Jaine Fenn Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Got born then grew up a bit. Did various tedious day-jobs while wishing I could write for a living. Finally got to write for a living.

(too short? Ok then…)

Although I always wanted to be a writer I got distracted by work that actually made money, most notably in IT. I finally started to take my writing seriously in my 30s, initially getting short stories published before my first book deal, with Gollancz, in 2008. I became a full-time writer in 2016, though these days I mostly write for video-games.

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

I wrote a ‘novel’ on my dad’s typewriter when I was seven. My first published fiction was a contribution to ‘The Drabble Project’ way back in the late 80s but my first paid publication was ‘The Path to the Sun’, an Aztec alt. history story I’m still very fond of, published in On Spec in 2002.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

It’s fiction without limits. Storytelling lets us make sense of a senseless world by creating other realities, so why limit yourself to this world, this reality?

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

Far too many years writing and running table RPG campaigns gave me a head-start on plotting and an appreciation of how characters don’t always do what we want them to. I’ve also got a few amateur interests that feed into my fiction, most notably astronomy and archaeology.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My last novel-length fiction was the Shadowlands duology, published by Angry Robot. It’s science fantasy, set in a divided world (one of my obsessions), and brings together a lot of themes and interests I’ve not indulged fully before.

What’s next?

I’m working on a Warhammer novel for Games Workshop but I can’t say anything about that, because Games Workshop. Sadly 2020 appears to have trashed my ability to write my own fiction, though I’m hoping that’s temporary.

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series, the Shadowlands duology and numerous published short stories, one of which won the 2016 BSFA Shorter Fiction award. She likes her tea strong and her chocolate dark.

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Nisi Shawl Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Nisi Shawl was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan and moved to Ann Arbor to drop out of the University of Michigan after learning to roll joints and read their poetry aloud.  They got married, started writing prose, got divorced, and made their first story sale.  Upon graduating from the Clarion West Writers Workshop they moved to the workshop’s site in Seattle, sold their first novel, and won seven literary awards in one year, bringing their grand total to nine.

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

I began writing as soon as I could, which was shortly following learning to read.  Mostly it was poems, or lyrics to song parodies, or plays in collaboration with my best friend Karen Smith.  When I was 14 I wrote what could be considered my first science fiction story.  I don’t remember the title, but I do remember I turned it in to Mrs. Judd, who taught English, or what today in the US would be called Language Arts.  It was about a bunch of teenagers on pilgrimage through a postapocalyptic landscape, searching for holy high-tech sites like bridges and supercolliders.

A poem I wrote in second grade (“Springtime”) was recently published for the first time in Climbing Lightly through Forests, a volume of tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin.  My first published piece was “Roller,” another poem–my local newspaper printed it.  My first piece published for money was another teen-centered short story, “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer,” in the Semiotext(e) SF anthology.  My first piece published for a professional sum was “The Rainses’.”  That story appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1995.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

Science fiction is the only true literature, just as jazz is the only true music.  In other words, it’s not.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

Singing?  I sing when I read publicly.  So I guess I bring that.  But honestly, I bring everything.  It’s all material.  So I bring ice skating and breaking bones and making truffles and selling structural steel.  Lifting tatties.  Aborting a child.  Dancing drunk on the pier.  Speaking French.  Singing praise songs for Yoruba deities.  Kissing my dying mother goodbye.  And, you know, whatever.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

I recently finished a short story set on the Trigonos campus where Milford is held.  It’s called “I Being Young and Foolish,” and it will be published in June in the bending-Arthurianism anthology Sword Stone Table.  It’s about an albino Ugandan Lady of the Lake and her love for Merlin.

I’m currently writing a sequel to Everfair called Kinning.  It’s meant to be sixteen chapters long and I am about 70% done with Chapter Ten, which means I’m 70% through with the book.  It begins in Vietnam and Cairo and reaches the country of Everfair via stops in Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Zanzibar.  There are only four viewpoint characters in this novel instead of eleven, but there’s lots more in the way of conspiracies and spying.  Also these rival super-fungi are racing to inoculate the globe.  Good times.

What’s next?

I expect to be doing a lot of editing in the coming year.  New Suns 2 is in the works, and I’m just finishing up a very short (six or seven story) anthology for Amazon Original Stories, which may very well be titled Black Stars.  I have a story in it, too—they insisted!  It’s sort of a mashup of climate change, reparations, and Jimi Hendrix lyrics.  I’m also working on another anthology to appear further down the line, in collaboration with A Big Name I can’t yet reveal.  Finally, Octavia Butler’s literary executor thinks she and I should do a follow-up anthology to Bloodchildren, the limited edition book of stories by recipients of the Butler Scholarship.  Let’s see if I can pull off all four projects.  And perhaps win some more awards?

Nisi Shawl is the author of the Nebula Award finalist novel Everfair, an alternate history set in the nineteenth and twentieth century Congo, and of the Tiptree Award-winning collection Filter House, praised by Ursula K. Le Guin as “superbly written” and by Samuel R. Delany as “brilliant.”   They’re a co-author of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, an acclaimed text on inclusive representation in imaginative fiction, and editor of the multiple award-winning New Suns anthology.  These days they’re busy drafting a sequel to Everfair, writing a story based on a Jimi Hendrix song, and taking their cat for relaxing walks around Lake Washington.

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Where do you get your ideas? by David Allen

Many SFF writers say they get asked this.

Neil Gaiman has said he’s responded ‘from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. On the same lines, Harlan Ellison is reputed to have said ‘Schenectady’. Another response that I’ve come across in my reading is to name a fictitious source – like the ‘Idea-of-the-Month-Club’ – but then add that you have to be a published author before you can get any ideas from it.

The truth is there is no single source of ideas and for many writers the only answer is ‘I don’t know, they just happen’ Or, as one writer said, ‘I don’t get ideas, they get me’.

I think that, when people ask the question, what they are really asking about are plots rather than ideas. But I’m going to take a look at ideas because a plot is what happens when you start asking questions about the idea.

So, where do ideas come from?

People who ask the question sometimes seem to think authors lie about where they get their ideas, as if it’s a big secret and there’s a conspiracy to obfuscate. If there is I haven’t been invited to join it.

One piece of advice commonly given in books on writing is ‘write about what you know’ but I’m not sure how useful this is. Fine for an SFF writer who happens to be an astronaut, scientist or witch, but that doesn’t describe many of us. I think what this advice means is take some life experience, particularly one with emotional connotations, and transfer it into the world you’ve been building.

You don’t only need one idea, the one that kick-starts the story. Also needed are many other ideas that help the flow, that put obstacles in your protagonist’s way, and tell you how (s)he reacts.

Another frequently mentioned potential source is dreams. Stephen King attributes many of his ideas to dreams and, as the advice books suggest, he keeps a notebook by his bed to make sure he doesn’t forget them. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do me any good – I never remember dreams when I wake up. In any case, I’m not sure how useful dream ideas might be, dream logic isn’t plot logic.

Answering ‘what if …’ is supposed to be another way of getting ideas. The trick here is to recognise when there is potential in asking the question and then doing something with the answer. Neil Gaiman said that ideas aren’t the hard bit, you can get ideas from being bored and it’s harder sitting down and putting one word after another.

Everybody gets ideas. The difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the former does something with the ideas they get and the latter doesn’t. That may sound glib but there is a corollary in that the writer has to decide at some stage if a particular idea is worth following up, a situation the non-writer never experiences. It’s in the following up that the story develops.

The first time I was asked the question I was rather chuffed as it made me feel part of the authorial community.

An idea can be stimulated by almost anything. Here are some of mine;

Short story Missing Apolcalypse (my first published story) – reading about the Chixulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs made me wonder ‘what if it wasn’t an impact after all but an experiment by intelligent dinosaurs that got out of control?’

Short story Up or Down – Combined my love of scuba diving and the concept of genetic modification to produce a race of mermen.

Novel – The Empty Throne (my first novel) – An image of an armoured man standing guard in front of an unoccupied throne. I don’t know where I saw it, or even if I saw it at all instead of imagining it. Essentially I wrote the book to find out why he was there and why the throne was empty.

Novel – Quaestor – The initial concept came from a weekend creative writing course when the class was asked to write about a place with a personality. Mine was an inn that had multiple doors to many other places. At the end of the course I parked it in the Ideas folder on my computer. Many years later I resurrected it for Milford and attached it to another idea about a vampire who doesn’t drink blood but takes magic from its victims.

I haven’t found any commonality between the ideas behind any of my works, completed, junked or in progress.

***

So, where DO you get your ideas?

David M Allan was born and educated in Edinburgh. He became a radiologist and moved to England to work (and to help civilise the English). After working for the NHS for almost 40 years he retired and took up writing. His home is on a houseboat on the Thames.
http://davidmallan.com/

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Six Questions answered by N.M. Browne

  1. Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I always wanted to be a writer, but did nothing about it for years Following a stint as a teacher, an MBA and a brief period as a marketing exec at an oil company, I finally accepted the inevitable. I’ve been writing and teaching writing for years now and although I should be good at it, I am very bad at marketing.

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

I always liked writing but apart from a bit of student journalism at Oxford and some horrific teenage poetry, I only wrote in school. Then my dad died just before my thirtieth birthday. He was a gifted painter but gave up exhibiting to support us. It made me realise that life is too short to put things off. My sister, who is also a painter bought me an expensive word processor she couldn’t afford to encourage me. I felt so guilty, I started writing. I sent several of my children’s stories to Barry Cunningham who was starting a new list. He liked them, rang me up to arrange a meeting and commissioned my first children’s book: ‘The Extraordinary Lightening Conductor.’ I was very lucky.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I’m not sure I know how to write anything else. Even my stories for very young children included a space bug who spoke in nonsense words and an alien who translated them.

My first degree was in philosophy and theology. I’m most interested in ideas and how what people believe constructs their world and the way they live in it. Thinking about how things could be other obliges you to look at how things are now and I think that is really exciting. I love the fact that the only limits on what I can write about lie within my own imagination and my own lack of knowledge, though both are more limiting than I’d like. I love the openness and freedom the genre offers. Starting a new book is jumping into the unknown. It makes writing incredibly special.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

Um. I like reading. I am good at concentrating and my typing is not as bad as it used to be? I am a strategic thinker, I suppose, logical and inclined to explore an argument to its conclusion. Teaching creative writing has improved my own editing skills I think. I was brought up in Lancashire by Welsh parents and as a bookish girl at a not very bookish comprehensive school, I always felt an outsider. That seems to be quite common in writers. I’ve brought up four children and thus far had a fortunate life and perhaps that makes even my bleak stories optimistic at their core.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

I have just published my tenth YA novel with Kristell Ink/Grimbold publishing. It’s set in a drowned London after global warming has destroyed our current society. Some people have seen it as dystopian – and everything is broken – but my main character, Ollu, a barger, and her allies Buzz, a genetically engineered boy, and Ratter, an ex slave from the toxic old City, don’t see their world that way. It’s an old fashioned adventure story with positive messages about the value of friendship, courage and sticking to your guns when everyone is trying to take them off you. The critic Amanda Craig, described it as a terrific, watery Mad Max adventure and that’s pretty well what it is. It was fun to write.

What’s next?

I haven’t done a story with magic for a while so I’m currently working out the details of my secondary world for another portal fantasy. This one is also about families and fate – finding one and escaping the other – but I’m only a quarter way through so the details are still a little unclear. It feels like it could be good though.

N M Browne has published ten YA novels.She has been twice nominated for the Carnegie medal and translated into Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. She has published eight books for young children as ‘Nicola Matthews’ and has had poetry published in a number of literary magazines as ‘Nick Browne’ and is working on a debut collection. She acts as a manuscript doctor and writing mentor and is currently teaching for Oxford University Continuing Education department as ‘Dr Nicky Browne.’ Apart from these multiple identity issues, she lives an unremarkable life in SW London with her husband and whichever of her four children needs a bed.

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Liz Williams Reports on Eastercon 2021

First of all, absolutely well done to everyone concerned for pulling this off. I am amazed that we have had a convention at all and given the strain that this year has placed upon everyone, I think the con committee, volunteers and everyone involved needs to give themselves a round of applause. I am certainly applauding you.

I should make it clear that although this is appearing on the Milford blog, and a number of Milford attendees have been involved in running the con, my views are my own and based entirely on my own experience at the convention. I can’t speak for anyone else. For example, with regard to access: I do not have a disability and thus am not in a position to comment from an informed point of view.

Therefore, from my own perspective, these were my main pros and cons. I’ll start with the cons first and then go onto the positives, so please bear this in mind. I also don’t want to single out individuals for anything negative: I’m keeping this objective.

  1. Communication/tech

This was an issue for me. I’m not a gamer and I have the ability, when introduced to new technology, to screw it up in new and surprising ways. Got a shiny new app? Give it to Dr Destructo here and she’ll find a way to completely mess it up for you. I ought to hire myself out for destructive testing.

What I really didn’t want to have happen was for me to be given some new instruction or have to download a new programme at the last minute – e.g. 5 minutes before a panel was due to start. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. So:

  1. Tell programme participants well in advance the precise steps they need to do to get onto their panel, and when they can expect a link. As happens on Zoom: you get sent a link a few days in advance. This would have reduced 85% of my stress.

I did look at the videos, but they told me everything I didn’t need to know: I know I can hitch up my laptop to the TV, but what I needed to know was how to get onto my panels. I didn’t know what Discord was. People kept telling me it was ‘the other server’ but I don’t know what that means in real terms. Eventually someone told me that it’s a kind of chat forum – thank you! This is all I need to know.

I didn’t get the link to one panel because my email got mangled halfway through and anything sent to me disappeared into the aether. We realised this about a minute before the final panel of the con and fixed it.

  • A proper map (there is a map but initially reading rooms were on it as ‘party rooms’ and the locations, such as, crucially, Green Room, were not shown adequately on the map or on Gather at the start. I only managed to find Green Room by following Ian Whates, and I learned how to unfollow people from him, otherwise poor Ian would have had my little avatar trundling after him all weekend like a lost puppy).
  • Gather Town: I have not used Gather before and I really felt I needed a guided tour of the actual Gather space, not a test. I did find it challenging: I couldn’t see the point of the long corridor, the Holodeck was roped off, and I thought you got into the programme spaces by hovering the avatar over the number – I didn’t realise there was a doorway. Farah has said that a hub with spokes would have been better – absolutely.

Back to back panels with no gaps: this should be easier in the virtual, but if you ‘walked’ through Gather you would be late and if via the website/email links, you’d need to keep checking your email.

I understand that Gather is not mobile friendly? I don’t use a mobile phone but I’m unusual. Also, although I’m on a laptop, Gather is on beta on Safari on the Mac. This didn’t help and I didn’t feel up to wrestling with downloading Chrome at this stage. I understand that Gather can be a lot more user friendly if designed with the customer base in mind. While a lot of SF fans are gamers, a lot are not and the learning curve for some of us is pretty steep. I have struggled before with tech types going into long digressions about how cool something is when all I want is to just use the damn thing. I don’t mind putting in some effort, but the easier it is to use, and the better informed I am, the happier I am. Otherwise I find it really stressful. REALLY stressful.

We did, however, learn from one another in a kind of ‘all hands to the pump’ way, mainly via Facebook.

I understand this version of Gather was ‘pay by the minute’ so perhaps it was too expensive to do a real walk through?

  • Panels: Some people said that the panels were too much like watching TV. I don’t mind this but some people did. Streaming it alongside a chat would be a good idea as it allows the audience to feel that they’re participating – and it’s easier to ask questions. Not all questions might be answered, but a lot of people who do Zoom conferences are used to this. Also, although this was sorted out, having the wrong names for panellists isn’t a good look – though resolved, if I’m billed as Gertrude Manly-Earblossom, and she is billed as me, and fans don’t know what we look like (why would they?) and take this as face value, and I then say something outrageous for which Gertrude is blamed all over Twitter….you can see the problem. We can all see the funny side of it BUT.

I don’t really care if there’s a countdown clock or the format of the screens. I have a clock on the laptop and I’m used to speaking to time as I, and quite a lot of other panellists, are teachers.

Some panellists also felt that the lack of a perceived audience was offputting: I didn’t have this problem because I treated it like radio, and I’m used to doing radio.

  • Website: someone told me about the link to ‘today’s events’ – I had a terrible job finding it and when I read in the initial email that there would be links on the website, I thought the links were on the main programme page. More idiot-proofing required…

Summary: did I get stressed over the level of technology? Yes, very – but I ought to note that this was a bit disproportionate to the actual context. It’s a me thing, not a tech thing: it’s only a SF convention, we’re not battling against time to save the world.

How to solve this:

  • better communication further in advance (expectation management)
  • consult a range of your client base first (from experienced gamers to complete numpties like myself)
  • don’t make the classic tech mistake of getting carried away by the shiny. I don’t care how cool it looks, I just want it to work. I’m sure the programme staff feel the same! I don’t know how much training they had but I suspect it was not enough, and unfamiliarity with the platforms put a number of us off volunteering when a belated call for volunteers went out over the weekend (however, from the feedback I think this has been taken on board).

These were the negatives for me. The following are the positives:

The Hay Lecture was excellent.

The Art Show was fantastic. Top quality and it was like being in a private view.

The programme content overall was very good. I have checked out a number of panels and they’ve all been excellent.

Once I’d got my head round Gather (sort of), I found it a better experience than I’d expected. It was frustrating at times but I could wander into the Green Room and the Dealers Room and chat to people. I’ve had some great conversations via Gather this weekend and there have been several people here who don’t normally come to E/con – as a result of distance (Australians, yay) or because people usually celebrate Easter at home and could thus drop in and out. This was a huge plus for me as I spoke to people whom I don’t usually see at the con. And on Gather there were fewer distractions than in a real life bar, so I’ve had longer chats with people.

I believe that lessons will be learned and hopefully carried forward. This was an experiment under unusual circumstances, mistakes were inevitable but can be corrected.

Would I like to see the accounts? Yes, please – as one of your paying customers.

We are all very conscious that everyone has been working very hard behind the scenes to make this work and have given up their Easter weekend. We all know that it’s been a struggle and that without this, there would have been no Eastercon. Despite the technical hitches, I think a virtual con with a bit of stress and glitches has been better than no con at all. Do I feel that I’ve been to a convention? Yes. A weird one in which I am somehow in my house! Have I torn my hair out a bit? Yes. Have I learned stuff? Yes. Have I enjoyed it? – a bit of a curate’s egg but overall, once my nerves have recovered, I will look back on this as a positive experience. I would like once more to thank everyone concerned.

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The Significance of Significance by Dave Gullen

If you are like me there are things you know but you don’t realise you do until someone else explicitly puts it into words. They are ‘unknown knowns’ – not because we refuse to acknowledge them but simply because they have not yet explicitly been put into our toolkit of concepts.

A recent one for me was the concept of significance in story. By this I mean that the action, speech, encounters and locations in a narrative are not simply incidental moments, they are profound in that they are some of the building blocks of the story you are telling.

It took a character in the compelling Westworld TV series to bring this into focus. Why did people like visiting Westworld, the character asked? What fulfilment did it bring them that was lacking in their lives? The answer was significance. Visitors engaged with Westworld so strongly because every conversation, every encounter, every host they met was significant. For the human visitors Westworld was a gateway into a realm of stories. Each word and deed meant something and the way they responded steered them into and through one or more of those stories.

It struck me how similar this was to LARP (Live-Action Role-play). One of the great appeals of LARP is that the character you assume is filled with significance. You, along with your companions (some of whom may be your friends in real life) are not only involved in important events, often opposing great injustice, evil, or sheer nastiness, your words and deeds will make a real difference to the way the whole game world turns. You all, as you negotiate, chew gum, and take names, have significance.

True significance brings consequences. Fights are not always won, not everything goes your way. Make a mistake and you or other characters will die. When that happens a persona you may have spent years inhabiting, one that has developed their own web or relationships with other characters, is gone.

If the Westworld concept has a flaw it is exactly that – the park guests really can act without consequence and I think that, as players, makes them lack sincerity. For them there is no jeopardy in what they do. A bug or a feature? There was certainly emotional consequence for some. I could now very happily go down a very deep rabbit hole about what this implies for The Man in Black, because at least he took it all seriously; and how the journeys of hosts like Dolores and Maeve are not only an attempt to gain autonomy but also to claim a degrees of significance for their own actions. On the one hand guests enjoy free action without consequence, while the hosts suffer consequences without free action. Westworld is, after all, a nested rabbit-hole of stories within a story within a story.

It used to be a source of wonder to me that a person could pretend to be another person. Much later I realised that everything in human society is a story. We are our own stories, people tell stories about us, about history and science and politics, and everything. I think we humans may only really do two things: we match patterns (I’m fairly convinced everything we do and think is driven by pattern-matching)and we tell stories about them.

I didn’t write any fiction while I was a table-top roleplayer. I’d considered it, and perhaps everyone who reads voraciously and has adventurous daydreams has those thoughts, but at the time I never seriously wanted to. I enjoyed the playing, but I also ran my own games. I built worlds, I created conflicts and challenges to the best of my abilities. Looking back, I can see it was a different way for me to tell stories for the characters everyone else wanted to play. A short time after I stopped gaming I started writing.

That gaming and reading and later on LARPing helped me learn a lot about telling stories, as indeed did reading and watching good TV and film and theatre.

Subconsciously I knew things needed one form or another of significance. For me significance is profoundly important in story, just as important as all the other necessaries — including character, tension, and situation. Everything in a story should be significant. Not necessarily profound, or deep, or earth-shaking, but simply relevant to the story you are telling. And hand in hand with that significance for your characters there must be consequence. If there’s no risk, no potential or actual price, the moment is inconsequential and there is no tension. And what happens then? Reader, I stopped reading.

You can find significance in structure too. Another series I enjoyed was The Witcher, except that not only did it jump back and forth through the narrative timeline, there seemed to be no reason for it. I’ve seen this in fiction too, also often without bringing much to the party beyond an illusion of intricacy. Compare these to Westworld, which also dances back and forth in time, but with great success. The revelation that certain events preceded or were preceded by others was intrinsic to the narrative. It wasn’t just a clever sleight of hand, it was the best way to tell the story.  

Why is significance so compelling? Perhaps it’s born of frustration with our own lives, perhaps we all want to be heroes and have grand adventures. For me I think living in a world where my actions lack significance gives me the freedom to decide what is actually important to me. Although there is always risk and consequence I also know I’m fortunate to be in the position where I have choices in my life. In fact I can choose to be insignificant, and that’s quite a nice thing. Some days the sun shines and I’m perfectly content growing parsnips in the garden as opposed to being sent off to fight the dread Lich King and risk my soul being enslaved in perpetual torment for all eternity. But perhaps that’s just me.

Previously published on BSFA Focus magazine #71 as ‘The Significance’

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David Gullen has sold over 40 short stories to various magazines, anthologies and podcasts. 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 has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards. His 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.

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Six Questions answered by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I’m Nigerian, but I’ve lived in three countries (probably will soon be living in my fourth). I’ve been writing since 2012 or thereabouts but didn’t start taking it seriously until about 2015. I sold my first novel, David Mogo, Godhunter in 2018 (after bringing it to Milford the year before), and my next novel, Son of the Storm, first in The Nameless Republic trilogy, is out May 13 in the UK. 

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

I think the first short story I sold (i.e. I was paid for) was called “Places,” and was published by the now-on-hiatus Mothership Zeta circa 2015/16. The magazine had just launched as an offshoot of the Escape Artists group, and was looking for fresh stories and new voices (I remember the same magazine launched with writers like Sarah Gailey, who is now major in the SFF world). I was a young professional working 9-5 in Lagos back then, but I was still squeezing out time to write. I sent it across, and they loved it. I wouldn’t say it kickstarted my desire to take writing fully seriously–and eventually spur me to write my first novel–but I wouldn’t not say that either.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I think of writing speculative fiction as being able to isolate often usual or banal matters in a way that allows them to be seen in high contrast, against a background where they don’t often get placed, and therefore, in a whole new light. I’ve been watching The Expanse recently, and I’ve been thinking that not a lot of it is terribly new. But just the scale of the political struggles sheds new light on how ill-taken decisions affect whole populations, planets and even species. That’s the beauty of speculative fiction: it’s a prism through which you can look at something you’ve looked at all your life, but this one time, at the other end are new angles, patterns and visionscape you’d never quite considered.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

Organising! I think there is nothing more important to a writer than staying organized and setting time apart to work, play, exercise, etc. I think it’s not often something that comes naturally to the practice of artistry, but needs to be honed and practiced according to one’s needs.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project What’s next?

I’m writing Book #2 of The Nameless Republic trilogy, which will hit shelves sometime in 2022, after Son of the Storm. Other than that, I’m working on a couple of things, most of which I’m not able to divulge at this time. But for a recent publication: I just received my contributor’s copy of Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda from Marvel/Titan Books. It’s the first Black Panther short story anthology ever, and I have a story in it titled, “Stronger In Spirit.”

Suyi Davies Okungbowa is the author of Son of the Storm (Orbit, May 2021), first in The Nameless Republic epic fantasy trilogy, and the godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019). His shorter works have appeared internationally in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and anthologies like Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. He earned his MFA at the University of Arizona. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies on Instagram. Learn more at suyidavies.com.

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Schenectady – a short story by David Gullen

The air was wet with the promise of rain, yet it would not rain. Vernon could smell it as he walked across the lawn of his garden. His rather nice garden. Underneath that promise was another, a salt tang, a message born in on the wind. It was time.

#

Dora had been pleased with her story when she first wrote it. Now she felt crushed. The group hadn’t been brutal, not wilfully. Never that. it was just honest opinion from fellow writers who all wanted to succeed, and wanted her to succeed too. So she kept telling herself.

She thought some of the newer writers like Joe and Abby might even have been impressed, but no, they simply pointed out all the flaws they thought stopped it becoming a better story. Only Ian had liked it. Even though he mostly wrote science fiction Ian was the only one who seemed to get what she was doing. And Vernon, he had liked it too, at least a bit.

“This is a good story, Dora, well-written in your usual style.” Vernon paused in that way he always paused. He stroked his white beard and gave an apologetic smile. “But –”

With Vernon there was almost always a “but”. And he had been right, too. She could see that now, how the encounters could be more vivid, the dialogue sharper, which scenes could be cut. The first three pages were a wasteland.

The emails she had from agents and editors often contained one of those “buts”.

After the session Ian and Dora walked from the pub where the group met, down to the station through the city streets. The evening crowds were light, the pavements wide. As they walked their shoulders occasionally bumped. Once, their hands brushed together.

Dora took a breath. “What do you think of Vernon’s writing? I mean – really.”

“Feeling jealous, Dora?”

“No. Well, yes, a little. It’s just that I think he’s not actually that good. I mean, he’s not a bad writer, but he’s not great. We put him up on a pedestal because he’s published, and he’s so successful. There are other people in the group who are just as good. People with just as much imagination.”

“Lidia is really good.” Lidia was their newest member, from Eastern Europe, Estonia. Young and energetic, tall and slender in that graceful long-limbed East European way, Lidia was regularly getting published and getting recognition, building a reputation. And writing in English, her third language. There, if anywhere, was a source of jealousy. Dora didn’t feel it. “That’s what I mean.”

“And you, Dora. That story of yours today was great.” Ian made eye contact. “It had real emotional punch.”

It felt natural for his arm to go around her shoulder, her arm around his waist. She held him tight.

“You’re good, too, you know.”

Ian gave a short laugh, a lopsided grin. “I do keep getting those glowing rejections.”

“Vernon says you’re the best writer in the group.”

Ian laughed again. “Apart from Vernon.”

Every year one, two, sometimes even three Vernon Grainger books hit the shelves. Science fiction, fantasy, historical drama, occasionally thrillers or even detective drama. All were “Vernon Grainger” books. Other authors envied his effortless ability to move between genres, Publishers Weekly called him “a modern phenomenon”, a quote his publisher put on every front cover.

“He’s has to be doing something right. Two books a year, he works really hard,” Dora said.

“And his ideas are great.”

They waited at the station for their trains. Ian’s arrived first. Dora hugged him, kissed his cheek beside his mouth, smiled into his eyes. “You’ll get there. I know you will.”

“Maybe. Whatever Vernon’s got I wish I had some.”

“Amen to that.”

#

Dora was right, Vernon worked very hard indeed. Sometimes he ground the words out one at a time, sometimes they flowed like there was a river of prose welling up inside. Most of the time he just wrote.

It wasn’t enough. It never had been.

All Vernon had ever wanted was to write. To write you had to live, and to live –

Years before his hair turned grey, then white, before the signature beard, before he became one of the Grand Old Men of Fiction, Vernon realised that in itself writing was not going to be enough. To avoid some tedious time-consuming energy-sapping day job, to have a proper shot at this writing life and take it seriously as a professional, then sacrifices would have to be made.

So he made them.

#

Ian didn’t come to the next meeting. Dora didn’t mind too much. Since that last meeting they had exchanged a few emails, chatted online. Once – heart in her mouth – a phone call. She just thought he might have let her know.

He didn’t come to the next meeting either. No emails. No online updates.

Dora wondered if he was ill. “Has anyone heard from Ian?”

“Sorry, no,” Vernon said.

Everyone else was more interested in the story Lidia was telling:

“I’ve arrived.” Lidia covered her mouth when she laughed. “Somebody actually asked me where I get my ideas from. I’m a real writer now.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Wholesale from Boise, Idaho?”

“Father Christmas!”

“The little old lady…?”

Vernon sat back and smiled. “Where was that, Lidia?”

“At a friend’s party. I was telling them about –” Lidia’s eyes were bright. “I haven’t told you yet, I think I might have an agent.”

Vernon sat forward. He wanted to know everything. Who that agent was (he knew them, obviously), what they had said.

“It’s not certain yet,” Lidia said. “They just said they’d take a look at my novel.”

“You won’t leave us, will you?” Dora said. “It’s such a shame that the best writers leave.”

Joe and Abby agreed: “We need your advice.”

Lidia promised. “I’ve learned so much from you guys.”

Vernon grimaced and for a fleeting moment he looked sick. He finished his beer in two great gulps. “Who wants a drink? We should celebrate. My round.” Dora, like everyone except Vernon, didn’t like to have a drink until the meeting was over. Vernon took an order for soft drinks and went downstairs to the bar.

Lidia smiled, she covered her mouth. “Vernon drinks a lot.”

Joe grinned. “He’s a professional! One day we’ll all have to drink as much as Vernon.”

“I don’t think I could.”

Dora leaned forwards and touched Lidia’s forearm. “Thanks for saying you won’t leave.”

“Does nobody ever come back? You’d think… You’d think one of them would.”

“Wilf does,” Joe said. “Every now and then.”

Wilf was from before Lidia’s time. First he had an agent, then a three-book deal. Everyone was so pleased. Vernon called him the one that got away.

“We just have to accept it. They’ve got deadlines now.”

“I guess they think they don’t need the group any more.”

“I’d just like to think writers aren’t all selfish. Paying it forwards.”

“Actually, it’s not people like Wilf,” Abby said. “He’s still around, still writing. It’s the ones who start to make a bit of progress, a few short stories published, and then – they just drop out of sight.”

Abby had just described Ian. Dora hoped it wasn’t true, Ian was a good writer, his ideas were clever, funny, witty, and original. He’d been in anthologies, he was writing a novel, his third unpublished novel. She liked Ian, she thought Ian had liked her. Dora looked up and saw Vernon standing at the door with a tray, listening.

Vernon started forwards, put down the tray and handed round the drinks. He raised his glass to Lidia. “Congratulations. Keep this up and you’ll be the best writer in the group.”

#

“Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Mr Grainger –”

“Please, Vernon.”

“Phew, OK. What are you working on, Vernon?”

“It’s a kind of a horror, a children’s fantasy that goes wrong, terribly wrong. There’s a theme of trust, and betrayal of trust. Innocents and innocence against the night…”

“It sounds quite twisted!”

“I’m having a lot of fun with it. I get paid to do this, you know, I have to keep reminding myself.”

“It feels like your writing is getting darker.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Is it that a market-driven thing?”

“No, not at all. I don’t want to write to the market, I never have. Obviously there are realities, things that have to be satisfied. Do that, give them what they want and then you’re free to do what you want. As time goes by, as I’ve got older, I’ve become more interested in certain aspects of the world, what people have to do to survive. There’s no grand message, I’m still writing to entertain, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Some things get under your skin, the realities of life, the way things actually are.”

“You’re in a writing group –”

“That’s right. Always looking for new members, good writers who want to develop.”

“It sounds like they’re lucky to have you.”

“Not at all. People don’t understand how these things work. I’m lucky to have them.”

#

Ian woke in the dark, upright, restrained. Splayed. Naked. The air was warm. He couldn’t remember. He didn’t panic. He was proud of that, that under the cold God-awful fear that dried his mouth and whirled in his mind, his guts, his soul, he somehow kept it together.

He tested the bonds, thick leather straps, tight and secure at wrist and upper arm, his ankle, knee, and thigh, around his waist and throat. He was laid out on an X-shaped frame, his feet on a surface. The space he was in felt low, the air stale. He was underground, a basement.

He thought about screaming then decided not to. Whoever it was didn’t know he was awake. He had some time and needed to make the best use of it. Keeping it all together.

Ian turned his head left and right. In the far left-hand corner was a blue glow, a pilot light. On the right an impenetrable blank space. Something clicked in the black, a loud metal snap. Ian jerked in his bonds and bit down on his cry. He knew what that was, a timer relay, mundane and ordinary. There – the roar of gas, the blue light grew as the boiler came alight.

The dimmest of dim glows from the boiler’s window showed a low ceiling, a wide empty room, bare walls, a work bench. The black space resolved into a reflective black wall. Ian frowned, a wall of glass. A two-way mirror.

Something thumped the glass and the whole long wall of it quivered. Ian struggled and strained, they knew he was awake, infra-red cameras. They were coming! Terrified, Ian felt his balls crawling back inside his body.

The boiler burned for ten long minutes then clicked off.

Ian waited.

“Help me,” he said, oddly self-conscious. It sounded like a question. He was thirsty, his mouth dry. “Help me!” he said louder, then shouted at the top of his voice: “Help me. Please, help!”

His own voice mocked him, horribly loud in the silence. He was very frightened.

Dear God, I’ve never prayed to you before. I beg you, help me now. dear God of love, blessed Jesus.

Ian hung in the straps. Alone in the dark the fear was exhausting. He closed his eyes and went – away.

#

A light snapped on, bright and white. Vernon walked in dressed in navy overalls and black wellington boots. Vernon. Ian blinked awake. Vernon.

“Vernon. Christ, what are you doing? Let me go.”

Vernon said nothing. He walked across to the work bench and busied himself there.

Ian saw the room was tiled, like a swimming pool, the glass wall the side of an enormous aquarium. He watched Vernon lay out a red cloth edged in white, a shallow bowl, a heavy book. “What are you doing?”

Vernon ignored Ian and stepped back. Ian saw he had laid out a small altar. Muttering, prayers, the scrape of a match. Incense smoke plumed and scrolled in the still air. A drift of smoke caught in Ian’s throat, an acrid stink, reeking and ammoniacal.

Vernon faced Ian. He was sweating, his eyes hooded. “Would you like a drink?”

“What are you doing? Let me go, Vernon.”

“Would you like a drink, Ian?”

Ian thought this through, the need to establish rapport. “Water. Please.”

“Would you like something stronger?”

“No.”

Vernon breathed deep, the overalls tight against his paunch. He took a quarter-bottle of cheap whisky out of his pocket, opened it and drank. “I don’t have any water.”

Ian felt very calm, almost like he was in control. “Whisky, then. Thank you.”

Vernon held the bottle to Ian’s mouth. He drank the raw whisky in gulps and swallows, felt it burn its way down into his stomach.

“More?”

Ian nodded. By the time he pulled back the bottle was three-quarters empty. Vernon returned to the altar and lit two candles that burned with a strange empty light.

The light penetrated the glass wall and shone through the water like twin beacons, reaching far back, and down, down. Ian struggled with the gigantic shift in perspective, very glad now he had that drink. This was not a tank in Vernon’s basement, the glass was a window to a dark ocean.

 “Vernon… Where…?”

Vernon’s lips were tight with tension, his small neat teeth showed through his white beard. “You do understand, don’t you, Ian? I need to know this. You’re the best writer in the group. Tell me you understand. Please.”

“No, I don’t bloody understand. You’re jealous? Is that it? Whatever you’re going to do, stop it and let me go.” Ian put every ounce of command and authority he has into his voice: “Vernon. Let me go!”

A tick pulsed in the corner of Vernon’s eye. “I only do this when I have to.” The corner of his mouth twitched in a reflex grimace. He looked away, through the glass wall. “I have my deadlines, too.”

Something enormous rushed up out of the depths, huge and implacable. It thumped against the window and the glass boomed and rippled. The creature writhed in front of the candles pulsing colours Ian had never seen, new colours. For the briefest moment he marvelled that he could see them.

Then the creature unfolded into a vast new shape, coiling, twisting. Ian saw an eye. An enormous eye. It looked at him, into him, through him, and – Oh God! He felt its hunger.

“Vernon!”

The thing in the tank pressed against the glass. Long arms twisted, rows of flat muscular plates, toothed sphincters clenched and gaped. Beaked mouths, a dozen mouths, a hundred eyes. Vernon gave a long shudder and turned back to Ian, his eyes glazed, his mouth slack and wet. There was a golden knife in his hand, the wide blade curved like a claw.

For a moment Vernon stood stock still. Then he laid his hand on Ian’s naked stomach. “Everyone has a story inside them, Ian. It’s time to find yours.”

David Gullen’s short fiction has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies. His SF novel, Shopocalypse, published by Newcon press, is available from all good highstreet and online bookstores, as is his recent anthology, Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales. David was born in Africa and baptised by King Neptune He has lived in England most of his life and has been telling stories for as long as he can remember. He currently lives behind several tree ferns in South London with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold. He is the current Chair of the Milford SF convention. Website: http://davidgullen.com/
Twitter: Dergullen

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David Allan Answers Questions

David Allan

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Born and brought up in Edinburgh, including going to university there to qualify as a doctor. Studied radiology in Edinburgh and Oxford, then worked for the NHS in Dartford for 39 years. On retirement moved to south-west London to live on a houseboat on the Thames.

2 How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

As a long time reader of SFF I had speculated about writing it for years but did nothing about it. That changed about 2005 because I read one book I thought was so bad that I said ‘I could do better than that’. Having said that I obviously had to do something about it so I started going to creative writing evening and weekend classes. After retirement I discovered there was an MA course at Middlesex with a specific focus on SFF, got a place on that and started being serious about writing. After many rejections I finally sold my short story Missing Apocalypse to Mad Scientist Journal.

3 What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

Writers like Aaronovitch, Anderson, Banks, Bester, Bujold … (the list goes on and on all the way to Zelazny) … have entertained and stimulated me so much over the years that the idea of being part of a similar list for other people is a very attractive one. I can’t, being realistic about it, hope to match these giants of the field, but I can try and it gives me immense satisfaction whenever an editor says ‘yes’ to something I’ve written.

4 What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?

I think my life skills have developed as a result of my professional career. This required a willingness to learn, attention to detail and an analytical approach to the problems I was presented with. I believe these have been valuable in my writing.

5 Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My third novel Thiever (a sequel to my second) has been accepted for publication by Elsewhen Press. Hopefully it will be published sometime this year. I have started work on another fantasy novel.

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Game of Thrones Revisited by Jacey Bedford

First posted on August 25, 2020 on Jacey Bedford’s Blog

Spoilers ahead… but if you haven’t watched the last season by now, where have you been?

game-of-thrones-headerJust after Game of Thrones finished, Iain Grant sent some questions about Game of Thrones. I know the ending was contentious, but though I would have wished for a happier ending, I wasn’t honestly expecting one. Here are Iain’s questions and my answers.

You’re Cersei. Your city is about to be attacked by a fire breathing dragon and the dragon queen’s army. How would you have successfully defended King’s Landing?

If I’m Cersei, and if I have a modicum of common sense, I won’t even try to defend King’s Landing against a fire breathing dragon AND a superior army. I’ll leave Qyburn in charge and head for the nearest unobtrusive (but comfortable) boat with a bucket of gold, jewels and (hopefully) my best brother. I will skulk in a sheltered cove until all danger of being flamed from above by Drogon has passed. I would, of course, have laid very nasty (explosive) traps as revenge for losing my hold on the Seven Kingdoms. Should Qyburn and the Golden Company prevail I will slip back into the Red Keep again as unobtrusively as I left. I have already stashed a large amount of Lannister gold with the Iron Bank of Bravos against the eventuality of having to cut and run.

Gendry-Joe_Dempsie

If you could have crowned any GoT character apart from Bran, who would you have put on the Iron Throne and why?

Gendry of House Baratheon. Because he knows the common people. He has little experience of ruling and court politics, so he would appoint Tyrion and Davos as joint Hands of the King. Sadly he still won’t get Arya Stark as his lady, but I’m sure that, in time, he’ll find a nice princess from Dorne who will bear him many children. They will be brought up sensibly, educated by Samwell and Brienne, and not spoiled rotten.

You’re the hand of the king. King’s Landing is in ruins. The kingdom is a mess. Winter is here. What would be your key policies and first acts as de facto ruler of the kingdom?

Tyrion

If I’m Tyrion Lannister I’ll put some of my family’s gold to good use. The first job is to feed and shelter the survivors and set up some treatment for the wounded. (Food from High Garden.) All the surviving soldiers would have to bury or burn the bodies before they became a health hazard. I would personally say words for the dead because I need the people to believe that I care, but I won’t let the ‘church’ gain too much power ever again. Morale is important. After the immediate clean-up I would send most of the foreign soldiers back home, Dothraki, especially as they will only cause trouble if they have nothing much to do. The Unsullied can stay and help the rebuild if they want to, since they don’t really have a home to return to. I will treat the population well because it’s the only way to have them at my back against any outside enemies (rather than circling around behind me with sharpened implements). I will bring in as many maesters as I can prise out of Old Town to heal the hurts that can be healed, because a healthy population is key to rebuilding. I’ll put most of King’s Landing’s surviving soldiers to work rebuilding the city. First of all I’ll direct them to build temporary accommodation – shanty-town shelters using timber from Euron Greyjoy’s destroyed fleet and what can be rescued from the rubble. Once the people are not in immediate danger of freezing or starving to death or dying of disease caused by rotting corpses, I’ll put the skilled ones to work (for a fair wage) to rebuild the city and its walls. I’ll have a well thought out plan for the new city. No more Fleabottoms. The population is smaller, now, so there will be more space. I’ll give them decent houses with fresh water and drains, with roads wide enough to be passable by refuse carts. Maybe I need to clear a quarter of the city at a time and rebuild it properly, from scratch.

You’re the hand of the king. Davos, Samwell, Brienne and Bronn have all quit your small council (sorry). Which GoT characters would you appoint to your small council in what role and why? Do not be afraid to focus on just one.

If Bran is king, then Gendry is available for the small council. He knows the common people and he learns fast. He’s strong, but even tempered and practical. I’d put him in charge of rebuilding the city. Illyrio Mopatis was working with Varys and seemed to have similar aims. He might be worth calling up to be master of coin. Perhaps Podrick would also be a sensible choice. A female council member would be good, but not Yara Greyjoy, she’s too short-tempered. Possibly Gilly, she’s brighter than she seemed at first and she’s got a healthy helping of common sense.

Game of Thrones, Series 8. Was it a triumph or a disappointment? Tell us why.

A triumph, I think (with a few qualifiers). It wasn’t what I might have written, but it’s not my story, and I’ve been following all the seasons avidly. It rounded off a lot of story arcs well. I didn’t like Dany going from good-ish to evil in sucj a short time, but it was foreshadowed by the number of people she’d already flamed unnecessarily – the Tarlys and Varys for instance. Jon was the only possible candidate for having to do the dirty deed, but Tyrion also didn’t make the decision lightly. It was a good twist and proved the earlier comment ‘If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.’ The fact that Dany immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was Jon who’d betrayed her when Tyrion went to tell her about Varys, shows that she would have turned on Jon sooner or later. Sadly, once she flipped, she was as bonkers as her dad.

Cersei-Jaime

Jaime and Cersei died in each other’s arms, and despite Cersei being the evil bitch queen, in the end she was simply a woman afraid of death. I’m sorry someone as potentially noble as Jaime wasted himself on someone like Cersei, but he loved her unreservedly, so taking responsibility for her and being with her at the end was entirely in his nature. I think he redeemed himself as much as he ever could have. There were some good redemptive deaths. Theon Greyjoy redeemed himself at Winterfell. Jorah Mormont went out the way he would have wanted to, and just at the right time. He would have been horrified and heartbroken if he’d seen Dany turn psycho. (I don’t think he would have been able to stop her if he’d lived.)

The Clegane showdown was very effective, especially since Sandor made Arya see sense at last. (I thought she gave in and changed her mind a bit too quickly, but there’s only so much you can do in six episodes.)

Sansa made a perfectly good Queen in the North. Her arc was completed satisfactorily.

Jon

Jon never wanted power. Going north was a good ending for him. Once he gets to grips with what he did to Dany I believe he’ll have a good life. Tormund won’t let him get too introspective.

I don’t think Bran will be a particularly effective ruler. He’s all about the past, not the future. I wish the producers hadn’t made him quite so wishy-washy. Yes, he came out with a few good lines such as ‘You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.’ But too much mystical bollox is not going to work well for the survivors of King’s Landing and the Six Kingdoms. It needs someone practical – which is, I guess, where Tyrion comes in. He is now de facto ruler of the Six Kingdoms – which Bran would say, is exactly what he’s supposed to be. And he’s the right person for the job. I adore Tyrion.

Arya

There were some personal happy endings. Bronn got his castle. Gendry was legitimised and made Lord of Storm’s End. Brienne became a knight, and though she lost him again, she did almost get her happy ending with Jaime. Podrick survived and got his knighthood. Davos and Tyrion came out on top. Sam became a maester and a father, and is absolutely the nicest character in the whole series.

And now I want to see Jon become King Beyond the Wall, because he still has a lot of unfulfilled potential, and he’s learned such a lot and can do so much good. And I want to see the spinoff series, ‘The Further Adventures of Arya Stark’.

I’m also looking forward to reading the next book, The Winds of Winter, whenever George finishes it. There’s one more book to come after that, I believe. It must be doubly difficult to write the end of the series because we’ve all seen it on telly, but there’s no reason the TV series and the books have to have the same ending. There are lots of places where the book and TV versions differ.

Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are published by DAW in the USA. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

Or via her writing website: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, which includes a link to her mailing list

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