Ooh, look what came – copies of my new novel Head Full of Dark. There’s something so special about holding a book you wrote. It’s still so weird to see my own name there on the cover of a paperback…
Head Full of Dark, the third volume in my Office of the Witchfinder General series, is out today in ebook format! The paperback version will be available on 31st July.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
There is clearly someone in the Office of the Witchfinder General who is working for or with English Wizardry, and Danesh and the Crow are determined to track them down. It might even be one of the Lord High Witchfinders. Who can they trust? Can Danesh even trust the Crow?
To ensure the traitor is not alerted, Danesh conducts an off-the-books investigation under cover of an inquiry into a cold case. But not all cold cases stay cold; not all dead witches stay dead; and not all traitors stay hidden…
… and what is the significance of the goat’s skull?
Fans of the series will be very familiar with the Welsh Office of the Witchfinder General, that shadowy department of the British establishment responsible for protecting the realm from unnatural threats. This time, as well as Wales, we get a glimpse of other regions, particularly Scotland and the Isle of Man.
We also find out the identity of the mysterious Office insider The Whisperer, the individual responsible for passing on all the Office’s well-guarded secrets…
The Unfolding Mystery…
Regular readers will know that Home World is a prequel novella to the Triple Stars trilogy. It was, in fact, written after the three main books, although the large events within it were always in my mind as I wrote the novels. When it came to writing Home World, I had the idea to frame it as a classical murder mystery. The main books are not detective stories in this fashion, but they are about a (galactic) mystery, and I liked the idea of using a small-scale puzzle as a precursor to the much larger one.
The notion of using a detective story that is itself something of a red herring also amused me as a sort of metatextual joke. Home World very definitely does touch on the events that trigger the main action of the trilogy – but the reader might not see that coming; the “real” story is background detail, almost incidental. I liked the growing sense of threat that allowed me to write – as well as giving the reader a glimpse of what has been lost by the time of the events of the main trilogy. The characters in Home World hear of a supposed existential threat to their way of life, but they dismiss it as impossible and unimportant, and they carry on with their normal routines. I think that’s probably something we’d all do – and something that has happened, repeatedly, through history.
I liked, also, the fact that this novella is about three worlds – a nod to the larger events in the Triple Stars trilogy to come.
I also like a good mystery story, and it’s fair to say that writing Home World in this way was simply fun – and something of a relief after the long work of creating the trilogy.
Meanwhile, I’d really love to turn all the Triple Stars novels into audiobooks. The cost of doing this is prohibitive for me right now though – good narration is expensive and time-consuming – but perhaps there are options, like the various royalty-sharing schemes that are out there. But then Google made their AI narration technology available (as a Beta release), and I was intrigued to try it. Home World is free to read, so it seemed like a good candidate for a free to listen to audiobook – which would have made paying the cost of human narration unworkable.
The Google AI narrated version of Home World is now live, available here. I’ll be making the book available on my site and elsewhere soon. It’s free, and it’s very clearly marked as “Auto-narrated”, which is good.
How does it sound? I’m interested in your thoughts – but my view is that the narration is very good but not perfect. A few sentences sound a little wooden, and it is sometimes tricky to get word rhythms and stresses correct. Google offer some good tools for editing, but these need to go further. You can correct the pronunciation of particular words, but not the flow of phrases and sentences. You can’t add stress other than to speed up and slow down sections. Several times, I was reduced to rewriting sentences in order to get to a narrated line that sounded correct. A human narrator could obviously just do this.
Fixing the pronunication of particular words – the names of characters and planets for instance – is also a little clunky. Google lets you pronounce words so it can get them right – but I couldn’t get that to work accurately. Perhaps I need a better microphone. Too often, I was reduced to typing out words phonetically and then copying the rendered IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet – something I now know more about than I ever wanted to!) into the relevant box.
I also learned that audiobook text needs to be a little different to book text. When you’re reading, the typographical layout gives you clues about who is speaking during a conversation. With an audiobook, you don’t see that, so I found I had to put in more tags – she said, he said etc – to make it clearer who is speaking. I could have gone to the lengths of having different AI voices for different characters (which Google lets you do) – but I decided to walk before I could run.
Then there is the amount of work it takes to “train” the AI narration. It’s significant. The AI does not get everything right, meaning I had to spend many hours going through the text word by word, fixing flow and pronunciation. It’s possible that the time required to do this for the entire trilogy might be too much. On the other hand, AI narration might improve to make the process easier. I ticked the box that said “Automatically update this audiobook when there is a text-to-speech model improvement” – slightly scary, but we’ll see how the technology improves.
So, there it is: my first audiobook, narrated by AI. Ironic, because AIs are central to the action of the book. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good, I feel. It may well be good enough. Check it out here.
I recently had a story – The Birds Sang in Both Worlds – published in Shortwave Press’s Obsolescence anthology.
I received a hardback copy as a contributing author and I can’t say how delighted I am with it. My word, the book is an absolute thing of beauty.
The stories are good, too:
“Technology’s role as a double-edged sword is an often-explored theme in horror. Many writers have examined what happens when tech overwhelms humanity. In the anthology Obsolescence, editors Alan Lastufka and Kristina Horner bring a variety of terrifically frightening stories that explore the role of tech in the world and the myriad ways the theme can be interpreted.”
“This is a rare anthology where every story is a hit. Veteran talents bring some of their strongest work alongside newcomers whose stories are more than strong enough to stand with the giants. Obsolescence is one of the most well-curated anthologies in recent history and an absolutely exquisite reminder that what we rely on most can easily turn on us at the worst times.”
Check it out if a horror anthology exploring technology sounds like your thing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Fantastic Other magazine, publisher of my story Seeds and also soon-to-be publisher of my story Some Observations on Ageing and the Flow of Time recently interviewed me about my writing process, genre boundaries, and whether I ever feel like giving up!
With their kind permission, I’m cross-posting the questions and answers here…
Q You write in the realms of both Fantasy and Science Fiction. How does the dichotomy of these two genres impact your writing? When you start a story, do you seek to write within the conventions of one genre, or do you find your stories naturally falling into one or the other?
A I’m mainly not a fan of genre boundaries – although I accept they’re useful at times (for readers to find things they like, mainly). I read and write pretty widely and I never think, Right, now I’m going to sit down and write a fantasy story or Okay, today it’s science fiction’s turn. But, I’m sure my subconscious is doing that; sometimes it comes up with a tale that is fantastical and sometimes it’s clearly a story based on real (or at least credible) science. Sometimes, also, it’s a “realist” story or a poem. I think the thing is always to write the thing whatever it is, and worry about labelling it later. And it’s nice, often, to slip into a genre so that you have the boundaries and “rules” there to limit what you can do. I’ve found that restricting your freedom as a writer (e.g. starting with a title or a theme) can often, ironically, be liberating. It frees you from the tyranny of the blank page, that terrifying feeling that you can write anything so where do you start? For the reader, too, it’s reassuring. They know what sort of things can and can’t happen because it’s this or that sort of book. The writer doesn’t need to spell out what a spell circle or a wormhole is, because the reader brings with them a certain amount of knowledge and expectation from other books.
That said, I enjoy stories that break the rules, blur the boundaries. There’s a lot of scope for something new and original there – even if it can make marketing such works tricky! My Cloven Land fantasy trilogy, for example, is high fantasy, urban fantasy – and also steampunky science fiction at times. It’s fair to say that’s hard to encapsulate in a neat blurb or marketing message.
Q You are a prolific writer, with your bio stating you’ve published over 100 short stories in addition to your full-length novels. Do you ever feel like you’ve lost the “drive” or the motivation to continue creating? If so, how do you relocate that drive?
A Honestly? Yes – sometimes I think I’ve achieved enough, written the stories I want to write and that it’s time to stop. This probably happens every week, more or less. But then what happens is that some new idea hits me and I start getting excited about setting it down and developing it. I write for the love of the writing, the joy of nailing what I wanted to nail; that gives me all the motivation I need.
Q Speaking of your many published stories, it is understood that rejection is part of being an author. What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are struggling and frustrated with rejection letters?
A So many rejections. Like many writers, I’ve struggled with these over the years. It’s hard not to take them personally, or to conclude that it means the work is worthless – or even that you’re not a good writer. Same with reviews: bad ones can make you want to give up, just as great ones can make your day. My advice would be to try not to take rejections as judgements of you as a writer – or even of your work. An acceptance isn’t only about a “good” story – it’s about finding the right fit for a particular publication or editor. A great story might get rejected beacuse a particular issue of a particular magazine happens to have similar stories already lined up – or because the editor is having a bad day. Try to remain detached. It’s just business. There will be successes and there will be failures and NEITHER OF THOSE THINGS MATTER. The only thing that matters is the work and being true to yourself and your vision.
Also – and this is something I learned early on – try and have lots of things on submission all the time. I used to write a thing, send it off, then sit back. When that got rejected, it seemed like the end of the world. These days, I have lots of things out there so that one rejection is just a drop in the ocean. I’m not suggesting a scattergun approach – always carefully target submissions – but having many on the go dilutes the pain of the (inevitable) rejections.
Also also – wear your rejections with pride! I mean, not literally, obviously. That’s what happens to writers. Keep fighting and get out there! Show the bastards you were right and they were wrong!
Q Revision and editing are often considered the “magic” part of writing, where authors can shape their stories into their ideal forms. What revision practices have you found to be most effective and how do you decide when you’re “finished” with a story?
A I do enjoy the editing process. It can be a little daunting when a 100,000 word novel manuscript has lots of red ink on it, but my experience is that, once you get over that, you’re making the work better, perfecting it. I think you have to remain open to suggestions and ideas – but, also, to be true to your vision and know when to ignore such advice. Ultimately, it’s your work.
The standard advice is to set a work aside for a time, then come back to it with fresh eyes. There’s a lot to be said for that. I’ll also read things out loud as that makes it easier to spot mistakes and it focuses the mind on things like word flow and rhythm. My personal writing paractice, though, has a lot of revision built into it. Some authors bang out a rough draft and only then go back and revise. I like to start a writing session by reworking the text I wrote the last time I sat down. My first drafts are already pretty polished. That works for me because it’s a great way to push the story on; by the time you need to start writing new words, you’re already in the flow.
As to knowing when a thing is “finished” – I don’t know. It’s mysterious. I just reach a point where my mind decides it’s done. It’s easy to get lost in endless tweaking and polishing, but you always have to weigh that up against the time you’re not spending working on something else. Make the thing as good as you can at the time, then move on. No piece of art is ever finished, it’s only left.
Q Technology has been shaping our world and culture in rapidly-evolving ways, such as the increased integration of social media into our lives and the introduction of new AI technologies. What role do you believe Fantasy and Science Fiction have in interacting with and addressing these technologic trends?
A Science Fiction, especially, is going to be involved in address these trends – predicting them, playing with them, pointing out the dangers and the possible benefits. Science Fiction doesn’t have to be only about this, but there’s a key strand to it that projects current developments into the future, perhaps taking things to extremes to explore where we might end up. That’s to be encouraged. Reality will end up different, but that’s fine.
It’s fascinating to hear from scientsts who were inspired by the science fiction they consumed when younger – perhaps just to become scientsts, but also, sometimes, to pursue particular ideas, to discover if this or that crazy notion is actually possible. That’s pretty awesome. Keep having those big ideas and then write a story about them!
Despite what I said previously about genre boundaries, I’d say Fantasy as a genre is not, generally, going to be about technological advancements (although writers like Pratchett take great delight in placing technological advancements in fantasy worlds; there’s always room for a crossover). A lot of fantasy works because it’s from a “known” and understood world, fixed in some mythical past where, perhaps, the lack of technological change is part of the appeal. Arguably, our love of fantasy has grown much stronger since the industrial revolution and the accelerating pace of technological change. I think that’s fine, too. Fantasy can obliquely comment on the so-called real world, sure, but it can gleefully ignore it, too.
My science fiction short story Messages from the Front has been published in the Utopia Science Fiction/Orion’s Belt collaborative issue.
Read it here for free!