Wednesday 15 May 2019

On Writing Groups (part 3), by Kevin Burke

In the third part of our ongoing series series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group, we turn to Kevin Burke, science-fiction & fantasy writer.
First, a confession. Unlike the previous two writers on this subject, I am no longer a member of NSFWG. (I know... I'm as cut up about it as anyone... but sometimes life moves you away from the things you love.) However, no longer being  'on the inside' does give me the chance to look back on my time with the group, and to muse upon the usefulness of writers groups in general, with what I hope will be something akin to objectivity. (Who am I trying to kid? It's going to be as subjective as hell, of course it is, so let's just accept that from the start and move on... ) Here goes.

Although I have always written in one way or another, at the time of joining the group (five years ago now) I had but one short story published, so was most definitely a 'newbie' on the writing scene, and consequently I approached that first meeting with a fair degree of trepidation. I knew that I was to be in the company of people with, in the main, an established history of publication, and I also knew that I was to be asked to pass my verdict on examples of their work. I had rarely felt so far out of my depth. How could my opinion possibly be of interest to such an august assembly?

In reality, of course, I need not have worried. I was warmly welcomed into the group and my faltering critique was listened to and respected. Then, as the months passed and it came round to my turn to have pieces of work commented upon, I found the feedback I received universally helpful. These were people who knew what they were talking about, and who were taking my work seriously. (Quick anecdote: I do recall that my first submitted piece included several veiled autobiographical sequences, which were the very sections that group members picked out as being 'too far-fetched'. 'This would never happen' said one, to much general agreement and nodding of heads. To this day I smile to myself about that, though it did teach me that not only, as the old adage goes, is truth stranger than fiction, but that real life does not necessarily translate successfully onto the written page.)

So what did NSFWG do for me? Well, first and foremost it built my confidence. I felt I could hold my own amongst people who I admired and who were all far more experienced than I. It also taught me an enormous amount about the business of writing, simply by listening to the experiences of those who had literally 'been there and got the T-shirt', and the help and advice that I received was invaluable. I'm not saying that everything was always idyllic... my hindsight is not that rose-tinted. I do remember times when certain individuals got a bit prickly over their feedback, but this was the exception rather than the rule, and I learned that at the end of the day, your work is your work, and you are free to take criticism on board or ignore it, as you see fit. (Personally, I believe that you should always keep an open mind and listen to feedback when it is offered. If you remain wilfully blind to potential faults in your story you can be sure that, further down the line, an editor or, even worse, a reader, will pick them up.) On the whole, however, I found the criticism extremely helpful and constructive, and always came away from meetings buoyed up rather than cast down.

I have also come to appreciate what a rare thing a good writers group is, and when you have found one that suits you, you should cherish it at all costs. One of the best aspects of the NSFWG is that it is a genre group, so it is composed of like-minded individuals who all write in a similar vein. (That's not to say that what they produce is in any way similar, but that the thought processes that inform their work are). I now live in Dorset (too far to commute to Northampton monthly meetings, alas) and have found it impossible to find a group in this area that comes anywhere close. The groups that I have discovered thus far tend to fall into three categories: a) groups that are aimed at beginners ('look at this photo and see what it inspires in you, then scribble something down and we'll discuss it after tea and cake'); b) groups for the slightly more experienced ( 'here's our subject for this month, see if you can write 500 words on the theme and bring it along with you'); or c) groups for those might have had something published, or who are seriously aiming for publication, but with such a breadth of style, subject and genre that there is little they have in common other than the desire to get their work seen by a wider audience. Perhaps we should make a distinction here between writing groups (a & b) and writers groups (c). Though that opens up another debate over  'what is a writer?' and that's certainly not a can of worms I would wish to open at this point in time. Suffice it to say, it can be tough to find a group where you feel you belong.

So for now, I continue to soldier on in the solitude of my 'writing room' (i.e. the room where the computer is kept and the bookshelves are groaning), with a dachshund on my lap and a million story ideas jostling for space in my head. My path occasionally crosses with other writers, but such sporadic contact is no substitute for a good, supportive writers group, and the help and advice of those who have already navigated the paths that I aspire to tread. I still see myself as no more than a fledgling writer, but with a few successes in writing competitions under my belt, another short story published, and a novel doing the rounds of those publishers which will still accept unagented submissions, I feel that at least I'm moving in the right direction. And in a very real sense, I have the NSFWG to thank for giving me the confidence to persevere.

Oh... and I now have a shiny new pen-name. I write as KB Willson. One quick look on Amazon convinced me that there were just too many authors using the name 'Kevin Burke' so a change had to be made; and when I think back, I have NSFWG to thank for that too, having run the idea past the inimitable Ian Whates in those early days.

So would I say that writers groups are a good idea? Yes I would, but I can't emphasise enough the importance of finding one in which you feel at home. I count myself  extremely fortunate to have spent the time that I did in the company of the Northampton crowd, even though it was all too brief, and I like to think I am a better writer for the experience. I raise a glass to members past and present, and to all who hammer their keyboards in an attempt to breathe life into their imaginings. May your fingers never fail you.

Kevin/KB has mostly escaped the clutches of the Northampton Science Fiction Writing Group (which covers Fantasy and Horror too) but can be found online at

Wednesday 17 April 2019

On Writing Groups (part 2), by Andy West

Author-Foo from Writing Groups - Woo!

In the second part of our ongoing series series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group, we turn to Andy West, science-fiction & fantasy writer.

While there’s no substitute for imagination and some inherent talent, a good Writing Group can supply this Foo, and much more besides. For instance, camaraderie. Most budding writers begin thinking about joining a Writing Group when they’ve already been scribbling (metaphorically – it’s mostly tapping) for a long time, possibly years, closeted in their bedroom or office or riding the bus or wherever. Hence, they are likely already familiar with a big down-side of the writing trade – it’s a lonely occupation! Not only in the sense that one (typically) works long hours in isolation with all this emotively implies, but also in the sense of having no mentors or colleagues with whom one can regularly interact, as would be the case for most jobs from car sales to software to welding to management.
Writing can be a lonely occupation; you sometimes feel
you’re out in the dark, working in complete isolation…
One is out in the dark, so to speak, regarding the desired and necessary skills; distanced from the places and people somewhere else in that dark, beyond your vision, where the magic of authorship must be happening. And online advice seems a thin and anonymous light on the process, less rich and rewarding than actually discussing techniques (not to mention your actual works) face to face with other budding authors plus, critically, those with more experience.

So, find a group in your area and try for membership, then say goodbye to the loneliness of the trade and hello to mutual support from a ring of valued writing buddies and friends. Note, some groups limit to a maximum number of members so cast around for a free slot, and then you might need a test piece too. This is to check appropriateness to the group’s particular focus plus a minimum level of achievement. But don’t panic about perfection, the whole point is to improve everyone, so potential not perfection is the necessary criteria.

A Writing Group covers wide territory, spotting unoriginal approaches and common errors plus more positively, aspects such as market opportunities or genre fusion ideas

Great! Let’s assume you’re in. There turns out not just to be benefits regarding improvement of your writing skills, but much other stuff too. The group covers wide-ranging territory, so for instance can better inform, say, about unoriginal approaches, or say insider knowledge on a genre you want to branch into. And indeed a great deal more about the whole world of writing too; highly useful considering the puzzling and fast changing nature of publishing. You’ll still need the net of course, but without burdening your new colleagues too much, the relating of some personal experience saves time and effort compared to endless Internet trawling (after which, you often still don’t know what the results actually mean…)

So, is this wonder membership the end of all your writing woes? Um, no. Still endless hours of writing, and trying to be heard, but it’s a hell-uv-a help along the way. Oh, and do you get some new challenges as well as solutions? Well, yes…

Once you’ve found your feet, you’ll be expected to contribute as much as receive, of course, and it’s critical to treat the work of other’s as seriously as you’d hope your own will be considered. And, while critique necessarily has to be robust it should range over the positive things to say as well as the things that, for you, were issues. So don’t focus only on the latter. The job is to advise in an encouraging and inspiring environment, not to inadvertently create a sense that nothing worked and so consequent depression!
The complex world of writing takes some navigating!
‘Robust’ essentially means being honest. Albeit with the noble intent of not trampling upon someone’s feelings, avoiding genuine issues as you see them, plus too much uncritical praise in a mutual patting on the back club, eventually becomes no use to anyone. The real world will be merciless. Also, the emotive impact of robustness is greatly mitigated by offering a solution to the raised issue. This is also a useful challenge for you in the role of critic. Spotting an issue doesn’t mean you know the best solution, or even any solution, without seriously thinking about it. It could only be luck that you haven’t yet fallen into the same problem yourself. Or maybe you already did; issues are easier to spot in the work of others because we’re naturally biased regarding our own work, and sometimes snow-blind even when we manage to be more objective. This is why you’re in a Writing Group!

It's worth keeping front of mind too (because our context can often slip while absorbed in reading), that critique should not come from the perspective of ‘what would *I* write’. Although it’s difficult to distance ourselves entirely, this is inappropriate. You must not dampen the author’s voice with your own, plus critique perspective should be firmly rooted in ‘what would the market read’, so comes as much from our reading experience as writing experience. In turn this might mean thinking your way into a less familiar market than the one(s) you tend most to favour. This aspect is not an issue for clearly generic factors (e.g. basic grammar), but for deeper issues, and while suggested solutions necessarily come from a personal perspective, they shouldn’t aim at essentially writing a different story than the critiqued work, i.e. the story you would write. The aim is to improve the author’s own vision or essence of the story, plus bring out the best in their own voice.

As you’re beginning to find out in your first couple of meetings, membership is an improving and rewarding experience, but quite challenging too. And the challenges can be emotive because writers are so invested in their works. However, some challenges aren’t as bad as they seem at first sight.

So, what about getting depressed because there’s lots of critique from folks? Even for positively framed critique this can become an issue, especially as we may produce better or worse output in phases depending upon our levels of inspiration and focus. Writing is not a mechanical exercise, and sometimes too we’re more experimental on purpose. So, ask yourself, is the critique mostly quite different across the group? If so, DON’T be depressed! This is not a bad thing (um… unless there were literally zero good points too, in which case you might well be in the wrong group!) As everyone interprets through the lens of their own writing experience and favoured niche, different perceptions will likely dominate when there’s nothing too fundamentally wrong. If there had been, the group’s critique would most probably have much more in common, i.e. straddling the same major issue(s). This outcome may mean your engagement is not deep enough, or too many minor problems are interrupting (so plot and imagination ok but skills not yet honed enough), or somehow contradictions or a lack of clarity muddy the plot or character portrayal. The critique should contain clues, but wide variance in feedback often implies group acceptance that something underneath is solid, which hopefully won’t go wholly unspoken. So, while much improvement is likely needed to truly grab folks and keep them onboard, this is way better than a conceptual restart along with the implied major rewrite. Focussing on core impact, distilling, cleaning up and losing diversions may be the answer; is there just too much detail?

Also, if you get say 9 significant but quite different opinion points over a group of 12, you can just choose to ignore some. While each might improve in some way there’ll also be contradictory advice, plus improving appeal in one way may reduce it in another. E.g. increasing the pace but losing some depth, or increasing appeal to one sort of reader at the expense of another sort. What to take on board is a value judgement here, and your readers will be the ultimate judges so you need to know their psychomatics. And aiming at max sales is not necessarily the best bet if this risks betraying your target niche and ending up falling flat. Similarly, if you get say 5 passionate opinions supporting largely the same point, yet also 4 passionately the exact opposite (plus some neutrals), it is knowing who you’re targeting that’ll tell you which way to go regarding this fork. And hopefully, more experienced group members may know some likely consequences of each possibility.

So, what about getting depressed because there’s lots of critique from folks, but it isn’t all different? I.e. pretty much everyone has hit on the same 2 or 3 main points (whether or not there’s lesser stuff too). If this is the case, then DON’T be depressed! (um… unless the points amount to ‘throw it away’, in which case you might well be in the wrong group!) Not only did the group just set the scene for you to fix this work up, there’ll usually be a range of suggested paths regarding just how you might do so! Not quite job done, but the hardest part is done. What you don’t know you can’t fix, even if a subconscious part of you had suspected it. This is why you’re in a writing group!

Regarding this outcome, you will need a MUCH stronger reason for not taking group advice when opinions are well-aligned, one you are very sure of should you wish to do so. Although market knowledge or context from elsewhere in the story can be a reason, for generic points relating to readability or impact rather than say plot turns or market niche constraints (e.g. something applicable to children but not adults), mostly you should take the advice. This is why you’re in a writing group!
If you get to be a member for a long time, this will result in a deeper insight on folks, so your advice can be more insightful too. But familiarity can sometimes cause a glaze to set in, especially for secondary issues, another thing to guard against. Fortunately, new members not only bring fresh work and fresh perspective, they tend to rebalance the equation between longer-standing members too. This reminds me to point out that a writing group is not a team. It’s not aiming, like a corporate team (and I’ve been in quite a few), at an integrated single goal. Nor is it a competition, albeit it’s honing folks for the ultimate competition out there, not only our public Voice but the relative longevity of our essence long after we are gone. So what sort of beast is a writing group, as such? Well I think the best description is somewhere between a therapy group, and a fractious family. So be prepared to bare your soul, yet defend your position too! And know the others like your siblings.

A writer who became frozen in his approaches and suffered 
particularly bad writer’s block. Fortunately, he joined the Group 
just before this and so was eventually rescued
One very useful aspect of this family angle is the testing of taboo material. Writers must sometimes go there, it’s part of the job description, and they shouldn’t be afraid to. But balancing sensitivity while not bowing to the weight of over-political correctness (such that points are supressed or avoided enough to seriously weaken the work) is better conducted in an environment with a diverse range of opinions from folks who, in the end, will have the same issues themselves at some point (albeit on a different topic), plus due to familiarity, true knowledge of you, aren’t going to reach straight for the pitchfork if something inadvertently went too far. Face to face is simply far better for this, you get all the nuance and body-language plus multiple interactions at once.

And did I mention ‘many benefits’ over and above learning the basic craft? Too many to list, but here’s a couple more:

* Meetings can often be inspiring regarding both approaches and actual story paths. This is tremendously useful for those times when one has fallen into a slough of despair (seems to be a natural hazard for writers), or unfreezing creative blockages or one’s productive evolvement as a writer. Driving home all excited, one can be eager for the front line again, eager for words.

* If your group is lucky enough to have professional editors taking part, this is incredibly useful too. Their detailed mark-ups not only get one used to what to expect when you get works placed, following their disciplines increases the chance of being placed anyhow. Albeit a humbling experience, this is absolutely invaluable. And likewise regarding feedback from those who’ve already got enough author-Foo to have prominent works out there, be it shorts or novels or whatever. A point here is that everyone can have more Foo; established authors don’t stay in writing groups just to help bring on newer authors, albeit that’s a rewarding activity. Writing evolves, to meet evolving markets and due to personal development; so new stories need new approaches, they need testing, and all writing can go somewhere it hasn’t been before; all of which likely means reaching more readers while keeping existing readers still interested and engaged.

Kung-Foo / Fu means ‘hard work’, ‘skill from long practice’, and it must always be practised, sharpened. My own very modest author Foo has been nurtured off-the-side of a corporate career, limiting available time; I probably need to paint more walls as much as pounce like a tiger. But the Writing Group has been utterly invaluable and far the best investment of time – both from personal development PoV and a fantastic insight into the trade of writing, not to mention great fun and great people – Woo!

Andy West is a long-term inmate of the Northampton Science Fiction Writing Group (which covers Fantasy and Horror too).  He can be found online at We Are Myth.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

On Writing Groups (part 1), by Paul Melhuish

After a prolonged period of silence (sorry about that, we've all been too busy writing and publishing!), we're going to start a series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group.

First up is Paul Melhuish, horror writer and Morris Man.
 ‘To be honest Paul, the concept just isn’t believable. A spaceship lands in a field in Bedfordshire in 1952 and no one makes a fuss about it. The thing just sits there for decades.  It’s even given National Trust status in your story and the only thing standing between it and the public is a fence with a KEEP OUT sign. This sign of first contact is largely ignored by the rest of the world. It just doesn’t work.’ 

I was three quarters of the way through my epic novel of small-town alien incursion, Britain’s answer to The Tommyknockers or so I thought. I’d send out the first couple of chapters to the writers group thinking it would wow them with its inventiveness, its oddness.  Its unheimlich.

They weren’t impressed. The concept didn’t work.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, a consensus where all the group could see the flaws.  The members are all experienced writers, all published (some even involved in publishing and editing projects) and they knew what they were talking about.

For me the best course of action was to abandon the novel for now and begin another idea I'd for a horror novel about a cursed Morris dance. A few months down the line I submitted the opening chapters for this book to be workshopped by the group and they agreed that this concept did work. Yeah, there were some changes to be made, easy fixes, but on the whole the consensus was that this idea had legs.

I joined the Northampton Science Fiction Writer’s Group in 2003 and before this wasted months and years working on projects like the National Trust Spaceship idea. I also had a rather inflated opinion of myself as a writer, not questioning ideas for their validity or thinking about the mechanics of writing. In a literary sense I was stuck in a wasteland of unsolicited ideas, floundering alone, no idea of how to break into the publishing world. Thankfully they saved me from this wasteland and beat out the inflated opinion of myself by forcing me to consider concepts like POV, voice, repetition, things I’d never considered before. And they were picky. Here’s an example of how much attention to detail they encourage you to anticipate.

‘Paul. You’ve used the sentence “the sound shook the molecules of the air”. This is how sound travels anyway. You need to change it to, maybe, “the sound shattered the molecules of the air.”’

I’m making it sound like as if every month I’m judged by stony-faced old men in a courtroom. It really wasn’t like that and still isn’t (editors note - he's lying, it's exactly like that...)

We’re all writers and we encourage and support each other. They point out the flaws in work to make it better. Not many of my ideas are as flawed as the National Trust Spaceship idea but there are aspects that need to be improved and you need other people to point them out. They’re honest because they want you to succeed. Think Craig Revell-Horward from Strictly Come Dancing (editors note - please don't...). He might come across as a bit of a bastard but he’ll tell you where you’re going wrong to improve your performance. Okay, they are not quite as scathing as him. Mostly.  Being in a writer’s group isn’t all about learning by increments. As a writer there’s nothing more uplifting than having a room full of fellow writers telling you what you’ve written is good and to keep going with it.

There have been some great times since 2003.  My first convention in 2009; nervously walking into the bar alone only to hear Ian Watson, a member and mentor of the group, call me over, ask me what I wanted to drink and thus kicking off a weekend of writery chat and making lots of friends.  In 2010 the group each had a story published in Shoes, Ships and Cadavers: Tales from North Londonshire, published by Newcon Press with an introduction from Alan Moore, launched at our own convention called NewCon 4.  All of us from the writers group sat along a long table with Alan at the head, each signing copies.

Last year, my novel High Cross was launched at FantasyCon. I was afraid no one would come to the launch but the guys from the writer’s group were (which was very reassuring) and in the end, a lot more people turned up.  I sold about twenty books.  None of this would have happened without the group.
When I submit the first few chapters to a publisher, I can do so with confidence of knowing it’s been workshopped first. The best thing you can do as a writer is join a good writer’s group and prepare to be knocked off your pedestal. I can’t imagine what sort of writer, or person, I’d have turned out as if I’d continued floundering in the literary wasteland, writing about National Trust spaceships and collecting nothing but rejection letters.

Paul Melhuish is a writer with short stories published in various magazines. His latest novel, High Cross, was published last October by Horrific Tales Publishing. 

Monday 10 October 2016

Stanislaw Lem: One British Writer's Response

NSFWG chairman Ian Watson on the Polish writer

The first science-fictional Lem I knew about was actually called Lemmy.  Lemmy  was the radio operator on board the rocketship Luna which went to our Moon in the popular BBC radio series Journey into Space, commencing in 1953, a big influence upon the 10-year-old schoolboy who I was at the time.  Journey into Space was the last radio drama in the UK to have ratings figures higher than television. 
            Lemmy was a nickname derived from Lemuel, Christian name of the protagonist of Gulliver's Travels.  Lemmy could be brave when the chips were down, but he was easily spooked when eerie alien music came over Luna's radio.  Scarily, UFOs render the Luna powerless on the Moon.  This certainly prepared me for when Stanislaw Lem's hubristically named Invincible meets its come-uppance on Regis III. 
            The next LEM which I encountered was the Lunar Excursion Module which took Armstrong and Aldrin down to the surface of the Moon in 1969.  I was teaching in Japan at the time, and while the landing was in progress on black and white television in my house I was also attempting to improve the English pronunciation of my Japanese professor's daughter and a friend, both about 12 years old, a surreal juxtaposition.
            The Eagle has landed
            "Say: London."
            "Rondon.  Rondon."
            "No, London"
            That's one small step for man
            —one giant leap for mankind.
            "Rondon.  Rondon.  Rondon."
            The word 'Lem' became closely associated in my brain with space travel.
            Lem's 1964 novel The Invincible appeared in English in 1973, the year of my own first SF novel, The Embedding, and I read the book quite soon after, a hardback borrowed from Oxford public library.  I had returned from Japan to Oxford where I had been a student and then a postgraduate student, so I knew how to go about getting a flat in the centre of the city, and Oxford was a nice place to live.  (Borrowing The Invincible from that library may be a false memory since amongst my books I just found the Penguin paperback edition of 1976, the spine cracked by being read and with an index card of notes in my handwriting tucked inside.)
            I wasn't sure what to make of The Invincible.  To tell the truth, I didn't exactly enjoy the book, but it did stick in my mind powerfully while memories of other novels faded away.  The Invincible seemed to be an anti-adventure compared with the American-style SF that was mainly to my taste at the time.   As with any glib generalisation, there are many exceptions to this, which I shall not explore here.  Suffice it to say that the younger me liked to read interstellar adventures—involving aliens, for instance.  And I still enjoy such stories, although by now I'm very sceptical about the likelihood of advanced alien life anywhere in our galaxy, let alone relatively—relativistically—nearby. 
            The masses of micromachines on Lem's world of Regis III did not exactly push my button of sense-of-wonder, though they damned well ought to have done, as I see in retrospect.  Evolution need not lead to individual intelligence, a very important insight arrived at by scientific logic; these days I am much more interested in such questions. 
            Solaris also passed me by somewhat, for similar reasons.  Too enigmatic, for my taste, as though the author was deliberately avoiding writing a 'proper' SF novel, or unable to. 
            I view my reaction now as akin to the irritation recently voiced through megaphones by the so-called 'Sad Puppies' and 'Rabid Puppies' in America who have wrecked the Hugo Awards by steam-rollering space adventures on to a ballot which they view to be increasingly unrepresentative of popular tastes and biassed towards towards lefty 'literature'.  (Though note that the Hugos are voted for by SF fans.)
            Compare and contrast the dismal 'Lem Affair' of 40 years ago—the expulsion of then honorary member Stanislaw Lem from Science Fiction Writers of America because he was critical of American-style SF.  Maybe the most bizarre aspect of this witchhunt was a psychotic letter from Philip K. Dick to the FBI warning them that Lem was probably the collective name for a committee of Polish communists intent on subverting the West by corrupting SF readers.    Since Lem uniquely praised Dick as a writer and even brought about the publication of Dick in Poland—leading to Dick complaining about not being paid properly—this fully vindicates the saying 'No good deed should go unpunished'.      I myself also had trapped Zlotys, which became devalued due to my not visiting Poland soon enough to spend them, so I assigned them to the excellent Dorota Malinowska to pay for alcohol at a party for Polish fans.  Cheers! 
            I never met Dick himself,  though I would have done so if I had gone to a notorious French SF convention held in Metz in 1977, but I didn't go there; probably just as well, since by then Dick was in his late period, of—shall we say?—mystical insights.  (However, one of Dick's epiphanies—namely that we live within a computer simulation—is nowadays accepted by several authentic physicists as at least plausible and, what's more, even testable.  This is a bit surprising.)  I treasured up many of Dick's 'classic' novels, anticipating rereading them with joy in my old age.  Unfortunately, a few years ago, I was invited as a panelist to a 'celebration' of Dick at a university, so I reread those same books— including Ubik, which Lem recommended for publication in Poland.  Oh dear me.  So badly written, most of them, so fundamentally idiotic.  Dick knew nothing and cared less about science, physics, planets, moons, what they are, where they are, why they are.  The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch did stand up as a novel on rereading.  But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  A living animal is the most precious thing in the post-apocalyptic world; so, if you're fortunate enough and rich enough to own one, you keep it on the roof of your apartment block where radiation blows past like sleet?  Dick had no idea what radiation is; even aside from that, what a gigantic non sequitur!  Well, I said so at that university symposium, and this went down like a lead balloon.
            Perhaps it may seem that I am participating in this celebration of Lem in a similarly unenthusiastic way.  But no!  I feel likewise, but in reverse, about Lem: books which I formerly put aside are presently going to illuminate me!

            For reasons of cultural (or uncultural) patterning, I have to confess that Lem wasn't the writer most influential upon my own work, at least not overtly (though who knows about below the surface?)—until The Cyberiad came along.  The Cyberiad absolutely enchanted me.  These collected tales of the two cosmic constructor super-robots are a witty and wonderfully inventive masterpiece of world literature.  And the wordplay is sublime—at least as it comes to me in the translation courtesy of the ingenious genius of Michael Kandel.  I expressed my enthusiasm in a story which I wrote about Trurl and Klapaucius for a British volume of tribute to Lem initiated by the Polish Cultural Institute in London. This project underwent significant mishaps before it ended up as Lemistry published by Comma Press, of Manchester, in 2011.  I wrote my story in the style of The Cyberiad (at least the style as Englished by Michael Kandel), and I was pretty pleased with the result—as a text that Lem himself might have written—but seemingly this wasn't much appreciated by reviewers in the UK who ignored my story while highlighting many other contributors.  I may be deluded about the virtues (or otherwise) of my homage to Lem, but I would much rather that that story was here in this present booklet in Polish instead of this series of evasions.     Yet, as George Washington apocryphally told his father about cutting down a cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie."  My response to Lem may at least be symptomatic of one Anglosaxon SF writer's experiences.       

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Defending Dennis: Some Thoughts from the 21st Century on Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Satanist’

NSFWG member Paul Melhuish on Dennis Wheatley...

Many older writers of the fantastic seem to have achieved cult status I this day and age. H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, M.R.James for example. However, Dennis Wheatley seems to be overlooked. The actual reasons are unclear but from what I’ve picked up from comments on social media and conversations with friends the reasons for his burial range from poor writing to colonial outdated racists attitudes. Well, HP Lovecraft was notoriously racist and M.R. James was writing in a time of colonialist attitudes and wider class division and they seem to be forgiven. One conversation I’d had with a fellow churchgoer who wasn’t really big on reading horror (funny that) was that Wheatley’s work shouldn’t be read because of the occult themes. With this in mind I tracked down a copy of his 1960 book The Satanist (actually, that’s a lie. It was a Christmas present).

I enjoy reading and watching older fiction to see how things have changed since the time of writing. So with some relish I read The Satanist.

The story follows British Secret Services’ attempts to stop communist infiltration of Britain via the trade unions. ‘The Reds’ are also linked to a group of Satanists. A young agent called Barney Sullivan infiltrates the communist unions whilst Mary Morden infiltrates the Satanist sect which was responsible for her husband’s murder. Mary attends a spiritualist group and meets one Mr Ratnadatta, a talent scout for the Order of the Great Ram, a Satanist group who meet in a temple in central London.

I wasn’t expecting a lot of sex and gore but I was expecting a lot of sexist attitudes and racial stereotyping.  As a novel it was real page turner with some good, jaw dropping plot twists. Mary, as an initiate, would be expected to take part in orgies at the temple and ‘have many lovers’ in one night. There is a lot of talk of having sex but no actual sex scenes. This was 1960, remember. Pre Lady Chatterley and the sexual revolution. As for sexism….well. Okay, being a man I’m not going to be as able to spot sexist attitudes in literature as my female contemporaries. I say this as my female contemporaries have pointed out sexist attitudes in literature that I haven’t spotted. For me, the character of Mary Morden was a positive role model. A strong, independent woman avenging the death of her husband. Mary who uses her intelligence to save the day more than once in this novel.

What about racism? Oh dear. Several times Mr Wheatley refers to his black characters as ‘negros’. Even in 1960 I imagine this word has horrible associations with the slave trade. His heroes also use other racial slang words which are pretty offensive today but weren’t back in the sixties. Probably the most glaring racial stereotype in the Indian Character Ratnadatta. Wheatley has him speaking in this Indian accent, over emphasising the F’s which looks clunky on the page and is actually a painful and awkward to read. The effect, for me, is the same as when the character Joseph speaks in his broad Yorkshire dialect in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Not only is it hard to understand but as prose is grates with the reader.

More than anything in the book the Ratnadatta character suggests the ‘Johnny-foreigner’-as-the-enemy-attitude that was prevalent at the time. What makes this less offensive then and more offensive now? Well, we live in a multicultural society. I’d hate to think any of my friends from ethnic backgrounds being labelled in this way and I cringe when I think of any of my Indian friends reading the character of Ratnadatta thinking I shared the writers attitude.

I’m not going to be an apologist for Wheatley but I will defend his writing. The Satanist was a page tuner, had a good plot, and (with the exception of Ratnadatta) had likeable, well-formed characters most of whom seemed to spend time having a whiskey and soda in Colonel Veasey’s club.

So, the occult knowledge seems to be quite genuine and more or less square up with what I know about real occult practices. Wheatley warns against having anything to do with the occult and seems to advocate Christianity as a viable alternative. Colonel Veasey refers to ‘Our Lord Christ’ a few times, Mary knocks out the Satanist by chucking a cross at him. I get the feeling that Wheatley is fascinated by the occult but also morally opposes it. I’d like to know if he had any experience in the occult and where he got his ideas of an international secret anti-church from.

A few times he quotes Crowley ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, and the Satanists’ creed seems positively Crowlean in its promotion of freedom both morally and sexually. Conversely, the sect will punish anyone who doesn’t obey. Crowley was notorious in the early twentieth century and occultism did have quite an interest at that time in Europe. This popularisation of the occult may have acted as a foundation to Wheatley’s fiction. Crowley’s activities in the abbey at Thelema in Sicily made the front page in 1920’s tabloids and saw him expelled from Sicily under Mussolini’s regime.

In the sixties and seventies Wheatley’s books sold by the bucket load. Now you can’t even find them in Charity shops although they have just been reissued by Bloomsbury.

So, if Wheatley was writing today how different would the books be? In the sixties religious fundamentalism wasn’t making the headlines as it is today. The world of the sixties seems to have forgotten religious persecution; witch trials, the Torquemada. In post war Britain the black and white, good-verses-evil was more plausible. We live in an age of ISIS and Al-qaeda, We’ve just been through the age of Bush and Blair, alleged Christians ordering bombs to be dropped on cities. This would complicate the idea of good being the church of God and evil being the church of Satan.

If he were writing today there would be more sex, more orgies would take place. There would probably be more violence too. However good plot and characterisation are universal whatever age you are writing in.

So, to conclude I wouldn’t be too hard on Wheatley. The pace, plot and overall concepts of The Satanist were strong. I’ve not sold the amount of books he has so who the hell am I to judge anyway?

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix - review

NSFWG member Mark West reviews the novel "Horrorstör" by Grady Hendrix...

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end.  And so opens “Horrorstör”, setting the scene and tone for the rest of this clever little novel.  Focussing on the events of one particular store - the Cuyahoga, Cleveland branch - of the “IKEA rip-off” Orsk chain (complete with its own philosophy, mission statements and banal phrasings), over the course of a day and night, this centres around Amy, a college drop-out who is fed up with the downward spiral her life has taken and desperate for something else.  With all of the problems the store is having, a consultancy team is due from Head Office the next day so Amy’s manager (and bête noire) Basil recruits her, the always-nice-but-has-no-family-or-friends Ruth Anne and himself to spend the night on the premises and make sure nothing happens between closing and opening.  When Amy’s colleagues Trinity and Matt break in, to shoot a showreel of their show “Ghost Bomb” they want to sell to Bravo (“would everyone stop talking about A&E?”) and a strange homeless man called Carl wanders in, things take a turn for the worse.  It appears, as Trinity is eager to tell them, that the store was built over the remains of a prison from the nineteenth century whose warden, Josiah Worth, had odd ideas on how to get his inmates to repent.

Having said all that, this isn’t a grim novel and the first half is a smart satire on both the culture of a big corporation that believes its own hype (I wonder if IKEA had words, at some point) and also the way that we, the consumer, are pushed and prodded and psychologically conditioned on what to buy.  This strand of humour runs through the whole book and there were a couple of pieces that made me laugh out loud.

The characterisation is brisk and efficient, telling us just enough about each person to make us understand their actions and we quickly come to care about them, from the desperately lonely Ruth Anne, the beaten-down Amy and the strictly efficient Basil .  Almost a character in itself is the building, a proper haunted house that is part bland superstore, part psycho-fairground-funhouse and part grim Panopticon (the beehive of the graffiti Amy finds at the start of the story).  I’d never really thought about it but Hendrix does a great job of making the huge warehouse frightening, its claustrophobia coming from its size in the dark - how do you find your way? - plus the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere (the police despatcher Amy calls when they discover Carl can’t find it).  In fact, Hendrix works with the tropes of the ghost story well, creating some moments that are genuinely creepy as he ramps up the tension.  The horror, too, comes thick and fast, dealt with in a brutally blunt way so that you read a quick line - a character loses a nail - and it’s not until you’re two or three lines on that the full revulsion hits you.

Helping everything along is the design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski), which is very good indeed - the book looks just like a catalogue from a Swedish home furnishing giant, complete with a store map, product details and a home delivery order form.  Each chapter is headed by a particular products design and description (some ruder sounding than others, my favourite was the Arsle chair) and these get grimmer as the story progresses, as if David Cronenberg was thinking of opening up his own furniture shop.

This is a well written, runs at a cracking pace and is witty, self-assured and clever without being obnoxious.  It made me laugh, it creeped me out and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Very highly recommended.

this review originally appeared on Mark's blog here

Monday 18 May 2015

How To Kill A Rat With Your Teeth...

NSFWG member Paul Melhuish on Roald Dahl...

I was sitting in a pub reading alone the other week and a lovely drunk girl looked over from her cool looking hipster friends to ask me what I was reading.

‘Er…this…a book of short stories by Roald Dahl,’ I replied.

On seeing the book she actually came over and sat at my table which was nice and we had a conversation about Roald Dahl stores we’d read at school. I remember The Twits making me feel physically sick (the twit with the food, including a fish tail stuck in his beard. The only other media to make me almost physically sick being the puke-eating scene in Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste) and the alien from the Great glass elevator scaring the crap out of me.

I was reading Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life and the girl, on inspecting the book, said she had book envy before the conversation moved on to veganism.

I’d remembered one of the stories from this book being taught at school. Being 14 I didn’t notice the literary subtleties and character development. I just remember liking it because it had the word bastard in it somewhere.

Dahl has several volumes of short stories for adults out but Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life impressed me because all the stores are about rural life. I grew up in the country, moved to a city but now I live in a fairly rural environment. The book is comprised of seven short stories all set in the same village with the same characters running through each story. Short stories aren’t my greatest love as I prefer the expanded plot and character development afforded by novels. However, as the setting and characters run through each story they give the same satisfaction as reading a novel. There are other instances where I’ve found an anthology with a running theme most enjoyable. One of the best anthologies I’ve read recently is Fogbound From 5. Interconnected stories all set on the last train home published by Hersham Horror press. There’s also Lovecraft’s collections of Cthulhu stories which I love.

I digress. Back to Dahl. I found the stories to be brilliant and funny. For instance Parson’s Pleasure is about an antique dealer who disguises himself as a vicar to inspect rural houses and pick up antiques. The Champion of the World is about two poachers who decide to use raisins impregnated with sleeping pills to drug and catch pheasants.

One of the most memorable characters is a The Ratcatcher, a truly disgusting creature, the kind of in your face nutter you pray doesn’t start speaking to you in the pub. The Ratcatcher revolted me almost as much as Mr Twit and his beard. This guy looks like a tramp and keeps live rats about his person to demonstrate how to kill them to his customers. He demonstrates to the narrator and his mate, Claud, how he can kill a rat with his teeth alone. Stephen King seems to enjoy creating rural working class characters but Roald Dahl absolutely rules at this. The horrific and the hilarious to rub shoulders and create a brilliant friction.

You don’t seem to hear his name banded about as much these days in literary circles but since finishing this book I’ve met all kinds of people from different back grounds who have an admiration for Roald Dahl’s adult work. Living in the countryside I just hope I don’t bump into The Ratcatcher anytime soon.

Monday 4 May 2015

NSFWG members interviewed (a round-up)

Over the course of last year (though we still have a couple of members who slipped the net), the blog ran a series of interviews where NSFWG members answered the same set of questions.

Just in case you missed them (and they're all entertaining), here's a round-up

First up was NSFWG founder Ian Watson, which is only fitting.

He was followed by:

Nigel Edwards.

Steve (Dr Steve) Longworth

NSFWG co-chairman Ian Whates

Paul Melhuish

Mark West

Tim C. Taylor

Andy West

Donna Scott


Susan Sinclair

Monday 27 April 2015

Monday 20 April 2015

"Snorky's Moll (part 4 of 4)", a serial by Nigel Edwards

Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman – Julia – looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.

Joe agreed to do what Julia wanted: she wanted him to ‘ice’ his wife. They made their plans. Julia gave him a gun and then….

Well, you can read what happens next in Part Four of Snorky’s Moll.  Enjoy!

* * *


By N. G. Edwards 

'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;

Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv


Three days later the Bears played host in a pre-season against the Packers, hoping to avenge their 21-34 defeat at the tail of the previous NFC regular. My future late-wife’s boyfriend was a new draft bought in to try and stiffen the defense, and Celia would be attending the game as his guest. Julia’s plan was for me to tail Celia from the hotel she was staying at, follow her into the stadium and wait for a suitable moment when I could get close enough to… do it, then make my escape in the inevitable panic. Julia would be waiting at a prearranged spot on Museum Campus Drive. It all sounded straightforward when she explained how it would work. What could go wrong?
The first part was easy. Triple-I had corporate hospitality passes, of course, and it was a simple matter for me, as a still remembered face, to pick one up from the C&CB the day before the game. The game was to kick off at six-thirty and I’d already found out where Celia was staying. Three forty-five found me in a taxi outside her address, waiting for her to leave for the venue, which she did in her own cab at four o’clock. I instructed my driver to keep us out of sight which, with hindsight, was unnecessary. I knew where she was going so I could as easily have got there early and just waited. To tell the truth, though, I enjoyed that little cloak-and-dagger play. It added to the sense of fantasy that had woven itself around me and helped, I think, to gird my psyche against the grisly act I was about to commit.
Soldier Field is an immense landmark. I read up about it – I figured I ought to. Originally called the Grant Park Municipal Stadium, it was renamed in 1925 at the request of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers. The place was the venue for many famous events, including the ‘long count’ between Dempsey and Tunney in ’27. Renowned as the home of the Bears, in fact it wasn’t until ’71 that the team moved across from Wrigley Field to take up residence under Jim Dooley.
Crowds were already gathering when I arrived, ready for the box offices to open. Skirting these I headed straight for the VIP entrance, spotting Celia as she passed within. I hurried after her, conscious of the unaccustomed weight nestling in the small of my back, but I pulled up short when I saw security guards hovering. They were scanning visitors – even the VIPs – as they approached the lobby. A sign of our age, of course, following the dreadful events of 9-11. Everyone was conscious of the threat to our great nation and searches were a commonplace occurrence, even when going to a ball game.
I should have expected this but I didn’t. I was totally without experience when it came to criminal acts (at least, outside the boardroom) which is why security before the event never even crossed my mind. I guessed it hadn’t crossed Julia’s mind, either; at least, not that she mentioned – hardly surprising, I suppose, as this sort of scrutiny would have been unheard of in her day, outside a presidential visit. I tagged onto the rear of a party and hoped that I might be overlooked. Not everyone was being frisked. The guards were exercising some discretion in choosing their victims, or maybe they were just working on a quota; either way I was unlucky. I was one of those who were targeted.
“Hands out to the sides, sir,” I was told. The man scanned my sides and legs with a device that looked like a spiral stove plate attached to a handle. “Turn around, sir,” he instructed. Sweating profusely I realized there was no way I was going to get away with this. I was about to make an excuse and try to back out when there was a commotion down the line. There came a shout and I caught sight of a young man with greasy hair, dressed in faded denim, dashing away. Why he was running I’ve no idea but the guard looking after me decided he’d find more fun joining a co-worker in a chase than continuing to check out a middle-aged man whose heart was racing harder than it had for a decade. I was in the clear. I dabbed at my forehead with a handkerchief, silently prayed my heart would survive the stress, and moved on.
The lobby and bar of the United Club were packed. Concierges ushered, waiters toted drinks, pretty hostesses with bright, plastic smiles mingled, while the affluent – and in greater numbers the aspiring affluent – sauntered to reserved tables or otherwise milled about looking rich and important. Celia was on the far side, attended by her beau and a few other notables of the footballing fraternity. How many people were there I’ve no idea but hundreds, easily. I figured this had to be my best opportunity and locating a convenient place where I could make my final preparations without drawing any attention, pulled on a pair of colorless latex gloves and swiftly transferred the Colt into my jacket side pocket, next to the photograph. The moment had arrived.
Ever since I’d left the hotel I’d mentally played out this scene over and over, all the time with an echo of Julia’s words when she gave me my final instructions.
Just take it easy, she’d said. Don’t do anything stupid like shout or run. Get as close as you can and put the gun to her head. Two bullets, okay? Then drop the piece and turn and walk away. Everyone else will be panicking and you can use that as cover. Nobody’ll hardly notice you. You’ll do great, baby. I know you will. Remember I love you.
Breathe. She’d forgotten to tell me I had to breathe and I was only half way across the room when I remembered to do so myself. My muscles were aching with the stress of my mission, and every forward step I took was like my feet were made of lead. The sounds of the crowd grew louder, but duller at the same time, scores of conversations merging to an unintelligible roar that filled my ears. Not far now. There she was, Celia, clear and sharp while everyone around her was blurred, a tableau of faceless manikins fawning around a demon goddess who basked in their worship. Nearly there. Time to lift up the gun. Why was my arm so heavy? As I pulled back the hammer all other noises ceased and the world became a silent similitude of reality, where movement was so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. But now the goddess was turning, slowly, recognition dawning on her face. I could see the gun in my hand and marveled at how steady it was, light reflecting from its cold, efficient metal barrel. The manikins were beginning to move also but they would be too late to interfere. I placed the muzzle against her forehead and squeezed the trigger. Her eyes were wide, her mouth opening but the only sound was the explosion of the bullet as it smashed through her skull. The weapon recoiled, sending my second shot high. But it didn’t matter; the first missile had done all that was necessary. My arm descended, the pistol slipping from my fingers. Why was Celia still standing? She wasn’t. She was collapsing, slowly and delicately, like a snowflake falling on a breathless winter’s day.
I watched her death with a dreadful fascination. Almost I couldn’t pull myself away but then a different movement caught my eye. I forced myself to turn. Julia. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she waiting outside as we’d arranged? And why was she looking like that, a gout of blood pouring from the side of her head? The world was beginning to catch up and her fall was quicker than Celia’s had been. As she dropped to the ground another figure was revealed behind her, a broad figure with a hard face and dead eyes looking out from beneath a fedora. He carried a gun that seemed identical to mine. And it was pointing at me.
I turned as the shot was fired, and felt the agony of ripping flesh in my arm. Time resumed its normal cadence and I ran, one with a host of others screaming and shouting to get away from the violence. I think there was another shot but I just kept running and didn’t stop until I was out of the building and away. When I finally staggered to a halt I crumpled to the street and threw up. There was no sound of pursuit. I threw up some more.
Twelve months have gone by. I’d done what I set out to do, what I’d been urged to do by the promise of a woman in a photograph. Celia was dead. And so was the promise.
My arm had healed up. The bullet had passed through leaving only tissue damage, and it was a simple matter to find a doctor who’d treat the injury without prying as to how the wound had come about. After a while a scar was all that was left to physically mark the event.
The local rags were full of the story at the time, of course. It even made the nationals after somebody in the criminal investigation team revealed that the gun used to kill Celia carried only the prints of Al Capone. I figured that the police would come question me once they learned who Celia was and I figured also that it wouldn’t be easy to explain away the bullet hole. That’s why I decided I should get away, turn myself into someone else, someone who wouldn’t attract the attention of law enforcement.
I was rich and with my wealth I was able to buy a new life in which to hide from the misdeeds of my first. In fact I’ve changed my identity three times since that signal day. Not especially to evade the police, although certainly they were looking for me. No. You see, others were hunting me, also, and when they came close I took no chance and moved on.
Julia had said it was impossible for her to commit the murder, which was why – and maybe this was the sole reason, if I’m brutally honest – she said she needed me. My best guess is that there was some law of the universe or – why not? – God that restricted interaction between the planes of her existence and mine. But if that were the case, why was it that the other pistol’s shot had been able to find its target? Me. I can only surmise that either Julia had lied to me – which for some reason I still find hard to believe – or else my physical association with Snorky’s moll had blurred the separation between our realms, allowing direct action to occur. I don’t know, and probably never will – at least, not in this life. All I do know is that my existence is now a torture of fearful waiting, running, and constantly looking over my shoulder.
That’s why I said existence – it could never be called a life.
It’s cold, this morning. From the window of my rented room I can see an old-fashioned black sedan parked across the street. There are four men inside. I think they’ve found me.


* * *

©2014 by Nigel Edwards. All rights reserved

Copyright of Cover Images remains with their originators: and

Also by the same author:

Badger’s Waddle, published by Greyheart Press
The Cookie Tin, published by Greyheart Press
The Cookie Tin Collection, published by Greyheart Press
Garrison, published by Greyheart Press
Ferryman, published by Greyheart Press
Waif, published by Greyheart Press

The Tower, published in the anthology Shoes, Ships and Cadavers by NewCon Press
The Last Star, published in the anthology Looking Landwards by NewCon Press

And The Scrapdragon series, written for young people age 10 and up, but suitable from age 8 and available on Kindle:
The Scrapdragon Book 1 - An Adventure Begins: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 2 - To Find A Sorcerer: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 3 - Bullies And Monsters: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle
The Scrapdragon Book 4 - Fear & Courage: A Tom-Tom Burrow Adventure, published on Kindle