Alt.Fiction 2: The Return to the Midlands

This does start to ramble, so here is a helpful text-cut. Unless you come here via the direct link, in which case… sorry!

Last year, I attended my first ever Alt.Fiction event in Derby. I had a whale of a time and came away with many ideas and a bucketload of enthusiasm. So when this year’s event was announced, I booked up straight away. I headed down there on Friday of last week (via BL Towers where I variously provided the most chocolatey chocolate cake I could find, picked up my copy of Valkia the Bloody and found myself embroiled in a conversation about who would win: Wolverine or Pikachu).

Once these mad pleasantries were over, I drove on down to Leicester. Now bear in mind I’ve never been to Leicester before. Although that’s a slight lie; in 1989, my first car broke down at Leicester Forest East services. On a Sunday. In the rain. I have vivid memories of myself and Phil the AA Man driving round and round the place trying to find somewhere we could crib the necessary part required to get it back on the road. My overwhelming memory of Leicester then was a twilight-lit rainy world of East Midlands accented fae folk who were determined to prevent me leaving their cruel domain.

Imagine my confusion when I arrived and the sun was shining.

Despite my inate terror of driving in new places that seem to be deliberately made up of one way streets, I found my way to the hotel’s designated carpark without any difficulty at all. I was almost… almost… disappointed.

I checked into the Ramada Encore, which I have to say was a fantastic hotel. The staff were lovely and the room was comfortable. If I had a complaint it would be that I had chocolate bourbons and m’colleague Jim received jam rings. There was a hint of authorly rivalry over those biscuits.

Anyway, I retired to the bar with my book and sat reading and drinking pear cider until other folks slowly began trickling in. Whilst I was on my own, I was treated to the semi-entertaining monologue of the world’s Loudest Woman shouting to her friend about… stuff. I’m not sure what that specific stuff was, but she was certainly happy to share it with everyone in the hotel bar. Also, the word ‘transition’ was used about sixteen times in five minutes. I took a walk to find the venue; the Phoenix Arts centre and was really quite impressed with it. The cafe was lovely (I had a poncy coffee) and the layout seemed great. And it was all about 5 minutes walk. Bonus!

People arrived. Drink was drunk. All was well with the world and I dragged myself off up to bed at about midnight.


Woke up, had breakfast, headed down to the Phoenix centre ready for the ‘off’. Headed to the ‘Not another f**king elf’ panel where the Word of the Weekend was rolled out endlessly. Word of the Weekend was ‘Tropes’.

For some reason, I don’t like the word ‘Tropes’. It’s a word adopted by geeks for geeks. It’s a trope in its own right. It almost sounds as though the people using it are somehow suggesting ‘hah! We have our own word for these things that doesn’t sound as negative as cliche or stereotype!’ Anyway, that aside, the panel was quite entertaining, although maybe meandered off topic for a while. A very pleasant and cheery start to the morning, certainly. One particularly interesting comment that was made came from a woman who teaches at an Islamic school. She was saying how one of her writing groups (11-16 year old girls) write some very dark genre fiction – including stories about burkha’d zombies. I imagine that there are some brilliant stories to be told by these guys and I hope that more of them go on to write as a career. More of this later.

Following this, I meandered around, meeting up with the always-entertaining Jim Swallow and Graham McNeill. We had a coffee and a chat and before I knew it, I was off to my workshop with Kim Lakin-Smith.

I went to Kim’s workshop last year on building characters. Her topic this year was ‘Getting steamy: putting the punk into steampunk’. I thoroughly enjoyed her style of workshop in 2011 and the same was definitely true this year. She gave us a little ‘lecture’ (as she called it) on steampunk and the many, many different sub-genres. It wasincrediblyinteresting stuff and this is definitely a genre that I want to expand my reading on. So we came to the workshop part of the session and I thought I’d share some of the scribblings in my notepad with you.

‘First of all,’ said Kim,’think about what your apocolyptic event was. What’s made the world the way it is? Here’s some suggestions…’

She suggested the following: zombie attack, dust bowl, flood, nuclear holocaust, post-singularity, alien invasion. I went with ‘flood’ because the word just leaped out at me.

‘Next, you think about your ‘fighting machine’. In essence, the machine that’s at the heart of your story.’

We had a couple of minutes to think about this and I came up with a general outline for the machines in this story and an overall plot line whilst I was at it. Seriously, Kim is exceptional at firing your imagination. Then she handed round an envelope. ‘Take two pieces of paper from here,’ she said. ‘These words are meant to help inspire a couple of characters. Or even just one.’

This was brilliant. I took out two pieces of paper and looked at them. Then I just started giggling. The first word was ‘giant’, the second was ‘nun’.

A steampunk giant nun. A winner before it even starts.

Anyway, I thought on these two things and came up with a couple of ideas and before you knew it, I actually had an entire storyline in my head featuring both of the above words and a hero who has to Save the World[tm]. I was well-pleased. Then Kim gave us five minutes – and when you’re writing by hand, five minutes isno time at all – to write an opening to our story.’Get us straight into the action.’

I like action scenes. When I first started writing 40k, I was massively anxious about writing action scenes. But it turns out I like doing them, so I was well away and here is the opening to my story.

Ticker-tape spewed endlessly out of the machine’s mouth-slit, but Gus had long since stopped reading it. After the ninety-seventh occurrence of the same question, a question he couldn’t answer, he had lost his temper. Giant was an undoubtedly useful machine and even a good friend, but he had a machine’s childlike simplicity to his personality that irritated Gus beyond measure.

The ship’s controls were sluggish under his sweating hands but he put that down to the fact that he had been shot at.

Shot at.


It was something beyond the comprehension of most of the world’s population. After the flood, when humanity had picked itself up and started again, they had all agreed on one thing. Weapons were an evil best confined to the history books. But they were human with a human’s tendency to poke around the forbidden and there had always been the risk that someone somehwere would invoke curiosity that went far beyond dabbling. Gus had found that someone. Or possibly someones. Either way, he, she it or they had certainly found him.

He nudged the narrow-nosed ship as fast as he could manage through the heavy leaden, weeping skies. They were following him, clearly hellbent on his destruction.

And yet for all the horrors of being variously pursued, shot at, rammed by outfliers and potentially captured, tortured, maimed and maybe killed, Gus really really wanted a chance to study the massive gunship that had brought his world screaqming into a war it was not yet ready to fight.

Giant’s mouth regurgitated another snake-like feed of text and the young man snatched it up, pushing the goggles up his head so that he could read it properly.

++ Question. Why not just fire back? ++

I didn’t get any further than that, but man… I wanted to.

At this point, it was lunch time and I retired to the cafe with all these wonderful people and had Many Conversations about Many Many Things. There was an incredibly lovely vibe; everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and there’s something glorious in simply soaking it all up.

Then it was on to the Genre TV panel, where one of the best topics of conversation was about the fact that boxsets could have been invented for the genre TV fanbase. The delivery of TV stories: does it still work having weekly episodes? Do people tune in every week to watch, or do they just wait for the boxset? I’m largely guilty of the latter, but that’s because I’m the world’s most forgetful person.

What was I talking about?

Then the SF panel took their seats and it was a very interesting discussion. The thrust of the conversation was ‘did Steve Jobs kill Science Fiction’? (The core of which was that with the arrival of portables such as iPads, iPhones and other touch-screen, world-accessing gadgetry, the thought of ‘the future’ is gone). It really was a lively discussion and Tony Ballantyne, the moderater, did a truly excellent job of keeping things on topic.

Then another break and off to support and enjoy m’colleague Jim in his Guest of Honour slot. He gave a very lively and entertaining presentation on what the world of Games Writing is all about. There were elements of the presentation that actually made me think of things that had never occurred to me; such as the provision of ‘barks’ – one liners for (example) the people you bump into on the street. Incredibly intricate stuff and I have nothing but admiration for anybody who can understand how to gather up all those threads!

The day was over at this point; so we retired to the hotel where Jim and I caught up on all things Black Library and… well, all things, really. I think it was about 3.30am before we ran out of conversation. We certainly won the ‘last convention attendeees at the bar’ competition! Unfortunately, by this time I was also filled with cold and starting to feel incredibly awful. At about 4am, I had a twenty-minute sneezing fit. So if you were in room 110, I’m really sorry about that.

Despite not sleeping very well and waking up with a red-raw throat, I was up and breakfasted at a sensible hour and headed back to the Phoenix for the second day.


Was asked if I would like to step in as a last-minute panellist on the ‘Diversity in Fantasy’ panel. After screaming in terror inside for about four seconds, I smiled and said ‘yes’. Sometimes, my brain has no say in what the rest of me does. It was a VERY interesting panel (and I’m not just saying that ‘cos I was sitting in on it).  It’s a topic that’s obviously very dear to my heart: why should it matter about gender, sexuality, colour or religion both in terms of characters in books and for people writing them. Correct. It shouldn’t matter.

For me personally, one of the highlights was being able to promote GW/BL fans in what I think was a very positive light. When asked the question ‘have the GW fellas given you a poor reception simply because you’re a woman?’ I was able to smile and honestly say ‘no. Not at all.’ So well done, GW/BL fans – you’re clearly ahead of the social awareness curve! 😀

I wrote a little entry on this last year actually, which can be read here.

Following this panel, things essentially started to wind down from what had been a thoroughly enjoyable event. Graham, Jim and I headed briefly to GW Leicester where we were greeted by the very lovely manager, Lydia, who made us feel very welcome. Also, their super-hero orcs are possibly one of the best things I’ve ever seen…

By now, my head was pounding and my throat hurt and I was generally pretty unwell. So I left Leicester. It still wasn’t raining, so despite the fear of disorientation, I found my way back to the M1 and was home by 7pm feeling tired, but incredibly content.

Alt.Fiction is a small but perfectly formed little event. The panels and seminars were great fun and Kim’s workshop was outstanding. I am reliably informed this morning that the next event is pencilled in for May 2013 (probably the third weekend). If you’ve never been, I heartily recommend it.

Now I must go prepare for my job interview later today…

3 thoughts on “Alt.Fiction 2: The Return to the Midlands

  1. […] , Rob Cutforth of Left Lion , Maria A Smith ,  Erik Lundqvist , Mark E West , Lucy Anne Wade , Sarah Cawkwell , Lou Morgan , Pablo Cheesecake , RenWarom […]

  2. big_cheddars says:

    Can I just say, I would have paid to read that steampunk story if you had continued it, it just fitted the genre so well and you had actually developed it quite far. I wanna write for BL someday, but maybe, just maybe I’ll write steampunk too, because it’s so awesome and your little bit of steampunk was awesome too 🙂

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