The case for fantasy fiction

Presented with a well-stocked library, bookshop or friend’s bookshelf what genre of book do you choose? Do you feel comfortable with crime fiction, stifle a yawn over historical romance and skip quickly past fantasy and sci-fi? Or are legal dramas your thing? Or perhaps, tales of strife in distant lands, heroic deeds and family feuds? Do you ever read “the classics”?

There is a frequently voiced opinion among literary types that fantasy and science fiction are somehow less worthy, less monumental and less able to stand up to academic examination than other genres. It is widely considered that they have less to say and less to teach the reader – they are a bit comic-like, mass produced and written for the relatively uneducated, easily thrilled masses. In my opinion, try telling this to Homer, Tennyson, Asimov, Tolkein, Pullman, Rowling, Ishiguro, Attwood, Gaiman, Mitchell, Zafon, Orwell, Doctorow, Zales and many, many others – their books excel in forcing the reader to step beyond the familiar and to think ‘outside the (comfort) box.’ Their fantasies insist on great leaps of faith into unknown worlds and ignite imagination, triggering an explosion of ideas and vivid pictures in the reader’s head.

Because the new world is exciting and strange, the writer can exploit this and create characters who interact in ways that are on the one hand invented and on the other intrinsically human. They can be kind, cruel, jealous, commanding, loving, bullying and grieving but because they exist in an unfamiliar place their relationships can be scrutinised in a way that would seem too intrusive in the real world. Hierarchies can be established and explored and the politics of new lands with different laws and morals examined. The reader is forced, then, to reflect on their own morals in this world, to make comparisons and to learn  about themselves and their surroundings.

I believe that fantasy can transport us into worlds where our rules are re-written; where we are unshackled and escape from everyday worries binding us down on this earth.

Writing fantasy fiction is an escape into my dreams. Reading it is to tread across the words of another’s dreams.

Next time you are browsing the bookshelves, consider taking time out with a good science fiction or fantasy book.

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Submitting to submission

Submission – why does that one, not particularly little word, fill me with dread?

Maybe it’s something to do with its meaning – to submit is either to present a proposal for judgement, or to yield to a higher power. I have written two books, one for children, the other for young adults. Submitting them to an agent is akin to entering your child in a beauty pageant or auditioning them for a role on the West End stage. Seeking approval and praise for your precious creation is potentially excoriating. Criticism that stabs deep into the heart is best avoided. Thus it feels safer to protect yourself and your child or book from outside opinion.

In other words, when you submit (first definition), you submit (the other definition) to your fear. Or to your natural tendency to procrastinate. Or to whatever excuse you tell yourself is a powerful enough reason for avoiding submission.

But submitting to a fear of submission is cowardly.

“It is hard to fail but worse having never tried to succeed.” T. Roosevelt

So – gulp! – not having a clue about the publishing industry and definitely lacking the accountancy or legal skills to examine a publishing contract, I find myself in need of an agent. And – gulp again – I am determined not to put the submission off any longer. Admittedly, writing this is putting it off. ‘Forever a procrastinator’ could be my epitaph but hopefully I can put off needing one of those for a while.

There is a recognised check list for submissions –

First, pick an agent who takes on writers like you. Don’t send a children’s book to an adult only agency. A specialist in travel writing is unlikely to take a fiction proposal. Next, get the name of the agent – far better than the anonymous ‘dear sir/madam’ that immediately suggests you have made the same impersonal approach to every agent you could find.

Next, read the submission guidelines – if they say no email submissions then don’t email them. If they want a particular font and line spacing do it. Getting the formatting right is pretty basic. Essentially, if they have a particular like then go with it.

If they want the first three chapters, send the first three chapters. Don’t send an action section because you think it’s your best bit. That screams ‘the beginning isn’t great but I think this bit is ok.’ If you don’t think the beginning is good, you’re not going to persuade an agent that it is.

Okay, I can do all the above. Easy peasy! But now it gets difficult. My first agent letter was three pages long. In other words, it was a long winded waffle that wasn’t going to get beyond the slush pile.

… ah! The slush pile. What is this? In my head it’s a top-heavy stack of dreams. Nearly all destined for the recycling bin. Why slush? Perhaps slush equals rubbish in the agent’s mind? I suspect it does. Slush is that wet, messy, shoe-staining irritation of greying half-snow, half-water that covers the pavements and slops deeply over the very spot where you want to put your foot on stepping out of the car. Soggy with no redeeming features = the slush pile. It is a transient heap, just passing through a temporary state of hope, before forlornly slithering into the shredder. Hmm – I don’t want my books to go there.  My letter needs to be better. It needs to carry my submission over the slush pile.

It needs to describe the book briefly, in one sentence if possible; quickly state why I am the best person to have written it and summarise my writing career – have I won any prizes, been on any courses; say who inspired me without saying that I’m the next Philip Pullman (I’m not. I wouldn’t say that. But apparently people do. And it puts the agent off. Apparently! Not surprisingly.); describe the target audience; give an approximate word count and summarise future plans – is this book a one-off or the first of a series? And all on one page of A4. Including the letter head, agent address, date etc. One page!

Right. I’ve done that. I’m happy with it too. It was difficult, but not impossible. What is very nearly impossible is writing a synopsis.

The problem with synopsis writing (or should it be ‘the writing of a synopsis’ or ‘writing synopses?’) is that I know my story. And the agent/reader doesn’t. In order to make it (the synopsis) brief, I make assumptions. I lose the agent/reader. So I make it longer. But making it longer and including more detail, makes it more confusing. The agent/reader remains lost. So I condense it to the very bare essentials. The agent/reader appreciates the clarity but finds that it is boring – nothing much happens, the plot is thin, too few characters are mentioned – and it sails swiftly into the recycling bin.

I think however that I might have the synopsis cracked. I’ve tried it out on some friends. Either they were being polite or they genuinely got it. The next step therefore is to submit. Yes! – yield to the voice inside my head that is telling me to quit procrastinating, quit making excuses, quit being sae feart and send an agent my submission.

… tomorrow.

Maybe.

I just need to decide on the agent. Or agents.

The Birds Still Sing

When we miss someone, we feel the absence of their touch and see that they are not there in the stillness of our personal shadows, but it is when we notice the absence of their noise that the missing becomes hardest to bear. That is when we long for an absent-minded hum, a footfall, fingers running up the piano, a burp, a cough, a sneeze, or the clink of a spoon in a tea-cup – anything that tells us they’re home.

A cappella is all that is best about the human voice – its genre hopping versatility, its energy, the beauty of its harmonies and the ear popping acrobatics of its beat boxing – so much so, that when it is suddenly switched off, the world becomes a much quieter place. We had an a cappella group living with us for a week last summer – this is for them and the void they left behind.

*****

Do you know that the birds still sing?

And the grass soft mourns,

whispering

where youthful feet once fell?

Leaves, timid, dare to shift and shuffle,

in zephrous breeze,

hinting at lingering laughter lost.

While dew drop tears falling

splash

and my soul misses their noise.

*

Song filled our ears

for one summer week – long lived.

Now the wind

blows a crescendo of nothing

to collide with the notes in my head;

silent notes – the memories of music shared.

Shared music that will be shared again.

And joyously again.

But listen now,

for I had forgotten that the birds still sing.

Remember me

Help for Heroes  http://www.helpforheroes.org.uk/

This poem in its rambling fractured style is meant to reflect the mood and memories of a wounded soldier of unspecified age and unspecified war.

*****

I once asked a youthful love

to remember me.

To remember me

in every minute of her day.

I made a promise

to remember her.

Did she remember me?

*

Does anyone remember me?

Cry out “I remember!” if you do.

And in remembering, remember ‘us’ too.

*

I remember ‘us’ in my waking and my sleeping

I remember ‘us’ in every minute of my day.

That ‘us.’

That band of thrown together ‘us’ –

Our friendships forged in foreign land.

*

Across ground rent by battle our torn feet fell,

in foul mire slipping; seeking

Silence. And escape from hell.

Faith destroyed, we lost our way –

forgot to stop; forgot to pray.

Shivering, we lay, shattered –

shot through with seering pain.

And exhausted; slept,

beneath a heavy, choking rain.

“Get up! Push on!”

And weeping, up we lept,

To stagger forward, on and together on,

midst ricochetting, screaming death, poised

waiting to snatch our breath.

In dark gloom, fog  and shrieking noise

we ‘pressed on,’

til rupturing,

the earth exploding burst,

spitting sand shards into eyes,

and lips grit-crusted, mocking thirst.

*

I hear her voice, a melodic memory,  in my hollowed ears.

And whilst falling, with intense rush I sudden remember me,

in flickering flashbacks; cine

moments – tossed chaotic – adrift on life’s lost sea.

*

In a nighmare, black, I wake

my eyes on fire.

Somewhere, a muffled half-heard singing, that I strain to hear

with ears ruptured by the blast.

Somewhere, sweet scent blows through open window –

green fields, gorse and honeysuckle.

Somewhere, in dreams I walk, with red balloon.

Red.

Red dripping blood. Red haemorrhaging into sand.

Remember me! I cry! Remember! … re-mem–ber –

morphine’s gentle push down slumber slide.

*

Later, much much later, my fingers find

her last letter; paper crisp

against my heart.

Unread and unanswered.

Years on, unanswered still.

Did she remember me?

*

As  autumn’s curtain draws on summer

And birds soar in sweeping last farewell,

Like leaves that float and turning fall

let luck grasp at memories dropping through zephyr breeze

and let us pause to remember

my friends,

those whom I did not join,

the nation’s fallen bravest best.

Remember them, the dead.

But also remember me, the living –

remember me.

The Twins of Orion

Children dream in technicolor and to write the stories that children might dream is the greatest fun that an adult can have.

Just imagine a little man stepping out of the steamy cloud above your hot chocolate; imagine going on an adventure with him and meeting pirates, cannibals and real World War Two soldiers; imagine receiving an ancient curse and fighting to save yourself, your family and your planet and imagine entering a science-fiction fantasy world where the characters are named after the stars in the constellation Orion and boast about bungee jumping into black holes. This is The Silver Scorpion and it is the first book in a proposed Twins of Orion series.

*

“I loved the plot and I found it very exciting.  Please write other books because these are the sorts of books I enjoy.” Girl, 13yrs.

*

The Twins of Orion is a fantasy adventure series for children. It is fictional, though some of the history is based on real characters and events that actually happened. The sci-fi is not real. It would be fun if it was: imagine speaking to spirits; fighting monsters and travelling into space.

*

Book 1, The Silver Scorpion, is written. It is edited. And re-edited. And is being edited again. It has been read by several children, like the one above, whom I don’t know.

It isn’t published. Not yet. It’s still being edited. It will be submitted soon. Just exactly when I have finished editing it. Whenever that might be.

*

Where did the idea for this story come from?

It was inspired by two places – Castellina, a small town in Tuscany and Cambridge, a small city in England.

In Castellina, a tragedy is remembered on these steps,

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this small, steep road is the scene of a terrible crime at the end of the Second World War

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and a mediaeval knight in full armour gallops down this ancient stone tunnel.

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In Cambridge, the market, the river and the colleges all feature in the story. It is also where waifs, playing ‘chicken’ with fireworks, are first encountered.

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Lamps are a common theme throughout the book – waifs (the spirit children) gather round them to keep warm.

When you next walk past one – look for small faces reflected in the glass. Watch for movement in the shimmering, flickering light. Listen for the ringing hiss from the bulb – is it just the lamp or a cold whisper from a spirit child? I always look and listen and imagine.

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*

Who are the principle characters?

There are three main characters – Alicia, Gussie and Min  although each would probably claim the lead role, while declaring the others mere support acts. Alicia is 13. She’s not a typical teenage girl – she loves the outdoors and is independent, feisty, and to her surprise discovers that she is quite brave. Gussie is a waif – the unloved and forgotten spirit of a dead boy. Min is a star – or that’s what he tells everyone. He and his family make up the constellation Orion. Again, that’s what he tells everyone. He can be anything you want him to be and anything he wants to be.

*

How did I write the story?

I wrote it like this

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and carried a small book around in my pocket, so that I could jot down ideas wherever and whenever they popped into my head. Walking is terrific for clearing the brain and some of my best ideas pop up when I’m out for a walk.

Inspiration comes … Stopsketch – scribblestroll … like this –

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Later, I copy into my laptop. And edit. I’m still editing. One day, I’ll finish. Probably.

I have started book 2. But it doesn’t have a name yet.

*

What’s in it?

Adventure – Fireworks – Pirates – Cannibals – Spirits – War – Soldiers – Stars – Monsters – Family – Ghosts – Wine – Food – Soldiers – a Pig – Pizza – Mediaeval knights – a Rooster – Pasta – twins – lots of pairs of twins

*

Where is it set?

It is set in real places in Tuscany and Cambridge. Book 2 will also travel for a wee while to Scotland, where it will find tales of smuggling, island hide-outs and sheep rustling. Book 3 (yes – planned in a vague I-know-where-it-will-go-probably sort of way) will delve deeper into the history of the knights who fought for fortune in Mediaeval Italy and book 4 will … I’m getting ahead of myself. In book 3 or 4 or 5, the curse introduced in book 1 will pass from Alicia to someone else. I know who that will be. I think. I don’t know however exactly how it will be passed. But if I get that far, and the story returns to the via delle Volte, in Castellina, expect Alberico, the terrible spectre of a mediaeval knight on horseback, to reappear – you have been warned.

*

What is the story about?

All the hints above – plus a curse, a mysterious talisman, kidnapping, wartime bravery, loyalty, and trusting others. Oh! … don’t forget the pirates, the cannibals, a dying dog (that will make you cry – I can’t read it without welling up), a starving rooster and the twins who bungee jump into black-holes. There’s a monster, too, who takes over people’s minds and will do anything, even kill, to win the mysterious talisman.

*

Where can you read the story?

Nowhere yet. But I will post some excerpts here soon.

So do come back

Copyright cnicholson 2015

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