We’re really excited to be holding our next FREE event at Hull Central Library from 1pm February 25th. Check out their Science Fiction and Fantasy offerings, along side their digital library they have an impressively up to date collection with plenty of the classics too.
Three authors will be our guests, each of whom have award-worthy reputations.
Jim Hawkins’ screenplay was nominated for a BAFTA, but he will be reading from hislatest collection Fragments of Tomorrow. Jim’s prose work has regularly appeared in “The Best Of ” styled anthologies and his short stories can regularly be found in Interzone, one of the UK’s leading genre magazines. Jim inspired new writing for both screen and novel through the Hull University’s Creative Writing Degree. You can find more aboutJim Hawkins on his author page
Lee Harrison’s debut fantasy novel, The Bastard Wonderland, was recently featured on the Not the Booker…
He’s right, y’know. It’s a very English thing, hiding your light under a bushel. And as authors, we’re more reserved than most folks. But with a new year comes a new round of shortlists, longlists, and nomination suggestions. For what it’s worth, however much it may be, here’s my eligible writing from the last twelve months.
The High King’s Vengeance, published by Kristell Ink/Grimbold Books, edited by Joanne Hall, cover art by Jorge Luis Torres.
Because the first review of High King’s Vengeance came in over the Fantasycon weekend, it kind of slipped under the blogging radar somewhat, so I’m going to take the opportunity to point you to it now.
Paul at The Eloquent Page was kind enough to read Heir to the North last year, and also to say nice things about it. I wondered what he would have to say about the sequel – would it live up to his expectations?
Viewed on its own, The High King’s Vengeance is a well-executed epic fantasy that is bound to please many a genre fan. As the second part of a much larger story, it is something far better. Seeds that were sown way back at the beginning of the first book suddenly become relevant, and there are a host of splendidly brain-melting revelations.
I get the distinct impression that though Cassia’s story has drawn to a close, there are other tales of Caenthell, Hellea and Galliarca still to be told. I do hope so, I’d be more than happy to read them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, this review came in for Heir to the North:
I do wish, however, that this novel didn’t join the apparently infinite ranks of “Gender-as-Obstacle,” in which the female lead is oppressed/undervalued/underestimated chiefly or entirely because she’s female. That Cassia is very much a Smurfette, with never a single meaningful interaction with another woman, only makes this worse, as it gives me a depressing impression of the world she inhabits.
OK, with hindsight, guilty as charged. It wasn’t something I even thought about when I wrote HTTN, and I suspect that’s rather the point. Other people have made the same point in passing, though not as bluntly as this reviewer. (And that bluntness isn’t a bad thing either. Nor am I quoting the review here so that others can pile on the reviewer. Don’t ever do that. Seriously.)
I’d like to think that I’m a slightly wiser person now than I was when I wrote Heir to the North. I’m certainly more aware of what I have written and how I wrote it. You may not find too much of a progression in High King’s Vengeance (it was written before HTTN was even signed by Kristell Ink), but you will in future projects.
And so I respectfully submit that Kelley Ceccato is very worthy of your time if you’re looking for opinions on something new to read.
I like using the two-act structure. There’s either a peak or a trough at the end of the first act, depending on how you want it to work. I’ve used this structure for Malessar’s Curse – the plot rises to a crisis point – not a cliffhanger as such, but a definite break.
I’m trying to view 2016 in the same way. The first half has been a definite downward curve, sinking to a nadir over the second half of June. Not unexpected, but unwanted nonetheless. I write about gods, but I don’t believe in them, so I’m not going to blame some mystical non-existent deity for the non-stop cull of celebrities and cultural role models. No, you can blame cancer for that. And that means that the Brexit vote is even more stupid than you previously thought, given the potential and probable effects on pan-European cancer research.
But enough of the negative vibes for now – after all, I’m supposed to be looking forward, as the Brexiters have desperately requested, rather than back. So let’s ignore the impending economic and socio-political apocalypse and think about the good shit.
Because believe it or not there is still good shit to celebrate. Some of that good shit even turned up in the first six months of the year, diluting the effects of the downcurve so that it was more or less tolerable (rather than downright intolerable). And because it’s me, most of this good shit has to do with writing. (You see, this is what I was missing through the interminable years with the dog’n’dansette – something to balance out the grind & cliquey bullying.)
So let’s go RAH! for the high points:
Nominated onto the longlist for the main Legend Award at the David Gemmell Awards. (Didn’t get onto the shortlist, but I wasn’t expecting to)
Nominated onto the shortlist for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards. Now that caused dancing in the streets round our way, I tell thee.
Four (four!) short stories published in the excellent Fox Pockets series. And I’m inordinately proud of all four of them.
Audiobook version of Heir to the North recorded and almost ready to go! (In fact, as I type this it has just been signed off and authorised for sale on Audible. Get ready…!)
Hardback editions in the works!
High King’s Vengeance all set for launch!
And of course July marks the start of my personal convention season – EdgeLit, SledgeLit, Fantasycon and Bristolcon (and this year, Derby Writers’ Day too). Days spent talking SFF with great people and fantastic friends.
This is the list I go to when my brain tries to tell me I’m not good enough (shades of the mother-in-law Jan’s backstabbing imprecation that I’m “not much of a go-getter”). Brain is right, but only in that so much of the above I would never have been able to achieve on my own. The list reminds me that I’m part of a team, and that they’ve got my back. And that increasingly, I’ve got theirs. That’s a damned good place to be in.
It’s not all writing-shaped either. Some of it is cat-shaped. Far from being the corner-hugging scaredy-cat that ran for the attic on arrival, Mycroft has become very attached to us both. He’s a source of giggles and fun every day.
And while I still don’t have a writer’s “office space”, we have at last managed to drag the vinyl (and some of the DVDs) out of the attic for proper display and use. I haven’t played some of these since the late 90s. Even better, the Dreamcast still works too! Shenmue! Shenmue II! Jet Set Radio! Who needs Next-Gen consoles, eh?
2016 may be one of the shittier years, but there’s enough going on – if you look at the basics – to cushion the worst of the blows. Some days it’s easier to get out of bed than others. And some days, if that’s the best you can do, if that’s all you can do, you look at how far you’ve come and you say: you know what? I’ve already won. The rest is a bonus.
It’s that time of the year again, when I look back at my mother-in-law’s tired and less than complimentary put-down¹ and measure myself against it. Well, nothing very memorable happened in 2015, did it?
Apart from (and with no apologies for beating my own drum here):
Heir To The North launched at Fantasycon in Nottingham, with a platoon of matching t-shirts courtesy of the magnificent folks at Grimbold Books. What an absolute blast of a weekend that was, even if I never made good on my threat to do Holding Out For a Hero at the karaoke (next year…).
There was a road trip to Shropshire to scout the lay of the land for Project:TFL (which is being built from the keel up, as they say). So much pub grub…!
Being a panelist for the first time at Bristolcon, alongside Rosie Oliver, Misa Buckley, Dean Saunders-Stowe, and Gareth L Powell. And a long-overdue catch-up with Tim Wreford-Bush!
Being a panelist, and also moderating a panel for the first time at Sledge-Lit (with Rod Duncan, Julia Knight, Gavin Smith, Susan Boulton, Stephen Aryan, Alex Davis and Natasha Pulley).
We adopted a three-legged cat called Mycroft who now absolutely loves cuddles. This little dude has made himself right at home!
I know exactly what the cover for High King’s Vengeance will look like (you folks will have to wait a while longer for that, I’m afraid…).
Heir To The North got some awesome reviews from some equally awesome people. Reviews are important. I haven’t had to break out the HMHB “Bad Review” link yet, so let’s cherish the time before it has to happen!
We watched John Cameron Mitchell film exteriors for How To Talk To Girls At Parties on the street outside our house. Blink and you’ll miss it!
We started up the SFSF Social with readings by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jo Thomas – and going on to feature Dana Fredsti, Ian Sales, Jacey Bedford, Paul Kane, and David Barnett in the Socials after that.
We were a part of Sheffield’s Off The Shelf Festival with the 4th SFSF Social and hosted our very first Ask The Agent session with Amanda Rutter!
I appeared on Sheffield Live Radio and BBC Radio Sheffield –
Myself, Kevin Redfern, Hayley Orgill, Alex Bardy and Roy Grey successfully defended our team’s crown and reputation at the EdgeLit quiz, much to Alex Davis’s evident delight (sorry, Alex!)
I got invited to contribute to an anthology (Woodbridge Press – keep them peeled….)
It doesn’t signify anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on the the suggestions list for the British Fantasy Awards next year (not self-nominated, I promise you!).
Fox Spirit Books published Junior Twilight Stock Replacer in the Fox Pockets anthology Things In The Dark – as the year started, so it ends!
Yeah, not much, huh? Typing it out makes me realise just how much I’ve tried to fit into the last year – and yes, I’m probably going to try to do the same again next year too. That’s me, diving in like a loon…
Somehow, I found time to read other people’s books this year, as well as all of the above. I’ve been a bit more consistent in logging them on Goodreads, so it doesn’t take long to discover that some of my absolute favourite reads from this year (though not necessarily published this year) were:
A Darker Shade of Magic, by VE Schwab
Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Breed, by KT Davies
Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald
The Stars Seem So Far Away, by Margrét Helgadóttir
All That Outer Space Allows, by Ian Sales
The Art of Forgetting: Nomad, by Joanne Hall
The Burning Land, by Victoria Strauss
And I heartily recommend them all to you if you haven’t already caught them.
Plans for 2016? Well, there’s TFL to finish, Socials to plan, and conventions to book, HKV to edit, and the next, long-delayed installment of Empire Dance to sort out. And conventions too – Edge-Lit and Fantasycon again, and perhaps Bristolcon again too. I hope to see you all out there somewhere – and may the road rise with you!
¹Also, obviously, wrong. But hey, smile and wave folks, smile and wave…
I’m not here today – I’m over at Alex Davis’s place, looking after the cat and feeding the flowers. Meanwhile, Alex is over here, feeding the cat and looking after the flowers…
Creating a science-fiction world, by Alex Davis
Ah, worldbuilding. One of the immortal questions of genre fiction. How much do I need to do? How should I go about it? How do I know when I’m finished? It was something that took a while when I was writing The Last War – even though some things were laid down by the publisher who initially took the book on – and something that was a really enjoyable part of the process. I was trying to come up with a new piece on this, but I don’t think I ever summed it up better than this article I wrote for Writers News back in August of 2013. You’ll need to find your own science-fiction landscape for this exercise, but there’s no shorage of images out there you can use as inspiration. I was also lucky enough to chat with the awesome Tony Ballantyne for this one, which is always a pleasure!
A whole new world…
Science-fiction is a genre that is filled with any number of fascinating new worlds. These may be parallel versions of the world we live in, projection of what the future will look like on Earth or indeed stories set entirely in other places – other planets, other galaxies, other universes. And naturally these fantastic settings do not happen by accident – they are usually carefully considered and crafted by authors. There are a number of key reasons for this, of course. The world itself informs the story, offering key developments for the plot and characters. The world enriches the story, providing a vivid setting and evoking mood and atmosphere throughout. Science-fiction author Tony Ballantyne echoes this point in discussing his favourite setting: “One of my favourites is Gethen, from The Left Hand of Darkness [By Ursula K Le Guin]. The setting plays a big part in the mood of the book: it would have been a very different novel if it took place on another world.”
The world individualises the story, setting it apart from all of the other great science-fiction out there. True, there may be resemblances to the settings of past science-fiction stories, but your world is just that – yours and yours only. Readers will respond to an interesting, dynamic and well thought-through world, and often read multiple stories and books set there.
Worldbuilding is, naturally, a complex business, and can feel overwhelming if you are relatively new to the genre. First of all, I’d always say develop it in a way that you are comfortable writing – there doesn’t need to be a lot of complicated technology and science if you don’t consider this your forte. There is a distinction between hard science-fiction – which applies strict technological and scientific rigour throughout, and often focuses on these elements – and soft science-fiction, which looks more at the societal aspect of alternative settings. You don’t need to be a scientist to write science-fiction!
The exercises below are designed to help you create a world which could be a background for your stories, but of course if you have the story in mind already then it’s important that the world fits that. Tony Ballantyne says of his writing process: “Most of my first drafts take place against a half sketched world. It’s only on the later drafts that I really begin to fill in the details. By this time I’m really enjoying myself and I take a lot of pleasure in shaping my world and allowing it to shape the story.”
Let’s Get Physical
It may well be that much of what your story zooms in on are the cultural aspects of your world, and how the hierarchy and society is built. But without a physical sense of location, it is impossible to envisage what this society might look like. The physical element will also impact on the society itself – a world heavily filled with rivers, for example, may never develop cars in favour of boats, or have people living in houseboats rather than fixed abodes. This then has an impact on where and how people work, what people’s relationships are like, what leisure activities they may pursue and much more. As such, to begin with trying to develop your culture could well prove counterproductive.
Let’s take on an exercise using the image opposite, in which we try to give the physical landscape some real depth. First off, I’d like you to name and describe one of each of the following:
An animal that lives on the surface of the land
An animal that lives beneath the ground
A plant that grows in the location
Then I’d like you to consider the weather in the location. Just how hot – or cold – is it going to be? Is there much rain, or snow, or hail, or any other form of precipitation? Are there storms, gales, strong winds?
Last of all, I’d like you to write a short scene in which you spend a night in this setting. What forms of life do you encounter? What weather do you have to endure? What sounds inhabit the landscape? What do you eat or drink? Really try and orient yourself within this setting in order to truly bring it to life.
The Big Society
The reason for beginning with the landscape and weather elements of your world is that this will give you an immediate insight into what kind of culture would develop there. So let’s pick up from our previous exercise and looking at building a society from scratch.
The first question – and one I consider vital in the worldbuilding process – is about how people live. Are they in robustly built houses, or cramped flats, or something far simpler? Do they live alone, or with family or acquaintances? Do people live in large cities, or small villages? These kind of details will again feed into much of how the society operates.
Once you have a sense of where people live, from there you can consider things such as what sort of relationships people have with each other, what kind of family units might exist, and also what kind of jobs people might do. If people are based in cities, then their working life will differ substantially from those who live in the country. What would the prime industries be?
It is often worth at this stage drawing up a spider diagram, which will allow you to think freely about these important matters for your world. You may also want to consider:
Laws – are these restrictive or quite free? How are they enforced, and what punishments to people face for crimes?
Government – is the structure dictatorial, democratic, communist or anarchist?
Wealth – are there distinctions between rich and poor? Does this feed into a class system?
Technology – what technology exists in your setting? This may be very advanced, or simply resemble today, or indeed be less forward than what we have now.
Leisure – what do people do for leisure, and how much time do they have to pursue interests and hobbies? Do people tend to enjoy their pursuits alone, or play games/sports in groups?
Social interaction – are people likely to have parties or social gatherings? Do people tend to meet at their work, or in some other way? Or are people very isolated and lonely?
Food and drink – what do people eat, and where do they get it from? Is food and drink simple, or are there a range of options and choices to be enjoyed?
Locating the Conflict
One of the major benefits of this approach to worldbuilding is that it often makes developing characters and plots significantly easier. Now we have a sense of the landscape and the culture of your setting, the next step is to consider just what the story might be. The set-up phase of the story provides the ideal opportunity to introduce readers to your world, establishing not only the characters you are going to be following but the setting they inhabit. It is when we come to the conflict phase that the story really picks up, and this is where the value of your worldbuilding will be seen.
If you consider the culture of the present day, there are all manner of conflicts that surround us. These may of course be literal conflicts – we’ve seen many wars and battles fought over the last 100 years – but they may well be something far more subtle. It might be a conflict that a character fights against a corrupt system, a conflict that someone fights on behalf of a wronged relative or loved one, a conflict fought against a criminal underworld. Take some time to look at your world and spot where these kind of trouble spots may be. On the surface, you might have a location that appears peaceful and settled, but as an author your task is to dig beneath that surface and find those ‘flashpoints’ within your setting that are just waiting to explode. Rest assured, they are there! Take a look at your spider diagram, and the physical elements you’ve created, and see what kind of problems and struggles could emerge.
The key phrase you are looking for is ‘what if?’ – the two words that define so many stories, in any field.
Expanding Your World
The other benefit of creating a persuasive, in-depth and vivid world is that it will stand you in good stead for many years to come. Most science-fiction series are set entirely within one world, and may well follow the same characters over the course of time. You might even decide to move on from those characters and explore other aspects, other characters and other locations. A powerful setting can give you plenty of material going forward as an author, so it is time well-spent for any writer looking to work in the genre.
There is, however, a final note of caution – worldbuilding is important to SF stories, but it should not be all there is! You still need dynamic plot and character, and you still need to write the book once the setting is established! Tony Ballantyne says: “I find that too many writers, especially beginners, are so in love with their worlds that they forget about their plot and characters. Worldbuilding can easily become something people do rather than getting on with writing a story. It’s fun, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that you’re writing!”
Once upon a time, I worked as a classroom assistant at the Sacred Heart Primary School in Hillsborough, Sheffield. I thought I wanted to be a teacher (I was wrong, but don’t hold that against me). I discovered that it was quite difficult to do much with Y3 and below (severe lack of concentration span, loads of Sunny Delight), and Y5 and Y6 were just as difficult as they were beginning to learn to not pay any attention at all (as well as throw filched packets of condoms around the playground which, in a Catholic School, is probably the very height of anti-establishment behaviour).
So I wound up helping out in Y4. Most afternoons, half an hour before the end of the day, the teacher would read to the class. The kids would gather around and listen and, wonder of wonders, they were quiet and they enjoyed the stories.
I asked the teacher if I could choose the next book. She was a little suspicious: I wasn’t Catholic, I wasn’t one of Them, and I wrote my zeroes and sevens in “the European style” on the chalkboard (“we’re not European, we’re English!”), and she hadn’t heard of my choice of book to read. For all she knew, I could be warping their tiny, fragile minds.
Well, she was right.
The book was Truckers, the first in Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad series for younger readers. The story, if you need a quick reminder, concerns the adventures of Masklin and his fellow nomes, when they are evicted from their home under the floorboards of a massive department store. It might have been a little “advanced” for Y4, perhaps, I certainly wasn’t an expert in judging that, but I figured I could skip over any difficult bits if I really needed to.
We began. I had brought my own copy of Truckers in to read from. Masklin crossed a road, evaded predators, and helped his tribe into the back of a lorry. Y4 listened intently.
By the end of the first week, a couple of them were reading along, using copies that they had evidently sourced from the local library. By the middle of the second week, I don’t think there was a single copy of Truckers left in the Sheffield Library system. They were all here, in this classroom. We parcelled out some of the speaking roles – that was ambitious. The kids took it in turn to be Masklin and Grimma, stumbling over the printed words enthusiastically.
Those kids will be in their mid-20s now, I think. I bumped into one a few years back. He blamed me for getting him hooked on reading and hooked on fantasy.
Not my fault: that honour belongs to Terry Pratchett, I reckon. After all, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic did the same for me when they turned up in the boxes of books that my uncle left behind when he emigrated to South Africa.