Monday, 22 January 2018

UK libraries pay authors for each loan.

Last year UK libraries loaned my books out ~16,000 times.


All libraries are good things. They buy many hardback books and that in itself is very helpful to authors. And they provide a great public service, making books accessible to everyone.

In the UK (& Ireland) things are even better though. They pay authors (well ... UK authors) a fee of around £0.08 each time one of their books is loaned out.

For the year 2015/16 I was one of the 792 authors the library system paid between £1,000 & £2500 through the public lending right scheme.

The limit of £6,600 cuts off a long tail of writing superstars who would earn tens or hundreds of thousands under the scheme but does allow a larger rate to be paid, helping out authors with far fewer readers.

Over 22,000 authors received money under the system, and even if it's just enough to buy a takeaway, it's always nice to get. Plus it's great to hear that people all across the country are still reading your books.

Payments to authors account for less than 1% of the libraries budget in the UK.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Stabbies - reddit r/fantasy awards 2017

The Stabbies are the voted award handed out each year by r/fantasy in many categories, including Best Book, Best Debut, and Best Self-Published Book. 



Check out the official results and the nominations



The book results (many more categories on site)


Best Fantasy 2017
Red Sister - Mark Lawrence
Assassin's Fate - Robin Hobb
Kings of the Wyld - Nicholas Eames
The Stone Sky - N.K. Jemisin
Sins of Empire - Brian McClellan


Best Fantasy Debut 2017
Kings of the Wyld - Nicholas Eames
The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden
Blackwing - Ed McDonald
The Court of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark
City of Brass - S.A Chakraborty


Best Self-published / Independent Fantasy 2017
Sufficiently Advanced Magic - Andrew Rowe
Blackflame - Will Wight
Skysworn - Will Wight
Faithless - Graham Austin-King
A Dragon of a Different Color - Rachel Aaron


Congratulations to all!

Waking up to find Red Sister had won best novel was a big surprise, something I've only achieved once before with Emperor of Thorns. I also got, for the third year in a row, the Stabby for favourite active author on r/fantasy. So HOORAY! Many thanks to everyone ... I promise to only use them on people who annoy me in any way at all.

Special congratulations to /u/esmerelda-weatherwax who won no fewer than three Stabbies, including best community member. Check out all these non-book categories on the results link.

Since it's clear that I have somewhat of a "home advantage" going on I have decided to retire from the Stabbies for best novel and favourite active author for a number of years. Brandon Sanderson did the same in the best novel category a while back (which is why I had a chance to win) and this year Michael Sullivan opted out of the best self-published category in a similar spirit.


See the results of the 2016 Award, 2015 Award, 2014 Award, 2013 Award and the 2012 Award.


Reddit r/fantasy has 243,000 members (up from 145,000 last year, 85,000 the year before and 69,000 the year before that) and is the most active fantasy forum on the internet. Well worth checking out - though the interface is a steep learning curve at first.



population growth on the sub reddit over the past 6 years 









Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Dirk gently breaks the rules.

I've just watched and greatly enjoyed season 2 of Dirk Gently. Or, to give it its full title Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

I would rage against the reports that the series has been cancelled, but I enjoyed it for what it was and if there is no more I don't feel I've been left hanging. More would be good though.


What I thought worth a blog post was the fact that Dirk Gently (by the late great Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe fame), is a story that succeeds by (or despite) taking what to many is a holy cow of fiction writing and shooting it in the face. Dirk Gently doesn't just sneak in the odd piece of deus ex into the narrative for earnest readers to hunt down and decry. Instead it embraces deus ex. It makes it the eponymous Dirk's superpower.

***

Deus ex machina

The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.

A further evolution means that some will employ the term "deus ex" as a pejorative aimed at essentially any convenient unlikely event that solves a difficult problem. It is often conflated with bad writing or a failure of imagination.


***

Dirk Gently solves ridiculously complex mysteries by bumbling around and waiting for all the pieces to fall into his lap then assemble themselves. He goes for a milkshake and the main witness is the waitress serving him and introduces herself. He needs more clues ... he reaches into a random trashcan and pulls one forth. Fate wants him to solve these cases. The ghost in the machine is not trying to hide ... it's front and center in a top hat and tails doing a dance for us.



So how do we enjoy a story in which that enemy of enjoyment, deus ex, dominates?

Well, it seems that Douglas Adams has noticed that many (most?) stories employ deus ex and it is just a matter of how well the author disguises that. If you dig deep enough into a great many stories you find yourself able to justifiably ask, "What are the odds that XXXX?" Where XXXX is some event or coincidence without which the whole thing could become untangled.

The odds that Hero McHero turns up at Victim Village during the narrow window in which he (or she) could be useful rather than a week early followed by a dull wait or a two weeks late having missed all the best looting, are often slim.

Many of the deus ex police fail to acknowledge that the reason stories are told about real events is often that those real events are remarkable and amazingly unlikely. It's the one survivor out of the thousand that drowned in the sinking that gets to tell the story of the terrible storm. It's the lottery winner that the reporter hunts down for their tale, not a random one of the million ticket buyers who lost. It's the person who survived the hanging because the rope snapped that is celebrated, not the pile of corpses with broken necks.

However, there clearly is a level of deus ex that becomes wholly unbelievable and (so the argument goes) robs the story of tension, and therefore interest. How can you care that our heroes have run into a dead end alley with a horde of deadly monsters in hot pursuit if deus ex guarantees that something random will save them. An unsuspected portal will appear to another world. Hithertoo unmentioned aliens will lower a ladder from their flying saucer. Or something.

It's a genuine concern.

And yet I loved watching Dirk Gently and so did many others. Enough at least to get it through a second season and give it an 8.4 average on imdb.com.

It works for two main reasons. One is because the main plot provides a wealth of imaginative ... stuff ... along with the temporary adrenaline thrills of chases, explosions and fights, and the big picture reveals itself miraculously rather like those street artists who paint a picture in counter-intuitive order, areas of light and shade first, and finally the whole thing turns out to have been upside down and is righted for the reveal and suddenly there's Elvis!

The second reason, the kicker, is that the main story is not the main story, or rather it isn't where the emotional interest lies. Really we are interested in the characters who are being swept along in this maelstrom. We want to know how and if their personal ambitions, concerns, and relationships will resolve. We care about their growth, what they get out of all this, how they will end up. Yes some magical universal hoohar will sort the mystery out and everything will become clear in the end. The key to the final door will probably have been in Dirk Gently's shoe all the time. Deus ex. But that's not what matters.

It isn't what matters in many other stories either, but none of them wear their colours so boldly on their sleeves as Dirk Gently's does. And so there is always room for the deus exer to come in excitedly pointing at unlikely events and rather missing that the real case to be solved is not who dunnit but the human story supported by this unlikely scaffolding.



















Sunday, 7 January 2018

#3 Chapter 1 critique

To understand what we're doing here check out Chapter Critique Corner.

To reiterate a key point - this process depends on audience participation. I'm just hosting, not taking part in the critique.

This one is a prologue but I myself judge those by all the same metrics as a chapter 1. If you expect someone to read it and keep reading then it has to entertain and hook.  

You can offer your thoughts in the comments - these are moderated and I will pass "tough love" but not anything that I feel crosses the line into meanness or mockery. So, rather than waste your efforts, do bear in mind that the object of the exercise here is to help. That said, robust critiques are encouraged and I guess we will just have to find our level as we go.


You can also email critiques to me and I will see if they can be transferred to the blog post in a way that preserves their editing markups.




PROLOGUE: STORMCHILD


The South of the Dreur Woods crawled with men drunk on bloodlust. Thousands of feet scuffled, jumped, and pushed in the muddied snow. Spell-bound and screaming, lusty and raucous, the humans entranced by the Shadow Woman danced and reached. The throng pressed, arms and limbs swinging, eyes too wide, mouths open with screams of worship and pleas of desire.

Between stark trees the unclean swarmed and massed, filling the North of the woods. Pale limbs and staggering bodies bumped shoulders, lips silent as death. Dead and rotting, staunch with post-mortem rigour, stiff and animated in jerked spouts of movement, they stammered and waited for the commands of the only voice they would ever heed again.

Blood poured in rivers from an altar of solid grey stone at the heart of the Dreur Woods. The snow was stained red with the blood of countless people. There was blood on the trees where dead hands smeared against them. There was blood on the feet of the enchanted men and women who trampled the weak in their earnest straining toward the Shadow Woman.

At the head of the altar she stood, glorious hair whipping in winter winds, garbed in a tattered black dress. The crowd cried out to her hungrily. At her feet knelt a pale man with hair the colour of sand, begging and stammering, fists clutched before him as if in prayer. She sneered at him and her hair danced in the wind.
A young girl squirmed in the Shadow Woman’s grasp, her hair also the colour of sand. With her one fist in the girl’s sandy hair, the Shadow Woman lifted the girl’s head and exposed her gullet to the roaring crowd. She slit through the girl’s throat, and the girl’s body convulsed and collapsed. Her blood joined the river, and her soulless eyes opened. Taking her dead sister’s hand, she walked into the mass of black eyed corpses.

The throng of lifeless bodies welcomed her, swallowed her, and the crowd of star struck onlookers roared its approval. Men and women vied to be next, argued, stretched desperate hands to the Shadow Woman’s feet. The Shadow Woman’s laughter rang through the murky woods, and she grabbed the sandy-haired man by the nape of his burnous.

‘Did you think this was the end, Rishtai?’ she whispered into his pained face.

The pale man’s muscles bunched and strained against her grip, but in his eyes there was love and loss, there was the ache of betrayal and the hopelessness that comes when a child dies. His tears had long dried up, but sobs wrenched his struggling body.

‘Please,’ he begged.

The Shadow Woman’s dark eyes swirled. Pleasure tipped up the corners of her perfect mouth, and she kissed him long and deep. Black inked over his blue eyes and his pleas turned into awe-filled cries of worship.

Blood smeared, he grabbed the dagger from the Shadow Woman’s hands. At random he grasped the outstretched hand of a desperate man and pulled him onto the altar. The man threw his fist triumphantly into the air and screamed, but his scream bubbled to a stop when the sandy haired man slit his throat, to the crowd’s raging approval. He smiled at the Shadow Woman and she laughed and laughed.

Behind the Shadow Woman three bodies lay strewn in the red snow, three who seemed lifeless at first, but if one looked closer, the truth became clear. Nobody looked closer. Not now, not yet.

The first was a man whose long blonde hair sprawled about his chiselled face, unmoving but for his grey eyes. With an earnest gleam to those eyes, he watched the Shadow Woman. Watched and longed.

Beside him lay a woman without colour, white as snow, black as night, the colour of rainbows or the sun or the shadows. Her closed eyes did not move, but she held the man’s hand with her legs splayed, like one who had fallen from a great height. The third man lay with his eyes pinched shut. A brown hood covered his face and he held both hands to his chest like a man in a coffin.

No breath moved their chests, no blood pinked their cheeks. In a forest filled to the brim with the dead and dying, these three stood out against the crimson snow, but not a one batted an eye or puffed a breath.

A cloud of darkness hovered over the Dreur Woods.

The Shadow Woman shouted and the cloud spread out of the Dreur Woods towards Aysgarth with finger-like tendrils that reach and searched. It overcame the farmlands slowly, methodically. Like toxic vapour with the mind of a man, it swallowed farmsteads and fields, horses and cows, carefully searching for human hearts and minds to turn.

A tendril dug into a farmer’s brain as he sat on his porch sipping at a cup of hot drink. The metal cup clattered onto the wooden porch and rolled down the steps. The man’s heavy boots clunked down after it, but he did not pick it up. Instead, he picked up speed and ran, faster than men that old could run, into the dark cloud and towards the Dreur Woods, with eyes as black as night.

The door of his home opened, and his daughter called to him, her pigtails fluttering in the wind. Her calls turned to shouts of fear. She left the door and ran the other way, through the house and out the back door with terror in her eyes, but it was no use. The black cloud swallowed her, and soon her lusting eyes turned to the Dreur Woods and her bare feet ran towards her demise.

At last there was someone who saw, who noticed the three splayed behind the Shadow Woman and the red field of blood. Above the earth called Erdil and beyond the land of dreams called Träumenil, higher than the realm of the immortals called Götteril and beyond the end of the reach of the stars, the Great Fathers stood in council. A massacre unlike any other in all of time blotched the North of Öldeim and the Fathers who had created all argued, as they almost never did, about the fate of the world. The Father of Creation insisted that Erdil be blotted out so that they might start over and create a race more malleable than the insolent humans.

The Father of Time would not hear of it. He insisted that time be kept pure and that the guilty be punished, but the innocent be given a new life. The Great Father did not speak at first. His eyes were far away on the Dreur Woods and tears wet his cheeks. Every created thing held its breath, even the trees paused in their ever-long dance and the stones ceased their whispers. The river of blood paused its flow, a man’s grey eyes closed for a second, two sisters’ hearts beat for a moment, and then the Great Father spoke.

‘Let us make a Stormchild.’











Wednesday, 3 January 2018

REVIEW: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones



I read this to my daughter, Celyn (10), who is too disabled to read books by herself.

I had seen some of the anime film version years ago but remembered basically nothing of it.

I found the whole thing original and refreshing. The point of view character (Sophie) is engaging and no-nonsense with a very capable can-do attitude. The story moves along at a good pace and the whole moving castle / multiple doors thing is a great idea and used well.

The Welsh connection is well-played. It expands the scope of the book world and the continuing reveals keep everything interesting.

My only complaint is that the end seemed rather tortured with so many story-lines converging in ways that felt rather unsatisfying / hard to believe. The (highlight for spoiler) Miss Angorian part, for example, seemed to come out of left-field and made very little sense to me.

If I were a touch harsher then that ending would pull this down to a 4*. But Celyn loved it. I enjoyed reading it. And I'm in a good mood. So 5*.

I can see why it's a classic, and if you have a 10 year old, point them at it! 

We've now finished the trilogy and it's quality stuff for the Y end of YA!



You can go 'like' my review on Goodreads if you like!





An index of my reviews.




Wednesday, 27 December 2017

List of Lists ... Seven

I did this last year, the year before, the year before, the year before, the year before and the year before ... I'm doing it again! (this is a list of lists of lists)

2017 has been kind to Red Sister!

Below are the 33 'Best of 2017' lists that I know of featuring Red Sister (presented in chronological order of publication). The two main reasons for assembling this list of lists are:

i) A thank you to the reviewers in question. It's a labour of love maintaining a book blog.

ii) You're probably here because you liked Red Sister. These reviewers (or in one case, these 200,000+ voters) appear to share your taste in one book, perhaps you will enjoy the other books on their lists.



Library of Wonders
Reddit Stabby Awards
The Royal Library
Fantasy Book Cafe
The Tattooed Book Geek
Fantasy-Faction
Lynne's Books
Epic Grit
Laura M Hughes
Tome and Tankard
Grimdark Fiction Readers
Joseph Mallozzi's Weblog
The Bibliophile Chronicles
The Blogin' Hobgoblin
The Orangutan Library
The Grimdragons
Parmenion Books
Fantasy Literature
Reading Frenzy
Smorgasbord Fantasia
FanFiAddict
A Hair Past A Freckle
Books of My Heart
Book Geeks Uncompromised
Scifi and Fantasy Reviews
Pat's Fantasy 
Fantasy Book Review
You and I Books
Kristen Loves To Read
The Passionate Foodie
Quill To Live
Barnes & Noble 
Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy 2017






Sunday, 24 December 2017

The L-word.


It is traditional that every now and then the fantasy genre make some sort of overture toward literary fiction. Be they sarcastic, self-deprecating, humorous, or outraged, the common core to all of these gestures is a desire for recognition. A desire that the "ivory tower academics" recognize that the best of the SFF genre stands worthy of their attention and praise.

Magical realism appears to have crossed the divide but the received wisdom seems to be that the moment a sword or laser gun enters the narrative all claim to literary worth flees the page.

SFF books that I have read recently that definitely qualify as literary fiction include Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, Nod by Adrian Barnes, Master Assassins by Robert V.S Redick, and Robin Hobb's Fitz and the Fool trilogy.


Fantasy books are more accessible than literary fiction, they attract a younger demographic. They have fandom. Online this can lead to partisan behavior. We put ourselves down using the language borrowed from those same professors on university creative writing courses that won't touch a fantasy story.

My readers have an average age of 35. I have more readers in their 50s than I have readers in their teens. I imagine that series such as Bakker's Prince of Nothing and Abercrombie's First Law have similar demographics. But I see "written for edgy teens" as a commonly used insult regarding those books. This is the weaponizing of common prejudice for use in fandom-wars.

One thing every decent writer learns is that description serves two purposes simultaneously. It illuminates both the thing being described and the character giving the description. Nowhere is this more true than in insults. When one person attacks another using insults the choice of words almost always says more about the source than the target. The person describing Prince of Nothing or First Law, written by a forty-somethings, and read primarily by thirty-somethings, as "for edgy teens", is trying to establish their own maturity. Often they will be trying to break free of their own perceived recent naivety. 


Last month a student at Yale, Lauren Ribordy, asked me for input on a semester paper she was doing for an English course on science fiction. The assignment was to make the case for a new book to be included in the curriculum. Her choice was King of Thorns.

Answering her questions and reading the resulting paper made me think in more concrete terms about the literary undercurrents in my work.

One of the genre's more cerebral reviewers, Pornokitsch, had this to say about The Broken Empire:

"As a result, I am reviewing this book differently from the other DGLA finalists to date - not as an epic fantasy, but as literature.
Before my fellow fantasy fans start keelhauling me on social media, I merely mean that the genres (treating 'lit-fic' as a genre) are reviewed and discussed differently. Epic fantasy is discussed in terms of story and character and plot and setting. Is the setting cool? Does neat shit happen? Are the characters interesting? Can I escape into it?
As far as discussing this series goes, the above criteria don't apply. When considering the Broken Empire series, I immediately gravitate towards the themes of the book. These books have messages. They have a philosophy. Most epic fantasies... do not."
In Ribordy's paper for the Yale course she addresses the themes of futurity, free will, prediction, and memory within the trilogy and its forebears in science fiction.
"Lawrence uses Fexler Brews, an artificial intelligence, as a tool by which to explore the nature of human development."
She notes parallels in the mathematical predictions that hem Jorg Ancrath in and those of Asimov's Foundation series. She notes the focus on memory as the core of the human condition and the interest in the consequences of editing experience either artificially or naturally.
"Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Dick’s Ubik both center memory as a crucial element of futurity."
"In 'Memory Matters in the Digital Age,' Van Djick comments on the nature of memory, postulating that memory is recreated, not retrieved, and that any new experiences will affect how memories are recreated (Memory Matters in the Digital Age 354). Van Djick’s characterization of the human brain allows us to better understand why excising certain memories can lead people to view every aspect of the world in new ways. One example in Ubik that predicts this conception of memory is when Joe Chip thinks of Pat Conley as his wife, even when he knows memories of them being together are merely remnants of “the ghostly shroud of a marriage [that had] been abolished” (Ubik 176). This theme of memory affecting outcome is detailed throughout King of Thorns."
Looking at the body of my published and upcoming work I see many repetitions of the question, what does it mean to be human? It's a question that can only be explored rather than answered, and I attack it on several fronts. 
I take extreme humans and examine the consequence of cutting away different elements of morality. When a man's compassion and restraint are pared away ... is he still human? Does it matter how he came to that state or simply that this is where he now is? Nature vs nurture. Does it matter that he is a child? As we grow do we remain the same person? Is the man responsible for the sins of the child. He wears the same skin but is he bound to the crimes of someone who may now seem a stranger?
Emperor of Thorns
‘Jorg?’ and Fexler’s image rose above the ring, painted in whites as always, not quite opaque. If the Builders had set themselves the task of recreating ghosts from the stories told to children they could have done the job no better.

            ‘Who’s asking?’

            He focused on me as I spoke, his image growing sharper. ‘Can’t you see me?’

            ‘I can see you.’

            ‘Then you recognize me. Fexler Brews.’

I laid my hand flat across the book. ‘It says here that a prediction will diverge from the truth. The further the prediction is carried, the larger the discrepancy. Wraps it all up in statistics and bounds of course. But the message is clear enough. You’re a prediction. I doubt you’re anything like the man I saw die any more.’

‘Untrue,’ Fexler said. ‘I have the original data. I don’t need to rely on fading memories. Fexler Brews is alive in me as true and clear as ever.’

            I shook my head and watched him. The shadows danced everywhere but across him. On me, on the walls, the ceiling, only Fexler constant, lit by his own light.

            ‘You can’t grow if you’re constantly defined by this collection of frozen moments that you keep returning to. And if you can’t grow, you’re not alive. So either you’re Fexler, and like him you’re dead. Or you’re alive, but you’re someone else. Something else.’

            ‘Are you sure it’s me we’re talking about?’ Fexler raised a brow – very human.

            ‘Ah...’ It closed on me like steel jaws. The worst traps are the ones we lay for ourselves. All these years and it took a nothing, a web of numbers, to show me to myself. I could count on one hand the brief and personal passion plays that nailed me to my past. The carriage and the thorns. The hammer and Justice burning. The bishop. Father’s knife jutting from my chest. And at my hip, in a copper box, perhaps one more. ‘I liked you better before, Fexler. Why are you here?’

I return to the issue of memory many times. 

"Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him. Chip away a memory at a time and you destroy him as surely as if you hammered nail after nail through his skull."

"A man is made of memories. It is all we are. Captured moments, the smell of a place, scenes played out time and again on a small stage. We are memories, strung on storylines--the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves, falling through our lives into tomorrow."

"There are truths you know but will not speak. Even to yourself in the darkness where we are all of us alone. There are memories you see and yet don't see."

"Nothing can be cut away. Even the worst of our memories is part of the foundation that keeps us in the world."

This theme is even there in a thriller I wrote recently:

“Pop quiz,” I said. “If you committed a crime but had no memory of it … would you feel guilty.”

“Well, yes I’m guilty,” Mo said. “They should put me in jail before I do it again.”

“That’s not the question. Do you feel guilty? In your bones. I mean, memory is all you are. We’re just a collection of memories that we spent our lives stacking up in an order we’re happy with. If that’s taken away … if your memory of doing it is wiped clean … then it wasn’t you that did it. Not really.”


The idea that we are stories we tell ourselves is explored further in The Red Queen's War, and extended to include the notion that we can fall into the stories that others tell about us and become trapped within them.


I'm not claiming to have written great literature here. I am simply pointing out as others have before that literary fiction and SFF overlap hugely. If you write a book that is all about story and plot, that's not literary fiction. If you write a story where in addition to the plot you also explore themes, focus on character, and try to use the unfolding events to cast light on some question concerning the human condition ... then you are writing literary fiction regardless of whether the characters in question are holding a sword, or a laser gun, or casting a spell. To say otherwise is just snobbery and prejudice. The only question of any importance in this context is not whether the novel is wearing the trappings of SFF or set in the real world but simply whether it is good literary fiction. As a reader of fantasy you are exploring a genre that has many examples of good literary fiction within it. Enjoy.