‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

Fantastic Fiction?

I’ve finished the first draft of my new novel, tentatively entitled In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea (I have developed a thing for titles being in iambic pentameter) and I’m currently letting it ferment for a week or so while I get on with some long-neglected real-life tasks. It’s another fantasy novel, and I thought I’d reflect a little on my choice of genre.

Fantasy fiction has become increasingly popular and mainstream in recent years, but it still suffers from a certain lack of understanding in the wider world. For every person who reacts with enthusiasm when I tell them I write fantasy, there are at least two people whose reactions are a bit more… puzzled. Some people assume that fantasy always involves erotic content, while others assume it’s always for children. One guy (I don’t know if he was joking or not) said ‘Fantasy – what, like Mills and Boon?’.

Um, no.

Besides being a frequently misunderstood genre, fantasy also gets unfairly maligned by literary snobs who consider it ‘trashy’ or ‘silly’. I’ve seen some fantasy fans respond to such criticisms by carping that all literary novels are tedious exercises in self-indulgent wish-fulfilment by middle-aged English professors with inappropriate sexual urges who write books about middle-aged English professors who have affairs with their students. Personally, I’ve never read a book like that, but I have read a lot of fabulously well-written and emotionally engaging fantasy books, so if anyone wants to have an argument about the respective merits of fantasy and litfic, I’d suggest sharing recommended reading lists first.

As for the criticism that fantasy is not good because it’s not ‘real’… well, neither is any other work of fiction. Any given novel is about imaginary people doing imaginary things, so why not stretch your imagination a bit further and have them doing awesome things like riding dragons, instead of boring things like drinking cups of tea on rainy afternoons? Why should the mundane be considered superior to the fantastic?

The fact is, I love reading fantasy, and I love writing fantasy, and so I’m sticking with it for at least the time being. I love the freedom it offers to create magical worlds where anything can happen, and the sense of wonder and excitement it can generate when done well. Sure, not everyone ‘gets’ it, but then there’s no such thing as a book that will please all readers, and the first person I need to please is myself. And then hope enough other people will like it too…

A belated welcome to my 2017

*coughs* um, hi. Yes, it’s me. Happy new year! Hope the first eight weeks of 2017 have been treating you well.

So I’ve been a bit absent from this blog for the last couple of months. But hey, I have my reasons. For one, I’ve been teaching a four-part course on how to write fantasy, science fiction and horror, entitled ‘Fantastic Tales and How to Write Them’ (see what I did there?). It was an enjoyable if exhausting experience, and I’m pleased to report that the venue (the Quad cinema and art gallery in Derby) has asked me back to repeat the course later in the year.

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Yep, this is me, in teacher mode.

I’ve also now got stuck into writing another novel, provisionally entitled The Land New Risen From the Sea. This one is about dragons and magic and volcanoes and not-quite-pirates. One person, when given this description of it, said ‘oh so you’re writing for children now?’ so I feel the need to add that it’s also about torture and slavery and themes of free will and redemption. I’ve been making decent progress so far, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that 2017 might turn out to be the breakthrough year I’ve been waiting for.

Another reason for my online absence has been health-related: my dominant feeling of 2017 so far has been ‘under the weather’ – both figuratively and literally. I’ve been suffering a combination of general exhaustion, picking up every cough and cold going (I’m sitting here regularly snotting into a paper hanky as I write these words) and what is laughably known as ‘morning sickness’ (actually, in my experience, ‘all-bloody-day sickness’ would be a more apt name). Oh yeah, and that’s my other Big News of 2017: come August, there’s going to be a new human being in the world who will know me as Mummy. So I’m going to try my best to get that new novel finished before I have all the fun of sleepless nights spent in the company of a screaming, pooping bundle of, um, joy.

Wish me luck, and while I expect my 2017 blog update schedule will be more than a touch erratic, I’ll try to keep you posted.

In Defence of the Echo Chamber

It’s (probably) my last blog post of 2016. A lot of bloggers would take the opportunity to reflect back on the year just gone, but frankly, I’d rather not. Instead I’m going to talk about something that’s attracted a lot of attention recenly, at any rate in my web circles: the ‘echo chamber.’

The echo chamber, in case you’re not familiar with the concept, is the effect whereby opaque algorithms on various websites – Facebook is usually cited as the main culprit – filter our feeds so that we’re only presented with the stuff we’re more likely to like. Which, in the case of political content, can lead to us only seeing posts we already agree with, and hence to the false impression that everyone sees things the same way. I’ve seen this effect blamed for complacency and increased polarisation, and in some extreme cases for the fracturing of society as different groups fail to build bridges between each other.

Well, for what it’s worth, I’m here to defend the echo chamber.

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Medieval Reactions twitter, on point as usual

Why? And how? Ok, so the starting point, as so often when people whinge about the impact of new technology, is to point out that there’s nothing actually new about living in a relative bubble. Most people tend to predominantly hang out with other people who broadly share their outlook on life – whether deliberately, or just from the fact that people with similar backgrounds often have similar world views. And most British newspapers offer a decidedly partisan viewpoint. If anything, the internet has made it a great deal easier these days to find a wide range of opinions on any given issue at the touch of a button. Whether you touch that button, or not, is of course up to you.

Keeping yourself well-informed is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, and there are plenty of tools available both on- and off-line, whether a news aggregator app or your local corner shop. So your Facebook feed gives you a distorted view of the world – go look elsewhere for your balanced news and views, and encourage your friends to do likewise.

The other point in defence of the echo chamber is that, unless you want to go crazy, you need to apply some kind of filtering to your online life. Building bridges and fostering debate is all very well if you’re at the level of polite disagreement between reasonable adults, but let’s be honest, that isn’t always the case. Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there with strongly-held opinions that are misinformed, bigoted, irrational, or just plain wrong. Seeing their views is infuriating at best, offensive at worst, and trying to debate with them is like playing chess with the proverbial pigeon.

My final point in defence of the echo chamber is that, for much of 2016, political discourse on my side of the fence has felt a lot like mourning. Hearing strident opposing views in that atmosphere would have felt like someone at a loved one’s funeral yelling out ‘I’m glad he’s dead I never liked him anyway!’. You might know some people feel that way, but you don’t want to let them into the wake.

Best wishes of the midwinter to you all, and may the returning sun light our way to happier times.

How to Holiday

I’ve just got back from a fortnight’s holiday with my husband in Malta, an island with much to recommend it as a holiday destination – sunshine in November, delicious (and very cheap) pasties for sale everywhere, neolithic temples on dramatic hillsides overlooking the sea, and as many late-medieval fortresses and baroque churches as you could possibly want. The aim of the holiday was to get away from it all for a couple of weeks, leaving the stresses of the past few months behind us, and return to rainy England with our batteries fully recharged.

We were partly successful.

The problem with modern life is that, with wifi everywhere and the temptation to pack all our electronic toys overwhelming, it’s not really possible to get away from it all. Holiday snaps were immediately uploaded to Instagram and Facebook so all my friends could see me relaxing on the beach with a cold glass of Kinnie (a Maltese soft drink with a strong bitter-orange taste). Text alerts kept me fully informed in real time of the latest England cricket scores and the rise of Fascism. I emailed my agent the synopsis of my new book, The Land Only Dragons See, from my balcony. We were on holiday: but we were still connected to everything, and hence still, to an extent, living our normal lives.

But we did at least try to immerse ourselves in the Maltese experience, exploring the island, and sampling as many local foods as we could – the baked goods all come highly recommended, as does the rabbit in red wine sauce. And another method of immersion I always like to practise on holiday is reading books set in the local area. This practice dates from a trip we went on to Turkey years ago, when my ill-chosen holiday read was The Fanatic by James Robertson. This is a novel about religious turmoil in 17th-century Scotland. It’s a great book – but it felt totally wrong to be reading about Christian schisms in rainy Edinburgh while sitting by the pool in Turkey. So since then I’ve always tried to match my holiday reads to my destination – The Leopard in Sicily, The Mauritius Command in – wait for it – Mauritius, and so on. For this trip my husband had very thoughtfully picked out a couple of books for us in advance: The Sword and the Scimitar by David Ball, and The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monserrat.

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The Grand Harbour, taken from the Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Note cannons and fortress walls.

The first of these is an historical epic set in the 16th century, with a sweeping narrative culminating in the Great Siege of 1565. The second is about a priest during the second world war, telling stories of Malta’s history to a congregation sheltering from bombs in the catacombs. Malta is a place to bring out the military historian in anyone: its very flag incorporates the George Cross which was collectively given to its people for their heroic resistance in WWII. Its capital city is named Valletta, after the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John who led the fighting against the Turks (in person, at the age of 72. What a badass). Today, you can take a boat tour of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, and admire its many impressive
fortresses, bastions and ravelins standing proud through the centuries against Turks and Nazis alike.

It has to be said, there’s nothing like reading about the violence of the past in the comfort of a sun lounger to help you forget about the problems of the present.

In Memory of Sue the Storyteller

Last week I went to my grandfather’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, but he’d lived a full life and we gave him a good send-off. I can give him no better obituary than this one my brother wrote. This week, I learned of the death of Sue Wilson, a friend from my local writing group, Derby Scribes. She had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into hospital for surgery, and never came out again. I had known she was severely ill, but her death still came as a massive shock, one I think will take a long time to fully sink in. Yesterday I went for a walk round the park to try and clear my head, saw an old couple walking happily hand-in-hand, and ended up in tears.

I wouldn’t have described Sue as one of my closest friends, but I realise now – too late, of course – what an important place she had in my life. She was one of the most stalwart members of our writing group, always to be relied upon for knowledge, advice, bright ideas, and board games. She helped me immensely with her advice and encouragement, especially when I was writing my first novel. Her stories were always entertaining and her conversation always enlightening (if not always safe for work). More than anyone I’ve ever known, she was a born storyteller. She spent her life steeped in stories, whether novels, short fiction, or role-playing games. She could narrate literally anything in a way that made it sound exciting, and she had a quirky sense of humour that could make anything amusing, but was never at anyone’s expense.  Her invention never flagged, and nor did her enthusiasm – ever generous with her time, she helped all our group come up with ideas and marshal them into coherent narratives.

Needless to say, she will be much missed – not only by her husband John (and I don’t believe in soul mates, but if I did, I’d believe in those two, since I’ve never met a couple who seemed more perfectly suited) and by the rest of her family and friends, but also by all the Scribes, by all her fans on WriteOn, by all those who played the games she wrote and GM’ed, and by all those who did National Novel Writing Month alongside her – not to mention all the people she helped in her day jobs working with vulnerable children. She touched many lives and left all of us better for her influence.

For her funeral, she has asked attendees not to bring flowers, but to do something creative instead, and if that doesn’t sum up her attitude to life, I don’t know what does. Sue – if you’re somehow reading this in the afterlife, thank you. I will never forget your generosity or your boundless joy in story-telling, and I promise I will keep the story going.

The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.

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But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.