Have Book, Will Read #10

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May showers bring spring flowers, right? Connecticut has finally begun to sprout its seasonal green and, being the reluctant gardener that I am, nothing better than to put off the weeding with a good book or three. Here are some of my latest…

Recent Reads: Heart thumping, nerve jumping.

This month I finally got around to reading Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, which has been on my list since it came out last summer. It was every bit as good as the reviews promised. Teenage artist Sierra Santiago discovers the secret world of shadowshapers and a family legacy she had no idea about. Her planned summer of friends, parties, and art becomes instead a race to end a plot against the shadowshapers before she and her friends get caught in the crossfire.

Shadowshaper is alive with art, music, and magic, and Daniel’s prose sweeps us right into the beat of the warm city nights, plunging us into the heart of Sierra’s world. And oh, that cover!

I really enjoyed Pierce Brown’s page-turner Red Rising. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on the sequel, Golden Son. The second book in the trilogy really kicked things up a notch by widening the plot to take in the broader Gold politics between the planets, Luna and Earth. Things get even bloodier in this one, and the death toll rises steadily.

However, with a cliffhanger ending (nooooo!), I was really glad that the last in the series was already out. Morning Star continues the wider plot of book two and brings it home to a nail biter of a climax. I did find, though, that picking this up straight after Golden Son meant I had to take a break halfway through, as the violence and deaths were getting to me. Pierce’s novels are excellent reading, but the pace is relentless and it got a little overwhelming. I definitely suggest mixing it up with lighter (aka less bloody) reading material!

Another book I finished this month was The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel, a horror anthology by my own publisher Woodbridge Press. (Wow, it feels weird and cool to write that!) Now, I don’t usually read horror, but it was hard not to be enticed by Anna Dickinson’s delicious opening story, The Boy by the Lake, or the tagline: ‘13 Rooms. 13 Guests. 13 Stories.’

This shared world anthology is a great read, even for wimpy wussy types like me. It never got too heavy, so if (like me) you’re a novice horror reader, this is definitely one to try. The stories were nicely varied with something for everyone, from the creepily eerie, to the beautifully haunting, to the downright weird and wonderful. Eyeballs, anyone?

Now Reading: Imagined pasts and futures.

I’m halfway through another anthology, Kristell Ink’s Fight Like a Girl, which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on the blog. A great variety of stories so far, and some really interesting takes on the subject. Definitely one worth checking out.

Because I like to mix up short stories with novels, I’ve just started Muezzinland by Stephen Palmer. I really enjoyed Stephen’s Beautiful Intelligence and the sequel novella No Grave for a Fox, and Muezzinland – although actually written long before these two – is a sequel in terms of the timeline of the author’s imagined future. I haven’t got very far yet, but it’s nice to be back in Stephen’s world.

To Read: Fate of worlds…

Up next on the to-read list is Sunset over Abendau, the sequel to Jo Zebedee’s excellent Abendau’s Heir. If you like your space opera a little on the dark side, this is definitely the series for you.

I just won a copy of A Thousand Pieces of You and the sequel Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray, courtesy of the author and The Pixel Project’s most recent campaign. The multi-dimensional travel plot sounds great, and I love the tag line: ‘A thousand lives. A thousand possibilities. One fate.’

Another book I picked up the other day is The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin, first in her Chronicles of the Necromancer series, which was highly recommended by a friend. The blurb sounds great, and I’m in the mood for a little traditional fantasy so this should do the job nicely.

With so many good things on my list, I think I shall continue to ignore the garden weeds. I’m calling it ‘organic reading’, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a May afternoon! Trowels down, and books up. And that’s the way I like it.

Book Cover Sunday: Fantasy Cover Art

I was browsing my to-read pile and ended up going for the new Kristell Ink anthology Fight Like a Girl, in part for the glorious cover. That got me thinking about cover art. Now, I’m not hugely influenced by book covers. I tend to go by synopsis and sample pages rather than looks. But I can’t deny that when a book sounds interesting AND has a gorgeous cover, it’s a huge bonus. I’ll pick up my favorites again and again, just to feast my eyes on the artwork and maybe reread a page or two.

I began pulling out books from my shelves that really appealed to me for one reason or another. Looking through the pile on my table, I realized that the covers seemed to fall into four distinct camps. Now, I’m no expert on cover art, or art at all for that matter. So feel free to disagree in the comments and add your own categories!

Category 1: The ‘teaser trailer’ cover.

This type of cover is big in children’s fiction, and indeed my first ever cover love was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes (1970’s edition). The artwork gives us a sneak peek at the story, showing us a scene or a setting, and providing a taste of things to come.

Examples for this category include the John Rocco covers for Rick Riordan’s books. Rocco created all the US covers for Riordan’s middle grade and YA work, and in my opinion pulls off the ‘teaser trailer’ aspect very well, giving us enough of a hint at what will happen to get us interested.

Of course, these are covers aimed at younger readers. However, the Michael Whelan art for Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive does much the same for an older target audience. Look at the cover for The Way of Kings, below. Can’t you just picture the soaring music of the trailer as the camera pulls out to sweep the landscape? Don’t you just want to know more, immediately?

Sometimes a ‘teaser trailer’ cover doesn’t even need human figures. The Tim Byrne cover art for the Rojan Dizon series by Francis Knight is a particularly effective example. Once again, can’t you just imagine the camera swooping in towards the streets in this cover for Knight’s Fantasy Noir novel Last to Rise?

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Category 2: The ‘character hook’ cover.

This is probably one of the most prevalent cover types in fantasy. Hooded rogues, brooding kings, towering warriors. There’s a subtype for each and every subgenre. Some can be a little cliché, others find a way to make an impression. The difference between this category and the first? While the ‘teaser trailer’ cover tries to hook us with a promise of a story, the character cover centers it all on the main protagonist(s). It wants us to immediately bond with them, anchoring our curiosity on the figure the covers portray and encouraging us to discover their story.

The cover for Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight is pretty typical of the category, although we have two characters in this case, and not the more usual one. Illustrated by Gene Mollica and designed by Wendy Chan, what sets a cover of this sort above others is the beautiful artwork. The characters must be appealing enough that we say, “Why yes, I will enter your domain and hear your story, dear swashbuckling people on the cover!” It’s a simple set-up, but it works.

Teresa Edgerton’s Mask and Dagger duology does something a little different. In both Goblin Moon and Hobgoblin Night, Sarah J. Swainger’s cover art opts for a dark outline, reminiscent of the silhouette portraits popular in the mid-to-late 18th century, a particularly fitting nod to Edgerton’s Victorian-inspired world. The effect is clean, crisp, but still remains within the domain of ‘character hook’ covers.

A modern take on the theme was used effectively in the US covers for Myke Cole’s new military fantasy trilogy. Illustrated by Larry Rostant and designed by Diana Kolsky, the covers for Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain pulse with energy. The enigmatic character portrayal and the vibrancy of the artwork draw us in and promises a thrilling ride.

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Category 3: The ‘one Ring to bind them’ cover.

In yet another version of the ‘teaser trailer’ cover, this category takes an inanimate object and uses it as a story hook. A mysterious symbol might promise a tale of magic. A sword, the allure of violent and heroic deeds. You get the idea. Personally, I think the ‘one Ring’ covers can be particularly effective for a series, adding a new element for each book. This form of cover art treads the line between teaser hook and my last category, the ‘graphic glory’ cover.

The Larry Rostant/David Stevenson covers for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are a good example. Simple, clean, and to the point, they each prominently feature one item relating to events in the book, using background color as an important tool to give each book a separate identity within the common thread. The gloriously red art for A Feast for Crows, for instance, is repeated on the spine, a clever ploy for on-shelf prettiness.

The covers for the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima go a step further. The original four books, as well as the newly released Flamecaster, first in a new series set many years later, join together ‘significant object’ with ‘teaser trailer’ backgrounds. Sneaky! And also very effective. Now that you’ve seen it, aren’t you just dying to know more about the mysterious amulet thing on the cover? And how does it fit in with the city behind? Art by Sasha Vinogradova and design by Erin Fitzsimmons.

The original UK cover for Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold takes the ‘one Ring’ concept and runs with it, far, and fast, and wide. We have a map! And a sword! There are coins, and blood splatters! It took a whole team to create, according to Joe’s blog. It’s pretty amazing, to tell the truth, and I really wish it were the cover of the version on my Kindle. It’s not, unfortunately, so I had to resort to online drooling. But really, there are so many different objects on this cover that it’s a whole micro-story in itself. A sort of connect-the-dots intro to the story inside.

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Category 4: The ‘graphic glory’ cover.

This category of book cover is deliciously graphic, with a lean, clean beauty of a concept. It’s less about hooking the reader with the promise of a story, and more about wowing them with stunning artwork that pretty much stands alone without the novel inside. If I were to frame and display any of the books in my personal library, it would probably be the ones with this sort of cover.

I originally bought A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, in e-version. But I eventually went out and bought a physical copy, too. I wanted it on my shelf; I needed it on my shelf. Although this cover does refer to the novel, the appeal isn’t in the story hook but in the sheer prettiness of Will Staehle’s artwork.

Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy is another personal favorite, both in terms of covers and content. The UK cover art by Ghost is discreet, minimalist, and lovely. Even if I had no idea what was inside The City’s Son and its sequels, I’d probably peek just because I like the cover so much.

To finish where I started, Kristell Ink’s Fight Like a Girl anthology fits neatly into the ‘graphic glory’ category. The paper doll sweetness of Sarah Anne Langton’s cover art is too cute for words, and fits the book concept admirably: after all, in an anthology each author mounts their own unique character, and has their own distinct take on the theme. And you can dive deeper, taking the idea of paper dolls and examining the roles society hands out to women. Charming and clever!

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In the name of ‘blogging’, I’ve just spent a fun couple of hours on a rainy afternoon looking through my physical and virtual shelves. How about taking a look at the books you own? Which are the cover styles that appeal to you? And why?

(See also Book Cover Sunday: SFF Book SpineS aND BOOK COVER SUNDAY: BACK COVER BLURBS)
 
 

Spotlight on SFF Forums with Brian Turner and Damaris Browne

 

Online communities serve an important role for fans of genre fiction. It’s not always easy to find like-minded souls in our daily lives, willing to spend hours debating the best and worst of science fiction novel cover art, or the latest Game of Thrones theories. Forums and other discussion groups on platforms like Facebook bridge the gap, bringing together readers and writers from all over the world.

There are many discussion spaces all over the internet, and often people try several before finding one they feel more at home in. I got lucky on my first try: I found the UK-based SFF Chronicles while looking for book recommendations, and once I realized the forum had an active and friendly writer’s corner I was smitten.

With over 30,000 registered members, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles, known affectionately by its members as the Chrons, has been going strong for fifteen years. The brainchild of fantasy writer Brian Turner, it has everything from book to gaming discussions, with a busy TV and movie section, too. The writing boards are extremely popular, offering space for questions on plot structure, grammar doubts, and even critiques. And the monthly 75-word and quarterly 300-word writing challenges are a lot of fun, and a good learning process too!

I’ve invited Brian to share a little of what it takes to set up and run a forum the size of the Chrons. Also on the witness stand is long-time member, site moderator, and science fiction and fantasy writer Damaris Browne. Check out her website, www.damarisbrowne.com, for more on her work, book reviews, and her thoughts on writing. 

Juliana: Welcome Brian and Damaris. Now, I know Damaris is a long-time member of the forum, and Brian of course has been there since its inception. Could you tell us a bit about the journey from start to current format and size? 

Damaris:  I’d better leave this one to Brian, as the Chrons was up and running long before I joined in 2008. I’m interested in hearing what the full story is, though, since I know there are members whose dates of joining are a year or two before Brian’s – something which confused me a good deal before I became a mod and picked up bits and pieces of the site’s history. 

Brian: Originally I had a website for my writing, with a forum to support it. I was convinced I’d be published soon — only to realise I’d simply completed a first draft, and would need years to learn how to write to commercial standard. As it already covered other SFF books, TV series, and films, it made sense to detach the forums and develop them as a general SFF community. I then did everything I could to grow it — marketing strategies, technical tricks, mentions in the BBC and other media, a stall at Worldcon, etc.

Now it’s the largest dedicated SFF forum out there. Better still, it’s retained the same sense of friendship and community it began with.

FWIW, I posted a longer history here: https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/549309/ 

Juliana: Forums, by nature, are always in flux, with established members fading away and new members joining. Have you felt the Chrons has changed in ‘personality’ over the years? 

Brian: Forums are a social media platform, so they are only ever as good as the members that make them up. Luckily, the people who are into SFF tend to be wonderful chilled people. Even better is that we have a moderating team to ensure everything remains civil, and that flame wars, trolling, and spamming are quickly dealt with. That allows for a safe environment for the community to grow.

Damaris: It’s always a shame when established members stop visiting for one reason or another, but it’s inevitable when real life intervenes, and a fresh infusion of new blood is important, bringing with it new ideas and energy. I don’t know about a change in personality, but my perception is there has been a change in emphasis since I joined. There was an Aspiring Writers section then, but it seemed to take second place to the discussion of books. Now I’d say the places have been reversed and the writing side is a greater driver of the site. There was also a chat room when I first joined, which vanished some time ago, and I think that was missed by some of the older members. 

Juliana: There are several other SFF sites where forums exist side-by-side with a homepage that showcases articles and reviews. A while back, Brian opted to focus solely on the forum aspect. Why this decision? What are the positives and negatives of this choice? 

Damaris: Again one which I’d best leave to Brian. I have to confess that I rarely visited the homepage, so I’ve not been affected by the change, save that as a winner of the 300 Word Writing Challenges it was a great ego-boost to see my name and a link to my story there. So that’s one disadvantage of its loss as far as I’m concerned! 

Brian: I had grand dreams of setting up a SFF magazine on the front end, supported by the forums. But the big problem is that no good front end software will integrate with any good forum software. The result is that you end up with two websites running in parallel, and little interaction between the two. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having both features, if most people only use one or the other.

To me, the community aspect was always the most important – so I focused on that. Anything that would have ordinarily been posted to a front is now posted to the forums. IMO that makes for a stronger community overall.

Juliana: The SFF Chronicles, like most forums, depends heavily on volunteer moderators. What does a moderator actually do? And how much work does it take to keep a forum friendly and ‘clean’? 

Brian: In their simplest form, moderators are simply long-term members who have been entrusted with an extra set of tools to help protect the community environment. But moderators are also site ambassadors, and service relations. Ultimately, their role is essential – and usually thankless – when it comes to making sure the community runs properly and safely.

Damaris: Most work is general housekeeping, such as opening and closing regular monthly threads like “What are you reading?” and moving threads which have appeared in the wrong sub-forum by mistake (new members asking for recommendations often wrongly post in Book Search, for instance).

The Challenges have their own little section in the Staff Room where we deal with matters arising. As there are strict word limits, we’re called on to decide whether entries have gone over the limit and therefore have to be removed, whether proposed combination word forms are one or two words, whether choices of theme and genre are appropriate for the 75 Worders and, most difficult of all, what images we should use for the 300 Worders. All those decisions are arrived at by consensus. But a job which is solely mine, and by far the best one, is contacting the winner of the 300 Challenge and confirming the prize (Brian generously provides a book worth £10 GBP from an online shop) then helping get his/her choice of book organised and sent out – as it was to you, Juliana!

Then we have the more onerous – not to say upsetting – duties, effectively policing the site. We don’t get as many spammers as we used to (*touch wood*), but they are a nuisance and their posts have to be removed and the spammers banned. Something that has grown over the years since I’ve been a mod is the number of people joining for the purposes of using us as a free billboard for their self-published novel or their kickstarter campaign. We’re always delighted to hear about members’ projects, but newbies aren’t allowed to self-promote. So those posts are also removed, though the members themselves are rarely banned nowadays, but rather are encouraged to join in and become true members of the community, which is guaranteed to bring more interest in their work anyway, so it’s win-win.

And very occasionally we have to intervene when members argue or become abusive. We don’t allow trolling or flame wars on the site, and we stamp down hard on anything approaching such unpleasantness. Incidentally, as you noted in your introduction, one of the things which makes Chrons so popular is that the boards are always friendly, civil and tolerant of difference. That is wholly down to Brian and the example he sets and encourages us to maintain. 

Juliana: The writing challenges are a popular pastime for many members. And Damaris is our resident statistician, keeping track of entries and votes over the years. How did the idea of the challenges emerge? How have they evolved over time? 

Brian: The Writing Challenges is an area I support, but almost never have anything to do with. It’s a great example of the community asking for, and then organising, what has become a major activity. 

Damaris: Ah-ha!  I can answer this one easily, since I was, by chance, one of the original movers of the Challenges. Back in early 2010 one of our members put up a piece in Critiques to commemorate his 1,000th  post. (The start of another Chrons tradition!)  I came along not long after and followed suit, but as I had nothing in my draft WiPs suitable, I quickly wrote a silly piece of 250 words. In the discussions which followed, I half-jokingly suggested we should have a “story in 50 words” thread, so we could practice brevity as the soul of good story-telling. Teresa Edgerton, another long-standing member (and brilliant author), confirmed she’d been part of a writing group that had an exercise to modernise a fairy tale in 75 words, and she was the only one able to complete it. She suggested we try the same exercise in our Workshop section of Aspiring Writers, changing theme or genre monthly. I was very taken with the idea, as were several others, so the Challenges started a few days later, on 5 April 2010.

We thought we might get a handful of people taking part, and like other exercises, it might last a few months before fizzling out. We’ve now just completed our sixth year of the 75 Worder, and in that time we’ve had a total of 448 entrants writing 3,571 stories!

The 75 Worder has stayed much as it started, though the original open genres or plain Science Fiction or Fantasy are rare now, and the genres (which are chosen by the previous month’s winner) can be rather esoteric, not to say wilful – Tudorpunk and In the Style of Rudyard Kipling being notorious. But in 2011 we started the 300 Worders, which have an image, often a photograph, as an inspiration for speculative fiction, and in 2014 a not-quite official 100 Worder was begun, where the entries are posted anonymously and part of the fun is to try and guess which member wrote which story. 

Juliana: Which are your favorite corners of the Chrons? 

Damaris: Aspiring Writers, by a long way, and that’s where I spend most of my time. But I have a soft spot for Book Search, which is where members can put up pleas for help in trying to find the title and author for SFF novels they read many years ago and which are now tantalising memories. I was like a dog with two tails when I was able to pinpoint a book for one person a few years back – my one and only acknowledged success. 

Brian: I love it every time someone starts a discussion, especially about a book or an author. It’s also great when a TV show or film franchise develops enough of a following to receive its own board.

Additionally, I enjoy seeing the various writing projects, and successes, our writers are involved with. 

Juliana: I happen to know that besides being talented writers you are both avid readers. What’s on your to-read pile at the moment?

Brian: I’ve got quite a reading list (https://www.sffchronicles.com/xfa-blog-entry/2700/) already for this year, but I’ve had a few books already added to that. A heady mix of fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, plus general non-fiction research material.

Damaris: My TBR pile overflows from two large baskets, and there isn’t enough room to list everything they contain! I’m a catholic reader (with a particular weakness for medieval murder mysteries), so I’ve books of all kinds waiting, but just looking at a few of the SFFs: Raymond E Feist, King of Foxes; Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne; Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns; Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes. And just this weekend I picked up Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Jack Campbell’s JAG in Space, and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. In the non-SFF sphere, the one I’m going to start next is Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo as I’ve recently finished The Last of the Wine which was marvelous, and after that Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue – I was very impressed with her The Lady and the Unicorn, though perhaps less so by Girl with a Pearl Earring. And lastly, as early research for a possible novel I’ve got A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson which is just begging to be opened.

Juliana: Thank you Brian and Damaris for sharing an insider’s view of the SFF Chronicles. It’s always fascinating to peek behind the curtains! Hmm, that gives me an idea for a new thread topic… 😉

 

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out March’s Spotlight on Writing Horror with Gwendolyne Kiste and Scarlett R. Algee. Next up in May: Spotlight on Writing YA.

 

 

Have Book, Will Read #9

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Oh, hey! It’s April already. April means my birthday, which means books. Because a girl can always do with more books, right? And with so many recent releases I’ve been keeping busy. Here are some of my latest faves…

Recent Reads: On the road… Quests, journeys, escapes, and revenge.

I absolutely loved The Art of Forgetting: Rider by Joanne Hall. In fact, I liked it so much I went straight into the sequel and concluding novel, The Art of Forgetting: Nomad. I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age fantasy tale, and this one takes interesting detours as it follows a boy’s journey to become a cavalry officer.

Hall’s prose is crisp yet flowing, and she does a masterful job of treading the line between overly sparse and heavily ornate description that so many epic fantasies have trouble with. Rhodri’s tale begins with the familiar setting of the military schoolground, but never quite settles into the expected, keeping us constantly on our toes. And when Rhodri eventually turns his back on everything he has worked for, Hall gives readers a refreshing shift in her main character’s viewpoint that sheds new light on the story.

Javelin Rain by Myke Cole was one I’ve been waiting for, ever since Gemini Cell arrived in 2015 and I devoured it in one day. And the sequel certainly didn’t disappoint. Those of you who read my blog will know I’m a big fan of Cole’s high-octane military fantasy novels. He writes incredibly fast-paced stories with great action sequences, but he also serves us well-thought-out characters with a lot of heart.

Javelin Rain begins exactly where Gemini Cell left off, with Jim Schweitzer on the run with his wife and small son. But escape is hard when you’re an undead former Navy SEAL being chased by a hoard of super zombies with a penchant for blood and carnage. And to make things worse, the man behind those zombies may have motives of his own for the actions he carries out in the name of his country. Sounds intense? It is, but at the same time Cole isn’t afraid to take a pause and give his readers touching and very human moments.

I bought Road Brothers by Mark Lawrence a while back, but it got buried under a pile of other to-reads and somehow I never got around to it. Making up for lost time, I ended up gobbling down the whole thing in two days. This one is a treat for fans of Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy: a compilation of short stories on Jorg of Ancrath and his band of outlaws.

I loved Prince of Thorns and the subsequent Broken Empire books, so I really enjoyed this opportunity to get a better look at some of Jorg’s crew. The stories bring us a mixture of exploits and backstory, and as a bonus feature they all end with a short commentary by the author on the character and why he chose that particular approach for that story. Written with Lawrence’s trademark poetic flair, the collection plays with different narrative styles so it never feels stale, and you never quite know what to expect as the author skips from one character to another. Well worth reading, but familiarity with the Broken Empire world is helpful, so if you haven’t tried Lawrence’s work I’d recommend starting with Prince of Thorns.

Now Reading: Shivers and shenanigans.

I’m halfway into a brand new anthology by the also brand new Woodbridge Press, The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel. Now, horror isn’t a genre I’d usually read, but since I’m familiar with quite a few of the authors I was willing to lock away my usual fear of things that go bump in the night and try it out. So far, so good: I’ve already been blown away by the opening stories and I haven’t had to resort to a nightlight yet. Yet being the imperative word here.

To Read: Fight or flight…

Another recent launch on the anthology scene is Fight Like a Girl (Kristell Ink). Edited by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall, this collection of short stories about female strength sounds amazing. With a great line-up of authors writing everything from space opera to urban fantasy, and a tagline on Amazon that says, “These are not pinup girls fighting in heels; these warriors mean business,” this has to be my kind of book. Oh, and it has an awesome cover, too.

I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and you can never have too much Wax and Wayne, so up next on my to-read list is Bands of Mourning, the latest in the Mistborn saga. I always enjoy Sanderson’s carefully constructed magic systems, and the swooping, soaring Wax and Wayne stories unite this with a certain element of lightness and fun that are a pleasure to read.

So that’s my roundup for April. I hope you’ve found some great reads of your own; with so many great releases this year alone, the tough decision is where to start!

Spotlight on Writing Horror with Gwendolyn Kiste and Scarlett R. Algee

Horror narratives are an integral part of our human history. Folktales have dark tendrils that go back for centuries. The Ancient Greeks created gods out of fear and terror. Every culture has a bogeyman, a gashadokuro, a strigoi. From the oral storytelling of the past to the modern day campfire tale, scary stories are everywhere.

Even epic tales of glorious deeds would be nothing without that undercurrent of fear. Remove the ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings and half the tension immediately falls away. Without a White Witch to face, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is just a tale of talking animals. And A Game of Thrones without the White Walkers is simply a rather bloody story of political intrigue.

In literature, horror fiction harks back to eighteenth century works such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, with nineteenth century gothic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula cementing the genre. By the late 1800’s, horror had already hit the (silent) screen, and horror as a film and TV genre is still wildly popular today.

But what does it take to write a good horror tale? It’s not enough to just throw in a few monsters and things that go bump in the night and hope they’ll do the job. Crafting a good scary story – one that gets under your skin and keeps you awake at night – is an art. My two guests are experts in that creep factor, and they’re here to point your ghosts and ghouls in the right direction. They both have short stories in a brand new anthology by Woodbridge Press, The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel (“13 Rooms, 13 Guests, 13 Stories”). I haven’t had a chance to peek at it yet, but I’m planning to… Just as soon as I buy myself a new nightlight!

Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction author whose work has appeared in a wide range of publications including Nightmare, Shimmer, LampLight, Flash Fiction Online, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. Gwendolyn edited the anthology A Shadow of Autumn: An Anthology of Fall and Halloween Tales in 2015. She has written and directed several feature-length films, and her plays have been produced as part of the Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Scarlett R. Algee writes speculative fiction and designs steampunk jewelry. Her work has been published in Cthulhu Haiku I & II, Morpheus Tales, Zen of the Dead and Sanitarium Magazine, among others. She is currently a submissions reader and chapbook editor for Sanitarium Magazine. Besides the upcoming Lake Manor anthology, she has also previously collaborated with Gwendolyn in the anthology A Shadow of Autumn.

Juliana: Welcome Gwendolyn and Scarlett. So tell us, why the interest in horror, both as a reader and a writer? What first drew you into this particular genre?


Gwendolyn: Horror has always been part of my life. Both my parents loved horror, so we were always reading horror literature and watching horror films. So many people think of horror as something dark and subversive, but it seems the most natural thing for me as an artist. I’ve always reveled in my own weirdness, wearing it like a badge of honor since I was a child, and fortunately, horror is a great place for the weirdos.

Scarlett: I had the traditional, religious Southern upbringing, so I grew up with the idea that horror was well, “sinful”. I didn’t agree with that and I still don’t, but for a long time my access to the genre was limited. I didn’t start reading horror till I was in high school, and didn’t start watching it till I was over 30, so I’m making up for lost time here! Maybe for me it’s a belated rebellion. That said, horror is a great medium for working out frustrations and testing limits.

Juliana: The question you’ve probably answered a million times but we still want answered: where do the ideas come from? How do you imagine that lurking darkness while going about your daily life?


Gwendolyn: I’m a visual person, so small images often inspire me. A browned apple. A horseshoe driveway. A clawfoot bathtub. Out of those single images, I like to extrapolate and create a whole world with that focal point in mind. In particular when I’m writing horror or dark fantasy, I’ve found that you can extract a remarkable amount of the foreboding from the mundane. There’s so much darkness hiding in everyday life. All you have to do is look a little closer to find it.

Scarlett: Some days I honestly wish I knew! I get a few ideas from the daily news, or other things I read, or writing prompts on Reddit. But for a lot of my writing, ideas just show up in whole cloth and I often don’t spend a lot of time wondering where they come from. They have fangs and claws, after all.

Juliana: What do you usually build your stories upon? Is it a plot concept, a character, a feeling you want to evoke? How do you like to start out?


Gwendolyn: It often starts with a moment or an emotion. Maybe the way I feel when I hear a song or see a certain photograph or even how reading a specific story has affected me. From there, it’s my goal to capture that subjective experience, almost like putting a pin in a butterfly. What I’ll write tends to have little to no relation to what initially inspired it beyond a small symbol or an aspect of setting. When I start out to write a story, I usually have a general idea of where I’m headed, though I love to discover details about the characters as I go. It makes the act of creating a bit of a mystery when you’re able to learn about this world while you’re writing it.

Scarlett: For me, I usually start with a plot concept, a “what if”. I like to start with an ending, if possible–the whole process just comes together best if I know the end at the beginning. And sometimes, a character will just pop into my head and start talking. You can bet I’m quick to pin that person to the couch and start taking notes, because you can learn amazing things just by listening to that new inner voice.

Juliana: How can a horror writer avoid falling into worn tropes? Or is it more of a case of twisting tropes to create something fresh?



Gwendolyn: There are still so many aspects of horror left to examine, especially the emotional devastation that horrific scenarios can cause. As long as writers push themselves even a little bit, we can find new ground to cover. I’ve seen a lot of great concepts in recent short fiction, so whether a writer creates something entirely different (e.g. a new kind of a monster) or reworks existing tropes, there’s plenty of potential to explore human nature through the lens of horror.

Scarlett: We should always keep reaching. There are so many aspects of human nature that don’t get touched on nearly enough–let’s see more of the emotional/psychological facets of horror. Less gore/vampires/werewolves/zombies; those are getting a bit tired, especially in literature. (No offense to Walking Dead fans!) If you’re into monsters, the world’s mythologies are fulI of critters that haven’t been explored, that need to be dug out and brought to light. For me, the greatest monsters are humans themselves, and we’re still figuring ourselves out.

Juliana: Do you find – as a reader and as a writer – that there are fundamental differences when it comes to horror in short stories and in novels? Are there different expectations, limitations, or allowances?


Gwendolyn: I do think there are differences between short stories and novels. As a reader, I will admit that many horror novels fall flat for me, only because that sense of dread can be hard to sustain through 80,000+ words. However, when I find a horror novel that does work well, it’s truly transcendent. For example, I love Shirley Jackson’s longer works—The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Although short stories will probably always be my first love, a great horror novel is seriously worth its weight in gold, and the reader has the opportunity to learn so much more about the setting and the characters that inhabit it. With short fiction, which is where I have the most experience as a writer at this point, the author is challenged to craft an entire world in a very limited space. So both mediums have their advantages and their drawbacks.

Scarlett: Obviously with a horror novel you have more room for character development and more time, so to speak, to play with those extra little details that make characters memorable. In short stories, you’ve really just got one chance to get everything across because of your word-count limit. At this point I’m entirely a short story writer, and that format really tests your ability to be clear and concise. Your margin of error is tiny. With novels there’s the very real problem of keeping up your pace without lagging, and without giving too much away too early–nothing peeves me more than being able to see the ending coming before I’m halfway through the book.

I’ve actually come to prefer anthologies.

Juliana: Religious tales, folk stories and mythologies are full of violence and the threat of darkness. Why do you think there is such a deep-rooted fascination with evil and horror? Why is this a genre that endures and flourishes?


Gwendolyn: Human beings will always experience fear. It might be the fear of the dark or fear of death or fear of the outsider, but no matter what, we’ll always have something to dread. So that makes horror at once universal and timeless. Across cultures and across centuries, we share that common experience. That’s why you can read ghost stories from the Victorian era or monster tomes like Frankenstein and still relate to the material. Obviously, good writing plays into it as well, but it’s also that universality that keeps us coming back.

Scarlett: I think the human fascination with horror, with darkness and evil, comes at least partially from our understanding of the atrocities we’re capable of. We’re just as afraid of the darkness inside ourselves as we’re afraid of the darkness outside the cave–possibly more.

Fear is such a universal, primal feeling–Lovecraft called it “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind”–and yet, oddly enough, it can be fun to be frightened. Our brains get some kind of kick out of it. And to that end, horror works really well. You get to explore actions and feelings you’d never remotely consider in real life. You get that jolt of adrenaline, that vicarious thrill, but none of the consequences.

Juliana: To finish up, a bit of fun. Which are your favorite fictional scary creatures? Can be from literature, movies, TV, graphic novels, or any other.


Gwendolyn: I’m a big fan of ghouls. There aren’t nearly enough stories about them, though I love the ghoul segment from the 1980 Vincent Price movie, The Monster Club. And I’ll also give Scarlett a shout-out here and recommend everyone check out her ghoul story, “The Tomb Wife,” in Zen of the Dead. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time, and she does a fantastic job of exploring the nuances of the ghoul character as well as the world in which the ghoul resides. Great stuff, and very creepy.

Scarlett: Awwww, I love you too!

My personal favorite single character is Cthulhu–but he’s been exploited so much he’s not scary anymore, at least not to me. It takes a lot of work to portray the Big C convincingly. In terms of creature types or classes, I love cryptids. Even though none of them are proven to exist (and some have been explained or disproven), that element of the unknown, of “heeey, this just might be possible,” can be deeply unsettling.

Juliana: Thank you so much for joining me here and giving us a deeper glimpse into writing horror. And now, where’s that nightlight? 

Find book reviews and blog posts on writing and publishing at Scarlett R. Algee’s website, www.sralgee.wordpress.com. Scarlett tweets as @scarlettralgee and she has an author page on Facebook. For her jewelry designs, check out Copperwalk Designs on Etsy.

Visit Gwendolyn Kiste’s website – www.gwendolynkiste.com – for further information on her work, as well as blog interviews, news and posts on writing. You can find Gwendolyn on Twitter @GwendolynKiste and Facebook.

Both authors have stories in the upcoming anthology The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel, by Woodbridge Press. Preorders should open up this weekend, and publication date is set for April 12th. There’s a terrific lineup of talented authors, so if you’re looking for a great read by a brand new press, remember to check it out.

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out February’s Spotlight on Making Time to Write with Anne Lyle and Elspeth Cooper. Next up in April: Spotlight on SFF Forums.

Have Book, Will Read #8

There’s a steady March drizzle outside, but in here I have tea, books, and leftover Easter chocolate. Seriously, what more could a word-lover want? Here’s what I’ve been up to…

Recent Reads: Battles and books.

First up was Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. My daughter’s been on at me for a while to read this, and after the gorgeous trailers came out for the movie adaptation directed by Tim Burton I thought it was about time I dipped into it’s rather mysterious waters.

The tale of a troubled boy who discovers his own powers along with a whole hidden world of wonder and threat, Miss Peregrine’s was everything my daughter had promised and more. It’s a slow-burning story, which eases you into its often cold and murky waters inch by inch while at the same time pulling you so deeply into its world that by the time things begin to happen you’re right in there with the main character, Jacob, ensnared and enthralled as he is.

My next read was Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades. I adored the first book in the series, City of Stairs, and thought there was no way he could top the charismatic Shara as a main character. But then he brought back a side character from the first book, General Turyin Mulaghesh, and I was smitten all over again.

Bennett is a master at producing original and unexpected protagonists. Mulaghesh is a stocky, aging, foul-mouthed, one-armed former war hero with a very dark past and a sense of right and wrong that goes above and beyond the call of duty. She is also deliciously stubborn, so when she is sent by the now Prime Minister Shara Thivani to investigate the strange substance uncovered in ruined and embattled Voortyashtan she resolves to get to the bottom of things no matter what it costs her.

After all the strange and divine powers of the last two reads, it was time for a little science fiction with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. I’d heard this mentioned a few times but it had pretty much slipped under my radar until one of my town librarians suggested I’d enjoy it (hooray for librarians!).

Set on Mars, Red Rising tells a tale of oppression and the thirst for change, as lowborn miner Darrow infiltrates the elite Golds in the name of revolution. This one will definitely appeal to Hunger Games fans, and it’s not for the faint of heart as the battle scenes of the trials Darrow must go through to truly become one of the elite are pretty horrific. It’s incredibly fast-paced and I tore through the entire thing in one day, breathless and with nothing left of my poor, chewed-up nails.

Last on my list was Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library, first in his middle grade series by the same name. It’s the story of Alice, who goes to live with her Uncle Geryon after her father dies in a shipwreck. An uncle she’s never heard about, who lives in a house full of mysteries. But the biggest mystery of all is the forbidden library. Until Alice creeps in at night and discovers magical powers she never imagined she had.

Alice shows us a world where books are a source of power – and also of grave danger. The creatures she finds inside them are no sweet fairytale things; they’re often nasty, vicious, and happy to kill. But Alice is both clever and fiercely determined to succeed. After all, if magic is real, perhaps her father is not really dead, after all?

Now Reading: Following the horse trail.

Loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go is The Art of Forgetting: Rider by Joanne Hall. All I’ve done so far is glance at the first page, so I’ll have to fill you in on this one next time round. A coming-of-age fantasy tale following a boy’s journey to become a cavalryman, it may be just what I need after all the strange directions my reading has taken me in lately.

To Read:

I have the first two books in Orson Scott Card’s Mithermages series on request at my library, so I’ll dive into those when they arrive. The Lost Gate and The Gate Thief tell the story of Danny North as he discovers his gate magic and the perils that follow.

I also have three novels on pre-order, all of them out at the same time at the end of March. I love the excitement of waiting for a new book to arrive! Myke Cole’s military fantasy Javelin Rain is the sequel to his excellent Gemini Cell. Sunset over Abendau is the sequel to Jo Zebedee’s dark space opera Abendau’s Heir. And The Adventures of Sir Edric, by Thaddeus White, is a fantasy comedy, with history’s most un-PC knight ever, the drunken, womanizing Sir Edric.

Words to read, worlds to explore. And my tea’s getting cold. Happy reading!

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The (Un)Familiar

I’ve just returned from a family trip to England. We had a wonderful time, with a castle, and wizardry, and a giant Ferris wheel, and a gorgeous baby nephew. And daffodils: lots and lots of daffodils.

It was a strange voyage of discovery and rediscovery. I spent the first eight years of my life in England, and have visited countless times, but it had been almost thirteen years since my last visit. Things change, and your vision of the world changes, so things appeared at the same time familiar and unfamiliar. And my children were visiting their mother’s birth country for the first time, so I was also experiencing everything through their eyes.

And then, when we returned, there was that same feeling of known-yet-unknown that I always get when arriving after a while away. When, just for an instant, you see your home through a stranger’s eyes and marvel at how different it all looks, before the ordinary crashes down and takes over again.

But that small moment in which the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, when what should be familiar looks utterly alien for a heartbeat or two, that’s the sense of wonder that my favorite fantasy writers manage to capture. Worlds that are enticingly new, but feel oddly like home. Stories that mesmerize and draw us in, not just for their freshness, but because, deep down, they are also hauntingly mundane.

Wonder, and yet also recognition. Children’s fiction does this very well. Narnia is a new universe for a child reader, but it also reminds us enough of home that it makes sense. It has lampposts and fishing rods among the swords and talking lions. It feels real, open-the-wardrobe-and-check-for-yourself real. The Percy Jackson imaginary world of Greek demigods is laced through our modern-day life, anchoring it, making it feel possible. In Alice in Wonderland, familiar day-to-day objects like rabbits and watches and cups of tea give Lewis Carroll’s surreal tale enough normality to allow us to navigate its pages.

Adult fantasy fiction often achieves this same sense of the known-yet-unknown through more subtle ploys. Often it’s the characters themselves, with very recognizable feelings, goals, and morals, which anchor the story and give it just enough reality that we can take the leap into a new world while knowing, deep down, that we retain some level of comfort. As readers, we crave the new, but if we can’t find something to relate to, the new can quickly become overwhelmingly alien.

Next time you’re immersed in a book, take a moment to identify the strands that harness you to the tale. What makes the story appeal to you? And then sit back, close your eyes, and remember some of your favorite trips. Why was that place so special? Can you find any common threads between stories and real-life journeys?

Give it a try. Because in every unfamiliar moment, there’s a tiny drop of the familiar. And even the most brazen adventurer among us needs a thin tether to that which we already know. What’s yours?

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Mock up of Diagon Alley at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. J.K. Rowling does a beautiful job of intertwining the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Love, Longswords, and Lightsabers

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With Valentine’s Day approaching, and a serious need to distract myself from all the chocolate treats on sale, I started thinking about romance in science fiction and fantasy. I’m not talking paranormal romance, oh no, that would be too easy. I’m thinking about all the love stories that hide under action-packed tales, weaving their way delicately through the adrenaline surges and the blaster fire, the sword-work and the combat spells.

Take a good look at your favorite novels and chances are there’s a love story in there, somewhere.

Why is love a recurring theme in fiction, even if it’s quietly hidden away under an adventurer’s cloak? For one, it helps ground your characters. Along with pain, fear, and other easily recognizable and relatable feelings, love helps us understand a character and gives that character extra dimension and realism. Even if they’re a magic space knight. An underlying ribbon of romance also provides a secondary plotline that can run alongside the main plot, adding both tension and depth.

Is romance necessary in a novel? Of course not. But sprinkling those action scenes with a little of that loving feeling can be a whole lot of fun. I’ve chosen five fast-paced books with great love stories in them for anyone looking for a Valentine’s Day read. The chocolate treats are optional.

 

Gemini Cell, Myke Cole

A fast-paced military fantasy novel with a killer love story to fuel it on, Myke Cole’s tale about a dead Navy SEAL who turns into an undead zombie warrior may not be an obvious pick for a romantic Valentine’s Day read. And yet the central core of the story is the death-defying love that Jim Schweitzer has for his wife and child. Full review here.

 

The Demon King, Cinda Williams Chima

YA is full of wonderful love stories, and The Demon King and the subsequent books in the Seven Realms quartet are a perfect example. Cinda Williams Chima serves up everything you could possibly want in an epic fantasy series: high magic, low magic, warcraft, sieges, court intrigue, international politics… And of course, a fabulous romance too.

 

Time Salvager, Wesley Chu

This one is a time travelling science fiction tale set in a bleak future. Sounds romantic, right? Not really? Wait until you meet James Griffin-Mars, a depressed chronman bent on self-destruction, who falls for a woman from the past and forfeits everything to be with her. Although Wesley Chu’s novel is packed with intrigue and exciting action sequences, at its heart it’s a love story.

 

Fade to Black, Francis Knight

How about adding a little fantasy noir to the mix? Francis Knight’s Rojan Dizon is a jaded, disillusioned P.I. with pain mage powers. But as he’s unwillingly dragged into a battle for civil freedom that he has no real wish to join, he finds love. Messy, unrequited, ill-fated love, but love, nevertheless. And this love is what keeps him going throughout this and the next two books in the trilogy, pushing him to make ever-harder choices and sacrifices.

 

The City Stained Red, Sam Sykes

Okay, you might say, now you’ve gone too far. Where, you might ask, in this veritable bloodbath of a novel, is the romance? But Sam Sykes does like a bit of loving, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from the sex scenes. Lenk and Kataria’s on-off flirtation is the one constant thing in this novel; whatever mayhem happens to be going on, we know that somewhere around the corner we’ll get another dose of the awkward love and even more awkward lovemaking that is part of the wonderful train wreck of their relationship.

 

Bonus title: The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Yes, I know you’ve probably watched the movie at least a couple of times, and can most likely quote from it with your eyes closed… But HAVE YOU READ THE NOVEL? Because, if not, get thee to a bookstore or library and please, please, please read this immediately. This is the ultimate swashbuckling, sword-toting, cliffhanging, magic-wielding love story: a quest for romance and the best kiss in all time. And it’s incredibly funny, too.

 

All that’s left to say is, enjoy!

*please consume chocolate products in moderation. or not. hey, it’s your call.*

Have Book, Will Read #7

It’s almost February which means that, given the wintery cold outside and my penchant for hot mugs of tea and sizzling plotlines, I’ve been devouring books non-stop (but not really, because digestion?). I read so many books that I’ve actually lost track of everything I picked up over the last month or two, so I’ve rather arbitrarily chosen three that were particularly enjoyable…

Recent Reads: Swords, spaceships, and science.

First up on the list is Andy Weir’s The Martian. My son watched the movie with friends and then requested the book. Since it was lying around the house gathering dust, I thought I’d take a peek, thinking I wouldn’t like it much as I’m not usually one for the harder sorts of science fiction. Boy, was I wrong!

It turned out to be a real page-turner of a book, where days and months blur together in the race to bring astronaut Mark Watney back from a disastrous mission that leaves him stranded on Mars, while at the same time Watney, a botanist and engineer with the ability to MacGyver the heck out of anything he finds, tries to survive long enough for help to arrive. I loved the way the author jumped back and forth between Earth and Mars, with the prose of his Earth-based POVs contrasting nicely with Watney’s log entries. And his main character’s sense of humor is a lovely counterpoint to the dryer science sections.

While my head was still in space, I turned to a brand new debut. Uncommon Purpose by PJ Strebor is the first of his Hope Island Chronicles, a series that tackles the war between the Athenian Republic and the Pruessen Empire, following Nathan Telford as he grows up and trains to fight against the cruel Empire responsible for enslaving his family in his youth.

Though a little dark and bloody at times, young Telford’s story is a gripping one and you can’t help but root for this determined young survivor. The last third is particularly exciting and I recommend reading it when you absolutely do not have to put it down. Because you won’t want to.

I recently discovered the Pax Arcana series by Elliott James, and read the third book, Fearless, over the winter break. This is urban fantasy at its best, with a great cast of characters and some interesting and unusual mythological creatures added to the mix.

In Fearless, werewolf and former Knight John Charming must infiltrate a secret supernatural fight club to save a blushing virgin from certain death – even though the virgin in question is a nineteen-year-old college boy. John is a great character, and the Pax Arcana stories are always fun and fast-paced, filled with great dialogue and terrific action.

Now Reading: Love me some Viking wrath…

On my Kindle at the moment is Path of Gods, the third and last installment of the Valhalla Saga by Snorri Kristjansson. I’m only a couple of pages in, but the first two books in the series were a bundle of blood, guts, and Viking glory, and this one promises to live up to the others and deliver a smashing great sword-shattering time.

To Read:

For once, despite my self-made promise never to let unread books gather, I actually have both a physical to-read pile and a digital one. Yikes! A few titles that have wriggled to the top of the pile:

Road Brothers by Mark Lawrence, because who wouldn’t want to read more about Jorg’s band? A short story collection that I’m looking forward to tackling.

The Art of Forgetting: Rider by Joanne Hall, a coming-of-age fantasy tale following a boy’s journey to become a cavalryman.

Flesh and Wires by Jackie Hatton, a post-alien invasion story set right here in my current home state of Connecticut.

So there, lots of books to read and lots of tea to drink while outside the frost sparkles and the cold gives me plenty of excuses to stay home with a blanket. If you need me, I’ll be the one keeping warm under all those words and worlds…

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Snow Dragon, because winter.

Spotlight on SFF Gatherings with Alex Davis, Joanne Hall, and Steven Poore

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Reading is a solitary pastime, yet social gatherings lie at the heart of many reading and writing communities. From small get-togethers, such as book clubs and writer’s groups, to large conventions with thousands of attendees, there is something for everyone. These gatherings serve as meeting places for like-minded enthusiasts to discuss everything from the newest book releases to the trials and tribulations of the publishing world.

Susan Boulton, author of the Gaslight fantasy Oracle, went to her first SFF convention back in 2006. “I went (to Eastercon UK) because a fellow writer had persuaded me to go, saying it would give me a feel for the genre and the publishing business as a whole. I went, enjoyed it in some ways, but in others I found it very overwhelming and intimidating. I decided not to go to another. I then received an email from someone I had met there, saying they had enjoyed meeting me and looked forward to seeing me again at another convention. So I thought I would book to go just for the day to the British FantasyCon.

“I was surprised at how many people, who I had met at Eastercon, remembered me, and introduced me to others. I came to realise that, yes, the business side of conventions is interesting, helping you understand publishing and make contacts, but far more important is the friendships that you make. You share the pleasure of seeing the various guests of Honour, panels and events, but you also enjoy the days and nights spent talking not only about the genre, but everything and anything.”

Sometimes genre gatherings can serve as work inspiration. Librarian Tina Panik, who organizes a yearly local convention besides fandom meet-ups, regularly attends the New York Comic Con fishing for ideas she can use in her job. Tina, the reference and adult services manager for her library, believes that, “The best way to bring the stories, characters, and images from the comic and graphic novel world to life is to attend a con. Between the people, the cosplay, and the guest speakers, your imagination will ignite with ideas. The crowds are friendly, the experts are willing to share, and the merchandise is fantastic.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to attend genre get-togethers. But what happens on the other side, the backstage, so to speak? What’s it like organizing an event, bringing together readers and authors, fans and trade professionals? I’ve invited three guests to tell us a little about what goes into running SFF meet-ups and conventions.

Writer and editor Alex Davis is the author of The Last War (Tickety Boo Press, 2015), the first novel in his science fiction Noukari Trilogy, besides several short stories. Alex also runs a local press, Boo Books, and organizes a twice-yearly convention in Derby. Edge-Lit – and it’s brand new winter offshoot Sledge-Lit – includes ‘panels, readings, workshops, book launches and plenty more besides’ in a one day event that aims to be friendly and welcoming. Alex is also chairing the 2016 edition of the UK national FantasyCon, organized by the British Fantasy Society.

Joanne Hall, Acquisitions Editor for Kristell Ink, is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including The Art of Forgetting duology (Kristell Ink, 2013-2014) and Spark and Carousel (Kristell Ink, 2015). Joanne has chaired Bristol’s only science fiction and fantasy convention – BristolCon – for the past six years, and also runs the Bristol Fantasy and SF Society Facebook page. The one-day BristolCon has panels, workshops, kaffeklatsches, an art show and a dealer’s section, and aims to be a ‘fun, friendly and informative addition to the UK’s convention calendar’.

Steven Poore is the author of The Heir to the North (Kristell Ink, 2015), the first in his Malessar’s Curse duology (the sequel, The High King’s Vengeance, is due in late 2016), besides the ongoing science fiction series The Empire Dance and several short stories. Steven organizes the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social Club (SFSF Social), a semi-regular gathering in an informal setting that brings genre enthusiasts together for author readings and Q&A’s, giveaways, and plenty of good conversation.

Juliana: What were some of the first SFF events you attended, that sparked off your interest for this sort of gathering?

Alex: Most of my initial engagement in writing events was with book festivals and writing groups, so that was all kinds of different genres. But I was always hugely interested and a big fan of genre fiction, so that was always an area I wanted to explore – and I think it’s fair to say genre fiction doesn’t always get a fair crack of the whip where it comes to literature festivals. So when all my volunteering work led me to a paid role as Literature Development Officer, I was really keen to get something going with a real literary feel but looking at genre fiction, which is where Alt.Fiction came from back in 2005. My first convention-going experience was EasterCon in Glasgow, which helped to crystallise a lot of what I really wanted from my event – a focus on writing, pure and simple, without any of the added elements that come at a multimedia convention.

Steven: Before Alex Bardy started up the York Pubmeets, there wasn’t anything happening up here apart from EdgeLit and the usual annual conventions. Angry Robot had brought five of their authors to Sheffield once, for an afternoon, but that really was it. Alex told me about his idea and convinced me to come up to York, with a couple of friends, to attend the first Pubmeet, where David Tallerman and Janine Ashbless were reading. Actually, I didn’t need all that much convincing.

Joanne: The first big SFF event I remember attending was FantasyCon in Nottingham. I’m not sure what year it was but Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker were there. I don’t think I got as much out of it as I could – I hadn’t been to a convention before and I didn’t really know anyone and I was very shy. After that I went to a few commercial events, and for a few years I attended MicroCon, which is the long running convention organised by Exeter University’s SF society, which helped me get over some of my shyness and made me want to attend bigger conventions again!

Juliana: How did you move from simply attending to helping organize SFF gatherings? 

Alex: My role at Derby City Council gave me the freedom to run a host of different events, and I was a bit nervous to pitch Alt.Fiction as an event to my boss at the time. But luckily enough they went for it and I even managed to get some Arts Council funding, which was a huge help. Immediately I had a feel there was a hugely welcoming community there, and people were amazingly willing to help and support me in getting something new off the ground. Having run the one event I found myself getting a lot more active, becoming much more aware of the many conventions going on and attending things like FantasyCon and NewCon.

Joanne: It was a combination of beer and being broke…

I was in the pub with my friend Colin, and we were chatting about what a shame it was a city like Bristol, which has a thriving SFF scene, didn’t have its own convention, and what a financial burden it was to have to travel to London or Nottingham or Brighton for the big three-day cons. We decided what we wanted was a local, affordable convention, and as the conversation became more… lubricated… it sounded like a better and better idea to organise one ourselves. So we did. The first BristolCon ran for an afternoon and had around sixty attendees, but everyone had such a great time that we immediately decided that we were going to do another one.

Steven: I blame Alex. It’s all his fault. 🙂 After the first Pubmeet I talked to him at Fantasycon and said “If only there was something like this in Sheffield.” He vanished, then came back and said, “Adrian Tchaikovsky will do a reading for you.” And suddenly I was an event organiser.

Juliana: Could you tell us a little about the events you’re currently involved in?

Joanne: I’m currently the chair of BristolCon – we have a committee of about 10-12 people who organise it and my job is to keep them on track and to occasionally keep the peace between them! BristolCon is a one-day convention that takes place in Bristol every October; this years’ event takes place on October 29th and our Guests of Honour are Ken Macleod and Sarah Pinborough, while our Artist GOH is Fangorn. You can find all kinds of information about it at www.bristolcon.org. It’s great fun, it’s a really friendly event, and very relaxed.

Steven: Mainly it’s the Sheffield Fantasy & Science Fiction Social, which we abbreviate to SFSF (“We” being myself and fellow fans Kathryn, Darren and Sara). We’ve hosted authors from as far afield as Chesterfield and San Francisco! We’ve found that the structure of readings & Q&A sessions, followed by giveaways, is one that really does work and doesn’t need much fiddling with. SRFC [Super Relaxed Fantasy Club] have really set the bar for us in that respect. We have started to change it up a little as we’ve become more confident – last time we hosted an Ask The Agent session with Amanda Rutter, and our next Social will feature Adele Wearing talking about the award-winning Fox Spirit Books.

Alex: I’ve got two main events on the go at the moment – in July I’m running the fifth Edge-Lit event, which takes place at QUAD in Derby on the 16th July. We had a really big year last year with about 250 people attending, so we’re looking forward to expanding on that while keeping the friendly and welcoming vibe which has made the event so popular over the years.

This year I’m also chairing the British Fantasy Convention, FantasyCon, which will be taking place in Scarborough from the 23rd-25th September – the hotel is right by the beach, so we’ve dubbed it FantasyCon By The Sea! We’re expecting around 500 people for that, potentially more, so it’s definitely a big undertaking but hugely exciting. We’ve already announced a couple of great Guests of Honour, and have plenty more goodies up our sleeves yet!

You can check out those gigs at www.derbyquad.co.uk and Fantasyconbythesea.com respectively. 

Juliana: What are the biggest challenges in putting together an event of this sort?

Joanne: I think the first big challenge is finding a suitable venue – one that’s accessible and affordable, with good transport links and the right sort of layout to run panels and workshops and provide social space. Then you need a good team of people – no one can run a convention without help, but organising a team of unpaid volunteers brings its own challenges. Everyone who is involved in BristolCon is there because they want to support the con, but they don’t always agree on the best way to go about it!

Alex: For me any event is made up of a certain number of processes – there’s a lot of logistics and a lot of ins and outs, and things can live and die on what look like small details. The one thing that’s always difficult is programming, connecting with the right authors and speakers and getting the right kind of balance in terms of panels, workshops and other activities. You need to have things that are insightful but also enjoyable. Guests of Honour are also a unique challenge, as high-profile and bestselling authors tend to get booked up early. 

Steven: Getting the word out to people. This is the frustrating part, and the nerve-wracking part, for me. There must be so many people in South Yorkshire who read SFF, but they don’t know the Socials are there. That means you get folks on the city council who think there isn’t a demand, so they don’t want to know when you’ve got something to offer them and so on… I always worry that nobody’s going to turn up. For someone who has an on-off relationship with crowds, that’s a weird feeling.

Juliana: And what do you find are the biggest rewards? What is it that keeps you going? 

Steven: Meeting new people who are just as enthusiastic as I am about the genre – that’s the big one. And when you hear feedback about the events, that makes it all worthwhile.

Alex: Basically it’s being there on the day, seeing it happen and seeing people enjoying themselves and hopefully being inspired by the event! The whole thing has no life other than on paper for the better part of a year, and to see all of that come together over the matter of a few days is just phenomenal. It’s exciting also to see an event grow and expand – seeing the comments on social media post-event gives you a nice warm glow!

Joanne: The cake (anyone who has been to BristolCon knows about the cake…)

Seriously, the biggest reward is seeing everyone have a good time, seeing people really fired up with enthusiasm for this thing you’ve organised. For me one of the most brilliant things has been watching people who came to BristolCon as novice or unpublished writers go on to write books, sign deals, have great success and come back as panellists. I like to think that the things they gained from attending BristolCon helped them on that path. A big part of our remit is to encourage emerging local talent, with both BristolCon and our Fringe events, and when we achieve that it’s a great feeling.

Juliana: The baby steps question! For anyone interested in starting up some sort of SFF meet-up or event in their area, what tips can you share?

Joanne: I wouldn’t suggest they throw themselves straight into con-running – BristolCon grew from an existing SFF group in the city. But if anyone out there wants to start an SFF group, pub meets or reading nights, I’d say go for it. It doesn’t take as much organisation as you might think. You just need a room or space in a friendly local pub or community centre (and I’d like to give a shout out to The Shakespeare Tavern on Prince Street which is the SFF pub-hub where we have all our pub nights, Fringe Readings and BristolCon committee meetings), and some like-minded people. If you’re doing readings you will also need some kind of portable PA system if your pub doesn’t have one.

We do all our shout-outs and interaction via social media, either on Facebook (The Bristol Fantasy and SF Society) or Twitter (@hierath77).

Steven: Don’t be afraid to ask. Authors want an audience. Even if they have to decline first time around, if you’re polite and professional (hopefully I’m getting there!) they’ll remember you’re there. And be realistic about what you can achieve – don’t try to run a whole con on your first date! And remember that everybody wants an event to succeed and be fun.

Alex: For me there are two things you need to do before starting – find a venue and have a budget that works. If you don’t have those two, then you don’t have any event. Look around for the right place, somewhere you want to work with, somewhere that gets what you’re about. Then make sure you have a few quid to get things rolling – you can often sell tickets, depending what kind of event it is – but you’ll probably need some cash for authors, venue costs, marketing… also don’t be shy to have a word with some other event organisers, most are very happy to help and offer advice! 

Juliana: If you were given an unlimited event-going budget, what would be on your wish list of cons and gatherings? 

Alex: Being as I live in the UK, I’d love to get over to the US and go to some of the big conventions over there! Something like a World Fantasy Convention or World Horror Convention would be fantastic. 

Joanne: I’d like to go to some of the big American conventions – I’ve heard very good things about WisCon and Convergence, so they would both be on my wish list. And I’d like to go to WorldCon in Helsinki in 2017 – that looks like it’s going to be amazing!

Steven: I keep looking at Nine Worlds and thinking if only my budget would stretch… and WorldCon in Helsinki. And the BristolCon Fringe. All of them, to be honest!

Juliana: If you could invite any three authors, living or dead, to attend your next SFF event, who would you pick? 

Alex: Blimey, there’s a question! For living authors I’d absolutely love to have Michael Moorcock, who was such a formative part of my teenage years and a huge influence on me. Unfortunately my other two favourite authors of all time are no longer with us – Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. That would have been some line-up!

Steven: Tad Williams. Mary Shelley. Iain M Banks. There would be many more, but heck, one event at a time! 🙂

Joanne: I’d like to pick three authors we would have liked to have had at any BristolCon if the circumstances had been different. So, Diana Wynne Jones, Iain M Banks and the late great Colin Harvey, because it was all his drunken idea in the first place….

Juliana: Thank you very much to Alex, Joanne, and Steven for sharing a little of what goes into organizing genre events. Here’s to many more years of successful gatherings! And cake.

Steven Poore blogs at http://stevenpoore.wordpress.com, and you can also find him on Facebook: facebook.com/thestevenpoore. On Twitter, he tweets both as @stevenjpoore and as @SFSFSocial, the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social’s account.

For more information on her work, as well as blog posts and reviews, check out Joanne Hall’s website at https://hierath.wordpress.com. You can find Joanne on Twitter @hierath77, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Hierath77/?ref=br_rs.

Alex Davis shares interviews, writing advice, and information on his work at  http://alexblogsabout.com, as well as on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/alex.davis.161446. Alex tweets as @AlexDavis1981.

 

Find further information on the events mentioned at:

http://sfsfsocial.wordpress.com (First social of the year: February 20th, 2016)

http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/special-event/edge-lit-5 (July 16th, 2016)

http://fantasyconbythesea.com/ (September 23rd-25th, 2016)

www.bristolcon.org (October 29th, 2016)

 

 

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out December’s Spotlight on Mythology in Fantasy with Snorri Kristjansson and Kerry Buchanan. Next up in February: Spotlight on Making Time to Write.