (16/2/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

This is all Twitter’s fault. If it wasn’t for Twitter I wouldn’t have heard of most of these things in the first place. In the space of the last week or so, I have formed opinions on Military SF (rarely works for me). Martin Amis (glad he’s not my dad), Trading in food futures (my my, how intensely complicated), the New Fantasy Nihilists (I am probably one of them, but I take my inspiration from Conan too, thank-you and I don’t think we were reading quite the same book) and at least two other things that I can’t even remember now. I could have had a lengthy rant about any of those things, but in fact I won’t say anything about any of them, for exactly two reasons. The first is that I’m busy writing stories. The second is more troubling – it takes me so damned long to form a settled opinion on anything these days – whole hours, sometimes even days – that by the time I do, the rest of the world has moved on. Is this age, finally catching up with me or is this wisdom? Is the world moving from reason to knee-jerk instinct or am I just slow?

Submissions Guidelines (31/1/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Follow the submissions guidelines. This is always good advice. Research the people to whom you intend to submit your manuscript. Also good advice, and anyone who can’t be bothered to take the effort to follow basic instruction and take information readily available off a website so they can address the right person BY NAME probably deserves everything they get. Or don’t. There’s plenty of advice on what to do and what not to do, for example here and here and another example of why you really should pay attention here. I bring these agencies to your attention as they’re the only genre agencies I know of. (Edit: And ONLY for that reason – I have no beef with either agency and only reason I’m linking to them is that if you, dear reader, are an aspiring SF/F writer then you ought to know they they exist and read what they say about submissions.)

However, dear agents and editors and people who write submissions guidance and then point fingers and laugh at those unable to follow it (Twitter, I’m looking at you), please have a little consideration for your poor aspiring writers. Let us suppose I am that person. There are a lot of publishers and agents out there to whom one might send a query letter. About forty to fifty the last time I paid attention. Many of them aren’t in the least bit interested in my latest manuscript, but I don’t know that because I already ruled out the ones whose interest obviously lies elsewhere. I know that almost none of you will be interested and I’m damned if I’m going to write to you one by one and wait, individually, for a reply (the last time I was doing this seriously, the average response time to a query letter was about two and a half months. There was a lot of variation in this and maybe it’s changed but I doubt it. And I’m quite convinced that someone out there still has The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice sitting in their slush pile, gently gathering dust) because then I’ll be waiting for about TEN YEARS before I’ve collected my full set of rejection letters. So no, I’m not going to single-submit as a general rule, although I’m not going to tell you that. And if I’m researching 40-50 agents and publishers while at the same time as indulging my remorseless muse at the same time as holding down a day-job that pays the bills at the same time as having any kind of life whatsoever, you’ll understand that a lot of my research is going to be carried out over the odd hastily-snatched twenty minute slot over lunchtime. And even then I’ll probably be trying to fit in two of you in each slot because otherwise it’s going to to take about three months just to get your names and addresses (EDIT: Neither the JJLA or Zeno demand this – the internet and those books on ‘how to get published’ that I’ve read often say that you should, though).

So, agents and publishers, let me offer YOU some guidance. You should aim to have all your information available to me in that one ten-minute slot. Otherwise I’m going to default to standard ‘best practice’ that I’ve picked up from sites better organised than yours. And that probably means I’ll do something wrong. And then you’ll reject me, and we’ll neither of us know what we’ve missed out on. Ask yourself, if you don’t like it, how many authors you know that are good at writing books. About all of them, right? And how many of those are good at following basic instructions? What about meeting deadlines? Being organised? It’s not that we’re different to the rest of the world, it’s just that we’re, well, we’re not project managers[1], we’re writers.

Ten minutes. Let that be the test of how clear your submissions guidance is. Then you can criticize us for not doing it exactly the way you want it.

While we’re at it, aspiring writers, this is probably worth a couple of your ten-minute lunchtime slots.

[1] Except for some of us. But we all have our personality disorders, right?


Life can be deliberately perverse sometimes. I used to use the local library a lot when I was much, much younger. Much much much much. Then I lived in Cambridge for a bit with access to one of the most comprehensive libraries in the world and never used it at all. After that, using the local library came in fits and starts for a bit and then for close to a decade I’ve hardly used it at all. Marriage, children, writing books and working a full time job will do horrendous things to a man’s precious reading time. Still, as a research tool, you can’t beat libraries. Want a book about Georgian history? Why not have six or seven and see which one gives you what you want. I’ve never once come away empty-handed, no matter what I’ve gone looking for.

And then someone flicksed a switch in number one son and out of nowhere he starts reading a whole book every few days. At his current rate of progress, he will have devoured all of Cressida Cowell in the space of a month and he’s going to go through about a hundred books over the course of the year – now, I realise there are some of you bloggers out there who will scoff at a mere hundred books, but dudes, without a library that’s a lot of trips of Waterstones and quite a lot of money. Not everyone can afford that, no matter how much they want to. Yes, there are second hand shops and charity shops and Bookstart (no, wait, maybe not for much longer), but libraries are for everyone and libraries are for free. Perhaps some children will never discover the joy of books because they simply don’t want to, because that’s not the way they’ve been raised, for whatever reason. No amount of saving libraries will change that, but I’m watching number one son wade through a new book every few days, I’m seeing how much he gets out of it, I’m seeing number two son’s interest in reading rocket as well (sibling rivalry – one of the world’s greatest motivators). Reading is surely the cornerstone of an open mind and probably many other things, and for some people, libraries are probably the only way to feed a habit like the one I’m seeing here.

Cuts to libraries seem inevitable, and no amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth is likely to change that – cuts to almost everything seem inevitable. Campaign and protest if you want – other people will give you better guidance than I will on how best to go about that (try the Bookseller’s campaign). But please, if you can, do something more direct. Find out how the library you use is likely to be affected and then see if there’s anything you can do to help. Facilities that are closed are far less likely to be recovered than those that are forced to run a reduced service. You’re all book-literate, mostly IT-literate, so we have the abilities needed to pitch in and keep at least a few things running. I’d like to hear your stories – where can we share our successes (if we have any)?

I’m looking for ideas and I’m looking for a way to share them. When I get anywhere I’ll let you know. In the mean time, how many authors out there would like their PLR income re-directed towards keeping libraries open for a while?

The Bridge

Posted in Critical Failures

A few years ago, I had an idea for a story. The hero of this particular story was (will be?) a boy of about ten or eleven.

Stuff happened. A Memory of Flames, for example, and the story never got written. Around the middle of last year, though, it started to make its way back into my mind. I didn’t have enough time to write the story as I’d originally seen it, but maybe I could write something much shorter. Maybe I could write a version for children. It would have been much shorter and without the main theme, but it would have been something I could have written for number one sithling and that would be cool, right? A story written for you by your dad.

I wrote about a quarter of this in November. It still seemed like a good idea. December was the dread month of dealines. This month I’d planned to finish, but now that we’re here, I’m not going to. It’s not that anything about the story has changed, but over the course of one month, number one sithling’s reading skills have changed so much that the story I started writing in November has become too simple. And when it comes down to it, the simplified story has had its heart taken out in order to be that simple and it just doesn’t interest me that much. Maybe later this year I’ll write the full version.

There’s a lesson here. Write what you want to write. Don’t go writing for a specific and fickle audience. They might not be who you thought they were by the time you finish.

Measuring Happiness (11/1/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

A while back, a good fifty years after it started being obvious to most people, the UK Government came to the conclusion that maybe money wasn’t the be-all and end-all of life and declared its intention to start measuring how happy the people it was supposed to be representing actually are as well[1]. The significance of this remains to be seen. Is this the start of the inexorable decline of capitalism and the consequent rise  of the Dalai Lama to absolute authority? Should committed socialists around the world be singing the praises of the Cleggeron (you know you want to, really)? As far as I can tell, though, most of what followed had little to do with ideology and a lot to do with head-scratching and statistics. Along the lines of ‘yes, but how? How the hell do you measure happiness?’

Well, Mr & Mr Cleggeron, I have taken the opportunity of the Christmas break to conduct some field research into the subject. I have conducted an intensive study of a small number of  individuals (or a number of small individuals), and I would like, now, to present my findings. I would like to point out, that this was pro bono work at no expense to the UK taxpayer and has been carried out for its own scientific merit. In particular, great care and attention have been given to the scoring system to provide an accurately representative  final Happiness Quotient (HQ). The scheme is simple: Answer each question in turn. For each question to which the answer is yes, adjust your HQ by the stated amount. Begin at zero (content).

Basic Needs

  • Are you hungry or thirsty? (-2)
  • If so, did you get given food or drink? (+2)
  • Was it cake or ice-cream? (+10)
  • Are you too cold? (-2)
  • Is that because it’s so three degrees above absolute zero outside but despite this you still insist on wearing shorts out there no matter desperately those around you suggest that you should wear a jumper to keep warm? (+20)


  • Are you engaged in a vigorous physical activity of your own choosing? (+5)
  • Does it involve furniture abuse? (+2)
  • Have you just fallen off the sofa and banged your head? (-5)
  • Has someone stopped by to point out that it was entirely your own fault? (-60)

Social Circumstances

  • Are you playing with someone? (+10)
  • No, not the Xbox/Playstation/iPhone/Internet, are you playing with an actual real person? (+5)
  • Does it involve a moderate level of physical violence? (+10)
  • Are you winning? (+10)
  • Are they winning? (-40)
  • If you’re playing Munchkin, are you being allowed to use your +10 Sword of Longness that you drew yourself in crayon and then slipped into your hand when no one was looking? (+500)
  • If you’re playing Dread Pirate, is someone else the Dread Pirate? (-1000)


  • Have you had a present today? (+5)
  • Has someone you know had a present today? (-20)
  • Was your present better than theirs? (+20)
  • If so, have you made absolutely sure they know this? (+10)
  • Was their present better than yours? (-200)
  • If so, were they a sibling? (-1000000000000000000000000000)

In summary: the secret of a happy five-year-old turns out to be plenty of love and social play, occasional sugary treats, a +10 Sword of Longness and a systematic regime of carefully engineered ignorance.

The secret of a happy adult, from casual observation, is often much the same.

[1] Roughly speaking. What they actually said used much longer words and tried to sound like it was some great new idea thing.

Snow (30/11/10)

Posted in Critical Failures

7am. Snow. Global warming is a lie.

8am. Snow. Wishing I’m not going to work today.

10am. Snow. Apparently I’m NOT going to work today.

11am. Snow. Sticking needles into Al Gore dolls and wishing I hadn’t invested in UK Tropical Orchards Ltd.

12am. Snow. Realising that, tomorrow, we’ll be *prepared* for snow. Which means the local school will be closed, even though the roads have been cleared.

1pm. Snow stops. So that means everything will melt and freze again and be ice. Yay.

2pm. Realise that ‘global warming’ is now called ‘climate change’ for a reason. Stop sticking needles into Al Gore dolls.

3pm. Snow now making up for lost time. Blizzard. Just in time for walk to school. Yay.

4pm. Snow. Stagger home from massive snowball fight. Playground full of children and a good few parents too. Freezing. Sodden. Happy.

Yay for snow.

Poppies (9/11/10)

Posted in Critical Failures

I shall be wearing a red one on Thursday. I wrote a long post into the whys and the wherefores, and then I read it and realised it was, by and large, bollocks. Really, it comes down to a pretty simple thing. Killing other people sucks. There’s no such thing as a good reason for setting out to do it. To anyone. There might be understandable reasons or rational reasons but there aren’t any good ones. None.

Normal service will be resumed next week. This may well involve a rant at my editor :-)


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