Writing

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!

Chilling out with Pratchett

There are times as a writer when I just need to step back and chill out. Give the creative side something else to do, a sort of re-charge of the writing batteries. pratchett dragon_2I love the quiet discipline of adding colour to someone else’s kick-ass drawings. I have several fantasy-type colouring books, but my favourite by far is the ‘Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld’. It is packed with Paul Kidby’s amazing illustrations.

“The little dragon turned on Vimes a gaze that would be guaranteed to win it the award for Dragon the Judges would Most Like to Take Home and Use as a Portable Gas Lighter.”

Thank you Paul Kidby, and thank you Gollancz. I just need to decide what to colour next!

 

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.

 

The Flash Challenge

Long form is my shutterstock_203226655forte. The freedom of chapter after chapter, building the story. I need space to stretch and explore. Short stories are a challenge, one that always leaves me with a question: perhaps this really is a novella, or maybe even a novel? Sigh. So imagine what writing flash fiction is like.

That said, I’ve had a few flash fiction pieces published over the last few months. The most recent being ‘Distant Fires’ in the Life is a Roller Coaster anthology. It was a kind of tortuous fun. This particular piece started out at 1,250 words, an achievement in itself. I then spent a long weekend reducing that to the required 750 words. That was agony; being forced to find ever more effective ways to get the message across, cutting and cutting, trying to parse backstory into, in some cases, a single word choice. While painful, it was an exercise that left me feeling both pleased and surprisingly energised. I could actually do it.

Example: Encapsulating the relationship between son and father (the only mention of the father)

I’m here most nights. Dad noticed: ‘Finally got a life, have you boy?’ I nodded. We left it at that.

Now it’s time for me to concentrate on finishing THE BOOK. I’ve learnt a lot working on flash fiction, though. It’s a discipline that I can make good use of in crafting longer stories, and it’s one that I will go back to when I need a break from the complexity of novel writing.

If you write long form, try your hand at flash. Trust me. It’s good for you.

Half A King – Joe Abercrombie

Half-a-King-Quotes-StaggeredJust received my copy of Half A King by Joe Abercrombie. I’ve been waiting for it to arrive for months and now can’t wait to read it. This is Abercrombie’s first foray into the YA market—a market that I feel will devour his work and hound him for more.

At World Fantasy Con in Brighton last year, I listened with rapt attention as Abercrombie read the opening chapter of Half A King. It contained the now familiar—and much loved—accents of tension and gritty violence.

One audience member asked wryly: I thought you said this was YA?

Abercrombie replied with his usual humour: What? I can’t say ‘fuck’?

Humour aside, as Abercrombie explained in a recent (June) interview with Locus magazine, this novel is aimed at the ‘top end’ of the YA market. The book is shorter than his previous offerings, a modest 80k, and my only concern is romping to the end and being left panting for more. The sequel is planned for February 2015, and the final part of the trilogy in the autumn of that same year. Looks like he’s going to be VERY busy!

If you haven’t read any of Abercrombie’s work, there is plenty out there for adults:
The First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; Last Argument of Kings).
Plus three stand-alone stories set in the same world (Best Served Cold; Heroes; Red Country)

I started with the stand-alone books, become totally hooked and worked my way back to the First Law Trilogy. ‘Gritty’ is a word that is often used to describe Abercrombie’s work; his writing is also vivid, engaging and intense. Plus, he tells a bloody good story!

Creativity and Constraints – Part Two

Over the last few months I’ve experimented with a couple of techniques that have resulted in three flash fiction pieces being published in the online magazine ‘Sein und Werden’ (Being and Becoming). Not a title you would associate with science fiction and fantasy writing, but the magazine does accept speculative fiction.

Experiment One – Lipograms (writing without one or more letters of the alphabet)

Try writing a short piece without one of the letters of the alphabet. It’s trickier that you would imagine. If you are feeling particularly adventurous pick a vowel. Don’t do what I did and choose the letter ‘e’ for your first attempt!

‘Writing is always constrained by something. Rather than ignoring, or attempting to free themselves from these constraints, the Oulipians embrace them.’

Check out the ‘Sein und Werden’ website for more on the Oulipians and their approach to writing. The OuLiPo edition is full of great pieces written with a variety of constraints. I have two pieces in the magazine: ‘This Is It’ written under my name, and a joint piece ‘Walk in the Rain’ (part of the London Clockhouse Writers submission).

 

Experiment Two – Writing to a randomly generated title

The title I ended up with was: ‘I was simple in the haze of a smelly thunderbolt, but heaven knows I’m prehistoric now…’,

I had to smile, wondering what on earth I could do with that. Writing under pressure—given ten minutes to produce a rough piece as part of a group writing exercise—I wasn’t expecting to meet the teenage son of Thor in a deserted Tesco car park!

You can read the piece here, in the Surrealism edition of ‘Sein und Werden’.

Remember: Constraints are your friends; they will push you through boundaries and into a world that you never imagined. Go on, try it. It’s great fun, and who knows, you may end up with a piece that’s worth publishing.

Royal Academy of Art: Australia Exhibition

Image

Exhibition: ‘Edward Burtynsky: Australian Minescapes’ at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

The following pieces were inspired by several painting in the exhibition. When I looked more closely I realised that they belonged together:

When we got there it wasn’t what either of us expected. Not that we’d talked about it, you understand. We stood, hands resting on the bonnet of the car, the sun a hammer blow barely warded by sun-hats and shades.

‘So,’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

The so-called cottage looked more like a shack, corrugated tin roof sloping to a squint over windows blinded by mud and dust. I turned on one heel, hoping we’d pulled up outside an out-building by mistake: scattered gaunt trees in various russet shades stood watch, a few scratty bushes hunched in untidy gangs, and in the distance I caught the lumpy shimmer of the outcrop that marked the quarry.

Nope, this had to be it.

‘Might as well take a look?’

She shrugged but followed, one hand waving a zigzag defence against the insect whine, her shoulders tight, lips pressed together. I had to shove my weight against the door, but I got us inside. Stepping into shade, an instant of relief before years of accumulated heat snatched our breath, dust-dry air coating throats, making it hard to swallow.

‘Shit,’ said together, in the same I-don’t-believe-it tone.

The edges of the room were crammed with guessed at boxy furniture crouched beneath yellowing sheets, improbable stick-like appendages tenting at odd angles. The dust-smoothed concrete floor held a history of delicate movement. At the centre, warmed by an invading shaft of sunlight, curled the largest snake that I had ever seen. Its flat wedge of a head turned to stare, tongue tasting the air.

The distant sound of hammer striking stone echoes around the quarry walls, repeating until the original sound is lost with its copies. A shout, indignation tapered by distance, is muffled by the scrape of booted feet: my feet, impatient to be away, while hand and eye continue to work, capturing detail, blurring lines. Is that thunder? Rocks tumble and slide, promising death to those who labour beneath the overhang. I snatch a breath, mouth stretched to cry a warning. The screech of a hawk on the hunt fills the air; trimming feathers to an arrowhead it dives.

This is the place to walk: where shadow encompasses the meadow and the only sounds are the buzz of insects and the inconstant digestion of sheep. Walk slowly, experience the brush of wide skirts against brittle stems, the soft scrunch of leaves underfoot. And there, on the edge of hearing, the cry of a hawk. The wildness, the raw edge of it, wakes a longing for vistas beyond the farmstead.

A door slams in the distance, a familiar voice shouts. It’s time for chores and supper, and perhaps, a story under the stars.

Pushing through the meadow and back up into the farmyard, moving from sound to sound, encased in noise. An unexpected silence points out the clamour. Sigh—one less burden to carry. One more step and the cacophony that is life snatches us back.

We shared a glance. It was all we needed. A shaky step back, then another, pursued by a rattled warning. Diamond patterns picked out by fingers of sunlight, flexing, arching, making new patterns in the dust.

No, this is definitely not the place.

Climbing back into the car, arms and legs sticking to sweaty leather, doors and windows sealed against the reality of this place, waiting for the aircon to kick in. Our retreat marked by dust trails of our own. Curling fingers of hot air, spun out by hard acceleration, grab at the bumper.

Writing Workshops and Getting Published

Around this time last year I participated in a series of workshops that explored ways of engaging with the city of London via writing. Entitled ‘Write Around Town’ and facilitated by writer Shaun Levin, each workshop took place in a different venue. I found myself writing in galleries and museums, department stores and cafes. All fun, and more importantly, great prompts for creativity.

As a primarily science fiction writer, I surprised myself by writing a couple of pieces of fairly decent ‘general’ fiction. The work generated during the adventure of ‘writing around town’ has now appeared in an anthology, published by Tree House Press and edited by Shaun Levin. The anthology is entitled ‘Writers in the Crowd’ and can be found both on Amazon, and more pertinently on the Tree House Press website.

My story: Junction 13: There and Back Again is, believe it or not, about driving on the M25. Sounds dry, huh? Well, to my surprise the piece really took hold of me; it wasn’t exactly a pleasure to write, but the damned thing wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it.

Fortunately for me, I am within spitting distance of completing my MA in Creative Writing. This means that I am at liberty to sign up for the next ‘Write Around Town’ course, which starts in October this year. I’m looking forward to meeting new people, and writing for fun in interesting places. And you never know, some of the work may well appear in print.

Patterns – featured on Cast of Wonders

Patterns is a short story that arose as part of a group writing exercise. The writing prompt was ‘and she looked at me again.’ The phrase conjured an image of a teenage boy watching his girlfriend walking away from him. As she reached the exit of the school hall she turned to look back at him.  There was such a strong connection between these two characters that I had to discover who they were and what had brought them together. Thus, Kate and Mikey walked into my head and onto the page.

As it turned out, the bond between Kate and Mikey could not be broken by the mystery lurking at the bottom of the archaeological dig at the bottom of the school playing field: the place all the kids have nicknamed ‘The Pit’.

You can listen to this story on the Cast of Wonders website (a YA audio magazine).

Enjoy!

NeXus—mankind gets an upgrade

Ramez Naam – Angry Robot

Nexus-144dpiThis book is set in the near future and looks at the impact of nanotechnology, specifically its ability to engender a form of telepathy in humans—the ability to link minds. As with all step-ups in technology, the impact of the drug Nexus has a multiplicity of possible benefits and opportunities for misuse—implications that the author brings to the fore through the struggles of Kaden Lane, the main protagonist.

Kaden is a young researcher who has redesigned Nexus—an illegal drug—to allow the drug’s nanostructures to be pre-programmed. The book opens with Kaden carrying out a field trial of the ‘Don Juan’ protocol. The ‘Don Juan’ protocol analyses his interactions with a young woman and controls his responses, changing a shy and diffident young man into a confident, smooth operator.

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