Event Reviews

Humber SFF – Stephen Aryan and RJ Barker

King’s Head, Beverly was the venue for another great event from Humber SFF, organised by the redoubtable Shellie Horst. The guests were a very entertaining double act: Stephen Aryan and RJ Barker. Both are established authors with multiple books to their names, and both offered the gathered audience useful insights into the publishing industry and the life of a writer.

Stephen Aryan’s latest novels are a duology: The Coward and The Warrior. The Coward looks at the reality of post-traumatic stress and what happens when the hero is recalled to save the world a second time.

RJ Barker regaled the audience with his journey from failed musician to successful writer. His Tide Child trilogy is set in a remarkable world where Bone Ships sail the seas. He asked himself what would a world look like without a resource which we take for granted? In this case: wood or material to build boats/ships. He was inspired by whalebone carvings and created a massive ocean-going leviathan that was pursued to extinction in order to use its bones to build ships. A fascinating world and a fascinating read.

Both authors treated the audience to readings from their current novels. A real pleasure to listen to. Questions from the audience were taken panel-style with both Stephen and RJ pitching in. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening with several members of the audience being put on RJ’s ‘naughty list’ for asking particularly challenging questions that made both authors dig deep.

I’m looking forward to the next event on 27th November, with Sunyi Dean and Daniel Godfrey as guest speakers. Get your tickets early!

Fantasycon 2022

The British Fantasy Society annual convention was held September 17th – 18th at the Raddison Red Hotel, Heathrow. Although a slightly curtailed version of the annual convention that we all know and love, it was still well worth the time, money and effort it took to get there. I arrived on Friday night (16th) so that I would be ready for the full onslaught of panels running through Saturday and Sunday morning.

There was a lot to choose from! I opted to start with ‘Portraying Families in SFFH’ as my own writing is family orientated. The panel discussed the fact that the expectations of readers are now more focused on the depth of familial relationships–they want to see internal conflict and have an opportunity to flex their empathy. While this is certainly true, not all satisfying family dynamics are centered around conflict. For example, the four Fallow sisters in Liz Williams’ Comet Weather provide a more cooperative model of family dynamics.

My next port of call was the panel on ‘Writing Humour’, ably moderated by Sandra Unerman. The panel discussed ‘ways to approach the arduous task of being funny’. It certainly is an arduous task for me. The panel was interesting, informative and, yes, genuinely funny. David Wragg, by his own admission, aims to be intentionally funny in his books; he made it clear that you need the implied consent of the reader and that you must ask yourself: are you making a good point? Dan Hanks emphasised the need for humorous banter to be organic (‘organic’ is a term that came up a lot during the panels); and Jen Williams discussed her challenges around removing humour from her latest crime novel. When is humour appropriate? A good question.

‘Character Development in Short Stories’ was interesting and a good refresher. In short stories, characters are the ‘glue’ that holds everything together. All panelists agreed that any physical descriptions of characters need to be short and must appear early in the story. ‘Love, Sex, Magic: Romance and Relationships in SFFH’ was entertaining in its own way and covered familiar ground around gender issues.

The Guest of Honour this year was Liz Williams, a prolific writer and stalwart of the annual Milford Speculative Fiction Writers’ Conference. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak. Knowledgeable, insightful and overall deftly done.

The panels on ‘Religion in SFFH’ and ‘Mental Health in SFFH’ gave me plenty to think about in relation to my writing (and the writing of others). Religion is certainly a useful tool when it comes to world building and can be used to drive the plot forward. What I need to consider is how religion makes my characters think and how it influences their behaviour. And yes, when it comes to the depiction of mental health in SFFH, we really do need to do better. As pointed out by Tej Turner, a mental health issue could just as easily be a strength as a weakness. There was an interesting discussion on the need for trigger warnings in books–again, Tej suggested the use of links to the author’s website rather than include possible spoilers at the beginning of the book.

‘Writing Older Characters’ raised a number of interesting ideas. Firstly, the relationship between how old a character is compared to their natural lifespan, which can be very different in the SFF genres. There was an interesting discussion around the implications of older characters actually being immortal. The point was made that older characters already have their own story arc in motion (baggage, a complicated past) and are likely to have a different perspective on events. There are not as many tropes around older people, which may give a writer more freedom. While older characters can certainly learn new skills (e.g. technical skills), they can’t replicate the mindset of the young. I can’t remember which panelist quoted Oscar Wilde ‘I’m not young enough to know everything’. Terry Pratchett’s character, Nanny Ogg, was agreed to be everyone’s favourite older character. She gets my vote too!

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Fantasy Convention in Birmingham 🙂

GollanczFest16 is Coming!

Guess where I’m going to be in just a couple of short weeks? The GollaczFest, of course! I attended last year and it was a real treat. Gollancz Fest Banner SquareThe panel discussions were particularly interesting, with authors giving candid views on topical issues. I especially loved the way Gollancz used the event to promote its debut authors.

This year I plan to split my time between the author panels and the events aimed specifically at upcoming writers. Have a look at the list of authors taking part. It’s going to be so  much fun!

VAULT Festival – 252AM (After Man)

VAULT Festival (Waterloo) is amazing. Going along to experience their short plays/events is becoming a habit.

252AM (After Man) by Rebecca Pollock:

Rebecca-Pollock-252-AM-After-Man-landscape-2-Supporting-image-01-300x169

When planet Earth belongs to women, who will fight for the rights of men? All the men on Earth are dead, and have been for 252 years; a fault in the Y chromosome killed them off, so no new men can born and survive. The countries of the world have been sharing the stored sperm to create new generations of women, but supplies are running out. They have to find more.

Set on an inter-planetary starship, crewed by women, who after hundreds of years of searching have finally found a planet with a compatible male genotype. The question is, do they invite men from this new planet back to Earth in the hope of re-establishing the ‘old’ male-female family unit. Or do they capture men to take back for their ‘contribution’ to the new all female society?

When the Captain finds out about the hidden agenda (capturing men and not allowing male children to be conceived, except to be kept for their future ‘contributions’), she says something along the lines of, ‘So all these years I’ve been the Captain of a slave ship?’

In one short hour this play raised a lot of questions. It has certainly left me with a great deal to think about. The all-female Earth has no wars, is calm and seemingly peaceful. But history has been rewritten, with the work of male writers/artists/musicians now ascribed to women. Male artefacts are restricted to museums, and men themselves are portrayed as aggressive and controlling. Everything is decided by consensus, but it is a consensus that contrives to put women in boxes with specific roles (e.g. the highest honour is to be granted the status of a mother, but once granted, that’s your position for life–literally). So, are the women in this new and perfect society any better than the men they vilify?

There are plans to develop the play into a full length run. It’s something I would go and see.

 

 

FantasyCon

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at FantasyCon this year. Great panels, great people and a wonderful atmosphere. Such a packed and varied programme that I (and plenty of others) skipped lunch in order to attend as many interesting and (to us writers) valuable workshops and panels as possible.

Needless to say, I took loads of useful ideas away with me. Here are a few little gems:

Stealing from the Past: Fantasy in History (Jacey Bedford, Susan Boulton, Anne Lyle, Juliet E McKenna, Toby Venables, Susan Bartholomew)

  • What you think is true about history probably isn’t.
  • Think about: what are the usual rules in this time/society?
  • Find the base line (i.e. the ordinary people), so that you can then show what it means to be extraordinary in the time period.
  • There are so many ways that humanity has not changed over the millenia.

 

Protag/Antag: Character Creation (Ruth Booth, John Connolly, KT Davis, Peter Newman, James Oswald, Caroline Hooton)

  • Every character is a hero in their own minds (can justify their actions)
  • Play fair with the rules you have created
  • Keep your characters interesting and believable (know why your characters behave they way they do) then it doesn’t matter if they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • The hook can be not what you know about the character, but what you don’t
  • Less is more in many ways

 

Blades, Wands and Lasers: Fighting the Good Fight Scene (Clifford Beal, Juliet E McKenna, Kevin Murphy, Jo Thomas, James Barclay)

  • Think about the psychological aspects of a fight: when experts fight, their moves and counter moves are done automatically
  • In real life, sword fighters aim to disable via strikes to the neck, wrist and behind the knees
  • The aim is to get as many combatants off the field as possible. If you kill your opponent, his/her colleagues will just step over them and continue the fight. If you injure you opponent, his/her colleagues are more likely to want to take them to a medic (so three off the field with one injury)
  • Young men are more afraid of being disabled than being killed
  • Luck plays a huge part in any fight/battle
  • All fights happen one-to-one, whether in a duel or a battle
  • Tactics when confronted: 1. Run Away; 2. Break their will to attack
  • When fighting: Don’t look at the eyes (they can fake you out); Don’t look at the weapon; LOOK at the body language.

Quote: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

The last quote applies to fighting, but I think you can apply that to writing too!

There was lots of fun stuff to do in the evenings, of course. I particularly enjoyed the performed reading of ‘One for the Road’. A comic short story by Paul Kane, ably performed by James Barclay, Guy Adams, Lee Harris and Phil Lunt. They certainly brought to life the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse!

The live edition of Tea & Jeapardy was excellent and very entertaining. Emma Newman, assisted by Latimer the butler, interviewed Brandon Sanderson over tea and cake (and a cursed shield). Great stuff!

I’ve already booked my ticket for next year’s Fantasy Con, to be held in the wonderful seaside town of Scarborough.

 

Bristolcon

This was my first visit to BristolCon – a one day SFF convention. I have attended the larger events (EasterCon, FantasyCon), which are great (an understatement, really). BristolCon offered all the types of events (panels, workshops, author readings, art gallery, dealers’ rooms) that a larger convention does, just on a smaller, more intimate scale. I was going to say more friendly, but in my experience all conventions are unerringly friendly and welcoming.

I attended panels on lost cities and abandoned places, the rise of AI’s and FTL travel. The guest of honour interviews were both interesting and entertaining – Jaine Fenn (author), Jasper Fforde (author) and Chris Moore (artist). The workshop on Multiple Story Arcs, run by Jonathan L Howard was particularly useful.

Favourite quotes from the Lost Cities and Abandoned Places panel:

“We project onto ruins our own stories.” Jaine Fenn

“Cities eat themselves.” Pete Sutton

There was a wonderful display of Chris Moore’s art – here’s my favourite piece”

chris moore

TongueFu

I had my first experience of TongueFu last night, as part of the Udderbelly festival. My daughter and I bypassed the tube strike by driving to the South Bank. It was worth it. Their website describes the event as: a riotous experiment in live literature, music, film and improvisation; frequently surprising, sometimes hilarious, often poignant and always unrehearsed.

All I can say is: WOW! The musicians, compere and invited artists were all equally, amazingly talented. What an experience! One that I am keen to repeat. Check out Vanessa Kisuule poety performances.

World Fantasy Con 2013

The Hilton Metropole, Brighton. October 31st to November 3rd 2013.

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This was my first World Convention, and by golly was it crammed with great, the good and the very, very interesting! In fact, there was so much going on that I’ve decided to split my posts between what were, for me at least, the key areas.

Let’s start with: Author Readings

There were over 75 separate author readings scheduled over the four-day programme; with such a packed programme of panels and interviews, I had to agonise between competing interests to get the most out of each day. Author readings are my favourite part of a convention. I love listening to authors reading their own work, especially when it’s new and the writer is genuinely interested in the questions and ideas of their listeners.

Joe Abercrombie, fun and entertaining as always, read from his upcoming YA novel. Yes, YA, now that’s a surprise! His foray into the young adult market will hopefully garner new readers into the fold, and yet still appeal to his solid adult readership. The piece had that same gritty, in-the-face quality that makes Abercrombie’s writing so compelling. When asked if he’d really toned his writing down for younger readers, he replied: well, there are a lot less ‘fucks’. The book, which will be out next year, is the first in a trilogy.

James Barclay read a piece that in his own words was a ‘very, very early draft’ of a new book due out in 2015. The premise was new and interesting, featuring the uneasy relationship between Drakes (a dragon-like life-form developed from alien DNA) and their pilots/riders. As always the depiction of battle, in this case an aerial one between rival ‘drakes’, was well paced, keeping us all on the edge of our seats. James was keen to elicit the opinions of the group, and talk about the background and ideas that inspired this latest book. I can’t wait to see this book in print.

I was very excited to attend my first ever reading by Peter F. Hamilton. He gave us all a real treat—starting with a new Paula Mayo piece (one of my favourite characters!), followed up by a sample from his new children’s book Queen of Dreams. This book includes his daughter, Sophie, as sky dancer princess (not a faery, he said, as that would make him a faery king). Hamilton finished the reading with another cracking story, which was cut short as time was called by one of the ever vigilant ‘red coats’. With just two pages to go, he offered to finish reading the story outside the Reading room. Most of us gathered happily around a table to listen to the concluding section—it was well worth it!

Apart from scheduling-in my favourites, I attended a few readings from authors that were new to me. One such, Lawrence C. Connolly, was of the old-world storyteller mould. He told three stories, from memory, in a vivid and captivating manner. An enjoyable and unforgettable experience. At the end he posed a number of riddles to the audience, and gave away copies of his books to the first to shout out the right answer (I wasn’t quick enough (sigh)). Lawrence C. Connolly is one to follow, and I will be hunting down his collection of short stories, This Way to Egress, as soon as I’ve finished this post.

My Milford Writing Group Adventure

The Milford Writing Group is comprised of published authors of speculative fiction (includes Science Fiction, Fantasy, and all their sub-genres). The authors gather once a year, usually in September, to workshop ideas and discuss work in progress. This year I was eligible to attend (you need at least one professional sale), I booked my place in March and spent the next few months looking forward to the experience. I was not disappointed.

Over a week since I got back and I still feel crammed with ideas for my novel. I’ve made a start, of course I have, but what I really need is time to focus and work.

The Adventure

ImageThe venue: Trigonos, sited amongst the impressive beauty of Snowdonia, is perfect for a bunch of writers to work both creatively and critically, while offering outlets for those with an inclination to walk, jog, climb and generally explore.

The writers: fifteen in total, including three newbies (of which I was one)—a diverse group of friendly and talented people whose professional approach to writing was matched by their sense of fun.

The process: in a day liberally spiced with excellent meals, and breaks for home made biscuits and cake, there was space for several hours of writing (or catching up with critiques) in the morning, followed by a focussed critiquing workshop in the afternoon.

But what was it like, I hear you cry, to be part of such an adventure?

A little scary at first, but exciting too. And, oh my god, bloody hard work.

After a convivial breakfast, I spent the mornings working on a new chapter for my book, inspired by the general buzz of creativity about the place, and only occasionally distracted by the chickens foraging in the meadow just beyond my window. I didn’t always make it to the 11am drinks and biscuits gathering; it’s hard to stop when you’re caught in the flow. The more energetic amongst us went for walks around the lake, or runs to/from the desolation of ‘Mordor’. The truly adventurous scrambled their way up mountainous trails in both rain and shine.

The afternoon workshops were both challenging and incredibly useful. The critiques offered were professional, honest, no-punches-pulled assessments that also offered support and, quite often, generated ideas on how to solve problems or take stories forwards. I must admit that after working through five or six stories with the group, I escaped back to my room for a much needed nap before dinner!

Evenings were spent in the Library with a comforting log fire, drinks and, of course, chocolate. A satisfying end to the day in the company of other writers: lively conversation, laughter, games, and for some the fine art of knitting and crocheting. I was introduced to the game of Bananagram, a great twist on traditional Scrabble, which I look forward to teaching to my (grown up) children.

After five days of solid work (Sunday to Thursday) we were all ready for the Friday outing. Gwydir Castle—one of the most haunted homes in the country—offered sculpted gardens, wonderful trees (huge cedars planted in 1625) and rather haughty peacocks. The house itself was full of original artefacts and an ancient presence that will find its way into my writing, one way or another.

It was hard to say goodbye on Saturday morning, both to the place and to everyone in the group. But on the other hand, I was so full of ideas that I couldn’t wait to get back home and start work on the rewrite of my opening chapters.

I’ve already booked my place for next year, and can’t wait for Milford 2014!

Details for Milford 2014 can be found here.

The T S Eliot Prize

As a novice in the world of poetry I attended the Shortlist Readings of the T S Eliot Prize with a sense of excited anticipation. The event was well organised and ran very smoothly, and I have to say that in the person of eight out of ten poets (rather like ‘eight out of ten cat owners’) my expectations were fully met and in several cases exceeded.

Nothing can really match an accomplished poet reading his/her own work. They were, without exception, consummate performers. The Festival Hall housed an audience of around two thousand who listened in silent awe to each poet deliver a sample of the best of their work this year.

ImageSimon Armitage gave a witty introduction to his reading, speculating on ‘what can I do to win this year?’—his last collection Seeing Stars was shortlisted in 2010. He read a section of his contemporary retelling of the four thousand line alliterative Morte Arthure (The Death of King Arthur). I enjoyed it much more that I expected to. His writing has certainly caught my attention, and I shall be looking back at  his previous works with more than a little interest. I have also been reliably informed that he is a speaker well worth listening to.

Paul Farley gave a very entertaining reading of several of his poems from The dark filmDark Film, waving airily in what he thought might be the direction of the Royal Box, glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose. His last poem finished with the declaration: ‘Oh fuck! I’m the queen.’

havocsJacob Polley topped them all with his rendition of ‘Langly Lane’ from The Havocs. He was the only poet to receive spontaneous applause after reading his first poem. His book is now in my hands and I’m happy to say the rest of his work is of the same wonderfully high standard.

He should have won.

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