linkage writers

Launched from last weekend

Hi folks,

I promised new flash fiction and I will deliver, but not tonight – too busy this week with things like a day job, returning to the gym after a long absence and wishing I was dead because everything hurts after returning to the gym after a long absence.

Instead, tonight, I’d like to explode with links in a follow-up from last weekend’s Continuum convention. I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting writers, bloggers and podcasters over that weekend, whether as co-panelists or just from talking in the bar, and it’d be nice to tell all y’all about them and spread some of the love.

  • Deborah Biancotti chaired the ‘I Don’t Get It’ panel and was both charming and very skilled at getting people back on track when they’d gone off on tangents. She’s a Sydney-based writer; I haven’t read her anthology A Book of Endings but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and I’ve liked the excerpts of other work I’ve read. She’s jumped into my to-read list right away.
  • Peter Ball was on the aforementioned panel and another panel on creating RPG worlds. He’s also a Brisbanite, a friend of a friend, a gamer and a comics reader, so frankly I’m kind of shocked it took us this long to meet. He likes Power Man and Iron Fist, tweets about terrible movies, blogs about writing and has two novellas on Smashwords. He’s good fucking value.
  • Ian Mond is a writer and podcaster, one of those overactive podcasters who knows all the other podcasters and they have like special podcastparties that I never get invited to and I should probably stop this sentence now. Anyway, he puts out two podcasts, The Writer and the Critic with Kirstyn McDermott (which won both a Chronos and a Ditmar award on the weekend) and the irreverent Shooting the Poo with some other people. We talked about comics and the problems with the DC reboot. I liked him.
  • Grant Watson was also on that same panel and agreed with me that Suicide Squad is basically God’s punishment on this fallen world, so he gets props. I listened to his comics podcast Panel2Panel this week and dug it; he has another podcast called Bad Film Diaries which I haven’t heard but I can guess what it’s about. Anyway, cool stuff.
  • Louise Cusack has been a guest of mine on the blog in the past, but I got a chance to actually meet with her and have a chat over the weekend, and she’s just lovely. We only touched base officially in the session where we were doing readings, along with Jo Spurrier and Danny Fahey, where we all bonded over the fact that pretty much nobody came to hear us. Oh well!
  • Jack Dann doesn’t need an introduction; he’s one of the giants of Australian speculative fiction. He was kind enough to moderate the panel on independent publishing. And he was really pleasant too.
  • Steven O’Connor is a YA writer who had his first novel lauded and launched by a major publisher who pulled the plug on the series before the sequel came out. Now he’s trying to get the rights back  while learning the ins and outs of independent e-publishing. He was a really nice chap who’s been thrown in at the deep end and he’s blogging about his learning process, which is a valuable thing and worth reading about.
  • Russell Farr is the founding editor of Ticonderoga Publications, who have really gained market in the last few years to become one of Australia’s biggest independent spec-fic publishers. He was on the indie publishing panel to give insight into the non-ebook, non-going-it-alone approach, and he was gracious, open to discussion and a real class act. I want to be in his books now.
  • Tor Roxburgh is a really interesting lady who decided to publish her fantasy novels herself and managed the entire process like a professional publisher, from hiring designers to picking paper stock and booking an international printer. I saw her book, The Light Heart of Stone, at the EWF’s Pages Parlour and it is indistinguishable from a big publisher’s product. I hope to lure Tor onto here to talk about this in the next month or two.
  • Sean Wright is a book blogger and reviewer from South Australia who’s been saying some very positive things about The Obituarist online. We hung out in a hallway after the independent publishing panel to chat about that and the differences in structure, narrative and audience engagement between crime and speculative fiction. Hopefully that’s a conversation we can continue online later.

These are cool people. You should check them out.


A Q-and-A with Louise Cusack

In another lifetime, and another city, I used to be a shelf-monkey at Borders. (I think the technical term was ‘store associate’, but ‘shelf-monkey’ is more accurate.) Given different duties over time as more staff quit and the store’s resources were stretched thinner and thinner, I started off by being in charge (ie the cleaner and sorter) of both the fantasy and romance sections, which were right next to each other. That made me realise that there were a lot of books on one set of shelves that could just as comfortably sit on the other (and vice versa), and a lot of overlap between the readers of those two genres.

One of the writers working in that overlap is Louise Cusack, author of the ‘romantic fantasy’ trilogy The Shadow Through Time. Louise jumped into the Australian fantasy scene in the early 2000s, at a time when the genre was getting a lot more attention in this country than usual (a high we’ve fallen back from, unfortunately), with novels of intrigue, erotica and fantasy adventure that spanned generations and worlds.

Recently the Shadow Through Time trilogy has been rereleased by Macmillan, this time as ebooks on their Momentum imprint, giving Louise a chance to reach an entirely new market outside Australia. That seemed like a good opportunity to ask her some questions about ebooks, fantastic romance and John Carter of Mars.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

I remember being in primary school and telling other kids that one day they’d see a book with my name on the cover. I was always good at English, but high school and dating distracted me. It was only after I was married and my first child was born that I remembered the writing. I took a couple of TAFE courses and entered short story competitions but I always knew I’d be a novelist. I don’t think I really considered the idea that I might never succeed. I was convinced that I just had to persist, and after eight years of full-time writing I finally got a three book publishing deal with Simon & Schuster Australia.

I never really wanted to do anything else. I’m not crafty or domestic. It’s all about story for me – books and movies. I can’t bear lifestyle shows because they don’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I was just born with some storytelling gene, and I was lucky enough to have been in a situation where I could give it room to flourish. I don’t ever want another career. For better or for worse I’ve defined myself as a novelist. I think there are worse things to be!

What exactly is ‘romantic fantasy’? How is that different from, well, non-romantic fantasy?

‘Romantic fantasy’ is written mostly by women for women. It’s a fantasy that has a strong love story as one of its plot threads. There’s less focus on the ‘boy’s own adventure’ aspects of fantasy like interminable questing and battles for the sake of bloodshed. But the adventure aspects are still important. It’s a delicate balance, but there’s definitely more focus on characterisation than straight fantasy novels.

It’s almost like the difference between erotica and pornography. There’s a greater focus on the sensuality, the senses, and how the action makes the characters feel emotionally as well as physically.

What is it that attracts you to romantic fantasy? Is it the same thing that attracts you to regular fantasy?

I love a good love story, no matter the genre, and most of the great books do have some form of love story in them. But my career focus as a writer is the ‘stranger in a strange land’ theme. It most readily lends itself to fantasy – someone going from our world into a fantasy world, like John Carter to Barsoom or Jake Sully to Pandora in the movie Avatar. I grew up reading sci fi, mostly the classics (in fact my first big crush was Capt James T Kirk!), and they were all about man meeting the unknown. My favourite SF novels were Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series. Add to which, my all-time favourite book is Alice in Wonderland which I must have read a hundred times, at least!

I’ve also had a lifelong fascinating with Leonardo da Vinci, whose perception of the world around him was unique. It was almost as if he was a stranger in our world observing things from a fresh perspective. I think there’s something to learn from that, and I try to bring that to my own work, seeing the world I’m writing about through completely fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted. It’s a personal belief of mine that the world’s problems can only be solved by people looking at the situation with fresh eyes, so anything I can do inspire that is time well spent.

You’ve blogged recently about the effect Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work, especially his John Carter of Mars novels, had upon you when younger. But my recollection of those books (and I read them like 20 years ago, so I could be completely wrong) is that they don’t have much of a romantic component. Am I wrong? In what ways did those books inspire you to write something like Shadow Through Time?

The John Carter novels were incredibly romantic! How could you have forgotten! I remember my rapture on first reading these books, how I thrilled to Carter’s inherent bravery, and the fact that he’d rather kill a warring opponent than a ‘brute beast’ (I think that was the vegetarian in me coming out). He had a pet Martian dog, and was a true action adventure hero, a man’s man, yet when he met the princess and fell in love with her he was endearingly hopeless.

Early in their romance he inadvertently insulted her, being unaware of their customs, and when she wouldn’t speak to him he was gutted. In his narrative he said:

…my foolish pride kept me from making any advances. I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men. The weakling and saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

He knew he was putty in her small, fragile hands, and for the first time (in the eighties) I was reading a male viewpoint in what was for all intents and purposes a romance novel, and finally getting to understand why men act like idiots when they’re in love! Mills and Boon novels at the time were all from a female viewpoint, and in any case I craved fantasy worlds and adventures. So these books gave me everything I loved, along with insights into the male psyche beyond battle and bloodshed. That male perspective on falling in love is something I’ve brought to my own Shadow Through Time trilogy, alongside the adventure that makes fantasy stories so thrilling.

What kind of process do you follow when you’re writing? What’s a typical day like when you’re at work on a book?

I find the first draft the most challenging part of the process, and I usually can’t do more than about 6 hours a day before I’m emotionally wrung out. I try to write my first draft in one uninterrupted run. When it’s flowing I can write 10 000 words a week, so theoretically I can finish the book in three months. Sometimes life intervenes, but I try to offset what I can until after the draft is done. Editing is more like creative bookkeeping to me so I can do longer hours and be interrupted more often.

My first draft is character driven and I write that ‘seat of the pants’, sometimes stopping to look at goal/motivation/conflict if I get stuck. When I’m finished I do detailed spreadsheets to pull apart my plot and subplots and restructure it to make it tight and interlocking. I have readers who help me with my structural and line edits before I send the manuscript to my agent for feedback and possibly more editing. Then it’s submitted to publishers.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

My main aim is to entertain. Bringing people pleasure shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a worthy goal. Secondary to that is the hope that my character’s experiences will inspire readers to look at their own world with fresh eyes. It’s also a by-product of the writing that it empties my head of conflict and makes my life tranquil. When I can get all the story out, I’m in my calm centre. When I’m blocked because of circumstance, I’m not as happy. I want to be able to write every day so I’ll be happy.

Macmillan have republished the Shadow Through Time trilogy as ebooks, which is very exciting. How do you feel about ebooks and epublishing?

I love ebooks! I bought my first Kindle last year and I adore it. As a completely impatient person I find it miraculous that a whim or internet link allows me to find and download a book in seconds. No more going to the bookstore, maybe finding it out of stock, having to wait until it’s ordered in. Then there’s the price of ebooks. Most are under $10; my Shadow Through Time series sells for AUD $4.99 an ebook. I can now feed my voracious appetite for books without guilt.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been developing an untitled young adult series I’ve been calling the Medici books and I’m close to handing in the first one. It’s based on a lost world discovered by Florentines in the time of the Italian Renaissance. I did a research trip to Rome and Florence in 2010 to help me imagine what sort of culture they would have created in the five hundred years since then. I’m really excited about that story. I’ve also written an Arabian fantasy in first draft. That has to be edited. Then there’s a very, very scary fantasy that I wrote an opening for and need to get back to now that I’ve had time to work out what the characters want.

You can find more of Louise’s writing at her blog, which also has full details on her books and the Shadow Through Time trilogy. All three novels in the series are available as ebooks from the Kindle Store, Barnes and Noble and iTunes.

You can also follow her on Twitter as @Louise_Cusack.

In closing, Louise sent me a link to the trailer for the new John Carter movie, which I wanted to share but I can’t work out how to embed it in the blog. So much for ‘idiot-proof’ interfaces! In any case, most of the reviews from people whose opinions I value say it’s a lot of fun. Hopefully I can get off my butt in time to see it in cinemas!


The Triumvirate

All writers have influences, whether those are other writers, artists, musicians and creators or sources closer to home like friends, family or the next-door neighbour whose ideas we steal at night using our radio poison devices. Some of them are sources we know about and examine; others are unconscious influences we don’t realise or admit even to ourselves, much less the crazy paranoid next door who glues tinfoil to his forehead to block you once and for all.

I mean, seriously, if his ideas are so precious, maybe he shouldn’t leave them lying around pinned to stolen undergarments. It’s just asking for trouble.

Anyway, this week I’ve been thinking about my influences, and I thought it would be fun to narrow them down to an arbitrary Top Three and talk about how fucking awesome they are. Or were, since they’re all old dead white dudes.

Jorge Luis Borges

Despite never being sure how to pronounce his name (Bor-jez or Bor-hez?), I’ve loved Borges’ work ever since stumbling across ‘The Library of Babel’ in some anthology or other back in my university days. Then I read ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ and I was utterly hooked; he’s been my favourite fantasist ever since. You can keep your Tolkeins and your Martins; they have their place and I like their stuff, but the true phantasmagoria has a different power and one that speaks more clearly to me.

Borges’ work has the resonance of myth, dream and parable. His stories pick a single concept, like an infinite library, a fictional reality replacing a real one or a writer attempting to recreate a classic novel from scratch, and play with it like a beautiful toy. A Borges piece doesn’t try to imply that it’s a snapshot of a wider world that could be further explored; each story is a thing onto itself, bound in a nutshell, a jewel that shines alone without any need to be socketed into an over-detailed crown. Even his ostensibly ‘realistic’ early work, like ‘Man on Pink Corner’, has this quality; a petty criminal is stabbed, and there’s no need to work out where he came from or what happens after the event, because all that matters is the sadness of the event and the tango happening in the background.

To quote biographer Edwin Williamson: “His basic contention was that fiction did not depend on the illusion of reality; what mattered ultimately was an author’s ability to generate ‘poetic faith’ in his reader.” And that approach to storytelling, to work inside a tight set of conceptual bounds’ and focus on wild fancy rather than prosaic underpinnings, is very much the way I come at stories, especially fantasy stories. I don’t care much about how the story could have come about or how it could fit into a greater context; I just like to focus on the what and the why of what’s happening now, in this narrative right here, and to go as far and fast into that idea as I can without stopping to get my bearings. That’s very much the ethos of Hotel Flamingo, to name the most obvious example, and that’s why getting called a ‘skittish Borges’ by one reviewer is pretty much the highpoint of my writing career.

Raymond Chandler

If Borges showed me where to go, it was Raymond Chandler – that prissy, irascible, homophobic, despicable genius – who showed me how to get there. When I first read The Big Sleep it was a thunderbolt, a revelation of a lean, muscular but also refined and intellectual prose style that could portray both action and pathos without dropping a beat.

Chandler’s work is unconcerned with fine detail, preferring to give readers short but incredibly rich cues that let them paint their own vision of his characters and their world. His punchy similes and metaphors do more in ten words than most writers could accomplish in three hundred. A description like “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” tells you everything you need to know about both the hot number being described and the attitude towards women on the part of the narrator. His work is finely crafted without being artificial, lyrical without being schmaltzly; his pulp thrillers gloss over the process of crime and punishment to reflect themes and questions of honour, courage, betrayal and the cost of doing the right thing.

Do I write like Chandler? Um, I’d like to say that I do, but I know I can’t measure up to that standard. I try my damnedest to write to the same general principles, though – to suggest rather than describe, to sum things up with a core metaphor rather than explicit detail, to put the emotional meat of conflict in the centre of the plate and let the vegetables take care of themselves. The Obituarist is my own attempt to come at Chandler’s sort of story and character, not as pastiche but through genuine inspiration, even if the trappings are totally different and the gender politics are a whole lot more enlightened. But I think you can see that ethos in the rest of my work, too – and it’s fun to apply that approach to other genres than crime, too. We could do with a lot more Chandler in our fantasy.

Hunter S. Thompson

I like to swear.

Okay, that’s the obvious thing everyone takes from Thompson, along with stories of ludicrous drug-fuelled rampages. It’s the easy hook and it’s a powerful one. Thompson wasn’t the first or even the best author to throw out that concept of the writer-as-celebrity, as a larger-than-life figure who didn’t just write stories but lived them and shaped them and brought them into being with the force of his own genius and excess – but he’s the one who got his claws into me, who made me consider the need not just to come up with stories but to wrestle them into submission. And yeah, I gave the life of heroic excess the old college try for a few years, but let it go before my knees, kidneys and neurons suffered too much permanent damage.

It’s too easy to let that be what we remember about Thompson, too easy a thing for writers to emulate without pushing further into his craft. Thompson was more than shock value and swagger, more than vitriol and a dishrag liver; he wrote with honesty and an appreciation of beauty, loss and truth that was visceral and harsh but still completely genuine. The ‘high-water mark’ passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the sad, restrained core of that book, a scene of quiet and deliberate art around which everything else shrieks and rages. There is a rare intellect in his prose, unhampered by sentiment or much care for those who’d judge him, and while he was a self-serving egotist who painted himself in the best and bloodiest light whenever possible, he was pretty honest about that too.

What have I learned from Thompson, other than ways to test my internal organs to their limits? That can be a little hard to pin down. There’s a lot of influence in my language, riddled with profanity and peppered with occasional grotesque absurdities. But I also try my best to go past that and to find the point and power under the froth and colour; to write as genuinely, honestly and unsentimentally as I can, even if my subject matter is ghosts and monsters rather than cocaine and the poisoned heart of Richard Nixon. And more than anything else, I try to build up a head of steam and ride that strange torpedo as far as it will go; to let momentum pick me up and throw me forward into the work without caring too much about where I land. Which is how HST wrote. And lived. And died, the motherfucker.

So that’s my Holy Trinity, my Three the Hard Way. If I was bulking the list out to five I’d have to start weighing up other possibilities, and it’d probably be Stephen King and Kathe Koja who got the nod. Or that’s what I think today, anyway; ask me next week and I might think of two completely different writers. But at the core it’s always Borges, Chandler and Thompson who fuel my love, blood and rhetoric; it’s always those three giants who teach me something different every time I start asking them what and how I should write next.

Also, looking at those photos, it’s really a wonder that I don’t smoke.

That’s my truth. Tell me yours. Who carried your prose on their shoulders to get it where it is today? Who do you go back to again and again for inspiration and guidance? Who is your Father/Mother, Son/Daughter and Holy Spirit of Indeterminate Gender?

Leave comments! I promise to try harder to respond to them from now on.


A Q-and-A with Foz Meadows

‘You write fantasy, don’t you? You should meet the new girl, she’s written a fantasy novel.’

That was my introduction to Foz Meadows. As it turned out, the temp working with the sales department at my publishing day job was one of Australia’s most promising (and likeable) up-and-coming YA authors, who had just published her first novel, Solace and Grief, the first in a trilogy about a young girl born as a vampire and now trying to find other teenagers with similar gifts/curses. You can’t go past a premise like that; it’s like a cross between Requiem and X-Men.

Over time we bonded through a mutual interest in reading, writing, alcohol and webcomics. And she never seemed to bear a grudge for that time I nearly cut off her thumbs while we were fixing the photocopier.

Recently Foz moved to Scotland for an indeterminate period with her husband, while back in Australia The Key to Starveldt, the second book in her  trilogy The Rare, has recently been published. With the third book on the horizon, posts-a-plenty on her thought-provoking blog Shattersnipe and other projects in the offing, I thought it a good time to ask Foz a few questions about writing, blogging, YA fiction and what it all means to her.

I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of office/publishing job that pays better?

Words got their claws in me early. As much as I loved to draw and sing as a kid, neither art nor music ever moved me like writing did. From the time I could read, I loved stories; because I loved stories, I read; because I loved reading, I wrote – and the more I wrote, the easier it became, so that by the time I was in my early teens, not-writing was unthinkable.

Which isn’t to say I never daydreamed about being a palaeontologist or an actor or a foreign correspondent, but even when I started choosing school subjects around a planned career in archaeology, it never once occurred to me to stop writing stories. I might as well have anticipated cutting off a hand.

And so, authorness. Which – alas! – does not preclude the necessary holding of various office jobs that most certainly do pay better. It just means I tend to write worldbuilding notes by the photocopier as well.

You write YA fiction and read/review a lot of it too. But a lot of people (and I am kinda thinking of me here, I admit it) tend to consider YA fiction a poor cousin of ‘proper fiction’. How do you react to that perception?

The fallacy about YA novels is that they constitute a sort of writing-down, as though teenagers are necessarily presented with inferior prose, plotting, characterisation, worldbuilding and/or themes until they grow up and thereby prove themselves worthy of Adult Literature. Further offhand disparagement frequently centres on structure: that YA stories are simpler and shorter than their adult counterparts, with all-over happier endings and more predictable catharsises.

To which I say: bullshit.

As a genre – or, more relevantly, as a marketing concept – YA is new. No sane person would ever accuse C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling or Astrid Lindgren of having dumbed down their writing, but only because we think of their works as Classics. This is a very tricksy label and one it pays to keep tabs on, because by seemingly automatic and unspoken covenant, all non-literature novels raised to Classic status instantly loose their genre. This way, the very best YA, SFF, crime, horror and romance novels are spared the burden of representing the pinnacle of achievement in their respective genres, and are instead lumped together in a sort of margarine-category, the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Literary Fiction! of the writing world.

Which means, to get back on track, that only new YA authors are ever accused of dumbed-down prose and simplistic plotting, as though commercial success and popularity must always be anathema to substance, damn kids with their rap music and skateshoes and colourful hardbacks, GET OFF MY LAWN.

What is it about YA fiction that attracts you, as a reader and as a writer?

I find it hard to say sincerely what attracts me to YA fiction, because as much as I’ve just been calling it a genre, it also sort of isn’t. No other genre has its conventions gauged by the status of its (supposed) intended readership, because such a factor has nothing to do with narrative structure and everything to do with backward inference. Saying ‘geek fiction’ instead of SFF, for instance, conveys information about who, in my subjective estimation, such books are written for, but nothing about what they actually say.

And while that might be helpful if the object of the exercise is simply to match stories to demographics, we end up leading the witness when we ask why people choose to write or read it, because we’re implicitly making a judgement about what sort of person they are. I’ve never seen myself as writing for an age-group: I write the sorts of stories that I enjoy reading, and whether those are deemed externally to be more appropriate for teenagers or adults, the most relevant consideration to me is that I write fantasy. I love asking ‘what if’ questions about how the world works; I love the idea of hidden layers of reality, of magic doors to different places that can unpick all our notions of normality; I love mythology; and I really love making things up.

Do you have any plans to eventually write adult books, despite the fact that that label sounds kinda dirty?

I am working on at least one project right now that would be unequivocally termed ‘adult’, if only because of the sex scenes. So while I love the idea of teenagers reading my books, they’re by no means an exclusive audience.

You’ve written a lot of blog posts this year about the social issues surrounding YA fiction, such as the depiction of race and gender and the privilege and assumptions many readers bring to the work. What is it that drives you to write about these topics? Is this an area where YA fiction has a lot of problems, and if so, why is that?

If I’ve tended to talk about these problems largely in relation to YA, it’s because I’ve often been responding to existing discussions about specific YA novels, or which have been driven by YA authors. Issues of race, gender and privilege are by no means exclusive to YA, nor does it have a worse problem than any other genre (although whether the presence of a mostly teenage audience makes those concerns more pressing in YA is a different question).

What drives me most about these concerns is the extent to which so many people seem unaware of how deep-seated and toxic some of our unconscious biases are. Over and over, I find myself repeating that people are shaped by culture. Stories are part of culture: they both shape and are shaped by it. The same is true of their authors. When negative patterns emerge in types of stories in aggregate, a natural response is to try to address them at a personal level, attempting a culture-shift by subverting them in our own works. But how can you criticise the tropes in an individual work when the problem isn’t that any one book should feature them, but rather that they’ve become the default setting?

Take, for example, the ongoing discussion about the overwhelming number of pretty dead girls on YA covers. Taken singly, each of these cover images could be considered beautiful and relevant to the story it represents. Taken en masse, we’re forced to ask questions about why photos of passive, pretty, lifeless women are universally being used to sell books to teenage girls, and what that says about the culture of story-selling (if not story-telling) we find ourselves in.

This particular example has the benefit of being visual. But try the same trick with the overabundance of stories about straight, white protagonists, and suddenly the issue becomes murkier. Detractors ask: Why does it matter? Are we suggesting authors should have a diversity quota? Does the absence of queer or POC characters make a book less morally worthy than it otherwise might be? Shouldn’t it just be about the story? These might seem like ridiculous questions, but that doesn’t stop people from asking them when confronted with the prospect of criticising their favourite tales.

Unlike the example of dead girls on covers, the contents of stories can’t be blamed on the whims of marketing departments: instead, we must confront the prospect that authors are using popular tropes without necessarily stopping to think about what they mean. And if we love an author, series or story, then criticising them along those lines is a difficult thing to do. As I’ve recently said elsewhere , loving something should mean we hold it to higher standards, not lower; ask more questions of it, not fewer. And yet we flinch from doing so for fear of what it might mean. That’s the reason I end up blogging so often: love your stories by all means, but think about them, too!

I often see you blogging or tweeting about new ideas for stories and novels, and things you work on for fun that wind up becoming more serious. What’s your process like as a writer?

When I’m in a writing groove, whatever story I’m working on quite literally obsesses me. If I have a dayjob when the frenzy strikes, every free second will be spent doing sneaky edits and worldbuilding; my lunch break will become writing time, and instead of reading on my commute home, I’ll think about my characters. If I don’t have a dayjob or it’s the weekend, I’ll frequently start writing at around 10am and work nonstop until 5pm – given the opportunity, I tend to forget about such niceties as pants, bathing and lunch. I’ll usually break for dinner, but I’m also a night-owl, and if I haven’t written myself into a corner by then and provided there are no social outings to distract me, I’ll go straight back to the keyboard and work until circa 1am.

My minimum daily output tends to hover somewhere around 2000 words, with the uppermost limits being around 10 000. I can keep up the pace for as long as inspiration holds out, which might be anywhere from a week to a month, but (so far) never any longer. I do sometimes take up ambush-projects, little side-stories and worldbuilding and whathaveyou. The same rules don’t apply in those cases, but even if I’m fixated only for an hour or an afternoon, I’m still pretty much fixated.

When I’m not writing, I read, play video games, watch DVDs, go to the movies and generally sloth, though I tend to think of this less as leisure than brainfuelling. Part of my subconscious is always concerned with storytelling, and the more I engage with narrative, the more assertive it becomes. Writing binges take a lot of energy: reading in particular replenishes me, and once the gauge is full, I can’t help from tearing off again. It’s a rhythm of sorts, but not very ordered or restrained.

Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

Very much, I’d like to subvert expectations. I want my books to make people ask questions – and for the writing of them to turn me quizzical, too.

What are you currently working on?

I’m splitting my time between two very different and unrelated projects. One, as mentioned above, is noticeably more adult; the other is proving impossible to characterise. Both are most properly described as epic fantasy (though each with a respective caveat), and both are reworkings of very old ideas, but other than that, their structure, pace and themes are quite disparate. I’m madly in love with the pair of them, and can’t wait to see where they end up!

You can find more of Foz at Shatterspike, where you can also find more information about Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt. Both books are available in major Australian bookstores, while the ebook version of Solace and Grief can be found in the Kindle Store.

Plus she’s on Twitter as @fozmeadows. Which is fairly easy to remember.

linkage writers

September blog round-up

Okay, that’s a boring title. Maybe I should have recycled some previous hits, like BLOGS: THREAT OR MENACE?, or something tongue-in-buttcheek like HELL COMES TO BLOGTOWN.

But it’s been a long week at the day job, and my imagination banks are wrung dry and would really appreciate being topped up with bourbon and sleep. So, since this is a light mid-week post and I want to save my A-grade material for the paid bigger post on Sunday, I thought I might work my way through my Google Reader blogroll and point y’all at much better blog posts than this one that were written in September (and early October, just ‘cos I can).

Not that kind of round-up

(PS I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week. I got distracted. THIS IS WHY I CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.)

Not that kind either

As for me, well, I keep on keeping on. I plan to get back into the sweary polemics this weekend, which should make for a more interesting read.

(Incidentally, if this kind of overview post is interesting to you, let me know in the comments. For that matter, tell me if it sucks possum ringpiece. Just talk to me. I’m so lonely.)


Just in passing

I know I keep saying I’ll do short updates on Thursday nights.

Well, tonight I mean it, because I’m tired and a little bit drunk. Partially that’s because we’ve been celebrating my fiancée’s new job with pizza and wine, and partially because I went out for beers earlier in the evening with Cam Rogers, Jay Kristoff and Dmetri Kakmi, which was a whole lot of fun. We spent a while talking about writing, publishing, David Lynch films,  steampunk, games, half-naked women and a bunch of other cool things. It was my first time meeting Jay and Dmetri and they were amazing, smart, word-savvy writer dudes.

And speaking of steampunk and Jay Kristoff, he’s done a really interesting series of blog posts on the history of the subgenre, from its early roots to its explosion as a fashion/subculture. I’ve struggled with steampunk because I’ve felt that there haven’t been enough core texts to really give it any kind of foundation, but Jay showed me that there’s more there than I realised. Plus hot girls in goggles, which never hurts. So go check it out, and keep a weather-eye open for his first novel, Stormdancer, which is coming out next year.

I also wrote a few more words of Arcadia, but only a few:

Bear with me, folks; it’s been a hell of a busy week in the educational publishing business. I’ll try to knuckle down a bit over the weekend.



A Q-and-A with Cam Rogers

If it wasn’t for Cam Rogers, I probably wouldn’t be here.

I don’t mean that he stormed the trenches to rescue me from the Nazis or anything. But without his influence and support I doubt I’d have moved to Melbourne, or be writing this blog right now.

I knew Cam slightly from waaaay back in the day in Brisbane, where we had friends in common in the early-mid 90s goth scene up there. It was a remarkably big scene, though, so we never really got to know each other. Eventually he moved south to Melbourne, as is the norm for creative types in Brisbane, and I left the goth scene in favour of hip-hop and professional wrestling.

Then, years later, his novel The Music of Razors was mentioned by the annotated bibliography maker of Demon: the Fallen, a White Wolf game I’d worked on, and it spurred me to get back in touch with him. That was, hmmm.. 2003? Yeah, sounds about right. In any case, Cam and I became reacquainted. When he and his then-partner encouraged me to come down to Melbourne for a holiday, I decided it sounded like fun; two weeks later I got back and told everyone in Brisbane I was moving to Melbourne within six months. Which I did.

So Melbourne, you have Cam to thank for that.

Cam’s best known for his dark urban fantasy novel The Music of Razors, which was a moving yet fast-paced story about angels, monsters, innocence and corruption. He’s also dipped his toe into children’s fiction with Nicholas and the Chronoporter, written under the wonderful pen-name of Rowley Monkfish. His follow-up adult novel, Fateless, ended up being shelved for a number of reasons, and recently he’s been focusing on the romantic tragedy Falling, his blog Wait Here For Further Instructions, a new YA project and fingers in a bunch of other pies.

He’s a good friend and a terrific writer, and as a welcome change from me going on and on about editing and narrative and all that sort of clobber, I thought it would be fun to sit down with Cam for a Q&A session.

Let’s start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative area like theatre – or, hell, instead of plumbing, which pays better?

Doing anything other than this feels like failure. It doesn’t make me especially viable as a long-term, team-oriented go-getter with a passion for providing a lifetime of quality customer service. After a while I begin to resent the time any other work takes away from getting a book finished. I imagine all the scenes and chapters that will never be written because I wasn’t at the keyboard. It becomes ‘That’s great. Hi, I’m Cam and you’re murdering my children. How can I help you today?’

I don’t have a choice but to make this work if I really want to be happy. Or bearable to be around.

Are you working on creative projects other than writing?

I’ve got a short stop-motion film in very early pre-production with a friend. It’s only six minutes or so, and we like the concept quite a lot. I’m looking forward to working more on that. Also my agent’s asked that I start submitting film treatments to be shopped around LA, so you never know. I treat this whole thing like a lottery.

Is there something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

Mainly I want to tell a really good story. If that story can also change somebody’s life, that’s gravy. Books and movies helped me get through my childhood, changed who I am. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to make something that good.

I often think of a lecturer I had at university who would read Samuel Beckett whenever he was feeling down. Beckett is not happy material, but Michael read Beckett because Beckett’s work told him that someone else at some point had felt exactly as he was feeling now. I think that’s part of what art is for: to remind us that we’re not all of us, thankfully, that unique. Sometimes good art is a hug, other times it’s a tough-love slap in the face. Other times it’s a message in a bottle that says ‘I’m one of your tribe.’ There’s a reason we’ve been doing this for as long as there’s been people. When I get emails from people who’ve really taken The Music of Razors to heart, for example, it makes my freaking month.

Are there themes you like to revisit in your work?

I think most writers have themes they’re unconsciously drawn back to. I’ve certainly found a few in my own work, long after it’s seen print, and now I try to pull away from those themes and situations if I see them forming up again. I don’t want to make a habit of repeating myself.

A recurring element I see in your work is that you often focus on the emotions of your characters, not just what they’re feeling but why and how. Is emotion a place you write from or towards?

Well, I think people read stories for people. Not for set-pieces, not for action, not for historical verisimilitude. All that stuff’s great, but what keeps people engaged in a story is truth about other people. And what people feel is a truer hook for me than what they think they’re thinking. Emotion is a condition closer to music. It has that power, that route straight to a person’s core. It’s elemental, it’s spiritual, it’s poetic. It’s also quicker, more powerful and just makes more sense to have a character act from some form of emotional charge than from an A-plus-B-equals-C internal monologue. I mean, they can be intelligent about whatever action they’re taking, but if it means something to them then it’ll mean something to us.

You’re one of the most focused and hard-working writers I know; you keep pushing at your work over and over until it’s done. Can you say something about your work ethic and your process?

I very much learn from people who’ve done it better than me. Knowing where to go next saves so much goddamn time I cannot begin to tell you. By that I mean knowing what’s needed structurally.

Practically, if I’m working a day job then I reserve one day a week where I don’t write at all. That’s my release valve. I go to a gallery, a flick, hang out with friends. A full weekend in one day. The other day is sacrosanct writing time. Wake early, write in bursts, allow regular breaks, stay fresh. When I do take day jobs I try to ensure I get Wednesdays off. That way I never work more than two days at a time, which means I’m not crackling with frustration by Friday which will in turn eat my entire weekend. I also try to get four hours sleep when I get home from work so I can then do two hours writing with a clear head. I also allow myself one day of not doing that for every two or three depending on how I’m feeling energy-wise.

It’s all about keeping fuelled and keen. I learned the hard way that grinding myself relentlessly was far, far less productive than taking regular breaks, allowing for time off, and being a little more relaxed in my approach.

You redraft and rewrite a lot, certainly a lot more than me. What’s your approach to a first draft, and where do you go from there?

I try to get at least a thousand words down per day on a first draft, more on days off, and I allow for the fact that the first draft is clay. It’ll be crap. But it’ll be crap I can work with. That’s the really important part: not allowing my internal editor to prevent me from getting that vital first draft. I’m allowed to write things that contradict everything that’s gone before – I’ll just leave a bracketed note to deal with it in the edit. I’ll realise that a scene needs a setup or payoff or even a whole character that I haven’t written. Note it and move on. Clackety-clack.

Getting that first draft slammed out while I’m still in the honeymoon phase with an idea is absolutely vital. Once I’m out of the woods with a craptacular first draft I’m in much better shape than the person ten miles behind who’s still getting it ‘just right’. The first ideas are a pencil sketch, the first draft is a charcoal sketch, the second is my deciding on colours and composition, and the third is when it all gets committed the whole thing to oils. The first two drafts are sketches, not my memorial. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

You’ve written on your blog about the experience of walking away from your second novel, Fateless, which was consuming your life. How did you come to that decision? Can you ever see yourself going back to that book?

Fateless was my highschool sweetheart; we got married early and divorced after eighteen years.

In the end it was meant to be the quick follow-up to The Music of Razors, as it was pretty much done when Razors was released. For reasons I explain in an article on my blog, however, finishing Fateless was downright Sisyphean. I’d worked on it for so long, the complexity of it always staying one length ahead of my developing technical ability making the whole thing interminable, but Sunk Cost Fallacy making sure I didn’t quit – because to quit would be to lose all the time I’d put into that albatross to begin with. It was hell. In the end I had to accept that it would take less time to write something new than to finish that thing. I was lashed to a dead lover and she was dragging me beneath the waves. Had no choice.

And yes, I can see myself going back to it. Like some horrible running gag. But only with a few provisos: 1) I get a huge amount of distance between what was Fateless and the reboot it could be; 2) I ruthlessly apply a simpler vision to it; 3) I structure it classically, excellently and cleanly before I write a word; 4) I slam out this newer, younger draft as fast as I can so that I have something to work with, not something I spend twelve months ‘getting right’.

But if that happens it’s a long way off. I’m still way too close to it.

You’ve written adult fiction and children’s fiction, and now you’re working on a young-adult book. Obviously there are differences in language and subject matter, but are there other differences in the way you approach work for different ages? Have any differences surprised you?

Not really. The idea comes first. Once I have that I tweak it to fit the age group. Kids know when they’re being spoken down to, so I write for them the same way I’d write for anyone else: I try to tell a good story about characters they can identify with and care about. That’s the most important thing. I also try to say a few things along the way, play with ideas, but it’s got to be a good read first and foremost.

For any ‘adult’ element I might have included in a regular novel there’s an age-appropriate equivalent as well, so nobody gets short-changed or condescended to. Murder becomes a punch-up, sex becomes holding hands. That said, though, you can actually have death (even murder if you approach it in a kind of 1940s shadow-on-the-wall off-camera way.) This particular project is the most action-oriented thing I’ve ever written and I’m having a great time with it. Language aside, I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with it it’ll be able to hold its head up alongside more adult material.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I’m finishing the first of what we hope will be a six-book series for middle readers. I’m working on that with Dmetri Kakmi (Mother Land), who’s a fantastic novelist. Which is all I can say about it at this point. I’ve got a novel in second draft stage that I’ll finish once I’m done with the YA book. After that I’m polishing the final draft of the short film script. Then I’m working on film treatments for existing properties that I’ve got and maybe writing something totally new as well. And I’ve got feelers out with a view to possibly getting a graphic novel off the ground, but I’m not certain now’s a good time for it.

After that I’ve got material I’m working up for a third novel, and after that I may (may) finish Fateless once and for all. Maybe. Big maybe.

You can find more of Cam’s writing at Wait Here For Further Instructions, where you can also find extracts and information on The Music of Razors and Nicholas and the Chronoporter.

Follow him on Twitter as @cam_rogers and on Facebook as, well, Cam Rogers.


3 x 3

In this mid-week update, three things, one of which also has three things in it.

How Does I Read?

I’ve had feedback here, and on Twitter, that my last post seemed a bit too confrontational and absolute. Some readers felt that I was making very definite statements that any form of backstory was bad, no exceptions, and if you like backstory or want to explore it in your work I was saying you’re a bad person, yes, I mean you, right there, drinking coffee in your underwear while reading the internet, I hate you SO MUCH.

His eyes, they follow you around the room, and then call you a twat.

Well, if that’s the message that came across, I’m sorry about that. These posts and mini-essays are more theoretical polemics than anything else, and such things lend themselves to a bit of blood and thunder in the authorial voice in order to gain attention. After all, if Warren Ellis has taught us anything, it’s that a beard full of whiskey dregs can provide an ecosystem for an entire family of wrens an aggressive writing style can garner a legion of fans. Plus, well, it’s more fun to write in definites than in maybes and sometimeses.

But still, I’m going to work on that, and try to get these ideas out in a way that doesn’t alienate readers or nearly spur fistfights on social media. Honest.

Who Do You Read?

But of course, the internet’s not a vast echo chamber where you can only hear my voice commanding you to burn your Mercedes Lackey novels, thundering over and over until bloody grey wax trickles from your ear canals to pool on your trembling shoulders.

Not yet, anyway.

There are other writer blogging, tweeting and generally pontificating out there, and I’m curious to hear about who else y’all read on a (semi)regular basis. Who’s out there, laying down the wisdom and gaining an audience, and how do I steal their vital essences?

Here are three of my must-reads, who you (obviously) must read if you aren’t already.

Chuck Wendig: I know, I namedrop Chuck all the goddamn time, I must want his little Wendibabies or something. (In truth, he only has the one, and it would be inconvenient to take it off his hands.) But the reason I do that is because Chuck is a terrific writer, and more importantly a terrific blogger who uses his thinkspace Terrible Minds to pump out new, interesting, thought-provoking stuff nearly every single goddamn day. I wish I had his energy. Or his sweet glands.

Cameron Rogers: A great writer, an excellent blogger and a good friend, the author of The Music of Razors and someone who writes from the gut every time he sits at the computer. Cam blogs every week at Wait Here For Further Instructions and has been putting together a great series on the need for creative people to make connections and work together, not out of shallow networking but from friendship and for shared energy and visibility. Smart, high-level stuff.

Foz Meadows: I met Foz when she worked in my day-job office last year, then realised she was a talented writer and whip-smart blogger, even if she had the temerity to argue with me in the comments to my last post. She’s been writing some excellent stuff this year about representations of and assumptions about gender in fantasy and young-adult fiction at her blog, Shattersnipe, and it’s really worth a read.

What about you? Who are your three writer-bloggers everyone should read?

Why Don’t They Read?

Hotel Flamingo and Godheads have each sold precisely fuck-all copies this month, despite a half-price sale at Smashwords – they’re still doing better (and making me a better royalty) there than at Amazon, but that’s not saying much.

I’m not dispirited about this, really, but I can’t say I’m particularly happy about it either. I’ve tweeted and blogged and social-mediaed about these books, and I really think they’re worth reading, but that only goes so far. There are three things I need, and I’m hoping you can help.

Sales-site reviews: More reviews on SM and Amazon would help, especially for Godheads. If you’ve read either book and liked them, post a quick review on either site, or preferably on both.

Other-site reviews: I’m submitting them out for reviews here and there, but it’s proving tricky to find the right sites. Do you know of any sites that review ebooks? Send me recommendations and details!

Word of mouth: More than anything else, this is key – if you liked these books, tell someone else about them, especially if that someone doesn’t know me or already follow me here or on LJ/Twitter. Honest word of mouth recommendations make a huge difference, as does every $2.99 sale.

I’m not looking to make a fortune on these books; hell, I’m not really trying to break even on them. But they’re books more people could enjoy, I think, and I’d like to make that happen.

As always, details of both Godheads and Hotel Flamingo can be found on the Books page here, if you want more details or want to direct people this way.

Next weekend, the start of a three-part series on character, filled with the usual blustery statements and controversy. But I may put a photo of a kitten in the background, just to keep everyone happy.

Bliss Kitten says OBEY.

You see? Flawless. No-one can hate me now.