Hulk is Tired by Philip A. Suggars

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but I think I might be a bit bored with speculative fiction. Or perhaps, speculative fiction is a bit bored with me.

Could it be that we’ve just been seeing too much of each other during lockdowns one through three?

“It’s not you, it’s me,” spec-fic might say on our regular date night held in the corner of a friendly tavern (built beneath the shadow of towering rocket-ship).

Certainly, I seem to have read a lot of speculative fiction lately that simply moves the genre furniture around the house rather than adding a new wing (or preferably) trap-door to it.

It’s a thought that reminds me a little of what Robert Eaglestone thinks is genre’s birth defect. For him, literary fiction is really where it’s at.

“It says everything,” he says. (Which is the whole point apparently.)

From his perspective, genre fiction, too-often, is only ever talking to and about itself.

And while I think this observation does articulate some of my own weariness, how to square this with his rather contradictory special pleading for lit-fic itself, which he regards as a non-generic type of writing whose tendency to be in conversation with its own history is validation of its uniqueness rather than a flaw.

As an aside, I wonder if beneath some of the slightly sniffy attitudes expressed towards spec-fic in literary circles lies the fact that it often sells a lot better than literary fiction.

Having all that filthy lucre smeared over your tentacles means that genre cannot be art at all, rather it is something commercial, hybridised and degraded. That said, Dickens and Cervantes both turned out contemporary best-sellers and you can’t get much more canon than little Davey Copperfield or the Madman of La Mancha. (It’s possible then, that perhaps critics will even regard Stephen King a little more kindly in a hundred year’s time.)

So, I’m not entirely sure where this slightly circular and self-indulgent post has got me.

Perhaps, I should start seeing other genres?

I’ll be honest about it with speculative fiction. We’ll go to the usual place on date night, drink half a bottle of chianti and work out some ground rules. Without them, in this sort of situation, someone will always get hurt. (Most probably be me.)

Or perhaps, after all, it really is just as the picture below says: Hulk is tired and Hulk should have a nap.

Hulk is really tired

Philip 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, MIROnline and The Best of British Science Fiction anthology series as well as being performed by Starship Sofa, Far Fetched Fables and Liars’ League. He’s won the Ilkley Short Story award, been runner up for the James White Award and longlisted for the BSFA short story prize. He lives with three hairless primates and an imaginary cat called Schrödinger. Visit him at http://philipasuggars.com  or @felipeazucares on Twitter.

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War! What Is It Good For? Remix 2022 – by Juliet E McKenna

Like many other authors, I have been thinking what a hard time a writer would have with an editor, if they presented a fictional character to equal the very real Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, voice of Paddington Bear, comedian, dancer and more besides, as he leads his country’s incredible resistance. Online, some people have gone further, pencilling in Jeremy Renner for the bio-pic, portraying Zelenskyy as a new superhero Captain Ukraine, and playing out various plot lines for his ultimate victory.

I’ve also seen pushback from people appalled by this, particularly those who are close to or engulfed in the fighting and the humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. This is not some Netflix mini-series or a new Marvel blockbuster. Those exploding buildings on your screen are not clever special effects. This is a war of merciless aggression with all its brutality, ugliness and death. If the Russian military under Putin’s orders can possibly manage it, they will murder Zelenskyy and his family. Thousands are already dead. Tens of thousands are injured. Hundreds of thousands have been trapped for weeks in cities being mercilessly starved and shelled. Ten million people have had to leave their homes, their lives, their friends and family members who are unable to flee.

As an epic fantasy writer, I hear echoes of Maximus Decimus Meridius bellowing ‘Are you not entertained?’ amid the slaughter of a Roman arena. I have to ask myself some very hard questions about the place of warfare in our genre, and this is not the first time I’ve thought about this. I considered rewriting the blog post that follows here, but I have decided to let my words stand as originally posted. I am also making donations to organisations bringing aid and relief to the Ukrainian people, and I urge you to check out the many, many fundraising initiatives.

War! What Is It Good For? January 2016

Absolutely nothing, according to those song lyrics. Yet so much of fantasy fiction is built around warfare. Arguably the defining text of our genre, The Lord of the Rings is, according to one of Bilbo Baggins’ proposed titles ‘What we did in the War of the Ring.’ Ask any fantasy fan to list seminal titles and I bet they’ll include David Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ and George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’, both epic tales inextricably bound to warfare. There are countless other examples.

Ask someone who doesn’t read fantasy fiction what the genre’s all about and the chances are they will cite battles and bloodshed, often with disapproval. When real blood is being spilled in Afghanistan and Iraq, before that in Kosovo and Bosnia, warfare in fantasy fiction trivialises such bravery and loss. Well, that response definitely proves you’re talking to someone who doesn’t read contemporary fantasy fiction.

Though if they did once read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ at school, you can remind them of Denethor’s grief at Boromir’s death, of Faramir’s desperate heroism, of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dead Marshes, the despoliation of Isengard and the scouring of the Shire. After serving on the Western Front in the Great War, Tolkien was very well aware of the costs of warfare, on personal and wider levels.

But such mistaken impressions of the genre don’t negate that crucial question. How does a fantasy writer use warfare as a backdrop or a central theme without trivialising the destruction of innocent lives, the tears in mothers’ eyes? There’s a reason why that song ‘War’ has been re-released and re-recorded ever since Edwin Starr took it to the top of the pop charts in 1970. Every decade’s news in print and on the screen has shown us conflict’s legacy of young men and women’s shattered dreams and broken bodies, among both service veterans and the non-combatants they are supposedly fighting to help.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge the ‘just’ war. The evils of Nazism could only be defeated through force of arms. It’s all very well to cite the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Weimar Republic but the fact remains that once Hitler launched a war of aggression, armed conflict was not merely inevitable but essential. Even now, when dramatic interpretations have moved so far from the stiff upper lips of 40s and 50s war movies, black and white in every sense, to the complex nuances and merciless full-colour visuals of TV series like ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’.

Setting out to write a trilogy dealing explicitly with a civil war, I had a lot of thinking to do. In ‘Irons in the Fire’, I had to show why these characters concluded they could only fight fire with fire. How thoroughly their rulers were betraying the feudal compact by casually using battle as an extension of diplomacy for the sake of empty, selfish ambitions. In ‘Blood in the Water’, I needed to show the personal cost of set-piece battles, mental and physical, as well as the impact of such upheavals on the non-combatant populace. I wanted to show how wars are fought by far more people than sword-wielding heroes on horseback. How guilty complicity can reach far beyond those actually shedding blood. How such travail can reveal an individual’s essential character and their flaws, for good and ill.

In ‘Banners in the Wind’, I had to address the consequences of warfare. Even the most solidly justified war leaves a painful legacy lasting generations. The Second World War’s impact on Eastern Europe is still bound up with today’s politics while Rommel and Montgomery’s mines are still blowing up innocents in the North African desert. Even a short, apparently clear-cut war like the UK’s retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 won’t necessarily settle a question. Argentina still claims sovereignty of Las Malvinas.

So in ‘Banners in the Wind’, I’ve considered how much remains to be won or lost after the battles are over. How different priorities can shatter previous unity of purpose. How anarchy gives opportunity to humanity’s basest instincts. How a peace settlement will hold or fail depending on who is truly dedicated to it. How the personal toll can leave people once committed to a cause wondering if this price is truly worth paying. How individual responsibility means playing an active part in a society.

Most important of all, I wanted to do all this while telling an exciting, entertaining story. This seems central to this disapproval of fantasy warfare. War is not entertainment, the critics growl. Sorry, but conflict is the essence of drama. Just because that’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true. Warfare has been a means for writers of fiction to explore the human condition ever since The Iliad. That’s important. While I’m happy to read heavyweight academic tomes on various wars as well as searing first-hand accounts of soldiering, not everyone is. Where is it written they must?

Non-fiction books are not always the best way to explore those broader questions about war, its necessity and its obscenity and to consider what these questions mean in time of peace. Specific incidents or individuals can hideously complicate matters, making it all too easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees. Reading about an imaginary world, about individuals facing perils so wholly different to our own, can actually facilitate a far better understanding of contemporary life and current events.

Tales of fictional wars can focus on the essentials, the bad and the good. While contemporary fantasy writers have a responsibility not to gloss over the ugliness of warfare, the conventions of our genre also allow us to celebrate heroism and valour. Let’s not forget the very best of humanity can be found amid such regrettable evils. We can reflect the medal ceremonies as well as the flag draped coffins without devaluing either. And as becomes apparent in ‘Banners in the Wind,’ true heroism might not be at all what you expect.

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy rooted in British folklore in 2018, followed by The Green Man’s Foe, The Green Man’s Silence, and The Green Man’s Challenge. She writes and comments on book trade issues, has served as a judge for major genre awards, and reviews online and for magazines. She writes diverse short stories and novellas enjoying forays into alternate history, darker fantasy, steampunk and SF. As J M Alvey, she has also written murder mysteries set in ancient Greece. As well as the next Green Man book, she’s currently working on The Cleaving, a feminist retelling of Arthurian myth, to be published in May 2023. Visit julietemckenna.com or follow @JulietEMcKenna on Twitter to keep up to date.

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Wyldblood Press by Mark Bilsborough

So I’m eighteen months in to my foolish and time-sucking venture, Wyldblood Press, and I’m still sane (or at least as sane as I was before). During that time we’ve published 58 stories in seven issue of Wyldblood Magazine, 82 flash fiction stories on the website, another 25 stories in two anthologies and seven classic reprints.  That’s a lot of stories! We’ve published online, in paperback and (for our werewolf collection, the Call of the Wyld, even in hardback).

And it’s exhausting.

We had plans to publish original novels, and we still do. But no-one told me how long it would take to read all this stuff so, sadly, the novels are on a back burner. That said, we’re catching up, and I’ve now got a team of enthusiastic slush readers filtering out large chunks of the submissions pile. So, a couple of novels this year for sure, more magazines, more flash on the website and two more anthologies on the horizon. Our next venture will be an anthology entitled Other Earths and we’ll open for submission for that soon. Plus we’ll be doing a ‘first year’ anthology collecting the pick of the bunch so far.

We’re getting submissions from across the globe, in large numbers. The quality is high, too, and we’ve had to make some very tough selection choices. We’re published science fiction, fantasy and anything in between, though we’re not fans of anything too bloodthirsty. Our stories tend towards the wistful and the thought provoking, but we like a good narrative, strong characters and an engaging storytelling style.

Our most recent publication is a steampunk anthology, Runs Like Clockwork. Why steampunk? It’s edgy enough to be intriguing, it’s different (at least from most of the stuff I read) and it’s got a tone to it that I find fascinating: all sepia tinged with a whiff of engine oil and a devilish glint in its mechanical eye. It’s got blurred edges and I love the fact that its writers play around with its definitions and conventions.  I came into the genre via Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (set in the Old West – hardly peasouper London) and Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun (alt-history with fey and magic, but it has that feel) and impressive TV like the adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (set in an imagined Tzarist Russia) and Carnival Row, which at least has the authenticity to be set in Victorian London,, and I love all that nostalgia for a time that never was. Writers responded enthusiastically to the challenge and we’ve found stories with airships, sea monsters, clockwork men and all the usual Victorian inspired mad scientist weirdness. We’ve also published the ultimate in proper Victorian steampunk, H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. If only he knew.

There’s a strong Milford connection in everything we do.  Clearly my writing and tastes have been influenced by all the contacts I’ve had with this fantastic writing community over the years, whether at Milford itself, conventions, workshops or the excellent writing groups I’m only part of because I met you all at Milford. Plus we’ve run interviews with Tiffani Angus and Jacey Bedford and a couple of Milward stalwarts, Vaughan Stanger and Mike Lewis, help wade through the short story slush (they’re very good at unearthing gems). You’ll recognise some Milford names amongst our storytellers too, and hopefully there’ll be lots more to come. If you want to submit, or help out in any way please get in touch at mark@wyldblood.com (or just talk about us and review us wherever you can – we love reviews) – we close for submissions from time to time but if you put ‘Milford’ in the subject line I’ll ignore that – and we always need flash fiction, because we get through an awful lot of it and for some reason most people prefer to send us longer pieces.

We charge for the magazine but we’ve put together a free PDF sampler and you can access all our flash fiction here. Everything’s available through Amazon or via our website.

Mark Bilsborough mainly writes science fiction and links to his publications can be found here. He learned what to do at Odyssey and what not to do at Milford. He lives just outside London surrounded by National Trust land, which keeps his dog very happy. One day he decided to run a magazine, and now he no longer has any time to write.

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Style Sheets by Jacey Bedford

Posted onOctober 6, 2020 byJacey Bedford

Originally posted on February 7, 2017 by Jacey Bedford

typewriter-3

There’s a lot of information to keep in your head if you’re writing a book. There’s even more if you’re writing a trilogy or a series.

I happily wrote seven books without having a single style sheet… and then I got published.

Empire of Dust, the first book to be published (not by any means the first book I wrote) was duly delivered, went through the editing stage (content editing, that is) and then, when the story was as good as we (the editor and I) could make it, it went off to be copy edited.

At that point I started to get questions. Was it jumpgate, jump gate or jump-gate? Should telepath be capitalised or not? Was it Arquavisa or Arquevisa because I’d spelled it both ways. At that point I realised that although I thought I’d (mostly) been consistent (except where I hadn’t), it wasn’t immediately obvious to the copy editor.

Also there were words of phrases that I’d appropriated that meant something slightly different in my universe. House gold was a type of beer. Telepath was capitalised when it was an implant-enhanced Telepath, a psi-tech, but not when it referred to a natural telepath or telepathy. The Folds (capitalised) was the proper name of that supposedly empty space between jump gates (not hyphenated), but foldspace (not capitalised) was a type of space, not a proper name. Jump drive was not hyphenated to jump-drive unless it was a compound modifier.

The Psi-Tech Trilogy.

Confused?

All that and more.

I didn’t have a style sheet for Empire of Dust. It was a rookie mistake, and one I’ve not made since.

The copy editor of Empire of Dust had to make a style sheet of every name, unusual phrase etc. and the publisher very kindly passed it on. I used it as the basis of a series style sheet for all the Psi-Tech novels. I’m still using it.

Every character name is on there (twice – listed as Fred SMITH (m.) and SMITH, Fred (m.) so I can find it whether I look it up under surname or forename. (Surname always capitalised, just so I know.) Every hyphenation is on there where there’s a choice of whether to hyphenate or not. Every place name is on there. Every unusual phrase is on there.

One helpful tip is to make sure you always update your style sheet as you go, and add salient little notes as necessary. If you (for instance) change the name of a character or a place, make a note on your style sheet. You always think you’ll remember, but, trust me. a year later you won’t have a clue.

So every time you start a new book have a file open for your style sheet. Every time you decide whether or not to hyphenate a term, stick it on there. Every time you introduce a new character, or invent a new place, stick it on there. Every time you use a new swear word, stick it on there (especially if you decide to use frell or frack instead of the obvious four letter word).

Since mine has become a series style sheet, if I kill off a character I note it on the style sheet (and which book they die in), so I don’t accidentally have a walk-on character appear while dead, which would be very embarrassing.

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To Map or Not To Map by Jacey Bedford

I’ve never yet had a map in any of my books, though I came close with The Amber Crown. Does it need a map? To be honest I didn’t think to ask the question until fairly late in the publishing process. Sheila, my editor, said she didn’t really think it needed one, but if I wanted to draw one they would include it. (She obviously hadn’t seen my drawing skills.)

The Amber Crown is set in an analogue of the Baltic States. It’s not a real historical novel, but a fantasy. I wanted a flavour of history, a dollop of verisimilitude, without real history getting in the way of my story. My country of Zavonia, has unruly neighbours, and the new king is playing politics and risking a war on two fronts. So just for my own sanity, I drew a rough working map on paper as well as in my head. It’s vaguely Baltic-shaped, but I’ve either changed the name of each country or used an older name. The Baltic itself has become the Narrow Sea – and yes, if you look at my map, the Narrow Sea is narrower than the actual Baltic. That’s deliberate, it’s not just that I’m a bad cartographer, though let’s be honest, I’m no Pauline Baynes.

My invented kingdom of Zavonia occupies the space where Latvia and Lithuania are today. Vironia is Estonia. Sverija is Sweden, Suomija is Finland. Posenja is Prussia, Kassubia is Poland. Zavonia’s powerful neighbour, Ruthenia (Russia) has recently annexed Bieloria (Belarus). I should be careful what I write because the news is currently full of Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine. And like the rest of the world, I’m sitting here hoping that no one does anything silly. If Ukraine was on this map it would be just south east of Bieloria. The political situation is complicated, now as then..

I love maps. When I was thirteen my dad bought a Readers Digest World Atlas. I quickly laid claim to it and would sit for hours studying the shapes of countries, how they nestled next to each other, where their high ground was, and their lowlands. I still have it, of course, though at some time our first dog, Shamus, a white German Shepherd with eclectic taste and strong jaws, decided the leather binding looked tasty, and nibbled a bit of the spine before I remonstrated with him. Odd because he’d never been a dog that chewed things. I guess he just loved that atlas as much as I did.

Maybe I’ll think about a map to go in the next book.

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First Person Narrative by Juliet E McKenna

Thoughts on writing a first person narrative when that person isn’t you.

Early reviews for The Green Man’s Challenge are coming in, and readers are commenting favourably on the way Dan Mackmain’s character comes vividly off the page. This isn’t the first time; an email from a satisfied reader of The Green Man’s Foe remarked about one incident, ‘honestly, Daniel’s such a bloke!’ This is intensely gratifying for me as the author, because Dan is so many things I am not, and as the central character in these stories, if he’s not believable, the whole book will fall apart. So how does a happily settled mid-50s woman write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 who works as a self-employed carpenter moving from place to place?

It certainly helps that I’ve been writing for over twenty years and more than twenty novels. My first book, The Thief’s Gamble, was centred around a first-person narrative, but Livak was a woman a decade or so younger than me, so I could draw on my own experience, and on my enduring friendships with other women. I faced a considerable challenge when I wrote the following novel, The Swordsman’s Oath, from a male character’s point of view. As I said at the time, I owed a great deal to my male beta readers; particularly my husband and close male friends who didn’t hesitate to tell me what I needed to know about the male perspective, ideally over a pint or two.

Writing those early books, it helped that my hobbies have included a good few male-dominated activities. At university and through my twenties, I enjoyed Live Action Role-Playing. I’ve done tabletop gaming since university, and also studied the martial art, aikido. I wasn’t consciously studying the men around me at the time, but when I was writing a scene where I needed to portray a convincing male reaction or interaction, I could frequently think back to some occasion where a conversation or disagreement showed me the best line to take. This is still the case. Add to that, over the years I’ve had some interesting chats with police officers, paramedics, nurses, social workers and door staff over post-aikido pints. These professionals frequently find themselves dealing with young men behaving unwisely to say the least, when aikido skills are invaluable for staying safe without having to meet aggression with aggression. Their anecdotes offer me further insights into attitudes that are a world away from my own.

Then there are the resources I have closer to home, namely my twenty-something sons, godsons and their assorted friends. I don’t interrogate them, notebook in hand, because that would be weird, but I can check what I am writing against the way they speak, the references they use, and the concerns they have about work, relationships and money. All these aspects of their lives are very different to the decades when I was their age. And yes, if I’m not sure I’ve got something right, I ask. Grounding any fantasy solidly in reality is essential if readers are to make that step into believing in the monsters and magic. That’s a challenge writing a secondary world, epic fantasy. It’s twice as hard when you’re writing about this world, in the here and now. Thankfully my sons are as helpful as they are amused by such queries.

For writers who don’t have esoteric hobbies or convenient relatives, endless information can be found in non-fiction. I’ve read any number of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers, sailors and airmen, explorers and adventurers, from historical eras to the modern day. There’s recently been a flurry of very interesting books written by doctors. Obviously Dan’s not a medic or anything of those other things, but such books show me the different ways in which a range of personalities will address a particular challenge. Since Dan’s concerned with rural affairs, I’ve recently been reading James Rebanks’ writing, and (heaven help me) watching the Clarkson’s Farm series from Amazon Prime video. Documentaries offer further ranges of perspectives – unlike ‘reality’ TV which is as artificial as its participants’ smiles.

Juliet E. McKenna

All this has shown me something very interesting about writing from Dan’s point of view. Very little of his outlook outside the bedroom is specifically or intrinsically related to his gender. People are definitely influenced by the different expectations and pressures they face from an early age, and many of those are undoubtedly based on whether they’re seen as a boy or a girl, but those things come from outside, not from within. Whether someone’s lively and outgoing, more reserved, or somewhere in between, isn’t determined by one particular set of chromosomes, and the same is true of other character traits. External factors like family circumstance, upbringing, social class, education and life experience play a hugely significant role in shaping anyone’s personality.

So the fact that I am a happily settled mid-50s woman does not mean I can’t write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 – or from the perspective of anyone else who isn’t me. However it does mean that I have to put in a good deal of work to do it well. Whatever I write, the further a character’s life might be from my own experiences, the more research I need to do. Above all else, I need listen to people who know a lot more about the reality of their own lives than I ever can. As I do that, I learn far more than simply how to write.

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Funded places for writers of colour to attend Milford SF in September 2022 – deadline approaching.

The deadline is 28th February 2022.

Please reblog or distribute this information as widely as possible.

Milford SF Writers’ Conference is offering two bursaries for self-identifying science fiction/fantasy writers of colour (BAME)  to attend the 2022 Milford SF Writers’ Conference in the UK which takes place from 10th to 17th September. The location is Trigonos, Nantlle, North Wales (9 miles south of Caernarfon).

This is for the Milford critiquing week. (Sorry, there are no bursaries available for the writing retreat in May.) Check out what happens at Milford here.

In 2017, our bursary recipients were Suyi Davies Okungbowa, from Lagos, Nigeria and Dolly Garland from London, UK. In 2018 our recipients are Nisi Shawl from the USA and Rochita Loenen Ruiz from the Philipines, currently resident in the Netherlands. In 2019 we hosted Mbozi (Tanya) Haimbe and Russell Smith, both UK-based. In 2020 Milford was cancelled due to Covid, but in 2021 our funded places went to Charlotte Forfiyeh and Georgina Kamsika.

Charlotte Georgina and Dolly at Milford 2021

Applications for the two 2022 places are now open. They close on 28th February 2022 Successful applicants will be notified in March 2022 and must confirm acceptance or decline within a week of notification.

Writers from all over the world (far and near) are invited to apply as long as they write SFF in English and are ‘Milford qualified’ (i.e at least one SF story sale to a recognised publication). Each bursary will cover the cost of the whole week, including full board accommodation (i.e. ensuite single room and all meals). The bursary value is approximately £800. The bursary does not cover the cost of transport to or from the conference from either inside or outside the UK. Should a successful applicant be unable to take up the offer of a bursary, there is no cash value, and no guarantee that we will be able to offer a bursary in a future year.

This is intended to be an encouragement and not a quota. We have a limited number of bursaries available, however we operate an equal opportunities policy so all SF/F writers who are ‘Milford qualified’ are welcome to apply for the full-price Milford SF Writers’ Conference places, subject to availability.

Thank you to all previous applicants. If you have applied unsuccessfully in the past, you are welcome to apply again. Here’s information and an applcation form or if you have any questions, please contact the Milford secretary.

If you are interested in helping to fund our bursary programme for future years, please talk to us.

Milford secretary: jacey@jaceybedford.co.uk.

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Choices, Choices, Choices: The Growing World of Interactive Fiction by Trip Galey

Interactive stories—tales in which the reader makes choices and influences the direction the plot advances—are enjoying a bit of a renaissance at present. The Choose Your Own Adventure book series is reprinting old classics and adding new titles to its lineup. Netflix has been releasing interactive specials and movies since 2017. Black Mirror had one, as did Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And companies like Choice of Games are using ebook technology to create adaptive, interactive novels in a variety of genres that bridge the gap between games and books. I even know one author who was brought on staff to help write an interactive car advert. 

Fresh off my own experience working with interactive fiction, here are my Top 3 tips for anyone interested in experimenting with this artistic form:

1 – Have an Outline

Even if you are an inveterate ‘pantser’ or ‘gardener’ when it comes to your writing, if you are working on a piece of interactive fiction you are going to want an outline. The narrative is going to branch, and keeping track of all those branches while also strolling down new primrose paths as they occur to you is a surefire recipe for madness. You can still wander! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. But you should give yourself some very firm landmarks along the way and chart your course toward them without fail. That way you don’t have to rewrite 300,000+ words every time things change on you. 

2 – Give Your Readers Bottlenecks

Yes, we’re talking about interactive fiction and reader choice is the central conceit of the form. That said, as the author you can control where those choices go. Cinderella can choose to do her chores, or sneak off and make herself a dress, or run away to visit her mother’s spirit in an old willow tree, but there is nothing to say that all three of those choices can’t eventually lead her to the same place: the ball! This allows you to constrain the pathways formed by the choices so they don’t grow exponentially and make your story an impossible hydra of a beast to manage.

3 – The Illusion of Choice is Sometimes Just as Good as the Real Thing

Readers of this kind of fiction absolutely love to make consequential choices. However, not all choices are created equal, and it is possible to craft a ‘choice’ that feels meaningful and leads to a passage of prose that reinforces that idea, without actually giving rise to a host of new pathways for the story to follow. If the choice is between grabbing the sword, the magic wand, or the bow with which to fight the monster, that’s an important choice, but no matter which weapon the reader chooses, they still fight the monster. That’s still a single pathway through the story, not three (and that saves quite a bit on word count, not to mention your sanity). 

And in terms of venues where you can send your interactive fiction and hopefully get it published, while they are fewer in number than venues accepting traditional prose, they do exist. Some of them are even SFWA-qualifying markets in their own right!

Strange Horizons currently accepts interactive fiction in hypertext format. It’s worth noting here that the magazine asks you query them as to how best to submit the work, so take that into account when writing. It needs to be in a form you can transmit!

Choice of Games is one of the biggest names in this field right now. They both act as a platform for writers to effectively self-publish their interactive fictions (Hosted Games) and as a publishing house for commissioned works (Choice Of… Games). Works published under the latter category count for purposes of SFWA membership. 

You have reached the end of this passage. Do you…

-Turn back! The way forward is too hazardous for your taste!

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Trip Galey  is a writer, a PhD student, and a researcher of all things pursuant to bargains, exchanges, and compacts of a faery nature. It is inadvisable to attempt to make a deal with him. He has been, in the past, a reluctant cowboy, an Ivy League collegian, and an itinerant marketing professional. Mostly harmless. 

Trip’s first interactive novel, Faerie’s Bargain: The Price of Business, is available as of 2 December 2021 from Choice of Games, on their website, in their app, or on Steam.

https://www.choiceofgames.com/category/our-games/

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1584900/Faeries_Bargain_The_Price_of_Business/

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A typewriter?! by Juliet Kemp

I learnt to type in the mid-80s, aged eight, on a real typewriter. I asked to ‘play’ with the exciting shiny machine with all the letters, and  my mum handed me a teach-yourself workbook. By the time I got bored, I’d learnt enough. Enough, specifically, that when I met my first computer shortly afterwards – a Sharp MX700 – I could use at least, ooh, eight fingers to type out BASIC programs, and, later, stories into the school Nimbuses. The typewriter, outmoded technology, returned to the loft.

Until, earlier this year, a writer friend mentioned that they’d acquired one, and were finding it useful. Not so much for writing once you were really getting stuck into a story, but for the stage before a first draft. For journalling, free writing, sketching ideas. Experimenting.

Always keen to try out something that might smooth the writing process (the same impulse that leads me regularly to experiment with writing, outlining, or worldbuilding software, not to mention to the purchase of fountain pens, shiny new notebooks and, once, an old-school distraction-free word processor*), I asked my parents to retrieve that old typewriter from the loft so I could give it a try.

The typewriter in question is my dad’s Remington Travel-Riter Deluxe, a 21st birthday present from his parents back in the 60s, and still in fine working order. Not bad for 56.

And the bell still works. Ding!**

But. Does it help?

Well, it depends what you’re after. My friend was right: it is very satisfying for getting ideas together. A bit like writing by hand – which I also do sometimes, so let’s hope I don’t get carried away and start a typewriter collection to go with the fountain pens – I find that there’s something about the act of putting words mechanically down on paper that focuses the mind. It feels more concrete, less ephemeral.

Writing by hand, though, is very stream-of-consciousness for me. With the typewriter, on the other hand, I find myself forming sentences more clearly before I start them, driven somehow by the rhythm of typing combined with the knowledge that I can’t just delete what I type.

Faster than writing by hand, slower than a laptop (apparently this is less true for desktop typewriters, but I couldn’t tuck a desktop machine away in a cute little travel case when I need desk space); it feels like a sweet spot for focused thought.

And it doesn’t have the internet. There is that.

On the other hand, typing is physically harder than on a keyboard and tends to make my back ache; and as above, you can’t edit. OCR software works pretty well (from my phone, no less; a glorious mingling of the modern and the…somewhat less modern) but still, it doesn’t make practical sense for long-form work once you’re fairly started. 

But for ideas? For thinking? For the early stages of writing myself into something? It’s great. And it’s fun.

And perhaps, in part, I’m channeling eight year old me, who would have been utterly thrilled to learn that 40-something me has real live published books out there with my – our! – name on them.

Ding!

* Yes, this is of course all basically procrastination.

** I wrote both the first and second drafts of this on the typewriter, and feel I should note that to type ! I had to type ‘ [backspace] . .

Juliet Kemp’s latest book The Rising Flood ( https://books2read.com/TheRisingFlood), the third in their Marek Series, is out now from Elsewhen Press. Their short fiction has featured or is forthcoming in venues including Analog, Cossmass Infinities, and Cast of Wonders, and they were shortlisted for the WSFA Small Press Award 2020. They live in London with their family and dog (plus a slightly excessive quantity of bikes, fountain pens, and yarn), and spend a lot of time looking at the river and drinking tea instead of writing.

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Emerald to Ice: Adventuring in Ecological Science Fiction by Matt Colborn

There’s a sequence in David Attenborough’s insect series, Life in the Undergrowth, when he describes the annual life cycle of the bumble bee. The story of the queen bee founding her nest after hibernation, raising a whole society, producing new queens and finally succumbing to senescence can only be described as high drama.This was the initial inspiration for my aliens, the humbles, who appear in my new Science Fiction novel, Emerald to Ice.

Around the same time, I watched the 2011 Starmus talk of Astronomer and Queen lead guitarist Brian May. May was worried about the current state of humanity, and the implications for any expansion into space. “Suppose we find that intelligent life that we’re so excited about looking for,” he asked, “suppose we bump into it out there? How will we treat it? How will we behave?”

The answer Science Fiction often gives is: very badly.

In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ursula Le Guin wrote The Word For World is Forest, in part a parable of the US presence in Southeast Asia. In the book, humans arrive on an alien world, strip the forests, enslave the indigenous people. A similar story is told in the 2009 film Avatar. In both works, human beings are shown as basically exploitative.

I wanted Emerald to Ice to express something different. In the book, two distinct but allied human factions have arrived at the edge of a star system about a thousand light-years distant from Earth. The humbles live on one of the planets in the system. The humans have avoided contact for eighty years, but are then forced to break planetary quarantine.

Both human factions are significantly more enlightened than those we met in the earlier works. They’re well versed in postcolonial studies and are eager not to repeat the grim history of first-contact on Earth. But will the final outcome really be any better?

Nyuki with clouds

Abode, the name of one of the human settlements, was deliberately written as utopian. It’s a society where economic and social justice has by and large been achieved. Sexism, racism and homophobia are history. Governance is via sortition. Work is democratic. Diverse religions and secularisms co-exist peaceably. Crime, especially violent crime, is rare and policing is done by community volunteers. Abode is de-militarised and mostly disarmed.

And yet there’s something missing. The Abodans are exiles, trapped in their space habitats like goldfish in a bowl. Severed from the rich, nurturing biosphere of their home world, they exist in a state of sensory deprivation. And that state of sensory deprivation is gradually driving the Abodans out of their minds.

Humans in the 21st century seem to me in a comparable situation. Today, the bulk of humanity lives increasingly urbanised lives, mediated by electronics, extensively surveilled and walled off from the natural world. The resulting culture seems to me increasingly inward-looking, fractious, narcissistic. An exclusively human-centred outlook has become curdled, even toxic.

I believe that this would hold true even if we achieved the sort of just, utopian conditions that are yearned for in so much progressive thought. The exclusion of the more-than-human world can only result in a fatal impoverishment of human consciousness, a sort of critical myopia. The price paid is a lack of real empathy for other beings, even those one ostensibly wants to protect. And in my novel, this plays out as an initial failure to take the alien’s perspective.

Ursula Le Guin was critical of much science fiction that simply affirmed the anthropocentric attitude. She contrasted this with fantasy at its best. The “green country of fantasy,” Le Guin suggested, “verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important.”

Pilot Whales

The shock of first contact, for humans, is the understanding that we are not the be all and end all in the universe. This is an experience that we can have on planet Earth, right now. In the Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley suggested that “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.” I felt this very much in 2018, when seeing pilot whales at close quarters off Tenerife. The encounter with other intelligences provides necessary perspective.

My humbles have little interest in human beings. Having a different evolutionary heritage, their strengths and weakness differ from ours. Their preoccupations are not our preoccupations. In a way, they’re emissaries, fictional representatives of the non-human intelligences that on this planet we ignore, exploit, kill on a daily basis.

The humbles, and their beautiful but often hostile world, open doorways of consciousness for my protagonist that help her understand just how small human life has become. This results in a transformed experience of the world, and an understanding that humans are not, and have never been alone. This is perhaps a lesson that 21st century humans need to learn, while there’s still time.

Emerald to Ice is available to buy at Amazon UK, Amazon US and other Amazon sites.

Matt 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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