Audio Audio Everywhere

I seem to be having a bit of a podcast spike just now. Last week Cheryl Morgan interviewed me for her Women’s Outlook program on Bristol’s Ujima Radio. Bristolcon director Joanne Hall was live on Wednesday’s show, ahead of the con this Saturday; Cheryl bounced expertly between the live interview with Joanne, the recorded one with me, and some truly inspired musical selections. It was made even more special by the news that Ujima had just won the  Community Organisation Award for Race, Faith and Religion at the National Diversity Awards. You can listen to the show here.

I’ve been a fan of the Midnight in Karachi podcast series on ever since it began; this week I’m the guest! Presenter Mahvesh Murad (currently earning big kudos for editing the fourth volume of The Apex Book of World SF) and I talk about writing the ®Evolution, the politics of the ‘other’, the legacy of colonialism and what we mean when we talk about humans. It was a great conversation, and you can listen to it here.

Back in Bristol

It’s less than a week to Bristolcon! I’ll be there in voice (though not in person) a few days early, as an interview with Cheryl Morgan on Ujima Radio at 12pm Wednesday 23rd. Here’s the livestream link; it’ll be available on Listen Again after the broadcast. Cheryl will also be talking with Bristolcon director Joanne Hall about what this year’s con has in store. As we say in Jamaica, and on Ujima: CHUNE EEN!

The con itself is Saturday 26th September at the Doubletree Hotel in Bristol. Here’s what I’m doing:

15:50-15:55, Programme Room 1

Reading – a short passage from Regeneration (which will be available from con booksellers Forbidden Planet).

17:00-17:45, Programme Room 1

Bad-ass with a Baby

It’s still fairly rare to see depictions of parenting in SF&F. If a character has a child, does that mean they’re no longer allowed to be a bad-ass? And how difficult is it to juggle childcare and saving the universe?

Lor Graham (Mod), Amanda Kear (Dr Bob)Jasper FfordePeter Newman and Stephanie Saulter

Despite the fact that I dislike the term ‘bad-ass’ almost as much as ‘kick-ass’ (and for much the same reasons), I’m really looking forward to this discussion. The absence of children and family in SFF is something I’ve been writing and talking about for a while. Agree? Disagree? Do come listen, challenge and share.

When the Bookstore Doesn’t Have the Book

So Regeneration has been out for four weeks – four weeks! – now, and I couldn’t be happier with the reviews and reader reactions. (The email I received this week from a bookseller in Illinois, who ordered it international delivery because next year’s North American release was too long a wait, is just about the best validation of why it is I do what I do.) But I’m also hearing from readers who can’t find it in their local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I’ve double-checked through Jo Fletcher Books, and the Quercus sales team have confirmed that the books are in stock and orders to retailers have been fulfilled. So what’s going on?

It would be nice to think Regeneration is selling so amazingly well that all the bookstores have simply run out of their initial orders. In some cases that may well be true. But here’s the harsh reality of the current market: the economy may be recovering, but sales of books so far have not. Most booksellers operate on very thin margins. They can afford to order large numbers of the latest footballer’s memoir or TV chef’s recipe collection or works of fiction from already-bestselling authors, and to send them out to all of their branches, because they know they will sell. But a novelist who is critically praised but doesn’t have a track record of high sales, or a high profile? A novelist, in other words, like me? The practice is to order our books frugally, and to send no more than a couple of copies to each store; and not even to every store in the chain.

So “selling amazingly well” can actually translate to only having sold one or two copies, which was a store’s entire stock. By the time you pitch up looking, they’re sold out. And here’s the thing: if you don’t speak to someone in the store about what it is you’re looking for, they’ll never know they could have sold more copies. If it’s a store that never got sent copies in the first place, and that never gets any inquiries, they’ll never know about the sales they could have made.

Here’s another thing: almost every modern bookstore, whether an independent or part of a chain, is linked into a database which allows them to locate and request the book you want in a matter of seconds. It’ll generally be in-store for you to collect in a couple of days. And they want to do that. They are in the business of selling books. They want to know what it is you want to buy, and they want to sell it to you.

There’s a fair amount of kvetching about what bookstores do and don’t get right, and some of it may well be deserved. But I have a lot of sympathy for the basic business conundrum that booksellers face: they cannot stock all of the books in the world, and they need to prioritise those that will sell. They don’t know which books will sell until people buy them. But people can’t buy them unless they sell them. So they end up relying on historical sales data, which may not always be a good predictor of future sales potential.

So please, for the sake of the booksellers and me and every other struggling newbie or mid-list author: tell them what you’re looking for. Order it from them if you can, but even if you can’t – even if you’re about to leave town, or you’re going to go check somewhere else because you can’t wait you want it NOW – tell them about the sale they could have made. Tell them there’s a market for that book. Give them the data.

You’ll be doing us both a favour.

TFFX writing contest, 9W con report(s) & a couple of cool reviews

UPDATE: The TFFX flash fiction contest has been extended!


Further to last week’s post: as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations, The Future Fire is holding a flash writing contest for speculative fiction stories of no more than 500 words, on the theme of the number 10. The deadline is midnight on Sunday 23rd August (yes, that’s THIS SUNDAY!), entry rules are here, and the prizes are copies of Gemsigns and Binary (which I’ll be happy to sign or inscribe for you if you win) and Jennifer Marie Brisset’s Dick- and Locus-nominated novel Elysium. Don’t forget to check out (and tweet links) to the TFFX anthology crowdfunder!

In my first couple years of going to cons I would always write up a report/ review afterwards. I seem to have fallen out of the habit, largely because I’ve become so busy following up on things that arose from or at the con (or that I was ignoring until the con was over). Suffice it to say that Nine Worlds was, once more, an intelligent, thoughtful, fun-filled, inclusive, kind and curious celebration of every nook and cranny of science fiction and fantasy creativity and fandom. The two sessions of the Writing the Other workshop were both exceptionally good and full to capacity; the two panel discussions I participated in – Arcadia or Armageddon? on the question of fictional utopias and dystopias, and I Don’t See Race on how aliens, mutants and robots are often stand-ins for the ethnic “other” – were lively, engaging, thought-provoking and packed to the rafters; and I loved catching up with friends, fans and fellow writers. But the thing that makes Nine Worlds so distinctive is the way in which it embraces those who don’t necessarily find public events and spaces as easy to navigate as I do – so here are two proper con reports that describe what makes it different, and why it matters.

Of course it was particularly special for me this year because of Regeneration, now making its way in the world. It was lovely to chat with folks who’d read Gemsigns and Binary (and in one case someone who’d started with Binary and was about to take up Gemsigns … it’s totally okay to read them out of order, as I explain here), and were looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. The reviews are coming in thick and fast; they can all be found under the Reviews tab above, and so far they’re all very good indeed. No reasonable writer can hope to appeal to everyone, nor expect that their intentions will be clear to – let alone appreciated by – every reader; but every writer, I think, has a soft spot for those readers who not only like what we did, but who get what it was we were trying to do. So on that note, here are two of my favourites.

Over the Effing Rainbow: Lisa observes that, “This is not a story for anybody who’s not interested in change.” She’s right.

A Fantastical Librarian: “What happens when the status quo is challenged?” Thank you, Mieneke. That, indeed, is the question.

TFFX: 10 Years of The Future Fire

Today I welcome Valeria Vitale to the blog to talk about The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, TFF is crowdfunding an anthology: TFFX will include new fiction and artwork, plus reprints of some of the best work from the past ten years.

Valeria is one of TFF’s editors, and is also co-editor of the Fae Visions of the Mediterranean horror anthology. She has a soft spot for ghosts, vampires and old mythologies, but enjoys all sort of stories. When she’s not busy writing and reading (for pleasure or work) you may find her staring at ancient objects in museums or modelling buildings in 3D. At night, when she can’t sleep, she makes toys.

How did you first get involved with The Future Fire? Without looking it up, what is the first story you can remember buying for the zine, and what did you love about it?

Valeria Vitale: My first contact with TFF was as a reader, with issue #24 and I was really impressed by the quality of the stories and illustrations published. Discussing stories is pretty much my favourite activity, so I started doing it with other readers and with the editors, and, before I realised what was happening, I ended up being more and more involved with both TFF and the FFN ( Publishing) anthologies.

The first story that I remember strongly recommending for publication was Rebecca Buchanan’s “Sophie and Zoe at the end of the world.” It is a good, short story that points out issues of race, class and privilege. But what really struck me was the portrayal of the relationship between the two young girls. It felt so honest that it catapulted me back in time, to when I was that young, and very close to my best friend. It reminded me how our bond was built on sharing experiences, thoughts, and things we both loved. As for Sophie and Zoe, those things were, often, books. While reading the story, I knew that, if I had been in Sophie’s shoes, I would have given my leaving-for-a-hibernation-program soul mate a big, ridiculously heavy bag full of books too.

Do you have a favourite word and/or one that you hate?

VV: As many readers (and wannabe writers) I do love words. And I like learning them in other languages, and comparing them. It allows you to look at words from outside; to discover their strength, beauty, or fascinating precision like a foreigner visiting for the first time a place that, although awesome, is ordinary for the people who live there. My absolutely favourite word comes from the pages of French author Raymond Queneau who, I believe, minted it. The word, (in its Italian translation) is: “nottinauta”, traveller of the night. I fell in love with it at first sight. Because I think it suits me and my nocturnal attitude, my love for ghosts and vampires, for dreams and celestial bodies, I even made it my twitter handle.

There are a few words I hate, too. Usually those that _I_ tend to use too much. When I realise it, I start loathing them. But to be fair, it’s not really their fault.

What TFF story would you like to see adapted for the big screen?

VV: The first I could think of is Sara Puls’s “Sweet Like Fate.” Although part of the circus’ charm is definitely in the bold colours, I imagined the adaptation as a short movie in B&W. I think it would take the “glitter” away from the atmosphere and be more effective in showing things from the perspective of the artists, for whom that is a place of hard work and, in the case of Lambeth, of humiliation.

It’s a bit obvious, but I would use high contrast lights to show close ups of the (horrible) people in the audience. I could say in the style of Lang or Welles, but let’s not be too heavy handed. Kaurismaki’s style should be enough! The camera would show that the magic is not happening on stage, but behind the scenes, among the two main characters. Like in a Fellini movie, the tender, the oneiric, the surreal will take over reality. I also imagine it to be without spoken words, as Tati would have done it: with sounds, and only indistinct voices from the other characters. No dialogue between Ru and Lambeth, but looks, smiles, hesitations. The only words, those appearing on the acrobat’s skin.

What would be the most important thing for you to hold onto if civilization started to break down in your city?

VV: I happen to work with one of the most iconic cases of sudden disasters: Pompeii and Herculaneum. When reading the archaeological reports, it always strikes me how differently people reacted to that tragedy, and what they decided to take with them when they left their houses thinking that the world was ending. Some people made practical choices taking lamps, weapons, medical equipment. Other people tried to carry their most precious goods. But not everyone was that rational. Other people preferred to take amulets and religious statuettes, for protection. And others were found with objects that don’t have, in our eyes, any immediate practical or ritual use and maybe were just things that had an emotional value to them. I’m afraid I belong to the last category. If the world was collapsing and my house burning, I would take something not particularly useful but meaningful to me. Likely because it is a gift. Something I could look at when I need to find some inner strength. I suppose it will be one of my toy crocodiles (I have a few. Don’t ask…). And then I will start looking for some more sensible person to be my companion in the survival attempt.

Tell us more about the TFF tenth anniversary anthology and fundraiser?

VV: I see two main reasons for this initiative. The first looks at the past and is celebratory. Ten years is a lot of time for a small publishing house. We survived a few crises but we’re still here. And we want to ideally toast with all the authors, artists, and readers.

The second looks at the future. We keep receiving good stories and illustrations, but we feel we don’t give our authors the full recompense they deserve for their work, and we would like to change that. Many of the stories in the anthology are already available for free on the TFF website, but we’re also publishing new stories, flash-fiction sequels to earlier stories, poems, illustrations and Borgesian pseudostories. If you enjoy reading our illustrated stories and want to read more of them, please consider supporting the fundraiser. We have a list of nice perks to tempt you with—story critiques, artwork, or I’ll knit a zombie doll that looks like you!—or you could simply pre-order our 10th anniversary anthology featuring some of our very best stories plus new, exclusive extra content.


Many thanks to Valeria, and to editor-in-chief Djibril al-Ayad for making this interview possible. Do head on over to the fundraiser page; the TFFX e-book can be yours for only US$5, and there are great book bundles and other perks to be had. I plumped for the five e-books …

Regeneration! Fantasy in the Court! Nine Worlds!

6 August 2015. The day the ®Evolution ended.

Well, not quite. There’s a short story, Discordances, yet to be released; Regeneration won’t be out in North America until next year; and publication in various editions and territories will roll on for a few years yet.

But: Regeneration, the 3rd book in the ®Evolution trilogy, is out in the UK today. 

Four years ago I was about two-thirds done with the manuscript for what would become the first book. I didn’t know that anyone besides a handful of friends would ever read it, and I had no plans for any more. I didn’t have an agent, let alone a publisher. If you had told me in August of 2011 that this is where I’d be in August 2015, I’d have laughed and bought a lottery ticket.

So how am I celebrating? At Fantasy in the Court, which will entail a suitably epic trek across London town, seeing as there’s a Tube strike on. Given the troubled times the ®Evolution chronicles, hiking on a day of industrial dispute from the urban wilds of Hackney through traffic-choked streets into the literary heart of this ancient city seems entirely apt. Then it’s off to Nine Worlds, the annual tribal gathering of writers, readers and fan-folk of all descriptions, where there’ll be a launch at Friday night’s Jo Fletcher Books summer party, and discussions throughout the weekend of utopias and dystopias, representation and exclusion, and what it means to tell stories; what makes them meaningful, how we reflect and transform ourselves in their image, why they may be the most important cultural artefact we create.

The power of story is something I’m thinking about a great deal at the moment. It’s going to be the big theme of the next book. (It’s also a concern of The Future Fire, a magazine of social-political speculative fiction currently celebrating their 10th anniversary – look out for more on them next week.) It has, I realise, become the big theme of my own life.

I know what stories I’m going to write next. But which ones, I wonder, will I be written into? Four years from now, what tale will I tell?

July Round-Up

Last month felt like a sort of ramping-up to the release of Regeneration and the conclusion of the ®Evolution trilogy, with an interview and a couple of guest posts, several unexpected mentions, and much squeeing and Twitpic-ing as reviewers received their advance copies. Of course the first review was back in June, courtesy of the Birmingham SF Group (p8); they judged it “an excellent and thoroughly recommended story that examines regeneration on many levels.” An overview of the series and mini-review of Regeneration made it onto Holdfast magazine’s Bookshelf in July, and were equally complimentary. And then there were tweets like this:

… which is about as perfect a reaction as any author can hope for.

The first chapter is available to read over at Carabas. As sometimes happens scene breaks haven’t carried over to the web format, but the shifts are pretty clear I think. Old friends, new characters, and the hint of big new problems …

I wrote about Spreading the ®Evolution for Civilian Reader and Leading Characters for Liz Loves Books, and was interviewed by A Fantastical Librarian. Paul Weimer recommended Gemsigns as a particularly good SF choice for readers of mainstream literary fiction on the Reading Envy podcast. And Itcher Magazine put me on their list of 20 Top Female Science Fiction Authors, which is just … mind-blowing. I’m on a list with Ursula le Guin.

Top that, August.

Con Schedule: Nine Worlds 2015

The Nine Worlds Geekfest is once again right around the corner, and the lovely folks there have once more invited me to teach a workshop and talk on panels. I also get to launch the book I was writing during last year’s con, and generally marvel at the completion of the ®Evolution trilogy. I’ll be happy to sign and chat, so do come help me celebrate – tickets are still available!

Friday 7 August, 6.45pm-8pm, Room 38

Arcadia or Armageddon? – an exploration of utopian and dystopian futures

From the (arguable) utopia of Iain Bank’s Culture to the dusty carnage of Mad Max, why are we so keen to explore our future and what’s the allure of the downfall of civilisation?

Francesca Haig, Geoff Ryman, Kim Lakin-Smith, Gareth L Powell (moderator), Dave Hutchinson, Stephanie Saulter

Friday 7 August, 8pm-10pm, Room 38

Jo Fletcher Books Summer Party & Book Launch

It’s the long-awaited launch of Regeneration! Also Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets in paperback, Sebastien de Castell’s Knight’s Shadow, and Snorri Kristjansson’s Path of Gods. Forbidden Planet will be on hand to supply books, authors will be available to provide signatures, and an abundance of good cheer and merriment is guaranteed.

Saturday 8 August, 10am-11.15am, Room 31

Writing the Other – learn to write outside your own experience

How does one write with sensitivity, avoiding the traps, tropes and clichés that reinforce stereotypes and produce one-dimensional characters? Back for the third year running and hosted this time around by the Fanfic track, I’ll help participants to identify their own preconceptions and develop strategies for addressing them. This interactive workshop provides a primer on pitfalls to avoid, and techniques for improving representation.

Based on Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Suitable for all writers. Sign up in Room 12, from 4.30pm on Friday.

Sunday 9 August, 11.45am-1pm, Connaught B

“I Don’t See Race” – on telling PoC narratives without PoC

Looking at using aliens, mutants, robots and anything else other than people of colour to tell stories about racism.

UPDATE: Georgiana Jackson-Callen, Natalia Mole, Stephanie Saulter, Russell Smith

Sunday 9 August, 3.15pm-4.30pm, Room 31

Writing the Other – learn to write outside your own experience 

This is a repeat of the Saturday session.

Utopia: a usable definition

The question of what constitutes a utopia vs. a dystopia keeps coming up online and in conversation, along with what I think is a reflexive dismissal of the narrative possibilities of utopia. That’s because utopia is presumed to preclude any kind of distress or conflict – and how can you write an engaging story that doesn’t have some sort of strife?

Don’t ask me; I need upheaval as much as the next novelist. However I don’t think that “nothing bad can ever happen” is a particularly helpful definition of a utopia. I’m also annoyed by how easily virtually any science fictional scenario in which there is discord and the risk of things going badly – which is to say pretty much all of them – is labelled a dystopia. I’ve already grumbled about that here, with respect to my own books. This post is a slight expansion of a contribution I made elsewhere earlier today, on the subject of dystopia’s opposite.

A useful concept of utopia is not one in which there is never any crisis or conflict – not least because that sounds to me a lot like being dead (somewhat ironically, the ultimate result of a dystopian state). Instead a practical, achievable and narratively interesting utopia would be a system in which there are clear, legitimate and accessible methods of addressing crises or resolving conflicts. Given that the generally accepted understanding of dystopia (political/ environmental/ economic etc.) is of a state in which there are no legitimate or generally available means of redress, and in which the protagonists have to somehow overthrow, subvert or completely escape the system in order to fix what’s wrong with it or even to survive, its logical opposite would be a state in which problems can be solved without resorting to such measures. But because there’s no guarantee that the problems will be solved, it does not inherently lack the potential for narrative tension. There can still be untold dangers and conflicts; the distinction is not in whether they exist, but in the means available for dealing with them.

Counting the ®Evolution: Who Are These People?

I’ve said a number of times over the past few months that I have yet to really wrap my head around the fact that I’ve now written a trilogy: an arc of three substantial and self-contained novels, a coherent and completed vision. A BIG vision. It’s so big I haven’t quite felt like I could see the edges of it.

I assumed it would hit me in August, when Regeneration is published; but I have in fact just now started to grasp the scale of the thing. It’s all Nicola Budd’s fault. One of her (many, many) jobs as editor at Jo Fletcher Books is to prepare the ebook editions; and one of her strategies has been to elicit bonus content from authors, special little Easter eggs that will come packaged in the ebook. I was still bogged down with the actual writing when she first broached it to me, and in a state of desperation and quite possibly insanity suggested that, as Regeneration would conclude a series that has boasted a large and complex cast of characters, I could produce something along the lines of a dramatis personæ for the entire ®Evolution.

She said that was an excellent idea! … At which point I realised that I didn’t actually know how many characters I had created over the years; nor did I have a definite sense of how to break them down into primary/ secondary/ tertiary levels of importance. I would have to work that out, and I’d have to decide who to include in the cast list for Nicola. But I didn’t want to just cherry-pick the obvious characters; I wanted to know who was being left out. So, with Regeneration edits, copy-edits and proofreads completed and this just about the last task I have to accomplish prior to publication, I decided to conduct a census.

That was two weeks ago.

I went through each book, plus an as-yet-unpublished short story, and created a comprehensive (I hope) list of characters. I determined who were the main drivers of the plot, and defined them as primary. Those with whom they interact in ways that clearly impact the narrative have been dubbed secondary, and those whose role is more textural are tertiary.

Then I had to create a combined list of all three, and work out the categories for that – because some characters who are secondary in one book are primary in another, and some never have a major role in terms of plot but are nevertheless key to the actions of other, more central characters.

Based on that logic I came up with a list of fifteen ‘core’ characters – the ones without whom there would be no story – and have just finished writing the promised cast list, complete with short descriptions for each of them. They’re 40-80 words long, about the same as the standard author bio you’ll see accompanying a review or a guest post. They contain key facts about the character and the role they play in the ®Evolution, including major events across all of the books.

Being able to do that for fifteen characters may not sound terribly impressive, and indeed it isn’t. But according to my census, there are ninety-one named characters in the ®Evolution (and many more who aren’t); and I could write a similar bio for every single one of them. I know the backstory and basic personality traits of nearly a hundred fictional people. I know why they’re in my stories and what they get up to there. Many of them – most of them – quite possibly all of them – could carry stories of their own.

I am finally starting to grasp the scale of this thing.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the UK; Gemsigns and Binary are already out in North America as well as the UK & the rest of the English-speaking world. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

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