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Saving the world - again!

Saving the world - again!

I'm tired of the 'the end of civilisation as we know it' scenarios. In so many speculative fictional worlds, in films and TV, there's an increasing emphasis on world (or universe) ending climaxes. When you look at Phase 4 of what Marvel is doing, there have been so many threats, they've had to introduce a multiverse. There have been threats to Earth first of all, when that wasn't enough, the dangers engulfed the universe as half the population vanished. Now that's not enough either. If you watched the animated What If? series, its climax envisioned the premise of all the universes being threatened! How much longer until it appears in live action stories? It creates a problem. When stories employ threats that grow in this way, they reach a point where that threat loses its edge. It's the problem of formulaeic storytelling, a pit Marvel have fallen into, where every story has an end-of-the-world feature at its core. It doesn't need to be that way. Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a break from that formula that I enjoyed a lot. Sure, the world and its inhabitants, face a terrible threat. Will they save the world? Of course they will. But that's not what the story is about. The threat isn't disclosed until the start of the third act! Even then, the battle only lasts a few minutes. No, the story is about the resolution of the conflict between father and son. What I loved in this film was its focus on character arcs, the special effects, the monsters and the like were all secondary factors. It was the story of a family torn apart by grief and loneliness. Surely, characterisation should be the focus of every epic story, shouldn't it? When you look at Russian literature, for example, the same is true. Events may happen over long periods of time, over sprawling landscapes and amidst catastrophic wars - but the story is about people. A family, a love triangle, a community. For me, a victim of this permanent world-ending storytelling is Dr Who. I speak as a one-time fan, someone who watched the first episode in 1963 astonished at the originality of theconcept. But, over time, (pun intended!) what kept me engaged wasn't the Daleks or Cybermen and the like, it was the character of the doctor. Hartnell created a grumpy, deceitful and impatient doctor, Troughton tweaked him with greater eccentricities, Pertwee I'll miss out, Tom Baker turned him into a wild, unpredictable and loveable rogue. Yes they all faced threats, often to the world as we knew it. BUT, the story was about how the Doctor reacted to it, how his unconventional approach offered solutions. The Doctor was the focus of the story, not the threat created by the baddies. Now the role is cute, mildly amusing, vanilla. And like every other SF programme! That's my opinion! These days commercial factors rule the storytelling. Daleks return again and again because they are popular. In one series they try to take over the world/universe/time - they're defeated. But guess what, they come back again to do the same thing a series or two later. For a story based on time travel, this is taking deja vu too far! Back to Marvel for another example. I listened to the film critic, Mark Kermode, review The Eternals and he began by making a point which is relevant here. This is what he said - the Eternals are a bunch of god-like beings who have vowed not to interfere in human affairs. Yet the story has them getting involved because they love us so much! With that in mind, why didn't they get involved when Thanos wiped out half the population? The answer is a contrived one. Just like Captain Marvel couldn't intervene initially - because she was too busy saving other civilisations on the other side of the universe. Really? Storytelling falls apart when it becomes so contrived we need to escalate the threat to keep our audiences engaged and coming back for more. Surely, there are only so many times we can believe in these end-of-the-world scenarios before we tire of them? Good storytelling doesn't work when it becomes formulaeic. Here's another example. As a teenager in the 60s, I loved Spiderman as a character because I could relate to him. He was nerdy and nervous, just like me. I bought the comics because I could imagine myself in those situations. Yeah, Green Goblin, Venom, Mysterio and the others put him in danger all the time and that kept me hooked. But I bought the comics because the character was flawed, a teenager given superpowers who makes mistakes - because teenagers don't possess the reasoning skills to deal with them like an adult. In the Tom Holland iteration of the franchise, much of that is ignored for the epic battles, the humanity-saving bit. Worse still, far worse, Spiderman is now powered by Stark technology, a Spiderman for the twenty-first century perhaps? But it only means his character gets lost, diluted at best and the story becomes about the battle. Will he win? Will he survive? Answer? Of course he'll win, of course he'll survive. What do we learn about his character? How does it feature in the story? In my opinion, it rarely does and I've lost interest in that franchise for this reason. For those of you who grew up watching British TV in the 70s, you're bound to remember Blake's Seven. A story of the crew of a stolen spaceship, trying to survive against a cruel and ruthless dictatorship intent on destroy them. A space age Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was done by the BBC, following on from the success of Dr Who. The series had the same low budget but great scriptwriters (created by Dalek maker, Terry Nation). The sets were truly awful, the special effects even more so. Like Dr Who, much of the filming took place in quarries! But, the series worked because of its characters. The crew fought endlessly, they didn't trust each other but they had a common enemy so they had to collaborate in order to survive. It's become a common feature in lots of stories. I use Blake's Seven to illustrate my point - the success of this series, despite its truly awful production values, lay in its characters. It didn't need the world to end. We wanted to know how the characters would continue to survive. Before anyone points out that my latest book, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, has a world-endangered threat running through its plot, let me defend the reasoning. The focus, as this review points out, is about how its main character, Frida, deals with this crisis. She is flawed, bitter and isolated so she has no loyalty to other people. Yet she has to make a decision whether to save them or not. The focus isn't about if she stops the baddie - it's about the choice and the factors that complicate this choice. What's my point? I suppose it's this: there is a danger in the climax dominating the story to such an extent it wipes out the details that matter. The characters are overwhelmed by the story. I see this happening in so many of the superhero films and TV series especially. Yet, go back to the source materials, the comics, the emphasis there was always on the characters. Films and TV now offer budget-busting SFX that audiences seem to expect - more than the story, it seems. Or, producers think they do! I worry this trend is reflected in so much speculative fiction. The end of the world as we know it, features as the climax to so many stories. I find myself avoiding them more and more for stories where the threat is less epic, where character interaction dominates, where relationships are explored, where meaningful and intelligent themes are discussed. There are only so many times when a hero is beset with saving the world before it prompts a yawn and a feeling of 'here we go again'. So let's dial back the dangers and allow characters to shine shall we?

Might inter-dimensional portals exist?

Might inter-dimensional portals exist?

Each of my novels use the concept of inter-dimensional portals to other worlds. In my original research I discovered the principles of string theory supported this idea. If you're a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you know Sheldon Cooper based his career on it, so it must be real, right? Part of my research took me to the Somerset town of Glastonbury where the mythology of fairy doorways dates back centuries. Saint Colllen, a Welsh bishop, lived close to the Tor and recorded his encounter with fairies. Don't tell me he was high on drugs, he was a man of the church! But, in all seriousness, the science community are buzzing with the idea. Not least because NASA have got involved in the story. So, might events in my stories be less fantastical than I imagined? Let's see. NASA's investigations are being led by plasma physicist Jack Scudder of the University of Iowa. To simplify the science, the Earth's magnetic field connects to the sun's to form a pathway. On earth this pathway forms X-points or electron diffusion regions, they don't last long and vanish but their existence can be recorded. Not only that, they're identifying "signposts" to predict where these X-points will occur. Watch the 4 minute animation explaining the concept here. Harvard's theoretical physicist Lisa Randall has written about the possibility of such portals, there's an interview with her here. She suggests the Large Hadron Collider may be the device that proves the idea eventually and references the latest news, neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, as the discoveries that might lead the way. If you want the science, read about the Randall-Sundrum model. So the science suggests the possibilities of, not just other dimensionals, but "gaps" which may exist between them. Gaps which could facilitate travel eventually. As a teenager, fully immersed in science fiction, I read dozens of stories suggesting our civilisation was only the latest. Usually global catastrophes brought about the end of those that had gone before. Not to be gloomy here but our own society came close in the 1960s! Some would argue we aren't any further away from Armageddon. The stories from ancient civilisations reinforce this theory. I'm always amazed how we consider our ancient ancestors to be unsophisticated yet could make astrophysical calculations. Here are a few stories to illustrate this. People like Freddy Silva have made a career in literature and TV presenting evidence to support these theories. For instance, Noah's flood is a global catastrophe referenced by every religion and significant culture. He also supports the idea used in my stories, places of worship are the home of portals because they were always built on top of pagan locations of energy. However, if you're looking for an example of a specific place, let me whisk you off to Peru. This is a picture of Puerta de Hayu Marca in Peru. Situated on a plateau just off the western banks of Lake Titicaca, Puerta de Hayu Marca translates to the Gate of the Gods. Reaching 23 feet in both height and width, Hayu Marca appears to be a doorway to nowhere carved into a rock face in a remote area known as the Valley of the Spirits or Stone Forest. Legend has it that when Spanish conquistadors came to Peru to loot the Inca’s gold, a priest named Amaru Meru used Hayu Marca as a portal to escape. Meru allegedly placed a golden disk, known as the “Key to the Gods of the Seven Rays,” into a socket in the center of Hayu Marca’s carved door, opening a portal and allowing him to walk through the stone never to be seen again. Closer to home, you can visit Portals of London. As the site explains, "From doors between worlds to spacetime-crunching wormholes, the city’s fabric, dimensionally speaking, seems to be uniquely porous. But if there’s one thing more striking than the number and diversity of portals in the UK’s capital, it’s the strength of the almost wilful effort by the city’s inhabitants to forget these gateways exist at all." Intriguing to me is the inclusion of the Christopher Wren churches in this list. In 'Revenge for the Bastard' my hero travels to London via a portal, it brings him out in St. Brides church on Fleet Street. This is the oldest church in the city (at least its foundations are). It has Roman mosaic floors and was originally built by Celtic monks. I'm going to come to this next point in a moment - the church is also situated on a ley line. Final bit of trivia, it includes the only remaining charnel house in the country! The intriguing thing for me is this: why build here? What factors led to the choice of that location? Let's deal with ley lines. To many people they are pure hokem. They are supposed lines of energy which criss-cross the world. In Britain there are two major ley lines, (referencing Christian saints!)There is the Mary Line and the highly vigorous Michael Line. Ever wondered why churches on hills get named after Saint Michael? They are all on the Michael Line - which enters England at Penzance, the location for St. Michael's Mount (copied from the grander Mont St Michael in Normandy, also on the ley line). Believers of ley lines will tell you about Alfred Watkins, an amateur archaelogist who coined the term in his 1925 book on the topic. There's more about them in this BBC article. Watkins claimed prehistoric navigational purposes but subsequently others have detected energy signatures which have strengthened the claim to their existence. As this map shows, our prehistoric ancestors liked to locate their sacred sites on these lines. Pursue the lines in more detail and the number of churches named after Mary and Michael is astonishing! (Saint Michael is the Christian dragon slayer, if you don't know your Bible. An image long associated with his interest in slaying pagan beliefs more than dragons!. 'The saint of high places' - churches on hills again). Ley lines transmit energy, that's the theory. Not electrical cables but natural versions of the concept. More here. And here. Religions have placed temples and churches on these hotspots or built fortified structures. They are referenced in every single religion. Is that coincidence? If you look at the map, you can see Glastonbury is a major hotspot for the Michael and Mary lines. On my research trip prior to writing The Bastard from Fairyland, I discovered these two lines travel through Glastonbury Abbey in parallel lines. Yet, according to the townsfolk, they diverge briefly where King Arthur was originally believed to be buried. (Edward III moved his body much later.) The Mary line goes through the Abbey's Lady Chapel - originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The battle in the climax of the book takes place in this location, I hope she didn't mind! This National Geographic article follows this up and includes reference to how ley lines resonate in other cultures, such as Chinese feng shui following Dragon Lines and in Australian native races' Songlines. Once again, it left me asking this question: if this is so much hokum, why is it shared across the globe in every culture and every religion? I'm connecting all my stories in a series I've called The Tales from the Fae Dimensions because they all use the concept of these doorways. I won't bore you with all the trivia picked up on my Glastonbury trip suffice to say local people are convinced such things can exist. There are so many stories (often recorded if you know where to look) of people who have gone missing, returned with no memory, seen strange things. The Tor, with its Cretan maze (yes, the same pattern used in Crete, China and by the Hopi tribes in Arizona) is another bit of proof - admittedly badly weathered now. (I use all this in book 2, The Bastard in the Dark). The book that got me started writing seriously was this one, Faerie Tale by Ramond E Feist. It's impact on me has been immense. It was the first time I read a story that aimed to make you believe in the existence of such beings as faerie. It did so with evidence of ancient lore which we, as sophisticated, civilised people, chose to dismiss. It made me want to do the same thing. You see, I have to question how disconnected we might be with the natural world. I'm no aging hippy! Aging, yes. But I grew up in the countryside where a belief in Nature existed and was frequently proved right when expert sources said otherwise. I get the impression, as events such as pandemics and climate change impact on our collective consciousness, we are returning to an appreciation of Nature. We're starting to question whether it may harbour answers and solutions we had previously ignored. Perhaps science will discover inter-dimensional doorways in the future, that our ancestors had left us clues we chose not to believe. In the meantime, as an author of speculative fiction, I want to encourage my readers to think about what they might mean to us. The Valkyrie of Vanaheim pursues the idea of colonising a new dimension because of the mess we've made of this world. It could be easier than sending rockets to new planets! In the meantime, I plan to develop more stories with doorways to other dimensions and to make the idea as realistic as possible.

Lessons learned from self-publishing

Lessons learned from self-publishing

I'm very excited to announce the arrival of my latest book baby, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim. It's been three and half years since I last published a fantasy novel and, to be honest, there were times I thought it would never happen. This book has been two years in the gestating process! Elephants do it faster!! But it's arrived and I'm proud of my achievement. In recent weeks, chatting to my editor and cover artist, I've made the same observation, I have learned so much since I started. What has brought this home has been the task of re-editing and redesigning the covers for my Knights' Protocol trilogy, which started this process. Looking back on that work, with a critical eye, has been a salutory exercise. I want to share some of the lessons learned from being a self-published author for other writers in similar positions. The obvious lessons A- The Importance of the Editor Sure, an editor identifies all your mistakes (spelling and grammar etc) but I learned a vital lesson when I submitted Valkyrie to my editor, the brilliant PS Livingstone. I learned the value of getting an objective and honest opinion from a critical perspective. Pam read my novel enough times to understand my goals, I'd say she knew my characters as well as I did. Therefore she could challenge me with that knowledge. "Would so-and-so do that?" "Is that how thingy would react?" "Her voice isn't strong enough here." You soon learn to reflect on the OUTCOME of your writing, sentence by sentence. (Like that one!) A really good editor makes you evaluate the impact of your writing. This is what readers do when they deliver their verdicts, they may not always notice it explicitly (perhaps they shouldn't!), but they need to experience the impact of your writing and its consequences for characterisation, pace, mood etc.. In English lessons these days, kids are taught the structure of writing. For instance, a primary school kid will tell you about topic sentences. Yet they can be easily overlooked if you don't think about impact. What are you trying to say in that paragraph, what is its purpose? Seth Godin sums it up, "Why waste a sentence saying nothing?" The lesson I learned: Good editors enhance your writing, your novel and what you want to achieve with it. B - The Importance of the Cover Designer Yeah, yeah, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Unless you read books, then that's exactly what you do. In the last three years I've noticed how significant the cover has become for self-published writers. There is an industry behind it now. I'm going to come back to this topic later but I want to emphasize here that this topic is so obvious, everyone should appreciate its significance by now. Thanks to Phil Williams for his excellent design work of my books. The lesson I learned: Get the best cover you can and spend money to get it. Cheap will look cheap. Lesson No. 2: Quality, quality, quality When Amazon established Kindle Direct Publishing, it became a means for anyone to publish anything regardless of whether it was any good. I'd contend in the SFF genre, the standards have improved enormously. Some of the reasons are shown in this post. "Putting out mediocre books isn’t good for an author in the long run. A discerning reader won’t give you a second chance, and only good books encourage people to read more," says editor and author, Tahlia Newland. Publishers are unwilling to risk constricted budgets on unknown SFF authors, which means we need to publish our own work (and thereby retain control of everything). Self publishing has encouraged the growth of niche sub-genres too. Locus magazine, the trade paper for the SFF publishing business, conducted a survey in 2019 which is worth mentioning here. On average, of those surveyed, 63% bought a minimum of FIVE books per year. (77% bought one book). Its a consistent figure and tells us these are people who know what they want, they will buy from traditional routes as well as self-published, that doesn't matter. What does matter is the quality. There may be a willingness to risk an unknown author but the survey showed readers knew what - and who - they liked - and why. Within the #indieauthor world, there are big names who now command serious numbers of regular readers, just like in the traditional world. (Is anyone bigger than Rob Hayes??) The lesson I learned: self published authors must compete with these big names. Readers will judge you by those standards. Lesson No. 3: The author and blogger network I'm talking about marketing and promotion here. When I first started a debate raged about the effectiveness of adverts on Facebook. I know some authors still do this. What has changed is the way authors and bloggers now share a symbiotic relationship and its one of the best developments. Why? Because its real. We consult our favourite book reviewers to find out what's new and exciting, what books you might have missed - and get an opinion from someone you trust. It's better than an advert because it's objective and detailed, you find out elements that influence your choices. Plus, by reading the views of different bloggers, you can 'triangulate' the opinions before making your purchase. Here's a helpful article about using social media to promote your work. Here's Dave Chesson's advice about social media for authors. Well worth a read. The single greatest factor in generating this development has to be Mark Lawrence's Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO). It gave bloggers status by respecting and valueing their judgement. It gave authors the kind of high profile attention they would never receive otherwise. It enhanced that symbiotic relationship. Let's use Josiah Bancroft as an example. His Senlin Ascends sold 168 copies in 2013. After his success in SPFBO, in 2017 he sold 5,600 copies. Four years on, it will be a much higher figure. Asking bloggers to read and review your book is an obvious step. A more informed one is to choose those who have coverage. Bloggers whose views will be heard across the world, and ideally on more than one social media platform. These people who incredibly busy. It is why many have now developed teams to manage the enormous workload that comes with this responsibility. Looking for some bloggers? Here's my list. The lesson I learned: there's great value being in a review/blogger team. I did that as a judge in #SPFBO and I now belong to the BeforeWeGo blog team, led by the amazing Beth Tabler. Reviewing books helps your critical thinking and this, in turn, improves your own writing. It opens your mind to new ideas, styles and writing methods. Lesson No. 4: Tours Another recent development is the blog tour. Some bloggers, eager to support the #indieauthor will organise a team to review your book and share their views in a focused way over a certain amount of time, porbably a week. They charge admin fees but this is not about paying to get people to say they like the book. (There has been ridiculous criticism along these lines). Once again, the emphasis is on quality. I work with Justine and Timy at Storytellers on Tour, one reason is the quality resources I receive to promote the book. Plus they are super-organised and nice people to work with. There are choices for the author too. A tour may involve a cover reveal for the book. (Remember what I said earlier about the importance of a good cover?) Now it's putting the cover front and centre. I recently did this for The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, when the wonderful Nick Borrelli at Out of this World handled the cover reveal. Nick promoted it, created the reveal on his site and even shared the number of 'hits' received. It's a brilliant way to get your book in front of other people as well as obtaining valuable validation. The lesson I learned: forging those relationships in the first place takes time and commitment. It's not just worth it! - it is essential for your marketing. Lesson No. 5: The Power of Social Media It's so easy to lose yourself reading stuff on Twitter and the like. I focus on Twitter because it's where I find most authors hang out. But why is it powerful? Because it's been my school room. I've learned so much from reading things that have been curated and written by other authors and folk in the publishing business. Yes, it takes time but the alternative is to remain ignorant, naive and unsophisticated about a world in which you exist - the writing world. It's a bubble, like many others. But you discover trends, find success stories from others you can replicate for yourself. I knew nothing about it when I published my trilogy and, looking back, I feel foolish for doing that. I entered SPFBO too early. Having re-edited the book I entered - I want to hide my head in shame! Recent stories (here in the UK and in US) have shown publishers placing expectations on potential sign-ups to achieve a requisite number of followers (30,000 in two cases I've read). It's ridiculous, of course, but it does tell us how the industry recognises how powerful social media can be in increasing audience awareness of you as an author - not so much your book. The lesson I learned: to focus on one or two platforms only (keep a focus) and to maintain a profile of the kind of author you are. I share, I try to inform (like this), I promote (occasionally) but I accept and receive more from others so I can keep learning. Lessson No. 6: The traditional or self publish route? The number of books self-published in the U.S. in 2018, jumped 40% compared to the previous year, according to Bowker’s annual survey of the self-publishing market. In its report, “Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018: Print and E-books,” the total number of print and e-books that were self-published in 2018 was 1.68 million, up from 1.19 million in 2017. Bowker measures the size of the market based on the number ISBN’s registered and thus does not include self-published e-books by Amazon’s Kindle division, which uses an Amazon identifier (no data available here). As I mentioned earlier, in the SFF world probably has a higher number than this. This niche market is rarely understood by agents and publishers in my opinion. But here's what Hugh Howey, who wrote the post-apocalyptic novel Wool, has to say on the matter. "…I kind of got peer-pressured into going that route and ended up with a small press and everything went well, but I guess what I saw was, the way that they were publishing it, all these tools were available to me, so I thought, “I can do this.” Self-publishing, for me, was a way of getting published and the other way took years of querying, trying to land an agent, trying to get a publishing contract, a year from the publishing contract to actual publication, so it was never about making money or trying to get into bookstores; for me, it was all about writing stories and trying to distribute them." Traditional publishing margins are so narrow these days that you need to be prolific if you want to make a career out of your writing. The timescales are glacial too. Don't expect big money to come quickly. Plus you sign over your IP to publishing houses who control what you can and cannot do, such as making the most of the audio book market from your work. Trad routes prefer famous names too! This article in the Guardian is worth reading, with links to evidence supporting the move to #indieauthors taking control of their destiny. The self-publishing stigma is fading, for all the reasons I've outlined here. The lesson I learned: I have spent far too much time submitting to agents and approaching publishers. I've attended course, met agents. I have been told my style of fantasy is not commercial enough for traditional publishers, it does not fit into neat little commercial boxes. And, you know what? I DON'T WANT TO FIT IN A BOX! I want to write a story that is my story not something that will make a publisher and an agent some money. How very unenterprising of me! It's why I stopped submitting and chose to focus my efforts on self-publishing my stories. It was a big decision but I'm happy I took it. Conclusion I'd call it a steep learning curve, wouldn't you? I haven't covered any of the emotional and mental side of being a writer, that's for another post. It's not a topic to under-estimate or undervalue. A year ago I had almost decided to give up writing, I'm so glad I stuck with it. It was that crisis of confidence that provoked me into re-evaluating my experience, this post represents the conclusions. I hope you found it helpful. I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions, you can tweet me at https://twitter.com/PhilSpeculates And, as a celebration here's what I have achieved in the last 3 years:

Swapping Genres

Swapping Genres

I've just published my latest novel. I'm excited by the achievement, who wouldn't be? But this time it's special. You see, my latest novel is a massive departure from the fantasy stories I usually write. 'WRITE OFF' is a story in the contemporary fiction genre. It's genesis is important, bear with me. My wife doesn't like fantasy fiction, can't stand it in fact. She's always been supportive but hasn't read any of my stories. "I just wouldn't understand them," she says. Fair enough. During lockdown I bought her a Kindle and she consumes dozens of books via Kindle Unlimited. At one point last year she put her Kindle down with a heavy sigh and said she was tired of reading badly written stories. "Why don't you write a story that I'd enjoy? It would be so much better than most of the rubbish I've read lately!" I accepted the challenge. This post outlines how I went about achieving that challenge. It led to several discussions on the differences between the two genres. Plus, the expectations of its readers. They are very different people as you might imagine. Therefore, as a writer, it posed an interesting exercise in rethinking how to write a story for a very different audience. Once I'd completed my research on the contemporary fiction genre, I began to realise how different it was. The process began with my first chapter. I'm a pantser, I can't write to a detailed plan, I have to put words on the page and see what happens. By the end of the chapter, my protagonist was firmly established in my mind. That usually doesn't happen, the character tends to evolve in the first draft. But Alec Wainwright was there, in my head, smirking at me. I knew what he was like, he wasn't very nice either, not someone with whom the audience would sympathise. I re-read the chapter, really excited by how it worked and realising that the story had to explore why he was like that. Something needed to happen at the end to redeem this man and that was what the story would be about. I started the second chapter by going back to his childhood where the damage began. One of the biggest differences I found in changing genres was the difference in structure. Fantasy stories need a huge climax, the ultimate battle between good and evil. I knew that couldn't happen in this story but there had to be a climax of some kind. I built up to it, as you do, pleased with how I'd created a moment of high drama. Then I gave the first draft to my wife to read. She loved the story. Until the end. "Contemporary fiction doesn't need that kind of drama. It's quieter, cerebral, emotional, entirely dependent on character." I read a few stories and found endings to be about disclosures of secrets, resolution of disputes, redemption of wrong deeds. So I reworked the structure, played down the climax so it was an event but prompted further consequences for my protagonist. I also realised that I needed an explanation for his behaviour and found an answer by researching mental illness. That information helped me rework the whole story, it permeated his conduct and his thought processes. It provided a wonderful plot twist too. My wife's role in the development of the book has to be proclaimed here. She agreed to be my editor. She has an editor's eye, it's an instinctive thing. After completing the final draft we worked on the book together and tweaked and refined it until we were both happy with the result. That's been one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. She chose the cover design too. Write Off has been a joy to write. Every other book I've written has taken an age, continental drift is speedier. Yet this one was completed in under eight months and I enjoyed every moment. I'm in the process of preparing my next fantasy novel for my editor (not my wife this time!). I'm aiming to publish it by the end of the summer. It has had a painful birth! I've worked on them both simultaneously, which is what I imagine schizophrenia must be like. That said, it's been refreshing and I recommend the process. When I got stuck with one story I shifted across to the other. If you read up on ways to improve your creativity, this is one successful answer. My conclusion is this: swapping genres can be a wonderful writing exercise which revitalises the creative process. It forces you to rethink how you write, which in turn gets you out of those ruts you didn't know you were in. I shall definitely write another story in the contemporary fiction genre, it's keeping me fresh and mentally more open-minded. Go on! Try it! I dare you! Write Off is available from Amazon here.

The Benefits of Exploring Characters

The Benefits of Exploring Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” I love this quote from Ray Bradbury. It focuses on two things; firstly it answers the age-old question - what comes first - plot or character? Secondly, it emphasizes the concept of pursuing a character, not knowing where s/he will lead you. That's what this post is about, letting the characters in your work-in-progress dictate the journey. I started work on my latest story this week. It has been percolating in my head for a while, at least the characters have. An estranged couple who may (or may not!) care for each other despite everything that has happened to them. I'm three chapters in and starting to hear their voices. This part of the process is the most exciting for me. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take me. It got me thinking about how other authors treat this topic. Here are some insights. “A character has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure what he’s supposed to be doing.” Anthony Burgess appears to approach the writing process in the same way, except his perameters are time-related rather than distance travelled. I like that because it often helps to explore the character with the benefit of a time machine. For instance, I like to write diary entries of a character, describing events which may or may not appear in the story, they fill in the details and give a clearer picture. If you're not sure how to leave your character at the end, how about moving forward in time to look at what happens after you leave them. Do they live happy ever after or do problems remain? Ones they may be more adept at handling as a result of what has happened in the story. Their uncertainty about the present is crucial, it generates tension, introduces risk, because we (the character, the reader and the author) don't know what is the right thing for them to do. The author's one advantage in this situation? If the character makes the wrong decision, you scrap the decisive event and rewrite that part of the story - you are the master of time! “Don’t write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story.” I subscribe to this view from Ethan Canin, best selling author and teacher, because I believe my acting training kicks in here, I can't help but do this. As I write, I immerse myself in that person, a rather schizophrenic approach to writing I appreciate not everyone will want to do. As an actor you explore the role, you examine the character's motivation in order to better understand why you speak and behave as you do. I'm consider how the character will use their body, in any dialogue especially, why they sit when they do, what mannerisms they possess. As an actor you also need to consider the background of the role too - back to Burgess' practices here. The main thing to remember is, as an actor, your adoption of the role requires you to appreciate how to communicate it effectively to your audience, in this case, the reader. I will often edit out stuff after the story is complete, because I've established certain gestures, body language, speech patterns - it helps to include them in the first draft so I can get to grips with the person. “Storytelling is an act of cruelty. We are cruel to our characters because to be kind is to invite boredom.” I've seen a couple of writers on Twitter reference this idea, this quote is from Chuck Wendig. I've included it here to emphasize Chuck's point that a character's suffering is what engages the reader. We're more likely to care for someone if we see their pain, we trust the writer will provide an end to it, at some point and we want to know how that will come about. This isn't a question of rampant sadism though, it means exploring the character to find the right kind of pain and knowing how much of it to apply. (A statement which conjures up Laurence Oliver's dentist in Marathon Man as he tortures Dustin Hoffman. Urgh!) “The more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.” The sign of a good writer, for me, is someone who pays attention to this rule from Donald Maas, literary agent and writer. To return to my acting metaphor, it's like performing against bad actors. They give you little to react against, the "bounce off". Good actors will deliver a line or create a bit of stage business, which requires you to react to it. For instance, if one person turns their back on you as you deliver your line, that requires a reaction from you. You may want to provoke them into doing something to get their attention. The weak actor will stand there and say the line, it's performance in a vacuum. Secondary characters offer this provocation all the time and, if they are clear to you in this way, it forces you to think about each character's reaction. It doesn't need a lot of extra writing your editor will cross out with their red pen either! Simply adding, "Don't turn your back on me!" and you've got the reaction. It generates conflict naturally, but you need that character's depth in the first place. Think of all your characters as a cast, with actors playing the roles. “Good dialogue comes from character development. The better you know your character, the more specific the dialogue will feel.” This advice from Chris McCoy, screenwriter and novelist, follows on naturally from my previous point. In a first draft, I can linger on a line of dialogue for some time as I work out what the character is trying to say. In some instances I know they'd say something at that point, there is provocation there, staring them in the face. Finding the right words, getting rhythms right, including any speech patterns that person has, generating the right syntax - all these things need to be considered. I tend to write their response and let the conversation develop for a while and then review it. Does it sound right? Is the conversation taking these people in the direction it needs to go? (If it has a direction! It might not, these may be people who don't say what they mean!) Often, I'll rework the dialogue, tweak it till it works. Other times I'll delete it and start again. The exercise is useful, it's helping you find that character every time you do this. “It begins with a character, all I can do is trot along behind him trying to put down what he says and does.” I'm going to conclude with this statement from William Faulkner, it reinforces Bradbury's quote at the start and rounds off the post rather neatly. You know you're on the right lines with a concept when you have two such brilliant writers making the exact same point! I'd like to emphasize why I enjoy this process. Sure, it is time consuming. For people who plan their stories in carefully crafted detail, this process may sound ridiculous. For me, I think it comes back to my training as an actor - it brings the satisfaction of finding a character, developing it until that person is ready to meet its audience. I think it's why I always enjoyed improvisation more than acting. (Plus, I was lousy at remembering lines!) As a writer, I've come to realise it's the same thing but in a different medium. The crucial thing is to enjoy the exploration process, never leap ahead of your character when it looks like you know where they're going. Enjoy the journey, it can be as satisfying as arriving at the destination. I hope my post helps you to explore the characters in your WIP and to get some satisfaction from the process.

Who'd be a writer?

Who'd be a writer?

Startling news, just in! I have completed my fantasy novel, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim. At least, I think so. Yesterday I told my wife, as I beamed with joy and satisfaction at the news. In the wee small hours of this morning, I was already having doubts. I kept waking up with reservations and questions which I couldn't dismiss, no matter how hard I tried. And I speak as someone who usually sleeps like the proverbial log, in fact I trained the log how to sleep. My lack of sleep illustrates the scale of my neurosis. Yes, it was that bad. Some background on this situation. The Valkyrie of Vanaheim has been gestating for two and a half years. Elephants give birth faster. It has appeared in a couple of different iterations, never quite working. Much of that time, those two and a half years, was spent with the book on the back burner while I tried to find solutions to its problems. Almost a year ago, I was two chapters away from finishing it. Yeah, two chapters. I took the decision to give up on the story because no matter what I tried, the ending wouldn't work. It was a big step, to abandon all that work. Of course, you don't abandon it completely. You re-use some of it. Eventually, I concluded the problem lay with the main character. I tweaked her slightly in a couple of areas and suddenly there she was, I'd found her. Writing her story became clearer, easier too. The climactic battle finally worked because of those changes and the relationships forged as a consequence. Writing the book has, for the most part, been enjoyable. It brought satisfaction of a need which exists deep inside my psyche. Hence the title of this piece, Who'd Be A Writer? Because we may enjoy the writing process but it is one filled with masochistic torture. We struggle to create something which we can hold up and say we think is good enough to share with other people. With luck our readers may even enjoy the story and share their enthusiasm with others. If the writing gods so wish, the book might even sell quite well. And, if the stars align correctly, an agent might even want to represent you because it 'fits their list'. These are the benefits, as aspiring writers we consider ourselves lucky if even one of them happens. The drawbacks are found in the torture chamber of self-doubt. Once the thing is finished, we ask ourselves - is it really? We generate our mental lists of the things we should have done, find the mistakes we made, reconsider all the decisions we took on the road to writing the words THE END. And, as if that isn't bad enough, we give the book to our beta readers. There begins a second level of torture as we wait and imagine what responses will arrive in our In box. Beta readers have to be honest, of course they do, but steeling your loins to cope with the feedback is tough. Mainly because you say to yourself, "Why didn't I realise that?" Anyone else find their response to a compliment is, "They're just being polite." All of this leads me to this observation. Writers need to be treated like your pet cat or dog. We need to be stroked and petted every so often. My previous novel, currently out for submission and getting polite rejections, is contemporary fiction. My wife challenged me to write it. She dislikes speculative fiction big time and doesn't read my other stuff for this reason. That's fair enough. One day last year, during Lockdown, she cursed fluently about the lack of quality fiction available on her Kindle. "Why don't you write something in this genre?" she challenged. So I did. She's now read the novel twice. The second time she still giggled in the right places. Her verdict? The best book she'd read in years. Now, before you say, "She's your wife, she has to say that!" let me point out that if you think that, you have NOT met my wife. She has the eye of a natural born editor. She has very high standards. She does not suffer fools gladly. At all. She is, I'm pleased to say, my fiercest critic. For this reason, when she tells me I shouldn't doubt myself, for a while, I believe her. Hence the reference to stroking the cat or dog. Writers need regular reassurance from a voice of reason that we value and can validate us. I'm not talking a quick pat on the head and "Of course you can write!" either. We need some scaffolding of informed analysis to support our neuroses. These are the people who genuinely deserve mentions in the Dedication and Acknowledgement pages when your story is published. Without these people - how would we survive? I repeat, who'd be a writer?

Meet Justine Bergman - book blogger

Meet Justine Bergman - book blogger

In the first of a series, I approached Justine to tell us about why she blogs about books. People who read, review and blog about books are the lifeblood of the writing industry. How else would we discover new authors and discover material that matches our tastes? It's a massive obligation, not just in terms of time and effort but the responsibility of managing the comments that go into the review. So why do it? Here's Justine to tell you. It's not very often reviewers and bloggers are asked to discuss the whats and whys of writing reviews. As I sat down to write this, I found it was quite difficult to answer the questions Phil proposed when he initially reached out about this feature. Much easier to write about someone else's work than your own, I guess. Let's give it a go! My love of reviewing books sparked a few years ago when I became involved in the Self-Published community on Twitter. Prior to that I was a serial rater and maaaybe a this-book-is-fantastic-you-should-read-it kind of gal. I remember turning the final page of the book I was reading and spotting “If you enjoyed this story, considering leaving a review. Every bit helps,” and I immediately thought, I CAN DO THAT! So…I did. And I haven’t stopped since. Reviews are integral in the lifecycle of a book, and being able to take part by not only gushing about a great story, but also providing constructive criticism for authors is what makes being a reviewer so great. I’ve heard the argument that reviews are for readers, not authors. I’ve heard the argument that reviews are for authors, not readers. I’m a firm believer in reviews being for both. Other than taking a chance on a book based on its cover (I don’t care what anyone says, we all judge a book by its cover) and blurb, potential readers may scan a few reviews to see if that book is for them. On the other hand, if an author is passionate about the craft of writing, they should always strive to strengthen their skillset. Comprehensive reviews can help them pinpoint where they need a bit of work, all while (hopefully) getting some praise along the way. Side note: I don’t believe in combative, fully negative reviews whatsoever, unless there’s legitimate cause (the content is completely offensive, the author shows no pride in their work, etc.). I personally don’t finish books that I don’t mesh well with, because reading is meant to bring joy, and life is far too short to add yet another item to the list of things we have to unwillingly force ourselves through. Back on track, Justine. So, why do I blog? The best part of blogging is that instance where that one person reaches out telling you they loved a book you’ve recommended. I adore this. I adore this more than I could possibly express. I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those overly enthusiastic gift givers, and hearing this is akin to giving a homemade gift that costs nothing but a little bit of love and time. And vice versa, really. If I learn about a book from a review I’ve read and end up loving it, I just want to give the reviewer a huge hug for introducing me to something wonderful. Another great aspect of blogging is meeting others in the community, both readers and writers alike. I’ve had a blast over the past few years (digitally) meeting some incredible people, and I’m always excited to meet more through a mutual love of books. I was a judge on the Fantasy Book Critic team for SPFBO5, and words can’t even express how amazing the sprawling community truly is. There are, however, a few uncomfortable cons to being a reviewer/blogger. There’s A LOT of pressure if you’re one that accepts review requests. When I first started Whispers & Wonder I couldn’t say no to these requests – I’m still trying to catch up. For those of you I’ve promised a review to who are reading this, I haven’t forgotten about you…I HAVE A LIST AND I NEED MORE HOURS IN THE DAY, PLEASE. And NetGalley? Let’s not even go there. *clears throat* Other than that, and this is a very rare occurrence, it is utterly awkward when an author feels the need to contact me (publicly or privately) defensively questioning points I’ve made in my reviews. This is bad. Don’t do this. It’s a surefire way to ensure I’ll never read another word you ever write – and I’m not afraid to let other readers know so, as well. My reviews are my space, and I’ll write whatever the hell I please. That is all. Onto what I enjoy and what keeps me engaged in reading and reviewing. I consider myself a dark fantasy enthusiast. I love dark, violent, tragic stories, and I believe Lee C Conley can even quote me challenging him “the darker, the better” (which I like to believe he took to heart, then absolutely killed it with A Ritual of Flesh). Give me ALL the dark fantasy books. I love books that push me to delve deep into ethical and philosophical debates. I’m an academic at heart, and I always appreciate questioning the things I believe I know. Change my mind, I welcome your attempt with open arms. I love complex stories and characters. Sure, straightforward narratives are great, but I cherish those moments after closing a book, staring off into the middle ground, and whispering “what the f*ck did I just read?” – Luke Tarzian is a pro at making me do this. All of these things keep me going. I do enjoy simple palate cleansers every once in a while, but I generally crave complexity. If an author makes me think, then I’ll have so much to say in my reviews – it may be nonsensical brain spew, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Storytelling is an art, and just as one would view and study a painting, written word deserves the same respect. And it also helps when authors get involved/respond, even if it’s just so I can let them know how much I appreciate what they’ve shared with the world. And finally – don’t know how so many words appeared on this page – the books that have had the largest impact on me while I’ve been blogging. In no particular order, these are some of my favorites over the past couple years. Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions: This series opened my eyes to what the Grimdark fantasy subgenre really has to offer. These books are vile and visceral, yet so thoroughly intriguing. Plunging deep into base human instincts with focus on mental illness, Fletcher pulls no punches here. It’ll undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The Song of the Ash Tree by T L Greylock – A Norse-inspired epic fantasy series that portrays some of my favorite characters ever created. The story is stunning, perfectly plotted, and so full of heartrending emotion…whenever I read a story that falls into the same subgenre, it always pales in comparison to this. I love this series to pieces. The World Maker Parable by Luke Tarzian – As with his dark/surreal fantasy debut, Vultures, The World Maker Parable is a book that blew my mind. Tarzian’s craft is flawless and highly imaginative, and he refuses to adhere to the “rules”, which is something I’ll always admire. His ability to gift his non-human characters with such tragic humanity is breathtaking. Gah, I need more. Ok, I think I’ve talked your ear off enough here. Go pick up a book, and if you enjoy it, let the world know about it. There are tons of people out there that are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Happy Reading! Want to find out more about Justine? Look no further... Web developer by trade, book blogger by passion. I have an insatiable hunger for stories that will transport me to other worlds, all from the comfort of my living room. In my scant free time, I enjoy building things of questionable robustness, dabbling in photography, and gaming while fueled by copious amounts of strong coffee. Always on the hunt for those hidden gems. Website: https://www.whispersandwonder.com Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/__its_justine__ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/whispersandwonder Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/its_justine Justine is also half of the partnership behind the brilliant Storytellers On Tour that help showcase the work of writers with new books coming on to the market. I feature my contributions on this site. Website: https://storytellersontour.online Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/sot_tours Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sot_tours I'm immensely grateful to Justine for taking time out to write this post. So much of what she said resonates with me. I agree with her about the value of the writing community, it is full of great people, bloggers and authors alike. It is supportive and encouraging, essential qualities when you're in the lonely business of writing! I also found myself agreeing with Justin's point about art and writing being similar, the more there is to analyse in a story, the better as far as I'm concerned. Please visit Justine's blog to read her reviews, she is insightful, honest and fair. Likewise look out for Storytellers on Tour! And if you blog/review, why not sign up to join the tour?

William Ray on World Building

William Ray on World Building

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of William Ray's Verin Empire series. His stories are always exciting and filled with engaging, credible characters but it's his world building which impresses me the most. It's tough enough to create a world which is defined in one genre but William goes way beyond that. He blends genres so that his world has twin perspectives. And, as if that isn't enough, his three stories (including his soon-to-be-released Shadow Debt) each have different fantasy settings. Gedlund's world is set in different war zones, one with goblins and the undead primarily. The Great Resoration is set in the same world, the Verin Empire, but this time on the 'frontier', a land once populated by Elves. In Shadow Debt, we travel even further into the wilderness of this world, into the Wild West, cowboy country. A place so vivid you expect John Wayne to turn up. In my discussions with William, I asked him how he went about creating such a vivid and diverse world when it needed to serve so many different purposes. The result is this article. A world is a big thing to build. No mere mortal could hold the entirety of our world in their mind, nor even build a library sufficient enough to hold all that detail for them. There are innumerable guides to world-building, but my advice on the subject essentially devolves into two main points. Firstly, as Frederick Pohl once said, good science-fiction predicts not the automobile but the traffic jam, and I think that perfectly encapsulates the difficulty faced in creative world-building for both science-fiction and fantasy. A fantasy world might resemble medieval Europe, but it has crystal balls and fire-breathing dragons, and a big part of making the world feel real is showing how those things have impact beyond their immediate use in the plot. In striving for that, you should never waste time on work someone else has already done: there’s a whole world right here, whose details you can sift through to fill in every spare corner of yours. Mark Twain explained that history never repeats, but often rhymes, so in your world-building find history that rhymes and borrow the details. History can’t tell you how people respond to crystal balls, but it can show you how they reacted to crystal radio. The Great War showed how we might respond to flying, fire-breathing monsters. Even looking into the future, while history can’t tell you the impact of a teleporter, there is plenty to learn from changes wrought by the telegraph. The danger in drawing from history is that history seldom lists the usual moments, and is instead an accounting of the oddities. History tends to talk about the progress created by new innovations, but nothing tells you more about how something really felt than observing what people complained about. To get the proper feel for it, you need to look in dusty corners. Newspapers can be good, as can period guidebooks and contemporary novels. Court cases are another great way to suss out what people were really concerned with in their day-to-day lives. Nothing makes a world feel more real than unexpected inconveniences – sure, flying around on dragons is great, but the poop! And the smell! And farmers complain that they startle the livestock, causing a general shortage of eggs and butter, making the price of bread skyrocket! Newspapers and lawsuits can help you find all sorts of unexpected inconveniences. And always remember that our world is so full of contradictions that it’s often said we can only recognize its rules by observing their exceptions. Let things be messy. Secondly, when it comes to fantasy world building, perhaps the most important thing for an author to remember is whose perspective is describing that world to the reader. This lesson was driven home to me in a college role-playing game. As a player arrived at a location, our Game Master would describe it to them, who was there, what they were doing, and so on. The second player got a different description of the same location, because they interpreted that same room in a different way. The GM gave four very different descriptions of the room before my turn, and I was near breathless in anticipation of hearing how it would seem to me. The interesting part of any world is not what is there, but how we perceive what is there; think through what each character, including the narrator, perceives, and how those perceptions differ. The trick to writing a good story in what feels like a believable world is to always remember that, unlike reality, the perception offered up through the narrator is more firmly set than the world that offers it. Don’t overbuild your imaginary world up front – instead, create details as they’re needed. Let the world grow from the story. Science may be forced to take a fixed world and work through a myriad of descriptions to figure out what is real, but creative fiction does the opposite, taking descriptions necessary to the story and changing the world’s underlying reality to match it! The biggest key that I’ve found to maintain that flexibility is the use of error. Force your characters, particularly whoever provides your story’s point of view, to be wrong. Maybe they are mistaken, or maybe they just lie, but either way establish early on that their expectations and perceptions are not definitive. It doesn’t need to be anything major, but an innocent mistake or a transparent deception will set the audience’s expectations. If errors have been in the narration, a sudden change becomes a twist of expectations rather than an inconsistency, but more importantly, the underpinnings of that change also allow you fill in all sorts of details about your characters, your world, and their perceptions of it. A character being wrong also allows you exposition through error. If the character thinks all ogres are evil, and is told they are not, that lets you explain not just about ogres, but also what the world at large thinks of them, and what your character thinks, and how they react to the new information. That mismatch of character expectations allows you to construct the world through the clash of their perceptions. Another often overlooked aspect of perspective is the horizon. Always show a day-to-day world that extends beyond what your narrator sees. This is critical for avoiding the sensation that the world is just set-dressing. If you only show me foreground elements that are important to the story, various Chekov’s guns hung in orderly rows, then I can’t guess what it would be like to be a farmer, or a grocer, or somesuch living in your world, and it won’t feel like a real place. Always remember that a character’s perspective isn’t just what they see, but what lurks in the corner of their eye. And that is how to build an entire world. Maybe there’s more to it, but I only get the space of a thousand words, and even the good Lord took a full week of words to make it happen! I'm very grateful to William Ray for this article. It's given me lots of think about, particularly because he's dealt with both the macro and micro levels of world building. Plus, the idea of 'borrowing', using inspiration from newspapers, guidebooks and the like is a clever way to get credible ideas. Letting characters make mistakes too, I can make excuses to my editor with that one! You can find all of William Ray's Verin Empire series here. I highly recommend them!

Recommendations for Santa sack 5

Recommendations for Santa sack 5

Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the final collection in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from Patrick Samphire Patrick Samphire decided that he was going to be a writer when his English teacher said he could skip lessons to work on a book. In the intervening years, he has avoided many other responsibilities in order to write. He has published about twenty short stories in various magazines and anthologies, as well as two middle grade novels. His first fantasy novel is SHADOW OF A DEAD GOD, which is out now. When he’s not writing, he designs websites and book covers. Website: https://patricksamphire.com Newsletter: https://patricksamphire.com/newsletter Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/patricksamphireauthor Twitter: https://twitter.com/patricksamphire Blade’s Edge by Virginia McClain This is a fascinating Japanese-inspired fantasy novel. Set in a world where girls are forbidden from having elemental powers, it follows two girls, Mishi and Taka, whose possession of such powers puts their existence in peril. There are horrifying secrets, plots, and peril in the story, as there are in any good epic fantasy. McClain is a highly compelling writer, and the world she describes is rich, believable, and well-researched. A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree I don’t read a great deal of historical fantasy, but I’m very glad I picked this one up. Set in the time of the first crusade, it follows three characters, a Syrian boy, thrown forward in time almost 500 years and desperate to get back, a Turkish girl determined to get revenge against a mysterious Christian order who murdered her father, and a Frankish count leading one of the crusading armies. Despite it being a historical fantasy, the closest comparison I could come up with is George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in terms of the mix of personal stories with politics, betrayal, and war. I don’t know enough about the period to say how much is historical and how much is fantasy, but it certainly felt authentic. The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky I doubt I’ll be the only person recommending this science fiction thriller by one of the UK’s most versatile and interesting SFF authors. Mixing conspiracy theory, spy thriller, and speculative evolution, The Doors of Eden is another imaginative triumph that moves along at a brisk pace. Branching universes, a non-linear climax, and well-rounded characters kept the story moving and gripping. If you’ve read Tchaikovsky’s science fiction before, you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t, this is an excellent place to start. Recommendations from Virginia McClain Virginia McClain writes epic and urban fantasy novels featuring badass women. Not just sword-wielding, magic-flinging, ass kickers (although, yes, them too) but also healers, political leaders, caregivers, and more. She writes epic fantasy inspired by feudal Japan, and humorous urban fantasy inspired by the unanswered mysteries of science. Twitter: http://twitter.com/gwendamned Facebook: http://facebook.com/virginiamcclainauthor Instagram: http://instagram.com/virginiamcclainwritesfantasy Bibliography: https://virginiamcclain.blogspot.com/p/books.html Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse Epic fantasy at its finest. Expansive world building, intriguing characters, and a story that will make you desperate for the next installment. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir Lesbian space necromancers. Do you need to know anything more? Fine. Murder mystery, haunted house, and slow burn romance between brawny warrior and brilliant mage is somehow also all in this book. The Bone Ships by RJ Barker Take Horatio Hornblower, drop him into a world far harsher than England in the Napoleonic wars, throw in some giant sea dragons, a fascinating matriarchy, and a captain to rival Sir Edward Pellew and you’ll have just the barest inkling of what The Bone Ships is all about. Only, it’s better than all that. Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater I laughed. I cried. I cheered. I’m not entirely certain what I was expecting when I picked up Half a Soul back in August, but I don’t think I was expecting it to turn into one of my all time favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended if you need a comforting read (and in 2020 who doesn’t?). The characters are delightful and the banter as witty as you could want. Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher T. Kingfisher has created one of my all-time favorite fantasy worlds with this series (a duology with a few barely connected standalones), and I am honestly mad at the world for not having put these books in front of me sooner. There are troubled Paladins, there are talking badgers, there’s a stone cold killer with an attitude, and there is an entire religious sect dedicated to giving solid legal advice. Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall Burke This brilliant SPFBO5 finalist made me like horror, and I hate horror. Alternating POVs take us through gripping plots on opposite sides of a beautifully crafted, darkly magical world. And, as a bonus, there is one very stabby scene that actually had me jumping out of my chair to cheer for a minute. You won’t want to miss this one. Recommendations from Jamie Richardson Jamie Richardson is a psychiatrist from Leeds who has been writing in his spare time since he was a teenager. A fan of fantasy and dystopian fiction, his work tends towards exploring the darker side of the human condition. His debut novel Free City is set in a world where automation is on the rise, poverty is rife and there is a killer on the loose. When he is not working or writing, he enjoys travelling with his wife, both at home and abroad, and with a daft dog in the house, they are always kept on their toes. Blog/Self-Indulgent Twaddle; http://twaddle.blog Facebook; https://facebook.com/jamierauthor Twitter; https://twitter.com/jamierauthor Instagram; https://instagram.com/jamierauthor The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua Yes it is a graphic novel. Yes it is heavy on the maths and computer science (and footnotes). But it is also extremely funny, entertaining, enlightening and informative. Telling both the real and imagined lives of the founders of computer science with a heavy steampunk vibe, Padua manages to weave what could be a rather dry story into an intriguing book which I read from cover to cover in just two sittings. If you loves maths and computers this is the book for you. If you hate maths and computers, this is still the book for you. Fen by Daisy Johnson Have you ever considered your house might be in love with you? No, me neither, but Johnson clearly has. Her short story collection is bizarre and magical and gripping. Exploring some of the exciting milestones of people’s lives through a prism of darkness and magic, the characters are instantly relatable, even when the situations are far from it. If you are new to short story collects or a seasoned pro, Fen is a lovely little book of weirdness to get your teeth into. Notes from Small Planets by Nate Crowley To complete my not-a-typical-novel trio, I offer you a travel guide. But not just any travel guide, a travel guide to those speculative worlds which will be at once familiar and exotic. In short, Notes from small planets is brilliant. Coming from an obvious love for speculative fiction, Crowley takes a reverent jab at the tropes and fictional worlds we all hold dear. The attention to detail and research which must have gone into this book is phenomenal, which just adds to the joy as you skip from world to world as you might country to country here on Earth. This is the book I wish I had written, and should certainly have a place under the Christmas tree this year for you, with additional copies for every single member of the family and all of your friends to boot. Recommendations from Jacob Sannox Jacob Sannox is a 36 year old writer from the sunny climes of Bedfordshire, England. He is the author of a dark epic fantasy series, The Dark Oak Chronicles. Book one, Dark Oak, is currently available and book two, Age of the Dryad, will be released shortly. He has also released The Ravenmaster’s Revenge and Agravain’s Escape, both part of his Arthurian fantasy series, The Return of King Arthur. Follow the legendary king and his knights from the 5th century into the 21st century. You can find out more at www.jacobsannox.com Instagram: @jacobsannoxwriter Twitter: @jacobsannox Facebook: facebook.com/jacobsannox Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike I fell into this book and felt instantly content on arrival. Although Orconomics is a satire and highly amusing, it is moving too, with a sense of jeopardy. Very cleverly written, in a world combining D&D with economic theory. I fell in love with the adventuring party and the world they explore. The second book, Son of a Liche, is also a must read! Paternus: Rise of Gods by Dyrk Ashton Man, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go, hauling you spluttering through a version of our own world, populated by every god you’ve ever heard of and plenty that you haven’t. Meticulously researched and cannily put together, Rise of Gods will make you laugh, cry and stare into the void, wishing you had written it yourself. I’m on book three of the trilogy now. Keep reading. Never Die by Rob J. Hayes Never Die is an Eastern-inspired fantasy novel with a fascinating premise; an 8 year old given a mission by the god of death puts together a band of heroes to achieve his goal, but to serve him, first they must die. You meet them one by one as you progress through the book. Their individual stories are compelling and the relationships between them are convincing. Never Die felt like a legend passed down through the centuries. I was enthralled from beginning to end. Many thanks to Patrick, Virgina, Jamie and Jacob for their recommendations. Hopefully they (and the others in previous collections) have introduced you to some great books, ones you may not have known about. I'd also recommend checking out the books of these good folk because they are all awesome writers!

Writing ghost stories for a younger audience by A. Lawrence

Writing ghost stories for a younger audience by A. Lawrence

As part of the Grave Reflection book tour, I invited its author, A Lawrence to write a ghost post for The Speculative Faction. Grave Reflection is a story I'm sure lots of kids will enjoy because it's fast-paced, full of engaging and relateable characters who find themselves trapped in places where ghosts are the ones in control. I asked the author to tell me what a writer of that genre had to keep in mind when it came to ghost stories. Here's what they said: Ghosts. What are they? The souls of people who have died? Some remnant of a person’s psyche imprinted on the world? Bad wiring causing hallucinations? Entire industries have been built on proving that ghosts are real. Skeptic or believer, almost everyone enjoys a good ghost story. When writing ghosts for a younger audience, the first thing you have to decide is your genre. Paranormal/supernatural, horror, romance, mystery, or maybe a mixture. That will determine your tone and what kinds of ghosts you’re writing and how far you can push things. Once you know what kind of ghosts you’re writing, you have to decide: are the ghosts in this world real, or could they be a figment of the characters’ imagination? Is it ambivalent? Is it just a twist of the character’s mind - something else taking form from some past trauma or to explain something happening in their life? Everyone is haunted by something, is it literal or figurative? If the ghosts aren’t real and that’s stated within the text, make sure to market appropriately. When I pick up a book about ghosts, I want there to be actual ghosts. Anything else, even if it’s interesting, is a bit of a let down and will color my perception of the book. If you do have real ghosts, how far can you go? What do teens (and older readers) expect out of their ghost stories these days? How can you scare them without taking things over a line? Honestly, there is no right answer. The line is imaginary and constantly shifting, so it’s impossible to say. There are some tropes that should definitely be avoided, particularly harmful horror movie tropes (you probably know the ones: only the white characters live, the promiscuous character dies right away, etc. etc.). Make sure to research appropriately. Beta readers will always be invaluable, along with sensitivity readers at all stages. While I still stand by that, my advice is to push your ghosts to whatever limit you’ve set. What is actually going to scare kids is how the characters react, since they’re rooting for them and identifying with them. At the end of the day, horror and what scares us is entirely subjective. This makes writing ghost stories hard, but rewarding. As long as the right amount of dramatic tension is built up, usually you’ll have a pretty good story to work with, whether it’s scary or you just want someone to smooch a ghost. The most important thing is to have fun. oooOooo I enjoyed reading this book, primarily because the characters are vivid and kids will connect with them. Any writer knows how important that is! This graphic is a lovely insight into the characters, who successfully avoid the usual tropes and stereotypes (therefore another reason for this book being a hit!) Here's more details about the story of Grave Reflection: Another Friday night, another trip through a potentially haunted house. Shay’s not a believer, but she’s willing to help her best friend, Max, with their amateur ghost hunting show. Little does she know she is about to be thrown into a world of witches and dangerous spirits. With newly discovered abilities, Shay finds that she can both see and touch spirits. The downside is, the ghosts can touch her back, and it seems that they’ll do anything to get a hold of her. She was never much of a ghost hunter. How will she do when she is the one being hunted? Grave Reflection is the first book of Ghost Punch, an exciting paranormal series full of mystery and action! Links: Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55282862-grave-reflection Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DXNZFG8 Website: https://alawrenceauthor.wixsite.com/authorpage Twitter: https://twitter.com/sharp_deer You can visit the Grave Reflection book tour at the locations of my fellow book bloggers! Stop by and say hello to them! You'll find they have lots more great reviews to read! Many thanks to A. Lawrence and Storytellers on Tour for their involvement in this post.

Recommendations for Santa sack 4

Recommendations for Santa sack 4

Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the fourth in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from G.D. Penman G.D. Penman is fulfilling his destiny as a fat, bearded man by writing bestselling fantasy novels and smoking a pipe. He lives in Dundee, Scotland with his wife, children, dog and cats. Just… so many cats. www.gdpenman.com www.twitter.com/gdpenman www.facebook.com/gdpenman God of Gnomes by Demi Harper While I have not been particularly taken with many of the books that comprise LitRPG's offshoot subgenre of Dungeon Core; God Of Gnomes blended the rigid structure of a simulator game with the emotional impact of the best of literature. Carefully constructed and perfectly executed. Prosper's Demon by K J Parker Given what a bitch this year has been, just finding a book that could give me the energy necessary to go on reading has been difficult. Prosper's Demon was very much that book for me. A twisted tale of an exorcist and the demons he fights to expunge, with neither claiming any moral high ground. Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon High fantasy as a genre rarely holds my attention the way that its grimmer siblings do, but in this book Shannon created a modern counterpart to the classics of the genre. The giant magic mongoose being the natural enemy of the serpentine dragons was the icing on the cake. Recommendations from Timy Timy, also known as Queen Terrible Timy hails from a magical land called Hungary, born and raised in its capital city, Budapest. Books have been her refuge and best friends ever since she can remember along with music. She might be a tiny bit addicted to the latter. Timy is the owner and editor of RockStarlit BookAsylum, a blog dedicated to books and music. She always tries to find ways to bring the two worlds together. Timy is also the co-owner/manager of Storytellers On Tour, a book tour organising service dedicated to indie SFF authors. In her free time (hah!) she likes to scribble things, collect panda stuff, go to concerts and travel. Website: https://starlitbook.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/starlitbook
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/starlitbook
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/starlitbook Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen I picked Bjørn Larssen’s debuting (historical fiction) novel, Storytellers, which had such a big impact on me that it basically inspired the name for Storytellers On Tour. „Storytellers is about personal demons, about the rougher side of life which isn't improved by the Icelandic weather. It's about people, about choices and the lies (stories) we tell ourselves. It's about a lot of things, really, and the more time you spend in Larssen's world the more it makes you think.” My full review: https://starlitbook.com/2020/02/20/storytellers-by-bjorn-larssen/ Los Nefilim by T. Frohock My second pick is Los Nefilim by T. Frohock, which I’ve read over the summer and which sealed my love for the series. Containing three novellas which tell a full story, Los Nefilim has a lot to offer if you are into historical fantasy, angels and daemons, a music based magic system, Spanish settings and great LGBTQ representation. „I honestly found myself smiling like an idiot whenever they [Diago and Miquel] interacted with each other or with Rafael. Like, damn, it's so nice to read about non-toxic relationships which are just a warming light in an otherwise dark-toned book.” My full review: https://starlitbook.com/2020/09/04/los-nefilim-by-t-frohock/ Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher My third pick is Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher, which also happens to be my SPFBO6 semi-finalist pick as well. It was a tough choice between many awesome books I’ve read, but eventually I went for this one because I just can’t stop thinking about it and I’ve read it twice in a short amount of time. „Black Stone Heart will make you uncomfortable, will make you question the actions of the characters but will never let you go. Do a favor to yourself and listen to the audiobook narrated by Fletcher himself. If you won't fall in love with his voice and wish he was reading everything to you from now on, then there is something wrong with you.” My full review (along with the others’ from my team): https://starlitbook.com/2020/10/08/spfbo-black-stone-heart-by-michael-r-fletcher/ Recommendations from Jamie Edmundson Jamie has always loved a good story, whether real or imagined. He grew up in the south of England before moving to the north, where he worked as a history teacher. He still lives there with his wonderful family, but now spends his time writing, mainly about people hitting each other with swords. Website: http://jamieedmundson.com/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JamieEdmundsonWriter/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamie_edmundson A Thief in Farshore by Justin Fike Quite YA in tone, short in length, with generic fantasy races – not my go to kind of book. At all. But Fike really won me over with an intriguing setting, an engaging main character and a well written, clean (i.e. error free) script. Delivers plenty of humour along the way too. Recommended reading for writers starting out – a pared back approach that doesn’t waste words and delivers what readers want. Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J Hayes Something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Essentially grimdark pirates, I felt this delivered on characters, setting and dialogue. By focusing down on a small part of his world, I felt the story avoided getting bogged down in fantasy tropes and this reduced scope/ low fantasy vibe made it feel like more of a unique story. Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan I enjoyed Blood Song, the first in this series, without really loving it. Stories set in schools don’t really get me going, nor do super powered mcs who take up all the focus of the story. Thus, going against the grain of most readers, I much preferred this second book in the series. A wider range of characters are followed, many of whom I found interesting. It is also more expansive in setting, as we are out in the wide world, with a complex plot and incredibly high stakes. Kudos to Ryan for taking his series in this direction. Many thanks to GD Penman, Timy and Jamie for their recommendations! There will be more of our friends making their suggestions very soon!

Recommendations for Santa sack 3

Recommendations for Santa sack 3

Looking for a book for someone special this Christmas? Not sure what to get them? We've asked some of our Speculative Faction friends to make some suggestions, hopefully they will present you with some great ideas! Why not check out their catalogue too? Here is the third in this series. (There are links in the title to take you to Amazon, if that helps.) Recommendations from Peter McLean Hi, I’m Peter Mclean. I’m the author of the fantasy gangster thrillers Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies, published by Jo Fletcher Books and Ace/Roc, and recently optioned for TV by Heyday Television. My first novels, the Burned Man series, are noir urban fantasy. I have also worked on game tie-in short fiction for various franchises including Warhammer. You can find me at https://talonwraith.com/ , https://twitter.com/PeteMC666 , and https://www.facebook.com/PeterMcLeanAuthor/ So, what have I been reading this year? Less that I would like, in all honesty, as I’ve been busy with deadlines and contracts and all that good stuff, but here are three books that really stood out for me recently. They weren’t all published in the last year, but they were new to me and I enjoyed them enormously. Rawblood by Catriona Ward This was hands down my favourite read of the year so far. An unholy blend of Thomas Hardy, Shirley Jackson, and The Wasp Factory, this is a masterpiece of gothic horror. It’s not easy, and you have to pay attention, but wow. That was seriously impressive stuff. Ironsheild by Edward Nile A, for me at least, very rare foray into self-published books. I was absolutely sucked in by the brilliant cover art, which is how I discovered this book in the first place. It could definitely do with another edit but the premise and the worldbuilding, the whole idea of huge Dieselpunk battlemechs duking it out in a World War One analogue setting, is so damn cool I can forgive it anything. This was an awful lot of fun. The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie This one is a bit of a cheat as I’m still reading it and haven’t actually finished yet, but I know it isn’t going to disappoint. This is Abercrombie at his best; violent, snarky, cynical, and utterly engrossing with brilliant characters. The total deconstruction of capitalism that began with A Little Hatred kicks it up another notch with this book, and the humour flows as freely as the blood. Truly a master at work. Recommendations from Patrick LeClerk Patrick LeClerc makes good use of his history degree by working as a paramedic for an ever- changing parade of ambulance companies in the Northern suburbs of Boston. When not writing he enjoys cooking, fencing and making witty, insightful remarks with career-limiting candor. In the lulls between runs on the ambulance --and sometimes the lulls between employment at various ambulance companies-- he writes fiction. Find out more about Patrick via: His site: http://www.inkandbourbon.com/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/PatrickLeCler17 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/inkandbourbon/ The Last Benediction in Steel by Kevin Wright Wright combines noir detective prose with grim fantasy and supernatural horror, and blends them into a seamless tapestry of riveting entertainment as only he can. Once again Luther Slythe Krait, knight in tarnished armor, his axe wielding pagan sidekick Karl and his pious brother Stephan must navigate a labyrinth of intrigue and betrayal to unmask an eldritch horror which stalks the land, preying upon it's subjects. Can he unearth the answer he seeks? And can he distinguish friend from foe among a rogue's gallery of unlikely allies and deadly enemies, each with their own hidden agendas and dark motives? The jury is still out on that, but he can certainly take the reader on a hell of ride trying. Psycho Hose Beast From Outer Space by CD Gallant-King This book is a lot of fun. Not surprising as I had previously read “Hell Comes toHogtown” and found it to be entertaining as hell. In fact, I would put him at the top of the list of Canadian horror humor authors, as soon as I find some more so I can actually make a list. The book is told mostly from the viewpoint of a small group of school ages friends, who are caught up in a potential apocalypse as an ancient evil from beyond the star is wakened from its slumber in the depths of the ocean. It would not be inaccurate to describe the book as “Stranger Things meets H P Lovecraft in 1990s Canada.” If that sounds like a lot of fun, well, it is. Like “Hell Comes to Hogtown,” the horror is solid, but I think the great strength of the book is the voice, the way Gallant-King really gets into the minds of his characters. The kids feel authentic, with all the baggage or adolescence as well as supernatural horror bearing down on them. River of Thieves by Clayton Snyder The characters are fun and well developed, and that is what carries the book. Told in the first person by Nenn, a veteran of the orphanage and the mills turned thief, who has taken up with Cord, a man with a curse and a mission. Cord is seemingly unkillable, returning to life after repeated "deaths" but each consecutive one seems harder and takes more out of him. His mission is to free the kingdom from the reign of callous and greedy nobles and the twisted magicians who support them. While Cord's goal might be laudable, his methods are...let's say reckless. Our heroes’ journey is filled with well written fights and escapes and trickery and magic, and leaves a trail of chaos in its wake. But that's not the point. The point is hanging out with Cord and Nenn and their friends and just basking in the banter. Seriously, if all they did was sail up the river and deliver pizza I'd read this book and love it. Recommendations from Steven McKinnon I’m a 34-year-old Glaswegian writer with four books to my name. Most of my work is within The Raincatcher’s Ballad, an epic fantasy series set in an industrialised world. The first novel, Symphony of the Wind, was selected as a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in 2018, and nominated for Booknest.eu’s Best Self-Published Fantasy the same year. I’m currently working on Book 3. Website address: www.stevenmckinnon.net Amazon page: http://author.to/AuthorPage Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14203634.Steven_McKinnon Twitter page: https://twitter.com/SHRMcKinnon Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/shrmckinnon Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stevenmckinnonauthor/ The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis The Guns Above is a secondary world military fantasy, kind of like Steampunk meets the Napoleonic wars. There’s no magic here, but it features airships battles, humour, and dialogue that bounces back and forth like a frantic game of table tennis. It’s not a grimdark story by any means, but the books I thought of the most while reading this were Joe Abercrombie’s First Law novels. Like that series, our protagonists include a tough, experienced war veteran who has a better instinct for war than the army’s inept and arrogant officers, and a preening, shallow fop who’s only interested in himself until he gets a taste of the real world. Archetypes we’ve seen before, but ones that possess a lot of potential to do something fresh with – which the author does. Spit and Song by Travis M. Riddle Spit and Song is a mesmerising fantasy buddy comedy set in a Jim Henson-esque wonderland, full of colourful (and all-too human) creatures. We follow trader Kali and musician Puk on their cross-world race for a mystical artifact, as they butt heads and make friends along the way (and one or two enemies with a vested interest in said artifact...). It's whimsical, yes, but it also deals with self-destructive impulses such as jealousy and imposter syndrome, and the things we do to tune that negativity out. Plenty of heart and humour makes it easy to rally behind the main characters. Maybe some of the conflicts were resolved a little too easily and conveniently for my tastes, rendering a couple of minor characters a little flat - but then, I'm someone who enjoys grimdark and feeling every visceral punch, slash and bite during action scenes, so take that criticism with a grain of salt. I look forward to stepping into this world again, and uncovering more of its charms and treasures. Priest of Bones by Peter McLean A solid, low fantasy that takes Peaky Blinders and Robin Hood and puts them through a stainless steel blender. We follow a host of good… Well, interesting characters newly returned from a gruelling war. Tomas Piety – army priest of Our Lady and leader of the Pious Men - is our eyes and ears in Ellinburg. His businesses have been taken away and his streets are no longer his. The war might be over, but accompanying Tomas on his mission to reclaim what he’s lost are his loyal second-in-command Bloody Anne, his hot-headed younger brother Jochan, and a host of other shady characters - including Billy the Boy, a young lad with a few tricks up his leave (and who provides our few glimpses at the magic that exists in this world). Tomas metes our harsh justice but also lends an ear when needed – he cares for the men and women under his command. Of course, it’s not long before he’s caught up in the wider machinations of Ellinburg’s ruling class and is dragged into warren of conspiracy, bloody action and gangland revenge, all so he can protect his home from the horrors of war – and maybe line his pockets along the way. Many thanks to Pete, Patrick and Steven for their recommendations! There will be more of our friends making their suggestions very soon!