Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Butter. This really is about butter.

Happy New Year, folks. I hope 2019 brings all you wish for.

Anyway, I've been updating my blog over at Goodreads, but I've been a bit remiss over here. To bring you up to speed:

* I've finished THE BEST OF US, the first of my Galaxy's Edge NOMAD books, and it's now busy acquiring a cover. A lot more to follow on that very soon. I'm back to working on SACRIFICIAL RED again, and also the second of the NOMAD trilogy. I'm pretty much returned to my normal schedule after the ups and downs of the last couple of years, so there'll be a steadier supply of books for you from now on.

* I also posted this
tribute to a good friend who passed away.

Anyway, what really prompted me to blog today was something totally unconnected with books, although not entirely. As most of you probably know, I do love to cook, and I especially like preserving and fermenting, so I was tweeting today about making butter out of cream that I hadn't managed to use by its expiry date. Tonight I made another batch from a jar of cultured cream that didn't look like it was going to get used, but this time I remembered to take pics stage by stage. And it's too much to post on Twitter. The reason this is related to writing is that taking a break to do something else that's creative – be it cooking, crafting, carpentry, or art – is a good way to release your subconscious brain to sort out those plot problems and other issues that need to mulch in the mind.

If you've never made your own butter with a culture, it's the easiest thing imaginable, and if you don't mind a few minutes' hard work you can do it all by hand. No mixer or churning device required. (You can shake it in a jar, too, but I find that impossible once the cream's set.) This really is just supermarket double (heavy) cream cultured with a teaspoonful of plain yoghurt. I make that as well, but you can use any plain live yoghurt as a starter. Then I leave it on the counter overnight or longer. You can also culture it in a proper yoghurt-maker, but I just did it the low tech way this time. You can also culture cream with kefir, proper buttermilk culture, or whatever other milk culture you happen to have on hand. Yoghurt seems to be the easiest to find for most people. For some reason, it doesn't seem to matter whether I use a room temperature yoghurt (mesophilic) or a thermophilic one that needs an incubator (which is the plain yoghurt you get in shops) because both work if I just leave the cream on the counter. I'm still working out the microbiology behind that.

The cream. This is already soured by a yoghurt culture.


2. Start beating it, by hand if you prefer. I find the cream separates more easily when it's at room temperature. This batch was chilled, and it was a lot more work.


3. Eventually, it'll start going grainy…


4. …then it'll start to form a ball…


5. And after that it'll suddenly "turn" and separate into butter solids and buttermilk.


6. Pour off the buttermilk. Great for scones, soda bread, or drinking.


7. Yep, it's definitely butter now.


8. Knead the lump of butter in cold water. I do it under a running tap. This gets the last of the buttermilk out so that it keeps longer. It's a weird sensation, but just keep doing it for a couple of minutes, then drain the butter, and knead in salt to taste if you want it salted. (And I do.) If you overdo the salt, you can wash it out again the same way you washed out the buttermilk in cold water. Isn't that cool?


9 And there it is. Fresh cultured butter. Keep it in the fridge for a few weeks, or freeze it. Way better than the commercial stuff. Delicious. I never used to like butter, but home-made is a different story.


Moving platforms

Now that I've closed my Facebook page, which is where most of my discussions with readers about books and writing took place, I'll be moving that activity over to my Goodreads blog. It seemed like the logical thing to do. The Goodreads one has a comments function, so you can have a chat with me, whereas this one doesn't. If you don't want to dive into my Twitter feed – which is basically politics, defence, mil hist, cookery, spiders, and general hilarity, and might not be to everyone's taste – then Goodreads is your best bet.

Material that I blog via Goodreads doesn't get duplicated here, so it'll be unique content. I'll still sync content from here so that it appears on Goodreads as well, but the rest will be specific to Goodreads.

That's how I
think it works, anyway. Drop by for a chat any time. You'll be very welcome.

New series on the way.

I'm still working on SACRIFICIAL RED, book three of the Ringer series, but I thought it was a good time to let you know that I've also got some new novels lined up that you probably weren't expecting – and, to be honest, neither was I. I'd scheduled an urban fantasy series for later in the summer, but then something cropped up that warranted a change of plan.

Fellow indie authors Jason Anspach and Nick Cole asked me how I felt about collaborating with them and building something new in their growing and very successful
Galaxy's Edge universe. I suppose you could call it a meeting of brands. We saw eye to eye on so many things that it seemed like a good idea – no, a great idea – so when Sacrificial Red has been put to bed, that's what I'll be doing for a while. For those folks who've already asked me what's happening to the Ringer series – it'll continue, of course, along with other new series as I add them. Oddly, writing several series at once is generally easier for me than focusing on just one, because ideas for series A often come up while you're working on series B, and so on. Brains are weird things.

Anyway, I'm still working up a concept at the moment, but it'll be set in a different part of the universe and in a different timeline to the current Galaxy's Edge books, and not co-authored, in other words these books will be written just by me. (Because I have no idea how to write a book jointly with anyone. My brain's not wired for it.) You know by now how I tell a story. You're going to get memorable characters, mucky politics, and ordinary people rising to the challenge of extraordinary events. If you haven't caught up with the Galaxy's Edge series yet, now is the time to start. You can even try one of their short stories for free if you
sign up for the mailing list. Go on. You know you want to.

I've been publishing independently since 2014, and in that time the indie world has changed out of all recognition. It's not Big Publishing’s poor relation any more: it's business-savvy and it's taking a significant share of the market. Because it's made up of individual authors and small presses, it can innovate and adapt faster, which is why it's changing both the sheer variety of books available and the ways that books reach the reader. One area where it's developing fast is collaborations between indies to give them a better chance of competing alongside big multinational publishers.

Book collaborations, where authors co-write novels, is as old as the hills. But the kind of collaboration we're talking about is more ambitious – groups of indies pooling their resources on everything from editing and marketing to building franchises. Where writers already have a brand, harnessing those brands together for a project can be good for everyone. As Jason said to me, this is the next stage of evolution: first came Trad Pub, traditional publishing, then came Indie Pub, and now we're in the early era of what he's dubbed New Pub. New Pub will be good for authors, and also good for you as readers. The whole independent publishing movement is about creating more choice and letting authors and readers connect without anything else getting in the way. New Pub kicks that up a notch.

More will be revealed in the coming months, so keep an eye on the
Galaxy's Edge blog and Facebook page, as well as this web site and my social media.


G.I. Joe

The G.I. Joe series by me and Steve Kurth that was published in 2015 is now available in a single paperback, on sale next month. (Maybe this month in some comic stores.) A cracking cover from Steve! It was previously published in two books as well as monthly issues. So nothing new if you've already bought the series, but as I say, a gorgeous cover, and the tidy appeal of having all the issues in one book.

Fall of G.I. Joe TPB

Preview now live

Okay, we can’t keep you waiting any longer. Here’s the preview issue of FURIE’S KEY and FERAL from 412 Comics, two prologue-length stories to tee you up for the full-length issues coming soon. It’s free. You’re welcome. Enjoy.

It’sa PDF, so it’s best viewed in two-page setting, I think, but maybe you prefer single continuous page if you’re viewing on a tablet.

Cover of Furie's Key preview comic

Furie's Key preview

Just a quick heads up... the preview issue of FURIE'S KEY from 412 Comics will be out next week, and there'll be a free download available. I'll post the link when I get it. Story by me, art by the excellent Steve Kurth. We first worked together on G.I. Joe and it's been a delight to work with him again in a very different universe.

The issue also includes a preview of FERAL, written by John Barber. (My old editor from the G.I.Joe days, in fact. It's the old firm again!) Art is by Ron Joseph.

Think of these two mini-stories as prologues for the main series that start later this year. The preview also contains some behind-the-scenes interviews.

In the meantime, you can check out 412's titles here. They’re a new publisher with a great stable of new universes lined up for the coming year.

Public service announcement

It just occurred to me that I’ve never mentioned here that you can join in a discussion on my blog posts via Goodreads. I don’t have a forum on this site, but Goodreads picks up my feed and runs it on my author page with comments.

Drop in for a chat. You’ll be welcome. Rambling is permitted, and, in my case, inevitable.


I tried to watch an anime yesterday that made me give up long before the end of first episode. This is a rare event. There are few if any animes that I don’t fall into and stick with to the end, however unlikely they seem on first glance, and I think I probably watch as many as a Tokyo teen. But this one made me feel uncomfortable, and I knew I’d end up hating the thing’s guts. It didn’t seem to be what I regard as proper Japanese anime. Interestingly, a quick check after I hit the off button on my Fire TV stick showed that it was a western “homage” (the kiss of creative death) so maybe there’s a cultural issue that made it miss the target. But if anything proves that anime takes a lot more than a formalised art style, this show does.

As a writer, I try to work out why some fiction bores or repels me, because that’s useful business data, plus it stops me bitching about a wasted hour of my life. I don’t like intellectualising, though, because nothing kills entertainment like over-analysis. But there’s an important lesson in storytelling to be learned when an addict in search of a high rejects the crack that’s offered.

What struck me about this show was how self-conscious and smirking it was. I still can't put my finger on the specifics, but it seemed to be looking over its shoulder, winking at the audience, and saying how quaint this all this funny clunky cartoon stuff was. I don’t mean the normal kind of fourth wall breach, either. It felt like any other western animation but with a layer of charmless smart-arsery. And that’s everything that anime isn’t, at least in my eyes.

The problem was that the story didn’t seem to believe itself. And if your story doesn’t believe itself, your audience won’t engage with it either.

Anime’s power is that it really doesn’t seem to give a shit. It’s like a drunken karaoke night: it goes balls to the wall, and it doesn’t care if it makes a temporary fool of itself as long as it has fun. Heroes don’t always win, or even survive, and it’s often hard to identify a full-on hero in the western sense. The bad guys frequently have a serious case that makes you pause and doubt. Maybe it looks different from a Japanese perspective, but from mine, I see an approach to fiction that, despite its own archetypes, has none of the boundaries we impose in the west, be that age, subject, politics, or culture. The story goes where it wants to go. You can take it at face value and enjoy the craziness – or the total absence of crazy, like The Great Passage – but there’s always a solid underpinning of reality about the human condition and the posing of questions that we don’t really want to ask ourselves. The stories always take that extra step in the plot and ask the unasked question, way past the point where Hollywood would regard it as all neatly tied up. I’ve seen more analysis of human behaviour and more memorable quotes from demonic trees (or whatever) than I’ve seen in years of worthy Hollywood movies or TV drama. This is what storytelling is about. It’s exploration, not a lecture. Good fiction should move you enough for the characters, situations, and quotes to stay with you for a long time afterwards, and to make that impact, it has to immerse you in its own belief.

On paper, I’m an unlikely person to be drawn to anime. I’m old, prosaic, and data-rational, and my fiction is extrapolated reality, obsessively researched. As I said in a recent blog, you’re not going to find any talking cauliflowers in my books. (I really wish I could do that. ) But I can swallow anime whole and step into whatever totally mental universe opens its doors, because it’s told with complete conviction and abandon. On the rare occasions it sidebars itself, it’s done with what I can only call good-natured humility. It’s all about the story: the writers never interrupt to point out how jolly clever they are.

Anyway, back to the lesson. What was learned? Believe your story one hundred percent. Don’t think of what you can’t do or where you can’t go. Don’t try to send a message, either. Walk into your world and live fully in it.


Writers need artists

(Note: this piece comes from my Facebook page today.)

Let's hear it for artists. I've been writing comics for a few years, and the thrill of seeing the pencils for an issue is as fresh now as it was on day one. What brings me to mention this is seeing more pages today for the new series I'm doing for 412 Comics.

I'm working with an old mate, Steve Kurth, who was also the artist on my G.I. Joe run. I've always been lucky with artists, but sometimes I'm extra-lucky. Steve is a master of characterisation: my fiction is built on characterisation. This happy convergence makes for great things.

When Steve draws a character for the first time, no matter how minutely I've described them in the script and how well I think I can visualise them, he always manages to present me with a fascinating stranger whose life is etched on their face, and the indefinable magic he brings to the interpretation sets me off on new tangents. A good artist – and I've had many, including cover artists for novels – raises your game without trying: through them, I see the world I've built differently. Sometimes it's like seeing it for the first time. An artist can add a detail or pass a remark, and bang – the story's universe shifts in front of you. When I use the phrase "thrill of discovery," I mean exactly that.

Telling people what a creative lightning strike feels like can be hard, because it's like explaining flavour or colour. All I can say is that artists open doors I've walked past and enable me to go somewhere unexpected. And exploring the unknown is why I write.

Publishing can be a pretty crappy industry. I've worked with some truly awful people, and when someone who's spent decades in news journalism says that, you can gauge how bad it can be. But I can honestly say that every artist I've worked with has been a joy and an education, and I'm a better writer for having worked alongside them. The fact that they can still make my day no matter how frustrating that day has been is a testament to their talent.

I would urge any writer who has the chance to work on comics – or games – to grab it. The experience of working closely with artists will change you, no matter how visual a writer you are to start with. And even writers need creatives to look up to and ask, "How did you ever come up with that?"

Imagination, extrapolation, & flying pigs.

I love anime. Whenever I admit that, people tell me it’s not what they expect from someone who writes heavily armed, hairy-arsed, foul-mouthed military fiction, but that’s me the individual, not me the writer. They’re not the same person. What I do for a job and what I like when I’m not working are two worlds. I love animation anyway, and I enjoy cartoons and illustration far more than “proper art,” but it’s not the cuteness of anime that appeals so much as how off the wall so much of it is.

The Japanese seem able to plunge into stories with impossible characters and situations without a backward glance, and make it work so that it never occurs to you to question why a seaplane pilot would be a pig under a curse. He just is. No explanation, almost no backstory, and no apology: that’s the way this world is, you accept it, and it makes perfect sense. I know Miyazaki said Porco Rosso was meant to be a more serious film, but most of us don’t know the creator’s intent when when we see it.

I rarely let myself watch a movie as a writer because it ruins it forever for me – you know how I have to compartmentalise my consumer mind from my creator one – but sometimes I can’t avoid seeing the sheer risk-taking freedom in an anime and envying it. I wish I could be that random. That’s the best word I have for it. I can usually see where other writers’ mental paths are taking them, but sometimes I can’t work it out, and it intrigues me. I’m not sure how random imaginations work or even if they’re different at all, only that I would never have thought of making a pilot into an actual pig in a million years. Readers say they don’t know how I come up with stories and that I’m imaginative, but I don’t think I am. An imagination is... a pig pilot. I’m an extrapolator. I deal in the art of the possible. As a journalist inevitably does. I always start from “What if, what next?” I might take it a very long way very fast, but to me it’s based on real world logic, and I don’t feel I could function without that. I’ve never had an urge to shove the proverbial cursed pig into a cockpit, and I wish I did. I have a book on the back burner involving a cockroach, and another with spiders, but both have a sensible starting point in the real world.

The last few months have forced me out of my comfort zone as a “sensible” writer. I’ve been working on a new comic series for 412 Comics, and although it’s political-military, my normal stock-in-trade, it’s set in a world with magic. Given the problem I had getting my head around Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, you’ll understand the mental gymnastics I had to go through to make the universe work. I’m not a natural fantasy writer. But once I built some rules, the “ecology of the fantastic” as Greg Frost used to call it back at Clarion, I was fine. And, of course, people always behave like people. You have the laws of that world’s physics, and then you drop your characters into it and watch how they navigate. I don’t think I would ever have chosen a magical world on my own, but once enough of it “existed,” I could operate within it. I need to treat worlds as real to write, and once I’m past that belief barrier, the story writes itself.

I would love to spend time with a creative who has what I think is a random imagination and try to see how their mind works. Maybe the process is the same as mine, but drawn from a different cultural toolbox in the broadest sense. I didn’t grow up on fairytales and wizards: I never got the message that I might be a secret princess or whatever all along, or that magic would solve all my problems, but that the real world was a certain way, seldom “fair,” and that I could change my fate by working for it. Maybe that’s a good thing: even as an adult, I’m suspicious of fiction that encourages kids to think they’re born special in life but robbed of their birthright by inferior people, or that they can get things without expending any effort. That’s quite unpleasant if you stop and think about it.

But maybe being brought up on reality has a price, and I’ll never have the random and utterly wonderful idea of a pilot who happens to be a pig for no reason connected to the story. The upside of that, though, is that I’ll always approach anime with a sense of wonder rather than seeing the strings.