David Kowalski on the process of writing The Company of the Dead

company-of-the-dead-cover-imageToday sees the publication of David Kowalski’s The Company of the Dead, an ambitious and imaginative work of alternate history, set against the backdrop of one of the the greatest maritime disasters.

It asks the question: Can one man save the Titanic?

March 1912. A mysterious man appears aboard the Titanic on its doomed voyage. His mission? To save the ship.

The result? A world where the United States never entered World War I, thus launching the secret history of the 20th Century.

April 2012. Joseph Kennedy – grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy – lives in an America occupied in the East by Greater Germany and on the West Coast by Imperial Japan. He is one of six people who can restore history to its rightful order – even though it would mean his own death.

We are delighted to welcome David Kowalski to Fantasy Book Review and hope you all enjoy reading his words on the writing process that created The Company of the Dead.

I first started writing Company back in 1997. It was going to be a short story about how the Titanic misses the iceberg and arrives safely in New York. I was looking for a happy ending but what I had written was not really satisfying.

I started doing more reading about the Titanic and was amazed at how much had been done on the topic. At that time I’d also read that someone called James Cameron was making a film on the subject.

The process of writing was truly trial and error. I had never done any courses in creative writing. I figured the best way of learning how to write involved just that, writing. I also read widely, history and fiction, trying to analyse the skills of the trade. I set myself word targets to achieve at each writing session. As I have an element of OCD, editing was a problem. Looking back at early drafts I can see that there were some chapters that had been revised close to a thousand times over the course of seven years. Many of those changes may have been minor but I kept going over and over my earlier writing. I saw the book as something I was building from the ground up and, while I made notes for what lay ahead, I always wrote the book in the order it would be read.

Research was very important to me. Writing about time travel and alterations in history had to invite criticism from experts in their field. I didn’t want to disappoint readers with obvious or even subtle blunders. I discussed airship designs with aeronautical engineers and Twentieth Century history with (very patient) historians. I wrote to locals living in Nevada and New York to get the geography right. When I had to get inside the head of a Japanese emperor I read Musashi and the Hagekure. I studied the deck plans of the Titanic from the hull up. This may sound like a strange distinction but while I was writing fiction, I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. The reader had to believe…

It never felt like work because it was always interesting. I found that planting the material in solid reality leant it a truth I could never manufacture from pure conjecture. That’s the way it worked for me.

I also had to try and resist the desire to write about all the things that fascinated me. I suspect that is a common problem with first time authors. Perhaps it’s due to the fear that you may only have one shot at saying what you want to say. The other trick I had to learn was determining what to cut. The original final manuscript came in at over 1000 pages.

After a while, I noticed a phenomenon I’d heard of but never much believed in. Some writers say that their characters assume a life of their own. That never made sense to me, as the characters were surely just pure creation. Nevertheless I found that as the novel progressed my cast seemed to resist the direction I wanted them to go. Planned conflicts were resolved without violence, betrayals turned into friendships, controlled situations turned into chaotic firefights, as the characters, following the path I’d set, seemingly determined their own futures within the frame of the story. Sometimes I felt more like a stenographer, struggling to keep up with my cast, than the author!

I had no idea at the outset, how long the book would take to write. I’m thankful for that or I might have baulked at the task. I never actually imagined it seeing the light of day. And I certainly never imagined having the chance to discuss all the stuff that went in to making this book. Thanks for giving me that opportunity.

For more information on this book and its author, David Kowalski, please visit http://titanbooks.com/the-company-of-the-dead-5816/

What If Agents Wrote Honest Rejection Letters by Mhairi Simpson

Yesterday I got to wondering (not for the first time), how sincere are agents’ rejection letters? I mean, I’ve collected a few, mostly from when I was young and stupid and thought I could write. I haven’t queried lately, now that I’m older and intelligent enough to know that my writing is definitely a work in progress. But in my experience, agents’ letters mostly go along the lines of, thank you for your submission, we’re terribly overwhelmed with queries right now so we have to be very picky and we just don’t think this is a right fit for us.

And you have to wonder if what they really mean is, we wouldn’t demean ourselves with such a steaming pile of sea cow dung.

I wonder how many people would benefit from receiving a letter that said, we can’t take this on right now because your writing obviously has a long way to go before you’re ready for publication.

Which leads to the question, how many people would actually believe it?

Not many, I think.

Which is sad.

I recently hosted a guest post on my site by Paul Weimer. He’s a creative guy, has oodles (yes, oodles) of story ideas revolving in his head, and never writes them down. Fear, you see. But his post was beautifully written, torn straight from the heart and therefore wildly popular with my readers, all of whom can relate (I think they’re nearly all writers, and if they’re not they can still relate to his theme, which was that fear is the mindkiller, whatever you’re trying to do). Here is a guy who is most definitely a good writer and yet he doesn’t write.

And then you get other people who really aren’t good writers. But they write. Thanks to the various platforms now available, if they’re rejected by every agent in Christendom, or if they don’t query at all, they can and do self-publish and inflict their badness on the world.

This is NOT to say all self-published writers are bad. I’m just very disappointed that so many of the resulting works are.

I would love to see rejection letters that were honest:

“I’m sorry but your flagrant disregard of grammar caused Mr. Big Agent to have an aneurism. He will be in hospital for a while and is therefore disinclined to represent your work.”

“This sounds like a great idea but the murderer was so obvious to me within the first two paragraphs that your thriller lost all its thrill.”

“Having rejected this novel three times already and in light of the fact that it has obviously not been altered, I suggest you stop submitting it to me.” (I’ve actually seen this mentioned several times by an agent online.)

“Please learn English and resubmit. I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not.”

“Plagiarism is plagiarism even if the original author is dead. You obviously enjoyed Tolkein’s work very much, but we’d prefer to see your ideas. We have, after all, already seen his.”
“Your mystery action adventure story lacked in mystery, action and adventure. I fell asleep during the first paragraph.”

They could then follow up with a list of works of fiction which the would-be author should read, in order to see how it’s done by people who have actually been published. And a list of books on craft which the would-be author should read. Which might also include a dictionary.

I know why agents don’t do this, of course. It’s because most writers who submit their work anywhere are such speshul snowflakes they can’t handle the idea of being told their work is crap. Which is a great pity because from what I can gather online, a lot of it is. I, personally, am hopeless at editing my own work. I can see spelling errors (mostly) but I miss where I haven’t connected with my characters, or where I took a character up three flights of stairs from the lobby and then had them walk out the front door.

People should be told they’re writing dross, because otherwise they have no motivation to improve. Unfortunately, those who write dross are usually of the opinion that their stuff is awesome and react badly when told otherwise. While those who are often quite good already always want to improve, no matter what, and welcome all feedback, whether it’s good or bad. So I suppose the agents should just lie, because those who would benefit from their honesty might not be able to see past their own egos to appreciate it.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2012.

Pushing Yourself In Every Way by Mhairi Simpson

I probably shouldn’t be writing for public consumption right now. I’m tired, and in a fair amount of pain, but I’m making myself write because, well, I don’t like letting people down by not doing what we agreed (quite a while ago now) that I would do. When I said I would do it. While it’s fine for me to write a post on Wednesday to be posted on my own site the same day, it’s not alright to do that for someone else’s site. In this case, this site. Because my contact lives in Australia and there’s that pesky time zone thing that just gets in the way every time…

So, I’m writing. Even though I actually want to go to bed. Honestly, this is part of the writer’s life. So is the pain I mentioned earlier.

Now, don’t worry. I haven’t been attacked by a creature from the Black Lagoon. This is entirely self-inflicted. You see, I started back at the gym last week. Only went once. There followed four days of agony as my muscles reminded me it’s been a while. So I started again yesterday. The workout involved planks. Not planking, that fun, stupid thing people were doing a while ago for the internet. Planks, which are to be found in the dictionary under “abuse of one’s core; failsafe method for making oneself cry”.

They HURT. At least, they do when you haven’t done them in well over a year, and the part of your body they are supposed to strengthen is weaker than it was when you originally started doing them. As in, before you slipped a disk and did no exercise at all for six months.

And they don’t just hurt while you’re doing them. Actually they don’t hurt too much while you’re doing them. You just feel your lower back turning to mush but you have to hold it because if you just collapse that could really do some damage… I held it for thirty seconds, just about. The second fifteen seconds were rather stressful. I had visions of my abdomen hitting the floor and my spine bending and that disk popping right out again… Ick.

Thankfully it didn’t happen :S

I’m telling you this because it relates to writing. You can get out of practice with it and it’s very difficult to get back into practice, especially if you’ve had some horrible feedback. But you have to work at it, and the more you push yourself, the faster you improve. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. It’s not. But you see results sooner.

This is on my mind today for several reasons. One, the aforementioned pain. Particularly in my abs and glutes. Since I did some rowing this morning I don’t know if my body is protesting yesterday’s planks or today’s rowing. Either way, I have sore muscles. Because I pushed myself and I don’t regret that.

Another reason is that I need to push myself in my writing. Not just writing novels, although I kind of need to knuckle down to that, too, but also in terms of short stories. I need to work on producing short stories because, apart from anything else, it’s nice to be able to include some publishing credits when you query agents with your alleged masterpiece. “I’ve never even sold a short story to anyone, but my novel is AWESOME!”

Yeah. I’ll be waiting by the phone for them to call.

I’ve been afraid to push at the short story thing. Figured I should just concentrate on my novels. Now I’m thinking, I should try both. I’ve been working on the novels. I know what to do there. Time to diversify. See if I can make a name for myself. Get people to recognise me as a writer of coherent stories, as well as someone whose tweets make them laugh.

And… the improvement thing. I have few pet peeves, but one is people who ask you for your opinion of their writing when they don’t actually want it. I really do wish that, instead of saying, “Would you give me your opinion on this?” that they would say instead “Could you please read my stuff and tell me it’s great?” I’m an idiot, you see. When someone asks for my opinion on something, I’m flattered (who wouldn’t be?), but I’m also honest. Because I think they actually want my opinion. Maybe some constructive criticism, you know?

No. This is wrong. They only want my opinion if that opinion is “Wow! This is great!”

And that annoys me. If your stuff is great, you obviously have nothing left to learn so why ask me for my opinion? Why not just go ahead and publish? OR you could accept constructive criticism from someone who doesn’t know you from Adam but still took time out of their day to read your stuff that you wrote years ago and apparently haven’t bothered to work on since, and maybe you could say thank you as well.

Or not…

Can you tell that annoyed me? Shocker, eh? I can’t make them improve their writing. I can’t even make them see it needs to be improved. But I can work on my own, and that’s what I’m going to do.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2012.

Finding One’s Voice by Mhairi Simpson

I’ve been doing that thing I shouldn’t do again. Reading other people’s posts. There are all sorts of tremendously serious, erudite blog posts about all manner of things fantastical and I read them and, depending on what’s on my to do list, feel impressed, educated or inadequate. I often feel the same when I read other people’s books. In this sense, as in many others, blogging brings the same challenges as writing. It’s important to find your own voice.

When I read other people’s stuff I often compare it unfavourably to my own – that is, I think my stuff is fluff and theirs is, well, not. Smooth? Solid? Concrete, maybe. And then I realise that it’s just a question of style. And voice. I have never been a particularly informative person. I don’t set out to educate people. If I have a nugget that I consider useful, I’ll pass it on. Sometimes it barely touches my hands before I send it back out into the ether. But that’s not really my calling.

I make people laugh. Or at least they smile. If I were to go back through my tweets I’m pretty sure the most frequently occurring word would be “Yay”, usually accompanied by one, but usually more, exclamation marks. That pretty much sums me up. I’m an exclamatory person. Not discreet. All out there, what you see is what you get. Blah, blah, blah…

And yet, people seem to enjoy that. It’s something I’ve worried about ever since I really started building a presence online. I remember having a conversation with someone – I can’t remember who, only that they’re a good friend (honestly, I love them, I just can’t… remember their name right now. Er…) ANYWAY… I was having this conversation and worrying that my writing wasn’t serious enough, that no one would be interested, that it wouldn’t stand the test of time and grant me immortality… “I write popcorn,” I said.

Don’t look at me like that. Tell me you don’t want to be remembered for your greatest passion in life. Go on, I dare you…

And he said, “People like popcorn. People like to be entertained. You don’t have to be a serious kind of person for people to like what you do.” And he was right. Well, I haven’t published so far so I can’t speak as to the popularity of my books, but I can honestly say that the most popular flash fiction piece I ever posted on my site was about smurfs. It still gets hits now. Go and read it, if you feel the need. I will warn you now, I took some liberties with the accepted view of smurfs

So, as it is in your writing, so it is in blogging. I sometimes feel bad that I don’t try to be more serious online. My blog is pretty much an extension of me. Lots of purple and silly conversations with people (that would be the interviews – the first halves are fairly serious, but the second halves revert to type). But I like it that way. I think if I tried to make it different, something inside me would cry. Because I’m not good at pretending to be something I’m not, and it would be impossible for me to keep up the pretence on Twitter.

And the-friend-whose-name-I-can’t-recall-but-that-I-really-do-love was right. My blog hits go up when I post. That’s the bottom line. Yes, they spike sometimes, but not necessarily for information stuff. To date my hands down most popular post, and by that I mean it has had half as many hits again as the homepage, is this post I did for the launch of James Scott Bell’s novel The Devil Colony. Who knew “party” was such a massive search term on Google? I certainly didn’t, but I do now. And I know what word to include in any future book launch posts I might want to write (this is search engine optimisation, folks – watch and learn).

You see? Sometimes I can be informative. It’s usually by accident, but hey…

So, I have found my voice and people seem to like it. The best thing is that it doesn’t take any subterfuge on my part. I am simply me and that works for me and for everyone else too. I’m sure I get unfollowed, mainly because very occasionally I’ll try to send someone a direct message on Twitter and it won’t go through because they unfollowed me. Or Twitter just randomly made them unfollow me. But I don’t really mind. Partly because my follower numbers keep going up regardless, but mostly because I’m me, and I’m happy with that.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2012.

Human Nature Holds Steel As Well As Kisses by Mhairi Simpson

I’m currently reading a very long book. Actually I don’t think it’s that long, probably no longer than the Black Dagger Brotherhood books that I love so much, but it feels long because it’s, well, it’s educational. And it’s about war.

Yes, believe it or not, I’m reading a non-fiction book about war. You might be wondering why. I have in fact asked myself the same question a couple of times. The thing is, this fantasy series that I’ve started writing is based on two worlds. Earth and, well, not Earth. What do you think would happen if Earth suddenly got joined to another world? A world with dragons and people who could throw fire and water and earth with their minds?

We’d shoot them! Of course we would. Well, hopefully, not us personally. You know, you and me. But probably the various governments and so on. And this might be before or after those governments tried to bargain their way into whatever natural resources the other world has.

So I’m reading about war. I’m really hoping my worlds don’t go that way. Partly because I don’t want to write it. It would be horribly complicated and stressful. And partly because my characters already get damaged and killed on a regular basis. I’m not sure I’m ready to visit that kind of pain on entire nations.
Of course, if I have a bad break-up between now and then, that could all change.

I mean, I’m reading this book and it talks about how nuclear weapons are kind of pointless because their use would annihilate the entire planet. What about someone else’s planet? Ugh. Not fun. Of course, I suppose if the dragons mutated because of the radiation, that could be interesting…

I’ve heard of a debate about Joe Abercrombie’s books and the violence in them. Some people say they’re too violent. I say, look around you, people. Art imitates life. Humans are a violent lot. Negotiating for what you want, rather than just taking it, seems to be a relatively recent concept. And even then, when negotiation fails, people turn to steel and lead.

I’m not condoning this behaviour, just saying that it exists. If you read a book where everyone was kind and happy and got on like a house on fire… But you wouldn’t, would you? How boring would that be? Everyone loves to hate mean characters. We love to see the hero conquer. So does it come down to a question of degree? Do we only want our characters to be evil and sadistic up to a point? Or would we rather ignore altogether the fact that such people exist?

I think the reason many people are uncomfortable with violence in the arts is because they don’t want to admit that such things exist in reality. As I said, art mirrors life, and we all know this. There is a massive outcry whenever someone paints a picture (literally) involving death and/or destruction. Personally I’ll never forget Picasso’s Guernica. That image haunts me… and that’s good.

Art, in whatever form, should show every aspect of life. It should act as a mirror and illuminate every corner of our existence. Not just the beautiful, breath-taking things, but the evil, soul-stealing things too, lest we forget that they exist. We do not live in a utopia. This is the real world, with all its beauty and horror laid out for everyone to see, whether we choose to look or not. But it is our real world, and the beauty and horror are two sides of the same coin. There’s a reason it’s called human nature, after all. We shouldn’t close our eyes to it, or our minds. It’s easier for something to sneak up on you if you refuse to believe it exists.

Why Do Different Cultures Love The Same Books by Mhairi Simpson

I’ve been thinking this morning. (By some miracle nothing exploded.) I was thinking about how authors write books that so many people like.

I mean, comparatively speaking very few books are massively popular, but those that are go around the world. They get translated into dozens of languages, read in dozens of different cultures, and loved. By all those different people.

How does that happen?

The example that produced this train of thought came up the other day when Peter V. Brett tweeted the Chinese covers of The Desert Spear. (They’re beautiful, by the way.) Apparently the books debuted at the top of the bestseller lists in, oh, I don’t know, Japan and Taiwan? Something like that.

Really, how does that happen? Mr. Brett is obviously a good writer, but he is American and as such presumably has a certain outlook on the world which would be different if he had been born in, say, Tibet. Or Somalia. ‘East meets West’ is a very old and fairly well accepted thing – there are a lot of different cultures in the world, and the further you go from one, the more different the cultures you encounter will be.

So how do writers write books that appeal to all these different cultures?

People like to say, well, deep down we’re all the same. With the same hopes, fears, dreams, etc. But are we? Maybe. I’m white, blonde, female, a native English speaker. All of which dictate my outlook on life to a certain extent. I’m really not going to apologise for thinking that a flushing toilet is a very basic building block of what I would call ‘civilisation’.

I did have a point, but I’ve forgotten what it is. Maybe we’ll find it by the end of this post.

I expect I’ve been wondering about all this because, of course, my book is getting closer to being ready and I’m trying not to think too hard about whether people will like it. In the end, there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is write the story. It’s up to other people whether they like it or not.

And yet, I wonder, what is it that makes people like certain stories? I love the Dresden Files, to the point where I was sorely tempted to buy the hardback of Ghost Story. I restrained myself. So far that is an honour which I have bestowed on Sir Terry Pratchett, whose stuff I also love, obviously. I really enjoy Clive Cussler’s stuff. But only the proper ones with the original Dirk Pitt, not the later ones with Dirk Pitt #2.

Why? I can’t relate to anything that involves scuba-diving or piloting underwater craft. Up to a year ago I didn’t even have a driving licence. Nor can I relate to blasting fire from my hands. Ye gods, I really wish I could! But I can’t. It’s sad. Something else I try not to think about.

So what is it that I can relate to in these stories? That desire to never give up, no matter how many people are trying to kill you? Or in my case, tell me I can’t do something. Quite a few of those around. What about the need to win? And I love that these guys get girls, because I don’t get guys and I have to live vicariously through someone. Why not a character in a book?

Maybe that’s what appeals to us – books enable us to experience things we will never otherwise get to do. There’s a fantastic passage in Matilda (Roald Dahl) that encompasses this:

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

And let’s not forget that, when you go on sailing ships, at least in books, you usually experience the most dreadful storms where the rain came horizontal and waves crashed over the deck, sweeping men to their watery graves. Masts broke, sails tore, and the ship drifted under the merciless sun for days until enough repairs could be done to catch a breeze. With Rudyard Kipling you also learnt about the intricacies of polo from the Maltese Cat (one of my most favourite stories in the world EVER) and what it feels like to fall off a horse at thirty miles an hour (health tip: don’t do this).

Through books we can experience the joy, wonder, fury, horror, sorrow, excitement and pain of lives we will never get to live. And we don’t even care, because there will always be another book. So maybe the key is the fact that, no matter what culture we grew up in, or live in now, we all wish our lives were just a bit more interesting, and books give us the fun we crave.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2011.

Second Book Syndrome by Mhairi Simpson

I’m a good person. Well, I try to be. I try not to talk too much about my writing or my books or whatever’s going on in my world, because it’s not always particularly comfortable and no one likes a miseryguts.

But right now I can’t think of anything else other than the problem I’m faced with right now. Which is my second book. And it’s a really big problem.

My friend Kait Nolan (paranormal romance author extraordinaire) calls it Second Book Syndrome. It’s as good a name as any. I have been suffering from this for months. MONTHS. I have worked on the details of this book, sorting out characters and character arc and problems and plots and sub-plots… The problem is, I have a number of sub-plots. About half a dozen.

But I’m missing a main plot.

The main plot is quite important, I think you’ll agree. It’s the driving force behind the whole book, the problem my main character (poor girl) has to solve in this particular story. And yet… *sigh*

Last night I gave up on it and went to bed. As usual in such cases, something shook loose just as I was about to turn out the light, and I managed to narrow down the possibilities to something relating to politics. That is, politics between her world and Earth. And… that’s as far as I got.

Something to do with fire, maybe? I mean, since I called the book Fire At Will, because I originally intended her to use it to deal with her control issues (bit of wild pyrokinesis in there), but I haven’t been able to focus this down to a main plot yet. Politics and fire aren’t usually a great combination, and that should be a good thing in terms of coming up with a plot, but it’s just not coalescing, you know?

Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you don’t write. Maybe you think writers sit down and pound out these stories like rainbows falling out of the sky. I really hate to take away that magic, but writing is quite difficult. And writing the second book is even harder. Granted, my first book hasn’t even been released yet, but I’m happy with the way it’s going and I know when it does go out it will be absolutely fine. So, for the second book? No pressure or anything.

I noticed a couple of other authors talking about this yesterday. Jessica Scott writes military romance and Myke Cole writes military fantasy. Jessica Scott’s release date for her debut novel Because of You is in about a week’s time; Cole’s (Shadow Ops: Control Point) is in February. Since they are both publishing through large traditional publishing houses, they are both currently in revisions for their second books. They’re feeling the pressure, understandably.

I haven’t even written my second book yet, and I’m terrified. It doesn’t actually get easier with every book. Once you know people liked the first one, there’s that feeling of, can I do it again on the second one? Can I get it right second time around as well? Will everybody hate it and me, stop returning my calls and leave me to die in a slime-filled pit of agonised failure?

The problem is, we can’t stop writing. Admittedly, Cole and Scott are under contract. There would be some repercussions if they just turned round and said, you know? I’m going to Tahiti. But even if they weren’t under contract, they wouldn’t stop writing. Well, I’m assuming that’s true. I know I wouldn’t. Most writers couldn’t, even if you paid them. And we want the story to be its absolute best and we know that edits and revisions are there to make the story even more fan-bloody-tastic, but oh my god, the temptation to walk away and start something else fresh and new and maybe better…! No. We must finish what we started. But it’s not exactly fun.

And I still haven’t even started. *headdesk* Where’s my freaking plot?!

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2011.

Reading… And Characters Who Won’t Leave Me Alone by Mhairi Simpson

If I ever get a publishing contract, I’m sure various people will be banging their heads against walls at various points, because I’m not the most organised person in the cosmos. Every week I have to write a post for this site and I usually have no idea what to write about. Then something comes to me. After I already wrote and deleted (in disgust) 200 words of something else.

This writing thing is much the same way, except in the opposite sense. I can only dream of a time when I don’t have a dozen ideas floating around in my head. I recently wrote down all the titles/main concepts that were zooming around in there. There were ten of them. Six of them have already been started, one of which I actually had what you would call a rather detailed outline for. I hope I still have it, but two laptops have come and gone since then and as one of them was stolen, I didn’t get to do a solid backup. No idea if the outline survives.

Yes. Ten books. And now the centaur from my current book is making a play for his own trilogy. Can you say ‘pushy’? Like I need to add another three books to my To Do list right now? What’s his problem?

Well, he’s angsty and feeling the pressure of leadership and there’s a bunch of other centaurs… NO! Go away! Go back to the woods and moon over the girl centaur that I do not want to know about. Seriously. I don’t have time for you. I’m just coming to the end of edits on the current book. There are ten others to think about next. You, Mr. Kenlas, are a loooooooong way down my list. Bog off.

You might be surprised to hear that, for all I seem to spend a lot of time fighting off characters who want me to tell their story, I actually spend a lot of time reading about other people’s characters, in other people’s worlds. Even more so recently since I, somewhat ill-advisedly, spent half my remaining pennies on a bunch of very well-known authors’ books. I spent the other half on a really beautiful counted cross-stitch kit, but I guess you didn’t need to know that. (It’s got a dragon and everything!)

I am a huge fan of e-books, mainly since I found out I could read them on my iPod Touch, and I think I have upwards of 200 e-books on there now, in both the Kindle mobi and epub formats. The beauty of the iPod means I’m not limited to any one format. *insert smug expression here*

However, that number still doesn’t equal the number of physical books that are currently littered about my one-bedroom, two-bookcase, flat. And when I say ‘littered’, I mean it. There are books on the floor, on my bed, on tables and chairs. There are some on the sofa which I’ll have to kick off the next time my friends come round. Luckily they only visit one at a time so I can just move the books to whichever surface isn’t being sat on. There’s a pile of about fifty books on my bedside table (yes, it’s possible. I have book-piling skills). The best bit is that I can always, maybe after some careful digging (literally), find the book I want. Same with my notebooks. I know they’re in there somewhere. I just have to have the guts to go fishing for them.

Looking up I just realised most of the shelves in one bookcase are taken up with… well, stuff. Certainly not books. That might explain why there are so many on my bed. It’s a good thing I have such a big bed.

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I’m curious about everyone else’s reading habits. Do you prefer print to electronic? Or vice versa? Or are you like me and share the bounty out? Do you use books as doorstops? We always talk about the really big fantasy tomes being able to double as doorstops, but does anyone out there actually do it? Personally I use an empty wine bottle.

Maybe that was something else you didn’t need to know.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available in autumn 2011.

Reading Who You Are And Who You Would Like To Be

By Anne-Mhairi Simpson

One of the prime pieces of advice given to writers is “Write what you know”. This inevitably causes deep sighs and wails of “but I don’t KNOW anything!”. Especially when it comes to fantasy, people say, but I’ve never seen a dragon. How am I supposed to write about it if I can only write what I know about?

I’m sure I’ve spoken about this before, so I’ll just reiterate, that piece of advice relates to emotions, not actual situations. If you’ve been so scared your knees locked and you wanted to vomit, who cares if it was because you saw your mother faint in the middle of a shop or because a dragon landed right in front of you and you realised you were standing on its treasure pile? No one, that’s who. The emotion is what counts.
BUT, that’s not what I’m talking about today.

The thing is, just as writers should write about what is familiar to them in some way, things they have experienced, so do readers tend to gravitate to things that strike a chord with them. This may sound blindingly obvious, and indeed, I’m sure it’s the crux of most publishers’ marketing departments, but how often do you, as a reader, really think about why you read what you read?

I recently bought several epic fantasy novels, including books by Joe Abercrombie and China Miéville. The shame I mentioned in last week’s post had simply grown too much to bear. However, while I was in the shop (evil shop), I decided to look for Suzanne McLeod’s urban fantasy Spellcrackers series.

I found it but they only had The Cold Kiss Of Death, which is book #2. So I had to go and buy book #1 from Amazon (evil shop).

While I was waiting for the Amazon delivery to arrive, I started reading The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. It’s good. It’s got barbarians, big ole meanies, and cripples. The cripple’s bits, in particular, make me wince. I remember when walking was a somewhat similar experience.

But I’m not sucked in. Because I’m not really relating. As it turns out, The Blade Itself is a great book, but it’s not really me. I’ll read it, but for the same reason I read Lord Of The Rings. Because there are some things you just should read if you want to call yourself a fantasy geek. And I am a fantasy geek. Unfortunately, other fantasy geeks don’t respect me. I have to amass more evidence of my geekiness. Hence, The Blade Itself.

Yesterday, The Sweet Scent Of Blood (Spellcrackers #1) arrived. I’m third of the way through it and I had to force myself to put it down mid-sentence to write this blog post in time for it to go up today. The Cold Kiss Of Death is about three feet away, ready to be snatched up as soon as I finish SSB. You know it’s going to happen.

I’m relating more to McLeod’s writing. Do I know why? Not entirely sure. Firstly, it’s set in London, a city I know because I lived there for five years. I particularly like stories involving the fae and McLeod has put a new spin on the idea for me, with the idea that the fae aren’t all-powerful. I love that.
Personally, when I read a book I want to escape from the downside of life. I know about being cold. I know about being hungry. I know about looking around and thinking “Great. What the hell do I do now?” and not having any easy answers. Epic fantasy has a lot of that in it. I don’t need a book to tell me what that’s like. I’ve been there. It’s also got a lot of men in positions of power and a lot of women… not. As in, not in positions of power. I have nothing against a strong male lead (The Dresden Files are among my FAVOURITE stories, as are all of Terry Pratchett’s books) but in my experience epic fantasy tends to run to a more patriarchal system, shall we say?

I also like some of this world in my reading. Like the London setting. And the position of women in society. I like strong women. I’m a woman. I would like to be strong. This probably isn’t surprising. Maybe that’s what puts epic fantasy, for me, into the “should read” category and not the “can’t put it down” category. The Dresden Files centre around a male lead, but there are a LOT of very powerful women there. The faery queens, while you can’t exactly call them ‘women’, are female and the most powerful individuals in that world. Pratchett’s books vary between male and female leads, but there are always strong women there too. I aspire to be that kind of woman.

(I should add right now that I’m only on page 68 of The Blade Itself. If a tremendously powerful woman makes an appearance later on that I haven’t got to yet, I do apologise.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am categorically NOT saying that one is better than the other. Just that I prefer one to the other. That’s my personal taste. I’m sure there are a lot of women who also love Abercrombie’s books and that’s fine too. I’m not debating the worth of anyone else’s work. Just saying, we naturally seem to gravitate towards things we like to read.

The reasons why people read are no doubt as numerous as the readers, but in the end, we want to experience something that takes us out of our everyday lives as well as something amazing, something we wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Why else would you read?

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Real life is just too real, which is why Anne-Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available on 27th October 2011.

Fantasy and Brownies, Two Things Close To My Heart

By Anne-Mhairi Simpson

I will admit, I’m stuck. I don’t know what to write. I was going to write about Horror for a last Blurring the Lines post, but I don’t read horror. I don’t even watch it, if I can possibly help it. I hate horror. I have enough weird psychological goings-on in my everyday life without looking for it elsewhere too.

In case you’re interested, I’ve come to the conclusion that happy, comfortable people like to be scared because it makes them feel more alive. And maybe the psychologically unstable like to be scared because they can look at the film or book that’s scaring them and think, I’m not the only one who likes this.

I’m probably wrong on both counts, and it’s that thought that prevented me from completing the planned Horror in Fantasy article that I started last week and simply couldn’t finish. Because I don’t even like thinking about horror, which makes it rather hard to write about.

So what to write about today. Like I said, I’m stuck.

I just started reading this book by Scott Nicholson called Write Good or Die and the foreword alone was very entertaining. It mentioned something which strangely enough I’ve been discussing with friends the last few days, the fact that, as a writer, I could do exactly what another writer has done and where it has made them into a multi-millionaire international bestseller, it could possibly make me a multi-nationally rejected writer.

“Each writer only knows one set of truths, and those things are true only for that particular writer.” (Scott Nicholson, Write Good or Die, 2010)

You may wonder why I’m spouting about writing and the truth is, that’s what I’ve been talking about all this time, isn’t it? I haven’t been giving writing advice but I’ve been talking about writing. What goes into this genre, what adds to that genre, as if I had any clue!

Because I have to tell you, I’m a fraud. Oh no, I am a writer, and I do write fantasy, but I really don’t know that much about it. I’m not even particularly well-read. I haven’t read Peter V Brett or Joe Abercrombie or China Mieville. I hadn’t even heard of Joe Abercrombie until he commented on a friend’s blog and the friend did the girliest squeeeeeee about it on Twitter. I haven’t read…

Oh I can’t continue with the list, it’s too depressing. Suffice to say that when I went to FantasyCon a few weeks ago, the only writer on any of the panels that I had actually heard of was Suzanne McLeod. But I didn’t know she was doing a panel until my friend caught up with me and I mentioned her and she said, oh yes, she was on that panel I just went to.

*embarrassment*

It occurs to me that we are all perfectly capable of giving opinions on things we know nothing about. As you can see on this site, I do it all the time. And a lot of us have to. We all make decisions every day, which are often based on incomplete information. It’s how we live our lives and usually it works out okay, although there are points where people turn around and say, no, you’re wrong! Which is fine, if you can handle knowing you’re wrong. My problem is that, while I’m perfectly happy to offer half-baked opinions on things I know nothing about in private, I feel I shouldn’t do that in public. That in public I should be perfectly professional and only talk about things that fall within my realm of expertise. Unfortunately, if I stuck to that noble intention, I would only ever talk about Tesco’s gluten-free chocolate chip brownies.

Do these things mean I’m not a proper writer? I don’t think so. I have read a lot of fantasy in my time, but I tend to find (or trip over – same difference) authors I love and then stick with them like my life depends on it. Which is why I own every single one of Terry Pratchett’s books, and Anne McCaffrey’s, and Jim Butcher’s. Sir Pratchett is the only author whose books I buy in hardback. I also own all of Kelley Armstrong’s books, excepting her new YA series, which isn’t because I don’t want the new series, just that I can’t afford to buy them at the moment.

Needless to say, I don’t care about that when it comes to Terry Pratchett. In fact, I must go to the bookshop TODAY and buy Snuff.

This post isn’t informative in the slightest, is it? No. That’s because I feel like I’m not in a position to be giving out information. I don’t even have an English degree! All I can give you here are my opinions, and I suppose this is a disclaimer to the effect that my opinions aren’t terribly well-informed. They’re just me, with a brownie on the side and a keyboard in front.

Never forget the brownie. It’s tremendously important. In fact, it’s so important, I might just write an article on it one day.

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Real life is just too real, which is why Anne-Mhairi writes fantasy, preferably for teenagers because they’re closer to her mental age. This can, and often does, involve griffins, unicorns, werewolves and/or vampires. And because she likes a laugh, there are also pink mice and gods with faulty moral compasses. But whatever she’s writing, there’ll be a lot of blood and a LOT of magic, because that’s what makes her worlds go round.

She’s been to six schools (seven if you include university) and lived in five countries on two continents. She speaks three languages and bits and pieces of three more. She once galloped a horse into a cow (by accident) while at work and she’s been to Machu Picchu three times. Apart from writing, she likes pretty shoes, making jewellery, films, dancing, reading and chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate.

Her first book, For The Love Of Gods, will be available on 27th October 2011.