Month: June 2014

Character blog-tag

A big thank you to Thaddeus White for handing over to me. Thaddeus is one of the best fantasy writers I know and his knowledge of the genre is used to fantastic comic effect in Sir Edric’s Temple, quite simply the funniest fantasy story I’ve ever read. Here’s the link to his blog:

And now to the questions:

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Kare Varnon is the heir to a fictional galactic empire. We first meet him as a child and follow his progress through to adulthood.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story is set in the future, in a galactic cluster governed by an Empress. The centre of power, a great city of green surrounded by desert, is called Abendau, and is where Kare was conceived and born, and where he’s been running from ever since.

3) What should we know about him/her?

He’s the only child of the Empress and should be her assured heir, but his Seer father warned of a horrific future should he side with his mother. Because of that he joins the rebels, an act the Empress sees as opposition, and she isn’t a lady who takes opposition well.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

The early conflict is Kare’s knowledge of his future, and his fear of it. His decision to stand against his mother, regardless of that knowledge, is pivotal to the character he becomes.

When his mother does catch up with him, she uses him as an example to anyone who would stand against her and he undergoes a horrific ordeal that changes him forever. The conflict is how he responds to that, and where it takes him to, both mentally and physically.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

To be free. He doesn’t want to be Emperor, or defacto heir for the rebels. He wants to pull down everything his mother has constructed. But he’s constrained by who he is and what he represents to those around him, and by the political balance of power.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The book is called Abendau’s Child and a little more about it can be found at

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

It’s being published in Autumn 2014 by Tickety-boo press.

I’m handing the blog over to my fabulous writer friend E.J. Tett, who (as Emma Jane Tett) has two novels coming out in 2014: Otherworld ( with Liz Powell) from Torquere Press (November), and Shuttered from Dreamspinner Press (December).
She has also published many short stories, too many to list, but here’s a link to her blog, which contains a full bibliography.

Romance is icky. But I like it.

I cheated this week and asked if my fabulous critique partner and writer friend Emma Jane (aka E J Tett) would like to blog about love and romance, and what makes her so good at writing it. And she is good, she has two novels coming out this year: Otherworld with Liz Powell from Torquere press in November and Shuttered in December from Dreamspinner. Em’s writing is amazing, I couldn’t shout loudly enough to recommend them. And now I’ll stop waffling, and hand over to Em:

Romance is Icky. But I like it.

A question I see often on book forums is, “what genres do you read?” and you’ll invariably get answers along the lines of, “I’ll read anything! Except romance.” I can almost hear the sneer through their written words.
It’s a weird kind of snobbery. “Oh I don’t read romance! Urgh. That’s just for the silly wimminz.”
But… is it? I’m fairly confident the writer of the most famous love story of all was a man.
Romance novels aren’t all old-fashioned bodice rippers any more. They’re no longer all filled with square-jawed brooding gentlemen and swooning ladies. That fantasy novel you’re reading? I bet there’s a love story in it.

Some people will happily read about a knight slicing someone’s head off, but God forbid that knight should get naked with someone.
I used to be a romance-hater. Why do I want to read about something as boring as love? Bleurgh. I want excitement! I want adventure! I want tragedy and emotion and… wait. All those things happen in romances?
I like reading about people, and relationships – all kinds of relationships. I like character experience – I want to be close to the action, sitting on the character’s shoulder rather than flying overhead worrying about the state of the galaxy. I want to read about people doing things for others. And people in love do stupid, dangerous things.
Romance isn’t just for books. It’s not all chick-lit and rom coms. And it’s not just for women. Men think about finding partners too, don’t they? They go speed dating, they get their friends to set them up, they join dating sites… I’m sure I’ve heard about men wanting to get married too. And sometimes, it’s not even about wanting to be with someone, or finding someone, it’s just about emotion – how much are you willing to go through for the person you love?
Not all love stories are told from the woman’s perspective either. Take the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The whole show is about finding love! It’s from a man’s POV and, I’m fairly confident that guys enjoy the show too.
And Game of Thrones? Yeah, there’s even romance in that. I will admit I got more excited by Jaime pulling Brienne out of a bear pit than by him shoving Bran out of a window for Cersei but the things we do for love.
So romance isn’t all marriage and babies and ditzy women folk. It’s epic and tragic and life-changing.
My name is Emma Jane, and I write romance.
Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
~ Romeo and Juliet

Invoking Ulster

Ulster’s myths are bloody ones. Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, took the place of a guard dog and defended Ulster at the age of seventeen. He was known to have battle frenzies, and was one of the key legends of the Red Branch Cycle, one of four key Irish folklore cycles. Finn McCool fought the Scottish giant and won using guile and might. Even our flag shows the red hand, from a legend that tells of a race for the land. The losing combatant cut his hand off and threw it onto the land to claim it for himself. The Ulster I know – the North coast facing Scotland, and Belfast – has a harsh accent to go with the legacy of divisions that run as deep as the land its people share.

Belfast Lough

When I had the idea of a novel about Earth resisting an alien invasion, I decided to set it in my Ulster. This was no political undertaking, but instead a wish to show something of the people I knew. The people who, despite all the violence of my youth, maintained a sense of humour – black though it undoubtedly is – and have an ability to carry on with life when all around hell has broken loose. I wanted to capture an analogy of Ulster maintaining itself in adversity through the determination to survive and resist the alien invasion. But I also wanted, in a quiet way, to pay homage to some of those who moved our understanding past the hatred of my seventies birth, into the hope of my generation who voted for peace, and onto the next generation, who, please God, will have the capacity to carry that peace on.

The Troubles aren’t mythology. They’re not celebrating our earliest folklore. When  Michael Longley, in the Ice-cream Man recalls:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road [1]

he confirms the Troubles as our legacy, to be remembered.

I was born at the height of the Troubles, not at the local hospital, some fifteen miles from Belfast, as planned, but in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, right in centre of west Belfast. At this time, ambulances had been hijacked, and my mum spent time planning what to do with me if it happened to her. Whilst my childhood was spent sheltered from the main trouble spots, the Troubles were everywhere – in the news, in evacuating shops during bomb scares, in knowing, albeit at a distance, the denting sound of a bomb as it takes the air around it – and defined a part of me. None of this is mythology, yet, but in generations’ time it might be.

I want to take some of the imagery that touched on my understanding of my childhood Ulster and pay homage to it. In Joan Lingard’s series of iconic young adult books, the Belfast of the Troubles is described thusly:

Sadie and Kevin sat on the top of Cave Hill with the city spread out below them. They looked down at the great sprawl of factories, offices and houses that were gradually eating further and further into the green countryside beyond. Into the midst of the town came Belfast Lough. It was blue this evening, under a blue, nearly cloudless sky, speckled with ships and spiked by the shipyard gantries. [2]

In science fiction we strive to ask questions, to impel ourselves and our world forwards and not back. It seemed an interesting medium to use inspiration from a history that is far from myth, that is too raw to be anything other than our present to overcome, and reach into the future beyond it. I hope to show the land and people of Ulster in a way that both celebrated their strength, passion and drive, but also sought to ring the changes. I hope to do so in a way accessible to those who don’t know the province, because our people and land shouldn’t be insular, but far-reaching and generous. I look forward to seeing where that takes me.

[1] Longley, Michael, Gorse Fires.

[2] Lingard, Joan, Across the Barricades


The Master of Time

Like anyone else I struggle to fit writing around life, so I decided to ask John J Brady, one of my brilliant critique partners, for advice. He has a fabulously busy life yet manages to regularly produce fantastic, honed, stories and novels. I’ll hand over to John for some practical, motivational – perhaps a little scarily so – advice.

You, too, can master time…

It’s taken me two weeks to write these 816 words. Not because I have to search for hours to find each successive key, but because I have to find the time to do it. Take right now, for example. My five-year-old child is furiously colouring in a sheet of paper as if he despises the crayon he’s using. Another child is watching the Australian Open men’s tennis final. Yet another is playing Minecraft in his room. None of these activities have happened by accident. Rather, they’re the product of careful planning, all geared towards getting me ten minutes free to write on my phone because I know there’s no point in getting the laptop out – within half an hour, I can guarantee one child would have started colouring in the coffee table, one would have noticed the other just blew up his Minecraft roller coaster and one would have broken the other’s wooden farm.

With family and work commitments, getting time to write can prove difficult. So, like the soldier who can sleep at a moment’s notice, I’ve had to learn to write when the chance arises. It’s far from ideal – the how-to-write books never tell you to type on your phone in a noisy environment for ten minutes at a time – but if I want to write one hundred thousand words then rewrite and edit again, needs must.

Of course life takes priority over writing, and none of us would swap the life-affirming cleaning-up of vomit for an hour’s peace doing something pleasurable like writing. You can’t shirk those commitments; you have to do something to pay for the little ones’ latest console game. But even the best of parents/employees are allowed some time to indulge.

Setting aside an hour or two is best, of course. I write fastest and best with my head down over the laptop, Rammstein assaulting my ears through the headphones. I can send the family away to the in-laws for a Sunday afternoon because “I have a plug to change and it’ll take aaaaaages,” but not very often. Dedicated writing times are few and far between, and if I relied on them I’d never get anything done.

Hence, many of us must learn to write whenever the opportunity arises, and I’ve come up with some suggestions …

Tips for writing on the hoof:

• Accept that you may have to write in sub-optimal conditions. A busy work and home life create the perfect storm for procrastinators, giving ample opportunity for excuses. Don’t accept excuses.

• Get some tech you’re comfortable with; laptop, tablet, phone, whichever suits your circumstances. I’ve written over 100,000 words on a regular smartphone, using software perfectly compatible with my laptop. I like Quickoffice on a Samsung Galaxy, but other programmes and phones are available and may even be better. Some may even be free!

• Typing on a touchscreen feels very odd at first. Where’s all that sensory feedback that tells you you’re touching one key, and one key alone? But like anything else, it only takes practice, practice and more practice to get it right.

• Now your day is full of opportunities. The fifteen minutes wait at the dentist’s. The time a colleague doesn’t show up and you have no chance to do any work. The ten minutes outside your youngest’s bedroom door hoping that this time, he’ll stay in bed (hello from outside my youngest’s bedroom door!).

• Accept that the first draft will have typos. Accept that your fingers are thicker than the keys. If your obsessive tendencies will let you, carry on regardless. You can kill all the tjats and yoys in the edit (see next point).

• Can’t get in the mood? Fair enough – we all write better when we’re as happy/sad/angry/excited as our characters. So go back and read the last couple of pages to get in the right frame of mind. If that doesn’t work, edit. For me, at least, editing is a more clinical business that doesn’t rely as much on mood to spot the three uses of gurn in the same paragraph.

• Back up! For the love of whatever deity/concept/person you hold dear, do not leave fifty thousand words of Hugo Award-winning novel sitting all vulnerable on your phone when it could get lost/stolen/eaten at any moment. Use a service like Dropbox or Google Drive, copy to your PC regularly, and/or get it on memory sticks.

So, armed with all this knowledge, you must accept THERE ARE NO EXCUSES ANYMORE! “I never have time” is LOSER TALK! (sorry, they’re watching wrestling now and it’s hard not to get carried away). Ahem …

If life is getting in the way of your writing dream, look for opportunities. They’ll be there, somewhere; maybe hiding out in your day to day routine, but they’ll be there. Identify them, use them, and time need never be an excuse again.

How I got my agent

I began querying my second completed novel with a good idea of the process – my first novel had got some interest and a few offers from small publishers, but had ended up tied up in an open submissions window – and I was under no illusions how hard getting an agent would be.
The novel had two strong point of views in it – John, a teenager from Belfast, and Henry, the cop who gets tied up in his life – and I decided to market it as cross-over YA/adult.
When I read on Twitter that Molly Ker Hawn, of the Bent Agency, had re-opened to queries I checked her guidelines, which asked that I include why I was the person to tell the story. That opened something untapped within me, about how I’d wanted to capture my native Ulster voices and use them in a mainstream novel, not focused on religion, politics and cliches, but rather on resilience and black humour. I drafted the query without my usual angst and sent it off. A couple of days later Molly requested a full and, after I did a dance, I sent it. 
Four weeks later I had my response – the book didn’t read as YA but adult. I really liked Molly’s approach – and well-considered feedback – and asked if she’d re-read it if I made it more centred in the YA storyline, and she kindly said she would. 
In the meantime, I subbed to other agents, but when three adult-focused agents who’d shown interest refused it as too YA I was left with a dilemma in terms of where to take the book. 
I went back to my beta-readers, and an editor who had reviewed it before submission, and discussed options to make it one age-group or the other. When I’d envisioned the book the theme had been about innocence, and if I made the protagonist adult that was lost, so I decided to focus on the YA themes.
I rewrote the book, removing some of the adult pov and strengthening the teenage protagonist and sent it back to Molly, very nervously. The read took a little longer this time and my hopes were raised when I heard it was getting a second read. 
The response came back as an Revise and Resubmit, with extensive notes. I felt I’d rushed the last rewrite a little and was delighted at another chance, but I wanted to get it right. I was lucky: when I shared feedback with the small group of betas who’d read the first version, and whose opinion I absolutely respect, one offered another full read through. After his feedback, I sent it back and waited. 
I knew Molly was attending the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, as was I, and hoped we might meet up. Unfortunately my Twitter app died en route, and I turned down a friend’s offer to access via his. Boy did I kick myself when I got home and found that Molly had DMed me to see if we could meet at WFC in person. 
A few days later, Molly contacted me and set up a call. I found myself, late on a Friday afternoon, sitting in my darkened kitchen waiting for the phone to ring. The kids were bribed with biscuits and the house was quiet as I listened to feedback that asked for a revision. My heart fell, sure it was another R and R. 
But no – I was offered representation. I stared at the notes I’d been taking, trying to take it in, and arranged to contact other agents holding the novel. I let my writing group, who’d been with me at WFC, know – they bemoaned the lack of a great celebratory opportunity! Six days later I had heard back from the other agents – who would have had to offer the Earth to change my mind – and was in the position to accept rep from Molly. I’m still occasionally pinching myself.  

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