Spotlight on Making Time to Write with Anne Lyle and Elspeth Cooper

When the holiday jollies are long gone and the weather is ceasing to be an excuse for binge-watching Buffy, thoughts turn to finally making good on those New Year resolutions. Perhaps this is the year you promised yourself you would write that fantasy novel that’s been simmering away in the dark corners of your brain, or dust off the old sci fi you started in college.

And then reality sets in and you hit the mother of all snags. Just when are you supposed to write this shiny beautiful thing of words and ink? You have a full time job; the kids are small and need constant attention; the chronic migraines are making your life a hell on earth; you’ve taken on way too many commitments to fit in writing time; the demands are incessant and never, ever seem to stop. The shiny beautiful thing starts to fade into the distance and lose its sparkle. “Someday”, you tell yourself. “Some other time.”

But there is no perfect golden time to write that novel. Very few authors have the luxury of endless free hours in which to write. But they carve out their moments. They find a way. I’ve invited two fantastic authors to tell us a little about juggling time and making it all fit in, somewhere, somehow.

Anne Lyle is the author of the Night’s Masque trilogy (Angry Robot), the story of swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn. The Alchemist of Souls, The Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies lead us in and out of the intrigues of 16th century politics and the international affairs involving the mysterious skraylings from the New World. Anne’s exciting prose is a lot of sword-swishing fun, and paints a great picture of life during the Elizabethan period.

Epic fantasy fans will find Elspeth Cooper’s The Wild Hunt quartet (Gollancz/Tor) an absolute treat. The first three novels, Songs of the Earth, Trinity Rising, and The Raven’s Shadow, tell a tale of magic woven deep into the world around us, and those caught in its song: Gair, an orphan brought up by the Church to be a Knight, and Teia, a clanswoman fighting against both her own fate and that of the entire land.

Juliana: Welcome Anne and Elspeth. Now, a lot of people never even begin writing in the first place because they think they can’t find time. Could you start by telling us about when you first began writing? What made you decide it was a good moment for it?

Elspeth: I’ve always maintained that if you really want to write, you will find the time, because you can’t not write. But that’s just the way it happened for me; others’ mileage will vary, of course.

I was still at school when I started writing stories. It began as the kind of ‘What I Did on My Holidays’ homework that ends up five or six times longer than that of the rest of the class, and is still not finished come Monday morning. By 14, I was tackling novel-length fiction, and the die was well and truly cast. Epic fantasy, here I come!

But I have to say, there was no conscious decision to start writing. As a teenager, I wasn’t anything like self-aware enough to know what I was doing. It was more a case of stories leaking out of me, and having to put them somewhere.

Anne: I started writing back in my teens, but like many people I didn’t take it all that seriously – I just had a vague dream of being published one day – and then of course career and family got in the way. In 2002 a major milestone birthday was looming and I realised I was still no further forward with my dream than I had been as a kid, and I knew I would still be in the same position a decade later if I didn’t do something about it. Right there and then I vowed I would get a novel written and published before the ten years was up. Technically I missed that deadline by two weeks, but I did have the review copies a couple of months before that, so I’m counting it as a win. 

Juliana: What are currently the biggest hurdles you face in order to write? 

Elspeth: There isn’t one big one, so much as a collection of little inconveniences that mount up and eat away at the days. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, but it took another five years before I could give up the day job. So I should have all day to write, right? Uh, not really. A big part of this disease is fatigue, which can manifest itself as muscle weakness, cognitive issues/brain fog, and problems with balance and stamina. It’s also a fluctuating condition, so some days I can get a full five or six hours at the keyboard, and on others I’m lucky to be able to make myself a cup of tea without hurting myself. It’s frustrating!

Anne: For me, it’s my day-job. I’m a web developer on a bioinformatics resource used by scientists around the world, and whilst that’s very rewarding it also demands a lot of mental energy and concentration. It’s far too tempting to spend my spare time doing something less demanding than wrangling a 150,000-word manuscript! 

Juliana: What’s an average week like for you, as a writer? 

Anne: My week varies hugely depending on where I am in a project – I’m somewhat of a binge writer, so I’m generally more productive if I power through a draft and then take a break for a week or two to recharge my batteries. That said, mornings and weekends are my usual time for writing; I’m lucky enough to have a study of my own where I can shut myself away, and no small children demanding attention. The cats, however, are a different matter… 

Elspeth: As you can probably guess from the last answer, it tends to vary. I’m usually up at about 8am, ease myself into the day with a bit of social media, then work until my husband comes home. We have dinner and a bit of family time, then I put in another couple of hours before clocking off. If things are going really well, I might get another hour or so on the laptop in bed, whilst hubby gets his beauty sleep.

Some days can be really productive; others feel more like digging coal with a teaspoon. With MS, there’s no such thing as “working faster” or “trying harder” because it’s not laziness or distractions that I have to overcome. I simply cannot do it. Consequently, I don’t work to word-count or page-count targets, because it’s too stressful when I don’t hit them. I’ve learned to be happy with just feeling I’ve achieved something, whether that’s 50 words or five pages of editing.

Juliana: Could you share some tips with those who are struggling to fit writing time into their lives? 

Anne: Basically you just have to suck it up and do it. Chuck Palahniuk famously wrote “Fight Club” in 15-minute stints during his breaks at work. If you can’t find a few minutes here and there during the day, you need to either get up earlier or go to bed later (depending on whether you’re a lark or an owl). If you want it badly enough, you _will_ find time.

Also, don’t wait for the muse to strike. Get out your notebook or laptop or phone or whatever, and focus on getting something – anything – on the page, no matter how clunky or dull it reads; you can always polish it later, once you have the whole story worked out. The more you write, the easier it becomes to slip into the zone, and the better your writing will be. 

Elspeth: The best thing I’ve found is to carry around a notebook and pen, or even just a note-taking app on your phone, and use it to record your ideas. On the bus, in the bath, in your lunch-break at work. It mounts up. I wrote a good chunk of my first book on a Psion Series 3a organizer on the train to work (that’ll tell you how old I am!).

Another good tip is to carve out a block of time for yourself and make it absolutely sacrosanct: this is your writing time, and nothing short of the end of the world as we know it should interrupt it. Every day is best, once a week if you have to, but try to make it a routine. You will quickly find yourself looking forward to it.

And don’t forget thinking time! I find showering, washing the dishes or weeding the garden can be particularly productive. My story-brain is always processing, especially whilst my hands are busy with something boring or repetitive. 

Juliana: What’s the strangest place or oddest snatched moment you’ve used for writing? 

Elspeth: The strangest was in the ladies’ loo at my old job. No lie – that scribbled idea led to a pivotal scene in my first book! 

Anne: I’m not sure I think of anywhere as a strange place to write – I’ve become so used to always having a notebook or my phone with me, so I can jot down ideas as and when they come to me. For example I wrote the entire first draft of my first published short story on the way to work one day, using my iPhone. It was only 400-odd words, so I had to flesh it out later, but that’s usually the way I work anyway. 

Juliana: With all your dedication to carving out writing time, are there any upcoming projects you can share with us? 

Elspeth: I am hip-deep in finishing my four-book Wild Hunt series at the moment, so my future projects are no more than a twinkle in my eye. However, I have plans for a standalone novel in the Wild Hunt universe that features a down-on-his-luck gentleman assassin and a mark who’s not quite what she seems, and another, slightly more literary thing that I’m calling a ‘historical fantasy road movie’.

Anne: I’m still working on the first book of a new fantasy series, this time set in a wholly invented world, though it borrows from our history. I guess you’d call it clockpunk, since the setting is pre-industrial and somewhat 17th-18th century in flavour. It’s a bit different from my previous series in that there’s not much romance and swordplay, but there’s plenty of action and intrigue and some really cool stuff that draws on my science background but with a fantasy twist.

It takes me a long time to get into a new series, since I don’t know the characters’ motivations and personalities, so I have no clue when it will be finished (or published). Before another decade has passed, though – I think I can promise that much! 

Juliana: Besides all those stolen moments for writing, writers also need to find time to read! What’s on your current to-read pile? 

Anne: I’ve just finished “Of Noble Family” by Mary Robinette Kowal, which is an excellent conclusion to her Regency fantasy series – so gripping, in fact, I read the whole thing in a couple of days. Next up is either “Labyrinth of Flame” by Courtney Schafer or “Shards of Time” by Lynn Flewelling, depending on whether I fancy ereader or dead trees. The latter is also an end-of-series novel, and the former is the third in what I think is a trilogy, so a lot of fictional goodbyes coming up! I also need to buy a copy of “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen” by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is the latest (and possibly last) in her Vorkosigan series. 

Elspeth: I have a dreadful habit of buying books faster than I can read them, and then I can’t decide what to read next because there’s always something new. That said, I’m eagerly awaiting THE SILVER TIDE, the conclusion to Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy, so that’s probably first up. After that, I think I’m going to dive into Courtney Schafer’s THE WHITEFIRE CROSSING, which has been waiting far too long. 

Juliana: A big thank you to Elspeth and Anne for sharing a little of what it takes to get those words down. So there you go, folks: always carry a notebook with you…and maybe leave one in the bathroom just in case!

Find book information, interviews, and blog posts at Elspeth Cooper’s website, www.elspethcooper.com. Elspeth tweets as @ElspethCooper and she has an author page on Facebook.

Check out Anne Lyle’s website – www.annelyle.com – for further information on her work, as well as blog posts on writing and technology. You can also find Anne on Twitter @AnneLyle.

 

 

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out January’s Spotlight on SFF Gatherings with Alex Davis, Joanne Hall, and Steven Poore. Next up in March: Spotlight on Writing Horror.

Oh, Nuts! Where do I begin?

I had a blog post planned to kick off the New Year. It was going to be all about beginnings. I had several books lined up to take a look at how the authors began their stories, but then I had houseguests staying and the blog post kept being put off, and off, and off…

And then, bang in the middle of all the delicious chaos of houseguest-landia, I look out of my window and see this:

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The Grey Council convenes.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe they’re discussing emergency winter prep. Maybe they’re hatching a nefarious plan to break into my house and steal ALL the birdseed. Or maybe they’re just trying to keep their furry hindquarters warm, and the floor is made of lava, so they’ve devised a ‘death’ game where they have to shoot each other off the tree trunks with nut-powered magic and in the end there can BE ONLY ONE!

Or perhaps it was just a wonderful serendipitous moment that I just happened to capture. But it’s fun to imagine the stories behind the shot, and it sure entertained a bunch of us on Facebook that day.

And more: there, in that absolutely random photograph, is a beginning. Is it one I’ll ever use? Probably not; I don’t usually write about tiny, furry battle mages. But it was a little slice of life that got me thinking for a while and, really, that’s all that a beginning is. Something that sticks in your mind and keeps on growing until it’s so big and full of awesome that you just have to sit down and write and see where the story takes you.

That weird dream you had that you can’t quite forget? A beginning. The oddly shaped tree you pass every day on the way to work? A beginning. Those comments you overheard in the coffee shop that day? Bam! A beginning.

Because the true beginning isn’t the much-edited and highly polished first page of the novel you love. Trust me, that thing’s probably been rewritten a gajillion times to look that sleek and wonderful. No, the true beginning is that image or concept that makes you want to spend hours slaving over a keyboard in the first place. The primordial spark of life, the moment you stop in your tracks in the middle of the grocery store and go, “Oh!” while your heart beats just that little bit faster, and your eyes get that gleam that anyone who knows you will recognize as the ‘forget me for the next few months’ look.

So here’s to a new year and to many, many new beginnings. And if the well runs dry, you can always have my furry battle mages.

You’re welcome.

Spotlight on SFF Editing with Teresa Edgerton and Richard Shealy

So you’ve finally finished that shiny first draft of your novel. Or maybe it’s not your first draft, but your tenth, and you’ve already submitted it to several places and the rejections are piling up. Perhaps you have no intention of submitting it anywhere, but have chosen to self-publish instead. Whatever your reasons, there comes a point in the process where beta readers and peer critiques can only get you so much further. And eventually you start listening to the whispers that say, “Get thee to an editor.”

There are many different facets to a novel’s post-production, and editing is a crucial step toward publication. Two important sides of this particular coin are developmental editing, which handles the wider plot issues such as ideas, story flow, pacing, characters, and other ‘big-picture’ aspects; and copyediting, which takes the micro rather than the macro view, and will not only check your spelling and punctuation but comb the details for inconsistencies. If you are traditionally published your publishing house will handle all this for you. If you are going it alone, you’ll be in charge of deciding who gets to do these things and how much outside help to bring in.

Online, I frequently see people asking about editing, and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it entails. So I’ve invited two guests to explain a little more about this rather mysterious and often underappreciated side of the writing process.

In the developmental corner, fantasy author and freelance editor Teresa Edgerton is here to share her expertise. She has nine novels published under her own name, and two more under the pen name Madeline Howard. These include The Rune of Unmaking duology (Harper Collins, 2004-2007) and the Mask & Dagger duology (Ace, 1991 and revised edition by Tickety Boo Press, 2014-2015). Teresa has taught numerous workshops and writing classes, and has worked as a developmental editor for many years. Currently she juggles her freelance work with her own writing, and has just accepted a third role, as editor for a brand new speculative romance imprint, Venus Ascending at Tickety Boo Press.

In the copyeditor’s corner is Science Fiction and Fantasy specialist Richard Shealy. With dozens and dozens of books under his belt, Richard has worked with many top present-day SFF authors including Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, Aidan Moher, and Laura Anne Gilman. After doctoral work in linguistics, Richard taught French and English and worked for years as a translator before dipping his toe into editorial work. Now he works both for established publishing houses, such as Tor and Hachette, and for independent authors, editing a variety of genres although his main focus tends to be speculative fiction.

Juliana: Welcome Teresa and Richard. Could you start by sharing what led you to begin working with editing? And why specialize in speculative fiction?

Richard: I’ve been a lifelong reader of SF/F; I quite literally cannot recall a time when I did not read it. I’ve also been an equally longtime word nerd; it’s just a mindset where I absorb and analyze linguistic aspects subconsciously, hence the eventual realization that I liked linguistics enough to do grad work in it. As a result, I’ve always had a bit of a twitchy reaction when seeing glaring multiple errors in a published genre book, so when it finally came to my conscious attention that there was a profession where 1) I could read SF/F all day, 2) point out the warts on other people’s babies and 3) get paid for those, I couldn’t sign up fast enough!

Teresa: Editing is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I can’t remember exactly when and why I decided it was finally time to make the leap into freelance editing.

I started editing for Tickety Boo Press because Gary Compton, the publisher, asked me to, and offered me two manuscripts to work on that I thought would be exciting to do: Jo Zebedee’s space opera, Abendau’s Heir, and Susan Boulton’s Gaslight fantasy, Oracle. Two very different books, but I’d edited all sorts of speculative fiction as a freelancer, so in that way it was what I had been doing all along, and the concepts and particularly the characters intrigued me. Both Jo and Sue were a pleasure to work with.

Then Gary and I thought up Venus Ascending together, an imprint to publish science fiction and fantasy romance, and it was his idea that I would be heading up the imprint as well as acquiring and editing the manuscripts. I am thrilled at the opportunity.

Why speculative fiction? Because it’s what I know, since most of my reading for many years has been fantasy and science fiction, and because it is what I write. I feel that I have more to offer speculative fiction writers than other editors might. I understand the genres and sub-genres, and I’ve educated myself on a lot of things, researched many subjects that are relevant to the fantasy especially and that often come up in the manuscripts I edit.

Juliana: Would you mind giving us a quick breakdown of what your job as an editor involves, from the moment you receive a new manuscript to delivery of completed work?  

Teresa: When working on a manuscript I have two goals: to help the writer make that particular story the best that it can be, and to do so in such a way that it will also help the author to improve his or her writing skills. Part of it is teaching as well as editing.

I do developmental editing, concentrating on the big issues like plot, characterization, style, world-building (which is where some of my research often comes in), pacing. I leave the grammar and punctuation, the word usage and the like to the copy editors.

I read through the manuscript making notes as I go, addressing problems as they come up: an expository lump, an out of character action, a mixed metaphor, and so forth. I used to print up hardcopy and make my notes in pencil, then translate my scribbles into something more coherent as I typed my remarks and suggestions into the manuscript file. Now I save paper and ink by sending the manuscript to my Kindle and reading it that way, highlighting anything that catches my attention and making my pencil notes in a composition book. From there, the process is the same as it used to be. Then I write a separate, in-depth and wide-ranging assessment of the book, covering everything I think is of particular importance to that particular manuscript. I make a lot of suggestions for improving the story, and I explain why I think a change ought to be made. If I can help them to understand why, they are more likely to come up with their own solutions, which is the best possible outcome. I send all that to the author and they can decide how much of it they want to take on board. If the author has questions, I answer them, but I’ve done my best, I have no responsibility for what the writer chooses to do with the manuscript after that.

When editing a manuscript for Tickety Boo Press, I do have a responsibility for the end result, so there may be more than one editing pass, working with the author to find satisfactory solutions — ideally more than satisfactory to us both — to any remaining problems. Because I have a responsibility to the publisher to produce the best possible result, I’d say I am more vigorous in presenting my suggestions, and I hope more persuasive.

With the new imprint, where I will be responsible for choosing the manuscripts as well… we’ll see how that process evolves.

Richard: While this varies from client to client and even project to project, there’s a general workflow that obtains. As a freelancer, I get queries from potential or repeat clients—“Can you do a project of X number of words by Y date?”—and can usually juggle my schedule enough to fit it in somewhere (although, too often, I’m booked solid throughout the entire set of possible dates for the client; this is not said to brag but to bemoan the tragedy of being physically unable to copyedit everything!).

Once I’m able to turn to the project, I start a style sheet (contains general and work/author-specific grammatical/typographic/etc. preferences, a list of characters, places, preferred variant spellings, invented words/phrases and so on—partly as a bit of a cheat sheet for myself to confirm spellings and such while I work but also to provide the client with a definitive list of observations, as they may, when seeing a word/phrase/name out of context, decide that they want to modify it). If I know the author personally, I give them a heads-up before diving in that I may have questions/concerns to bounce off them as I work; this is a huge time-saver for both me and the author in the end, as it keeps unnecessary modifications or stets from being needed. Most authors I’ve encountered are actually quite happy about this, as a short query in a margin comment may not actually raise the question that needs to be raised, and an ongoing dialogue works around that and ends up producing a more-informed copyedit.

During the work itself, it’s fairly simple: read, verify (spellings, fact-checking, internal consistency/continuity, grammatical tendencies and the like), SAVE SAVE SAVE. Just like authors, I live in paranoid fear of a crash that eats everything I’ve done, and nobody gets paid for redoing work! This can be a low-key or terribly intensive step, depending on how familiar I already am with subject matter, terminology, etc. At any rate, once I reach the end, I double-check for certain things (belt and suspenders, thank you very much!), then finalize the style sheet and invoice, create an edit letter (occasionally, there are issues broad enough that they bear making a clear heads-up for the client) and send the whole shebang.

Juliana: What do you find are the most common misconceptions about your work?

Teresa: That my services are very, very expensive. That it matters whether my style as a writer matches theirs in any way. I’m not there to teach them to write like I do, but to write like themselves, consistently, to help them find their own voice if they haven’t already, and encourage them to write with all the power and eloquence that is already inside them. But most writers who come to me have no real expectations, they wait for me to tell them what I do and don’t do. Then they decide if that is what they want. There are a few who have had bad experiences with previous editors who charged them a great deal of money and did practically nothing. Those writers tend to be wary.

Richard: That there are rigid rules for language. Language in general is a messy thing; English takes that standard and wallows in it until utterly filthy. Then add artistic and even poetic (authors who like to appeal to spoken language in their writing make what is simultaneously the most rewarding and most frustrating kind of project!) aspects, and the rules get trampled into the mud by necessity. As a result, much of the copyediting process is a juggling act between perceived/accepted rules and the artistic intent of the author, not to mention trying to predict what the typical reader is going to extract from those. 

Juliana: What is your favorite part of the process? And, conversely, what do you find to be the most difficult aspect of the job? 

Richard: As I said above, the best part of this work is the ability to 1) read SF/F all day, 2) pick nits and 3) get paid for doing both of those! The most difficult part arises from that first point: I got into this racket precisely because I wanted to help make genre work just that little bit better, so there’s a constant level of uncertainty regarding whether I have, in fact, correctly divined the author’s intent on a multitude of items and caught all of the inevitable errors, typos, slip-ups and such. To illustrate this: I was recently praised (publicly!) by a client for catching so many of those, yet what was foremost in my mind even then was the fact that I had not caught all of them. I want to do the best job possible, so the inevitability of missing something still sticks in my craw. And it is inevitable; there is no such thing as a perfect copyediting pass. This still troubles me, probably far more than it should, but there it is.

Teresa: My favorite part is when the author takes one of my suggestions, gives it their own special spin, and comes up with something that surprises and excites us both.

The most difficult aspect is when they think the book is one quick draft away from being publishable when the fact is that they don’t even know all the writing basics yet, and I am the one who has to tell them this as tactfully as possible.

Juliana: I know you’re both actively involved in the SFF world, online (social media, internet forums) and in person (convention and event participation). Do you also read a lot? And how important is genre involvement in your line of work? 

Teresa: I read a lot. Since I am more or less housebound much of the time I have the opportunity to do a lot of reading, and I take advantage of that by devouring dozens of books a year. As for genre involvement, SFF readers, writers, editors, and publishers have always been a community, probably dating from the days when most speculative fiction was published in pulp magazines, first a tight-knit little community, but expanding with the growth of science fiction conventions, and later with the internet. But at every stage it has been a supportive community of generous individuals, happy to share their enthusiasms, their time, and their knowledge. Why wouldn’t I want to be involved? Of course there are occasionally controversies, some of them quite bitter, because people really care about the genre, it’s not just a way of making money, and feelings run high. So far I’ve avoided getting too deep into these controversies, so my experiences have almost all been good.

Richard: Paradoxically, I think I read less now than before I began this work (although that’s the difference between a category 4 hurricane and a category 5). I can copyedit roughly a novel a week, so “me-reading” is necessarily when I’m taking a break or during the evenings and weekends…but I stop the pleasure reading when there’s too much interference (too-similar subgenres, characters, plot or even authorial voice), as I don’t want to risk cross-contamination between the two. As a result, I’ve been known to suspend pleasure reading for a week or two.

As for genre involvement, those are essential to my work. On the most basic level, much of the decision-making in the aforementioned juggling act of writing vs. rules comes from decades of absorption of genre standards, the things that are so essential to genre fiction that the typical genre reader isn’t even consciously aware of them but is nonetheless expecting them. So, reading truly is fundamental…but being involved in the public side of genre is becoming just as fundamental, as it brings to light a number of those aspects. And let’s not forget the pragmatic (even mercenary) side: getting to know the players in genre means 1) I begin to have a better idea of their attitudes, their thought processes and other things that contribute to the on-site decisions made during copyedits and 2) exposure. Think about that latter: when a potential client is looking for a new copyeditor, it pays to have been visible to as many industry people as possible (“Hey, there’s this one guy who seemed not to be too stupid and wasn’t a truly intolerable twit” can get you work, folks!). Still, for me, the biggest personal payoff in being involved is that I’m as immersed as I can be in something I love and improving how well I do my work. That’s something you can’t buy.

Juliana: Following on from the last question, what advice would you give to those just starting a career in editing? 

Richard: Read! And pay attention to what you’re reading! For a copyeditor, it’s obvious that knowing the rules (in fiction publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style reigns supreme) is a (not the) sine qua non of being able to do the job, but knowing when, how and why the author can or even should bend or outright ignore those rules…well, that’s at least just as important, and possibly vastly more so.

And then get out there. Engage with people in the community: authors, naturally, but also editors, publishers, publicists, illustrators and so on. Knowing the field, as I’ve said, is potentially even more useful than knowing the rules in both the execution of your work and possibly getting more of it!

Teresa: Make sure you are prepared. If you don’t have years of critiquing in writer’s groups, haven’t attended workshops, or haven’t had any professional experience in book publishing, then the fact that you were, for instance, an English major in college counts for nothing. Your involvement in writing, one way or another, should have been intensive. And then, if you specialize in specific genres, know those genres very well.

Juliana: Which science fiction and fantasy authors – past or present – would you have loved to work with?

Teresa: With my favorite authors, all I see is the finished result, so I don’t know how much input the editor had, how that writer was to work with. But I suppose I would have loved to work with some of them just because it would have been fun to get to know them, and find out more about how their minds work, what inspires them, by what process that turns into such wonderful stories. So I would say Patricia McKillip, Tanith Lee (I did have the opportunity to do an interview with her a few years ago, and the way stories just seemed to well up out of her was fascinating. I would have liked to learn more), Robin McKinley, Tom Holt because I am intrigued by the books he writes as K. J. Parker.

Richard: Are you kidding? All of them. I’m not joking. I’m still relatively new to this field (I’ve been doing this professionally for under three years), but I’ve already been remarkably fortunate to have worked with an amazing variety of writing and writers (read: people). That aspect is so richly personally rewarding that I want MORE, and I see no reason whatsoever to be terribly picky about where that “more” comes from. I want to COPYEDIT ALL THE THINGS!

Juliana: Thank you both very much for taking part, and for giving us a fascinating peek at what goes on behind the editing curtain. 

Check out Richard Shealy’s website, http://sffcopyediting.com, where he does a much better job of explaining his line of work than I ever could. Richard is active on Twitter, both as @SheckyX and @SFFCopyediting, and you can also find him on Facebook either as shecky.exbetai or SFFCopyediting.

Look for more information on Teresa Edgerton’s work as a writer and editor at http://teresaedgertoneditor.com, as well as lots of great blog posts with writing advice. You can find Teresa on Twitter @TGoblinPrincess, and she is also a regular on the SFF Chronicles forum.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out October’s Spotlight on Cover Art with Aty S. Behsam and Gary Compton. Next up in December: Spotlight on Mythology in Fantasy.

Spotlight on Cover Art with Aty S. Behsam and Gary Compton

With the growing popularity of the self-publishing platform, one question I see asked repeatedly on Internet forums and Facebook groups is: “What do I do about cover art?” A professional book cover is undisputedly one way of getting your story to stand out, and when you’ve spent as much time as I’m sure you have over writing, editing, proofing, and formatting, it seems silly not to pay just as much attention to a sleek and polished presentation. I’ve invited two talented artists to give us an idea of what it takes to produce a great book cover.

Gary Compton from Tickety Boo Press is back on the blog, but this time he’s wearing his art director and graphic designer’s hat. Gary, himself a speculative fiction writer, is deeply involved with his authors’ covers. He has found he enjoys cover design so much that he has opened a sideline business, Tickety Boo Covers, catering to the small press and self-publishing market. Some of his cover art includes Uncommon Purpose and Sunset Over Abendau (both upcoming books by Tickety Boo Press) and Prince of Demons (Tickety Boo Press, 2015).

Iranian writer and artist Aty S. Behsam has been doing cover art, character design, and storyboard for years, working in digital and traditional media with publishers and self-published authors in Iran and other countries. Some of her book cover work includes The Color of Your Lie (Naame Publishing, 2012), Adam Roberts (self-published, 2013), Ancient Technologies (Kraxon, 2013), Malevolence, Tales from beyond the veil (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), Magic, Metal and Steam (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), Space (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), and Sara of Somewhere (self-published, 2015).

Juliana: Welcome Aty and Gary. Could you start by describing your process for creating a book cover? What steps do you follow from beginning to end?

Aty: Thank you!

I look at a cover art from three perspectives: first a writer’s, then an artist’s, and in the end, a reader’s. The idea I get from the book becomes a color theme and a primary sketch which I share with the client and get some feedback. I finish the work and send it back, and apply the final changes if necessary. While making changes, if I’m sure about something, I fight for it. It applies to the artistic view on the work—colors, media, style, etc.—rather than the design. I refuse to tell a writer how their character looks like, but if, for example, the client wants a drastic change in color theme while I’m sure the colors already do a good job attracting readers, I try my best to convince the author/publisher to reconsider making changes, or that we ask a few people for their opinion.

Gary: I usually ask the author to pick a scene from the book and start from there.

Juliana: When working on a book cover, how much involvement do you find you need with the story itself? Do you read the novel (or short stories, for anthologies) first, or is an overview of the subject matter enough? 

Aty: Before I start working on a cover art, I prefer to know a bit about the book, or at least the mood and theme of the content. For nonfiction it’s usually easier, but fiction requires more creativity so I need to feel something about the book to get that primary idea.

Usually a summary or definition of the book or characters works fine.

Gary: I think it is important the cover reflect the story, you can tweak it a little to add drama.

Juliana: What is your preferred artistic medium? (Paper and ink, paint, digital art, photography-based art…) 

Gary: I do digital so I will take parts from pictures we buy rights to and knit them together. After talking to the author, if its Space Opera I will start with the stars, add planets, ships, battle scenes, etc and I do like messing about with colours, hues and opacity. Some of my favorites have been done by just playing with these elements!

Aty: The media and the style I prefer for a cover art depends on each book itself. Mostly I love digital painting, and when doing traditional art for books I love ink, markers, watercolor, and acrylic.

Juliana: What, for you, is the most challenging aspect of creating book cover art?

Gary: Making the author like the work and stop them criticizing so I can have a lie down. 🙂

Aty: The first sketch. It’s hard trying to show others a simple sketch of a finished work you have in mind. So it’s artistically challenging.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what’s your favorite part of the process? 

Aty: Coloring and shading in any media always make me happy, because that’s when the artwork slowly comes to life. It’s fascinating and unbelievably fun.

Gary: Finishing them knowing I have created an individual piece of art that is unique. 

Juliana: What are some of the book or graphic novel covers that made a lingering impression on you as you were growing up? 

Gary: I can’t say any I am afraid, as this is a new thing for me that I just started 15 months ago and if I am honest I have no influences. 

Aty: My absolute favorite is S. Neil Fujita’s iconic cover art for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and George Orwell’s 1984 are my favorites too. A few others are Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Road, Looking for Alaska, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Catcher in the Rye, and Harry Potter with its character design. 

Juliana: Could you share some of the artists that inspire you in your own work? 

Aty: I have a long list, but my current faves are Mahmoud Farshchian (traditonal), Iman Maleki (traditional), Sui Ishida (traditional and digital), Alice X. Zhang (digital), and Nicolien Beerens (traditional).

Gary: Jim Burns who did Tickety Boo Press’ Biblia Longcrofta. It is amazing!

Juliana: Thank you very much for joining us here and sharing some insights on what it takes to create an amazing cover. Looking forward to seeing a lot more original artwork from both of you.

Check out Aty S. Behsam’s website, www.asbehsam.com, and Twitter, @asbehsam, as well as her gallery on Deviant Art, http://aty-s-behsam.deviantart.com.

You can find more information on Gary Compton’s cover designs at Ticketyboopress.co.uk, as well as on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ticketyboocovers).

nash  Magic5l

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out September’s Spotlight on Imagining the Future with Ralph Kern and Stephen Palmer. Next up in November: Spotlight on Editing.

Spotlight on Imagining the Future with Ralph Kern and Stephen Palmer

‘What comes next’ is a big deal if you happen to live on Earth. Trying to predict the future is the basis for pretty much everything on this planet, from governmental policy-making to next year’s spring fashion line. We live in the present, but a good chunk of our energy is invested in tomorrow’s outcome.

So why should fiction be any different? From current trendy post apocalyptic YA, like the Hunger Games or Maze Runner series, to classic dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, readers and writers alike have long shared a fascination for the future.

Granted, it’s probably much easier to imagine the Earth in 2235 than to create a ten-year governmental plan with actual consequences, but it’s still a major challenge for any writer to create a believable future that makes sense, culturally, politically, and socially. I’ve invited two talented authors to join me here and tell us how they pulled it off.

Author of nine novels and countless short stories, Stephen Palmer is an old hand at painting the future. In Muezzinland (Wildside, 2003), for instance, we travel through twenty-second century Africa, and Memory Seed (Orbit, 1997) explores a dying human civilization on Earth. In the recently released thriller Beautiful Intelligence (Infinity Plus Press, 2015), Stephen gives us a frantic, fast-paced futurescape. This is a place where western civilization has all but collapsed, leaving great expanses of Europe and the USA an economic wasteland. In Stephen’s world, where everyone is virtually connected via the nexus, and eyes are everywhere, two scientists and their teams race to be the first to create true artificial intelligence while staying a step ahead of the Japanese corporation hunting them down.

Police officer Ralph Kern released his first novel Endeavor in February 2014. Originally self-published, Endeavor was picked up by Tickety Boo Press and the second volume in his Sleeping Gods series comes out in November. The novel, which is in process of being adapted for the big screen, tells the story of the Starship Endeavor on a daring mission to solve the Fermi Paradox. Due to their manner of star travel, each time the ship and crew return home the planet has moved on and evolved. This means that, in practice, Ralph has had to create multiple future Earths: the 2118 Earth the explorers first depart from, and the different future Earths they encounter each time they return.

Juliana: Thanks for joining me on the blog, Ralph and Stephen. Have you always enjoyed reading and writing science fiction? What is it about stories dealing with humanity’s tomorrow that you find appealing?

Ralph: And thank you for hosting us, Juliana. For as long as I can remember, my genre of choice has been science fiction, especially the harder end. I love the hypothesizing of what will happen in our future. What will society look like? How would we deal with a discovery which changes everything? What will our children and children’s children be like? The possibilities are endless, and so often make for fascinating stories.

Stephen: I discovered SF and Fantasy when I was a teenager, and, having a vivid imagination, it was instantly attractive. These days however I don’t read a vast amount of SF, very little in fact – for me the compelling SFnal factor is wanting to know how everything pans out… a hundred years from now, a thousand, a million, or (if I can manage it) 800 million. I’m one of those people who wants to find out everything to satisfy a thirst for knowledge; it really bugs me that everything after my allotted three score years and ten is going to be beyond my grasp. So I write imagined versions instead. The books that inspire me these days are things like

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth by Don Brownlee and Peter Ward, a book that describes how the planet will change as geological time progresses. Much of what I read these days is about the past and future history of something or other…

Juliana: Continuing from the previous question, is imagining the future something that comes easily to you?

Stephen: Well, I suppose I’d have to answer yes to that. Of course, “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean accurate, or even interesting, as some of my fans would tell you. As somebody though who loves nature and is particularly keen to support Green agendas, imagining the relationship between humanity, and individual people, and the natural environment is very high on my list. A lot of my work has this at its heart, most obviously in novels like Memory Seed and Glass, and Urbis Morpheos. I’m truly interested in how it will all turn out for humanity on planet Earth, and that fascination I think comes out in some of my work.

Ralph: Imagining the future I’d like to see is very easy. Imagining a future which I think is realistic is more difficult. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, there are many things you have to take a best guess on but you know what? That’s the fun part.

Juliana: I imagine one of the difficulties of writing about the future is creating technology that is recognizable enough to be believable, yet won’t become outdated after a few years of publication. How do you tackle this?

Stephen: It depends. In Urbis Morpheos I was writing about people on the Earth a million years hence, so there was no point talking about modems and hypertext transfer protocols. Mind you, that was a deliberately “mysterious” work clothed in hints and metaphors. In Muezzinland I did make a stab at deciding what aspect of computer technology might be around in 2130. Beautiful Intelligence was similar: I tried to extrapolate certain things I see now, such as the shocking influence virtual technology has on young people, and the lack of privacy people have these days (if they allow the internet to strip them of their privacy, that is – I don’t). No author however should expect to get it right, or even want to get it right – it’s more about the characters and the narrative. But I do think imagined veracity is important, and at the very least you have to be consistent. Part of the fun of writing Beautiful Intelligence was contrasting the different approaches of the two teams, then messing up their plans for them in a way consistent with the economic and social milieu.

Ralph: Oh I’m very sure that in 10 or 20 years, my work will seem incredibly dated, after all, think how much culture has changed with the advent of the internet and then smart phones to bring it into the palm of your hand! Who knows what paradigm shift is just over the horizon of a similar scale? I can take a good guess – augmented reality would be what I would put my money on and which forms a part of the Sleeping Gods universe. Still, there are many developments which could happen and I say with conviction there will be new inventions we haven’t even thought of which might revolutionize the world as much or even more so – who would have predicted social media even up to a couple of years before it stormed into modern culture? But as writers who want to create a plausible world, extrapolation of existing technology combined with a healthy dose of imagination helps. I apply the Iphone test. We all can probably envisage what the Iphone 7. 8 or 9 will roughly look like. But, assuming Apple is still around in a hundred years, what about the Iphone 100?

Juliana: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to creating tomorrow’s society, with its own distinct culture and linguistic terms?

Ralph: One has to balance readability against plausibility. Let’s take the augmented reality I mentioned. What would a society look and act like where everyone sees the world through that lens? Or has implants wired into them so they can talk to anyone they want just by thinking at them? Would their communication be in terms we can understand? I’d suggest it would be something on par with how we would describe telepathy. But does that necessarily make for an interesting narrative that a present day reader can truly buy into? It would be difficult for us to sympathize with a character who doesn’t speak but thinks at people. An aside, part of Endeavour involves a scene set in the 16th century. Jennifer, my editor, and I did a lot of research into how people spoke back then. It would be comprehensible… just, but not exactly easily readable by any stretch of the imagination so we had to tone it down a touch. Extrapolate that 400 years into the future and it is likely our descendants would think the same of our speech and writing. I don’t know whether the term has an official name, but I often think fiction set in the future, distant past or a fantasy world has the benefit of the story being told by a narrative interpreter who helps us poor present day readers understand and that’s okay – Especially in the realms of hard SF, readers are quite understanding of that fact.

Stephen: I have to admit, I don’t really think of it in terms of challenges. I just imagine it however I like. Even when I was a naïve and dim writer editing the third version of my debut novel I realized there was no point in worrying about such things. As long as the characters were “right” in their setting, and as long as the plot felt good, I was happy. Still am. A few readers of Beautiful Intelligence have remarked that they don’t believe America and Europe will suffer massive economic depressions around Peak Oil, but I think that will happen, so I included it in the setting. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how accurate people see that as – if they should be reading Beautiful Intelligence in 2092 – what matters is whether or not they enjoy the story. I’m afraid I have a bit of a “Kate Bush tendency” when it comes to my work – I hope my fans follow me wherever I lead. I’m not the kind of author who is known for one genre of work, which means alas I will lose fans over the years. Hopefully I’ll gain a few though. That’s the problem with having a muse – you have to follow it regardless of direction.

Juliana: What are some of the common pitfalls that you tend to see in portrayals of humanity’s future?

Stephen: Mostly just being exceedingly dull. My early unpublished work was about the milieu, not the people in the milieu; too many writers take that mistake into their published novels. (I imagine self-published work is full of it.) The good stuff is vivid and different and iconoclastic, like Gwyneth Jones, or Jack Vance. The bad stuff… well, I won’t name names, but endless expositions on future Chinese societies or Martian futures with diagrams does not a good book make in my opinion.

Ralph: What one sees a lot of in fiction is selective adoption of current technology when extrapolating progress into the future. To use a simple example, one of the tropes of science fiction is fighters and warships slugging it out in space. But hold on, what about unmanned aerial vehicles which are fairly mature even now? Or how can some technology be a step down from what we currently use? I’m okay with it as long as there is a reason, even an implied one. But too often authors simply forget or ignore contemporary developments in order to create a plot device to serve their story. That moves things into the realms of science fantasy for me or at best an alternative reality story where whatever that thing was they are ignoring has not been invented.

Juliana: Could you share some tips for science fiction writers attempting to create their own world-to-be?

Ralph: Completeness. A well-realized future world gives the impression of actually being able to function and has the weight of a future history behind it. Think that little bit wider when creating your world. Okay, every aspect may not make it onto the page, nor should it as it doesn’t necessarily have a place in the story, but if you do take that view, I firmly believe it transfers into the writing. One of my favorite bits of writing is the working out of context. Take Endeavour. Some time prior to the main story being set, there was a nano-tech revolution which is on par with the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Do I need to delve deeply into that for the story I wanted to tell? No – but the wider thinking of the profound changes that brought, or brings more accurately, to society helps give context for other elements of the tale. That also may help with the pitfall I mentioned. If you need to have space fighters rather than drones? Well maybe there is some kind of technology which stops drones from being used.

Stephen: Cultivate your imagination. If you’re copying other genres, authors or series because you idolize them, give up now – you’re not destined to be an author. Be a total one-off even if that means you never get anywhere. If you are persistent – by which I mean over years, possibly decades – and if you increase your luck by never giving up and following every lead, you might get somewhere. Or you might not. But the change from writer to author happens because imagining is an inseparable part of your psychological make-up, so questions of writing success don’t enter into the equation.

Juliana: Who are some of the authors you admire for their ability to weave convincing visions of our future?

Stephen: In addition to those mentioned above: William Gibson, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling. Alastair Reynolds’ space opera novels were particularly good; reading the Revelation Space trio was a great experience.

Ralph: While many writers invent future societies, there is one who stands out as truly creating convincing worlds – Peter F Hamilton. I’m very sure an editor who is purely plot focused could easily cut down his weighty tomes to half the length or less, but that’s not what his writing is about. Two of his major works, The Nights Dawn Trilogy and the Commonwealth Saga explore every nuance of those universes, from the lowest end of the social spectrum to the highest offices, from slums to palaces. What he comes out with is a universe that can function which he then sets stories within. The Commonwealth Saga is especially interesting as he balances the inevitable stagnation which immortality would bring with the sense that humanity exists in a universe which is evolving – forcing change on people who don’t necessarily want it. Like or loath the hedonistic worlds he creates, they are among the most complete visions of near to far future societies.

Juliana: Thank you, Stephen and Ralph, for a fascinating glimpse into what writing about humanity’s future involves. I’m looking forward to all those new words and new worlds I know you have planned for us!

New work by Stephen Palmer includes the novella Monochrome, in Space Trek (Tickety Boo Press, November 2015), and a new novella coming later in the autumn: No Grave For A Fox (Infinity Plus Press) is set eighteen years after the events of Beautiful Intelligence, in the same world. Also, keep an eye out for the release of an alternate-history trilogy set in Edwardian times, opening with The Girl With Two Souls. For news and updates, as well as information on all Stephen’s work, visit www.stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com or check out his Facebook page and Twitter updates @libermorpheos.

The second volume in Ralph Kern’s Sleeping Gods series, Erebus, will be released in November 2015 (Tickety Boo Press). He also has a short story, Steel Eye, in the upcoming anthology Space: Houston, we have a problem (Tickety Boo Press). You can find Ralph’s updates and news on his Facebook page.

ralph steve

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out August’s Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton. Next up in October: Spotlight on Cover Art.

Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you’re sitting there with your laptop, or notebook and pencil, brainstorming ideas for your next novel or short story. Perhaps you’ve already got a rough idea of the characters, or the plot. But now you have to decide where your story takes place.

Maybe creating fantasy worlds or off-planet skyscapes is not for you. And you really like the idea of basing your story in your own small corner of the real world. How great would it be to include the pub down the road, or that funny-shaped hill in the neighboring state park? But how far can you go with your local descriptions and dialogue before you cross a line between authenticity and pure cheese? (Unless you’re purposefully writing cheese, which is awesome and I say: go for it!)

I’ve invited two talented writers to help me figure this out. From Ireland we have Jo Zebedee, author of the dark space opera Abendau’s Heir, first in the Inheritance Trilogy (Tickety Boo Press). Jo has a soon-to-be-released science fiction novel set in her local stomping ground, Belfast. Inish Carraig is a grim, futuristic thriller lightened by that dash of Northern Irish humor. “In post-alien invasion Belfast, humanity has been defeated. Pity no one told the locals.”

Anna Dickinson lives in Scotland, which trickles its way into most of her work. She is represented by Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary, and writes fast-paced and hauntingly beautiful fantasy YA about witches, and cursed princes, and things that don’t go bump in the night because they’re too busy creeping silently across your bedroom floor, licking their pointy teeth.

Juliana: What are the advantages to working around real-life settings, whether they’re actual places like Belfast, or fictitious places based on existing locations? 

Jo: I think there are a couple of advantages – the topography is already in place and it’s easy for people to visualise the scene. Also, if you’re comfortable with the environment and lay out, that translates to a certain amount of confidence in the writing.

From a sensory angle, you know how the place feels. You know the sounds, the smells, the rituals. That makes it easier to translate and add some richness to the scene.

Lastly, the world is already built. There’s no need to plan out all sorts of political systems and make up whole cultures. That makes storytelling somewhat more straightforward.

Anna: For me, the main advantage is that you have a whole place laid out for you, with as much reality as you choose to include — that funny-shaped hill, and ice cream stall at the bottom and the factory chimneys in the background. Real life is usually mixed up and not wholly one thing or the other (or it is where I come from), and I like that contradiction.

A secondary advantage is that you borrow the rules of the place you’re writing about. If I write a story about a fifteen year old based in Glasgow, I already have lots of constraints set up for her life: she needs to go to school, she needs to have a guardian or parent (or, if not, to hide from the authorities), she needs money for food/ clothes. All the familiar things we already know about, or, if these rules don’t work any more, it’s potentially more shocking against the backdrop of somewhere real and familiar.

Another advantage, of course, is that the lazy among us can visualise things very easily without needing to make them up, and, best of all, can draw on existing legends, history and rumours, and mix them with our own. It’s a bit like telling a lie — good lies contain some of the truth (though I love stories that are based in completely fantastic places, I don’t have the concentration span necessary to develop a whole world and its geography. If I tried to build a world, I’m afraid I’d end up with rivers flowing uphill and cacti growing in the marshes).

Juliana: How about the limitations?

Jo: The topography already being in place. In my made up world, Abendau, if I need a mountain, I can stick it in. Sadly, if you’re remaining true to a real place, you can’t add features willy-nilly. And there’ll always be someone who catches you out if you do.

Also, point of view discipline. I write very close to my characters and they don’t walk past familiar features and stop to describe them to themselves. So finding a way to fit features you need the reader to recognise into the story, whilst not awkwardly shoving it in, can be challenging.

Also, in choosing somewhere like Belfast, with so much challenging history and differing views, there’s a sense of knowing you can’t please anyone.

One intention, when I wrote Inish Carraig, was to write a book about Belfast not about the Troubles or religion. To have it as just another great setting for a rip-roaring story. However, if someone chooses to read hidden meanings into the story – and it’s rare for a book based in Belfast not to be seen as making some kind of analogy – it will change the meaning of the book significantly. I have no control over that, and I am aware it may be reflected in some reviews.

Added to that, my pov character is a young lad scavenging after an alien invasion. The people he’s had to turn to for help hold strong political opinions, some of which he will have heard and, in a vacuum, absorbed. That needs to be reflected, even if they’re not my views. It will be difficult if people attribute those character opinions as my own.

Anna: I’m not especially worried by strict accuracy (mostly! See below for ranting) — if you want an extra street or hill or underground train station, go for it. Personally, I think the main limitation of using real places is the risk of overdoing it and coming over like a tour guide.

Of course, it’s very tempting: if you’ve researched somewhere thoroughly you want to put in lots of information, but sometimes it distracts from the story.

If your characters are pelting down a street, trying desperately to escape from a tentacle-flailing monster straight from the bowels of Hell, I don’t care what the street is called. I care that it’s long and straight and there’s no way to turn off it, for example. But I think this is a personal thing. I’m hopeless at remembering street names and locations — I can get lost anywhere (it’s my superpower) — so my intolerance for detail is probably a reflection of what interests me.

Books that are love songs to particular places rarely appeal to me. I remember skipping the first third of The Return of the Native because it was all a description of Egdon Heath. I got a bit sick of heathery romantic moorland in the work of the Brontes as well.

Juliana: How far is too far? How do you avoid falling into clichés and still give your work that authentic local feel?

Jo: It is a balancing act. There are certain things about Belfast people associate with it that are cliches – bonfires, and marches, flags, riots and petrol bombs. But those things do still happen. Cliches come from somewhere, even if we preferred they didn’t. So, it’s showing those things and trying to enact how they really feel, as opposed to some sort of distant pastiche.

I think the other thing that is a fine line is how far you go with dialect: ‘Ach, ye oul eejit, yer head’s a balloon’ doesn’t translate well, and gets wearisome. But if you keep key words like eejit and wee (I really do use it all the time) and make the rest comprehensible, it’s generally okay.

Anna: This is a really personal one and I think judging it probably comes down to the individual reader. As soon as a character says “Och” (or “Hoots!”), I put the book down, but I don’t think that’s a typical response.

However, since we can’t write for each person individually, maybe an authentic local feel is about avoiding the obvious things, and instead using flavour, not detail. You have to see your location through your story and your own eyes. It’s something Iain Banks (writing without the M) did brilliantly — he took familiar places or landmarks like the Forth Road Bridge, and turned them into something strange and new.

Picking too many of the big touristy bits, or the things everyone else thinks of, can make your story feel like a postcard. I think that’s when you risk cliché.

Juliana: Leading on from the previous question, what are, in your opinion, the most common mistakes writers make when dealing with real-life settings?

Jo: Either going into so much detail it reads like a travelogue, or so little you wonder why the writer even decided to use a specific setting at all. A sense of place is what I aim for, not a slavish description of everything and anything.

Anna: This is where I contradict myself. Shameless, I know. I think if you’re going to use a real location, it’s important to get it right (or, at least know when you’re taking liberties with reality). Recently, I’ve had an obsession with Regency Romance but I don’t know enough about the Regency to worry if someone gets their research wrong, so it doesn’t worry me. However, a few of the stories I read were based in Scotland. The errors in some of those make me wince. A random selection:

  • Clotted cream cannot be poured. It’s solid (one might even say, “clotted”).
  • Peat is cut to be burned, but you don’t send someone out to “cut some peat for the fire”. It’s stacked and dried before you can burn it.
  • Nowhere in the history of Scotland, ever ever, has a man been called “Tammy”. Yes, there are Robbies and Jamies and Charlies, but Tam is just Tam.

These are little things, and in most cases I managed to read the book anyway, but once I’d encountered an error like that, I knew I couldn’t trust the author to know what she was writing about. It made me feel like the Scottish Highlands were being used as a pretty backdrop by someone who saw them as, well, a pretty backdrop.

Juliana: Are there any writers who you consider do ‘local flavor’ particularly well? Who would you recommend as prime reading material?

Jo: Colin Bateman is excellent. Anyone who uses the immortal line of ‘up your hole with a big jam roll’ knows the Northern Irish. Also, there are a raft of detective writers coming through specialising in Belfast Noir – Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh are two good examples.

Anna: I mentioned Iain Banks above; he did Scotland brilliantly.

In general, I prefer reading about places I don’t know very well. I love William Faulkner’s writing about the American South — especially Absalom Absalom! — and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also got that hot and dusty thing going on.

I liked Sarah Rees Brennan’s portrayal of London in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy — it made the stories feel situated in reality, but with a light touch so the emphasis was on the characters and the story, not the place. The same is true of Holly Black’s Valiant, which is set in New York but doesn’t feel like a guide book.

For me, the ultimate example is Susan Cooper. Her Dark is Rising series — written after she’d left the UK for the US — was a love song to the south of England and to Wales, but not in a way that got between the reader and the story.

Juliana: Moving off topic, could you share some of your own favorite authors?

Jo: Lois McMaster Bujold – I love Miles Vorkosigan. Neil Gaiman. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I like a lot. Also, some of the classics – Heinlein, Clarke. Marian Keyes. I read widely, across many genres, and I think that’s a good thing, mostly.

Anna: One of my favourite authors is Diana Wynne Jones and one of my favourite books by her is Fire and Hemlock, which is a brilliant re-telling of one of the Scottish Border Ballads, Tam Lin, about a girl who falls in love with a man who has been captured by the Queen of Elfland (although my absolute favourite of hers is Hexwood, which is wholly original and fabulous).

I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds of authors I ought to mention but, apart from those I talked about above, I’ve always loved Patricia Mckillip and Robin Mckinley. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed work by Melina Marchetta (her Lumatere Chronicles series, specifically. Froi has to be one of the best characters ever written), Cinda Williams Chima (the sexiest, most intense character interactions I’ve read for years), and Sara Raasch (her world, and the reversal of conventions of heat and cold, is wonderful).

Juliana: Thank you Jo and Anna for being such great guests and sharing such excellent pointers. Anna, I promise not to go pouring any clotted cream over my keyboard!

Jo’s newest novel, Belfast-based Inish Carraig, will be out August 21st; keep an eye on her Facebook page and website (jozebedee.com) for updates on the launch, or follow her tweets at @joz1812. If you’d like a sneak peek, there’s a sample up on her blog, jozebwrites.blogspot.co.uk. Those of you in Northern Ireland can catch Jo at TitanCon in September, where she’ll be making a guest appearance.

Anna has published short stories in On the Premises and the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Crossed Genres Publications). In her own words, she reads voraciously and randomly generates opinions based on whatever she read last. She confesses her hapless parenting decisions, ranks romantic heroes from most to least evil, and records recipes for toasted puffin at annawrites.net.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out June’s Spotlight on Speculative Romance with Emma Jane and Jo Marryat. Next up in August: Spotlight on Small Press Publishing.

Spotlight on Speculative Romance with Emma Jane and Jo Marryat

Somewhere in the spectrum between Romance and full-blown Paranormal Romance of the my-boyfriend-is-allergic-to-garlic-and-sunshine variety is a niche for those who like their protagonists human, but enjoy a few speculative side elements. And authors Emma Jane and Jo Marryat do this very nicely indeed. I’ve invited them to tell us a little about mixing that dash of fantasy in with the love.

Emma Jane is the author of Shuttered (Dreamspinner Press) and co-author of Otherworld (Torquere), along with Liz Powell. No stranger to speculative fiction, Emma also writes YA and adult fantasy under the name E.J. Tett. In Shuttered, photographer Daniel has a unique telepathic bond with his dog, Sasha: they can understand and speak to each other. When he meets and falls for con-man and medium Rowan, Daniel and Sasha get dragged into a hunt for a dead body to save Rowan from the thugs he swindled.

First in a brand-new series, Jo Marryat’s debut novel Indigo Heartfire (Tickety Boo Press) tells the story of widower Robert. Determined to make a fresh start five years after his wife died, Robert is shocked when a ‘guardian angel’ in the guise of a tiny fairy appears, but she’s there to help him, whether he believes in her or not. Jo is the penname of author James Scott-Marryat, who has been working in the speculative market for years, both as a writer and as a freelance editor, tidying up other people’s work for publication.

Juliana: Both Shuttered and Indigo Heartfire are romances with contemporary settings. Did you plan to include the fantasy aspects from the start, or did they just creep in?

Jo: The fantasy aspects were central to the story – the contrast between the magical fantastic and the everyday contemporary striving to achieve a balance where both were acceptable.

Emma: I’m trying to think of something I’ve written that doesn’t have any fantasy aspects. The only one I can think of is a short story called “Mr Stone.” That was published in a print magazine called Oblique Quarterly Magazine back in 2010, but has since been turned into an audio story.

Fantasy elements tend to creep into everything I write. Even the contemporary romance I’m working on at the moment has a tiny, tiny speculative element. You have more freedom when writing fantasy, it’s more of an escape.

Juliana: Do you find it hard to resist the temptation of letting the speculative elements take over the plot? How do you keep the contemporary story on track, without being completely derailed by the fantasy?

Jo: The speculative elements are definitely more fun to write, but I set the book firmly in the real world first, before introducing the fantasy element. Annabelle – “like Tinkerbelle, only better” – doesn’t appear until chapter five, and even then we’re not convinced she does exist for quite some time. So that allowed me to keep the contemporary story on track, and ‘bleed’ the fantasy in slowly.

Emma: With the story I’m working on at the moment, no. The speculative element is so small there’s no chance for it to grow or get out of hand — letting it would ruin the story. With Shuttered, I could’ve gone more fantastical — I could’ve had the main character understand all animals, and I could’ve had my medium seeing and hearing spirits all over the place, so I did have to be careful to keep it as realistic as possible. The story still appeals to non-fantasy readers.

You have to think about what you want from the story. With romances, the relationships are the focus. You have to keep these relationships at the front and let any fantasy elements complement and not over-power.

Juliana: In Shuttered, we have a telepathic dog. In Indigo Heartfire, a grown man finds a tiny fairy godmother. Those are pretty unique story ingredients. I know Emma is a dog owner; was your Beau the key inspiration for Sasha? And Jo, where did the fairy idea come from?

Jo: I was doing a writing course with Raindance a couple of decades ago, and as a writing exercise we were challenged to write a modern fairy tale, so it grew from there.

Emma: There are definitely bits of Beau in Sasha. He’s completely neurotic though! Sasha’s much more sensible.

Juliana: Both of you also dabble in more traditional speculative fiction. What are the specific challenges in writing romance? What drew you into the genre?

Jo: Making it believable, realistic even. Too much ‘hearts/flowers/stars’ and your writing becomes a parody. All the fiction I’ve written have love stories within them, even the darker material I’m currently producing – I like that, no matter what happens to a character, love will always give you hope, give you personal fulfillment, even if it turns out tragically. I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, I guess…

Emma: I love how tragic romance is! Emotion is all so heightened and there’s a lot of overwrought drama going on, which I love. Character-based stories are my favourite and there’s nothing more character-based than romance.

I think it was probably the relationship between the characters Ste and Brendan in the UK soap opera Hollyoaks that got me wanting to write gay romance. My Otherworld co-author, Liz, was a big fan of those two too, so that’s what got us started.

The big challenge for me is not letting the characters jump into bed straight away. I failed miserably in both Shuttered and Otherworld! But they don’t get a smooth ride (pardon the pun), you can’t let things be too easy. In romance the big question is usually ‘will they/won’t they?’

Juliana: Could you share some tips for those who want to write romance with speculative elements? Where to start, what pitfalls to avoid…

Jo: When you have an idea, write it down, and then every idea that follows – carry a notepad with you at all times. Not all the ideas will make it into your book, but allow your imagination to run wild at this point – your inner brainstorming, if you like – and all those ideas will stimulate your creative mind as you reflect on them. Most importantly get the romance right. It doesn’t matter if it’s between vampires, fairies, aliens, orcs, humans, whatever, but you have to show the feelings/attraction/desire/love as realistically as possible, even when you’re choosing to have fantasy characters. Don’t cheat the reader by taking short cuts because it’s easier not to show the elements that drew the characters together. Write your first draft and put it all in, then go back and edit, edit, edit.

Emma: Read all sorts! Even non-fiction. I love real-life stories of unexplained incidents; they really get my imagination going.

Where to start? For romance you’d need to read some romance and see how it’s done. Romance readers are very particular in things they like and don’t like! Get involved in a fandom — the “Stendan” one (that’s Ste and Brendan, Hollyoaks) was very vocal in both its support and anger of the some of the couple’s storylines.

Cheating partners never goes down well, avoid that one!

Juliana: What are your main sources of inspiration for new stories?

Jo: Reading, day-dreaming (and I keep a dream journal by the bed for when I wake), and watching people when I’m out shopping.

Emma: Real-life events. TV shows. I think I’m inspired more by what I see than what I read, though I used to take pretty much all my inspiration from Brian Jacques’ Redwall books when I was younger.

Juliana: Could you share some of your favorite authors?

Jo: Patrick Rothfuss, Marian Keyes, James Clavell, Stan Barstow, Jim Butcher, Anthony Ryan, Mark Lawrence. I think that list gets darker the more it progresses…

Emma: Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix and Oscar Wilde for the fantasy side of things. Alexis Hall and Harper Fox for the romances.

Juliana: A big thank you to both Jo and Emma for taking part and sharing some of the writing process with me, proving that writing speculative romance is definitely not for the faint of heart.

You can find out more about Emma’s work on her website (http://ejtett.weebly.com) and blog (http://emmy-j.blogspot.co.uk); look for an upcoming series of video posts on the blog. Recent work includes the romance short stories The Queen’s Guard (published in Torquere Press’s Men in Uniform anthology) and Compulsion (published in Dreamspinner Press’s Hot off the Press anthology), as well as the speculative short story Why I Hate The Seaside (Kraxon Magazine, May 2015).

Emerald Heartfire, the next in Jo’s series featuring Annabelle the fairy, should be out later this year (Tickety Boo Press, publication date pending). Recent work includes the short story Dog Valley, published in the Malevolence, Tales From Beyond the Veil anthology (Tickety Boo Press), writing as Jeff Richards. Jo blogs as James Scott-Marryat at www.jscottmarryat.com and you can find info on editing services at http://www.jsmedit.com.

Shuttered                 indigo

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out May’s Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad. Next up in July: Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor.

Song and Story Structure

The other day I was driving around doing the kids’ after school activity pick-ups and all that jazz. And I was listening to music, as you do. There was nothing particularly interesting on the radio, so I started playing around with song structure and thinking about the parallels to novel writing.

Turns out, there are quite a few.

Now, I’m no songwriter or musical connoisseur. You need my husband – the former band member and absolute music junkie – for that. But I can tap my foot and hum along with the best of them. And from my detailed scientific study (a.k.a. fifteen minutes in the car) I figured out a few things.

For sake of illustration, I’m going to take Taylor Swift’s Stay, Stay, Stay. Why this one? Well, we listen to Taylor a lot because my daughter likes her work, and she tells ‘proper’ stories in her songs, with beginning, middle and end. Also, that particular song cracks me up. It’s the line about the football helmet; it just gives me the giggles (you can find the song itself as well as the lyrics on the interwebs).

This song has a pretty standard layout, so it works well as an example. It starts out, like many others, with an intro verse that is sung as fast as the rest, but sounds slower because the accompanying instruments are lighter. Here she lays out the main plot and introduces the characters, easing you into the song’s ‘world’.

Just like the first chapter or two of a novel.

The song picks up with a second verse, fully instrumentalized this time, so it sounds a little pacier. Writers, you just know we’re heading for some plot action, right? And there it is, the first chorus. The chorus in a song works like a climax in a novel; it changes the speed of the narrative, whips things up a little, adds excitement. But just like a song or novel can’t be all verses, they can’t be all chorus either, so after all that frenzy we’re back to another verse.

But the novel, I mean song, is at a different pace now, and this time Taylor only waits one verse before she plunges us back into another chorus. We’re bang smack in the middle of the novel, I mean song, and things are happening fast. Instead of another verse, we’re sent into the slow-down-to-warm-up-again tease of the bridge, and any reader or writer worth their salt knows that now we’re gearing up for the heart racing end climax, the main fireworks, the mother of all Armageddons.

And there it is: three slightly different versions of the chorus, one after the other, bang, bang, bang. The big jitterbugging, hero-gets-the-kiss climax.

So next time you’re wasting time in the car, have a listen to the songs on the radio. A proper listen. What story structures can you spot?

If nothing else, it’s got to beat staring at the traffic in the rain…

Next week: learn to write a query by reading the back of a cereal box!

(Just kidding. Or am I?)

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).