YAWB: Invitations To The In-Crowd

The other day I was watching an episode of Celebrity The Chase (I know, I know, but I’m a student of all levels of culture, dontchya know) when something unexpectedly annoyed me. One of the contestants was Fern Britton. Lovely Fern. Presenter of Ready, Steady, Cook, and This Morning. And, as it transpires, novelist. When quizzed by the host Bradley Walsh on how she became a novelist, she replied, “well, I was asked.” It was then that I sat up and listened. Had my ears deceived me?

            No, it turns out she had indeed been asked, quite unexpectedly from her perspective, to write a handful of books for a major publisher. And much to my surprise, I found myself rather grumpy at this revelation.

            Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Fern Britton, and have no gripe with her at all. In fact, I particularly enjoy those Sunday morning shows where she interviews somebody in a manner that’s biographical and engaging, yet also unfussy and personable way. Very British, in fact.

            But when she said she’d been asked to write some novels, the righteous indignation in me came rushing to the surface. By her own admission she’d not had any previous experience as a novelist, but gave it a bash, and has so far had three top ten Sunday Times bestsellers.

            To me, this seemed a lot like giving invitations to people who were already at the party. Granted, now that I have a publishing deal I suppose I can claim to have squeezed past the ogre on the door and made my way to the queue for the cloakroom, but I still had to be subjected to the indignation and annoyance of having my shoes checked for their suitability for this particular establishment.

            Before my party metaphor gets any more raucous and gets itself barred from said establishment, I’d better get to the point. Innumerable people sacrifice so much at the foot of this weird altar that is storytelling in the hope of having somebody hear or read that story. They impose a great deal of heartache (and brainache) upon themselves to attain that privilege, so to not afford the opportunity to somebody – to a new voice who wants to become a writer and who is undertaking that great effort – in favour of somebody with virtually no writing experience but whose face is on the telly, seems slightly perverse.

             Again, it’s not Fern’s fault. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be invited by a major publisher to write a novel? The fact that she’s a known – and well-liked – face off the telly means she’s an obvious pick for a publisher looking for fresh, low-risk sales.

             In considering this little episode it’s made me realise – again – that publishing is a business. Sometimes harsh, and frequently unfair, but there it is. Facts of life. So many writers on that unforgiving, uphill treadmill will fall by the wayside if they can’t marry their artistic sensibilities with a bit of commercial hard-headedness. In many ways this links back to the post on Disappointment I put up a couple of weeks back. So while my initial reaction to the in-crowd invitation was a tad grumpy, the passage of a couple of days have mellowed it into one of considered gratitude, for reminding us that publishing isn’t all swank and art. It’s business. Embracing that might not be artful, but it might stave off disappointment and perhaps even stoke the fires of determination within your belly.

             And it’s appropriate that Fern was to appear on that particular show too, because all of us authors are on The Chase, really.

YAWB: Doubt

My last-but-one post was on disappointment, which is just one of the prongs of the industrial-sized pitchfork wielded by the angry mob consisting of publishers, reviewers, editors, agents, and our own muses. Disappointment doesn’t have to be all bad, though. At least you can counter it with a good attitude and a bit of professionalism.

Doubt is a different beast, a more tenacious foe, the Michael Myers of creative afflictions. We writers are a self-obsessive bunch. We spend our time creating things with (in the vast majority of cases) the intention of releasing them into the wild to be appraised, judged, and ultimately to try and survive, and are utterly terrified by the prospect of doing this process of being judged and found wanting.

Almost all my work, from short stories to novels, have precipitated mood swings accompanying their creation. At one point impenetrable braggadocio will reign as I convince myself I’ve crafted something objectively magnificent, and the next week I’ll look at the same work in progress and realise, beyond any refutation, that it is in fact utter bilge.

Five months ago, when I signed with Snowbooks, I spent a few glorious days informing friends and family of the good news that somebody somewhere had decided that I’d written something publishable. But then, days, weeks, even now, the doubts start to reappear. What if the fine folks at Snowbooks had and off day and made a mistake? What if Man O’War is the work of a charlatan? Perhaps I should just withdraw it save everybody the embarrassment of reading it…

In fact, at this very moment, I’m going through a dirge of doubt concerning my WIP (work in progress) novel, Satan In The Woods, after a fever of excitement about how good the concept was (after a beta read of the first couple of chapters, it turns out it might not have been the world-beating concept I thought it was) and now I’m considering walking away in favour of some other new projects that are tickling my muse buttons.

Bloody stupid, really. Dribbling between confident excitement and fits of eye-gouging terror of my own inadequacy isn’t a useful place to be. So if I finds myself in such a situation, I find it a good thing to remember that the truth lies somewhere in between. That’s the case with SITW – I’ll be sure to return to it when I think I can develop a better approach.

In fact, doubt can be quite a good thing, really. In small doses it can curb expectations (which in turn can prevent disappointment), keeps the ego in check, and encourages improvement, keeping complacency in check. However, if allowed to grow and fester it can crush ambition, and stifle the writing process completely.

So if you are doubting yourself, it ain’t no bad thing. Learn to harness it to improve your writing, and don’t listen to it overly. No one is as bad as they think. It’s the writers who don’t have the doubts who you want to watch out for. But that’s another story. So you can doubt. Just don’t stop.

Book Review: The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

The thought occurred to me the other day that Snowbooks acquired two new authors last year. Two, out of what was most likely hundreds or perhaps even thousands of submissions. And it tickles me unendingly that those two authors are me, and Bryan Wigmore.

To give that a bit of context, Bryan and I are both authors from the ever brilliant, and increasingly influential, SFF Chronicles community. In fact, we two are part of the small group of SFF Chrons members that meet in London for drinks and larks. So of all the possible new acquisitions Snowbooks could have made last year, they quite coincidentally went and picked two from the same group of mates.

I’m doubly pleased for Bryan, who has lovingly slaved over his debut novel, the dark, alternate-Edwardian fantasy that is The Goddess Project, for many years, and it absolutely deserves the recognition and pedigree of a launch with Snowbooks. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of it, and it was utterly marvellous. I took it with me on a work trip to Matera in southern Italy, and during a free afternoon I tore through the latter half of the book, with that ancient hilltop city as my backdrop and the Mediterranean Sun beating down overhead. It was a perfect afternoon.

There is beauty and magnificence in The Goddess Project. The prose is clean and crisp, the world is vivid and rich, and the characters are rounded, flawed and damaged. What’s more, the central hook – two youngsters, Orc and Cass, are washed up on a beach together with no memory of who they are; they have feelings towards one another but look alike, and are fearful of acting upon their feelings in case they are brother and sister – is such a brilliant and simple concept that I’m continually in awe of its simplicity. It can’t help but draw you in. And once you’re in, you’re in for good.

To recover their identities, Orc and Cass take to freediving to recover an artefact buried at sea, which may have the power to restore their memories. Yet they are not the only ones looking for this thing, and they are drawn into a conflict that threatens catastrophic levels of destruction.

Drawing on shamanistic, animath elements, as well as the raw, ethereal power of a collective psychosphere, against the stark, stoic drear of an Edwardian imperial naval power gives it a very potent, even faintly Lovecraftian “man versus nature” theme, but in truth the motifs and themes are more fluid than that: “man<>nature” would be more accurate. The book is so well grounded in its world that it feels more like magical realism than a fantasy. The best bit is, it’s the first part of a trilogy.

It’s a fabulous debut from yet another talented UK author, and I love it.

The Kindle edition is out already, but I’m waiting patiently for the paperback version to be delivered, as it deserves to be held. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and urge people to read it before it goes mainstream, and I’m sure that, at some point, it will.

YAWB: Disappointment

The other day I was directed to Emma Green’s blog about the constant stream of disappointments that one experiences as an author. Writerly angst is always in vogue among us creative types, isn’t it? Green’s experience sounds quite painful, but also, dare I say it, rather naïve.


That might make me seem rather heartless, and I do sympathise with Emma – this is a hard slog and requires a tough hide at times – but at the same time I think one has to approach this writing and publishing stuff with one’s eyes wide open. Satisfying our artistic and creative impulses is important – even necessary – to us humans, but if imagining that being an Author will be the defining characteristic of your life, a transformative panacea that will slake your intellectual thirst while providing financial independence, then you’re bound to be, as this lady is, disappointed at every turn. That’s not a healthy place to be. In every walk of life we’re sold perfection as an attainable quality, a thing that you can get, like milk or bread, or a car or a trinket from a souk. So it is with being an Author, to the point that authorial status is bestowed almost mystical qualities by those aspiring to get there, when in fact it’s just a job, but one where the pool of interviewees stretches to hundreds of thousands of people, and a only a few available spots (at least, that’s how it looks with the traditional publishing model).

But the flip side of the perfection coin is at best disappointment and disenchantment, and at worst ingratitude at what you have and entitlement towards that which you do not. A sense that you don’t measure up if you don’t have X or Y. Don’t have a publishing contract? Not good enough. Oh, you do have a contract, but no awards? Sorry, not much of an author, are you? Oh, you have a couple of awards, but you’ve not had a bestseller? Not really much to write home about (sorry), is it? And on it goes.

I’m happy. More to the point, I’m lucky, and I’m grateful. I have an enjoyable and interesting job, a wonderful family, a nice house, and last year I got a publishing contract. I was over the moon, but it didn’t really change anything. I’m still me. A friend of mine, a sports psychologist, worked with a millionaire owner of a lower league football team a few years back. And one of the things Mr Moneybags said to my mate was, “I always thought money would get rid of all my problems, but it didn’t get rid of me.” My gratitude is one of my greatest weapons in my attempts to be a successful writer, because it means I’m not scared to fail; if I don’t get anywhere, c’est la vie. If I do, fantastic. Bring out the pies. But, contrary to the cliché of the tortured artist who needs the angst for fuel, I don’t think it’s helpful to view being an author as the Way Out.

YAWB: Journeys

Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination…

Last year I submitted a fantasy story entitled A Warm Heart to my buddies at Woodbridge Press with hope for inclusion in their first fantasy anthology. To my delight, and against some very high quality submissions, my story was accepted for inclusion, and I’m really excited to be a part of this major new collection.

It features fifteen brand new stories from such illuminaries of the fantasy community as: Adrian Tchaikovsky, winner of 2016’s Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction; John Gwynne, author of the Fallen and the Faithful series; Gail Z. Porter, Gail Z Martin, author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer series; and to cap it off, the book is edited by fantasy veteran Teresa Edgerton. This should be a great collection and I’m really excited to see what we can do together.

Journeys captures the heart and essence of those classic fantasy stories we all enjoyed as kids, tales of quests and heroic undertakings in faraway lands.

It’s already available for pre-order at Amazon, and will be released at the frankly ridiculous price of 99p, so snap it up as soon as you can.

YAWB: Canniballs!

To accompany some of my releases this year I’m releasing a second edition of “Eat Yourself, Clarice!”

It seems to me that in the time of post-truths, fake news and the ironic juxtaposition of pushbacks against Government surveillance initiatives and the individual’s ever-increasing desperation for visibility against the cultural backdrop, that the content is more relevant than ever.

In 2012 Facebook, Twitter, Youtube et al were ubiquitous. In 2017 they are eating themselves, so what better way to celebrate the wilful destruction of personal privacies and the psychoanalytic subject’s parading in front of the camera by snapping up a copy of this second edition.

If you haven’t dipped into my strange segues between Columbo, bar-room jokes, Lacan, Hannibal Lecter, and King Kong, then you’ll be able to pick it up on a special promotion in February.

The second edition includes:

– a new cover design (shown on the left) featuring Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which struck me as an apt illustration for the themes of self-consumption and cannibalism;

– an updated author’s introduction for 2017;

– and some corrections and updates to the main body of text.

At present, I’m aiming to release this second edition on 6th February. I may host an AMA-style online event to coincide with this. The first edition of EYC is still on sale until then, but will be unavailable when the 2nd edition is released. Which may or may not (probably the latter) make the first edition excitingly rare and collectible.

YAWB: Swanky

The only reason any of us decide to write is to get into swanky literary parties, right? Well, this week I attended my first swanky* literary** party***, organised by Miranda Miller, a member of the Society of Authors.

Around ten writers turned up, all at different stages in their career. It’s always fascinating to swap stories (in more ways than one) with other writers, exchange experiences and offer titbits of advice that we have bumbled across upon our own journeys. By the end of the night I’d chatted with Miranda, Stevan AlcockSimon Cann and others, and decided that building a support network would be mutually beneficial to all involved.

Alongside the wonderful friends I’ve made over at SFF Chronicles, last night reminded me that writing really need not be a lonely and isolating existence, and in fact, as writers we need to get out there to press the flesh and just be part of the community in a meaningful way. Man O’War wouldn’t be in its current state, and hence probably wouldn’t have been bought by a publisher, if I hadn’t gone out and met people face to face, because the things you find out… well, let’s just say people can always surprise you.

Writing is tough, but support is there. I’d say it’s almost imperative that we use it. 

So what are waiting for? Get out there!

*If by swanky, you mean a pub near Holborn

**If by literary, you mean a bunch of other writers doing their best to make it

***If by party, you mean three pints of bitter followed by a burrito at Liverpool Street station in the freezing cold.

Write Your Audience

A few weeks ago I subbed a story to Woodbridge Press with the hope of having it accepted for their forthcoming Explorations anthology (sidenote: the anthology will be out on 2nd September, and is going to be awesome – buy it!). My story, entitled A Cosmic Joke, was as pretentious as pretentious can be – without going into detail, I was attempting to write three stories within stories as fractals, with a “wormhole” at the centre, where the language and words ceased to exist or mean anything in their conventional sense. It was about meaning, and cycles, and the fractal nature of existence, and about hope. And my intention was to sub this to a collection of action and adventure stories.

And here’s the thing: I completely expected it to fail and not be selected. I knew it wouldn’t be selected. It was too weird, too dense, too cracked up. But I write and subbed it anyway out of sheer, writerly bloody-mindedness. If and when it would be rejected, I’d at least have the story to do with as I pleased. 

Nathan, the head honcho at WP and a good buddy of mine, said some kind words to me about the story (which he most certainly didn’t need to), and then rejected it. Too weird, too dense, too cracked up. Ho-hum, I thought, and moved on.

A few weeks later the line-up for the anthology was announced by Nathan and WP on the SFF chronicles website, and when my name wasn’t on that list, it was then I really felt the rejection. I wasn’t part of something – and fair enough, sometimes you can’t always write the best thing, but the thing was I didn’t give myself the best chance of being part of something, and that is a let-down on my part.

As writers, sometimes we get an itch to satisfy some intellectual rigour (funnily enough, Adam Roberts blogged about this very thing recently) and use those big brains of ours to show off. God knows that itch needs a-scratchin’ for me often enough, but the rejection made me realise there’s a time and place for it. Nathan wanted an action story – a ripping yarn – and I gave him convoluted metaphysics and split narratives. It was a foolish thing to do.

So, my advice would be to always know your audience – not merely your reading audience, but your publishing audience, too. As a direct result of this, I got back in the saddle immediately and wrote another sub for Woodbridge’s next anthology, of fantasy short stories. And I wrote it with the total intention of it being that ripping yarn aI should have written the first time around. And it got accepted, and now I’m being published in the same book as 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Winner Adrian Tchaikovsky, as well as several Gemmell shortlisters.

So remember that your pretentiousness has its place! And don’t fear failure – you can only learn from it!

(PS As for the story A Cosmic Joke, I’m currently sitting on it and may tweak it into appropriate form for my own short story anthology I’m working on.)

Book Review: Emergence by Nick M. Lloyd

Emergence

Emergence is the debut novel by British SF novelist Nick M Lloyd.

There are two main settings in which events take place: firstly Earth, through the central human characters of journalist with a grudge Louise, her physicist hubby Jeff Harding, their other physicist pal Mike, and Jack Bullage, a shady businessman, car-crash survivor and the subject of Louise’s grudges; and secondly a nameless spacecraft, stationed somewhere a hundred miles above our planet, where a crew of seemingly emotionally-unstable reptilian humanoid creatures known as the Gadium act as benign dictators, or stewards, for various intergalactic planets, of which Earth is only one. The Gadium see it as their duty to shepherd a planet to Emergence – a state of the alteration of that planet’s population akin to a giant evolutionary leap, allowing the planet’s inhabitants to use increased psychic gifts. If this sounds like something cooked up in one of David Icke’s more paranoid daydreams, the reality is more like a John Grisham style thriller, and brings the strengths of other genres to SF.

The idea of the Emergence is a neat one, and elevates the story from being another humdrum conspiracy thriller into a real SF-thinker, bringing in wider themes such as the morality of physics (particularly free will versus predetermination, which is worthy of its own article) and the imposition of huge centralized state surveillance (in the form of both the Earth Governments and the aliens) versus good old fashioned liberty. Lloyd’s love and enthusiasm for theoretical physics and quantum theory is clear, and he helpfully uses a number of clever analogies to explain some of the weirder theories (Many Worlds, Copenhagen etc) to the layreader. Having said that, he fails to explain Jeff’s Dragon’s Door analogy, which left me a little disappointed… come on, Nick, tell us what it is!

The dichotomy between the settings also marks a kind of dichotomy of tone and pace as well. The Earth scenes are terrific – they are pacy, humorous, and the chemistry works really very well between all the characters concerned. Supporting characters like academic Bob and reformed gangster Willis are written well and don’t feel one-dimensional, although Willis seemed a little underused for my taste.

Contrarily, the Gadium scenes are a little stiff, especially in the early scenes. I postulated upon this, and decided that, from a personal perspective, I found it very difficult to care or sympathise with either Aytch or Justio, the two Gadium leads, even though they are revealed to have very different motivations and justifications for.., their actions towards the end. I think this is because both creatures are non-human, and both represent a sort of sprawling, not-benign statism which runs contrary to ideas of human liberty. So, even though their characters are different, I found their differences to be overwhelmed by their sameness.

This sameness made the middle sections of the book sag ever so slightly, because I found it difficult to care about the backstories of Aytch and Justio, and there are a couple of chapters where the writing threatens to veer into info-dump territory; luckily, Lloyd is quick to return to Earth each time, where the conflict, threat and humour is something the reader can believe and empathise with much more easily. And, after the halfway point, the book picks up in pace in a big way, and accelerates towards a very tense and taut action-packed climax, where events both on and above Earth intertwine in a satisfying resolution, and there’s a tantalizing clue as to the direction of where the intergalactic story goes next.

From a technical viewpoint, some of the Gadium dialogue jars slightly – they seem to dispense with Earth colloquialisms slightly too often for my liking – would a reptilian refer to himself as being painted into a corner? Unless they’ve built their galactic empire based on painting and decorating, I’d say not. Furthermore, the number of POV characters seems to swell inexplicably around the halfway point, with some characters given only a paragraph or two of POV, third-person close narration time, and then it’s taken away, which seems stilted and pointless.

Still, the presentation of the book, the professional polish and the neat, pacy writing voice that Lloyd brings to Emergence make it, as I have already stated, the best independent book I have read so far, and I would highly recommend it to any lover of SF, conspiracy thrillers.

The Talent and The Technique

Writing can be a Sisyphean task for the amateur. All those drafts, all that effort, only for your damn manuscript to fall back down to the bottom of the valley. I wonder if Sisyphus used to think: “ok, next time I’ll definitely be finished.” If so, he was as foolish as he was strong.

Inkeeping with the boulder metaphors, I recently invited SFF Chrons readers to throw rocks at the first 1000 words of Jewels, through the excellent Critiques feature. I figured that it would get some decent feedback, and I’d get some pointers about tone, feeling, that sort of thing.

Oh, boy.

I’d always considerd myself to be a talented writer: a good wordsmith with an excellent literary education and background, and all those good things. I still think that – despite the cliches, I don’t think writers, particularly independent or amateur writers, benefit from suffering-artist false modesty. But some of the technical areas that were pointed out to me were staggering: certain types of repetition, stylistic points, POV details… all were highlighted, giving me plenty of work to do in (groan) the next draft. 

At this stage, I have a serviceable manuscript, and might think myself within my rights to simply leave it be and move on to the next one. but such temptations are quite common within the writing fraternity and actually don’t do anybody any favours. Writers are quick to complain about the stringent rules set out by agents when requesting submissions; one recalls the old office cartoon where the boss says :”give me some creative thinking. Within these guidelines.”

Exposure to my peers has given me a greater appreciation for the technical aspects of writing; sure, it’s difficult, and requires timento get right, but one has to earn one’s stripes. One has to earn the right to be creative, take risks and break the rules. And it’s worth remembering that one can break the rules much better if one knows them in the first place. Unless you’re disgustingly talented or lucky, or absolutely nail the zeitgeist, you never start off at the top. And that’s ok. It’s no bad thing to work up fom the bottom, although Sisyphus might not agree.