FantasyCon is Coming!

It’s almost time for FantasyCon, that magical time of year when a bunch of fantasy fans and professionals get together in a hotel to enthuse about our shared passions. This year we’re near Glasgow, my first foray into Scotland in twenty years, and I can’t wait.

I’m only on one panel this time, Franchises and Ghostwriting, at one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. There, I’ll be moderating a discussion with Charlotte Bond, Una McCormack, and Mark Morris on some of the less-discussed options for professional writers. So if you’re at the convention this weekend please come along, or at the very least find me to say hello in the bar.

Fantasycon 2018

Writing can be a pretty lonely business, so when there’s an opportunity to meet up with likeminded people, I’ll leap on it. And last weekend was one of the best of those meetups – Fantasycon.

Fantasycon 2018 took place in Chester. As always, it was run by a team of hardworking and helpful volunteers – if any of you are reading this, thank you so much! And as always, it was full of cool fantasy fans and writers from across the UK and beyond.

I love Fantasycon. I know enough people in the community now I can always find someone to chat with. It’s great catching up with people in the bar, where I spend most of the weekend. And that leads to meeting even more great people to chat with next year.

Spending a weekend with people who share your passions is great. You know that you can always find things to talk about. If the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your enthusiasm for a particular book or movie then they’ll at least understand it. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience, as well as one that fills me with good ideas about what and how to write.

Of course, there’s also the convention programming, a range of panels, talks, and readings. I can’t summarise everything I saw this year, but here’s what I attended:

  • Blogging in Genre Fiction – Kit Power, Alisdair Stuart, Micah Yongo, and Kate Coe talked with passion about how they blog. Turns out it’s mostly about that passion. And now I have a bunch more blogs to follow.
  • The Elderly Guard – Charlotte Bond, R B Watkinson, David Stokes, Dion Winton-Polak, and Mark Latham discussed older characters in fantasy. My main takeaway – in an apocalypse, older people have lots of useful skills, so keep them around.
  • Fairy Tales and Folk Horror – Charlotte Bond, Tom Johnstone, Teika Bellamy, and Susan Boulton talking traditional stories. Tom pointed out how dark the end of Beauty and the Beast is, with Belle marrying the man who held her prisoner, and how this could be read as about falling in love in an arranged marriage. *shudder*
  • Breaking the Glass Slipper live – One of my favourite podcasts, this time discussing mysteries in genre fiction. Excellent guest work by Claire North and RJ Barker. Look out for that in their podcast feed.
  • From Colonisation to Decolonisation – Nick Wood, Naomi Foyle, Stewart Hotston, and Allanah Hunt talking about colonial and decolonising sf+f. A difficult and important topic, it’s really good to see the fantasy community engage with this, and I’m very happy to just shut up and listen to those with direct experience.

Then there were the panels I took part in:

  • Putting the “Punk” in Fiction, with Lee Harrison, Ren Warom, and Kit Power. As somebody said, adding “punk” to a genre is really just a way of trying to say “look, it’s cool!”, but we still had a great debate about subgenres and making fiction more punk.
  • From Fanon to Canon, moderated by Cheryl Morgan, with Allanah Hunt, Chris Jarvis, and Kate Coe. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say on this, as I don’t write fan fiction, but it turned into a fascinating debate about working with existing stories and the connections between power and culture.
  • Renaissance Fantasy, with Anne Lyle, Jeanette Ng, and Den Patrick. We talked about what good and bad things fantasy writers take from the European Renaissance, what we’re missing out on, and a little bit about other renaissances.

Going to a convention always means finding more books I’d like to read, so the lure of the dealers’ room is impossible to resist. This time I was relatively restrained, only buying two non-fiction collections from Luna Press, one on gender and sexuality in sf+f, the other on African sf+f. I’ve already read the first one, which was full of insightful and fascinating articles. Having started the other this morning, it promises to be the same. Luna Press are doing some great work right now, putting out both innovative fiction and valuable commentary, and I’m pleased to have these on my shelves.

Fantasycon is a great event. If you’re a fan of fantasy or horror fiction and you live in the UK then I heartily recommend it. Next year we’re off to Glasgow – maybe I’ll see you there?

Fantasycon Schedule

We’re only days away from Fantasycon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. This year, I’ve got a relatively busy schedule, with three panels, two of which I’m moderating:

  • Saturday, 10pm – Putting the “Punk” in Fiction
  • Sunday, 10.30am – From Fanon to Canon
  • Sunday, 12.30pm – Renaissance Fantasy

If you’re not already booked and you fancy a weekend of friendly geekery in Chester, you can find details of the convention here. And if you’re already going, then I’ll see you there!


This weekend I’m going to be at Follycon, the big science fiction convention in Harrogate. I’ll be moderating a panel on writing tragedy on Saturday morning, then spending the rest of the weekend enjoying the excellent company and interesting content. So if you want to hear me coaxing some wisdom out of other authors then please come listen to the panel, and if you see me around, say hi.

Reading With Others

There’s a certain paradox to reading. It’s about connecting to others, but we do it alone. When we read, we’re connecting to another person and their imagination, but not to someone we know.

That’s part of why I like conventions, and why I’ve recently joined a Terry Pratchett book group. It’s also why I often read books people recommend to me, even if other books appeal more at first glance. I want to share my reading, to talk about it, to make connections.

After all isn’t that what books are for?

Rocket Man! Nick Bradbeer on Spaceship Design for Writers

Of all the people I’ve ever met, no-one is as qualified to talk about designing sci-fi spaceships as Nick Bradbeer. He’s a naval architect, a sci-fi geek, and a charismatic public speaker. So when he gave a talk on Space Design Considerations for Writers at Nine Worlds, it was bound to be good.

How History Shapes Our Writing

The reasons we imagine the world the way we do are always fascinating. Nick started out by delving into this territory, talking about the history of how authors have depicted spaceships.

Before the 1950s, space could be whatever the writer wanted it to be. No-one had been there and the reading public had few preconceptions about how space flight should work.

In the 1950s, writers started depicting spaceships in a style similar to airplanes. Rocketry was the hot new thing, jet planes were in the skies, it was natural to see this advanced new technology as the future of space. This led to the Star Wars style winged fighter ships, but also to some more realistic designs based on real rocketry.

Then came Star Trek and with it all the trappings of a navy. The bridge as command point. Crew structures based on those of warships. Bulkheads and metal beams.

It’s a model that’s continued to the present day because it’s familiar. It’s something we recognise from the real world and so can easily wrap our heads around.

But space isn’t really an ocean and that model isn’t inevitable.

Maturing Technology

To understand how technology will be shaped, we need to know who’s shaping it.  This was the next part of Nick’s talk.

Borrowing from the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog, he discussed how technology goes through four stages of maturity:

  1. Experimental – It’s unusual, sometimes unreliable, and almost no-one has it. Like space flight in the modern world.
  2. Government / megacorp – The technology is mature enough to be replicated and used, but so expensive that only the largest organisations in the world can have it. Like submarines or a weaponised Boris Johnson. (I’m kidding. We all know there’s nothing mature about Boris Johnson.)
  3. Commercial / rich – The technology is common but ownership of it isn’t widespread. It’s owned by large organisations and the rich. Like airliners, or maybe access to Boris Johnson. (Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean it’s worth having)
  4. Personal / ubiquitous – The technology is cheap enough to be widely available to individual people. Like smartphones or a platform from which to make cheap jokes about Boris Johnson.

Technology generally moves down this list as it matures. Look at how portable communication devices have gone from the toys of the wealthy to something most people rely upon in the western world. To understand how space travel fits into your setting, it’s important to think about where it is on this scale.

Design Fundamentals

The further down the tech scale something is, the more freedom people have in designing it. They aren’t just bound by function anymore. Aesthetics can play a larger part.

Which brings us to the fundamental factors to consider in ship and so spaceship design:

  1. Role – What is the spaceship meant to do? What features does it need to do that?
  2. Sizing – How big is this spaceship? How big does it need to be to fulfil its role? How much space do you have for all the people and gadgets you want?
  3. Layout – How do the parts fit together? What’s the most efficient way to do this? For example, should the stores be near the galley? Do you want ammunition easily accessible from the big damn gun on the front, or do you want it mostly stored further away to avoid destructive accidents?

Having taken that into account, you get into issues of structure. What is it built from? Is it a skin of some material over reinforced beams, like in real life ships and planes? Does that structure show?

And then there’s your near-inevitable faster than light drive. It’s the big damn lie powering any sci-fi spaceship. But hey, this is speculative fiction, you need a few of those lies.

The People Side

And then there’s the people side. As Nick said, “Technology miniaturises but people don’t.” People need somewhere to sleep, to eat, to work, to rest. They need to exercise. They need meals. They need air. They need to be protected from the heat created by engines and from the icy void of space.

Odds are, people and their needs will take up a lot of space on your ship. Are they given lots of space because it’s a luxurious cruise liner, or crammed in together in a dystopian manufacturing fleet? How does this affect the ship’s size and other requirements?

And something that wasn’t touched on in the talk, but that fascinates me – how does that affect the behaviour of those people? What dynamics arise depending on how a ship is laid out?

Questions About Space

This talk didn’t provide answers to the question “what should my spaceship be like?” Instead, it provided something far more valuable – a host of questions for writers to consider when designing their ships. It was a great talk with lots of food for thought.

Here’s hoping Nick can be persuaded to do one on airships next year.

Nine Worlds, One Zombie Apocalypse

One of my favourite talks at this year’s Nine Worlds was Ric Crossman’s presentation on the mathematical modelling of a zombie apocalypse. It’s sadly not a talk I can do justice to. I’m not enough of a mathematician to coherently explain the models, and half the joy of the talk was Ric’s entertaining delivery. That said, here are three points I thought were worth sharing for zombie fans out there:

  1. If you get a chance to hear Ric’s talk, go to it. It’s very entertaining.
  2. If you’re interested in accurately modelling a zombie apocalypse (and who isn’t?) there’s a whole book on that out there. It turns out that quite a few serious statisticians are also the sort of geeks who like zombies (surprise surprise), and Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name) edited a book of essays on the subject. If you’re researching for your planned book on the zombie apocalypse, or you like to be able to bring pedantic details to pop culture conversations, this is one for you.
  3. If human beings survive a zombie apocalypse, there’ll be two phases – one where things are changing and one where we reach an equilibrium, a balance between the zombies and humans that is self-sustaining. A stable place, if you will. So as a writer, you can focus on the period of collapse or the period of stability and rebuilding, or one after the other. But be aware, not all equilibriums are stable. In an unstable equilibrium, if something disrupts the equilibrium then that same balance can’t be achieved again. And how people cope with that, as they frantically try to restore something forever lost, could be a story in itself…

Redemption in Science Fiction and Fantasy – a Nine Worlds Panel

The panel on redemption in science fiction and fantasy at Nine Worlds was an odd one. There’s always a danger that a panel with real world implications will drift away from sf+f. The conversation on this one was interesting, not always comfortable, and definitely not always connecting to sf+f. I’d be hard pressed to properly write up the discussion, but there were some really useful lessons for writers, so here are the ones I picked out and who came up with them:

  • In real life, redemption is a slow, gradual process. It comes from outside influences, not a sudden internal moment of revelation (Mike Brooks).
  • Redemption of a character isn’t always about them changing. It can be about the audience gaining a new understanding of them, as happens with Snape in Harry Potter (Adrian Tchaikovsky).
  • In a fictional narrative, it works better if the decision to find redemption is in the hands of the character (Mike Brooks).
  • A character who sees the good in a person can be a useful spur to change (Ro Smith).
  • Redemption can end up gendered. Don’t make female characters’ redemption all about having children, as some TV shows do (audience member).

So there we go – a quick lesson in writing redemption, courtesy of Adrian, Mike, Ro, and Jan Siegel in the chair.

I’ll add that this was the first time I’d seen Mike Brooks talk and he was both interesting and eloquent. Despite my huge to-read pile, I always end up buying a book by someone who impresses me at a convention, and this time it was two of Mike’s books. Remember authors, being a decent human being is one of the best forms of marketing.

Representations of the City in SFF – a Nine Worlds Panel

I love cities. Maybe it’s a symptom of my suburban childhood, when the only way to find interesting things was to head into town. Maybe it comes from reading too much cyberpunk in my youth. Or a reaction against all that Tolkien. Who knows. But one thing’s for sure, if you put on a panel about cities at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, you’ll get my attention.

And the panel on cities in sf+f at Nine Worlds was well worth that attention.

A Mix of Perspectives

The best commentary usually comes from jamming together ideas from different fields. That’s why I love Idea Channel videos so much – where else would someone use jazz and Magic the Gathering to comment on each other?

This panel did a great job of creating that mix. The chair was Amy Butt, an architect. There were two authors, Verity Holloway and Al Robertson. And it was rounded out with Jared Shurin, an editor and reviewer whose work in marketing gave him some fascinating insights into how the environment shapes how we think.

I’m not going to try to reproduce everything these smart people said. But I made a lot of notes, so here are some highlights…

The Nature of Cities

The way that cities shape and are shaped by our behaviour was a recurring theme in the panel. Who is allowed to go where and under what circumstances? How do we move through space? How do we use it to negotiate power relations?

As Jared pointed out, just moving into a place changes our behaviour. Marketers use the effect of the environment on behaviour to sell us things. But as writers, there’s a lesson here in how character shifts with circumstances. Entering the city could make a huge difference to your character’s comfort and confidence. Moving around the city might transform who they are.

Al talked about how we get into habits. From a writer’s point of view, this means that characters won’t notice their surroundings until they’re shaken out of their familiar routine. But it goes beyond that. Amy mentioned Foucault’s concept of the panopticon*, of the awareness of observation changing our behaviour even when we aren’t actually being observed. For me, this was one of the most useful things to draw attention to. The expectation of being watched is unavoidable in a city. It shapes social norms and makes the city a hotbed for transforming human behaviour.

Both Victoria and Al talked about how we’re always being watched in cities. This can create a paranoia that’s great for horror or noir. There’s a paradox that moving to the city is a way to lose yourself, yet someone can always find you there. It’s a dichotomy of anonymity and observation that Jared highlighted and that I’m still caught by a week later.

Different Cities

The different experiences people can have of cities came up a few times.

In the early modern era, cities were a place you could go to reinvent yourself. Before modern record keeping, no-one could prove that you weren’t who you said you were. To some extent, reinvention is still a possibility, but in the age of the computer, your data trail now follows you. So a Victorian city has different meaning from a modern one.

Similarly, cities are different at night from during the day. There’s an invisible infrastructure there, people with secret lives that most of us don’t see but who ensure that you can buy McDonalds at 4am and wake up to clean streets.

At one point, the discussion highlighted a really interesting contrast in the way people approach cities. Victoria talked about Corbusier, who saw the city as a living thing to be perfected through design and who tried to do away with such useless elements as decorative art. In contrast, Al raised the interesting issue of how we deal with ruins and the old. Any city a writer creates should have remnants of the past. How they show will make a big difference to how a city feels.

Constructing Fictional Cities

After lots of fascinating talk about cities in general, the panel came around to talking about how they’re constructed in fiction. From a practical point of view, Al pointed out that mundane details are often the best way to make a city seem real, while Victoria highlighted the need to know the city’s past – what it used to be, what it wants to be, and what it doesn’t want people to remember.

There are limits to how real you can make a city. As Jared pointed out, reading a novel is an orderly, linear process, while living in a city is messy, confusing, and conditional. Few books will ever capture that feeling. You just get as close as you can.

But it was a comment from Victoria that, for me, really nailed down our relationship with cities: “Writing and art is a way of making something your own, especially if you don’t have control over it.” This is part of why we write cities, trying to bring them under control. But it’s also a feature of cities, something we can show in fiction. From political authorities throwing up statues to youths daubing a park with graffiti, art within cities is almost always, on some level, about that control of space. When we make art about cities, if we show the art of cities then we can humanise the struggle to live in and control them.

Cities shape us, but we also shape cities.




* This won her my undying favour. Foucault is my all time favourite philosopher, and not just because he was a cool French bald guy. His theories transformed the way I understand power and human interactions. He is, as they say, the man.

Nerd East – Talking Writing and Roleplay

This Saturday, the 3rd of June, I’m returning to the Nerd East convention in Durham. I’ll be moderating a panel with some other very exciting authors. Here’s the announcement from the organisers….


We’re hugely excited to announce an incredible author panel for this year’s Nerd East – perhaps our best literary event ever!

In honour of the event’s theme, the topic is:
“How has roleplay influenced your writing?”

Our panellists:
Juliet E McKenna is the author of fantasy series The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis, as well as other standalone books and stories.
R. A. Smith is author of paranormal fantasy series The Grenshall Manor Chronicles, with two books published so far and a third in the works.
Jeannette Ng‘s first novel, Under The Pendulum Sun, is a story of missionaries in fairyland and is due to be published in October.

Our moderator is Andrew Knighton, a freelance writer and author of short stories and novels ranging across science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and historical fiction.

All four have backgrounds in roleplay and gaming of varying kinds, and we hope you’ll be as keen as we are to hear their insights on this subject and, I suspect, many others!

The convention timetable is filling up, but there’s still room for more…. If you’d be interest in trading, speaking or running an event, get in touch – !