SPFBO 6 – Meet the Judges
SPFBO is back once again
Today, submissions open for SPFBO 6! Last year, the 300 places filled up pretty quick – so if you’re thinking of submitting, get your skates on! Here are some important links for you:
I hear the faint grumbling from some of you – what’s a SPFBO?
The Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off is a contest hosted by author Mark Lawrence, in which ten blogs whittle 300 self-published fantasy books down to one winner.
Once the 300 books have been allocated to their blogs, we’ll be back with an introductory post and an insight into our process.
For now though, as we wait for those entries to come in, let me introduce you to our SPFBO 6 judges:
1. What’s your favourite kind of fantasy? Is there a particular subgenre you prefer?
I adore epic fantasy – I love quests, prophecies, sword and sorcery, mythical creatures, and huge scale battles against dark forces.
My second love however is grimdark. The kind of grimdark I gravitate towards tends to be along the lines of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books and Peter McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series.
I’m also a huge fan of dark humour, and banter. So long as it’s well written, and not cringe worthy!
I guess my tastes, like the genre, have evolved a bit. I have a fondness for epic high fantasy, elves and orcs and lone heroes/heroines over throwing dark lords, but that is a bit tropey. Whatever the genre, I find it’s quality writing, compelling characters and an original premise that can make me fall in love with a book. To be honest, if a book is too easy to categorise that can be a bad sign. I do love to get immersed in complicated but consistent plots, with a healthy dose of angst thrown in.
Not really… I love fantasy in (almost) all its bookish forms! I love epic and complex ones just as much as easy fun reads. I enjoy grimdark as much as fluffy humorous books. I’m as happy with medieval type books as I am with Steampunk or Urban Fantasy! Love lots of magic flying about, but also enjoy low magic ones…
The only thing I really don’t like is a big focus on romance, especially the whining and pining sort of romance.
Give me grimdark, give me pain! A sniff of gunpowder at my temple is also acceptable.
Joke aside, I love most types of fantasy, as long as a work is written well and doesn’t take itself as seriously as the Second Coming. Secondary worlds are brilliant and so are quite literal reflections of our own world; I’ve a fondness for camp, and for the classical fantasy races, yon dwarves and pointy-eared ageless elves–and even the Christmas variety–and your Yodas, and what-have-it.
My go-to sub-genre is grimdark, but specifically that kind of anti-hero, times are tough, will they make it kind of grimdark? Rather than dark/horror/paranormal kind of ‘dark’. I do also love that sword and sorcery genre of fantasy, like Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy. I love a complicated story, a saga, like Theo said a story that can’t necessarily be defined by one genre. I also love dystopias, forgotten magic making a comeback, and regressed societies.
2. Are you looking for more of the same in SPFBO 6? Or a different kind of fantasy read?
In a way yes, because those are mainly the types of fantasy I would choose to read. Having said that, during the final round of SPFBO 2019 I read a book which heavily featured romance, and this is something I’m usually adverse to, but to my surprise I enjoyed it. So I guess I’m thoroughly open-minded to try a huge variety of reads hoping to be pleasantly surprised again.
I was thinking about this and I guess something I’m hoping to see is a well done nautical fantasy. Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent is always hoping for a quality dog act, and for me I’d like to see a well done self-published naval story. Ironically it’s partly my disappointment with some phase one entries last year that has kindled my hope to see something better this year.
However, I doubt the kind of nautical anachronisms that puncture my immersion so badly are much of an issue for my fellow judges.
I’m definitely hoping for something different. Not just different than what is on the market in trad publishing, but different to what I’d pick on my own! Some of my favourite SPFBO books of the last 3 years were books I wouldn’t have found on my own. I’m already open to most styles, bit SPFBO keeps broadening my horizon and let’s me find new things to enjoy!
I’m interested in anything and everything that comes out of left field and sucker punches me with ingenuity, brilliant prose and memorable characters. A unique magic system and world would be the sprinkling on top!
I love being brought out of my comfort zone, so like my fellow judges I’m hoping there’ll be something to do that. I quite like the sound of reading something different too. We all have our favourite genres or tropes, but I love to be challenged by something new too!
3. What’s more important to you, plot or characters? Is there a specific kind for either you’re looking for?
Hmmm tough question because I think for me I need a good balance of both. I have to like or become invested in at least one or two characters to feel compelled to read on, but I also like an intriguing plot for the same reason.
I very much enjoy characters who are complex, flawed, morally questionable, but also hold a charming quality. I’m not a fan of characters who are ‘perfect’ at everything they do, or are just repulsive and evil merely for the sake of being the villain. I like to understand the motives behind each character’s actions. Basically I like characters that feel real.
As for the plot, well my usual preferences are fast paced with many action/battle sequences. I enjoy plots that are grand in scope and have a few twists along the way.
It’s tricky because both are important and complementary. Aspects of plot and character should interact so that events shape and change the characters just as much as the characters shape and change events.
I do like to read about leading female characters, but not necessarily just your kick ass ninja warrior types. There are a range of ways for characters to succeed – compare Sansa and Arya Stark for example – and I guess I’m really hoping for diversity in all things. Diversity of setting/world type, diversity of character. I know Julia really liked seeing writing that represented the experience of disability well last year, and I’d like to see a gay character in a leading role, but without their sexuality being a plot device. Teresa Frohock and Anna Smith Spark both do that well. I’m not talking about tokenism, or political correctness, just some recognition that the real world is a pretty diverse place and fantasy ones should show that too.
Plot wise, I like complex but consistent storylines which twist and turn but without relying on too much exposition.
If you had asked this a few days ago I might have answered with both. But I had a really long discussion with a friend about this very topic, and I realised the plot really isn’t that important to me! For me it’s usually characters first, then worldbuilding, then prose and only at the end of my list it’s the plot that keeps me hooked. Each of these can be weak if the rest is good enough to make up for it, so even though characters are what usually makes me click with a book, I can still love a book without the best characters if for example the world is so interesting it has me in its thrall. Or the plot is so twisty I need to solve the mystery! So it’s all a kinda balance act.
Either way, the most important aspect of a piece of writing is the execution. I’ve come across stories with amazing plot and little character beyond name plates, and have loved it. I’ve read stories for the characters alone — I’ve even written a few in the same vein. If your intent was to create a plot-led work, and you succeeded in that attempt, I would applaud you; just so with the character-led pieces out there.
I will admit to a weakness for excellent characterization, though!
It’s definitely characters for me. If I find myself uninterested in the characters, then I find myself uninterested in what happens to them. I don’t always necessarily have to like the characters – if they’re complex and have depth and are not necessarily supposed to be likable, then I’m ok with that. So long as they’ve hooked me enough to want to know more about them!
4. Would you defeat a Dark Lord, or be one?
Haha! Again, a tough question! It would be kind of cool to be a Dark Lord, and revel in a bit of dastardly behaviour! But no, my love for heroes outweighs that, so I’d choose to defeat one.
Tricky one. Defeating Dark Lords does take a lot of energy and I don’t think you get much appreciation for it, so I’d probably go for the subversive route and become a Dark Lord just so I could tell everybody they’d better be nice to each other or else!
Definitely be a Dark Lord. I’m my own first priority I confess!
What do you mean, “would I be one”? Take a good, hard look at me.
I’m not sure… do I know I’m the Dark Lord? Or am I just paving the way for the freedom of my people? The safety of my children? Am I sick of hobbits trespassing across my lawn and treating my property like some kind garbage disposal for their trinke- HEY THAT’S MY RING YOU BLOODY THIEVES
5. Who are some of your favourite self-published authors?
Well, since I read Senlin Ascends while it was still a self-published book, I’m going to mention Josiah Bancroft. Angela Boord, last year’s second placed finalist is also on my list and I guess those two make the point that SPFBO is a great means for judges (as well as the rest of the fantasy community) to find fantastic new self-published authors.
Oh my dear, where even to start…
My love for Indie books started with GR Matthews. I read and liked his book Stones Road, but absolutely fell in love with the first in his other series “Corin Hayes”. The snark and humour of the very broken hero main character just is perfect for me and always makes me snort and grin even on the worst of days.
I’m a really big fan of his work and was so adamant about it I ended up with the privilege of being a beta reader! So once Geoff set me on the Indie track I discovered more and more…
I love Rob J. Hayes books, especially as they are so varied in tone and style I sometimes can’t believe they are written by the same author.
Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin series is the most unique setting I ever read and I can’t stop gushing about them, even though it’s now trad published.
The three finalists from last SPFBO were FANTASTIC! So Angela Boord, ML Wang and Alicia Wanstall-Burke are definitely in my favourites now.
Michael McClung has written another one of my favourite characters ever – Amra Thetys! It’s traditional fantasy but so fast paced and snarky it feels almost like urban fantasy.
Rider series by Joanne Hall
Zero Blessing by Nutall
Michael R Fletcher if you like it really grimdark
Devin Madson (now also read published)
Dawn Of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw (full of flaws and tropes and yet I loved it!)
To Whatever End by Claire Frank
Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Rowe
Circle Of Reign by Cooper
I’ll stop myself now before this ends up as long as a telephone book!
Julia’s hit the nail on the head. To her list of brilliant self-published authors, I would add Benedict Patrick and Ben Galley, both of whom are master storytellers. M. L. Wang’s win in last year’s SPFBO is proof of her uncanny skill, and I’ve such a fondness for Carol A. Park and her Heretic Gods series!
Some great choices Filip. I love Ben Galley’s writing too, and M.L Wang’s Sword of Kaigen was my personal favourite last year.
Note to self, write quantifiers into your questions in future
SPFBO has certainly brought some brilliant authors to the fore, I loved Lisa Cassidy and Darian Smith from SPFBO5 for example.
But I’ve also been very fortunate to have worked with and beta read for some brilliant self publishing authors, including Liam Perrin (who is hilarious), D. P. Woolliscroft (whose stories have incredible scope) and A. Z. Anthony (very exciting action-packed work and contributor here on the Hive!)
6. What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?
I have two – (sorry)
- The perception that fantasy is childish or not ‘proper’ literature. I’ve been fortunate in my Creative Writing course that no-one has ‘looked down’ on me for writing fantasy, but I have heard others whose course leaders have been dismissive of it. But fantasy and speculative fiction in general is great for examining real issues and exhibiting brilliant writing as well as entertaining readers.
- The belief that it’s all orcs, elves and chainmail bikinis. Fantasy is so much more diverse than that and those who would try to see it in stereotypes really should know better.
That’s just fine Theo – I have none…
I’m with Theo. Those would also be my choices.
Theo’s first point resonates with me. Speculative fiction, which widely encircles fantasy and science fiction both, extends and reflects on human experience.
Definitely Theo’s first point, I hate genre snobbery and have come across a lot of it in my time, my reading tastes often dismissed.
I also hate that opinion that fantasy is for a certain type of person, that it’s only read by nerdy beardy men – I guess this comes in to the genre snobbery still.
‘Nerdy beardy men?’ Hey, I feel seen!
7. What are you not looking for in this contest? What kind of content would put you off a fantasy book?
Scenes of rape and misogynistic behaviour that isn’t reprimanded. If a book has multiple rape scenes or sexual assault that is in any way gratuitous or just too graphic, I will DNF it.
No wish fulfilment male gaze perspectives (no heroines breasting boobily down the stairs). No token women used simply as plot incentives for male protagonists. I think it was Jen Williams who gave (or repeated) the advice, that every side character should think they are the protagonist in the story and should be written with an appropriate depth of personality and motivation. Beth: It was Jen Williams!
I’m with Nils on this one. I really don’t like rape scenes and too many or too graphic will have me skim first and possibly end up with a DNF. I also have a problem with a heavy romance focus as said before. As a rather pragmatic person when it comes to romance it simply bores me.
Theo’s opinion encompases mine perfectly. I’m also very cautious when it comes to rape scenes – novice authors too often make use of them as motivation for (the usually) male protagonist, a twisted sort of ‘call to action’. I find that beyond insufferable, and will have none of it.
My fellow judges have said it all. I think violence against female characters for the motivational purposes of a protagonist is something that can go live in a bin. We don’t need that kind of treatment and representation in fantasy anymore, and the opinion that it ‘reflects real life’ is frankly holding the genre back.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not drowning under a pile of SPFBO books?
If I’m not reading books, then I’m taking pictures of them! I have a personal Instagram account which we call Bookstagram, and on there I love getting creative and taking various shots of books. I also like to dabble in cover animations. Other than that, I’m a huge film and tv series nerd, so you’ll find me glued to Netflix!
Lately, in the throws of lockdown, I seem to have fallen down a bit of computer gaming rabbit hole, spending a ridiculous amount of time on Medieval Total War. In my youth I played cricket and, as my permitted exercise, I have rediscovered the joy of bowling in the cricket nets near where we live.
My leisure activities are as varied as my reading taste… I usually do one thing excessively for a while, and then flit to something else which I will then do excessively, and keep repeating that in a big loop.
Those hobbies include archery, knitting, Lego, sewing, World of Warcraft, Pokémon, visiting medieval markets, collecting geek things, finding dogs to pet and spending way too much time talking about books online! The only things I’m rather consistent with are running and hiking!
I write, play video games, review video games on my YouTube channel (#selfad), and spend hours preparing wonderful ways to torture my D&D players in a campaign that’s gone on for four years now! Like Theo, I have my moments of falling down the strategy gaming rabbit hole, though I prefer the Warhammer: Total War to its medieval counterpart.
Aside from the day-to-day family life stuff I assume? And editing? Um, buried under a pile of non-SPFBO books? Ha, I tabletop board game quite a lot, and I love video games although I don’t get very much time to indulge. I’m also embroiled in a monthly DnD campaign in which I play the world’s worst rogue.
9. What was the last fantasy book to make you cry? If possible, without spoilers, why?
A Time of Courage by John Gwynne. It was the last book in the series, and it just broke me having to say goodbye to all the characters and the world which I’d been immersed in for seven books!
The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence, I think. It’s not difficult to empathize with Yaz’s plights time and again, and what she goes through towards the end of the book is emotionally exhausting, almost.
There’s quite a few non-fantasy books that have made me cry. (The Book Thief, Room, Before I Die, The Time Traveller’s Wife), but I don’t often tear up at Fantasy except… The end of The Arm of the Sphinx, by Josiah Bancroft where we get an insight into Marya’s life during her separation from Thomas Senlin. It’s a simple scene, seen through the eye of one of the Sphinx’s mechanical spies, but it just threw me so much I had to pester Josiah by direct message in search of reassurance. Dammit, I am so invested in Thomas and Marya’s relationship, their tribulations never fail to pluck my heart stings.
Theo all the non- fantasy books you listed made me cry too! (Theo: I’m glad it’s not just me that’s the wuss. Even the simple formatting of the last pages at the end of “Before I Die” was so emotive – but all such great books.)
I quite readily cry at things – I really become invested in stories and I can get quite emotional… I cried a lot in Bloodchild, because of spoilers, and I cried a LOT in Sword of Kaigen, particularly when something that had been going unsaid was being resolved?
Something that ALWAYS gets me is parental pride – “One thing I do know – he/she would have been damn proud of you”
SOB SOB BLUBBER SOB
10. And finally, what mythical creature would you ride into battle?
My initial answer would be a dragon or wolf, but… I recently read The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky and there was a world inhabited by feathery dinosaurs wearing leather capes and rainbow feather headdresses – so yeah, I want to ride one of those!
Well, I think the coolest steed I’ve read about recently were the bats in Jen Williams’ The Ninth Rain.
One? I’d have a whole stable full of them! One can never ever have too many mounts, pets and companions…
If I really have to choose just one single creature, I’ll go for Cerberus!
There is but one answer to this question, and it is the mighty MURLOC.
KIRUNE! I CHOOSE KIRUNE! Because then I’d finally have a cat!! A flying giant cat please!