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Knitting and Geekery

My longest work-in-progress (in both senses of the word!)
My longest work-in-progress (in both senses of the word!)

When I was young – back in the Dark Ages! – knitting and crochet were all the rage, but then in the 80s they went into something of a decline in popularity. However they’ve seen something of a resurgence in recent years, helped no doubt by Ravelry, an amazing social-network-cum-marketing-site devoted to knitting, spinning and crochet, and of course the crazy art of yarn-bombing. It’s even spread into geekspace, with yarn stalls and stitch’n’natter sessions popping up at SFF conventions!

I learned to knit and crochet from my Mum, but she was so skillful and prolific that I didn’t have much incentive to knit for myself, so I turned to sewing and particularly embroidery. However in recent years the combination of aging eyesight and long hours on the computer has prevented me from enjoying the intricate designs I used to make, and in February this year I took up my knitting needles once more (or rather, bought new ones). Not only is knitting very relaxing, but unlike embroidery it results in useful items of clothing that mean you’re not so reliant on the whims of the fashion industry to supply the styles and colours you like.

But what has this to do with geekdom? Well, my initial motivation to knit again was to make a Doctor Who scarf like the one worn by my favourite Doctor, Tom Baker. It’s a really easy design, just garter stitch, so I can work on it whilst I watch DVDs of Tom Baker episodes – you can’t get much geekier than that! As you can see above, I’m not finished yet (there are 846 rows in the pattern, and that’s the shortest version!), but I’m getting there…

The Scarf isn’t the only geeky thing I’ve knitted, though. Because it was taking so long, I started looking for a simple toy to knit as an “instant gratification” project and came across a pattern for a knitted Iron Man. As a big fan of the Marvel movies, of course I had to make it! In fact it came out so well that I’m going to adapt the pattern to make a Captain America.

My most recent geeky project is my own – first ever! – design. I wanted a soft cover for my iPad Mini, preferably one without any buttons that would catch on other stuff in my backpack. I couldn’t find anything that fitted the bill so I turned to my recently learnt sock-knitting skills and used them to design what is basically a giant sock with a flap that tucks in to protect the iPad all round. I’m stupidly proud of it, having only been knitting seriously for about six months, and will be releasing the pattern soon (see below).

I have to admit that knitting is not only very relaxing after a day on the computer, it’s also addictive. I’ve been shamefully neglecting my writing in favour of hanging out on the Ravelry forums and searching for patterns – as a means of procrastination, it’s hard to beat. Hopefully the novelty will wear off eventually, because I really do need to get on with this latest book before everyone thinks I’ve retired from writing!

Don’t worry that this blog will turn into a knitting site, though – such is my current addiction that I’ve set up a dedicated knitting blog as an outlet* for my new passion. For the longest time I resisted the urge, fearing it would stop me from blogging here, but all it did was stop me from blogging altogether. So I’ve caved in, and I’m hoping this will free up some brain space to think about writing and fiction again. NaNoWriMo is looming, and I have nothing planned yet!

 

* The iPad Mini cozy will appear on my new blog in due course, as soon as I’ve covered a couple of other time-sensitive topics, like using conkers as clothes moth repellent. No, really!

We’re still not your bitches

Yesterday I received an intriguing email from a colleague at work, asking if I would write a 140-word short story for his niece for GISHWHES (a worldwide scavenger hunt hosted by Misha Collins of Supernatural fame), and offering a bottle of booze of my choice as a thank-you. Apparently, it was necessary for the story to be written by a previously published SF author, and I was the only one he knew personally. As my friends and Twitter followers know, I’m a big fan of Supernatural, and the task was so modest (especially in proportion to the reward!), I accepted. Read more

The Musketeers

So, the BBC have a new “historical” drama series based on that much-loved classic The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. So far, so awesome for any fan of swashbuckling action, right? Well, yes and no…

Mmm, look at all that leather! (Photo: BBC)
Mmm, look at all that leather! (Photo: BBC)

On the one hand, The Musketeers offers a wealth of eyecandy to…I was going to say ‘ladies’, but maybe that’s too heteronormative – to anyone who appreciates the sight of attractive young men in leather doublets and bucket-top boots. The settings are excellent too; the series is filmed in the Czech Republic, which stands in for so many historical locations these days. I also love the opening titles, which have a “Young Guns” vibe, blending gorgeous artwork with live action to a foot-stomping theme tune. Read more

Never the same river twice

We’re always told that if we want to write well, we should read widely and voraciously, and I totally agree with that—if you haven’t absorbed the rhythms of good prose and are unfamiliar with the conventions of your genre, the chances of you producing something awesome are greatly reduced (though not impossible). I certainly devoured books when I was younger and had more free time on my hands, but since I got published I find myself juggling two careers (author and web developer) and having to carve out reading time whenever I can find the headspace. Because it’s not just time that I require in order to enjoy a book nowadays; I find it very hard to focus on other people’s stories when I’m working on a draft because my own is constantly clamouring for attention.

Still, I love reading and I do want to keep up with what my peers are doing in fantasy, so I read as much as I can during lulls in my writing schedule. This summer has been a good time in that respect: the final revised version of The Prince of Lies was handed over in May, and though I was working on developing a new project, I was content to let that simmer in the background during the week and only give it my focus at weekends. Hence I’ve been catching up with a bunch of books that have been sitting in my TBR queue for a while (about 5 years in the case of Red Seas Under Red Skies!). Read more

Diversity in secondary world fantasy

There’s been a lot of debate in genre circles recently about diversity in fantasy – hell, I was on a panel about this very topic at AltFiction last year. It’s a very broad field, however, so I want to focus on one area that’s been on my mind for a while. Note that I’m writing this article from the perspective of a white Westerner; I’m very much in favour of a diversity of voices in SFF, but by definition that’s not an issue I can address in my own fiction.

Epic fantasy gets a lot of stick for being conservative in its worldbuilding: of cleaving to white, Western, European-inspired settings. And there’s a lot of truth in that. OK, so it’s hardly surprising, given that the acknowledged grandfather of the genre was a professor of medieval languages at Oxford University. But there’s a lot more to the world—and to human experience—than the culture of one small corner of it during a brief historical period. Read more

Seduce me

No, not like that – eww! I mean with your book, dammit…

Well, hellooo…
Well, hellooo…

Since I’m working on a new project at the moment, that’s got me 1) reading a lot more, because for once I actually have time to spare to find out what my peers have been up to, and 2) thinking about what I enjoy in a fantasy novel. About why I love some books and hate (or at least feel ‘meh’ about) others. Why I prefer books with male protagonists. And it all comes down to one thing: falling in love.

I want a protagonist who’s witty and charming (Locke Lamora). Or snarky and clever (Sand dan Glokta). Or who defies prejudice despite the horrible consequences (Ringil Eskiath). Give me that, and I’ll put up with most other flaws or bugbears* in a novel. Because I’m there to spend time with the hero. Read more

Epic fantasy? What does that even mean?

Yesterday I finished the final draft of The Prince of Lies – yay! – which inevitably left me feeling more than a little punch-drunk, like I’d been hit round the head with a 135,000-word manuscript…So I goofed around on Twitter a bit, and whilst chatting about book lengths and genre I realised that fantasy really needs a new name for a rather common sub-genre.

Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk
Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk

OK, before we get going, yes I know that sub-genres are artificial and that you shouldn’t try to shoehorn your work into one of them, but once you have a book – or three – written, and you start to look at what market you’re going to be aiming at, it can be helpful to have a label so that everyone knows what you’re talking about. Except – are they really talking about the same thing?

The discussion that sparked this was about the ideal length for a debut epic fantasy, which varies from agent to agent, but certainly somewhere in the 100-150k ballpark as a rule. For other kinds of fantasy, as well as SF, the suggested length is more like 90-120k.

The thing is, what do agents mean by “epic fantasy”? I suspect that for some in the business it’s a synonym for secondary world fantasy, or indeed anything that isn’t very clearly either steampunk or urban fantasy. Because it’s like Tolkien and George R R Martin, right?  And in one respect they’re right – all non-contemporary fantasy has broadly the same audience, and it’s distinct from (though it may sometimes overlap with) urban fantasy/paranormal romance.

The thing is, a lot of the secondary-world fantasy that I read isn’t what I’d call epic. There are no continent-spanning wars or treks through sweeping landscapes, no wide-eyed young heroes venturing out of their comfy hobbit-holes and being swept along on An Adventure. Typically they’re based in one city (just like urban fantasy), with a cast of characters who are far from innocent: thieves, spies, assassins and the like. You know, those Hooded Men who’ve been gracing the covers of our favourite books for the past decade…

(As an aside, if you google “hooded man” images, the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls comes up quite high in the results. Which is ironic, since there’s not a hood in sight!)

This sub-genre used to be known as swords’n’sorcery, and it was typified by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Lots of swashbuckling swordplay, but also lots of monsters and evil wizards and the like. The thing is, modern-day S&S is typically quite low in magic and often the characters are all human, so the label doesn’t really fit any more. Nor does the newer label “grimdark” really help, as it’s a tone, not a subgenre as such. Both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie have been described as writing grimdark, but their books are also epic fantasy.

I raised this on Twitter, suggesting “cloak’n’dagger” as an alternative. I got some great (not always serious) alternative suggestions:

  • The Streets of Darkness
  • Hooded Figure Fantasy
  • Poignards’n’privies (very apt in my case!)
  • Mock-Tudorpunk
  • Grime’n’punishment
  • Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)

What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?

The Joy of Stationery

My name is Anne Lyle and I’m a stationery addict. There, I’ve said it. I have more notebooks, pens and other impedimenta of writing than is strictly necessary. A lot more. I discovered just how much more when I was between drafts recently…

I’d handed in the first draft of The Prince of Lies to my editor and was taking a few days off to decompress. I didn’t want to get too engrossed in a new project, as I knew I’d have to dive back into revisions pretty soon, so I decided to tidy the drawers of my desk and bureau, which had descended into chaos over the previous few months. So, I emptied them out, put all my “work-in-progress” notebooks, index cards and so on into my desk drawer, and all my unused notebooks into the top drawer of my bureau. The latter filled the entire drawer.

My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?
My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?

Now admittedly it isn’t a big drawer, and I also store spare loose-leaf pads and unopened packs of index cards in there, but still…! I have numerous Moleskines in different colours, sizes and paper types, including two specifically for use with EverNote and two special editions (Lego and Star Wars); a bunch of LiveScribe notebooks, also in several sizes, for use with my Echo smartpen; and a few other miscellaneous notebooks from Paperchase, WHS, Rymans etc. I even have a gorgeous leather-bound journal that I bought in Florence, which I will probably never use because it’s far too beautiful to sully with my scribblings…

Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!
Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!

And then there’s my “archive” drawer of used notebooks. I have had obsessions with different brands before Moleskine; for a while it was Bur-O-Class Aurora exercise books, in which I wrote my earliest longhand drafts, then more recently it was the Europa Major spiral-bound reporter’s notebook, with 300 pages between richly-coloured cardboard covers, in which I brainstormed the plots and characters for my Night’s Masque trilogy.

Rationally, I know I do not need all these notebooks, because I do a lot of my work electronically. And yet I’m addicted to the damned things! When I was in California in February, I bought two Moleskines in a bookstore solely because they were in colours (green and purple) seldom seen in UK shops.

It’s a common foible of writers, judging by my friends’ reactions, and I think it comes down to a combination of traits:

1. A love of books and paper. There’s something very sensuous and satisfying about a high-quality notebook: the handsome cover, the way your pen glides across the thick creamy surface of the paper, the snap of the elastic fastener, the slither of the silky placeholder ribbon… You just can’t get these pleasures from an app, no matter how cool it might be in other ways.

2. Romanticism. We imagine the great authors of the 19th and 20th centuries scribbling golden prose into their pocket notebooks, and we think that if only we could do the same, our books would be just as wonderful.

3. The OCD impulses of the typical writer. Allied to the above, we believe that if we have just the right notebook, fresh and crisp and virginal, we too can be brilliant. We start a notebook with dewy-eyed optimism, which often devolves into despair at our terrible handwriting, multiple crossings-out and rambling prose. So, we abandon it for a fresh notebook. Once the habit becomes entrenched, we make sure we always have a good supply of shiny new ones to hand, because the next one is going to be perfect…

I think, though, that the seeds were sown in school. All those separate exercise books for each subject, often with a different colour per subject as well. And—this being a provincial girls’ grammar school with pretensions of grandeur—we had to write our homework in fountain pen (biros were for “rough” only). That kind of thing is liable to make a girl just a little obsessive!

How about you? Do you have a weakness for a particular brand or style of notebook? Or do you eschew paper for a purely digital writing experience?

Another year over, and a new one begun

So, the obligatory New Year blog post…

Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!
Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!

It’s been an utterly amazing year Chez Lyle, with not one but two novels published – and people actually buying them all over the world, from Canada to the United Arab Emirates and probably beyond. The response has been tremendous, with The Alchemist of Souls appearing on at least a couple of Best of 2012 lists (that I know of), and of course being a debut it’s up for the usual award nominations. Not that I have any pretensions of being an award-winning author; I’d rather sell heaps of books to satisfied readers :)

I’ve also made lots of new friends in the SFF community, been to a big US convention for the first time, met some megastar authors who were previously just names on my bookshelves, and generally had a fantastic time. I can’t recommend the convention circuit strongly enough to any SFF writer who wants to break into commercial publishing. Even if you don’t get a chance to pitch to an agent or editor, the friendships you make with other writers will be hugely important in seeing you through the highs and lows of the publication process. Our books aren’t the “competing products” that Amazon likes to claim – we’re all in this together.

2013 is set to be a somewhat quieter year for me, as I have only one book out (The Prince of Lies, the final volume in the Night’s Masque trilogy). I have another project underway, but it’s still at the very early stages of development, so even if I were to sell it this year, there’s very little chance of it appearing before late 2014 at best – sorry! This is the downside of selling your first completed novel – you are constantly running to keep up with your publisher’s release schedule, because you don’t have anything else under your hat. In that respect I envy writers like Michael J Sullivan who had a complete trilogy to offer when he got his book deal. Indeed, the only reason I’ve been able to commit to a book every 8-10 months is that it’s a trilogy with the same setting, lead characters and overarching conflict, so I’ve had plenty of time to at least think about where I was taking it, even if I didn’t write all three books in advance. The new project is going to be totally different in setting and characters, so it’ll take me a while to get all my ducks in a row – I’d rather make you guys wait, and have a much better book as a result.

On the plus side, once The Prince of Lies is handed in I’ll have more time for reading, which has had to take a back seat this year. There have been so many good books out and I want to read at least some of them! Last year I discovered several new favourite authors, so I have their latest offerings to keep up with, as well as the books I didn’t get to for lack of time. In fact I’m somewhat surprised that, according to Goodreads, I managed to read 16 books last year! I think this year I’ll try for 24, since that’s the exact length of my current TBR list…

Here’s wishing you all have as good a 2013 as my 2012! :)

Woman in sensible armour

As a fantasy author, I’m often called upon to write combat scenes for my books. Sometimes they’re a simple tussle using whatever weapons come to hand (like Ned’s main fight scene in The Alchemist of Souls) but given that my protagonist Mal usually goes around wearing a rapier and matching dagger, there are inevitably a number of sword-fights in the Night’s Masque books.

On the one hand I find them pretty easy (and a lot of fun) to write—I’ve seen an awful lot of swashbuckling movies over the years, and of course I do armchair research as well—but on the other, I have pretty much zero first-hand experience. Plus, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation unless you get one of those fancy treadmill desks, so I’m in need of exercise. Which I hate. I thus realised I could kill two birds with one thrust, so to speak, if I took up fencing.

I prevaricated for a while, telling myself that modern sport fencing is nothing like real sword-fighting (which is true), but once my first book came out I started to feel in need of new challenges. I also discovered there was a fencing club based at a high school barely a mile and a half from my house, so I really had no excuse not to go. I therefore signed up for the beginner’s course at Cambridge Fencing Club.

The autumn term started at the end of September; in fact the first lesson was on the Thursday evening before I went down to Brighton for FantasyCon. I was a bit worried I’d be horribly stiff at the convention, so my husband showed me some exercises that would help stretch my leg muscles and build core body strength. As a result, I was only a little footsore after the first class, since we only did footwork. In subsequent lessons we learned how and where to hit our opponent, and a bit of parrying. The instructor likes to focus on the basics in the beginners’ class and leave more complex techniques to the intermediate class.

The beginners’ class is over now, and whilst it was fun, it has also confirmed my suspicions that it’s not for me. Partly it’s the modern sport: the protective clothing is hot and uncomfortable, and I find the highly stylised nature of it (compared to realistic fighting styles) somewhat frustrating. Partly it’s because I’m unsurprisingly not terribly good at it, having started so late in life, and I don’t enjoy activities I’m not good at (this is why I hated PE at school). Mostly, though, I’m not in sufficient physical condition, and it’s very tough on the right arm, which already gets a hammering from computer use and longhand writing.

It was a painful decision to give up; writing has taught me how to persevere in the face of obstacles, and I really did want to enjoy it, but I have to face up to my limitations. It’s been a valuable learning experience, and at least I can now cross another topic off my bucket list. So, I’m regretfully going to have to bail before I do myself a mischief and have to dictate my next novel!