A New Writing Companion. Hint—It’s Not a Cat—by Sarah K Ellis

I was in the middle of a story about an A.I. of all things when the invite to test Sudowrite slid into my inbox. Sudowrite is a GPT-3 program, or a “deep-learning neural network” that generates text via algorithm. Think Plotto for the 21st century, just trained on a corpus of hundreds of billions of words.

Initially, I was flip about it. I’d chuckled through Sunspring, the A.I. scripted movie, with its characters who vomited eyeballs and casually mentioned going out “to the skull,” and I was certain mine would be vaping letter openers while brooding under streetlights made of licorice whips. What I experienced both confirmed and blew away those expectations. It was also a bit deflating.

Sudowrite’s test version is uncomplicated and unthreatening: a white text box on a soft rainbow palette with an easily navigable interface. Above the text box are functions for summarizing, A.I. feedback, plus the fun parts, such as Wormhole, which continues your story, What if (self-explanatory), or Describe, offering suggestions for highlighted text. There are also macro functions, such as a “twist” option that spits out ideas for overall plot. I’ve yet to explore many of the latter features, so I’ll just give a rundown on the first two. 

I tested Wormhole with this chapter opener from a work in progress, a book about a magic and old Hollywood cinema.

If you were to take a turn down Sydney Street on a certain Saturday during the first week of August, you might think you’d stepped into the pre-war 1940s. The Orpheum Theater, sided though it was by a surfing shop and a café touting avocado toast, looked as if it had tunneled up from another time. A line of polished limousines curled around the block, depositing their glamorous passengers on a red carpet, bordered by velvet ropes and Klieg lights that swept the twilight as if they were trying to shoo away the last of the day. 

Within seconds, the program spat out five lengthy paragraphs. In the interest of brevity, I’ll stick with the opening lines from the best three, but most, were you not reading carefully, could have passed unnoticed as a continuation of the story.

“There they were, arriving from whence they came, the great of the classic Hollywood era, the gods of the silver screen…”

“The evening’s audience, dressed in ball gowns, tuxedos, and wide-brimmed hats, entered through the old-fashioned glass door and through the lobby…”

“For an hour forty-five minutes, slo-mo cameras would frame the mise-en-scène of an earlier world: women in full skirts and high heels tottered down the red carpet…”

I was gobsmacked and also a bit flattened. None of these were the directions I would have taken—the “whence” and the Hollywood “gods” imagery, for example — but scene and paragraph transitions are two of my major stalling points, and the program glided easily into approaches I hadn’t so much as considered. I didn’t use any of them—the prospect of letting those already flimsy muscles atrophy is terrifying — but as a means of shaking up my approach to a scene, I found the Wormhole function to be enlightening about where I should be looking.

Wormhole didn’t always work this smoothly. Further attempts were a mix of hilarious and psychedelic, and things really go haywire once you add names and job titles. Sudowrite turned several high school aged characters into professors and bedraggled police officers, but watching those paragraphs spool out— and at such speed—was both astonishing and unsettling.

With the Describe feature, you highlight a word or phrase, and watch the program generate samples categorized by sense and metaphor, less cheating than having a context-ready thesaurus on hand. When I read, I’m always jotting down phrases on index cards, and have stacks dedicated to gestures and facial expressions, weather, and the sleek but useless and very uncomfortable furniture aboard spaceships. But being generally disorganized, I have yet to work it into an efficient system. Using the same paragraph, I highlighted “velvet ropes” and got some not so useful results. Sight resulted in “swaying in the breeze”; Sound was the “soft clink of silverware on china,” taste was “chocolate.” I’ve never bitten into a rope before, but if they’re that good, who needs Milk Duds. Metaphorical dropped straight into condescension. “I think you mean ‘Velvet Ropes,’” it told me. “The British indie rock band from the ‘90s.”

But in other instances, Describe was helpful, mostly in that it, again, made me aware of my worst habits. In the A.I. story, I was struggling to describe an old mainframe computer for which “research” had produced pages of technical diagrams neither evocative nor accessible. Sudowrite, in contrast, offered up images of exposed wiring, a glass cabinet covered in finger prints, and melted circuit boards. It was a quick and ironic reminder to zoom out and experience the object as a human being, and more importantly, to leave the specifics for later and keep writing. Another faithful procrastination method, far less efficient than the index cards, is to abandon the blank screen for long and fruitless searches through my bookshelves, where I curse myself for not having some elaborate color-coded Post-it system for descriptions of open air crowd scenes or the parquet floors in Edith Wharton’s ballrooms. Sudowrite was showing me how my own attempts to mechanize my writing process got in the way of the actual writing.

There’s an oft-bandied notion that algorithms won’t replace us: they’re simply alternate versions, churning out ideas we might hit upon years from now or in another life. I find that comforting as a storyteller, but I also wonder about the cost of removing time from the process. Is it right to jump the queue to a “self” whose insights don’t connect to experience?

And then there’s choice.

We have so much of it already. 

As writers, we’re already hoarders — of notebooks and pens, of books, some of which we’ll never get around to reading. Then there are all those ideas, scrawled on said notebooks, receipts, or set down in garbled snatches of speech on our phones. What will it do to have so many more at the press of a button?

Sara Kate Ellis is a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow and attended the Milford Science Fiction Workshop in 2017. Her recent stories have appeared in Analog, Visions, Fusion Fragment and Space and Time (under Kate Ellis). She is currently an assistant professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, where she lives with her partner and several ornery street cats.

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Writing the Other by Karen Brenchley

I’m very white. I grew up in Idaho and have lived for over thirty years in Silicon Valley, where my co-workers have been white or Asian of some variety (in all this time I’ve had maybe five Black male co-workers, but none of them software engineers). My family has deep roots in Texas, with both sides living on family farms that are still in the family. Thanks to my mother’s Fulbright Scholarship teaching at the National University of Rwanda, I’ve been to Africa and am close to several Rwandans who live in the US. Other than that, my English husband and I are mostly surrounded by a lot of very pale people. So when I set out to write a story, my main character told me he was a Black man.

I’ve certainly written male characters before, but I just couldn’t seem to get into the head of this one. I thought of my childhood, when I spent a lot of time visiting relatives, mostly in Tyler, Texas. I thought of the stories I’d heard from family about Black people they had known, mostly from school. That gave me some ideas, but it really wasn’t enough.

I decided to ask a Black man what it was like to grow up and live in the United States. I felt very nervous about this, especially since the first man I asked said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. The second Black man I reached out to, though, was happy to help, though as he spoke I could hear some strain in his voice. This is a big man, a strong man, a smart man — yet as a Black man he is afraid to walk by himself. He said he searches for other Black faces to stand near to. He also told me about being a boy, his relationship with his father, and how he was taught to behave, which struck me strongly as being very similar to my Tyler family. I then spoke to an intelligent Black man in his mid-twenties, who grew up in the US with Rwandan parents, and he also told me that he doesn’t like to be the only Black man around.

I then read “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I had tried reading it when it came out, and just didn’t understand it, but after speaking with my friends it opened up a whole new world. I understood why my stepsister’s Black classmate had been given the first name “Mister” (so white people would always have to call him Mister). I understood the parallels between Black parents in the eastern US and white parents in the South. I recommend this book very much for any writer.

So I wrote my story about King Jackson, a Black man just out of the Army trying to find work as a data scientist, living in Oakland, California. His life contains pieces of my friends’ lives, my family’s lives in Texas, my life in Silicon Valley, and even something from Michele Obama’s father. You can find out what happens in his life in “A Bayesian Analysis of Wishes”, available in the November-December edition of ParSec magazine, edited by Ian Whates and available from PS Publishing.

Karen Brenchley founded the SF in SF reading series with Terry Bisson, edited her husband’s Lambda Award-winning collection “Bitter Waters”, and has had sf stories appear in various anthologies alone and with her husband, Chaz Brenchley. She is a data product manager in Silicon Valley and has been featured in an article about autonomous vehicles in “The Washing Post”. Her next story to appear will be “A Bayesian Theory of Wishes” in the November-December issue of Ian Whates’ new magazine ParSec. You can find out more about her on her website, Karen Brenchley.com.

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Kari Sperring Answers Six Questions

Kari Sperring

Tell us your biography in 3 sentences and fewer.
I’m Coventry-Welsh (it’s a thing), but have lived a peripatetic life, moving around England, Wales and, for two years, Ireland so I’m never quite sure where I really come from, or who I am. One version of me is a historian, specialising in the early history of Wales, Ireland, England and Scandinavia; another is writer of literary fantasy. I’m owned by 3 cats.

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I don’t remember not telling myself stories: I’ve always lived in my imagination, and I started writing stories down as soon as I learnt to write. I spent several years alternating between being a horse, and having adventures saving an imaginary country (my Pippa dolls were all fierce revolutionaries), before moving on to fan fiction (Star Trek, The Three Musketeers, the Arthurian legends) and first attempts at original fiction in my early teens and just went on going. I even chose my direction at university because of the career path of J. R. R. Tolkien. My first publication was non-fiction and academic – “Cynan ab Iago and the killing of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn,” in Cambridge Mediaeval Celtic Studies 10 (1985) and I went on to publish a string of articles and 5 books on early mediaeval history (and one on my beloved Musketeers). I went on writing fiction (including the first 2 drafts of what became my first published novel) and submitted the odd piece, but not often. My first published short story happened as a result of a conversation at a party – “Strong Brown God,” which appeared in the anthology Glorifying Terrorism (ed. Farah Mendlesohn) in 2007.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
My favourite books as a child were all fantasy – Alice in Wonderland,  Narnia, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Lord of the Rings – so to me speculative fiction was always my home territory. Those were the worlds I wanted to inhabit: they seemed to offer far more than the mundanity of school stories or teen romance. They felt magical and wide open, they were filled with wonder. So for me that specialness is the freedom and the imaginativeness that our genre permits.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?
I never know how to answer questions like this, because stories are all around us every day, and everyone sees them differently. But… As an early mediaevalist, I learnt how cultures differ, how they change and adapt, and the varied ways in which they define and present themselves. I also learnt a lot about voice and viewpoint – how no text is free from opinion or bias or underlying message – and how to look for the stories that were not being expressed directly. Being rootless, too, has taught me that we are all strangers and outsiders sometimes and none of us know as much as we think we do.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project
I have a novella due from New Con Press later this year, called Rose Knot. It’s a variation on the Arthurian legends, exploring some of the lesser known and less-written about characters. Told from the point of view of Sir Gareth’s wife Llinos after their marriage, it’s about the consequences of all those magical tests of fidelity that crop up in the stories. It’s linked to an earlier novella, Serpent Rose, which came out in 2019, but does also stand alone.

What’s next?
I’m currently working on a novel about revolution and elemental powers, set in the same world as my two previous books (Living With Ghosts, and The Grass King’s Concubine), which I seem to have been writing forever – I am a very slow writer, sadly – but which is finally in a shape I like. I hope to get it finished by the end of this year.

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Sarah K Ellis answers six questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I grew up in Portland Oregon and, minus some years in Olympia and Southern California, have lived in Tokyo for most of my adult life. 

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

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I majored in film as an undergrad, so I started out writing screenplays, but I didn’t like the format (or the business very much). I’ve since worked as a journalist and a translator and got a late start in fiction after convincing myself to just try. My first published piece was an alien invasion story called “Tfoo” in the queer speculative fiction magazine Collective Fallout. After that, I kept going and didn’t look back.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

It helps me work out the personal; dealing with social anxiety, for example, in a world where self-promotion has become a necessary survival skill. And, to risk a big generalization, I think speculative fiction speaks more to economic survival. So much literary fiction, or what gets celebrated in the U.S., is about people for whom eating and heat or dental care are rarely an issue.

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

Teaching has been a constant character study. You learn so much about the falsehood (and sometimes accuracy) of first impressions. Also, living in Japan’s high-context culture has (I hope) helped me get better at reading the room. So much is implied in both language and gesture, and you have to process the atmosphere before you can really understand what people are saying. To give an example, a few years ago, my partner and I dropped in at a police box to ask about a hiking trail to a hot spring. The cop scratched his head, jabbed his finger at the map, and said, “This is not that.” 

What he meant was, “this is not one of those hot springs attached to a nice hotel where you can rent a nice changing room with towels, and maybe have a beer in the adjoining restaurant after you’re done. This a hole in the ground in the middle of the woods, and you’ll have to slog through brambles and mud and mosquitos to get there. Oh, and you might run into some naked men. You gals okay with that?”

You learn to assemble entire stories based on vague statements or unfinished sentences, which is invaluable. Also, there’s no dearth of understated humor—the Kyoto insult is second to none.  

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

My story “In-Flight Damage” was in the May/June issue of Analog, and I’ve just finished another called “The Machine Wasn’t in the Mood,” based on the very bad, very good rock trio, The Shaggs. I was struggling with it, so I’m very happy to have it done–or so I hope.

What’s next?

I’m finishing the book I initially workshopped at Milford but got stuck on in the last third. It’s a lot lighter now and much more focused.  

Bio: Sara Kate Ellis is a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow and attended the Milford Science

Fiction Workshop in 2017. Her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Visions, Fusion

Fragment and Space and Time (under Kate Ellis). She is currently an assistant professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, where she lives with her partner and a few ornery street cats. She likes soba.

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Inspiration From the19th Century by Nancy Jane Moore

One of the reasons I avoided majoring in English when I was in college was that the department had draconian rules requiring you to take courses from many different periods.

I had no objections to Shakespeare or Chaucer and was already well-read in 20th century fiction from the 1930s on, but I had no desire to study 19th century English literature from either the U.S. or the U.K. This prejudice was probably the result of mediocre high school English teachers, way too much exposure to Dickens, and reading The Scarlet Letter (which I hated at 16, though I came to appreciate how much of it was satire when I read it again in my 50s).

In recent years, I have found it easier to read some 19th century work and have reached a point where I hesitate to go back the 20th century novels that moved me as a teenager for fear that I will see all their weaknesses. One reason for this shift might be the amount of work I’ve seen lately that is built on popular fiction of the earlier period.

I’ve even ended up doing that sort of fiction myself. My just-released novel, For the Good of the Realm, is rooted in Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers, only with swordswomen and witches. Granted, Dumas was French and I confess I did read French work more broadly than I did English, back in the day.

I am far from alone in finding inspiration from older works. I’m very fond of Theodora Goss’s Athena Club series, which is rooted in a variety of authors – Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and, of course, Conan Doyle – and manages to provide a feminist twist despite much of its provenance.

Cynthia Ward’s series of novellas that begins with The Adventures of the Incognito Countess does something similar, including characters from Conan Doyle along with some from Bram Stoker and many others. Spotting the source material is part of the charm, just as it is with Goss’s books, but another key element of both series is the giving of agency to characters who lacked it in their first appearance or to new characters created for the series.

Of course, the Sherlock Holmes stories have been a major source for modern writers, especially modern writers who want to put women into more powerful parts of the story. The Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer are well known.

But others have updated the canon by creating Holmes and Watsons in other eras, sometimes making them women. Claire O’Dell has written the Janet Watson Chronicles, beginning with A Study in Honor, setting it in a modern U.S. during a not-implausible new Civil War.

There’s just something about Holmes in particular and 19th century popular novels in general that provides a wealth of inspiration for writers.

Authors use these materials in several different ways. In my case, I found it necessary to create a different world, though the technology and some of the culture are rooted in the 17th century of my inspiration. I wanted women who were soldiers as a matter of course and a world in which the heir to the throne would be the eldest child, regardless of gender.

There are many ways of giving a woman agency in an earlier period, but having her be one of many women soldiers in service to the Queen is not something that will fit into such reality. It’s easier to put magic that actually works into an historical period than it is to completely upend the gender norms of that time.

Goss’s women have agency, but her novels fit themselves into the period, including some references to early feminism; the speculative element involves the creations of the various mad scientists from the earlier works. The bride Victor Frankenstein created for his monster lives, as do young women who were the subject of other experiments.

That is, the story is built on assuming that the mad science actually worked. Much of steampunk uses the same approach.

Another way of revisiting old stories is to take either a minor character or even the villain and make them the hero. These often require putting the hero in the villain category. Stories inspired by Peter Pan often go this way. Perhaps these days we are not as thrilled by boys who refuse to grow up.

I must say that I’d like to read a revision of The Three Musketeers in which Milady is the hero. You’d have to make Athos the villain. D’Artagnan could go either way. It’s not something I could write, but since that element of the plot has always disturbed me, I’d enjoy it.

If I amend my thesis to include the first quarter of the 20th century – and quite a bit of the fiction I’m referencing was written in both eras – the revision of the work of H.P. Lovecraft is a wonderful example.

People have been playing in Lovecraft’s world for many years, but the recent use of his works in stories where African Americans are the heroes, such as Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the series made from it, is particularly delightful, give that Lovecraft was a notorious racist.

That is, it is possible to use old fiction to write stories that upend the very purpose of the original. Lovecraft would roll in his grave, but those who are doing it don’t care.

This is also what Alice Randall did in The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the enslaved people. There was legal controversy at the time, but Randall prevailed by arguing that her work was satire.

Given that we in the U.S. are still dealing with those who believe the south will rise again and bring back all the good things of the times before the American Civil War, like slavery, I hope that more people will revisit that work when it goes out of copyright.

It occurs to me that I might still have been wise to avoid the official study of 19th century literature, since it probably wouldn’t have included Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, or Conan Doyle. At heart, I wasn’t cut out to be an English major. I just wanted to read what I wanted to read.

The novels of the first half of the 20th century might provide good material for the next round of such work. I notice that The Great Gatsby (a book I consider over-rated) is now out of copyright, leaving it open to all kinds of adaptations.

A few powerful women and a little magic would probably do wonders with Hemingway, too.

For those who want to see what I did with (to?) Dumas, For the Good of the Realm is available internationally in ebook form from the usual sources and in both print and ebook form in the U.S. It’s published by Aqueduct Press.

Nancy Jane Moore is the author of the fantasy novel For the Good of the Realm and the Locus-recommended science fiction novel The Weave, both published by Seattle’s Aqueduct Press. Her other books include the novella Changeling and the P.S. Publishing collection Conscientious Inconsistencies. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines ranging from the National Law Journal to Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In addition to writing, she holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and teaches empowerment self defense. A native Texan who spent many years in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Oakland, California, with her sweetheart, two cats, and an ever-growing murder of crows. She attended Milford back when it was being held in York and really needs to come back because she’s never been to Wales.

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What this? you ask. I’m writing fantasy. It’s a made-up world with magic, so I can do anything I want, right? I don’t need to know historical details.

Yes, it’s your world, and you don’t have to have exact historically accurate details—far from it! You do, however, need to make your details consistent. For example, the existence of a railroad in a Viking-like society means you have a lot of splain’ to do.

Additionally, having concrete details makes your world rich and believable. Saying “she wore a blue gown” means about as much as “she wore a blue shirt.”

What kind of shirt? T-shirt, button-down, Henley, sweater?

Short-sleeved, long-sleeved, cap-sleeved, three-quarter sleeved? Form-fitting or loose? Stretchy, clingy?

What shade of blue? Navy, aqua, sky…?

What kind of fabric, and how does that fabric make her feel? Wool, silk, cotton, polyester? Hot, cold, scratchy, soft and comfy? Is it appropriate for the weather? (The fabric details can be used to convey what the weather is like without having to describe the weather. Double duty details!)

For that matter, how does she feel about the shirt? Is it a well-worn favorite, an impulse buy that she regrets, a shirt that’s uncomfortably revealing or one that makes her feel sexy and powerful? (More double duty details—character!)

The Middle Ages spanned about a thousand years. Fashion changed throughout. Fashion was different in Scotland than in France than in Constantinople, and everything from fabric and color to cut and style meant something.

So apply what I said about a blue shirt above to a blue gown.

Okay, so how do I go about this? Where do I find resources? (aka History is booooooring!)

Dry dates and names are boring, yes. So here’s what I recommend:

Start with TV shows or movies set in the time period you’re interested in. Remember that many of the details will be a bunch of hooey. Your goal here isn’t necessarily to get complete accuracy—it’s to learn about the time period.

Then go to print fiction in that period (historic fiction, not historic romance). Finally, when you’ve got a better grasp on things, you can tackle nonfiction, because now you have a mental image of who the people were, what was going on at the time, and so forth.

There are also so many amazing documentaries and websites and YouTube videos available now. From TV about modern people living and working in an accurate earlier time to videos showing a woman getting dressed in different time periods to blogs about people of color in Europe throughout history.

Be careful, because researching isn’t writing, and you don’t want to fall down too many rabbit holes. This is why I don’t recommend going to primary sources (historic documents such as letters and wills). If you enjoy that, go for it, but don’t use it as an excuse not to write!

If you live in Europe, you also have access to so many wonderful museums of both history and art, living history centers, etc. (In the US, we do have some of that, but not covering as many centuries—and most high fantasy tends to be European-inspired anyway.) Have fun!

You always have the option of talking to re-enactors/recreationists, but if you do, be polite, don’t take up too much of their time, and offer them brownies or something as thanks.

In my book Researching History for Fantasy Writers, I list all types of media and resources about a variety of time periods (and note what’s good and bad about them). I also go into much more detail about everything from setting up camp to why thievery could mean the difference between life and death.

Amazon: https://amzn.to/35STQJl

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/researching-history-for-fantasy-writers

Apple: https://books.apple.com/us/book/researching-history-for-fantasy-writers/id1484158002?mt=11&app=itunes&at=1010ls66

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/researching-history-for-fantasy-writers-dayle-a-dermatis/1134208910?ean=2940163667314

Questions? Feel free to contact me at Dayle@DayleDermatis.com.

Dayle A. Dermatis is the author or coauthor of many novels (including snarky urban fantasy Ghosted and YA lesbian romance Beautiful Beast) and more than a hundred short stories in multiple genres, appearing in such venues as Fiction River, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and DAW Books.

Called the mastermind behind the Uncollected Anthology project, she also edits anthologies, and her own short fiction has been lauded in many year’s best anthologies in erotica, mystery, and horror. 

She lives in a historic English-style cottage with a tangled and fae back garden, in the wild greenscapes of the Pacific Northwest. In her spare time she follows Styx around the country and travels the world, which inspires her writing. She’d love to have you over for a virtual cup of tea or glass of wine at DayleDermatis.com, where you can also sign up for her newsletter and support her on Patreon.

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Liz Williams Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.
Born in the West of England where I now live. Have had a varied career, including witchcraft shop owner, SFF writer, college lecturer and international education administrator. Practising occultist.

Liz Williams

How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I started writing before the age of 10, with a plaigirism of Lloyd Alexander (I was an early adaptor of Prydain! – and I also loved the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion). I remember being uneasy about this at the time and thinking that I ought to come up with something more original. This has been happening ever since. My first published piece was, I think, actually in Pravda and related to the education system of Kazakhstan. I remember being impressed that it wasn’t censored. When it comes to science fiction, I had a short story published in a US SFF magazine, no longer extant –  I can’t remember what the magazine was called. It was in the mid 1990s.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
Imagination is the biggest driver for me, so spec fic is obviously a dead ringer for that. I like playing around with ideas and I like exploring the future, since I’m going to be living in some of it. I feel that I have more scope with SFF than with other genres and I’m not short of ideas. However, I like to mix and match so my work has some elements of detective fiction, romance, lit fic and so forth. I don’t like being put in a box – unfortunately this is fatal when it comes to marketing.

What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?
Magical practice and travel, though I’m not sure if the latter counts as a skill.

What’s next?
Next up, which I’m writing now, is Salt on the Midnight Fire, which is the fourth book, set in London, Somerset and Cornwall. This one’s more heavily witchcraft-oriented and on some of the folklore of the coast. It’s a summer book: I’ve been trying to write these novels seasonally, so that they are written when they are set. I’m really enjoying working with this summer vibe (mind you, it’s raining right now!).

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project.
I just delivered Embertide, which is the third in the Comet Weather series – the whole thing is actually called the Embertide Quartet. As with the first 2 novels, it’s set in the South of England and this one deals with land management, trespass, leylines and waterways. And shapeshifting. I’m also working on a non-fiction book proposal to do with folklore.

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Juliet McKenna Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I was born in Lincoln and after my parents divorced, we moved to Dorset, so I don’t really feel I’m ‘from’ anywhere in particular. Myth, history and SF/Fantasy were always points on the same fascinating spectrum as far as I was concerned, and studying Classics was the best way for me to combine those interests in a university degree in Oxford. After working in personnel management and bookselling, I’ve been able to combine a writing career with raising a family.

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

I can’t remember when I wasn’t making up stories. I would tell my brother fantastical tales after lights out in our bedroom, before I could actually write. These days I do wonder how much he was actually listening… My first published work would have been pieces in my secondary school magazine, if that counts. My first commercially published piece was my debut novel, The Thief’s Gamble, in 1999. That came after a decade or so of attempting to write The Definitive Fantasy Blockbuster Masterwork. I finally realised that no amount of rewrites would improve a massively overlong and derivative ‘youth leaves home’ saga, so I binned that and started again with a blank page and a fresh idea that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

It takes us somewhere else, whether that’s to another time, another place or both. That gives us a new viewpoint, where we can see where we have come from far more clearly, as the writer explores whatever concerns underpin their fiction. Because it’s a story and therefore entertaining/thrilling/intriguing/scary/whatever, the writer can draw the reader into that exploration. Doing that with non-fiction facts and figures is far more of a challenge for all concerned.

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

Time management and being a self-starter. At school and university, getting top marks in my studies  meant applying bum to chair and eyes to books and getting on with it whatever the distractions. That got me to Oxford University from a UK state school, where I learned critical thinking and analysis, and how to structure theories and arguments for essays. This all turns out to be extremely useful training for finding new approaches to classic story themes and for structuring plots. Since students read their essays aloud to tutors at Oxford, and will be subjected to immediate and rigorous critique, I’ve never had a problem being constructively edited, and can take an objective approach to reviews. Combining writing with being a parent honed my time management skills even more!

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My most recent novel is ‘The Green Man’s Silence’, the third in my series of contemporary fantasies drawing on the folklore and myth of the British Isles. This time Dan’s out of his comfort zone in more ways than one. There’s something going wrong in the East Anglian fens, where the oak trees were felled aeons ago and water rules the landscape. It involves the sizeable extended family of the girl Dan’s been dating and would like to see a lot more of, but as the only son of a dryad and another only son, he doesn’t have much experience with relatives.

I also wrote a novella last year, for ‘The Tales of Catt and Fisher’ anthology set in the world of the ‘After the War’ books written by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Justina Robson. Working in an existing world is always a fascinating creative challenge, and I really enjoyed getting back to high magic and epic fantasy, especially with this particular setting’s thought-provoking twists.

What’s next?

July 2021 will see my short story ‘Old Gods, New Tricks’ in the ZNB anthology ‘The Modern Deities’ Guide to Surviving Humanity’. Incidentally, writers should keep an eye on this US small press’s kickstarters and their calls for submissions. Their themed anthologies are always a great mix of established voices and debuts.

The Green Man’s Challenge will be published in the autumn. That’s currently being edited, and everything’s going very smoothly, I’m happy to say. I also can’t wait to see what fantastic artwork Ben Baldwin comes up with this time. In other artwork news, Sophie Tallis is drawing a new map for The Aldabreshin Compass books, as Wizard’s Tower Press prepares new hardback and paperback editions of those. At long last, I’ve written a fourth and final short story to conclude the ‘Quartering the Compass’ companion narrative to the Aldabreshin series that I started ages ago! 

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Discovering what I didn’t know I didn’t know by Jacey Bedford

Posted on January 16, 2018 by Jacey Bedford

I wrote my first two (still unpublished) books on my trusty Amstrad PCW using Locoscript. I was fairly late to the computer party in general and email in particular (1996) but the internet was still young. Google didn’t exist. Wikipedia wasn’t even a twinkle in its father’s kneecap. Back in those days if you wanted to talk to a random bunch of like-minded people, you went in search of a usenet newsgroup.

I found a couple of great writing groups on usenet, misc.writing and (later) rec.arts.sciencefiction.composition (r.a.sf.c.). The serious writers hanging out there gave me my first lessons in manuscript format and pointed me to the group FAQ which taught me how to submit stories. Hey, you don’t learn these things unless someone tells you. Since writing is generally a solitary occupation, you don’t know what you don’t know until someone points you in the right direction. I remain eternally grateful for those first lessons.

Many years later a bunch of r.a.sf.c folks meet up at London Worldcon

There’s a learning curve in the publishing world, or more likely a chain with links in it. Actual writing is only one part of it. Misc.writing taught me that I had to write, revise, polish, send it out, and while waiting for an answer, stick my derriere in the office chair, place my fingers on the keyboard and write some more. It’s still the best advice I can pass on to new writers

Every time someone posted a little self-congratulatory ‘I’ve finished a story’ post, someone else would say, ‘So what are you writing now?’

The first British misc.writing wrevel in 1999: Steve, Robin, Davida and Brian plus unnamed Viking from Jorvik museum

We had a few face-to-face meets, named misc.writing wrevels. As you might suppose, most of these were in the USA, but I managed to get to one in Toronto when I was there for other reasons, and we held a couple in York which were attended by a few Brits plus Davida from Israel and Liza from Germany. We bonded over chocolate.

After being a very solid newsgroup with a small (tolerable) percentage of spam and hardly any flame-wars, eventually misc.writing began to be overtaken by trolls and a few of us writing speculative fiction found the rec.arts.sciencefiction newsgroups. Those who knew how, formed a new group for SF writers, rec.arts.sciencefiction.composition. If r.a.sf.c didn’t roll of the tongue as easily as misc.writing, it was still a great group full of interesting and knowledgeable people. (Though no one could ever decide how to pronounce it. I called it ras-fic, a friend called it ras-eff-see.)


It was through r.a.sf.c. that I joined my first online critique group. There were twenty of us to begin with and though numbers fell, about ten of us stuck together for eight years, helping each other to get better and better until some of us actually sold novels. I think the first of these was Jim Hetley who writes very fine fantasy fiction as both James A Hetley and James A Burton

I’d never have found Milford if it hadn’t been for ‘meeting’ Liz Holliday on r.a.sf.c., and without Milford I wouldn’t have found another link in the chain that eventually led to my publishing deals. I made good friends on usenet – and some of them are still friends, real world and virtual.

Sadly the world lost one of the stalwarts of misc.writing just a few months ago when Deck Deckert passed on to that great big usenet in the sky, however, some of the old m.w crowd have resurfaced as a facebook group twenty years on. Still many of the same good people.

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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Cherith Baldry Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I was born in Lancaster and studied at Manchester University and St Anne’s College, Oxford. For many years I worked as a teacher, including a spell as lecturer at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone. Since 1994 I have been a full-time writer, mostly of fantasy and science fiction, for both children and adults.

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

I began writing almost as soon as I knew how to write. My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, so it seemed to me that making up stories was something that people did. The first story I wrote was about a little girl called Janet who lived in a lighthouse and had various pets including a Shetland pony. My first published piece was a short story called ‘Queen Elizabeth Slept Here’, which appeared in a small press magazine and was later read on BBC Radio as the Morning Story.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I’ve been told that I ought to be writing mainstream fiction about being a middle aged, middle class Surrey housewife. I can’t conceive of anything more boring. I want other worlds, in the past or the future or out on the edge of the galaxy, populated by people who are glamorous, intelligent, witty and above all different. I want villains who commit their evil deeds with style. I admire the great writers in the field – Ursula Le Guin in particular – and I want, just a tiny bit, to emulate that.

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

Teaching, in terms of the contact with children, was definitely helpful when writing children’s books. My time in Sierra Leone, and travel generally, is something else than I feel contributed, though I tend not to set work directly in a foreign setting. I have written a novel and short stories set in Venice, which I have visited several times, but in all cases it was a different Venice, either an alternate history or with the addition of magic. And I’ve always been a voracious reader, which has taught me, by unconsciously soaking it up, how to tell a story.

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

My current writing project is a book in the Warriors series about feral cats, aimed at older children. This is where my obsession with cats comes into play. I’m part of a team, writing as Erin Hunter, and it’s been the most fun I’ve had as a writer for the last eighteen years.

What’s next?

A couple of years ago I self-published a couple of mystery novels: the real, classic Agatha Christie type whodunits. This hasn’t been so much a new departure as a return to a very old ambition. At the beginning of this year I acquired an agent, and he is currently hoping to sell the third in the series to a commercial publisher.

Cherith Baldry was born in Lancaster, UK, and studied at Manchester University and St Anne’s College, Oxford. For several years she worked as a teacher, including a spell as lecturer at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone.

She is now a full-time writer, mostly of fantasy and science fiction for both adults and children. Her short crime fiction has appeared in various anthologies, particularly those edited by Mike Ashley, and she is currently working on mystery novels for adults. She is also one of the Erin Hunter team writing the Warrior Cats series for older children.

Cherith now lives in Surrey. She is widowed with two grown up sons and a granddaughter, and is housekeeper for two cats. She is a member of the Association of Christian Writers, and is active in her local church. Her interests are travel, reading and music, especially early music.

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