Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tea with Manda Benson

Today Toad welcomes Manda Benson, author of a number of SF novels, for both adults and younger readers.

You have built a very detailed setting. Where did the initial spark for your milieu occur?

In Pilgrennon’s Beacon, the physical setting in the story is real locations in the British Isles. Because of this, planning the book in this respect required far less thought than my fiction that involves more fantastic places. However, it required much more in the way of active research.

Because I wanted locations to feel authentic, I had to visit places and study maps of areas I wasn’t familiar with in order to get a feel for them. In a way, it was more complicated than writing a story set in a purely fictional setting, as the landscape can’t be warped to fit the plot, and there are certain limitations to suspension of disbelief if you’re going to add something to an existing place for the purpose of the story.
The greatest influence on the book was undoubtedly the Outer Hebrides. The Isle of Lewis is made up of breathtaking landscapes, yet its beauty is in many ways desolate and barren, and treacherous. The wind tears over crags and peat moorlands with no trees to offer shelter. The stony cliffs and empty beaches stand against the wrath of an ocean which the size and shape of the island make it impossible to escape. Of the sparse stone houses that do exist on Lewis, many
lie in ruins, and there seem to be more graves than living people.

If you go to Harris, the landscape there looks like it could be the surface of a moon. I was captivated not only by the islands’ wild beauty, but by how forbidding and even slightly sinister they were. Adding a mysterious beacon on an island with a haunted lighthouse (the haunted lighthouse is real; the beacon isn’t) seemed a great way to make a really atmospheric setting for a technothriller.
In terms of the social landscape Beacon is set against, I use a political structure for the society in some of my other books that’s very different to the sort of democracy we see in politics today. The series of which this book is the first volume is about the revolution that leads to this radical new society.
The Star Archers have their progenitor in Pilgrennon's Beacon. Tell us more about your archers and their origin.

Readers of the Galactic Legacy books (Dark Tempest and the forthcoming In the Shadow of Lazarus) might recognise some references and similarities between the two worlds. Galactic Legacy, Pilgrennon’s Children, and Days of the Meritocracy (not yet published) are three distinct series that span different eras of a common history. Pilgrennon’s Children is near future and set mostly on Earth, Days of the Meritocracy is a few hundred years from the present and set within the Solar system, and Galactic Legacy is in the distant future, when a large
portion of the Galaxy has been colonised.

I wouldn’t like to say anything too specific about the connections between them, partly because I think this sort of thing is best left to mystery and reader interpretation, but also because I might have an idea for a book at some point in the future that would invalidate something I’d earlier said!

You offer readers a very British SF viewpoint. How does your world view differ from the standard tropes?

I write about what I know. A large proportion of the book-buying public are American, but it would be no use me setting a book in America, because I’ve never been there and I don’t know enough about it to make it realistic. I think (or rather hope) that most people would prefer to read something authentic about an unfamiliar place and culture than read a book that doesn’t do justice to a place and culture they already know.

Pilgrennon's Beacon isn't quite YA fiction, although your protagonist is quite young. What are some of the prevalent themes in the novel and why do you think it appeals to a broad readership?

The thing is, I didn’t start writing Pilgrennon’s Beacon or plan the series as being for any particular age group. I simply had a story that demanded to be written, so I wrote it. I’d had the idea of the origins of the Meritocracy and how it was sparked by a feud between two scientific luminaries in the autumn of our modern era for some years, but neither of these characters seemed the right PoV to work with, and I had never really been sure how to put these ideas into a novel. As the idea continued to develop in the back of my mind during a hiatus and while I was writing some other things, another character, a girl who knew very little about her own past, came into the picture and I realised at once that this was her story.

When I sent it to writer friends to critique, a number of them commented that it worked well as a YA book. Initially I thought this wouldn’t work because the book was too grim and the ideas were too complicated and "grown up", but as it turns out, these are apparently the sort of things a lot of young people look for in fiction.

Pilgrennon’s Beacon is in essence a near-future Pandora story. It’s also a story about a feud, about vengeance, forgiveness, and about self discovery. Central to the plot are the relationships between Dana and two other adult characters who follow the creator-destroyer-preserver motif. One person who beta read the book with the caveat that he didn’t really connect with child characters enjoyed it for the adult characters’ stories. I hope this book has something for everyone.

What are the three most important SF works any SF author should have on their shelf, and why?

I’m going to sidestep that question in a way. I don’t think it’s particularly important to possess or even read science fiction in order to write science fiction. Science fiction is any fiction with a speculative scientific element. It doesn’t have to conform to any sort of stereotype, and you don’t have to write it to a formula. What constitutes a good book tends to be a matter of taste on one hand, and on the other a lot of pretty awful fiction by most people’s standards has been grouped under the broad umbrella of SF. So, the most important books?

Firstly, get a style manual. If you want to write anything, you’ll want other people to be able to read it. I’ve heard a few times, mostly from unpublished writers, that things like punctuation don’t matter and that the editor who eventually accepts their books exists to fix such problems. That’s rot. An editor’s job is to make sure the book is in the publisher’s house style and to correct mistakes. If there are twelve errors in every paragraph, that goes beyond the remit of correcting mistakes. It means the writer can’t use the English language properly. You wouldn’t go to a job interview or a friend’s wedding wearing Wellington boots and clothes you’d worn to muck out a stable in, would you?

Poor command of the written word looks unprofessional and means readers are likely to reject it without giving the story a chance. So proofread your writing carefully. Buy a style manual, read it, and try to follow it to your best ability. That means either the Oxford Style Manual
for those in the UK, or the Chicago Manual of Style
or the Associated Press Stylebook
for those in the USA.

Secondly, buy a factual resource on the area you’re writing in. If you’re writing a novel about quantum mechanics, get a good quantum mechanics textbook.

Read relevant scientific articles in magazines and on websites. There’s always going to be a proportion of speculation and conjecture in science fiction, but the stronger you ground that in what’s already known, the more believable it will be and the more inclined readers will be when you need them to suspend disbelief or make a conceptual leap. Also, you can get some great ideas for novel premises just reading about current research.

Lastly, although science fiction with bad science is bad science fiction, science fiction with bad characters is bad fiction. Read a wide variety of books of all genres, not just SF, and analyse what works about the characters in the books you enjoy. The third book can be any book with characters you connect with, for whatever reason. Join online writing groups and discuss
characterisation methods to help you integrate realistic characters meaningfully in your plots.

You own Tangentrine Ltd, the publisher of Pilgrennon’s Beacon and two of your other books. Why did you decide to set up your own business to produce your books?

I submitted Pilgrennon’s Beacon to a lot of agents and a few publishers that accept unsolicited submissions. I got requests for more and nice comments, but no offers. Often publishing professionals commented that it was just too unusual to be commercial or they didn’t like the science-fiction aspect of it.

After that I gave up and left it to rot on my hard drive for a few years, along with a few other novels and novellas and one dreadful novel that was the first one I wrote, but this particular book kept coming back to haunt me. Pilgrennon’s Beacon is intended to be the first part of a series, and I kept getting the urge to write the next book. I couldn’t justify spending time on something that would be unpublishable on the grounds that I’d been unable to sell the first book, yet this was interfering with my ability to get on and write new books.

I looked into what call themselves "self publishing companies" – publishers like Lulu and Createspace that will publish any book for little or no upfront fee and take a cut of the profit from selling it, but I quickly realised these weren’t going to be appropriate for my requirements. They didn’t allow enough control over the design of the book, and the charges per book printed meant I would have had to price the books unacceptably high. Instead, I decided to set up a publishing company and contract a printer, which works out more cost effective as you only pay the printer rather than having to pay a middleman as well, and the quality of the books is much better.

Would you recommend self publishing to other authors?

No, not unless you have experience writing and you’re prepared to do a lot of research and work. If you’ve just finished writing your first book, chances are there are going to be a lot of things wrong with it that you don’t yet have the experience to spot. Put the book away for a few years and write some more, then see if you still feel the same way about it. Self publishing needn’t be very expensive, but bear in mind that, to create a product that looks professional, you will have to learn typesetting and design (or pay someone else to do them for you). I was fortunate in that I have friends who are graphic designers and editors to give me advice and do a few thorough proofreads. You will also have to pay for industry-standard software and manage your business’s finances.

If a reputable publisher wants to publish your book, I’d still say let it. Self publishing really is a lot of work if you want to do it properly. Good publishers have contacts and money to throw at marketing, so you will nearly always sell more books that way. Getting a bit less money per book sold and sacrificing some editorial control is worth that in my opinion. If you’re going for electronic publishing only, even then the good small e-presses offer a stronger option by having connections with vendor sites. When my book Dark Tempest was published by Lyrical Press, a significant proportion of sales came through a vendor called Fictionwise. Established publishers are able to set up agreements with this sort of vendor to make their books more prominent and
attractive to buyers.

For those who are ready to try self publishing, I shall be running some more articles to do with the matter on my blog soon.

Pilgrennon’s Beacon is the first volume in a series. Can you tell us more about the other books?

The series is called Pilgrennon’s Children. I am currently writing the next book, The Emerald Forge, which I hope to publish sometime in 2012.

Useful links...



US Amazon

US Kindle

Read an excerpt on Smashwords


  1. Thanks for doing this Nerine. :-)

  2. A very enjoyable interview, with sound advice.

  3. Thank you for stopping by the Corner, Manda. Here's wishing Beacon all the best, as well as you upcoming releases.