I am the Sealord of Pendor, oaf, and I will have the gold my fathers won

Image via Unsplash.com

Idly thinking about names and fantasy, specifically modern fantasy, and how they are chosen. Each era – by nature of simply being human – imagines that it is the most progressive, the most evolved, and the SFF scene is no exception. I find myself wondering if that’s really the case, or if we simply move with a shifting set of tastes and call that progress?

There’s a bit of a fashion at the moment for verisimilitude in medieval combat – or boasting of it, at least – and standing almost as counterpoint, modernisation of language. The line is still firmly drawn at “okay”, thanks to the very well known and peculiar etymology of the word, but the percussive “fuck” is simply too useful for us to cast it off. There was a wonderful tweet about Orcs in the film version of LOTR saying “menu”, implying Orcs have restaurants, but generally speaking modern idiom is given a pass on the basis that Orcish idiom would be impenetrable to humans and thus we are given a suitable translation.

Names in modern fantasy are one of the things I find fascinating. Mostly because I suck at thinking up names, and therefore every time I crack open someone else’s book it’s an exercise in how did they do this? but also because I am really interested in how they shape the world and the characters.

Proper Nouns – these crop up a lot, and it’s easy to understand why: they are resonant and immediate, and because of this they are a powerful tool for worldbuilding. It’s almost impossible for a reader to not see a place like The Iron Market or Gallows Hill in their minds eye the moment they read it, and we can move on to the action. Similarly, there’s no point in calling the character who binds himself in magical links to keep his power in check Gary Smith: you call him Chains and are saved the effort of having to remind the reader of them every other sentence. A great recent example, Noon in The Ninth Rain is called Fell-Noon, the prefix a constant reminder of her destructive capacity and an intimation of evil that is set in the reader’s mind and flipped to great effect when she eats a tomato, something mundane that is transformed into a moment of vulnerability and humanity.   

Fantasy Names – still a staple of the genre (I recall bouncing *hard* off the word grolim in Eddings when I was a teen and going back to Tom Clancy for a few years), these form the opposite function to the Proper Noun. They are unlinked linguistically – the roots of words are unimportant, as long as the proto-languages that birthed them are close enough to one another – and they sound familiar without being recognisable. It’s likely you will know or have met a Ryan; Ryhalt, however, is a cipher. Free from all of your previous experience, the ideal fantasy gibberish name is both unique and memorable, turning the reader into a newly hatched duckling ready to imprint upon the character: heroic, but not so heroic as to be beyond the reader’s daydream reach; flawed, but not so broken as to make them a true villain.

Kingdom’s Fall, and self-promotion.

When you create anything yourself and put it online, you have the option to simply leave it, and see what happens, or you can promote it. And…well…self promotion is something of a challenge to the British. We tend to face it like this:

Bravely ran away, away...

Really, I hate doing it. I’m proud of the things I’ve made, and yet telling people about them goes against every instinct that has been drilled into me about being polite, letting people go first, not making a big fuss: the triumvirate of British thinking. It goes against the grain of my general feeling that social media should be a place to connect and less to advertise.

HZGVDn7So British.

But it’s something I need to get a handle on. I don’t expect Kingdom’s Fall to do immediate, earth-shattering, fantastic business. That’s ridiculous. It has done quite well on Wattpad – far better than I expected – and yet it hasn’t seen the kind of traffic that makes people sit up and notice it. It’s still a good book. I still want to tell the story that I started when I made it, to have that world unfold around the characters as every decision comes back round and shows them how much bigger everything is.

As it stands, it might do okay as a loss leader onto the second and third book. Which…is where we run into a problem. Books two and three aren’t written yet. I was very busy having surgery, and recovering from surgery, and becoming a dad, so all I managed to do was to write two other books.* So I have this small audience, I have this book, and I have to somehow maintain their attention until book 2 is done.

Which I think I have the solution to. A lot of Kingdom’s Fall didn’t make it to the page. A lot of the sequels doesn’t really fit into the shape of the book. There is an excess of stuff. So what I’ve been doing is turning it into a series of short stories, each about 2000 words long, and I’ll be posting them up on Wattpad. Some will feature the main characters; some will feature new characters; and some will just serve to add some more texture to the world. And, by the time I have exhausted them in 2017, I should have a draft of book 2 to work with (at least, that’s the idea).

This is your expression right now:


And so that’s why you’ll keep seeing the Kingdom’s Fall cover on my feeds, in spite of the fact the novel is done and I am so very, very British. Because I’m trying to keep it alive, and to overcome my own hesitations about it, I’m giving something away with it.

I really hope you enjoy it.

Kingdom’s Fall is now available on Kindle

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01AX849PK

US: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01AX849PK

All of the Kingdom’s Fall short stories will be appearing on Wattpad through 2016.


*One of which didn’t sell because Weird Western, it turns out, isn’t a real “debut” genre. But you never know. If there’s someone out there looking for a Weird Western that follows a teenage girl genius, a trans opera singer, and a mercenary gunslinger as they flee East from the girl’s mother and her empire built on mad, radioactive** science then…drop them my name, you hear?

**and genuine. It might not have happened in the order and places that it does in the book, but all the science is stone cold 19th Century REAL.***

***I still want this book to sell. I love it so much.


NaNoWriMo 2015

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

I have a lot of love for NaNoWriMo. It’s enthusiastic, encouraging, inclusive, and – most wonderfully of all – embraces even a failed attempt as having value. Also, it was how I met up with the York NaNo group, who are genuinely very lovely and were great company while I lived in Yorkshire (and continue to be through the magic of the internet).

So this year I’m going to fail NaNoWriMo.

I’m not even mad about it. Previous winning attempts at 50k have been me buckling down on a WIP and just *getting it done*, because there was nothing between me and the end of the novel other than getting my arse in the chair and just doing it.

This year? I had a title – The Raven and the Red God – and a rough idea of what I wanted to write about, and…that was really about it. I don’t know what it is about my head this time, but I actually needed to start writing before I could decide what I wanted. And what I wrote? Wasn’t exactly what I wanted. It was too generically fantasy, too serious in its tone. I liked the beats I was laying down, but everything else failed to fit.

So I stopped writing there, before I went any further. Things had to change.

First, names. The names were just whatever came into my head, a mix of Scots and Scandinavian names. I went hunting for sources and came up with a better list of possibilities. A few careful find and replace commands later (yes, yes, find and replace can be a problem but under 20k? It’s easy to check them all) and I felt much better about how the names matched their characters.

Then, characters. It was a bit thin on the ground with people – essentially turning into a two-hander. I sat and brainstormed some scenes and came up with a new roster of people to add, and how they would be introduced.

Then, the world. I wanted a highland setting, and a little less civilised than most fantasy. I imagined a world a little closer to an ice age, and people who had just started to settle after generations of nomadic movement. I looked at Pictish and Dalriadic settlements, the tribes of Bhutan and Yunnan, their clothes and buildings, their rituals and habits. I started peeling away the standard trappings of a pseudo medieval fantasy world and started down a different path. Some of it will remain – the common language of fantasy writing demands some touchstones, if only so readers can orient themselves – but largely this will be a different world.

Folklore. I’ve always treated magic with a fairly light touch. Here, I decided to take things in the opposite direction, and really go all out with the magic that fills and shapes the world. The characters might not understand how it works, but they know they are living in a universe of strange and often terrible things.

So, with the end of November approaching, I am nowhere near 50,000 words, but I am much happier about what I am writing. Which is more than enough for me to be happy with.


On the reading and not-reading of books.

Culture! Have some Auguste Cain!

This week’s XKCD What If? is the excellent – if somewhat difficult to answer – “At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?” It’s a great question, and the answer, despite the necessity of being an estimate, is fascinating.

This got me thinking about the books I read, and the books I have read. The other thing that’s been turning in my head was the reaction I sometimes get – usually online, or at cons – when I mention that I haven’t read a particular book: “how have you not read it?

The answer is, of course, with an unsurprising amount of ease. There are a LOT of books out there! I get that everyone has their favourite books, but really? I have, I will admit, avoided books out of sheer bloody-minded spite because someone has been so desperately adamant that I simply have not lived because I haven’t read them.

I came pretty late to science fiction and fantasy. I actually remember attempting the first book of the Belgariad as a teen and shutting the book at the first use of the word “grolim”. I grew up in a town whose tiny library was stocked with Enid Blyton (Island of Adventure, yo), R.L. Stine in the children’s section, and very little else. I remember bugging the living hell out of the librarian for access to the “grown up” books, and her giving in with a world-weary sigh. I read Tom Clancy, Wilbur Smith, Stephen King: one of the first things I wrote (outside of the exercise books that I chain-filled in English class) was a re-write of scenes from The Dark Half, great, curving sweeps of longhand on unlined paper that were crammed into a blue folder. I showed it to a curious teacher and almost got a phone call home for my trouble (it included a home invasion scene that saw the homeowner being choked to death with expanding foam filler poured down their throat*).

I came to SF/F the long way round. I lived my teens through Westerns, techno thrillers, and the uniquely awful gun fantasy that was the post-Vietnam world of pulp fiction. Books like Point of Impact, Stephen Hunter’s lone gunman betrayed by the country he served. I missed cyberpunk. I missed Wheel of Time, pretty much all of Gemmell (playing WoW, someone made a reference to Druss and then refused to believe I didn’t know who that was), and gave up on Terry Goodkind at the first book. It wasn’t until I picked up Feersum Endjinn (I recall checking it out along with Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires, the novel Lifeforce was based on) and Assassin’s Apprentice that I started to think, hey, I like this stuff a lot.

It feels strange to me when people say I have to read something, or that I am somehow lesser for not having read it until now. It’s nice to have the odd recommendation now and again, but I baulk at the sentiment that I have to read something.  Read what you like! You’ll find the stories you love, no matter what path you take.


*this scene appeared in an episode of CSI once, and I did a running circuit of the living room yelling, “hey! I wrote that!”, much to the consternation of my other half.

Things change. People change, hairstyles change, interest rates…fluctuate.

Again, bonus internet points if you can identify the movie I’m quoting.

So Worldcon was on this past weekend, and thus the fields of genre discussion have been a little touchy this week. It’s nice to see that the majority of discussion exemplifies the oft-repeated advice for authors and other industry professionals to try and keep their tempers in check and not say anything online that they wouldn’t say to someone in a pub. Even if we all disagree, at least we can get along.

Well, most of us can. On the upside, you can gauge quite well who is likely to give you the time of day if you talk to them in the bar at a con and who isn’t based on their online conduct.* Someone who goes from zero to explosively insulting in three tweets flat is probably one to avoid.

Anyway. Tom Pollock (author of The City’s Son and The Glass Republic, available in all good stores now, buy them, seriously, what are you waiting for) wrote a ‘blog post last night about world building. It got me thinking about the stuff I have been writing and am planning to write in the future. More specifically, it got me thinking about magic.

What I’ve been writing of late is fantasy, but there’s no magic in any of it. I’ve been worrying about that because one of the big hallmarks of fantasy is that it’s a space where magic can exist, and as a fantasy writer it feels like I have a duty to put magic in.

The thing is, for these projects, I don’t particularly want to. I think I can achieve pantsless crazy  (good term) and create something fun and satisfying without it.

For example, Gunslinger Symphony is an alternate-earth western. There’s no magic, but what I have done is transpose almost all of the scientific development of the 19th (and early 20th) century to post-Civil War America. Mass nostalgia for the boundless energy of the gold rush combined with some leaps in scientific discovery have created a second rush, but instead of gold the commodity is ideas.

Of course the first thing people say when I tell them this is, “oh, steampunk,” but I’m loathe to apply the label because although steam power certainly exists, it’s not the driving force. Everything that’s in the book has existed, in one form or another, in the real world – I’ve just switched it all around.

Okay. Okay. Maybe I need to give you an example. Gregor Mendel was a monk and a pioneering geneticist who very famously crossed pea plants. He also worked with bees, and spent a lot of time trying to breed bees that produced especially delicious honey. The latter plan didn’t go so well, though, as he ended up breeding bees that made tasty honey, but were also incredibly aggressive.

So, in Gunslinger…, Mendel ends up accidentally killing the abbot at St Thomas’s and ends up in exile in the US, still trying to breed the perfect bee.

Long story short, KILLER BEES.

Note: this is not actually Gregor Mendel.

Gregor Mendel, beekeeper and ninja

Similarly, the draft of The Spirit House (terrible placeholder title, I know, but it has the BEST first line**) I pulled out a few weeks back is fantasy, but it isn’t terribly magical. It’s full of spiritualism and madness and dances along the line between the rational and the supernatural. It’s not about magic being real or not, but more about how the world is shaped by belief.

I guess my point is that it has taken me a long time to get used to the idea that fantasy doesn’t necessarily need to have magic. All it needs is to be is fun.


*Caveat: talk to them in a “normal human interaction” way. When I was at Eastercon a guy came up to me in the bar and asked who my agent was. No “hi”, no introduction, just “you have an agent who is it tell me.” I told him (because it was a very easy way to get rid of him) but I made sure to add, if you do submit, please don’t do it like you’ve just approached me. I felt embarrassed for him, really. He just laughed and said “it’s okay, I’ll tell her you recommended me.” EPIC CRINGE.

**which I will probably edit out.

Alright, Mr DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.

So the big publishing news of this week has been the announcement from Harper Voyager that they are going to open their doors – for two weeks only – to direct submissions. The current version of the FAQ is here.

Great news for aspiring authors like myself? Great news indeed. It’s always nice to see another door opening. That’s not to say that other doors aren’t still available – Gollancz were quick to point out on Twitter that they read direct submissions and always have – and I think it would be remiss of anyone considering the open door not to ponder for a moment on whether they are ready.

I was browsing a few forum threads about this, and there’s a real sensation of panic about it. Which of my projects should I do? Will it be ready in time? What about a synopsis? Blurb? What genre am I really?

Personally, I don’t think panic should be the trigger response. If your MS is ready, you should feel confident. Give your pitch and your synopsis a quick look-over, a polish if needs be, and relax until the two-week window opens. Work on something else in the meantime.

If your work is almost ready, as in you think you could have it ready by next Friday* ready, then be just as confident as the above. Get to work and get it done for the deadline, and feel proud that your MS is going out the door all shiny and good to go.

If your work isn’t quite there yet but you think you could be close if you don’t sleep until the 15th of October, I’m going to offer up a suggestion. Not as a professional. Not as an expert. As one of you. As someone who is right there with you.

Maybe, if it’s not done yet, you should take a pass.

OK. Let’s think about this. I know that opportunities do not roll round every day. There is a school of aspirational thought that says if you see a chance, you should take it. Let me offer a corollary to that. In order to take the chances, you need to set yourself up to succeed when they come. You need to work your ass off so that when the chances comes, you’re in the best possible position to make them pay off.

As an example, in January I started putting together a fantasy novel. On the 25th of January, Angry Robot announce their Open Door for April. A whole month during which a successful, popular, and rapidly growing publisher are open to submissions. On top of that, they are specifically looking for Epic Fantasy. In spite of the sudden quickening of my tiny writer heart, I told myself that I was going to pass on the Open Door. Sure, I could get a draft finished by the end of April, but it would be one hammered out in the spaces between work and life, and considering work commitments had crushed my free time for the previous ten months I knew that if I rushed it, the work would not meet my own standards, let alone that of a publisher.

I finished the novel in July. It’s been through beta readers, some major revisions in part (including an entire rework of the end). While I’ve been working on it I’ve planned a follow up novel and started writing a second, unrelated tale. I’ve also contributed two stories to anthologies. I’ve had an enormous amount of fun doing all of it, which is how I reckon it should be.

And, to put the icing on the cake, another door is opening.

Wow. In writing all that, I’ve discovered what I was actually trying to say is this:



*Work-Time Dilation. If you think you can have it done in a week, that usually means two. I’m quadrupling it to the whole month in this case because this is important, right? You want to get it right, right?

A look back at February’s writing.

At the start of the month I literally ran out of excuses not to write. No-one wanted to play Starcraft 2 or HoN, there weren’t any movies out that I desperately wanted to see, and we had pretty much caught up on all of our tv box sets over the winter. After SFX, Lisa laid down the law regarding my terrible, indeed near-absolute, lack of progress since NaNoWriMo.

“I’m going to fit you with a shock collar,” she said. “If you stop writing, I’m going to zap your ass.”

I tried to point out that wasn’t normally where you’d fit a shock collar, but she was adamant. And, once we’d had a quick chorus of “Stand and Deliver”, I fired up Scrivener and got to work.

How has it gone so far?

So, not bad really. 1100 words a day (on average) is definitely better than zero.

Is any of it any good, though? Hard to say. It’s first draft stuff and I’ve deliberately avoided going back to fix a few sentences that don’t quite adhere to the rules of grammar (I know what I meant, I’ll fix them later), which has given Lisa some laughs when she’s read them. Her new hobby is running round the house quoting my idiosyncratic errors in a very loud voice. You’ve never regretted sharing your work more than when your significant other yomps through the kitchen cheerfully yelling “THERE WAS CLANK!” for the neighbours to hear.

I’ve also not quite thought of a title yet. I have a title, but a quick Google confirms that it – and variants of it – are fairly common and therefore I need to think of something else. It’s okay, though, I still have about 75,000 words (and edits thereof) to think of one.

Anyway. Back to writing.

Just for fun.

Over at a writing forum I frequent, they have started running a monthly writing competition, with the restrictions of theme and a 75 word limit (not including title) for all submissions.

I decided that the best way to do things for it would be to not take it too seriously, and treat the task as a warmup exercise.

Here’s my entry for this month’s theme of transformation.

Murdered every night but one

He hated the North, until he met her.
Wild, brash, beautiful; the flower that blossoms in winter.
A marriage of convenience called him home.
“It won’t always be like this,” he said. “Not when I am King.”

When he was King the North sensed weakness.
They raised a flag, and prepared for war.
He never saw her again.

He saw her daughter, though, laid under a blade.
He had sons to protect.