WorldCon 2019 schedule

Only a couple of days until I head to my very first WorldCon (I got into SFF publishing properly late in 2014. I live in London. Insert facepalm emoji here). The last few years have been wild and unpredictable in the best possible ways and that’s all because of the most lovely SFF community.

So heading to Dublin to hang out with friends old and new – and meet some face-to-face for the first time – is A Big Deal for me. Add the fact that it’s the first con I’ll be flying the Titan flag at and, well, eep!

Of course, my schedule has mutated into an all-encompassing beast of terror, so I’ll spend the entire weekend vibrating at a caffeine-induced 5.4MHz and be grabbing fistfuls of any snack I see at events, drive-by style. More importantly, here’s the publishing stuff I’m doing!

Unsung Stories at WorldCon

No stall this year, I’m afraid, so we won’t be selling any books. However, we’ve donated some shiny treats so make sure to check out the freebies table when you get there.

We’ve had so much love from readers and reviewers across the globe, so I couldn’t turn up the chance to say thank you. I remain immensely proud of everything Unsung has achieved, and these authors are well, well worth getting to know.

Non-UK types in particular, this one’s for you because we only distribute from the UK. Get them before they’re gone…

The Titan Party

Friday night is the Titan Party. It looks like it’s going to be utterly immense, and I will take precisely 0.01% of the credit for that. Titan publicists Lydia Gittins and Polly Grice have absolutely nailed this, so this will be my highlight of the con.

Panel – What I Learned Along the Way

Saturday, 17 Aug 2019: 15:00 – 15:50, Wicklow Room-3 (CCD)

Writing is a many wondrous thing filled with highs and lows, but those lows can be really tough to navigate either after a great success or after a lack of success. Rejection is something every writer has to face, but how do writers keep writing in the face of failure? What lessons have they learned along the way? Our panelists share the ups and downs of a writing life.

Aliette de Bodard, Ian R MacLeod, Karl Schroeder (Tor Books) and the mighty Nina Allan

Kaffeeklatsch

Sunday, 18 Aug 2019: 11:00 – 11:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD)

I’ve never done a Kaffeeklatsch before. I assume I will be clutching coffee. My German in terrible.

Panel: Getting Published and Staying Published

Sunday, 18 Aug 2019: 13:00 – 13:50, ECOCEM Room (CCD)

You have a two-book deal with a mainstream publisher. Huzzah! So, after those two books, what happens next—not just immediately, but across years. Panelists share their experiences and expectations, offering advice and notes on what they wish they had known.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), E. C. Ambrose, Michelle Sagara and Natasha Bardon (HarperVoyager UK)

More thoughts from the slush pile

The last few months have involved a lot more reading at Unsung Stories. It’s still proving to be a fascinating process full of surprises. But it’s also starting to reveal trends and common problems with submissions.

So rather than making you guess what they are, here are some notes I’ve taken in the last five months. These ones are going to be a bit more specific but, same as before, these are things I see too often. The presence of things like the below makes the delicate bit of my brain you are appealing to shut down.

First of all, to remind you: Short stories are disproportionately hard. Making 2000 words into a complete artefact is difficult. Really difficult. They are not easier because they’re shorter.

Two strands this time: Specific tips and broader principles.

The second section is an attempt to construct a process to help with writing short stories. Like stories, I assume this early version is imperfect. I suspect it will go through many drafts and in time to come look completely different. As with stories, feedback is essential. So all comments are welcome. Encouraged, in fact.

Whether these points make me seem like a belligerent upstart with no respect for literature and the endeavours of authors, or a font of wisdom is up to you to judge. Pornokitsch got it right:

Ellory Sedgewick said: “My selection is made according to the whim of one individual.” Which is empowering, terrifying, and a very good reason that no  one should take it to heart.

It’s alchemy, both as an editor and writer. If we’re lucky we’ll make some gold together.

 

Specific tips

First of all, an idea someone suggested to me which I have tested successfully a number of times: Delete the first two paragraphs of your story. Does it still make sense? Have you removed action essential for understanding the plot? No? Repeat.

It’s galling the first time you do it, but the truth is some of us need to gain momentum when we write. I know writers who plan and start from a perfect first line, but I’m not one of them. I ease in and find my pace maybe 50 words in. Both techniques are valid, of course, but it doesn’t mean I should share those first 50 words.

Some things you should only use four times a year:

  • Exclamation marks
  • The word ‘suddenly’
  • Ellipses
  • The phrase ‘In that/this moment’

Some things you should use once a year:

  • Writers as characters (and that one time had better be damned good *glares at Paul Auster*)
  • Angels as characters. It’s worth clarifying on this one, I acknowledge they come with a vast wealth of source material. They are also dripping with classic themes and imagery. Both of these things, however, demonstrate a countless number of precedents. You ain’t first, tread carefully.

Some things you should never use:

  • Your first draft (Editing is essential. If you genuinely believe it came out perfect the first time you are wrong)
  • Surprise, it was all a dream! AKA, The Dallas Fallacy
  • Death as a character. It sounds a cool idea but remember you’re going toe-to-toe with Bergman, Pratchett and Gaiman and other heavyweights. The bar has been set.
  • Stories where someone tries to work out if they’re in Heaven or Hell. You know that line you’re thinking of, ‘You look like this because your soul remembers it.’? I’ve seen it.

Concept, Characters, Plot, Message

Perhaps the most common problem I see has its roots in whether the stories are concept driven or not. One of the easy misconceptions when writing short stories is that things like cool ideas or well-executed twists are enough.

The truth is the concept is just one element of what you need. Writing a slick twist is a good skill to learn but with no characters or purpose to the story it remains a technical exercise. Don’t be fooled by the ‘short’ bit, they still need to be complete stories.

So say you have a great idea. Good start. Now build on that and work out the characters who will help you explore it. What is their place in this world you’re creating and how do they relate to each other? Why them and not some one else? Now what drives the story: do the characters act or react, and why is that important? That narrative tension you want to create depends on all of these things, not just one.

Perhaps most importantly of all, what are you trying to communicate? This is the chicken and egg question because you need to answer it first of all, but you can’t answer it until you have a good idea of the above.

Take Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which hinges on a concept. The idea is strong, but the wider themes come from the combination characters and their relationships, the plot and, critically, how we as readers come to understand these things. The commentary on culpability and justice, contexts of violence in society, dehumanisation as a coping mechanism et al comes from a combination of techniques.

Applying the principles

To use a set of themes I see reasonably often in submissions: Stories where a character (who’s often anonymous) is trapped in a mysterious void- or weight-analogue as a metaphor for depression.

Message (Egg): How hard, lonely and scary depression can be to deal with.

Concept: Now the void-analogue might be pertinent but it’s not illuminating, or enough to sustain a story. Cathartic as a writer, perhaps, but for the story you need to look beyond solely expressing symptoms. You want people to understand what it feels like, and it feels complicated, right? Like it’s tied to every part of your life. The symptoms are just the front line. So there needs to be a narrative, a point of dialogue between writer and reader.

Character: Step one is giving your character an identity. It’s perhaps hardest with this story because it feels so intimate, but that’s precisely the point to embrace fiction. Make it your creation, not you. It is empowering. Now who are you writing about and in what ways are they similar or different from you? How can you take advantage of that?

Plot: A story needs change, progression. It can come full circle if you want, but it has to go somewhere. So is this about onset or the resolution? Is someone slipping into another world or breaking free, throwing that weight off? Did your character do it? Was it done to them? In the same way we deal with the state, when we look beyond the all-consuming moment we can see how it fits together. The potential lies in the context of the moment, not the moment itself.

Message (Chicken): Well that depends on you, now. Maybe it’s about how hard it can be to help introverted people. Maybe it’s an uplifting tale of unexpected charity. Maybe the other place has something to say about our world. Maybe your character has something to tell us. Whatever it is, it will speak of how hard depression can be to deal with, and more.

TL;DR

Got a cool idea with a neat twist/reveal at the end? Great. That’s only part of a story though. Message, concept, characters, plot, message again. 

Confessions of a fiction editor

We started accepting short story submissions on Unsung Stories a couple of months back. It’s already been a great experience and we have already found things that have screamed out to be published. But we’ve also learned that we have to make hard decisions and stick to them. We’ve had to define criteria of what we want and don’t want. We’ve even had to start *shudder* scoring things.

You know what? Picking good stories is hard. I don’t mean that in a ‘Oh lord, how shall I ever recognise genius from dross?’ Genius makes that one easy for you. What I’m talking about is the mundane process, the inevitable reality of reading hundreds of stories in search of the few that have that alchemical something.

I’ve spent a lifetime reading, years learning critical skills and more years learning to write. You think it would be second nature to me by now. But it really isn’t. Worse, I am already aware at early stages how quickly your brain can start playing tricks on you. No 8-hour reading marathon will ever help.

So. Here are a couple of confessions from a guilty editor, cunningly disguised as tips for writers. Sure, they might look like pointers to you, but to me these are penitent words slapped onto a tear-soaked keyboard, offered in the hope you’ll all forgive me my hubris:

  1. Hooks – You’ve all been told a good hook is essential, admit it. We all know it. Except, when you’re writing an idea takes you by the hand, leads you off and says, ‘Just one frilly para at the start. What’s the harm in that…?’ Everything, is the answer. The first line is essential, be it short and dramatic or longer and miasmic. We always read past the first sentence, but the best stories we’ve read drag us into their world immediately.
  2. Creating characters – You have so few words to use that characterisation can be hard, but it’s critical. A story about Hero Unit #23 on an adventure isn’t much. Pepper that unit with caprice, quirks, foibles and little details and they will come to life. Don’t tell me what colour their hair is, tell me what they see just before they go to sleep.
  3. Only tell the interesting bits – Honestly, when you’re working to a strict word count why waste clauses establishing redundant details? We watch so many films it’s now normal to think visually, and for writers this means we picture the scene in our head. This is absolutely fine, just don’t write up the stage directions. If it’s not clear who is looking at/turning to/walking to/whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Also, typos aren’t a good look. You know who you are.

Acceptances: KFP and Our Time is Over, P.S. I Love You

I am very pleased to say that I have had stories accepted for publication: KFP in SQ Mag and Out Time is Over, P.S. I Love You in Jupiter SF. Both are forthcoming, with Jupiter confirmed for their issue 48 in April 2015. Both of these are really exciting, not the least because they represent old and new stories for me.

KFP was an early success in my learning process and one I’ve felt really good about for a long time. So knowing that SQ Mag are giving it a good home (internationally!) can only make one fuzzy. As for getting my byline in Jupiter SF, well that’s really cool. Jupiter has been a force to be reckoned with for a long time now. It’s a quarterly publication for one, so issue 48 means they’ve been going for 12 years. These guys know what they’re doing.

Cover reveal: Of Falls and Angela

Cover artwork is pretty exciting. I’ve always got a buzz out of seeing the announcement then finding that the new designs are in fact completely frickin’ ace. Like when I saw the clothbound edition of I, Robot from Harper Voyager, all those gorgeous original covers for Iain Banks’ books or Ad Astra by Wayne Haag.

Well, I wanted a go.

I have recruited the talents of artist Jordan Grimmer and designer Martin Cox to get me some tasty cover artwork for Of Falls and Angela which is being prepared for publication on 13th Jun (yes, that is a Friday and no, I’m not superstitious).

Jordan has made me a pretty staggeringly good bit of artwork and – aww shucks, I’m gonna say it – was great to work with as well. He’s your man for helping you develop the concept and delivering the goods. Just have a look below.

Martin is similarly talented but I’ve worked with him for years at the day job so I’m taking him for granted now. Seriously though, he’s another guru. For one thing, he’s our designer at Unsung Stories (including the branding).

But that’s enough ado. So, with no more of the aforementioned, here’s the cover for Of Falls and Angela. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Of Falls and Angela

 

Reasons to be Peaceful, 1-2-3

It’s time for a short apology regarding why it’s been so quiet here recently. Here it comes: I’ve been really busy, sorry! To give a bit more detail, here’s some news about the exciting things which have been keeping me busy. So in a very particular order:

1) Unsung Stories

What’s been eating my time most voraciously is the new science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint I have been setting up. Yes, you read that right. The day job now involves getting a fiction imprint off the ground. This is tremendously exciting.

We have two books due out soon, Deja Vu by Ian Hocking and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley. These are both absolute crackers and I’m currently working with illustrators and editors to make sure they are flawless and beautiful to boot.

For those of you so inclined you might like to know that we’re also open for submissions.

Unsung Stories

2) Of Falls and Angela

The time has come for me to create a money-mouth situation which means that I will be self-publishing Of Falls and Angela in the coming months as well. I’m currently working with talented chap, Jordan Grimmer on some cover artwork which promises to be salivatingly good.

I’ll keep this blog updated as that progresses but expect publication soon

3) Book 2

Yup, I’m starting again. In my head it’s called The Many Little Deaths of Arthur Malory and it’s a near-future melodrama. I’ve drafted 15 out of 32 sections and it’s feeling much tighter structurally than Angela did at this stage. This one will be much closer to home as well as it’s about how we deal with increasingly porous social environments in the modern world, and the roots of anxiety.

Don’t worry, there’s a love story in there too.

Publication – 100 Worlds

That’s right, again. I know, crazy, right?

I am very pleased to announce that a flash of mine has been published in the Dreamscape Press anthology, 100 Worlds. This anthology collects 100 drabbles from 100 authors presenting you with 100 new and strange worlds. You want page 59.

A Kindle edition is forthcoming for those of you who’ve come to love the digital.