Now that Shona’s first book Ashael Rising is out in the world, we asked about her journey into the wilds of genre publishing.
What first sparked your love of genre fiction?
I’ve been reading genre fiction for as long as I can remember, even the very early books I read were fantasy, right back to Puddle Lane! As a child I think I loved the magic of it, the fact that anything could happen and, more importantly, anyone can be powerful. As an adult, I’ve come to really appreciate the way that fantasy gives us a real opportunity to explore social issues in a less threatening manner – hopefully in a way that can help change how people think about these issues. It’s also quite common for genre fiction to feature main characters who are outsiders; a position that I’ve always gravitated to myself.
Tell us a little about your publishing journey. What advice would you give to other writers just starting out?
Well, my journey is a little unusual so I think one of the first things I would say to new writers is that we all have our own path. There are many roads into publishing – you have to pick the one that’s right for you, which won’t necessarily be the same as your writer friends or heroes.
In my case, I had finished the first draft of Ashael Rising and was starting to research agents and publishers while giving myself some time away before starting the second draft. I had come across Unbound and I was quite impressed with their vision and their ideas about the future of publishing. I saw that they were holding a twitter pitching session and they were giving people useful feedback on their pitches so I decided to practice pitching to them, hoping for some feedback. They asked for my full manuscript.
So, I panicked and then sent off the manuscript with a note that it was the first draft and detailing the changes I intended to make. I expected to get a rejection but was hoping for some editorial feedback. Three weeks later they offered me a contract and I haven’t looked back since.
What genre tropes would you like to see retired/what unexplored avenues would you like to see the genre tackle?
I would really like to see more complex female characters. There are certainly more of these now than there used to be, but I still read too many books, published recently, where the female characters are tokens – prizes to be won by the male hero, property to be protected etc. I would like to see more well-rounded women, in various positions and with various temperaments.
I’d also like to see more exploration of a what a gender-equal society could look like. I’ve tried to create a structure like that with the Folk, in KalaDene, where each person acts according to their skills and desires and there no gender expectations but that’s fairly unusual.
If there was one trope I could retire forever, it would be the use of sexual violence as a motivating force – especially when it’s motivating a character other than one harmed. So often, women are injured so that a man (brother, father, husband etc) is motivated to act with little or no exploration of what the incident has done to the actual victim. It really annoys me!
Have you come up against any sexism in the industry, as a writer or reader? How have you dealt with it?
There have been a few minor things. I’ve seen men in discussion groups state that they simply won’t read a fantasy novel written by a woman. With people like that, I try to shake it off. Nothing I can say is likely to change their mind so it’s not worth the energy I would lose in the fight. That’s energy I could be pouring into writing a fantasy novel that these guys are going to miss out on.
Other things are a bit harder to define. I mean, sexism is so insidious, it can be hard to know if that’s what’s happening or if you’re just being overly-sensitive. For example, people often ask me how much romance is in Ashael Rising. I don’t see them asking the same question of male writers and I’m fairly sure it’s because of an assumption that I’m a female writer, therefore I must be writing romance. The wholesaler miscategorised my book as Paranormal Romance where it should be Epic Fantasy, or even Sword and Sorcery. Now I accept that this may have nothing to do with any sexism but I can’t imagine the same mistake would be made with George RR Martin or Raymond E Feist.
Why should a reader pick up your book?
This is always the question I find most difficult!
Ashael Rising is set in a stone-age equivalent, tribal culture. Ashael is the apprentice medicine-woman and we follow her as she tries to find a way to protect her people from the Zanthar, invaders from another world who extend their own lives by stealing the life force from others. The story is told from multiple character’s points of view and around half of these are female. There are strong female friendships and healthy, successful marriages and women who own their own bodies and sexuality.
There are also horrible baddies and adventure and love and magic and interesting new races and journeys and exploration and did I say magic? It’s epic fantasy but I hope it’s also new and fresh.
Shona’s short fiction has been featured in BFS Horizons and she can be found writing flash fiction on Patreon. When she’s not writing or wrangling children, she can usually be found with her nose in a book.