Dec 31

A Timeline of the Gryphon Clerks Books

Someone who's reading Hope and the Clever Man asked me on Google+ today if it came before Realmgolds, which he'd already read.

There's a complicated answer to that. So complicated, that I drew this diagram:

OK, the answer to that specific question is relatively simple. Clever Man starts before Realmgolds (in Hope's childhood), includes some of the events shown in Realmgolds from a different perspective, and ends after the close of Realmgolds. It's when you take the other books into account that it gets complicated.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of everything in the diagram. The books you can check out on my Books page, which will also explain a lot of the other references, apart from the later ones because of potential spoilers. The Technology section shows when the various technologies that are significant in the series start to be developed and are successfully launched.

Farviewers, if you haven't read either of the books released so far, are basically magic mirrors that allow you to talk to someone far away. Flight crystals are the means by which the skyboats fly (they're antigravity, more or less). They already exist as of Realmgolds, but they're unreasonably expensive; the line shown is for the process of making them more efficient and cheaper. Hardlac is a light, strong artificial material (probably some kind of polymer) made by the ancient elves, who deliberately kept the secret from their human slaves. Its rediscovery, along with cheaper flight crystals, is key to one of Victory's cunning plans, and is detailed, unsurprisingly, in The Rediscovery of Hardlac. Technology, in the Gryphon Clerks books, is never there just to be cool. It always has social and political implications.

The Assembly is a new body of elected representatives, and in Mister Bucket for Assembly, we see the first election, with two characters from the Hope books standing.

The Unification War is the one that takes place in Realmgolds, though it's not called that there (it's a label that gets applied afterwards). The Underground War is the economic struggle between Realmgold Victory and the dwarves. It's kind of like our world's Cold War in that it's only a war metaphorically.

Obviously, this is all subject to change. Of the unreleased books, I'm nearly finished with Hope and the Patient Man, and it should be out in early 2014 (exactly when is partly reliant on my cover artist, who is backlogged for various highly legitimate reasons, though there are still several rounds of edits to go, too). The others range from "I have a draft that I'm not happy with" (Beastheads) through "I have a reasonably clear idea how this will go, but the devil's in the details" (The Rediscovery of Hardlac, The Great Gnome Heist) to "I have a concept and not much more" (Underground Railroad).

You'll notice a lot of overlap in the timelines, particularly early on (no guarantees that I won't add more books later and do the same thing, though). This is because my world is a large one, there's a lot going on, and I like the idea of looking at events through different sets of eyes via characters who occasionally cross paths. I'd also rather write three 80,000-word novels, each with one clear protagonist, than try to twine them all together in some 250,000-word chihuahua-crusher.

I haven't been watching closely, but I did happen to see that Hope and the Clever Man briefly made it to #90 in Steampunk on Amazon thanks to my post-Christmas sale. It's still going on as I write this, so if you haven't yet picked up Hope and the Clever Man or Realmgolds, those links will take you to them.

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Dec 27

Post-Christmas Sale, and an Excerpt

As I write, the latest Gryphon Clerks novel, Hope and the Clever Man, is on a Kindle Countdown Deal over at Amazon. That means it starts out at 99c and goes up by a dollar every couple of days until it's back at $4.99. The sooner you get over there, the better the deal, if you don't have it already. (Realmgolds is still on sale at half price, too.)

I'm using some of my holiday time to work on the sequel, Hope and the Patient Man, so I thought I'd give you an excerpt from Chapter 1. To find out how these two characters get together, and how Hope got herself cursed, of course, you'll need to read Hope and the Clever Man.


They’d had a delicious dinner at one of the more expensive Gulfport restaurants, and shared a bottle of excellent wine. Judging by the way Hope was walking, it was more wine than she usually indulged in. She took Patient’s right arm and stumbled against him, laughing.

“Careful,” he said, flinging out his walking stick to keep himself from falling, and mentally cursing his weak leg. The carved dragon head of his stick dug into his hand as he used it to lever his weight, and Hope’s, to the right.

“Sorry. It’s these shoes.” Her own footwear mostly had steel toes, so she had borrowed a pair of shoes for the evening from her best friend and flatmate Briar.

“I thought it was the wine.”

“And the wine. Shoes and wine, Briar’s two favourite things. What are your favourite things, Patient?” She laughed again. He would almost say she giggled, except that Hope didn’t giggle. Her large dark eyes met his with an unguardedness that he hadn’t seen before. Pale as she was from working indoors, her flushed cheeks brought her back to a more usual skin tone, and her black hair, gleaming and herb-scented, fell across one side of her face. She blew it away and laughed again, and his heart contracted sharply. He was still not used to the idea that such a beautiful woman wanted to spend time with him.

“I don’t think you should get on that airhorse,” he said.

“No? You’re probably right. But how’m I going to get home?” She stretched out the last word, crooning it.

“You could stay in town here and go home in the morning. Probably not much more expensive than a ferry back to Illene, then a ferry back here again to get the airhorse.”

“And how’re you going to get home?”

“I could take the ferry, I suppose, and walk.” Patient’s home in Redbridge, a village not far north of Gulfport, lay near the river that also ran through the city and through the university town of Illene, where Hope lived. Even with his leg, he could walk between the ferry dock and his cottage without much discomfort.

“Or you could stay in town too. Should we get one room, or two?”

“Now I know you’re drunk. Which means that the answer’s two.”

“Oh, come on,” she said playfully, and swung around in front of him on the pavement, seizing both his forearms. “We’ve had a nice night. Let’s live a little.” She slid her hands up his arms to the shoulders, stepped in, and raised her face to his. Startled, he let the kiss begin.

She screamed, convulsed, and collapsed. He staggered as he grabbed for her, trying to keep her from falling, but his weak leg folded under him and they both stumbled to the ground. Her head struck the stone kerb and rebounded.

“Hope!” he shouted. She was whimpering and twitching in some kind of fit.

He heard running footsteps from behind him as he tried to keep her head from impacting the hard surface a second time. They hadn’t walked far from the restaurant, less than a block, and he recognised the doorman as the man leaned over them.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Not sure,” said Patient. “Some kind of fit. Help me get her safe, put…” but the doorman was already whipping off his jacket and wadding it up to put under her head. They got her stretched out and waited for the fit to be over, Patient pulling himself round to sit with her head in his lap while the doorman crouched next to her shoulder. Patient’s leg had woken up and was proclaiming its tale of woe, but he ignored it.

After what seemed like much longer than it probably was, Hope gave a gasp and her eyes came back into focus. She made gagging movements, and he rolled her quickly onto her side, whereupon she threw up a gourmet meal and half a bottle of expensive wine onto his new trousers.

When the vomiting was over and her breathing had settled down, she tried to get up, and he helped her as best he could. The doorman was more help; he had leverage, and heaved Hope to her feet.

“Are you all right, Mage?” he asked. The silver bracelet on her left wrist, proclaiming her status as a full mage, glittered under the street lights, and the gems set in it sparkled. She nodded mutely, clutching her head.

Patient had reclaimed his stick, and was trying to regain his feet. He nearly slipped in the puddle of vomit before the doorman, still propping Hope up with one arm, heaved him upright with the other.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to ignore the unpleasant dampness seeping through his trouser leg.

“Sorry,” said a still drunk-sounding Hope. She gently disengaged from the doorman and stood, a little shakily, on her own feet.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Oathconflict, I think,” she said. “Curse it.” Her voice came out toneless and dull, unlike her usual rich mezzo.

“Well, I think that answers the question of whether you go home tonight,” he said. “The answer’s no. Where can we find a hotel?” he asked the doorman.

“Just round the corner,” said the man. “You want me to walk with you?”

“Stone?” called a man’s voice from behind them. “Everything all right?”

“The lady and gentleman had a fall,” the doorman called back. “I’m just going to take them round to the Peerless. Can you watch the door?”

“All right,” called the voice.

“The Peerless?” said Patient, a little nervously. “That sounds expensive.” The doorman looked puzzled, as far as Patient could tell under the dim lighting, and rightly so. The restaurant they had just come out of was hardly Fat Berry’s Fry Shack, and if you could afford to eat there, you could afford to stay at the Peerless. He thought of explaining that their meal had been paid for by Realmgold Victory.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hope in a shaky voice. “I can cover it.”

Patient opened his mouth to argue, decided that it wasn’t the time, and shut it again. He and the doorman began to help her down the street, one on each side. She walked like a woman with three times her not-quite-24 years, but they turned the corner at last, and Stone the doorman called to his counterpart at the front of the Peerless.

“Hey, Willing! Come and give us a hand, mate.”

The other doorman hurried over, and helped Hope into the reception area, where another uniformed hotel employee bustled round the desk in concern.

“Should I send for a healer?” she asked.

“If you would,” said Patient quickly, before Hope could say no. Not that she looked as if she was going to. She even shot him a look of thanks.

The receptionist rousted out a youth from the room behind the desk and sent him on the errand, while the two doormen seated Hope in a chair in the lobby.

“Thank you, Mister… Stone, is it?” said Patient to the restaurant doorman.

“My pleasure to assist, sir,” said the man. Patient dug in his pocket and found some coins. He gave him the two biggest pieces, equivalent to a quarter of a silver hammer, and Stone seemed happy enough.

“I hope your lady’s all right, sir,” he said, and ran off to resume his duties round the corner.

“Sir, would you like us to assist you with your trousers?” said the hotel doorman. The receptionist was fussing over Hope.

“Eh? Oh, yes, thank you,” he said. “And we’ll need a room. Um, two rooms. No, better make it one room. I don’t want to leave her unwatched.”

“Are you all right yourself, sir?”

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said. “An existing injury.”

“In the war, sir?” said the doorman. Patient looked up and caught a look that combined respect and pity.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “As it happens. How far does the healer have to come?”

“Not far, sir, there’s a healer just two blocks over, and he’s contracted to the hotel. Did the lady have something that disagreed with her?”

There was a distinct tang of wine in among the vomit, and the doorman was clearly being tactful.

“More than that, I think,” said Patient. “She’s a mage, and she was involved in a kind of magical incident some years ago that has left her with… I suppose you’d say a curse. It got triggered.” His tone was curt, partly with worry for Hope, but mainly because it was none of the man’s wretched business.

“Ah,” said the doorman. “Well, sir, if you’re all right I’ll go and watch for the healer, shall I?”


With the doorman gone, Patient limped over to the chair and carefully lowered himself to one of the arms, trying to keep his spattered trouserleg well clear. “How are you doing?” he asked, while going through a checklist in his mind. As a former part-time village warden, he had been trained to deal with emergencies, and he was trying to remember what you did for someone who’d just had a fit.

“Thirsty,” she said.

“I’ll get…” began the receptionist.

“Let’s wait for the healer,” he said. “I don’t think we should give her anything until he gets here.”

Before either woman could argue, brisk boot-heels rang on the marble of the foyer, and the healer arrived, the round hat of his profession askew and his coat and trousers pulled on over a nightshirt. The boy entered in his wake, and the receptionist made a curt gesture sending him back to his lurking place behind the desk, while hovering herself.

The healer knelt and took Hope’s wrist, reading the state of her body while asking, “What’s happened here, then?” in a calm professional voice.

Patient fell into the rhythms of an incident report, giving an unemotional summary of events. He included the fact that Hope had had an oathconflict reaction, though he didn’t go into the background. He wondered if he should, because not doing so risked the implication that she was oathbound to someone else and seeing him behind her oathmate’s back, but decided that it was nobody else’s business and he didn’t care what they thought. The healer, who hadn’t previously looked at him, shot him a sharp glance, flicked his gaze briefly at the stick, and nodded, without apparent hostility. He touched the side of Hope’s head where it had met the stone kerb. The skin was unbroken, but reddened, and she winced away. He closed his eyes to concentrate, sensing underneath the skin.

“There’s a bit of bleeding under there,” he noted. “Not a lot, but enough to be of concern. Merriment,” he called to the receptionist, “send your boy for a cab, will you? We need to get her into the healing house overnight.”

“Oh,” said Patient.

“Sorry, sir,” said the healer. “Not something to take lightly, a head injury. I’d deal with it myself if it was most other things, but head trauma wants a specialist. I’m afraid your evening is rather ruined.”

Patient smiled grimly. “Thank you,” he said.

While they waited for the cab to come, he leaned down awkwardly next to Hope. “I hate to mention this,” he said, “but I don’t have enough money to tip all these nice people, pay the healer, and pay the cab.”

She fished out a purse and handed it over.

“Thank you,” he said again, and circulated, handing over money to the boy, the receptionist, the healer (rather a larger amount) and the doorman.

“Oh! Your trousers, sir,” said the receptionist. “The cabbie won’t let you in like that, I’m afraid, or he’ll charge you extra. I’ll see if I can find you a pair. What’s your waist size?”

Patient told her, and by the time the cab arrived he was in a pair of the hotel’s uniform trousers which were attempting to cut him in half, the closest pair the receptionist had been able to find, and she had taken his away to be cleaned. He made arrangements to pick them up next day and slipped her more copper.

He had never, he reflected, spent so much money on what was supposed to be a free evening, a reward for Hope from the Realmgold for working so hard last year. He returned to her side in time to help her to the cab. The cabbie looked at him oddly when he got in, with his stick and his too-small trousers, and again when he paid from Hope’s obviously feminine purse, but he was well beyond caring. He had fallen into the mentally distanced state that they taught in the military and that he had held onto through much of the war — especially the part after his injury. It allowed him to move on to the next thing that needed doing, and put off anger, fear and frustration until later.

The night staff at the healing house were quietly efficient, and a young healer came and sat beside Hope in one of the tiny treatment rooms, using her gift of Invisible Touch to stop the bleeding inside Hope’s head and ease the pressure. Patient leaned against the wall, giving them as much space as he could manage. He shifted his stick uncomfortably, trying to ease his throbbing leg.

“All right,” said the healer eventually. “I’ve done as much as I can for now. Let’s get you to bed.” Patient helped Hope walk along the gleamingly clean corridor in the impractical shoes. They helped her to a washroom to clean up, and Patient stood outside while the healer helped her change into a nightgown, then returned to assist with getting her into bed. She looked grey and exhausted.

“I’m going to give you the Healer’s Sleep now,” said the young woman, and worked a spell with the confidence of someone who performed it multiple times a day. Hope’s strained face relaxed as her eyes closed, her breathing deepened, and she fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.

“That should hold her until well into tomorrow morning,” said the healer. “You’re her… what? Oathmate?” She glanced at their hands, obviously checking for rings and, of course, not finding any. “Promised?” she amended.


“You’re courting, then?”

“I’m her… friend,” he said. This, at least, was true. He wasn’t sure what else they were.

“Would you mind staying the night with her?”

“I’ll insist on it.”

“All right, let’s set you up with a pallet. You’re injured?”

“I got a knock to my bad leg,” he said, “but nothing new.”

“Let me take a look.” She sat him down in the corner and ran her hand over his leg above the borrowed trousers, eyes closed.

“That’s been well cared for, considering what a nasty injury it must have been originally,” she said. “Was it the war?”

“Yes,” he said, in the tone he used to discourage people asking anything more.

“How’s this?” she said, and he felt the cramped muscles relax and the damaged flesh flooding with warmth, as if he was in one of the herbal baths his local healer made him take. His pain eased.

“Oh, that’s helping,” he said.

“Good. I’ll send someone in to do your pallet. Do you think you can get to sleep?”

“Yes, I should be all right.”

“Good. I don’t want to give you the Sleep, because having you in here with her and able to wake up is an extra safety measure. Not that I think anything will happen overnight, but just in case. Someone will be with you very soon.”

Of course, with the best of intentions, it was actually some time before one of the healers’ assistants came in with a pallet for him, and he was able to take off the terrible trousers and fall onto it. Whereupon he lay awake late into the night, listening for any shift in Hope’s breathing.

She was still breathing steadily when he finally drifted off in the deep hours of the early morning.

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Dec 02

Hope and the Clever Man is released

I'm happy to report that Hope and the Clever Man is now available from Amazon.

It took a little longer than I had originally planned, largely because my development editor, Kathleen Dale, suggested a rewrite that strengthened the story considerably and gave more weight to the characters' actions.

Here's the blurb:

An act of powerful magic in a moment of rage almost destroys Hope's magical career before it starts, leaving her even more determined to prove her worth.

Her chance comes when she's assigned to work for the eccentric inventor known as the Clever Man. The magical technology they create together could change the course of a war and help an oppressed people plan their revolution, but wealthy and powerful interests will fight to put it down any way they can.

If you've read Realmgolds, this book's timeline includes the entire timeline of that first book. It's the story of the people behind the scenes who made some of what happened in Realmgolds possible. You don't have to read Realmgolds first, but if you haven't read it yet and you want to, I have it at half price while I'm promoting Hope. That's $6.98 for both books.

I'm going to drop the Chris Howard cover here yet again, because I love it so much. If you look at that cover and think "That looks like a book I'd want to read," you're very probably right, because Chris followed my art direction closely and gave me a cover that was exactly what I wanted and represents the book perfectly.

Hope and the Clever Man

I'm very happy with how it's come out, and looking forward to getting on with a less comprehensive but still significant rewrite on the sequel, Hope and the Patient Man.

Those links again (they're Amazon affiliate links, so buying through them gives me more of the sale price even than normal):

Hope and the Clever Man 

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Oct 21

How to Write a Sequel, or Happily Never After

I'm writing a series. I hope it's a long series. I hope I get to work on it for 40 years or more (I'm 46). Whether I do or not, I have one book out, two more with my editor and beta readers (those two books are closely linked), a third that I'm revising and a list of ideas in various states of development. Barring the usual things that you bar over the next several years, we're looking at at least half a dozen books that I can see from here.

Writing a series is different from writing standalone novels, which is what I've done previously. I'm taking the Terry Pratchett approach to series - a number of more-or-less interlinked stories in the same setting, with overlapping characters, places and events - rather than the typical epic fantasy one-enormous-story approach. (I recently discovered that Steven Donaldson has published the tenth, and final, Thomas Covenant novel. I started reading those when I was at high school. I don't have kids, but if I did they would probably be about the age I was then, or older, so it's taken him a generation to finish his story. George R.R. Martin is still going, with no end in sight.)

Even if you take the Terry Pratchett approach, even if you don't follow the same characters all the time and don't have one big overarching plot arc, you'll still want to tie books together. The approach I've stumbled upon is what I call Happily Never After.

That's not as negative as it sounds. It's based on the endings to fairy stories, of course: "And the Prince married the Princess, and they lived happily ever after." The wedding in a romance, or the defeat of the main boss in an adventure, draws a big line under the story and says, "Finished now."

If you're writing a series like mine, though, that moves from story to story, nothing is a final ending. And, in fact, each ending contains the seeds of the next beginning - because every time your characters achieve something, that's another thing that can cause problems for them (or someone else) later on.

Endless love
Millzero Photography / Foter / CC BY-SA

I base this, like so many things, on real life. You got the promotion you were striving for? Great. But now you have more work, more responsibility, a new set of problems. You finally asked that person out? Fantastic! Welcome to your awkward first date. You're married? Terrific! Whole new set of problems there*. You've killed the main boss? Go you! Let the revisionist history/battles to fill the power vacuum/revenge attacks/resistance to the occupation begin.

We don't need to look far in our own life or in real-world politics to see that bringing something to a conclusion often just means substituting one set of problems for another. Our childhood tales tell us that when we kill the evil guy and/or marry the prince/princess our troubles are over, but it's just not so. The "all our problems will go away if we just kill this one evil guy" narrative, in particular, has proven hideously destructive (and wildly inaccurate) within the past decade.

When I got to the end of Realmgolds, the first book in the Gryphon Clerks series, I made a list of 20 problems that the resolution of that book had either created or intensified. They're enough to keep me writing for years.

The two linked books that are currently in edit/beta? The hopeful ending of the first sets up the opening problem of the second so neatly, it's as if I planned it that way.

I didn't. I didn't need to. Every solution potentially contains the seeds of the next problem, even if you don't have an overarching plot. Even if you're working within the same book, rather than a series, in fact. (Note to self: Do that more.)

* I should mention I'm happily married. Just because you have a set of problems/challenges, doesn't mean you're miserable.

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Oct 14

Three Types of Steampunk

I love the idea (or, as we'll shortly see, ideas) of steampunk. The Victorian Era, only more wondrous. Why wouldn't I love it?

Well, mainly because the execution so seldom matches the concept.

I've been trying to read more steampunk, and the books I've come across fall mostly into a couple of disappointing categories. I'll talk about the third category, or what steampunk can be, in a bit.

Type One: The Big Brass Romance

The first type of steampunk is basically paranormal romance in something which is unconvincingly pretending to be the Victorian age, with characters who are very unconvincingly pretending to be English (since the author is American, and doesn't know much about England, or the English, or the Victorian Era, or how to go about doing research, or for that matter how to use a comma). There are probably airships and/or automatons. There is certainly a Plucky Gel, with nonfunctional brass gears glued to her corset, who is simultaneously too awesome to fail and too stupid to live.

There is a Love Interest, or quite likely a Love Triangle. The Love Interest, or the ultimately successful male member of the Love Triangle, is a horrible human being with big muscles. The Plucky Gel at first tries to resist him, because she thinks he's wrong for her (which shows atypical insight on her part), but ends up with him anyway after he's rescued her a couple of times.

The text is full of homonym errors. Full. It is written by a woman who failed Feminism 101, and probably English Composition 101 as well.

Type Two: The Steampulp Adventure

The second type of steampunk is a 1930s pulp in a bad Jules Verne costume. It is also poorly researched, and unconvincing in its Britishness and Victorianness, but the setting is so sketchy it doesn't matter so much. There are still probably airships and/or automatons, though they may be more central to the plot than they are in the Big Brass Romance. There is quite likely still a Plucky Gel, but she's disguised as a boy or does boy things in defiance of convention, and she, or someone, has nonfunctional brass goggles attached to her top hat.

LuftFlotte Steampunk...
Stf.O / Foter / CC BY

There is a Big Bad, and there are chases, and explosions, and prison breaks, but not really enough of them to hide the fact that the author can't write very well and is kind of winging it. The Big Bad is trying to overturn the status quo, and the hero must prevent this.

This text, too, is probably well equipped with homonym errors. It is written by a man, who has taken Feminism 101 (and Postcolonial Literature) into the back room, tied them up and shot them.

Type Three: The Voyage of Imagination

The third type of steampunk is the type I like, and can't find enough of. Interestingly, hardly any of the examples I've found are set in the Victorian Era, and about half are in a secondary world. It's a world where, at a generally Victorian level of technology and society, there are airships and/or automatons or other such contraptions, and this actually makes a difference to how people live.

Indeed, society is in transition, and questions of equality, of access to power, education and technology, are central to the story. Sometimes it's about gender, sometimes about class or even race; often it's more than one of the above, and these questions are personally important to the heroes.

The writing is competent. If it's set in the real world, the author manages to demonstrate that they've been to the well of research, without making you drink from the bucket.

There may well be explosions and/or romance, but they're not the main focus. That would be the characters.

So, what are some examples of good steampunk? Besides the indie steampunk novels that I recommend, there's one trad-pub series I think highly of, even though it's a bit Type 2 (it's really well-done Type 2, what Type 2 should aspire to be). I'm referring to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Yes, it's YA, and yes, the heroine is disguised as a boy, but it's good stuff all the same. It's not Victorian, but an alternate World War I, and technically it's dieselpunk.

I wish people would write more Type 3 steampunk, though. Get on that, would you?

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Oct 07

New Bread on an Old Plate

I've been going through updating the (private) wiki that I use to keep track of worldbuilding, characters and so on for the Gryphon Clerks, and thought I would write a post about how I handle sayings.

There are several valid ways to deal with common sayings in secondary-world fantasy. The most common is just to use familiar ones. This means that a reader like me, who's alert to these things, may need a bit of extra suspension of disbelief when they spot a saying from the Bible or Shakespeare, or just a common metaphor from our world that isn't in any way inevitable, but most readers will just slide on past without noticing - or having their attention distracted from the story.

This is what's sometimes called "Orwellian language", from an article that George Orwell wrote about the difference between language that's like a clear window (you see what's going on through it) and language that's like a stained-glass window (you look at the window itself).

Personally, I like a bit of stained glass from time to time. I also want to give the feel of a very different, even alien world, unlike our own world, and to freshen up some tired old metaphors by communicating the same thing using a different image.

How I mainly work is that if I find myself about to use a cliche or a conventional phrase, I think about the meaning of it and find another way to say it that makes sense in the setting, that sounds like it could be a cliche among the people I'm writing about. Here are some examples.

  • We're scraping polish off our boots for soup (= times are tough)
  • He has stones in his field (= he has a hard row to hoe)
  • Gave like a six-teat cow (= sang like a canary)
  • We’ll cut down that tree when it’s grown (= cross that bridge when we come to it)
  • The redfinch complaining of the chaffinch (= pot calling the kettle black)
  • Herding finches (= herding cats)
  • No dancing killed the ant (= all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; from a children's fable)
  • We've started out with our harness tangled (= got off on the wrong foot)
  • Don't make a scarecrow and stand in your own field (= don't keep a dog and bark for yourself)
Miss Butterfly…!!!
Denis Collette...!!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
  • More holes than a moth's lunch
  • As drunk as a dockworker
  • Three-days-fruit (= drunk, possibly as a dockworker)
  • Too swamped to be bothered bailing (= three-days-fruit; an Islands expression)
  • Take to something like gnomes to mushrooms (= a duck to water)
  • That apple's already off the tree (= you'd be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted)
  • You build the house you're paid for (= he who pays the piper calls the tune)
  • A carnival of fools (= a (metaphorical) circus, a Mickey Mouse outfit)
  • I'll push him down one well and fish him up another (= I'll kick his ass)
  • Catch the fish that's biting (= strike while the iron's hot)
  • Working like a gnome (= working very hard; some, though by no means all, gnomes consider this expression offensive, as if hard work defines them)
  • Like selling gritty melons (= a tough sell)
  • Water in front and fire behind (= the carrot and the stick)
  • Out of the mud and into the quicksand (= out of the frying pan into the fire)
  • Knows where the meat is in the stew (= knows which side his bread's buttered on; has an eye to the main chance)
  • You could have heard a man put on a hat (= could have heard a pin drop)

I've also got a couple of gnome sayings:

  • You're talking tonnage to the production foreman (= you're preaching to the choir)
  • We're two pumps for three (= we're extremely busy)

Not something that every writer does, or probably should do, but I enjoy playing with language like this, and giving my fellow language nerds occasional moments of delight.

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Sep 30

Hope and the Clever Man excerpt

Edits are proceeding on Hope and the Clever Man and its sequel, Hope and the Patient Man. I'm planning to have them out before and after Christmas, respectively. Here's an excerpt from the first Hope book to whet your appetite.


Bucket led her to a newer part of Illene, where the ancient, organic-looking, rounded or hexagonal elven buildings were replaced by newer dwarfbuilt structures, foursquare and solid. The small university city was built on the old river floodplain, and the streets were straight and wide. He flung open an undistinguished door and bowed her through as if welcoming an ambassador to the audience hall of a realmgold.

The room beyond was large, but she only knew this because she could see the enormous skylight that made up the whole ceiling. Her view of the room itself was blocked by a number of wheeled boards, covered in spidery dwarvish script interspersed with magical sigils and some other symbols that she found completely unfamiliar. She navigated through them, and found herself in what looked like a serious collision involving a print shop, a mage’s workspace, the stockroom of a mad glassblower, sixteen or twenty more boards, and the junk-midden of a medium-sized dwarfhold. Standing amid the ruins, bent over a draughtsman’s table, was a man no taller than Hope, and probably not much older, though his face was creased with worry-lines.

The Realmgold had mentioned things her clever man didn’t do well. These clearly included sleeping, eating, dressing, washing and shaving. His hair looked like it should be arrested for disorderly conduct, his eyebrows as if they had been partially burned off, and he had scars all up his arms, which were visible because his worn and threadbare sleeves were unevenly rolled up above his elbows. The state of his fingernails would have shamed a drunken farrier. His once-white shirt and beige trousers were marked and stained with scorches, odd colours and more than occasional burn holes, as was the tradesman’s smock he wore over them.

He didn’t look up at the sound of Hope’s footsteps.

“Master,” said Bucket loudly. “Master. The Realmgold has sent you a mage.”

The man looked up from his work, and visibly came back into the room from a great mental distance. “Oh, Bucket,” he said. “Did you go out?”

“For half the morning, yes,” said Bucket, but with more amusement than irritation. “Master, this is Hope at Merrybourne. She’s here to see if she wants to work with us, so you’re going to have to talk to her.”

“Oh,” said the man, and peered at Hope curiously.

She flushed a little under his gaze. It wasn’t the gaze she was used to getting from men. For one thing, when he looked away from her face his eyes didn’t go to her chest, but to her wrist, where she proudly wore the mage’s bracelet she had earned from the University (and was still paying off). It was made of silver set with a prominent ruby, showing that she was a full mage in energy magic. The clear diamond for the High Distinction and the cat’s-eye topaz for the Master-Mage’s prize would join it once she could get it to a jeweller. The bangles of a Mage-Minor in mindmagic (blackwood) and lifemagic (bone) bracketed it. It was fresh and unmarked — she would eventually have spells she used frequently scribed into it — and she valued it more than the arm it was clasped around, not only for its monetary worth but for the years of effort it represented.

She adjusted the bracelet nervously, making sure that he saw the ruby, and, on impulse, strode forward. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her other hand across his workbench for the mutual palm-press that was the usual greeting. He stared at the hand, and after an awkward couple of heartbeats, she took it away again, wiped the sweaty palm on her trouserleg and put it in her pocket, then took it out again.

“Tell her your name, Master,” prompted Bucket.

“Oh,” he said. “Dignified Printer.”

She had to swallow a smile. Not only was the name completely ill-suited to him, but it was rather an odd one. Silvers, people of the merchant and administrative class (as the name Printer revealed him to be), generally copied the Gold nobility and named their children after desirable abstract qualities, but Dignified was not one of the usual names.

“Hope at Merrybourne,” she said, in case he’d forgotten already. It seemed likely. He nodded, and kept staring at her inquiringly. She was obviously going to have to carry this conversation herself. Perhaps she could find something he was passionate about.

“So,” she said, “can you explain these symbols to me?” She pointed at random to one of the nearby boards.

She had spoken in Pektal, but at her question he perked up and began talking in rapid-fire Dwarvish. He had a good accent for a human, hardly adding any vowels at all, but she barely had time to notice that because she was busy trying to keep up.

Hope knew she was very intelligent. Nobody gets High Distinction at the University of Illene without a lot happening above and behind the nose. But Dignified was off over his own distant horizon of intelligence, somewhere that looked a lot like insanity to the casual observer. Despite her good mathematical education, it still took her some time to even figure out that what he was doing was mathematics, and another hour, and a lot of questions, to understand how that related to magic.

“Oh, right,” she said, as something Dignified had said finally connected two other concepts. “So…” she turned to a nearby fresh board that Bucket had unobtrusively rolled up. There was a kind of pen, a stubby thing with a thick barrel, resting in a little cup hung off the bottom of the board, and she snatched it up and started writing out the standard spell for making a permanent light. It was one of the first she’d learned, and she could write it out without thinking about it.

“If you say that this is…” she wrote out a formula in his notation, “and this bit is…”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You need to…” he snatched up another pen and wrote in a correction.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “And that means…” she scribed up another formula, looked at it for a moment, changed one variable, and turned to him with a questioning look.

Yes,” he said.

“That’s obvious,” she said. “Why didn’t my professors tell me this?”

“Old-fashioned,” he said. “Reactionary. Defended against the new. Whereas…” he started writing another formula next to hers, and she jumped up and down.

“I’ve wondered about that for years,” she said.

Bucket, smiling, manoeuvred carefully and quietly around the junk piles, retrieved some requisition forms from his little office and started to fill them in. Hope would need a few things, since she was obviously going to be staying.

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Sep 17

Three Points of View of a Flat

I'm working on two books at the moment, as I mentioned in my last post, both of them featuring the brilliant young mage Hope. In the second one particularly, I'm playing with point of view, telling the story through several different people's eyes.

As it happens, three of those people are shown seeing the same thing (a house) for the first time in the course of the two books. It's a classic writing exercise to reveal character through point of view by describing the same thing through different sets of eyes, and here I've done that writing exercise in my actual novels.

Let's hear from Hope herself first. She's the daughter of upper servants in a remote part of the realm who has come to the mainland to study magic, and she and her friend Briar are looking for a place to live. As an energy mage with a special interest in light, she mostly notices things like the colour of the paint.

The old house had been converted into several flats when the neighbourhood lost its cachet and the well-off families moved elsewhere. Built of brick, probably, Hope thought, but surfaced with plaster so you couldn’t really tell. There were no cracks, the steps were clean, and if the exterior paint was not fresh it was at least clean too, and a cheerful yellow.  Someone had made some attempt at a garden in the front, and it was free of rubbish and the shrubs were in good health, if a little shaggy.

Now let's hear what Patient thinks. He's a woodcarver.

He reached the house without further incident as the light faded from the sky. He hadn’t been there before, and was impressed with the tidy exterior. An older house, but well cared for, and some nice jigsaw work on the bargeboards....

He ascended the old-fashioned staircase -- all dark-stained wood with some very decent banister carving, though it could do with a touch-up on the stain -- turned right and knocked on the door.

And here's Rosie. Rosie's parents are wealthy, and she's lived a sheltered life. She's considering moving out on her own, though.

Promptly at the twelfth deep bell (she had inherited her respect for other people’s time from her father), Rosie fetched up in front of a smaller, plainer house than she had imagined Mage Hope living in. Of course, the mage was from a servant family, so she didn’t have inherited money, she’d made it all herself. That presumably made a difference. Which would mean that this was the kind of house Rosie could afford to live in, if it wasn’t for her parents. Hmm.

Same house. Three different viewpoints. Three different voices.

I love doing this sort of thing, having developed a taste for different character voices by reading my earlier book, City of Masks, aloud in order to put it on It only takes a few little touches to give characters distinctive voices, and I think it provides the reader with a richer experience.

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Sep 10

My Accidental Romance

I haven't blogged for quite some time, and for the best of reasons: I've been writing the next Gryphon Clerks novel.

Actually, I've been writing the one after next. The next one (Hope and the Clever Man) is with my beta readers, and while I waited for their feedback I had some ideas for the sequel, and as I write this post I'm about to pass 70,000 words - all written since I started nine weeks ago.

This is a surprise. I've not written this fast or this easily before. I think it's because I've never written a series before, and now that I have a good run-up, and the characters and world are clear in my head, they're producing the story for me much faster.

Now, I know that I am actually producing the story. It's a useful fiction to say that the characters are doing it. Useful, because it describes the experience I have when I'm writing a scene and a character suddenly starts talking about a painful experience earlier in his life that I was not expecting him to mention in this context, one that I knew would eventually come up but which I hadn't worked out in any detail, and I'm writing away thinking, "I wonder what happens next?" And as I continue writing, I find out. That happened in the new book, and it was wonderful.

Although I'm making more use of outlining than I used to, I'm still what's politely called a "discovery writer", which means that for me, story generation happens mostly while I write. This has its drawbacks, in that I don't always know what happens next and can get stuck, but it also has its advantages, in that I don't always know what happens next and can be pleasantly surprised.

One of the surprises has been that Hope and the Patient Man (the current work-in-progress, sequel to Hope and the Clever Man) turns out to be a romance. I did not see that coming, though I probably should have, given the young man who turns up, unexpectedly to everyone including me, late in the first Hope book.

One of the current kerfuffles in the spec-fic field is over an article by an academic named Paul Cook on the Amazing Stories website called When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. In it, he basically says that he likes adventure stories, and that is what science fiction is, and ones with romance in them are for girls and not real SF. It's not a sophisticated argument, and rather than dignify it by linking to it I'll link to Lois McMaster Bujold's excellent commentary on the issue. (I've chosen the Goodreads version of her post, because she also has some interesting exchanges in the comments.)

What I write, of course, isn't science fiction by pretty much anyone's definition, including mine (though it's more sciency than most fantasy; I do have an approximate theoretical basis for the magic which kind of maps to some real-world science if you don't look too closely, rather than just saying "a wizard did it"). It's steampunkish fantasy, and to that I now need to add to the word "romance", apparently.

Prarie Dog Love, #2
Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC

Some things about that. Firstly, it turned into a romance because I think relationships are important. I'm married (15 years come February), and that relationship is extremely important to me. A friend of mine, who I met on our first day of high school in early 1981 and have stayed in touch with almost continuously since, has recently moved back into the same country as me, and bought a house in the same city that I live in, and we're hanging out, and that's reminded me of the importance of friendships for helping define who we are. How relationships define us is a bit of an emerging theme in the second Hope book, in fact.

It's often said that characters are defined and revealed by taking action, by what they do in response to circumstances, and that's true. It's especially true in an action novel. In a novel that has more to do with relationships than with adventure, though, it's also true that characters are defined and revealed by their connections to one another.

These are not exclusive categories. There are novels that are high-action and low-relationship, and vice versa, but most occupy some kind of middle ground, especially in the spec-fic field. Some of my favourite characters, like Lindsay Buroker's Amaranthe Lokdon, Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville, and (to choose a male character by a male author) Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, are remarkable because of their ability to collect people who are linked to them by ties of friendship, or at least shared interest, and who act as force multipliers for the characters when they want to get something done.

I'm grateful to the pioneers of the New Wave in the late 60s and early 70s for injecting more relationship into what had been a largely action-oriented genre, because personally I find relationships interesting as well as important. At the same time, I'm not going to go all Paul Cook and claim that only novels that deal with relationships are X (where X is members-of-genre-I-like, good, enjoyable, valuable, or other, as Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, valorising adjectives).

I do want to say a bit about romance as a plot element versus romance as a genre category, though. Romance as a plot element appears in all genres. Romance as a genre category has its own tropes, its own rules, its own recurrent themes, and I'm not planning to take all of those on in my writing.

I'll freely admit that I've read hardly any genre romance, and am poorly qualified to comment on the genre as a whole, so I won't. I will mention, though, particular kinds of romance that I find in other genres I do read, such as steampunk and urban fantasy, and some of the problems I have with them, and why I won't be doing that.

Before I do, though, I think it's uncontroversial to say that romance is largely written by women. Men who write it sometimes use feminine pen names, just as women who write science fiction sometimes take masculine pen names (or use their initials rather than their names). I'm not going to talk right now about whether that's good or bad or problematic; it's a thing that happens. Now, I'm a man (a cis man, if you like, meaning I was born male and have always identified as such; also a straight man; also a white, middle-class man, and yes, that's relevant). It would be somewhat surprising, our society being what it is, if I approached writing about relationships exactly the same way a woman would, because I've been raised with a different perspective.

I also identify as a feminist ally, and as such, I find some of the romance plots I encounter in steampunk and urban fantasy problematic. Tracing, no doubt, a lineage back to Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, among others, the "heroes" of these romances are often unpleasant human beings. They treat women poorly, but are forgiven because they rescue them when the women do foolish, headstrong things that place them in danger, and because they have firm muscles that make the heroine's heart beat fast despite herself.

Now, I understand that there has to be a reason why the couple doesn't just get together right away, otherwise what you have is not a plot, but an incident. However, it's not essential or inevitable that this reason should be "it's actually a bad idea to be with this guy". To me, that's simultaneously naive and cynical: naive, in expecting a relationship with such a flawed man to work out anyway, and cynical, in that it assumes that men don't get any better than that.

I'm not going to point to examples of what I'm talking about, because they aren't that hard to find and I don't want to single out individual authors just because I've read them, when there are much more egregious examples that I haven't read. I will, however, point to a counterexample, an urban fantasy series in which there's a strong romance thread, in which there's a clear reason why the couple doesn't get together straight away, in which it's not because he's a cad and a bounder and a deceiver, in which the woman has agency and makes smart decisions and can rescue herself quite competently. I'm talking about Christine Amsden's Cassie Scot series. This is how you do it! </Randy Jackson>

So, anyway, the romance part of my writing works like this. There's a magic-based but in other ways realistic reason why the couple can't just get together. They work on it together, because he's a decent guy and thinks she's wonderful and worth the effort, and she appreciates this. Along the way, he contributes to resolving some other issues, both inside and outside her head, but she is ultimately the one who has agency. He's not trying to control her or live her life for her.

Part of the way that stories work is that they help us develop problem-solving skills. I have a real concern about some of the romance stories that are around, for that exact reason. So if my book is turning into a romance, I'm going to give my perspective - as a man, happily married to a woman with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, who's also studied some psychology himself - on what a good relationship looks like. My hope is that it educates while entertaining.

In case it's not clear from what I've said above about my writing process, I'm not forcing this stuff into the book. It's coming up by itself, because I'm following the old principle of "write what you know".

If all goes according to plan, you should be able to read Hope and the Clever Man sometime around November this year, and Hope and the Patient Man early next year. To get announcements when they're published, sign up to my (low-volume) mailing list in the sidebar of the site.

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Jul 30

Freshness and Familiarity: Finding the Goldilocks Zone

OK, disclaimers upfront:

  1. Everything I'm going to say in this post is about my own taste.
  2. If your taste is different (entirely likely), that's fine with me.
  3. Your taste being different doesn't invalidate what I say about my own preferences, or, of course, vice versa.
  4. I nevertheless doubt that I'm the only one who feels this way.

Having got that out of the way, I want to talk about a spectrum in fiction writing that I'm going to call "freshness" versus "familiarity". "Freshness" implies that the author is doing something new, seldom or never seen before, while "familiarity" means that they're using elements (both genre elements and story elements) that have been around for a while.

Every book is somewhere on this spectrum. Finnegan's Wake is probably about as far as you can go towards the freshness end without degenerating into random word-salad (and even that references earlier literature), and up the other end we have, I don't know, fanfiction that's just a rewriting of a scene in canon.

Now, straight away I've dropped an implication that freshness is better, and I don't necessarily think that. I picked Finnegan's Wake up once, and quickly concluded that I didn't want to work that hard and probably wasn't that smart, and put it down again. Certainly, though, freshness is harder.

violscraper / Foter / CC BY-NC

For me, the Goldilocks Zone on the freshness-familiarity spectrum is a broad one. I can enjoy a book like Charles Stross's Halting State, for example, written in second person, or one of his posthuman novels like Glasshouse. I can also enjoy a book that's very nearly pure vanilla D&D-style fantasy, or off-the-shelf space opera, as long as other aspects of the book (the characters, the writing, the plot) are well done - and have some freshness to them.

There is, though, such a thing as too much, and that applies both to freshness and to familiarity. I abandoned Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi, for example, 25% of the way through, because I didn't have a clue what was going on (and also didn't care about the characters). I didn't get past the sample for Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, for a similar reason, even though I love heist novels. When too much is unfamiliar, I become disoriented and it's easy for the book to lose my attention.

On the other hand, if I come across an epic fantasy in which the blacksmith's boy loses his parents in the first chapter (when cruel, heartless, evil people destroy their village) and joins up with quirky and assorted companions in a quest for an artifact which, as the Chosen One, he is destined to wield against the Dark Lord, I pass it by. I've already read that story, and when I read it before it was probably better written.

There's nothing inherently wrong with tropes, whether genre tropes or story tropes. I'm highly trope-tolerant. Oh, regardless of how much death and destruction is raining down, all of the core characters always survive, shrugging off significant injuries in insignificant amounts of time? OK, it's one of those stories. I can live with that. (Though some tropes are easier to tolerate than others, and the others are usually the ones that allow the writer to take shortcuts in character development and plotting.)

Where I start to have a problem is if the whole thing, or almost the whole thing, is constructed out of tropes, as if someone had built a character, plot and setting generator out of the TV Tropes website and run it, then filled in the resulting outline with poorly-written prose. I think of those as paint-by-numbers books. There's too much familiarity.

Sadly, a great many indie writers look out on the vast ocean of possibilities represented by the indie publishing revolution, in which they no longer have to write what the big publishers are buying in order to have a chance to reach an audience, but can create something genuinely new and fresh... and then they write another vampire romance with a whiny, annoying teenage heroine who's simultaneously the most awesome person ever and too stupid to live.

Freshness is hard, yes. And familiarity is important. But if you want to succeed with me, and readers like me, you're going to need to strike for the Goldilocks Zone.

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