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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Novels

Drafts, FantasyCon and taking over the world

Short post today. Really to ask for some thoughts.

Tonight I’ve finished an edit on the first book in the fantasy series I’ve got with Ticketyboo Press. This was mainly to tighten the opening based on some beta reader feedback and to bring the overall use of terminology and (some elements) of world plot into line with book two and where I’m going with the story. There’s now a full edit on their side to do – about which I’m pretty excited.

Which means I’ve reached a cross roads.

I’m not ready to start book 3 of that series yet. I need a little break from it to recharge. So I have the following options in front of me which I’ll be mulling over at FantasyCon in between going to panels, being on a couple of panels (which I’m totally excited about) and maybe having a few jars with friends.

  1. Write book 3 of The Oligarchy and finish that series
  2. Edit Immortal Daughter, a fast paced thriller set now which is basically Taken crossed with Logan
  3. Start book 3 of this series!

As we head towards book 1, Dreams of Darkness, coming out, I’ll also be sending out a free copy of a new anthology of stories to people as a thank you for all the support – that’s basically ready to go, it’s just about timing…!

I’ve actually got to sit down with my mentor in the next couple of weeks and work out a plan for drawing up the next story – they want me to focus within a specific genre and then write to its very edges. I’ve got two story ideas I want to rip to pieces with them and hopefully come out of that with something intentionally commercial without losing what I love about writing – the chance to explore my own ideas.

So…feel free to tell me what I should concentrate on next. And if you’re at FantasyCon, come by and say hello.

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

Half Way

I’m half way through the Qilin’s Gambit. It’s come at a real pace (for me at any rate) and despite planning to story in more detail than anything I’ve ever plotted out before I’ve been surprised by two things.

The first is the politics in the story. The world is (obviously) the same as for Dreams of Darkness, it is book 2 after all. However, it features an entirely new set of characters set in a parts of our world and the Dream not seen before. Most notably the city of Kunlun (in different forms) out of Japanese and Chinese legend.

The structure of the world is such that the cultures within it are supposed to be ancient, living breathing societies and one of the main protagonists is a refugee who was once a very important person in the land he had to flee.

As a result I’ve found that my characters are very concerned with the threads and ties to their societies, their roles, their positions and the implications of their actions. It’s been a wonderful surprise to have to explore this and I hope it will be as interesting for readers as it’s been for me to write about power like this.

I guess this reprises discussions about power from the other trilogy, The Oligarchy. I know some people simply want action but for me the impact of any violence in what I’m writing takes its foundation from the groundedness of the world in which it happens.

The other surprise for me is how my female protagonists (book 1 had two male and one female. Book 2 focusses on two female and one male) are growing. I’m super conscious of trying to treat them as people with their own agency with their own battles and pasts but they’ve also surprised me in demanding that their responses are their own. To be honest it’s been a real lesson in dwelling on what they’re facing before simply letting my fingers get on and write them.

Anyway, I’m only half way, so I better get back to it…

Do we improve?

I’m not a fan of self improvement. I’m pretty much the cantankerous bugger who emerged out of being a clueless but unaccountably angry teenager twenty years ago. I suspect friends who know me well probably stop telling me what new diet they’re on, what new method of giving up this or that habit they dislike because they know I’ll sneer and ask them to show me the peer reviewed papers that suggest the method will work to change who they are.

It’s not that I’m some sort of essentialist about human character, it’s just that I’ve reflected on my own utterly inability to overcome (for any real length of time) my own predilections and gut responses that I simply don’t buy that a book or course can manage it – especially when the best studies show that such ideas are nonsense dressed up in respectability to fleece those who should know better via their anxieties. As Maria Konnikova would say – we’re all of us capable of being conned.

However, there are some things we can get better at. Skills being one of them.

My first book, A Family War, came out last May and did ok for itself. People bought it and, if the reviews are genuine, they seemed to enjoy it. However, at the risk of putting anyone off buying it I wasn’t completely happy.

I wrote the first draft of that book in 2005. It lived many lives, losing characters and chapters, before I believed that someone might take it seriously enough to publish it. After a long journey involved a couple of agents and a couple of publishers it got there via Matt at Alternative Realities.

However, I felt it dragged a little in the middle. I felt it wasn’t as tight as it could be. Looking back now I wistfully wish I could have led with the writing I’m delivering now because I think it’s so much better.

That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s also not largely happened just by magic, or me writing more. It’s happened by me listening to people, seeking out other, better writers to give me honest feedback. Asking readers to say what they liked but also what they found a bore, or off putting.

Writers like Adrian Faulkner, Sarah Cawkwell, Jo Zebedee, Adam Nevill and James Brogden. All of them have helped me immensely at various points – if you don’t read their books, then you should. Except for Adrian. You’ll have to wait for his proper debut – it’s going to blow your socks off.

Of the readers? I’ll spare their blushes.

I’ve also learned the rudiments of editing – which has taught me some of my own blind spots in the process.

I have always believed in the stories I’ve written but where I hope, and trust, that I’ve improved is in the character work and the tightness of the writing. Hey, I’m still at the point where entire openings or characters have to be lost or changed to work, but these days I can see them a bit clearer.

The other big change was that in my first novel I didn’t plan. I had an end I wanted my character to get to. I had a world that had been built from my own experience in tech and science. But I had not chapter plans, not character arcs already determined in my head.

I was lucky – it largely worked. But these days I plan. I look at my characters and feel what motivates them, where they’re going and what they’re going to experience along the way. I’ve found it far from being constraining (my original worry was that knowing the future course of the story would mean its actual writing was boring). Instead I’ve found it allows me to deliver something tighter, something much better connected to its own sense of purpose.

Now, you might come across Dreams of Darkness later this year (and an awesome cover reveal is going to come soon) and think this post was just me stroking my own ego. Even if you do, I think I’m more comfortable about my writing now than when I first wrote A Family War.

Part of me is saying – if you didn’t finish A Family War, don’t go away! Try Dreams of Darkness.

Part of me is saying – if you did like it? Well wait till you get a load of what’s coming!

And it’s out

Final checks passed! Launch buttons pressed. A People’s War is out.

Hope you enjoy and as always – regardless, if you do read a copy, please could you do me a massive favour and pop a review up for me?

Stu Keen
Stuart Keen showing a cool demeanour under immense pressure

Not to forget the competition – as per A Family War, the person who posts up the best photo of them with the novel will get the final instalment for free. The winners of the original competition are Bex Cardnell Hesketh and Stuart Keen, both of whom have now received their free copies of A People’s War.

Thanks and merry Christmas

S

 

Interview with Fiona Mcvie

I had the pleasure of being interviewed recently over at AuthorsInterviews by the lovely Fiona Mcvie. Go over and see the interview.

I’ve had the final proof read back on A People’s War – just need to agree the final changes and then it’s off to get printed and published…a little late but still in time for Christmas I hope!

S

Dreams of Darkness

Here’s the blurb for the first of the series, The Fox’s Hope. I hasten to add that it’s a complete novel though, so don’t worry that you’ll discover a world in which you’ll be left feeling unsatisfied.

Millennia ago, man walked the Dream with creatures now dimly remembered in myths and legends. Then came the Darkness, for which all believe man was responsible. To defeat it, man was banned from the Dream, cast out into the world of dumb matter.

Chris Elkin knows nothing of this – he’s more concerned with failing his degree, being dumped by his girlfriend and losing access to the inheritance left to him by his late mother. When his mother’s best friend gives him a stone with a hole in it everything seems to change. Suddenly he’s being forced from his home and discovering that if he doesn’t deal with his mother’s legacy, both worlds will go to war.

On the edge of the Dream, Maela, a Fae ambassador, finds humanity flouting the ban. She travels home to warn her people but her news is not welcome. Maela is sent to determine if man truly is to blame for the Darkness and if he is, to unite the Fae in a war against all mankind.

Shaal, an ancient fox spirit, is a survivor who mourns the loss of his lover in the last war. He still haunts the shattered lands where they once lived. Stumbling across a deliberately forgotten memory. Shaal wants to return home and use its power to restore his land. Instead he finds the Fae want what he has and will sacrifice thousands to get it.

Chris, Maela and Shaal converge in a climactic battle against those forces who would wipe out mankind to stop the Darkness.  Even if they win, shadowing the edges of their confrontation, the Darkness is plotting its first moves.

Dreams of Darkness is an epic fantasy spread across our world and the world of the Dream, that place where all our myths, all our legends are real. It is the first book of a new Epic Fantasy series, The Fox’s Hope and asks, if all our dreams are true, what would happen if our two worlds collide?

Just who is David Chalmers

No spoilers here!

In A Family War, David’s a policeman. In A People’s War he shows a different side. Helena always thought it was strange that an Oligarch wound up as a policeman, even one with as broad a remit as Chalmers.

It’s worth explaining a little about the Oligarchs. They are those whose families were rich enough or powerful enough that when longevity technologies first arrived they could secure these advantages for themselves. They were and remain the 1%. There are, at the time of Helena’s story, about 6 million Oligarchs on the planet. That sounds like quite a lot of them, but it’s not when you consider the planet’s population is closer to 9 billion. These 6 million are tracked and watched for the large part, they have what the media call Adherents, or followers in today’s parlance. Adherents are those who have latched onto specific Oligarchs for whatever special properties they perceive in them.

One of my key drives in building their society was celebrity culture, not simply saturday night television or the movies but how that plays itself out in boardrooms, academia and politics. Even there it’s not really the Trump effect, it’s more about the cult of personality, the idea that the person at the top deserves to earn a thousand times what their lowest paid staff members earn. We all acquiesce in that structure and you see this in how these people at the top are venerated, deferred to and respected as if they alone are responsible for all the good that’s done and profound decisions made. I found the work on organisations by Charles Handy invaluable in trying to figure out how large corporations would engineer this kind of social structure. When I cross referenced that to Richard Sennett and Zygmunt Bauman whose work on modernity, capitalism and the workplace is superb, I realised I wanted my corporations to be miniature dynasties whose boundaries were electronic as much as they were product driven and physical.

If you’re one of just six million among 9 billion ordinary people, something strange must have happened for you to end up as a policeman. Just saying.

Image is from the film Hot Fuzz and is not my own!

Helena Woolf

Book 2 of the Oligarchy is nearly ready to go. We’re aiming for the third week of November – more on that when we have a firm date. In the meantime, I realised that I’d never really talked that much about Helena, the main character throughout the trilogy.

Helena’s an Oligarch. By that I mean she’s solidly within the 1%. Don’t hate her just yet (no…wait until you read about her and what she does before you make the decision). She’s blessed with access to technologies that the 99% are denied. For instance, she’s functionally immortal, although the reality is no one really knows just how long her generation will live. She’s benefitted from genetic therapies that mean she won’t get any of the more common diseases associated with ageing or those we might ordinarily say are heritable.

Add to that the fact that she’s had the best education, the best opportunities and you’d be forgiven for thinking she had everything going for her. A woman who might typify #firstworldproblems. Except Helena is also completely human, just like and I. Well, almost.

In the first book she discovers something terrifying about the world humanity has built for itself, about how it could follow its own logic and destroy the very thing that gives it substance. In A People’s War she’s following through on what she discovered in the first book, not least of which is that her missing father might just be the very man around who everything now revolves.

I’m showing two pictures for Helena above because she has changed her appearance more than once in the story so far. She has, via internal AIs, control over her pigment, hair colour and a limited ability to change her basic features given enough time. For me it’s a sign that in a world where you can change your appearance at will you’re not going to be worried about looking a certain way (except to be fashionable). While that doesn’t exclude racism, nor implicit bias, it does mean that people like Helena aren’t wedded to a certain way of appearing. You might comment that both the women whose images I’ve shown are beautiful (depending on your POV). I’d say, yes. Given the option, most people would probably choose to adhere to symmetry and current norms for beauty. It’s an issue I don’t tackle all that much I’ll admit, but I am very aware of what kind of messages are constructed in choices like this and wanted to highlight that this is deliberate and, hopefully, satirical.

Helena is complex (and I hope that comes across on the page) just like the rest of us.

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