Jul 30

Genre Considered As a Restaurant

If you’ve spent much time around writers, you’ve probably heard someone complain that “genre” is just a way for publishers and booksellers to impose marketing categories for their own convenience, and it should die in a fire, because we’d all be better off without it.

I’ve said things adjacent to this myself. After all, my first novel is set in a secondary world--like a fantasy, but with no magic--that’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Italy, and combines the language of a literary novel with the plot of a serial-killer mystery thriller, told in diary entries. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to sell, because what’s the audience for that? What genre does it even fit in?

It’s easy, then, to fall into bemoaning the idea that a book even needs a genre. Recently, though, I’ve started to think about genre with a new metaphor: that of a restaurant.

We’re very fortunate in the 21st century to have access to the cuisine of so many cultures. My father, who grew up in New Zealand in the 1930s, once told me how much things had improved in his lifetime. When he was young, “going out” meant going to the pub for a roast dinner, which probably wasn’t even very tasty. At the time we were talking (the 1980s, I think), you could choose to get a meal from most parts of Europe and Asia, plus Latin America if you looked around a bit. These days, in most major cities worldwide, you can eat food from any inhabited continent.

That gives us a richness of choice which itself creates a new situation. We now have to ask ourselves, when going out to eat, which flavours, which experience, we want to have. What are we in the mood for?

Hence my metaphor of genre as restaurant, or rather, as cuisine. Different cuisines offer different satisfactions. Do we want the blended spices of India? The balance of sweet, hot and sour that Thai offers? The subtle flavours of France? Robust, earthy Mediterranean food? And if we want Mediterranean, is that Italian, Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern, or North African?

Likewise, different genres offer different satisfactions too. Some of them are emotional: horror offers a thrill of fear, suspense offers a thrill of excitement, romance offers the warmth of intimacy, fantasy offers the imagined experience of having magical powers. Others are mental: mystery offers an experience of a puzzle solved, SF offers the exploration of a what-if. Our brains are wired to find these things satisfying, originally for survival reasons. The most successful genres, and the most successful books, I believe, combine emotional and mental satisfaction, but depending how you blend the flavours and which ones you emphasise, you can satisfy very different palates.

This is also why, although I read primarily fantasy, there are fantasy books (and authors) that leave me cold. Something in the blend is off. I had the experience, while in the US, of eating at a Thai restaurant where all the food primarily tasted sweet--no sour, no hot, just sweet. I love Thai food, but I didn’t love that.

I’m not always in the same mood, either. Just like I don’t always eat the same cuisine, I don’t always read the same genre or subgenre (or write it, either). Sometimes I want my fantasy to also contain mystery, or comedy, or be a thriller.

Just as there are different approaches to cooking, there are different approaches to writing. If you are working in a classic genre--French provincial cuisine, say, or noir detective--you have to get it exactly right. There’s nowhere to hide. You either produce an excellent, textbook example of the genre you’re attempting; you successfully update it into a modern version, without losing the essentials that made it great originally; or you fail, because you’ve created something that doesn’t match up to expectations, that isn’t well executed. And your failure is obvious, because we have well-known examples to compare with. We know what it should taste like.

If you’re being more experimental, or attempting “fusion,” using fancy techniques or ingredients, or combining ingredients that don’t classically go together, your possible failure modes are different. People may give you credit for attempting something new and different, but then go back to the classics for their next meal, because your imagination exceeded your ability to execute (for example, 99.99% of steampunk); or they may enjoy it, think you did it well, but decide that it’s not an experience they want all the time. Or they may become extremely excited if you pull it off, and come back again and again, and rave about it to all their friends--while struggling to express exactly what it is.

Genre, then, is like a restaurant sign. It tells us approximately what kind of experience we’re about to have. Covers and blurbs elaborate on this, which is why covers are so important, and why you need to have a cover that fits into your genre as well as standing out, and which doesn’t mislead readers about what the book is like. (This is a large part of the reason that I self-publish: because I don’t trust publishers to make good decisions about my covers.) And among the things I look for in a blurb (and in reviews) are the signals that tell me: this book is tragic, this book is funny, this book is action-packed, this book explores character deeply.

A bookstore, then, is a food court. And to market your book, you need to convey to people what they’re going to get when they consume it. One way, the easy way, to do this is to sit within an obvious genre, to, metaphorically speaking, call your food stand The Spicy Wok or A Taste of Turkish. If you’re going outside the well-understood genres, though, you need to think hard about who is going to want those particular flavours, and how you convey to them that that’s what you’re selling.

Spread the word
Jul 14

Launch Day: The Well-Presented Manuscript (and other news)

WPM002_smallIt's launch day for The Well-Presented Manuscript: Just What You Need to Know to Make Your Fiction Look Professional, my new non-fiction book for my fellow writers. Currently, it's exclusive to Amazon, but if you use other outlets, I'll soon have it available in the B&N, Kobo and Apple stores and via Oyster and Scribd.

I've just finished reading Damon Knight's excellent book Creating Short Fiction. I was pleased to note that his section on "How to Be Publishable" included the point that you need a command of language, including some knowledge of how to assemble words into phrases and sentences, and a good active vocabulary. That's exactly what The Well-Presented Manuscript is about: developing the basic competence with the tools and materials of language that will get your fiction read by editors, reviewers and the general public.

Nowhere is this more important than in your blurb or pitch, which is one of the first things your prospective reader will see. Just this morning, I read a blurb in which "Scottish" was spelled with three consecutive Ts. As it happens, I've read part of the book concerned, and the editing is terrible (which is why I stopped reading). The blurb does tip you off to what the book is going to be like.

So here's the blurb for The Well-Presented Manuscript:

Do you want to be taken seriously by editors, readers or reviewers?
Do you make errors in your fiction writing?
This book is for you.

Mike Reeves-McMillan is a fiction author, reviewer, and former copy editor and technical writer. He's analysed the errors he's found in almost 250 books, both indie and traditionally published, and written a simple, clear guide to avoiding the most common issues.

Learn:
- Why editors reject 90% of what's submitted to them—and how to increase your chances.
- How to get punctuation right every time.
- The special conventions of dialog.
- The most common word confusions, typos, and research errors—and how to check for and eliminate them.

If that interests you, please go to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Well-Presented Manuscript. (That's an affiliate link--it costs you the same, but pays me more.) I promise you'll learn at least two useful things you didn't know before.

More News

I recently reviewed my short story submission stats for the first half of this year, and compared them with the full-year stats for last year.

I'm submitting at about the same rate (23 for the half-year, versus 44 for the full year last year). My proportion of personal rejections to form rejections has improved slightly (8:9 instead of 14:20). But the big jump is in acceptances: four so far this year, versus one for the whole of last year.

I'll announce the publications as they come out, but I've made two sales to online magazine The Sockdolager (one of them already published); placed a story with In Memory, a charity anthology honouring Terry Pratchett and benefiting Alzheimer's research; and sold another story to The Overcast, a fiction podcast.

I'm continuing to write new stories, and keeping them in circulation. There are over 100 professional and semi-professional science fiction and fantasy publications soliciting stories at the moment, so it's a wonderful time to be writing short fiction.

On the novel side, I have three or four more edit passes to go on Auckland Allies, the first in a new urban fantasy series. It's set in Auckland, New Zealand, where I live. It's a lot of fun, and I hope to bring it out in the next few months.

Spread the word
Apr 04

Blokes in Black is coming

I don't have a launch date yet - I've just today finished the first draft - but, after appropriate revisions, Blokes in Black will be on its way to you very soon.

This is my new urban fantasy. I hope it'll be the start of a series, especially since I already have some ideas for a second book. Here's the blurb:

As minor practitioners, Tara and Sparx are careful to stay clear of magical politics. So they're not expecting the anonymous goon-o-gram from a more powerful talent, who's apparently miffed with their acquaintance Steampunk Sally, the short-range seer.

 

Fighting off the attack with a combination of dumb luck and reluctant teamwork, they set about finding out who the Blokes in Black work for, and why they might be targeting three underpowered makers in Auckland, New Zealand.

I tell the story through three first-person narrators (Tara, Sparx and Sally), because I couldn't just leave the formula alone and write an urban fantasy like all the others. However, it's still very much in the mould of the urban fantasies I love - Carrie Vaughn, Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs. My Gryphon Clerks novels have been criticised for sometimes lacking conflict, tension and emotional engagement, and I've listened to those criticisms. I don't think you'll find those problems here.

It's set in Auckland, New Zealand, where I've lived basically all my life, so it's an opportunity for me to write about places and things that I know and (in most cases) love. The title is a tribute to my late father, who co-wrote a very successful nonfiction book about New Zealand rugby called Men in Black, and the language and setting are unashamedly Kiwi.

As a teaser, here's one of my planning artefacts, which hints at the Blokes in Black's dastardly plan:

I'm having huge fun with this book, and I hope you will too. Make sure you join my (low-volume) mailing list if you want to be informed when Blokes in Black comes out.

Spread the word
Mar 14

Spec Fic and Comedy

Like millions of other fans, I'm saddened to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. It seems like a good occasion to reflect on humour in SFF (science fiction and fantasy), a topic I've been thinking about lately in any case.

I recently read, or at least started to read, a single-author collection of supposedly humourous SFF. The humour didn't work for me, as sometimes happens, and what that revealed, like mudflats at low tide, was that the stories weren't particularly good stories, and the SFF consisted mainly of cliches (while the humour consisted mainly of silly names). I didn't make it past halfway through the second story, a limp Lord of the Rings parody, neither funny, nor well-written, nor interesting.

I see this a lot in would-be comedic writing. I have to admit, as a reviewer I do often grant an author a pass for a dubious bit of worldbuilding, plotting, characterisation or what-have-you if the writing makes me laugh. The risk you run when you rely on this, though, is that if the writing doesn't make the reader laugh, there's nothing left to fall back on.

I maintain that a big part of the reason that Pratchett was the preeminent comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse, responsible at one time for almost 4% of the entire British publishing industry's sales, was that he wrote books that worked as stories. His characters in the early books may have been cliches and stereotypes, but by his long and productive middle period he was writing characters with depth, complexity, growth and development.

There's a subtle, but detectable, gradient from cliche to stereotype to parody to character trapped in an unfortunate pattern of behaviour by habit and social expectation, and Pratchett showed us the full spectrum in the course of his career. He was an insightful observer of humanity, as all the best comedians are, but he was also a compassionate one - not just holding people up to mockery but reminding us that, whatever their failings, however small-minded and ridiculous they might be, they deserved consideration as human beings. (Even when they weren't, strictly speaking, human beings, but dwarves, trolls, golems, vampires, Igors or goblins.)

He's often compared to other writers, most frequently Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, but his stories have more depth than either. In Adams, there are cosmic stakes, but they're minimised by the absurdity. In Wodehouse, the stakes are seldom higher than social embarrassment. In Pratchett, the stakes are high, and we care about them, and yet we're laughing.

terry_pratchett
Sir Terry PratchettRaeAllen / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

I'll make a comparison myself. There's a fairly obscure American humourist called Damon Runyon. Most people who've heard of him know him through the musical Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Marker, both of which were based on his work, but he wrote a great many short stories in the 1930s set in the more dubious parts of contemporary New York. They're stories of revenge, lost love, family tragedy, violence and, occasionally, good triumphant with the help of rough, hard-bitten characters who have a sentimental side. Yet, mainly through the voice of the unnamed narrator (who observes much more than he participates; he's never unambiguously the protagonist), they're funny, both because of their wry, ironic observations and because of the distinctive language. They are, at the same time, slangy and poetic, and characterised by a total avoidance of the past tense.

My parents had an omnibus of the Runyon stories, and I read them a couple of times growing up. A while ago, frustrated by another would-be comic fantasy that I didn't find funny or otherwise enjoyable, I set out to write my own version of the same premise, and for reasons connected with that premise I picked the Runyonese dialect to tell it in. To make sure I was getting the voice right, I re-read some of the Runyon tales, and I was struck by the fact that there's often a dark, or at least heartwrenching, story going on behind all the humour. So I strove to make that, too, a part of the story I wrote, which I sold to the Hysterical Realms anthology.

I might never have thought of attempting that, though, if it hadn't been for the example of Terry Pratchett. Death (the phenomenon) isn't funny. Death (the character, who makes at least a cameo appearance in every Discworld book and is a main character in several), while usually serious himself, is a cause of comedy in other people.

Let's reflect on that for a moment. At least one person dies in every Discworld novel. Often, it's a minor character, but usually it's someone with a name, though sometimes we don't learn the name until Death says it in all caps. And these are primarily thought of as comic novels.

That, too, was part of Pratchett's genius. Nothing in life, not even death, was outside his warm, human, comedic insightfulness. Now that he has made the transition himself, it's up to us who are left to try to carry on his legacy, not only of funny fantasy, but of kindness, good storytelling, and reflection on the human condition.

Spread the word
Mar 08

Wearing the Hat

SockdolagerMy short story "Wearing the Hat" appears this month, in the first issue of online adventure fiction magazine The Sockdolager. You can read the whole story, and in fact the whole issue, online, but if you enjoy it I urge you to buy it (using the links from the issue's main page) and support this new venture.

I had an excellent experience submitting the story. The editors got back to me within 24 hours of my submission, they loved it, they sent me a contract the same day, the contract was clear and straightforward and fair, and they paid me - earlier than the contract said they had to - in advance of publication. All of these (apart, perhaps, from loving my story) are things that you'd think would be standard industry practice, but they're very much not.

The story itself is typical of my short pieces. It takes place in the Gryphon Clerks setting, but a long way away from the big events of the novels. It isn't about movers and shakers, but about the people who are moved and shaken, and deal with it as best they can. The hero isn't young, isn't a warrior, isn't changing the world; she's a middle-aged shopkeeper placed in an invidious position, who does what she has to do.

In keeping with The Sockdolager's premise ("short genre stories in which Things Happen"), though, it's more action-oriented than most of my stories. At the same time - and this, I think, is why they bought it - the action isn't in isolation, or there for its own sake; it arises naturally out of the situation, and means something to the participants. At heart, it's a Western.

If you enjoy it, there are another dozen like it in my solo collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories from HDWP Books. And don't forget the current Kickstarter for the Hysterical Realms anthology, in which I also have a piece.

Spread the word
Mar 04

Now Kickstarting: Hysterical Realms

Hysterical RealmsI have a story in this anthology, now on Kickstarter. It's the third anthology in the Alternate Hilarities series, and you can get all three at the $10 backer level, or just this one for $5.

As I write, it's about halfway to its goal with 11 days to go, so pile in and add your contribution if funny fantasy is of interest to you. I haven't read the other stories, but some of them sound like they have a lot of potential.

My story ("Axe Stone, Svart Detective") is a mashup of Fritz Leiber-style sword-and-sorcery, the narrative style of Damon Runyon, and classic detective noir. I think I've combined those three elements effectively, into a story that would work even if it wasn't funny (but it is). Go ahead and back the Kickstarter, and you can see if you agree with me.

Spread the word
Jan 16

Worldbuilding for Urban Fantasy

I've been writing the Gryphon Clerks series, which is secondary-world fantasy, for a while now. I did a lot of worldbuilding for it upfront (originally, I planned it as a game setting, but it kept generating stories, and games are hard). It's very much a distinct world, with a lot of specific differences from our world that I have to keep in mind when I write. For example, there are no pigs, and no New World plants or animals. The calendar is completely different. The counting system is different. The way society is structured, the names for common things (even marriage)... I have to keep constantly alert to avoid breaking my own canon by writing sentences like "She got married last month".

Now, I'm not saying that a secondary-world setting doesn't have advantages. It opens up possibilities that are closed off if you set a story in our world, just because our world has things that are true of it that you can't ignore. In a secondary world, I can outright make things up if it suits me, and I don't have to do much research (I do a little research occasionally to give me an idea of whether things are basically credible or reasonable, but I'm not bound by the results.)

At the same time, setting a story in a version of the real world means a lot of work is already done. I don't have to invent all the technology from scratch, all the history from scratch, all the sociology from scratch. I may need to research it a bit, but that isn't especially hard, thanks to Google. And I don't have to invent cultural references; I can make pop culture jokes, which is something I can only do indirectly in secondary-world fantasy. (My current WIP has a Bechdel Test joke embedded in it, but it would be easy to miss.)

One of my projects this year is an urban fantasy. I've written the first chapter and done some planning of things I'd like to include - one of them is an action set-piece that takes place along the route I walk to work, which will be great fun. But, while it seems like urban fantasy would require a minimum of worldbuilding, there are actually a number of questions that I have to ask myself about the world, and that any urban fantasy writer has to answer, even if only by implication.

I thought I'd work through them in a blog post, so that other people could see my process. I'll use some of my favourite (and one or two of my non-favourite) urban fantasy series as examples, and I'll make my decisions based, in part, on what opportunities it offers me for setting up conflicts and developing a series over time.

1. Out, or Masquerade?

Masquerade
Old Creeper / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The term "masquerade" (in this context) comes from the game Vampire: the Masquerade, in which it means the conspiracy by which the vampires conceal their existence from the world at large. One of the key questions of urban fantasy is whether people in general know that magic, the supernatural, and/or the various races (vampires, fae, werewolves) exist. In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, so far at least, they don't know (though it's largely through natural human rationalisation, rather than any particular conspiracy, that they remain ignorant). In Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books, they do know, as of early in the series, and Kitty was involved in the outing process (not by her choice). In Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, we have a middle ground: werewolves are out, fae are out, but vampires remain unrevealed to the populace at large, and everyone wants to keep it that way to avoid a panic.

One of the consequences of this question is that if the existence of the supernatural isn't common knowledge in the world, preserving the secret - or, alternatively, the secret coming out - may become a plot driver. A series can even be partly driven by successive outings, as the Mercy Thompson series is.

If the supernatural is out, on the other hand, that's a difference from our world, and we need to think about the consequences. In the Kitty Norville books, for example, there are people (often religious) who see the supernaturals as inherently evil and to be destroyed. There will generally be a government response (this can exist even where the secret is hidden from the population at large, of course), and government agents from an agency that deals with the supernatural are likely to show up and do what government agents do. The main character may even be a part of such an agency.

Since scientists tend to write hard SF rather than urban fantasy, the scientific study of the supernatural tends not to be a huge emphasis, though in my opinion it would be a big consequence of open, undeniable supernatural phenomena. There are sometimes sinister labs which want to vivisect the characters, but there isn't a lot of in-depth "this is what it's like to be a scientist in a world where there's magic", probably because that's complicated to work through and risks the fragile suspension of disbelief that you're working hard to create in the audience. I'm noting that as a potential avenue for future exploration. I can imagine a scientist in a world where the supernatural exists, but isn't public knowledge, coming across unambiguous supernatural phenomena and being torn between wanting to study and understand this fascinating new thing, and the knowledge that attempting to publish any findings will probably end his or her career.

Because that seems like a cool idea, and because starting with the supernatural hidden gives more scope (after all, I can always have it come out later, whereas I can't start with it out and then later have it be hidden), I'm choosing to make my world one in which magic exists, but isn't generally known or acknowledged.

New, or Always There?

If magic, the supernatural, or whatever exists, has this always been the case? Or is it a recent emergence (or re-emergence)? And if it's always been there, why isn't it generally known?

In some series, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels, magic has started up relatively recently, as part of a more-or-less apocalyptic event. In most, though, magic has always been there. Kim Harrison has a dollar each way, and has her apocalypse kill off a lot of normals so that the magicals are now a substantial enough majority that they feel safe coming out (though they were there all along).

To me, if magic has always been around, you need to give at least some thought to a secret history of the world in which magic featured significantly in historical events, and also to historical practitioners of magic. Most urban fantasy magic is more or less made up wholesale, or based on modern "witchcraft" or New Age practices (but I repeat myself). There's a long and fascinating history of real-world attempts at magical practice, though, and it seems a pity to throw it all away (particularly since I know enough about it to fake my way through it in a manner that should convince most non-experts, which is as much expertise as I care to develop).

Here's my decision, then: magic has always been around, always been a human potential, but the ways in which it was done historically were flawed or simplistic in similar ways to how, say, chemistry was done in the same periods. People were able to achieve useful effects, but without really understanding why things worked, and sometimes they put things into the process that really made no difference, because of that lack of understanding. As of relatively recently, people started getting good at magic (ironically, because of a more scientific mindset, in which they set out to understand why things worked through an experimental process). However, there's still not a comprehensive theory. It's more like magic's early 19th century than its 21st, and it's more engineering than science.

One of the things that enables is that magic use itself, not just the characters' ability to use magic, can grow and develop in the course of a series. They can come up with new ways of doing things that nobody has ever thought of before (and that the author didn't think of earlier on, even if they would have been handy - in fact, the earlier problem that could have been solved by a particular bit of magic can be the stimulus to develop that solution). Most urban fantasy series have a static magic system, already as good as it's getting, so to introduce a new thing involves introducing a new (usually) antagonist who's a different kind of fae or whatever.

And speaking of fae:

What Supernaturals Exist?

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files spends the first few books setting up the many different supernatural beings in his world. Wizards, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, fae, the undead, and the Knights of the Cross/Order of the Blackened Denarius each get a book, and for a while they rotated, so we'd get a book in which the werewolves featured (but not the fae or the knights), and then one in which the knights featured (but not the werewolves), and so on. These days, he's mixing them up more.

This makes for a rich world, but it's a lot to manage. Some series just have a bunch of diverse fae. Others are all vampire, all the time. It's unusual to have werewolves (or other shifters) without vampires, but I'm sure it's been done.

Alternatively, you can have just one supernatural, like the djinn in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series (arguably, the Wardens are a second kind of supernatural, in that they're humans who can work with the djinn).

My inclination at the moment is to go with just the magic, not the creatures. I'm tired of vampires and shifters, and they're pretty hard to justify if I'm going to have any science in the story, which I do plan to. (I have some university-level training in life sciences; high school chemistry; and as much physics as the average nerd picks up from reading a lot of SF and some nonfiction. That is, if anything, more than enough for writing urban fantasy, and I expect it to hinder more than it helps, to be honest with you.)

At the same time, I do have an idea (which probably won't go in the first book) about what the demons/angels are that medieval and renaissance European magicians were summoning and talking to. At least, I have an idea for a theory that a character has, a theory which may well turn out to be mistaken. And I don't guarantee that there won't be lycanthropy spells (that don't cause physical transformations, only mental ones), or entities that feed off others that are hosted by humans, give them superhuman abilities, and are transferred by feeding, but are totally not vampires. As for the fae, I tend to think of them as extradimensional aliens anyway, and while at the moment that's not an idea that I'm excited about for this setting, I'm not ruling it out.

Initially, though, it's just human magic-users. Which leads to the question:

Training or Genetics?

Can anyone, more or less, learn to do magic? Or is it something you're born with or without?

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is one in which the inherited ability to do magic is a significant plot driver, because it's a basis for discrimination. There are "muggles", who have no magic, can't see it, can't do it. There are wizards and witches, who have magic and can do it. But there are "muggle-borns", whose parents aren't magical, but they are; and there are "squibs", vice versa. I'm sure someone has worked out the genetics somewhere. (Yep, sure enough.) In Mendelian genetics, an offspring either does, or does not, have a simple heritable trait (there is no try), but most significant human abilities, like intelligence, involve multiple genes. Even eye colour does.

Most fantasy (urban or secondary-world) that involves magic, in fact, assumes that there are magical haves and have-nots, and vaguely indicates that this is somehow based on genetics. I like to use the parallel of musical ability. Some people have none at all (though they don't always know it, as American Idol auditions prove every year); some have enough to sing in tune in a choir; some are musical geniuses. It's heritable (nearly 50%, which is very high, according to this article), improves with certain kinds of training, and so forth. Because it's so heritable, it's presumably getting more common in the population over time, as well - any geneticists want to correct me on that one?

This excellent post on statistical patterns by Yonatan Zunger suggests that a biologically-based ability will usually form a power law: there will be a few people with a lot of it and a lot of people with a little of it, and a fairly steep drop-off between the two. Right there, you have a have/have-not situation, with a few powerful people and a lot of lesser talents, and this is a great setup for conflict (and you can use it as a political metaphor, which I happen to think is cool). And as part of the trope-aversion part of my project, I'm not choosing, as my main character, one of the super-powerful, exceptional people, but someone further down the slope of the curve, who has to work damned hard and apply a lot of intelligence to survive in a world where there are people a lot more powerful than she is.

So, How Does Magic Work?

There are several parts to the "how does magic work?" question. There's the sciency part, which at the moment for me is a vague and handwavey "human consciousness meshes with the quantum mumble mumble and look, over there, a squirrel!". This should be sufficient to get an urban fantasy going; most urban fantasy series never even address the question.

There's the "what can you do with it?" part, and here I'm thinking that you can affect:

  • movement of matter - so telekinesis, etc.
  • movement of energy - heating, cooling, slow or sudden
  • electromagnetic fields and patterns (this will be a big one - one of the characters I have in mind is an electromancer)
  • human minds - think pulp hypnosis, which is different from real hypnosis
  • biological systems - up to and including healing, but you can do various kinds of enhancement and, of course, harm

As it happens, those (plus time and space, which I haven't really played with yet) are more or less the categories of things that magic can affect in my Gryphon Clerks novels, so I'm clearly going to have to re-skin it. Which leads to the last version of "how does it work?": "what does it look like?"

Remember, we're at a kind of early-19th-century-science level of understanding and use of magic. There's a history and a tradition. And magic works by the human mind interacting with the structure of the universe, so magic tends to work best when you use your own system of symbology, whatever that may be. Some people use a very precise, structured, traditional set of symbols, though most magic users realise that the traditional methods are full of unnecessary flounces. Some draw only on one symbol set; others are more pick-and-mix. Essentially, magic consists of ordering your will and mental effort in such a way that it will produce the desired effect (and only that effect) in the world, by whatever means works for you. Some people's magic is sloppy, and has unintended side effects; that's also likely to happen if you cast on the fly and in a hurry. Some can produce a wide range of effects, while others can only do a couple of reliable spells. Some people make up their own spells (they're like cooks who create their own recipes), others can only work from an existing spell or with a pattern that's been laid out for them in some object.

My Setup

So, what's the story going to look like? What characters fall out of that setting?

Tara is an artist who creates magic items for other people to use, working with Celtic design elements. Sometimes, the way that they use the items causes problems for her. This is the situation in Chapter 1: some more-powerful magic user is about to send her a goon-o-gram about how annoyed he is with one of her customers.

Tara's friend/sidekick/cotagonist/definitely-not-love-interest, Sparx the electromancer, does something similar to her in a completely different way. He has very little raw power, even less than she does, but has learned to use it precisely to create complex effects. Warned by one of his clients about the hit on Tara, he warns her in turn, and helps her to deal with the attacks.

The third in the trio, Steampunk Sally, has a minor talent for seeing a few seconds into the future (magic sometimes throws up these oddities) - and a reckless nature which tends to get them all in trouble, because, despite her ability, medium-term consequences tend to elude her in her decision-making process. She's the client who has caused the issues for Tara.

My current draft of Chapter 1 is here.

Want to be kept informed about progress on the book, and when it will be available? Sign up in the sidebar (make sure to leave "Occasional blog posts" checked).

Spread the word
Nov 14

Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2015

It's SJV Awards nomination time again, and I have several eligible works. However, I'd like to focus on one work in particular, my short story "Gnome Day".

That link takes you to the full text of the story here on my website. The story is included in my collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories from HDWP Books, but the publisher has given permission for me to make it publicly available.

Update: Thanks to several people who nominated "Gnome Day". However, it didn't make the final ballot for this year, and an SJV nomination remains on my bucket list.

If you enjoy it and think it's good enough for an award, please nominate it by sending an email, with the information laid out as below, to sjv_awards@sffanz.org.nz. Make sure you include your contact details at the appropriate place.

Although this is a New Zealand award, anyone anywhere in the world can make a nomination. The more nominations a work gets, the more likely it is to end up on the final ballot, which is voted on by members of SFFANZ (Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand). Full details here if you need them.


Name / Title of work: Gnome Day
Name of Producer / Author / Creator: Mike Reeves-McMillan
What the work is: Short Story
Year of First Release: 2014
What category you think the nomination belongs to i.e. Fan awards, Professional awards: Professional awards
GENRE: fantasy
Contact details of the person making the nomination e.g. email or/and phone number
Publisher / Production company name: HDWP Books
How to contact the producer / author: mike@csidemedia.com (author email), books@hdwpbooks.com (publisher email)
Where to get a copy of the work: http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/shop/product/good-neighbors-stories/ or http://csidemedia.com/gryphonclerks/gnome-day/
Any other comments you wish to add


I'd really appreciate it if you'd send in a nomination - assuming, of course, you think the story is award-worthy. Thanks in advance!

Spread the word
Aug 30

Books Like Mine

In many ways, there are no books like mine. I deliberately don't imitate other people too closely. I'm not writing generic commercial fantasy; that's been done by plenty of other people, and I have no interest in it.

At the same time, nothing that's readable at all is completely unlike everything else. If you're a fan of my books, here are some others that resemble them a bit. I've noted the ways in which they resemble them, so that you can avoid the ones that are like my books in ways that you put up with, rather than in ways that you actively enjoy.

These authors have something else in common with me and each other, apart from the content of their books: good editing. This isn't a given for indie authors (or trad authors, these days), as you're no doubt aware.

Disclaimers: Links are to Amazon and include my affiliate ID, so I get some laughably small amount of money (in the form of Amazon credit) if you buy on my recommendation. I've beta-read for several of these authors, and sometimes vice versa, and know most of them on social media - because that's what I do when I find an author whose books I like.

Cheerybright

Cheerybright is my extremely tongue-in-cheek, not-at-all-literal name for the opposite of grimdark. Grimdark is a style of fantasy that's very popular right now, being written to great critical and commercial acclaim by George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and others. It features morally ambiguous or downright villainous protagonists, lots of suffering and slaughter, and very little hope. That's not my thing. It's not the thing of several other authors I know either, and when the revolution comes and people get sick of grimdark, we'll be waiting with our backlists.

Even though I jokingly use the name "cheerybright," I absolutely don't mean that this style is always sunshine and rainbows. People suffer and struggle through dark times, but they're decent people, and they struggle in the justified hope of a better world.

C.J. Brightley: Her Erdemen Honor series is the epitome of what I'm talking about. I'm reading the second book right now. Start with The King's Sword (Erdemen Honor Book 1). The hero is a loyal soldier, humble and dedicated, and that makes all the difference. Although it's about a soldier, there's no rush to get to the fighting; there is some fighting, but that's not what the book's mainly about.

Brian Rush: Brian's books have more explicit sex than mine do, and go a bit darker in places, but I include them in my "cheerybright" list because of their unambiguous moral universe. It's very clear who is wearing which colour hat, especially in The Order Master (Refuge Book 1). The Stairway To Nowhere (The Star Mages Book 1), an earlier work, has much the same feel. Both series are science fantasy, mixing technology and magic, something that I also do in a completely different way. There's action, but it's not continuous.

Debora Geary: I refer to Debora's work as "suburban fantasy". Where your typical urban fantasy has cosmic battles against supernatural supervillains, featuring a heavily armed, smart-mouthed protagonist, her books are about comfortable contemporary suburban witches being kind to one another and eating cookies. It sounds dull, but it really isn't; there's plenty of struggle, it's just more intra- and interpersonal, and very few things explode. The start of her main series is A Modern Witch (A Modern Witch Series: Book 1). The whole long series is very consistent, to the point of formula, but it's a formula that, if you enjoy it, you'll want a lot of.

Larry Kollar: Larry's loyal, brave, resourceful young adult protagonists treat each other decently and with respect. His series starts with Accidental Sorcerers.

Morgan Alreth: Athame (The Unfortunate Woods Book 1) begins the story of two youthful characters who feel like real people, and who navigate the pitfalls of a fantasy world with humour, determination and integrity.

Daniel Swensen: Unlike the others featured here, Daniel has only one book out so far (and it's from a small press, so I initially forgot it). Orison is one of the best fantasy books I've read, which, if you look at my reading list on Goodreads, you'll see is an impressive achievement. It could so easily be grimdark, but it very much is not.

Fantasy in an Age of Steam

Medieval fantasy is fine. Some of the books I've mentioned above are medieval fantasy. But it's also fun to break out of that mould and write about the collision of magic and technology (and society) in a more industrial-revolution setting.

I'd describe these books (and my own) as "steampunk-adjacent" rather than out-and-out steampunk. Mainstream steampunk is often very silly. It features extremely high concepts that, all too frequently, are let down by poor execution. These books try for less (they don't go over the top with the devices and the aesthetic), but achieve more (they're well written and tell a good story).

Sabrina Chase: Unlike the headstrong "plucky gels" of so much steampunk, the main character of The Last Mage Guardian (Guardian's Compact Book 1) is level-headed, pragmatic, and highly effective at something that women aren't supposed to be able to do: magic. It goes cinematic at the end, but is none the worse for that.

Lindsay Buroker: when I'm looking for people to review my books, my best results come from approaching people who've enjoyed Lindsay's books. She's highly productive at the moment, and has a large backlist, so if you're just starting you're going to have to read fast to catch up. Her main series, now sort of complete (though she keeps writing new books in the same setting), starts with The Emperor's Edge. It's permanently free.

Her books are more action-oriented than mine, but they also have a lot of good character interplay, often humourous, and some of the characters at least try to resolve things without fighting. There's also a science-fictionish aspect behind the magic in most of her series, which isn't always apparent at first.

I welcome anyone's suggestions of other books that are similar to mine. And for a longer list of indie books I recommend (some of which are very unlike mine), go here.

Spread the word
Aug 19

Untold History of the Gryphon Clerks

I've hinted at some of this before, but there's a substantial history to the world of the Gryphon Clerks novels which sets up some of the conflicts and opportunities that are explored in the series. I thought I'd post it as a summary here for fans to enjoy.

Many centuries ago, the elves kidnapped a group of humans from our world - somewhere in the Mediterranean region, and before people there were literate, so a very long time ago in our world's timeline. They made them slaves, in order to have someone to do the work that their own discontented lower classes didn't want to do. The elven society was structured into three classes - the ruling Golds; the administrative, mercantile and professional Silvers; and the working-class Coppers - and the elves used biological means to match their hair colour to their social class.

The elves had a society based on bioengineering, though their civilization had already declined from its technological (and ethical) peak by this period. They were able to do a certain amount of genetic engineering still, though, and practiced some of it on the kidnapped humans. An ancient manuscript, now destroyed by Human Purity thugs (as described in Realmgolds), hinted that they changed humans to be able to use magic. They also experimented with combining human and animal traits in "blends" like the beastheads, the centaurs (and camel-centaurs, who we haven't seen yet), and the werewolves and selkies - not shapeshifters, but people with dual natures and some physical characteristics of wolves or seals, as we see in Beastheads.

The elves had an imperial structure, which went through a series of declines, internal wars and political struggles. During one of these periods, the human slaves rose, with material help from the gnomes and dwarves, and overthrew their elven masters, who perforce joined a movement already in progress to return to the forests and adopt a simpler lifestyle. From an elven viewpoint, the Gryphon Clerks stories are post-apocalyptic.

The humans who worked in the cities and manor houses, in particular, had adopted some of the elves' culture, speaking Elvish and practicing the elven Asterist religion rather than the Earthist animism of the country dwellers. They tended to become the rulers of the new human-dominated realms that arose out of the fallen Empire, and, again in imitation of the elves, referred to themselves as Golds. Following elven practice, on the death or retirement of a Gold who held a demesne (a realm, province, county or local holding) their successor would be elected from the descendants of previous office-holders, though if the previous incumbent had designated an heir their wishes were normally observed.

Not far from the ancient elven capital on the Isle of Turfrae, now abandoned, two realms formed on either side of the Koslin River. Denning, the larger, lay to the west of the Sea of Turfrae, while Koskant lay to the south. In Koskant, the emergent Provincegolds decided to rotate the position of Realmgold by election (for life) from among themselves. Denning, meanwhile, had a hereditary Realmgold in a separate family which didn't hold a province, and this family gradually lost power until the post of Realmgold had less practical importance than the Provincegolds. The realm became decentralised and disunited, not helped by its difficult terrain. The Koskanders, by contrast, managed to keep their realm connected, united, and moving in roughly the same direction, despite the usual internal tensions found in any large group of people. The two realms early on negotiated a treaty, magically enforced, which prevented either party bearing arms across their Koslin River border.

The Isle of Turfrae was taken over, several centuries after the fall of the Empire, by a group of academics who founded a college among the imperial ruins. Over time, members of this college came up with the philosophy of Human Purity, which stated that humans were superior to non-humans and the natural rulers of the world. This philosophy found keen adherents in Denning, particularly since Denninger Golds tended to be sent to Turfrae for their education.

The main targets of their prejudice are the prosperous dwarves, technologists and traders living in holds which have "free city" status and can make their own laws; and the gnomes, who serve the dwarves as an underclass.

Humans have used the Dwarvish alphabet, numbers, coinage, and aspects of their timekeeping system for some years now, abandoning the harder-to-use Elvish systems with their imperial associations. Over recent years, humans and dwarves have interacted more and more, and the humans now have a greater grasp of technology and are beginning to create their own innovations, while the New Dwarves have absorbed some of the human antipathy towards slavery and are beginning to question the place of the gnomes in their society. The gnomes, exposed to the same ideas, are restive.

As the Gryphon Clerks series starts, Human Purity is on the rise, championed by an ambitious Countygold in Denning. Determined, the Realmgold of Denning, is a compromise candidate, elected by his cousins because none of them hate him much; he would rather be still studying history at Turfrae. Koskant's Realmgold is Victory, former Provincegold of Western. She's a relatively young woman whose strong reformist agenda is popular with the people, but anathema to the more traditional Golds and prominent Silvers, who flourished under her repressive predecessor Glorious.

Victory has opened trade negotiations with the beastheaded people who live on the shores of the Sea of Turfrae, and, aware of the looming Human Purity rebellion in Denning, is about to contact her counterpart there and propose a more active alliance.


News

BeastheadsIn case you missed it, Beastheads is now out. If you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, you can get it for free; otherwise, it's $2.99 like the rest of my books.

My short story collection, Good Neighbours and Other Stories, is on the way from HDWP Books. There have been some delays, because it's a small press and people have real lives and stuff happens in them. It's nearly ready, though, and I hope to announce publication soon.

I have five assorted non-Gryphon-Clerks short stories out on submission at the moment (to the Hear Me Roar anthology and the magazines Inscription, Stupefying Stories, Buzzy Mag and Analog), and another that I need to finish fixing up and send to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I keep getting personalised "ooh, so close" responses, so I'm anticipating another sale sometime soon.

I have a new story in the Gryphon Clerks setting that I haven't sent out yet (I want to workshop it a bit first), and I'm most of the way through a Gryphon Clerks novelette that will become a membership perk for my mailing list. It's set a year after Realmgolds and Beastheads, is told in first person from Determined's viewpoint, and deals with a contest for the honour of being the Realmgolds' Guard. It needs an ending, and to go through a couple of rounds of editing, because I'm not just dashing it off and shoving it at you. I want it to be as enjoyable as possible.

I'm fortunate in that my wonderful editor, Kathleen Dale, has offered me the chance to put her on monthly retainer, so she's now going over my short pieces as well. She and my regular beta group go over all my stuff before I put it out, and it's much the better for it.

Finally, I've started on the next Gryphon Clerks novel, Mister Bucket for Assembly. We rejoin Bucket the gnome and Hope's friend Briar after the events of Hope and the Patient Man, as they get involved in the elections for the new Representative Assembly. I have plans for Hope and Patient, Mister Gizmo, Rosie and Dignified too, but I'm not sure how much of them will go in this book and how much in The Rediscovery of Hardlac, which I'll be writing in semi-parallel. I'll have to see how things unfold.

So, if you're not a member of my mailing list, but you are a Gryphon Clerks fan, sign up so you can pick up extra material, get discounts on a couple of my older books, and be notified when new books come out. I won't spam you.

Spread the word