Cherith Baldry, who as Erin Hunter is one of the authors of the best-selling Warrior Cats novels, has long had a love of the classic English detective story. When I asked her to write a story for the anthology I was editing, Improbable Botany, she penned the delightful Sherlock Holmes homage ‘The Adventure of the Apocalypse Vine; or, Moriarty’s Revenge’. Now Cherith has launched her own series of detective novels featuring amateur sleuth Gawaine St Clair. I’m currently reading the first novel, and it is a very English sort of affair, deliberately evoking the classic detective novels of yesteryear. St Clair comes from aristocratic stock and the story unfolds against the background of a 30 year old murder at a fictional Oxford College. Without spoilers, here is a sample of the deliciously dry wit on offer: After a while he found his way into the college gardens, where he wandered for a while, noting without much interest a fishpond with a statue that attested to the classical broad-mindedness of those who harboured it, a sundial that was half an hour slow, and a piece of modern sculpture which reminded him of a certain well-known brand of mint. — from Brutal Terminations by Cherith Baldry (with many thanks for the free copy!)
Literary Wonderlands proved to be a great success for publishers Modern Books and Black Dog & Leventhal, which means that a follow-up is coming out this autumn. Edited by Professor John Sutherland (Lives of the Novelists), the new book is called Literary Landscapes, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to it. Consequently I have written the chapters on Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The latter especially was a real privilege; Mary Shelley is buried not four miles from my office, so it’s perhaps inevitable I’ve long been a fan. So much so that in 2011 I organised a screening of the 1931 film Frankenstein, together with Ken Russell’s Gothic (a wild drama about the events in 1816 which led to the writing of the novel), as a special closing night crossover between the Poole Literary Festival and the Purbeck Film Festival. Before the screening I was part of an on-stage discussion about the legacy of Mary Shelley with author Christine Aziz (The Olive Reader) and John Foster, Screenwriter-in-Residence at Bournemouth University. And it all took place on Halloween! Afterwards I went with my wife to St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley is buried along with the remains of her husband Percy’s heart, to pay our respects. When Shelley Manor in Boscombe was renovated and the old Shelley theatre opened for the first time in nearly a century we were there on the first night for a performance, by candlelight, of the play A Summer Without Sun, again about the events resulting in the writing of Mary’s most famous novel. So yes, a long time fan. And when Sir Christopher Frayling came to St. Peter’s Church this February and gave a most informative lecture about the history of the novel I was there. So it was wonderful in this 200th anniversary year of the novel to be able to pen a chapter about the application of landscape in Frankenstein. Having studied geography at university, I found several of my lifelong interests converging in this project. In the end I’m just thrilled to have written the chapters on the work of the two most important female writers of all time for Literary Landscapes. I just hope I’ve done Mary and Jane justice. Literary Landscapes now has a page on Amazon, and is out on October 16. Literary Wonderlands is available here. Update: Since writing the post above I have found from the publisher that my chapter on Frankenstein, commissioned for Literary Landscapes, will now appear in the third volume in the series, Literary Journeys.
I am delighted to say that a debut novel I worked on as an editor last year, Marco and the Pharaoh’s Curse, by Paul Purnell, is out now as an e-book. Very generously, Paul is donating all profits to two charities, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Marco and the Pharaoh’s Curse is a thrilling fantasy adventure for 7-12 year old readers. Available for Amazon Kindle now, a physical edition will follow. Here’s the official blurb: The Beatrice sank in the Mediterranean Sea two hundred years ago. Lost to the world – until now. Divers are preparing to plunder her ancient treasure, unaware that any interference its the unusual contents will trigger a catastrophic event. The terrifying consequences of the divers succeeding are unimaginable. Twelve-year-old Marco and a mermaid, Lois, are the only ones who can prevent it. Have they overestimated their abilities? They have 48 hours to journey the treacherous underwater route from Malta to Sardinia to fetch help and then return. Time is tight, but that’s the least of their problems…
One of my clients, Ben Graff, has his first book, Find Another Place, coming out on March 28. I worked with Ben helping him find the structure for the book, which as it says on the cover is: An autobiographical meditation on family, focusing on childhood, parenting, the passage of time, loss, love, faith and memory. I encouraged Ben to dig deeper into himself, writing additional chapters and finding the essence of material, a complex tapestry of autobiography and family history. I’m very proud of the resulting volume, and I know Ben is too. Find Another Place (Amazon link) will be published by Troubadour, priced £11.99. Here is the text from the back cover: “Families are their stories,” said my grandfather Martin that late autumn day in 2001, as he placed a clear plastic folder containing his journal into my hands. Part historical meditation on people now gone, part detective story and journey of discovery, the book speaks to how we remember and re-assess what has gone before and how we make sense both of our here and now and the future. My grandfather had always wanted to be a writer and he gave me his journal shortly before his death. After many endings, paper often remains. Letters from my parents written in the 1970s before they were married, together with a handful of poems, extracts from diaries and other materials all form part of this reflection. It is possible to get to know people better, even after they are gone. A family’s interactions with the Isle of Wight, in war and peace, happy times and sad, run through the narrative. As does a relationship with literature, the desire to write and a passion for the game of chess. Anyone who has ever lost a parent; had a child or reflected on the fragility and beauty inherent in everyday life will enjoy this book.
If you spent November obsessively engaged with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), you weren’t alone. It’s estimated that worldwide in 2013 around 400,000 people took part in the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. One of the ideas behind NaNoWriMo is to help writers get into a daily writing habit by simply getting a lot of words down, and to that end the project emphasises quantity – an average of 1667 words a day – over quality. Polishing can come later, and while inevitably many of the thousands of novels written as part of the annual event are, let’s say, not very good, excellent work can result. Novels which began during NaNoWriMo have become bestsellers – titles including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. But note that I wrote, ‘novels which began …’ The finished novels were considerably refined than the first drafts uploaded at the end of various Novembers. If your NanoWriMo novel ultimately proves nothing more than a means of establishing a regular daily writing habit then it will have been an invaluable experience, but if it is to have a chance of commercial publication then November was just the start of a process which will involve additional drafts and editing and proofreading and revision, until the novel is good as it can possibly be. But if you stuck the course, don’t forget to take time to celebrate. Print out that NaMoWriMo certificate and display it with pride. You did it. You hit the word count and ended up with, however messy, the draft of a novel. Or at least something as long as a novel. Which is to say, you wrote a lot of words very quickly, which is both the achievement, and now, perhaps, something of a problem. The problem being that your great mass of words might be twice as good if it were half as long, because so far it’s essentially all been about quantity. And so you could be facing the crash which can follow the high of completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. The question looms – I did it, but is it any good? Or was I just fooling myself, wasting my time? Or if you didn’t take part in NaNoWriMo, perhaps you have a first draft of a novel which you finished recently, or some time back, or even years ago, but then didn’t know what to do with, and so have done nothing, being overwhelmed by what you have created, unsure how to proceed. However you came by your raw manuscript, here I’m going to look at the next steps towards ending up with a polished, finished novel. Some writers will even tell you that what follows is the part they enjoy most. That now free of the initial pressure to get something, anything(!) down on the page, they can cheerfully dive into the process editing and rewriting. One thing you can now do is enjoy the fact that you no longer have to rush. That you can approach things at a more measured pace. And you can set yourself some sort of timetable. You don’t have to do everything, or indeed, anything, now. Enjoy Christmas and the New Year, then come back to things afresh. But that’s crazy, you might be thinking. I’ve written like mad, and now you tell me to do nothing! I might as well not written in such a frenzy all November! Well consider the working methods of one of the most successful popular novelists ever, Stephen King. King is known for writing fast. So fast that he sometimes publishes two or three novels a year, as well as a handful of short stories and smattering of magazine articles, reviews and other pieces. But the fact that King writes quickly does not mean that he produces each book in a hurry. That he just goes from one, finished, to the next. No, what King does, as he explains in his exploration of the novelist’s craft, On Writing, is put each newly finished draft in a draw for months while he works on something else. It might be that only when he has written a complete draft of another book, that he will he return to the earlier manuscript. Then he takes it out of the draw – King always prints out everything as insurance against digital failure, so perhaps you should too – and settles down to read it with the advantage of distance. The time elapsed allows him a degree of detachment, free of the initial buzz of creativity, with which to better assess his work. He can come to his own fictional creations almost as if they had been written by someone else. This distance – and you can see it attested to in the notes King writes in his books, which will often end with the dates the novel was begun and finished, dates which can be as much as four years apart – quite simply allows a writer to see what is wrong with their work, what needs to be improved, and what should be cut. When we have just finished writing we are too close to the work to see it clearly, and will tend to either over-rate or under-rate it. Either conclude that we have written a timeless masterpiece, or something so terrible it should never see the light of day. So allow Christmas to clean your mental pallet, and come back to your work with a manageable timetable for development and a fresh perspective. Now Stephen King doesn’t, so far as we know, participate in NaNoWriMo; though he did once challenge himself to write a novel in six monthly episodes, and the result became one of his best books, The Green Mile. But King does say that his first drafts tend to be over long, filled with material which on reflection simply isn’t needed. This might be anything from dialogue which doesn’t further either character development or story, because the same points are covered elsewhere, or diversions from the main story which lead nowhere important. Whatever the problems might be, King says that on average he finds he can comfortably cut 20% from his first draft without losing anything significant, and end up with a book which is tighter, more focused and gripping. Cuts can range from individual words or lines, to entire scenes, subplots or characters. I’m going to suggest that if a seasoned professional like King, with a career spanning five decades, who knows the art of novel writing inside out, still ends up with first drafts from which he can cut 20% and improve things by doing so, then you can cut at least as much from your novel and make it better in the process. And if you wrote your manuscript for NaNoWriMo then the likelihood is that it is far more overly wordy than a more traditionally created work, and that it would likely benefit from even more extensive pruning. Perhaps as much as 50%. Because when we write quickly we have a tendency to write sloppily, throwing in everything with abandon, because we know we can fix it later. Well later is now (or after Christmas) and we should spend the season of joy and goodwill planning a little homicide. Kill your darlings! (The first draft of this post had a whole paragraph about how this well known saying is generally attributed to the American writer William Faulkner – but I killed it in revision.) In his 1916 book, On The Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ Quiller-Couch meant cut anything – a line of dialogue, a description, a joke – which no matter how good by itself, detracts from the whole; from the characters, the theme, the development of the story. It is advice which stands a century later. So now you read your manuscript again, as objectively as you can. Don’t be afraid to be impressed by anything which is good. But be ruthlessly critical in seeing what is wrong. Remember, even if you don’t, professional readers, agents and publishers will, and they are far less likely to be kind to you than you are yourself. Be your own worst critic. Don’t leave the job to anyone else. Be prepared to tear your work apart so that you can rebuild it better. You will probably, especially if you have written your draft in a month, be embarrassed by some of the things you have put on paper, and might determine to cut or revise them right away. But hold a little while longer. Word processors allow the line between writing a draft and the process of continual revision to blur into one homogeneous process, so that in the regular course of things you may never produce discreet drafts. And herein is one of the great advantages of the NaNoWriMo process. You end up with a complete draft, and rough as it will inevitably be, what you have created is a valuable thing. Don’t waste it with instant revision. Remember how perhaps you spent months or years working more conventionally on a novel and never reached the end because your word processor was always as happy to go back and polish what you had already written (and rewritten) as it was to press on until the end, which maybe never came, but receded, like the horizon, forever. Well you have your first draft. Read it all the way through, and don’t change a thing. You wrote in haste. Now is the time to change tactics and reflect at leisure. As you read make notes, either in a notebook, or perhaps using the ‘comment’ function in Word. But however you do it, make observations about what you have created. What is good, what you really like, and what doesn’t work, and why. Note what might be kept but will need reworking. And as you read, and as you go about daily life, think about what you’ve written, and get to the heart of the matter. Because before you start pruning you need to know what to cut, and to know what to cut you need to know what the book is really about. What is the core, what is the subtext? Whose story is it? What was all the furious creation really about? Strange as it may seem, it might not even be obvious just what the book is about. Or who. This can be especially true with a novel written quickly, where just to keep the words and plot spinning you might have introduced more characters than are necessary, simply to fill a function in the story. American crime novelist Raymond Chandler said that every time he got stuck he had a man walk through the door with a gun. NaNoWriMo encourages that sort of solution, but it doesn’t always stand in the long run. All that said, let the manuscript sit, then read, take notes, and work out what it’s all really about, which characters are needed, and which minor characters can be combined, or even replaced by someone quickly looking something up on their phone. Which locations, story elements, lines of dialogue or description, are key to the book, and which are packing, first thoughts about which you now have better ideas. What can be combined and condensed and refined to make a better, more refined, coherent work. Where the contradictions are in the story or the behaviour of the characters. These will need to be resolved. And then you can set about a ruthless course of genocide on all those darlings. All those bits which seemed so good at the time, but which now make you go what on earth was I thinking? Save your manuscript under a new file name – adding ‘second draft’ will be fine – then work through it with your notes and your newly found insights and remove everything that doesn’t need to be there. This isn’t, yet, the time for polishing the prose; there is no point in expending time and effort something you may change later. For now go ahead and give yourself permission to get rid of things – if you change your mind you can rescue cut material from the first draft. Which is why you retitled your document before starting anew. A lot of what you cut will probably come in the form of dialogue. Why? Well have you ever listened to the way people talk in real life? Real human beings don’t talk like people in a book. They are not, in the main, as, smart, clever, witty, focused. Literary dialogue generally gives the impression of realism, but actually cuts what is said to the essence. Good dialogue in a novel isn’t littered with all the trivia of everyday conversation, the repetitions, the sentences which simply fade into nothing. The polite niceties which oil the wheels of social intercourse are greatly reduced on the page. Every hello, goodbye and introductory digression about the weather, sport, or Elaine’s new baby are not faithfully transcribed. Yes, all that’s the stuff of life, but it’s not the essence of fiction. And yet, especially if you’ve written a novel in a month to a deadline and word count, that’s exactly the sort of stuff you may well have written by the ream. Now is the time to hunt it out of your manuscript and get rid of it. Along with all the bits and pieces your rereading tells you are no not needed for the long haul. And when you’ve cut all the obvious deadwood, then you are ready for some serious rewriting from start to finish. But that’s another story. * A version of this article first appeared in Writing Magazine, the UK’s best-selling magazine for writers
I’m delighted to share one of Jonathan Burton’s superb illustrations for Improbable Botany. Check out the Kickstarter for this anthology of new stories about fantastical flora by Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Ken MacLeod, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan, and Lisa Tuttle, plus the opportunity to obtain A2 art prints of all six of Jonathan’s illustrations and the cover artwork. This particular illustration is for Lisa Tuttle’s story, ‘Vegetable Love’.
I have recently edited a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about fantastical flora. The book, Improbable Botany, features authors who between them have won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell Memorial, Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Prometheus Awards, and been nominated for many more. The writers are: Cherith Baldry (co-author of the New York Times best-selling Warrior Cats series), Eric Brown (The Kings of Eternity, the Langham and Dupré crime novels, the most recent of which is Murder Take Three), Ken MacLeod (Intrusion, The Corporation Wars), Simon Morden (the Metrozone series, Down Station / The White City), Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, The Thing Itself), James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish), Stephen Palmer (The Factory Girl Trilogy, Memory Seed, Beautiful Intelligence), Justina Robson (The Quantum Gravity series, Natural History, Switch), Tricia Sullivan (Occupy Me, Dreaming in Smoke, Maul), and Lisa Tuttle (The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, The Mysteries, Windhaven (with George RR Martin)). As part of the project I have interviewed all ten of the contributing authors, not just about Improbable Botany but about their writing in general and much more besides. Below is my interview with Tricia Sullivan, whose latest novel, Occupy Me, is nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her novel Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke Award in 1999. Other works include Maul, Double Vision and lightborn. Improbable Botany is being published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice, and funded via Kickstarter. The book is illustrated by Jonathan Burton (The Folio Society, Penguin Books, Random House). One of the Kickstarter bonuses is a free e-book which will include all the interviews, though they will also be published individually in various places. The only time they will ever appear all together is in the Kickstarter e-book. The Kickstarter also offers the opportunity to acquire A2-sized art prints of all six of Jonathan Burton’s interior illustrations, as well as his breathtaking cover art. * Gary Dalkin: Your story for Improbable Botany, ‘Who Lived in a Tree’, offers an unusual perspective on a radically transformed London – it is narrated by a tree. Without giving too much away could you explain something of how the story came together? Tricia Sullivan: I’ve been a tree freak since I was a kid. I just love them, and I spent a lot of childhood time around trees and up in their branches. I considered trees friends, so maybe in some ways the story was a wish fulfillment fantasy. I wrote it in the fall of 2012, and I’d been reading about ideas for the greening of London (plant walls, etc) and also about the ‘internet of plants’ from Stefano Mancuso. I wanted to play with the idea of a symbiosis between humans and plants in which the connective talents of trees could be exploited for mutual benefit, so I took a big stretch with the research and let my imagination go. I think it would be much nicer to inhabit a living London than a stone one. At the same time, I was going through a lot of anxiety about my parents’ ageing. I wrote the first draft while my father was alive and more or less OK, but I was very aware of the increasing frailty of both parents, who lived 3500 miles away and would have nothing to do with the Internet. So it’s a story of the rise of the plants, but also of the decline and death of old creatures and old ways. When I came to revise the draft for submission a few months after my father’s unexpected death, I was struck by how personally prophetic the piece felt. Gary Dalkin: The notion of human-plant symbiosis, and of the ‘internet of plants’ is so intriguing, and such advances are being made bio-engineering, that I wonder if you have any thoughts about why botanical SF remains so comparatively under-explored? It would seem fertile soil for the imaginative writer … Tricia Sullivan: Well, Sheri Tepper did The Family Tree and I think Kameron Hurley has done some SF with plants. And of course, Jeff VanderMeer has done fungi. I’m sure there are others. I suspect the lack is down to commercial viability. A lot of SF nowadays stands on the shoulders of older generations. History provides a cultural shorthand that means writers don’t have to work too hard conceptually if they don’t want to; they can focus on e.g. their thriller plot, or other aspects of the work that interest them. However, if you break into a whole new region–like plant symbiosis–you’ve got the full weight of socio-scientific speculation to carry all by yourself, in addition to working all the party tricks of commercial writing. Novelists, anyway, have got to have all the storytelling and worldbuilding solid as rock if they want to sell their work, because publishers are extremely risk-averse. So it would be a fantastic challenge to writers to have a go, but not a small one. Gary Dalkin: Any publisher which operated without any consideration of risk would presumably not stay in business long, but to be extremely risk-adverse would seem to be contrary to the very nature of truly imaginative fiction. Have you personally found problems with this conservative (with a small c) tenancy in publishing, and would you say this risk-aversion has been consistent throughout your time as a published novelist, or have things become better or worse? Tricia Sullivan: I’m lucky in that I’ve never had a big problem selling my SF to UK publishers, and I’ve never had a publisher try to tell me what to write in the sense of ‘we want to see space opera’ or something. Every SF book I’ve written, I’ve sold to a major house, no matter how bad the sales figures that came before. The failure of my work to pull in readers is where I suffered for a lot of years, thinking, ‘If only I could write something easier and with broader appeal…’ because I desperately needed the money. But the breadth of appeal of one’s work isn’t something one can control, necessarily. For me that was tough to accept, more so than anything publishers did or didn’t do. The state of the industry is a bewildering topic and publisher risk-aversion is the least of it. I’ve had no choice but to decide to write for love, in the cracks of my life, and forget the money. There is no money, for most of us. Gary Dalkin: Where do you think genre publishing might go now, in a commercial sense, and can traditional publishing survive when readers are rapidly becoming accustomed to 99p, or free, self-published e-books, and even e-books by name authors regularly being sold for next to nothing? Tricia Sullivan: I think anybody who could answer that question would get a pie, and they should certainly tell the rest of us post haste. From the author’s point of view the rise of crowdfunding offers another way to get paid, and many authors are going hybrid (mix of self and trad publishing). Social media opens new avenues. Take Kameron Hurley. She has built by hand the platform she stands on, and that’s above and beyond her skill as a novelist. That’s a lot of work, and not everyone has those extra skills or the sheer determination to keep making noise. I reckon it helps to be extroverted or to be able to fake being extroverted–or, as in Kameron’s case, to be driven by strong emotion. Aliette de Bodard is another luminous newer writer who is beginning to achieve name recognition by sheer hard work: years of writing copious short fiction, blogging, working social media, networking, late nights, no pay, hard hard work–and she, too, is burning with a drive for something larger than herself. Again and again, I’m seeing risk-takey writers bootstrap themselves into their careers. Gary Dalkin: You’ve blogged about being inspired by Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible to let go of your ‘various science fiction induced hang-ups’ about what you ‘could or could not write’. And the result is Occupy Me. There is a sense that real science is outstripping where most SF is prepared to go, and now you are now considering a PhD in physics. If it came to a choice, can you see yourself leaving SF completely behind for a career in physics? And where next for your fiction, given that you wrote ‘Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts’? Tricia Sullivan: I love writing, and when it comes to science fiction I am the real deal. At the same time I’ve already flipped a switch in my head that assumes I’m finished insofar as publishing goes. With that acceptance comes a great sense of freedom. My mojo is high. Full-time study plus part-time work plus family plus writing is my reality. If I do a PhD will it make more demands on my energy than that? Probably it will slow my writing down. I’m fairly difficult to stop. Doing science and/or teaching science means playing a part in human progress, no matter how small or devalued a part (and I have no illusions there). I want use my abilities in service to the world in the years that I have here. I’m writing a super girly SFF mystery right now for Gollancz, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. After that I’ve got a fair chunk of my intergalactic breastfeeding novel on deck. This is the Sea builds on the cosmology I started setting up in Occupy Me and will be therefore completely whacked-out. It’s dirty work but I feel like someone has to push the envelope. I haven’t figured out the mechanics of the science/story interface because I’m dealing with technologies that are really, really different from the ones we have a narrative shorthand for. I try to write from angles that are underexploited, that yield insights you don’t otherwise get. I will go on bewildering people as long as given licence to do so. It’s good for me and them, bit of brisk exercise never killed anyone. * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.
Lisa Tuttle’s story, ‘vegetable Love’ appears in the anthology I have recently edited, Improbable Botany. Here is a review I wrote for Vector of Lisa’s 2005 novel, The Mysteries, reissued last year by Jo Fletcher Books. A detective novel requires a mystery. The title of Lisa Tuttle’s novel is as up front as can be. However, two things soon become apparent, that in this novel people are themselves ‘mysteries’, and that this is no conventional detective story, in that so far as anyone can tell, no crime has been committed. Ian Kennedy is an American expat in London, barely making a living as a private detective specialising in finding missing people. On the verge of middle age and thinking about a career change, another American, Laura Lensky, asks him to find her daughter, Peri, who disappeared two years ago in Scotland. While Peri has abandoned her old life of her own free will, naturally Laura wants to know that nothing bad has happened to her daughter, that she is alive and well. So too does Peri’s one time fiancé, Hugo, a young filmmaker. Though while his is concerned, his life has moved on; he has a new girlfriend who would not appreciate Peri’s return. Kennedy, meanwhile, is driven to find those who have gone missing because of mysteries in his own past. Mysteries that have taught him how perceptions can be affected by memory, hope and fantasy. For years Kennedy remembered his father stopping the family car in the middle of nowhere, getting out, walking into a field, and then vanishing before his eyes. Later Kennedy realised this did not in fact happen. His father simply went to work one day and didn’t come home, absconding to start a new life. An incomprehensible trauma came to be explained through an inexplicable fantasy. Then later still, Kennedy found that not even the fantasy was his own invention, but something he had read and later forgotten in a book. A supposedly true story which itself turned out to be fabricated. An urban legend. The layers of unreality accumulate. History repeats itself when one day the love of Kennedy’s life, Jenny, simply walks out and disappears. That was ten years before the novel’s present, and with nothing left in America, Kennedy relocated and made a new life in England. The story unfolds through Kennedy’s investigation into what has happened to Peri, a narrative which mixes past and present, paralleled with the gradual revelation of his own mysteries: his youthful discovery of what really happened when his father left, and his later enquiry into Jenny’s disappearance. Set against this is Peri’s story. The tale Laura and Hugh have to tell is one that raises more questions than can comfortably be answered, pointing to a supernatural explanation which Laura refuses to consider. And yet Kennedy is ideally placed to investigate, having been recommended to Laura by the one person who would know that this case would resonate with him because of a further mystery in his past. Once before, Kennedy investigated a missing person, the circumstances of which bore uncanny parallels to Peri’s disappearance, circumstances that would seem impossible to anyone else, and for Kennedy, impossible to ignore. And so Kennedy finds himself in Scotland, confronting a sometimes painful personal history, exploring the edges of a deeper, more universal mythological past, the ancient mysteries, clues to which might be found in various tellings and retellings of Celtic legends. Sometimes people disappear. Between the main chapters Tuttle inserts short accounts of various vanishments, and sometimes of people who came back. Meanwhile Kennedy, Laura and Hugh come closer to finding what has happened to Peri. The novel asks, do they each want to face the truth, and when they do, how will it affect them? What will they do? The Mysteries is a slow burn of a book. It pulls the reader in gradually, skirting the edge of the supernatural, the numinous, and the unknown. When once it gathers pace the final third has a ferocious grip. There are moments of great tension, of a building sense of dread and malevolence, though this is not horror or even dark fantasy. The supernatural here is simply different, ‘other’. There is even a hint of some form of scientific explanation. The otherworldly characters have their own purpose, which only tangentially intersects with the everyday realm of human life. There are no true monsters or villains. The ‘other’ is not some dread Lovecraftian domain, though it can be hazardous, fraught with peril. Rather The Mysteries is a story of choice, about engagement with the world as it is, about love. It contains several love stories, exploring different sorts of love, selfish, sacrificial, romantic, familial, doing so while telling a story which, while not especially complex in terms of detective fiction – there are no great plots, crimes or conspiracies – takes fine advantage of the detective novel format. For what is a detective story if not a metaphor for the quest to understand the nature of the world, for addressing that which we instinctively recognise is out of kilter, seen only through a glass darkly? And if that sounds vague, fear not that it will all end too ambiguously for satisfaction. In this review I have deliberately avoided more than a hint of the central mysteries of the novel. But everything is lovingly resolved in a book that, alongside The Silver Bough, may well be Lisa Tuttle’s finest achievement to date.
Yesterday I posted about the launch of the Kickstarter for the new anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories I have edited, Improbable Botany. The book contains stories by writers who between them have won every major award in the fields of science fiction and fantasy: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle. The book has cover art and six full colour interior illustrations by the award-winning artist Jonathan Burton. Above is a promo image for the interior art. Find out much more about the book, support the Kickstarter and get an edition with a limited Jonathan Burton art print at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/waywardplants/
I’ve been looking forward to announcing this for a long time. And now it’s finally here. I’ve edited an anthology of stories about wayward plants. Improbable Botany contains stories by a roster of writers who between them have won every major award in the fields of science fiction and fantasy: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle. The book has cover art and six full colour interior illustrations by the very popular Jonathan Burton. There will be an exclusive e-book edition in which I interview all ten authors. The interviews will appear individually elsewhere, but this is the only place they will ever be collected together. Improbable Botany is published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice – an award-winning collective of designers, artists and urban growers – through Kickstarter. There are various opportunities to buy just the book, or the book and limited edition A2 art prints as well. Find out more here.
As part of the Authors for Grenfell Tower charity initiative I’m offering a critique of a short story or opening chapters of a novel up to 5000 words, raising money for the British Red Cross to go to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. If you know anyone who might be interested, please pass this on. Bidding closes on 27 June. Here is a bit about this project, from the official Authors for Grenfell Tower website: This online auction is raising money for the British Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund, for residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. Around 1:00 a.m. on 14 June 2017, a fire in this residential tower block in west London spread to engulf the entire building. Despite the heroic efforts of the fire service, all 120 flats in the building have been destroyed. The death toll stands at 58 and is expected to rise. Survivors have lost their homes, lost everything, and gone through unimaginable trauma. Winning auction bids will be paid directly to the British Red Cross’s relief fund for Grenfell Tower residents and neighbours: “The charity has been asked by Kensington and Chelsea council to help co-ordinate fundraising in an appeal to support the residents and neighbours of the Grenfell Tower. Money will be given to people affected by the fire, including those who have lost everything, to buy the things they need to give themselves and their families as much normality as they can get at this extraordinarily difficult time. By donating to the London Fire Relief Fund people will be able to help those who have been injured, bereaved, left destitute or traumatised by this tragedy.” #authorsforgrenfell
Interesting to see that today WH Smith has declared Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to be ‘The nation’s favourite book’. In a post here WH Smith announced ‘…back in January, we put it to our followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to nominate their favourite books of the past 225 years to be considered for our shortlist. The recommendations were fantastic, and with the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Orwell and the Bronte sisters making their mark on literature within our 225 year history, we ended up with one heck of a mighty shortlist to choose from. And now that the votes are in, we can finally end months of speculation and announce the book which you voted to win the title of the Nation’s Favourite Book of the Past 225 Years! Read on to find out who won the hearts of the Nation… And the winner is… Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier’ I must admit to be surprised by the result of this latest public vote, given that The Lord of the Rings appeared so firmly established as the UK’s favourite read. Not that I’m grumbling. And to prove it, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about a visit to Daphne du Maurier country – Rebecca to the Macabre.
Farewell then to Sir Roger Moore, icon of large and small screens, and by all accounts a very decent man. Noting his passing, here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about my favourite of his films, The Man Who Haunted Himself.
Just a quick note to mention that Literary Wonderlands is published today in the US. Click here for a preview including the Introduction and contents pages which show a complete list of the books and fictional worlds covered.
I am thrilled that I have received a high quality image for the cover of Literary Wonderlands. I have written four chapters for the book, my chapters being on I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Here is the official blurb: Literary Wonderlands A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created by Laura Miller, General Editor. Contributions by Lev Grossman, John Sutherland, and Tom Shippey A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Please note: The ebook edition is text-only, illustrations are not included. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to Wells’s The Time Machine to Murakami’s 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction’s imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer’s own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a “Dramatis Personae.” Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book’s general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column for two years. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors. Literary Wonderlands is published in the US on 1 November, and in the UK on 25 November.
I’m very pleased to announce that the new issue of Shoreline of Infinity (No.5 / Autumn 2016) is now out and features my extensive interview with the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author, Simon Morden. We talk about in-depth about his latest series of novels, which began earlier this year with Down Station and continues with The White City. The packed 132 page issue also features stories by Iain Maloney, Jack Schouten, Adam Connors, Nat Newman, Daniel Rosen, Thomas Clark, Rob Butler and Craig Thomson. SF Caledonia, the series on classic Scottish science fiction, continues with Monica Burns on George MacDonald’s Phantastes. There is a new comic from Stuart Beel, a freshly minted column by Ruth EJ Booth, and poetry from Andrew Blair and Ruth Aylett. Shoreline of Infinity is available both digitally and as a gorgeous physical magazine printed on real paper.
I’m delighted to see that Dead Leaves, the new book by Andrew David Barker, for which I provided a developmental edit, has been declared runner up in the This Is Horror 2015 Awards for Best Novella. The book has received great reviews from The Eloquent Page, Mark West and James Everington. Andrew was kind enough to say ‘Gary Dalkin’s work on my second book, Dead Leaves, was invaluable. He was precise, succinct, with a fine attention to detail. Dalkin guided my story to publication with fair and balanced criticisms and queries, and picked up on things I probably wouldn’t have ever noticed. In short, his sharp critical eye improved my words and my book. An excellent editor.’ Above is a photo of Boo Books beautiful limited edition, designed like a 1980s VHS tape. And here is an interview I did with Andrew last year.
When it comes to literature men in the UK, US and Germany are reportedly in a tiny minority, reading just 20% of all fiction. Or so, writing in the Guardian, says Lionel Shriver. I don’t know if this is true. I know lots of men who read lots of fiction. Perhaps they are not representative. But then I assumed Lionel Shriver was a man. It’s an easy mistake to make. Shriver, a woman who changed her name from Margaret Ann, and won the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction for We Need to Talk About Kevin, offers what starts out as an excellent article about sexism in book marketing and cover design. She argues that despite the content of her novels having appeal to both sexes her publishers insist on trying to market her books to an entirely female audience using covers more appropriate to chick lit. Shriver describes one proposed cover, which she managed to veto, thus: ‘A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels’. Lionel adds, ‘…publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn’t. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.’ So having castigated her publishers for one sexist presumption, Lionel immediately spoils it with another, insulting and alienating half her potential readership. The very half of readers Shriver complains her publishers ignore in their marketing of her books. I’m a man. I have bought and read lots of books by women. Some of them are about women. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the most gripping biography / autobiography I have ever read. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is the best book about politics and economics I have encountered in years. One of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to enjoy recently was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Admittedly I’ve not read any books by Lionel Shriver, and the thing is, now I don’t feel inclined to. As Lionel says, men don’t buy books by and about women. The message for writers – don’t insult your potential readers if you want to sell books.
Just a test and welcome message. My old site, garydalkin.com, was hacked, and rather than struggle with the horrors of 1&1 hosting any longer it seemed a good impetus to move completely over to WordPress. So here I am with my content ported over, slightly revised and prettified with more pictures. It was a steep learning curve, but if you don’t count the design of WordPress and the template I’m using, then it was all my own work, and all the more satisfying for it. I’m certainly glad I kept complete backups of my content. You never know when they will be needed. So if you haven’t already done it, backup your online content now. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.