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more-or-less plausible future technologies impact people and society (the novella Gu, and a number of recent, as yet unpublished, short stories, including "Taking Pro," which will appear in Futuristica 2 in November this year).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.

 

May 19

Release Schedule for 2016

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

Soon:

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.

ALSO ALSO June:

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.

August:

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.

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: sjv_awards@sffanz.org.nz. 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 (http://digitalfictionpub.com/blog/digital-fantasy-fiction/)
  9. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  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: http://www.amazon.com/Something-Rich-Strange-Digital-Uncommon-ebook/dp/B019M18DSI/
  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 csidemedia.com
  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: http://www.amazon.com/Auckland-Allies-Mike-Reeves-McMillan-ebook/dp/B01694XVP6/
  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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

UPDATE: It's out (now called Auckland Allies), and so is Book 2 in the series, Ghost Bridge.

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.

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.

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

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 - I suppose that last one is like making a meal from a packet.

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.

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(Update: the series is called Auckland Allies, and it has its own section of the site now.)