What Black Sabbath Can Teach Us About Writing

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The world got some sad news last week — Black Sabbath just played their last concert.

OK, that’s small potatoes compared with all the other crap going on, but it was the end of an era. I bet I’m not alone among Black Gate readers and writers in being a Black Sabbath fan. Unfortunately I never got to see them in concert and now I never will.

They did teach me a lot about writing, though. As an author I get tips and inspiration from lots of different sources, not just other writers. Sure, I have a fondness for the great prolific authors and the literary giants, but I often learn more from the greats in different arts. Perhaps that’s because there’s a certain distance that allows you to see what they do more clearly. With other writers I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the nuts and bolts of their work, while with musicians and painters that’s not the case. I know very little about playing the guitar, and nothing about painting a landscape, so I focus more on the philosophy behind the work rather than the techniques of the work itself.

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Teaching History through Wargaming: Strategy & Tactics #280: Soldiers 1918

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

ST280-2I’ve been a history buff all my life, and this interest led me to a career as an archaeologist before becoming a writer specializing in history and historical fiction. Thus it’s not surprising that I want my ten-year-old son to have a firm grounding of history, even though he takes more after his astronomer mother and will almost certainly go into one of the STEM fields.

One of my main interests is World War One, so when I visited Belgium a couple of years ago for the centenary I brought him back some Belgian comics on the conflict. Now we’re watching the excellent Channel Four series The First World War. I’m also vocally hoping he’ll read my Trench Raiders series, so far with no luck! I’ve been pushing this particular era of history because we live in Madrid. Since Spain wisely stayed out of the war, I don’t think the Spanish educational system will teach him as much about WWI as I think he should know.

So why not add a little extra knowledge through wargaming? He’s been expressing an interest in it lately since his favorite comics shop has some wargaming tables, so I invested in issue #280 of Strategy & Tactics, a classic wargaming magazine that’s older than I am. This issue comes with the game Soldiers 1918: Decision in the Trenches, which one BoardGameGeek labeled as “medium light” in difficulty.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: What Should You Put In a Cover Letter?

Sunday, June 28th, 2015 | Posted by Tina Jens

Writing a fantasy novelOver on Facebook, where I posted a link to last week’s article, “Ignore the Market Guidelines at Your Peril – How (Not) to Build a Career” – a writer asked in response:

So. What SHOULD I put in my cover letter? Don’t really know. I don’t think I’ve ever included a cover letter with a short story submission, because, well, I don’t know.

That’s an excellent question. Here are the answers I’ve gathered from reading dozens of market guidelines, listening to editors talk at cons, and gauging my response to cover letters I’ve received.

1. What I heard over and over again at the recent Nebula weekend is that any writer who mentions having been nominated for or won any writing awards, ever, immediately bypasses the slush pile. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, or, in most cases, what award it was. (With the exception of awards made up by a small writers workshop who then hands them out to each other so they can say they’re all award-winners.) The nomination or win for a significant writing award will generally get your manuscript bumped to the top of the To Be Read pile.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Ignore the Market Guidelines at Your Peril – How (Not) to Build a Career

Sunday, June 21st, 2015 | Posted by Tina Jens

Book of Dead Things edited by Tina Jens and Eric Cherry-smallI was the editor of a small press that published genre anthologies and short story collections for about 13 years, and I’ve been writing, submitting, and selling my fiction for about 25 years. So, I’ve been on both sides of the editorial desk, at least in a small way. I now teach fantasy fiction writing at Columbia College — Chicago.

One of the questions that comes up every semester is, “What should I put in my cover letter?” Students, and many new writers, are afraid of cover letters.

What they don’t know is, that many editors are afraid of cover letters, too.

Way too many writers torpedo their chances at making a sale by saying ridiculous things in their cover letters – things so out of bounds that the editor has no choice but to reject the story without even reading it, or risk losing all self-respect if they don’t. Getting ready in the morning is hard enough without having to avoid meeting your own eyes in the mirror.

The small press that I ran was tied to Twilight Tales: a weekly reading series in Chicago. We also ran the reading track or open mics at many local and national genre conventions, and published national and international authors monthly on our website. The point of that was to make it possible for authors out of Chicago to participate in a Twilight Tales event. To submit to our anthologies, you had to have taken part in at least one of those activities. In the 17 years that the show ran, through those combined projects, we estimated that we dealt with more than 1,000 authors, from pretty close to all 50 states, seven countries, and across the full spectrum of genres.

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Fantasy Literature: 9:15 pm EST, March 17, 1998 — Farewell Nantucket

Friday, January 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

Island in the Sea of Time-smallWelcome to the “Fantasy Literature” blog series. I teach. I write. And now I blog. First up, a quick look at three novels by S. M. Stirling: Island in the Sea of Time (1998), Against the Tide of Years (1999), and On the Oceans of Eternity (2000).

These novels follow the circumstances consequent to the “event” of 9:15 in the evening, March 17, 1998. The island of Nantucket and nearby waters (including the Coast Guard cutter Eagle) become englobed by flashing lightning, described by Captain Alston of the Eagle as “Like being under the biggest, gaudiest salad bowl in the world.”

The shimmering dome of light persists for some time, then vanishes. The crew and officers of the Eagle, and the inhabitants of Nantucket, soon discover they now exist in 1250 BC. While they have modern conveniences, such as guns and engines, the technology (bullets and fuel) on the island now represents all of the high technology on the entire planet.

The event calls leadership to the fore. The islanders will soon starve, for example, cut off as they are from regular grocery deliveries from the mainland. The novel’s protagonist Captain Marian Alston and other leading lights guide the islanders through the first years of their temporal stranding, facing not only the many emergencies related to basic survival but also the defection of a junior Coast Guard officer, who heads off to establish himself as a Wizard (remember your Arthur C. Clarke?) King, and not a nice one at that.

Black Gate readers may wonder at the inclusion of such technology-driven novels here at this haven for all things Swords & Sorcery. Fear not. There is plenty of swash to buckle in these novels. Plenty of battles. While firearms do come into play, much combat is that of old — muscle-powered weapons, armor, sweat, and blood.

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Raised On Potter: Give the People What They Want?

Monday, April 21st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

864751637_bbb406661f_zAs I mentioned in a recent post, I just finished teaching a creative writing course. Most of my students were college sophomores. None were creative writing majors. To cut a successful swath through my class, they had to write a short story, a poem, and a short play — and then revise each one multiple times. In order to bring a proper perspective to their efforts, I forced them (at dagger point) to read a great many examples of each form.

Thus ends the exposition. Now for the drama!

At the tail end of the semester, I asked my students to rank each reading on a five point scale, with one being exceptional and five a yawner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that without exception, it was the fantasy and horror offerings on my syllabus that drew the strongest responses.

What can account for this?

My answer: J.K. Rowling.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic — but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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The Adventure Continues: the Return of Renner and Quist

Monday, February 17th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Sleeping Bear coverWhen I first dreamed up my odd-couple pair of Renner & Quist, one of the many goals I had in mind was to write their stories specifically and consciously as adventures. This was not perhaps the most sensible decision, given a literary market polarized between nominally realistic “grown-up” fare and the highly fantastical tomes aimed at teens. (I shall not deign to even mention Romance; call me biased, go ahead. I can take it.) Nor did my conception of Renner & Quist allow for them to don armor, wield swords, or inhabit some far-flung or alternate world. No, these two, Reverend Renner being a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dale Quist a former P.I. and ex-linebacker, required a contemporary setting; to emplace them elsewhere would be to guarantee that any stories woven around them would be untruthful.

This is not to say that I’m against high fantasy; quite the opposite. I’m here, aren’t I? For further proof, take a gander at my Black Gate trilogy concerning Gemen the Antiques Dealer.

But not all ideas trend that direction and with Renner & Quist, I knew I had nearer waters to chart. Now that their second novella, Sleeping Bear, is out in the world, and with their first proper novel, Check-Out Time, very much in the production pipeline, it seems high time to explore what remains, in the 21st century, of that cracking good term, “adventure.”

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The Plot Thickens. Or Maybe Stretches.

Friday, November 15th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

NovelistI had occasion to look into John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist for something totally unrelated to the posts I’ve been doing lately on plotting and plot devices. While I was checking through the book for the quote I needed, however, I found a few things he had to say about plot that I thought you might find interesting.

For those of you wondering, this is not the British John Gardner who was tapped to write the 007 pastiches in the 1980’s, but the American one who wrote all that Old English literary criticism, who’s one of the best known teachers of creative writing, with his book The Art of Fiction considered one of the seminal works in the field for students and teachers alike. For those of us in the Fantasy and SF community, however, he’s likely best known as the author of novels like Grendel, and Freddy’s Book, and October Light.

I’m going to share these observations in the order in which they appear, for the most part without regard to context. I won’t apologize for all the male-centric pronouns, I’ll just  point out that the book was published after Gardner’s unexpected death (so no changes could be made in later editions) and that male-centric was the default back then (pre-1982), even for most female writers. Here we go:

The wise writer counts on the characters and plot for his story’s power, not on tricks of withheld information, including withheld information at the end . . .

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Fierce and Fey: An Interview with Artist Lauren K. Cannon

Sunday, October 13th, 2013 | Posted by C.S.E. Cooney

Baalhu_by_navateI think I first saw Lauren K. Cannon’s art at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, 2011. John O’Neill and I were brainstorming about cover art for Mike Allen’s book and the moment I saw Cannon’s work, I was riveted.

I took home one of her postcards. It’s still pinned up by my writing desk, where I can watch the woman in her bird-skull headdress, kneeling by a bone-embedded riverbed and feeding her creepy little bird friends from bowls of blood.

I love that bird woman. I’d love to write about her, this Baalhu of the Ancients. But even when I didn’t know her name, I adored the bones of her. That’s what Cannon’s art does to me: catapults me from the quotidian into INSTANT STORYBRAIN.

By and by, John bought “Black Bride” to be the cover art for Mike Allen’s Black Fire Concerto. You should have heard the squeals of ecstatic (and perhaps mildly terrified) joy coming from my corner of Rhode Island. John didn’t even need a cell phone, probably. He could’ve just stepped out into his driveway somewhere in Suburbia, Illinois and heard the echoes. I couldn’t have been happier.

And then, as I began this series of Fantasy and the Arts Interviews (1 and 2 here and here), I knew immediately I wanted to interview her.

Cannon very graciously agreed to answer my questions in an email, and here I have them for you, dear Black Gate readers.

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