Friday, 28 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

My friend and former Clarion West classmate Ibi Zoboi tagged me for The Next Big Thing thingy that's been going around. Hey, why not? I figured. Then, of course, I'm faced with the questions, and my brain goes numb.

 I have to tell you that I may have the worst memory in the world. Ask me what I did last week, and I'll just stare blankly at you. On the other hand, Steph complains jealously when we re-watch TV shows or movies together that she always knows what's coming up and it's always a surprise to me.

Anyway, let's give this a go and see if I can dredge up anything...

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Okay, so I can do this one. The working title is Secrets of the Dragon Tomb. Yeah, I realise that titles often change before publication, and the title is the publisher's choice, and publishers are often way better at coming up with good titles than authors are, but I really do like this, so here's hoping it actually stays.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Oh. Good. A memory question...

I don't actually know where the original idea came from. I suspect I have notebooks somewhere in the piles of junk -- er, valuable, important documents -- that lie around our house with my original ideas in, but what I do recall is that Steph and I were watching Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and somehow that combined with the kind of adventures I really wanted to write (part Indiana Jones, part Doctor Who) and this idea for a computer that worked using water and pipes and valves instead of electricity and wires and capacitors and diodes and the like that I came up with when I was a Physics PhD student. (Although my friend, John, who was doing an electronics PhD at the same time will no doubt tell you that I was never much good at electronics and so probably have no idea how computers actually work).

Out of all that came Secrets of the Dragon Tomb.

That doesn't really answer the question.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Let's say middle grade. (That's the fantastic thing about middle grade -- you don't have to pin books down into little boxes (huzzah for mixed metaphors...). Middle grade is much more free.)

If I had to get out my pins, I'd say adventure-science-fiction-fantasy-steampunk-humor. Er. Is that a genre? It is now. Come join me in my corner...

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love casting my stories. I really do. I can procrastinate for hours this way. But here's the problem with books that have mainly children as lead characters: you cast them in your mind when you're writing them (everyone does that, right?), but by the time you've finished, they're all too old. Bah.

So, I don't know who I'd cast in the roles of the children, but I can cast a few people. I'm going to choose Richard Armitage as my main villain, Sir Titus Dane (although I want him more as Guy of Gisborne in the BBC Robin Hood series rather than the grumpy dwarf in The Hobbit). Oh, and while we're at it, I'll have Martin Freeman as Dr. Octavius Blood, and Lucy Griffiths as my hero's older sister, Olivia.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Seriously? One sentence?

Mars in 1816 is a world of high Society, thrilling adventure, and strange clockwork machines; when the villainous archaeologist, Sir Titus Dane, kidnaps Edward Sullivan's parents as part of as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb, Edward and his sisters must pursue across the Martian wilderness, evading Sir Titus's minions, fighting desperate battles with mechanical nasties, and escaping deadly Martian hunting machines on the way.

All right, that was a total cheat, but what else can you do?

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is the wonderful Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary. Secrets of the Dragon Tomb will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books (an imprint of Henry Holt / Macmillan).

So, no and yes.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I have absolutely no idea! Too long. A couple of hundred years?

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Authors are generally completely rubbish at this. What we think our books are like is entirely different from what readers think. But let's have a go.

Take a cup of Mortal Engines, lightly fry in a tablespoon of Percy Jackson, season with a teaspoon of Kat, Incorrigible, then just before it's done mix in some Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, and Jeeves and Wooster. Then serve on a bed of Tintin, Skulduggery Pleasant, and Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, and then you'll, well, probably be confused.

Oh, just read it when it comes out. :)

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I read a lot of middle grade fiction (as well as adult fiction, of course) and I love it. I love the freedom and honesty it allows you as a writer, and it's a type of fiction that allows you to completely shed the cynicism and self-critique that seems to accompany adult fiction. I wanted to write about adventure and madcap schemes and crazy inventions and dastardly villains. I wanted to make it funny and exciting and filled with a sense of wonder, because those are the books I love to read.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

What? That's not enough?

Okay, here is my complete pitch for the book, as opposed to the one-liner above:

Mars in 1816 is a world of high Society, deadly danger, and strange clockwork machines. Pterodactyls glide through the sky, automatic servants hand out sandwiches at elegant garden parties, and in the north, the great dragon tombs hide marvels of Ancient Martian technology.

Fourteen-year-old Edward Sullivan has always dreamed of becoming a spy like the ones he reads of in his favorite magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales. Instead, he spends his days keeping his eccentric family from complete disaster … that is, until the villainous archeologist, Sir Titus Dane, kidnaps Edward’s parents as part of a scheme to loot an undiscovered dragon tomb.

Edward sets off in pursuit across the Martian wilderness. With him are his brilliant and outrageous little sister, Putty, his impossibly starchy older sister, Olivia, and his secretive cousin, Freddie. Together they must evade Sir Titus’s minions, battle mechanical nasties, and escape deadly Martian hunting machines. If they can’t, they will never uncover the secrets of the dragon tomb and rescue Edward’s family.

Here's the book's (rather empty so far) goodreads page.

I don't explicitly tag anyone on these things, but if you fancy doing it, consider yourself officially tagged right ... NOW!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bone Roads: free ebook for Christmas

For those of you who have Kindles, my short story collection, Bone Roads: Nine Stories of Magic and Wonder will be free from Amazon on Christmas day (apparently timed according to PST).

I'm not sure if this is just Amazon in the US or all Amazon stores, but check it out if you're looking for some reading on your shiny new (or old) Kindle or Kindle app on Christmas.

There's no DRM, so feel free to convert to other formats if you prefer!

Bone Roads on: |

Here's the blurb:

A ghost searches for revenge in ancient Egypt.
A girl risks awakening a dark god to save her dog.
A boy unearths the bones of a dragon…

These fantasy stories were previously published in magazines including Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Black Static.

The Nine Stories:

When the Dragon Falls
A Field Guide to Ugly Places
The Frog King
Five Things of Beauty
Dawn, by the Light of a Barrow Fire
The Sea Beyond Thule
The Land of Reeds
The Western Front
At the Gates

Reviews of stories in this collection:

"This is the first story I've read this year that I'd consider a masterpiece. It's rare for a story to move me to tears, but this one did."
- John Dodds, The Fix, on 'The Western Front'.

- Colin Harvey, Suite101, on 'At the Gates'

"This one kept me turning the page without pause, with its natural pace and flow of words, good characterization, and skillful plot build-up. Samphire's writing skill is matched only by his knowledge of Ancient Egyptian culture and mythology."
- Scott M. Sandridge, Tangent Online, on 'The Land of Reeds'.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

My precious, and heads-up

You know you married the absolutely right person when they spontaneously buy you this:

Apparently, I am supposed to write my next novel in it, but it's way too precious. I am keeping it next to my bed and stroking it repeatedly. So totally gorgeous!


(I've realised I have no idea how to punctuate 'heads-up'. I feel there should be an apostrophe after that 's', but it just looks weird with the hyphen. Oh well.

My friend Ari Goelman has just revealed the cover of his debut middle grade novel, Path of Names. Here's the cover. Isn't it awesome?

The Path of Names is out from Scholastic in 2013. You can find out more about the book over at Icey Books, where he did the cover reveal.

Swiftly following that...

If you read horror, fantasy or science fiction short stories, you've almost certainly come across editor Ellen Datlow, whose magazines and anthologies have published some of the best short stories in the last few decades. Well, now Ellen is doing a kickstarter for a brand new anthology of original horror stories. Here's a video about it:

Full details on the kickstarter, the rewards, and how to pledge to support the project are here.

And, finally, if middle grade or horror aren't your thing, how about a romance / detective book (suitable for young adults, too)? Emily Mah, writing as EM Tippetts, is releasing her latest novel, Nobody's Damsel in January, but it's available for pre-order at a very low price right now.

Here's the goodreads description:

Chloe has finished her masters degree and taken a job as a forensic scientist back in her home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, only the press will not leave her alone. They follow her to crime scenes and report on her every move, eager to show that her marriage to Hollywood A-lister, Jason Vanderholt, is on the brink of collapse. Millions of fans who dream of their own celebrity romance with him want this more than anything. This scrutiny comes at a particularly bad time as Chloe's first case is a crime against a child roughly the same age that Chloe was when she survived a homicide attempt.

Now that she sees the case from an adult's perspective, she realizes it's much harder than she ever dreamed. It's even worse for Jason, who is two steps removed from the crime. He must watch and try to support his wife as she battles with past demons and tries to keep up with a nameless suspect who evades identification and capture. Never has Jason been more frustrated with his job, its frivolities, and its lack of connection to the real world. When he storms off the set of his latest movie, the press goes wild with conjecture. While he says he wants to work on a project that means something, his agent and manager fear this may be the end of his time in the spotlight. Perhaps he never was anything more than a pretty face after all.

Together, Chloe and Jason must find their way past all the popping flashbulbs and through the dark maze of the criminal investigation to discover whether they can balance their professional goals with the demands of a celebrity marriage. The odds are entirely against them.
You can also read the opening on her website.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Author Interview: Kiini Ibura Salaam

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a poet and artist, as well as a writer of non-fiction and some of the most unusual fantasy and science fiction you'll read. Her first collection of short stories, Ancient, Ancient is out now from Aquaduct Press.

Award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson said about Kiini, “Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty.”

And, according to Jack Womack, Kiini “deserves to be considered as one of today’s most promising contemporary genre writers. With writing that challenges assumptions on gender, the nature of fantasy, the uses of myth and much more, she offers the readers stories that they will not soon forget. [Ancient, Ancient is] a marvelous introduction to a marvelous writer.”

1. Ancient, Ancient is your first collection of short stories. Now that you've gathered them in one place, have you noticed any particular themes in your writing, and have those themes changed over time?

When I did a mini-book tour for Ancient, Ancient, I invited other writers to take part in my readings. I found I enjoyed a live exchange with another writer more than I enjoyed standing up there and solely reading my work. Consequently, I got to hear quite a few interpretations about what my work was about: it's about possession; it's about community; it's about displacement.

For me, I'm less interested in the themes and more interested in how I'm characterizing people and how I'm structuring conflict. I think initially most of my stories were a young character against unjust communal responsibilities--mostly they were burdened by an expectation or a role that they didn't want to comply with. I think over time, I've begun to use more actual characters to animate the conflict not just faceless traditional or cultural edicts, and I've began have the main characters do more than just put up with unjustness but try to do something about it--to act and or to transform their own thought process. And I think that signifies growth on my part.

2. You're not just a short story writer, you're also a poet, an artist, and a writer of non-fiction. How do these different creative activities interact with each other, and do you think they've been a big influence on your prose?

I'm fascinated with poetry. I don't read it very often and I don't write it nearly as often as I used to, but I am fascinated with word choice and imagery. I think that definitely comes through in my prose.

Regarding the non-fiction, I have been writing a blog about the writing life ( for over ten years, and during a period when I was not writing fiction, I truly believed it sustained my development as a writer. Even though I was not practicing fiction writing, I was still working on stringing together sentences and ideas, editing text, and--perhaps most importantly, sharing the writing with others. When I finally got back to fiction writing, I found that my craft had developed, and I credit my blog for that.

As for painting, I recently had an interesting experience in which I had my novel manuscript and a canvas literally on the table at the same time, and I'd switch back and forth between the two. What's interesting is when I sit down to write--if I'm challenged or there's something unresolved--I can suddenly feel sleepy, very sleepy (I know this occurs for many other writers). It's a highly effective method of self sabotage because it's next to impossible to write when you're sleepy. Well this time, when I felt sleepy, I turned to painting. The act of painting woke me up, and while I painted, my mind worked out some of the challenges with the novel. I never thought that painting could literally be a help to my writing in that way. That it could help me skirt around whatever is triggering me to sleep and allow me to continue to advance in the story development.

3. You didn't start out writing speculative fiction, but say you stumbled upon it as a means of bringing new life to your stories. What do you think speculative fiction offers to you as a writer, and have you found the genre limiting or frustrating in any way?

I think speculative fiction offers me the ability to use the full stretch of my imagination. All writing relies on imagination, speculative fiction just takes it further. While I like literature that comments on human nature and human relationships, I also like my sense of life to be challenged and disturbed a bit and I think science fiction does that. I believe that when we stretch our minds beyond what we already know, then we create space for something new to be possible.

Reading and writing spec fic brings me all kinds of ideas about lifestyle, relationships, communication, and expression that I might not have had otherwise. I don't think I feel any limitations in the genre because I don't feel like I have to write in the genre. The limitations I feel are more from the outside. I have two novels going--neither of which were originally spec fic. Now one is and one isn't. And I feel some paranoia about which novel I complete first and if readers will be confused or dissapointed depending on which novel I publish. There are people who don't read spec fic and people who only read spec fic. Either way, I feel like there's a box I will be stepping into that doesn't reflect the multifaceted nature of life.

It's great that spec fic is a huge growth market for young adult books. It suggests to me that imagination is being allowed to stretch further into adulthood from childhood. In children's literature talking animals, weird worlds and nonsensical happenings are a given. That given is now being extended to the young adult market, and many adults are reading those books. I look forward to the day when "literature" has space for all of us and the average reader is happy to switch from reality-based fiction to speculative fiction and back again.

4. What's coming up for you next in terms of your writing? Are you planning another short story collection, or are you working on something different?

I'm working on a novel. I have basically been trying to crack the code of novel writing since 1991. I remember coming to Clarion [Patrick's note: Kiini, Steph and I were all at the Clarion West writers' workshop in Seattle in 2001] and being shocked that your wife, Stephanie, had written three novels. I couldn't write anything longer than a short story. She laughed and said she couldn't write stories, she only really felt comfortable in the novel form.

For me, novel writing is like stumbling around in the dark, and knowing that everywhere I step--there will be a solid floor, but if I walk too far in the wrong direction, I could find myself on the edge of a cliff or on the side of a building at a dead-end plot-wise.

However, even as it is a foreign form to me, it's something I must do to continue to develop as a writer. Though some people do it, I feel like I can't just write stories forever. People want novels, if they like your characters, if they like the worlds you write about, they want to go deeper and to know more. That was a complicated answer to a simple question. A novel is next!

5. If you were only able to give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Keep writing. That is all. There is so much to discover in terms of a writer's individual voice, a writer's themes, a writer's craft, and of course, a writer's ideas. There's a quote that says something like you arrive at mastery by making the same choice over and over again. In the case of writing, you arrive at mastery by making the choice to sit down and write: again, again, and again.

This is not to say it will be easy or fun or predictable. It's just to say if you keep doing it you will improve and you will discover more about what you have come here to offer to the world. Keep writing.

Thanks, Kiini!

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. The middle child of five, she grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood with oak and fig trees, locusts and mosquitoes, cousins and neighbors. The house no longer exists, having been reduced to rubble along with almost all of the houses in a six-block radius after the 2005 levee break in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Growing up with creative parents who charted an independent cultural and intellectual path, Kiini’s childhood was rich with art, music, and books. As a student, she naturally gravitated toward reading and writing, and wrote her first professional story as a first-year student at Spelman College. After being paid $100 for the publication of that story, her identity as a writer was buoyed and she proclaimed herself a “serious” author.

Kiini’s work encompasses speculative fiction, erotica, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

If you want to find out more about Kiini and her work, you can read her blog at

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Really, this was just an excuse for a toy...

It's not really a secret that I am not a character-driven writer. When I sit down to write, the story, ideas, and setting come to me before the characters do. Steph is the opposite. When she sits down, it's the characters that come to her first and foremost, and she figures out the story afterwards.

Now, I don't think it matters which way around you come up with stuff. Characters, story, setting, idea, whatever. What does matter is that you figure out all the aspects sooner rather than later.

In some previous books, I haven't really figured out the characters early enough, and that's meant an awful lot of difficult rewriting later on.

So, for the last novel I decided to turn things upside down and figure out the characters right from the beginning.

After the necessary brainstorming and the exploratory writing that I always do (normally 10 - 15k of 'opening', to figure out the style, who needs to be involved, and to know the world, and, well, just because I can), I bought a giant whiteboard, wasted a good day attaching it to the wall (no DIY is not my strength...), and then started figuring everything out, starting with the characters.


First up, I drew a grid with the characters across the top and the following five questions down the side that I had to answer for every single character who has any kind of role in the book:

1. What do they want and what do they desperately need? (Generally, these things should be in opposition; where they are massively in opposition, I write INTERNAL CONFLICT, to remind myself how important it is to their story. I should probably write it for every character.)

2. What are they doing to get it?

3. What is stopping them from getting it?

4. What do they stand to lose if they don't get it?

5. Where do they end up?

It doesn't take long before the conflicts between the characters start to emerge. In my old way of writing, these conflicts didn't always become apparent until I'd written a lot of the book, causing lots of rewriting and frustration.

After I'd come up with these character sheets, which basically show the arc of each character over the entire book, and added any specific background or character traits the individual characters needed, I started to break it down.

The Acts

I tend to write three-act books, but obviously they don't have to be. After the character sheets I drew another grid, this time with 'Opening', 'End of Act 1', 'End of Act 2', and 'End of Act 3' across the top, and each character name down the side, along with a general 'What is happening?' section.

This basically allowed me to outline the overall plot AND the arcs of each character over each of the three acts.

After that (...) I went back in and broke it down further into 'sequences'. These are groups of scenes or chapters. I figure about 4 - 7 scenes make a sequence (although that just happens to meet my style; none of this is rules). For every sequence, for each of the major characters (who appeared in that sequence) I wrote down the starting and ending point, and the change that had occurred for them.

Later in the process I did a similar thing for each individual scene.

Now, some of you are probably thinking I'm crazy at this point. I know a lot of people just write from beginning to end without any of this, and I used to, but this is what worked for me.

The point is not that you have to outline, or that the outline you come up with this way is in any way set in stone, or that the characters have to stay the way you originally conceive them.

But if you find that your stories tend to be driven rather too much by events and the characters just chase the events around, then this can be a pretty useful technique.

I know I'm not going to have any trouble coming up with the plot, the ideas, or the setting for a story. But using this technique, I've made myself know how the characters would interact before I've even set them off running, and I discovered some pretty neat subplots I would otherwise have had to lever in at a later point.

So, does anyone else do anything like this? And do you have a giant whiteboard to do it on? And do you only do it this way because once you'd bought a giant whiteboard, you have to do something with it...?