Monday, 18 August 2014

Nine Worlds 2014 (Part 2)

Part of my plan for Nine Worlds was that I'd make a proper go of the Saturday, according to the logic that the middle day of a convention is invariably the one most worth devoting your energies to.  This was why I'd gone to bed at a reasonable time the night before and this was why I dragged myself out of bed at an entirely sensible nine o'clock in the morning, having slept for precisely twelve minutes due to my misguided attempt to save money by staying in the cheapest place I could find.  So up I got and out I went, arriving just in time for the first program slot. I picked a lecture on Temporal Lobes and Spiritual Experiences, which turned out to be not such a great start: a rather dull and aimless take on an interesting subject.  Not to be deterred, I used the opportunity to wade through the schedule (of which there remained an insane eleven pages worth) and then left half way through and milled until the next slot.  I tried for Writing the Other, which turned out to be advance booking only, despite the program saying nothing of the sort.  In vague desperation, I wandered into Policing the Net, mostly because it was next-door.  Not a bad choice as it proved; Jane Fae offered some intriguing food for thought on the topic of - yes - policing the net, and if I didn't agree with most of her conclusions, at least it was interesting to hear them.

Annie Catling, Emma Newman, Labyrinth, my favourite Nine Worlds photo.
For the first of the afternoon slots there was nothing I was terribly excited about, so I took a stab at If A Woman Was Cast As the Doctor from the Doctor Who thread, mostly because Adrian Tchaikovsky was a panelist.  Having quite enjoyed it for forty-five minutes I began to realise that I'm not that interested in Doctor Who, and since everyone on the panel agreed on every front - yes we need a female Doctor, yes the sooner the better, yes a female Doctor would be best served by a female show-runner - I felt it lost focus a bit in the last half hour.  (I'm not entirely sold on seventy-five minute panel slots.)

By this point I was eager for fresh air and food.  So I wandered back to the nearby pub and ordered lunch, which led to me somehow getting embroiled in a plot by the bar staff to clingfilm the chef's car and after that to a half hour's reading about feral children.   Fortunately at that point Dan came to join me and together we wandered back to catch the Bechdel Test panel - which turned out to be full.  This time at least we were allowed to sit in the corridor and listen, and it proved to be a solid debate, not to mention one I really wished I'd been a part of.

Fortunately I was on the Blurred Lines: Boycotting and Buying In panel that followed, with Dan Hart, Melissa T and my good friend and one-time comics dealer Alasdair Stuart, and, like all my panels really, it turned out to be a lot of fun.  Perhaps in subconscious response to the lack of vitriol on the Doctor Who panel I decided to play devil's advocate, and then quickly found myself questioning my own ethical stance; but it all ended up okay because I got to plug Kathryn Immonen's entirely marvelous Journey into Mystery run.

My plan from that point onward had basically involved passing the remainder of the night and a good proportion of the morning in the bar, something I felt I'd earned after being so sensible the night before.  However I'd run into my friend Flick in the Bechdel Test panel and she'd persuaded me that we should team up and ace the film quiz later than night.  Sadly the quiz turned out not to be a quiz at all but some sort of ... thing ... full of squeeing and shouting and throwing of stuff.  I managed about ten minutes and then made my excuses (which I seem to remember were, "this is my idea of hell"), and fled to - you guessed it! - the bar.  Fortunately Flick chose to follow and we hurriedly invented our own film quiz, which mostly revolved around Disney movies.

Having finally drifted back to my guest house sometime after three in the morning, I didn't do quite so well at getting up the next morning and missed the first slot, but that was okay because there was nothing I'd wanted to go to anyway.  There were a few things I fancied in the late morning slot but nothing that quite managed to outweigh my hangover, so in the end it was half one and the Gamification of Everything lecture that turned out to be the proper beginning of my last day.  It was interesting in that gamification's a fascinating topic, but disappointing in that it seemed to be geared towards a corporate audience that Nine Worlds clearly wasn't.

At any rate it did a good job of passing the time until quarter past three and my last panel, More Than Mild Peril, a discussion on young adults and children in comics with (deep breath) Louie Stowell, Kate McAlpine, Emma Vieceli, Malin Ryden, Melissa T, Heather Wickson, Nat Wilkinson and Charlotte Geater.  Of everything I was doing this was the one I'd been most nervous about, because there were nine of us on there and I couldn't imagine how a panel could work with that many people.  But it did, and it did really well, and in fact it turned out to be one of the best panels I've ever been on; the presence of a couple of young adults in the debate on what's interesting or appropriate for young adults was a stroke of brilliance.  All told it was a great note to end my Nine Worlds experience on.

Now, reading over what I've written I'm aware that it sounds like I didn't have such a great time and that I wasn't overwhelmed by the content I experienced, and thinking about it, I guess both of those things are true.  But they're not really a criticism of Nine Worlds, for two reasons: first, as I said in part 1, I had some personal stuff going that somewhat dampened my enjoyment, and second because, more than any other UK convention out there, Nine Worlds is what you make of it.  It offers an abundance, even an overabundance of content, and then challenges you to do with it what you will.  And not all of it's brilliant, and definitely not all of it's for everyone, but that's okay, because there's just so damn much.  Nine Worlds takes effort, but it also rewards it.

So I guess what I'm saying is, it wasn't Nine Worlds that failed but me.  I definitely wish I'd devoted more time to the Comics strand; looking back over the program there are a few others things I can't believe I didn't manage to find time for.

Oh well!  Next year I'll do better.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Nine Worlds 2014 (Part 1)

I mentioned in my last post that, although I'd definitely had a mostly-good time, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about my Nine Worlds experience.  A couple of days on and I'm clearer, though perhaps still not entirely there.  Part of the problem, I think, is that I was just expecting too damn much - the excellence of last year but with the rough edges shaved off, basically - and that was not entirely reasonable.  Part of the problem, too, was that there was some last-minute personal stuff that made the whole experience a bit more stressful that it might have been.  However with a couple of day's perspective I suspect that the remaining part is that it was just the teeniest bit disappointing; probably as good as last year's Con, which lest we forget was pretty damn great, but without those refinements to the formula I'd hoped the intervening year might have produced.

Now out, Germany.
Anyway, I'm preempting myself here, so maybe I should just talk about what actually went on instead.  The day got off to a pretty good start when I traveled from Leeds to London on a freebie first class ticket that East Coast had given me to apologize for once making me two and a half hours late, and I arrived in King's Cross with a proper breakfast in me and my socialist ideals somewhat tarnished.  From there I made a brief trip up the Northern line to visit my agents, Zeno, who were holding some copies of the just-out paperback release of the German edition of Giant Thief for me.  Then, with yet more books in my rucksack - I think I was up to sixteen by this point - I headed back south and picked up the Piccadilly Line for Heathrow.  From there I hurried to Nine Worlds, checked in, rushed on to my guest house, checked in there too, had a quick and much needed shower and dropped off my bag and headed back to the conference hotel - and then kept going, to grab a sandwich from the nearby garage - and finally, finally, properly arrived at Nine Worlds at somewhere around three o'clock.

Thus began a rather irritating trend that would end up being one of my few gripes with the convention, as I dashed to the Archeological World-building talk only to be turned away because the room was full.  (In the end this happened three times over the course of the weekend; as Oscar Wilde famously said, to misjudge the audience size for one panel may be regarded as a misfortune; to misjudge three looks like carelessness.)  Oh and hey, let's get most of the grumbling out of the way right here, shall we?  As someone who believes in sustainability, not to mention not carrying around loads of crap I don't want, I really don't want a plastic carrier bag full of books I'll never read and adverts and booklets and little plastic tokens that don't look even slightly recyclable.  Seriously, I get that everyone does this, Nine Worlds, but you guys know better.  And in fact, what with the millions of plastic cups floating about and a few other things, things were pretty crummy on the giving-the-slightest-crap-about-the-environment front.  Please will someone in the Con scene set a precedent for not getting this so wrong?  And since no one else seems even close to trying, please could it be Nine Worlds?

Okay, done grumbling!  (Well, mostly.)  So, denied enlightenment on the Archeological World-building front, I gave in to my baser Con-going instincts and retired to the bar to meet my friend and bestselling-author-to-be Dan Scrivener, and sometime after that my friend (and probably also bestselling-author-to-be) Jobeda Ali.  And both of them were nice enough to buy my drinks, which - not being an oil baron - I would otherwise have struggled to afford.  (Damn it!  Okay, now I'm done.  For this post anyway.)

All of this afternoon drinking was in fact just psychological preparation for early that evening, when came my third-ever stab at panel moderating: the Writing Trans-Media panel.  This time around, however, what with the whole 'writing being the day job' thing, I had one advantage I'd never had in the past: I was shockingly over-prepared.  I mean, 'two pages of questions with sub-questions, having researched my panelists and even prepared specific questions for them' over-prepared.  And having done it that way once I'm convinced it's the way to go in future, because once we got started I wasn't a bit nervous, things went unexpectedly brilliantly, and my panelists - Barry Nugent, Anna Caltabiano, Simon Guerrier and Adam Christopher - were every one of them completely great.  If you happen to read this, thank you everyone, you made a scary thing painless to the point of being actual fun.

After that, of course, it was back to the bar. This being my third Con near Heathrow and my second in that particular hotel, I now know the area distressingly well, so I dragged Dan to a half-decent pub nearby and then back to the hotel bar, where we eventually ran into Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ian Whates and - it being a bar - lots of other people.  But because I was determined the learn the lessons of all the conventions I've made a hash of in the past, I retired at the entirely sensible hour of midnight to my guest house cell.  (I mean this in the monastic rather than the prison sense.  It was spartan, but there were no bars on the windows.) 

Thus ended Friday.  Next: Saturday!  Sunday!  Less griping!  More drinking!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Short Fiction News, Mid-2014

I'm currently on the train back from Nine Worlds, which was for the most part a lot of fun, but which I'm at this precise moment too tired, hungover, and not-quite-sure-of-exactly-what-I-thought to try and blog about.  So here's one I prepared earlier...

I remember writing quite a grumbly post when I got my first short story acceptance of 2014, that being Twitcher to the fine folks at Pseudopod, thanks to the fact that it came in goddamn May and four and a bit months is a fair while to go without a sale.  (In fact it had been quite a bit more than that because the tail end of 2013 hadn't been exactly brilliant either.)  Well, it's August now and I'm grumbling substantially less.  In fact if things were to keep on like the last couple of months then I'd be happy indeed ... which of course they probably won't, so I'd better get my positivism in while I can:

- First up I sold Twilight For the Nightingale, the story I'd been unhelpfully referring to as my homoerotic supervillain story, to Resurrection House's forthcoming XIII anthology.  I'm hopeful that this will be one of those rare perfect pairings of story and market, because it sounds like it's going to be a terrifically bonkers book.  I mean, you know when editors normally say they want something a bit like Neil Gaiman or whatever?  Mark Teppo name-checked Kafka, Gene Wolfe, Darren Aronofsky and David Lynch.  I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on this one.

- Out of the blue I got some good news, not to mention a little unexpected cash, when Kat Rocha of 01 Publishing got in touch to say that the previously e-book only Whispers From the Abyss collection, which includes my My Friend Fishfinger By Daisy, Age 7, had done well enough to warrant a print edition.  As I've noted before now, this was a terrific little collection and deserves to do well.  I've since discovered that 01 have run a Kickstarter for the project, which has finished now but remains well worth checking out for its fantastic trailer.  If I wasn't due two copies as a contributor then I suspect this would have been the first Kickstarter I got actively involved with, because I want me a Star Spawn poster something bad.

- Soon after that I got my quickest ever acceptance, when relatively new outfit Eldritch Press got back to me within four hours to say that they'd like to take my story Br(other) for their upcoming Our World of Horror anthology.  I genuinely assumed this was some sort of mistake until the contract came through, because four hours.  That's barely even a real amount of time.  I mean, I've spent that long in the shower before now.  Anyway, if the cover art is anything to go by then this one is going by both great and seriously warped. 

- I realised that I might as well send one of the short comic scripts I've been sitting on for years to Futurequake, who published a couple of my early efforts in that department a few years back.  The one I opted for was a story called Conservationists,which I'm hopeful may be the only occasion of anyone telling an alien invasion story through the eyes of an urban fox.  It's a frankly insane, completely dialogue-free bit of work, and I can't wait to see what an artist makes of it.

- Last but not least, and unusually up to the minute in that I only found out three hours ago, but Jonathan Green, official Nicest Man in Fantasy (and yet, paradoxically, the world's meanest Just a Minute player), let me know that he'll be using my The Shark in the Heart for his forthcoming-next-year-from-Snow Books anthology Sharkpunk

Because yes, apparently, now that's a thing.

So there we go.  I'm still way behind on my target for this year, which should theoretically be going really well due to all the additional time I have and in fact is going worse than last year, when I had hardly any time at all.  But a couple of good months surely does take the edge off, and who knows?  There may yet come another surge of goodnewsery before the year is out.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Nine Worlds Schedule 2014

So you're going to be at Nine Worlds this weekend, right?  Of course you are.  If it's anything like last year's debut, it promises to be the Convention event of the year.  And even if it isn't it should be pretty great, what with more programming than approximately eleven normal conventions.

Unusually for me, I'm pretty much going along for the whole thing, from Friday lunchtime onwards.  Below is my panel schedule.  I'm also moderating that first panel on the Friday evening, which threatens to be something of a graveyard shift slot, so if you happen to find yourself with nothing else to do then please do turn up to give your support and ask some transmedia-related questions:
  • FRIDAY 8th AUGUST, 6.45pm - 8.00pm 
    • Writing Transmedia: ideas that cross formats and boundaries.  Because a story can also be an app, computer game, v-log, fanvid, web series, docu-drama, interactive e-book, diary comic, inter-sensory experience or any other format currently existing or yet to exist not listed here. Kind of against the spirit of the thing, if you ask us. Guess you'll just have to go to it in person.  With, Barry Nugent, Anna Caltabiano, Simon Guerrier, Adam Christopher 
  •  SATURDAY 9th AUGUST, 6.45pm - 8.00pm
    • Blurred Lines: boycotting & buying in.   What's a fan to do when the people responsible for a comic you love do things you hate? We try to plumb the ethical minefield of purchase-as-support.  With, Dan Hart, Melissa T, Alasdair Stuart, Hazel Robinson
  • SUNDAY 10th AUGUST 3.15pm - 4.30pm
    • More-Than-Mild Peril: beyond sidekicks.  Young adults and children in comics: from fridges to firefights, legacy, parents and representation.  With, Louie Stowell, Kate McAlpine, Emma Vieceli, Malin Ryden, Melissa T, Heather Wickson, David Tallerman, Nat Wilkinson, Charlotte Geater

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Fantastical and Super Relaxed in York

It's been all of an age since I last attended any kind of writing and / or genre-related do in York, and a large part of the reason for that - as organizer of the joint BFS / BSFA / Super Relaxed Fantasy Club event that took place there yesterday, Alex Bardy, was quick to point out - is that there hardly ever are any these days.

No worlds were harmed during this event.
And also, in fairness, that I haven't lived within visiting distance of York in about five years.

But mainly that first thing.  Because it's a fact that where in London you can't step out of your door without tripping over an author reading or a book signing or a convention, here in the savage north it's quite possible to go for whole years without anyone feeling the need to put on any sort of get-together for genre fans.

It's a good thing, then, that Alex took it upon himself to get just such an event together, and a better thing that it turned out really well.  Particularly good for me I suppose, because - along with Janine Ashbless - I was one of the two authors doing readings and answering questions, having been asked to fill in when Adrian Tchaikovsky had to choose between visiting York and Spain.

Janine was on first and did a terrific reading from her forthcoming novel Cover Him With Darkness, sneakily finishing at the point where things were just about to get raunchy.  Then there was a bit of a Q&A and a brief break and I was up, reading a new(ish) and thus far unpublished short story titled Witch House

(Side note: it's really tough picking something to read when you don't exactly know the prospective make-up of your audience, even when you've written somewhere around a hundred short stories.  I mean, eliminate everything that's too long or too short, too old, too weird or too sweary (because who knows if someone's going to bring their five year old?) and you suddenly realise you aren't left with a whole hell of a lot.)

Anyway, I haven't done a great number of readings and never to quite so large a group, there being about twenty five of us gathered by this point, and so was a wee bit nervous.  A couple of pints helped, but also didn't, in that I'm hopeless with fizzy alcoholic beverages and kept wanting to pee.  But it seemed to go well enough in the end, though I'm yet to master that thing whereby you read and look at your audience at the same time because that's clearly impossible.

All told, though, everyone seemed to have a good time.  And I succeeded in not winning anything in the raffle, despite there being about as many prizes as people and my picking fifty percent of the tickets - which is actually a good thing because all of the prizes were books and my house is already on the verge of critical mass with those.  So well done to Alex for putting the thing together, for finding an excellent venue and for going to so much effort to make sure that people actually attended.  I'm already looking forward to the next one, which may or may not be timed to coincide with this year's FantasyCon.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

On Planning Or Pantsing; or, You Are What You Love but You Aren't What You Do

I read an interview piece recently where a bunch of Nebula finalists were asked whether they considered themselves planners or pantsers* - and was reminded, not for the first time, of just how goddamn annoying I find the question.
THESE are pants.

Right off the bat, I kind of hate that term, "pantser".  All else aside, here in the UK pants are underwear rather than trousers, so it pretty much makes you sound like some kind of sex molester.  I mean, "What are you doing?", "Oh you know, just sitting around here doing some pantsing" ... that's not a conversation you want to have, not unless you have a profound urge to spend the night in a police cell.

But the other reason is, why should I have to choose?  Why should anyone?  Like so many of the things that society presents to us as as binary choices - left wing or right wing, sporty or smart, chocolate or vanilla - planning and pantsing are not mutually exclusive.  They're not even mutually incompatible.  In my own experience, they can pretty much be done at the same time.

As a writer I'm all for personal choice.  I've written Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Crime and - for want of a better phrase - Literary Fiction, and written them as prose and poetry, comics and film scripts.  I've written tweet-length fiction and novels and everything in between.  I've planned and I've pantsed, and sometimes I've even done those things in public.  And I've usually had sound reasons, but the most personal and for me the most important is, I want to have fun with this stuff.  If writing's a sandpit, I want to play in as much of it as I can while I can.

Not only that but I wholeheartedly believe that experimentation makes you a better writer.  Sure, there's an argument for specialization, and let's face it, many an author has done perfectly well from writing the same book over and over again - and some of them were even really good - but as a rule the way you get better in this industry is surely by stretching yourself rather than by limiting yourself.  It's how you figure out what you can do and what you want to do, the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you're capable of being.

So maybe you're a hardline planner.  Maybe you just love to pants.  However dodgy one of this things might sound, that's absolutely your right.  And sometimes it's fun to stick labels on yourself; it's a big part of how we human beings conduct our day-to-day existence.  But as a writer all I'm saying is, be wary of letting those labels define what you are or aren't capable of.  Be wary of doing the wrong thing because you've decided it's the thing that you do.  Planning is a tool.  Not planning is a tool.  Every possible approach to what you do is a tool in your toolbox, and it's up to you to decide how you go about using them. 

* For those who don't know, "pantsing" is writing by the seat of your pants - i.e. without a plan.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book Ramble: Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

At this stage it's becoming apparent what we can expect from an Ian Sales Apollo Quartet novella: alternate histories of the Apollo space program, lovely yet minimalist design, meticulously researched, detail-laden hard science and superficially straightforward narratives with subtle twists, sometimes so subtle you can only understand them by reading the extra-textual material.  Which is something else they all have in common, thinking about it: appendices and plenty of them, though Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (oh, and long, wacky titles!) is relatively light in that department, with the actual narrative taking up a relatively whopping sixty percent of the page count.

So three books in and it's safe to say that there are clear patterns emerging.  However if the similarities are what justify the Apollo Quartet being an actual thing, as opposed to four books with just an author and a design ethos in common, it's the differences that are starting to become more interesting at this point.

I said in my review of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself that I found it slightly disappointing after the brilliant and BSFA award-winning Adrift on the Sea of Rains.  It's indicative of how good Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is that I now want to go back and reread it to see if I was wrong.  (I suspect I was.)  Like I said, if the similarities are what superficially grab you - and let's face it, there's something intrinsically fascinating about that alternate-history Apollo program concept - it's the fact that within the rules he's set himself Sales is crafting stories with such individually rich identities that's proving most rewarding in the long term.

All of which is to say that, despite feeling very much of a piece with parts one and two of the Quartet, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is not much like them at all.  For a start, at least half and probably a little more of it is set not outside Earth's atmosphere but beneath the ocean, as Lieutenant Commander John McIntyre and his two man crew venture in the tiny Trieste II bathyscaphe to recover what it soon becomes apparent is a downed spy satellite.  It's not particularly a criticism to say that this is the less interesting of TWtGOWDA's two plots, for while there are some genuine faults - it feels a touch padded, there are only so many times you can use the word 'abyssal' before it starts to stand out - its greatest flaw is simply that it's an intriguing story set beside a superb one.

For plot two follows the Mercury 13, America's all female astronaut team, as they play desperate catch-up with the Russians, with the ultimate goal of putting the first woman on the moon.  You remember how that happened, right?  No, of course you don't, because that's not at all the way it went down.  But perhaps it should have been, for there really was a Mercury 13, and their history - covered by Sales in a brief nonfiction epilogue - is every bit as fascinating as the fiction.

Which is to say, a lot.  Because the Mercury 13 subplot is deeply engaging stuff, and for that matter entirely novel-worthy.  The greatest frustration in Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, in fact, is that of the two plot lines it ends first - and really, that it ends at all, since I could happily have read another three hundred pages.  At any rate, it's thrilling stuff, and absolutely the best kind of feminist fiction writing, in that it makes little surface effort to convince while steadily constructing an argument of just how brazenly ignorant and absurd it is that these woman should not be given exactly the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  It doesn't proselytize, it merely shows, but it shows really well.

Like I said, the McIntyre plot pales a little by comparison, though it more than pays off by the end, when it finally interlocks with its counterpart narrative.  There are also some odd design decisions; I would really have liked a clearer distinction between the fiction and non-fiction sections, though I wonder if the lack of one wasn't deliberate.  I'll be hearing the word 'abyssal' in my nightmares.  I sort of missed have a glossary, even though one wasn't particularly required, certainly not the way it was with books one and two.  And with that, I have no more nits to pick.

Looking back, I realise I was fence-sitting a little on the Apollo Quartet.  It was hard to guess if it would be a thing of greatness or just a great novella and three unrelated sequels.  Well, I'm not fence-sitting anymore.  With Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I have no doubt that this series is going to be masterpiece, even if Sales's forthcoming All That Outer Space Allows turns out to be seventy pages of astronaut-related fart gags.  I have a feeling it won't be; I suspect it's going to be brilliant.  But even if it isn't, I'm damn sure it's going to interesting.