Making People In My Head – by Gaie Sebold

First posted on 8th November 2016

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Someone asked me recently, “Which comes first for you, character or plot?”

“Oh, character,” I said. “Character every time.”

And having said it, I realised that it might be generally true – at least, where novels are concerned – but of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A character doesn’t just stroll into my head, named, physically complete and fully costumed, with all their quirks, motivations, backstory, family and taste in beverages neatly arrayed.

I know one or two things about them, to start with. Generally I have a good idea what my major characters look like. In fact they’re often so clear in that respect that I have to remind myself to put some of that stuff on the page, because, unfortunately, readers can’t actually see the picture in my head.

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I know what they do for a living. That in itself is part, of course, of who they are, and the world they live in – and then I’m into the world itself, and what the character is doing there, and what particular mess they’re in, and why, and we’re off into plot and world-building and all that other good stuff. Out of this, things begin to accrete to the character –history, family, social status, style, quirks… and then I want something to happen in the plot so I make decisions about a character’s backstory and motivations that will bring them to that point. Then, quite often, I realise that doesn’t work, so I have to change the plot, or change the character’s history, or both.

Sometimes both. Really quite often both, actually. And then I change one of them back again because it feels better and then I have to change something else, because now it doesn’t fit. And so forth.

I’m not exactly a tidy writer.

I do, sometimes, wish major characters turned up with everything about them clearly defined, because then they’d stride through the plot, making decisions that matched who they were at every turn instead of getting lost down dead ends. Not to mention that I wouldn’t end up changing something about them, forgetting I’d changed it, and having to slog back through every single reference to make sure they all match.

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Like I say, not tidy.

So life would be easier. But if characters did turn up fully finished, I’d lose some of the joy of discovery. Creating a character is rather like making a new, close friend (or new, close enemy, in some cases), and finding out, bit by bit, who that person really is. It’s an intriguing process.

The characters who are the spark points for books do arrive with a defined and physical presence, a few essential characteristics, a voice. Other members of the cast can be elusive, refusing to fill out properly, remaining infuriatingly wispy despite intensive interrogations (this sometimes involves me weeding, or thinning the grapevine, while saying things like ‘Come on, talk to me, dammit. What do you want?” Aloud. To thin air. The neighbours seem to have got used to this, and don’t even usher their children hastily indoors any more. Mostly.)

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Sometimes I just have to inform such a character that this is how they are, and this is what they do, unless they can come up with a good reason why not.

Of course if they do come up with a good reason why not – if what I write them doing feels actively wrong, instead of simply a work in progress, then annoying as it is, that’s generally a good thing. It means the character is developing, becoming three dimensional. It’s when they turn into that kind of awkward so-and-so who won’t do what they’re told that I know I have a live one – a character with some substance to them, someone who is more than just a jointed doll to be moved around at the convenience of the plot.

But the ones who spark the story – they’re always the best ones. They existed before the story, and they take on a life beyond the story. These are the ones who hang around in my head.

I’m half-convinced they actually do have real lives, somewhere in the multiverse, and I just got to be their biographer for a little while.

I rather hope so, anyway.

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Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012). The Babylon Steel series continues, as does a steampunk series, Gears of Empire She also writes short stories and occasional poetry, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and procrastinates to professional standard.

Find out more at http://gaiesebold.com/

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The Problem with Prologues by Guy T Martland

At the time of writing this, I’m currently editing a novel for the nth time. In doing so, I’ve realised that the prologue has been removed and inserted as many times as I care to remember. This got me thinking – why the heck am I doing this? What is the problem with prologues? Where did this all start?

A quick Google will tell you that the Greeks used their ‘prologos’, literally ‘before words’ at the start of plays. But prologues have continued to play a part in fiction to this day. One of my favourite SF novels, the late and great Iain M. Banks’ Against a Dark Background has one. George R. R. Martin (ex Milford) does it in Game of Thrones. Every Star Wars film does it, especially the prequels which seemed to go bollocking on forever about trade wars (see later comments about bloating). Yet in recent years it seems to be the trend that most publishers hate them. And my inclusion of prologues in Milford and other writing groups has met with derision by some.

I’ve never really got my head around the problem here. I can’t think of any novel I’ve read where I didn’t get to the end and think: ‘That would have been much better without all that rubbish at the beginning.’ SF novels in particular often need scene setting, world building and so on, and a prologue can be a great time to explore the wider universe before honing in on the action. The arguments against say: you just need to get straight into the plot, the protagonist’s problems, desires and arc. But why is this necessary? ‘You are holding your story back!’ I hear someone cry. ‘Well, perhaps because I want to?’ I reply.

Let me offer you up a simile – if you go to a restaurant do you always skip the starter? Do you send the amuse bouche, a light turbot mousse en cocotte with a quails egg, straight back to the kitchen with a surly curl of your lip? ‘Nah, I hate starters. Can’t stand them. Don’t know why they put them on the menu. I’ll go straight to the main please.’ This doesn’t happen. Indeed an amuse bouche is often offered so the chef can show off their skills, let the diners have a taste of what is coming. Yet the prologue can’t serve this purpose? Of course it can, it just generally isn’t being allowed to.

And what about other art forms? We’ve touched on Star Wars, but imagine if Blade Runner had started immediately without the one minute or so of text and the incredible vista of Los Angeles (from, um… last year?), then it wouldn’t have quite the same visceral impact. There are countless other examples where prologues enhance a film. And music – how many amazing overtures or intros wouldn’t have been created if the musical prologue form had been excised from existence? No Shostakovich Festive overture, no William Tell… To spite all the anti-prologuers, Kate Bush includes both a prelude and a prologue to side B of her penultimate album, Aerial. And if anyone dares tells me The Cure’s Plainsong could have lost a few bars before Robert Smith starts to sing, I’m coming for them all guns blazing.

I think part of the problem is publishers think people will get bored with prologues and then won’t buy their books. They’ll be put off by the putative prologue. So writing groups tend to follow the demand. Now bear in mind that of course a prologue A) shouldn’t be bloated (see trade wars above) or B) serve the same purpose as a first chapter would. But excluding both A and B, I think a prologue can be a useful way into a strange new universe. I just don’t think it should be universally damned.

Another argument is that the anti-prologue movement is something to do with the busy-everything-now-social-media-led nature of today where anything longer than a few snippets can’t hold the attention? But I’m not entirely convinced by that either – books by their nature demand lengthy attention spans.

Perhaps we simply go back to the Greeks for the answer. The prologue was meant, in certain plays, to be the Gods speaking – well, no author really wants to be put under that kind of pressure. Well, perhaps someone like Neil Gaiman (another ex Milford) would, but I’m sure he could pull it off with aplomb – pretty certain he has contacts in the empyrean.

Anyway, I’ve decided to stick with my prologue. The novel has done the rounds without for a while now, so perhaps on this occasion the prologue will pay off. Only time will tell. I’ll be the first to let you know if it does.

THE END

Epilogue: Do you hightail it straight out of the restaurant? Maybe you have coffee, with a dessert or even petit fours (perhaps both)? Have you stopped reading already? You can now.

Guy T Martland is a writer of things mostly SF and has been known to publish stories or even the occasional novel. He lives on the South Coast of England with his wife, daughter and obligatory writer’s cat, close to where R L Stevenson scribbled down ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. He has a blog which is intermittently updated here: guytmartland.co.uk

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Launching a book during a pandemic: tips & tricks for doing your own PR/marketing by Tiffani Angus

Launching a book isn’t easy, especially without a pandemic that affected the publishing industry so much that we have had two ‘Super Thursdays’ this year, with hundreds of novels published in September and October alone. Unless you’re a bestseller at a big publishing house, all authors are expected to do some of the legwork to get the word out about a new novel. Those who publish through a smaller indie house take on even more of the PR/marketing. And doing it during a pandemic? All I can say is that we’re lucky to have the internet.

My debut novel was due to hit the shelves April 13, 2020, but we all know what happened in March. I lost my in-person launch at a Waterstones, my in-person launch and party at one of the conventions I attend each year, and the party I was going to throw for the hell of it in early May (because outside of weddings we don’t really get a good reason to throw a big bash once we’re all grown up).

Amazon—yeah, I know, but they’ve made themselves important in the current publishing world and so I must mention them … well, Amazon changed the info for the book in late March, showing the ebook on pre-order but not the physical book at all. I had a chat with my publisher (one of the best things about working with an indie press is they are readily available when things go kablooie) and it turns out shipping physical books was pushed waaaay down the list of Amazon’s essential business, so we decided to move the publishing date to July 13. And all was well, until April 13. Suddenly the ebook was available right now. Another email to my publisher, and it turns out that if we wanted the ebook taken down from being immediately available, we would lose paperback pre-orders. So, we spun it a bit: the ebook is out now for readers stuck at home (yay!), with the paperback pushed to July (cool?). This meant that promotion could really get rolling, and the launch would be about three months long instead of being a one- or two-day big deal that would fizzle out quickly.

Luckily, my publisher has a PR person. After the cover reveal happened in very early spring, she asked me to send her a list of places/people/blogs/websites/magazines/bookshops I had any contact with that would be interested in the book. She then would start contacting them in an ‘official’ capacity. It was time to get to work and come up with ideas of where my book would find an audience and get some attention. What follows are things I did: a bit of advice to take you forward if you find yourself publishing a book, pandemic or not.

Think beyond the obvious. Sure, you want reviews and other events, but there might be angles that you’re not considering. My book is historical fantasy set in a garden over 400 years. Our list included the usual outlets such as the British Fantasy Society, but we knew we could expand from there. Because the book is historical, we put organisations such as the Historical Novel Society on the list. I also remembered that I used to go to the Garden History Museum in London when I was a student and had a slight correspondence with the director, so I put him and the museum on the list along with National Trust houses near me with inspirational gardens and giftshops in hopes of maybe getting the book on those shelves.

Go local. Smaller towns (and some larger ones) love stories about locals. If your town has a paper, send a press release. If you work in a different town, send one there, too. Writing a release takes some practice, but there is plenty of advice on the ‘net. Small stories about me showed up in the paper where I live and the paper in my work-town, along with a magazine in my work-town. From those, I’ve sold several copies out of the local book shop.

Research your connections. If you have made connections in your genre and have a network, now is the time to reach out. This is not the time to hide your light under a bushel! Don’t think of it as being pushy; instead, ask yourself if you would help out other writers if you could. I’m sure the answer is yes (because we all need a hand up sometimes!), and you won’t get what you don’t ask for. I made a list of all the people I knew who were published, who had a presence, who had popular blogs, etc., but also who I was on good terms with. I especially noted where I would see these people in person (this was back before the pandemic!) and who I would need to email. I did this to set up blog posts (Scalzi’s Big Idea was one) and to ask for blurbs for the book’s cover.

What’s your day job? If your career is in any way linked to your book’s topic, take advantage of it. Weirdly, I’m a university lecturer in creative writing and publishing. I’ve used that expertise to write articles about doing PhDs in Creative Writing (something that people are curious about); because my novel was my PhD, it made sense to use that in any way I could. You’re a lawyer who’s written a crime thriller? A chef who’s written a romance? A bus driver who’s written a memoir? The link between law and crime is obvious, but just think of how you can link cooking with romance (eating and sex, amirite?) and how driving a bus puts you on the front line of human behaviour. You can use this expertise and experience to pitch article ideas, and journalists love the angle that links people’s careers with their writing.

Look beyond blog tours. Because we are all stuck at home more than before, we live our lives online more than before, but I didn’t do a traditional blog tour. Instead, we arranged a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), an annotated excerpt for the Civilian Reader site, several blog interviews (one was about food and gardening, another about writing historical fiction/fantasy, etc.), and a couple of online readings. Work to make a connection to any sites that are linked to the genre you write in; these sites always need material and are open to posts on a variety of topics.

Instagram (and other social media platforms). You don’t need to be a book blogger to use Instagram. Think of your book’s settings, subject matter, characters: any details that are visual. Then take photos related to that—a beautiful tree in October (if your book is set in autumn) or a pile of tasty toast (if your character’s favourite food is Nutella!). Post those photos, adding in a photo of the cover, and write something that links the photo to your book. Luckily, I did years of research on English gardens for my novel, so I had scads of photos and could post them according to themes, such as a certain colour or garden element, and then write a teaser linking the theme to a storyline in the book. Be sure to use hashtags! Better yet, write up a list of them that you can easily cut & paste into the end of your Instagram post to make things quicker. After posting on Insta I’d then post the same copy with the same photos on Facebook (being sure to post to Public), and then shorten it and choose the best 4 photos (including the book cover) to post to Twitter, making a hashtag of the book’s title (be sure to use capital letters for each word to make it easier to read and accessible for those with certain disabilities). I did this every few days for weeks ahead of the book’s launch to build a bit of buzz.

Writing a book is hard work, getting it published can be more difficult, but promoting it doesn’t have to be a chore. It just takes some creativity and a bit of confidence—and a way with words, which you already have! 

Tiffani Angus teaches creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Her short fiction—historical fantasy, science fiction, horror, and even erotica—has been published at Strange Horizons and in several anthologies. She lives in Bury St Edmunds with her partner and really wants a cat.

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Being Janeway: Twenty-five years of Star Trek: Voyager by Una McCormack

If I’m completely honest, I was chiefly a Deep Space Nine fan. (Actually, I was a Babylon 5 fan, but that’s a story for another day.) But because I am naturally inclined to like anything which involves a spaceship, I dipped in and out of Voyager, finding much to enjoy. But I hadn’t returned to the programme in depth until this year, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its first transmission.

Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway

I came back to Voyager because I had been commissioned by Titan to write one of their ongoing ‘autobiographies’ of key characters in Star Trek. So far, Titan have published autobiographies of James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard (both by writer and producer David A. Goodman, whom you’ll surely know for work on Futurama, Family Guy, and The Orville). There’s an autobiography of Spock coming next year. Keep an eye for that one.

The conceit of these books is fun: a first-person narrative account of the life and times of the character, taking in not only their on-screen adventures, but also childhood, time at the Academy, and after their respective shows have finished. The powers that be decided that for Kathryn Janeway – the first (and, so far, the only) female captain to serve as the central character of a Star Trek series – a woman writer was needed. So they asked me.

I honestly can’t think of a project so firmly within my areas of interest. I adore writing first-person narrative. I love taking on the voice of a character: learning their idiolect; seeing the world through their eyes; exploring too what their blind spots might be. And of course one of my ongoing passions (and creative projects) is to put as many girls and women as I possibly can into my science fiction, in all their variety, diversity, and individuality. To show them growing up, exploring, changing, learning, developing, maturing, succeeding, losing, winning.

Kathryn Janeway had everything: she’s bold, courageous, dedicated, and funny. She has flaws, too, she’s occasionally too rigid, she sometimes makes some bad decisions. But that’s what makes her real – she isn’t the perfect citizen of frictionless utopia. She’s a human being, trying to do her best by the people for whom she is responsible, in a frightening and difficult situation. And I found scope to explore one of my very favourite themes: female friendship and mentorship. Sisterhood.

This book was a joy to write from start to finish. I loved my time being Janeway. I hope you enjoy it too.

Una McCormack
September 2020

***

The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway is available now from all good booksellers and Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Autobiography-Kathryn-Janeway-Star-Autobiographies/dp/1789094798

Star Trek Discovery: The Way to the Stars is also available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Star-Trek-Discovery-Way-Stars/dp/1982104759

Star Trek – Picard: The Last Best Hope is also available: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Star-Trek-Picard-Last-Best/dp/1982139447/All the Starfleet Ladies! Panel on female-identifying characters in Star Trek at San Diego Comic-Com@Home2020, with Una McCormack, Swapna Krishna (space, tech, and pop culture journalist), author Cassandra Rose Clarke, LJ Jackson (publicity manager at Saga Press), and moderator Kendra James (editor at StarTrek.com): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bn8F0BDks_g

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Folklore and Fiction by Sandra Unerman

SpellhavenI have been interested in folklore for even longer than I have been a writer. Books of fairy tales and legends were among my favourite reading as a child but I did not try to write stories of my own until I was in my teens. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by the anthropological side of history, in the stories people told and their daily customs and beliefs, as much as in great events or the development of society. Last year, when I signed up for an MA in Folklore Studies at the University of Hertfordshire, I hoped that the content of the course might provide inspiration for my fiction. I have enjoyed, for example, research into the way people have related to prehistoric monuments down the centuries, although I haven’t yet produced a story based on that. However, the course has also involved learning the techniques folklorists use to study contemporary activities and that has proved stimulating in ways I didn’t expect.

For one assignment, I was required to attend an event as a participant observer and write a report on it. This did not have to be a folkloric occasion of an obvious kind. The subject today is not limited to survivals or revivals of ancient tradition or rural customs but includes the unofficial culture of any group of people. An office Christmas party or a family wedding, for example, would provide plenty of material for a folklorist to observe, in the customs and practices people take for granted, which help make up the characteristics of their particular way of life.

I did not have an event of that sort coming up, in the time allowed for this assignment. I ended up writing about a meeting of Clockhouse London Writers, of which I have been a member of several years. (I later produced an edited version for the Clockhouse website, if anyone is interested in in knowing what a Clockhouse workshop is like.) There were no dramatic rituals to report but I found plenty to say and enjoyed the exercise more than I expected. The role of a participant observer turned out not to be as awkward or new to me as I had thought. Instead, it was a more formal version of something I do all the time for the sake of my writing.

Clockhouse

The brief was to record the purpose of the event and its different elements, the look and feel of the venue, the appearance of participants and the way they related to one another. Gender dynamics was noted as a possible topic and so was my own role in the meeting.

I write fantasy fiction, often in a historical or secondary world setting. So I don’t draw on my daily life for the setting of my fiction in obvious ways and I don’t model my characters on people I know. But observation of the outside world and of other people feeds my imagination and helps me imagine characters and settings worth reading about. The way people talk, the flow of an argument or the twist of a joke can be adapted and applied to a fictional context. Noticing the way sunlight through the window affects the atmosphere in a room (and who chooses to sit in the shade) or the distractions provided by noise from outside may provide details that will bring a setting to life. Or they may lead to speculation about the changes that would result from a different environment, if a meeting could only take place by candlelight, for example.

There was one big difference between the MA assignment and day to day observation. The assignment had to be cleared by the University’s Ethics Committee and I had to receive consent from the leader of the Clockhouse workshop, Allen Ashley, as well as all the participants (who were anonymised in the report). Everyone agreed and nobody seemed put off by what I was doing. Since they are all writers, I suspect that they carry out the same activity in their own ways, without the formal label of participant observation. Other people, in daily life, might be more doubtful about the process, but I don’t write reports about them. I reckon that the transformation into the worlds of my imagination is a thorough one, so that the impact on those being observed is not an issue, although it was interesting to see how seriously it was taken in my course.

My report was written in December 2019, well before the lockdown for Covid-19. The experience of the last few weeks has provided even more material for participant observation than usual, not just in the broader changes in society but in the small details of daily life. Swerving to keep at a two-metre distance, when I go for a walk in the local park, has become a habit, for example, and it will be interesting to see how long it persists. I don’t know at the moment how I might use that behaviour in a fictional setting but it could be a custom for characters to observe, in a different time and place and for a different reason.

SandraSandra Unerman is the author of two novels of historical fantasy, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Frostfire Worlds and Writers’ Café Magazine, both in November 2019. She lives in London and is a member of Clockhouse London Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.

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Wyldblood Press by Mark Bilsborough

wolves-2Ever wake up one morning and do something really stupid? Well one day recently, suffering heavily from lockdown fever, I did just that: I set up a publishing imprint. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d just self-published a short story collection (mainly reprinting stuff I’d sold before) and was drunk on how easy it was and how bloody fantastic the paperback version came out (well, I’m a proud book-parent. Of course I’m going to think it was bloody fantastic). I’d probably lost my mind, too, for a short while.

The product of all this fevered enthusiasm was Wyldblood Press, and before the week was out we’d got a website, a clutch of (surprisingly expensive) ISDN numbers on file, a Facebook page, listings on Duotrope, Ralan and the Submissions Grinder, a business plan, a fancy spreadsheet and submissions already hurtling towards three figures. And we published our first piece of flash fiction (Milford stalwart Vaughan Stanger’s  In Every Dream Home). Only a week before we hadn’t even decided on a name for the company. I needed to lie down.

I’m going to post here from time to time and let you know how it’s all going. Obviously I’d like you all to spread the word and send me great stories but really I just want a friendly space to blather on about what I’m pretty sure is going to be a wild ride. This whole project may ultimately collapse into its own entrails but I’m going to give it a major go. If I can turn Wyldblood into a quality writing outlet then that’s one more market – and we certainly need them. And if not there’ll be a great case study into setting up a new small press whether or not it takes off or crashes and burns.

There’ll be three primary fiction outlets – Flash Fridays on the website, short fiction in a magazine launching in January (still publicly called Wyldblood Magazine, but I’m leaning towards Wyld Stories) and novels and novellas published separately, if I get quality work in.

DreamsAll together that’s led me into some interesting areas. Publishing my own collection, Dreams and Visions, on Amazon was a doddle, both ebook and paperback, though cover design was a nightmare and I’m definitely going to use pro design for them from now on. Cheap, too, because there were no upfront costs (the main stories had already been edited for previous publication, and the covers were free). But selling them to anyone other than family and friends? A new, nightmare world or Search Engine Optimisation, boosted Facebook posts, Google Ads, networking like crazy, pricing strategies and splitting headaches.

But when I’d pressed the ‘publish’ button that brave new world of internet selling was ahead of me, and by the time reality had set in it was too late: Wyldblood Press was up and running.

And the costs, oh the costs. Publishing ain’t free no more, not if you’re doing it properly. We’re starting modest, because I don’t want to eat up our starting budget before we’ve actually published anything outside the website, but even so there’s the website to pay for (upfront, with all the business add-ons that I’ve not had to bother with before), the mechanics (registrations, filings, accountants, barcodes etc. Who knew barcodes cost money?) and the content. We’re paying for content because writers need to be paid for their work (no argument), and because paying good money equals good stories. We’ll pay pro if we could, but we’re not there yet – but we will, when we can.

I’m astounded we’ve had so many submissions so early. Maybe it’s an early peak, and it’s certainly helped by getting our listings in early on Duotrope etc, but I’ve seen enough already to know that finding quality stories is not going to be a problem for us (at least for the first few issues). Most submissions are supposed to be typo-infested tonally jarring plot nightmares, right? Most from newbies taking a punt and jaded old lags dredging the bowels of their computer’s ‘unsold’ folders, yes? Not this lot. Serious writers, already published in serious places, with quality submissions in the majority. As an editor it’s left me rubbing my hands, even though the selection process is going to be tough (as a writer it was a bit of an ‘oh shit’ moment, though, because it gave me an insight on what my own works are faced with when they sit in an editor’s slush pile).

Some things I’ve learned so far:

  • Have a plan. Works for writing, works for life. I’ve got a pretty good idea where I want Wyldblood Press to be in a couple of years’ time, and the broad steps along the way.
  • Have some up-front money (and be prepared to spend it). I’m one of life’s natural misers, so this is tough for me.
  • Take advantage of previous experience. Fortunately, I’ve edited before, know what goes into a writer’s publication journey and have made some good contacts and friends in our world. Without all that, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.
  • Be prepared to learn. There are some tough choices to make, many with hefty financial implications (use Amazon for book distribution or use a book wholesaler or distributor (not the same thing)? Ebook or print for the magazine? Amazon again or use newsstand distributors (like Interzone does)?
  • Have some time. I’m lucky that I have options, but it’s already clear that the only way for this to succeed is to fully embrace that this is a job, not a hobby.
  • Get some help. I have some great support from my partner Sandra, a writer with a background in journalism and copy writing, but we’re going to need slush readers soon, and an artist/designer, more editorial help and some reviewers and most of that, at this stage, is going to be on a for-love basis.
  • Build a community. Working on that.

If anybody’s been through this before (and I know some of you have) it would be great to pick your brains. What’s your advice? What should I be doing and what should I never, ever do? And if you fancy reading some submissions or reviewing some books/TV/films for us, let me know.

But if you want to talk me out of this? Too late.

Mark BilsboroughMark Bilsborough is a Northerner in long term exile in the soft-bellied South of England where he’s found a rare scrap of countryside to inspire him, though his attempts to write proper science fiction often strangely morph into fantasy. He’s had short stories published in numerous places and is perennially about to finish his novel.  In real life he’s been a civil servant, teacher and charity director, occasionally skulking off to attend things like Odyssey and Milford. He writes reviews for SFconcatenation (www.concatenation.org) and edits Mensa’s Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror journal. His infrequently updated website is at www.markbilsborough.com.  And now he’s the proud owner of Wyldblood Press.

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Twelve Ways To Be Better at Writing by David Gullen

TGFATF - Book 1

I believe there are only two rules of writing, true rules that are unbreakable in the same way ‘Ye canna break the laws of physics’. (Except with the laws of Physics  we’re still not sure whether we have the full set of laws, or even, much like the three blind men encountering different parts of the same elephant, if we’ve a clear grasp of the beast entire.) With writing it’s easier, there are fewer fundamental particles and fewer rules. My Grand Unified Theory consists of:

  1. Writers Write
  2. There are no other rules

The interpretation of Rule #1 is obvious. If you write, you are a writer, however you chose to do, or be.

This article is about some good ways to behave towards yourself and towards your writing that I’ve found work for me. It is a condensation of things I’ve read, concluded from experience, and discovered in conversation with other writers— many of whom have been around the block several more times than me.  One thing I discovered is that everyone has their own ways of being a writer. Here are some of mine.

  1. Your writing, your rules

There’s a huge amount of advice out there. Much of it is good, and most of it is well-intended. Take what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. If, at some point in the future you feel the need to change the emphasis in how you work or what you write, do it. Don’t stick with rules that make you struggle.

King On WritingDon’t get me wrong, many of these suggestions are excellent pieces of advice, and you should think long and hard about how and when you apply them to your own writing. There are some wonderful books on the art and craft of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the Craft is highly rated, so is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Two other books I’ve found useful are Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and D.V. Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. These books are polar opposites in many ways. Vogler focusses on mythic structure and archetypes, Swain is pure nuts-and-bolts how to write, why you should do it that way, and importantly, why sometimes you should not. His rules are not rules but they are strong suggestions. This is one of the reasons I have found his book so helpful because I have a deep-rooted distrust of anyone telling me there is only one way of doing  anything. (Which Vogler does and is one reason his book is just another tool in my toolbox.)

  1. Take what you do seriously.

The more I treated writing as a job the more writing I did. Having a place to write can help, but what is much better is to find places where you can write. I used to co-run a London-based group called Million Monkeys based on just that idea – that you can write anywhere.

I like to write in the conservatory, or in Waterstones (very professional writing in a bookshop café I like to think). That short walk into town with my writing kit in my bag cleared my mind, set the expectation I was going to work, and also put me somewhere where there is little else for me to do.  I look forwards to those days returning.  If you’re stuck at home, try walking around the block before you start work, that ‘walk to work’ can work surprisingly well.

  1. Finish what you start

If you don’t finish you can’t fail but if you don’t finish you’ll never be published. One early piece of advice I had was ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’

  1. Don’t worry about what comes next.

The story is your story, long or short. Worrying about submissions and the likely rejection will only reduce your confidence and pleasure in writing.

This is among the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing:
“Your entitlement is to the deed alone, never to its results. Do not make the result of an action your motive.” – Bhagavad Gita, 2, 47-51, trans. Sir James Mallinson.

This one I find difficult. From time to time I need to come back to it and remind myself not to stress.

  1. Celebrate Success

Decide what your own successes are, and how you celebrate them.  Finish a short story and I’ll walk around feeling satisfied for a bit; finish the first draft of a novel or actually sell that story and I might open a bottle of cheap fizz.

My self-confidence as a writer goes up and down. One thing that helps is having a shelf for everything I’ve had work in so I can see I’ve had some successes.

  1. Get it out, keep it out

If you don’t submit work to markets you can’t be rejected. It’s another great way to avoid failure, but if you want to be published in paying markets you have to go through this process. I’ve sold stories  to big and small markets, I’ve been rejected by those markets before and after those sales. I’ve sold stories on first submission, or on the tenth, or twentieth. Online resources like The Submission Grinder and Ralan are very good for finding markets and helping you keep your work on submission.

Grinder

  1. Calmness. Space. Timing

Too much time can be a bad thing. I’ve known writers who decided to live the dream, packed in the day job and wrote almost nothing for a year. One of the most useful productivity tools I’ve found is to divide my day up into chunks for 40 minutes or an hour. Set a timer and write until the tone sounds. Then reset the timer and do something else. Reset it again and come back to writing. I can do a huge amount in a day like this.  However, there will be times when you must—

  1. Accept Downtime

Life will inevitably intrude on your plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Beating yourself up about not being able to write never helps. Maybe you cannot sit down for hours, but perhaps you can grab a few minutes. A friend of mine wrote a prize-winning short story on his PDA (remember them?) standing up on the train during his commute.

Perhaps you don’t have the focus to do even that. At times like that all I’ve been able to do is wait and hope for better times to come around again. Hopefully they will.

  1. Word counts

My daily word count spreadsheet is hugely motivating, but I had to learn how to use it. For some years I set my annual targets too high and never reached them. I realised this was de-motivating so I lowered it to something I knew I could achieve.  The result was I actually wrote more because I felt good about hitting my lower target and felt even better when I carried on and wrote more.

I’m not a great fan of things like NaNoWriMo, and ‘A Novel in 100 Days’.  I know my chances of hitting these target are very low and I can’t see the point in setting out to do something I know I won’t achieve. However, other people get a huge amount from these events.  Your writing. your rules, set your own targets. One thing that helps me is:

  1. Routine, Exercise. Sleep

I quite like being a creature of habit, though after a while I’ll drift out of them and have to reset.  Keeping fit, eating well, getting enough sleep are all basic things but they are easy to forget and really help.

Drifting off to sleep thinking about the current work in progress is a nice thing.

  1. Limit Planning

I’ve met more than one person who is planning a book. They’re building the world, creating the characters, defining the back story, drawing maps and street plans, exploring culture and language. The months and sometimes years go by and still they have not started writing. Planning can become prevarication and besides, no plot survives contact with the characters.

I think of plotting in the same way as the plans you make before you go on holiday to a place you’ve never been before. You may pick all the things you want to do and see in advance of arrival, but once you’re actually there you find a whole lot of other interesting things you’d rather do.

  1. Join in. Meet, talk, listen

My first novel would never have been published if I hadn’t gone to my first Milford. I met someone there who introduced me to someone else at an early EdgeLit convention. We leaned on the bar and had a beer and things went from there.

There are dozens of conventions, groups, and meetups. Dip a toe into a few, find the ones that work for you. Hang out, meet people, get to know them. It really helps.  I find a weekend at a convention can be quite tiring, I need to pace myself because I only have so many social beans, but it can also be hugely energising and motivating too.

  1. It’s a muscle.

Did I say twelve ways? Never mind. Like anything we do writing gets stronger the more we practice.  Good luck with yours.

 

btfhdr

David Gullen’s latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms,  is available in print and ebook.  Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press. His short story, Warm Gun, won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. He is a past judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and is the current Chair of the Milford SF Conference.

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Ghostly Services of the A1 by Kari Sperring

Leicester 02

Leicester Forest East as was – on the M1.

Service stations have a weird place in my heart. When I was small, we lived quite a long way from the rest of our families, and as a result holidays were often spent driving cross country to visit aunts and uncles and grandparents. My father rarely stopped at services, as they were expensive, but I used to look out for them anyway. I loved the long narrow bridge that linked the two sides of Corley services on the M6, like one of the bullet trains I’d seen on Blue Peter. And I longed to sit one day and eat in the restaurant of Leicester Forest East, which was built right over the motorway. Further south near Huntingdon, on what was then the junction of the A604 and the northbound A1 was a services shaped like a flying saucer, which I was sure would one day take off to visit new planets. Service stations were exciting and alien, shaped like the future and I was sure they were a sign of things to come. It was the 1970s and I’d been woken in the middle of the night to watch men land on the moon. Later, N.A.S.A. named its first space shuttle Enterprise, and, devoted Star Trek fan that I was, I knew the United Federation of Planets was just around the corner. I was a bit worried about the Eugenics war and Khan Noonian Singh, but I knew we came out of that in the end and things got better. I knew the starship Enterprise was on its way, via Corley and Leicester Forest East and Huntingdon North. When, on a school trip, I found a copy of one of James Blish’s novelisations of Star Trek in the W H Smith at Watford Gap services, it felt like a sign.

Flying Saucer Alconbury

The Flying saucer services at Alconbury

My whole life, I have loved to travel. New places tell new stories and open up new possibilities. The future is everywhere around us, encoded in neon and wood and metal and stone and thought and idea. Childhood television – Blue Peter  and Tomorrow’s World – showed us the routes opening up ahead. Today, by Vauxhall Cavalier to Corley. Tomorrow, by interplanetary bullet train to Callisto Ice Prime. The day after? The Enterprise, and breakfast at T’Phani’s. Those strange-shaped buildings, those bullet trains and suspended restaurants and flying saucers-in-the-basket, were symbols born from dreams.

Leicester Forest East

The restaurant bridge at Leicester Forest East

Fast forward, and I am driving north from Cambridge, where I now live, past the ghosts of services past. Corley is still there: I used to stop at it regularly when I worked in Wales, and I still watched out the bridge, I no longer walked over it. I had finally achieved my ambition of eating over the M1 at Leicester Forest East and even managed to get a window table. The windows were dirty and hard to see through, the motorway queueing in both directions, the food bland. This was Britain in the 1990s, tired out and disenchanted, taught by neo-liberalism to look down, not forward. Tomorrow’s World was history, though Blue Peter soldiered on. Passing Huntingdon, I no longer look for the flying saucer. It’s long gone, knocked down to make way for the new, wider A14. Further up, the Little Chefs are gone, turned into US franchises, or, up near Grantham, a sex shop. Who stops there, breaking their journey to stare at dildoes and DVDs? Who, and why? It seems like a strange location, but it’s survived for over a decade, longer than the restaurant it replaced. If I want a break, I get off the main road, these days, and look for a pub with food. The bathrooms are usually nicer, the food way better, and there are no more of those alluring cherry pancakes and refills of coffee with which Little Chefs welcomed wet bikers. The franchises aren’t sure about me and Phil, when we stop with the bike, unlike the Little Chef at Marston Moretaine, which always gave us a large table for our panniers, and brought coffee with the menu. That one is still there, and I pass it occasionally. Next time I pass, I’ll wave, in memory of those pancakes, and also to Captain-Colonel Sir Tom Moore, the man who raised the NHS funding our government refused. Further north on the A1, services grow scarce and I worry for the truckers who plough their way back and forth, up and down. I see them parked up to sleep and eat in laybys, and I wonder when it became acceptable to shut them out.

Because those old services, Corley and Watford Gap and Doncaster South, were democratisers. Anyone could use them, anyone at all. Lorry drivers and families, bikers and coach trips of seniors, battered old Ford Escorts and brand new top of the range Rovers: all of them were there. My uncle, in his year as Lord Mayor of Coventry, once parked the mayoral Rolls at one. With their strange imaginative beautiful-ugly shapes, they imagined the future while feeding us egg and chips. They, like us, were travelling forward.

They, like us, look worn these days. The shapes are retro, shabby and cracked. That future is done, replaced with the machinery of capitalism, of logos in space and privatisation. Food has always shown class divides but the division is more clearly illuminated now. The rich don’t stop at services, or, if they do, send their people to clear the bathrooms and buy wine and smoked salmon sandwiches at Waitrose. For the rest of us, there’s franchise burgers and a queue. And for the truckers, who drive our food and goods? A fry-up in a portacabin that shakes as the traffic roars by.

Kari Sperring

Kari Sperring is the author of two novels (Living with Ghosts [DAW 2009] and The Grass King’s Concubine [DAW 2012]. As Kari Maund, she has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s British and lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner Phil and three very determined cats, who guarantee that everything she writes will have been thoroughly sat upon. Her website is http://www.karisperring .com and you can also find her on Facebook.

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Forward Momentum! On loving Lois McMaster Bujold by Una McCormack

Lois McMaster Bujold

Back in the late 1990s, I was a member of a mailing list (remember them?) devoted to the discussion and analysis of Blake’s 7 (remember that— yes of course you do). We were a lively, eclectic, opinionated and – though I say it myself – phenomenally well-informed set of individuals. I was partway through a Master’s degree at the time, and about to start on a PhD, but a substantial part of my education came from the people I met on those lists. But apart from all that – and the long-term friendships which came from time – I’m particularly grateful to whoever on that list recommended to us the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

The person reccing the books was fairly sure that Bujold had seen Blake’s 7, pointing to her 1989 novel Brothers in Arms (which is a mid-period entry in her science fiction series the Vorkosigan Saga). There was a character (Duv Galeni) who seemed to have echoes of Paul Darrow’s Avon (saturnine appearance and cool intellect), and another (short-haired ruthless commander) who surely owed something to Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan. I hadn’t – for various reasons – read much science fiction at the time, but I dived into Brothers in Arms, and thought, “Oh, that’s not bad. I think I’ll try a couple more.” There are complicated discussions (and firm opinions) about where to start with Bujold’s novels (particularly her sf Vorkosigan Saga): fortunately, I didn’t know anything about this, and just carried on chronologically, moving on next to The Vor Game (1990).

This was a good way into her writing. The novels before Brothers in Arms and The Vor Game are highly accomplished space operas, written with verve, wit, imagination, and energy. From Mirror Dance (1994) onwards, Bujold’s writing goes up a gear. There is a seriousness of intent to the Vorkosigan books from here on that transforms the series: they become steadily more ambitious; her facility with her trademark genre-bending becomes even more skilled; the novels are enjoyable on their own terms, but vastly more satisfying when read in the context of the full body of work. With A Civil Campaign (1999), the crowning entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold shifts between space opera, romantic novel, comedy of manners… and two of the best set-pieces I’ve ever read. The dedication in A Civil Campaign reads: “To Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy – long may they rule.” Austen, Brontë, Heyer, Sayer – Bujold knows her tradition, and her name is not out of place added to that list.

I’ve not even mentioned her fantasy series. The Curse of Chalion (2001) and Paladin of Souls (2003), with a world inspired by southern Europe during the Spanish Reconquista and a fully worked out theological and religious system, contain profound reflections on fate, destiny, free will, and individual agency. Bujold has come back to this setting with an ongoing set of novellas, the ‘Penric and Desdemona’ series. In her other main set of books, The Sharing Knife tetralogy (2006-2009), Bujold dispenses with the traditional European fantasy setting, and creates a distinctively American setting. Although these novels are not, to my mind, as immediately gripping as her other series, they subtly blur the line between science fiction and fantasy. Often, in these books, what seems like magic turns out to have a rational basis.

To say that reading Bujold has had significant impact on me is an understatement. Let’s scurry forwards to 2013, when I was a university lecturer in creative writing within an English department that was friendly to genre fiction, and I had the bright idea of holding a one-day conference on Lois McMaster Bujold. I hadn’t organized an academic conference before (I’d run other events in various previous lives). How hard could it be? To be honest, it wasn’t that hard, although it was made slightly more complicated by the fact that I went on maternity leave that September. Nevertheless, I used some of the time after my daughter was born to get the conference off the ground. In August 2014 (checking the date, I see that I am writing this blog post six years to the day), around thirty of us from three continents gather to geek about a beloved author. Could anything be more enjoyable?

As it turns out, yes: deciding to work with one of the presenters (Regina Yung Lee) to turn that conference into a collection of essays on Bujold’s work. This book, Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, was published by Liverpool University Press in June 2020, and is only the second scholarly collection of essays on her work. We got through the indexing during the first weeks of lockdown and, shortly after we sent the final proofs back, Bujold published a new entry in her ‘Penric’ series, ‘The Physicians of Vilnoc’. This novella concerns the outbreak of deadly plague in an army camp and the variety of responses to bringing it under control. I can’t regret that our volume doesn’t cover this publication, because it means that Bujold is still writing – and that her ideas are as vigorous and timely as ever.

Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack, is published by Liverpool University Press:
https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/52704/

Short But Concentrated: an essay symposium on the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Una McCormack and Regina Yung Lee, is available as a free e-book:
https://unamccormack.co.uk/?books=short-but-concentrated

Dr Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. She is passionate about women’s writing, science fiction, and helping people find their words and voices. Her Star Trek: Picard novel, The Last Best Hope, is published by Simon and Schuster in 2020.

https://unamccormack.co.uk/

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Milford 2020 Cancellation

Crit room 02This slot on the Milford blog is usually reserved for live blogging from the actual Milford event. I chase everyone around with a laptop and get them to write a paragraph or three about their experience of Milford while they’re actually in the middle of it. Most people give in at some point before the week ends, and if you want to see what people wrote last year, go to Milford 2019 and work your way through progressively.

This year, sadly there is no live blogging from Milford because there is no Milford due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ros and Kayleigh at our venue, Trigonos, have been very helpful, keeping us up to date with how they are managing under the Welsh Government’s lockdown restrictions. Sadly by the time the middle of August came around, and still no news of any government changes, we simply had to make a decision – and our only course was to cancel.

We value the health and wellbeing of our potential attendees, however it’s with heavy hearts and much regret that we have taken the decision to cancel.

Apart from one year (1979) when Milford didn’t run for reasons that have been lost in the mists of time, Milford has run annually in the UK since 1972. Before that it ran annually in the USA (Milford, Pennsylvania) from 1956. [Ben Jeapes emailed to say that 1993 was also a year of no Milford.] A committee is elected every year at the AGM during the Milford Conference week. This year’s AGM will have to be by Skype.

All our 2020 attendees (including our two bursary writers) have agreed to roll on their attendance to September 2021 and therefore we are fully booked for 11th to 18th September 2021. We are now taking bookings for Milford 2022 which will run 10th – 17th September 7/15 places have already been booked. Two bursary places are already reserved for Writers of Colour, though applications will not open up until September 2021.

We still have four places available for the May 2021 Milford Writers’ Retreat.

In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures of previous Milfords, our location, Trigonos, and beautiful North Wales.

Nantlle Valley 2019

VLUU P1200 / Samsung P1200

lake-1

caernarfon-2

Dinner Bianchini

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