Several years ago I decided to Sit-Down-And-Write-The-Damn-Book™. You might have noticed but I don’t tend to go into things half-heartedly, and so it was with writing. I was going to crack it and achieve my dream of having my personal sandpit-world, Abendau, out for anyone to read.
I sat down, I wrote it and it wasn’t very good. In fact, my first ever beta reader gently suggested I needed to go off and learn how to write.
Which was when I ran into difficulty: where to find support. I typed ‘writing groups, Belfast’ and not much came up (I now know where the groups are, and who runs them, and where to find them – but, at that point, I knew nothing), and that’s before I even started to try to find anywhere that did science fiction and fantasy.
So I popped online, found a lovely forum (sffchronicles.com) who are still a backbone of my support and now home to an increasing number of Very Good, Published Writers, as well as continuing to support emerging writers. I joined a virtual writing group rather than face-to-face* (I mean, the people in it were all real. I’ve met most of them. Just not normally in the same place, at the same time).
But it wasn’t until I got to submitting Inish Carraig to agents that I first hit the wall that was Northern Irish SFF. There were no agents to submit to in NI. The only NI publisher who was taking sff was winding up that side of the business, after publishing less than a handful of titles. There I was, with a book about Northern Ireland, set in Northern Ireland, with Northern Irish characters, and I had no NI outlet for it. It ended up repped by an American agent based in London.
This did help to clarify one question that had been bugging me for a long time – where was the NI SF? And the answer was – not anywhere easy to find (except Ian McDonald – that craiter gets everywhere! Xx) Science fiction is the genre of the ‘mirror’. More than any other genre, more even than fantasy and magical realism, in my opinion (and this blog is just that…) sf has the concept of the mirror of society at its core. Great sf books are rarely only about the future, but the present, the past, and our understandings of ourselves and others. In a divided society, SF should be visible. And yet… it wasn’t.
Fast forward to yesterday when I sat down with a publisher, based in NI, who specialises in SFF, and the Head of Drama and Literature at the Arts council of Northern Ireland (who has been a support second to none) and talked about the emerging NI SFF writing scene. We talked about not one, but two, major sff conventions in Ireland next year (Dublin 2019 and Eurocon, Belfast.) We talked about an event coming up at Waterstones, Belfast, where the history of Irish SF (and, by default, writers such as Bob Shaw and James White will be mentioned, I’m sure) is being celebrated. About the CS Lewis festival having a day of ‘magical thinking’ covering worldbuilding, fantasy and magical realism.
So, how did I get from the situation above – isolated, Norma-no-mates-writer-of-SFF to becoming if not mainstream (*shudder*) but accepted? These are some (but not all – I have a book to revise…) the places and people who helped:
- Women Aloud NI. I’ve been to reading events all over NI. I’ve read SF and fantasy, of all sorts, to audiences more used to – and probably expecting – poetry and literary works (although the bucolic song to write my dystopic stuff to remains a unique challenge, Gaynor). When WANI began, the intent was to celebrate all the voices in the group, without reference to genre or stage of their career. WANI allowed me to learn about the wider literary scene and to gain writing friends in NI. From them, too, I learned about how funding works and discovered the fabulous John Hewitt Society and their awesome summer school, who kindly allowed me a bursary to travel down and connect with the wider writing community (and Trish Bennett, my great poety-writing-mucker)
- Titancon and Octocon. When I reached out to Titancon I had one book under my belt, with a small publisher, and they would have been well within the norm to tell me to go and get knotted. They didn’t. They invited me into their tribe, where I’ve happily resided every year since. A year later, Octocon in Dublin did, too, and, from there I got to know the wider convention scene. Now, I hope the links between the writing community here and the conventions are stronger, more intuitive. That’s due, not in small part, to the conventions and their warm welcomes.
- Arts Council NI. I mentioned funding above, but, actually, that’s only one angle of support from ACNI. Damian Smyth has been patient through queries from me, through one (quite long-winded, I do apologise) frustrated rant, through variant explorations of possiblilities. We are lucky to have such a support.
- Crescent Arts Centre (You’ll gather from this blog that I am a blagger-extraordinaire) who took a proposal for a new writing course, now entitled Writing the Weird and Wonderful and ran with it. 3 years on, I’m still there, getting to talk about writing SFF once a week.
- Bookstores, libraries, and the individuals who do the work behind the scene that we rarely see: Easons who’ve stocked all my SF novels, who’ve held launches for me, who have supported and cheered on: Waterstones who held my first – very memorable, very fun – launch, who’ve featured Abendau’s Heir in their book club, who’ve had me in for a number of events, and who are having me in again in a few weeks (24 November, going to be awesome): Blackwells, up at the University, who stock all my books: Jillian and the team at Carrickfergus library; Emma at Saintfield library; Garvagh library who, on the fabulous Annie Rosie’s recommendation, have my creepy tale of eerie fairies to delve into for Hallow’een.
- Belfast Book Festival, who have invited me along several times, and the Irish Writer’s Centre.
There is still work to be done, of course. When I submit my novel set in Glenveagh with fantasy elements, having no NI agents who will even look at it is disappointing. When most of the publishers in NI and Ireland don’t seek submissions of SFF, or anthologies of writing in NI and Ireland rarely feature SFF (particularly, I think, SF in this case – some do include fantasy and/or magical realism) it marginalises the writing that does go on and the writers that are writing their SFF on local themes.
But we do now have a community, who have come together over the last 6 months and are doing all sorts – betaing for each other, sharing submission opportunities, appearing in anthologies together through Castrum Press and Paul Corcoran, who is keen to give opportunities to the community. We’ve had residencies and workshops (a big call out for the River Mill and Paul Maddern who have made us so welcome and fed us so very, very well…. As Arnie would say, ‘We’ll be back…’) We have a hashtag (#SFFNI) where we can share our news. Anyone who writes SFF in NI is welcome to join – find us on facebook under the catchy title: SFF writers in Northern Ireland.
I hope all this means that, now, a SFF writer starting out now has no need to feel like I did, that they’re on their own. They’re not. And that’s the way it should be.
*For those wondering, it works very well. I’d highly recommend one. We all got to be great mates and I’m still in regular contact with most of the group and consider them close friends.