A New Anthology Arrives

McNavel

Blimey, looking at all this! I’m proud and delighted to bring this slim anthology of stories, poetry and collodion photography into the light of day.

The Redensive Epiphanies of Pouty McNavel contains stories and haiku by BFS-nominated Gaie Sebold, *Helen Callaghan, Sumit Dam, Chuck Dreyer, Troy McClure, Sarah Ellender, Melanie Garrett, yours truly, and with photography by the award-winning Gordon Fraser.

Two print editions, an e-book, a launch party to plan. Drop me a line if you want a copy to review. (ebook pref)

More to come. Until then:

McNavel:
Victim or perpetrator, woman and man,
She’s on a journey, he’s on a quest.
Doing what we all do – trying to understand.
It’s just beyond his grasp; she’s knows it’s round the next corner.

~

* Helen’s thriller, Dear Amy, is published by Penguin this year.

Old Boots Like New

I get a lot of pleasure from refurbishing old things, bringing them back to life and making them usable again. When Gaie told me she was considering throwing away her old white leather boots I wasn’t sure what I could do but wanted to have a go.

JpegThese boots are 1970s vintage. 40 years of life, including the final few spent in that rock-and-roll lifestyle of a fantasy writer, have taken their toll. The white leather was stained and faded, so were the soles, and the black flashing had faded to grey.

The biggest problem was a detached heel on the right boot. Strong latex glue is perfect for leather, but I’d not tried a shoe repair before. A good application, 24 hours to dry with some weight in the boot, and I had a strong repair that survived a short walk.

After cleaning and de-greasing with a leather dye-prep I made a dilute wash of Titanium White acrylic paint, and gave the boots three coats. The sole of the boot in the second picture gives a good idea of how faded and yellowed the boots had become.

JpegThe lovely white boot leather showed up the black leather flashing on the leg, and the trim on the sole, so that needed re-dying and painting too – both with oil-based black leather dye. In the picture the top stripe is redyed, the bottom one is not.

 

 

 

JpegAnd here’s the finished article – spick and span, and gleaming white again. All ready for a few more years wear.

~

Torosay Castle, and the Cthulhu Tree

Last summer I spent a week with some friends on Mull, a large and beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland. You reach it by ferry from Oban, home of one of my favourite whiskeys.

DSCN4108From Mull you can then take another, smaller ferry to fabled Iona, or an even smaller boat to the mythic Fingal’s cave, on Staffa. (Although there are plenty of pictures in this post these links take you to more.)

Mull’s main town is Tobermory, with its multi-colored buildings along the quay housing some great cafe’s, restaurants and pubs. It’s also the home of another good whisky, though this one is a little too peaty for me.

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While we were there I saw a notice in the local village newsletter for an open day of Torosay Castle gardens. Torosay Castle is more of a baronial pile than fortified castle and as it is privately owned open days are rare. We decided to go, and it was indeed a rare treat. There were damp mossy glades, quiet ponds, enormous beds of nasturtiums, statues – and of course the Cthulhu tree.
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The gardens had suffered some neglect but there was plenty of work now being done. Neglect in a garden is not always a bad thing. Some plants need a few years, or decades, or even centuries to come into their own and the formal part of the garden was still very lovely.

 

 

DSCN4119A really charming surprise was the avenue of statues, including this mysterious gentleman, and a very nice gardener. There was a pregnant lady, a dodgy drunkard, and many more. Whoever made them had a nice sense of humour and great attention to detail.

 

 

 

 

 

DSCN4130There was also a pair of rather dissipated lions. I rather liked them.

 

 

 

 

 

DSCN4115And finally – the Cthulhu tree! We found this wood-tentacled monster of a conifer* deep in loneliest part of the garden. This picture gives a good sense of scale. Deep in the silence of the gardens it was a spooky, powerful entity. No doubt many unholy rites and sacrifices have been performed on the blood-drenched soil under these looming branches.

Images of the tree and the diabolic worship I am convinced it must have once inspired (nay, demanded) stayed with me over the next few nights. They inspired some darkly disturbing fever dreams – stories I am unlikely to ever write for the sake of my – and your – sanity.

~

* As a one-time botanist I’m mildly ashamed to say I don’t know exactly which conifer, but the I was always more interested in ferns than firs and pines. I think it might be a Thuja.

Yes, and the Rituals of Vinyl

Here’s my latest acquisition – £3.00 from Oxfam, and just about perfect condition. An album I have never previously owned. It’s quite nostalgic to flick through the record stacks again, my finger and thumb haven’t forgotten the technique.

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I’ve been getting back into my vinyl collection recently, and enjoying rediscovering some music I only have in that format, like the Eurythmics first album, and Tangerine Dream.

I used to buy almost all my records second hand as a poor student back in the ’70s. I picked up some great music, including what is probably my most valuable album – Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.

When CDs first arrived I loved how I could listen to an album all the way through without having to get up and turn the record over. Some months backup I overheard some younger music lovers talking about how much they liked vinyl, and in particular the ritual elements of playing a record. I was charmed they took so much pleasure in discovering technology I took for granted, That conversation made me that there is a ritual to playing a vinyl record. It also helped me remember how much I liked to hear that first bump and crackle of the needle as it touched down in the play-in groove, the faint echo you sometimes heard of the track to come – and having to get up half way through and turn it over.

I’m enjoying being interrupted again.

~

Embryo novel – first peak.

SpreadNo, not a novel about embryos (hmm, makes quick note), but here’s my 0.02 draft of a new SF novel. As usual this consists of a whole lot of little bits of paper laid out in rows according to Acts, scenes, events, and sometimes just little snatches of dialogue.

First rough notes are at the top, plus a quick sketch of an undergound city, and a few crumpled-up ideas that didn’t make the cut.

This is how I’ve always liked to work at this stage, which is somewhere between wild brain-storming and structured design. There’s something about the pen*/eye/paper thing that suits my mind well and lets the ideas flow.

I know a lot of people like Scrivener, and I’m sure it’s easier on the knees, but for now I’m doing things the way I like to do them. Tired now. I may eat some crisps.

~

* A nice pen. A fountain pen.

The Force Awakens – Some Thoughts

This post will contain spoilers.

There’s a huge amount to like about the latest Star Wars film. It’s made with passion, the protagonists are real people, the humour works. So does the tension, and those moments of Star Wars senswunda as we see technology writ large – and in this case often in ruins – and people doing cool things with Powers of Their Mind Alone.

I was impressed by the humanisation of the stormtroopers, and the light touch with which it was done – a splash of blood, a reaching hand, that moment when the helmet is lifted away. One of the great failings of the action genre is the way it treats its human minions as disposable non-entities. The Force Awakens takes a few good steps into an interesting and more nuanced direction.

It was good to see some of the old hands back, and also good to see that their roles are sinking into the background where they belong. The new cast are strong, their characters engaging, the performances of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are excellent, with some great secondary character roles too. This all works very well, and again – elements of humanisation of the ‘Dark-Side’ forces – jealousy, rivalry, humour, and on occasion common sense. These are all things that will draw me back to see the next film.

Continue reading

Open Waters – Now on Kindle!

Open WatersMy short story collection, ‘Open Waters’, from TheEXAGGERATEDPress, is now available as an e-book from all the usual places.

Open Waters has sixteen of my short stories, a mix of SF and fantasy and the strange, including four never previously published. It also features the same wonderfully moody artwork of Daniele Serra.

Like all e-books it’s modestly priced, so why get a copy? And if you do like what you read, a brief review will earn my undying gratitude – good reviews are the life blood of us struggling writers.

Enjoy!

~

Stinko Ginko!

Image - James Field, CC BY-SA 3.0 Image – James Field, CC BY-SA 3.0

We had a lovely weekend in Cambridge last weekend, staying over with a friend. We’d come up to attend a talk called  “Challenging the gender binary through science fiction and fantasy“, given by multiple Hugo Award winner Cheryl Morgan, and presented by Prof Farah Mendlesohn. Cheryl’s talk, which was part of Cambridge’s Festival Ideas, was an excellent introduction to how SF writers have approached gender issues, gender-variant and transgender people. I came away much better informed and had began to understand a little more. Cheryl is a good speaker, and Farah a very good moderator during the Q&A.

Before the talk we ate at Merhaba, a brilliant Turkish restaurant. If you’re in Cambridge, do go there. The food is outstanding, the portions substantial, and the service charming.

On the way out of the talk we passed by some Ginkgo biloba trees, the maidenhair tree. The leaves make it very recognisable and for me it is always nice to see as it is one of those relic species I find so fascinating. Ginkgo is the only survivor of a whole plant phylum. To put that in perspective, all animals with backbones (fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, mammals etc) form a single animal phylum – the chordates. Ginkgo is a fully qualified survivor.

Ginkgo is also unusual in having separate sexes – the plants are male or female. If you see a tree it is almost always male. Female trees are rare in plantings because the fruit is meant to be very very smelly.

When I saw a Ginkgo with fruit I knew it was female, and I also wanted to find out just how smelly the fruit was. Some of the fruit had fallen, a quick sniff and  – augh! Imagine the strongest, ripest blue cheese and you are getting close! That was some stink.

I wondered if both sexes were planted here because it was at a university.

~

 

 

An Open Letter to My Conservative MP

Dear Mr Scully,

It’s now well-established that David Cameron deceived the nation as to his intentions with child tax credits before the election.

My question to you is this: Where you aware of Mr Cameron’s deceit at the time or not?

If not, please explain how you can continue to trust the leader of your own party.

If you were, please explain why I should continue to trust you.

Yours sincerely,

David Gullen

How To Get an Agent in 530,000 Easy Steps

So this time around I signed with an agent. It was interesting to look back at previous submissions and think about what I did differently. Apart from one thing, it wasn’t that easy to see exactly what that was.

My first novel was short listed by Virgin Publishing’s Virgin Worlds imprint (Remember that? If so, you must be the other guy.) For a brief while I thought I’d made it, and in the months that followed their letter I started writing another novel. Then Virgin wrote to me again: the imprint was closing. From being up, I was more than down. I looked at that first novel again – a fantasy of clashing empires, peaceful explorers, a dying tyrant, dark and dirty evil magics, and a balloon. Even though it had been accepted by a publisher, my confidence in it was gone, I was dissatisfied. I thought it needed more work, a lot of work. I’d seen the first signs of other writers I knew getting locked into re-writing one novel forever. I didn’t want to fall into that trap so I put it aside and carried on with the second one, a contemporary fantasy of mermaids and private detectives, undersea monsters, witches and cats, and saving the world.

When that was sent out it gathered a few encouraging rejections. I reworked it and got a few more. I felt I was getting nowhere. I had to try harder. So I put that one aside too, and threw myself into what, in my hubris, I told myself would be the one they could not ignore: near-future SF, a talking car with a boot full of drug-contaminated money, gangsters, mad presidents, runaway consumerism and nuclear war.

British Library Public Domain ImageI believed in this one, I’d pushed myself harder than I ever had before. The book was demanding to write in its intricacy and invention (well, it was for my little brain). When it was done I worked as hard as I could to find it a home. I did my research, I checked the agencies and agents, their reputations, what genres they liked, how they liked to be queried. I put together my submission packages and emailed or posted them. And they all came back, or were simply ignored. Novel number three gained 136 rejections over two years and taught me some hard lessons about expectations. This was the closest I ever came to giving up.

A chance meeting with Colin Tate at EdgeLit led to this novel being published by Clarion Publishing as Shopocalypse. I had some fantastic blurbs form some seriously good writers, we gave the book a great launch party, it collected a some good reviews, and the inevitable 1-stars on Amazon (OK, so the USA were the bad guys, but it had a talking car!) I was told it had some fans in the Clarke Awards.

Still no agent. Meanwhile I’d been writing another book .

At this point I should probably explain why I wanted an agent. When I first started submitting novels, self-publishing was but a twinkle in the internet’s pre-pubescent eye. These days it has morphed into a great option for some projects. And the small press is fantastic, there are many talented and hard-working people working there. Over the past few years there has been a real renaissance in quality online magazines, and print and e-book anthologies, collections, and novels too. Nevertheless, an agent can still help in many important ways. Many major imprints are closed to unagented work (or respond hopelessly slowly), there are foreign and other rights, contract negotiations, career advice, and more. Victoria Strauss at the SFWA puts it very well here.

Writing those first three books taught me a lot. In particular, writing Shopocalypse taught me about working hard, then harder. Their 385,000 words taught me about writing novels, and I’d learned more about the world of publishing. One thing I came to understand was that what you wanted to write, which may be a perfectly good book, may not be what mainstream publishers want to see. Therefore, it’s unlikely that an agent will be interested either. Another was that writing a synopsis is a very different skill to writing fiction, and you need to master it. One thing you can do is to write the synopsis in the style of the book – give it some energy.

I’d also been to cons, I’d met people. Sometimes just to say ‘Hi’, others I got to lean on the bar with, chat, and swap pints. I went to the Milford critique group, which is where I met Jaine Fenn , who later introduced me to Colin at EdgeLit more or less by breezing past and waving. (She really didn’t like the work I took to Milford, by the way). My writing group asked agents, writers, and editors to come talk to us. Just about everyone agreed to, and nobody asked for expenses. That’s another thing I found out – genre fiction is full of nice people, from fans to authors, agents, and editors. I think the reason for this is that almost everyone starts out as a fan.

I sent my fourth novel out to the five agencies that I knew something about. I knew I would be very happy to work with any of them. Some I’d met, some I’d exchanged emails with, others I knew by reputation. At least one had seen all my previous work and turned it down. I had no expectations things would be different from previous submissions. After two days I had a request for the full MS. Two weeks later I had an offer of representation, which I accepted, and I could not have been happier.

There was no great plan. I just wrote the books I wanted to write using the ideas that excited me, then I sent them out. What did I do differently this time? All the books had been through a similar writing process, a similar critique and review process at the writing group. Before writing this I looked back at those old query letters and synopses. They looked OK. The later ones were better than the first, but the earlier ones were OK – after all, the first one I ever wrote got me that almost-deal with Virgin Worlds. This really made me think.

It was in the books where the difference lay. Those first two really did need some work. In the end it seemed it all came down to one thing: I wrote a better book.

Is there anything you can do wrong during submission? Beyond not providing what you’re asked for, and not behaving courteously, I don’t think there’s much. A poor query letter can probably blow your chances with those US agents who insist your letter and nothing else must be your first contact. Personally, I think that’s a crazy way to run a railroad, but US agents are very successful. There is plenty of good advice on how to write these letters, so track it down and follow it. Apart from that, here are my own suggestions:

  • Keep your submission letter to one page, your synopsis to two.
  • Mention relevant achievements such as awards and publications.
  • Don’t squeeze the font size in your synopsis too hard, people notice!
  • Use standard formatting.
  • Pay attention to specific format/style requests from individual agents.
  • Publishers like series, so think about this and sketch out ideas for sequels. Mention them in your submission. I appended mine to the end of the synopsis.
  • Don’t write your query and send it off straight away. Put it aside at least overnight, then look at it again.

Apart from that? I don’t believe you need a writers group – some people manage perfectly well without them, or test readers. I think my group helped me. I constantly tweaked and tuned my submissions for the first three books, but I’ve no evidence it made the slightest difference. There are few short-cuts and no magic buttons – and why would you want there to be? There’s no sure-fire guaranteed way to wangle an agent without doing the one thing they need you to do. Some people connect with their first book, others write a dozen. All I can say is this: write a book, write the absolute best one you can. And if that doesn’t work, write a better one.

~

Article previously published in Focus #64 (Summer 2015), the British Science Fiction Association’s Magazine for Writers.