Sunday, 22 February 2015

The SFWA Broadens its Horizons

At the start of February, some significant news broke - it seemed to me - rather quietly: after a referendum of its membership, the Science Fiction Writers of America overwhelmingly decided to amend their guidelines so that self-publication and small press credits would be recognised as qualifying criteria.  How precisely that works is still up in the air until next month, but the gist is this: if your self-published or small press novel earned the qualifying sum of $3000 within a year of publication then it will count for joining the SFWA just as any traditionally published novel would.

Many will consider this good news.  Others, perhaps, will consider it overdue.  Certainly it's been on the cards for a long time; as long, I suspect, as I've been a member.  At any rate, my own feeling is that a good thing has happened, both for the SFWA and the writing world in general.  To me the SFWA is a basically necessary organisation.  At its worst, publishing can be one of the more cutthroat industries on earth, and it's crucial for creatives - a group of people traditionally not so great at looking out for their rights - to build communities and bulwarks to protect themselves.  The SFWA is one of the oldest of those, and one of the few that wields meaningful power.  It makes sense that it should set its borders wide enough that everyone who should be inside them is.

On a similar note, any trade organisation is bound to benefit from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  As an SFWA member, I absolutely want to hear the experiences of writers who've made successful careers within self-publishing and the small press, every bit as I much as I do those who've done the same through more traditional means*; despite what people sometimes appear to think, none of these paths are mutually exclusive, or even mutually incompatible, or really any damn thing but mutually beneficial, and I'd like to know that I'm getting the broadest range of expert advice I can.  There are many routes up this particular mountain, and I'd hate to get caught in an avalanche because I'd missed a path that someone could have told me about in the mountaineers club house and argh, this is a terrible metaphor, I know nothing at all about mountaineering.  I shouldn't even start these things, they never end well.

Look, if it's not obvious by now, I'm happy to admit that I voted for the amendment.  With books due from both a traditional and a small press publisher, not to mention plans to self-publish at some point, I have no horse in this race - or maybe too many horses, but let's not go there! - and I'd have found it hard to justify any other decision.  The small press / professional press distinction is not a particularly helpful one in my experience, and it would be foolish in the extreme to suggest at this late stage that self-published novels are any less valid that those put out by the Big Five.  Accepting that there have to be clear criteria for a professional organisation to be a professional organisation, surely setting a sensible bar is more productive than fussing about whether people are clearing it in the correct time-honoured fashion. 

In that regard, there's perhaps more work to be done - as I'll likely discuss one of these days, I still consider the SFWA's definition of professional rates to be shockingly low - but this feels like a huge move in the right direction, and here's hoping it's a sign of more positive change to come.

* Although, let's face it, though the forms may change, the small press and self-publishing are both as old as publishing itself.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Patchwerk Sold to

As is the way of publishing, I've been dancing around some big news for the last few weeks, until stars were sufficiently in alignment and ducks were appropriately in rows; but now the official announcement has been made, and I'm in the clear to say that have picked up my debut novella, Patchwerk.  Which is all sorts of brilliant news, because - well, because, for crying out loud.  Another one of my dream publishers ticked off the list, is what I'm saying.

It also means I get to work with my Angry Robot editor Lee Harris again, and to be part of a line-up that includes - as you would expect from - some of the best authors writing today.  I'm particularly geeking out to have my name in a list that also includes Mr Paul Cornell, one of my absolutely favourite creators, not to mention writer of brilliant graphic novel introductions.  And on a personal level, it means a lot to me for a whole host of other reasons too.  It's my first sale of a longer work since the Damasco novels, and since I went full time; in that sense, it's huge reassurance for the future.  By the same measure, Patchwerk was the fruit of a tough year, and as such absorbed that bit more blood, sweat and tears than it's slender thirty thousand words might suggest.  Writing Patchwerk also pushed me well outside my comfort zone, and I had to up my game accordingly; so that it's been picked up by my first choice of publisher feels like a vindication.  Once I invent time travel I now know that I can go back to my self of two years ago and let me know that it will all be worth it - whilst at the same time, of course, passing on a few choice lottery numbers and the secret of time travel, so that I can share it will all of my earlier selves too...

Oh, and speaking of irresponsibly mad science, Patchwerk has a whole lot of that going on.  My protagonist Dran Florrian is exactly the kind of guy who would invent a time machine to tip himself off about his own future, with all the inevitable awfulness that would involve.  Only what he's actually done is to create a reality-emulating machine called Palimpsest, which as it turns out is probably that bit worse.  Creating a device that copies aspects of other multiversal realities onto your own is, in fact, about as bad as an idea can be, however many safety checks you might build into it.  At least it is if said device has a mind of its own, and especially so if you let it fall into the wrong hands...

Which, I should mention, is only the beginning of Patchwerk, and from there things get much, much stranger.  And that's all I'm going to say for the moment, because spoilers of course, but also because it's tentatively due out some time early in 2016 and I'll no doubt be talking about it a whole lot more between now and then.

Monday, 9 February 2015

To End All Wars Actually Really Finished

It's a truism that nothing you write will ever be entirely done - there'll always be another draft, proofs, copy edits, crying over missed typos when you finally hold the finished article in your hands - and its another truism that I have a bad habit of declaring things finished at every opportunity, even when they're clearly not.  Nevertheless: as of last weekend, my fourth novel To End All Wars is effectively complete.

That's to say, I've done three drafts, I'm happy with it, it's as good as I feel I can get it.  Which means, from my point of view, that it's good enough to finally get packed off to my agents, Zeno, and of course I'm desperately hoping that in the longer term it will be good enough that someone will throw money my way for the privilege of unleashing it upon the world.

I've come to think - and it took me a while to get to this realization, obvious though it sounds - that you should write the books you want to read.  I mean, it is obvious, right?  But perhaps it takes a certain amount of learning to get to a point where it feels comfortable, and to figure out exactly what it is you want to read and how exactly you get to go about producing that.  At any rate, I'd like to hope that that's what I did with the Tales of Damasco, but I'm really confident it's what I've done with To End All Wars.  It brings together a whole lot of genres and influences and themes that I find  interesting and then tangles them up amidst a setting I'm completely fascinated by: the First World War, but more specifically, the wider context of that period when Edwardian values were abruptly, transformingly assaulted by the horrible reality of industrialized warfare.

And if that sounds a bit bleak and serious then I should probably emphasize just how much other stuff has gone into the mix, from adventure novels to a host of classic (and some more obscure) science fiction influences, to period dramas and country house mysteries, to stoic philosophy to ...well, you get the idea.  Or perhaps not.  Because something else I wanted for To End All Wars was that it wouldn't easy to pin down; I like the idea of a novel that constantly adjusts its relationship with the reader, challenging what they think it is and where it might be going, and that was what I tried to write: a book where even the genre might change from chapter to chapter to keep pace with the story's twists and turns.

Anyway, I should probably not say any more, right?  I mean, there's a lot of ground yet to cover; as with so much in the business of writing, this ending is only the beginning of the next phase.  Suffice to say, I've finished my fourth novel, I'm pretty damn excited about the whole thing, and I feel like I've written a book I'd be glad to read if I wasn't the one who'd written it.  That'll have to do for now!

Monday, 2 February 2015

Theaker's Turns Fifty

I have been writing, now, for oodles of years, he says, being purposefully vague because he can't be bothered to stop and figure out how long he's been writing for and also possibly because if he did then it would make him sound kind of old.  The point is, I've been at this writing thing for a while now, I've been selling short fiction for almost as long as I've been writing, and in that time I've seen a lot of markets come and go.  I mean, a lot.

Goddammit, now I am sounding old.  Maybe not that many.  But more than just a few, okay?  Enough, at any rate, that I've gained some insight into just how hard it is to keep a magazine going, month after month, year after year.

For this reason, I have much admiration for Stephen Theaker for getting Theaker's Quarterly Fiction to its fiftieth issue.  That's no mean feat.  Then again, nor can it be easy making a magazine as reliably good as Theaker's tends to be; and I'd imagine it's hardly a piece of cake to imbue that magazine with its own distinct character, something Theaker's has almost an overabundance of.  But I think that what's impressed me most over the years is how every time I return to it, Theaker's has grown that bit more polished, to the point where this "most amateur of magazines" (Stephen's words, not mine!) has been looking awfully professional for a long while now.  It's a hell of an achievement to produce fifty issues; it's an even bigger one for every one of those issues to be a little better than the last. 

As such, I got quite excitable when I ran into Stephen at last year's FantasyCon and he mentioned that issue #50 was on its way; so much so that I started immediately trying to force a story on him. Eventually we settled on a piece called The House That Cordone Built.  It's old work, but it's a personal favourite that I was always sad not to have found a home for, and I gave it a hefty overhaul before I felt happy letting it out.  It owes a lot to my possible all-time favourite short science fiction story, Heinlein's "And He Built a Crooked House", a lot to M C Escher, and there's a bit of stuff in there about interregnum religious cults too, because I don't know why but there is.

Anyway, here's Mr Theaker himself with some talk about what's going on in the rest of his momentous, half-century issue:

"This three hundred and twenty-four page issue – our longest ever! – features fiction from many of our previous contributors, who have returned to help us celebrate fifty issues and ten years of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction: Antonella Coriander, David Tallerman, Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Phillips, Howard Watts, John Greenwood, Matthew Amundsen, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Mitchell Edgeworth, Rafe McGregor and Walt Brunston!

Plus reviews from Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Watts, Jacob Edwards and Stephen Theaker. Stephen and members of the reviews team answer your questions in “Ask Theaker’s”! Cover artist Howard Watts takes us through his process in “Artful Theakering”! And there’s a round-up of everything Stephen Theaker read last year but didn’t have time to review! Happy fiftieth to us!"

Yes indeed.  If that's piqued your interest then you can go here to find a free copy in your format of choice.