You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

I was in my last year of school. I wanted to do a creative writing degree. At the time I only knew of one, at the University of East Anglia.
My parents said no. I think their main reason for this was because they considered UEA an oasis of left-wingery that would drag their daughter down into some frenzy of drug-fuelled protest and anarchic sex.
Looking back, I could have objected. I could have tried to go anyway. I could have applied for financial support, got a job…but I was a naïve, fearful, rather childish 20 year old. I was used to having my life run for me by other people.
So I applied for English Literature courses and eventually got onto one at Swansea; which, being as it was in south Wales and these were the Thatcher years and the era of the miners’ strike, meant I did get involved in left-wingery and protest. Though the sex wasn’t very anarchic and the main effect of the occasional foray into illegal herbage was to make me sit around talking rubbish and giggling a lot, rather than getting out and doing anything to change the world.
I enjoyed bits of my course. I wrote a little. I read a lot. I wondered what it would have been like if I’d gone to UEA, and blamed the fact that I wasn’t there for my lack of writing success.
But the real reasons for my lack of success were rather closer to home. I wasn’t actually ready, for one thing. I had a lot more words to write yet. Also, I was lazy and unfocussed. I didn’t spend the time to educate myself about publishing, I didn’t finish half the short stories I started, and I submitted even fewer. Nor did I get off my bum and actually complete the elephantine fantasy novel I would end up working on, on and off, for another nine years. It was so much easier to whinge to myself about how hard-done-by I was than actually to do anything.
But when I did write, it was stuff I wanted to write. Fantasy, with occasional excursions into horror and soft SF and poetry and even rarer ones into what might tentatively be called literary fiction.
Had I gone to UEA, I suspect I would have been…discouraged. Because everything I have heard about other people’s experiences of creative writing courses, especially at that time, suggests that my love of all things supernatural, of the swash and the buckle, the swooning romance and high adventure and happy ending (or satisfyingly gruesome one), would have been regarded as rather grubby, childish follies. That I would have had to smuggle my favourite books around hidden in the covers of The History Man.
And, (being naïve, and childish, and desperate for approval), I would have tried to please my tutors and fit in with my peers by putting fantasy aside and attempting serious literary fiction.
Maybe I would even have done well enough to pass. Maybe I would have got a story or two in literary magazines. Maybe. But even if I had attained that measure of success, I doubt I would have gone any further. I think it unlikely in the extreme that I would ever have succeeded in writing a publishable novel that would have been classed as serious literary fiction. (That in itself being as much a genre as fantasy is, or isn’t – which is a whole other discussion).
Because I read a lot of literary fiction, and I love a lot of literary fiction, but it isn’t what I love to write. And I believe all good writing, all readable writing, is driven primarily by passion.
I look back now and I think – I was lucky. I was also naïve and lazy, and far too ready to let other people run my life and then blame them when it didn’t go the way I wanted, but – lucky.
Because I’ve ended up doing what I care about. I write about issues not uncommon in literary fiction – sexuality and gender roles, culture and family and religion – I just do it in a way I enjoy. And I write about love and honour and sacrifice and vengeance, magic and swords and sex with two-penised lizard men. And I love it. And I don’t have anyone telling me I should be writing something else.
A creative writing course might have been what I wanted. But back then, as an under-confident writer desperately trying to find out who I was and what I wanted to write about? No. It really wasn’t what I needed.

50 Tirades of Dismay

Dear Internet:

It has to stop.

You know what I’m talking about.

First of all, it was all hearts and flowers; in fact there were kittens.  You know I can’t resist kittens, so you gave me kittens.  You gave me Icanhascheezburger and cute overload and daily squee.

You knew I needed to find out about the publishing industry, and wanted to talk to other writers so you introduced me to absolutewrite  and Chuck Wendig and John Scalzi and Making Light; and they were sharp and funny and full of useful information.

You knew I liked LARP and fantasy and tough women and a sense of humour so you gave me Goblins and The Challenges of Zona and The Order of the Stick and yes, all right, I admit it, I ate it up.

And sometimes I needed to know stuff like how to get somewhere or the address of a restaurant and there you were, giving me the information almost before I had time to ask for it.  It was so easy.  I didn’t know it could be like this.

It was all going so well.  I began to wonder how I’d ever managed without you.

All right,  I wasn’t spending so much time with my other friends.   That reading pile by the side of the bed wasn’t getting any smaller.  And I was beginning to spend time with you when I should have been working.  But it was all vanilla stuff, just harmless fun.  I was happy, wasn’t I?

Then the other things started to creep in.  You started to make suggestions.  And I – well – I went along with it.

At first, I enjoyed it.   I was ashamed of myself, yes, but watching people act like idiots – especially in a publishing context – it did something to me.  Gave me some kind of sick thrill.  But I should have known – once you get that first taste of schadenfreude pie, you need a bigger and bigger slice every time.  Soon I couldn’t get enough of the comments.  I was reading late into the night, watching people get angrier and whinier and make bigger and bigger fools of themselves.

And then – there was the real hard stuff.  The other comments columns.  The articles.  The ones full of rage and misogyny and homophobia and threats and hate.  There were the links to terrible things that people had done and said; things that filled me with fear and despair.

But I kept clicking, didn’t I?  I kept clicking.

I was doing it every day, every chance I got.  I was getting paranoid and red-eyed and losing sleep.  People began to ask if I was OK.

Well, I’m not.  I’ve realised I’m not.  I can’t do this any more.

So stop it, Internet.  It’s no longer fun.  It just leaves me feeling soiled, and ashamed of myself for belonging to the human race.

I think you need help, Internet.  We can keep seeing each other, but no more of that stuff.   If you can’t give it up, you’re going to have to do it without me.

I’m going to be over here, looking at kittens.

Brrrr…

This is my morning routine, pretty much.

Feed cat.  Make tea.  Refill kettle and put back on.

Take tea back to bed.  Faff around on internet and drink tea, while being headbutted by importunate cat.

Get up. Put on appr. 4 layers of clothing per limb, and extra on feet.  Add fingerless gloves.

Go downstairs.  Fill hot water bottle.  Put kettle back on.  Make coffee.  Fill 2nd hot water bottle. Take coffee and both hot water bottles upstairs.

Settle at desk.  Tuck 1st hot water bottle behind back.  Place 2nd over feet.  Tuck fluffy blanket around legs.  Cat sits on blanket over feet (and hot water bottle).

Attempt to open document.  Mouse strangely immobile.  Extract mouse lead from under cat.

Resettle cat, feet, and hot water bottle. Retuck fluffy blanket.

Open document.

Head hurts.  Realise have not put glasses on.

Extract feet from hot-water-bottle/blanket/cat combo.  Untuck fluffy blanket. Stand up. Trip over displaced and disgruntled cat. Go in search of glasses.

Find glasses (eventually).

Return.  Resettle hot water bottle, blanket, etc.  (Cat has now stalked off as my feet are obviously unsuitable for protracted sitting-upon).

Realise coffee has gone cold.

Go downstairs.  Reheat coffee.  Return. Resettle feet, blanket, hot water bottles.

Discover I need loo.

Repeat as before.

Possibly get some writing done before ‘hot’ no longer applies to hot water bottles.

Repeat ad infinitum.

Sigh.

It’s not as if the house is that cold.  It’s just my weird personal thermostat; from about September to about May, I freeze from the extremities inwards as soon as I’m immobile for more than 20 minutes.  Does anyone else have to dress as though they’re on a polar expedition before they start writing, or is it just me?

Not Very Scientific 1 – 16 Year Old Aberlour

(“A good gulp of hot whiskey at bedtime – it’s not very scientific but it helps” – Alexander Fleming)

I’ve decided that, as a bit of a – connoisseur is the wrong word, since I am no-one’s idea of an expert, but addict is perhaps a little harsh – an appreciator, of good whiskey, I would occasionally witter about it, online, for the amusement of anyone who might care.

(Caveat – what I say may bear no resemblance whatever to what is written on the label of any given whiskey as a guide to flavour. I am not a professional taster in any way at all, and react on a purely personal level. Also, I tend to add water; no less than a half the amount of whiskey, no more than double. For me it brings out the flavours. I am aware that others may regard this as blasphemy of a high order).

Onto the whiskey; a birthday present recently received by the beloved.

The bottle itself is pleasing. It’s a fat, cosy, slightly squat shape. It looks friendly. The colour of the whiskey is rich and deep.

The nose is rich too – very sweet. Treacle toffee and the warm coconutty scent of gorse flowers. There’s another subtly floral aroma which was hard to identify – the closest I could get was the scent of pansies; a scent that only seems to emerge in sunlight.

The whiskey hits the tip of the tongue with spice, but the first impression in the mouth is very light and sweet. Then the spice comes back in underneath, strong and gingery.

Once you’re partway down the glass, there’s a slight aroma of peardrops – just a hint of sweet acetone – and Parma violets. It sounds unpleasant, put like that, but in fact it’s interesting and wakes you up again to the changing flavour. There’s more citrus in the spice now, the ginger still pungent but cut with lemon.

And, right in the last third – there’s a surprise – a sudden savour. Smokey bacon. Seriously. Proper, crisp, sweetcure bacon; just the flavour, not the meat, like an aptly-summoned and pleasing ghost.

Altogether a subtle, layered, interesting drink.

This is the end…

In response to Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction challenge, I thought I’d have a go.  So here is the end of a story that will probably never exist in any other way than this…is this zen?  Or just, you know, odd?

Probably both.

The Pond

“They’re all gone,” Bryony said.  She threw another pebble into the water.  The sound it made was like a small door closing for good.  Clup. 

Marcus watched the ripples wash out for a little way and fade back into the surface.  No-one who passed this pond would ever know someone had thrown that pebble into the water; no-one except him and Bryony.

She had a distant, frozen look. It was partly because of Andrea, he was certain.  There was a hole Andrea had made in their hearts.  A cold and miserable wind howled through it; he wondered if it would ever stop.

He sat down next to Bryony.  He wanted to take her hand, or something, take some of that frozen look away, but he couldn’t quite make himself.  Still a coward, Marcus, that voice in his head.  Even after all this.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

“We saved the world, and no-one will ever know.”

“Pretty much,” Bryony said.

Marcus picked up a stone, cool and flat in his hand.  Instead of just throwing it, he flicked his wrist.  It skipped across the water, one, two, three-four-five.

“Hey, nice!”  Bryony said.

“Not bad eh?”

“No,” she said, and put her arm over his shoulder.  “Not bad at all.”

The End

 

 

Yes, me too – the Next Big Thing

I was tagged by the lovely Marie O’Regan to take part in The Next Big Thing blog hop (at least, I think it’s a blog hop. I don’t have my Advanced Current Internet Terminology badge yet). Anyway, Next Big Thing is right, it appears to be consuming much of the interwebs at this point. So here goes…
1. What is the title of your book?
Dangerous Gifts
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s a sequel to Babylon Steel, which came out this year. I wanted to have more fun with Babylon, because I enjoy writing her, but also to deal with subjects like prejudice and the assumptions we make about both other people and ourselves, and the difference between tough choices and utterly amoral ones.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Fantasy. If it was set in contemporary London I suppose it might be classed as urban fantasy; I would also say it has elements of crime and high fantasy.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Ooh, I love this part. Michelle Rodriguez as Babylon, Cameron Diaz as Laney, maybe Daniel Craig as Chief Bitternut, John Cusak or Johnny Depp as the sleek but dangerous Darask Fain, Alan Rickman as the mad sorcerer Mokraine…oh, and Jason Statham, with a bit of CGI, as Flower. There are a whole bunch of other characters I’d enjoy casting, but I’ve already spent far too much time on IMDB.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Babylon Steel, brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war is employed as a bodyguard to a prime assassination target in a country on the verge of civil war.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Dangerous Gifts, like Babylon Steel, is published by Solaris. My agent is John Jarrold.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I wrote a first draft in about fifteen months. Longer than I’d like, partly because I was also working on another project, since I didn’t know for a while whether I would be contracted for another Babylon book. I then took it to my writers’ group for critique, winced, asked for a deadline extension, ripped out and almost completely rewrote the last two thirds…I think it probably took about 18 months to get to something I could bear to send out.
8. What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?
I always find this a difficult question to respond to without sounding rampantly egotistical – also, I don’t think any writer is quite like any other writer unless you are very specifically writing within a strict format, and even then…right, I should stop avoiding the question. A bit like Scott Lynch, maybe. And sort of slightly like Terry Pratchett, I hope. Only with more sex. And a touch of Angela Carter, if I’m pushing.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was really eager to spend more time with Babylon and the rest of her crew, to discover more about the world and the characters. I intended the first book to work as a stand-alone novel, but I had always hoped to do more than one.
10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
It involves sex, death, the clash of idealism and realpolitik, and futures trading. With swords.
Now it’s time to tag five other authors, who will answer the same questions on their blogs next Wednesday.
They are:
The dangerously charming Helen Callaghan:
The calmly mysterious Andrew Goodman:
The futuristically splendid Dave Gullen:
The gloriously eccentric David Wake:
and…er…to follow! (Because I am the Perennially Underorganised Gaie Sebold).

Cover Story

Dangerous Gifts

I have a cover for Dangerous Gifts, the sequel to Babylon Steel, and I love it.

Cover art is a strange thing. The very thing I love in a cover, the thing that would make me pick a book up and start reading, may be the thing that puts another reader off immediately, and for a wide variety of reasons, or something that’s barely a reason at all. I’ve looked askance at dragons on covers (even though I love dragons) ever since hearing that some publishers have on occasion been known to insist that there be a dragon on the cover because All Fantasy Readers Will Buy Stuff With Dragons, even though no actual dragon may appear in the book. There does recently appear to have been a slight assumption that All Fantasy Readers Will Buy Stuff With Broody Types in Swirly Cloaks, to the point where I assumed that a Broody Type in a Swirly Cloak meant that the contents would be quite a lot like the last three books I read that had that type of cover, and didn’t pick it up – thus the cover had exactly the opposite of the intended effect. At least on me.

What makes a grabbable cover? Picking a few from the nearest shelf: there are Pratchett’s Discworld books, with the delightful, highly coloured, comical Josh Kirby covers. One of those was probably what made me pick up my first ever Pratchett, and after that, of course, the name was enough. Three Flashman books, with, interestingly, completely different styles of cover; two of which, if I didn’t know the series, might intrigue me enough to pick it up, the other, probably not. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, just for a non-fiction sample; an old-fashioned looking cover, but intriguing enough to make me read the first page, which immediately had me hooked. And a proper old-style fantasy cover; Aldiss’s Helliconia Summer, a weird landscape and strange beasties, the sort of cover that still tends to grab me. It makes the promise of strange new worlds, and a lot of the time, that’s exactly what I want. And lo, there is one broody person in a cloak, (though actually they’ve got their back to the reader so they could be laughing or howling at the moon, not brooding at all). It’s The Old Stories collection by Kevin Crossley-Holland, and actually it’s a gorgeous cover, that I would probably pick up even if I didn’t know the name.

What strange, visually driven creatures we are. And how lucky I feel that I’ve had two fantastic covers. I can’t guarantee how many readers will agree, but I know they’d make me want to pick up the books, so that’s something.

Sweating it out

I am currently in the process of becoming a slightly less rubbish runner; as I have been for the last several years. Last night, for the first time, I managed 3 miles in less than 13 minutes a mile. I know, I know, not exactly Olympic standard; but considering that when I first started I couldn’t run 30 yards without feeling as though Death had decided sit on my chest while he had a smoke, it made me feel pretty good.

I did, though, wake up at 3 this morning due to a set of loudly-complaining back muscles who wanted to let me know that they didn’t appreciate this nonsense, thank you very much.

The Other Half comforted me with the assurance that this is because they are getting stronger. Somewhat grumpish from lack of sleep, I tried to feel it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

But it did strike me that this isn’t dissimilar to getting better at writing. It’s a long process. Small amounts on a regular basis work well, and are less likely to burn you out; after all, if you’d never run in your life and attempted a marathon it would be pretty agonizing and almost certainly doomed to failure.

And yes, sometimes you seem to be getting nowhere. You’re slower than you were last time. Everything aches. You get rejected. The piece you’re working on goes into a slump. Sometimes you don’t want to go running – it’s horrible weather, you’re tired. Sometimes you don’t want to get up early, or sit down after a hard day at work, and hit the wordage.

But eventually, if you keep at it, you start to see some results. You get faster. Your technique improves. Other people notice the difference. You start to sell your writing – or, you start to feel like a runner, not just a jogger. A writer, not just a hobbyist.

Aching muscles and all, it is worth it.

(Oh, and on a completely different note, in response to the drive-by gentleman who said I was ‘just looking for attention’… Sir hasn’t been taking his irony pills, has Sir?)

Too much fun

I’m having fun with the new book. This, of course, is worrying.

This will be the third in the Babylon Steel series; the characters are sparring enjoyably, cool stuff is happening, and I’m pretty much hanging on with both hands going ‘whee!” This is making me rampantly insecure for two reasons. Three reasons. Four…I’ll come in again.

Firstly, I am by nature a worrier. I worry about bills, illness, climate change, getting old. I worry about whether every cool individual shop and pub in existence is being eaten up by boring-pants monolithic chains and one day every high street in the world will look exactly the same and I’ll get lost even more easily than I do now. I worry about what that strange sticky stuff is on top of the cupboard and maybe something in the roof is leaking or maybe there’s a dead alien in the attic and its evil fluid of doom is infiltrating the house and I’ll wake up with tentacles and worse, it will totally trash the value of the house…you know. The sort of stuff anyone worries about.

Secondly, the minute I realise I am having fun and the book is actually going pretty well, it is inevitable that the Gods of Writing are going to sit on my head and afflict me with boils, or worse, a character I didn’t want who insists on doing the wrong thing or a scene that simply doesn’t want to get written, then, when I’ve done it six times, still refuses to work and then has to be cut.

Thirdly, and this is the kicker; am I having too much fun?

Hear me out. I do believe that you should have fun when you’re writing; that passion drives creation, and that if you don’t care about what you’re doing, or are just slogging through it, it shows. On the other hand, if you are simply enjoying yourself, and not thinking about the reader…will you end up appealing only to yourself?

There are authors I’ve gone off – or not read past the first few pages – because their books seemed too self-indulgent. This can take a number of forms; having fun at the expense of the reader, beating the reader over the head with their opinions on stuff I don’t care about and even if I did I should be hearing what your character thinks, not you, constantly referring back to the author’s own work, or just going off on a wild ride to places they wanted to visit, without bothering about whether I might prefer to go where I was led to expect I’d be going and, you know, had packed for.

And yet, rampant hypocrite that I am, I can see that I might want to do the same things, and probably have. And will. So what is the solution? Is there one?

Maybe I should just enjoy myself, and I can start angsting over it all in the rewrite. After all, it’s not as though I don’t have plenty of other things on my mind.

Oh, and the fourth reason? You know, I can’t remember. That’s something else to worry about.