Thursday, June 28, 2012

How Goes the Ennealogy?

Not content with your standard trilogies and tetralogies, I’m currently engaged in writing an ennealogy – a series of nine books.

Now, before you get visions of something as complex and drawn out as The Wheel of Time, I should make it clear that, though the books are all loosely linked together, each has a beginning and end, and should be readable in any order.  They simply form a bigger story taken as a whole.

More generally, the nine books fall into three trilogies – the Traveller trilogy, The Winter Legend, and the Cath-Korza trilogy.  The Traveller trilogy has already started with At An Uncertain Hour, published in 2009, telling in flashbacks (and the occasional flashforward and flashsideways) the first three thousand years of the Traveller’s extended life.  On the eve of the final battle of a thousand-year war, he recalls his lost love Anniol and how he came to have spent the last millennium fighting the evil Demon Queen, servant of the Great One.  The Great One is an all-encompassing spirit of evil, that maybe creates evil acts, or maybe is created by them.

I’m currently working on The Winter Legend, a trilogy comprising The Tryst Flame, Children of Ice and Dreams of Fire and Snow.  The state of play is that the first book is at present doing its best to attract the attention of Angry Robot, under their Open Door submission; the second is complete, but will require at least another revision and a polish; the third is about three quarters written in a very rough draft, including a blind-alley subplot that’s got to have something done about it.

The Winter Legend centres on the struggle against Kargor, the Winter Lord.  An on-off servant of the Great One, he’s attempting to carve out an empire, opposed by a variety of characters – including the Traveller.  Under the name Tollanis – simply a local word for traveller – he’s a significant secondary character here.

Unlike At An Uncertain Hour, which is told in a non-sequential first-person style more common in mainstream fiction than epic fantasy, The Winter Legend follows a relatively straightforward narrative style, though it divides between a number of third-person POVs.

I’ve been working on The Winter Legend, on and off, most of my life, which is why I set myself to finish it before writing the book that actually precedes it.  The Empire of Nandesh (strictly a working title) will be a sequel to At An Uncertain Hour and a prequel to The Winter Legend, set about thirty years before the latter starts, though it too will range back and forth in time.  It’ll have two separate first persons – the Traveller and Nandesh, the Demon Queen’s son – and will pre-introduce a couple of characters from The Winter Legend.  And it’ll reveal the answer to a mystery about the Traveller.

This will be followed by the Cath-Korza trilogy, focusing on a new character.  Actually, she’s an old character – I wrote about her in the 70s and 80s, and these stories will be radical reworkings of that material.  They take place about two hundred years after The Winter Legend – but I don’t want to reveal too much about Cath-Korza, as it’ll be some time before I get to these.  Let’s say that this trilogy is, in a way, about the problems of celebrity.

The Traveller won’t figure in these stories – at least, he shouldn’t, but I may succumb and give him a cameo appearance – but the final novel of the ennealogy, which might be called The Last Direction, will have the Traveller and Cath-Korza joining forces in a final showdown with the Great One.  This is loosely based (very, very, very loosely) on a poem I wrote many years ago called “The Song of the Cursed Tower”, but it’ll have little really in common with the poem – just a very basic idea.  It’ll also explain why the Traveller never turns up in the “modern” stories I’ve written in the same world.

So that’s the ennealogy; but it’s not quite that simple.  The couple of dozen stories I’ve written about the Traveller or about Eltava (who refused point blank to let me restrict her to a cameo in At An Uncertain Hour) feed into various of these novels, and my series of stories about Kari and Fai are intimately entwined with The Winter Legend.  Even some of the non-series stories illustrate or are illustrated by episodes in the novels.  And there’s more to come of all of these.

So “ennealogy” might be oversimplifying matters.  Don’t worry, though – there’s no test-paper after reading any of the stories.  Which is just as well – I’d be likely to fail miserably.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Long Short Stories

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last updated this blog.  I’ve been trying to finish a story that seemed to get longer the more I wrote of it: it was intended to be a short story, but it’s ended up as... well, a long short story.  14,000 words – according to whose definition you go by, that might be either a novelette or a novella, but I prefer long short story.

At one time, back in the days where print was the only option, this might have been a problem.  Magazines certainly did publish stories that long, or longer, but usually only if they were by a well-established author; lesser mortals were restricted to shorter pieces.

Epublishing has changed all that, even without resorting to self-publishing.  It’s not so much that magazines will take longer stories – some do, but still very few – but that an ebook, unlike its print counterpart, can be any length you choose.  The “book publisher” pages of Ralan and Duotrope are full of epublishers looking for anything at all from short story to novel length.

I’ve already had some success with this, besides several publications of fantasy erotica (that’s another story).  Last year, Darwin’s Evolutions released my story The Temple of Taak-Resh, which is just over 8,000 words, as an ebook, and I have another to come from Musa Publishing, The Treason of Memory, at nearly 13,000.  It’s highly unlikely that the latter, in particular, would have ever seen the light of day in a magazine.

There are pros and cons to this approach.  The big advantage of being published in a successful magazine is that it has a ready-made readership: readers with a subscription, or who head to it as soon as a new edition comes out, and will read your piece along with the rest.  As long as your work is sufficiently arresting, it’s easy to make new friends for your stories this way.

Of course, a publisher like Musa has readers who’ll check out what it produces because they trust its taste and judgement, but the ebook still has to individually attract them enough to make them part with their money before they can read it.

Beyond that, it’s up to the author to market the book, just as they would if it were self-published, through blogs and social networking.  Some people are good at that and some aren’t, and it doesn’t really reflect how good their writing is, one way or the other.  I’m in the camp of those who aren’t.  I do my best, but it feels uncomfortable.  Maybe it’s traditional British reserve – it’s bad taste to tell people how brilliant you are – but I think not.  I’ve spoken to American friends who feel the same.

On the other hand, publishing your story as a book, even an extremely short book, means its yours and no-one else’s.  Being in a magazine’s a great feeling, especially if your name’s on the cover, but it’s an achievement shared with a number of other people, and there’s always the nagging paranoia that maybe the readers are skipping your piece.  A book stands or falls on what you’ve put into it.

There’s nothing quite like having a book published, especially – in my opinion, although I know not everyone agrees – if it’s been published because someone else is as enthusiastic about it as you are.  I can imagine that, in the next few years, I’ll be submitting more of my stories to this kind of market: short stories, novelettes, novellas.  And, of course, long short stories.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Two Forgotten YA Classics by David Severn

The name of children’s author David Severn is most likely now to be welcomed by a rousing “who?”, but during the 40s and 50s he was highly successful, writing three broad types of book – holiday adventures in the countryside, picture books about animals for the very young, and a series of stories “for older children” (what would now be described as Young Adult) based on fantasy, paranormal and SF themes.

David Severn, who was born in 1918 and died in 2010, was in fact the pseudonym of David Storr Unwin, son of the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin, best known as Tolkien’s publisher – he took the name Severn from an uncle, to avoid trading on a well-known publishing name.

I wasn’t especially interested in the holiday adventure stories as a child, but I found my way to two of his YA novels – I had (and still have) a copy of one, but the other I’ve only just tracked down and reread after decades.

The Future Took Us, the book I’ve had for many years, was published in 1957, and tells of two teenagers being transported in time to approximately the year 3000 AD.  They find a post-apocalyptic civilisation that mixes subsistence peasant farming with a passion for advanced mathematics.  They discover, eventually, that the only learning to survive the destruction was an elementary maths text book, and that this forms not only their main pastime, but also their religion, in which the circle is the ultimate sacred symbol.

However, this isn’t the whole story.  The boys find an autocratic police state, run by the Controller from the sinister Counting House, where mathematical experiments have reached the point of manipulating time.  Many unsuspecting victims have been plucked from their times through history – and the idea of wasting calculating time in returning them is unthinkable.  The boys must join a rebellion and bring down the regime, for their own sakes as well as that of 30th century England.

Besides being a fine adventure story, The Future Took Us has two ideas that have haunted me ever since I first read it.  One is the cataclysmic war which, the boys learn, lasted a lot longer than might be expected.  It’s explained to them that, The atom part of it must have been over very quickly.  After the Great Powers had destroyed one another, the other countries couldn’t agree and went on fighting with guns and high explosives.  As the years passed, the wars became more local and the weapons grew more and more primitive, until a century or so later, men were still fighting each other – but with clubs and pikes.

The second is an issue that most time-travel stories either ignore or shuffle round – the language of the future.  English proves to have changed as much over the next thousand years as it has over the last thousand, and the boys are unable to make head or tail of it, except for identifying individual words.  My only complaint is that Severn didn’t provide more of his future English, but he gives tantalising examples – brade for bread, drap for horse (they speculate it might derive from “quadruped”) and grancat for tiger.  Even a friend from the 22nd century, though quite comprehensible, speaks a little strangely – perhaps as it would be to hear Jane Austen speak.

If The Future Took Us is fascinating, Dream Gold (1949) is absolutely riveting.  I reread this last week for the first time since I was in my teens, and it hasn’t lost its power.  This is what would now be described as paranormal.  The main character, Peter Manning, meets a strange, disagreeable boy at school called Guy Trelawney.  Though they don’t get on much of the time, they developed what passes for a friendship, and Guy invites Peter to his home on the Cornish coast for the winter holiday.

While there, Peter and Guy begins to share a series of dreams about a deserted tropical island, in which every sensory detail is real.  Guy, who has been dreaming of the island for as long as he remembers, speculates that it’s equivalent to a stereoscopic effect, where two identical pictures, viewed through the right equipment, merged into one 3D image.  (I remember having one of them as a kid).

It doesn’t end there, though.  The island is the place where, three hundred years before, Guy’s ancestor had sailed to dig up buried treasure, which was reputedly lost in a shipwreck right by his house.  Eventually, the boys witness the arrival of the ship, and their discovery of what really happened breaks apart their already fragile friendship.

The descriptions in this book are stunning – both of the searing heat and light of the tropical island and the Cornish coast in winter, where the forbidding house, Chyradoon, broods on a rock in the sea, linked to the land only by a causeway at low tide.  The characters and relationships, too, are striking.  The strange mixture of friendship, hatred and love between Peter, Guy and Elizabeth, the young daughter of Guy’s housekeeper, is most reminiscent of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, nearly two decades later. 

These books were far ahead of their time, helping to establish the idea of YA contemporary fantasy before anyone else was writing it.  The spectacular breakdown of Peter and Guy’s friendship in Dream Gold, still a little shocking, was utterly unlike the relationships expected in children’s books at the time, and the kind of ideas Severn was playing with wouldn’t be taken up again till the 60s and 70s.

That’s not to say the books fit seamlessly into modern YA fiction.  For one thing, they share the unconscious snobbishness of much older children’s fiction, in which the characters, as a matter of course, attend posh boarding schools, and a family chauffeur is casually mentioned.  And, of course, Severn could only go so far in the 40s and 50s.  Although Dream Gold gives the modern reader a few hints of the kind of adolescent sexual tension explored in The Owl Service (Elizabeth certainly seems to have a crush on Peter) there was no way this could be explicit in a book for children.

Nevertheless, both these books deserve to be considerably more famous than they are.  It would be good to think that, one day, an enterprising publisher might see fit to republish some of David Severn’s work.  In the meantime, second-hand copies can be tracked down on line.  If you’re interested in early YA fantasy, I’d definitely recommend you find these two.

More information about David Severn’s books can be found on the University of Worcester’s website.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Nemesis in Penumbra

The new edition of the excellent magazine Penumbra is out today, featuring material about Greco-Roman mythology, and including my story Nemesis: The Case of the Hell-Hound.  All is not well in the Underworld.  Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the realm of the dead, has been stolen, and Hades turns to Sam Nemesis, private investigator to gods, heroes and monsters.  Sam doesn't normally do lost pets, but Hades is his landlord...

The issue features fiction by Michelle Lang, Anaea Lay & Marsheila Rockwell, poetry by Ira Schaeffer, and articles by Lori Basiewicz, Celina Summers, Richard C. White & Brandie Tarvin.

All this for a mere $3.99 from