Aug 04

Settings and Stories

I've worked on books in three different series, with three different settings, in the past few months. This post is a reflection on how the writing experience differed between them, and how the settings contributed to the stories I told in them.

The three series are Auckland Allies (contemporary urban fantasy, set in the city where I live); Hand of the Trickster (sword-and-sorcery heists); and the Gryphon Clerks (secondary-world lightly steampunked fantasy). Yes, I know my last post said I probably wouldn't be working on any more Gryphon Clerks stories in the foreseeable future. The future is a lot less foreseeable than I thought, as it turns out.

Part of the reason for having different series going is that a change is, in fact, as good as a rest. Because they feel different to work on, I can work on one when I don't feel like working on another, and switching from one to another can be refreshing. In fact, the reason I got out my abandoned manuscript of Mister Bucket for Assembly, the Gryphon Clerks novel (which turned out to be about 75% complete), was that I was making slow, difficult progress on the second Hand of the Trickster book. I was soon happily logging 3000 to 5000-word days on Mister Bucket, where I'd struggled to reach 1500 words some days on the other book.

Let's see if I can identify what it is about each of these series that feels different, what attracts me to write in the settings, and what those settings contribute to the fiction.

Auckland Allies

The fun thing about Auckland Allies is that it takes place in a setting I know well: the real-world city of Auckland, New Zealand, where I was born and, where, apart from an eight-month period in Brisbane many years ago, I've lived ever since. That means that I can celebrate the things I enjoy about the city; work in a few complaints about it; and research my books just by walking around (or using Google Maps and Street View, in a pinch).

It also provides its own inspiration. For the first book, I strapped a GoPro camera to my head and walked through places where I'd set chase scenes, and that gave me additional ideas for those scenes and how they could go. I also used the extinct volcanoes which are a unique aspect of Auckland to make it a story that couldn't be set anywhere else.

Graves under Grafton Bridge (my photo)

The second book, Ghost Bridge, is almost entirely inspired by real aspects of the city, in fact. There really is an early-20th-century bridge which sits partially over a 19th-century graveyard, close to the downtown area. There really is a hospital at one end of the bridge and a luxury hotel at the other. Four thousand graves really were dug up when the nearby motorway went through in the 1960s, and the bodies really were cremated and reburied in a mass grave next to the bridge. And there really is a statue of Zealandia, the personified spirit of New Zealand, a short distance down the road. All of these are key elements of the story in Ghost Bridge; in fact, if you took them away, there wouldn't be much story left. And I didn't have to make up a single one of them, only take what was there already and combine them imaginatively.

The other fun thing about Auckland Allies is that I can write in my own dialect. A lot of the time, I'm writing with an eye to the American market, since that's the largest market for fiction in English, and I have to be aware of phrasing things in a way that will be clear to American readers, not using turns of phrase or slang that come naturally to me but would sound strange to them. In Auckland Allies, I'm writing characters who are explicitly New Zealanders, and they speak accordingly--not only in their dialogue, but in their narration, since I use first person points of view. I'm still aware of the language, and still careful to phrase things so that someone who isn't familiar with the slang will nevertheless understand it from context--something that, as a science fiction and fantasy author, I have practice at doing--but I enjoy being able to write in a full-on Kiwi voice, rather than in intentionally bland international English.

Hand of the Trickster

Hand of the Trickster is my newest series, so new that I've only just published the first book. So far, I have a 34,000-word novella (the one that just went up), and 26,000 words of what looks like being a shortish novel. Accordingly, the setting is less developed so far than in the other two series.

It's sword-and-sorcery, set in a world of many gods. The High Gods have become distant and uninvolved since the War of Gods, leaving their followers to (mis)manage the Empire, but the Middle Gods are still at large in the world, especially the Trickster.

One thing I enjoy about this setting is that not much is really nailed down yet. I'm making it up as I go along, rather than planning it out in advance (like the Gryphon Clerks) or conforming it to the real world (like Auckland Allies). I haven't even drawn a map yet. While that results in a setting that isn't as rich and complex, the focus is more on character and plot; the setting, apart from the situation with the gods, doesn't drive the story as much as in the other two series.

Having a main character who's a thief in the service of the Trickster also enables me to let my chaotic side out to play. I've met a couple of real-life fraudsters, and they were extremely annoying; but I love fictional heists, capers, and shenanigans, and this is my chance to write some. I identify as neutral good with strong lawful leanings, but writing a chaotic good character like Now You Don't (the protagonist and narrator of Hand of the Trickster), or like Sparx, the hacker technomage in Auckland Allies, is tremendous fun and gives the mischievous part of me a safe outlet. My father always enjoyed playing villain roles in light opera, for similar reasons.

The Gryphon Clerks

The Gryphon Clerks setting was originally intended as a game setting, but I never finished the game, and the story seeds I kept planting became too tempting. I mapped out a geographically large and culturally detailed and diverse world, with room for a great many stories, and in fact I find that the stories multiply as I write them.

This is partly because lots of minor characters tend to be needed for the kind of large-scale stories I tell there, and they turn up and become unexpectedly interesting, and then I want to write more about them. In the book I've just finished drafting, for example (Mister Bucket for Assembly), near the end of the book three young gnomes are running a small newspaper and what amounts to a radio station. They're secondary to the main action, but now I want to write a novel all about them as they build their media empire, bicker, fall in love, break stories, witness history and struggle against the odds. This is how the world tends to expand, one story at a time, and there's a whole huge area beyond the mountains that I haven't even visited yet.

I said above that I worked out the setting in advance. I didn't work out everything, though. As I write each book, I add to a wiki which holds all of the established facts about the world, so that I don't end up contradicting myself. Sometimes, this sparks further ideas; occasionally, it means I can't do something because of something I've already said, and I have to rewrite. This generally ends up being a useful creative constraint more than an annoyance, though.

What is a bit of an annoyance, in retrospect, is that I've made the setting almost science-fictional, and used some different terms for things that we already have names for, like marriage (which I call oathbinding), in order to underline the differences from our world. I've also used an approach to character names that not everybody loves. I'm kind of stuck with those things now, even though they can feel awkward at times. People who love the setting and the characters seem willing to forgive me, though.

Setting and Story

When you're writing fantasy and science fiction, in particular, setting is very important as a story driver. Not only does it determine what stories are possible, but it suggests what stories might be interesting.

My first published novel, City of Masks, was stalled for about 10 years because, having got the protagonist to the setting, I couldn't figure out what happened next. My creative block was freed when I made a large diagram of conflicting factions in the city and tied characters to them. Each group, and therefore each character, had its own agenda, and this set the story in motion. I've not, so far, thought of another story in that setting, but if I ever do it might well be driven by a similar spring. Certainly, clashing interests in the respective settings drive the plots of Auckland Allies, Hand of the Trickster and the Gryphon Clerks, in different ways that I've attempted to explore above.

While immersing deeply into just one world and writing a series, or multiple series, set there has proved a productive and lucrative approach for many writers, I find that variety helps me to stay fresh, and that my different settings have unique elements that make each of them fun in its own way. I hope that my readers find the same.

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Jul 01

Who Am I? (And a request for betas)

I went for a walk to post a letter this morning, and I was thinking during my walk, as you do, about how I probably need to refresh my beta readers group. They originally signed on to beta read my Gryphon Clerks novels, which I'm not writing now (I won't say I'll never go back, but for now, I'm not writing stories in that world). I've noticed an understandable reduction in enthusiasm and participation from those folks, especially since I've been writing so much lately (and they're all busy people). So I'm going to be looking for some new blood, people who would like to read my stuff relatively early in the production cycle and comment on what did and didn't work.

That led on to another thought: so, how do I define what I write? The common advice from people who are making a lot of money writing is that you need to find your niche and stick to it, but so far I haven't found it, and I find that advice boring in any case. The realm of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is broad and diverse, and I love exploring it; I may even wander out of it someday.

So far, this is what I write, more or less in order of increasing recency:

  • Nonmagical secondary-world sociological speculation, with a strong mystery component (City of Masks).
  • Science fiction exploring how more-or-less plausible future technologies impact people and society (the novella Gu, and a number of recent, as yet unpublished, short stories, including "Taking Pro," which will appear in Futuristica 2 in November this year). So far, all set on Earth rather than in space. I love space opera, but I haven't yet written any.
  • Lightly steampunked secondary-world fantasy (the Gryphon Clerks series, which, as I say, is on indefinite hiatus; one is arguably almost a romance).
  • Contemporary urban fantasy with a touch of technothriller (Auckland Allies; I've just finished drafting the third of what looks like being a six-book series).
  • A number of short stories featuring various kinds of magic users, for an eventual themed single-author collection, Makers of Magic. Some published, others not. Some are, and some aren't, in secondary worlds. Some funny, some serious.
  • Lyrical fantasy set in post-Zelaznian worlds of wonder (mostly short pieces so far, most not yet published apart from "Something Rich and Strange" and "Gatekeeper, What Toll?"; I'd put the forthcoming SF-ish fantasy novella Brother Blue in this category, too).
  • Sword-and-sorcery, with humour ("Axe Stone: Dwarf Detective" and "There's a Tattoo, But the Robes Hide It," plus the forthcoming novella Hand of the Trickster).
  • Several assorted other short stories that don't fit any of the above (and aren't yet published): a time travel story, a supers story, a solarpunk story set in the present day, a couple of pieces of historical fantasy set in our world.

Woman reading

And here are some future possibilities that don't fit into any of the above, with an indication of the stages of planning:

  • Three secondary-world, nonmagical adventure/romances (idea, rough outline, detailed outline). May or may not end up in the same world, though there's no reason why they shouldn't be, and it seems like a good idea.
  • A probably secondary-world steampunk fantasy novel(la?) in which the magic system is such that a form of feudalism is still active, and the characters end up in rebellion against it (detailed outline).
  • A space opera series with a bit of a post-cyberpunk overlay (rough series outline and setting notes).
  • A mid-future novel, or maybe series, exploring a post-scarcity world (detailed, but incomplete, setting notes and first chapter; no outline).
  • A mashup of noir, cyberpunk and shamanism, not sure how long (beginning written, and a rough outline which I may or may not follow).
  • An expansion to novel length of the supers story I've already written (mentioned above), about genetically enhanced kids who have to choose whether to work for the government who raised them or against it. (Rough outline.)
  • A secret school where all the kids have psychic powers of one kind or another, kind of a cross between Julian May's Galactic Milieu setting and Sherri S. Tepper's True Game setting, with a touch of X-Men, but probably on contemporary Earth. With sports? (Idea.)
  • An urban fantasy with different kinds of psychic powers. (Idea.)
  • The story of a non-neurotypical engineer (don't call her a mad scientist!) and the superhero she loves, told in tweets, posts, emails, user manuals and specifications. (Idea.)
  • A couple more time travel ideas, including one based on the paranoid delusions of a famous early-19th-century lunatic. (Ideas.)
  • A straight detective novel where the murder victim is the judge on a cooking reality show contest, and the suspects are the contestants from 10 years before, at their reunion. (Idea, fairly well developed, but not to the point of outlining.)
  • A comedy-thriller in which a retired female agent becomes a mentor to a young man, rescues him from a life of crime and makes him a confidential courier - and then they must both confront issues from their pasts. (Idea.)

Yeah, just call me Mister Pachinko Brain.

So what's the constant in all of that genre diversity? Is there a core of what it means to be a Mike Reeves-McMillan story?

I hope there is, and I hope it's this:

  • In any genre, I'm more drawn to the side of it that has hope and a sense of wonder, rather than to the cynical side. Some of my SF speculations do tend to come out downbeat, but they're not cynical, and the characters are still people you can empathise with - even as you dislike their choices and regret the consequences of those choices in a complex, difficult world. You won't see full-blown technopessimism, dystopia, or any kind of apocalypse (or horror, or very dark fantasy) from me.
  • My fantasy characters are usually admirable people who take costly action for reasons they believe in; I write "noblebright," not "grimdark". But they're not squeaky-clean cardboard cutouts, either. They have their flaws and their damage to deal with, and sometimes they make the wrong call at a critical moment.
  • I enjoy ensemble casts in my novels (you can't really do an ensemble cast in a short story). They fight and bicker among themselves, but ultimately pull together for the greater good. I've been told I do good dialog, and that my characters have distinctive voices and seem "real".
  • Many of my characters, in all genres - I think slightly over half, definitely including protagonists - are capable, intelligent women who don't take any crap from anyone.
  • The stories may or may not have a romantic element, but when they do, the partners are admirable people who deserve each other, by which I mean that the women are not stupid and the men are not cruel. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
  • Even in stories that are not primarily humour, there's often something to laugh at in the dialog, the characters' fumbling attempts to come to grips with their lives, or the situation. I like to have fun writing, and believe that leads to fun reading.
  • The worlds are often beautiful and filled with wonder, excitement and possibility, even if there's also violence, conflict and risk. Grittiness and grimness do occur, but not as a prevailing tone, more as a source of contrast.
  • The "what-if?" ideas are unusual, surprising, and carefully worked out. In particular, I give a lot of thought to how they would affect both individual people and society as a whole, and use that to drive the story.
  • While I don't often do beautiful language for its own sake, I do use language consciously and, I hope, skilfully. I think that's important, since it's the medium I work in; just as a painter needs to know how to handle paint, and a sculptor how to handle clay, a writer needs to know how to handle words. Not only is the language carefully chosen and structured, but you'll seldom find typos, homonym errors or punctuation issues even in my first drafts.

So if you think that's the kind of thing you'd like, and you have the time to read early drafts and give me feedback, get in touch (leave a comment, or drop an email to mike at csidemedia) and I'll add you to my beta reading pool.

And if it's the kind of thing you'd like but you don't want to beta read, make sure you're subscribed to the mailing list so you know when I publish something. There are at least three books and, I hope, several short stories coming later this year. My existing work can all be found from here.


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Jun 16


I thought you might enjoy the latest chapter from the nonfiction book I'm working on, Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing. It's one of those ones that turns up at four in the morning and takes over your brain. I blame the Writing Excuses podcast I listened to yesterday.

You’ll often hear the expression “raising the stakes” in relation to storytelling. It’s a term that can be easily misunderstood, as I was reminded by listening to an excellent podcast on stakes by the Writing Excuses team (season 11, episode 24).

Stakes are the motivations that prevent a character from just giving up and walking away in the face of opposition, danger, difficulty or challenge. That means that the most powerful stakes are personal. There’s a reason for the cliché “this time it’s personal” in movie sequel taglines.

“Raising the stakes,” then, isn’t just about “before, the city was under threat, now it’s the whole country! Next, the world!” Obviously, in the abstract, a threat to the whole country is more important than a threat to a single city. But we’re not in the abstract. We’re telling stories, which means we’re looking at issues through the eyes of characters—people—and people respond to what is important to them.

A tragedy touches us much more if we know someone involved. A personal example: a few years ago, in the city where I live, some engineers and tradespeople were inspecting a new water pipeline. Somehow, gas had leaked into the pipeline, and it exploded and killed one person, severely injured a second, and injured several others (one employee and some contractors).

As it happened, I was working for the city water authority at the time, training people on the new computer system they were putting in. I heard about the tragedy, and wondered if it had impacted anyone I knew.

And then the media published the name of the woman who was killed, and I realised that it was someone who had been in my classroom two days before, who I’d spoken with and helped. The man who was badly injured (losing several limbs) had been in the same classroom. And I’d also trained the other employee who was injured.

That made the tragedy much more tragic to me. I know that in an ideal world, whether someone has a face and a name that you know, whether you’ve met them and spoken to them, whether you know their story, shouldn’t affect how much you care about their fate; but the reality is that it does.

Knowing this can easily lead you down a bad path with your writing, as well as a good one.

If you know that stakes are personal, that motivations with a lot of emotion attached to them are ones that will drive characters powerfully through great trials and also engage the audience, the temptation is to use cheap, thoughtless tragedy to make your story more powerful—just as fast-food companies use salt, sugar and fat to make their food more attractive to consumers without spending much money.

A classic example of this is the trope of the Woman in a Refrigerator.

Woman in refrigerator

The trope gets its name from an incident in a Green Lantern comic, in which Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) finds that an assassin has broken into his apartment while he’s out, killed his girlfriend, and stuffed her into the refrigerator for him to find. The thing that is wrong with the trope is that it is treating a character, and specifically a female character, solely as a source of emotion and motivation for another, more “important” character—not as a person with significance for their own sake, with their own story and character arc. The same thing can be done with male characters, of course, but because women are more often denied their own stories anyway, using a woman in this way is particularly pernicious.

It’s also setting up for the “man alone” trope. This is where the damaged loner goes out on the road seeking vengeance/peace/redemption/escape from his past, and all of that hovers in the background as he encounters various adventures, both driving his wandering from setting to setting and also making sure he never develops ties or settles down anywhere. If he does start to develop ties, either they will be tragically and brutally taken away from him, or he will leave rather than risk that happening. The problem with this trope is that it feeds the fantasies of actual damaged loners, discourages them from seeking help or support, and can help place them in a position where they end up creating real tragedies for other people.

I should clarify, at this point, that I’m not advocating any form of censorship, or saying that these stories should be forbidden and never told at all. What I’m advocating is that you, my reader, who wants to learn to write good stories, think about the stories that you are going to write, and whether they play into unhealthy societal patterns and reinforce them.

Along with the “man alone” is the “one woman” trope, where there is only one female character of any significance in the story, and so she never talks to another woman or forms one of those strong female friendships that are such a source of power for real women. Remember, stakes are personal, which means that having more, and more significant, relationships increases the scope and possibilities of your story. And loss is not the only motivator, as the last chapter, I hope, abundantly demonstrates. [Note: this is part of a book, as I mentioned, and the previous chapter sets out various kinds of motivation.]

While I’m talking about overused and toxic tropes: it’s true (unfortunately) that many women have experienced sexual assault. It’s also true that this is an experience that often impacts them for many years, even for the rest of their lives. But it’s not the only experience that can motivate a female character, and it shouldn’t be tossed casually into a female character’s backstory as a shortcut that doesn’t require much thought or follow-up.

I’ve said above that loss is not the only motivator. One reason, I think, that it’s overused as a motivator is that in epic stories, often we begin with the potential hero growing up in a remote, rural setting, in a life that they must be motivated to leave in order for the adventure to kick off. This is the cliché beginning for an epic fantasy: the Chosen One, a humble farm boy, survives the destruction of his whole village and the death of his parents or parental figures, which launches him on the adventure that he previously refused to embark on. Now, to the credit of the cliché epic fantasy, he will usually start gathering companions immediately, rather than being the “man alone,” but when you’re writing a short story instead of an epic, that’s tricky to pull off. Perhaps don’t start by motivating your protagonist with loss, and see if that leads to a better story?

Let’s think about Star Wars (the original trilogy) for a bit to see how this works. We open with the rebel ship boarded, the planet Alderaan destroyed; this is what movie makers, in particular, sometimes think of as “high stakes”. The fate of the galaxy! Destruction of planets! The problem is, at this point we really don’t care much, because it isn’t particularly personal. It’s gone too big too quickly. But it’s effectively a prologue anyway, letting us know that there will be Big Space Stuff coming up; we need to know that, because the next thing we see is a gawky kid called Luke growing up on a farm. He talks about getting involved in the war, like his friends, but he’s not really going to do it; he’s tied down by his family (his uncle and aunt) and small, local obligations.

When he sees the message from the attractive space princess, though, which conveniently falls into his hands, he’s motivated enough to go looking for the old hermit to find out more about her. The old hermit wants him to get involved, but he’s not that keen.

Until! They go back to his home, and it’s destroyed, his uncle and aunt (foster parents) dead, and it’s the fault of the Empire. Now it’s personal! Not only does he have nothing to keep him at home anymore, but he has a motivation to go out and get involved in the Big Space Stuff that has taken away his comfortable provincial life. Out there, he’ll meet companions, and come to have more and more reasons to fight and persevere.

As will his companions, though. Think about Han Solo for a minute. We meet him as almost a “man alone,” although he does have a sidekick. He’s out for himself, very much for hire, worried about his debt, skeptical about the old hermit’s mysticism, contemptuous of this kid with dust behind his ears. But as his ties to the others grow, as they risk their lives to rescue him, his stake in the conflict increases, and he becomes heroic, rather than self-absorbed and uncaring. He becomes the guy who turns up with a rescue when things seem hopeless.

He becomes, in fact, more admirable. Remember I talked about the admirable character, who is willing to bear personal cost for the sake of others? [Note: in another earlier chapter.] There’s an interesting sidelight here on the question of stakes, and it comes to me via Terry Pratchett. His characters Granny Weatherwax and Carrot Ironfoundersson, in Lords and Ladies and Men at Arms respectively, both say, at key moments: “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

In the Writing Excuses podcast episode I referenced at the start of this chapter, several of the podcasters discuss how villains often act out of motivations that are to do with preserving order or doing “good” for the community as a whole, while heroes will be driven by stakes that are more personal. I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the great villains of the 20th century—to those in English-speaking countries, at least—were fascists and communists, who placed the state above the individual and committed atrocities in service of that philosophy. (Nor were they the first or the last to put abstract principles before humanity, with tragic consequences.) It’s also because someone who is personally motivated is easier to empathise with, and so less likely to be regarded as a villain. But there is also the admirable character to consider, the one who will, when the chips are down, set aside what’s best for them personally and do something for the good of others, or their people, or their community, or their nation. We naturally value and praise this quality as a society, since we like to have people around who will help us, even at cost to themselves.

So what’s going on when someone values the concerns of others, and the big picture, above their personal stakes in the situation? I’d suggest that they’re transcending that instinct we all have to focus in on our immediate, short-term, personal benefit, to see those who are close to us as more important than those who are distant from us; who can, metaphorically speaking, look at a row of power poles that look smaller the further away they are, and not just know, but believe and act as if, each of them is actually the same height.

This is a higher order of thinking than the instincts of fear and anger that protect our own interests at any cost, and it’s the kind of thinking that produces great and wonderful results in our society. Whether it’s Harriet Tubman returning again and again to rescue others from slavery, or Malala Yousafzai speaking out for the education of women after being shot for going to school, or a soldier carrying a wounded comrade to safety under fire, we recognise the courage and selflessness of these people as an admirable kind of humanity. And we take inspiration from their stories exactly because they put their lives at stake because something else, someone else, matters more to them. Villains, in contrast, are those who will often claim to be acting for some kind of greater good, but who prefer to see other people pay the cost.

Stakes are personal. They will drive and draw your characters through great opposition and inspire them to magnificent deeds. But they don’t have to be selfish, and, in fact, we respond even better when they’re not.

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May 19

Release Schedule for 2016

"Release schedule," listen to me, all highfalutin'. But I do have a few things coming out this year.


I'm not sure when, but sometime soon In June, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores will be publishing my story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" (accessible by subscription only). It boils down a multi-volume epic fantasy series about a fated tragic hero to the essential 0.1%, by filtering it through the eyes of the keeper of a gate between worlds.

Also in June, Farstrider published my story "Mail Order Witch". When Jim kind of semi-accidentally steals his buddy Bill's Russian bride, things don't go so well.


MRM-GhostBridge_ChrisHoward_rev55_FRONTCOVERAuckland Allies 2: Ghost Bridge is all ready to go at the beginning of June. I'll be running a promotion on Book 1 as part of that launch, so stay tuned.

The contemporary urban fantasy/technothriller action continues as the Allies face a necromancer raising ghosts from a Victorian cemetery near the heart of the city. Steampunk Sally, I have to say, is awesome in this one, both when she pulls off a grift over the phone and when she... No, I won't spoil it. Put it this way: if you thought it was cool when she hit a guy with a weaponised possum, you'll really enjoy this.


I've just finished a sword-and-sorcery novella, Hand of the Trickster. It features a thief who's been blessed by his patron god, the Trickster, with the ability to "conjure" small items to and from storage in the Trickster Temple. He teams up with an ex-priestess of Wisdom, who's done something unwise; a huge man with a steel scorpion amulet embedded in his chest that makes him invulnerable; and an illusionist grifter with a warped sense of humour. Together, they pull heists on the temples of Wisdom and Justice.

Update: All going well, there will be a second book in November.

Late this year, I hope:

I've started work on Auckland Allies 3: Unsafe Harbour, and have reached 20,000 words, or a bit under halfway. At the moment I'm not sure what kind of time I'll have to work on it in the second half of the year, but all going well I should have it ready in late 2016. More magic, more technology, more body-stealing Nazis, and 100% more ninjas! (OK, there's one ninja. Not technically an actual ninja. It's Tara in a super suit, all right? Are you happy?)

Update: Now complete, and scheduled for September.

Probably October:

I'm part of a cool project that I don't think I'm supposed to talk about yet, so I won't. But it features some authors whose work I admire, and an audacious attempt to... no, I've said too much.

Looking at the moment like November:

My science fiction story "Taking Pro" will appear in Futuristica 2 from Metasagas Press. I read the first volume of this anthology series recently, and there are some excellent stories in it, so I look forward to the second one. My story is about what happens when scientists come up with a treatment that turns people "prosocial", and how they face the ethical and political dilemmas that engenders.

Don't know when:

I have about 36,000 words' worth of short stories and an 18,700-word novella out on submission at the moment (counting the novelette that forms the first third of Hand of the Trickster), and hopefully at least some of that will sell at some point this year. I also have three more stories that I've already sold, but I haven't been told when they'll be published (some markets communicate better than others).

I'll let you know as things develop. Thanks, by the way, to those who voted for my story "Something Rich and Strange" in the Sir Julius Vogel Award nominations; it didn't make the final list, but as you can see, there will be plenty of material for nomination next year. Around 150,000 words of it, if I've counted right. Wow.

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Mar 18

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is my name for a trope that's particularly common in fiction for younger readers. (There's probably a TV Tropes name for it, but I dare not risk my productivity by going to that site.) It's when someone just happens to be in a position to overhear someone else, usually the antagonist, discussing exactly the information they need to know to move the plot forward.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five had frequent Convenient Eavesdrops, to the point that the parody Five Go Mad in Dorset had the villain's minions muttering, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb." In their case, generally they'd overhear something that revealed Dastardly Doings Afoot, and either tried to tell the adults and weren't believed, or didn't tell the adults because they wouldn't be believed. The Convenient Eavesdrop functioned as an inciting incident, something that would get the adventure underway, because it was now up to the kids to resolve the situation.

Convenient Eavesdrops can also kick off the plot by being misinterpreted. This is often, though not inevitably, comic; Richmal Crompton's William books used it for great comic effect, as have many farces and sitcoms, but it can also lead to tragedy or near-tragedy when someone acts on misinterpreted information that suggests their lover is unfaithful, for example. The misinterpreted Convenient Eavesdrop is a sub-trope, rather than a trope flip or subversion, since it's been around for so long.

More of a flip, though it's also been around for a while, is having the antagonist conveniently eavesdrop on the protagonist. Because you'll probably (though not certainly) be in the protagonist's viewpoint, you then need the protagonist, or a companion, to notice the antagonist sneaking away and realize that they've overheard. But what have they overheard? How much do they know? Can we contain the situation? Will they blackmail us?

Another use of Convenient Eavesdrops is common in the Harry Potter books. Apart from the prologue to each book (it's called Chapter 1, but trust me, it's a prologue), the books stick tightly to Harry's point of view, so he has to find out any other relevant information that explains what's going on by either being told it, or overhearing it in a Convenient Eavesdrop. There's a particularly blatant example in Deathly Hallows, where Harry has been randomly teleporting around Britain, on the run, and doesn't know what's happening. Super-conveniently, one of his school friends, a goblin, and a third person I forget just now randomly happen to pass nearby while Harry's hidden in a bush, discussing exactly what he needs to know to get the stalled plot moving again.

The Speaker and Listeners
Kurok_Alex via / CC BY

You'll have gathered that I'm not a fan of the Convenient Eavesdrop, which I consider a close cousin to Deus Ex Machina (the convenient event not triggered by the protagonist which saves his or her bacon at the critical moment, because the author has written themselves into a corner). But the problems it solves - knowing what the antagonist's plans are, or otherwise getting key information the viewpoint characters have no other access to - are genuine problems. Are there better ways to solve them?

I think so. I think the solution is the more general solution to other problems of protagonist agency versus coincidence: instead of having something happen by itself, have the characters cause it deliberately.

Let me offer an example from Auckland Allies, the first novel in my urban fantasy series. (I'm writing this blog post as a way of warming up to tackle revisions on the second book.) Mysterious occurrences are occurring; hostile black-clad men keep turning up and trying to harm the protagonists. The protagonists want to know why.

The lazy way would be to have them in the right place at the right time to find out by Convenient Eavesdrop. But the other way to do it - which ends up driving the plot for several chapters, because it gives plenty for the characters to strive for - is for them to set out to find out deliberately.

During one of the pursuits, Sparx, the technomage, used a cellphone to shoot video of the SUV pursuing him and Steampunk Sally. He's able to read the license plate.

They're not official law enforcement, so they have to find a way to trace the plate to an address. He and Sally run a scam on a used-car dealer to get access to the website where they can do this.

They go to the address and observe. Sparx finds an active wifi node, and attempts to hack it. Not much success, but he gets some information they can use.

Using the partial penetration he achieved of the antagonists' network, Sparx then manages to get into their webcam using a combination of magic and technology. This reveals a clue pointing to the antagonists' plans, which the Allies now set out to foil.

All of this is, I think, much more satisfying - and certainly gives a lot more plot - than happening to be in the right place at the right time. This example uses technology, which opens up more options (particularly since I have a character who's very good with it), but you can still take this approach in a non-technological setting, or with less skilled characters. Build tension as the protagonist sneaks into the antagonist's lair, past dangerous defences, and conceals herself where she can overhear the secret meeting - somewhere cramped, perhaps smelly, where she'll be vulnerable if discovered.

This is the Difficult Eavesdrop.

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Feb 02

Pro Sales, and Sir Julius Vogel

I'm very pleased to announce not one, but two short story sales to professional publications.

A science fiction story yet to receive its final title (working title: "One-Eyed Man") will be published in Futuristica Volume 2 in November 2016. I've known about this one for a while, but had to delay the announcement while the editors sorted out which stories would go in which volume. It's the story of what happens when scientists who have developed a treatment that makes people more prosocial first take it themselves, and then seek to convince a politician to be one of the first high-profile people to take it. I think I've managed to pull off an ending which feels either dystopian or utopian, depending on the reader.

My fantasy short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" will also be published in the new magazine Cosmic Roots and Elvish Shores. I don't have a publication date yet, so stay tuned. This one is told from the viewpoint of the keeper of an interdimensional portal, who sees a fated conqueror-king pass back and forth through the Gate at key times in his life. It's a six-volume, two-and-a-half-million-word epic fantasy implied in two and a half thousand words.

I'm proud of my achievement in going from no sales to pro sales in approximately two and a half years. I started to get serious about submitting short stories almost exactly two years ago, and these two professional sales (and another seven semipro sales, plus an acceptance from a charity anthology) are the fruit of nearly a hundred submissions over that two-year period.

Judging by the contents of the Campbellian Anthology, which contains work by people who have had their first pro sale in the past three years, approximately one person a week achieves this milestone worldwide. This appears to be my week.

I'm continuing to work hard on other stories, and I hope to sell several more to professional publications this year.

Sir Julius Vogel Eligibility

Sir Julius Vogel Awards trophy

Looking back to last year, I published several works which are eligible for the Sir Julius Vogel awards, New Zealand's awards for science fiction, fantasy and horror. Finalists are determined by the number of nominations for each work, and nominations have to be received by 28 February this year.

If you've read (or listened to) one of my works listed below and think it's award-worthy, please email your nomination to: Anyone in the world can nominate, but the final vote is by members of the annual NZ science fiction conference.

Note: I originally had links and other information below for both the text and podcast versions of "Something Rich and Strange". They're not identical--there are two or three sentences that are different--so to prevent issues I've changed it to just the text version, which is (I think) the better one.

Short Story: "Something Rich and Strange".
Nomination Details required (you can copy and paste everything except the lines in bold, which are specific to you):
  1. Name / Title of work: "Something Rich and Strange"
  2. Name of Producer / Author / Creator: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. What the work is i.e. Novel, TV, Movie, Short Story, Web, Collection, Comic, Art: Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2015
  5. What category you think the nomination belongs to i.e. Fan awards, Professional awards: Professional Awards.
  6. GENRE - science fiction, fantasy or horror: Fantasy
  7. Contact details of the person making the nomination e.g. email or/and phone number
  8. Publisher / Production company name: Digital Fantasy Fiction (
  9. How to contact the producer / author: mike at
  10. Other details about the work, that might be relevant
    e.g. the media it appears in - radio, web: ebook
  11. Where to get a copy of the work:
  12. Any other comments you wish to add

Novel: Auckland Allies

Nomination Details required (you can copy and paste everything except the lines in bold, which are specific to you):

  1. Name / Title of work: Auckland Allies
  2. Name of Producer / Author / Creator: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. What the work is i.e. Novel, TV, Movie, Short Story, Web, Collection, Comic, Art: Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2015
  5. What category you think the nomination belongs to i.e. Fan awards, Professional awards: Professional Awards.
  6. GENRE - science fiction, fantasy or horror: Fantasy
  7. Contact details of the person making the nomination e.g. email or/and phone number
  8. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  9. How to contact the producer / author: mike at
  10. Other details about the work, that might be relevant
    e.g. the media it appears in - radio, web: ebook
  11. Where to get a copy of the work:
  12. Any other comments you wish to add

Thanks in advance for any nominations, and I'll have further updates for you as details come to hand.

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Nov 13

Short Story News

I've added a new sub-site to my website specifically for short stories, since that's become a significant part of my fiction output. I've sold eight stories so far this year (one of which I'm still not allowed to talk about, so watch this space).

In Memory coverSince my last update, two more have been published. The first is "There's a Tattoo, but the Robes Hide It," a comic sword-and-sorcery tale in which the Dread Lord's consort, desperate to leave him, reluctantly enlists the aid of the trickster god. It's published in the charity anthology In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett, which is burning up the Amazon charts. (As I write, it's number 28 in the Kindle store for fantasy anthologies.) All proceeds go to Alzheimer's research, so I encourage you to pick up a copy. Not only does it honour Terry Pratchett by its charitable purpose, but the stories are a fitting tribute to his legacy of humane, moving, funny fantasy.

The other story just out is "Something Rich and Strange". A Victorian miss in an alternate version of our world finds her true self at the Change Storm, the bizarre natural phenomenon on which her professor father is a leading expert. Her father and his mansplaining assistant expect her to fall into the role of audience/love interest/impediment/rescuee that is the lot of professors' daughters in so many pulp adventure stories, but she has ideas of her own. This one is published in podcast form at The Overcast, so you can enjoy someone reading it to you.

I've also recently sold a couple of stories to Stupefying Stories, and I'll let you know about those when they come out. And then there's that secret one.

If you're not already subscribed to my mailing list, and you don't want to miss these announcements, hop on. We're coming close to the next milestone at which I'll release another piece of free short fiction to the list, as well, so encourage your short-story-loving friends to join.

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Oct 12

Auckland Allies is out!

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_500x780I'm pleased to announce that the first book in my new urban fantasy series, Auckland Allies, is available from Amazon (other outlets to follow soon).

As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand's supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it's a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies--and how to protect themselves.

They discover a plot to use Auckland's volcanoes in a massive demon-summoning ritual, which nobody else is equipped to stop. The question is: are they?

I have six more books at various degrees of "planned" for the series. I've already started on the second book, Auckland Allies: Newtonian Manuscript, in which a magical text by Sir Isaac Newton, a nonmagical ex-girlfriend, and a necromantic threat all interfere with Sparx and Sally's attempt to make a living supplying costumes and props to New Zealand's film industry.

This is going to be more of a "continuing story" series than the Gryphon Clerks' "meanwhile, elsewhere" approach. Each book will build on the previous one, but be complete in itself, with the first chapter or two reminding or informing readers who these people are and why they're all fighting.

Early feedback indicates that this is a solid, fun novel with good potential for a series, and I'm excited to see how it goes. Pick up your copy from Amazon.

Other News

My Short Story Challenge project is going well; so far this year I've made 42 submissions (only two short of 2014's full-year total), and had seven acceptances, which I'm super-happy about. Most of the acceptances have been recent, so the only one published since my last update is  "Lock and Key," in which a clever alchemist in an Arabian-Nights setting solves several murders.

All the details of my short story sales and where they will appear are on the short stories page at the website. Coming very soon is In Memory, a tribute anthology to Sir Terry Pratchett in aid of Alzheimer's research, in which I have a piece.

Next year I hope to write at least two dozen stories, so if you like my short fiction there's plenty more coming. And if novels are more your speed, make sure to pick up Auckland Allies.

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Aug 25

Treble and Bass: A Metaphor

I woke up at two o'clock this morning and started thinking about fiction. (This is normal behaviour for a writer.) In the nonlinear way that brains work at 2am, my brain came up with a metaphor that I'd like to explore here.

Of the several ways in which fiction can be satisfying, here are two:

A. Events have an impact on characters.

B. Characters have an impact on events.

Those aren't at opposite ends of a spectrum. They're like sliders on a mixing board, which can be moved up and down independently. Let's call them treble and bass, respectively.

underwhelmer / Foter / CC BY

Here's a theory. The "sad puppies" (if you don't know who they are, rejoice, and bail out now, because this post won't make a lot of sense to you) are all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble. (I'm generalising and exaggerating for the sake of a point; fair warning, I'll be doing a lot of that, so take what I have to say with salt to taste.)

My speculation is that in the brief interval before they decided to engage in a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics, and then got hijacked by the king of the haters, the puppies may have thought, "We, and everyone we know whose opinion we respect, like fiction with lots of bass, and don't care much about treble. These Hugo-winning stories have too much treble, and not enough bass. Since no right-thinking person would actually like them, there must be a conspiracy to distort the Hugo nomination process in the service of identity politics! That's so wrong! We should do it too!"

Incidentally, in my view the short stories--not so much the novels--that have won Hugos in recent years do tend to emphasise treble a lot more than bass, reflecting a wider trend in the pro magazines and anthologies. The novels have more of a balance between the two--at least, the ones I've read.

I personally prefer a balance: both treble and bass. I find bass-only stories as unsatisfying as treble-only stories. But let's think about why people might write stories that are strongly one or the other. Wild speculation, OK? I could be completely wrong here.

Let's say you're a member of a historically disadvantaged and disempowered group (for our current purposes, any such group will do). What's your experience going to be? Might it possibly be that you experience being impacted by events more than you experience impacting events? And might your fiction reflect that experience?

And if, by contrast, you're a member of a historically advantaged and empowered group, won't you tend to experience, and think in terms of, your actions impacting events? And (here the speculation goes completely wild) might there be reasons that you don't want to think too hard about how events impact people? Why you might want to live in a universe where everyone is stoic and unmoved, and nobody's life is defined by things that happen to them without their consent? Particularly if your group's experience of unquestioned power is waning, and is now being constantly challenged, with questions being raised about whether your advantage over others is a good thing, even whether it will continue to exist?

Now, I want to live in a world where everyone can experience both bass and treble. I think that world is coming, but it isn't here yet. During such a transition, fiction becomes a zone of conflict, because fiction is inherently political, because it's a cultural product produced by people, who can't help being political even if they think they aren't.

And that is all I have to say about puppies.

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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.

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