I have a book recommendation for you!
I read this recently when I was not very well, and it made me cry in several places. On a basic level, it’s the story of the clan composer of a conquered people whose music has been taken without his permission by the court composer of the conquerors. He comes to court to protest the theft and ends up falling in love with the thief (and slowly coming to terms with the dominant culture.)
Recently, thanks to many reviews of my own stuff that went “cut down with the flowery language for crying out loud!” I’ve been pruning my own language back as far as it will go and learning to rely a bit more on a surprising metaphor or two. So it took me a while to get back into the sheer gorgeousness of the language of this. But the gorgeousness is in place and apt for a story that deals with the intricacies of a court setting whose intricacy and studied beauty reminds me of Imperial Japan.
Once you get into the flow of it again, you find you’ve been slowed down enough to start appreciating all the questions of culture and colonialism the book takes on in the middle of a love story.
I’m not doing this justice! I’m trying to be all intellectual about it and I shouldn’t, because what I really loved about it was that it’s a story set in a culture of people with men, women, hermaphrodites and neuters, and although the love story is between a man (Amet) and a Third (Dancer) – a hermaphrodite – it’s a poly relationship, because the Third is already in a sexless relationship of intimacy and love with a Fourth (Always Falling) – a neuter. And throughout the book, the relationship with Always Falling is acknowledged as equally important to Dancer, if not more so, than the love story, and it’s clear that Always Falling is not going to be usurped, squashed out or forgotten. It’s clear that unless they are fully involved with the relationship, there will not be a happy ending.
The last time I read a book where I felt that there was a character who I could latch onto as being like me was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin. And that was Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – a person who was fully gender neutral and sexless about 90% of the time. I feel very fortunate that I’ve now met Always Falling, and that they are written by an author who can handle language with as much beauty as LeGuin and who simply *gets* them – gets their integrity and importance as a human being in a way even LeGuin didn’t.
I’m so delighted to hear that the next book is the love story between Amet and Always Falling! I’ll be getting that one on the day it’s out.
Basically, this is not a well put together review. What I’m trying to say is that if you are agender and asexual, and you’re thirsty for representation, and you’ve never (or rarely) seen anything like yourself in any form of media, this book not only gives you representation but also does it in a work of great beauty. It could not be better!
(Though as a niggling little point, I don’t personally like ‘it’ as a pronoun. I’d have rather had ‘them’ or ‘ze’ or something. I find it hard to reclaim ‘it’ from non-personhood. But I’m not going to quibble about that when everything else is so damn good )
Or: A guest post on The Novel Approach (with giveaway) celebrating the release of Blue Steel Chain–
When False Colors came out in 2009, I still thought I was straight. I remember the furor that was kicked up by the marketing campaign for that book, which was released as part of a four book attempt to take m/m romance to the mainstream under the ill advised marketing slogan “m/m romance by straight women for straight women.” The four authors involved were somewhat startled by this because they were Erastes, Lee Rowan, Donald Hardy and me. That’s two bisexual women, a gay man, and an asexual person who really still isn’t quite sure about this whole gender business.
I’ve digressed. My point was that at the time I didn’t know that asexuality existed. I thought I was the token straight in that group. I’d always been aware that I’d never been very good at being straight. I’d always felt that there were vast areas in our culture that I just wasn’t getting. The whole business with sex, for example. What was the attraction? What was the point? I could see that it seemed to be a huge driving force in human interaction, and yet for me it was a blank space. Did that mean I wasn’t human? I sometimes felt that way.
I defined myself in negatives. I wasn’t a woman but I wasn’t a man. So I probably wasn’t trans. I wasn’t gay or bi or poly, but I really wasn’t very straight either.
How could a person who was so nothing ever actually exist at all?
As part of the promotion of Blue Steel Chain, Riptide have scheduled a Book Bub for Trowchester Blues.
What the heck is a Book Bub? You may ask yourself. I know I did.
Well, it seems to be this cool thing here:
Where you sign up with your email address, and pick what categories of books you enjoy – and yes, there is an LGBT section – and then all kinds of books are available for you either free or with their prices slashed to the bone.
It’s a little worrying. I only found out about the site yesterday and already I’ve bought four books. OTOH, I’ve bought four books for $3.98 in total, so… win. I think
So if anyone wants to start trying (a) my books in general, or (b) the Trowchester series in particular, this is a great place to pick up the first Trowchester book, Trowchester Blues for $0.99
The ‘bub’ will start on the 31st of July and go for five days. Happy shopping 😉
And speaking of Blue Steel Chain! It’s due out on the 27th of July. I haven’t written any of my blog spots for the tour yet. So if anyone has any questions they’d like me to answer, or anything in particular they’d like me to talk about during the tour, do say! I would love to have a chance to talk about something you actually want me to talk about, rather than my usual random nonsense.
So, we’ve done our first pass edit. We’ve plugged the plot holes and the story is hanging together as a marvellous creation that has a beginning, middle and end. Everything’s tied together in a chronology that could work, and no character has accidentally been forgotten half way through. Surely that’s our job done, right?
Not quite. Writing a book is a little like carving a sculpture. First you quarry the basic story stone out of your subconscious, and crudely hew it into the right rough shape. That was your first draft and first revision pass. Now you’re going to put down the saw and pick up the chisel – it’s time for the fine work.
For this pass, we’re going to go through the story we have already, and see where we can make it better. Start again right at the beginning and consider how you have told the reader what you have told them.
This is where most writing books pull out the most well known piece of writing advice that ever existed – Show, don’t tell. Which is all very well, but what the hell does ‘show don’t tell’ actually mean?
Well, for example, suppose you want to open your book with a quick precis of your character’s backstory. My first reaction would be ‘don’t’. Why do we need to know that he was brought up in Northampton and had a pet dog called Spot? Is that relevant? If it’s not relevant, can we perhaps not put it in at all, and just start with the story?
But if you insisted – if you said ‘No, my character’s backstory is the most interesting thing ever, and will be essential to understanding why he chooses to ignore the evidence that his wife is an alien until it’s too late’ – I would have to say Okay then, your funeral.
Let’s consider how to show, rather than tell, your character’s backstory.
When you ‘show’ something, you think up a scene in which that thing becomes obvious to the reader. So if you want to show that your character was afraid of bats ever since he fell down the well in the grounds of his mansion (I wonder where I got that example from), you write a scene in which you allow the reader to feel what it was like for a boy at play to feel the ground crumble around him. You evoke the terror of falling by making the reader feel like they are falling, letting them feel the punch of rocks against their back as they crash into the ground, drawing in vivid detail the stench of ammonia and the crawling, flapping blackness of a bat colony as it swirls past his face.
We’ll call him ‘Bruce’ shall we? So if you were doing this, you would end up with something that read a little like this:
Bruce’s foot plunged into the earth, dislodging stones, wrenching his knee. He tried to scramble away but the long grass was sappy and slick beneath his weight. A burst of green smell and he slid sideways, arms flung out, gripping for the boulders that fell away beside him. Rushing noise and rushing darkness, something whipping past his face. His back slapped into something sharp edged that punched the wind out of him. Stones smacked into his face, lights bursting behind his eyes, and then he hit the ground.
The stench awoke him, acrid and brilliant as a desert sun – the only brightness in the endless dark. He felt the darkness like a plastic bag taped around his face, stopping him from breathing, thinking, had to force himself to wobble to his feet. That was when he heard them, above him. Something rustling. A single huge rustling, and a drip, drip, drip of what he thought at first was rain. But it was urine, concentrated and toxic, like acid on his skin.
“No!” he choked, wanting to crawl out of his own body at the touch. “No!”
And so on. We haven’t even seen the bats yet. At some point he’s got to find his way out of the cave into a place where there is enough light to see them, and then he’s going to have an epiphany about using the power of that image to turn his fear into other people’s fear. But hopefully you see what I mean about ‘showing’. In this example, I’m not telling you that Bruce got his bat idea after being frightened by bats, I’m showing you what it was like for him to be frightened by bats and come up with his familiar idea.
There are things to notice about this. One is that ‘showing’ produces a more viscerally engaging and entertaining thing to read. Another is that ‘showing’ takes up an awful lot of words and space. And what that means is that the pundits who say ‘Always show, don’t tell,’ are wrong.
Show any time you want your reader to really live through the information. Any time you want them to remember it as something dramatic that happened to them. Any time you want them to feel an emotional connection to the information.
But telling is useful and legitimate too. Suppose you just want to get information to the reader with as little fuss as possible? Suppose you’re already in the middle of an exciting scene and you don’t want to interrupt it to have another nested one to explain something you could tell them in a paragraph? Then I say do that instead. A whole load of unnecessary waffle can be cut by a conversation between two characters that goes a bit like this:
“Why the bat motif?”
“Oh, he fell down a well when he was young. Figured that the things that terrified him then would terrify others now. And maybe when he became what he feared, he thought it wouldn’t fear it any more.”
“Yeah, but it seems to work.”
So, that was a long-winded sidetrack to my point about editing. We’re going to have many many editing passes, but the purpose of this one is to decide which things you want to show and which things can be passed over quickly by telling them. Obviously that’s very much up to you, but I would sum it up this way:
If you just want to quickly get across information with no emotional impact – tell.
If you want to make an emotional and visceral impact with the scene – show.
It’s up to you as the author to decide what should be minimized by telling or maximized by showing, but I would also say if you always do one, try to do the other one occasionally, just for variety. Variety will help stop your reader from either being burnt out by all this excitement, or bored by all this exposition.
Next time, dialog and characterization. Coolness!
One of the joys of writing contemporaries is the ability to pilfer parts of real life to stick into your own personal world. I freely admit that I grabbed churches and bookshops and names of villages with wild abandon to put into Trowchester and its environs.
To start with the top down, the twisted spire of Trowchester’s cathedral owes its existence to the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield.
I don’t think I’ve ever been inside. To the best of my memory, I just saw it in passing as we drove past on the way to somewhere else. I couldn’t believe how eerie and wrong it looked, as if God had reached down and twisted it like barley sugar. I don’t know yet why Trowchester’s cathedral spire suffered the same fate, but I’m sure it will reveal itself to me in time.
Finn’s book shop is much closer to home. That’s based on Toppings book shop in Ely.
This is one of those tardis-like bookshops that are far larger on the inside. Outside, a tiny little front, inside it goes back forever, and down, and up and out on both sides. More than that, though, if you go up to the first floor there is a help desk, where you can say ‘What have you got on the Ottoman Empire?’ or ‘I’m looking for something about vampires’, and they will say ‘fiction or non-fiction?’ After which they will guide you to a window seat and place a pile of books in front of you, a pot of coffee and a cup, and they will let you read as much or as little of those books as you please, and to stay as long as you like.
Needless to say, I buy a lot of books there.
Finn’s shop, of course, has slightly more eccentric décor, and a collection of display pieces that he has acquired from up and coming local artists. Also a gay book club that meets on a Friday night. It’s a case of gilding the lily, but who’s going to complain about a golden lily? Not me.
Ely is also home to a tea shop that might feel very familiar to readers of Trowchester Blues – largely because I nicked it and put it on the page mostly unchanged. This is Peacocks Tea Rooms
Home of the widest variety of teas you will ever see served in one place, and cheese scones to die for, Peacocks is one of the most quintessentially English places I’ve ever seen in my life. It definitely deserves to be immortalised in fiction. Possibly in better fiction than mine – but one does what one can!
I’m not sure whether you can thieve the atmosphere of a whole city and put it into your book, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I personally love the bohemian, hippy, flower-child, alternative lifestyle atmosphere of Glastonbury in midsummer.
Because of the Tor and the Abbey, and the fact that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are (allegedly) buried there, Glastonbury attracts people interested in spirituality, Christianity, paganism and folklore – and all of those things are like nectar to me. I didn’t think I could get away with stealing King Arthur, and besides, I’m not all that fond of the man, so Trowchester has a bronze age hill fort and a sacred spring instead. But I made off with the spirit of the place and crammed that into my book too.
I think that’s about it. Harcombe House, the country home of the Harcombe family is too much of a generic stately home to pin it down to any one influence. I’ve seen many houses on the banks of canals, and many marinas, but Michael’s house and boat-builder’s yard are not really any of them in particular.
Oh, one more. Khan’s Restaurant in London is a real place and appears as itself, though sadly Tahir and his father are entirely imaginary.
The Trowchester Series
I have fond memories of Khan’s as it was the place my (now) husband took me for our first date. I was, as you can imagine, very impressed, and I remain so to this day.
It feels like everything that could be said about Mad Max: Fury Road has already been said, but I’m not going to let that stop me from trying anyway. I wasn’t even going to see it, initially. I remember that I watched one of the earlier films – it may have been Beyond the Thunderdome. It may have been the first Mad Max itself. I remembered it as a film in which there was a threatened or actual rape.
I bear grudges that way. A rape scene to me feels like the director chose to take me by the back of the head and rub my face in a pile of dogshit. I permanently resent any piece of media that does that to me. They didn’t have to. They presumably thought it would be entertaining, and that’s the part that I resent and loathe most. It’s not fun for me. I can’t imagine it’s fun for any other woman.
I see it in fact as part of a fear campaign designed to keep all women afraid – designed to control our actions by instilling in us a sense that we are perpetually threatened. And to remind us that men cannot be trusted, that they are our natural enemies, and that even the men we love are sitting there beside us and enjoying watching this.
So yes. I was not going to see this, despite being a big fan of Tom Hardy. Then of course I heard that Men’s Rights Activists were calling for a boycott of the film, and I thought Ohhh? Okay… Now I’m interested. Tom Hardy had already impressed me as someone capable of nuance and sensitivity, and now people were actually saying this was a feminist film? I kind of had to watch it after that, if only to see how a franchise I remembered as being all dicks on trucks could combine with feminism at all.
I still had low expectations, but OMG, I was blown away by what I saw.
There is not one sexual threat in this movie. That whole atmosphere in which women on film live their lives – that constant, unrelenting awareness that they exist to titillate the male gaze in one way or another, to be put in sexual danger so they can be rescued by a hero, or so their humiliation can be enjoyed by the male viewer – it was gone.
Right from the start, it was Max who was chased, threatened, had his bodily autonomy taken away, was used and traumatized. The disturbing scene where women were literally being milked for the sake of the warriors occurred in a context where we had already seen Max have his bodily fluids stolen for the sake of the same people. Shared objectification is not nice, but it is at least inclusive – we know we’re sharing a humiliation that the hero of the film has also been through.
And then it gets better, because here’s Furiosa, and she’s treated exactly like a male action hero. She’s never gawped at, she never has to do any stupid ‘girl power’ speech – she never has to do or say anything overtly feminist. She just is a hero the same way any hero is a hero. She does things, she’s good at them, she’s obviously overcome difficulties in the past, if she lost the arm whose bones are on her truck door. She decides her own fate, and commands troops, and she helps those who ask her for help, even if – like Max – they can only ask by looking at her in terror.
And you think the wives when they emerge, half naked in white muslin, are going to be the damsels in distress and the male gaze eye-candy of the film. Then they’re not. It’s awesome, and you can practically taste the way the camera is respecting them – treating their half naked bodies as just that, as bodies that are being bodies. Not bodies that are being sex objects. There’s no oggling, no leering. I’m not made complicit in treating them like they are my wank fodder. As it turns out, they have names, and characters. They are brave and resourceful, and they are people in a way women are not allowed to be on film.
That’s probably it, really. This film allows women to be people.
And there are so many of them! Heroic warrior women, clever, brave, capable non-warrior women. Rifle wielding, motorcycle riding old women who keep seeds in their bags to regenerate the world. Fat women whose first act on being freed is to give everyone as much water as they need.
There’s no expressing the revelation you feel on watching a scene in which there are two men and everyone else on screen is a woman. Because that happens all the time, the other way around, but never this way. One or two token women is the rule, and you get so used to it, you start celebrating when there are two women to six men. You stop even thinking of it ever being another way.
But Mad Max has taken the blinders off. What a strange world we live in, where it was Mad Max that raised the bar of actually treating women as people. But I certainly don’t intend to settle for less again.
In honour of the launch of Blue Eyed Stranger, a novel that will teach you the secrets about the mysterious world of morris dancing you never thought you needed to know, I present – Morris, the life guide
- If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth doing.
Just as nobody dons their baldrics and bellpads and capers in the street for strangers to sneer at because they think they’ll gain great glory or wealth from it, so you probably won’t gain great glory or riches from writing. You dance because it’s fun, you write because it’s fun, and any other health, social or financial benefits are secondary. Do it anyway, because you love to, and when it gets hard and you’re tempted to grumble, remember that nobody is making you do this, you’re doing it because it’s what you want.
- If you’re not having fun, people can tell.
I won’t name any names, but there are some morris dancing sides I’ve seen where the moves are perfect, the dances are done with enormous attention to detail, getting all the tricky footwork right. Excellent hankywork, good looking uniforms, perfect teamwork etc. And yet it’s so damn dull to watch. You stand there and you watch these people take it all terribly seriously, with frowns of concentration and a font of judgement for anyone who does it a smidgen less traditionally, and you can’t help but think how ridiculous it all is.
You can get away with a bit more poe-facedness as a writer, but it will eventually come through – the fact that you think very highly of yourself, and nobody is allowed to simply enjoy your books. And then, well, I guess you’ll get the poe-faced followers you deserve. If that’s your goal, go for it, but it sounds like an awful grind.
- If you are having fun, people can tell.
One of the first things we tell the new dancers is “If you forget what you’re supposed to do next, just lift your head, put on a big smile, and get back to place when you can. As long as you look like you’re having a great time, most people won’t notice the mistakes, and if they do, they’ll share a laugh with you and enjoy those too.” I think that applies to writing too. If you’re having so much fun with the exploding zombies and the big misunderstandings and the triple adultery and the cavalry charges, people aren’t going to notice the occasional plot hole or clunky sentence. If they’re being breathlessly swept away by your enthusiasm and big smile, they’ll forgive all sorts of technical faults.
- If your audience aren’t having fun, don’t even bother.
Like morris dancing, writing is a spectator sport. You may dance out because it entertains you, but if it doesn’t entertain your audience too you come away feeling dispirited, let down, and despondent, because what’s the point? Plus, you’ll soon find that even the semi-interested, curious onlookers you had at the start begin to drift away. However much you have a message to get across, or a mission to pursue in your writing, if it doesn’t entertain the reader they won’t stick around for anything else. Bear your readers in mind, and if you’re fairly sure they won’t enjoy that hundred page digression detailing the history of tin mining beginning in the stone age, maybe take it out of the story and put it in an appendix.
- You are your own master.
Morris and its accompanying music are folk arts. That means that anyone can do them. With a half hour’s practice every day, I learned to play the pennywhistle well enough for people to dance to, well enough to attend sessions with other musicians, well enough for a new art to have entered and enriched my life. Just the same way, if you put in an hour’s writing practice every day, you will soon get good enough at that to entertain yourself. Then you’ll progress to being able to entertain others, and before long you’ll find yourself making art.
At that point, you can get yourself a publisher, or you can choose to publish yourself, learning all the skills an indie publisher needs to know. But the truth is that you are the producer of the content, you are the provider, the artist, the entertainer, and if you don’t like the way you’re being treated, you get to take that content elsewhere. Unwelcome morris dancers go to drink at another pub. Unwelcome writers get to make their own cover art and market their own ebooks, but neither of us need approval or permission, we will do what is in our hearts to do, and if everyone is having fun in the process, everyone benefits.
Thanks so much to Charles at Arts Illustrated for inviting me over to do a spot
8. What do you like about your work?
I like the fact that it’s about the things I’m interested in. So few books are. The combination of an asexual, queer positive gaze with Christianity is an unfortunately rare one, and when I want to see that coupled with a decent amount of explosions and dragons, I mostly have to do it myself.
OK, that’s maybe not the title I’d have gone for if I’d been going for informational value. I just have the song running through my head at the moment. “Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.’ Let me see if I can find it somewhere so you can have it running through your head too.
All of which is an enormous aside, because what I mean is ‘Help, I’ve finished the novel I was working on. What should I do next?’
I really want to write some heroines. This is a problem, given that everything I’ve ever published is m/m. If I write some heroine led books, where would I publish them? Who would read them? Why on earth would I be even contemplating starting again from scratch when I should really buckle down and concentrate on writing the books I know people want me to write?
Actually maybe the song is not that inappropriate after all. ‘I tremble. They’re going to eat me alive.’
Why do I do this to myself? Why can’t I settle on anything? Oh god, it’s far more appropriate than I thought, or else it’s my author’s mind turning everything into a metaphor, but look – I’m such a butterfly. I can’t stay on one flower very long.
I could try, though. What do you think? Have you got m/m books you badly want me to write? Any suggestions? Or should I go off and write another Lioness book which no one may ever read? And then that one with the squad of Faerie paranormal investigators? And then whatever comes next?
Speaking of which, I’m badly in need of someone to beta read Lioness of Cygnus 5 for me. It’s an all action sci-fi romp in which a hard-bitten female space captain and a cowardly techno-criminal are shipwrecked on a penal planet and have to work together to survive. Anyone fancy reading it and getting back to me with questions and suggestions for how it can be improved?
So, I know authors are not supposed to address negative reviews, but I’m going to do it anyway, in a circuitous way. I’ve no desire to hold up any individual review and nobble it, but I’ve had a couple of reviews from people who have had problems with my depiction of Christianity and Paganism in the Reluctant Berserker, and I would like to try to explain why I wrote it as I did.
The first thing I’d like to say is that I know a certain amount about the era of which we speak. I studied Anglo Saxon Art and Archaeology at university, and then I did a thesis on ‘The Cult of the Horse in Early Anglo-Saxon England’ which necessitated me combing all the available evidence about paganism in England in Saxon times.
I say this not to blow my own trumpet, but mainly to point out that there was both thought and knowledge behind my treatment of both subjects.
It’s fair to say that all the written evidence we have from early Saxon England comes to us filtered through the perspective of Christians. This was because it was Christians – monks, nuns, priests – who were literate at the time. All of the source material we have, on which to base a portrait of the world view of the Saxons was written down by Christians. Even Beowulf.
I know that the impression we get of Saxon society is overwhelmingly Christian, because I studied it looking for evidence of paganism. I wanted at the time to learn more about Woden, Tiw, Thunor, Frig and so on, because I wished to worship them – I was a nascent Asatru. But the result of combing the Anglo-Saxon sources for genuine information about the old gods was a deep immersion in Saxon Christianity and a conversion experience.
We need to remember that this is a pre-scientific society. Our modern society is shaped by a great many beliefs that did not exist in Saxon times. Evolution, progress, the ability of science and reason to understand the world, a profound lack of spirituality. Saxon England was very different. Their world was populated with spiritual presences, which were responsible for illness and fate and luck. They weren’t alone in their universe. In fact they were surrounded by invisible presences, from the earth spirits that might be called up to scorn your enemies to death, to the highest of the archangels. The very earth under their feet was alive and watching them.
The melancholy resignation to the will of God, the gnomic sayings, the superstitious use of Christianity as a kind of magic – making the sign of the cross over food one had dropped on the floor to make it safe to eat – all of it is pretty much directly taken from the source material.
Now you can say ‘but of course the source material is going to be heavily Christian if it was written by monks. That doesn’t mean the normal people were all saints’ and you’d be right about that. But… does that mean that I should reject the only available source material and just make something up? I don’t think that’s a better option.
The truth is that there’s even less evidence for what the pre-Christian beliefs of the Saxons might have been. There are some place names that include the elements Woden, Thunor, Tiw, Ing and Frigg, which suggests that some of the stories known about Odin, Thor, Tyr, Frey and Frigga might have been shared by the Anglo-Saxons. I’ve used that to justify having Leofgar make reference to some stories known from Norse myth.
Beyond that, there are some unexplained references to goddesses like Eostre and Nerthus in the writings of the (Christian) Venerable Bede. And there are some magical chants and formulae in the Leechbooks of the time (early medical texts) which I have used in forming the character and beliefs of Saewyn the healer.
So, really to wind this up before I get tedious – it may be too late there – the reason that The Reluctant Berserker is such a blatantly Christian and indeed Catholic book is that Saxon society and world view was a blatantly Christian and indeed Catholic one (though with some input from Celtic Christianity.)
And the reason why my healer is more in touch with paganism and yet uses her magical powers to curse her son’s killer is not because I’m saying that paganism is inherently evil. It’s because – by early Saxon mores – she has every right and indeed the duty to avenge her son’s death. She’s doing a thing which the early Saxons would have thought of as laudable. And I decided to allow her to do it in an authentic way, by setting up a spite stake against his murderer.