How to Write Robots, from Experience

So, you know I had a major operation in February? I was told that one of the things I would not be able to do for three months was to vacuum the house; that would be way too hard on my healing abdominal muscles and might lead to hernia or trauma or massive bleeding or accidental loss of entrails. (They might not have said that last bit, exactly, but I can extrapolate a disaster just as well as any other anxious person.)

I could, of course, have asked my husband to hoover, but he was already waiting on me hand and foot, and I felt too guilty to insist on clean floors on top of that. I could have employed a cleaning person – but I find it hard to allow even friends in my house. I can’t imagine how much I would have been stressing about being judged if someone I didn’t know was discovering the lint balls behind the bookcases.

So I went a little mad, and I bought myself a robot vacuum cleaner.

One of these, in fact – a Neato Botvac D80. He immediately got a gender and a name – I called him Vlad the Vacuum (because he sucks). I programmed him to start hoovering at 9.30 am every week day. In deference to the day when robots are protesting for their own rights, I decided that he would also have the weekend off. He may be a vacuum cleaner, but if I can help it none of my appliances will have due cause to think they’ve been treated unfairly.

I put his base in the hall, which is the only room where the free wall space isn’t taken up by bookshelves, and then I started him up and followed him around the house watching what he did.

What he’s meant to do, I think, is to map out the walls first and then go back and forth across the room like a lawnmower laying down grass stripes. But that discounts things like the sofa, rugs, table-legs, chair-legs, and in our house swords propped against the wall, harps, wood turning implements, bits of computers awaiting repair, and wires. So many wires. That’s a confusing environment for a machine that can get itself lost under a settee.

I somehow expected him to always start off the same way, to always take the same route around the walls, to slowly refine his map of the house until he was efficiently zipping around in no time. I expected him to behave predictably and logically. I mean that’s what you would expect of a robot, right? It would behave like a machine because it was a machine.

That’s not what happened.

Sometimes he will neatly map out the walls, trundle across the floor with an air of purpose and certainty and get back to his charging station by himself within 50 minutes, dock himself with no trouble and sit there looking smug while I clean his filter.

Sometimes he’ll get stuck. Sometimes he’ll get stuck on something he robotfully took in his stride every day for a month previously. When this happens, sometimes he’ll drain his battery trying to get unstuck. Sometimes he’ll bleep for me and I will unstick him. (It quickly became apparent that he needed me there to rescue him because even if he sailed through the cleaning for weeks while I watched, he would inevitably get stuck if I went out and left him to it.)

Most of the time he will find his charging station when he’s done, but sometimes he’ll roll into the hall looking for it and go straight past it into the toilet, where he will mournfully do the 360 degrees pirouette of confusion and promptly roll into a wall. Sometimes he’ll stop just in front of it while I stand behind him waving my hands and hissing “look! Look! It’s right there!” And then I have to pick him up and carry him to it.

Yesterday he was SO confused, going into rooms and coming straight out again, rolling in circles, rolling into walls etc, it was painful to watch. I found myself groaning in sympathy “Oh, son, go back to bed!” But today he was fine again, as though metaphorical butter wouldn’t melt in his metaphorical mouth.

This experience only confirms in me the suspicion that everything in the universe has personality. I expected my robot to be unchanging, undeviating, a thing that did its task the same way every time and nothing more. But in fact he has good days and bad days and I interact with him the same way I would interact with a puppy or a small child.

I suspect that not only is he more full of personality than I expected, but also that humans are primed to interact with anything that appears to have a mind of its own as though it was an animal, a child or another human. Even robots, as it turns out, are individuals and will need our help as much as we need theirs. I find it a reassuring thought as I continue to cry “oh son! Oh sweetheart!” when my bot gets himself in trouble, and “the flatboy done good” with a fist pump when he has a really good day.

How exciting is this – The Porthkennack series has arrived!

Introducing Porthkennack, A New Shared World Series!
Welcome to Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history. Legend says King Arthur’s Black Knight built the fort on the headland here, and it’s a certainty that the town was founded on the proceeds of smuggling, piracy on the high seas, and the deliberate wrecking of cargo ships on the rocky shore. Nowadays it draws in the tourists with sunshine and surfing, but locals know that the ghosts of its Gothic past are never far below the surface.
This collaborative story world is brought to you by five award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ romance authors: Alex Beecroft, Joanna Chambers, Charlie Cochrane, Garrett Leigh, and JL Merrow. Follow Porthkennack and its inhabitants through the centuries with historical and contemporary stand-alone titles.
Each novel in this series is just $4.99 in ebook!
The First Two Porthkennack Books are out April 17!

South London mechanic Devan Thompson has gone to Porthkennack to track down someone he’s been waiting all his life to know. But Dev’s distracted from his quest by Kyle, a broodingly handsome local of only a few months, who’s already got a reputation as an alcoholic because of his strange behaviour—including a habit of collapsing in the street.

Kyle Anthony fled to Porthkennack to escape from the ruins of his life. Still raging against his diagnosis of narcolepsy—a condition that’s cost him his job as a barrister, his lover, and all chance of normality—the last thing he wants is another relationship that’s doomed to fail. But Dev’s easy-going acceptance and adaptability, not to mention his good looks, have Kyle breaking all his self-imposed rules.

When disaster strikes Dev’s adored little sister, Kyle steps up to the plate, and Dev sees a side of his lover he wasn’t prepared for: competent, professional—and way out of Dev’s league. With one man determined that they don’t have a future, and the other fearing it, life after Porthkennack is starting to look bleak for both of them.

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.

In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Upcoming Porthkennack Books

Morgan Capell’s life is falling apart by small degrees—his father’s dead, his boyfriend dumped him, and his mother’s in the grip of dementia. His state of mind isn’t helped by his all-too-real recurring nightmare of the wreck of the Troilus, a two-hundred-year-old ship he’s been dreaming about since his teenage years.

The story of the Troilus is interwoven with the Capell family history. When amateur historian Dominic Watson inveigles himself into seeing the ship’s timbers which make up part of Morgan’s home, they form a tentative but prickly friendship that keeps threatening to spark into something more romantic.

Unexpectedly, Dominic discovers that one of the Troilus’s midshipman was rescued but subsequently might have been murdered, and persuades Morgan to help him establish the truth. But the more they dig, the more vivid Morgan’s nightmares become, until he’s convinced he’s showing the first signs of dementia. It takes as much patience as Dominic possesses—and a fortuitous discovery in a loft—to bring light out of the darkness.

June 5
Calum Hardy’s life has unravelled. Reeling from the betrayal of a man he once loved, he boards a train heading south, with no real idea where he’s going except a world away from London.
Brix Lusmoore can hardly believe his eyes when he spots one of his oldest friends outside Truro station. He hasn’t seen Calum since he fled the capital himself four years ago, harbouring a life-changing secret. But despite the years of silence, their old bond remains, warm and true—and layered with simmering heat they’ve never forgotten.
Calum takes refuge with Brix and a job at his Porthkennack tattoo shop. Bit by bit, he rebuilds his life, but both men carry the ghosts of the past, and it will take more than a rekindled friendship and the magic of the Cornish coast to chase them away.
July 17

After a massive anxiety attack, Sam Atkins left his high-powered job in the City and committed himself to life on the road in a small van. Six months in, he’s running out of savings and coming to the conclusion that he might have to go home to his emotionally abusive family.

Needing time to think, he takes a walk through a copse by the Cornish roadside, only to stumble upon the body of a ritualistically killed sheep. As he’s trying to work out what the symbols around the animal mean, the sheep’s owner, Jennifer, and her nephew, Ruan Gwynn, come upon him.

Ruan is a kind-hearted young man with a large supportive clan, and since he and Sam feel almost instant attraction, he doesn’t want to believe Sam is a sheep-killing cultist. In fact, the moment he lays eyes on Sam’s miserable solitary life, he wants to rescue the man. But as the killings escalate, he and Sam need to stop whoever is actually to blame before they can concentrate on saving each other.

September 4

 

How I would improve Dracula

I’m not even going to pretend that Sons of Devils wasn’t directly inspired by Dracula. Why would I? Have you read Dracula? Even though it’s now a little outdated, it’s a genuinely enjoyable book, and at least half of it is brilliant.

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Bram Stoker is a master of gothic atmosphere, and the part of the book set in Transylvania is to my mind breathlessly gripping and fascinating. When I first read the book, the predator/prey dynamic between Dracula and Jonathan Harker was erotic, and the Romanian setting was unfamiliar and interesting and capital R romantic. I wanted more.

But then the action shifts to England, thus – for me – losing the unfamiliarity and Romance. And with Jonathan Harker presumably dead any kind of erotic charge now fades for anyone who doesn’t like heterosexual pairings… And pretty much my interest in the novel falls off and is gone. No. I wanted to find out what happened to Jonathan. I wanted him to escape and travel through more of that fascinating setting, having interesting encounters and close scrapes until he either defeated Dracula or joined him.

It took me many years of chasing after other vampire novels and wondering why they didn’t deliver the same thrill to realize that it wasn’t the vampire part of Dracula that I was enjoying at all. Half of it was the intense relationship between two men, and half of it was the scenery. Without the setting, none of these other stories were as good. So it didn’t come as any surprise to me that when I began research into Wallachia I absolutely fell in love with the country. What a place! What a beautiful place.

But it did surprise me that it was a very different place than the Transylvania of Stoker’s story. I expected a bleakness in which not much had happened but trees growing and wolves howling, and in fact I discovered a country with roots that were splendid even before the Romans got there. A diverse country full of Dacians and Saxons and Romani, with ancient links to the Ottoman Empire. With lyrical and oddly affectionate folk stories – much softer and more humane than the Brothers’ Grimm stories – and nobles with iron hearts. Such a place! How come more people hadn’t used it as a setting already? I had to put that right.

As far as the intense relationship between two men went, I realized as I got older that a lot of the erotic charge of the vampire came from the Victorian sense that sexuality was something bad and wrong, whose lure was therefore evil – it was a sin whose wages were death. When I realized that, the charm wore off. I don’t want to be suggesting that two guys falling in love with each other was bad or wrong in any way. I don’t want to be perpetuating that whole bodice ripper thing whereby the innocent protagonist has to be forced to have the sex they secretly really want but can’t allow themselves to consent to. Rape culture. Blergh!

That’s not for me. My characters like to take responsibility for their own sexuality, thanks. So my gentlemen’s love for one another is a force of strength for them both, and my vampires are, as they originally were, monsters.

Basically, Sons of Devils is my version of what Dracula should have been, if only it had been written to suit me. I hope it will suit you too!

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Angels of Istanbul is out today!

Huzzah! This is part two of the story that began in Sons of Devils, but with a change of location and an upping of the stakes (heh) I like to think it feels like its own entity. If last book was a love letter to Romania, this one is a sonnet to Istanbul, although I apologize for the vampire apocalypse while I was doing it.

angelsofistanbul_200x300Wallachian nobleman Radu is recently arrived in Bucharest with his vampire parents. Welcomed as an eligible bachelor, he’s introduced to the enchantress Ecaterina, whose salon is Bucharest’s centre of magical expertise. 

But when Ecaterina’s brother dies of a mysterious new plague, it’s clear to Radu that his parents have not been idle. Soon Bucharest is in the grip of an undead epidemic—a less than ideal time for Ottoman Sultan Mahmud, Wallachia’s overlord, to call Bucharest’s nobility to assemble their armies in Istanbul for a holy war against Britain.

The Wallachians have long resented their Ottoman overlords, so Radu seizes the chance to eliminate them while also ridding Bucharest of the undead: he leads an army of vampires to Istanbul and sets them to feed on the Turks.

As Radu’s demons gut the city of Istanbul, their plans become horribly clear. This is only the start. With the Ottoman armies under their control, the undead are poised to suck the life out of the whole world. Radu, his lover Frank, and Ecaterina are appalled at what they’ve unleashed. But they may be too late to stop it.

~

If you know that you like my stuff, I recommend that you buy both volumes in the package deal, because although the story pauses at the end of Sons of Devils, it doesn’t properly conclude until the end of this one. If you aren’t sure you’d like it, I’ll put up an excerpt on the Freebies page by the end of today so you can try the first three chapters before you buy.

Also, let me know if you’d like more! I have four further volumes mapped out in plan form, if anyone wants to read them 🙂 And in the mean time join me on the tour for a chance to win a backlist book and a $10 Riptide voucher:

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Sons of Devils is Out today!

Those of you who’ve known me a while will have seen me blog about this book and Angels of Istanbul, its sequel, for years. I know there are folks out there who want to see epic historical fantasy where the protagonists are queer, but the story is not about the queerness – the story is about the protagonists having badass adventures and saving the world.

There are folks who are tired of queerness being considered a talking point or an obstacle to get over, and who just want novels where queer characters’ sexuality is treated the same way straight characters’ sexuality is treated. Namely, it’s an important part of their character, but it’s not going to get in the way of the adventure.

That’s what this is.

Yes, there’s a love story. Yes, it influences the plot. But you could say the same thing of Star Wars without deciding that Star Wars was therefore a romance.

What this actually is, is my homage to Dracula, where I kept everything I liked about Dracula (Romania, the UST between Dracula and Jonathan Harker) and turned it up to eleven. Then I dropped everything I didn’t like (rainy Victorian Britain, het romance) and added the Ottoman Empire. Everything’s better with the Ottoman Empire.

Anyway. To all those people who said they wanted to see queer literature that was (a) not about coming out or dying, (b) not limited to romance, here it is. I hope you like it!

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British scholar Frank Carew is in Wallachia to study the magic generator on nobleman Radu Vacarescu’s land. There, his party is attacked by bandits and his friends are killed. Pursued by a vampiric figure, he flees to Radu’s castle for help.

Unfortunately, this is precisely where the vampires came from. If allowed, they would feed unchecked and spread their undeath across the whole Earth, but Radu maintains a shaky control over them and keeps them penned in his tiny corner of the country.

As Frank recovers from his assault, Radu finds himself falling for the young man. But loving Frank and not wanting to lose him leaves Radu vulnerable to his demons’ demands. Can he bear to let them feed on the man he loves? Or must he give in to their blackmail and set them free to feast on his entire country?

You can get it here

Or join me on the virtual tour to hear more:

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RIP Samhain, Long Live the Samhain Backlist

This morning, Samhain’s website has gone dark, only redirecting to a farewell page. It’s the end of an era but not the end of the world. Having had notice, and feeling too fuzzy-headed to write, but capable of doing a bit of light administrative work, I spent the last two weeks reformatting the five books of my Samhain backlist and making new cover art, so that I could make them available on Amazon and Kobo immediately, and in paperback asap.

The paperbacks are also formatted and uploaded, but I’m waiting for Createspace to deliver proof copies to me so I can check they’re okay before I finally press the ‘publish’ button.

One bonus of this crash course in formatting for paperback is that Lioness of Cygnus Five should also be made available in print at the same time. The proofs are in the post, so it shouldn’t be long.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet had a rights reversion letter from Samhain, so I can’t put the ebooks up today after all. But they’re working through the authors alphabetically and I’m a B, so I hope it’ll be in the next fortnight or so.

In the mean time, I really need to re-do my website with the new covers!

Speaking of new covers, here they are:

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Plus, I liked the cover for The Reluctant Berserker so much that I’m keeping it, so that one still looks like this:

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Watch this space for when I can make them available again. As I say, I hope it will be soon.

How to make simple but effective cover art

With Samhain closing its doors, hundreds of authors are now wondering what to do with their backlists. I’ve been busily making mock-ups for new cover art for my own books, and I thought this might be a good time to repost this “Absolute basics of making your own cover art” post. Learning how to use a photoshop-type program like Gimp takes a long time and a lot of effort, so if you’re reasonably well off but short on time, I think your best option is probably to buy your Samhain covers, or pay a professional to make new ones. If you’re short on money but long on time, however, this might be the point to teach yourself how to make book covers.

First of all, go to http://www.gimp.org/ and download The GIMP. (This stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program” and has nothing to do with leatherwear unless you want it to.) The Gimp is almost as powerful as Photoshop, more than capable of allowing you to make highly professional book covers, yet totally free.

It’s also offputtingly complicated and has no user manual, but who cares about that, right? 🙂

So, today let’s make a cover for a book which you are going to upload to Smashwords. Smashwords likes its book covers to be 2400 pixels tall by 1600 pixels wide. If you want to make a cover for Amazon, you’ll need to check what dimensions they recommend and use those instead.

Read the rest of this entry »

Samhain Publishing to close on the 28th

So, in an email that went out to Samhain authors this morning we were asked to keep this confidential, but as it’s already out in the public here on The Digital Reader I think that part of it is moot.

Samhain has just announced that they will in fact finally be closing on 28th of February (ie in 18 days time.)

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If you’re a Samhain reader who’s been storing their books in Samhain’s cloud, this would be the time to download them to your own hard storage so that you don’t lose them the way readers lost books they bought with All Romance Ebooks.

Authors are getting their rights back once the closure has happened, and I intend to reformat my books and self-publish them as soon as I can. But as you know, I’m still recovering from an operation and I have a deadline for a new manuscript which I intend to turn in first, so it may be some time before I can get around to re-launching my backlist in print.

(Ebooks may be faster, depending on availability of cover art. I’m looking into buying some of my covers back from them. All the haggling with the artist that went on to make the cover of The Reluctant Berserker as authentic as possible was in my view 100% worth it, and if I can possibly keep that one I will. It’s gorgeous. But otherwise, making new cover art is quite fun, though laborious.)

If there’s a book of mine you haven’t already bought, but were idly thinking of getting on some future day when you felt like it, let me know and I’ll prioritize my re-release list to get to those ones first. But if I can beg a favour, I would ask you to hold on a little longer and get them from me, rather than buying them from Samhain now. On a callously monetary basis, I will recieve much more of the royalties if you buy from me than if you buy from them – and you will probably get the book cheaper too.

My royalties from Samhain halved during this last year, so I am quite pleased at the prospect of having my rights back from them, but I’m still sad about this. They were an excellent publisher while it lasted – which is why they have so much of my backlist. There was a time when, in my view, they were the best m/m publisher out there. The genre will be poorer without them.

It does seem to me that the m/m publishing boom has finally burst. This may yet have its good side, in that the people who leaped on the bandwagon because m/m seemed like the place to get easy sales will find somewhere else to go, and we’ll be left with the people for whom it actually has meaning. I think that’s been quietly self-selecting inside the genre for a long time anyway.

tl/dr

Download your Samhain books to your own storage now. They’ll be gone on the 28th.

Foxglove Copse now available for pre-order

Well, provisionally, following my surgery I am more or less happy to declare that I am not dead yet 🙂

I’ve also come out of the hospital to news that the Porthkennack series is now available for pre-order.

A complete change of pace from the historical-fantasy of the Arising books, the Porthkennack series is a shared universe series, where several authors write stories based in the same location. In this case, the location is a small seaside town in Cornwall, and the ‘several authors’ are me, Joanna Chambers, Charlie Cochrane, Garrett Leigh, and JL Merrow. Each book is a standalone, but locations and some characters may be shared between them. (You’ll find Garrett’s Brix from Blood Rush has a walk on part in my Foxglove Copse, for example.)

The series is planned to contain mostly contemporary novels, but with a few historicals thrown in for background. I’ll be writing one of the historicals for the second wave, but my first novel in the series is the contemporary Foxglove Copse in which eco-traveler Sam Atkins and local boy Ruan Gwynn investigate what looks like a nasty bit of cultic activity on Ruan’s aunt’s farm.

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Blurb:

After a massive anxiety attack, Sam Atkins left his high-powered job in the City and committed himself to life on the road in a small van. Six months in, he’s running out of savings and coming to the conclusion that he might have to go home to his emotionally abusive family.

Needing time to think, he takes a walk through a copse by the Cornish roadside, only to stumble upon the body of a ritualistically killed sheep. As he’s trying to work out what the symbols around the animal mean, the sheep’s owner, Jennifer, and her nephew, Ruan Gwynn, come upon him.

Ruan is a kind-hearted young man with a large supportive clan, and since he and Sam feel almost instant attraction, he doesn’t want to believe Sam is a sheep-killing cultist. In fact, the moment he lays eyes on Sam’s miserable solitary life, he wants to rescue the man. But as the killings escalate, he and Sam need to stop whoever is actually to blame before they can concentrate on saving each other.

Foxglove Copse available here for preorder

And if you would like to read the rest of the Porthkennack books, you can find them here on the collection page.

Meanwhile, I hope to soon be fit enough to start writing again on my second novel for the series, which is the first Age of Sail novel I’ve done for a good long time, and is currently five chapters long out of a planned thirty.

Captain’s Surrender Paperback

The proof arrived this morning and was a joy to behold, so I have okayed it, and you should now be able to buy a paperback of the new edition.

Blank bookcover with clipping path

I don’t know how long it will take until it’s available on Amazon or other retailers, but it should be available right now on the Createspace website here. (From which I may say I get the maximum royalties 😉 )

Now that I know that worked, one of my projects for the new year will be to do a paperback version of Lioness of Cygnus 5. (The last time I tried, I got a doorstop of a book 600 odd pages long because it was doublespaced with extra spaces between paragraphs throughout. This time I will do it properly, reformatting everything and then cutting and pasting each chapter individually into the template.

It is, I have to say, worth it. The new version of Captain’s Surrender is a very good looking book, with a nice large text size that makes it easy to read even without your glasses. Very professional! I am pleased.

On other news, I have finally started work on Contraband Hearts – the second of my Porthkennack books. This is going to be an Age of Sail book from me! A new one, after all hope was lost. It’s not going to be a naval one, though – this one is smuggler versus Customs officer, with some wrecking, some mining and some pilchard fishing just for local colour.

Subject to my health, the plan for this year is:

  • Blog posts for the Arising series release tour
  • Write Contraband Hearts and get it to Riptide before August.
  • Edit Foxglove Copse
  • Release Lioness of Cygnus Five in paperback.
  • Edit Heart of Cygnus Five and release in ebook and paperback
  • Edit Waters of the Deep (sequel to The Wages of Sin) and release in ebook format
  • Edit Pride of Cygnus Five and release in ebook and paperback
  • Write something else – possibly a Trowchester murder mystery book. Or – if I don’t have time after everything else – the third Jasper and Charles story, so I can bundle Wages of Sin, Waters of the deep and Torments of the Damned into an anthology of Unquiet Spirits novellas.

Ideally I would like to get back to the point where I have a ratio of one book in need of editing to one book in first draft stage. My concentration on producing new stuff in 2016 has left me with a serious second draft/editing backlog.

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