Juliet McKenna Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

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

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

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

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

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

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

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

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Posted on January 16, 2018 by Jacey Bedford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are published by DAW in the USA. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

Or via her writing website: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, which includes a link to her mailing list

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Cherith Baldry Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

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

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

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

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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Ben Jeapes Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Born the day after “The Web Planet” was shown on TV and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was at number one. Descendant of warriors, slavers and opium traders. Have lived in Abingdon over half my life which actually means I can say I’m from somewhere.

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

I always had to write, the same way that some children just have to draw on the walls. As my reading solidified into sf, that’s what my writing became. The first piece I can remember giving a title was called ‘The Hidden Hurricane’, in which a hurricane kept coming out of a hidden base at the bottom of the sea floor and sinking ships until – I couldn’t think of any other ending – Captain Kirk and the Enterprise rock up and phaser it. At the age of 7 I had deduced the existence of spinoffery and shared universes from first principles.

I have always been able to retreat into my mind and have imaginary adventures there. As I read more and more of the stuff it occurred to me that I could actually write these adventures down. Asimov and Clarke often topped and tailed the stories in their collections with little essays on the genesis and afterlife of each story. This introduced me to the notion that such things as editors and sf magazines existed and that you could make money by doing it well enough yourself. And so I started writing down the ideas that were coming to me. I’m very much of the Interzone generation. Just the fact of its existence gave a point to writing because now there was somewhere I could plausibly send my efforts.

The next necessary step was learning that ideas and plots are two very different things – and to this day, actual plotting is my least favourite activity. I love to be surprised, and so if I can work out a plot then I immediately assume it’s no good because, well, I worked it out, so why shouldn’t anyone else?

Poor David Pringle was bombarded daily with manuscripts which, with practice and polish and feedback, grew steadily better. Eventually I sent him a short story which distilled the Marxism module of my Philosophy & Politics BA into science fictional form; he rejected it as being too similar to Sterling & Gibson’s The Difference Engine, a chapter of which he was about to reproduce – but, he suggested I send it to David V. Barrett who was putting together an anthology of A.I.-themed stories. David B. also rejected it on the far sounder grounds that it wasn’t good enough – but he did take the next thing I sent him. So, to answer the question, ‘Digital Cats Come Out Tonight’, Digital Dreams, David V. Barrett (Ed.), NEL 1990.

David B. it was who got me invited to my first Milford.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

The sky is the limit. You can go anywhere and do anything. Whether you should is of course another matter, but hey. I just glanced at my bookcase for inspiration in answering this question, and my eyes settled on the row of Miles / Barrayar books. Okay! How else could you write inspiring stories about a guy with a physical disability, and social analysis of tradition vs progress in a hidebound society, and clever mysteries and whodunnits and spy stories, and scientific speculation (physical and biological), and politics, and family relationships, and amazingly strong female characters, and religion and superstition, and exploding spaceships?

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

I suppose I notice things, especially sensory data, and I try to get that into my writing. Feelings, tastes, smells.

If I have a character doing something I’ve not done then I draw on the nearest comparable experience, and also try to make it harder and more uncomfortable for the character than it otherwise might be. I’ve never been in a spacesuit – but I have scuba dived, so I’ve been weightless in a very hostile environment, depending on a specialised and slightly claustrophobic piece of kit to keep me alive. I can use that. I’ve never sailed on a Hornbloweresque ship of the line – but I’ve been to H.M.S. Victory and I have sailed a modern yacht. I’ve never time travelled to nineteenth century London or ancient Rome but I’ve been in some pretty unsavoury Third World locations. I’ve flown a glider solo, I can drive car, I’ve pot-holed, I’ve been for walks in forests and jungles and up mountains … It’s all there and it’s all available for use.

There’s also the importance of attitude. I don’t think I’m obsessive, but one thing I’ve learnt as a grown-up is to be organised. At work you get nowhere if you’re unorganised, unreliable, unprofessional. So why should your writing be any different? You stick to deadlines, you turn in good material, you don’t be a git … and guess what, people like you enough to keep giving you work. It’s, like, magic or something.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

This is where it gets complicated … because in 2015 I accidentally became a ghostwriter.

Actually that had happened a few years ago. My previous point about not being a git and people keep employing you – well, an editor I had worked with changed jobs, inherited a series ‘by’ a Well Known Celebrity that needed a writer, and thought of me. Since then I’ve never been able to shake it off: they keep turning up and giving me money. At first it was handy pocket money but in 2015 it accidentally became enough to live off.

What this means, though, is I can’t actually talk about most of my writing. Not without having to track down everyone who reads this and kill them.

However, no one need die to hear about my most recent publication. A couple of years ago my first publisher, David Fickling, began the First Names series – a series of biographies of famous people (at least, people David finds interesting) written for children. The first few titles have included Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart, Harry Houdini, Malala Yousafzai, Elon Musk, Ferdinand Magellan and … um … Beyonce. From the available list, I chose Ava Lovelace, about whom I actually knew very little except that she was Byron’s daughter and she wrote the first ever computer program, so just doing the research was fun. This included the awesome The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, which I cannot recommend enough; and also Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers, edited by Betty O’Toole, which is all the letters we have from her, written to her mother and Babbage and fellow scientists like Faraday and all sorts of other people. What was also fun was I got to think up jokes and funny pictures for an artist to interpret.

Ada Lovelace was recently chosen by the US National Science Teaching Association as one of the Best STEM Books of 2021, which was nice.

Whether I’ll ever write another sf novel, I do not know. I have most of a historical fantasy about Napoleon sitting on my hard drive – this was the one I brought to my most recent Milford in 2015, which was literally a week after I quit the day job. I have no idea how it ends and still haven’t found the time to sit down and think about it. Like I say, I find plotting really, really difficult.

What’s next?

Well, if only people would stop paying me money to write and give me a moment to myself … I actually feel quite liberated, no longer regarding myself as purely a science fiction and fantasy writer. There are several other projects I would love to tackle. If David Fickling continues the First Name series then I hope to do some more of those: Brunel, for one, and – if we can make his private life appropriately child-friendly, which is the killer as far as the essential American market is concerned – Alan Turing. There are various non-sf novel ideas buzzing around – if I can work out the plots.


Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be quite easy (it isn’t) and save him from having to get a real job (it didn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of several novels and short stories, he is also an experienced ghostwriter, journal editor, book publisher and technical writer. His most recent book is a biography of the amazing Ada Lovelace for children, published by David Fickling Books. His novels to date are: His Majesty’s Starship; The Xenocide Mission; Time’s Chariot; The New World Order; Phoenicia’s Worlds; The Teen, the Witch & the Thief; The Comeback of the King; and H.M.S. Barabbas. His short story collection Jeapes Japes is available from Wizard’s Tower Press (https://wizardstowerpress.com/). He is now a full time ghostwriter, writing stuff for other people which annoyingly makes more money than his own does. His website is at www.benjeapes.com.

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Tricking Myself Into Writing by Juliet Kemp

Sometimes, whilst busily procrastinating, I consider whether writing is more something that I want to have done, than something I want to do; but then once I finally get myself over the hump and sit down to apply words to screen/notebook/scrap paper, I remember that the process itself is also (…at least most of the time) deeply enjoyable.

What I don’t quite understand is why I can’t remember that while I’m poking around the internet, deciding to tidy my desk, refilling all my fountain pens, or engaging in another alternative avoidance pattern du jour. (Most recently, that would be playing Zelda: Breath Of The Wild “just for ten minutes, honestly”, though my cough-mumble hours invested in that since Christmas have at least given me a great deal more enjoyment than hitting refresh on Twitter ever has.)

In any case. Writing is great, editing is satisfying once I get into the swing of it, starting to write appears to require effort on a par with that time we left some horseradish in the allotment for two years and then tried to dig it out. (Do Not Do This. It was over a decade ago, and as far as I know the damn stuff is still there.) I have, therefore, developed a series of tricks for getting myself started, which may be of assistance to other serial procrastinators.

  • Turn off the internet/turn on Do Not Disturb/etc. This requires some initial mental effort, but works surprisingly well as a signifier to my brain that yes, it is time to settle in. The downside is that the initial effort is not, sadly, always available. There are various pieces of software that will do this for you on a timer basis but unfortunately when I use these I find myself sufficiently resentful of Past Me for setting them up that I will take steps to get around them up to and including rebooting the laptop and creating a new login. Thus I am forced instead to rely on being able to make the commitment in the moment.
  • Change the method. Writing in a notes app rather than in Scrivener. Obviously I’m just making notes! Not actually writing. Nothing to worry about here. Writing in a notebook and not on the laptop at all, similarly feels less like a commitment, and the bonus of getting to use a nice fountain pen. For when even a notebook feels too portentous: scrap paper. (Downside: losing the scrap of paper afterwards and knowing that I will never, ever recapture the flare of genius inspired by the back of that particular charity begging letter.)
  • Change the place. Writing in bed, or on the sofa, or in the garden. As with the notebooks: if I’m not at my desk, this can’t really be writing, can it?
  • Writing with other people. Obviously not in person at present, but a friend runs a regular morning co-writing Zoom, where we all check in for 5-10 minutes at the start and the end, and otherwise mute ourselves and get on with it. This is remarkably effective. Obviously if at the end I said “in fact I spent the whole time looking at tea plants and ericaceous compost on the internet” (I am going to grow my own tea! No really!) no one would criticise, but it would feel something of a waste of my own effort in terms of sitting down on time and turning the camera on.
  • Bribery. Doesn’t work. As with timed internet-blockers, I begin to resent Past Me for their unreasonable insistence that I should write 500 words before eating the chocolate. So I eat the chocolate immediately, and then some more chocolate, and then I go get the Switch and spend some more time running Link around Hyrule; because Past Me is a tyrant, that’s why. In your face, Past Me.
  • Setting a timer and staring out of the window and/or knitting. It turns out that if I do not let myself do anything else for an hour, however stuck I feel, I will come up with something around the 20-25 min mark. The knitting needs to be quite boring, and I need to be strongwilled in the matter of not doing anything else. (Usually best in conjunction with notebook, not laptop. Laptop has too much internet. Notebook has very little internet.)
  • A to do list with very small and specific goals, and ticky boxes. Prosaic, but functional. It lowers the activation energy — outline this scene, tackle that edit note, fix this specific comment. And I do like me a tidy box.
  • Deadlines. These work remarkably well for me, even when they’re self-imposed, but have their greatest effect when I’m close to them, which makes them of more use for short stories than novels, and for the tail end of edits rather than first drafts.

I trust some of these may prove of use to others. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really do have some urgent gaming, chocolate-eating, and comparison shopping for compost to get on with.

Juliet Kemp (pronouns they/them) writes science fiction and fantasy, and lives in London by the river, with their partners, kid, and dog. The first book of their fantasy series, The Deep And Shining Dark was on the Locus 2018 Recommended Reads list; the second came out in 2020. Their short fiction has appeared in venues including Cast of Wonders and Analog, and their story “Somewhere Else, Nowhere Else” was short-listed for the WSPA Small Press Award 2020. When not writing or child-wrangling, Juliet knits, indulges their fountain pen habit, and tries to fit an ever-increasing number of plants into a microscopic back garden. They can be found (procrastinating) on Twitter as @julietk.

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Jaine Fenn Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Got born then grew up a bit. Did various tedious day-jobs while wishing I could write for a living. Finally got to write for a living.

(too short? Ok then…)

Although I always wanted to be a writer I got distracted by work that actually made money, most notably in IT. I finally started to take my writing seriously in my 30s, initially getting short stories published before my first book deal, with Gollancz, in 2008. I became a full-time writer in 2016, though these days I mostly write for video-games.

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

I wrote a ‘novel’ on my dad’s typewriter when I was seven. My first published fiction was a contribution to ‘The Drabble Project’ way back in the late 80s but my first paid publication was ‘The Path to the Sun’, an Aztec alt. history story I’m still very fond of, published in On Spec in 2002.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

It’s fiction without limits. Storytelling lets us make sense of a senseless world by creating other realities, so why limit yourself to this world, this reality?

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

Far too many years writing and running table RPG campaigns gave me a head-start on plotting and an appreciation of how characters don’t always do what we want them to. I’ve also got a few amateur interests that feed into my fiction, most notably astronomy and archaeology.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My last novel-length fiction was the Shadowlands duology, published by Angry Robot. It’s science fantasy, set in a divided world (one of my obsessions), and brings together a lot of themes and interests I’ve not indulged fully before.

What’s next?

I’m working on a Warhammer novel for Games Workshop but I can’t say anything about that, because Games Workshop. Sadly 2020 appears to have trashed my ability to write my own fiction, though I’m hoping that’s temporary.

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire space opera series, the Shadowlands duology and numerous published short stories, one of which won the 2016 BSFA Shorter Fiction award. She likes her tea strong and her chocolate dark.

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Nisi Shawl Answers Six Questions

Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

Nisi Shawl was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan and moved to Ann Arbor to drop out of the University of Michigan after learning to roll joints and read their poetry aloud.  They got married, started writing prose, got divorced, and made their first story sale.  Upon graduating from the Clarion West Writers Workshop they moved to the workshop’s site in Seattle, sold their first novel, and won seven literary awards in one year, bringing their grand total to nine.

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

I began writing as soon as I could, which was shortly following learning to read.  Mostly it was poems, or lyrics to song parodies, or plays in collaboration with my best friend Karen Smith.  When I was 14 I wrote what could be considered my first science fiction story.  I don’t remember the title, but I do remember I turned it in to Mrs. Judd, who taught English, or what today in the US would be called Language Arts.  It was about a bunch of teenagers on pilgrimage through a postapocalyptic landscape, searching for holy high-tech sites like bridges and supercolliders.

A poem I wrote in second grade (“Springtime”) was recently published for the first time in Climbing Lightly through Forests, a volume of tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin.  My first published piece was “Roller,” another poem–my local newspaper printed it.  My first piece published for money was another teen-centered short story, “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer,” in the Semiotext(e) SF anthology.  My first piece published for a professional sum was “The Rainses’.”  That story appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1995.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

Science fiction is the only true literature, just as jazz is the only true music.  In other words, it’s not.

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

Singing?  I sing when I read publicly.  So I guess I bring that.  But honestly, I bring everything.  It’s all material.  So I bring ice skating and breaking bones and making truffles and selling structural steel.  Lifting tatties.  Aborting a child.  Dancing drunk on the pier.  Speaking French.  Singing praise songs for Yoruba deities.  Kissing my dying mother goodbye.  And, you know, whatever.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

I recently finished a short story set on the Trigonos campus where Milford is held.  It’s called “I Being Young and Foolish,” and it will be published in June in the bending-Arthurianism anthology Sword Stone Table.  It’s about an albino Ugandan Lady of the Lake and her love for Merlin.

I’m currently writing a sequel to Everfair called Kinning.  It’s meant to be sixteen chapters long and I am about 70% done with Chapter Ten, which means I’m 70% through with the book.  It begins in Vietnam and Cairo and reaches the country of Everfair via stops in Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Zanzibar.  There are only four viewpoint characters in this novel instead of eleven, but there’s lots more in the way of conspiracies and spying.  Also these rival super-fungi are racing to inoculate the globe.  Good times.

What’s next?

I expect to be doing a lot of editing in the coming year.  New Suns 2 is in the works, and I’m just finishing up a very short (six or seven story) anthology for Amazon Original Stories, which may very well be titled Black Stars.  I have a story in it, too—they insisted!  It’s sort of a mashup of climate change, reparations, and Jimi Hendrix lyrics.  I’m also working on another anthology to appear further down the line, in collaboration with A Big Name I can’t yet reveal.  Finally, Octavia Butler’s literary executor thinks she and I should do a follow-up anthology to Bloodchildren, the limited edition book of stories by recipients of the Butler Scholarship.  Let’s see if I can pull off all four projects.  And perhaps win some more awards?

Nisi Shawl is the author of the Nebula Award finalist novel Everfair, an alternate history set in the nineteenth and twentieth century Congo, and of the Tiptree Award-winning collection Filter House, praised by Ursula K. Le Guin as “superbly written” and by Samuel R. Delany as “brilliant.”   They’re a co-author of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, an acclaimed text on inclusive representation in imaginative fiction, and editor of the multiple award-winning New Suns anthology.  These days they’re busy drafting a sequel to Everfair, writing a story based on a Jimi Hendrix song, and taking their cat for relaxing walks around Lake Washington.

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Where do you get your ideas? by David Allan

Many SFF writers say they get asked this.

Neil Gaiman has said he’s responded ‘from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. On the same lines, Harlan Ellison is reputed to have said ‘Schenectady’. Another response that I’ve come across in my reading is to name a fictitious source – like the ‘Idea-of-the-Month-Club’ – but then add that you have to be a published author before you can get any ideas from it.

The truth is there is no single source of ideas and for many writers the only answer is ‘I don’t know, they just happen’ Or, as one writer said, ‘I don’t get ideas, they get me’.

I think that, when people ask the question, what they are really asking about are plots rather than ideas. But I’m going to take a look at ideas because a plot is what happens when you start asking questions about the idea.

So, where do ideas come from?

People who ask the question sometimes seem to think authors lie about where they get their ideas, as if it’s a big secret and there’s a conspiracy to obfuscate. If there is I haven’t been invited to join it.

One piece of advice commonly given in books on writing is ‘write about what you know’ but I’m not sure how useful this is. Fine for an SFF writer who happens to be an astronaut, scientist or witch, but that doesn’t describe many of us. I think what this advice means is take some life experience, particularly one with emotional connotations, and transfer it into the world you’ve been building.

You don’t only need one idea, the one that kick-starts the story. Also needed are many other ideas that help the flow, that put obstacles in your protagonist’s way, and tell you how (s)he reacts.

Another frequently mentioned potential source is dreams. Stephen King attributes many of his ideas to dreams and, as the advice books suggest, he keeps a notebook by his bed to make sure he doesn’t forget them. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do me any good – I never remember dreams when I wake up. In any case, I’m not sure how useful dream ideas might be, dream logic isn’t plot logic.

Answering ‘what if …’ is supposed to be another way of getting ideas. The trick here is to recognise when there is potential in asking the question and then doing something with the answer. Neil Gaiman said that ideas aren’t the hard bit, you can get ideas from being bored and it’s harder sitting down and putting one word after another.

Everybody gets ideas. The difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the former does something with the ideas they get and the latter doesn’t. That may sound glib but there is a corollary in that the writer has to decide at some stage if a particular idea is worth following up, a situation the non-writer never experiences. It’s in the following up that the story develops.

The first time I was asked the question I was rather chuffed as it made me feel part of the authorial community.

An idea can be stimulated by almost anything. Here are some of mine;

Short story Missing Apolcalypse (my first published story) – reading about the Chixulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs made me wonder ‘what if it wasn’t an impact after all but an experiment by intelligent dinosaurs that got out of control?’

Short story Up or Down – Combined my love of scuba diving and the concept of genetic modification to produce a race of mermen.

Novel – The Empty Throne (my first novel) – An image of an armoured man standing guard in front of an unoccupied throne. I don’t know where I saw it, or even if I saw it at all instead of imagining it. Essentially I wrote the book to find out why he was there and why the throne was empty.

Novel – Quaestor – The initial concept came from a weekend creative writing course when the class was asked to write about a place with a personality. Mine was an inn that had multiple doors to many other places. At the end of the course I parked it in the Ideas folder on my computer. Many years later I resurrected it for Milford and attached it to another idea about a vampire who doesn’t drink blood but takes magic from its victims.

I haven’t found any commonality between the ideas behind any of my works, completed, junked or in progress.


So, where DO you get your ideas?

David M Allan was born and educated in Edinburgh. He became a radiologist and moved to England to work (and to help civilise the English). After working for the NHS for almost 40 years he retired and took up writing. His home is on a houseboat on the Thames.

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Six Questions answered by N.M. Browne

  1. Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.

I always wanted to be a writer, but did nothing about it for years Following a stint as a teacher, an MBA and a brief period as a marketing exec at an oil company, I finally accepted the inevitable. I’ve been writing and teaching writing for years now and although I should be good at it, I am very bad at marketing.

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

I always liked writing but apart from a bit of student journalism at Oxford and some horrific teenage poetry, I only wrote in school. Then my dad died just before my thirtieth birthday. He was a gifted painter but gave up exhibiting to support us. It made me realise that life is too short to put things off. My sister, who is also a painter bought me an expensive word processor she couldn’t afford to encourage me. I felt so guilty, I started writing. I sent several of my children’s stories to Barry Cunningham who was starting a new list. He liked them, rang me up to arrange a meeting and commissioned my first children’s book: ‘The Extraordinary Lightening Conductor.’ I was very lucky.

What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I’m not sure I know how to write anything else. Even my stories for very young children included a space bug who spoke in nonsense words and an alien who translated them.

My first degree was in philosophy and theology. I’m most interested in ideas and how what people believe constructs their world and the way they live in it. Thinking about how things could be other obliges you to look at how things are now and I think that is really exciting. I love the fact that the only limits on what I can write about lie within my own imagination and my own lack of knowledge, though both are more limiting than I’d like. I love the openness and freedom the genre offers. Starting a new book is jumping into the unknown. It makes writing incredibly special.

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

Um. I like reading. I am good at concentrating and my typing is not as bad as it used to be? I am a strategic thinker, I suppose, logical and inclined to explore an argument to its conclusion. Teaching creative writing has improved my own editing skills I think. I was brought up in Lancashire by Welsh parents and as a bookish girl at a not very bookish comprehensive school, I always felt an outsider. That seems to be quite common in writers. I’ve brought up four children and thus far had a fortunate life and perhaps that makes even my bleak stories optimistic at their core.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

I have just published my tenth YA novel with Kristell Ink/Grimbold publishing. It’s set in a drowned London after global warming has destroyed our current society. Some people have seen it as dystopian – and everything is broken – but my main character, Ollu, a barger, and her allies Buzz, a genetically engineered boy, and Ratter, an ex slave from the toxic old City, don’t see their world that way. It’s an old fashioned adventure story with positive messages about the value of friendship, courage and sticking to your guns when everyone is trying to take them off you. The critic Amanda Craig, described it as a terrific, watery Mad Max adventure and that’s pretty well what it is. It was fun to write.

What’s next?

I haven’t done a story with magic for a while so I’m currently working out the details of my secondary world for another portal fantasy. This one is also about families and fate – finding one and escaping the other – but I’m only a quarter way through so the details are still a little unclear. It feels like it could be good though.

N M Browne has published ten YA novels.She has been twice nominated for the Carnegie medal and translated into Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. She has published eight books for young children as ‘Nicola Matthews’ and has had poetry published in a number of literary magazines as ‘Nick Browne’ and is working on a debut collection. She acts as a manuscript doctor and writing mentor and is currently teaching for Oxford University Continuing Education department as ‘Dr Nicky Browne.’ Apart from these multiple identity issues, she lives an unremarkable life in SW London with her husband and whichever of her four children needs a bed.

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Liz Williams Reports on Eastercon 2021

First of all, absolutely well done to everyone concerned for pulling this off. I am amazed that we have had a convention at all and given the strain that this year has placed upon everyone, I think the con committee, volunteers and everyone involved needs to give themselves a round of applause. I am certainly applauding you.

I should make it clear that although this is appearing on the Milford blog, and a number of Milford attendees have been involved in running the con, my views are my own and based entirely on my own experience at the convention. I can’t speak for anyone else. For example, with regard to access: I do not have a disability and thus am not in a position to comment from an informed point of view.

Therefore, from my own perspective, these were my main pros and cons. I’ll start with the cons first and then go onto the positives, so please bear this in mind. I also don’t want to single out individuals for anything negative: I’m keeping this objective.

  1. Communication/tech

This was an issue for me. I’m not a gamer and I have the ability, when introduced to new technology, to screw it up in new and surprising ways. Got a shiny new app? Give it to Dr Destructo here and she’ll find a way to completely mess it up for you. I ought to hire myself out for destructive testing.

What I really didn’t want to have happen was for me to be given some new instruction or have to download a new programme at the last minute – e.g. 5 minutes before a panel was due to start. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. So:

  1. Tell programme participants well in advance the precise steps they need to do to get onto their panel, and when they can expect a link. As happens on Zoom: you get sent a link a few days in advance. This would have reduced 85% of my stress.

I did look at the videos, but they told me everything I didn’t need to know: I know I can hitch up my laptop to the TV, but what I needed to know was how to get onto my panels. I didn’t know what Discord was. People kept telling me it was ‘the other server’ but I don’t know what that means in real terms. Eventually someone told me that it’s a kind of chat forum – thank you! This is all I need to know.

I didn’t get the link to one panel because my email got mangled halfway through and anything sent to me disappeared into the aether. We realised this about a minute before the final panel of the con and fixed it.

  • A proper map (there is a map but initially reading rooms were on it as ‘party rooms’ and the locations, such as, crucially, Green Room, were not shown adequately on the map or on Gather at the start. I only managed to find Green Room by following Ian Whates, and I learned how to unfollow people from him, otherwise poor Ian would have had my little avatar trundling after him all weekend like a lost puppy).
  • Gather Town: I have not used Gather before and I really felt I needed a guided tour of the actual Gather space, not a test. I did find it challenging: I couldn’t see the point of the long corridor, the Holodeck was roped off, and I thought you got into the programme spaces by hovering the avatar over the number – I didn’t realise there was a doorway. Farah has said that a hub with spokes would have been better – absolutely.

Back to back panels with no gaps: this should be easier in the virtual, but if you ‘walked’ through Gather you would be late and if via the website/email links, you’d need to keep checking your email.

I understand that Gather is not mobile friendly? I don’t use a mobile phone but I’m unusual. Also, although I’m on a laptop, Gather is on beta on Safari on the Mac. This didn’t help and I didn’t feel up to wrestling with downloading Chrome at this stage. I understand that Gather can be a lot more user friendly if designed with the customer base in mind. While a lot of SF fans are gamers, a lot are not and the learning curve for some of us is pretty steep. I have struggled before with tech types going into long digressions about how cool something is when all I want is to just use the damn thing. I don’t mind putting in some effort, but the easier it is to use, and the better informed I am, the happier I am. Otherwise I find it really stressful. REALLY stressful.

We did, however, learn from one another in a kind of ‘all hands to the pump’ way, mainly via Facebook.

I understand this version of Gather was ‘pay by the minute’ so perhaps it was too expensive to do a real walk through?

  • Panels: Some people said that the panels were too much like watching TV. I don’t mind this but some people did. Streaming it alongside a chat would be a good idea as it allows the audience to feel that they’re participating – and it’s easier to ask questions. Not all questions might be answered, but a lot of people who do Zoom conferences are used to this. Also, although this was sorted out, having the wrong names for panellists isn’t a good look – though resolved, if I’m billed as Gertrude Manly-Earblossom, and she is billed as me, and fans don’t know what we look like (why would they?) and take this as face value, and I then say something outrageous for which Gertrude is blamed all over Twitter….you can see the problem. We can all see the funny side of it BUT.

I don’t really care if there’s a countdown clock or the format of the screens. I have a clock on the laptop and I’m used to speaking to time as I, and quite a lot of other panellists, are teachers.

Some panellists also felt that the lack of a perceived audience was offputting: I didn’t have this problem because I treated it like radio, and I’m used to doing radio.

  • Website: someone told me about the link to ‘today’s events’ – I had a terrible job finding it and when I read in the initial email that there would be links on the website, I thought the links were on the main programme page. More idiot-proofing required…

Summary: did I get stressed over the level of technology? Yes, very – but I ought to note that this was a bit disproportionate to the actual context. It’s a me thing, not a tech thing: it’s only a SF convention, we’re not battling against time to save the world.

How to solve this:

  • better communication further in advance (expectation management)
  • consult a range of your client base first (from experienced gamers to complete numpties like myself)
  • don’t make the classic tech mistake of getting carried away by the shiny. I don’t care how cool it looks, I just want it to work. I’m sure the programme staff feel the same! I don’t know how much training they had but I suspect it was not enough, and unfamiliarity with the platforms put a number of us off volunteering when a belated call for volunteers went out over the weekend (however, from the feedback I think this has been taken on board).

These were the negatives for me. The following are the positives:

The Hay Lecture was excellent.

The Art Show was fantastic. Top quality and it was like being in a private view.

The programme content overall was very good. I have checked out a number of panels and they’ve all been excellent.

Once I’d got my head round Gather (sort of), I found it a better experience than I’d expected. It was frustrating at times but I could wander into the Green Room and the Dealers Room and chat to people. I’ve had some great conversations via Gather this weekend and there have been several people here who don’t normally come to E/con – as a result of distance (Australians, yay) or because people usually celebrate Easter at home and could thus drop in and out. This was a huge plus for me as I spoke to people whom I don’t usually see at the con. And on Gather there were fewer distractions than in a real life bar, so I’ve had longer chats with people.

I believe that lessons will be learned and hopefully carried forward. This was an experiment under unusual circumstances, mistakes were inevitable but can be corrected.

Would I like to see the accounts? Yes, please – as one of your paying customers.

We are all very conscious that everyone has been working very hard behind the scenes to make this work and have given up their Easter weekend. We all know that it’s been a struggle and that without this, there would have been no Eastercon. Despite the technical hitches, I think a virtual con with a bit of stress and glitches has been better than no con at all. Do I feel that I’ve been to a convention? Yes. A weird one in which I am somehow in my house! Have I torn my hair out a bit? Yes. Have I learned stuff? Yes. Have I enjoyed it? – a bit of a curate’s egg but overall, once my nerves have recovered, I will look back on this as a positive experience. I would like once more to thank everyone concerned.

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