Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Abendau's Legacy - sneak preview


Early morning light filtered through rough-hewn portholes, casting sea-shimmers on the corridors ceiling. Kare stopped at the entrance to the old Queen’s chamber in the Roamer complex and stood, soaking in the warmth of the sun and the sound of waves drumming, ceaseless and rhythmic.
             He touched the rooms force-field, letting it tingle against his hands and play over his skin. Once, he’d thought it was a security measure – now he understood that the chamber was not just a sleeping-room, but the Roamers’ museum of a culture, and the force-field prevented damp air reaching it on days when the sun was clouded and the air cold.
Get on with it. He grimaced, took a deep breath, and pushed his way into the room. 
             The briny air was replaced by the low musk of incense, burned in honour of the dead. The room remained as it had been when hed last visited it, on the memorial day for his grandmother, when hed lit the incense. Memories rushed at him: of the casket containing his grandmothers ashes, due to be released over the great ocean of Syllte; of the Roamers hoping hed accept the room as his own, the final symbol that he was Karlyn, their King, not Kare Varnon, the cast-out; of Kerra, wide-eyed and excited at her new heritage, and Baelan, surly, standing apart from the crowd.
It had struck him, then, how like him and Karia his children were. The future they presented could have been his own if his father had not succeeded in escaping the Empress. The Empress had taken the boy, as she’d wanted to with Kare. She’d touched his young mind and tried to shape it. How did it feel for Baelan to see Kerra, so loved and secure? He and Karia had been thrust into their crazy childhood together, but had been loved by their erratic father equally. Baelan had never had any recognition of who he was. Kare wanted to give his son the chance to discover himself – and his daughter, too, so shaped by the palace and her constrained future.   
             He turned in a slow circle, taking in symbols etched in the stone. Some were the earliest patterns that had come to form the complex decals of the Roamer families, others a lettering he was not familiar with, an interlinking of lines and images that made him feel he should understand their message, and frustrated he could not. The shelves were filled with artifacts that he’d taken the time to explore over the past days. A ship’s control panel, dulled with age, taken from the first of the Roamer ships; a chart marking Syllte and its star; a book, heavy, its cover inscribed with more of the lost language. Inside, it listed the kings and queens of the Roamers. His father – once heir to the Roamers – was not listed, nor would Kare be, unless he formally accepted their kingship, here in this room.
He didnt want the anger within him, he wanted to let it go and be free. He wanted to accept what was offered on Syllte – the peace of the mesh and the power it offered, his place in a community that stood with him, watching from the mesh, collective breath held.
He zoned the Roamers out. This decision was his alone; he didnt need an audience. He wanted to accept, yes, but to do so would be to put aside their betrayal, not just of himself, but his father and sister, too.
            The alcove beside him was thick with dust. He ran his finger through it, leaving a thick line, stopping at a carved wooden box. His breath caught. He hadnt seen one like it since he was seven, when his fingers had been small enough to slip into the carved runs and trace them. Now his adult fingers didnt fit into the grooves, but ran over the top of them instead.
He lifted the box and popped it open. Inside, nestled on dark velvet, was a clear jewel.
A Seers prism. His father had chosen to embrace the Empressprism cell and travel the future, time and again, to find a path to free his children from her. Hed been left unable to Seer again, his mind too fragile, yet one glance at a prism had overcome him. When that had happened, nearly thirty years ago, it had been the true death of his father; his final, shocking moments merely confirmation.
Kare's mouth moistened. He remembered that day with his father, going into his first – and only – vision. He had the power to use the prism. He could discover if the path hed walked, the path that had cost him and everyone he loved so much, had been the right one. He ran his fingers over the hard glass, tracing its angles. Hed never given in to the temptation to Seer, leaving his horror-filled dreams the only forewarning of the future. But his heritage had never shone before him like this.
He hooked the prism from the box and sat on the edge of the small bed, turning it over and over in his hand. The refracted light merged with the shimmering sea-cast. It would be easy to attach the stone to the thin silver chain hanging from the ceiling, as his ancestors had done, one after the other.
His shoulders tensed but he stayed still and straight, his promise to Karia, made curled with her in their freighters pilots seat, stopping him. Their fathers screams screams from Kares future, ones hed matched and more had echoed through the ship. His twin's fear had radiated to him and back, a macabre dance of shifting thoughts.
His promise that night had a shared strength, carried for her and for him. He closed his hand over the prism, stopping the light. He hadnt kept his final promise – everything hadnt been all right – but hed kept this one for thirty years; he was damned if he was going to break it now. 
A light breeze made him look up. The room was empty, but he could sense the sister whod haunted his youth. She felt very close to him, and it was right that she did: she should be here, a princess of the Roamers, not a ghost-child left only in his mind. He tightened his hand around the prism, his once broken bones aching, until the cut-glass dug into his palm. Let it hurt; at least it was clean.
s presence faded back to where she should be, leaving only a deep pain, centred on his heart. He ran his hand through his hair, pushing it back from his sweat-beaded forehead. Gods, hed been right to resist taking this room.
Soft footsteps brought him out of his thoughts. Sonly, standing by the door, gave a hesitant smile. I was told you were here.
He touched his head. My posse?
“Yes.” She sat beside him. Are you all right?
He nodded. He held the prism tight and took a deep, shuddering, breath. The sea-light shimmered, ageless, and he watched until he was calm enough to speak. He didnt need the prism to know his future path; he just needed to find it within himself to take it.
“After I dissolve the empire, Im going back.Icy sweat broke across his shoulders. To Abendau. 
You cant.” Sonlys voice was thin and scared. “I wont let you.
“We cant live like this,he said. My mother is in the palace, plotting against us.Sonly went to interrupt, but he held his hand up. Not just against me and you, but the children. Lichio. She wants all of us.
We have security. She cant get near us without you sensing her. Were safe.”
He gave a tight smile; Sonly didnt believe it any more than he did, or she wouldnt insist on centering the Free Republic in the relatively secure Ferran system, the great gas giant and satellites straddling the middle and outer zone systems. She was no fool; she knew that if the Empress regained her support in the central star systems, nowhere would be safe for him, her, or anyone they loved. She must know, too, that Syllte wasn’t as secure as the Roamers insisted. His mother had a fleet of ships to throw at the planet, if she found it – if she lost some to the storm, she’d absorb it.
We can only fly using Roamer ships,he said. We have personal security teams everywhere we go, and outer perimeter teams. Thats not what I want for you or the children. I want them to know they wont be taken to Abendau and made to face my mother.
Yet, Baelan wanted to return to Abendau – and it was his place to, surely. As ever, things weren’t as simple as they should be. The boy could not be sent back. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. A silence stretched, until he drew in a breath. I need to, for what its worth, end it.
Then send an assassin.Her words were quick, almost desperate.
He took her hand. Shell sense anyone else before they get close.His voice was stronger than hed imagined it would be. Sonly, she has taken so many lives. My father, Karia. Silom and Sam; everyone. I can’t let her take any more.
The quiet stretched, broken only by the beating sea until, slowly, she nodded. He gripped the prism in his free hand and brought Ealyn and Karia to his mind. When – if – he finished this, it wasn’t only for him, but for all of them.
He took a last look around the room. Until his mother was dead and he was free to choose his own path, this room and its legacy could wait. He had to know his decision was for the right reason and not driven by fear, or the need to be different from his mother – a Varnon, not a Pettina. No, more than that – Varnon was another fake name, given to his father for convenience; he needed to know whatever heritage he accepted was his own. The Roamers had cast his father out, theyd left himself and Karia to their fate; he couldnt accept what they asked of him. Not unless he was sure. Until he was, theyd have to wait.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Review - 13 Minutes (Sarah Pinborough): The Call (Peadar O'Guilin)

Interestingly my two favourite books of the year have come from authors I met at Titancon last year - but that's coincidence rather than anything deliberate. Also interesting is that they are books I have shared or will reccommend to my kids (although different kids...)


A teenager's body is found in a lake, having been in the water for 13 minutes. So begins the intriguing premise of 13 minutes, a mystery novel for Young Adults - a genre I struggle to find a lot of books in (but that could be down to me exploring the wrong sections of the bookshelves).

It's always hard reviewing mysteries because I don't like to give spoilers away, and this one had me guessing to near the end.

The central characters are well drawn with a nice balance of shades of grey within the teenage world. There is no attempt to sugar-coat teenagers and their behaviour, but neither is there a focus on shocking the world with what goes on. Instead, what we have is a rounded view of their interactions and challenges.

The plot is well drawn, with great pace. I read this in about 5 days, my teenage daughter (not one to get to the end of books that don't engage) in our week's holiday. In fact, during that week the book went with her everywhere - the beach, the hotel, the car...

But, mostly for me, in this book it was the strong voices that I liked. Between the text-speech between two of the characters, to cross-generational interactions the voices didn't let up at all.

With the film rights already sold, iirc, this is a novel that hits the ground running, grabs your collar and keeps you turning the pages to the end.


This novel, for me, wins novel of the year, hands down and by a long margin. And I'm much relieved because I hate reading books by friends and not liking them.

At first glance, I did have a frisson of on-no. The book is in first person, present, a tense I struggle with. But about two pages in, I forgot about that, thoroughly hooked.

The premise is a good one - the island of Ireland has been cut off from the world by the vengeful Sidhe (Shee), who are taking teenagers from the world into theirs. The teen vanishes during this 'Call' for 3 minutes, 4 seconds, in the real world but must survive a day in the Sidhe world.

Firstly, this is dark. Deliciously so. I like me some dark and this is well done with just enough description to set our own imaginations to work, and plenty of fading away from the horror, assuming the reader can fill the blanks. I am going to let my almost-12 year old have a look and see if she likes it (she isn't too squeamish) but I think that choice will vary from child to child. Teens, on the other hand, will soak it up.

This is another book where the characters work. From the teens themselves, through to the teachers, we come to know them bit by bit and that pace works well. We see them as friends, or enemies, and come to care what will happen to them in the fairy land.

I really enjoyed the world building. The fairyworld - the land of Grey - was well depicted with none of the shortcuts you sometimes see in building the a secondary world when a story is mostly embedded in the real world. It's vivid (although colourless) and came alive easily.

I finished the book in two days. I will most likely re-read at some stage, something I rarely do with YA books. I will certainly be standing in line for the sequel.


Whilst I don't review as often as I should, I'm a voracious reader. Most weeks I'll read one, maybe two, books. I've just read one in two days, which particularly gripped me. (Review to follow on that one.) This year, I've read a mix of traditionally published, indie published and self published and, for me, two books have stood out - both traditionally published, as it happens, and neither from debut authors.

One of the two writers, according to their website, has written more than 20 novels - and is hoping the next novel will be the breakthrough book.

You read that right. 20 novels, and there has been no breakthrough book.

The other writer first published nine years ago. I very much hope their current book is their breakthrough book.

So, what do we mean by breakthrough book? For me - and this is open to interpretation - it does need to be a print-book and available in a range of outlets, including e-book and bookstores. It needs to be stocked in the book chains. It will be talked about on multiple forums and review sites. The writer will become a well known name in that genre, usually for that book.

For some people, they get that deal with their first book. For most, it's more of a slow-build.

And that's what I wanted to talk about - the model of book releases. It's recently become more of the norm to release a couple of books a year, and that has been driven by the e-book market. To keep visibility on Amazon a writer has to keep nailing the sales. To do that, a quick turnover can help. It's the model I've mostly followed (more because I write like the wind than any real ambitions to be a two-book-a-year writer). But it's not the model I'll stay on.

Lack off new material looms. Not only that, but spin-off projects from some of my released stuff. Sadly, since I'm not one of those fancy brokethrough straight away authors, I also have a day job to keep on top of to bring the pennies in. Up to a month or so ago, that worried me. Not enough to wake me at night, but enough to have me frowning and nibbling my nails, wondering what to do. I have ideas, many ideas but - as those of us who have slaved over the completion of a novel know - that's only the first part of the path. Having received extensive edits today (after just turning in extensive edits on another book) I'm well aware of how long it will take me to get from idea to honed, and that's usually a couple of years.

I don't want to rush. I don't want to bring out something sub-par because I felt under pressure to do so. Which is why, when I read my two favourite books of the year and looked back over the length of the authors' careers, I felt somewhat reassured.

Over those 20 novels and 9 years, word has been growing. Fans have read a book and recommended it - as I'm about to do in a blog. Conventions have been attended and networks made. Things have not become static just because a book hasn't emerged. In fact, in some ways, it's a good thing - it gives people time to find and read the older material and time for the word of mouth to spread.

Which brings me to the next point. How do you know when word of mouth spreads? A writer can track their Amazon sales rank but that doesn't say an awful lot about how well a writer's name is spreading outside the Amazon algorithms.

In fact, let me digress just a little there. Amazon bestsellers are vulnerable to Amazon's algorithms. If they change and decide not to promote an author's books anymore - for whatever reason, and it has happened - that author can lose income very quickly. Being a bestseller on Amazon is not the same as a breakthrough author - although it's pretty impressive and I'm delighted for all my mates with that status. But, frankly, if I took the top names of the Amazon-dependent authors and asked how many were widely known of, it would be low (I know because a thread was posted up last year on a fan-forum to just that effect.)

To become widely known takes that elusive word of mouth. And word of mouth takes a long time to grow, generally over many, many books.

Here, then, are to my mind, some of the ways word of mouth starts to be seen:

Reviews. Not so much the number of Amazon reviews, but the quality of them over a range of sources. Sorry, but if I don't love a book I won't fall over myself to recommend it. But if I like it, I tell everyone who moves. (Anyone not know I loved Chris Beckett's Dark Eden? You do now. Go buy it.) So, starting to get people telling you they picked a book up through recommends rather than from Amazon recommending is a good sign, I think.

Mentions on fan forums. Fans talk to each other. They put into 'currently reading' threads, and discussions about books. If a book or writer starts to be mentioned organically on the big forums, I see that as a good sign.

Internet hits. This is another hard one to track. I know a blogger reviewed one of my books last year and said the hit-rate was much higher than normal. I know, too, when I'm in podcasts and what not I tend to hit over my weight in terms of hits. But is this word of mouth, or is it just that I talk a lot and lots of people know these things are happening? I have no idea.

For me, the concept of word of mouth gets consistently overlooked by those trying to launch a writing career - especially the indies. We/they focus so much on getting Amazon reviews, using every trick in the game, and possibly not enough on taking the time to write the best possible book we can and letting our name get out there between books.

For me, this opens a lot of hard questions about my route forwards. I know I should be trying to get a new agent at some point - that I was agented early in my writing career (2nd book) and have had bites of all three of my first books from Big 6 publishers tells me that I would probably catch another if I had the time and inclination to try. And I do believe there is more chance of the breakthrough book with a traditional publisher, than self published (and, believe me, I know all the arguments inside out, backwards, forwards and upside down.) In fact, all of the self publishers I know who have broken through have traditional publishers - albeit often off a strong self published background.

It most likely means 2018 will be a quiet year from me in terms of releases. By then, I'll have five, six if things go to plan, books out there.

If so, instead of fretting, I think I'll be more relaxed about taking that time to write and build up more material. I think, in seeing the models of slow build working, instead of focusing so much on the models of release-release-release and hope Amazon likes it as I have been, I have a wider understanding of how this industry works and how it really is almost impossible to speed it up, fasttrack it, or make things happen for you before they're supposed to (assuming they ever do.)

Friday, 23 September 2016


In which I impart bad news...

There is no shortcut to a writing career. You can try to find it, you can bypass steps and buy in support, but at some point there are certain things you need to master. Here, then, are some of the things I hated having to learn and am now glad I did.

1. Blurbs, queries, synopsis, taglines, whatever variety and version you want to refer to. Yesterday I was in the position of chatting about my novel. "What's it about?" I was asked. This wasn't a casual chit-chat, this was the time and place for - and expectation of - a pitch.

There is no time to stop and think. No time to look at my feet and mutter about my artistic hopes for it, or my desired outcome. No room for themes or influences. This is a single line to sum up my novel.

"It's aliens vs Belfast with a dash of District-9," I said, and felt very glad I knew that. (For Abendau 'grimdark Star Wars' works well). Except as things wore on, a different emphasis was needed on my one-line pitch. And a synopsis was also needed with a required slant.

Now, like most authors writing pitches is not on my top-5 to-do favourites. I'd love a marketing department to do one for me but have yet to reach such heady heights. So, I got down to the work and came up with something (which might change, but I think is edging towards where I need it to).

To get to the point where I can take a deep breath and get on with that process - whether or not I want to - has taken some four years. Four years of helping with other writers' blurbs (what we can't see about our own work, we can with others'), of reading blurbs and figuring out what works. I spent a gruelling month or so on Absolute Write's aptly named query letter hell, learning what hooks and what doesn't (for the same book as it happens. My tagline then was that even the aliens were finding Ireland a bastard to conquer - which I still like but, really, it's set in Northern Ireland and that's a mouthful and I can't say Ireland for Northern Ireland because they're different places, and Ulster is a huge political no-no, and it all got too messy).

So, 'suck it up' number one. Learn to write a pitch, a blurb, a query and a synopsis. Learn what each is, and when they're needed. What a US query should look like and a UK. Yes, it's a pain, but you will save yourself a lot of time and anxiety in the longer term.

2. Editing and all that. Ever hear the urban myth about (insert name) the leading writer whose book is only good because they have loads of editorial support. I used to believe this, in my naivete. I thought it would be okay to put something out to query that needed some work. The agent or publisher would see the quality of the idea and work with me to make it perfect.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Don't get me wrong - the editorial process makes a huge difference to my books. Teresa hunted down and flattened the flabby bits in Abendau, the parts where pace died on me, all the character nuances that made no sense to anyone other than me. Jeff made me review the pacing in Inish Carraig, challenged scenes and whether they should be included and laughed at my use of the word panted. As for Sam, my copy editor, the blushes she has saved are second only to the polish she puts on things, with commas in the right place, and the correct m and n and whatever dashes. Not to say the consistent spelling of Syllte throughout.

So, yes, the book you see out there is more edited and polished.But (apart from the copyedit when I accept my grammar changes like a good little author) the work is actually done by me. The scenes are rewritten by me, the story woven back together by me. The editor tells me what is wrong - they do not rewrite it for me. To think it is possible to get a polished book without learning how to self edit, and write good in the first place (;) is a fallacy.

Learn to at least write cleanly enough to be edited. Learn what makes good prose and pace, what hooks a reader and what doesn't. Get into a writers' group, or a critique circle, onto or whatever critique site of your choice and listen to the feedback. If it's bad, take it on board if needed. Don't gnash your teeth and believe your genius isn't being recognised. (I accept this can happen, but you are probably not the 1 in 1000 James Joyce.)

3. Lastly, marketing.

Come back! Stop running away from it!

Look, I know lots of my writer friends hate marketing with a passion. I know promotion scares the living daylights out of them. I know promotion is not why they - or me, or any writer I know - went into this gig.

This is the modern world. We are accessible, all the time. We are a worldwide market, our books out there competing against anything else published. No one else will market your book for you.

Sure, it might take off. That has happened to about 3 of my probably couple of hundred writer friends. So, yeah, absolutely hope for the best.

Or, alternatively, suck it up and learn how to do it. I don't accept there is anyone in the world can't do some sort of marketing, given the opportunities out there now.

If you like meeting people, go to conventions, have signing sessions, attend reading group meetings.If you like taking photos, start a blog of fantasy-related pics, or sf, or werewolves in the wild, whatever floats your boat. If you like writing start a blog. If you're ace at tweeting (I'm not) go and be pithy in 140 characters - it's worked a treat for Marian Keyes. If you like forums, go forth and chat. If you like reading, do a review blog. If you like cosplay start a pinterest board of stunning costumes. If you're an ace at graphic artist, book trailers are very in at the moment.

There is something you can do. You only think there might not be.

I could go on. I could talk about learning to format, about learning how a cover draws attention, about how ideas can be tweaked to sell better etc etc.

The bottom line is this - writing is a profession, if you chose to go to that level. You wouldn't blag it and hope for the best in any other profession - you shouldn't with writing, either. Learn the craft, and the business, and give yourself half a chance.

Friday, 16 September 2016


The prism's light caught and carried him, showing his deaths:

Brought down by the guard outside his cell.

Caught in the open entrance hall of the palace, lasered while he stood unsure where to go.

Lifting the babies, their cries giving him away, the tightening around his throat as well-trained hands took him in a strangle-hold.

His ship, drifting, disabled. The sound of being boarded. Alarms, sirens.

Fire, burning through him.

So many, many ways to die.

Ealyn lifted his head, ignoring the dry pull of his lips. Later, they’d come and let him off his chains, give him water to drink and what passed for food. For now, he closed his eyes and relived his deaths, focusing on the minutiae of each moment. The Empress had been close when she'd last visited, her stomach swollen and huge, the children a presence within her. He had to know if he had seen each death, or if were there more he needed to live through. He had to know if he'd remembered everything, or if some of his answers were lost in the daze of time-slipping.

The Empress' presence, running through the palace, lifted, shocking in its suddenness, for all he’d foretold it. He brought his head up. It was time. The moment of the births. The one opportunity. Fear seized him. He'd spent months exploring the paths, going into each without hesitation, welcoming each death as the answer it was, but this was not the what-will-be. It was the moment.

First, the chains. He’d tried waiting for his feeding time and the chains to be lifted from him. That had been a quick death, a single blow as his legs, weakened for months, betrayed him.

He knew this dance, this step. Slowly, he pulled his power to him. He’d been building to this day for the last week. He’d walked fewer paths, holding his power within, a miser in a world of nothing. Now, when he needed it, his power was there – faint, but more than could be expected after these long months. He took it and focused on the cuffs, finding the magnet that bound. Like a miracle, they fell away.

He freed his ankles, rubbing life back into them. Slowly, this stage. He’d followed it, quick and slow, and, even though impatience was eating at him – it would not last long, this hiatus – he took his time, getting to his feet, grabbing the wall for support, waiting until the room stopped spinning. He closed his eyes, knowing the threatened vision would leave him lying on the floor, shaking, to be found by his guards and returned to his chains. That would be the slowest death, held until the Empress drained what was left of him and left him raving and lost in time.

At last, the world settled. He drew in a breath, and another, letting the fear fill him with nerves that held him taut and concentrated. He needed something to guide him – let adrenalin be enough, let it take him and carry him. He crept to the door, imagining the outside of his cell.

The day he’d been taken here, long months ago, his head had been aching and dull from the space crash. He hadn’t thought to pay attention to the layout, or consider how a man might free himself. Darwin would have. He’d have focused like the soldier Ealyn was not and never would be. All he had was the flying, and his mind, shaped whatever way it was, for whatever purpose. He wouldn't be a soldier, but a wraith in the darkness. He smiled. Like the magician he was purported to be.

He touched the door and felt the locking mechanism within it. That was easy, for any psycher. But the guard beyond? He trawled memories: bursting from the door, to be gunned down; bursting through and running past, to be brought down as he left the prison block; killing the soldier, his hands on the man’s neck, tightening and tightening, the shouts as the body was found, the shot taking him high in his back. He’d lived them all, felt the pain and blackness of death, before coming round in his cell, the prism mocking him.

Carefully, he focused. He knew the cell-block from days walking it, in vision after vision. Knew it from being chased down it, from murdering in it. Did each murder committed in his visions, each death brought to men still breathing, count? The room swam as he fought the certainty that this was what he’d become – a murderer of men, not once, but many times. Certainly, the guard who waited outside his door, the ruddy-faced soldier no older than twenty, had been killed by Ealyn more times than he knew. And yet, death was not the answer. Not now.

He turned his head, focusing on the cell to his left. A small crack in the wall, a sharp ricochet of noise that didn’t alarm, but intrigue. A moment’s waiting, trusting only that his visions had been right, counting a slow agonising beat.

At ten, he slipped the door to the side and stepped out to the corridor, not doubting. A psycher must never doubt, only believe. A single glance confirmed the guard was missing, that the first path chosen had been correct.

Ealyn closed his door over, snapping the lock mechanism so it jammed. He remembered the death not doing that had brought – cornered in the gardens, night falling, the deep scent of jasmine around him, the closing in of the prison-guards, the smile of the ruddy-faced guard as he raised his blaster.

He ran. Softly, crouched, without looking back. His shoulders were tight, his back exposed. How many visions had ended with a single shot spinning him against the wall. At least that was quick.

A step at a time. He moved down the corridor to his right, feet echoing on the stone floor, until he reached a covered trash-holder. He pushed its hinged lid back, wincing at the shriek of metal on metal, and clambered in. He knew enough to hold his breath as he pulled the lid to, and sat, knees to his chest, face and nose buried. Moments ticked by, moments to bring doubt and fear. Moments to remember how few of his visions led to what lay beyond.

The trash-holder moved with a jerk. Prepared for it, he stayed motionless. He listened, a well-played recording of bumps, of doors opening, of voices. Of sudden silence. And then, the drop.

He spun, rubbish covering him, and fumbled for the lid. So little time. He grasped it, but his hand slipped as he was turned again. He struck out, disorientated. The bin grew hot, the metal burning into him.

The lid fell open. Too late, it was too late. He looked down, into the furnace's flames below. Heat bellowed from it, enshrouding him. The hairs on the back of his hand tightened and burned. The bin tipped. Rubbish streamed out. Ealyn yelled, waiting to drop. He searched visions, seeking an answer than wouldn't come. He slipped down, hands flailing for something buried in his knowledge, something he needed to remember.

He hooked his fingers on the riveted seam of the bin. Ignoring the heat, ignoring anything but the deep-buried memory, he hitched his feet to the side of the lip, hunched himself in the opening, and clung on. The bin rattled, shaking out its remaining contents. His hand slipped, his heart leapt into his throat. How many times had he fell and burned? More than he remembered. His legs cramped with effort, and still the bin shook.

It slammed away from the furnace, knocking him back inside. He laughed. He'd held on. The bin rolled to a halt, joining the others emptied and ready for reuse. Shaking, he climbed out, and stumbled to the top of the furnace. Sweat broke across his shoulders. The burning deaths had been the worse, the heat taking him. He’d come round in his cell, still shrieking.

Carefully, he dropped his shirt into the furnace below and watched it catch fire as it fell. He made his way towards an access panel, set high in the wall. He clambered onto the nearest bin and across the top of them, ears alert. Time was short, and he was sure he was over it already. Slippage was the great danger, moving out of the practiced timeline.

He stood, teetering, and pulled at the hatch, weakening the corner he'd viewed in his vision, getting his fingers under it, wincing as a nail pulled away. Finally - too long, everything was taking too long - he freed the bottom length of it, and managed to clamber into the accessway, scraping his back. He clambered along and stopped at a sister hatch, overlooking a small locker room. He allowed himself one single breath, one congratulation, and then he crawled out. Quickly, he stripped and took a shirt and heavy work trousers from a selection hung and waiting for their owners.

He paused at the door. This one led into the palace, the lion’s den. No solitary guards here, protecting an inner core of cells so secure no one had ever left them. In the palace, there weren’t guards but soldiers. Elite ones. And in the Empress’ own quarters, nothing other than Star Ops. His throat was dry, but he opened the door and entered the palace.

Already, he was calculating what would be happening in the Empress’ wing. The doctors would be working on her, frantic, as the blood ran from her. He imagined the surgeons fighting the race against her failing body, pumping pint after pint into her, slowing and sealing the wound. The urgent call for a healer to be summoned. He had been in the room with her, watching; it had ended in darkness and searing pain.

He emerged into one of the servants’ corridors, mirroring the structure of the main palace, squeezed between opulence, where staff scurried like mice, overlooked by the gentry.

Now, today, they would give Ealyn the chance to walk through the Leviathan and not be taken. To dance amidst his enemies and live. Because space pilots didn’t look old and stooped after months of chains. They weren’t thin and bones, but dashing.

He hurried along the corridor, passing few. He looked up, surreptitiously, but saw nothing in any others’ way of walking to show they had noticed the imposter. With each moment the Empress was away his steps were a little stronger. She had been imprisoning him more than the chains ever had.

He reached a section of the corridor where the walls drew closer. His breath grew harsh, knowing this was the path between two futures. In one, he could continue walking. He'd reach the kitchens, and blend in with the workers. Within half an hour he could be out in the city before he’d even been found missing. Before the Empress could come round and know he was gone; she’d feel his missing presence as sharply as he felt hers, and as quickly.

Temptation bit. Once in the city he’d find a way to call the Banned to him – there were agents, and Darwin would have them on alert for him. Once out, he was free.

He found himself stopping, heaving breaths. There was no one in sight. Just him and the churning knowledge that if he did leave, he’d never face himself in the mirror. That, and the vision of himself as an old man, seeing how hard his children had become, how cruel. Knowing that it was he who’d made them so by not following the harder path.

Without giving room for doubt, he tapped the wall in front of him, giving the push required. A small door opened, and he stepped into the library. He shut the door behind him, and closed the path of temptation.

His steps took him across the library, silent in his cell-bare feet. Walking in the palace like this woke a memory in him, one of a different time-place, not his own. He’d walked through the palace like this before, padded through this room bare-footed.

He stopped at the other side of the library, and focused on one of the books, an ancient one, possibly old enough to have been carried on the Earth-ship. He waited, not allowing himself to move. A muscle twitched in his cheek, but still he waited and watched as moonlight, framed through a high window, crawled down the spine, over letters once gilded and now faded.

The light cleared the letters. He took a breath, flexed his fingers, and left the library, slipping through into an apse in a second servant’s corridor. This one was more secret than the other, known only to those cleared to work in the Empress’ private quarters.

He heard the footsteps of the guard. He’d remembered the book well, had paid attention. Hard not to, when he’d been slammed to the ground each time he’d got it wrong, his hands secured, his body beaten before being returned to his cell. He remembered the soldier taking him, the shoulder barging Ealyn out of the way. He tensed his hands, ready. He had to bring the guard down here. 

Another step, and another. A shadow falling over him. He tensed, counting, thinking of all the ways he’d tried this, of the man’s weight, of the soft yell he’d give.

Ealyn dove forwards. Always, always if he was too slow, this was his death. He shouldered the man to the side and kicked out. Awareness came the soldier’s face, his mouth a rounded O, and only the fear that he was facing a psycher gave Ealyn the chance he needed. He drove the man against the wall opposite, bringing him to his knees. He grabbed the man’s truncheon, turned the shock to high, and hit the back of his neck. And again. Panting, desperate, he hit it one more time. The man toppled forward, and lay still.

Ealyn crouched over the body, taking the laser-rifle from the man’s belt with shaking hands. He wasn’t Darwin, he was Ealyn. He wasn’t able to kill and move on. He backed the guard’s body into the library, cursing his weight. It was hard to leave the body behind the heavy curtains, hard to believe it could be safe, and yet he had to trust. The body in the library had never been a cause of death. He exited back to the apse and walked to the end of it. 

A deep breath. This was it. Once he stepped out, the chase would begin. The nearest soldier was gone, of course, but not those watching in the Control Room. He looked at the ceiling, told himself he knew what he was doing, laughed and stepped forwards.

Nothing changed. No alarms, no sirens. Yet already the word would go out. He ran. To the right, then a left, up a set of stairs. His lungs burned, but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Only audacity would get him through. He took the steps two at a time, hit the top so quickly he had to grab the newel or fall, and ran again. They wouldn’t expect him to go for the nursery. No one should know about the children, the Empress’s secret. She’d tell no one until they were born and in her control.

He heard shouts from the stairs. A bolt passed him, and he ducked to the side, and rounded another corner. His feet sank into thick carpet, and made no sound. He ran around the corner, past the room where they’d be working on the Empress and along to the nursery. He burst into the room, and slammed the door behind him, sealing it.

Already the guards would be getting into position around the palace, covering any exits. They’d be coming up outside the door, ready to take him. He’d be trapped. It was hard to stop his throat clawing closed, hard to fight what lay ahead. Hard to admit how little chance he had, how few of his attempts to leave this room had worked.

He stepped forwards, away from the door, and a soft gasp made him stop. A girl was looking at him, one who’d been in none of his visions. Blonde hair fell from where she’d pinned it back. Her dress was the simple one of an inner-chambers maid. Beside her, in the crib, lay the children.

“You know who I am?” he asked.

She backed away, eyes uncertain, darting between him and the cot.

“I’m Ealyn Varnon.”

He wouldn’t have believed it was possible to pale further, but she did. Her mouth was open, her eyes not watchful, but fearful. What stories had she heard of him to be so afraid? What monster did she imagine him to be? He pointed at the cribs.

“My children. I’d like to take them.”

What would happen to her, when the children were found missing? He didn’t know – he’d been well away from the palace when it happened. But it didn’t take a Seer to know who the blame would fall on. He raised the soldier’s weapon to her.

“You’re coming with me.”

Fool. The future unravelled. He’d walked this, so many times. He knew the dance he had to perform. It didn’t include taking the girl. A ripple in time came over him, a wondering what he’d changed, but he pushed it away.

“Lift the babies.” He kept the rifle trained on her.

The girl hesitated, and he could sense the waves of fear coming off her, the fear of going, the fear of staying. He tried a smile.

“Trust me. I’m the better option.” The first sound of the door being forced came to him, and his smile fell away. “Lift them. Now.”

She crouched over the crib, lifting the babies. He took the boy, his weight a comforting same-ness as in his vision. He touched the babies’ foreheads, one after the other.

“Hush, now.” He sent out his power, touching theirs, and they responded. His eyes met the girl’s as the babies stilled. He hefted the rifle, awkwardly in one hand, and turned to the door. “Let’s go.”

She didn’t fight. She didn’t speak. She followed him as he opened the panel to the corridor behind. There was only one place to go – the palace would be ringed below. He wondered how many soldiers were already climbing up to where he was, coming through the corridors to get the best shot they could at him. The crawling lack of knowing where he was, the sureness that he’d changed the path in taking the girl, the sick fear that brought, all surged in him, but he kept moving, ushering her through, then himself, and then running, upwards, upwards, always upwards.

The steps were familiar. He’d run this way before. Ran and died. Still he climbed. That path was no longer his; nor was the path he’d seen, the simple lifting of the children and going. He burst out into the cold night, the desert as cold in the evening and it was warm during the day. The girl held the child against her; he kept the other close against him.

In front of him was the Holy Grail, the one thing he’d banked on. The one part of his vision that had made him keep going, the only hope he had. He ran up to the corvette, sitting on the platform on its own. He stepped to the edge of the platform, the baby held against him where it could be clearly seen.

“Guards! I know you’re watching. Approach and I kill the children.” He lifted his voice, hoped his bluff worked. “I won’t let her have them.” Nothing in the shadows moved. He backed away. The ship was close. He took the girl’s elbow and held her close to him. The children didn’t struggle, their minds still in tune with his. He felt their trust; knew they knew him as theirs. It filled him, as nothing else had – gave him a sense of rightness. He couldn’t let her have them.

He boarded, helping the girl in and handing her his son. “Strap in!” he called, darting to the control room. Even as he was punching in the launch commands, figures converged on the ship. His hands danced on the control panel, bringing it to life.

He hit the thrust and the ship lifted, soaring up into the sky. He let the Control fill his mind, let the stars guide him, his instinct quicker than any pilot, and set course away from Abendau, and to the Banned.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Critiquing - when does it stop?

I have a critique up on a forum this week. (Actually I have two.) I also have a regular writing group I've rejoined after a few months off and several beta readers. I have no intention to give any of them up (although I put less up in public now and mostly inflict my early drafts on my writing group.)

But, hold on. I have five novels either out, or far enough along the path to be with their editor. I've had numerous short stories published. Why on Earth would I still need a critique? To answer that, I wanted to explore the various stages of critiquing.


When I first started posting critiques (the poor, poor, long suffering, some five years ago, I didn't have much of a clue about writing. I thought I did but in the first critique it became clear I had a long way to go.

In fact, to entertain and amuse - here it is.

Quite apart from showing up my hideous possessive apostrophe knowledge, and my ambition to do a Terry Goodkind, it's full of so many story errors. Pov lapses, info-dumping, some seriously clunky prose. On balance, the critters were pretty kind to me, I felt.

And thus began my critiquing experience. I have to say, I jumped into it, mostly embracing what I was told. But I also took it far too much to heart from time to time and had a hideous habit of changing everything suggested.


After a few months on crits, I moved onto beta readers. The first ones are still (mostly) talking to me, which is a small miracle.

In this case, they looked at the whole novel. New things got thrown up - my complete aversion to all things description. The extraordinary inability to put anything vaguely sf in my sf book (apart from sexy space pilots). Plot development. Plot holes. Oh, lord, the plot holes.

But, also, some comments to grow from. My dialogue was good, and my characters (quelle surprise, given how I've developed.) My voice was already quite strong. There was hope!

Around this point, I was invited to join a small writing group and they were, and remain, the bedrock of my critiquing partnerships. There, we work on small pieces of a whole. We ask questions. It is a thoughtful, developmentally focused group and I learned absolutely loads - and continue to do so.

So far, so good. But why now, six years on and my million words in? For various reasons:

1. I am too close to the work. I can't tell if I've missed out context, or if it's hooky. I can't tell if you like the characters. Some writers are happy to work alone - I'm not. I like other eyes on it to let me know if I'm getting to where I need to.

2. Extra perspective. So many of my light-bulb moments, especially plot-wise, come from conversations with others. A few years ago I was stalled with Waters and the Wild and one of my betas told me about a medical term called Folie-a-deux over lunch. That moved me past where I was - even though it didn't become an integral part of the plot. I don't work well in a vacuum. I need someone to bounce things off.

3. Polish. I do now put up short work unedited, to a reasonable polish. But it will have had at least one beta-read during the run up to it. That beta read picks out the clunky sentences and the bits that confuse. It's a high-level readthrough but, in the absence of a proofreader, very, very welcome.

I can't see myself getting to a place where I wouldn't want to be critiqued. It's not about confidence anymore. In fact, I'll often ignore comments if I already know why I wrote something as I did, and what it achieves, or even if I just like a line and others don't. It's about the creative process and the role of critiquing within that.

Simply, for me, I write better when I'm not in a vacuum. And, as ever, in writing, it's about whatever works for you.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The writing-promo connundrum

All I want for Christmas is time to write! Not to promote, or to chase reviews, but to write. This writing world we're in is a crazy place.

I've just read a very helpful forum post about cross promotion to populate e-mail lists. The post was great, the idea a good one, but my reaction was to want to thud my head on the desk and sob. We are saturated. We have so many things to chase and do and none of them are the writing. And we're supposed to do this alongside jobs and families and life because very, very few writers will ever earn a living just-writing.

Now, I'm no slouch at the promo side of things. A fair few of you are reading this (waves!) and I have a good network and good visibility. But it all takes so much time. If I'm honest, the last time I did some real writing was in June. The rest of it has been edits, blogs and a lot of time taken up by marketing.

One part of me wants to go out there and join a cross promotion campaign. It sounds great and that it pays back - but I was told that about facebook ads and they sure didn't. One part of me wants to put the time into my mailing list. But most of me (apart from the bit ranting here) wants to research and write my shiny new idea, and fix up that novella to try to find a home. Oh, and review my screenplay of Inish Carraig. (Strangely, I don't begrudge time spent work-working. That's in a different hub/zone of my attention. And I get paid for it - funny how that can be a motivator.)

It seems to me that there is, sadly, a choice to be made. Get busy writing, or get busy promoting. I don't have an answer for anyone except myself. But I do wonder how effective it all is anyway. At what point do so many mailing lists exist and no one looks at them? At what point does even the most avid Kickstarter supporter run out of funds. More and more I think community is the only way forwards - and at least enjoyable - and writing a good book that people will recommend. Surely that still has to count more than any amount of come-and-find-me promo? I cling to that. I'm not naive, i know promo must happen but more and more I query how it happens. We need something that doesn't demand so much time, that is energy-filled, not energy-sapping, that celebrates readers and writers and doesn't look for books that are 99p only or promoted with a swanky ad in every group that moves. I want promo to further me AND other writers AND readers.

Writing makes me happy. It was never supposed to make me rich. I want to do more of it, not less. It may well be that after Abendau's Legacy comes out I might not bring out my novella as planned but just take the few months between that chaos and the launch of Waters and the Wild and just write. It may be that marketing is taking too much time, and that I'm a saturation point. Or it may be that I want to be a writer more than I want to be a bestseller.