Writing conventions to get excited about

What’s the collective noun for a whole load of writers?
It’s a convention – yay!
The fun times during the year when lots of genre writers get together to exchange best practice and sing bad karaoke.
It has dawned on me recently that we have a slew of fabulous events on the horizon, so I put them into a calendar to see how busy things were going to get.
If you want to join me in getting excited about them, then firstly, feast your eyes on the picture:

Calendar showing upcoming conventions

Conventions are already crowding out the calendar for next year

My list. Not exhaustive!

There are many literary festivals and fun events that I haven’t included on here. 
That really isn’t a reflection on what I think about them and whether or not I’m going to them. 
This list is based on upcoming events that have fixed dates and that I am looking forward to.

Fantasycon

19th – 21st October 2018
The Queen Hotel, Chester, UK

Panels, readings, workshops and most importantly of all, seeing lots of familiar faces.

Sledge-Lit

24th November 2018, 10am-6pm
The Quad, Derby, UK

A one-day midlands-based genre convention. This is the Christmas version of Edge-Lit which happens in the summer.

Stokercon 2019

9th-12th May 2019
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

A horror convention, with a similar format to Fantasycon.
It’s unlikely that I will get to this, but I would really like to.
I went to Stokercon 2017 and I can’t wait to go to another!

Collectormania Birmingham

1st – 2nd June 2019
The NEC Birmingham, UK

Not a writers convention. This is a Comicon-style event.
Has “small press alley” which is where Iain and I will be selling books.
 

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

18th -21st July 2019
Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, UK

I’ve never been to this one, but for the last couple of years my Facebook timeline has lit up with all the fun that people are having.
There’s a very good chance that the fear of missing out will make sure that I am there in 2019

20Books Edinburgh

25th – 31st July 2019
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland
This is a conference centred around self-published marketing.
Organised by the Facebook group 20BooksTo50K®, it brings some of self-publishing’s biggest hitters to our shores.

Worldcon

15th – 19th August 2019
Convention Centre, Dublin, Ireland
A science fiction convention. Looks as though it will be fantastic.

Stokercon 2020

16th – 19th April 2020
Scarborough, UK

The news that Stokercon 2020 is coming to the UK is beyond thrilling!

 

Hoping that I’ll bump into lots of you at these events, and that I have the stamina to make it through them all!

Posted in 2018, Events Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Creepy Dolls (and how this one demanded to have stories written about it)

The Uncanny Valley

You may have come across the concept of the “uncanny valley”. This is the strangeness that humans perceive when something is very close to resembling a human, but isn’t quite right. The reason for it being described as a valley is because our acceptance of human-like forms goes up and up as things get more realistic until they reach a critical point where they horrify us. This dip in the graph is the valley.
This phenomenon is seen in waxworks, animations and robotics, and also in newer technologies that seek to immerse us into various kinds of virtual reality. Can you spot it in our virtual reality book trailer?

Creepy Dolls

It is however something that you can find much closer to home: dolls. Why do we find dolls creepy? There is something especially dreadful about a doll, which is after all intended to resemble a human baby, that is aged or damaged in some way.
Creepy dolls occupy a special place in the horror pantheon. I especially like them because they can also be funny. There was an outbreak of dolls planted into potholes in Swindon recently. 

There are companies and individuals who specialise in customising dolls to be a unique and horrific companion or ornament.

Baby

I have my own horrific companion. I acquired Baby around three years ago when Iain and I launched Beelzebelle, a book containing a baby. It seemed as though it would be a fun thing to get a baby doll and take some photographs with it. I went to the tip shop, one of my favourite places, and asked them if they had any baby dolls. They’d put this particular doll aside, with the thought of listing it on eBay because it was a reborn doll, and they can be quite costly and collectible. I can see why they might have hesitated to list this one though, because Baby has seen some trauma. Missing eyelashes on one eye, strange gouges on its face and the strangest, wildest tendrils of hair matted on top.

Face of Baby: the original creepy doll

The face of Baby

Baby is also dressed in a grubby pink romper suit, which is probably not how it left the factory.
As soon as I saw Baby I knew it was the doll for me. When I started taking pictures, it became clear that baby looks even more horrific when photographed. Baby started to come with me to writing events and family get-togethers. Baby met George RR Martin, he of Game of thrones fame, and numerous other writers.

George RR Martin with Baby

George RR Martin with Baby

F Paul Wilson with Baby

F Paul Wilson with Baby

Baby with Iain Grant

Iain Grant with Baby

It soon became clear that Baby was sticking around and became somewhat notorious on my Facebook timeline and among real life friends.

Baby tries yoga

Baby tries yoga

Baby Fiction

Would it be possible to write Baby into some stories? Baby lent itself to being a passive villain and an enabler for foolishness and stupidity and so we decided to team up Baby with some characters that we’d used in a short story we’d written as a playful tribute to PG Wodehouse.

Faithful butler James lives with his mildly idiotic master Rupert in modern day Birmingham. What would happen if we introduced Baby into the mix? It turns out that it’s a really entertaining dynamic and one that we have revisited for several more short stories. We will be releasing them shortly as two short collections: Right you are Baby! and Thank you Baby!
We can reveal the covers for these to you now, created for us by Mike Watts.

Book cover showing two men and a Baby Book cover showing two men and a Baby

Posted in 2018, Books, Writing

What price research?

Heide and I are currently working on third and fourth books in the Oddjobs series. If you’ve not read them (and you can get the first one HERE) then we should explain that they’re comedy horror novels about the government employees who have to manage upcoming apocalypse and were described by a recent reviewer as “‘Men in Black’ meets ‘Hell raiser’ meets ah, something that made you grin and laugh a whole bunch”.

All the books are set in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama) and make use of real but unlikely facts about Britain’s best city.

Oddjobs 3 and 4 heavily feature the real and imagined adventures of the Lunar Society, an eighteenth century club of industrialists and inventors, whose members included Erasmus Darwin (inventor of the jet engine and grandfather of the famous Charles Darwin), the steam engine genius James Watt, Joseph Priestley (the man who discovered oxygen) and Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin). To write these books, we needed to do some research.

The questions I want to look at in this blog are:
a) How much should we be willing to pay for decent book research? and
b) How much of that can count as a legitimate business expense (and therefore be tax-deductible)?

I’m not going to give you any answers but simply present the facts…

Item 1 – The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow – £9.99

The internet will get you so far but some of the best research is still (shockingly!) to be found in books. Jenny Uglow’s history of the Lunar Society has been utterly invaluable. It’s given us a very clear timeline of the key members’ lives and also an insight into their lives and personalities which I’ve just not been able to find elsewhere.
Of course, you don’t have to read about history. You can go explore it more directly…

Item 2 – A drive to Soho House – 6.3 miles @ 45p per mile.

It’s a twenty minute drive from my house to the Georgian house that was home to Matthew Boulton, lynchpin of the Lunar Society and the first man in the world to build what we would recognise as a factory. As of writing, HMRC will allow tax relief of 45 pence per mile for business travel.

Item 3 – Entry to Soho House – £7.00

Actually, that’s what you’d usually pay but on the morning I’d turned up, all the tour guides were off sick or something so the woman at the desk said I could have a poke around for free. I did. I was pretty much the only person in the entire building. I love Soho House. It’s mostly a recreation as it fell into serious disrepair in the 20th century and parts of it were demolished but what remains is a treasure trove of ormolu, blue john (more on that below) and inventions. Boulton’s sidereal clock became a plot element in Oddjobs 3.

Whilst there, a little inspired internet searching led me to discover that another meeting venue for the Lunar Society, Great Barr Hall, was not very far away…

 

Item 3 – A drive to Great Barr Hall – 5.3 miles @45p per mile

Actually, you can’t drive all the way there. The road that once led to it is now a gated road only open to construction traffic.

Item 4 – Entry to Great Barr Hall – Free

Are you getting the creepy abandoned house in the woods vibe? Good.

Free, unless you count the cost of the creeping dread that comes from trespassing onto the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital which is now in the middle of encroaching woodland and considerable distance from any signs of civilisation.
This was less educational but super-cool. Great Bar Hall has been falling into ruins for some decades. Like Soho House it had been put to various uses since its heyday as home to one of Birmingham’s leading industrials. Great Barr was the home of Samuel Galton, noted arms manufacturer and grandfather to Francis Galton (famously the inventor of eugenics and the phrase “nature versus nurture”).

Great Barr Hall, then St Margaret’s Mental Hospital, then this ruin…

 

So, I had some research material for Heide and me to discuss. Heide mentioned how much she despises ormolu ornaments. She has a theory that the Georgians invented it as a dare and not because they actually thought it looked nice. She was also impressed by the quantities of blue john stone that went into some of Boulton’s ornamental pieces. Blue john is a semi-precious stone but, as it can only be found in one cave system in the whole world, it is in finite supply and increasingly valuable. It also has some very queer properties involving prehistoric sea creatures and its reactions to high temperatures and gamma radiation. This sounded very interesting and possibly something that could be used in Oddjobs 4 so…

Item 5 – A drive to the Blue John Caverns in Derbyshire – 82 miles @ 45p per mile

This was a day trip and, since it’s the summer holidays here, there were certain members of my family who needed/wanted to come. Let’s call them my camera crew and research assistant.

Item 6 – Parking in Castleton for a ‘comfort’ break – £3

Look, it was a long drive and the toilets at the Blue John Cavern weren’t open because the current hot weather has totally dried up the stream that feeds their sanitation system. I didn’t want to be underground and in need of the loo.

The author’s daughter and wife – Ahem, I mean the research assistant and the camera crew.

Item 7 – Entry into the Blue John Caverns for 3 people – £30

This was a one hour tour of ‘Britain’s deepest unassisted cave system’ i.e. the deepest caves the public are invited into that doesn’t have a lift to get you to the bottom. We were shown round by guide and part-time miner, Ben. The purple-blue colour of blue john comes from the oil made from the soft tissues of the prehistoric crinoids whose fossilised remains could be seen in the cave walls. Crinoids are wonderfully Lovecraftian-looking creatures and will definitely be making an appearance in Oddjobs 4.

Crinoid fossils in the Blue John Cavern.

Some lost souls at the bottom of the Blue John Cavern.

Blue John in its natural state

The author, staring into the abyss and grinning for no good reason.

It was also a great insight into how brave/mad you’d have to be to go wandering around down there before the advent of electric lights, stairs and handrails.

Item 8 – Afternoon tea at Tilly’s tea room in Castleton – £19.30

My camera crew wanted afternoon tea (the whole tiered assortment of sandwiches and sweet things). My research assistant had to be bribed to come out with the promise of a hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream. I didn’t argue.

The camera crew and the remains of her afternoon tea

 

So… after all that expenditure, what have we gained? Richer characters? More believable historical fiction? A plot that now features time-travel clock machines, abandoned mental hospitals and prehistoric monsters? Absolutely.

The bigger question is whether I can get all of this past my accountant as a business expense.

Oddjobs 1 & 2 are available now. Oddjobs 3 & 4 will be published 2019/2020.

Posted in 2018, Books, Writing

The Virtual Reality Book Trailer – Simon Fairbanks gives it a test drive…

We met up with indie author, Simon Fairbanks, at the Edge-Lit genre fiction event in Derby last weekend and we showed him our new Virtual Reality Book Trailer. He was so impressed, we asked him to do a guest blog to describe his experiences…

Edge-Lit surpassed my very high expectations: charming authors, fascinating workshops, and table after table of great-smelling books.
One of those tables was hosted by Pigeon Park Press, AKA Heide Goody and Iain Grant, the collaborative writing duo behind the Clovenhoof franchise.
Their smorgasbord of paperbacks drew me in.
We spoke about my first Edge-Lit experience, praised the redshirted helpers, and I shared my starstruck encounters with (gasp) traditionally-published authors.

I was about to slip off to another star-studded interview panel when –
“Would you like to try our Virtual Reality Book Trailer?” asks Heide, innocently.
I blink a couple of times.
“Yes?”
I hold out my hand, expecting a sleek Oculus Rift headset – at the very least a Google Cardboard.
Instead, I am presented with a large cardboard box, boasting the insistent and what-I-now-know-to-be-accurate declaration: YOU’VE NEVER SEEN A BOOK TRAILER LIKE THIS!
“Erm, what do I do?”
Heide and Iain appear perplexed, like I had asked which end of a fork I should be holding.
“Put it on your head,” says Heide. She doesn’t add “Of course” or “What else?” but I hear it all the same.
I then notice the hole cut into the bottom of the box.
“Um. Okay. Here goes.”

My head rises into the box. It begins. My senses are assaulted with colour and lights and plastic figures salvaged from McDonalds’ Happy Meals. There are cartoonish eyes looking at me from all sides and I need to rotate the box around my head to see them all. My head is too big for the box, so the insides are too close to make out fully, which means I undergo the whole experience boss-eyed.
Was I laughing? Was I screaming?
No doubt, Schrodinger would suggest I was both laughing and screaming until someone looked inside the box.

I remember birds and Hercules and naked Barbie dolls. I think. It was all a blur.
But I do remember thinking it was a very innovative way to engage Edge-Lit punters in the Dealers’ Room.
Standing out is everything for independent authors such as Heide and Iain (and myself), especially when surrounded by booksellers brandishing the works of Big Name authors. It helps if indies have a few tricks up their sleeve, like Edge-Lit bingo sheets and the Virtual Reality Book Trailer.
On that note, Edge-Lit is a huge help for Indies in itself.

I learnt at least 18 things during the day, gaining helpful tips about rising through the Amazon charts and building a network with fellow indies writing in my genre.
Mostly, I feel fully-rebooted after my inaugural Edge-Lit visit. In the days since, I have dusted off my Moleskine and blasted through a narrative knot in my third novel, all thanks to the inspiring words of Edge-Lit authors.
In summary, Edge-Lit is very much like a mysterious box with a hole cut into the bottom…
In both cases, you should dive in head-first!

Snowflake, the latest comedy novel, by Heide Goody and Iain Grant, is a story about prehistoric pets, delinquent donkeys and becoming the person you want to be, not the person everyone else expects you to be. You can buy it here:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Snowflake-Heide-Goody-ebook/dp/B07F3X4XF2/

 

 

Simon Fairbanks is the author of The Sheriff and The Curse of Besti Bori, both part of his Nephos fantasy series. He has also published two short story collections, Breadcrumbs and Boomsticks. Simon is a committee member of the Birmingham Writers’ Group.
www.simonfairbanks.com
@simon_fairbanks
Facebook.com/simonfairbanksauthor

Posted in 2018, Books, Events Tagged with: , , , , ,

The power of local services: 4 things that can work locally

We recently blogged about micronations. If you’re not quite ready to set up an entire new country, you might want to dip your toe in the water by declaring independence for your local area in a more targeted way, perhaps with local services.

Today we’re looking at some of the fascinating ways that areas of the UK have bucked the trend and decided that a local system is better than a national one.

Complementary Currencies

There are good reasons for establishing your own currency. If you keep the money circulating locally, you’ll:

  • support the local economy
  • reduce “food miles” (the environmental cost of moving food from producer to consumer)

Totnes was the first to establish its own currency in 2007, but several British towns have followed suit. The purpose of a local currency is to encourage money to be spent with local businesses. For example, you can use the Totnes Pound in the local butchers and restaurants, but not in the supermarket chains, so money doesn’t “leak” away from the area. Some local currencies contribute part of the payment transaction into a community fund to be spent on local causes.  None of these currencies are legal tender, but they work in the same way as a gift card or a voucher, circulating between local people.

The places that do this often identify as “Transition Towns”, which is a more general initiative to promote self-sufficiency.

Local Telecoms Services

White Hull Telephone Box

Photo of a Hull phone box from CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Municipal telephone companies existed in several locations in the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, but all were absorbed by the Post Office (now British Telecom ( BT)) except for the one in Hull. As a result of this, Hull is the only place in the UK not served by BT. They have telephone boxes in the town which are cream, to underline this.

Local Energy Suppliers

In the UK’s competitive energy market, any company can apply for a supply licence. There are now over sixty suppliers of energy to UK domestic customers. Some local authorities have set up not-for-profit energy companies in order to provide local people with lower energy costs and address fuel poverty. The first of these was Robin Hood Energy, launched in 2015 by Nottingham City Council, and other towns and cities have since employed a similar model.

Sharing economy

What better way to keep things local than to share with your neighbours? The sharing economy, which has largely been enabled by the internet, means that we can all make better use of our resources by pooling them in ways that may not have been possible in the past.

Lift sharing and minute-by-minute level car rental are changing the way that we think about car ownership. Do we all need a set of ladders or a pressure washer, or can we share these things around our neighbourhood? We can certainly pass things on when we’ve finished with them, either by selling or giving them away on a listing site.

Satan reclines on his throne

If you want to read about a more outlandish and militant attempt at keeping things local, take a look at Hooflandia. Jeremy Clovenhoof has built a moat around his local pub and has set about redesigning everything from the currency to the army.

Hooflandia is available in Kindle and print versions at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hooflandia-Clovenhoof-Book-Heide-Goody-ebook/dp/B07DC6C3ZF/

https://www.amazon.com/Hooflandia-Clovenhoof-Book-Heide-Goody-ebook/dp/B07DC6C3ZF/

Posted in 2018 Tagged with: , , , ,

Talking about Genres – what makes genre fiction special?

Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.

Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors about the conventions of genre writing, what connections exist between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.

Pigeon Park Press –  What are the conventions and rules of your chosen genre?

Anna – Grimdark conventions are fairly straightforward. The usual epic fantasy tropes – conflict, war, heroes and antiheroes – but with added grimness and a decided lack of morals. Fewer clean cut heroes, and an unlikelihood of a happy ending. It’s not so much that the rules can’t be broken. Instead, if there isn’t a sufficient level of nastiness, a novel will simply be reclassified as epic fantasy. You’d have to go a very long way to fall out of the fantasy genre altogether.
Heide – Like Anna, I think it would be hard to fall completely out of fantasy. If we wrote a straight comedy story with no fantastical elements then it wouldn’t be correct to call it comic fantasy. Having said that, I could picture a straight comedy story, perhaps set in the same world as our other books but with no overt “fantasy” in the story. I really don’t think readers would care about that. If, however, we wrote a book that wasn’t at all funny then it would definitely not be comic fantasy.
Jon – The very term “Steampunk” was meant to highlight the two parts of the genre; that technology runs on an alternative form of energy than happened in reality, (steam rather than petrol/gas/electric etc), while the “punk” was meant to show the inherent rebellion toward history, convention, and maybe also the status quo. It is debatable whether the second part of the name has lived up to its potential, though, especially as airships, goggles and prosthetics are now the main (and easily recognisable) tropes of steampunk – whether they are needed or not…

James: Folk horror really needs a rural setting, ideally isolated from civilisation, where local people follow the Old Ways without interference from outsiders. Think Royston Vasey, or Stephen King’s backwoods Maine locations. The horrors are subtle, at least at first, deriving as much from the psychopathologies of the characters as anything else, but that doesn’t mean that demonic or monstrous creatures might not be lurking behind the hedgerows. It’s impossible to say what doesn’t belong in the genre; one might suggest science fiction tropes, but then look at The Midwich Cuckoos. Possibly it would be hard to see the ‘folk’ in extensively urban or futuristic environments, but then you have something like Candyman which has a strong folk-horror feel. Basically I find the notion of genre ‘rules’ an unhelpful way of evaluating a story. Everything bleeds into everything else eventually.

“Everything bleeds into everything else eventually.”

Pigeon Park Press – Do all genres bleed into each other? What are the nearest neighbours or sister genres to your chosen genre?

Anna – I think the easiest sister genre to name here is epic fantasy. It has the same epic scope and complex world building as Grimdark, and may focus on similar subjects including war and conflict, but will tend towards a lighter tone. There may be more hope and moments of levity in epic compared with grimdark, but the two genres are very closely aligned.
Heide – A sister genre to comic fantasy might be comic horror. If you’re accustomed to writing comedy (and, crucially, your audience expects it of you) then delivering comedy in a slightly different genre is an easier transition than stepping away from the funny. It’s important to realise that readers might view the subject matter very differently; gross-out humour might not appeal to the same people who enjoyed the whimsical adventures of a boy and his dragon, however if something is genuinely funny, then readers are extremely tolerant of different story forms.

Tiffani – Well, the most obvious ‘sister’ genre to historical fantasy is straight up historical fiction. Writing histfic itself is, in a sense, writing fantasy; until we build a TARDIS, we have to imagine the past as best we can with the records we have, but even those are suspect, or biased, or missing bits, etc., so we end up creating history that is arguably fictional, a fantasy. This makes the relationship between historical fiction and historical fantasy that exists in our primary world a muddy one; where does one end and the other begin? Even in historical fantasy that exists in secondary worlds (or ‘tweaked’ primary ones), the historical influences can be really heavy, which can further muddy the line. That’s where I start: in our history, building on real people or events, and then adding more fantastic elements. Get the reader to buy the historical, and they’ll go along with the fantastic, too.

 

“Get the reader to buy the historical, and they’ll go along with the fantastic, too.”

Jon – There isn’t much related to Steampunk. Except Dieselpunk, of course. And Cyberpunk. And Atompunk. Clockpunk. Gaslight. Stonepunk, Clockpunk, Elfpunk, Mythpunk and Renaissancepunk. I kid you not… Just re-imagine the era with added anachronistic technology and you’re halfway there…

 

Pigeon Park Press – with all these different genres, are there certain criticism or too-often-heard comments about your genre?

Jon – “What’s Steampunk?” is probably the most common phrase I’ve heard. I know a few in the community do get hit with the “Steampunk is fascism for nice people” comment, though thankfully I’ve never had that one myself. I suppose one possible retort is “And the Daily Mail is fascism for nasty people; make your choice.

 

“Steampunk is fascism for nice people”

Anna – “Women can’t write grimdark.” I see/read this comment a lot, but so far it’s not one that’s been said to my face, which is best for all concerned. Now, you can probably imagine my reaction to that, but rage aside, it’s patently untrue. There are a lot of us and our numbers are growing. I don’t know why men think women can’t write dark – many of the most horrifically graphic crime novels are written by women.

Heide – Anna, I feel your pain. The phrase “women aren’t funny” is one that I have heard people say, in all seriousness. I’m confused about where that notion even comes from, and what particular quality we’re supposed to be lacking. As with the writing of grimdark, it’s patently untrue, as there are lots of women out there being successfully funny. I do wonder if the same underlying prejudice is to blame. By that, I don’t mean general misogyny, but some belief that women lack (or perhaps ought to lack) the capacity to be shocking, which lies at the heart of both grimdark and humour.

Tiffani – To be honest, I don’t tend to get “off” or snarky remarks about historical fantasy, probably because so much fantasy contains historical settings and elements. It’s interesting that Anna’s and Heidi’s experiences have to do with whether or not certain people believe women can write in their particular sub-genres; I suspect one reason I’ve not received such comments is because of historical fiction being traditionally read by women and the close link to historical romance. Does this mean that what I’m doing is (unconsciously or otherwise) considered “just right” for me or other women authors? That what I’m doing isn’t in any way threatening to the sub-genre or its tradition? I’m not sure, but it is something I’m now going to be more aware of, moving forward.

 

Pigeon Park Press – Unhelpful and snarky comments aside, are there any genuine problems inherent to your genre?

Jon – One problem with the genre that is both a strength and a weakness is if you ask ten Steampunks what the movement is about, you’ll get eleven different (and sometimes quite fractious) answers… so Steampunk does contain a lot of contrariness – and even caddishness – but there are also many genuinely wonderful people within the movement, and personally I like the disagreement as we can all bring something individual to the table. Why try and limit it artificially?

Tiffani – My answer is similar to Jon’s: historical fantasy is full of so many sub-sub-genres that it is difficult to define and everyone has their own idea of what it is. If I say I write it, some people immediately think I write Game of Thrones type books, and others think I just write non-fantastic historical fiction. A recent controversy with writing anything historical is running into the misconception that people of colour and women and even LGBT+ people or people with disabilities didn’t exist “back then”. If you write a story in which someone from a marginalised group is front and centre, there are readers who will immediately dismiss it because “the history is flawed” or who argue that we are making up history to please a PC audience. It can be frustrating because the point of doing research and then writing about these characters is to show the audience that so many amazing historical people and events have been mostly lost from the records because they don’t fit the widely taught narrative. There’s more to historical fiction and historical fantasy than knights and swords and the same old stories.

Heide – In terms of comic fantasy, we need to deal with the issue of Terry Pratchett. While he has much to offer authors writing in this genre (a solid audience to target, which is very handy for marketing) he is also the inevitable benchmark, leading to “oh, they’re just Terry Pratchett wannabees” whether you intended it or not. It’s a genuine issue. The other problem is comedy itself. How funny does something have to be? Personally, I think it should make people laugh, not just be wryly amusing. It is a subjective label and invites challenge; if you’re going to tell people you’re funny, you need to deliver the laughs.

 

“We need to deal with the issue of Terry Pratchett.”

 

Pigeon Park Press – But there must be some positives too? What’s the best kind of feedback you can get in your genre?

Heide – The best feedback for comedy writers is laughs. A review for a book that says someone’s laughed out loud on the bus or woken a sleeping partner with their snorting is wonderful. If I read a short story out loud, the laughs let me know that the audience is enjoying it. I’m not sure if all writers are people-pleasers, but when you write comedy, you have the same basic urge that we all have when we’re in conversation: you want to see that the other person’s enjoying themselves and it’s at its most obvious if they’re laughing.

Jon – I think the sort of feedback that shows the reader invested/believed in the Steampunk world I created is very satisfying, as is the reader “mapping” that fictional world onto the real one and finding the parallels I was hoping to tease out.

Tiffani – Without a doubt, the best feedback comes in two forms: one is “I felt like I was in the historical time you wrote about. It felt so *real*”; the other is when a reader gets excited by learning about an historical person they didn’t know about before. I like to do research on characters that aren’t terribly well known, so it’s a lot of fun to share them with people. Granted, putting the characters into fantastic situations means I risk readers thinking the characters themselves are made up, so when a reader gets interested in the person or the historical era I feel like I’ve done a bit more than just entertain them. History is alive for me—in my head—in a certain way; it’s geeky fun to share that with someone else.

 

Pigeon Park Press – So where does your genre sit amongst others on bookshop shelves? And what does the future hold?

Heide – Comic fantasy doesn’t have own section in bookshops. It’s a shame that the “humour” section in a bookshop very rarely contains fiction, it tends to be funny lists, comedians’ memoirs or parodies of famous books. Comic fantasy lives in amongst the regular fantasy, and has to demonstrate a sense of whimsy using its cover art and blurb. Of course, ebooks are very much more discoverable using genre labels and other sorts of metadata, which makes me wonder whether genres ever really disappear. We’ll continue to see surges in popularity for some things, but if you want to seek out your favourite subgenre, you should always be able to find it.

Anna – At the moment, grimdark doesn’t have its own section in book shops – or certainly not to my knowledge. Instead, we’re in with the rest of fantasy of all stripes, and personally I think that’s right and where we should stay. The label grimdark could put off some readers who’ve only heard that it can be extreme; by putting us in with all fantasy, readers are allowed to make up their own minds without preconceptions.

Jon – Steampunk has been a funny one for some time now; it arose as a named genre in the 1980s although you can argue it existed before then in the works of Jules Verne etc. Since the eighties, however, it seems to have fluctuated in terms of visibility and popularity, with many articles floating around declaring the death/birth/death of the genre. It still seems a bit niche over here in the UK, but it’s growing; the “tropes” are becoming a little better known, with goggles popping up here and there in popular culture. So, maybe in another 40 years, it could almost be mainstream… Why not start the journey with Full Throttle, an excellent Steampunk adventure? (Editor’s note; we apologise for this blatant product endorsement. The author has been told to stand in the naughty corner and think about what he’s done).

Tiffani – As far as I know, historical fantasy has never had its own bookstore section or even shelf. Because it is so closely linked to the popular sub-genres of epic and high fantasy, I don’t think it’s going anywhere, but neither does it seem to be branching off much as a clear sub-genre that’s as immediately recognizable as other sub-genres, such as those mentioned above. Fantasy has so many overlaps that its sub-genres will wax and wane in popularity, but historical fantasy will always be around, even sometimes camouflaging itself as other sub-genres.

 

“makes me wonder whether genres ever really disappear…”

 

The Contributors

Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.

James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree was published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.

Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.

Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus

Posted in Uncategorized

Set up your own micronation for fun and profit!

We live, as the Chinese allegedly say, in “interesting times” or as internet memes would have it, in that bit of history labelled in school textbooks as ‘Factors Leading Up To…’ and followed by a section which involves maps with lots of red arrows. In such times, it’s only natural for people to want to shut the door on the world and hide. But how can you do that when even your own country doesn’t feel like your country anymore?

 

Well, the answer is simple: set up your own country. It’s easier than you think and, as long as you have a loose attitude to international law, you’ll probably get away with it. For a bit.

 

Micronations are the best place to start. A starter country, your first step on the international property ladder. Depending on your budget, you can set one up for less than the price of a house. And your country doesn’t have to be any larger than a house. The micro-micronation of Lovely, for example exists only in a single East London flat.

 

You may decide that physical size is utterly unimportant and make your nation an entirely virtual one. Wirtland is an internet-based micronation. Founded in 2008, Wirtland exists as, essentially, a website and a set of ideals. It is run by a chancellor and describes itself as a constitutional democracy. Want to become a citizen? Well, you can send an e-mail of introduction to web@wirtland.com and ask to become one of its Witizens (that’s what they are called). It has a currency, the International Currency Unit (ICU) and it has minted a number of coins. You can purchase a 24 carat gold ‘crane’ coin from the country’s website.

 

Micronations are a means for their leaders and residents to make money. Micronations across the world have successfully sold stamps, coins, passports and even aristocratic titles. You can become a lord or lady of Sealand for a mere £29.99. However, some micronations have given the rest a bad name by having been set up with the evident intention of duping gullible foreigners (i.e. everyone else) out of their money.

the Sealand platform, a micronation in the North sea

Sealand! – who wouldn’t want to be lord or lady of this place?

Soon after being set up on the Colombian island of Malpelo (before going on to claim the semi-permanently submerged Karitane Shoal plus a couple of islands and an uninhabited atoll), the Dominion of Melchizedek started selling licenses for banks and other companies which then tried to secure loans from real banks around the world. It’s a decent enough fraud scheme: make up a place, pretend to live there and use the address as a base of operations to borrow money. The debt collectors and bailiffs would be deeply unlikely to bother coming looking for you at your made-up address on your submerged island. But if dodgy dealings are your plan, don’t stop there. Be sure to sell useless insurance policies backed by your made-up banks and do get as many possible people to invest in hopeless Ponzi schemes and see how much money you can amass before government agents realise what you’re up to (a bank registered in the Dominion of Melchizedek conned 1,400 people out of four million dollars which would certainly pay for some damp-proofing in your mostly submerged bank vault).

 

But don’t be thinking that micronations are all underhanded and dodgy affairs; many come into existence because a person sees a new opportunity. The Principality of New Utopia was founded in 1999 when US businessman Howard Turney discovered there was an unclaimed plot of land in the Caribbean Sea. Though it was tiny, Turney laid claim to it, applied for nation status (the UN’s address is on their website) and launched the New Utopia project.

 

Like so many founders of micronations, Turney changed his name and became Prince Lazarus, naming himself after the Robert Heinlein character, Lazarus Long. He then embarked on a creating a new society built upon libertarian ideals and the pursuit of personal immortality. That’s actual immortality, folks – he had been injecting Human Growth Hormones for years in the belief they would stop him ageing and it seems part of the reason for founding New Utopia was to enable him to continue injecting himself with these hormones without running foul of US law. Do you fancy shipping out to a tropical hyper-capitalist utopia where you can lounge in the luxury spa all day, gamble in a Monte Carlo-inspired casino at night and know that your country is safe in the hands of an Ayn Rand-loving immortal? Well, you can’t. Lazarus Long died in 2012, aged 80 and New Utopia’s wondrous resorts aren’t yet open for business.

 

If you are sick and tired of the interfering nanny state telling you what fraudulent banks you can set up or what you can inject into yourself, setting up a micronation does seem an ideal solution. However, unclaimed parcels of land (above or below sea level) are few and far between these days. Perhaps if you want to set up a physical micronation in unclaimed space then maybe that’s where you need to go – space!

 

The Space Kingdom of Asgardia, which wins the prize for the coolest micronation name if nothing else, is a proposed nation which will exist entirely in outer space. It’s not a total fantasy. It has its first orbiting satellite already up there, although if you want to visit Asgardia-1, you might need to call ahead first. Nonetheless, if we accept it as a nation, it is the only country to entirely exist in orbit. It has over two hundred thousand applicant citizens but, currently, none of them actually live in space.

 

Space law (that’s a real thing!) is a complicated beast and Igor Ashurbeyli, who is currently bankrolling the whole project, might have trouble in both getting his country recognised and in avoiding legal entanglements with countries who already have assets in space. Nonetheless, he will probably have fewer barriers to his dream than one James Mangan who, in 1949, set up the Nation of Celestial Space and claimed all of space. That’s just greedy!

In our latest novel, Hooflandia, Jeremy Clovenhoof has much more modest ambitions. He has set up his own independent state in the local pub. Yes, he might have done this to avoid settling an unfortunately large tax bill he’s been given but that doesn’t mean his country hasn’t been founded on strong moral principles. He’s overturned the old adage that you can’t eat money by making his coins from compressed soup-powder and he’s advanced women’s rights by appointing the world’s first female archbishop. Everyone’s welcome and we invite you to come on in!

 

Hooflandia is available in Kindle and print versions at:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hooflandia-Clovenhoof-Book-Heide-Goody-ebook/dp/B07DC6C3ZF/

https://www.amazon.com/Hooflandia-Clovenhoof-Book-Heide-Goody-ebook/dp/B07DC6C3ZF/

Posted in 2018 Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Has humorous fiction lost its fizz?

champagne glasses

Where are all the funny books?
It’s apparently a question being asked by the judges of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (the only prize in the UK for comedy novels) as they have decided not to award the prize for 2018 because none of the entries was funny enough.
Can it really be true that there are no funny books, or is something else happening?
The doomsayers of the internet would have you believe that it’s a sign of the times. Writers can’t be funny in the face of so many bad things happening in the world. Jonathan McAloon asserts that comedy is now “found in books with the darkest, unhappiest subject matter”.
Perhaps the answer is actually much simpler. The growth of independent publishing is a well-documented phenomenon. There is a wealth of content that now bypasses the traditional part of the industry completely.

Those administering prizes have included specific rules to ensure that they are not besieged with self-published work. The rules for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize state that “self-published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher or where a company has been specifically set up to publish that book”. The message is clear; self-published novels are not allowed.
Heide and Iain asked some of the UK’s most successful independent comedy authors about their experiences with traditional publishing.
Stevyn Colgan was once a policeman, now he’s a writer. He worked for QI for 11 years, first on books and annuals then as a researcher and as one of the show’s scriptwriters. He found that traditional publishers “are so risk-averse now that they’re not signing comedy unless it’s by a big name or a celeb.”
Justin Lee Anderson who writes comic fantasy was told by a prospective agent that “bookshops don’t have a comedy fantasy section, they have a Terry Pratchett shelf” which very much echoes my own experiences.

What about Heide and Iain? We have been told on several occasions that “[insert publishing house] doesn’t do comedy” so we stick with independent publishing, where we know we can sell books to readers.
It should be noted that the writers mentioned here do sell books to readers – lots of books. The suspicions that persist about independent writers being those writers who aren’t good enough to get a traditional deal don’t apply here.
We wrote to the company who administers the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize to ask them whether they would consider changing the rules to include indie writers. If they do that they might just get to read some books that will make them laugh out loud.

Posted in 2018 Tagged with: , ,

Talking about Genres – Who cares about genres?

Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.

Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors whether we need genre distinctions, what problems exist within and between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.

Pigeon Park Press – Are genres important? And who are they important to?

Dean M Drinkel: Genres are important to publishers, writers and readers but for different reasons. From a genre publisher’s point of view you have to assume they are an expert in their field and (hopefully!) employ excellent marketeers / publicists etc who have the right connections in that particular genre to deliver best product and push it to the forefront. For a reader genre is important IF you like a particular genre or not – there’s (probably!) no point in buying a Mills & Boon if you were really wanting a Dean Koontz novel. Finally, for a writer, genre is important because that is more than likely where your existing fan-base is and when you release a new work they will be wanting “more of the same” – the problem for a writer comes when they want to step out of their genre…

“the problem for a writer comes when they want to step out of their genre…”

Anna Stephens: I agree with everything Dean has said here. Genre is really helpful when marketing a book, or for people who want something new to read but aren’t sure what – they can always look in the same genre as the last book they enjoyed. It’s an almost guaranteed way to find something you’ll like. Parents who ask a bookseller for recommendations for their child etc can really benefit from genre like this. It’s also helpful for publishers because they can fit the right editor to the right book and have dedicated imprints with their own business plans and aims etc. And as Dean said, genre is helpful for authors who can market themselves/be marketed as “the next (insert author name here)”

Heide Goody: I agree with everything that Dean and Anna say. Rather than saying who it’s most important to, I would take a holistic view and suggest that publishers, writers and readers all want the same thing: they want to match a reader up with the sort of book they enjoy, and genre is one of the tools that helps everyone to do that. If I am a reader who knows exactly what I like, then I can seek it out. Otherwise, the more subtle influences of the book marketer will parade the “you might also enjoy” options in front of them

Jon Hartless: Readers need it to find what they want on the shelf, marketing needs it to flog the stuff, while the supposed intelligentsia is snobby toward it. As proof of this, glance back a few years ago when Kent University quoted on its Creative Writing syllabus that students wouldn’t “write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.” The condescension was quickly called out by Twitter users, yet the university’s snide apology, “the author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games”, demonstrates the contempt the highbrows feel toward anything that is genre.

“The author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.”

William Thirsk Gaskill: There are no generic publishers. There are big publishers, and independent publishers. The distinction is difficult to define, but it is mainly to do with the size (or existence of) the marketing department. Big publishers want readers to keep buying what they are already buying. Independent publishers want readers to buy something new. As a writer, I regard genre as something either to be followed, or subverted. To use a geological analogy: genre is like a ridge that is blocking a new road. I can choose to follow it or blast a tunnel through it. The top layer is publishing conventions. The next layer is the booksellers’ expectations, and then the readers’ expectations, and finally what public understanding and taste will actually bear.

“Genre is like a ridge that is blocking a new road. I can choose to follow it or blast a tunnel through it.”

Tiffani Angus: I think genre designations are most important to publishers. They’re the ones who go to all the trouble to have categories and subcategories (and BISACs) so that book stores know where to shelve new books. Readers use them, then, to find books to buy. But we have been “trained” by this via bookshops and, before that, libraries to some extent. So readers have come, over the years (over decades) to recognize genre designations; in the early days of publishing, novels and short stories weren’t labelled in this manner. As writers, we just want to write interesting stories; too often we come up against a genre “wall” where a story we write overlaps genres and the publishers don’t know what to do with it (or don’t want it, because they don’t know how to sell it). Yet I don’t think that matters as much to readers; they just want to be entertained. This isn’t to say that readers aren’t sophisticated enough to understand genre characteristics, but I think the hoops that a story has to jump through to be labelled this or that sub-genre isn’t as important as whether it works as a satisfactory tale.

“As writers, we just want to write interesting stories; too often we come up against a genre “wall” where a story we write overlaps genres and the publishers don’t know what to do with it.”

Genres are marketing designations publishers and bookstores (and Amazon!) use to sell books, so sub-genres defined by their themes, tropes, etc. help readers find what they like. They also help writers know what their readers want and how to market themselves, especially vital in the highly competitive publishing industry. Twitter, Fb, Goodreads, etc., have also helped, resulting in hashtags that condense long descriptions. Saying something is #steampunk is so much easier and quicker than explaining its setting, general aesthetic, etc., and readers know what to expect from that more than they do if it’s just sold as SF or Fantasy.

William: One of the tasks of literature is to try to reconcile individuality versus shared experience. More individuality you might think militates in favour of more sub-genres. That isn’t necessarily true. I write literary fiction. I write about conflicted lesbians, drunks, and nutters whom people encounter at transport interchanges. That is a niche, but it isn’t a sub-genre. A sub-genre is a table in Waterstones. A niche is one particular alcove in one particular cave in South America. You might say that my work is concerned with directing the lesbians, the drunks, the nutters, and, most of all, the people who might be interested in reading about them, to that particular cave.

Dean: I think that Amazon has driven this notion of sub-genres particularly with their never-ending charts etc. This has had the knock on effect that some very bad authors can claim to be a ‘number one best seller author’ because they wrote something in a sub-genre (potentially) all to themselves. Perhaps that’s just me being grumpy and obviously I shouldn’t bemoan a fellow writer their ‘success’ – if that is indeed what it is. I don’t think we should concentrate on ‘labels’ nowadays anyway, the world I live in (quite different to the one I was born into) is much more fluid and I always get the idea that creative people have to be ‘pigeon-holed’ for some reason and if they do break out of that particular genre and write something else then heaven help them!

James Brogden: I don’t think readers think about their taste in books in those same genre terms. As a reader, I certainly don’t. I have favourite authors who I will follow as they try new things and sometimes find myself reading and enjoying a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. On the other hand you get people who expect a very narrow range of experience – largely based on cover image, I feel – who get very annoyed when you stray from that, but I still don’t think most conceptualise it in terms of ‘Oh, well that was/n’t what I expected from a folk horror novel.’

“You get people who expect a very narrow range of experience – largely based on cover image, I feel – who get very annoyed when you stray from that.”

Anna: I think people are becoming increasingly aware of sub-genres but in the broad sense, they go for the “big” monikers – sci-fi and fantasy. Occasionally online people will ask for recommendations for something specific like a new grimdark book or sci-fantasy instead, but most often I see people asking for themes: quest stories or continent/planet-spanning warfare. And all sorts of genres can fall into themes like that.

Heide Goody: I’m not sure that sub-genres are the most common way in which readers describe what they like, but they do serve a useful purpose for anyone navigating any kind of systemised book store, because it’s very easy to discover other reading material that is similar. If a sub genre becomes big enough then it will become adopted as shorthand amongst readers. I have been to a couple of readers’ groups recently and a good many people have told me that they enjoy psychological thrillers. This is a sub-genre that has exploded in popularity in recent years, and so it’s lost some of the “sub” now.

Jon: I’ve seen/heard examples of readers defining their reading pleasure quite broadly, (horror, sci fi etc), while others are far more specific. When looking for places to submit to, I have observed the same sort of thing; some publishers have very broad demands, while others – usually the smaller presses – can be very, very specific: “retro gothic psychological vegan vampire ghost horror set on Wednesday afternoon in 1897 South London” may soon be a thing…

Pigeon Park Press – What problems are there specific to the genre you write in?

William: In literary fiction, the main axes of antagonism are sophistication versus populism, and the Big 5 versus independents. I am a militant of the independently published faction. Salt is the biggest independent in the UK, short listed once for the Man Booker prize, and I have story in its next short story anthology, which should be out in July. I am hoping to use this as a springboard for my debut short fiction collection, from Stairwell Books. The big publishers still don’t want to publish short stories, which is silly, because short fiction suits contemporary life styles.

Dean: One problem we have at the moment is that there are only few writers working in the historical / horror genre. Now before people jump up and say the complete opposite, I’m sure I could reel off a handful of names but after that? The thing is, I’m all for more writers in the genre – why not? As many as possible as far as I’m concerned. We shouldn’t treat each other as enemies, we should support and promote one another which should be genre-wide. What has to be a truism however, is that any writer (new or established) has to ensure that, one, their stories are historically accurate and, two, their stories are bloody good – otherwise they are doing all of us a disfavour.

Anna: The biggest I’ve noticed, particularly in grimdark, is the prevailing misconception that only men write it. People mention Abercrombie, Lawrence, Bakker, GRRM over and over again. No one mentions Kameron Hurley, ML Spencer, JV Jones, Mary Gentle, Robin Hobb and many many more. It’s a constant battle to be recognised and it feels like however many times we discuss female authors, we never manage to break into those ‘grimdark lists’.

“However many times we discuss female authors, we never manage to break into those ‘grimdark lists’.”

Pigeon Park Press – So, if I wanted to write something in your genre, what is there to recommend it?

Heide: Firstly, do you want to write comedy? I can’t really imagine wanting to write anything else, but it’s taken me a while to understand the techniques. They can be learned, and it’s very fulfilling to make people laugh. If you write comedy then fantasy is an excellent fit for exercising those techniques. For example, the Agent of Chaos (the character who will say the unsayable or always kick the puppy) can very easily be imagined as a demon, imp or evil goblin. Fantasy also brings a genre community with it, which is useful for the community and for targeting marketing.

“Firstly, do you want to write comedy? I can’t really imagine wanting to write anything else.”

Jon: It’s a great opportunity for a shedload of research on the 19th century, so you can justifiably ignore everyone up to and including your spouse, employer, children etc, with the claim you are engaged in vital research! Or you can just make it all up and create your own specific Steampunk world; it is a very flexible format.”

Tiffani: Writing historical fantasy is a great excuse to use the stories already out there about historical people and events; you don’t have to make up a lot of it, you just have to do research to get it right. The stories are out there for you to mess with. I agree with Jon that it is an opportunity to do a lot of research, which I find particularly fun. For one novel I not only read book after book about gardening history but I also built several Pinterest boards, one for each time period/garden style, and got to go on ‘field research’ to a bunch of gardens. What’s not fun about that? What’s also great about being a genre writer is the SFF community; you make friends at conventions who you get to see a few times a year, hang out with, drink with at the bar, etc. People make connections in genre, which I’m not sure happens at the same rate in the non-genre writing community. I’ve made friends of other writers (and we go to writing workshops together), and of editors and publishers, artists and academics. By being in the community I’ve gained opportunities, such as being part of this blog, being on podcasts, being asked to contribute to anthologies. None of these would have happened otherwise. We are all a bunch of geeks who get to share and talk about the stuff we love, which can make your SFF friends feel like family.

The Contributors

Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.

James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.

Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.

Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus

 

William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.

Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.

Posted in 2018

Talking about Genres – The problems with genre writing…

Writers, publishers and readers talk about genre a lot. It’s how bookshops decide where a book belongs. It’s used to draw up charts, award prizes and produce those “If you liked this book, you might also like…” messages on-line retailers send us.

Pigeon Park Press asked a number of published authors whether we need genre distinctions, what problems exist within and between genres and what challenges they face writing in their chosen genre.

Pigeon Park Press – Does genre actually matter?

William Thirsk Gaskill – Human beings love to categorise things. We have to live with that. Most consumers like to have things pre-categorised for them, because it means they don’t have to think as much about what they are buying. My writing is an attempt to connect with readers who say they are looking for something new and stimulating – and actually mean it. With regard to marketing, genre is something writers and publishers can’t ignore. In the creation of original art, genre is something deliberately to be subverted. If successful, this results in the creation of new genres.

Dean M Drinkel – Until recently genre probably did matter, writers wrote in specific genres and readers would only read specific genres. However, like many things there is a lot more fluidity nowadays and whilst genre can be still deemed important (i.e. there are some publishers that will only publish particular genres or even agents who will only look at specific genres) what is more crucial is that whatever is written is written well. What I find interesting is when you call your work a specific genre and then somebody else calls it something different – with the Oscars around the corner, I am reminded of the furore when The Silence of the Lambs won – some called it a horror, some said it was a thriller and lots of people got their proverbials in a twist! Did it really matter? Probably not. It was a film well made, that was what was more important.

 

“…when The Silence of the Lambs won – some called it a horror, some said it was a thriller and lots of people got their proverbials in a twist! Did it really matter?”

James Brogden – Genre is the narrow point of an hourglass. Feeding in from the top, writers think more in terms of story and character rather than marketing, while at the narrow point an editor has a very clear idea of how a book needs to be marketed to be sold and so shapes it into a form which bookshops can label for their shelves. Out the other end, readers don’t think of themselves in genre terms but at the same time are attracted by covers designed by publishers to very carefully communicate genre expectations, however unconsciously. Genre is a selling tool, basically. In a nutshell, if you want to read or write books it doesn’t matter, but if you actually want to SELL them it’s crucial.

Anna Stephens – Dean and James make excellent points, especially what Dean says about The Silence of the Lambs. That blurring of genres is often something that can really help a book sell. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is such a crossover novel; it’s a modern thriller with a speculative twist and that’s what helped it become a Sunday Times bestseller. It’s sheer unpredictability. So I’d say I think genre is still important. I know my favourite genres are SFF and historical fiction and those are the shelves in the library and bookstore I gravitate towards. If all “fiction” was mingled on the shelves, I think fewer people would borrow or buy books. The sheer scale of the task of finding a book to enjoy would be almost impossible.

Heide Goody – I loved Behind Her Eyes, and I enjoyed the way that it straddled more than one genre, but I have seen several people react badly to it. They started to read what they thought was a “straight” psychological thriller, only to discover that there were supernatural elements in the book. This apparently made them feel as if they had been let down, that their expectation had been mismanaged. These people were in the minority, and the book was the massive hit that it deserved to be, but it suggests to me that genre does matter to some people; it represents their expectations.

 

“They started to read what they thought was a “straight” psychological thriller, only to discover that there were supernatural elements in the book.”

Jon Hartless – From the practical point of view, genre helps me navigate to the shelf I want in the bookshop, but it can be a self-limiting constraint also as many people will no doubt pass on by any genre they don’t know or like or approve of, and hence they may be missing out. Unfortunately, in terms of “literature”, there does seem to be a distaste of anything outside a narrow, prejudiced view on what constitutes “good” literature. I can only assume the reason for this is cultural superiority; literary fiction enables a self-satisfied clique of smug privileged wastrels to perch themselves on top of an ivory tower and drop the turgid turds of literary criticism and self-validation onto lesser mortals below. “I can read and understand this,” is the implied message, “while you can’t. I am therefore more intelligent and infinitely better cultured than you. And I insist I be treated as such.”

Tiffani Angus – To respond to Jon, if we look at LitFic as a genre itself–rather than a lack of genre or a type of writing that is ‘genre-less’–full of its own tropes, then I think its placement atop an ivory tower is undermined. LitFic then, instead of being the thing against which other genres are compared and often found wanting by those who haven’t even waded into SFF, becomes another categorisation. As such, it is still susceptible to placement in a hierarchy and so much a monolith of LitFic in opposition to all other genres together. Genre does matter for marketing, of course, and it helps writers know what context they’re working in. It also allows us writers to play, to combine genres and come up with something new and then, we hope, find readers who may be excited by the combination–something that a lack of genre identification would be difficult to explain.

Pigeon Park Press – So is there snobbery within and between genres? Do some genres look down on others?

Anna – In terms of fantasy, I think there’s a wider snobbery at play in which people who read non-fantasy genres think we’re a bunch of juveniles running around with swords and magic and not writing anything of worth, but among fantasy fans I haven’t come across any kind of snobbery. People have preferences of course – I don’t read steampunk for instance – and I imagine there are some people who think grimdark is like those horror films where it’s all gore and no plot. The literary equivalent of The Human Centipede, perhaps. But I think we all understand that we’re all fantasy fans and fantasy writers and that gives us a bond and a sense of community.

 

“people who read non-fantasy genres think we’re a bunch of juveniles running around with swords”

Heide – I agree with Anna that genre fiction is a tolerant place with a good sense of community. I like to spend time with writers of genre fiction, general commercial fiction and even poetry because I am extremely nosy and I like to see what writers do. If there is a difference in attitude, I am not sure I’d call it snobbery: I think I might suggest that we are driven by different goals. We all want readers to read our work, but commercial gain (and the sordid business of marketing) is perhaps not everyone’s primary driver.

Jon – Heide mentions commercial gain, which reminds me of the old assumption that you can have a literary reputation, or you can have sales, but not both. To me, this shows that intellectual snobbery toward genre, and indeed to healthy sales, is built into the very system and even before we begin we are encoded and trapped by assumptions from the cultural critics who refuse to recognise populist entertainment as anything but vulgar. And the more obscure and difficult a text is, the more they like it as they can pretend to be cultured by lauding something no one else is ever going to bother to read…

“You can have a literary reputation, or you can have sales, but not both.”

Tiffani – It’s not news, but there’s been a battle between LitFic and SFF for decades. A recent article claimed LitFic was in ‘crisis’, as if its slump was the death knell for ‘high culture’, which gives strength to the idea of a hierarchy of LitFic above SFF despite the latter’s popularity and sales numbers. Within SFF there’s snobbery about sub-genres, too, such as ranking hard SF above urban fantasy. While waiting in a green room to be on a panel about love & sex in SFF, I was informed by a (male) panellist/fan/writer that relationships don’t belong in SFF and that we were ruining things. It’s hard not to see snobbery in that!

William – The snobbery shown by literary fiction towards other genres is nothing compared to the snobbery within itself. The Big 5 publishers don’t so much look down on the independents as not notice they are there, except when an independent has a big commercial success, which is a cue for a patronising phone call about taking a writer off somebody’s hands. The Man Booker prize makes token attempts to respond to accusations that it is a white, male London-based conspiracy. The effects of digital publishing are still to be fully realised. Adelle Stripe’s recent novel, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, based on the life of Andrea Dunbar (writer of Rita, Sue and Bob Too) has re-exposed some of the old scars. It has also sold a lot of copies.

Dean – There is definitely a hierarchy and snobbery in genre writing that I have witnessed personally at conventions and gatherings but I leave ‘them’ to it though I know people who have suffered and will no longer attend events which is shame because I thought we were supposed to be about ‘inclusion’ rather than ‘exclusion’. I am proud to say that I write in the horror genre and will therefore suffer snobbery from those who think that horror is a lesser form of literature. I am lucky too (ha ha) in the fact that historical writers will also look down on writers like me that ‘dare’ to set our horror tales in THEIR historical worlds…I never make it easy for myself do I?

Pigeon Park Press – So what are the challenges of your genre? What are the barriers that you face within your particular genre?

William You have to come up with something new, because literary fiction is arguably the oldest genre (adherents of fantasy might lay claim to The Odyssey). I am fascinated by the information age. Rather than making us all buy e-readers, I think it offers new opportunities to experiment with narrative mode, ways of writing dialogue – the very idea of how to convey a story – but in ways which are accessible to contemporary readers. But it is not what you can write, nor what you can publish. It is what you can sell. You have to try to be to your genre what Einstein is to physics: make it comprehensible and appealing to people, sellers as well as readers, who think they hate it.

 

“You have to try to be to your genre what Einstein is to physics: make it comprehensible and appealing to people”

Jon – The greatest challenge to Steampunk may well lie in defining what the genre is; “That’s not Steampunk!” is a common refrain within the community, some of whom have much narrower ideas than others on what and isn’t “allowed”. For this reason, your brilliantly imagined world may not appeal to everyone – and they can be vocal in their criticism. Another barrier is that Steampunk, at least within the UK, is still rather niche; not that many have heard of it or know what it is…

Anna – One challenge in writing grimdark is there’s a fairly specific approach to writing it, including a focus on the bleaker side of life and as such it doesn’t have the broad appeal that other types of fantasy does. Sales figures and resulting profits may therefore not be as high as other types of fantasy. That said, Game of Thrones has proven wildly popular, so who knows. Challenges to writing in the genre include a higher than usual ratio of villains, so be prepared for the mental exhaustion that comes with those characters and their nefarious plans. Also, colour schemes tend towards mud brown and blood red!

Heide – A barrier to writing comic fantasy is that sometimes people don’t like to see the “comedy” part of the label. I pitched a short story to a small press last year, but fell at the first hurdle by mentioning the word comedy. “We don’t accept comedy” is not uncommon, even if you’re hitting the right genre. Readers are more open to being told that something is funny, but because humour is so subjective, the burden of proof is on the author. I can’t think of another subgenre where cynicism as to whether you’ve correctly identified what you’ve written is the default reaction!

Dean – For writing historical horror stories you HAVE to have a passion for history and know the particular period like the back of your hand – which means lots of research. You have to ensure that you create something unique and interesting if you are setting something in a particular period of history which we know a lot about e.g. WW2 and make your story ‘fresh’. Something to definitely remember is getting the language and dialogue of the characters right otherwise it can throw the reader out. For example, when we wrote the first draft of our Napoleon II script, we had characters saying “okay” probably a good eighty years before the word was invented!

James – I agree with Dean. I think if you’re going to write anything which needs an historical background the absolute minimum you can do is get that background accurate. There’s a lot of fun in world-building an entire secondary reality as part of a fantasy novel, but part of the fun of writing this folk or historical horror lies in finding the gaps in the real world where the weirdness might slip in. Aside from the obvious challenge of Knowing Enough Stuff, you have to be careful about info-dumping all the really cool things you’ve discovered, because there’s the need to balance it with actually telling a story.

 

“Aside from the obvious challenge of Knowing Enough Stuff, you have to be careful about info-dumping all the really cool things you’ve discovered.”

Tiffani – Research is key. There is a fine line between getting the information you need for X character living in X place and X time and falling down the research bunny hole for days or weeks at a time. You don’t have to know every last thing about your place or time period–just enough to get the story down. And you do all of this research but need to avoid info-dumps and long passages where you report on the time period or place. You want your research to inform the character’s actions, etc., and for the piece to pull the reader in and sing as fiction–not a report. But I find the biggest challenge, the one that stalls me, is really closely related: it’s getting out of your own head and remembering that you’re writing fiction and not non-fiction. You find yourself stopping and questioning “Would X character do that, then?” or “Could X happen?” In some cases, you have to adhere to historical rules, but at the same time you’re writing fantasy and can and SHOULD play with all of it, tweak it.

The Contributors

Anna Stephens is the author of the grimdark debut fantasy novel Godblind, first in the Godblind trilogy published by Harper Voyager in the UK and Commonwealth. It has also been published in North America and France, with forthcoming publications in Germany, Poland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Book 2 is out Summer 2018. An Open University Literature graduate and a second dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, Anna loves all things speculative, heavy metal music and the screams of her enemies.

James Brogden is a part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and now lives with his wife and two daughters in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where he teaches English. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in various periodicals and anthologies ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He is the author of the novels Hekla’s Children, The Narrows, Tourmaline, The Realt and the short story collection Evocations. His new novel The Hollow Tree will be published by Titan in March 2018. Blogging occurs infrequently at jamesbrogden.blogspot.co.uk, and tweeting at @skippybe.

Heide Goody said her co-writer, Iain, could write this bio bit. She didn’t say it had to be true. Heide was born in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire in 1953 but not fully assembled until 2012 as part of the London Olympic Games closing ceremony. She is only four inches tall and worked as freelance security for woodland creatures. She became a writer after being hospitalised by some very vicious shrews. Iain and Heide have been writing together for 6 years. Iain writes the nouns. Heide puts the verbs in. Her favourite verbs appear in this book.

Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. His latest novel, Full Throttle, a steampunk motor racing adventure examining the gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, appeared with Accent Press in August 2017.

Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. A graduate of Clarion, she has published short fiction in a variety of genres (historical fantasy, fantasy, SF, horror, and erotica). Her current research includes gardens in fantasy fiction and women in apocalyptic fiction. Find her at tiffani-angus.com and @tiffaniangus

 

William Thirsk Gaskill was born in Leeds in 1967. He studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he contributed to a fanzine called Dregs. He began writing seriously in 2010, after completing a diploma with the Open University. William appears regularly on the West Yorkshire spoken word circuit. William and his wife, Valerie Anderson, appeared together in the 2017 Wakefield Litfest, under the title Welcome To The Mad. His debut short fiction collection, Something I Need To Tell You, from Stairwell Books, comes out in 2018.

Ambitious, Dean M Drinkel is a published author, editor, award winning script-writer and film director. He has over thirty credits to his name in the field of genre writing (including short stories, collections, novellas, anthologies); has written and directed fifteen theatrical plays in London and South East of England. In 2016 Dean moved to Cannes, France to write a script with Romain Collier which was to become entitled “The Tragedy Of The Duke of Reichstadt”. This won two screenplay awards (Best Historical Drama / Best Independent Spirit) at the Monaco International Film Festival. In 2017 Dean directed the short film “15” for Midas Light Films and in April 2018 will direct (also for MLF) “Echoes of Mine” based on his own script. Dean will be following this with “The Lake” – an historical short film about the Empress Eugenie and a young piano-tuner to be shot in Chislehurst, Kent at their former home – Camden Place. Dean has won five awards (thus far) for his script-writing and was runner-up for the 2001 Sir Peter Ustinov Screenwriting Award (International Emmys) – for his script “Ghosts”.

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