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Friday Reads: Waiting Room, by Emma Newman

This week, instead of the usual book review I am delighted to be hosting a free short story by fellow Angry Roboteer Emma Newman. Take it away, Emma!

“This is the twenty-ninth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds.  If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here.  This story is part of the build-up to the release of the first Split Worlds novel “Between Two Thorns” in March 2013. Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here,  where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).”

Waiting Room

When the woman with the nail through her hand left the waiting room Ben fidgeted. His arm was aching from keeping his left hand up in the air. And he looked like a dick.

His Mum tutted. “If you’d actually done what you were told, we wouldn’t be here now.”

“Everybody else does it.”

“That doesn’t make it a good idea. I thought you were more sensible than that.” When he didn’t answer she kissed the top of his head. “Is it hurting a lot?”

He shrugged. “Will they put a cast on it?” When Tim broke his leg everyone signed his cast and gave him tonnes of chocolate. Ben smirked as he remembered what he’d drawn on the back of the ankle. It had been worth the punch he got once Tim saw it on the removed cast.

“If it’s broken, probably.”

“Please be broken,” he whispered to it. If it was just a sprain he’d never live it down.

A man stumbled in, sweating and clutching a piece of cloth over his mouth like he was about to throw up. Ben picked out the three people who looked the most likely to be vomited on. He wished Tim was there so they could bet.

The man went to the desk and spoke through the cloth. The nurse, unimpressed, sent him to the waiting area. The man scanned the few empty chairs and then sat himself down opposite Ben. He still looked like he was about to throw up.

Mum shifted her feet to one side as she looked for another place to sit but there were no pairs of chairs free. “I’ll get you a drink darling,” she leaned over and added, “Tuck your feet under the chair in case that man is sick. And don’t bother him, he looks a bit weird.”

Ben took a proper look at the guy once his mother was gone. His right eye was badly bloodshot and his hands were covered in gravel burn. His t-shirt sported the new gold and red Flip logo, the same one Ben had got for his birthday.

“Did you have an accident?” Ben asked, pointing at the t-shirt with his good hand. “I got a Flip ‘board, that’s how I bust my wrist.”

“I came off my bike.” He was still speaking through the cloth.

Now he was closer Ben could see the cloth was a bandana. It was black with tiny skull and crossbones all over it. “Did you bust your teeth up or something?”

“No,” the man coughed. “I swallowed… something.”

“A fly?” The man didn’t reply. “Was it a-”

“You won’t believe me, so leave it, alright?”

“Tell me. Go on.”

“I think I swallowed a… fairy.”

“Eh?” It was the last thing Ben expected him to say. “Don’t be daft.”

“You ever had a fly in your eye?”

“Yeah.”

“Did the fly look massive?”

Ben nodded, remembering it well. When the tiny bug filled his vision the veins in its wings looked as thick as pencils.

“This twat stepped out into the road a bit ahead of me and got hit by a car and this thing he was carrying – it was jar or a lamp or something – it smashed. Those… things flew out of it. I swallowed one and it’s stuck,” he paused to cough. “But another went in my eye and it looked like a girl with wings and it was shining really bright, like a-”

“Sorry, is he bothering you?”

Ben jumped at the sound of his mother’s voice.

“No,” the man said, “it’s cool.”

“Benjamin Stephens,” a nurse called and Ben was ushered away.

Throughout the doctor’s assessment Ben thought about the man in the waiting room. Why say something like that? He probably liked winding kids up. Or he was tripping his ass off like Tim’s older brother did at weekends.

He whooped when he found out his wrist was broken. After a few days in a splint, once the swelling was down, he’d have a cast and all the chocolate he could want.

The man was still there when they went back out to reception with the cloth still over his mouth. Ben wanted to speak to him but his mother was steering him towards the exit.

“Mrs Stephens,” the nurse called her back. “I just need to go over a bit of paperwork with you.”

Ben waited until she was engrossed. “So I was thinking,” he said to the man. “If you did swallow a fairy, why are you keeping that bandana over your mouth?”

“I need the doctor to tell me if it’s really there. Otherwise I might be, you know, mental or something.”

“I can tell you,” Ben said.

The man shrugged. “Sod it. I’m sick of sitting here. You ready?”

Ben crouched in front of him and gave an eager nod. The bandana was pulled down and the man’s open mouth revealed.

“There’s something in there!”

The flap of skin at the back of the man’s throat was illuminated from behind, like he’d swallowed an LED and it had got stuck there. Ben could smell coffee on the man’s breath. The light got brighter as something emerged from the behind the skin but the source was too small to see properly. It shot out of the man’s mouth and zipped to the nearest window where it flew outside. Ben, who’d snapped his head back to avoid it, fell backwards into the chair behind him.

“Did you see it?” The man demanded.

Ben cradled his wrist to his chest, trying not to cry. His Mum rushed over and pulled him up by his good hand. She glared at the man. “Come on, we’re going home.”

“But what did you see!” the man said, but Ben didn’t know what to say.

“What was he talking about?” His Mum asked as they left.

“Nothing,” Ben glanced at the man as they passed the window. “He was just some weirdo.”

 

 

“Thanks for hosting, Anne!”

I need a hero: feminism, escapism and the female gaze

At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.

Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)
Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)

At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.

It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…

Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.

Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.

So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men ;)

Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!

 

 

 

A Year in the Life

Since I’ve been struggling to stay focused of late, I’ve decided to try an experiment. I’ve created a Twitter account in the name of my protagonist, Mal Catlyn, and will be tweeting the twelve months of his life that lead up to the events of  The Alchemist of Souls.

The story begins in July 1592, and will continue up to the beginning of the book in June 1593. Admittedly the first post is “dated” May 1592, just to establish the inciting incident, but from this week onwards the story will unfold in real time.

I have no idea if or how this is going to work – I just fancy trying something a bit different to boost my creativity and keep my mind focused on these books and characters. And if it brings a little publicity my way, well, all to the good!

You can follow the story at @MalCatlyn, and as I may also be using the account to reply to followers, you can filter the actual “diary” posts using the #malsdiary hashtag.

Enjoy!

My very first book deal

After many anxious weeks of biting my tongue, I am finally able to share my good news with the world – I have a three-book deal from UK SF&F publishers Angry Robot :D

Back in September last year, this was only a distant, fervent dream. I met Angry Robot head honcho Marc Gascoigne at FantasyCon and pitched him my book and, despite the lateness of the hour and my nervousness, I was apparently coherent enough for him to request some sample chapters and a synopsis. These were duly sent, and a few weeks later I got a reply to say he and Lee (the editor) loved my writing – yay! – but thought that magic should play a larger role in the plot. We bounced some ideas back and forth until we had a solution we were all happy with, and I set about revising my novel along those lines.

At the end of January I sent off the complete manuscript, followed a couple of weeks later by a revised synopsis of that book plus one for a sequel, to form the basis of a potential book deal. My hopes were really up by this point, partly out of sheer keenness to work with Angry Robot but also because of Marc’s enthusiasm so far – but at the same time I was just a little bit terrified that I was being over-optimistic and setting myself up for disappointment. However barely a week later I received another email to say that the synopses had been received – oh, and by the way, they’d like to make me an offer!

Once I had calmed down a bit, I emailed John Berlyne at Zeno, who offered to represent me and negotiate the deal. After that it was just a matter of sending some more emails back and forth, signing paperwork and so on. The worst part was the waiting; signing a new client is a big deal for the agent and publisher as well as the author, so it all has to be coordinated and planned and done properly.

Anyway, now it’s all public! To find out more, including titles and publication dates, visit the Novels section of this site which, unlike this blog post, will be updated as I get more news. As for me, I’m going to pinch myself one last time, then get back to writing the next book in the series…

My not-so-secret agent

For the past four weeks I’ve been biting my tongue and waiting not-very-patiently to make this announcement: I have signed with John Berlyne of the Zeno Literary Agency.

Back in September 2010 when I started my agent hunt, I was disappointed to discover that Zeno were closed to submissions. Not only did they have an exciting client list, from homegrown talent like Maggie Furey and Freda Warrington to huge US names such as Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson, but John B and I share a favourite author in Tim Powers (another of Zeno’s clients).

I put them on my shortlist anyway, and signed up for their RSS feed. A few weeks later they announced they were opening for a short while, and so on 1st December I fired off a query. Maybe it was my carefully-honed pitch, or maybe it was the fact that I already had a publisher interested, but I got a request for sample chapters practically by return of email, and a request for the full manuscript ten days later.

Of course the world of publishing never moves as quickly as we anxious authors would like, so it wasn’t until last month that I finally spoke to John about representation. Since I’m evidently not the only one to be signed up as a result of their two-month opening, I had to wait until they were ready to make an announcement before I could tell the rest of the world. However the embargo is now lifted, and I am free to shout it from the highest hills, even tell the golden da–ffodils…

Because my secret agent’s no secret, any more.

(With apologies to Sammy Fain and Paul-Francis Webster)

Book Review: The Court of the Midnight King, by Freda Warrington

I confess this isn’t a recent book – it was published in 2003 – but it was recommended to me by someone after a discussion about alternate history fantasy, and it provoked a sufficiently strong reaction that I felt impelled to review it.

*** As is inevitable, there will be mild spoilers! ***

The Court of the Midnight King is set in the fifteenth century, during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of English history (close on the heels of the late 16th century), which is why I followed up on my friend’s recommendation.

Although ninety-five percent of the story is told from the point of view of its medieval characters, the narrative is interrupted at intervals by brief scenes set in the present day. August, a history undergraduate, having become obsessed with Richard III after watching a DVD of Laurence Olivier in the Shakespeare play, starts having vivid visions of the lives of two young people, Kate and Raphael, whose world is a 15th-century parallel universe seemingly contemporaneous with our own. For them, magic is real and a matriarchal goddess cult still survives alongside Christianity, albeit under increasing pressure of persecution. As the story unfolds, we see a very different Richard of Gloucester from the one portrayed by Shakespeare: handsome, unswervingly loyal to his brother Edward, loved by practically everyone who meets him. And this is where the book started to go awry for me.

Everyone (apart from his political enemies) loves Richard. August the undergraduate is besotted by him, neglecting her 12th-century coursework to investigate the contradictory evidence in the historical record and fantasising about nocturnal visitations from her dark prince. Raphael idolises Gloucester, who took him in after his family were killed during the conflict between Edward IV and Henry VI. And Kate, mother of Richard’s illegitimate son following a brief but passionate teenage liaison, is too infatuated with Gloucester to marry Raphael, even though she loves him and it is the best way to secure her family’s estate.

Now, I’m as much a sucker for an angsty romance and unresolved sexual tension as the next girl – and I confess that the scenes between Kate and Richard were some of my favourites – but the unremitting adoration and somewhat naive pro-Ricardian stance (as in, Richard was far too good a man to have murdered his nephews) began to cloy after a few chapters. And this is a substantial book.

It didn’t help that the framing story interfered with my suspension of disbelief. Every few chapters I was being reminded by the author that the story I was reading was apparently the imaginings of a modern-day girl (I say apparently, because in the end the two worlds do meet). It felt like I was reading Ricardian fan-fiction, with Kate as August’s self-insertion (or is August the author’s self-insertion?). Good fan-fiction, but with that irritating note of adolescent wish-fulfillment.

Add to this the (from my perspective) wearisome amount of time devoted to the female characters’ personal lives at the expense of the turbulent politics of this alternate history Wars of the Roses, the anachronistic proto-feminism of the Wiccan-like Motherlodge , and not forgetting costume descriptions that sounded uncannily like Richard et al had been dressed by The Black Rose rather than Berman’s and Nathan’s – and my cynical side began to get in the way of my enjoyment. There were times, heading towards the middle of this book, when I could have cheerfully thrown it across the room!

It’s a pity, because The Court of the Midnight King is beautifully written, evoking the ethereal beauty of the English landscape and carrying its scholarship and period knowledge lightly. I really wanted to like it, and by the end I kind of did (mainly because I can’t resist a satisfying HEA), but I’m not sure I’ll pick up another of Warrington’s books in the future.

When short stories aren’t stories

Dave Truesdale, editor of Tangent Online, has caused a bit of stir recently by announcing a new direction for his reviews. On the one hand, I strongly disagree with some of his claims, particularly that SF&F is “a genre infested with politically correct thinking”. Truesdale seems to think that part of the “decline” is down to some magazines allegedly having a rigid policy of including as many female authors as male, i.e. the fiction written by women is poorer quality and only chosen for PC reasons. Frankly this attitude beggars belief, and only serves to show up the level of sexism that still pervades some areas of the genre – science fiction in particular. That same sexism, or at least a distinctly male aesthetic, also appears reflected in Truesdale’s distaste for stories that focus on characters’ emotional lives rather than cool ideas.

On the other hand I have to say that short SF&F does sometimes leave me very disappointed. I’ve recently been dipping into short fiction in order to research markets for my own work, and a depressing percentage leave me feeling ‘meh’. I won’t name names – I don’t want to bite the hands that might feed me one day! – but when I read “stories” that lack either narrative arc or good writing, I begin to wonder whether the editor in question knows his or her stuff.

Not every piece of short fiction has to have a beginning, middle and end, or tension and high stakes, but if it hasn’t got any of those, it had better be either the most stupendously cool idea I’ve read in ages, or such gorgeous prose that reading it is still time well spent. I come to speculative fiction for that wow factor that I mentioned in an earlier blog post, and when I don’t get it, I’m unlikely to come back for more.

So, I’m going to carry on writing the occasional story that is really a story, and hope that there are still readers out there that feel the way I do – and markets to feed both sides.

Book Review: The Sword of Albion, by Mark Chadbourn

I thought it was about time I did another book review focusing on my own corner of the genre. I’m still catching up on my reading, so at first it will be books that have been out for a while, but hopefully I’ll be more up-to-date soon!

My next “victim” is The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn (published as The Silver Skull in the US).

Disclaimer: I have met Mark and he’s a lovely bloke, but I will try not to let that influence my review. After all, I’ve met other very pleasant authors whose books I was not impressed by, and I’m sure there are books I like whose authors are not so nice.

The Sword of Albion is the tale of Will Swyfte: swordsman, adventurer, rake, and England’s greatest spy. He is famed throughout the kingdom, thanks to ballads and pamphlets – so how can he work in secret when everyone knows who he is? The truth is that his real work is against an Enemy who have long known his identity, and his fight against them requires more than stealth and a ready rapier.

The story ranges from London to Edinburgh and down into the Iberian Peninsula, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish – the famous armada of 1588. The action moves relentlessly from set-piece to set-piece, dragging the reader along in Swyfte’s wake as he is repeatedly captured and makes another dramatic escape. Think James Bond meets Pirates of the Caribbean; not only would this make a great movie, but since Chadbourn is a scriptwriter as well, it reads like a great movie.

Will Swyfte is not an arrogant mysogynist like Bond, however. OK, so he indulges in wine and women (sometimes to excess) to blot out the memories of the terrible things he has to do for Queen and country, but at heart he is a romantic, haunted by the memory of his lost love. His companions, though getting much less of the limelight, are also complex, well-drawn characters with believable motivations, though some are decidedly less sympathetic than Will.

The historical setting is well-drawn, with enough detail to satisfy the Elizabethan buffs amongst us without slowing down the action. The filthiness and smelliness of London is sometimes laid on a little heavily, but it does provide a contrast with the elegant, blossom-fragrant citadels of Spain.

I have only a few small quibbles, mostly the nitpicking of a fellow writer that will probably go unnoticed by other readers. There are a few places where information is repeated, or spelt out in narrative immediately after it has been explained in dialogue. And in one scene, Will somehow manages to hold a rapier to a bad guy’s throat and simultaneously whisper in his ear – pretty impressive with a blade that was normally around 36-40 inches! (I assume he is using the tip, since rapiers were not terribly sharp near the hilt). My attention did start to drift a little during the sea-battle, but that sort of thing is always hard to do in a novel. It wasn’t badly written – quite the contrary – but every time the action shifted away from Will towards ships in combat, I just wanted to skip ahead to the next bit of derring-do :)

I was also a little disappointed that the Enemy resorted to mundane physical torture, when they are so good at the psychological kind, but I guess it had to be clear that they were capable of inflicting horrible torments on those Will cares about. On the other hand, kudos to Chadbourn for writing torture scenes that didn’t give me nightmares. He sensibly focuses on the interrogation that is the point of the scene, rather than gratuitous descriptions of the torture itself. Books being so much more intimate a medium than film, it takes very little to make a strong impact on the engaged reader.

In summary, this is an entertaining page-turner with strong, sympathetic characters and a fascinating, terrifying setting – what more could one want from a fantasy novel? I for one am eagerly looking forward to reading more of Will’s adventures…

Inside-out character development

Since I’m at the beginning of a new project, I thought it would be a good time to record and share some of my processes. First up – character development, because you can’t have a good book without great characters!

If you read enough how-to-write books or do courses, you’ll come across a number of methods of character creation. The worst, IMHO, is what I call the “Dungeons and Dragons” approach, whereby you detail all kinds of trivia up front: height, build, eye colour, hair colour, distinguishing marks, and so on. Boring, boring and usually irrelevant at the planning stage of a novel. Usually. Sometimes a character’s physical appearance is important to the story – I knew I wanted Coby Hendricks in A Mirror for London to be blond so it’s less obvious she has no facial hair (since she’s disguised as a boy) – but often it really doesn’t matter too much. And whilst you do need to know these things during revisions, so you can ensure consistency, for the most part they can be allowed to develop as you write, or at least emerge out of the process of developing the character’s personality.

Most instructions do move on to character personality and background, of course, but again it tends to be a highly structured “fill in the blanks” exercise, because this is far easier to present. Sometimes it’s almost as specific as the D&D method, particularly in books aimed at writers of any kind of fiction: where did he/she go to school, what does the character’s bedroom look like, describe his/her first kiss. A lot of these are simply useless to writers of SF&F, where characters often don’t go to school and may have few personal possessions – and who cares about first kisses unless you’re writing romance???

The better questionnaires focus on character motivation. Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” course is like this, posing questions like “What’s the one thing this character would sacrifice anything for?” and “What one event made him/her a better person?” – but I still find these too specific and structured. My Muse freezes up and says “How the heck should I know? I only met this person a couple of days ago!”

So what’s a girl to do? I find that my characters only come alive when they start talking (preferably to one another), so I’ve hit upon a technique which exploits that. In my planning notebook I write a first person monologue from the point of view of the character I’m working on, letting it meander from topic to topic like a stream of consciousness. It’s totally unstructured, but that lets my Muse throw in ideas unfettered by someone else’s opinion of what makes a rounded character.

And it’s working! I had been toying with various names for my svartalf protagonist and unsure about which one to choose, but the monologue brought the issue to a head in no uncertain terms. My name is Ember she wrote because although I am black as coal on the outside, I burn within. (I say she wrote that – obviously it was me, but I was merely transcribing the images pouring out of my right-brain.) At that moment she came alive for me, and everything else, including her personality and motivation, fell into place.

Anyway, if you’re struggling with character development, give it a go. Make it a friendly conversation in the pub after a few beers, not an interrogation, and the characters will tell you all about themselves. Probably in more detail than you ever expected – or wanted!

Woman-shaped hole

From time to time I revisit The Bechdel Test, because my fiction tends to feature a lot more men than women. Now I’m not going to go out of my way to make sure my work passes, because I hate tokenism in any form, but it does keep me thinking about women in fantasy.

At the moment I’m reading The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, which is unusual in that one of the protagonists is not just female but black and lesbian. We haven’t seen as much from her PoV as the two male characters, but it’s enough to pass my version of the Bechdel Test; let’s call it the Lyle Test :)

For me, what matters in written fiction (as distinct from film and TV) is not how many women there are and what they talk about, as how unstereotypical they are, how integral to the story and how sympathetic. They don’t have to be nice people, but even villains need a human side or they might as well be CGI eyeballs.

Consider these two examples:

Exhibit A: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Now, overall I quite enjoyed this book (it could have done with some editing, but that’s par for the course these days), but it fails the Lyle test, I’m afraid. There are occasional mentions of Locke’s amour, who is supposedly clever as well as gorgeous, but the women who actually appear in the book are minor characters at best and stereotypical kick-ass warrior babes at worst. It’s probably no more than one should expect from a fairly young male author, but it’s still disappointing for this reader.

Exhibit B: The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg. For me this is a worse offender, since the writer is a woman. Each of the two male protagonists has a female partner, which ought to be good, right? Wrong. Seyonne’s wife is a out-and-out bitch with apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever (making Seyonne look like a total loser for being in love with her), and whilst Prince Aleksander’s betrothed is an assertive princess, she figures so briefly in the story that I was left feeling like she was just a convenient plot device to help the heroes in their escape. The whole trilogy revolves around the obsessive (but disappointingly unhomoerotic) relationship between the two men, and hence fails the test.

Contrast these with practically any book by Terry Pratchett, where there are women of all ages and classes (and species), as protagonists or in minor roles, and every last one of them memorable and believable.

Boys, you’ve got your work cut out…