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As some folks may have heard, I wrote another book. And the good folk at Orbit are going to publish it this year!

That pile of paper there is the proofs for The Free – a stand-alone fantasy novel coming out in a bookshop or digital venue near you this October. The proofs are the last stage before the whole thing is kind of locked down, so I spent a fair few hours not long ago reading every single word of the thing all over again. Line by line, sentence by sentence, hunting for mistakes, typos, embarrassments, all that sort of thing.

It’s a strange experience for me, this bit of the writing/publishing process. Once a book (or story, or comic) of mine is published, I’m profoundly disinclined to ever read it, not even a little bit of it, again. It’s finished and I can’t change it and all I’m likely to see if I read it again is stuff I wish I could change. Reading and correcting proofs is kind of half-way into that territory – it’s too late to make big changes – but still embedded in the revising process to some extent, because little tweaks are possible. So I’m at ease with it, in a way I’m not at ease with re-reading the finished, published novel. Kind of like it, in fact, because once you get to this point you know you’re pretty much done. This thing’s happening. This book’s going to be for real soon.

In fact, The Free is going to be for real on or about October 14th. Not all that soon, I know, but it’s avilable for pre-order on all the usual online sites. If you’re at all inclined to do such a thing, pre-ordering is helpful and encouraging so you get my (impersonal, anonymous) gratitude if you take the plunge. I don’t think you’ll regret it – I’ve read The Free quite recently, after all, and I didn’t think it was bad. All nearly 450 pages of it.

The book’s right there waiting for your anticipatory support on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble etc. (But sadly not yet my personal preference these days – now that Amazon has bought up virtually every other independent online vendor – Wordery, which is a newish UK-based site that does free worldwide shipping. So you can’t pre-order The Free there yet, as far as I can see, but why not bookmark or sign up with Wordery.com and try it out sometime? Competition is a good thing, and boy does Amazon need some competition).

More to come about The Free in coming weeks and months, of course. For now, though, here’s the start of the contents because … well, why not?

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A good while back, I did a post here pontificating about how the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ was not a particularly good query to fire at a writer.

This is the sequel to that post, in which I answer the question in question. Just thought it’d be fun. Might also help to illustrate my case that ideas are the easy bit, coming as they do from everywhere, all the time, unpredictably.

So, here’s where the idea for every piece of fiction I’ve sold came from, in chronological order of publication.

Farm Animal, my first published story, appeared in the UK’s venerable sf magazine Interzone a long, long time ago. It has a unique, and unusually simple, origin in the context of my fiction output: it’s loosely based on a dream I had. It was a kind of creepy, not very nice, dream so we won’t go into any more details except to say it involved a human-pig hybrid. The hard bit, as ever, was turning that seed into a narrative of some sort, and in the process the story became about the transformation of a human into a pig. (Sidenote: I remember being quite pleased with myself, at that presumptuous age, for coming up with a title that reverses Animal Farm, in which pigs transform into humans, just as my story reverses that transformation. Doesn’t seem quite so clever now.)

Gibbons, my second published story, appeared in another UK magazine: The Third Alternative – still going, under the new title Black Static. Its origin is also unique in this list, in that it comes from my own direct, personal experience. In my early twenties I spent three months in Borneo, finding, following and sound-recording gibbons in a remote part of the rainforest. In hindsight, as you might expect, it was a powerful, rather formative experience in various ways (including career-wise, since it would later result in me getting a job that sent me to many other unusual, out of the way bits of the world), though at the time – as with many such experiences – I didn’t fully appreciate its significance. What did imprint itself on my mind even then, though, was the potent atmosphere and character of the place. It took years for the story that gave voice to my impressions of the Bornean rainforest to take shape, but Gibbons was the eventual result.

Winterbirth, and the Godless World trilogy of which it is the first part, has a messy kind of idea-origin. I knew I wanted to try writing novels, and I was instinctively interested in the possibility of a fantasy trilogy. I needed an imaginative nudge of some sort to get the process of world, character and story development going, and it came from the TV, in a way. This was way back when the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia in particular, were in post-Communist meltdown and filling our TV screens and newspapers with stories and images of horrendous and cruel violence. Because I was even then a history nerd, I knew a lot of what was happening was the indirect fruit of bitter rivalries, enmities and events that went back many, many hundreds of years, and I was struck by the thought that it might be interesting to write about a fantasy world similarly torn apart by long-suppressed, half-hidden enmities that were somehow allowed to re-emerge.

Now, that initial idea got considerably complicated and diluted by the aforementioned process of world, character and story development. It provided the impetus for the process, but was itself changed and elaborated by it. Such things happen, once you get into the flow of turning a small spark into a fully fledged fire. But that’s what ideas are for really: they start the process, but unlike a chemical catalyst, they don’t have to survive that process unchanged.

Beyond the Reach of His Gods is a short story that appeared in the anthology Rage of the Behemoth, from Rogue Blades Entertainment. Much to my delight, it’s since been reprinted in the excellent online magazine Lightspeed, so you can read the whole thing for free over there if you like. This was the first time I’d been invited/commissioned to write a story for an anthology, and the brief was highly specific: heroic fantasy involving a giant monster set in one of several specific environments. I had no pre-existing ideas that fitted the bill (hardly surprising!), so the idea for this story had to be kind of ‘forced’. Except it came to me very easily, very quickly and very completely. I’ve no idea how that happens, but now and again it does: I just looked at the brief, thought about it for a bit, and the setting, characters, monster and the basic skeleton of the plot just turned up in my head. Very nice, and forunate really, since I would probably have turned down the invitation had things not bubbled up so easily, and had the story they suggested not struck me as being fun to write.

Flint was another short story for an anthology – Speculative Horizons, from Subterranean Press, edited by Patrick St-Denis. Again, I was asked if I would contribute, but this time there were no prescriptions regarding subject matter or even specific genre. So I pulled out a partially developed idea I’d been keeping on a mental shelf for ages, and used this as the opportunity to turn it into an actual story. That idea had its roots in my non-fiction reading: books like The Golden Bough, After The Ice and Shamanism. In learning and thinking about early magical beliefs, hunter-gatherer societies and the deep, deep past of human society and imagination, it struck me that a Stone-Age shaman would make an interesting central character for some kind of story. I knew very early on that his name would be Flint, but much of the detail of his adventures only got filled in when Patrick asked me if I fancied writing a story for his anthology …

The Edinburgh Dead has a very clear and fairly simple idea-origin. Having grown up in Edinburgh, and living there again now after a good few years away, I know a lot about its history and geography. Mind you, even people who’ve never been here have heard of Burke & Hare, the infamous baddies who murdered a lot of people so that they could sell their corpses to lecturers for dissection in anatomy classes in the early 19th century. For whatever reason, one day while musing on Edinburgh’s rich and complicated history, I just asked myself: ‘What if there were other people around back then, who wanted corpses for a different kind of experiment?’. From that question, after a good deal of research and the addition of a good many other influences, the whole novel emerged. And, inevitably, Burke and Hare stayed in the mix as characters in the story.

Rogue Trooper, the comic I’m writing for IDW (first issue in comic shops and on Comixology on Feb 26th!), is a different kettle of fish, idea-wise. This is a pre-existing character and milieu that I was asked to re-imagine. So the ideas required are of a different kind: what games can I play, what details can I add or subtract, what themes can I develop, with this already-established character? Those kind of ideas just come from looking at what’s there already, thinking back or re-visiting all the previous Rogue Trooper stories I read as a youth, applying my personal instincts as a writer to the property. To be honest, lots and lots of possibilities presented themselves to me as soon as I became aware of the opportunity, so it wasn’t too difficult. When someone else has done the hard work of creating a strong character, setting and framework, riffing on it is pretty straightforward (at least in terms of ideas, if not execution; believe me, I can now say from personal experience that writing comics is not straightforward or effortless!).

The Free will be published this October by Orbit, and it’s kind of fitting that it comes last on this list because in one sense it’s an extreme example on the original idea front. This book, alone of all the fictions on this list, has shed its originating idea like a snake shedding a skin. Literally no trace of the idea to which it can trace its roots remains in the novel that will be published. Weird, huh? Anyway, one day – or night, I think perhaps I was trying to go to sleep – a scene just popped into my head. In an underground cavern, someone discovers a prisoner, trapped in a huge cage. That was it. This was way back when I was still writing the Godless World trilogy. I had half a notion I might try writing another trilogy after I was finished with that one (a notion I soon thought better of!), and that single, unformed scene became the seed from which I gradually grew the outline of a whole plot, world, magic system, characters – I didn’t have a full trilogy worked out in detail, but I had a lot of stuff churning around in my head.

Except, I wrote The Edinburgh Dead instead. But the story-stuff that had sprung from that single imagined scene kept stewing in my thinking parts, and kept changing. In the plot I’d loosely imagined, there were a set of secondary characters – mercenaries – who struck me as interesting. To cut a long story short, I ended up pitching an idea focused upon them to the publisher as a stand-alone novel. The Free. The world in which they operate is not the one I dreamed up for that trilogy; the magic system is utterly different; there’s not a single character who has survived from my earlier musings into the text of the The Free; at no point does anyone even go underground, let alone discover a subterranean chamber with a caged prisoner in it. (But who’s to say what might happen, should I ever write any more stories about The Free?)

So there you are. I get my ideas from dreams, from personal experiences, from current affairs, from history, from commissions, from non-fiction books, from other people’s creations, from random scenes popping into my head. And I could add, in respect of fictions I’ve thought about or am currently pondering, which may or may not ever see the light of day: I also get them from idle reflections on the under-use of particular mythical creatures in fiction, consciously setting myself the challenge of coming up with an idea for a TV/radio series, writing tasks based on a single word set by tutors on a short course I did many years ago, looking at maps, etc. etc.

All seems clear enough. Question answered.

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There’s a very upbeat review of The Edinburgh Dead over on The Bookshelf Chronicles.  ( ‘2011 is drawing to a close and I think I just found my favourite read of the year’ !)

Nice little exchange with the author of that same to review in the comments here, in which it turns out we both very much like one specific line in The Edinburgh Dead.  And that line is … wait for it … wait for it …:

‘I’m not wanting any butter.’

Does that strike you as … I don’t know … a bit anti-climactic?  It points up one thing that I’m sure isn’t particular to me.  Lots of writers must have the same thing.  That thing is that the pleasure of writing, the satisfaction that the finished text can give you as its creator, is sometimes as much about the small things – the small victories – as it is the big picture stuff.  That tiny little line of dialogue gave me pleasure when I wrote it – you’ll just have to take make my word for the fact that it’s just the right length, tone and rhythm for its context – and it’s nice that someone else liked it.

(And in case that sounds too self-congratulatory, I’ll just note in passing that the small defeats can be just as frustrating as the small victories are satisfying.  Witness: I can’t spell the word ‘rhythm’.  Never have been able to, probably never will.  Every single time I write the cursed word – including in the last sentence of the previous paragraph – I have to check its spelling.  Pathetic.  I’m already starting to fret it still doesn’t look right … maybe I should just have a quick double-check …)

Over at the Writers Read blog, I’ve got a guest post reporting on what I was reading in November.  It includes Fascist dictators, etchings and horses.

And a very nice giveaway is open for the holidays – for those of you living in the UK and the US, at least.  Over at the Orbit blog you can enter a draw to win one of five sets of five jolly good books.  Including The Edinburgh Dead.  There’s two or three there I’d really like to read myself, but somehow I doubt I’m eligible …

Okay, we’ll get to the fun stuff in a minute, but first let’s tidy away a little bit of linkage:

I write about When Genres Collide over at the Orbit blog.  Marvel at my delusional hubris as I demonstrate conclusively that crime and horror fiction are exactly the same!  (Incidentally, should anyone feel tempted to comment on my half-assed theories, I’d appreciate it if you did so over there rather than here …)

The Edinburgh Dead is reviewed at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist (“not a dull moment … should satisfy even jaded genre readers”!)

And also at the Wall Street Journal (“compelling mix of horror and sci-fi”!)

I write about the Dark Side of Edinburgh’s history over at the SFX Magazine blog.

And – now the fun bit – alert readers of that last article might notice that there’s a link at the end leading to …

The crazy cool grand EDINBURGH DEAD COMPETITION!

Yes, you, dear reader, have the chance to win a stay in an Edinburgh hotel, along with a creepy tour of the city’s secret history (and a copy of The Edinburgh Dead, too, but that’s kind of secondary in this case, I have to admit).  This is pretty much the jolliest wheeze my esteemed publishers have yet come up with for promoting one of my books, and I think it’s kind of neat.  Go and enter, why don’t you? Closing date is 15th September 2011.

A few choice items from internetland that caught my eye recently:

My all-powerful editor and publisher, Tim Holman, the head honcho of Orbit, had started up a rather good blog – The Publisher Files – which has recently included some great stuff. First off there was graphic evidence for the intuitively obvious tendency of fantasy book covers to feature certain genre props with great (perhaps even monotonous?) regularity.

Then, there’s the still more interesting numerical analysis of the astonishing rise of urban fantasy in the US sf/f market. It’s not often a distinct sub-genre comes from (almost) nowhere to frankly kick the butt of all the other longer established forms of a genre. Lots of interesting and thought-provoking tidbits in the article and the comments.

Meanwhile, over at the Grasping for the Wind blog, two fun posts in which a whole army of sf/f bloggers (must be a better collective noun than that for sf/f bloggers? Can’t think of one right now …) rveal which of the many fictional fantasy or sf worlds they’d actually like to live in: part one and part two. Me, I’d go for Iain M Banks’ Culture every time, I think.

And finally, I recently discovered the TED Talks page (and subscribed to its feed). An insane number of videos of talks by lots of very smart folk on interesting topics – just about every topic under the sun seems to be in there somewhere, in fact (if you’re in an apocalyptic state of mind for example, there’s Stephen Petranek on ten ways human civilisation could be destroyed, and what to do about them, and Martin Rees on humanity’s potentially grim future).

As promised in the last post here, some brief details on the new book I’m writing. Yes, the fine folks at Orbit, in their infinite wisdom, seem to feel that the world could withstand further literary output by yours truly. (I say wisdom, but it might just be some ghastly administrative error on their part, of course. No matter. They signed the contract, so they’re stuck with me now).

The working title (and so far everyone, including me, seems to quite like it, so I imagine it’ll probably survive all the way through to publication) is The Edinburgh Dead. The setting is, as you might guess, Edinburgh; specifically, Edinburgh in the first half of the 19th century. Since I write fantasy rather than history, though, it’s not quite as simple as that.

I’m taking some gruesome and rather famous aspects of Edinburgh’s past and spicing them up a bit with veteran warriors, magical conspiracies, killers both human and decidedly not, desperate combat and sinister goings-on in general. In short, it’s a dark, heroic fantasy set in 19th century Edinburgh. With swords and gaslamps.

As for publication date – because I know someone will ask about that sooner rather than later – I can’t say exactly, but I’ll be delivering the manuscript next year and barring exceptional circumstances it takes at least nine months, more likely something approaching twelve, to go from that point to publication. So you can do the math yourselves.

I’m having a lot of fun working on this so far. It’s a stand alone novel, and that makes a very pleasant change after turning out a hefty trilogy like The Godless World. I’ll no doubt report back here on the creative process and progress (watch out for that mid-book slump of despair and self-doubt!), but I’ll leave it there for now. Got stuff to write.

Talking about e-books (I did mention the one dollar Winterbirth e-book, didn’t I?), a few other fragments of the discussion about the technology that have come to light recently:

Orbit’s own Tim Holman talks at some length about e-books on the Dragon Page podcast. It’s well worth a listen. Anyone who doubts that publishers are expending a lot of precious brain time on this whole area will quickly be disabused of such notions. Anyone who thinks publishers actually know what’s going to come of all the changes infiltrating the industry will be similarly disabused. But knowing isn’t what’s important; preparing flexibly and imaginatively for unpredictable change, and being willing to try stuff and see what works, is what’s important. I think.

Another publisher – this time a new one, Angry Robot Books – wants to know how much an e-book is worth to you, the reader. It’s not a brilliantly designed survey (says he huffily, knowing only just enough about survey design to make him wildly over-confident and huffy), but the basic question is obviously at the heart of where this technology is going. And it’s a tough one to find a fair answer too.

Just how tough is evidenced by … the 9.99 e-book boycott on Amazon. At the time of writing, irritated readers have now tagged over 800 e-books on Amazon.com as being unjustifiably expensive. Not an unreasonable sort of price point for the protestors to settle upon, you might think (and I sort of agree), but check out the commenters on that original GalleyCat post. Not everyone is onboard, and there’s no doubt the situation is not as clear-cut as a lot of the protestors probably think.

This one’s going to run and run and run. The tough questions certainly aren’t going to go away, indeed I suspect they’re only going to get tougher as time and technology advance. I have no clue what the publishing industry and the world’s reading habits are going to look like twenty years from now. I remain somewhat unconvinced that anybody else does either, and I still think all the amazing opportunities opening up before us are balanced by definite risks in the medium term. Which makes it all jolly interesting, if nothing else.

And mildy related: by coincidence I had two folk e-mail me this week asking, in their different ways, whether an audio version of the Godless World trilogy was available, or ever likely to be. Short answer is that such a thing doesn’t exist at the moment, and as far as I know isn’t likely. I’m almost certain – I could check my contract to be absolutely sure, of course, but it’s filed away, I’m feeling lazy right now and I expect someone will correct me if I’m wrong – that the rights to such a version reside with Orbit, so they are probably the people to ask about it, if there’s an army of you out there craving Wintebrirth in your ears.

Books and Orbit

For no reason other than that I was idly thinking about it just now (terrible thing, the way the mind wanders when you’re supposed to be writing …), in no particular order and without comment, my favourites amongst the books I’ve read so far this year:

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

River of Gods, Ian McDonald

Britain BC, Francis Pryor

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

The Civil War Vol. 2, Shelby Foote

Winter Tales, George Mackay Brown

And look: Orbit (my very nice publishers) have a spiffy new website covering both the UK and US bits of their increasingly globe-spanning empire. It’s got a corporate blog and future publishing schedules (as pdf files) for anyone who’s curious about what’s in their pipeline for the next year or so.

Orbit USA

Orbit’s new USA imprint is showing its first signs of life: orbitbooks.net. And the first book displayed on their publishing schedule is … Winterbirth. It’s scheduled for release in September. This is a good and exciting thing.

As is pretty much always the case, crossing the Atlantic involves a new cover, so here’s what Winterbirth will be wearing in the US this Fall:

The US of A plus Free Books!

Just before I get to the point of this post, since it has an American theme: people keep saying George W. Bush is now a lame duck, so what might a lame duck President find to do with his time? Answer here.

So, to our main story. A bit slow out of the blocks with this news, since it’s been agreed for a little while now, but: I’m delighted to say a deal’s been done for Winterbirth to be published in the USA. Getting published in the UK and various European countries would, to be honest, have been enough to keep me happy for a long time – adding the US to the list is a fantastic thick crust of icing on the cake.

The US edition will be one of the first books to appear from Orbit in the USA, making it part of one of the more ambitious undertakings seen in sf/f publishing for a while. Orbit’s turning itself into a globe-spanning genre empire, with a foot in each of the three biggest English-speaking markets (which I suppose makes it a tripod – a form with a noble sf heritage).

Same continent, different country, and look: I’m being given away for free. (EDIT to update: that competition’s finished now, so the freebies are no more, I’m afraid)

And here, one more time, is the info on how to buy a signed copy of the UK edition, in case anyone’s still toying with that idea.