Nightspore

Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Gender bias in fantasy characters

A couple of months ago, I highlighted a list of “the best fantasy series”. As always, such lists are personal opinions. However, a writer friend from the SFF Online Writers Workshop, Kathryn Jankowski, wrote a comment on how ” very male-protagonist oriented” the list was and offered another list to balance this.

I have to be honest here that I had not noticed how skewed the original list was when I wrote the post (but then I am an elderly while male which does not excuse me but perhaps explains the omission!). However, it set me thinking and I have kept my eye open for more on this topic.

I have just come across a blog post that explores this bias by Freda Warrington, an excellent British fantasy writer I have admired since I read her first novel, “A Blackbird in Silver” in the mid-’80s.

If you are interested in this topic, check out the rest of Sarah Ash’s blog on Women Who Write Excellent SFF under the heading of Nobody Knew She Was There.

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David Brin on why 2015 was the best year ever in space

Nautilus is an excellent online science resource I use for writing ideas and I recommend you take a look at it. Each month it publishes a series of articles around a common theme.

This month the theme is “space” and it has published an article titled 2015 Was the Best Year Ever in Space by SF writer David Brin giving his opinion on why last year was the best ever for space exploration. The article includes a few superb photos and videos.

While there are plenty of ideas for writing and about plans for the future, what really appealed to me is the sense of hope for the future the article conveys.

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Sherlock meets Doctor Who

Having thoroughly enjoyed the start of the new Sherlock series on New year’s Day, I was intrigued by the article in the Guardian about how Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writers for both Sherlock and Doctor Who, need to beware of catering too much for the obsessive fan base and not for the broader audience.

I certainly enjoyed the in-jokes about the fans of Sherlock, although for me it did border on going just a bit too far.

The delight of the article though was the link to the fan mash-up video of Sherlock meeting the Doctor. Very neatly done and worth watching if you like these series.


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First draft of novel completed in a month with NaNoWriMo

30 November and lunchtime today I wrote the final scene of the first draft of my second novel – tentatively titled “Nightspore’s Angel” – almost 55K words in one month.

Never though I could sustain 1k words a day, let alone average almost 2K and have occasional peaks of 3K and 4K. The spur, of course, was participating in NaNoWriMo.

My thanks to my NaNo buddies Jan Whitaker, Phillip McCollum and Caroline Norrington for encouragement and showing me I was regularly well behind their word count!

Caroline’s Scrivener template and the Snowflake Method it introduced me to were also invaluable.

2013-Winner-Square-Button

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October the First is Too Late

Today I find myself recalling that I enjoyed Sir Fred Hoyle’s novel, “October the First Is Too Late” – a classic, if flawed, story about time and the nature of reality. I had the hardback SF Book Club edition, obtained after I had read and enjoyed his novels “The Black Cloud”, “A for Andromeda” and “Andromeda Breakthrough”.

Nowhere near his best novel, the story is more a vehicle for some of his more controversial scientific views. In the preface, Hoyle says,

To the Reader:
The ‘science’ in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious…
Fred Hoyle, 14 July 1965

Seems like an appropriate day to acknowledge a scientist and SF writer who had a significant influence on me as a teenager.

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Taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge

November is National Novel Writing month (better know as NaNoWriMo) and I have decided to take part for the first time. The challenge of writing at least fifty thousand words in thirty days is a major one for me since I have never managed a sustained rate in excess of a thousand words a day.

Why am I doing it? I have been stuck in editing my first novel for what feels like forever, yet I have other ideas burning to be written. This is a way to take one of them, tentatively titled “Nightspore’s Angel”, through first draft.

Writing any of the manuscript beforehand is not allowed but preparation of ideas, plot and scene outlines and character skteches is permitted. To prepare, I am using the Scrivener template and Snowflake method referred to in earlier posts to undertake the necessary thinking. So far, up to snowflake step 4, I have a one page summary of the plot and outline sketches of the major characters.

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Interview: Jilly Paddock

If you have followed “Nightspore” for a while you will be aware that I have been enthusing about SF & fantasy author Jilly Paddock’s work. (My earlier articles are Discovering new authors with Kindle: Jilly Paddock, which covers two of her novels, “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone” and “No Earthly Shore”. SF review: “To Die A Stranger” by Jilly Paddock reviews the third of the four books she self-published via Amazon.)

Having first encountered Jilly’s work while she was an “indie writer” it is great to be able to announce that she has now signed with Pro Se Press, an American pulp-oriented publisher. It seemed good timing to ask Jilly about her writing career to date and what the future holds following signing to Pro Se.

JILL5

How long have you been writing science fiction?

Since my early teens. I had two friends at school and we all wrote SF; we’d talk about plots and characters in lunch breaks, pass silly notes in lessons and even act out fight scenes to see if they worked. We each wrote our own stuff and collaborated on some stories. We’re still friends now and we’re all published writers of SF and fantasy, so it was good training.

What drew you to the genre?

Why SF? There really wasn’t any other choice for me – it was a no-brainer. What other genre is there where anything is possible, where you can have any world, any person, any creature, any invention you can imagine? And I did love science. I’m still a biology, geology and astronomy geek. I had a whole career of peering down microscopes at pretty stained bacteria and waving, wriggling protozoans, and growing nasty bugs in Petri dishes. I like the sense-of-wonder, the “Wow! Look at that!” feeling of science, and SF and fantasy are the only genres that have that for me.

How would you describe the stories you write?

Character-driven, generally with strong female protagonists and a touch of humour. The science, which is usually biology or medicine, is plausible, although I do use all the classic SF tropes – FTL space travel, human colonies, AI and psi powers. My grandfather would have called them “damn good yarns” and a friend of mine refers to the Anna & Zenni books as “cyberfolk”, a bit gentler and more mellow than cyberpunk. I can’t claim to be a literary writer, I’m afraid. My stuff tends towards adventure, space opera and pulp.

When I first read “To Die A Stranger”, I was reminded of the work of Eric Frank Russell but I understand you are not familiar with his work. Which genre authors do you admire or have influenced the direction of your writing?

Don’t think I’ve ever read any Russell. I read a lot of SF in my teens, all the standards including Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. It won’t be a surprise that my AIs owe a lot to Mike in Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” but they also have a touch of Zen and Orac from Blake’s 7. I like a lot of British writers – Brian Aldiss, Colin Kapp, Dan Morgan, John Sladek and Bob Shaw, and John Wyndham. “The Chrysalids” was one of the books we did for my English Literature O level. I adore Cordwainer Smith and he’s a big influence, particularly his short stories “The Game of Rat and Dragon” and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell”. I collected “New Writings in SF”, a series of 30 anthologies edited by John Carnell, and later Kenneth Bulmer, mainly for James White’s Sector Twelve General Hospital stories, but the contents pages read like a Who’s Who of SF.

In fantasy I like Tanith Lee, Louise Cooper, Roger Zelazny and Charles de Lint. If I was pressed for a favourite, I’d have to pick Peter S Beagle for his beautifully-crafted poetic prose and the way he can tell a complex story in such simple words.

These days I’m reading SF from Charles Stross and Peter Watts, fantasy by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, and a wonderful police procedural/magic series by Ben Aaronovitch.

What is your approach to writing? Do you tend to start with an idea, such as the “agent-pairs”, or with the characters?

Sometimes a whole story will drop into my head fully formed – “No Earthly Shore” was like that. Usually it’s harder, and I get an idea for a scene, or maybe the beginning and end of a story arc for a novel, but the characters arrive very early in the creation process. They seem to practically invent themselves, then they start talking to me, telling me their back stories and arguing about the intended plot and their part in it. I do have trouble with minor characters who aren’t content with their bit and want to take over the book. When I’m writing a novel I’ll often stumble across things and concepts that beg to be included, scraps and fragments of found art or science – call it synchronicity or serendipity, but it does enrich the book.

All of my characters are real to me, as real as people in the outside world, which probably makes me sound like a madwoman! Is writing a kind of voluntary functional schizophrenia? It certainly feels that way sometimes.

Do you have a “target audience” in mind when you write?

Not at all. I write the sort of books I want to read.

Your SF series about both “Afton & Jerome” and “Anna-Marie Delany” are set in a universe where “agent-pairs” operate in the shadows. For me, this idea is a very strong element I enjoyed in your writing. Which came first, the story of the origin of agent-pairs in “To Die A Stranger” or the spook in the Jerome stories? What future plans do you have for related stories?

Anna & Zenni came first. There are a lot of books in their series – I scared my publisher by saying there were ten, but there may be more. The first four are finished but need a final edit and polish, and the rest need more work. I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I tell you that Anna has to join Earth Intelligence and become a spook eventually, which is a bumpy ride on both sides. Agent-pairs are a horrible concept. They can go anywhere, penetrate any defences, overhear secret conversations, steal objects and thoughts, and kill without leaving any evidence. I’m glad they’re fictional – I wouldn’t trust any of our governments with such a powerful weapon. Being the human half of an agent-pair is tough, with a high risk of psychological damage. Anna has the ego to cope with it, but many others don’t.

What technology do you use to write and / or publish? (For example, are you a pen & paper person? Do you use Scrivener?)

I started off spending all my pocket-money on cheap exercise books from Woolworth’s – you could get three for one shilling and sixpence – and scribbling in them in biro, sometimes using green or purple. When I had more money the paper quality improved and I used a nicer pen. I bought an electric typewriter to turn the scrawl into manuscripts, then an Amstrad word processor and eventually a PC. I’ve had to keep switching software as technology moved on, from Locoscript on the Amstrad, through Appleworks/Corel to WordPerfect, which I use now. I don’t care for Word, so I use Open Office to take everything into doc format, but I still find WordPerfect more intuitive and prefer to write in that. I’ve heard good things about Scrivener, although I’m not sure I need all of its complicated functions. I tend to plot in my head and sketch out the trickier twists and time lines on the back of an envelope.

Why have you gone for self-publishing in e-book format? Have you had any feedback as to whether the e-book format is a better approach for your intended audience?

Way back in the 90s I had an agent and we tried to sell the first Anna & Zenni book. It did the rounds of all the major publishers – lots of editors liked it, but it never found a home. When I took early retirement in 2011, my colleagues gave me a Kindle. I didn’t think I’d like reading on it, but I loved it. I realised that now I had the time and opportunity to put my work out as e-books, so I just went ahead and did it. I think the SF/fantasy audience is happy with e-books, although some people still want print.

How much of the publication did you do yourself? What did you use other professionals for and why?

My other half did the final copy edit and I did all the formatting. We did the cover art for “No Earthly Shore” and I admit that it isn’t wonderful. The other three covers are by professional artists.

How easy has the e-publication process been? What would you do differently next time?

It was fairly easy. I taught myself how to do it as I went along, and there are a lot of resources on-line to help. Whenever I got stuck, I’d Google for a solution. The thing about an e-book is that it’s very easy to change it and sort out any problems. I’ve re-loaded some of mine several times when people have pointed out mistakes.

What advice would you give others considering self-publishing in the e-book format?

Go for it, but be sure that your book is well-edited and typo-free. The hard bit is promoting your book so that it sells, and I don’t have the solution to that problem yet.

I know your stories are available from Amazon on Kindle. What other formats is the series available in?

My Amazon author page are Jilly Paddock on Amazon UK and Jilly Paddock on Amazon USA. They will contain an up-to-date list of all my books.

I self-published four books on Kindle in 2012, using KDP Select, so they weren’t available anywhere else. Now that I’ve signed with Pro Se Press, “To Die A Stranger” and Spook/Spirit/Stone will be taken off Kindle and come out as new e-book and print versions, and apparently as audiobooks, but I don’t have any firm dates for that yet. “No Earthly Shore” and “The Dragon, Fly” will still be available on Kindle.

What about the future? Do you see the traditional publication route as viable?

I’ve signed with a small independent publisher, and I’m sure that type of publishing will increase. My work doesn’t seem to fit with the Big Six publishers best-seller and celebrity author plan, which is squeezing far too many mid-list authors out of the game. I see my future output being a combination of traditional and self-published books, and it’s very nice to get them out of the crypt on my hard-drive and let people read them.

What’s next? Do you have anything else “in the works” at the moment?

I have two short stories which will be in Pro Se Presents, although I don’t yet know which issues they’ll appear in. “The URLKing” is an Afton & Jerome short piece, and “The Third Worst Thing That Can Happen On Mars” is an odd little tale, my take on Ray Bradbury’s “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed.”

I’m working on another Afton & Jerome novella at the moment, which will also be published by Pro Se, possibly with a couple of short stories. I’m also updating the second Anna & Zenni book, “With Amber Tears”, which will hopefully be taken by Pro Se if Stranger does well enough.

There’s also “Warbird”, an immense SF/space opera epic set two centuries before Anna & Zenni’s time, about the Vienna, a ship that travels through voidspace, the first contact with non-humanoid aliens and an interplanetary war. It’s almost finished and I may have to self-pub it, as it’s 160,000 words long.

There’s a work-in-progress fairytale, “Ladder to the Moon”, which is full of all the things you shouldn’t have in fantasy – angels, demons, a dragon and a talking horse – but isn’t like anything I’ve ever read. It’s full of folksong and folk tales, and the flora, fauna and landscape of the English countryside. I must finish it one day.

Thank you, Jilly!

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Flying through the HD 100546 system

Another astronomy post turned up by my search for information on nebulae. This time, a great video simulation from the European Southern Observatory (whose website, incidentally, has a stunning colection of other videos and images).

ESO’s Very Large Telescope has obtained what is probably the first direct observation of a forming planet still embedded in a thick disc of gas and dust. (A proto-planetary dust cloud is not what I needed for my current story but this “fly-past” is just too good to pass on. It may be inspiration for someone writing a future deep space SF story!)

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The full ESO article on the planet is here.

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Thor’s Helmet nebula

I am currently rewrriting a short story set inside the Thor’s Helmet nebula, an emission nebula around 30 light-years across and some 15,000 light-years from the Solar System. While checking some technical details I discovered that a couple of days ago a stunning picture of the nebula was NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day”. Awe-inspiring!

As the above picture is copyright follow the link to view it. Below is a different view (released into the public domain by Roberto Mura):
800px-NGC_2359_in_CMa

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The interactive future of e-books goes mainstream?

The Observer today (Sunday 10 March 2013) has an interesting article on the future of publishing – Top novelists look to ebooks to challenge the rules of fiction – looking at how ebooks can facilitate an interactive story.

It is unfortunate that the article starts with the usual “downer” on fantasy novelists, a set of comments worthy of the “How Others See Us” section in Dave Langford’s Ansible. Why wouldn’t a fantasy or SF author use such tools? We tend to be in the vanguard of new technology yet get sneered at whenever mainstream “literary” (read subtext = “good”) novelists finally catch up.

Rant over – the article is still worth a read.

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