The Geomancer


Kay Kenyon's Latest Newsletter

Still Writing )
Kay Kenyon's reflections on the craft of ficiton with updates on her writing and advice for yours. A bi-monthly newsletter. December 2007
In this issue: Four Things Every Story Must Have Holiday Book List On Work SchedulesKay's Book Among PW's Top 150See You in February

This month I'm working hard on the final touches to Book Three in my series. Being on contract, (and therefore on deadline) is a huge inducement to writing, I can attest!
Nevertheless, I've had time to visit Portland OR for conferences and workshops. The holidays are here, but still . . . wouldn't this be a good time to create some peaceful moments to write, to capture some seasonal thoughts in your notebook?

Just a little nudge, my writing friends, to be Still Writing. By the way, I was thrilled recently to see the new Stephan Martiniere cover for Book Two, A World Too Near! (March, 2008.)

Kay Kenyon

Four Things Every Story Must Have
Kay in Boston

Photo copyright Nomi S. Burstein.

Think of all the things a piece of fiction must have. Who can ever get it all right? For example, we're told to excel at plot, character, setting, point of view, dialogue, backstory, conflict, and style. If it's science fiction, add cool science ideas and scope. This list is long and demanding, and no author gets them all right. But which ones are worth your utmost effort?

Before I go on, let me set the ground rules. I assume you know at least the basics of writing and storytelling. Books, magazines, and the internet abound with advice.To get a sense of the craft, read, read! (See Holiday Books, below, e.g.) So on to the Big Four.

Originality. Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine! Don't short change your writing with a weak or warmed-over concept. Keep digging untill you find an intriguing premise. Think Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; Kathleen Goonen, Queen City Jazz. Toby Bishop in Airs Beneath the Moon. Not every premise can be as original as: "Dinasaur DNA retrieved from amber." But don't settle for plain.

Vivid Environment. One of the worst mistakes beginners make is a bland setting. This is a real crime in science fiction, of course, but true for every story. We lead modest, safe lives, most of us! For heaven's sake, take us somewhere interesting--such as the offices of a high-powered law firm or a small town in the 1950s. In science fiction especially, a sense of wonder--grounded in vivid detail--is a sure win. It's fun, too. I plan about 60% of a world, and let the next 40% surprise me as I write. Some recent favs in speculative fiction: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell; River of Gods; Brasyl.

Strong Lead Character. We've head this a million times. Give your lead an abiding strength and a nagging handicap. Too much strength and we've got a cardboard character. Too much weakness and the personality lacks charisma. A little of both, please. If you don't give them a special ability, give them a driving desire. For a lovely balance of strength and weakness see Justina Robson's Lila in Keeping it Real.

Conflict or Tension on Every Page. Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, make sure something terribly important is at stake. Interest in your story will be in direct proportion to the degree of tension on the page. You don't need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do at least need sustained and escalating tension. That's a high bar. Aim high.

A novel doesn't have to have everything right. Remember Randall Jarrell's wonderful line: "A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it." Even so, readers will love a novel with two great strengths. Give them four and you're playing with aces.

Holiday Book List
Shinn cover

Books, books, books for gifts. That's the mainstay of my gift list, and I'm sticking to it. A dreadful statistic came out recently: The average adult spends two hours a day watching TV and seven minutes reading. Let's fight back: Give gifts of books this year, preferably from independent bookstores, but in any case, books! Here are my Fight Back recommendations for recent enjoyable reads.

Mainstream fiction:

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
  • This is a tender coming of age story; the best I've ever read.
  • The Road by Cormic Mc Cathy
  • Very dark, but a near-perfect post-apocolyptic tale.


  • The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
  • A fun summary of what scientists in the various disciplines wish the average person knew. I passed my chemistry class, but I learned a lot!

Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald
  • An exotically future India, beautifully written and plotted.
  • Keeping It Real, Justina Robson
  • A fusion of sf and fantasy, with a rock-star elf and a kick-ass heroine.

  • Reader and Raelynx, Sharon Shinn
  • Compulsively readable fantasy/romance. Begin at the start with Mystic and Rider.
  • Airs Beneath the Moon, by Toby Bishop (Louise Marley) Young women learn to ride the fabulous horses of Oc.

On Work Schedules
Kay at computer

No fair skipping this article. I know this isn't a glamorous topic. But if you're not getting writing done, I can almost guarantee that you have No Schedule.

If you're waiting for a free hour or two to write, you're on a course for failure. The world won't beg you to write. In fact, the world with its mundane (and critical) demands will always expand to fill 24 hours every day. And please don't wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to write. Inspiration almost never shows up ahead of time; rather it arises from the act of writing. Carve out the hours you can for writing.

The picture above is me at my keyboard during my scheduled writing time. All right, me and my cat. But I'm not going to tell you my schedule, because for you, it's irrelevant. I can't tell you the best schedule to have, because it's got to suit your unique circumstances and preferences.

So carve out a tailored writing time and stick with it. If you're just starting out as a writer, it may help write in a paper notebook. It's often easier to give yourself permission to write draft material if it isn't on a computer screen. If you feel empty, write lists of topics. Or journal. Talk to yourself about recent books you've read, and what you loved about them. If you've started a piece of fiction, write the next scene, warming up to it with a quick edit of the last one.

Be flexible, too. If you've made some progress, let yourself quit early. If you haven't, stick with your commitment to those hours. Keep distractions at bay. No phones, no household chores, no email. Remember that it may take you a long time to warm up to your writing session. Don't give up because you are doodling for the first fifteen minutes. Don't chastise yourself because you got nowhere. The next session could well produce a startling insight or piece of writing.

Your success as a writer depends on being faithful to a work schedule. Isn't that sort of a relief, that it isn't about raw talent?

Kay's Book Among PW's Top 150
book cover

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to find that Publishers Weekly named Bright of the Sky among the top 150 books (among 6,000) that they reviewed across all genres in 2007. The story takes place in a tunnel universe next door, peopled by fabulous and dangerous beings. This novel, and in particular its milieu, has received quite a bit of critical attention in the mainstream press as well as from science fiction reviewers. Below is a link to the complete list of PW top picks.

See You in February

These are my winter thoughts about writing fiction. Thanks for letting me know some of the things you want discussed--I'll work them in. Meanwhile, how about a New Year's resolution to set a writing schedule?

Quick Links...

Killswitch: A Kinetic Thrill-Ride

Ryun Patterson of Bookgasm reviews Joel Shepherd's latest, Killswitch,third in his Cassandra Kresnov series. Ryun has been a big supporter of the previous two books, so it's good to hear that Killswitch is, in his opinion, "another remarkable effort that remains true to its predecessors and shows Shepherd’s evolution as a writer. His strengths are on full display: Action is electric and infused with the rough-edged reality of warfare, the characters are multifaceted and introspective, and the sexy quotient is once again high. Kresnov as a character has matured in a delicious way, staying hot and ultra-bad-ass while keeping the self-examining, self-reliant emotional core that makes her such an appealing heroine..."

I'm also always very gratified to see when cover art makes it into a discussion of a book, as our genre has a unique history of illustration that deserves much more attention than it historically gets. In this case, Ryun says, "So many times when you get books with covers as great as Stephan Martiniere’s, the contents are a letdown, but the kinetic thrill-ride of the Pyr covers really captures the essence of what’s great about this series."

Update: Calico Reaction reviews Killswitch, as well as previous book Breakaway. Her overall impression: "Overall, this has been a pretty enjoyable trilogy. It's ambitious and intellectual, action-packed but yet intimate. Shepherd's greatest strength are characters you can really emphasize with and the amazing level of his diverse, culturally relevant world-building. Also enjoyable is the fact he really does have some strong, heroic women leads, and multiple leads at that, which is really awesome."


Lucky Number 600

I just logged the 600th Pyr review.

Here it is, a review of Brasyl:

“Flashy, rhythmic, kaleidoscopic writing characterizes McDonald’s slick novel of the past, present and future, set in kinetic Brazil…[It’s] full of mind-bending ideas, psychological insight and imaginative flights of fancy. The complex characters will have you rooting for their better sides, and the colorful atmospheric details of each timeline intrigue and dazzle.” -Portsmouth Herald/, NH, October 14, 2007

Joe Won't Shut Up

Joe Abercrombie is interviewed by John Joseph Adams on SciFi Wire today. Discussing his hit fantasy The Blade Itself,Joe says he was aiming to write, "Something with the action and adventure, the magic and mystery, that readers look for in a fantasy, but focused very much on the characters rather than the world. I tried to make those characters as surprising, as morally ambiguous, as funny and horrible as I've found real people to be. I wanted to write something that was really capable of surprising the reader, and above all I wanted it to have a sense of humor without being all-out pastiche."

Fast Forward Makes Year's Best

I'm very proud to announce that Ken MacLeod's wonderful short story, "Jesus Christ, Reanimator," which originally appeared in our anthology, Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge,has been selected for inclusion in the forthcoming The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan. The collection will be in stores March 2008, from Night Shade.

Meanwhile, I'm excited to say I've already accepted wonderful stories from Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead and Paul McAuley for Fast Forward 2, with more coming in soon. John Picacio returns as illustrator for the next cover as well.


Crossover: A Very Angry Thing Running Fast

Chris, of the Book Swede & His Blog, has some nice things to say about Joel Shepherd's Crossover,including:

  • "....a short, snappy writing style which makes the story always seem to be hurtling along at the speed of a very angry thing running very fast indeed."
  • "In a book filled with action and drama, Joel Shepherd still managed to inject humour into situations at just the right moments..."
  • "Breakaway(Book 2) is certainly on my must-read list."
He gives the book 9 out of 10.

On the Road: John Picacio & Michael Moorcock

Via John Picacio's blog, On the Front:

This is gonna be fun. Michael Moorcock and I will be signing copies of his new hardcover release THE METATEMPORAL DETECTIVE on Saturday, Dec. 8th at 3pm at the largest bookstore in Texas, BookPeople / Austin, TX. (Store location details here.) In addition, I'll be bringing a few of my original drawings from the forthcoming release of ELRIC: THE STEALER OF SOULS. (Rumor has it, we may also be celebrating Mike's birthday early, with free chocolate cake all around.)

Here's a recent pic of a BookPeople shelf display featuring "Great Illustration & Design Books." Needless to say, I'll be happy to personalize copies of this book as well. :)


Kay on the Road, Again

Kay Kenyon reports on this past weekend's Orycon in Portland, Oregon, and the subsequent SF/F AuthorFest at Powell's Books. She writes: "Orycon was in fine form this year, with GOH Robert Charles Wilson, among others. I was there too, and signed a few books and one robot. This yet-to-be-named robot will soon sport hundreds of sf/f fantasy author signatures. It will be auctioned off at a major venue like World Con or the RadCon Toxic Waste Party for the benefit of the Endeavour Award. (Won this weekend by Robin Hobb.)" Here is Kay and the unnamed robot (left).

Meanwhile, at the Powell's AuthorFest, Kay signs Bright of the Sky next to the wonderful Mary Rosenblum, on hand with her novel Horizons. Also pictured on the left, Eldon Thompson.

In related Kenyon news, Calico Reaction has read Bright of the Sky and says, "Let me just start off by praising her ability to create real, individual characters from the start. ....what amazed me with Bright of the Sky is that every character, no matter how minor, reads like a real, individual person from the moment you meet him/her...."

Which is very nice. And she continues:

"Another reason this book's worth the effort is the amazing complexity of the world-building. This world (story, characters, EVERYTHING) is so intricate that I can only marvel at the revelation of it. I know I sound over the top, but if you sit down with this book and start reading, you start to realize just how deep the world-building goes. ...I'm really impressed."

And that's nice too. And finally:

"There's a weight to this book, a depth, that really drew me in from the start. It's not a fast read in that the prose flies off the page, but it's by no means a slow read either. It's a book you want to savor and absorb, gathering all the information and clues you can, because the story and characters and EVERYTHING is so damn complex. I keep saying that, I know, but it is. Just when you think you know what's at stake, you find out that you really don't. And that's what keeps you reading."

And that's nice enough for one blog post.


Thoughts on The Blade Itself and Infoquake

Four stars for Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itselfup on SF Signal. JP writes, "The Blade Itself is Joe Abercrombie's first novel, and it's a darn fine one at that. And as a self-professed fantasy hater, that's saying something." He praises the action and the pacing, and adds, "Each one of these characters is well thought out and well presented and each one has a role to play in the story. While you may not be sympathetic to them all, Abercrombie has a knack for creating believable characters."

Meanwhile, Calico Reaction isn't sure what she thinks of David Louis Edelman's Infoquake,but is intrigued enough to want to know more: "I'm interested in the world, the situation, and where the story might be going. No doubt, it's complex, and while this volume has its own story arc, it does not even begin to answer every question raised. Which is why, of course, I'm looking forward to the sequel, to learn what's really happening, even if some of it flies over my head. :) Boardroom SF, people. Who knew? I think Edelman has definitely made a splash in the genre, and I think those interested in the worlds and technologies found in Charles Stross's works and Vernor Vinge's (mind you, I've only read Accelerando and Rainbows End respectively) will be entertained by this book, which--for the record--will be re-released as a Solaris mass market paperback this June, a month before Pyr's release of the sequel, MultiReal."