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Here’s some of my photo inspiration for the Shallow Sea book that I’m rewriting.

Originally I had three first person VPs, but my ROR colleagues felt they weren’t differentiated enough. The reason I’d used first person was because I had invented a person called a Twisted, who was small and genderless. I wanted to tell one of the narrative threads from this Twisted’s VP. This meant I had the problem of finding a non-gender specific pronoun, or writing those scenes from first person.

Inventing a non-gender specific pronoun is a very SF thing to do and I’ve read several short stories and books where the author has done this. I’ve never found it very successful, because every time I come across the invented word it throws me out of the story. This doesn’t happen with invented nouns, but for some reason the invented pronoun jarrs, at least it does for me.

So I’ve compromised and left the Twisted scenes in first person, while rewriting the other two narrative threads in deep third person. Note, I’ve said ‘deep’ third person. I want to immerse the reader in the character and their struggles so they will identify and empathise with them. Even though I’ve gone from first person to deep third person, it’s surprising how many subtle changes this makes to the narrative.

I think it is working really well. I know I’ve come across other books where some of the narratives threads are first person and some are third person. I found once I was immersed in the story it didn’t worry me.

How do others feel about it?

>There is always an exception

>Jetlagged and zomboid I’m back from the US and Lunacon. Cons are a poor excercise in marketing and a great one in networking. I’ve been clearing my inbox and following – on one of the lists I am part of – the ardent efforts of some sensible writers to persuade an ardent young man that, really, publishing isn’t interested in another novelization of a rpg, with a sort of write by numbers set of ‘powers’. Trust me on this: it’s probably the least likely thing to please an agent or publisher.



I happen to be an admirer of Australian writer Chris McMahon’s work. I was sitting in the audience at Lunacon when he sat on a panel with a couple of editors and an experienced author, when someone asked where he got his ideas from. I watched how the jaws fell open (mine too) when he said ‘it started as an RPG’.

I’ve read that book. It’s really, really good. I would never have guessed that source in a 1000 years. It’s complex, deep, well motivated.

Someone on the panel summed it up when they said that because one extremely skilled writer could do it, it wasn’t going to work for most.

But there is always an exception. And a new look and good writing can make the oldest trope in the book seem new and exciting.

>Storming Hell

The short story is supposed to be a dead art form but somehow it staggers on in SF & F.

I have always been a keen fan of reading short stories. I also enjoy writing them. It is a different skill to writing a novel. You learn to be concise and well planned. You don’t have room for a single wasted word.

I am rather chuffed to find that one of my shorts is the cover story for the April ‘Jim Baen’s Universe’ magazine (see pic).

I have also just sold a story to Black Library based on the universe of Warhammer 40,000AD. It is called Last Man Standing and is going well.

More later,


>But how do I start writing? — part two

>By Jennifer Stevenson

Okay, say you’re one of those people so unlike me that you are painfully humble. You think nobody listens to you now, so why should they read what you write? You think you have no contribution to make to anything, not even the world of trashy entertainment, where I myself am struggling to make a buck.

Right now, I will give you an exercise that will show you how unique you are. How your voice is a marketable force. Why someone will want to read whatever you write, whatever you choose to say. You will need to find at least two other friends who will try it with you. Four is better.

Are you ready?

Finding your voice: fan mail from the future

In this exercise, you will learn at least five things about your writing that make it unique, that mark your voice as one in a million, that will point you toward where you will make a success of your writing. You will get some fan mail in advance. You will read the back of your twelfth paperback, where they print all the five-star reviews.

This exercise may take two sessions to complete.

Session one you can manage alone. Or your writer friends can help. This takes long enough to pile up about a two-inch-high pile of clippings.

1) Find a pile of old magazines, preferably a mixture. Your library sells them for two bits per issue. Pick up a Vogue, a Road and Track, a National Geographic, a TIME, an Entertainment Weekly, a Tiger Beat, and a Fly Fishing Quarterly.

2) Cut out a big pile of pictures. Be picky. Take only the ones that appeal to you.

Session two requires three to five writers. This takes about two hours.

3) Sit in a circle in front of your pile of magazine pictures. Everyone choose two pictures. Push the rest of the pictures aside when you have chosen your two.

4) Someone use a stopwatch to time this. Everyone look at their own first picture. Start the stopwatch for two minutes. Write for two minutes about the picture in front of you. There are no rules. Your snippet doesn’t have to be first person or third. It doesn’t even have to be about the picture. Just have the picture in front of you while you write. It is okay to suck. At the end of two minutes, do this again for your second picture.

5) Now that you’ve written about each of your choices, pass your pictures to the person on your left and take the pictures from the person on your right. Rinse. Repeat.

6) When everyone has written a two-minute snippet about their own and everyone else’s pictures, one by one, each of you read all of your snippets aloud, one after the other. Listeners jot down two or three things about what they are hearing. When the reader has finished, everyone reads aloud their comments. Tell the writer what you felt when you listened. Tell them what you noticed. Tell them what you were guessing about the rest of the story, even though there is no “rest of the story.” Examples of comments:
“Your stuff makes me laugh.”
“All your pieces are in first person — I did this, I saw that.”
“There’s lots of description. I can really see and feel things.”
“I hear lots of emotion in your writing. I’m right there with the character.”
“Wow, nonstop action!”
“I notice there’s always a conversation, even if the picture has no people in it.”
“I can tell this is going to be a mystery!”
“They’re going to fall in love, aren’t they?”
“She’s going to kill him with that fork, isn’t she?”

Notice that every one of these comments is positive. If you don’t like what you hear, find something positive to say, or don’t comment at all.

7) While you are listening to your friends read their work aloud, notice this: You all wrote about exactly the same pictures. Yet what you each wrote is very different. The combination of what you care about, how you feel, what you want to say, and how you chose to say it, all mixed together to make a unique voice. Nobody, listening to those snippets, would ever guess they were all written about the same set of pictures.

8) As you listen to your friends comment on your work, write it all down. This is exactly what you will be reading in your fan mail, ten years from now, after your eighth novel is published. This is how the Kansas City Star will review your books.

Because this is the core of your voice.

Your voice doesn’t change over time. It just gets more intense. Your voice is who you are. If you can find your own voice and love it and feed it and let it run free to say what it says best, you will sell like crazy.

Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt if you knew some grammar. But grammar can be taught.

Your voice is not taught, it is you. Learn what it is, respect it, nurture it, experiment until you figure out what sort of story it wants to tell.

And then put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

-Jennifer Stevenson
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JenStevenson on twitter


>Just a quick note to say Sarah is on vacation, recovering from kidnapping Dave Freer. She’ll return next week with all the news.

>World Building

>I have to run a workshop for the Australian National Romance Conference on World Building for paranormal, fantasy and futuristic writers. The thing about World Building is that if you do it really well, people don’t notice it. The World Building goes on behind the scenes and motivates the characters.

So I’ve decided rather than create a shopping list of attributes for created societies, I’ll work from the other direction (which is what I do anyway). When I write I start out with the person and their problem and the world evolves from there. This may sound really crazy and cause all kinds of problems, such as how can I be consistent? But I’ve always been fascinated by the way societies evolve and the pressures this places on people. So I’ve done a lot of reading and I trust myself to wing it.

If you stop and look at a lot of the things we do and why, they seem very arbitrary. As long as the created society has an internal logic, even where it is inconsistent, people will accept this. After all, why would you withhold education from half the population, then complain that they are stupid and can’t be trusted with the vote?

Besides, I think creating a story with character, plot and world building will be a better hands-on way to explore the craft of World Building. I’m hoping the problems that arise as we come up with stories, will cause discussion and clarify points. And I’ll have my back up list of questions in case I need them!


>For those who might be wondering where Dave is today, he was kidnapped after his Guest of Honor duties at Lunacon were over. The culprits? A family by the name of Hoyt — Specifically, MGC’s own Sarah A. Hoyt and her family. They do promise to return him in time for his next post. Until then, they are enjoying having Dave not only on the same continent but in the same city with them.


>by Jennifer Stevenson

Hel is an energy vampire. She has joined roller derby because skating counter-clockwise with twenty women generates extra prana, and so she doesn’t have to suck the life out of innocent people. Which is why her derby name is Sump Pump. This is from chapter 13.

At roller derby practice that night I take out four skaters in a row, including Sacker Tart and the fearsome Trigger Happy, recently voted Rookie of the Year and League’s Most Intimidating. Trig looks at me in surprise from the floor, but she grins, so I figure she won’t go after me with any special malice next time. Still, I watch my back. I always watch my back. In spite of my super-strength and speed, I’ve been careful not to seek Most Intimidating status in the league. I need derby too much.
Scrimmage practice ends, and those of us sufficiently hard core stay on for speed class. Trig asks me if I’ve got something on my mind. She has been friendlier since last summer, when she first joined. She’s a cop, an investigator with da Mayor’s anti-hinkiness division. I don’t trust her any farther than I would any other six-foot glamazon.
“I’m cool,” I lie. “Why, are you defending your title?”
“You’ve got some go-juice tonight.”
“Yeah. New vitamin.” It’s called fear, I’m thinking.
“Well get, ready for some vitamin J for Jamitupyourass,” she says, and we line up for the sprint. The whistle goes and I streak away from the line as if last night’s unremembered nightmares are catching up to me. I hear cheers. I’m putting everything I’ve got into it, and when I look around I realize I’m half the length of the track away from the rest. It’s too late to slow down. I’ve blown my cover. I don’t want to slow down anyway. I’m scared and angry, scared of Agent Nick Jones and angry at myself for lusting for him and scared for my Ma and angry at the world for, well, for about everything right now. The other girls start to catch up and I throw away caution. I pour it on. Within eleven seconds I’m lapping the laggers. Then the sprint is over, and I’m getting thumped on the back.
“Sheesh, Sump Pump, what the fuck is that vitamin? I gotta get me some of that,” says Trig. I respond suitably, panting, because that was a great sprint, and moreover there is extra prana in the air and I want to suck it up.
I’m careful to act tuckered out from my recent star sprint on the next round. Coach comes up to me and asks if I’ve been holding back on her, because she wants to see that kind of speed next time I jam. I promise she will. I’m not even angry at myself any more. Apparently even my energy-vampire-enhanced body can do more than I thought it could. I shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what I’ve been learning for the past year since I joined derby.
The prana is knee deep in here, and I’m higher than a 7‑Eleven full of stoners at three a.m.
Sacker Tart lines up next to me with a gleam in her eye, and I think, okay, I’ve challenged the league speed demon and she’s gonna lick me now.
I feel good, in a reckless, insane kind of way. It’s the prana talking, and I don’t care. I feel drunk. Only it’s a good kind of drunk, no a soggy, self-pitying, self-destructive kind of drunk.
“Skaters to your mark,” calls coach. The whistle goes. I blaze away from the line, pouring it on, breathing deeply and evenly. Again I am half a length ahead at the turn, and lap the last three people by the time I’ve made my three laps. The girls are cheering and clicking their wristguards. I think, I’m gonna skate like this in the next bout, and my next thought is, There won’t be a next bout, ‘cuz you’ll be in Hinky Guantanamo and nobody will set eyes on you again ever.
Speed sprints are over. We start the endurance section. I’ve never taken in prana during endurance. It would seem like cheating.
Tonight I do. It’s as if Ma’s hospital bills and Agent Nick and oh shit, I remember Dr. Katterfelto and his fakey German accent and his diagnosis of my screwed-up aura, does my life not suck enough? And I just want to skate as far and as fast as I can. I settle into a nice long stride with a deep breathing pattern, and soon I’ve lost the pack, in my own little world where the wheels meet the floor and the turns come like a video-game Indy 500.
I realize, fourteen laps into the heat, that I’m chanting in my head. What I’m chanting is “straighten up and fly right.”
There’s a message on my cell when I get out of practice. Agent Nick. “Call me.” I ignore it. For the first time since I don’t know when, I go out to the bar with the girls. Tenneby’s has been a bar for almost a hundred years, fancy pressed-tin walls and a suspended milk-glass ceiling, oak bar three inches thick, Tiffany lamps. We sit around the tall tables on the tall stools, laughing and throwing back car bombs, and I realize that I feel good. I’m not paranoid or angry or depressed. Trig has a hot boyfriend who shows up to bouts, and she tells extravagant lies about what they do in bed. Everyone laughs incredulously except Sacker Tart, who just looks thoughtful and a little wistful. Sacker Tart is a porn star in her day job. She’s by far the most glamorous of us all. Like me, many of the derby girls are schoolteachers.
Except for Trig, the anti-magic cop. I stay aware of her without seeming to watch. If she has the smallest clue who I am, I’m screwed for real.
But Trig is only crowing about my speed. “You rock,” she says, thumping my shoulder with a fist. “We’re gonna kill those bitches from Milwaukee next time.”
I lift my car bomb. “Here’s to killing Milwaukee.” We all drink to that. The energy in this bar right now is so sweet, so good. I wonder, in some rebel corner of my mind, if I’ve been wrong all these years. If I shouldn’t have just relaxed and had some fun. The girls all look at me suddenly, as if in answer to this thought, and I feel a sudden surge of good energy, with a little extra tingle in it.
Then I realize they’re looking behind me. There’s warmth on my back. I feel my face change before I can control it, and I turn around, and it’s Agent Nick, touching me, smirking at all the female good humor staring at him.
“You didn’t call back,” he says. “I worried.”
“I was busy,” I say. He stands there, radiating self-satisfaction and delicious, delicious energy. I take a tiny hit of chi off him before I can control myself. Oh, God. So good. I only meant to bring him down a little, keep his dick from leading him into saying something that will lead me into doing something that will get me into trouble.
He doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t even droop. He flushes, looking at me, and his energy output surges. I smell the woody on him as if he is the only warm body in the room.
“Introduce us, Sump Pump,” says Sacker Tart, and Skater Spice says, “Yeah.”
I raise my eyebrows at Agent Nick and he obliges, calling himself Nick Jones without the agent in front of it. He’s smiling as if he doesn’t know how to stop. The horndog.
I’d be jealous, only I know the woody is for me.
For two cents I could beat myself over the head with my car bomb mug. Instead I order another. Agent Nick takes advantage to draw up a stool and join us, ordering beer. The girls scoot over so he can sit next to me.
I feel like the candy store has parked itself in my pocket. Oh-God good. And bad. I don’t know.
Agent Nick drapes his arm across the wire back of my barstool and murmurs in my ear, under cover of the chatter and the sidelong looks, “How’d it go at the doctor?”
At least one girl nearby sends us a look that says Doctor? I roll my eyes at the ceiling. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Your thumb drive isn’t answering,” he added.
So it was a bug, or a tracer or something. “I threw it away,” I say.
He looks shocked. “That was very expensive.”
I shrug and smile, feeling drunk and loving it for the first time in years. “I should have told you. I lose things.”
He leans very close to my ear and murmurs, “It could be a tracer anklet.”
He draws back to see the effect of this.
“No,” I say, looking him in the eye with my vampire Look, “It couldn’t.” This should reduce him to something I can swat down, but he actually seems to expand a little. Does this guy not understand rejection? I’ve met his type, but most of them are, well, drunker or meaner, or both. Everything I do to him seems to make him hornier.
Now that’s interesting, says a completely ungovernable corner of my brain.
“Later,” I say firmly. “Drink your beer. It’s getting cold.”
And for a miracle he seems to accept this. He takes his arm off the back of my chair where it has been lying so temptingly, and picks up his beer and drinks, looking demurely around at the girls who are talking about everything except what they’re all thinking, which is undoubtedly, Sump Pump has a boyfriend?! Sacker in particular is getting runny over him, and I’m not being metaphorical here, I can smell it. Trigger Happy has a semiprofessional cop eye on him that makes me wonder if she’s sussed him. I drain my car bomb and order another.
But they finally relax, and I relax … a little more … and Nick talks like a normal person to Skater Spice and I tease the coach about her new tattoo and it’s fun again. I absolutely refuse to think about what a terrible, terrible idea it is for me to be drunk in public with friends. God, did I just call them friends? They must be friends, or I wouldn’t feel this good. Wake up, Hel, there’s a federal agent at your elbow. Who has the drop on you.
Yeah, and I want the drop on him.
My car bomb slips out of my fingers at this thought and he catches it before it can hit the table.
“Girl, you can’t hold your likker,” says coach in amusement, and I think, how wrong you are.
“Good thing I can hold her likker,” Nick says, and I turn to him to tell him to give me back my car bomb and he leans in and kisses me.
It’s like having a train come straight at me and touch me warm and soft on the lips. His energy is bigger than the sun. He’s hot and pink in the face. He smells like man. I do not even think of taking a hit off him.
He pulls away, looking surprised, and then kisses me again, harder, and I grab the back of his head and open my mouth to him.
I’m falling into his warm human flesh, the sweet strong pulse in his chest, in his throat. I smell oil from his car keys on his fingers where they touch my cheek. I want to crawl down his shirt front and sleep on his chest. I want to purr.
I come down to clapping, hoots, and cries of, “Get a room!”
“Busted,” he says breathlessly when our mouths part.
I look straight into his eyes. He’s glazed over with lust. “Yes. You are.”
I’d like to say that I have a hazy idea of getting the drop on him somehow if I can just get him into bed, but honestly all I want is to get him into bed. Now. Soon. Before I sober up and panic, or God forbid start to cry, because there are tears in my future now, fer sure. Let me have one quickie with the federal hottie before that happens. Before my life is officially over.
I could stop now, I suppose, but of course that won’t happen.
I look at the table and calculate hazily what my bar bill must be. “I make it about fifty bucks,” I say uncertainly.
Nick pulls out a roll and tosses a fifty on the table. “C’mon,” he says “let’s get you home.”
More hooting. I realize I have to keep my face on for a few more minutes anyway and throw a ribald glance around the table, rolling my eyes and smiling foolishly. They’re all looking at me with something I can’t figure out. Coach actually seems to look concerned, and Trig passes me a special wink as if from one ridiculously oversexed slut to another, and Sacker just looks envious, and I can’t bear it, I tuck my head down and blush and let Nick lead me out of there.

>The dreaded second novel

I am currently employed writing my second novel, and we all know the curse of the second novel. Many great writers, among whose company I cannot be included, have come to grief at this point in their careers. I came across a fascinating list of disappointing second novel s that followed bestsellers, while perusing the Times .
Here we go:
Barbary Shore , Norman Mailer, following The Naked and the Dead
Marabou Stalk Nightmares, Irvine Welsh, following Trainspotting
Shirly, Charlotte Bronte, following Jane Eyre
Something Happened, Joseph Heller, following Catch 22
Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier, following Cold Mountain
Valperga, Mary Shelly, following Frankenstein
Walking on Glass, Iain Banks, following The Wasp Factory

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Boris Pasternak (Dr Zhivago), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) and Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) never did get round to writing another one.

I am trying to decide whether I should feel encouraged that even great writers can come to grief or utterly demoralised because if these guys can’t do it then what hope do I have?

On another note, here is a picture taken a couple of months ago of Bleak House, above Broadstair’s Harbour. Dickens used to write in a study with a window overlooking the English Channel. The jetty on the right is Eagles Landing, where the captured French Eagles were brought ashore after the Battle of Waterloo, bringing the first news of Wellington’s Great Victory.

>Critiques, Retreats, and Alpha/Beta Readers

>Rowena’s post got me thinking about critique. Last weekend I was on a panel at Flycon about Alpha and Beta readers, and learned a few things (like what Alpha and Beta readers are; I hadn’t heard the terms before). There’s an archive of the panel if anyone wants to wade through all the posts.

So, a few of the things I learned and discussed. Alpha readers are readers to whom you give your in-progress or first draft work. In my case, the critique group I’m in sometimes plays this role. Beta readers are folks you ask to read a manuscript that’s more finished, perhaps a later draft/polished final. Sometimes a beta reader is a specialist in a field your work references, and you want them to vet the piece for accuracy in that field.

The discussion made me realize that I’ve shifted from using my group as alpha readers to using them as beta readers. Specifically, I no longer bring novels in progress to my critique group, though what I bring them is often a first draft. The reason is that I’ve observed that critique on a WIP can often derail the writer. They may get distracted and decide to change the novel before they’ve finished it. Sometimes this results in their being caught in an endless loop of revision and losing sight of their original vision.

So I no longer bring unfinished novels to my group. I’d rather get to the end of a draft without being distracted by new ideas, some of which are wonderful and cool. My group has great ideas, and each member views things a bit differently. That’s enormously valuable. I want to hear those ideas—after I’ve got a complete draft. Then if I want to include them, I can work them in.

Rowena’s obviously got a great group of trusted peers who gather for group critique. That’s fantastic and it’s also unfortunately rare. I’ve heard from lots of writers, some on the Flycon panel, who have never found a critique group they could work with. I’m lucky on that one, but I’ve also cultivated my group for a couple of decades. It’s not an everyone’s-invited group. Those can be great, but I prefer working in a small group of known and trusted writers.

Retreats like the one Rowena went to are great for another reason. Getting away from home and all the million little should-dos and obligations is very liberating for a writer. Going to a new environment and interacting with people outside one’s normal circle are invigorating. I’m going to a workshop this year on the Oregon Coast that will give me both of these.

Every writer does things differently. What are your thoughts about critique?