Book Recommendations

Just in time for Christmas here are some book recommendations from Milford committee members past and present. They are books that we’ve read this year (not necessarily books published this year). Contributors: Karen Brenchley, Jacey Bedford, David Gullen, Jim Anderson, and Sue Thomason.

 

KAREN BRENCHLEY

Red Waters RisingLaura Anne Gilman : The Devil’s West trilogy: Silver on the Road, The Cold Eye, Red Waters Rising.
In this Old West tale, the Spanish Protectorate spreads up from the south and covers the land to the east of the Pacific, the United States holds the land west of the Atlantic, and in the middle is the Territory, known as the Devil’s West. In a saloon in the Territory, the Devil will give you what you ask for and take what you offer for trade, so be very careful what you ask for. Izzy, newly sixteen and released from her indenture, is ready for a change. Gabriel, a traveler interested in testing himself in the casino, has a problem he wants to solve. They each ask the Devil for what they want, and Isobel and Gabriel find themselves traveling the Road through the Territory on the Devil’s business. As they face challenges both physical and magical, for protection they have each other, silver, and the power of the Devil’s Hand to protect them.

I’m a bit of a snob about Weird West tales, since I grew up in the American West and have lived most of my adult life here, but Laura Anne Gilman gets it right. She has clearly done extensive research, including traveling through the areas where the story takes place. A refreshing and original trilogy, and recommend it for those looking for a different kind of magic.

 

JACEY BEDFORD

Argumentation of HistoriansJodi Taylor: An Argumentation of Historians – Chronicles of St Mary’s #9
By implication I recommend the whole Chronicles of St Mary’s series. Does time travel make them science fiction, or are they pure fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care, I love them. They are funny and serious at the same time. Quirky is probably the best descriptor. The staff of St Mary’s observe and record historical incidents as they happen thanks to their time travel pods. In one of the early novels Ms Taylor introduces the arch villain who attacks St. Marys historians up and down the timeline, in particular Max and by association, her loved ones. An Argumentation of Historians is an attention-grabbing read. There’s a quick trip to see Henry VIII fall off his horse in a tournament, and a trip to Persepolis, but Clive Ronan is still causing chaos, so Max and the time police set a trap for him. Well, it seems like a good idea, but when have Max’s good ideas ever worked? As a result, Max is dumped in the Medieval period and no one knows where she is. She knows where she is – in St Mary’s but about 600 years in the past. She has to learn to live there and to make a new life for herself because she doubts she’ll ever get home again. She’s desperately missing Leon, but there’s someone in 1399 who can offer her protection. She knows Leon would be the first to tell her to find a way to survive, even if that means marrying. We’ve known for a while that there was a traitor at St Mary’s feeding Ronan information. At last we find out who. Jodi Taylor is on my buy-on-sight list, so this is a must-read for me. Highly recommended.

Green Man's HeirJuliet McKenna: The Green Man’s Heir
One of my favourite books so far this year, this is a modern fantasy, rural rather than urban. Dan works with wood, moving from place to place so he doesn’t get too close to anyone. A century ago, a person with a secret could simply move to the other end of the country and take up a new identity, but nowadays with CCTV and social media, it’s not so easy. Dan has a big secret. His mother is a Dryad and that makes Dan… different. When a young woman is murdered and left in Derbyshire woodland, Dan realises that the culprit is from his world. She’s not the first. The police are never going to find the serial killer, so it’s up to Dan. Dan is a great character, always trying to avoid that attention of the local police, but rarely managing it. He’s a big lad with powerful fists and usually at the top of the list when the Law comes around asking questions. There’s a wealth of British folklore in here, and a damn good story. This book is getting a lot of attention, so I do hope Juliet McKenna makes this the first in a series. I’d love to read more.

MarkedBenedict Jacka: Marked – Alex Verus #9
Another installment in a long-running (ongoing) series. I have every respect for Mr Jacka. Sustaining this length of series is a marvelous achievement, especially to keep characters developing. This time Alex is sitting on the Junior Council (as a Dark Mage) in Morden’s place while Morden is in jail awaiting trial/punishment for magical crimes committed in the previous book. No one quite knows what Morden is up to. It’s certainly not like him to sit back and wait to be executed, but whatever it is has left Alex once more in the deep brown stuff. It seems that half the council wants him dead and the others are only keeping him around because he’s being useful, reclaiming some of the missing imbued items that were stolen in Book #8. Assassination attempts are a regular occurrence. Alex is beginning to realise that if he’s going to protect his friends he needs to a) play the council game and b) acquire more power. Is he beginning to want power for power’s sake? Are there elements of Dark Magery he’s gravitating towards? Dark is not necessarily evil… but there’s a fine line between the two. Alex is also finally admitting to himself what we’ve known for several books… his feelings for Anne. About time Mr. Verus. These books are a buy on sight for me. My only problem is that now I’ve caught up with the latest, I have to wait for #10. Highly recommended, but start at the beginning with Book #1.

FoundrysideRobert Jackson Bennett: Foundryside – Founders #1
Sancia Grado is a young thief who escaped slavery and now scratches a living in the Commons of Foundryside, the squalid shanty town that’s grown up in Tevanne between and around the campos where the four leading merchant houses exist in their own comfortable enclaves, thanks to their wealth and their magic/technology – scriving. Scrived objects are created with industrialised magical inscriptions. They power everything: carriages that move without horses, ambient flying rigs, and weapons that are powerful enough to shoot a bolt through metal. Sancia has a talent. She can hear the chattering and murmuring of scrived objects and by touch can learn the nature of whatever she touches. She saves this for inert objects. Touching another human is frequently too painful. When her usual fence offers her a job that will pay a small fortune, the fee is simply too tempting to apply her normal caution. She steals an ancient artefact, which has some very peculiar properties, but before she can deliver it and get paid, people start to die. From then on she’s trying to get out of the resulting scrape, but she can’t do it alone. The pace is lively, the characters interesting and the magic system complex (and occasionally boggling). This is the first in a new series.

 

DAVID GULLEN

Hannah SmithMichael Marshall Smith : Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence
I loved MMS’s early work and his ‘Straw Dogs’ series, then lost contact with his work. This turned out to be a great place to resume. Hannah Green is a clever, funny, supernatural adventure about time, the Devil, and bad people doing bad things. Laugh out loud moments, an easy style, and strange and dangerous encounters. A perfect winter night read.

 

 

Nine Lives

William Dalrymple : Nine Lives
Dalrymple is my favourite travel writer/historian at the moment, and this is one of his best books. Subtitled ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, WD helps us understand what it is to be a Jain nun, a Budhist monk, a story-teller, A Sufi, and more. Some of these ways of life endure, some, like a 25th generation statue-maker and last in his line, he catches at the very end of their times. Dalrymple writes with a transparent style, filled with warmth. Not many travel writers can make you cry.

 

 

Kingdoms of ElfinSylvia Townsend Warner: Kingdoms of Elfin
Back in print after forty years, this fine collection of stories from the courts of Elfindom are lyrical, witty, cruel, and charming. As anyone who truly understand the fey knows, they might not be nice, but they can be funny. Essential and pleasurable reading for anyone who enjoys gently grotesque stories.

 

 

 

 

JIM ANDERSON

Embers of WarGareth Powell: Embers of War
I’ve not done a lot of reading this year. Day job and life and the complications thereof, and yes despite it all, I do love the day job. But even with all this, there is a recommendation I would love to make. This book. This is the book. If you read one book, then this is the book to read I would love to make that recommendation about Moby Dick, and I’d be happy to write that about Moby Dick. As much as I love the book, I’m aware that it’s not to everyone’s taste (though it should be). But more importantly, it’s not a book I’ve read it 2018. Though it is on the list for 2019, because the cycle has turned and it’s time.

As it turns out, I have read a book for which I would be happy to make that recommendation. Embers of War by Gareth Powell. It’s hard to recommend one book among all the books, because there are so many great books. But more than once, I scared the cats by how I reacted to the exploits of Trouble Dog, though decorum demands that I say nothing more than that.  I don’t want to give hints and I don’t want to give spoilers. All I want to say is, go out. Read this book. Enjoy this book. Delight in this book. Go.

 

SUE THOMASON

ProvenanceAnne Leckie: Provenance
Ingray Aughskold is a young woman of good family, inexperienced, bright, terrified of being found incompetent, and with a tendency to burst into tears when things go unexpectedly wrong. Which they do. I liked her the moment I met her, and the more I found out about her, the more my liking grew. Her society values “vestiges”, artefacts that have been the dumb witness to great events; this is a story about how our Stuff tells us who we are, how we make and experience Value and Tradition, and what “authenticity” means. A bitingly perceptive story told with empathy and warmth.

 

China Mountain ZhangMaureen F. McHugh: China Mountain Zhang
Favourite Missed Classic of 2018; how did I miss this one first time round? Zhang, the eponymous protagonist, is a young engineer, in a socialist-republic USA which is economically and culturally subordinate to China. Zhang is both gay (officially disapproved of) and genetically modified (also officially disapproved of), and he’s trying to have a life – a nice, happy, fulfilled life, that doesn’t come at too great a cost to himself or his friends… I love this one because Zhang is an engaging character, the setting is audacious and well-realised, and because the story is witty and imaginative while insisting that actions have consequences – seen and unforeseen.

Watchmaker Filigree StNatasha Pulley: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
I think this is probably steampunk. Main characters are Keita Mori, a Japanese master-craftsman in clockwork who is able to see probabilities (and is therefore able to act, sometimes, to nudge particular futures into being); Thaniel Steepleton, a pianist who sees sound in colour, working as a telegraph operator to support his widowed mother and her two younger children; Grace Carrow, inheritor of upper-class privilege and social restriction, a physicist who is on the track of a fundamental discovery about the nature of the luminiferous ether (which in this world evidently exists), and Katsu, a clockwork octopus who steals socks. A constantly, charmingly imaginative romance.

ArtemisAndy Weir: Artemis
The plot can be summed up by deploying words like “heist” and “caper”, it’s set on the Moon, there is engaging nerdy stuff about how to smelt aluminium in lunar conditions, but also has the best economic justification for a lunar colony I have ever come across. The protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is instantly likeable, and the plot, characters and setting all pay a certain homage to Heinlein.

 

 

 

Sea of RustRobert Cargill: Sea of Rust
Set on a future-Earth where AI has wiped out humanity, this is the first-person narrative of Brittle, a Caregiver bot searching the deserts of the American Midwest for spare parts to prolong her existence. Starts out like a classic Western, but the struggle to prolong existence turns into a search for meaning, with side orders of speculation on the nature of freedom and personal identity. So, good for both shoot-‘em-up lovers and philosophers.

 

 

Rise & fall of DODONeal Stephenson and Nicole Galland: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
This is… like Charles Stross, but kinder and funnier. The Department Of Diachronic Operations is a shadowy government entity whose mission is to use quantum science to go back in time and prevent the extinction of magic (said extinction having been caused by photographing a total eclipse of the sun). In other words, the plot is totally mad, but it works because there’s a lot of very good worldbuilding and logical extrapolation from the original premise. The characters are interesting and sympathetic, and the use of language is brilliant (apart from someone’s attempt at the Anglo-Irish of 1601). Tremendous fun.

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The Unexpected Sequel by Ben Jeapes

Originally posted on October 26, 2018 on Ben’s own blog http://www.benjeapes.com/index.php/2018/10/the-unexpected-sequel/

The short version: my novel The Xenocide Mission is re-released in print and on Kindle.

The longer bit: I am aware of the financial realities of publishing; I know that publishers like to know an author has more than one novel inside them, and that very often said novel will be a sequel. I am not averse to sequels or serieses (they are overlapping circles on a publishing Venn diagram). Without moving my head very far from where I sit, I can get the entirety of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series staring back at me, and my life is richer for it.

But I have never set out to write a novel with the intention from the start of following it up. A very helpful early bit of writing advice was that a novel should be about the most exciting thing that has ever happened to the hero. I still stand by it, though I would add “up to that point of their life”. This doesn’t preclude writing a sequel, but it should certainly make you pause a little. Bujold managed it, by and large; Miles’s life gets more and more interesting as it goes on, and when she’s got as far as she can go, she shifts attention to other characters. Other writers’ heroes have followed a distinct bell curve of being interesting, but I couldn’t possibly name Orson Scott Card or any other offenders.

His Majesty's StarshipFor the 1994 Milford I took chapters of my space opera in progress, His Majesty’s Starship, which was very definitely planned as a standalone novel. I wrote it with an aim; that aim was achieved. Feedback was positive, helpful … and unexpected, in that when I explained the background plot (alien race wants help from the humans) an immediate reaction was: the aliens want us? With our history? Why? Can’t they do better? Milford does that – if you’ve got a blind spot, someone will spot it, never fear.

So, by the end of that crit session I had spontaneously generated a race of warlike aliens who had, for reasons no one including me quite understood, wiped out the native life on the next planet in their own solar system. Sooner or later they would discover faster-than-light travel and emerge into the galaxy as an active menace – so, for my friendly aliens, time was short.

That fixed the plot point, but what was I going to do with these aliens? They didn’t fit into the novel and I couldn’t possibly leave that point open. Fortunately, the same session made the criticism that my hero was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! An eighteen-year-old son Joel also generated spontaneously from the ether.

And these two things together, son + warlike aliens (with a smattering of inspiration from New Scientist), gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission, in which we learn exactly why the aliens did what they did. And yes, they did have their reasons.

I plotted a large chunk of The Xenocide Mission whilst staffing the company stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1998. This had the advantage of looking a lot like actual work, and people who came up to me with work-based queries actually apologised for interrupting. Well, quite, art was happening. But I graciously answered their queries.

The Xenocide Mission did okay; it made it into Waterstones, which is more than His Majesty’s Starship ever managed. It paid off its advance, so, royalties. Early in the new century I got the chance to feel very futuristic and science fictiony when I was asked if I would like to include it in Random House’s fledgling ebook programme. I gaily signed away the rights, not noticing in those days of electronic infancy that there was no kind of reversion clause …

As of 2017 it was still in print, occasionally sending a trickle of pennies my way in royalties, more usually holding payment over until next time for not crossing the royalty threshold. Eventually I decided enough was enough and asked my agent to see if he could get the rights back. Random House promptly responded that it wasn’t out of print because it was available electronically and always would be … I pointed out that we knew it wasn’t OOP and were asking them to make it so, given that royalties were negligible and surely costing them more to administer than they got back. I also prepared a host of arguments exploiting ambiguities in the original contract and addendum, prepared to try and wear them down until they just gave in … And then, lo and behold, my superior logic worked and the rights reverted. Just like that.

So, here we are: The Xenocide Mission, lightly edited (but only lightly; by and large I take the Pontius Pilate approach to standing by what I have written) and available in print and Kindle.

Footnote 1: Two versions meant sending Amazon two copies of the rights reversion letter from Random House, proving that I was allowed to do this. In fact, for the print version it meant sending off several copies: I had to make changes to the typeset content and it seems that at every stage of the printing process, something triggers the Amazon protocol droids to ask again and yet again whether I have the rights.

Footnote 2: When I tried to launch Amazon advertising campaigns for both versions, they were declined as I was using a very generous quote provided by Al Reynolds for the original edition. This was not a verified customer review … I know the limits of my patience and I know how far anyone gets when arguing with the protocol droids, so I de-Reynoldsed the ads and they seem to have gone through. But here it is anyway:

“Anyone who missed Ben Jeapes’ first novel, His Majesty’s Starship, missed one of the best first contact books in a long while – a gripping, logical, original and fundamentally optimistic retake on one of SF’s richest themes. Brimming with humour and tension, The Xenocide Mission amply fulfils the promise of its predecessor.” – Alastair Reynolds.

 

bjeapes01

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least. www.benjeapes.com

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Happy Book Day to Me by Jacey Bedford

Rowankind’s publication date has been shunted forward to 27th November which means it’s out NOW. Today, in fact! Happy Book Day to me.

You can buy it from that big store named after a South American river, or (depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on) from Barnes and Noble, or (in the UK) from specialist SF bookstores like Forbidden Planet. Due to contracts etc., it’s only available in electronic formats in North American territories, but the rest of the world can get the paperback as an American import.

Yes, I know, confusing isn’t it? I’m a Brit, living in Britain, but published by DAW, an American company. I can’t even buy a Kindle copy for myself. (Hey, six books published now, and I’m still learning about the publishing world as I stumble along its twisty pathways.)

Rowankind is the third and final book in the Rowankind trilogy which began with Winterwood and continued with Silverwolf.

Winterwood-Silverwolf-Rowankind

Rowankind’s cover copy says:

The third book of the swashbuckling Rowankind trilogy follows privateer and witch Ross Tremayne as she navigates the magical world of alternate 19th-century Britain.

 What do you do with a feral wolf shapechanger who won’t face up to his responsibilities? How do you contain magical creatures accidentally loosed into Britain’s countryside? How do you convince a crew of barely-reformed pirates to go straight when there’s smuggling to be done? How do you find a lost notebook full of deadly spells while keeping out of the clutches of its former owner? How do you mediate between a mad king and the seven lords of the Fae?

 Ross and Corwen, she a witch and he a shapechanger, have several problems to solve but they all add up to the same thing. How do you make Britain safe for magic users?

I’ve really enjoyed writing the Rowankind trilogy. Ross and Corwen have become personal friends. It seems such a long time since I wrote the first draft of the opening chapter of Winterwood, which was then called (provisionally) The Elf Oak Box. Thankfully, my Milford critiquers talked me out of the original title. (I’m nototiously bad at titles.)

As edits and rewrites progress, books tend to morph from what’s in the first draft, but strangely enough, the opening chapter of Winterwood, changed very little from the opening that popped into my head. You can read the opening chapter of the trilogy here.

I checked back. It’s a decade ago since I first put Ross on the page and took her to Milford for the first time. I didn’t have a publisher then, so I wrote the first book as a stand-alone with the idea that I could write a sequel or sequels if I ever got the opportunity. At the end of Winterwood Ross and Corwen rode off into the sunset for their happy-ever-after, but I had an idea for the second book if I ever got the chance to write it. Sheila Gilbert, my editor at DAW, gave me that opportunity. (Thanks, Sheila!) So I followed the happy couple to their cosy cottage and stomped all over their happy-ever-after by giving them wider problems. I gave them the task of making Britain safe (or safer, at least) for all magic users. Though told from Ross’ point of view, Silverwolf was largely Corwen’s book. We got to meet his family and learned about his unhappy twin brother, Freddie, and his delightful sister, Lily. Rowankind brings the whole story together and answers the big questions. Hopefully it delivers a satisfactory conclusion.

So that’s another trilogy completed, so I’d better get on with the next book—apply my backside to the office chair and my fingers to the keyboard. Ready… steady… go!

6books 800 px

jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford is a British author published by DAW in the USA, and agented by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She writes science fiction and fantasy. Her Psi-Tech  SF trilogy  began with Empire of Dust and Crossways and concluded with Nimbus. You can find out more from her website at http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, or her blog, Tales from the Typeface.

In another life she sang with a cappella trio Artisan 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 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 and ‘world’ musicians.

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Everything You Didn’t Know to Ask About Milford by Anthony Francis

Are you interested in the Milford SF Writer’s Conference? A year ago, I definitely was! I was in the middle of the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop and couldn’t get enough of its “Milford-Style Critique” – a collaborative process in which a dozen or so writers critique each other’s stories in a circle of peers. For each story, every attendee offers 2-3 minutes of commentary (timed) to which the writer listens (quietly), at which point they may respond, followed by open discussion.

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Milford Group 2018

Taos Toolbox tweaks this a little bit by having two experienced authors – Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress – moderate the critiques. They follow student critiques with free-form critiques of their own, giving the students a role model to follow. But I still wanted to be prepared, so I looked up what Milford-Style Critique was and how to do it constructively – and while I was doing my research, I was pleased to find that the Milford SF Writer’s Conference was still going after six decades!

It seemed everyone who was anyone had been through Milford – and not just the big names, but people that I in particular admired – Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Anne McCaffrey, and more. Milford is open to published science fiction and fantasy authors, and it turned out that there were slots open for 2018 – so I applied. And got in. But I was still intimidated. I mean, all these BIG NAMES had been there. It was a BIG DEAL! I knew I was taking writing workshops to improve my craft, but what kind of game did I need to bring to Milford to effectively contribute?

I was so intimidated I didn’t know what to ask. Now that I’ve been to Milford, I know what to ask, or can at least attempt to pretend that I do for the length of a blogpost. So, without further ado, here’s what I wished I’d known about Milford.

Believe in yourself. If you are a published science fiction author, there’s no better time than the present to sign up for a workshop like Taos or Milford. If you’re not yet published, there are many other workshops like Clarion or Viable Paradise which can help you up your game.  The longer you wait, the longer it will take you to get the feedback you need to become a better author than you already are. All you really need to bring to Milford is a completed story and a constructive attitude.

Relax. Yes, your favorite authors may have been to Milford, and it’s been running for more than half a century, but each year is new, and each year is a gathering of peers. Of course, Milford has a committee that guides it, and a staff that prepares for it, and a moderator that keeps everything running – but ultimately, the workshop succeeds because every author there is there not just to improve their work, but to help their fellow authors improve their work as well. You’ll see stories from first finished draft to hashtag #shipit, and your story will just add to the mix.

Prepare. If at all possible, attempt to not have any major work, academic or personal deadlines fall on you immediately prior to the conference. Milford involves reading approximately ~150,000 words of fiction from fourteen or so other authors. The sooner you get your story to them, the sooner they can critique it; the sooner that you read and critique all the other stories, the sooner you can take long walks in the countryside and/or join your fellow authors for drinks in the library.

Panorama01

On critiquing. Personally, I read a story once to gauge its impact, and then read it a second time to mark it up for critique. If I don’t ‘get it’, I read it a third time. Then I fill out a page or two of summary notes.  Writing is an exercise in ego – you’re creating a pocket universe, after all – so I always start my critique with something positive about a story. I guarantee you, even in the story you like the least, the author did SOMETHING right! Then I list the issues I found – with the story, not the author. I try when I remember to say “the story didn’t do X” rather than “you didn’t do X” because critique is about improving the text, not insulting the author – and who knows, you may be mistaken. Even if you think the story is awesome as is, try to list the best parts of the story so the author will know what you liked – you don’t want them to accidentally change those things based on other feedback! Finally, many people send out detailed critique documents after the conference. Hopefully, I’ll get to that soon – after my twelfth anniversary vacation is over.

The moment of. Unlike Taos, which has instructions and critique mixed with each other, Milford has free mornings; the actual critique starts at 2, after lunch. The running order for critique is sent out before the conference, and there are roughly four each day, depending on how many stories everyone submitted. Each critique session goes roughly for an hour, starting with (as much as possible) someone who hasn’t started yet. Remember: breathe, be constructive in your comments, let everyone speak first if you’re the one being critiqued, and, if you feel the critique of your story was particularly harsh, chocolates are always provided.

Learn from all of it! The best part of Milford is not the critique of your story, but the chance to hear many different critiques of other stories you’ve read – stories you are not personally invested in. You’ll agree with some critiques and disagree with others, but more importantly, people will see things that you did not and suggest modes of improvement you’ve never tried. Pay close attention to that, and, if you can, take some of it with you as tools and principles to use in the future.

Milford is both English and global. Well, English-Welsh-Scottish-Irish, but, since Milford is in the UK, there’s a strong contingent of authors who come to Milford again and again, or who know each other from UK conferences during the year. That means that there’s no shortage of people who know the ropes to lend a helping hand – but never fear, there will be a lot of writers from all over the world there as well, so you will get exposure to a lot of stories and a lot of different perspectives.

Nantlle Valley smWales is far. The site of the conference is Trigonos, a beautiful educational center near Mount Snowdon in Wales. Trigonos has fields and streams and paths and sits on the shore of a lake, but while it is awesome, it is not really a hotel: there’s no room service and no real on-site laundry. (Awesome meals are served promptly on the clock – breakfast at eight, tea at eleven, lunch at one, cake-o-clock at four, and dinner at seven; be sure to alert them to your dietary requirements). Plan ahead: Trigonos is also a four-hour train ride from London, with multiple hops and a taxi required to complete the journey. Stock up: while your fellow authors with cars will be willing to take you, the nearest big-box grocery stores are 20-30 minutes away. Oh, and the weather is variable, so bring layers and an umbrella. Even if it’s nice and sunny at Trigonos during the week, layers and an umbrella will be useful on the last “free” day when groups of writers go visit castles or the countryside – because that’s when Wales likes to “reassert itself.”

That’s about it! There’s more to tell about Milford, but you can figure it out on your own. Just write your stories, get them published, and once you have – or if you have already – call the friendly people at Milford up and apply. You’ll learn a lot, make great friends, and have wonderful experiences; you definitely won’t regret it!

Anthony FrancisAnthony Francis studies human and other minds to help design intelligent machines and emotional robots. By day, he works at the Search Engine That Starts With A G, and by night he writes science fiction and draws comic books. He has very kindly offered to subsidise two places at Milford for the Writers of Colour bursary scheme. Thank you, Anthony.

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The Art of Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan

So you’re working on a story, and it really ought to have a fight scene. But you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not a martial artist! I’m not a member of the SCA! I have no idea how to fight!” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Fight scenes are so boring. I’d rather skip over this and get back to the actual story.” Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation.

To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you’re already grappling with in the rest of your writing—description, pacing, characterization, all that good stuff.

To the second group, I say: it’s only boring if the author does it wrong.

A fight is part of the story. Just like any other scene, it shouldn’t be pure spectacle, stopping everything else dead for a set-piece before resuming the actual narrative. You can sort of get away with that in movies, because you have a soundtrack and changing camera angles and so forth to make it seem exciting, but words aren’t very good for describing movement; on the page, a fight needs to do something more.

This is violence. It’s one of the most fundamental things hard-wired into our brains, alongside food and sex — which makes it rich with narrative potential. What a character is and is not willing to do, when it comes down to fists or swords or guns, can reveal or change or confirm some fairly profound things about her personality. It can also play into or against the themes of a story. And there’s the artistic side, too; fight scenes can be just as much about good writing—description and so on—as anything else in the text.

MarieBrennan_WritingFightScenes600x900            When you sit down to write a fight scene, the most important question you should ask yourself is, What is the purpose of this fight?

In fact, ask yourself that twice: once for the characters, and once for yourself. Inside the story, we’re asking why these people are fighting. What’s their impetus for doing so, and what do they hope to accomplish? Outside, we’re asking what the fight is supposed to do for the story as a whole. Ideally, there should be more than one answer to one or both of those questions.

Why does the question of purpose matter? On the internal, in-story level, it determines what the characters are willing and unwilling to do. A woman probably won’t kill her best friend if the goal is just to make her give back the diary she stole from the dresser. But if the guy she’s fighting murdered her entire family and she wants him to pay? Very few holds barred, there.

On the external level, it determines how you the author put the fight on the page, and how it will end. If the only purpose is a simple, plot-based one — say, your character needs to get past the guards — then you can dispose of that in a sentence or two. It doesn’t merit any more of your attention, or your reader’s. But if it’s a climactic moment, where something important is going to happen emotionally or thematically (or better yet, both) alongside the plot consequence . . . then it’s time to pull out all the stops.

Which isn’t the same thing as describing every single block and strike. In fact, doing that will often kill your pacing and make your readers’ eyes glaze over. But for those of you who aren’t trained fighters, that’s good news! You can actually write a pretty good combat by focusing more on the meaning of what’s happening: whether someone is fighting defensively or launching an all-out attack, whether your point of view character is consumed by rage or terrifed they’re about to die.

It can help to describe a few specific movements, of course. Like a sex scene (with which it shares many technical challenges), a fight scene benefits from physical, visceral details. But they can be environmental details like heat or cold, light or darkness, the layout of the combatants’ surroundings; they can be bodily details like sweat in the eyes, uncertain footing, the burning pain of an injury. Those matter more to the reader than a binding parry to two, because the reader understands what they mean.

And when you need an actual combat move, there are ways to get that, without going through years of training first. YouTube has a lot of videos for different weapons and fighting styles — or if your characters aren’t skilled combatants, grab something non-lethal and a cooperative friend and try walking through things slowly, figuring out what you would do if you wound up in a certain position. If you need more than that, ask around online, or see if someone at a local martial arts studio is willing to help.

But don’t lose sight of the story. In the end, that’s the part that matters the most,

 

brennan-square-croppedMarie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.  She is most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. She is also the author of the Varekai novellas, the Wilders urban fantasies, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit www.swantower.com or her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/swan_tower.

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First Chapter Checklist by Ed McDonald

Typewriter 3The first chapter of your book needs to be a bit special. All of the chapters need to be special, but Chapter 1 needs to be extra special. This is your agent-catcher. It’s the chapter where you need to hook that agent’s attention – or reader’s attention – and then keep them going. Your first chapter should be so polished that water can’t even settle on it, it just slides right off without any friction at all.

So, without further ado, here’s a checklist for your own first chapter that you might find useful to work through, to see if you’re doing common things that generally don’t work. This comes with the usual caveat that everybody’s writing process is different, and what works for me may not work for you etc… but I’d be willing to bet that if (like me with my previous 1.5 million words of novels!) you’ve had a lot of impersonal rejections, or if your beta readers just aren’t getting enthusiastic, then you might find that a number of these points are appearing. Also, there are exceptions to every rule, and these checklist items will simply not apply to very old books – times have changed, so sure, Tolkien doesn’t meet many of these, but then, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t get published if Tolkien was writing today.

  1. Where does Chapter One drop us in? Is this the absolutely most interesting point that it’s feasible to drop the reader off in? You only get one shot to keep them reading. Was this the finest, most interesting, tense, exciting, glamorous, explosive, chilling scene that you could have written? If not, then it’s not first chapter material. If your chapter is a Slice Of Life chapter, calmly setting up the scene for the reader – then it’s not going to be gripping. We can be plunged straight into the action and understand that normally it’s a quiet day on the farm. We don’t need to see that quiet day. Ask yourself whether you can cut the whole chapter, and just start in Chapter 2. Then ask the same about Chapter 2.
  2. Cliched Openers. Try to avoid the following, which agents have seen 1000 times before: Waking up from a dream. Waking up with a hangover. Sword fighting training montage. “The Big Day” (e.g. Susie woke up. She was 16 today! Now she would become the chosen one!). A battle or fight with detailed descriptions of the action (we don’t know/care about the characters at this stage. It’s hard to be excited). It’s fine to have action, but the first chapter needs to establish characters and reasons to care about them rather than endangering them.
  3. Is something actually happening? And by something, I mean, something really really important/interesting. Something that’s going to get my mind bubbling for what comes next in the story. Does it make me thirst to reach the end of the book so that I know how it all works out? You need to hit this hard and run with it from the very first chapter.
  4. Is the protagonist an interesting character to follow? Why should I be interested in this character over others? As a general rule, a child in peril is always interesting to a reader. A lone woman on a dark road is always interesting. A wounded soldier behind enemy lines is always interesting. A farm boy who just wants to leave his boring home? Not so much. An interesting one here is The Old Veteran Living A Quiet Life. He’s interesting because we can immediately assume that his life is not going to remain quiet for long. Give us a character that we can relate to in terms of their fears and wants (see 5) but who is in a position that makes their immediate situation urgent. First chapters that begin by following kings, emperors, and generals bore me silly. I don’t care about their kingdom, I don’t care about whether they lose that port on the coast. I’m more interested in their wrongly-accused slave. Make sure that your protagonist is someone we can root for.
  5. 3500 words is probably your maximum chapter size for a first chapter. It’s common to try to cram in so much backstory and detail that first chapters can swell.
  6. PROPER NOUN OVERLOAD.Do not overwhelm the reader. No more than three named characters, including the protagonist, and one named place. Everything/everyone else can be described as “the guy in the jacket” or “distant cities.” If your chapter necessitates us meeting six people around a table, then change the chapter – let us acclimatise to your world gently. Readers simply cannot absorb that many proper nouns in one go. Also, don’t waste time on a slew of place names, magic names etc. We’ll mentally gloss over them as we try to get to the drama.
  7. Does the protagonist perform actively, e.g. do they want something? They need to want something, even if it’s just a ham sandwich. The inability to have what they want is what spurs their actions through the chapter. What does the protagonist want? Is it interesting?
  8. Don’t Wrap It All Up. As this is a first chapter, it needs to drive me to turn the next page. I feel that it’s an error to make Chapter 1 read like a short story or prologue, e.g. the incidents and the immediate threat have been cleared up by the time we get to the end. Does your chapter make me want to enter chapter 2? It absolutely has to. This means that killing off the character that we follow in Chapter 1 is generally not going to be a great idea (there are exceptions, sure) but can work as long as there’s sufficient mystery set up to drive us to want to read more.
  9. Reader Feedback – “Best book ever!” or try again. When you get feedback from your readers (I advise getting 3 different opinions on your work, preferably from people who are writers, who read fantasy, and who you wouldn’t loan money to) then they need to love your first chapter. Not just like it. Love it. So much that they’re asking for more chapters to read. Because if they don’t, if they say “Hmmm, yeah it was good” then that’s what an agent will think, and that agent isn’t going to take on “Hmmm, yeah it was good.” They take on “Omg I love this and I can sell it for a lot of money!” You need an “Omg!” If you don’t get it, go back to work on the chapter again. Be objective about criticism.
  10. Don’t be precious. Finally, consider cutting it, or rewriting it from scratch completely. Blackwing’s first chapter was rewritten from scratch four times, changing the location, the events, the characters – everything. And it’s worth it, because you have to get this right, and when you’ve been working on and editing something a lot, sometimes it can start getting overworked, turgid. A fresh write-through can be brilliant for changing things up and getting a better perspective.

As I said before, this is just my advice and it may not always work for everyone, but it worked for me and I think it’s pretty solid. There will always be exceptions, but if the points given here help you, then my work is done.

Ed McDonald 250 squ

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven’s Mark series of books, which are published in nine languages around the world. He lives in London where he works part time as a learning and teaching specialist at a university, goes sword fighting (and axe fighting, dagger fighting. . . generally anything you can hit someone with) and can be found in various pubs and cafes working away on the next project.

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How Not to Plot a Horror Film by Matt Colborn

CaptureAs a writer you can sometimes learn more from dysfunctional stories than from masterpieces. Take the 2017 movie Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the earlier rather mediocre prequel Annabelle (2014). The 2017 movie, directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Gary Dauberman, is well made, well cast and in places scary, yet somehow ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Annabelle the creepy porcelain doll first appeared in the opening minutes of The Conjuring (2013, dir: James Wan), scripted by Chad and Carey Hayes. The Annabelle sequence was based on an allegedly true case, an account of which can be found in Annabelle: The Cursed Doll by Taffy Sealyham. The doll in the case was a raggedy Anne that was reported to move by itself, and was investigated by the demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.

In the Conjuring, the raggedy Anne was replaced by a very sinister Victorian style doll that menaces a group of nurses. The nurses report to the Warrens that they’re ‘beyond terrified’ because they accidentally gave permission to the ghost of a little girl to inhabit the doll. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) explains that in fact the ‘little girl’ was a demonic entity who intended to possess one of them. Annabelle gets locked in a glass cabinet in the Warren’s basement, and the doll only has an incidental role in the rest of the film.

There’s an often ignored rule in supernatural horror that less is more. The Annabelle sequence in The Conjuring is more effective for its insinuations than for what you actually see.

Annabelle Still 2The plot in Annabelle:Creation is as follows. In 1943, a dollmaker, Mullins and his wife lose their daughter in a tragic car accident. Twelve years later, they open their home to Sister Charlotte and the six orphan girls in her charge. The polio-crippled orphan, Janice, becomes haunted by a porcelain doll who is controlled by a demon. Sister Charlotte and the orphans are then subjected to a number of supernatural attacks.

One problem with the film is over-exposure. Those familiar with the earlier movies know what to expect from Annabelle. Whereas in the 2013 movie we have brief hints of her malevolent powers, in the 2017 movie we have the full banquet and this dilutes the effect. As mentioned, this is also a second prequel, and suffers from the perennial problem of diminished returns.

The second major problem is an unfocussed, over-busy script. There are too many characters and often too much happening. This significantly dilutes the effectiveness of the core scenes, and results in a messy climax. So Janice gets possessed in the barn, Mullins gets got by the demon then straightaway, Janice’s friend, Linda almost gets dragged down the well by pallid hands. Sister Charlotte levitates, the orphan teenagers try and fail to escape in the car. One gets cornered by a scarecrow in the barn, Linda flees to the blind waiter and gets menaced by a possessed Janice in a scary bedroom.

In this situation, it’s difficult to identify or even sympathise with the protagonists. The possession of Janice, for example, should be horrific, but in the end we’re so distracted from her plight by everything else that it’s actually difficult to care very much.

Annabelle still

This overstuffing of elements in a relatively short film of less than two hours also means that the pacing doesn’t quite work. Pacing is essential in supernatural horror because you need time to relax in between scares. Supernatural terror relies upon ‘negative spaces’ for its maximum effect: without them a film’s just a ghost train.

At one point Janice gets attacked in the house at night. A moment later, she’s relaxing in her wheelchair in the sun, when a nun-entity pushes her into the barn just in time for her possession via a ghost vomiting black slime. The pace is simply too fast for the emotional impact of the events to register.

These pacing problems mean that the director is forced to over-rely on jump scares. Jump scares, where tonally things are quiet AND THEN SUDDENLY REALLY LOUD are a substitute for proper plotting. They’re the cinematic equivalent of leaping out from behind a bush and shouting BOO!!! They are also the bane of modern horror movies.

So Annabelle: Creation fails to achieve its potential as a supernatural horror film. This is a shame, because even off-the-shelf modern gothic tropes can be effective with good characters and well constructed plots. That’s something to think about when binging on Netflix horror movies this Hallowe’en.

 

IMG_1200Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk

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