Curious about the Italian writing retreat?

We asked Damien Seaman how he ended up inviting writers to the Italian countryside for some serious writing time in the first place…

How my dark week of the soul could help you fix your crappy novel (no offence)

By writing blogger and hotelier Damien Seaman

If you’re of a literary bent and you’ve ever had the feeling of bashing your head against a brick wall, congratulations. You must have written a novel.

Or attempted to write one, at any rate.

Why do we fools do this to ourselves?

Take my head-bashing story…

Three months, it took me. To struggle through writing the first half of the first draft of what remains my only full-length novel.

And then came my dark night of the soul.

More like a dark week, actually.

A week of crapping my pants

I reached the half-way point of the manuscript and got stuck.

Like, really stuck. Pants-crappingly I’m-a-shit-writer-why-can’t-I-ever-get-one-of-my-stupid-ideas-to-work-out? stuck.

You know.

Stuck.

The ending I’d had in mind just would not work. It refused. Downed tools and went on strike.

Whatever I did to change the perspective, I could not make the events of the book hold together in a way that concluded satisfactorily.

So I took a week off work and wandered around the house. Outside the house, too. Up and down the side of the local canal. Morning, noon and late at night.

This was some serious shit.

I would never make it as a writer. I was kidding myself. I didn’t have the talent. Or the skill. Or whatever.

Whatever a writer needs. I did not have that.

Panic? Yes, you could call it that.

But at the end of my week of furious pacing, I had my ending right in my mind. Somehow. Don’t ask me how, cause I couldn’t tell you.

The threads lead where they ought, though. And at that point, it took only three weeks to write the second half.

That’s the thing with plotting a novel. Devilish difficult, no?

And time-consuming.

I mean, I wasted a whole week of my free time just to wear a hole in my shoes because I was stuck writing a book no one would read.

Not writing, mind you. Just pacing. And thinking.

Talk about mad.

You don’t have to suffer like I did

Well, now that I’m co-running a small hotel in northern Italy, I haven’t forgotten those dark, dark days.

Nor the fact that it had taken me three years of stopping and starting and researching and abandoning book ideas before I’d got far enough into writing one to even have my dark week of the soul.

Three years!

The real madness is that I did not have to go through all of this. There is always a simpler way.

If you have the humility for it.

I’m talking about asking someone else for help.

Another writer or a writing tutor, that is.

I mean, your significant other might be lovely and cuddly and supportive. But what do they know about writing?

Your parents? They’re still mad at you for not becoming a doctor.

And your kids? Please. Those guys are just idiots.

No, let’s be real for a moment…

All work and no play making your novel a dull read?

“I have written two novels to date, one of which I think may have some mileage but with necessary revisions to the plot and central character but not sure how to effect these changes…” one woman from Scotland told me in a recent email.

“…am on my second novel but stuck on it!” wrote another.

Aside from both feeling stuck with their novels, these women have something else in common. 

They’re coming along to our trouble-shooting retreat this October to solve their writing woes. 

Do you feel this way about your current work in progress?

You’re likely too close to it to see the problems. Much less how to solve them.

The good news is that you don’t have to go round in circles. Or start chasing your family with an axe, like Jack Nicholson in that Shining movie…

Instead, creative writing tutor, author and publisher Amanda Saint has crafted this exclusive writing retreat in Italy. To help you…

  • See and solve your story issues
  • Grip your reader and never let go
  • Create characters that leap off the page
  • Develop the right pace for your story
  • Write the very best version of the book that’s inside you

The two women I quoted above will be there to work through the problems with their novels.

They’ll be joined by a half dozen other authors. All of them looking to get that breakthrough in their work. And to get to know other aspiring novelists – just like you. 

If you’re interested, check out the details here: https://albergoleso.com/escape

And, if you’re a Skulk member, you can also get 10% off the price.

(The details for the discount are on the skulk members page)

Damien Seaman is a restaurateur and hotelier in training in the mountains above Verona, where he day dreams of working in a shitty office. He also interviews authors and publishers and puts the results on his blog

 

 

Fox Spirit is Seven! #skulkisseven

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Fox Spirit is Seven! How did that happen?!

Did you know there’s an ebook store right here? And that you can use coupon code ‘skulkis7‘ to celebrate our 7th birthday with 25% off throughout June!! What are you waiting for?

It’s a milestone that makes you thoughtful. Shakespeare talked about the ‘seven ages’ of human life in his ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech. The first is birth which he describes as

At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Fox Spirit managed to avoid that unpleasantry: it was born with a song in its heart, a laugh in its mouth and a pub on  its mind — the Nun & Dragon. It was meant to be a one off, but here we are seven years later! Which in Bill’s words means:

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

I suppose we can see a little bit of that: hands up skulk members who would rather be writing/drawing/plotting than creeping to our jobs and other duties? Yes, you can put your hands down now. We itch to have the luxury of time, but there are always new responsibilities. In the mean time we can remember that we are yet young and have so many ways to grow.

What will the next anniversary bring? More books? More multimedia efforts? Games? Skulk Island? World Domination?

Time alone will tell — but the skulk has ambitions, you can bet your floof on that. All kudos to our fearless leader Adele!

Countdown to Christmas Day 5

We are going to blow our own wind instruments a little today. My personal preference would have to be the Sax, but you may be more into the Oboe or French Horn. All welcome here. 

Danie Ware, author of the blindingly excellent urban alchemical fairy tale ‘Children of Artifice’ has been featuring heavily over at Damien Seaman’s blog this week with an Interview about her writing career and dayjob and the juggling act many of you raising kids on top of work and writing will be familiar with.

Then there was an in depth review which looked at the prologue debate, the core of family drama in the book and how Danie is a master craftsman when it comes to using description to move things forward and world build at the same time. 

From the review
The book is heartfelt and emotional, authentic and musical, a new mythology that draws its power from the old.

Maybe add this one to your Christmas reading list and don’t forget to drop us a line at submissions@foxspirit.co.uk if you want to share some of your own favourites on the blog this December. 

A weekend of Words

Well the Foxes had a busy weekend.

Saturday we got up bright and early and headed to Nottingham in the light rain and chilly air for Other Worlds. A one day event run by the ever excellent Alex Davis and Nottingham Writers Studio. I pretty much spent the day downstairs, being on and watching panels. 

Among the guests were Gav Thorpe, J.R. Park, Alison Moore, Justina Robson, Stephen Aryan and Charlotte Bond. A stellar line up I was delighted to be part of. I moderated a discussion on short stories. As a huge fan of the short it was lovely to get writers takes on their role in the industry. I also sat on the Tropes panel which had some lively discussion around the role of tropes, for better and for worse. The other panels of the day were superb, with intelligent and varied contributions from writers who clearly really engaged with the subjects. Gav realised last minute that he was moderating but ran the panel brilliantly. I would later come to regret teasing him.

I wore fox ears. Of course.

Mr Fox and I then pootled off to get the train to Sheffield. After a very relaxed night at a premier inn which included pizza in bed and sleep, we were just about refreshed and ready for the final day of Sci Fi in the City. The book programme is run by Sam Stone and David Howe and they always put together an excellent and busy selection of treats for the event. 

I started with a one on one interview with Sam, which was up against cosplay so we had a small audience allowing for a very relaxed conversation with some input from others. I might have been a bit over excited about the colouring story book Zena the Zombie and tried to persuade Sam custom crayons were the way to go. 

After a break, during which pop up puppets did their hilarious version of Jaws (do see them if you get the chance), I moderated a panel on self publishing which looked pretty openly at the pros and cons, and why you might choose to self pub and the practicalities. Followed this up with what was originally posted as a small press discussion but ended up being ‘Aunty Fox and Ian Whates have a damned good catch up and chat about the stuff that goes on’. We covered a lot of the joys and hard truths of small press and while it felt very indulgent to spend a whole hour talking to the lovely Ian in this way the audience seemed happy to just occasionally provide a topic. A rare opportunity for those who attended to hear how it really is. 

Finally the afternoon wrapped for us with a writing SF & Fantasy Panel. I had to eat my words from teasing Mr Thorpe because I realised 5 mins before my 3 hour stint started that I was down to moderate this. I obviously stole some of the questions from the tropes panel, and honestly with the guests I had very little moderating was needed, it was more like throw something out and let them run with it. An absolute joy. I met some utterly delightful people, caught up with old friends including several skulk members and found some even bigger fluffier ears. We came home with lots more books and a whole load of others on my list to try. A fantastic weekend. My guests over the course over the day included Sam, Ian, Bryony Pearce and Rob Harkess among others.

I now have a couple of weeks for my voice to recover before Fantasycon at Chester, where I am pleased to say I am just a punter this year. If you are there I will be the one in giant fluffy ears. 

Just one final shout out for the weekender, to these fabulous cosplayers who went back for the cat. 

 

 

 

Monster Tales : Tihema Baker

My Identity

by Tihema Baker

Ko Tainui te waka

Ko Tararua te maunga

Ko Ōtaki te awa

Ko Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, ko Te Āti Awa ki Whakarongotai, ko Ngāti Toa Rangatira ngā iwi

Ko Tihema Baker tōku ingoa.

This is my pepeha – my identity. It includes the vessel that brought my ancestors to Aotearoa New Zealand, to the mountains and river that geographically ground me, and the nations I belong to. For the Māori peoples of Aotearoa, identity is inextricably tied to whakapapa (genealogy), which demonstrates our worldview: we are the sum of everything that came before. It’s a profound recognition of the past and understanding of how it shapes the future. Everything that transpired, everything that aligned, everything that fell into place and resulted in our existence defines us. From the emergence of raw potential from the void, right up to the mothers who gave birth to us. By stating my pepeha, I am introducing myself as definitively as I can as Māori.

If you were to meet me face-to-face, however, it’s unlikely you would think I’m Māori. To most, I look white, or what we would call Pākehā; my skin is the freckly type that burns within a few minutes of summer sun, my hair is fair, my eyes are blue. Undoubtedly, if you met me on the street, you would assume I was white.

It’s a symptom of the world we live in, which insists on defining people by their skin colour or physical attributes. This directly contradicts that Māori worldview that identity has absolutely nothing to do with skin colour. I am the sum of everything that came before me. And if that means I am Māori, then I am Māori. There is no other qualifier.

That worldview doesn’t sit so well in a western, colonised society built on the exact premise that people are defined by their skin colour. Sure, today in New Zealand we don’t have laws that directly prejudice brown-skinned Māori (for the most part), and we don’t have overt displays of white supremacy (for the most part). But the remnants of a society built on racial profiling still infect our lives.

Like so many Māori children, I suffered through an education where teachers mangled my Māori name in almost every way imaginable. As an adult, I suffer through the same in professional environments, often having to correct colleagues on something as simple as calling me what I wish to be called. But there’s a unique element to this that comes exclusively with being a “white Māori”; having to justify being Māori to everyone else.

My mum recalls taking me as a toddler to the doctor, where the receptionist asked why she hadn’t given me a “nice” name like “Reuben”. Just a few weeks ago I caught an elevator with a woman who works at the same place I do and she asked, “How come you have a Māori name?” When I told her what I thought would have been the obvious answer – that I am Māori – she responded, “But you have red hair,” like the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Before I knew it, my well-trained, instinctive response churned itself out, “Well, my mum’s Australian and…”

This is how my ability to engage socially has been conditioned by a lifetime of pre-empting the quizzical looks, the interrogation on how Māori I really am, the automatic “othering” that occurs the moment I introduce myself. I am programmed to explain myself, to contextualise my appearance so it makes sense to other people, to whom a white face with a brown name does not compute. As a human being biologically wired to seek acceptance by others, I often unconsciously just compromise my own sense of identity for their benefit. And I’m not even innocent of this ignorance myself; my own instinctive defence of my whiteness – that “my mum’s Australian” – is a glaring oversight of Australia’s own indigenous peoples. 

And that’s the irony; this “othering” isn’t only committed by Pākehā. I remember, at 6 years old, being pushed by a Māori girl for being a Pākehā who had stolen her land. When I defiantly told her I was from Ngāti Raukawa, she refused to believe me based on how white I was. At 8 years old a Māori relief teacher read my name from the roll, looked over her glasses at me and said, “You’re not Māori, are you?” Again, those experiences weren’t just limited to my childhood; I played a game of netball just yesterday and introduced myself to a new Māori teammate who, when I gave him my name, looked me up and down and said, “Not the name I was expecting.”

I could rattle off examples of these micro-aggressions all day, but I think the picture is clear. This is the bizarre space I occupy as an apparent “white Māori”; possessing too brown a name to fit in with Pākehā but too white-skinned to fit in with Māori.

Frustratingly, these attitudes extend to my writing too. When I was first in talks with my publisher, which specialises in Māori literature, about my novel, I was asked if either of the two main characters were Māori and, if not, why not? I hadn’t really thought about it; I had described one of them as having fair hair and skin only because I vainly wanted him to look like me. Just because I hadn’t explicitly jammed in somewhere that he was Māori didn’t mean he wasn’t. It just meant his appearance wasn’t an indicator of him being Māori or not.

As a Māori writer, this expectation – that my writing should “look” Māori – has been incredibly challenging to break through. People are surprised when they find my novel doesn’t reflect their view of what “Māori literature” is; I’ve had friends tell me they assumed my novel was written entirely in Māori for no other reason than I am Māori. Basically, my novel is about teenagers with superpowers, inspired by comic books, superhero movies, and Harry Potter – it’s about as nerdy and un-Māori in “look” a book could get. But it’s what I enjoy. That’s why I wrote it.

This just doesn’t add up in a lot of people’s heads. They can’t fathom a Māori writer producing a YA sci-fi novel, instead expecting something about Māori gods or taniwhā. It undermines all the aspects of my identity as Māori that shaped the book and therefore absolutely make it – like everything I write – a piece of Māori literature; my novel explores fundamental Māori concepts like life-force and spirit, the complex relationship between older and younger siblings, among others. They’re just not explicitly labelled as such. And they shouldn’t have to be; just like I shouldn’t have to reconcile my identity as Māori with my white skin so it makes sense to others, I shouldn’t have to tokenise my writing with as many Māori references as possible for it to be accepted as Māori literature. In line with that Māori worldview, my book is the result of everything that influenced it, all my experiences that moulded the words I put on the page. If those were the experiences of a Māori person, then the literature is unequivocally Māori too. 

Of course, not all Pākehā and Māori have these views. I have been fortunate throughout my life to be surrounded by Pākehā and Māori who simply accept me for who I am, and who protect me when I get tired of sticking up for myself. I must also acknowledge that my skin colour often affords me privilege that others do not have. I do not get stopped by police while driving or walking through the streets. I receive smiles from strangers, am asked for directions or assistance, when my brown friends and family are avoided. I’ve also never been killed or blamed for terrorism based on my skin colour. Who knows how many other scenarios I have been advantaged in due solely to my white skin – probably more than I’ll ever know. And that’s not even beginning to scratch the surface of my privilege as a white man; even if I was brown I still wouldn’t face as much prejudice in New Zealand as a brown Māori woman does. I acknowledge that. This is just an account of my experiences as a Māori with white skin, in a colonised society built upon the distinction of skin colour. It’s one I’m not sure has been explored in literature often.

So I decided to write about it because it’s a theme I touch on in my story “Children of the Mist.” There’s a passage that describes the narrator’s experience having to justify his white appearance to other Māori. At first read it probably seems quite out of place; a monologue that delves much deeper into the narrator’s psyche than any other passage in the story. Mechanically, it serves an important function in the story’s overall conclusion, but it’s also an example of a specific story element inspired by my lived experience. I thought it would be interesting to delve into, because in reading my story – and any other, for that matter – you are not just reading a text that exists independent of anything else. You are reading a text inspired by history, by opinion, by experience. You are reading the sum of everything that came before.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou katoa.

 

Writing the fairy fort by Tracy Fahey

With her first novel for Fennec being published on Thursday, Tracy Fahey discusses writing ‘The Girl in the Fort’ over on her blog.

Here’s a little about the book: Set in rural Ireland of the 1980s, The Girl In The Fort is a novel about fables, friendship, family and fairy forts. After her father takes a job abroad, eleven year old Vivian is sent from Dublin to stay with her grandparents in their ramshackle family home in the countryside. At first she fiercely resents abandoning city life and her friends – her grandparents don’t even have TV, just hundreds of books. However, she reluctantly finds herself becoming attracted to the strange fairy fort in a nearby field, and the odd secrets it holds. But spending too much time in the fort can be a dangerous thing, as Vivian and her new friends Katie and Tommy find out. As the long, hot summer unfolds, Vivian sees her grandmother’s folk tales come to life, experiences the complicated joys of witnessing the past, and forges new relationships with her family.

We have all really enjoyed helping Tracy to bring Vivian’s world to you and are so excited to see the finished product. We hope you enjoy ‘The Girl in the Fort’ as much as we do and can’t wait to hear what you think.

Waxing Lyrical : Asexuality in Fantasy

Images added by Aunty Fox, also check this out for some illustrations of asexuality and dumb things people say.

Asexuality in Fantasy

By Joel Cornah

Writing characters is so often about letting the reader know what they are, rather than what they are not. In our world, so much of how people’s identities are perceived is bound up in ideas of sexuality and romance that, in the words of comedian Charlie Brooker;

We’ve become so accustomed to seeing characters pairing off with one another that it’s now almost impossible to see a man and a woman together on screen at once without internally speculating about whether they’re going to have sex or not.”

 Indeed, the trope of having two people (often of different genders) who do little but argue and despise one another but end up falling madly in love is incredibly prominent. I might even go so far as to say that for a lot of people, seeing two characters bicker has become an almost sure-fire way of predicting if they’ll end up together. But even in these cases, the writers will often tie them together through some reconciliation scene that ends with physical intimacy of some sort. Just to hammer home the point.

When it comes to writing asexual characters, those who lack sexual attraction, it can be somewhat jarring to audiences who are used to characters getting off with one another simply by being in the same room. I think this might be the source of some anti-ace feeling some publishers may have, especially as a sexual or romantic subplot is expected of most stories as a matter of course.

With the world I created for The Sea-Stone Sword and The Sky Slayer, I decided that prejudices based on sexuality were not really a thing in most societies. It made the writing process a lot more open and gave me much more creative freedom. Openly gay and bisexual characters are comparatively easy to show through the relationships and romances the characters endure and pursue. The age old ‘show don’t tell’ rule runs smoothly in these cases. But when it comes to asexual characters it’s much harder to make it explicit.

So how do you address it in a way that can be easily grasped? Is it as simple as having characters who just never experience sexual attraction or is it something we should actively point out in a character? Should they internally reflect on their lack of attraction, should they explain it to others, should it be discussed openly or simply allowed to exist.

I have one ace character in The Sea-Stone Sword, but it is not explicit because the issue doesn’t come up. She is quite young, and there were also other aspects to her character that were a lot more active and so became the focal point.

For asexual characters, the temptation for me was to simply never address it at all, and to delve into nonsexual aspects of their relationships. I wanted to explore the friendships they made, the loyalties they formed and causes for which they fought. It was important to me to flesh them out as characters and how they related to others and have that be the focus.

However, asexuality is, perhaps by its nature, something of an invisible identity. Easily overlooked, easily ignored. As such, many of us feel decidedly alone, left out, and isolated. Rarely do we see explicate representation of people who feel the way we feel and experience the world as we do. Part of this is down to social assumptions where we automatically expect characters to be sexual in some way. This worried me as I continued to write.

In my second novel, The Sky Slayer, there is another ace character, but this time I made it explicit. She’s a smartass, a sarcastic brains-of-the-outfit who pulls everyone’s strings. As a result, other character slowly start asking her advice. Once you get past the put-downs and jibes, she can be quite wise, so it made sense to me. This I immediately saw as a way in to give her sexuality some notice. When asked for relationship advice, she raises an eyebrow and informs them, “Ask the Doctor. I have no interest or experience with these carnal matters.”

It was also important to me that the character accept this, rather than pressing her into something with the old ‘go on just try it!’ routine. When another character shows an interest in her, they are told, “She doesn’t feel that kind of attraction.” and all parties accept this as a real answer, rather than objecting or insisting on pushing her.

I think it is important to have multiple ace characters, to explore the variety of ways asexuality can be experienced. As with any demographic, the less characters within it you have, the less fairly you will represent it.

But even these examples from my own work sometimes make me cringe a little and I feel uncertain about whether I took the right path. On the one hand, I want it to be respected and given a real place in a characters’ identity. But on the other hand, I don’t want to bring it up for the sake of bringing it up. So how do we tackle this issue?

Being asexual myself, it isn’t an issue that comes up terribly often. I don’t have conversations about it, I don’t go out and tell my story precisely because, so often, if feels like there isn’t a story to tell. How many ways can you say, ‘nothing happened’ and have it be interesting? Except by way of contrast to the expected norm, it has rarely felt like an aspect of my life that is ripe for creative exploration.

The obvious answer is to look to other people’s experiences. Talking to other asexual people from different background and cultures grants a view into the wide range of stories that are there. The struggles and triumphs, the attitudes and fears, and the whole spectrum of people. That is where the spark of creativity lies.

I think this allies to a lot of aspects of writing, not just regarding sexuality. Our own life can seem mundane to us simply because we experience them every day and end up thinking they are unremarkable. The remarkable only becomes so when compared to other things, and if we don’t seek out other experiences and stories, we might not find the spark at all.

 

Links for books;

The Sea-Stone Sword

The Sky Slayer

Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
 
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: http://www.mpegg.co.uk 

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Editing Round Table

I reached out to a whole bunch of my favourite editors with a few basic questions around short story collections and the editors perspective.  For today’s session I am delighted to welcome Jonathan Oliver of Solaris/Abaddon, Mhairi Simpson and Margret Helgadottir who have edited for Fox Spirit and Farhana Shaikh who runs Dahlia publishing. 

When you put a call out do you already know exactly what you are looking for?

Jonathan Oliver : I start with a theme, so generally I know what I’m looking for, but when I put together submissions guidelines, I always say to authors ‘here’s the brief, but play with it, stretch it to its limits.’ So, I want to give my writers as much room as possible to explore within the theme I’ve given them. After all, I don’t want to end up with an anthology of similar stories.

Mhairi Simpson : No. When I did my first call I had a very specific idea in mind. By the end of it I realised I knew nothing and was just happy to be astonished at the wide variety of tales even a relatively narrow prompt can produce.

Farhana Shaikh: I try not to be too clear about what I’m looking for because I don’t want a piece of writing to fail before I’ve had the chance to consider it properly. This is especially true for an anthology because the breadth of style tends to be so broad and different writers respond to themes in such different ways.

What I’ve realised though is that a short story is successful as long as it does what the writer set out to do. In the simplest of terms, I could try and break down what that success often looks like. For example it might mean strong characterisation and a refreshing voice, but I find those terms can be reductive because it might also just be a beautiful story told in the simplest of ways. 

Margrét Helgadottir : I have only put out an open call one time, for the Winter Tales anthology. I knew then what kind of stories I wanted – a strong voice, an interesting plot, atmosphere, and also a more unspoken chill of the dark and cold winter season – but other than this I tried to be very open both in the call and when I read the submissions. As for the monster books (working on volume four now), they are invitations only. I am hunting for monster stories. They can be written in all genres but they have to have something monstrous about them and they have to be dark. I am very clear in the invitation what I am not looking for (satire, erotica etc).

 

What things will make you discount a story quickly?

Jon : Badly presented and with obvious errors. The other thing is if the story has completely ignored the brief. So, if I say this anthology has to be about a haunted house, and I get a submission that’s about a mutant spider or something, with no haunted house in sight, then that will be pretty quickly rejected. Fortunately it’s not something I have to worry about a lot as all of my anthologies are invite only.

Mhairi  : Condescension on the part of the author. A pushy author asking if I’ve made a decision yet when the submission period is still open. Any mention of sexual assault which doesn’t feel right in the story.

Farhana : My pet hate is writing that is cluttered with adjectives or flowery language. I tend to steer away from writing that is trying too hard or clever, or where the writer clearly hasn’t worked out what the heart of the story really is. Having said that, I do like to re-read writing (this is especially true for short stories) because I don’t like to make too rash a decision about whether something works or not. Editing is after all, hugely subjective and sometimes I have to challenge myself to work with writing that is not necessarily to my taste.

Margrét: Except for not following the guidelines and the idea of the book, I will quickly put a “no” on any story that uses racism, rape, violence, discrimination of gender or sexual orientation, when it is clear that it doesn’t do anything for the plot. I don’t discount a story because of bad grammar or language if I see a potential—a core in the story that will shine if the story is polished in the edits. I have had 2-3 stories in all the volumes I have edited that required more work from me and the author than the other stories but I am very satisfied that they are part of the books today.

 

Would you consider taking a story that doesn’t quite fit the idea behind the call and whatever your answer, why?

Jon: I like to be pleasantly surprised by submissions. So, for example, we all have an idea about what constitutes a haunted house and a haunting, but I also like to see new takes on such traditional subject matter, new twists on the formula. Sure, I’m a sucker for a traditional ghost story, but more so I love the possibilities that new fiction explores.

Mhairi: Yes. I’ve initially said no to a story which didn’t seem to quite fit the call. I had something else in mind. Then as more stories came in I realised I had an opportunity to show ideas which weren’t in line with my own thinking, because none of the stories quite fit the call, certainly not what I’d been expecting to get. It was a learning experience – I learned not to make assumptions about what did and did not fit. It broadened my mind and was a tad humbling, too.

Farhana: I’d be reluctant to accept anything that was too far from the initial concept, purely because I think collections have an odd way of working in that the stories once ordered have their own life and rhythm. I’d be reluctant to upset the balance of that. But as I’ve said, the scope for an anthology tends to be quite wide, so it’s rare that such a thing happens. Where this has been the case, I’ve simply asked the original contributor to submit something else.

Margret: No and yes. If it’s far out from the book idea, no. If the book is about Europe I will not include a story that takes place on the Moon. However I can include a story if it plays with the boundaries of the sub call but still has one foot inside the frame. I have done this a few times but only when the stories were so excellent in both language and plot that I just couldn’t say no. Often they can be shaped a little bit in the edits so they fit the book better.

How do you approach running order?

Jon: You want to start with a belter right out of the gate. You want something substantial in the middle and you want to end on a story that packs some sort of punch. In between you can get the reader settled and explore all the wonderful variations on the ideas your authors have sent you.

Mhairi: I try to find a thread or arc which links all the stories together and then decide where each story falls along that arc. For Tales of Eve it was a genre thread, varying from hard sci-fi to high fantasy so I started with the hardest sci-fi and ended with the highest fantasy. It was actually really difficult!

Farahna: By the time I get to a running order, I’ve probably read the work separately a good few times and something will be emerging about how I’d like to start and where I’d like to begin. Of course, a reader may choose to go in whatever order they wish, but sometimes as an editor I think such things are important.

Margrét: I try to put the strongest stories up front and in the back. You need to catch the readers right away. A short excellent story as number one is a very good tactic. It sets the tone of the rest of the book quickly. The last two stories should be the after thought of the book, something to make the book live a little bit longer in the readers’ minds, make them reflect a little bit about the book theme. Other than this I am concerned about putting the stories in anthologies in a natural flow, vary it a little for the reader. This goes for both the length of the stories, style and theme. I don’t put two vampire stories next to each other of the other ten stories are about were wolves for instance.

Cover by S.L. Johnson

What are some of the things you think people underestimate in regards to the time/effort involved in the anthology editors role?

Jon: Coming up with the theme always takes the most time. You want something iconic enough that people will pick the book of the shelf, and bring some sort of expectation, but you also want something different enough that you stand out. In an invite only situation you know to some extent the strengths of your authors, so editing the stories is the easiest and most pleasurable part of the whole affair.

Mhairi: It’s not the typos – if a story’s got that many mistakes I’d send it back and tell them to run it through spellcheck or a beta reader. When it comes to figuring out what a story is trying to say and if it can be said better, however, that can take a while. It’s usually a clarity issue – I’m not sure what’s going on and the author makes some changes and through the various changes we get closer to the diamond at the heart of the tale.

Farhana: I don’t know if anyone does underestimate what an editor brings to a collection but of course, they bring a whole deal of experience and expertise. It’s the editor’s role to not only select the stories and collate these in some order, but often it can mean a lengthy battle with contributors to undertake revisions, and ensure these come back on time, as well as project manage the entire thing. It’s fine, if you have around ten contributors or so, but once you start veering in to the twenties and beyond it can become challenging. An editor may also be involved in promoting the book, and keeping all the contributors in the know, so it’s a huge effort with lots of emailing back and forth. If the editor is also the publisher, as in my case, then there’s lots more going on behind the scenes away from the anthology with regards to choosing the title, managing the jacket cover designs, and working with suppliers to ensure the project can be delivered on time and on a shoe-string budget.

Margrét: I think many don´t realize what the editor job is. If you are editor for books from small presses you must involve yourself in the book production and getting the book out there. In addition to the editing of the language and grammar, editing of the story flow and angles, proofreading and all that, I would say that at least 30 percent of my tasks in a book production is preparing the book production (researching the book, invitations to contributors etc) and all the work when the book is published with marketing, trying to get reviews and spreading the word amongst the thousands of other titles. I spend a lot of time researching what magazines and venues which might be interested in looking at the book. The monster books are a challenge since I try to reach book bloggers and media also in the continents we cover: Africa, Asia etc. It is hard work but it is so satisfying when you see results.

 

Waxing Lyrical : Accept no Substitutes

Accept no Substitutes.

by Adele Wearing

Please see the Waxing Lyrical category for more information on being part of this series. 

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A little while ago there was a lot of excitement over an openly gay character appearing in an established science fiction universe. The author was a straight white man. There is a lot of this going on, with writers recognising (at last) that people like to have the option of reading about characters more like them. The rise of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, targeting mainly the young adult arena, certainly drives this point home.

diverse books

In itself, this greater representation seems like a good thing. We do need diverse books, we need to see the real variety the world provides represented in our reading, so on the one hand, yes we should all be pleased people are writing more diverse characters. For one thing, it makes books a bit more interesting. For another it’s important that everyone recognises the need for diversity and engages with it the best they can. I just want to take a moment here to stress; no one is saying that anyone else shouldn’t write more diverse characters. Not here anyway.

Of course this apparent progress has given rise to its own issues. How valuable is diversity that is only page deep? What is it people really want? Do we want straight white cis men to be representing everyone? Is that actually diversity or is it just the old guard hanging on to their dominance of genre fiction by telling other people’s stories for them instead of letting them tell their own.

In awards terms this year; The Hugo’s have shown that women and writers of colour are more than capable of writing their own stories and representing themselves, so perhaps the industry needs to open up more space for that and let them. As a side note, the Clarke award demonstrated that it is still ok to be white and male in science fiction, it turns out you just have to write really great books (therein may lie the actual problem for many of the writers crying SJW).

speak for myself

It’s an insidious issue, because it’s easy to claim the mantle of ‘ally’ by writing diverse characters and it’s very difficult to challenge reasonably. After all it’s not generally that LGBT writers don’t want straight writers having LGBT characters, it’s just, they want a chance to write their own books, their own characters and tell their own stories their way. It’s a near perfect soap box, it’s hard to tell a man who is trying to be an ally to women that he’s not helping, especially as the intentions may be entirely genuine, but if women can’t be heard, can’t be seen due to the sheer number of men selling feminism, then isn’t that at risk of silencing women just as effectively as the people who openly tell them to sit down and be quiet? Effectively you are talking over them, drowning their voices out and you might as well order off the menu for them while you are at it.

It amounts to this for me. If you really want to be an ally draw gay writers into your discussions about gay characters, help them to share some of your platform and be heard.  Readers, if you really want to support diversity you need to read diverse books and that means you need to seek out diverse authors: Nnedi Okorafor, James Bennett, Tade Thompson, and Zen Cho are a few good starting points. You may have to look a little further but when it comes to diverse reading accept no substitutes.