I watched a couple of Viking-themed films on Netflix over the weekend, both were entertaining productions in their own ways.
Northmen – A Viking Saga is a fairly straightforward ‘band of disparate people thrown together battling against the odds’. In this case shipwrecked outcasts, a princess, and a warrior priest.
Led by Tom Hopper (Billy Bones from the brilliant Black Sails) this was fun, competent, and action-packed, with occasional mordant humour. Everyone played their parts with conviction as the brave band is slowly whittled down to a core of battle-hardened survivors. Everyone who distrusted or disliked each other resolved their problems in appropriate and satisfactory manly or romantic ways, and the bad guys were jolly bad and had sufficient reason for being so. There was even a rope bridge over a yawning chasm.
This sounds like it’s saga-by-the-numbers and while it’s by no means an original tale it’s an entertaining if undemanding take on the themes and I liked it.
Viking Destiny (aka Of Gods and Warriors) was an interesting surprise, I expected less and received more. The daughter of a murdered king fights to reclaim her legacy. I’m probably being unfair but while watching I thought it was a kind of live-action Brave. It’s not, it’s far more brutal and imaginative, and goes to unexpected places. Terence Stamp cameos a rather gnomic Odin, while Murray McArthur as Loki feels like he’s riffing strongly (and gloriously) off Nicol Williams’ Merlin from Excalibur. Anna Demetriou’s princess hero is suitably conflicted, tough, and competent with a bastard sword. And, as it turns, out, with a severed head in a spiked cage.
Despite the Norse gods this is not a viking story, far more a sub-Arthurian adventure that at times almost felt like a very high-budget role-play. Conceptually it’s a far more ambitious film than Northmen, which did what it did rather well but kept itself bounded by a standard narrative. Anachronisms abound (way too much lippy), and reach often exceeded grasp though in the right circumstances for me that can be admirable and very forgiveable. Nevertheless there was a mythic, fairy-tale vibe that I enjoyed, a decent script, and a surprisingly good supporting cast. I liked this as much for what it was trying to be as for what it was, and this made it my favourite of the two.
If you watch either of these I hope you enjoy them. Bring beer & snacks. Let me know.
Not only is Ian Whates a successful author, he also runs Newcon Press, a prolific and multiple award-winning publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the UK publishing genre landscape without Newcon.
Ian’s kindly agreed to answer a few questions of mine about Newcon and his own work.
1. What effects has Covid-19 lockdown had on Newcon Press?
From a personal perspective, lockdown has had little impact. My normal routine will see me go several days working slavishly at the computer without venturing into the outside world; this has just been an extension of that – somewhat extreme, admittedly. Regarding NewCon as a business, I was genuinely concerned at outset. Events we had invested in heavily, such as London Book Faire, were cancelled with little prospect of recouping our investment, and we’d sunk a substantial amount into commissioning and printing books for launches and conventions that were no longer happening. Thankfully, we’ve worked hard to turn that around, organising virtual book launches, discount sales, and other incentives. As a result, we’ve actually seen a healthy return during the past few months. The only lingering effect to date has been a delay in releasing some titles, which was necessary when the pandemic first hit to help ease cashflow pressures, and that’s had a knock-on effect with our publishing schedule.
2. You’ve mentioned you started Newcon ‘by accident’. How did that happen?
Ah yes… I helped organise a convention, NewCon 3, in Northampton in 2003, at a time when I had yet to discover the SF community. It was a great little con, but none of us knew what we were doing and it lost money. To recoup those losses, I hit upon the idea of publishing a one-off anthology as a fund raiser. Somebody said, “You need to think of a publisher’s name to publish it under.” Since this was never to be repeated, I simply opted for the name of the convention. The book came out and was well received, selling out and pretty much covering the debt. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. Having started, what was it that made you decide to carry on, and keep going?
Short term memory loss. When I held the finished book in my hand, all the woes, the mistakes and anxieties that had gone into producing the volume disappeared, and I thought: “I could do this again…”
What’s kept me going? A combination of stubbornness, the pleasure in bringing out books I feel genuinely proud of, the ability to work with writers whose work I’ve long admired and also the joy of discovering or helping to promote emerging authors. The privilege of working with really talented writers and artists lies at the heart of it, but also the question: if I wasn’t doing this, what the heck else could I do?
4. You write, you edit, you publish. What’s a typical week look like?
Honestly? There’s no such thing. I would love to say that I have a regular routine, that I write for a set number of hours and then edit or read submissions, and I seem to recall it started out that way, but now… Not so much. NewCon has grown far beyond anything I imagined, with over 140 titles published to date (23 of them in 2019 alone, which is a ridiculous number). In essence, each morning I get straight down to whatever job is the most urgent: if a cover needs to be designed and laid out, I’ll do that; if contracts need to be drawn up and sent to the authors for an anthology, I’ll do that. If payments for stories, cover art etc need to be made… if a novel needs to be line edited… if the text for an author’s collection needs to be laid out… if royalty statements need to be calculated, typed, and sent out… if printers need to be chased up… Whatever is most pressing, I’ll tackle first. I start work pretty much when I get up (anywhere between 6.00 and 7.30 am) and work through until 5.00 or 6.00 in the evening; weekends I tend to ease up a little and just work five or six hours a day. There have been long periods (often stretches of many months) when my own writing has had to go on hold, in order to keep NewCon commitments on schedule. That was never the plan, but it has become the reality.
5. Favourite Colour?
Purple; which, I understand, is said to be a non-colour, one that we all perceive differently. I had no idea that was a thing when I decided at a very young age that I liked purple, but it does seem fitting, given the nature of much that I write and indeed publish.
6. Please tell us about your own latest work.
In May I released Dark Angels Rising, the final volume of a space opera trilogy that began five years ago. At its time of release, the first volume Pelquin’s Comet became an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and, flatteringly, it returned to the top of sales charts with the third book’s appearance; in fact, at one point, all three volumes in the series were in the top 50 for ‘space opera’, which was completely unexpected. The series takes a couple of SF tropes and turns them on their head – most notably the idea of humanity making it to the stars with the aid of caches containing ancient alien technology – and is a combination of swash-buckling action, tight-knit character interaction and a dash of humour (with added aliens). The first book drew comparisons with Firefly, and the final book ventures into superheroes in space territory. I had a lot of fun with this series, which garnered some great reviews from the likes of the Guardian and the FT, and I’m sad to say goodbye to the characters.
Next, I’m turning my attention to a literary fantasy inspired by the artist Holbein, which has involved a great deal of research. The story has required me to create a number of different societies, basing some on historical periods and settings and dreaming up others from scratch, letting my imagination run wild in both instances. This one’s pretty much written – a standalone novel – but I need to rework various aspects following feedback from my agent.
7. Why do you want to tell the stories you do?
I have no idea. I’ve always told stories. As a young boy I loved to read, finding wonder in books that no film or TV programme could match (this was long before computers or more sophisticated media), because a book allows me the space to fill in the gaps with my own imagination, whereas in a film the director and producer have already done that for me. English was my favourite subject at school, essay writing the only homework I truly enjoyed. I always felt that I had something to say, my own accent to bring to the long tradition of story-telling, whether simply to entertain in one instance or make a point about society or humanity in another. Whether anyone cared to read my words was another matter, but I suppose I was vain enough to hope they might.
8. What’s the best advice you can give, or have been given, about writing?
Two things: don’t take rejection personally. Just because an editor or agent turns your story or novel down doesn’t mean it’s bad; it simply means this isn’t what they were looking for at that time. The second is to get feedback and genuine criticism from your contemporaries, from people who are not your friends or family. I did this via a writing group, and found the input invaluable, if not always enjoyable. You can learn a lot from critiquing the work of others, as well, from spotting a recurring fault in their writing and thinking: “Hey, I do that too.”
9. What are the best bits of writing and publishing?
Publishing: all of it. The process is akin to a tapestry, with threads interweaving and supporting each other. Pull one thread out and the whole thing can unravel. There’s satisfaction to be had in every aspect – returning edits to an author and having them agree to the suggested tweaks (and even thanking you), completing the layout of a cover and knowing that it works, delivering files to the printers… I suppose the best bit is holding the finished book in your hand. Of course, positive reviews always help as well…
Writing: finishing a story or a book and feeling satisfied, feeling that you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired the tale. I’ve heard it said that no story is ever truly finished, that an author can always go back and tinker with the wording here or the phrasing there, and I can appreciate the sentiment, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in and there comes a point where you know any further tweaking would just be cosmetic. Reader reaction is vital and can be very gratifying, but being content with the story I submit is at least as important, and is about as good as it gets.
There isn’t much crossover between the worlds of writing and leathercraft except in the broadest terms — they both improve with practice, attention to detail is all, a well-thought-out plot is similar to a good design, and so on. (I actually think there are more similarities between writing and gardening, but that’s something for another day.)
I’d love to write a story that involves leatherwork in a meaningful way. I have some ideas that have been kicking around for a while[i] but nothing coherent has taken hold. I think it needs one more seed for the whole thing to germinate and take root. And there I go with gardening metaphors again.
I was skiving in my workshop[ii] today and realised that although that was what I was doing, I wasn’t actually skiving off. Except I was, because I was skiving off the leather with my skiving knife. In other words, I was thinning the leather, specifically in this case so I could close a loop of leather and have the place where the ends overlap no thicker than the rest.
There are several different tools you can use to skive leather, from this simple and traditional knife, to ‘safety’ versions, and all the way up to rather expensive splitting machines. I’ve not had this knife for long, I’m still getting used to it, but I really like it. It’s handed, I use the right-handed version, and that angled-blade design has not changed for a long time.
Leathercraft might not be the oldest prefession but it can’t be far off. Archaeologists have found implements tens of thousands of years old that are immediately recognisable as leather-working tools. And in one case they were not even used by Homo sapiens. I really like the idea that there was a time when we swapped tips and tools with another branch of humanity. And perhaps language too.
‘Skiving’, or ‘skiving off’ escaped from something a craftworker did to their material to an expression that meant not pulling your weight, of slipping away from the job and leaving their co-workers to take up the slack. Skiving of that sort was seldom popular, shaving a little bit of time off at the end of the day, just like I was thinning the end of my piece of leather.
I wonder if the first person to use it as a criticism got a laugh, albeit a dry one. I hope so, it’s a clever use of language. Skiving might not a phrase in very common use any more, but leathercrafts is almost certainly[iii] where it came from.
Fin. [i] For ‘a while’ read ‘several years’. Writers are renowned for understatement. [ii] For ‘workshop’ read ‘conservatory’. Writers are notorious liars. [iii] Probably. Writers are always making things up.
Sometimes I’m reminded that I don’t always see things the way other people do. It’s human, we’re all different, and in many ways it is a good thing, almost an ideal. What a terrible fate it would be if we were all the same.
Lockdown has made me very productive in the house, the garden, my leathercrafts, but I’ve also become disconnected from my writing. The wider world is desperately distracting and it seems the part of me that writes is the part that gets most distracted. Meanwhile, the part of me that weeds and plants and grows food is positively encouraged.
I’ve started reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, a book I’ve owned for several years and failed to engage with. This time however I’ve fallen into it[i]. Obviously the book hasn’t changed, it’s me. I’m intrigued, fascinated, and illuminated by VanderMeer’s wise words, his open-minded approach to creativity and the internal and external worlds it needs. Wonderbook is very energising and it’s helping me regain focus and motivation.
It’s easy to look back at a day and think ‘I’ve achieved nothing worthwhile, I’ve wasted all that time,’ but most things worth doing take longer than a few hours, and down-time is needed. Those ten and twelve hour days are hugely satisfying but I also know I need to plan in those rest days so I can sit and relax, potter about, and let my mind wander. I need to make the time to simply be.
Over the past few days the black garden ants have been swarming. You can see them getting ready a week before they do – the workers enlarge the entrances to the nests (and, presumably the tunnels behind them) so the big flying queens can leave the nest. And they become more alert – a foot-stamp on the ground sends scores of workers flooding defensively from those wider openings.
A few days later you can see a few queens tentatively emerging and then retreating back into the safety of the nest, surrounded and escorted by attentive workers. It turns out that swarming day is fairly unpredictable here in the UK, but is usually a humid day following rain sometime in July. Whatever the specific triggers, they help colonies coordinate swarming to maximise the chances of the queens meeting drones from other nests.
One reason to write (as if you need a reason) is to try and give shape to what it is you are thinking, and how those things you are experiencing make you feel – even if it’s just for yourself. Even if it’s an apparently little thing like watching ants swarm. Yesterday I sat on a step in the garden path near a nest and watched them. There were far more drones than queens, the queens seemed clumsy and indecisive at first, wandering back and forth then floundering through the air in short, low flights of just a few inches. I wondered if they were warming up their flight muscles.
I noticed other queens climbing up plants to take flight. I let one climb on my finger and held up my arm. The queen ran to the tip of my finger, checked it was as high as it could be, and took off. (Ladybirds do this too.)
Meanwhile our nice neighbour was having a minor panic about the swarms. Coming from another part of the world she’d not seen them before and was worried for her young children. My partner, Gaie, explained there was nothing to worry about. I said it was one of the grand sights of English nature and she looked at me a little strangely.
Down in the garden dozens then hundreds of queens and drones took flight. It was the only time in their lives they would fly. Each queen could found a new nest, a new underground city of ants. They would never see the sky again.
The air filled with flying ants climbing into the sky, each seeking a mate from some foreign nest. I watched them rise and wondered if those queens had hopes and fears, if their small minds held dreams for the future. Perhaps they did; the more we find out about insects the more we discover their version of intelligence. In one shape or form ants have swarmed every year for over 100 million years. I felt very fortunate to be able to see this happen once again. An odd wave of optimism filled me.
[i] I’ve found myself reading a lot of graphic novels recently, I’m clearly being drawn towards visual as much as written narratives, and Wonderbook is very much that, filled with clever, imaginative and colourful illustration.
As of today my short story, The Savages, is free to read at Unsung Stories. Please do take a look!
The Savages is an alien coming-of-age story about gender and individual choice. I finished the first draft at a writing retreat in South Wales earlier this year. I knew it wasn’t quite right, so I offered it for critique to my writing group and received some really useful comments, suggestions, and ideas.
Having some distance between yourself and the work can be really useful, so I put this one away for a few weeks before taking another look.
I then had the fastest submission-to-publication of my entire life! Submitted on Tuesday, accepted on Wednesday, proofs and contract Thursday, and published Friday. Phew.
Early in the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK Unsung Stories decided to publish a new story online every week. There are many great SFF stories there from some excellent writers, all free to read, and I’m delighted to be in such good company. It also means that if my one doesn’t press your buttons there’s bound to be others that do, so you should definitely check them out. Enjoy!
Back in another era, another age[i] I bought a book in one of the charity shops along the local high street. This is something I’ve been known to do from time to time. Sometimes I find a book by an author I like, or someone I’ve been meaning to read, or some interesting piece of non-fiction.
This one was a bit different,. It was old, it was a little scruffy, the pages were yellowed, and it was horror. I don’t read a lot of horror, but this one somehow, called to me. Maybe I remembered the glorious description from the second-hand trade for books a little (but not too much) the worse for wear – slightly foxed but still desirable. Some days I aspire to that description.
It also included a couple of stories by Arthur Machen, and that persuaded me. I bought it, took it home, and read it like horror should be read – in bed, late at night by the light of the table lamp.
Published by Hutchinson, New Tales of Horror by Eminent Authors had no publication date, and no editor credited. Maybe that information was on the long-gone dust jacket, maybe they didn’t do things like that in those days. Some simple Google-fu reveals it was published eighty six years ago, in 1934. With 17 of the thirty stories previously unpublished, I’m guessing this would have been a desirable book for horror fans between the world wars.
In the main I was a little disappointed, even by the Machen and the Hugh MacDiarmid. These are stories of their era, written in that era’s style. Some are more vignettes than tales, and too many relied in the shocking twist, the ghastly revelation on the last page. Except…
Except there was one story, by one of the many writers in the anthology that I’d never heard of. Love at First Sight, by Richard Middleton, was short, strange, shocking, and very clever. A story that brought me to a dead stop after reading it. I read it again. Clever, strange, and a little mad. That last line.
Middleton had a short and unhappy life. Suffering from depression he took his own life aged 29. By then he had real reputation. Machen and others rated him, and Raymond Chandler seemed a little in awe.[ii] His short novel, The Ghost Ship, is a book I would like to track down.
It’s hard not to wonder what unwritten stories Middleton had, and to regret their non-existence. I also wonder at the names of the other Eminent Authors such E.H. Visiak, Sir Ronald Ross, Nugent Barker,and R.L Mégroz and realise that almost inevitably given another eighty four years, someone finding one of my stories in an anthology will think, ‘David Gullen? Never heard of him.’
[ii] “Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn’t make a go of it, it wasn’t very likely that I could.” (Raymond Chandler Speaking, Dorothy Gardiner, Kathrine Sorley Walker (ed.), Houghton Mifflin)
I came to Fred Willard’s work back to front as it were, discovering him through his fiction before realising he was such a prolific film and TV actor. Willard only wrote two books. Both are noir crime novels and both are original, highly entertaining and well worth reading. The main characters are not so much hard-boiled as hard-bitten, they’ve made mistakes and learned from their criminal pasts, and get pulled back into the game by the lure of one last job.
Down on Ponce is the first, the tale of ex-dope-smuggler Sam Fuller’s time laying low on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. A job emerges, a crew of apparently hopeless street characters assemble – a voiceless cancer survivor, a paraplegic, a madman. Together they plan to rip off the biggest crime boss on the area and escape to better lives. Of course, nothing survives contact with the enemy and their plans for a bloodless scam unravel in the face of true criminal insanity.
There’s an unexpected tenderness among all the dry wit, twists and turns, set-backs and violence. Willard’s characters care for each other, they understand they are different and not only accept each other’s differences and disadvantages, they work with them too. Down on Ponce starts to wander a little as it approaches the final acts, there are few debut novels that don’t, but it soon gets its feet back under itself for a superb ending.
Willard’s second book is the gloriously titled Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac. Once again Willard has a misfit crew pitched against a mixed opposition of schemers and highly dangerous operators, this time on the decaying fringes of CIA covert ops. Willard really finds his style with this book, short chapters, quick changes of scene, a book written as if it’s filled with cinematic jump-cuts.
This time also the story as better balanced between the multiple narratives. Once again our crew are spiraling in on the big score, but other sharks patrol these waters too, and some are highly competent.
As the title promises, the book has a dry and cynical humour. Ponce had that too, but here again it’s better developed and better used. Everything is turned up to eleven and Willard is pushing for twelve. The secondary characters are by turns sinister, ludicrous, pathetic, and deadly. And again there’s that unexpected tenderness in the character’s emotional lives. Well, some of them, most of the others are incapable of finding that and perhaps that was Willard’s point.
Willard’s book are convoluted and intricate but the plots never become confusing. There’s always an ‘X’ on the map that everyone is, by hook or by crook, working their way towards, determines to be the first in, or if not at least the last standing. While there might be no good guys (or gals) there are those who are less worse, and isn’t burning down the really bad guys and getting away with it something we all occasionally dream of?
Both books I suspect are out of print. To my surprise Down on Ponce is available on Kindle. I think Princess Naughty should be too, it’s the better book. There is, however, a decent second hand market for the print versions of both books. Go get ‘em.
Once a quarter I log my Solar PV reading with my electricity supplier. I have a 3.8 KWh installation on a near-enough south-facing roof in the UK. Along with a Tesla Power2 it generates about 75% of our electricity in any year.
I’ve been doing this for 8 years, and logging the detailed info for the past six. It’s been interesting in that my perception of what makes a sunny quarter often isn’t reflected in the readings. They’ve been reasonably consistent.
1. March-May 2014-19
March-May totals 2014-2019 have been, on average, 1,178 KWh, varying from as low as 90% (1,064 KWh) of that average in 2018 to 106% (1,218 KWh) in 2015. (Graph 1.)
2. Cumulative Total
To show personal perceptions of how much sunshine there is can be wrong, the annual total generation for the past few years is pretty much a straight line. (Graph 2.)
But wow, that’s over 30MWh generated!
I’ve just logged this year’s Mar-May reading. Graph 3 shows what that first graph looks like with that reading added in. The new reading that is an extraordinary 129% above the previous six year’s average, at 1,515 KWh.
3. March-May 2014-20
One rule with SolarPV is the longer the days and the sunnier the days, the more electricity is generated. While a clear winter’s day can hit peak generation it will only do it for a short period because the days are short.
It’s been a very sunny quarter. Based on my generation records, there’s been more sunshine in this March-May than in any June-August quarter since 2014 (The highest was 1,490 KWh in 2018). In every other year June-August has always been the highest generating quarter of the year.
Great for us, in the last three months we used an insignificant 28KW from the mains grid, but I’m really wondering why there’s such a big jump. Was it the Covid19 lockdown giving clear skies, or climate change, or a bit of both? I’m wondering what next quarter will be like, and next year too.
Wet winters, dry clear springs and summers seems to be the new normal here. The weather’s beautiful but I can’t help but worry this is bad news.
I remember a conversation from many years ago in my first writing group about whether or not writing could be taught. Some people thought no, that writing alone in all the fields of human endeavour, was somehow special and the ability was innate, Gods-given. The best you could do was encourage, but teaching, darling, was simply not possible.
As a journeyman writer still wet behind the ears I soaked this up. Was it true? I had my doubts. Later I realised this was nonsense. Everything other human activity can be, and is taught, from acting to zoology. Writing is not that special, nor that precious. The conversation moved on to whether writing was art or craft.
Over time this question has interested me probably far more than it reasonably should.
From my own experiences, and listening to other writers, that’s pretty much true for novels. There’s either not enough time because of a deadline, or you’ve drafted it so many times you’re tired of it. So there we have it – writing is art.
Except there’s a craft to writing too, the developed skills in use of language, tension, characterisation, agency, and all the other tools in a writer’s toolbox. Skills that one hopes will never stop being refined and improved in breadth and depth. And of course we change too.
The other thing I can’t seem to leave alone is leather craft. Is this a craft? The name implies as much but I’ve seen work that has amazed me with its artistry. With its origins in the working classes isn’t this classification as much a social construct as anything?
I have a theory: The difference between Art and Craft is that craft can be finished.
When I write a novel, given time and inclination I could redraft it forever, but if I make a leather belt when it is made it is done, finished, and there is nothing more that could be done to make it more the thing that it already is. In fact doing more would risk ruining it.
Except the learning of the craft never ends. Skills improve, the links between mind and eye and hand strengthen, new tools and techniques are discovered or learned. There’s an art to all this after all.
I still like my theory, but I think what it really shows is art and craft are two hands working together, inspiration and application. If I cook a meal, that is a piece of craft, once it’s done it is done, but the learning (and believe me in this realm I have much to learn) never ends.
So is writing an art or a craft? It’s both, obviously, just like everything we do. And yes, it can be taught. And learned. But what about reading, a lone and possibly snarky voice calls? Reading? Don’t get me started.
That wonderful organisation the ALCS (Author’s Licencing and Collecting Society) have been running a campaign called Axe The Reading Tax to have VAT removed from digital publications in the UK. They are now asking all UK writers to write to their MPs before the coming budget.
Not only is this an illogical tax, it also penalises the disadvantaged. Rather than repeat myself, please read the draft letter below. Even better, use it as a template to write to your own MP.
I based my letter on the one the ALCS have on their campaign page. Feel free to use and edit it as you wish.
Please spread the word if you are able. Thank you.
I am writing to you as a local constituent to ask
that you write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to ask on him
to remove the tax on digital publications in the coming Budget.
Printed books, magazines and newspapers have always had a zero-rate of VAT applied to them, and rightly so. But their digital equivalents are subject to 20% VAT. This is illogical and unfair, and is in effect a tax on reading, education, and learning.
Ever since the UK’s VAT regime was established in the 1970s, it was recognised that books and knowledge are essential to people’s lives and applying tax to them is wrong. This long-standing belief has helped ensure that reading and learning remains affordable and accessible to people of all ages, incomes and abilities.
According to research from the
National Literacy Trust, over 45% of children prefer to read on a digital
device and young people on free school meals are more likely to read digitally
than their more advantaged peers. Furthermore, this tax disproportionately
impacts vulnerable groups such as the elderly and people with disabilities, who
may need audiobooks or e-readers that can be used to alter print size. In this
light the tax on digital publication appears arbitrary and unkind.
Please support the campaign to
end this tax.I enclose a pre-paid envelope and look forwards to