Newsletter published

My recent newsletter talks about progress on the book and has a long series of short pieces about Artifical Intelligence, including asking how far the Luddites were right.

I suppose progress happens, but how why and to what benefit is a legitimate question. In the last forty years I have become much more awate that when something is invented, how and why it is used and who makes the decisions is the real issue.

An example I don’t give is genetically modified crops – there was a lot of hysteria about human safety which was not justified, leading to blanket bans in many countries – obscuring some much broader issues which had some real weight to them.

I share across various platforms but I really do need regular subscribers to the newsletter as with the changing, deteriorating, state of social media, being able to keep in touch matters to any author (except the super successful ones).

It is free, you can unsibscribe at any time, rarely more than once a month, and gives access to giveaways, tip-offs, competitions, free fiction and who knows what else.

Photo: Me being interviewed by the very smart Bryony Pearce at SciFi Weekender.

“Playing Just A Minute with Nina Wadia”

SciFiEtc Weekend SFW XIV was well organised, friendly and entertaining – and a bit bonkers. It describes itself as a SFFH weekend or a Geek Camp or a party. They were kind enough to invite me and Sarah and we had a great time. And I got to play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia.

I am struck by the difficulty of describing SFW both to people who go to other SFFH ‘conventions’ and those who lump them all together.

What they have in common is assembling people who are enthusiasts for the fantastic – people who have different tastes in books, shows, films, T-shirts, and art can still recognise a common ‘geekium’.

There are common elements

-lots of people cosplaying – wearing elaborate costumes. This makes me feel ‘I am with my people’ even if I don’t do it myself.

-talks, interviews, panel discussions, Q+As.

-different interests reflected particularly in the bigger events– film, TV, books, comics, games.

-entertainment of various forms – from folk music to rap, from standup to puppet theatre – all with some SFFH references

-guests who are working in the field, or who stay involved despite their professional life having moved on. So sometimes actors from series in the 70s 80s and 90s.

These events can be overwhelming or small and focused, they can be commercial and hardnosed, or run so much for the fans that they put off commercial and professional attendees.

SFW had the wonderful thing common to many enthusiasms that ‘everyone here treats this incredibly seriously’ but also with a firm core of ‘of course we don’t take ourselves too seriously’. In fact, never trust any group of people who aren’t happy to laugh at themselves.

It put a lot of emphasis on the entertainment – we were in a holiday camp. Guests like me in the Writer strand were treated as important but also expected to be accessible to the other attendees. For example, I was delighted to be given an hour where I went round six tables of 6-8 people and talked with them for ten minutes each.

I had an intelligent interview with Bryony Pearce (author in several genres) and Q+A –  a panel discussion on fandom such as how far do fans own a topic and is that always good – numerous slots selling my books and talking about what was on people’s minds and…

And I got to Play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia. It was a riot.

So Nina Wadia was there because she was in the Sandman TV series, which is very big, and was a first timer at any SFFH event. She was lovely and hilarious – and I’m not sure she was expecting the friendly warmth and enthusiasm and minor insanity she got.

Just a Minute was played as a full contact sport – like all these things you are singing for your supper and so we tried to give the audience entertainment. Nina, briefed on the rules only as we entered the stage but well able to stage a tantrum where required, me – listened to the game as a child – and author Bryony Pearce and actor Chase Masterton who are convention regulars and utterly ruthless players but charming and delightful with it!  I got plenty of laughs, which was a relief – sometimes my being funny mode doesn’t switch on. The result depended more on whose buzzer was working than anything else.

It was all great and people seemed interested.  I don’t think I got snappy, although I did have to disagree with the person who thought it was ‘a shame’ no one read Asimov any more.   

All the artists had the option to meet up for dinner which meant we got to know each other better.. Extrovert mode takes it out of me and a quiet night was appreciated. Shout out in particular to Anna Stephens (prolific author and fanfic advocate), and Simon Kurt Unsworth (horror writer and calm voice of reason on panels) and Benjamin his son and also a horror writer/collaborator. And Sam and David and Matt from Area 51 and everyone else who worked on making it happen.

Review – About Writing by Gareth Powell

Gareth Powell’s About Writing leaps into the recommended list for anyone thinking about writing a book, or if more experienced, wanting to check their own thinking about doing so.  While obviously written by someone who specialises in SFF/horror, it is definitely broad enough to be widely useful, and includes notes on other genres.

About Writing – from Gareth’s website

The book has the warm, passionate, and pragmatic approach that Powell embodies in his online persona. It mixes short pithy challenges with longer, well argued chapters. 

If I was looking for a credible book on how to write novels, I’d expect the following.

The person who wrote it has actually written several successful novels (or shepherded many books to success as editor or agent.)

They have had enough experience of self-publishing and traditional publishing to talk sense about both, and hybrid forms too.

In setting out how they write, they explain why, and they don’t assert that is the only way to do it. (Since, empirically, many highly successful authors write in very different ways).

It should touch on all the challenges of starting and finishing that first book, and also, what comes after.

About Writing does all this and more, and it is hard to fault.

Powell talks about the different bits of being an author.  How ideas come, how creativity can be nurtured, how to unlock yourself when stuck.  And also the discipline and hard work needed to finish the draft and go on to make the book as good as it can be. Writers must soar to the stars with empathy and imagination then have the hard intellectual work figuring out how to restructure or reframe the vision to make better sense or take fewer words.

A book about writing needs to look at the whole picture. Powell is realistic but not defeatist about the financial challenges of writing and he talks about the business side.  There is the vexed issue of promotion and having a public side.

Powell is sound on the personal. Writing books is a mental marathon and you need to look after yourself – the need to stay well read, to look after body and mind, to keep up connectivity offline with your friends and family. But also he’s right that’s there is joy, community and friendship to be found in the writing world. 

Finally, Powell gives us a manifesto, a case for creativity and writing stories as a great social good – a case for trying to be optimistic as a means to create a better future – and I love his parable that the Ugly Ducklings just need to get together and be who they are. Swans, nah.

I wish I had had this book when I started. 

The Case of the Corrected Carol

“Mystery/detective/police or legal procedurals are antithetical to horror/fantasy; if you like one, you will not usually like the other. because traditional mysteries MUST be realistic, otherwise detection makes no sense.”

Joyce Carol Oates”

This is objectively wrong. 

Firstly, because many people read widely in genre. I read thrillers, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and some YA (and YA can be any of those genres as well – it is more a mode than a genre).  To give a specific example, I have read traditional murder mysteries set in ALL these genres – traditional in the sense of solved by logic, insight into character, lab work, etc.

I have written ‘traditional’ mysteries which are also science fiction or fantasy.  What are the actual issues?

Does the logical process of unpicking a ‘traditional mystery’ require absolute realism? Clearly, if you have read good SFF, you know it doesn’t.

Oates assumes that once you leave the shores of absolute realism, anything can happen. Therefore a mystery cannot be constructed because things happen without a reason. This is a rookie error, each story in science fiction and fantasy follows their own logic, which is sufficiently revealed to the reader that the story makes some sense.

Mysteries fall into two types – fair, where the reader can puzzle out what is going on from what is in the text – and unfair – where the ‘investigator’ has information the reader does not, or they can make the uniquely correct deduction from the facts whereas a normal person couldn’t find the signal in the noise, or there are multiple solutions. (Famously Arthur Conan Doyle accepted some of his Holmes stories had other solutions.)

A great many mysteries are written to be ‘unfair’ and are perfectly enjoyable. You are along for the ride. The SFF mysteries I have written are fair – the detective knows nothing relevant to the case which has not been shared with the reader. Try “Murder in the hospital” in my Free Fiction pages

It is rare to set out to write a mystery which is immediately solved – although it would be a splendid story if the solution could be known immediately but be exceptionally difficult to prove.

Those solving the crime can share what they learn with the reader. ‘Using this spell, I can say who has been in this room since the last full moon.’ This is then no different from any other source of information for the detective. Spells or hitech are just lab work.

Or whatever is special in the world may mislead the detective or be inconclusive.  We used to think DNA was infallible. Then we discovered human error creeps in.

If your story rests on orcs having night-vision but being colour-blind, a fair author will slip that fact in, directly or otherwise. It’s no different from writing a deeply conventional murder.

Mysteries are usually out to entertain with a thrilling or intriguing plot, to shed some light on character and the human condition, and in the classic murder mystery, to assert moral order over immoral chaos.  The murderer is caught or otherwise punished.

SFF stories can be heist movies, buddy cop stories, classic noir thrillers, creepy psychological chillers, or political dramas. They can be set in any era and any genre. Ultimately they are more often about people than ideas.

But Joyce Carol Oates does us one favour – it reminds us to read in a genre before pontificating about it.

Picture thanks to cottonbro

A black and white picture of a detective in the noir typewriter era pondering a document with a magnifying glass. (He's African American)
Detection can take place in many worlds

One Year On: Is Our Child a Fantasy?

The British Fantasy Society just reviewed Our Child of the Stars warmly.  I wrote it in part as a love letter to science fiction, but also to fiction in general. I really want to bring in a broad audience, and certainly the audience has been broad, if not vast.

I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I would manage to alienate both SF readers and general readers.  But I had considered less the SF v fantasy argument.  The marvellous pair Sue Tingey and Juliet McKenna who blurbed my books, and in Juliet’s case reviewed it for SF magazine Interzone, are fantasy writers.

Many people like both, and most people accept the boundaries are a matter of opinion. Attempts to produce rigorous definitions flounder, in part because some things like time travel machines and faster than light travel are not currently believed possible but look ‘sciencey’ enough to pass.

Ray Bradbury’s books are full of things which include star ships, Mars colonies, and time travel.  Yet he claimed that all his work was fantasy except Fahrenheit 451.  I’m amused to see genre powerhouse Forbidden Planet list Our Child of the Stars as fantasy, and I can see their point.

I think some of our choices are based on the aesthetic.  Bradbury’s dreamy prose, and limited interest in the nuts and bolts, makes his work more like a fantasy.

Stories exist.  Genres are helpful, by hinting what the ground rules are, and where to shelve it in the bookshop.  Science fiction in particular is vast spanning books which are SF but also allegories, Westerns, Gothic horrors, war stories, satire and social commentary, detective stories, heist movies, dystopias and utopias, coming of age stories… and family dramas.

One Year On: Still Being Reviewed!

So a week and a year since the e-book first hit the aether and Our Child of the Stars still gets reviews.

A brilliant one on the British Fantasy Society website.


‘A heartwarming tale of love, loss and unity set in late 1960’s mid-town America’

The book may not bring peace among the nations but it is an interesting example of a book liked by science fiction fans and fantasy fans alike, as well as non-genre readers too.


More about Our Child of the Stars

A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .

Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.

This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.

Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.

And soon the whole world will be looking for him.

Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.

A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.

Writing process: like a demented Muppet

Kermit types fast
Kermit types fast

I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)

Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller

I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman

Here’s the point about writing advice.  I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.

Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’  That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time.  To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days.  (Think about it every day if you can.)

Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing.  Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods.  Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet.  Which is right?

I think it depends how you put words together.  Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker.  They write slowly – add a comma here?  Oooh, tricky!   What comes out is serviceable.  Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.

I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse.  I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again.  I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working.  To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating.  It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet.  I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.

When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.

Plot or pants?  Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants?   See the two esteemed figures above.  Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing.  Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.

I’m more King than Aldiss.   However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous.  People don’t forgive poor endings.  Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book.  Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there.  I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.

What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end?  Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle?  Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies?  Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?

Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’   Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one.  I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.

I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan.  I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan.  Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan.  But the plan is the servant not the master.

Is any of this useful or got any thoughts?  Let me know!  This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!