February 4th 2016
First stop, Down Station.
This has been a long time coming. A change of publisher, a change of editor, a change of direction: if I’m trying to constantly challenge myself as a writer, I’m doing it the hard way, it seems.
I’ve wanted to write a ‘proper’ portal fantasy for a while, and now I’ve done it, it’s inevitably not quite like anyone else’s. A portal fantasy is, for the want of a better definition, the pitching of ordinary people into an extraordinary environment. I can check both those off: Dalip and Mary, Stanislav and Mama, are just regular folk, doing their daily jobs, when they discover the entrance to Down. And when I say ‘discover’, it’s literally that. They open a door, and there it is.
Because Down is not Narnia, or Barsoom, or the Pliocene, I have to chase them over the threshold. Down is a world with a conscious magic woven into every leaf, rock and blade of grass. It’s a terrifying, beautiful place, full of danger and wonder. Neither do they find themselves alone, which is altogether more perilous. Down Station is the beginning of the story of how Down sits alongside our world, and their fates are intimately joined together. The story continues in The White City – which, because this is publishing, I’m doing the edits for now, while thinking about launching its predecessor.
I could give you all kinds of spoilers and teasers. Let’s not do that. Here are some reviews:
This is a very fast paced book, with intense moments of danger as well as being full of wonder. There are so many things to discover in Down not only geographically but historically…Morden has written a book full of mysteries that are just waiting to be discovered. (Fantasy Book Review)
Down Station is a fun and interesting read which I zipped through in no time at all! (Books By Proxy)
The world is an interesting and well realised one. The central characters are believable and feel entirely human (though I would like to see more of the supporting cast in the sequel). The plot rattles along nicely, and kept me enthralled to the last page (Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews)
Once again Simon Morden takes the fantasy genre and moulds it wonderfully…What makes Down Station so great is the immaculate pacing and the way character shapes fate for each of the well-drawn main characters (The Sun)
And a few from Goodreads:
The story was a kind of fantasy that I rarely see, very Robin Hobb-ish, and by the end, some of my questions were answered, and I had a lot more and GOD DAMN IT I NEED BOOK TWO.
This is an interesting read with a great new world to immerse yourself in, it is fantastical and thrilling, a great book to add to your fantasy/sci-fi shelf.
Overall, this is an excellent, fast-paced, and satisfying read, and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of Mary and Dalip’s adventures in Down.
Which are all nice. It is, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea – as I discovered with Arcanum, fantasy readers are sometimes quite conservative in what they’ll accept as fantasy, and if it’s too different to what they expect, they’re not going to like it. I’m going to warn you now: Down Station is different. At times, it’s startlingly different. It’ll keep you guessing. It’ll surprise you. It won’t give you all the answers, and the answers it does give are often replaced by better answers later on.
Obviously, I want you to buy it, read it, love it, and talk about it to your friends. That’s because I want this story to entertain as many people as possible – and starving in a garret isn’t a great way to go. But if I was going to go on and wish for one further thing, I’d say this: I want this story to breathe. I want you to imbue Down with life, to think of the rarely-opened doors as you pass them by on the street, to wonder what you’d do in Down and what you’d become. Because that would be brilliant.
I came across a quote from the theologian Frederick Buechner: even though he was writing about this world, it sums up Down so perfectly, I wonder if I hadn’t been subconsciously channelling him.
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
One last thing: don’t forget the signing at Forbidden Planet in London on the 20th February with me and Tricia Sullivan, between 1pm and 2pm.
April 15th 2015
While Monday’s post dealt with the past, today’s looks forward, because, you know – science fiction and all that.
I’ve already mentioned that Arcanum wasn’t submitted for the Clarkes, despite being in the very strictest sense, an utterly SF book. It has, however, been submitted for the David Gemmell Awards, which is decided by popular vote. I am very aware of my place in the food chain, and there are proper fantasy writers on the list who outrank me in every way. All I’m going to say here is that it would be nice to make the shortlist, and for that, Arcanum needs votes, which you may deliver here. If you’re looking for heroes, then Peter, Sophia and Frederick aren’t such a bad bunch to emulate.
Down Station has a publication date, which is February next year – that means a whole year without a book. It does give me some time to both recharge the batteries, and more importantly, write. The White City (being the Second Book of Down) is progressing, and will be done by summer. After that, there are a multiplicity of options, but only one of me to do the work. Despite that, I already have two books in hand, so I do need to choose wisely.
I’ve agreed to do a couple of short stories: one ghost story for the perennially popular Phantoms at the Phil event, which is performed, live, by the authors, to a full house in Newcastle’s Lit and Phil library; and another for an anniversary anthology. Short stories were what I started on, and I find writing them a peculiar kind of joy. On one hand, they’re bloody difficult to pull off, on the other, the satisfaction when you manage a really satisfying ending is out of proportion to the length of the thing.
On a slightly sideways note, I returned from Eastercon to find a royalties cheque waiting for me. For Another War which, after 10 years, has earned out its advance. That, comrades, is playing the long game.
Next year, as well as Down Station, will see me crossing the pond to be Guest of Hono(u)r at InConJunction in Indianapolis. Which will be … interesting. I’ve never been a GoH before, anywhere. I’ll try not to blot my copybook between now and then, or at the con itself. I’ll take advice, because I don’t want to make n00b mistakes, but it’ll still be me no matter what. You’ve been warned.
January 27th 2014
One day! I’m pretty sure that some folk have already got their copy by now – as my editor is wont to say, “It’s very hard to embargo a book these days…”
However, let’s just pretend that tomorrow, people will be waking up to find a fresh delivery on their electronic reader of choice, or the postman brings them an unfeasibly large package containing just one novel. So why did I write it?
This is why I wrote it.
January 12th 2014
Okay, I’ve done a foreword before, but this is slightly different: a whole non-fiction essay by me appears in print, for the first time. It’s one you might have seen before – Sex, Death and Christian fiction is a venerable nine years old this year, and it’s still as worryingly relevant as it was back then. It’s being included, whole and unexpurgated, as an appendix in a book from Port Yonder Press called “How Evangelicals can write better“. The author and proprietor of PYP, Chila Woychik, got in touch a few years ago, and we’ve had intermittent correspondence since – she asked if she could reprint the essay, and I was more than happy to agree.
Christians tell stories, for all sorts of reasons, all the time. It’s probably about time we talked about how to do it better, for all values of better.
October 29th 2013
It’s not a secret that I’m a Christian – those two essays on Christian fiction and my ongoing relationship with the Greenbelt festival are a bit of a giveaway – and I can’t deny my faith (here, loosely defined as what I believe my religion is telling me about the world we live in and how I ought to live my life within it) has an effect on what I write and how I write. Neither would I want to deny it. I have a PhD in geophysics: that also affects what I write and how I write. I have a political stance, which etc… Writers are people, and people are complicated.
And if anything, being a “Christian writer” should have an effect – it’d be a weird-ass religion (or I a very poor adherent) if it didn’t. It means that I should keep to deadlines, or explain early enough why I’m not so that alternative plans can be made. It means that I should honour contracts, not try and wriggle out of them if a better offer comes along, and generally behave like a professional in a professional business. It means that I should keep appointments and engagements, or give people timely enough warning that I can’t make it – and not just because I can’t be bothered. It means that my interaction with fans, reviewers, other writers, publishers, agents and such like should be polite, calm and reasonable. (Because there’s more than enough drama in real life without putting it on the internet… oh, wait…)
If you’ve read any of my stuff, you’ll have probably noticed a couple of things. Firstly, what I write isn’t exactly “Christian fiction”. This is deliberate, for all the reasons I set out in the essays. It could be said that the Petrovitch books are almost the antithesis of Christian fiction: everything that shouldn’t be in there, is, and everything that should be, isn’t. I’m more than content with that – they are the stories I want to tell. Secondly, I do write about religion. I have characters who are religious. I have plots and sub-plots involving religious practice and belief. I do it a lot.
What provokes this post is a comment left on Mike Duran’s excellent blog, deCOMPOSE, by someone attached to Lion books in the UK – Lion are a Christian publisher, now owned (I think) by Baker publishing, a big US Christian publisher. This is the quote I picked up on:
“Lion Hudson (Oxford, England) represents the Baker Publishing Group in the UK, where there is considerable resistance to ANY religious element in a novel in the ABA (general) sector”
Okay. At face value, this is a fairly sweeping statement to make. I don’t have enough time or energy to compile a statistical analysis of all the fiction published by the Big 5/6 and rank them for their inclusiveness of religion – I’m busy writing books, which takes up most of my time. What you’re going to get instead is a data point.
I have never, ever, been asked by any UK publisher to tone down, diminish or otherwise remove any single religious element in any of my books.
“Ah, but what if you had?” you ask. Well, I haven’t, but if I had, I’d consider it along with any of the other editorial suggestions that make up the give and take of the editorial process. Because I’m not perfect, and the thing about editing a book is to make it better, not worse – kill your darlings and all that. I refuse (see above for behaving professionally) to throw a wobbly because a trusted reader is telling me “Simon, this bit just doesn’t work.”
And the reason that I’m provoked by a comment that there’s “considerable resistance” to ANY (note the caps, comrades) religious element in a mainstream novel is that I’ve, if anything, made that strand more, not less, significant in Arcanum. The differences in the religions of the main characters is a significant part of the plot. It’s in the backstory, it’s a driver for the action, it’s central to the motivations of some of the protagonists, and no one remains unaffected by the interplay of those beliefs. Furthermore, the two religions I describe aren’t simply made-up fantasy-book religions (quiet there in the stalls), but attempts at actual Germanic paganism and actual Judaism.
So why do I it? Why do I describe lives that have religion front-and-centre? Simply this reason: people sometimes do. By ignoring or downplaying the importance of faith in their beliefs, their practices and their interactions – good and ill, warts and all – they’re not fully rounded characters and less believable. That’s it. That’s why. Because it’s better writing.
I’m going to finish with this thought: if publishers are resistant to the religious element in your book, it’s not the ‘religious’ they’re objecting to. They’re objecting to the fact that the way you’ve done it makes your book suck. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning Gilead is currently published in the UK by Virago. A more “religious element” novel is hard to imagine, yet … well: it does rather undermine the assertion.
September 23rd 2011
I’ve finally got around to giving my two Greenbelt 2011 talks their own pages.
Where are we now? Sex, death and Christian fiction revisited is here,
You’re doing it wrong! How not to write a novel is here.
September 2nd 2011
As earlier, these are my notes from my Greenbelt 2011 workshop (Monday 13:30 Crest). This does include some of the material I skipped in order to wedge everything into the just-under-two hour mark (and I was worried I didn’t have enough material for 60 mins…).
Published under a Creative Comments licence, so play nicely. Legal boilerplate to follow when I put it on its own page.
You’re doing it wrong: how not to write a novel: a Greenbelt 2011 talk by Simon Morden
Before you write
If you haven’t read enough books by now in order to work out what you’re looking for in a novel – what’s good, what’s bad, what works, what doesn’t – go and do so now.
Don’t know anything about the genre you’re writing
I’m not saying that you need to read the entire canon of science fiction from Mary Shelley to Charlie Stross in order to write SF, or bone up on everything from Mallory to George Martin before writing epic fantasy. But it does help if you firstly, love the genre in which you’re writing, and secondly know enough of the tropes (literary conventions and devices particular to a genre) to be able to use, avoid or subvert them, and thirdly, know enough to be able to avoid clichés. And you want to avoid clichés, right?
You talk endlessly about writing a novel, but you don’t actually sit down and write. Until you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, what you have is the wish to write, not a work in progress.
Chase the last fad
Don’t decide to see what’s “big” in your chosen genre and start writing something similar. Everything that’s being published now was sold at least two years ago when what’s popular now wasn’t popular. By the time (one year, at least) you submit your manuscript, it’ll be ‘so last year’, and publishers and agents will be looking for something else.
Hate what you write
Writing is not going to make you rich and it’s going to take up a lot of time. So write what you’d like to read because life’s too short to spend upwards of a year writing some old guff even you hate.
Write using someone else’s characters
Aka Fan-fic. There’s a thriving fan-fic community writing stories containing their favourite literary characters. The copyright problems with this are simply insurmountable and no one will ever publish a book you’ve written like that. Shared universes, yes, Young Bond etc, yes, but those are jealously guarded and the authors are always contracted and use a “Bible” to guide them.
While you are writing
Give up the day job
The first time I made actual proper money from writing was 2007, by which time I’d been writing for almost two decades. You can do the maths yourself, but starving in a freezing garret isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You don’t write because you want to make a living out of it. You write because you have to. If and when you get paid for it, count yourself very fortunate.
So let’s talk cold, hard cash for a moment. JK Rowling got an advance of £1500 for HP and the Philosopher’s Stone. Do you think she lived on that while she wrote the next book? No. The median advance now for a first novel is around £2-3000. Can you live on that? The median wage in the UK (2007-8) was £18500. The figures speak for themselves.
Don’t write fiction
Write what you know: that’s the maxim. It’s a bit more difficult when you’re writing SF or fantasy, but that’s a different discussion. Remember that you’re writing fiction, not a biography, even an autobiography. But even if you avoid that pitfall, there is a tendency to put in bits of your real life that while they might not be obvious to you, will be to your friends, your family and your work colleagues.
Writing fictionalised accounts of real people is perfectly acceptable, but normally only if they’re very dead. Doing it to your parents, your partner, your siblings, your kids or your boss can, and does, lead to a whole world of pain and regret.
Put in a Mary Sue
A Mary Sue is a literary term for a character who is the author. Actually the author – perhaps stronger, smarter, more attractive, with superpowers, magical abilities, vast wealth and incredible talent – but the author nevertheless. Don’t. It’s not pretty.
Write a novel where everyone is just like you
This is a pet peeve of mine, so apologies for mounting this particular high horse. Not everyone in the world is white, middle class and educated. Which is more or less what I am. The pull to write a book featuring only white, middle class people is huge, but entirely resistible.
My first novel, Heart, had half the story told from the point of view of a German detective. My second, The Lost Art, had three protagonists: a Russian monk, a Berber traveller and a Kenyan scientist. The Metrozone series, despite being set in London, features Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians and Americans. Only two characters are white, only one is a middle class Londoner. It can be done, even by white, middle class englishmen.
Write a novel that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test
The what? I hear you ask. Alison Bechdel, web comic writer, came up with a rule that concerns women characters. In order to pass the test, your book must meet the following criteria: it includes at least two women, who have at least one conversation, about something other than a man or men.
This is basic stuff. As much as I’d like to think that the world revolves around my gender, it doesn’t. Write women characters who talk to each other about something other than men. That would be brilliant.
Publish the chapters as-you-go on the internet
That’s your first English rights gone, and that’s what publishers will be buying. Don’t.
A novel has a beginning, a middle and an end. Anything without an end is an unfinished novel, not a novel. Writing is surprisingly hard work – it takes time spent in isolation, it’s time you could be using to invest in relationships, work or other hobbies. It requires a considerable amount of emotional and intellectual energy.
I challenged myself to do NaNoWriMo last year – National Novel Writing Month (November) – where you pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. 1667 words a day. It’s difficult. You end up in a waking dream where you’re no longer certain where reality ends and your novel starts. But not as bad as a friend who wrote an 80,000 words tie-in book in six weeks. You’re usually looking to write a book in between six months and a year, working steadily throughout.
Most publishers will want a novel to be at least 65,000 words long, and the normal range is between 80,000 and 110,000 words. If you come in short, it’s not a novel. There are places which will publish a 40000 word novella – try them instead.
That said, for a first novel, you really do need to pitch it at the length the publishers want, not what you want. There is slack at the top end – if you’ve written a massive fantasy brick of 250,000 words, you will find a lot fewer places you can send it to unless you can carve it up into three 80,000 word instalments.
Think you’ve finished when you’ve finished
When you’ve written the words “The End” at the bottom of the last page, allow yourself a pat on the back and a fresh cup of tea. Finishing a novel-length manuscript is a considerable achievement, but it’s only the start of it.
You need to edit the manuscript. You need to reread it. You need to make sure that each sentence makes sense to you, that you’ve spelt words correctly and consistently, that you’ve used grammar in a standard English fashion. You need to make notes about what you think you need to change.
After you have finished writing
Don’t show your novel to anyone else
Obviously, if your looking for publication, you’re going to need to show it to someone sooner or later. You really, really, don’t want the first person who reads your manuscript to be the agent you’re trying to get or the editor of the publisher you want a contract with. The reasons are self-evident, but I’ll spell them out. You have one shot. One. Make it count.
If your manuscript is riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, or you’ve ripped the entire plot from Twilight/Harry Potter/Tolkien, you don’t want find out from people who are looking for an excuse to turn you down. Simply put, if you’re serious, you need to put your manuscript in as many hands as possible, and then act on the feedback you get. Seriously.
Don’t change anything
It’s finished, it’s perfect. You don’t need to alter a word. Respectfully, I disagree, but my opinion isn’t the important one here. If you want to seek publication, it’s agents and editors you need to impress. And not only do you need to acknowledge that your manuscript requires editing, they need to know that you’re editable. Are you going to argue with every last suggestion they make? Even if you’ve got a novel of startling genius and originality, it’s never going to get published if you’re impossible to work with.
Don’t think the rules apply to you
They do. They really do. Asking an agent or a publisher to consider your work is a job in itself. They will all have subtly different submission criteria that are designed to make their job easier – not yours. You are unimportant. They want the first three chapters and a synopsis with a covering letter, that’s exactly what you need to give them. They want those chapters double-line spaced. Do it. If they have a word limit on those chapters, stick to it. Check if they take email queries before emailing them
They will be getting hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions a week. You make them pay attention to yours not by being wacky and out-there, but by sticking to the rules. And never ever call them.
Really don’t think the rules apply to you
This is worth repeating, because the commonest complaint that agents and publishers have against the submissions that land on their desks is that a high proportion of them are simply wasting their time.
You should, in general, have the following as a bare minimum:
1) a finished manuscript that you wrote yourself from an original idea you had, that you’ve checked scrupulously for spelling and grammar errors, that at least one other competent adult has done the same for, and commented on the quality of the writing, and whether or not the story you’ve told makes any sort of sense.
2) a excerpt containing the first three chapters or up to whatever word limit is mentioned, formatted exactly how the agent or editor wants it – commonly in a 12 point serif font, double spaced, with indented paragraphs. Not three chapters at random, but the first three chapters.
3) A synopsis which tells the story of the story, commonly over one or two sides of A4, detailing the plot arc, the principle characters, their history and motivations, and how they change because of the story, and what sort of reader would be likely to buy your novel.
4) A covering letter, addressing the agent or editor by name, containing who you are, the title of the work you are offering, which genre it’s in, how long it is, and any previous publishing credits. You may also include a small biographical detail, but not always. Make sure you’re sending it to the right person, at the right place, and that they take that sort of work. Then be prepared to wait.
Spend no time at all on your synopsis
I will happily admit that my least favourite writing task is writing a synopsis. It is an art in itself, and it’s one I absolutely suck at. A good synopsis will not be a dry scene by scene description of what happens in your novel, but will be a story about your novel. It’s unlikely that a single word of your novel will make it into the synopsis – instead, get me excited to read the actual thing. It’s your best advert for your novel: if someone reads it and gets enthused by it, they’ll read your sample chapters. Consequently you should sweat blood over this thing, and take every care over it that you took over your novel.
Submit science fiction thrillers to a romance publisher
And yet people still do. They send poetry to prose publishers, kid’s picture books to agents who don’t represent that sort of work. If you’re lucky, they’ll reply. More likely, they’ll just bin it and move on to the next one.
Expect them to get straight back to you
Or even get back to you within three months. Six months is not unheard of, especially if you’ve submitted your manuscript to a publisher’s slush-pile. The volume of submissions is scary-big, and when you send your letter, you’ll end up at the bottom of an already very large pile which will be dealt with in strict time-order.
Often what happens is this: the job of initially sorting through the submissions is given to the most junior member of staff in the office. They’re not paid to read through your manuscript – they’re paid to check whether or not you are firstly, sane, and secondly, can follow the rules. Then and only then will your submission be passed to the second-most junior member of staff, to work out whether or not it’s worth an editor’s time reading what you’ve written.
Expect to sell at the first place you submit to
JK Rowling’s agent submitted the first Harry Potter to twelve different publishers before Bloomsbury took it – but she did have an agent. And some consider it more difficult to get an agent than to get a publisher. You have to be methodical. You need to make a list, order it in anyway you see fit (alphabetically, by likely success, randomly), and work your way through. It might be the last name on your list is the one who takes you on.
If you get a rejection, don’t mope. Send it out the very same day to the next name on your list – after checking what it is they want, exactly. You need to tailor your submissions like you’re applying for different jobs. Which, in effect, you are.
Write one novel
You’ve a novel in hand that you’re happy with. You’ve edited it, shown it to other people, heeded their criticisms and re-edited it. You’ve sent a three-chapters and synopsis to an agent(s) and publisher(s). One of the things you need to do now is start another one. Don’t wait for the first to be snapped up for a five-figure sum – the odds are very much against you – but your second one might. Everything you learnt writing your first novel, you can apply in your second. It will be better. That’s the one that might be your breakthrough. Also, publishers will want to see both commitment, and potential. They’re not going to waste their marketing money on a one-novel author.
March 23rd 2011
A world-changing catastrophe is a favourite authorial device. It is – almost, but not quite – older than dirt. Whether or not you subscribe to the historical accuracy of Noah’s flood or the Epic of Gilgamesh is a moot literary point – trashing everything in sight makes a fantastic setting for a story.
Pandemics slay billions, massive asteroids slam into the Earth, god-like aliens render our puny weapons obsolete at the stroke of a heat ray, mutually assured destruction lives up to its name: the common factor in most apocalyptic-themed stories is that the protagonists are rendered powerless in the face of overwhelming, impersonal force.
And that’s the problem with turning the apocalyptic into good fiction: the survival of the main characters is more or less a matter of chance. Narrowly avoiding death, repeatedly, while an excellent idea for the people involved, can get increasingly ludicrous for the reader. That the person you’re following survives is, more or less, down to luck. Certainly, there might be some things they can do to shift the odds in their favour – but you can hear the creaking gears of the deus ex machina in the background.
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