Interview: SL Huang

Cover of S L Huang's Zero Sum game showing a bullet hole in glassAbsolute Write’s own slhuang has kindly found some time for an AW interview. Tor releases the first of Huang’s Cas Russell books, Zero Sum Game, on October 2. Some of us have been following Huang’s self-publishing journey for a while. We aren’t even a little surprised that her Cas Russell books were picked up by Tor, but we’re hoping that #5 appears Real Soon Now.

What’s your elevator pitch for Zero Sum Game?

Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” Zero Sum Game is a science fiction thriller1)Some might call it a math thriller, too. starring a mercenary antiheroine whose superpower is doing math really, really fast. She uses it to kill more people than is strictly polite.

Did you have a playlist for Zero Sum Game?

You know, I can’t really listen to music with lyrics while I write. But like all Asian children, I was contractually obligated to grow up playing the violin, and it seeded a lifelong love of classical music in me. Back when I was living in LA, the radio station Classical KUSC probably saved me from countless roadrage-induced traffic collisions, and I still like to stream KUSC wherever in the world I am.

Also, classical music announcers are so delightful I even like listening to KUSC during their fundraising weeks.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Zero Sum Game? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

Oh, yeah. I’m mostly a “pantser,” which means I’m writing without knowing in advance where the plot is going and figuring it out as I type. So most of the developments and twists were a surprise to me!

I had a few vague ideas of where the plot might go, but at least some of them were wrong—to the point that at least one person I thought would die didn’t, and vice versa. Shows how much I knew.

Zero Sum Game has one of the best openings I’ve read in a very long time. Did you come up with it when you first started to write the novel, or was it added later?

Aw, thank you! The opening of Zero Sum Game was the third Cas Russell scene I came up with, and it was, indeed, the very first scene in Zero Sum Game I ever wrote. The first scene I penned didn’t feel like the beginning (it ended up in book 3). So I wrote an earlier-feeling one, which still didn’t feel like the beginning of her story, and I put it in book 2. Then I wrote the beginning of book 1.

The way I write, I usually have to nail the beginning before going any further. If I can’t write a good beginning in short order, for me it usually means the idea still needs work.

One of the things I loved about the Cas Russell books was that you initially published them under a Creative Commons license. Now that Tor has picked up the books, was the CC license a problem ?

Not an insurmountable one, obviously, but it did create some complications. One thing my agent warned me about is that CC licensed-works are an even bigger stumbling block for overseas publishers, so I do worry it may interfere with our ability to license foreign editions — but I have agreed to release the new, edited Tor editions under a traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright, so hopefully we’ll be okay. And I’m extremely fortunate to have an agent who knows CC licensing better than anyone else in the industry, because he also represents Cory Doctorow! So that has helped tremendously — I don’t think I could have navigated this without his help.

But yeah, Creative Commons is still, unfortunately, a little bit hard to make compatible with commercial publishing. For example, from the beginning, some of the agents I queried didn’t feel equipped to take on CC-licensed work at all.

I’m a little sad to let the CC licensing go—the original editions always will have that licensing, of course, and I still love Creative Commons dearly. But my idealism is tempered by pragmatism and also by competing ideals about accessibility. And I hope that by being flexible on agreeing to a more traditional copyright, I’m enabling my books to have higher levels of more traditional success — and thus they can become one more example of Creative Commons interacting with the publishing industry, and in turn make CC just a bit less scary and unknown to publishing professionals.

I’ve wondered for quite a while now: the backgrounds of the covers Najla Qamber originally did for your first three self-published editions of the Cas Russell book all have equations in the background. Are those actually part of something coherent or were they chosen purely for aesthetic values?

Purely aesthetic, but I was also very careful to point my designer to stock art that wasn’t nonsense! Nothing is worse than math texture that is actually incorrect gibberish.

But no, it doesn’t have any meaning in the context of the books. Think of it like English words that are indeed actual words but not at all chosen for their meanings. I told Naj I wanted mathematical texture that was more complicated and abstract than simple arithmetic, and, well, it turns out there is surprisingly little stock art of higher mathematics—we were fortunate to find this artist! And I was thrilled with what she did with it.

When Tor redesigned the cover, they actually asked me for correct mathematical equations for their texturing on the cover, which tickled the heck out of me. I broke out all my college textbooks and sent them a PDF of all the prettiest formulas I could find.

What’s your writing process like?

Oof. Not formulaic or repeatable enough for my tastes! Every book feels different, and every book there’s a point at which I feel like the car is completely disassembled on the garage floor and I’m not even sure I have all the right parts and also that bit over there is actually from a refrigerator and I am bone-certain even if I get it put together there are going to be three screws left over.

I start with a vague structural idea according to the Save the Cat three-act arc, but after that I often have to “write through” my thoughts to see if they work or not—which means I end up with almost as many scrapped words as stay in the final novel. Someday I will figure out a way not to write every book twice. Someday . .  .

It’s very clear after reading the first three Cas Russell books that you have a story arc in your head. What kind of planning did you do in terms of the arc, and how to you keep track of the back story?

As I wrote Zero Sum Game, a lot of the greater mythology unfolded in my head naturally as I figured out everything in the first book. So as I wrote Book 1, I also wrote hundreds of thousands of words of what I would call “fan fiction” on my own universe — in-between scenes, scenes from other perspectives, backstory scenes, and tons and tons of possible future scenes. I had scenes from book 5, book 7, book 8 written before I published book 1 — not the plots of those books, but important pieces of the mytharc.

I write an extensive reference guide with characters and timeline after I finish each installment, retroactively, and that helps for looking back at what I might forget. But the future bits of the storyline are almost all stored in prose snippets rather than anything useful or logical like spreadsheets or lists!

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I change it up. My most usual work environment is curled up on a couch or comfy chair with a laptop, but it helps me shake things loose sometimes to vary it — sometimes sitting on a yoga ball at a desk, sometimes flopped on my bed, sometimes (rarely) switching to longhand if I’m feeling blocked somehow. I also used to coffee shop it a lot, especially in Japan, where I’ve been living for most of the past three years — my room in Tokyo was so small it pretty much only held my bed, so that was also where I had to work when I was home!

Probably the #1 most productive environment for me is Amtrak cars, for some reason. I’m not sure why, but something about the comfort, lack of distraction, and limited time really focuses me. Maybe I should take a cross-country train trip the next time I have a deadline.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked? I always ask this question, but in your case, since I know you write short fiction, please recommend short fiction, too.

These questions are why I’m really thinking I need to start tracking my reading better. I have such a terrible memory for what I’ve read recently. But here’s a whack at it — I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of stuff, but these are all great!

Books:
Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu
The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng
Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Short fiction:
• “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara
• “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse
• “Secondhand Bodies,” by JY Yang
• “Monster Girls Don’t Cry,” by A. Merc Rustad
• “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
• “Mother Tongues,” by S. Qiouyi Lu

There’s a lot of short fiction being published, especially in SF/F. But sometimes short fiction gets lost in the background noise. Any suggestions for finding short fiction?

Some of the best SFF magazines are free online. For people just getting into reading shorts, I’d recommend browsing the archives at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Apex, The Book Smugglers, or Tor.com. All of those places have quite a lot of quality short fiction.

But you’re right, even after finding publications that generally hit well for your tastes, it can be really easy to miss other great stories! The SFF short fiction scene has a couple of sketchy review outlets I wouldn’t trust, but two I do are by the following amazing reviewers who are extremely dedicated and thoughtful:

• Bogi Takács at Bogi Reads the World reviews a lot of short fiction (and also novels!) with a particular focus on diversity.
• Charles Payseur’s Quick Sip Reviews focuses on short fiction only, and Charles also does monthly public (not patrons-only) roundups of queer short SFF on Patreon.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat (and its companion book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies) are the only writing books I use. I got them to learn how to write a screenplay, and instead learned a structure I really like using for novels — my books usually diverge from the beat sheet pretty far by the end, but the Save the Cat structure helps me hold the feel of the arc in my head. I find that very helpful for getting the emotional payoffs I want.

For writing science fiction, Michio Kaku’s popular science books are my absolute favorite inspirations, especially Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I just did an interview in which I was asked what my favorite gun is, but nobody’s asked me yet for my favorite topological space! (It’s SΩ.)
The above is also likely a good answer to the question, “just how much of a math nerd are you?”

What’s your favorite charity?

What a great question. The charities I donate to most are:

• The ACLU, because I am a staunch supporter of civil liberties.
Lambda Legal, because I particularly want to support the civil liberties of queer people.
• The EFF, because protecting our civil liberties online is horrendously, terrifyingly important. (There might be a theme here.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Trans Lifeline
The Trevor Project
Planned Parenthood

In these present times I often add in organizations like The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) or immigrant and refugee-centric charities.

I donate mostly to domestic U.S. charities because I feel a personal connection and responsibility there, but I also want to give a shoutout to organizations that fight global poverty overseas, which are a favorite of one of my good friends. These charities figure out how to make a dollar go as far as possible, and put the money where it’s most effective at pushing back against wealth inequality on a global scale.

SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Raising Hope, among other shows, and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. SL Huang has a website and she’s active on on Twitter as @sl_huang.

This post contains affiliate links.

References   [ + ]

1. Some might call it a math thriller, too.

Interview: Peter McLean

AW’s own Peter McLean kindly consented to an interview. McLean’s fourth novel, Priest of Bones will released by Ace on October 2,2018. Priest of Bones is the first of McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series; the second novel, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019. I’ll definitely be checking it out, but in the meantime, McLean’s previously published urban fantasy Burned Man trilogy (Angry Robot) is a great way to spend time waiting for the next book in the War for the Rose Throne series.

Peter McLean’s bio from his Website says:

Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had been studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with martial arts and practical magic. He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and spent 25 years working in corporate IT. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.

What’s your elevator pitch for Priest of Bones?

It’s The Godfather meets Peaky Blinders, with Swords.

Did you have a playlist for Priest of Bones?

Oh yes, I always write to music and it’s always stuff I know so well I don’t have to listen to it, just feel it throbbing away in the background. Priest of Bones was written almost entirely to a steady stream of the marvelous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with various 80s heavy rock albums.

Every main character get’s their own theme music, in my head — Tomas Piety’s theme tune is Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, which is also the title music to Peaky Blinders. Bloody Anne’s is “It’s My Life” by Wendy O Williams, and Ailsa enters to “Sanctified” by Nine Inch Nails. Billy the Boy gets “Dio’s Evil Eyes”, and Jochan’s is “Reckless Life” by Guns n’ Roses.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Priest of Bones? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

I’m largely an outliner so I usually know where the story is going overall, but all my stuff grows arms and legs while I’m writing it so there’s always something to discover on the journey. I’d never planned for Billy to develop as quickly as he does, and had envisaged Old Kurt being his “wise old mentor” figure. Turns out Billy wasn’t having that, and I wasn’t going to argue with him!

Priest of Bones is the first in the War for the Rose Throne series. Did you set out to write a series, or did it evolve into one? 

I originally wrote an outline for a single book, but by the time I’d drafted the first fifty thousand or so words and was still on the first paragraph of my synopsis I realised it was going to be half a million words or something ridiculous if I didn’t break it down into multiple books.

I’m mostly a plotter but still partly a discovery writer. I always have the main plot points outlined, and I sometimes even write the very end first, but as I said my stuff always evolves in the writing process and ends up twice as long as I think it’s going to be — and it still always gets longer in edits. I may write a stand-alone novel one day, but this is not that day.

The second instalment, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019

What’s your writing process like?

Chaotic. I’m not one of those rigorous “write x number of words every day” people, my head just doesn’t work like that. I’m absolutely a binge writer, and as I work a day job those binges are usually Friday and Saturday nights, often going to 3 or 4am if I’m in the groove. I’m naturally nocturnal, I’m sure I am, and I’m never much use creatively in the mornings so I take the opportunity when I can get it.

I’ll start with a rough idea for a setting or a character, sometimes both at once if I’m lucky, and just doodle a few thousand words to see if I like it. If I do, I’ll decide how the story wants to end and write that bit, or at least the last few lines to set the closing tone, then outline my way from beginning to end.

Once I start actually writing it’s start to end in chronological order, with no jumping about, and I absolutely do edit as I go despite what everyone says about that – it just works for me. Each writing session starts with tidying up the previous session’s work then blasting out a new chunk, which can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words at a go. I’ll also go days without writing anything at all, but if I get a neat idea for a line or a scene I’ll jot it down somewhere and slot it into the outline next time I sit down at the computer.

One thing with me: once it’s written it happened. I very rarely go back and fundamentally change something, so sometimes the plot goes a bit off piste and when that happens I’ll adjust the outline to fit the story rather than the other way around. The upshot of that and the continuous editing is that once my first draft it done (three to four months for a 100k novel) it’s pretty clean. I don’t do re-writes or multiple drafts. Once it’s done I’ll park it for a few days, then print it out and do a pen-and-paper edit, make the changes, read it through once more and it’s good to go to my agent.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I’m really lucky with this – we only have a small house, but the previous owner had the garage converted into a self-contained annex and that is now my office. It’s the place I can sit and write until the early hours and blast my music as loud as I like without my wife wanting to murder me!

Tools wise I’m very straightforward – it’s MS Word, and that’s it. Publishing runs on Word and Word comments and Word track changes, and trying to use anything else just feels like making life hard for yourself, to me. All I ever need is Word and a web browser and connection, and I’m good. My PC is an ancient, on-its-last-legs Windows 7 box that I flat refuse to upgrade because it just works, but I have a high-end keyboard and monitor as those are the only parts of the system I really interact with.

You have created a rich multi-cultural world with multiple religions. Any particular suggestions about world building? 

Oh boy, I can geek on about this for hours! The key thing for me is making it all work as a consistent whole. You can have magic in your world, sure, although I don’t personally like to have too much of that, but I still need a fantasy world to actually work properly. You can’t put a city in the middle of the desert, for example, without me immediately wondering where their food and water comes from. You can’t have Irish nobles wearing silk without evidence of international trade, which means foreign traders and the resulting ethnic diversity that they bring. If you have gunpowder weapons, which in Priest of Bones I have, then you need a sufficient level of industry to manufacture the cannon, which means foundries, which means mining, and so on and so forth.

I really don’t like settings that feel like a stage set, where there’s nothing there that the characters aren’t going to interact with. There are things in Priest of Bones like the Temple of the Harvest Maiden on Trader’s Row which is just there because it is, because there’s more than one religion in the world because of course there is, because there would be. In the same way there are black and brown people and children and gay people and old people and disabled people in Ellinburg because of course there are, because why wouldn’t there be?

I absolutely obsess about this stuff if I’m reading anything other than pure mythology, so I went to a lot of trouble to get as much of it right as I could. I’m no historian so I’m sure there are things I’ve missed or got wrong, but I certainly tried to make my setting feel like a real, living country rather than a stage set.

What inspired  Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, the deity your hero Tomas Piety serves as Priest? (For those who have not yet had a chance to read Priest of Bones, Tomas has this to say of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows: 

Our Lady doesn’t help. Not ever. She doesn’t answer prayers or grant boons or give a man anything at all however hard he might pray for it. The best you can hope for from her is that she doesn’t take your life today. Maybe tomorrow, aye, but not today. That’s as good as it gets, and the rest is up to you.

I build the worship of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows around Tomas’s character. He’s not a particularly religious man by nature, so I had to come up with a faith that he could actually get behind. Some reviewers so far have referred to Our Lady as the Goddess of Soldiers, but she isn’t that. She’s worshipped by soldiers, yes, but really Our Lady is the Goddess of Death. As Tomas also says:

Us conscripts don’t want glory or honour. We just want to not die today. That’s what Our Lady offered, if you were lucky and you fought your balls off.

Worshipping of Our Lady is basically appeasing Death, so She doesn’t take your life today. Soldiers have always been a superstitious lot and Tomas has always had to make his own way in the world, and that’s sort of what I was going for here – the idea that there’s no help in this world, you own your destiny and you can make of your life what you will if you just fight hard enough for it, so long as She doesn’t take your life today. So you offer up a prayer to Our Lady, and go out and take it for yourself. I think that’s exactly the sort of religion that would appeal to a man like Tomas Piety.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Oh wow, there’s been so much brilliant fantasy out in the last year or two and so much of it from new authors. Big favourites of mine have been the Empires of Dust novels by Anna Smith Spark, The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, and also Blackwing and Ravencry by Ed McDonald.

They’re two incredibly different series, but both absolutely marvellous. Smith Spark’s work reads like real mythology, powerful prose designed to be read aloud, while McDonald’s are gritty, noir, magical post-apocalyptic thrillers. I’m currently reading RJ Barker’s Assassins trilogy and enjoying that a great deal as well.

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I’m not honestly a big fan of books about writing. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and thought it was a fantastic autobiography, but his method and mine are so wildly different that I found I didn’t really agree with him about almost anything on the subject of craft. What he does obviously works brilliantly for him, but it wouldn’t work at all for me. My head just isn’t made the same way his is, and that’s fine. I think a mistake a lot of beginning writers make is thinking that there’s one right way to do this, and there just isn’t. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I think I’ve already been asked just about everything that I’d be prepared to answer in public by this point! I did a speaking engagement in a prison once, and some of their questions were really quite extraordinary: have I ever been in prison? No. Am I a real gangster? No. Have I ever hurt anyone on purpose? Yes. Did I win the fight? Yes.

What’s your favorite charity?

Cancer Research UK. I lost my mother to cancer a long time ago, and my wife has had it twice and been successfully treated both times. Those people are literally helping to save lives.

 

You can find reviews of Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones at Publishers Weekly and at Fantasy Book Review. Peter McLean has a Website, and you can find him on Facebook. You can buy Priest of Bones and Peter McLean’s other books at online retailers including Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and Apple, as well as your local independent book store.

Exclusive Book Giveaway for Absolute Write Members: The Fortress At The End Of Time

By Ari Meermans

Cover of Joe M. McDermott's The Fortress at the End of TimeWin one of five (5) copies of The Fortress at The End of Time
by Joe M. McDermott. The giveaway will run from Sunday, July 29, 2018, to Sunday, August 12, 2018, and is open to Absolute Write members worldwide with a physical mailing address.

To learn more about the giveaway and to enter for your chance to win one of five (5) copies of The Fortress at The End of Time see Exclusive Book Giveaway for Absolute Write members.

Long-time Absolute Write member Joe M. McDermott is the author of the novels Last DragonNever Knew Another , and Maze. His shorter works have appeared in Asimov’sAnalog, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.

About The Fortress At The End Of Time

Captain Ronaldo Aldo has committed an unforgivable crime. He will ask for forgiveness all the same: from you, from God, even from himself.

Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy’s return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it’s a prison from which he may never escape.

Deplorable work conditions and deafening silence from the blackness of space have left morale on the station low and tensions high. Aldo’s only hope of transcending his station, and cloning a piece of his soul somewhere new is both his triumph and his terrible crime.

Reviews for The Fortress at the End of Time:

“The Fortress at the End of Time is an essential read, and feels like a throwback to the era of classic science fiction from authors such as Frank Herbert or Ursula K. Le Guin.” — Andrew Liptak, The Verge

“McDermott manages to paint a vivid world in a few pages.” — The Washington Post

“The story works on many different levels . . . readers will be sucked in.” — Romantic Times

“I can say this, Joe M. McDermott’s Fortress at the End of Time is an intellectual bombastic space opera.” — Paul Jessup, author of Glass Coffin Girls

“The Fortress at the End of Time is a brilliant novel.” — Geek Ireland

The Fortress at the End of Time will hit all of the right spots with science fiction fans. Fast paced, but incredibly thoughtful, McDermott creates an unforgettable world at the end of the universe.” — Teresa Frohock, author of Los Nefilim

“A highly original, completely affecting work.” — Mysterious Galaxy

Interview: Cameron Johnston

Cover of Cameron Johnston's debut novel The Traitor GodCameron Johnston lives in Glasgow, Scotland, with his wife and an extremely fluffy cat. He is a swordsman, a gamer, an enthusiast of archaeology, history and mythology, a builder of LEGO, and owns far too many books to fit on his shelves. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire. The Traitor God, an epic fantasy (Angry Robot, June 2018) is Cameron Johnston’s debut novel, though Cameron Johnston has published a fair amount of short fiction. Cameron (known on AW as CameronJohnston) agreed to set some time aside for an Absolute Write interview.

What’s your elevator pitch for The Traitor God?

The Traitor God is part blood-soaked murder mystery and part grimdark swords and sorcery apocalypse.

Did you have a playlist for The Traitor God?

When writing I tend to find songs with lyrics distracting, so it was mostly a mix of instrumental soundtracks: Lord of The Rings, Conan The Barbarian, Two Steps From Hell, Celtic and relaxing folk music etc. On the other hand, when I’m editing I want something higher energy: Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, and basically a mix of 80s songs from Queen, The Cure, New Order, Blondie, Europe, Eurythmics, Bonnie Tyler, Tina Turner and a whole host of others.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote The Traitor God? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect Charra to be such a strong character and play such a large part, or quite how much fun it was to write the interactions of two old friends who are a both outspoken and very black of humour.

I notice some nods in the direction of things Scottish, in terms of the Clans people, and in the way you used an occasional bit of Scots or Gaelic. Where you thinking of particular places in your locations, particularly the catacombs?

In some ways the Setharii Empire is loosely based on the British Empire of the colonial era, being a somewhat unscrupulous trading empire (one reinforced with magical might) that is on the wane. The northern Clanholds and its people are heavily influenced by all things Scottish and the great city of Setharis itself is a fantastical version of the castles at Stirling and Edinburgh, sitting on their high volcanic rocks. For the catacombs below the city I had in mind the sepulchral majesty of the catacombs of the Monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru, and also the subterranean catacombs below Paris.

You’ve got some pretty complicated world-building in The Traitor God, what with a world with multiple cultures, multiple deities, a sect of mages and unique magical beasts; how do you keep track of it as you’re writing?

You definitely do need a “world bible” of sorts to keep track of character names, positions, and descriptions (Eye colour! Which side scars are on etc) as well as what various monsters look like and what they can do. It’s always good to have a list of place names and cultural terms, swear words and the like that you can refer back to when needed. In my case it’s all compiled in a simple text file.

What’s your writing process like?

I don’t do big and detailed outlines but I usually start writing already knowing the beginning, the ending, and a few important points I want to hit along the way. Writing regularly does help, however little and however often you can manage it. I like to write a full rough draft before going back to edit and polish it up, but I don’t always write in a linear fashion. Sometimes I get stuck on a particular scene and leapfrog it to write the endings, or an easier/more fun scene that appears later on in the story before going back to it.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have a small study with book cases at my back, a PC at a desk facing the wall, a globe and a variety of board games and interesting items close to hand. I have a few inexpensive antiquities close to hand, and when I get stuck writing I find holding medieval arrowheads, an ancient Egyptian scarab, a roman coin or a chunk of meteorite will help to stimulate my imagination.

You mention H.P. Lovecraft as an influence. What works by Lovecraft would you recommend for readers who are unfamiliar with his writing read first?

As most of his writing was in the form of short stories, you can’t go wrong with a good collection, and most of it is freely available online as well. I would recommend trying “The Whisperer In Darkness,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” first. I always did have a soft spot for “The Nameless City” as well.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Way too many things actually! For me the last few years have really strained my book shelves with goodness. Some of my highlights would be: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams, Blackwing by Ed McDonald, Age of Assassins by RJ Barker and Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’ve also been reading my way through the Hellboy and B.P.R.D comics.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Stephen King’s On Writing is excellent for an insight into a very successful writer’s mind and career with all its ups and downs. I also found Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer and others great for getting the creative juices going.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

“Hi, I’m a big Hollywood producer with a truck full of cash. Would you like a film deal?” Wouldn’t we all like to be in that situation! Or more seriously:

“How did it feel to see your book on the shelves of a book store?” Absolutely mind-blowing to see my book rubbing shoulders with those by writers like Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan.

What’s your favorite charity?

There are many, but I’ll go for Water Aid on this occasion. Access to clean water and toilets is something we take for granted and should be part of daily life for everyone, everywhere.

Cameron Johnston has a Website. You can find Traitor God on Amazon and iBooks, at booksellers and at his publisher, Angry Robot. Here’s the Traitor God page on GoodReads.

Interview: Kevin Craig

Novelist, poet and playwright Kevin Craig, long known as KTC on Absolute Write, set some time aside for an interview, just days after release of his sixth novel, Pride Must Be A Place.

Did you have a playlist for Pride Must Be a Place

Absolutely, I did. I wrote over half of Pride at the 72hr Muskoka Novel Marathon. That’s where 40 writers get together and attempt to write 40 novels in 72hrs. We each collect sponsorship money for the marathon. We raise about $30,000.00 for area literacy programs. Anyway, the playlist for Pride Must Be A Place was made up of seven songs. For the greater part of the 72 hours “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club played on a loop. On the way to the marathon weekend, I talked to Parachute Club’s lead singer Lorraine Segato on the phone. I had sent her an email asking her about permissions and a couple of other things regarding the song and a story tie-in to the band. We batted a few ideas back and forth and I feel as though she helped with the eventual direction of the story. The “Rise Up” song was fuel for the story all the way through the writing of it. Other songs in the playlist were Divine’s “Native Love,” Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy,” Dead or Alive’s “Misty Circles” and “I’d Do Anything,” and The Cure’s “In Betweeen Days” and 10:15 “Saturday Night.”

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Pride Must Be a Place? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

There were definitely surprises. The biggest was one of the main character’s arc. Alex Mills was a close friend in a trio of friends that included Ezra Caine, the narrator, and Nettie English. I had envisioned Alex being a totally different character than the one he turned out being. Without giving too much away, he makes some terrible choices along the way and his entire arc changed. He in fact changed the trajectory of the story. What Ezra learns through his interactions with Alex is when someone shows their true character over and over again, there comes a point when you have to believe them.

In 2014 you made the pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago. What can you tell us about that?

My Camino pilgrimage was an absolute life-changer (I’m going back in 2019). I had just completed three years of intensive therapy for childhood sexual abuse trauma. I saw my pilgrimage as a way of shedding the last of my old skin. I made the pilgrimage in a group with seven other peregrinos. The guide, Sue Kenney, was already a friend through my novel marathons. She takes groups twice a year and I always wanted to do it. I was starting my entire life over at the time. I was in a new relationship and I was newly out. The Camino was a way to complete my healing journey. Every step I took was away from negativity and all the old components of myself that I wanted to leave behind. My idea was to walk into Santiago de Compostela a new person . . . a more authentic self. And I believe I accomplished my goal, for the most part. They say the Camino calls to you and that it never stops calling until to you listen and make the journey. That’s what I did. For me, my pilgrimage was the culmination of my healing journey. I just recently wrote a young adult novel set on the Camino. My agent currently has it out on submission. It is close to my heart because the Camino is close to my heart.

What’s your writing process like?
I try to complete my first draft at the yearly Muskoka Novel Marathon. 72 hours with little sleep and lots of coffee. I always write by the seat of my pants. I choose a title first, and when they ring the starter bells at the marathon every July I leap from that title and see where it takes me. No outlines, no preconceived notions. If I don’t finish the first draft in that 72 hour sitting, which was the case with Pride Must Be A Place, my partner helps to motivate me in the following weeks by ordering, say, two chapters by 3pm. I write the chapters, send them to my Kindle and wait for the next request. The whole time I’m writing chapters, he’s editing the ones I send to my Kindle. It’s a process that works incredibly well. He keeps me in the mindset I had at the marathon and I continue the momentum until the first draft is completed. Usually a week or so after the marathon’s completion.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I don’t have a work area. I write wherever I am. I feel like I’m talking about the marathon a lot, but since most of the first draft is completed there it comes into a lot of my answers. It’s a chaotic weekend, with 40 writers in such a confined living space. I have a desk there and set up for comfort, mostly. But outside the marathon, I’ll write on the couch, on the floor, in a coffee shop, at the library, in bed . . . wherever. I like when my partner takes me to his sister’s cottage for a weekend with the express purpose of giving me writing time and space. When I write there, I’m usually on the back porch with a full view of the lake. It’s heaven.

Any particular favorite Canadian writers?
Canadian writers? I don’t usually think in forms of countries when it comes to writers, but I do definitely have favourite Canadians. Because he is also a dear friend, first and foremost Wayson Choy. He’s the loveliest person in the world. He has a way of making everyone feel special and loved. And his writing is absolutely beautiful. I loved his Not Yet and The Jade Peony the most. Leonard Cohen’s novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers are experimental in style and gorgeous and lush. I’ve also always loved his poetry and song. Mordecai Richler and Miriam Toews would round out my favourite Canadian writers.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Ooh! Book love! I’ve been reading mostly young adult and mostly contemporary issue books. My faves include Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Simon VsThe Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, History is All You Left Me and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. My favourite of 2017 has to be The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke. In it, the main character accidentally time-travels to 1988 East Berlin via a red balloon and finds herself on the wrong side of the wall. It’s an amazing story . . . and the first in a series called The Balloonmakers. Exceptional!

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
My favourite has to be The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s about writing, but it’s also about life. I like the way Maugham peppers golden nuggets of writerly wisdom into a narrative of his life, much in the way Stephen King did with On Writing. Maugham is a hero to me because he was a playwright and a novelist. I also do both. The Summing Up gave me  so much. I continue to reread it years later.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

Wow! This one kind of stops one in one’s tracks. I’m certain there is one, but my mind is a blank at the moment. I’ve been outside my comfort zone almost non-stop for the past eight years or so. I feel like all those questions have been asked and answered.

What’s your favorite charity?
My favourite charity? I’d have to go with two. The YMCA Literacy Services of Muskoka/Simcoe County, which is the organization that receives all the Muskoka Novel Marathon funds every year. The 519 — which is a community centre in the heart of Toronto’s gay village. They have phenomenal supports and programs for the LGBTQ community here.

Kevin Craig is the author of young adult novels and adult-themed coming-of-age novels featuring young narrators. Pride Must be a Place (MuseItUp Publishing, February 6 2018) is his most recent novel. Kevin Craig’s previous titles include Summer on Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, The Reasons, Burn Baby Burn Baby, and Half Dead & Fully Broken. His poetry, fiction, and memoir have been published internationally. Kevin is also a playwright, and has had twelve short plays produced. Kevin Craig lives in Toronto, Canada, and is is represented by Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group. You can find Kevin Craig on Amazon and Amazon Canada, as well as Kevin Craig’s website.

WriteOnCon 2018

WriteOnCon is a three-day online children’s book conference for writers and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, young adult, and even new adult. It was founded in 2010, and has become an annual event. This year the WriteOnCon online conference takes place on Friday, February 9th through Sunday, February 11th, 2018. You can see the full 2018 WriteOnCon schedule and the list of speakers.

The WriteOnCon keynote addresses and the critique forums are free and open to anyone who registers on the WriteOnCon site. There’s a sliding scale registration fee ranging from $5.00 for General Admission, which gives you access to all the blog posts and material that speakers have put together (over 100 entries!), until a week after the conference ends. At the opposite end of the scale, the $15.00 Extended Admission includes access to posts and the live events, and you retain access to the website for a month after the conference ends. The various options for admission and registration for WriteOnCon are here.

The free forums are open now, with options for various kinds of crit and feedback. There’s also a free mail list. I’ve watched WriteOnCon grow and it gets better and better every year. The fact that WriteOnCon is entirely online, and the paid registration options for viewing the content later make it possible to participate even if you’re a working parent. There’s a WriteOnCon thread on Absolute Write if you’re curious about past conferences. Members are already excited about this year’s event.

Review: Time To Write by Kelly L. Stone

Cover of Kelly Stone's book Time to WriteKelly L. Stone. Time to Write. Adams Media, 2008

Review by Betty Winslow

Having a hard time carving out time to write? Yeah, me too. Life is often so full of responsibilities, distractions, crises, and interruptions that getting anything extra done seems impossible. Novelist and freelance writer Kelly L. Stone completely understands; she established her own freelance writing career while holding down a full-timejob and raising a family.

Do I hear you asking, in a wistful voice, “But how?” Have hope, fellow writers! Reading Stone’s Time to Write (with its bold cover promise of “No excuses, no distractions, [and] no more blank pages”) will answer that question a dozen times over. No matter where you are in your writing career or what sort of writing you do, you should be able to find something helpful in Stone’s bag of tips, tricks, advice, and encouragement from more than 100 professional writers. (And if you don’t, read it again. You probably missed something the first time through!)

Trying to figure out how to balance writing and family life? Wondering if a schedule might help your production level? Dealing with distraction, rejection, or your inner critic? Looking for some useful tools to make your writing life smoother? All that and more is covered, in the voices of writers like Jodi Picoult, Debbie Macomber, Sandra Brown, Cecil Murphey, Steve Berry, and Rick Mofina.

However, if you’re curious about how exactly Stone herself does it, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. Aside from a few (very) brief personal comments and anecdotes sprinkled here and there, she keeps her own writing life pretty much in the dark, which means you may end up (as I did a few times) wondering out loud, “So, how did you do this, Kelly?”

Still, this is a minor quibble. It in no way detracts from Time to Write’’s value to anyone who’s ever wondered how on earth to cram writing into an already jammed life. Are you already shaking your head and muttering, “There’s no way!” There is. Truly. Reading Time to Write can help you figure out ways to fit writing into your own busy life. No more excuses!

Postscript: Time to Write also introduced me to a number of writers I was not be familiar with, and some intriguing titles. Looks like I’ll be using Stone’s tips to make time to read, too!

AW’er Betty Winslow has been freelancing for almost 30 years and her writing has appeared in many magazines and eight books (and on several other websites). 

International Correspondence Month — InCoWriMo

International Correspondence Month (InCoWriMo) takes place in February. Basically, the idea is to hand-write and mail or deliver in person one letter, card, note or postcard every day during the month of February. Hand-written doesn’t have to mean cursive, by the way; those of us who print are welcome to participate just as much as those who write a fine Spencerian hand.

The goal of InCoWriMo is to have written and sent one piece of correspondence for every day of the month during February (so you can skip a day and write two the next). You can write to friends and relations. You can write to strangers  and leave a note on their door telling them that you love their roses. You can write old friends. You can write to former teachers to thank them. You can send a love letter to your SO.

You can use pen-pal services. You can send postcards, or formal letters, or greeting cards with a note. It’s up to you. But you have to write your cards or letters by hand, and they have to be delivered, whether by you or a postal service. The official InCoWriMo site has some excellent FAQs. There’s even a video to help inspire you and get you started.

I’m going to attempt to write a card or letter for every day of February. Who’s with me?

Ursula K. Le Guin, Finding My Elegy

Cover of Ursula Le Guin's Finding My Elegy, showing landscape and sunsetI have to confess, I’ve stalled writing this review because I don’t want to think about reading any elegies for Ursula Le Guin. Ive been reading and treasuring her books and essays and poems since I was child growing up in the 70s in a single-wide trailer on the wind-scoured American Great Plains. Le Guin wrote doors for me to other places, fascinating places, places to dream of visiting and aspire to reach. An elegy traditionally laments someone’s death. In a more contemporary sense, an elegy may be an expression of existential or metaphysical loss, sadness, or yearning. To consider an elegy for Le Guin means having to admit she’s old and cannot live and write forever. I hate that. Not only because it requires facing the realization that I’ve gotten a great deal older as well, but because the notion itself makes me sad, anticipating the inevitable loss of a treasured friend and ally regardless of the fact that she’s not someone I know personally.

There’s no introduction, no forward, no dedication; Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, byUrsula K. Le Guin opens quite simply and immediately after the colophon and table of contents with a short, early poem. Offering serves as both preface and invocation, entreating the reader and invisible gods to judge a poem made of the verge of sleep but then forgotten upon waking, and if finding it good, to accept it as an offering. Taken with the resonance of elegy in the collection’s title, and the clear symbolism of sleep as a metaphor for death, the initial poem is a clear invitation to the reader to explore these inner lands with the writer, then make up our own minds regarding the worth and weight of the journey.

Inner lands are familiar territory for Le Guin. Her essay collection, The Language of the Night, begins with a 1973 essay called “A Citizen of Mondath” in which she opens with a quotation from A Dreamer’s Tales, by Lord Dunsany:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for ever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun.

Le Guin concludes her essay with the observation that, “Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country.” It’s fitting, then, that nearly forty years later, Le Guin is still exploring those Inner Lands with additional maturity, insight, and gravitas.

It’s sometimes difficult to explore big and abstract ideas in prose without sounding pompous and impenetrable, and likewise its hard to express simple daily observations without sounding trite and a little dull and droning on with too many words to convey what was an instant of experience. These are the sorts of insights sometimes better reserved for poetry.

Finding My Elegy offers poems written between 1960 and 2010, so some of them will likely be familiar to the longtime Le Guin reader. Seventy of the poems were selected from earlier volumes, and seventy-seven are presented for the first time. The poems range in length and form, romp with expression and wordplay, and wind about exploring the impossible and inexpressible, the sacred contrasted with the profane.

There are quiet poems about life and work and sleeping cats, here, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s gift for juxtaposing the mundane with the profound. There are longer, more structured, careful poems, exploring the faces of god and motherhood and love and sex and despair and sleep.

The poems span the entirety of Le Guin’s career so far, from 1960 to present; collected and presented together, they distill much of Le Guin’s writing life. Finding My Elegy is not so much lament as examination, a recollection of a literary body of work that is rich, evocative, and sometimes whimsical much like any life.

An elegy for such a remarkable body of work and thought must be sought, because theres so very much to recall, sort, and consider, that there are no simple summations. The entire retrospective taken as a whole reads like a single long poem made of many smaller parts.

Nothing about Le Guin’s selection and presentation of these poems is accidental or random, and as a reader its only fitting that we approach this collection with the same attention to detail and mindfulness, both of the parts and of the whole of the book. As Le Guins reader, we seek so that we, too, may find her elegy.

If you haven’t read much poetry,don’t worry: Finding My Elegy is an excellent door into the inner lands for any reader. If you’re a long time poetry lover,you’ll find the journey extraordinarily rewarding and well worth your consideration. Ultimately, the collection, itself, is a long and lovely elegy to be remembered, reconsidered, and revisited again and again.

Previously published on Floccinaucical.

January 23 National Handwriting Day

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Tuesday January 23 is National Handwriting Day (and, not coincidentally, John Hancock’s birthday). This day of celebration and outreach and engagement with handwriting was founded in 1977 by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. Their motive was, understandably, to promote the use of pens, pencils and paper for writing, and hence their bottom line, but there’s more to it than that. As they put it:

Handwriting allows us to be artists and individuals during a time when we often use computers, faxes and e-mail to communicate. Fonts are the same no matter what computer you use or how you use it and they lack a personal touch. Handwriting can add intimacy to a letter and reveal details about the writer’s personality. Throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence.

Handwriting is part of the writing process for a lot of writers. One of the virtues of writing by hand is that you can write without needing anything other than paper and a pen or pencil. Handwriting also engages different parts of our brains than keyboarding does, helping us to “think differently.” There’s also a distinct pleasure in having our own unique style, whether we print or use cursive. There’s also both physical and aesthetic delight in writing with beautifully made, easy to use pens, pencils and paper.

In celebration of National Handwriting Day, take a minute and send a card or letter to someone you’ve been thinking about, or a thank you note to a friend or a writer you admire. Taking the time to write something personal by hand says that you’re going beyond the rudiments of courtesy.

Are you celebrating National Handwriting Day? Or are you one of those who write by hand regularly? Come tell us in the new Analog Tools subform on Absolute Write.

I footnotes