Traps of World Building by David Gullen

It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?

I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:

“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”

That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.

One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.

architecture-buildings-business-325185

I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?

With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology,  cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin.  And for a while I actually couldn’t.

Which was no good at all.

I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I now take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other, and in some ways smarter, part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and think about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.

In the end this is what I wrote:

“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”

Just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers usually have excellent imaginations.

With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.

 

gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press later this year. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.

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Listening to Your Characters by Karen Brenchley

When I was a kid, my favorite toy was a set of tiny wooden figures called Little People, made by the Fisher Price company. These were very crude, with solid bodies and minimal markings to distinguish hair and faces, but I gave each of the thirteen or so I had individual names and personalities. I would pour out the set of wooden blocks I’d had since babyhood, and use those to create structures around which I would play — tell stories about — these people. Some were related, some were enemies, a couple of them were adults, hence authority figures. I had hours of fun with these over the years, but I didn’t change the games much, and the personalities were always the same, so I lost interest. I grew up.

Little People

The first couple of stories I sold, I identified closely with the main characters. To some extent, I felt like she or he was in fact me. Then one day I started a story where I knew the main character was an older woman in a near, post-climate change future, who I named Mother Mary Eulalia, Bishop of the Diocese of Deseret. She was definitely not like me in personality. I was envisioning her as older and thoughtful, and as the story opened she was walking on an overpass over a train station. I also knew that someone in the story was a terrorist, who was setting bombs on trains. I noodled over the plot, but just couldn’t get the story going, until very nice, proper Mother Mary Eulalia told me that she was the terrorist bomber.

I felt betrayed. My stomach churned. I felt like a friend had confided a horrible secret to me, as if my best friend had admitted to robbing banks or poisoning children. I put the story down and couldn’t touch it for weeks, but deadlines being what they are I picked it up again, and the story worked a lot better thanks to Mary Eulalia’s tip. (You can read “Songs of Innocence”, which I brought to Milford in 2010, in Tales From the House Band vol 2.)

I have a historical universe I’d been playing with that I picked up again recently. I already know who the main set of characters are, and have been working on getting to know them, and how the plot will affect them, and how they will affect the plot. And then one of the very minor characters started talking to me. He’s a teenager, about fourteen years old, and besides that all I knew was that his name was David and he wrestled. Until one day he said to me, “Hey, did you know I’m Jewish? And I think I’m going to get along well with the Christian friar. We might even discuss philosophy.” No, I did not know that. That couldn’t be. In this time period the Jews had been expelled. Except, apparently, this one. And his family. And did I know he was gay?

So that story has been completely sent off the rails into a new direction, one that I think is going to be much more interesting. My characters seem to be a lot smarter than I am, if I’m just smart enough to listen to them.

 

Karen in living roomKaren Brenchley has had science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy stories appear in various anthologies both alone and with her husband, Chaz Brenchley. She founded the SF in SF reading series with Terry Bisson, and edited her husband’s Lambda Award-winning collection “Bitter Waters”. She designs analytics tools for large, unstructured data sets, is a defunct black belt in aikido, and lives in Sunnyvale with her husband, two squabbling cats, and a long-suffering turtle. See more at her website http://www.karenbrenchley.com .

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Tinkering with First Person Point of View by Brenda Clough

Most dangerius woman 1My latest novel, A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN (SerialBox , May 2018), is a sort of sequel to a much greater work: THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins. Like many Victorian novels, this work was told in various first-person voices. And so anyone following along behind has to duplicate that format.

So, doing this I have become pretty good at handling first person POV. And the first thing I did was to split out my two narrators. People do not sound alike; consider the people you yourself know. You instantly can identify your spouse’s voice, and you never confuse it with that of your boss, or your Aunt Linda The great and invincible advantage of using a first person narrator is that you get to ‘hear’ that person perfectly, without the filter of the omniscient narrator. So exploit that advantage to the hilt. Let that person be utterly distinctive, with a voice that you could recognize anywhere.

The allied point, of course, is that both the author and the reader are going to be spending a lot of time with that narrator An entire book, maybe a hundred thousand words, listening to this guy – can you do it? Can your reader? There are people in this world (many of them in politics — turn on your TV if you don’t believe me) whose voices are intolerable. You could not listen to them for a hundred seconds; an entire novel’s worth of channelling that voice would drive you to heavy drug use.  Narrators can lie to themselves and thus to the reader. They can be fools, even outright villains. But they had better have charm, otherwise the book will be unreadable.

Wilkie_Collins_(1824-1889)_in_1874_2

Wilkie Collins 1874 by Napoleon Sarony, (1821-1896)

 

In this novel I have two narrators. Wilkie Collins, no fool, was careful to choose magnetic voices, a woman and a man. And so I have had a lot of fun putting work into differentiation. Marian and Walter notice different things, have slightly variant vocabularies (but not too different!), care about different things. The gender thing is particularly useful in a work set in 1860, because roles were highly differentiated at that period. There were lots of things that women were not allowed to do, say, or be. And, on the other side, there were lots of things that men had to do, some of them fun (only men could swim in outdoor ponds!) and some of them pretty depressing. It’s like having two cameras, or two pairs of glasses. I, and therefore you, can look through two sets of eyes and see the alien landscape of Victorian Britain with two perspectives.

The other angle involves the plot. Who sees what? And who tells it, when? This is the great limitation of first person POV – you are stuck, more or less, inside your character’s head. What if something happens at which neither of my POV characters can be present? Then some fancier footwork is called for so that I can get the necessary information into the hands of the viewpoint characters.  People don’t have to tell each other everything, either. Marian can simply not tell poor Walter things, which can lead to vast difficulty and complication. The two viewpoint characters do not have to have the same goals, can misunderstand each other hugely, and in fact be at daggers drawn. Although I don’t do it in this book, you could also cheat by loosening the first person a little.  Some occasional omniscient narration, and the problem is solved.

The flow of time is another consideration. A first person viewpoint implies time, because the character is necessarily either living the events, from moment to moment, or looking back upon them from a greater or lesser distance. There are advantages to both ways of managing it, and since I have two viewpoints, it’s easy to work it for maximal fun. Marian keeps a journal, which she makes an entry in nearly every day so that she can puzzle over or be alarmed at current happenings. Walter, at a remove of some years, can be more analytical and portentously note when things are going off the rails.

The final and truly irreparable difficulty in first person narrative is the way it undercuts suspense. You can be certain the character isn’t going to die. Because otherwise how could she be sitting there, telling you about her adventures? This is where I have found having two viewpoint characters useful. If Walter really does believe Marian has died, and tells us all about it, all the misery and grief required can be there. And I have seen inventive writers cheat this one entirely. In HER SOLDIERS WE, a novel about WW1 battle in the trenches, the first-person narrator does indeed die, blown to glory by the Germans. The last entry in his journal is by his best friend, sadly recording his demise. This was a little unfair – the best friend had contributed nothing to the narrative until that point — but there was no other way out of the situation for the author – the hero had to die.

The author who plans her novel will mull over the choice of person carefully. Not every work is suited to first person narration. I am not a planner in the least. I put no thought into it at all. I went with the first point I mention, above: an attractive voice. Once I could ‘hear’ Marian’s voice I just let her talk, and away we go!

 

brendaclough-brenda1bw1Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest.

Her novel How Like a God, now available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires.
www.brendaclough.net

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Fighting and Gender, by Nancy Jane Moore

At a recent meeting of my writers’ group, we discussed fight scenes while critiquing an early draft of my novel in progress. The discussion went something like this:

“Women fight differently from men,” one of the guys said in pointing out that the sword fight scenes didn’t vary much.

I didn’t think he was referring to the inaccurate stereotype that women can’t fight, but I also didn’t think his point applied, so I said – speaking as a long-time martial artist and instructor as well as a writer – “In my experience, that’s not always the case, especially with weapons.”

And he replied, “Yeah, but you’re big.”

I let it go at that, because he was right that the fight scenes needed work, but it bothered me. After some reflection, I realized what the problem was: If my experience isn’t key to discussions about how women fight simply because I’m a woman about the size of the average U.S. man, then the issue isn’t biological sex or gender; it’s body size and build.

The average man may be bigger than the average woman, but there are plenty of small men – and big women – in the world. Also, there are some people who don’t fit into standard gendered categories, and they, too, come in a variety of body types. As writers, if we make assumptions about fighting styles based on sex or gender, we’re not going to create scenes that reflect the complexity of real fights.

There is only one situation in which writers should give some consideration to the gender of their fighters, and that’s if they are creating a world in which the culture puts distinct rules on gender behavior. Most current societies give girls and boys very different signals from an early age, with the girls getting the message – incorporating it into their bodies – that they aren’t capable of handling themselves physically in dealing with men, and the boys, regardless of size or skill, learning that they have power over women. In a world in which calling men and boys “girls” (or much less acceptable words for female) is a major insult, women who fight will have to deal with the cultural dynamics.

So if you’re writing a story that includes women warriors, you must give some consideration to societal rules. Is it a society that generally accepts both men and women as soldiers and fighters or is it one that assigns very different roles to each gender, so that a woman fighter must struggle against society to make her place? Women who grow up being told they aren’t capable of competing against men have to deal with that while they’re learning to fight. Men who grow up being told that women are physically inferior have difficulty accepting that women can be good at the arts of war.

However, if your world assumes a higher level of gender equality, women fighters aren’t going to struggle with that particular demon and men aren’t going to make wrong assumptions. In my novel in progress, the culture recognizes both men and women as soldiers. So for my work, and others like it, gender differences are not relevant to fighting styles. But body type is always relevant.

Here are a few ideas about how different body types affect fighting gleaned from my thirty-eight years in martial arts:

  • Big, strong people can succeed on strength and size, as long as the person they’re fighting isn’t either stronger than they are or more skilled as a fighter. Sheer muscle works for them.
  • Smaller people, who often fight someone larger than themselves, must learn good technique because they can’t rely on strength. You can’t out-muscle someone who is stronger than you are. But a smaller person can throw a larger one because it’s easier for them to get under the big person’s center. Every size has advantages.
  • With weapons such as swords and staffs, it’s important to consider wrist strength as well as overall strength. Many of the more subtle moves with weapons require flexibility in the wrist. It is better for a person with small wrists to use a lighter weapon – something I learned the hard way. If your fighting system is built around big, heavy weapons, give your fighters big wrists along with big shoulders.
  • Flexibility can also be quite important and does not always correlate with body type. I trained in karate years ago with a man built like the proverbial fireplug – short, wide shoulders, big torso, short legs – and he could kick me in the head with no problem. Having good knees and being flexible can give a tall person the option of using size or dropping low, which is another useful way to play against type.
  • The only fighters who are going to stand there and trade punches and blocks are young, strong people or, even more likely, drunks. Anyone with skill, not to mention anyone getting on in years, is going to rely on getting out of the way whenever they can.
  • Joint techniques such as those taught in Aikido or ju-jitsu require almost no strength when done properly and can take even the strongest person down.
  • A weak person who knows how to grab using their center rather than their arm strength can stop the movement of a stronger person. And by the way, a grab is best done using the smaller fingers of the hand to grip, not the thumb and forefinger, which are easier to twist away from.

Now that I’ve given the issue some thought, I’m off to rewrite my fight scenes. I think I’ll make one of my male characters short, but very quick and flexible, and one of my women tall and muscular. It’s always fun to play against type.

 

nantalking2Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press. Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies was published by PS Publishing 2008. Her most recent publication is a short story in the Book View Café anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted. She started martial arts by wandering into a karate class at the local YMCA in 1979 and holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido.

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The Parallels Between Singing and Writing by Jacey Bedford

This is all about lessons learned and applied

I used to be a folk singer. No–correction–I am a folk singer, I just don’t do it as a full-time job any more, but even though I’ve officially retired from the road the singing is in me and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out. I don’t even want to. People ask if I miss it. No, I don’t. I don’t miss it because in my head I haven’t really stopped. I’m just on an extended break between tours. As it turns out, that’s almost true. In 2015, Artisan took to the road for a series of reunion gigs, and then ended up playing a couple of festivals in 2016. There are no further plans, but we never say never again.

Summerfolk-1674 crop

Artisan on stage at Owen Sound Summerfolk, Ontario. Yes, that’s me in the middle.

What do I do now? Well, I haven’t retired, that’s for sure. I run a booking agency for other folk performers touring in the UK, and I write science fiction and fantasy. Five novels so far and a sixth due in December 2018.

Imperial 66

Imperial 66

I’ve always written. I started my first novel when I was fifteen–a post apocalyptic dystopia (eat your heart out, Hunger Games fans) peopled by a cast of characters lifted from my favourite bands and thinly disguised. I wrote it long-hand (the first five chapters, anyway, which was as far as I got) and typed it out (slowly and painfully) on a borrowed Imperial 66. I wrote through my twenties, when I was a librarian. When my kids came along I wrote while they slept. (Hence my habit of writing way into the early hours of the morning, which I’ve never been able to break.) And I wrote in the back of the van on the way to gigs.

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My first story sale was to this anthology. Thank you Annie Scarborough!

Music opened up the world for me. I come from a tiny village on the edge of the Yorkshire Pennines. Stick a pin in the middle of the island that is England, Scotland and Wales and I’ll be the one to yell, Ouch! But as Artisan’s popularity grew in the UK, we also got opportunities to travel to the USA, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany and Belgium. I got my first writing break through music, via the hugely talented, Nebula Award-winning writer, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, a friend of a group of (musical) friends from Seattle and–as it turns out–an Artisan fan. I would never have asked her to read my work because even as a clueless newbie I knew how many times professional writers get asked for those kind of favours, but my friend mentioned that I wrote. Annie (bless her) offered. She figured that if I was used to entertaining an audience, I probably had a bit of gumption when it came to writing too. That was the first time I’d actually compared notes between the two halves of my life, but what she said made a lot of sense. This is how I see it…

Feedback
When you write a book feedback is slow. From the first once-upon-a-time to the book being out there on bookstore shelves can take years. When you’re on a stage, feedback is instant. Your audience votes with applause and laughter, or if you really suck it votes with its feet. After the show it votes with its wallet at the CD sales table. Obviously, if something works on stage you keep it in the act. If it doesn’t, you drop it.

It may take a lot longer to incorporate feedback into your writing, so you have to try and think ahead and, to a certain extent, second-guess your audience. What will they take to their hearts and what won’t they? This is where being a member of a good critique group or attending an event like Milford really helps.

Jan 2006-05

Jacey and Brian Bedford

Style
I don’t write songs. It takes me a minimum of 120,000 words to explain what my husband, Brian Bedford, can write in four verses. He’s Artisan’s song writer. We want his lyrics to be heard. In transmitting that song to an audience it’s important that we, as singers, don’t stand in front of it. The audience should hear the song, feel it, not be drawn to an examination of singing technique or the clarity of any one voice. If we’re doing our job right, the technique should be invisible. We’re not saying, ‘Listen to me,’ we’re saying, ‘Listen to the song.’

Ditto with writing, especially genre writing. (If you write literary or experimental fiction, all bets are off.) Of course, there’s no One True Way, every writer is different, but this is my take on it. Purple prose, metaphor and alliteration will only take you so far. Just as the singer shouldn’t stand in front of the song, I don’t believe the author should stand in front of the story. I prefer the writing to be clean and elegant, the words apposite, the technique invisible. Lyrical prose is a plus, as long as it doesn’t pop up and distract the reader. While you’re wondering why the author chose to describe a person’s looks as umbelliferous, you’re missing what’s going on. The reader should be able to immerse themselves in what’s happening on the page without thinking about the person who wrote it and why they chose that particular word.

Plot
When you’re putting together a set of songs for a concert you need a beginning a middle and an end. You’re creating a sustainable entertainment arc. Your ‘wake-up’ starter-song should grab your audience’s attention and tell them, ‘This is what you can expect, so listen-up!’ The end should be a big finish to fulfil your promise and raise the roof. Between those two bookends you need a succession of carefully chosen contrasts, each one building on the last; tension and release. If you juxtapose a lively song with an emotional melodic one full of lush harmonies then both songs benefit from the comparison. If you follow a tense, dramatic song (often your mid-point in the set) with a clever and/or amusing little ditty, it gives the audience chance to breathe again, but without losing their attention. Between the songs, you chat to them—miniature stories to lead from one song to the next while setting the right mood. If they call for it, and they always do, you can give them an encore, something to send them home smiling.

When writing it’s often a good plan to start just as things are kicking off, or in the middle of the action (in medias res), and vary the pace, building in an escalating series of events (reversals and pinch points) until you reach a dramatic mid-point, the fulcrum on which the lever of your story balances. A series of transitions holds it all together, just like your links between songs. Then you head for the no-holds-barred finale, probably via another big reversal and pinch point or plot twist. But don’t just stop there–follow it with a resolution. In other words, give them an encore.

Birdsedge Audience

Always keep your audience happy.

Attention Span
All the time, whether singing or writing, you have to hold your audience’s attention. If you turn away and stop to tie your shoelace, literally or figuratively, you’ve lost them. You don’t need to keep up a frenetic pace from start to finish, of course, but you do need to keep up a level of interest, and there should be dramatic tension running through it all. They have to want to turn the page, listen to the next song.

Characters
Your onstage persona is–like the advert says–you, but on a good day. Slightly larger than life, witty, warm, human, humane. Your audience should like you. That’s what will keep them coming back. No matter how much they like your music, if you don’t get them on your side, turn them into friends, they’ll not become steadfast fans. Feeling miserable? Having a bad day? Don’t ever take it out on your audience.

Your reader has to care about your characters, too. They have to want them to succeed in their endeavour, find true love, marry Princess Buttercup, drop the ring into the fires of Mount Doom and return safely, or stick it to a totalitarian state. There’s nothing that will get a book hurled against a wall more quickly than if your characters are unremitting arseholes or dull at ditch-water. I don’t care what happens to these characters–the eight deadly words you never want to hear from your readers.

Untitled-6Reviews
Afterwards there are reviews. We all hope for good ones:

“Artisan aren’t a hard act to follow. All I have to do now is get up here on stage and burst into flames.” –Valdy, Canada.

“Bedford builds a taut story around the dangers of a new world…. Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future.” – Publishers’ Weekly review of Empire of Dust.

“For tight, exciting harmony singing, as well as sheer delight and entertainment, Artisan are the bee’s knees. You’d be mad to miss them.” –St Neot’s Festival.

Good reviews are great. Not so good reviews? Well, you learn from them as well, but though comments in a review may be a consideration when you start the next project, plan the next book, do the next gig, make the next CD, at the end of the day a review is just one person’s opinion. Read it (or don’t) and move on. Your writing and your music come from the heart. They are not just what you do, they are what you are. Trust yourself.

 

jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford is a British author published by DAW in the USA. She writes science fiction and fantasy. Her Psi-Tech  SF trilogy  began with Empire of Dust and Crossways and is concluded by Nimbus. There are two books out in her Rowankind trilogy—Winterwood and Silverwolf—and the third—Rowankind—follows in December 2018. She’s agented by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. You can find out more from her website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com

jacey-vancIn another life she sang with a cappella trio Artisan (http://www.artisan-harmony.com) from 1985 to 2005, playing gigs and festivals all over the UK, Canada, the USA (thirty-one North American tours) parts of Europe, Australia and even (once, briefly) Hong Kong. Along with her song-mates, Hilary Spencer and (husband) Brian Bedford, she’s made twelve CDs and a DVD, done reunion tours in 2010 and 2015/16. She keeps her connections to the music world by running a booking agency for folk musicians. (http://www.jacey-bedford.com)

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Less is More – Looking at Jack Vance, by David Gullen

The-Lyonesse-TrilogyI love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.

Vance can vividly describe worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Here’s an extract from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.

“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.

Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.

Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.

There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”

pexels-photo-208674What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes, engaged in a brutal fight. I can see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour, feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.

I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions created in my mind were overwhelmingly intense.

Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, and all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.

I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, I think you can look at this passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing ­­– and think about why that might be. Among these things I can see:

– He describes the Ska enemy troop in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska but we don’t know if it will.

– He uses very specific words and phrases.  Pairs of words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies change towards the doomed Ska.

– The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed valour of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.

It’s impossible to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a great example of Vance’s concise and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.

~

*Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.

 

gullen-dkg1-2012David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press later this year. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.

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Going on holiday by mistake – Follycon18, by Philip A Suggars

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Insert “it’s grim up north” caption here.

So I hadn’t really planned to go to Eastercon, but Donna Bond from Newcon press mentioned that they’d be launching this year’s edition of the Best of British Science Fiction, (henceforth known as “BoB”) at the convention; and I thought: you know what, one of the things that sucks about being a writer is that you tend to suffer in silence and celebrate (mostly) in private. Seeing as I’m pleased about getting into this anthology, why don’t I give this book launch thingy a go?

To be honest, I always feel a bit weird about conventions. I’m an introvert by nature, which means that as much fun as it is to meet people, a con tends to send my battery into power saving mode pretty quickly. But the other important thing I’ve learned about cons is that the more you attend the easier they become.

The first convention I went to was the 2013 Eastercon, which, if memory serves, was held on a roundabout somewhere outside Bradford. I don’t think I knew a single person there and the only other people I spoke to were Aliette de Bodard and Adrian Tchaikovsky. (Aliette was judging the James White Award and I’d snagged the runner-up prize; Adrian was propping up the bar, both were a pleasure to talk to.)  I spent most of the rest of my time there earnestly sitting in on panels, making notes like Rory Gilmore at a safety briefing.

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Gentle convention goers. (Including, I think, an attention rapt Gareth L. Powell over on the left and the legendary Jim Burns on the right). Photo Ian Whates.

I still find cons a bit of a struggle, but since attending Milford Writer’s Conference a couple of times there are usually a few friendly faces that I can chat to rather than having to make copious notes on, “The parallels between the Vulcan Pon Farr and the sex lives of IT workers”. So this time it was great to catch up with other writers from the Milford stable, including Guy T. Martland, Carl Allery, Sue Oke, Jacey Bedford and Matt Colborn. That said, Guy’s feline-overlord, Gordon, seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession with my pet, Ziggy.

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From left to right: Ian Watson, Andy West and yours truly, looking pensive (and no doubt pondering something portentous.) Photo Chrissy Leonhardt

The BoB launch was a bigger deal than I expected, although this might have had something to do with Ian Whates’ offer of free drink for all attendees. There were about a hundred and twenty people packed into the Drawing Room by the time we kicked off, so many in fact that by the time I had squeezed onto the panel, peeps were already being turned away.

Sticking to health and safety required numbers was probably just as well though, given the stream that bubbled from the bar’s ceiling at all hours and the bits of masonry that dropped from the roof during the Future of Cities panel (allegedly).

(I’m reading such conspicuous decrepitude as our hotel cosplaying The Bradbury from Bladerunner rather than as some sort of extended metaphor for #brexit.)

Ian Whates introduced each of Newcon’s new books, along with readings from Jaine Fenn (The Martian Job) and Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tales of the Apt: For Love of Distant Shores). The highlight of the launch was probably Ian Watson’s brilliant stream of consciousness précis of Assassins’ Legacy which he co-wrote with Andy West. Ian managed to rattle away for what seemed like a good five minutes without hesitation, deviation or repetition (or even pausing to take a breath). Hopefully, someone had Nicholas Parsons on speed dial.

IMG_2127Donna Scott introduced good old BoB. It’s a slightly surreal experience to have ended up in an anthology including writers like Ken McLeod, Adam Roberts, Jaine Fenn, Eric Brown, Lavie Tidhar, E.J. Swift, Anne Charnock, Natalia Theodoridou and Jeff Noon. Especially as Jeff Noon’s brilliant, hyper-trippy ‘Vurt’ was one of the books that made me want to start writing science fiction in the first place. (I still highly recommend it). During the signing I got the chance to talk writer-stuff with Anne Charnock (just ahead of her BFSA award win).  I explained how I thought I’d messed up my first novel and she told me how she had approached her third and gave me a bit of useful writerly advice: that pretty much every book is different and that stuffing it up early on is usually an integral part of writing it.

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From left to right: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jaine Fenn, Ian Watson, Andy West and yours truly enjoying Ian’s speed-of-thought summary of “Assassins’ Legacy”. Photo Chrissy Leonhardt

All too soon, I was rattling back home on the train, thinking to myself that despite all the pain-in-the-butt-holio of getting up to Harrogate, it’s those sort of moments which make cons worthwhile. That is, the luxury of just being a writer for a while and the opportunity to talk and think about nothing else.

 

psuggarsPhilip A. Suggars is a British writer with a single yellow eye in the middle of his forehead and a collection of vintage binoculars. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions, Interzone and The Best of British Science-Fiction anthology series as well as being performed by Starship Sofa, Far Fetched Fables and the London Liars’ League. He has won the Ilkley Short Story award, was runner up for the James White Award and has been longlisted for BSFA short story award. He lives with three hairless primates and a (no longer) imaginary cat. Visit him at http://www.philipasuggars.com or follow him on twitter @felipeazucares.

 

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