Twenty Random Book Suggestions

At this year’s Milford we talked–a lot. Most of the talk was about writing, but, of course, you can’t really talk about writing without also talking about books. Here’s a random selection of books recommended from one writer to another. I asked writers to briefly say why they’d recommended this particular title. It’s not intended to be a ‘best of’ list. It may give you some ideas for Christmas presents or tempt you to add to your own wish list.

  1. admiralAdmiral, by Sean Danker (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Evagardian Series #1
    Four cryo-sleepers wake on a strange vessel in space, the first three are rookie Evagardian military personnel and the last is an admiral – or so it says on his sleeper. He’s as surprised about this as the other three are. This is a get-me-out-of-here story paced like a race over hurdles. Problem after problem besets our quartet at breakneck speed. Think: The Martian meets James Bond.
  2. Ancillary trilogy, by Ann Leckie (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    (ANCILLARY JUSTICE, ANCILLARY MERCY, ANCILLARY SWORD). The protagonist is the only surviving fragment of a multiple-human-body-plus-spaceship-core AI – and an embodiment of virtue. Lots of really interesting stuff about ethics and free will. Some people find it bothersome that the protagonist refers to all sentients as “she” – as an AI, she doesn’t really grok gender, and her mother tongue either doesn’t mark gender or defaults to “she”. I didn’t find it anything like as intrusive as the people of Winter all being referred to as “he” in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS; possibly because I’m female, so I’m used to female = person and it’s easy to reverse this into person = female. Males, you have been warned.
  3. arcadiaArcadia, by Ian Pears  (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    Quite languid but never slow, a really interesting mix of dystopia, fantasy, and time-travel, that is also, like Mythago Wood, very British in sensibility. It’s also quite a writerly book because in parts it’s about writing but is also such a superbly plotted story without a single dangling thread. Read this twice for the Clarke Award, then read it again because I liked it.
  4. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Penguin 2009
    Families.  People.  Again!  And short shorts.  Acute bleak reading to know you’re not alone.    So many gems here, but like Roald Dahl she mocks the pretensions of fine wine very well.  Though really this is a bit of a cheat, as it’s over twenty years work, gathered in one volume, but a good one to keep by your side in case of emergency.
  5. Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinsoneurope-at-midnight  (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    SF written by Le Carre, a brilliant, original, and timely parallel worlds story whose invention really got under my skin.
  6. Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson (Recommended by Jim Anderson)
    What’s not to love – well written, suitably weird and compelling but I don’t want to give too much away.  So have a read …
  7. The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Joe Abercrombie’s first foray into Grimdark is saved by the delicious streak of black humour that runs through it. These three books have to be read as one huge story. It will take a while but it’s worth it (though probably not for the squeamish).
  8. The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    It’s well-paced, inventive and a very satisfying read, with engaging and well-drawn protagonists. And of course, anything featuring librarians as heroes is OK by me. A very good debut.
  9. just-one-damned-thingJust One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Chronicles of St Marys’ #1
    Time-travel fantasy that’s a real page turner. Light, frothy, exciting and hilarious in turn, with some serious, high-stakes problems. It’s also got great ‘voice’. St Mary’s sends historians back in time to verify facts. What could possibly go wrong? The institute is a disaster-magnet, chaotic and dangerous—eccentric hardly begins to cover it—and someone is messing with the timelines. If you like this there’s a whole series. Enjoy.
  10. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch et. Seq. (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    There are three Locke Lamora books out so far and the fourth seems to be stalled in publication, which is a pity because I’m gagging for it! Beautifully written, excellent characters and dramatic tension up the wazoo! If you haven’t read these three books I order you to READ THEM NOW.
  11. lie-treeThe Lie Tree, by Francis Hardinge (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Macmillan 2015
    Because of the paper theatre, and how Faith looks after her little brother Howard.  And Faith’s refusal to accept the conventions of the times, all in a fabulous gothic setting.   The restrictions women lived with are shown very clearly.  And it’s a real miss-your-stop-on-the-tube page-turner.  It reminded me of Little White Horse at the beginning with the coach journey west into lurching darkness.  And I do like a good travelogue.
  12. Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin et seq. (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    A second world fantasy that reads with all the pace, snap and fizz of good urban fantasy. Breathless pacing. You’ll want to read them all. Each new book takes up exactly where the previous one left off. The series is complete.
  13. martianThe Martian, by Andy Weir (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    No, I haven’t seen the film. Really plausible near-future hard SF, with a genuinely likeable main character.
  14. Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey. (Recommended by Dave Gullen)
    Actually book 5 in a series but it works as a standalone, and led me to go out and buy the first, which was equally good, and I’ll be catching up through the series. Just rip-roaring space opera set in a colonised solar system, grubby and gritty, quite political but with explosions too, and what made it special for me were the interesting and complex characters.
  15. A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Reissued in 2016. A day by day trip through the month of October in the company of Jack the Ripper’s dog, Snuff, as various recognisable protagonists (and their familiars) are preparing for ‘the game’. Hugely imaginative and vastly intriguing. Snuff is brilliant.
  16. quarryThe Quarry, by Iain Banks (Recommended by Siobhan McVeigh)
    Little, Brown 2013
    Peeling back the layers of an old group of friends, looking at death in an open-eyed way, with a strong female hero.  And a real understanding of aspergers and OCD.  And because people have a choice about how they behave.
  17. Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo (Recommended by Jacey Bedford)
    Fantasy. A fast-paced thrill-ride, supposedly for the YA market, but very adult in the amount of violence perpetrated by the good guys as well as the bad. Very tense and exciting. Kaz Brekker is a young criminal prodigy in the rough part of Ketterdam where anything goes. He’s offered a job, a dangerous heist for more money than he can dream of, but it’s a job for a team and Kaz is not big on trust.  Add to this Crooked Kingdom, the sequel, published in October 2016.
  18. thinking-fast-and-slowThinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Recommended by Jim Anderson)
    We like to think we have free will, but this book is the summary of Kahneman’s life of work showing just how fragile free will is and how we are programmed to react to the world in ways we don’t understand
  19. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua (Recommended by Sue Thomason)
    Hardback comic; this is the one I am currently thrusting into the hands of various friends while yelling “YOU MUST READ THIS YOU MUST READ THIS!” Warning: contains cats – also the Difference Engine, the Analytical Engine, Queen Victoria, George Eliot, Coleridge, and Lewis Carroll.
  20. Uprooted, byNaomi Novik (Recommended by David Allan)
    A great story of self discovery in a logically constructed fantasy universe which, IMHO, should have won the Hugo
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Alistair Rennie – Attending Milford 2006

bleak-warrior-coverI attended Milford shortly after my first publication came out in John Klima’s now legendary “Electric Velocipede”. This was in 2006, a year when things, in writing terms, started happening for me.

Foremost among these was Milford. I submitted the two requisite pieces of work – a surrealist fantasy piece called “A Doom of My Own” (later published in John Klima’s “EV”) and a short story called “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl”, now the first chapter of a recently released novel entitled BleakWarrior.

When I look back, it seems to me that “A Doom of My Own” gained the most favour in terms of its reception by the Milford group. But it didn’t cause as much of a reaction as the other piece, which is the basis for a very important and inspiring lesson for me.

I was nervous about submitting “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl” because of the type of story it is. Like the novel where it now sits, it is a generic hybrid that incorporates elements of dark fantasy, splatterpunk and cosmic horror, new weird, graphic novels, spaghetti westerns and (as I like to think) Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

BleakWarrior is deliberately hard-edged and gratuitous, violent and X-rated. It is equally careless of applying strict grammatical rules or rules of narration and narrative point of view. It is ugly, philosophically perverse, but also experimental in its aims to combine pulp and literary facets of fiction. I tend to refer to the novel, in generic terms, as Sword and Debauchery. And, to this extent, it follows a risky strategy that is likely to divide opinion.

When it came to the critique, however, what quickly became obvious to me was that the Milford group were not in the business of letting personal taste or preference get in the way of a robust but measured critical appraisal. The Milford critics (also accomplished authors) were proven experts in their field. They were too shrewd and sharp-edged with insights to let value-judgements overrule their critical opinions. They were unerringly professional, to put it plainly, to the extent that, in my case, I received some vital practical advice that I treasure to this day.

One thing I learned, for example, was the art of not giving away too much, too soon – the art of concealment as a means of perfecting the illusion of fiction, in such a way as to make it seem more real, more believable, more true to the way that we process information in the real world – not all at once, but gradually.

My risky story didn’t meet with everyone’s personal approval (for from it!). “I am not your target audience” was often heard during the scrutiny of “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl”. But at no stage did anyone suggest that I was barking up the wrong writing tree. On the contrary, it was clear by the reactions of the group that I might have actually been onto something.

So much so that, soon after, “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl” was accepted for publication by Ann VanderMeer at “Weird Tales” magazine – a submission that I made in response to the sage advice of Milford grandee, Chris Butler. Chris was adamant that “Weird Tales” was the ideal place for submitting my story, and so it proved. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to submit to “Weird Tales” if it hadn’t been for the encouragement and direction given to me by the Milford group. It was exactly the kind of firm but gentle shove that I needed at the time. I was, after all, a mere rookie.

There are other important caveats you will take away with you from Milford. Above all, it lifts you onto a more elevated plane of awareness in regards to the people and processes that populate the world of writing. It gives you confidence, lasting friendships and, to top it off, a full on engagement with the enchanting landscapes of North Wales.

 

alistair-rennieAlistair Rennie is the author of the weird, sword and debauchery novel, BleakWarrior. He has published dark fantasy and horror fiction, essays and poetry in The New Weird anthology, Weird Tales magazine, Fabulous Whitby, Electric Velocipede, Mythic Delirium, Pevnost, Schlock Magazine, Horror Without Victims, Weird Fiction Review and Shadowed Realms.

He was born and grew up in the North of Scotland, has lived for ten years in Italy, and now lives in Edinburgh in the South of Scotland. He holds a first class Honours Degree in Literature from the University of Aberdeen and a PhD in Literature from the University of Edinburgh. He is a time-served painter and decorator and a veteran climber of numerous hills and mountains in the Western Highlands, the Cairngorms and the Italian Dolomites.

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Making People In My Head – by Gaie Sebold

babylon-steel-coverSomeone asked me recently, “Which comes first for you, character or plot?”

“Oh, character,” I said. “Character every time.”

And having said it, I realised that it might be generally true – at least, where novels are concerned – but of course, it isn’t as simple as that. A character doesn’t just stroll into my head, named, physically complete and fully costumed, with all their quirks, motivations, backstory, family and taste in beverages neatly arrayed.

I know one or two things about them, to start with. Generally I have a good idea what my major characters look like. In fact they’re often so clear in that respect that I have to remind myself to put some of that stuff on the page, because, unfortunately, readers can’t actually see the picture in my head.

dangerous-gifts-cover-32d6I know what they do for a living. That in itself is part, of course, of who they are, and the world they live in – and then I’m into the world itself, and what the character is doing there, and what particular mess they’re in, and why, and we’re off into plot and world-building and all that other good stuff. Out of this, things begin to accrete to the character –history, family, social status, style, quirks… and then I want something to happen in the plot so I make decisions about a character’s backstory and motivations that will bring them to that point. Then, quite often, I realise that doesn’t work, so I have to change the plot, or change the character’s history, or both.

Sometimes both. Really quite often both, actually. And then I change one of them back again because it feels better and then I have to change something else, because now it doesn’t fit. And so forth.

I’m not exactly a tidy writer.

I do, sometimes, wish major characters turned up with everything about them clearly defined, because then they’d stride through the plot, making decisions that matched who they were at every turn instead of getting lost down dead ends. Not to mention that I wouldn’t end up changing something about them, forgetting I’d changed it, and having to slog back through every single reference to make sure they all match.

shanghai-sparrow-cover-200-pxLike I say, not tidy.

So life would be easier. But if characters did turn up fully finished, I’d lose some of the joy of discovery. Creating a character is rather like making a new, close friend (or new, close enemy, in some cases), and finding out, bit by bit, who that person really is. It’s an intriguing process.

The characters who are the spark points for books do arrive with a defined and physical presence, a few essential characteristics, a voice. Other members of the cast can be elusive, refusing to fill out properly, remaining infuriatingly wispy despite intensive interrogations (this sometimes involves me weeding, or thinning the grapevine, while saying things like ‘Come on, talk to me, dammit. What do you want?” Aloud. To thin air. The neighbours seem to have got used to this, and don’t even usher their children hastily indoors any more. Mostly.)

sparrow-falling-coverSometimes I just have to inform such a character that this is how they are, and this is what they do, unless they can come up with a good reason why not.

Of course if they do come up with a good reason why not – if what I write them doing feels actively wrong, instead of simply a work in progress, then annoying as it is, that’s generally a good thing. It means the character is developing, becoming three dimensional. It’s when they turn into that kind of awkward so-and-so who won’t do what they’re told that I know I have a live one – a character with some substance to them, someone who is more than just a jointed doll to be moved around at the convenience of the plot.

But the ones who spark the story – they’re always the best ones. They existed before the story, and they take on a life beyond the story. These are the ones who hang around in my head.

I’m half-convinced they actually do have real lives, somewhere in the multiverse, and I just got to be their biographer for a little while.

I rather hope so, anyway.

 

gaie-sebold-pic-2014Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012). The Babylon Steel series continues, as does a steampunk series, Gears of Empire She also writes short stories and occasional poetry, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and procrastinates to professional standard.

Find out more at http://gaiesebold.com/

Follow her on twitter @GaieSebold

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How to Critique Effectively and Influence Your Fellow Writers – By Nancy Jane Moore

theweave200            My favorite writing workshop story comes from my time at Clarion West. We were critiquing a story of mine, and one of the students — let’s call him X — was ripping it to shreds. He got to the end of his rant, and Therese Pieczynski, who was the next critiquer, said, “I anti-ditto [Clarionspeak for “completely disagree with”] everything X just said.”

X got mad! His feelings were hurt, not because someone had criticized one of his stories, but because someone had criticized his critique!

I found the whole thing hilarious. In fact, I think it might be the funniest thing that happened at Clarion, except possibly for the night when we all ended up half drunk in someone’s room watching several of the guys play air guitar to Black Sabbath (you had to be there). While I have often questioned the judgment of people who liked stories I detested, it’s never hurt my feelings that they disagreed with me.

I don’t remember what X didn’t like about my story. For that matter, I don’t remember what Therese liked about it. But I am sure I didn’t pay any attention to anything X said and that I listened carefully to Therese. It didn’t take me long at Clarion to figure out that Therese was great at getting to the heart of what worked and didn’t in a story. To this day, she’s still my favorite first reader; I can list several stories I’ve completely revised because of something she said.

At Clarion, I discovered the importance of finding the right people to critique my stories, but it was several years later, when I attended Milford, that I figured out the most important rule for participants in writing workshops, one that makes it possible for a writer to get a useful critique even from those who aren’t simpatico with their work. Here’s that rule:

The critiquer’s job is to help the writer tell the story the writer wants to tell. 

The Milford workshop was the most constructive one I’ve ever attended. In a group of about 15 people, including several with significant publishing reputations, not one person used their critique to trash a story or to show off. Every criticism — positive or negative — was intended to help the person improve the story they wanted to write.

It was a refreshing experience, one I’ve never had in any other workshop. It could be that British writers are just nicer — and smarter — than the rest of us, or it could be that I just lucked into the right group at the right time. But from that experience, I’ve come up with five instructions for participants in writing workshops that implement the core rule of helping the writer tell the story they want to tell:

  1. Keep your ego in check. Do not use a critique as a forum for showing off how much you know about the subject at hand. It’s one thing to point out that the writer has erred in their use of physics; it’s another to use this error as an excuse to lecture on either physics or the stupidity of people who don’t know physics.
  2. It’s not your story, so don’t rewrite it the way you would tell it if it were. This can be a difficult rule. For example, if I were critiquing Much Ado About Nothing, I would be sorely tempted to tell Will Shakespeare that Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio in the end is absurd. No woman would ever marry a man who treated her as he did. However, if she tells him to go to hell, the story becomes something darker than the romantic comedy it’s meant to be. My version might make an interesting story, but it’s not the one Will was writing.
  3. Don’t tell the writer how to revise the story to make it publishable if your revision changes what the story is about. This is slightly different from the last rule — a corollary of sorts. I mean don’t tell the writer to change the story to something that fits the current fashion of what gets published. My few forays into love stories usually end with broken hearts or worse, but I don’t want to change them to fit romance guidelines no matter how many times someone tells me how well romance sells. That’s not the story I’m writing.
  4. Don’t waste group time on grammatical nitpicks; you can mark minor errors on the manuscript. And particularly avoid parroting the various canonical rules you’ve learned along the way, such as the ones about the passive voice, the overuse of adverbs, or the error of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. If a sentence isn’t working, try to explain why it doesn’t work instead of falling back on a rule that probably isn’t the real problem to begin with. Besides, telling the writer to revise a sentence that works well just because it doesn’t follow a particular rule shows you’re missing the point. Would you tell Charles Dickens he should rewrite the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities because it’s 118 words long and he uses the verb to be 13 times?
  5. Don’t be nasty. It is possible to tell someone their story sucks without putting it in those words. Believe me, they won’t miss the point just because you’re polite about it.

These rules are for workshop participants, not for teachers. An experienced teacher knows the same approach doesn’t work for every student and every situation. Sometimes a teacher must be very encouraging; sometimes they need to hit the student over the head with the proverbial two-by-four. But peers in a workshop are not teachers, and they should not act as if they are.

I’ll end with a piece of advice for those on the receiving end of a critique, my take on something Samuel Delany taught me at Clarion: The problem people point out in a story may not be the actual problem. Something else entirely may be out of whack, causing the scene in question not to work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to figure out where the real problem lies.

By the way, the story I mentioned at the beginning, the one X trashed? Despite not taking X’s advice, I sold it a couple of years after Clarion. Selling the story is the best revenge I can think of for a bad critique.brewing_fine_fiction133x200

 

Note: This essay originally appeared in 2010 in Brewing Fine Fiction, [http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/brewing-fine-fiction/] an anthology of essays on writing by members of Book View Cafe.

 

nan300Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out in 2015 from Aqueduct Press. [http://www.aqueductpress.com/books/978-1-61976-077-6.php] Her earlier books include a collection from PS Publishing, Conscientious Inconsistencies, and a novella from Aqueduct, Changeling. She is a member of the cooperative publisher Book View Café, where she has published several ebooks and contributed to anthologies. [http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/bvc-author/nancy-jane-moore/] You can follow her on Facebook [https://www.facebook.com/nancy.j.moore.94]. She posts on Thursday at the Book View Café blog. [http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/]

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Mr Langford’s Milfords

Dave Langford writes:

My Milford attendance record was nothing to write home about, let alone pad out to a six-volume fantasy trilogy.  All “my” Milfords were in the early though not the earliest days at the Compton Hotel, Milford-on-Sea. The Langford era ran from 1977 to 1984, skipping 1979 because that year’s UK Worldcon led to Milford being cancelled, and missing the 1983 event as a personal decision after long and painful study of my credit card statement.

milford-1980

Milford 1980; (standing) l-r: Alan Farmer, Richard Cowper, Christopher Priest, Christopher Evans, Randal Flynn, Bobbie Lamming, Philippa Maddern, Tony Richards, Robert Holdstock, Patrice Duvic. (sitting) l-r: Marianne Leconte, Pamela Bulmer, Garry Kilworth, David Langford (Photo kindly sent by Christopher Priest)

            Like everyone else, I loved the company, the literary chat and the scandalous after-hours gossip about publishers and editors. But thanks to my infamous hearing trouble, I never really got the hang of the big story-discussion circle that filled the whole Compton lounge every morning and every afternoon. The best ploy was for me to follow the Speaking Object – the copy of the MS that granted the right to hold forth, as in Lord of the Flies – around the room and get as close as possible to the current speaker. This seemed vaguely disruptive; my fallback option was to stay put and hope that the best critiques came from the Milfordians with the loudest, clearest voices. One way of telling that recent mumbly noises from the far side of the room had been positive about my story would be the loud clear voice of David Garnett – who never liked to join in any cosy consensus – saying, “WELL, I THOUGHT IT WAS FUCKING AWFUL.”

As far as I can remember I sold all but one of the stories I took to the workshop, the exception being a too-hasty “Milford admission ticket” effort from whose heartily execrated wreckage it seemed possible to save only a single favourite image. Which, as it turned out, worked more effectively in a quite different fictional framework.

According to the infallible Milford website, the first Langford tale to be hauled over the coals was “Serpent Eggs”, which started life as a kind of technothriller with an investigator looking for incredibly dangerous strategic material that might or might not exist on a Scottish island inhabited by a colony of not entirely ept ecological fanatics. Richard Cowper, as I remember, gently set me right about plausible firearms for rabbit-shooting – I don’t think I’d specified an express rifle, but the details are shrouded in merciful amnesia; Rob Holdstock cheered me hugely by very much liking the melodramatic climax; David Garnett said something highly characteristic of David Garnett (see above); and Chris Priest opined that there were the makings of a “strong, ironic story” here … but only, he conveyed, the makings.

Years later I took that advice, though almost certainly not in the intended way, and rewrote “Serpent Eggs” with the same setting but a somewhat different protagonist who fancied himself as an occult investigator on the trail of Lovecraftian horrors. At the melodramatic climax, he discovers – but still fails to understand – that the actual secret is a worse horror arising not from the Cthulhu Mythos but from physics. Fifteen minutes of fame ensued when the story was reprinted in a Year’s Best Horror anthology. That’s how, on one occasion, the Milford process worked for me.

Perhaps I should have cultivated workshop gamesmanship like Patrice Duvic, who one fondly remembered year brought a bottle of fine brandy with him from France and immediately before his story came to judgment insisted on pouring everyone a large glass. (That must also have been the year he borrowed my portable typewriter, which inevitably did not have an AZERTY keyboard, and with every wrong keystroke filled the air with cries of “Aagh! French letter!”)

As I grew deafer, Milford became a tougher proposition and I drifted out of the habit, but stayed connected for many further years as treasurer with power of high, middle and low justice over a bank account whose balance sometimes soared into the low three figures. Those were the days.

 

langfordDavid Langford <http://ansible.uk/> has won ever so many Hugo awards, none alas for a Milford story. He mostly writes nonfiction these days; distractions include the SF Encyclopedia <http://sf-encyclopedia.com/>, the long-running SF newsletter Ansible <http://news.ansible.uk/> and the doomed small press Ansible Editions <http://ae.ansible.uk/>. His mad-scientist lab is working to perfect the Deaf Ray.

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A Very Redensive Anthology by David Gullen

gullen-repm-front-cover-squareThe Redensive Epiphanies of Pouty McNavel  is the second* anthology of short stories I’ve edited and published. At the moment I don’t have any specific plans for a third, but I do have several ideas so I don’t expect it to be the last. It’s immensely satisfying to be able to put together an anthology of good writing, to see it in print and hold the book in your hands. To turn the pages one by one, study them with reasoned pride, and cry aloud in ringing tones, ‘Bugger, there’s another typo.’

Every year I go on holiday with some friends. This started out several years ago as a working holiday specifically for writing. Back then having a whole week dedicated to writing was a rare and precious thing. Over the years things changed, now there’s more of a mix of people and interests, it’s almost a pop-up art commune. A lot of writing still gets done, photography, other art projects, one of us is a science journalist. There’s usually a day-trip, this year we visited one of the recently discovered Neolithic quarries used for the Stonehenge bluestones.  In the evening: food, conversation, drink.

After a week hanging out with friends, working, thinking, those rambling conversations, each year we come away energised, with fresh ideas and some good work done. This year we also came away with an idea for an anthology – The Redensive Epiphanies of Pouty McNavel.

How the hell did that happen?

Well, we were drinking, and now we can’t quite remember. I’ll try and break it down.

Epiphanies: Maybe it was something to do with playing Cards Against Humanity. Maybe it was the weird whiskies we were drinking. Seriously, don’t drink Dutch whisky, one decent-sized shot made me hallucinate. Good Japanese whisky on the other hand is outstanding.

Redensive: This is where it all began, and it began in 1980. Back then my friend Melanie lived in Canada and she knew a man called Olaf. Olaf invented a word, a word that sounded like it had meaning but what exactly was that? He set a challenge – to introduce that word into the language. When we heard this story we all fell in love with the idea of exploring the meaning of the word, of seeing if we could discover its meaning, or meanings. Then Old Stupid (yours truly) said that if we wrote stories, he’ publish them. Now you know how The Redensive Epiphanies of Pouty McNavel was born. Except…

Pouty McNavel: This name really is lost in the whisky mists. Even though we were all there we all have different theories. It’s a name, we made it up. As far as I’m concerned it fell out of a conversation about a real name, a name we then distorted beyond recognition. I shall say no more.

Olaf had sadly passed away, but Melanie was still friends with his daughter Troy. As Troy was also present at the birth of the word, we asked her if she’d like to contribute a story too.

Epiphanies is an archetypal slim volume. It’s not made of genre, but it’s spiced and seasoned by it. One story is most definitely SF, others have touches of the fantastical, the horrific, the strange and weird. And there are also stories of contemporary everyday life and its hot bright redensive epiphanies.  We have pictures too – the anthology is an illustrated one, with line-drawings and collodion photography, and a photo-collage front cover. All from the contributors, and including several pieces by the award-winning Gordon Fraser.

gullen-teaparty010-bw-v4-smallI learned a lot about layout and formatting with the first anthology. I learned even more with this one because not only was one of the stories in a twitter-feed format, there were a couple of haiku, and those photographs.

Collodion photography is proper old-school wet-plate photography dating back to 1851, with tripod-mounted box cameras and exposure times from seconds to minutes.  It’s a real mix of science, art, and a seasoning of what feels like magic. In other words the photographer needs significant technical skill and artistry. The focal length of the cameras is tiny, and the chemicals react to a range of wavelengths slightly different to our own visual range. It sees things we can’t and as a result your own photograph can look like that of a relative you never knew you had.

Transferring those images from a glass plate to printed paper was a real challenge for me, and I really wanted to do justice to Gordon’s camera skills. Collodion doesn’t give you a black and white picture, it’s more of a sepia-tone. That needed conversion to black and white and then each picture needed contrast and light and shadow individually balanced. I had a lot to learn. Alas, what looks good on a computer screen, even a good-quality one, isn’t what you get on a printed page. This is the main reason I needed to print several proof versions. It was worth it,  some of these pictures are magnificent. And hey, all those proofs helped me trap a few more typos.

I also learned about book format. I thought a square format would look good – and it does, the whole project was designed around that format, the layout, the balance of text and picture on the pages all work as I wanted. Then I discovered that square-format was not available for distribution through Ingrams (the business that distributes books to B&N, Amazon, Waterstones, etc).

Honestly, bugger it, I thought we lived in a modern world. I’d already planned for an e-pub version, so with the need for a more standard print format too I was going to be bringing out an illustrated anthology in two physical styles as well! Guess what? More proof editions required!

So I got there in the end. I have my art-house square-format book, full distribution for the other format, and a low cost ebook too. More importantly, there are the stories, from fantasy writer Gaie Sebold** Helen Callaghan (whose thriller Dear Amy is currently in the Sunday Times best-sellers list), Sumit Dam, Sarah Ellender (of Travelling Monsters fame), Chuck Dreyer, myself, Melanie Garrett, and (I kid you not) the one and only, the original and the best, the real Troy McClure.

Each of those stories came as little revelations to me. I soon realised it was impossible to predict what I was going to get from any one person. This idea was pushing us all out of our comfort zones. That was exciting, and it brought out some great work.

In many ways this is what it is all about – working with people who want to work with you, collaborating on something everyone is into, and making something new and original you can be proud of. A most satisfying and enjoyably redensive experience, and I hope anyone who decides to read the book thinks so too.

~

Standard print and ebook formats are available from the usual places. Square format is only available from Lulu, along with the other formats.  No doubt we could argue the toss of why I used Lulu, but this post is long enough. Let’s lean on a bar one day and chew the fat.

~

* The first was Mind Seed, in memory of T Party writers group member Denni Schnapp, with all profits to charity. This was co-edited with Gary Couzens.

** Gaie’s latest book, Sparrow Falling, is out from Solaris. (July 2016).

 

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

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Blogging Live from Milford – Day Eight

milford-bannerSaturday 17th September

Jacey Bedford writes: Milford is over for another year and we’re all departing after breakfast to places like Hastings, Warrington, Glastonbury, London,  Brighton, Southampton, Huddersfield, and Birmingham. Our international attendee, Amy, has a few days in London before flying back to Boston. Because of other commitments, a couple of people had to leave on Friday, heading for Bournemouth and Whitby. It’s been a super week and it’s sad to say goodbye to friends old and new, but we’ll probably see each other again at any number of conventions.

I’m only at home for a few days before I depart for Fantasycon by the Sea in Scarborough, and then I’ll be at Bristolcon in October, and Eastercon next year, held in Birmingham.

And, of course, there’s next year’s Milford to look forward to in September. As I write it’s almost fully booked and there is only one available place for 2017, plus a couple of bursary places for writers of colour. Details here plus downloadable application forms. If you’re interested in coming it’s always worth putting your name on the waiting list as there are always a few people drop out due to unforeseen circumstances. All the details are on the Milford website at http://www.milfordSF.co.uk.

We’ve now opened the booking for Milford 2018 and have also reserved the dates for Milford 2019.

  • Milford 2017: 9th – 16th September
    Almost fully booked.
  • Milford 2018: 15th – 22nd September
    Booking open now
  • Milford 2019: 14th – 21st September
    Booking opens 16th September 2017

See you at a future Milford. It just remains to load the car and go.

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