Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Guest Blog Post - David Douglas

I'm on holidays, the cricket1 is on, and I have a fridge full of VB2. Alas, in the face of such noble and manly pursuits, this blog has taken a bit of a back seat (temporarily, of course).

But fear not! David Douglas, fellow OWW critter and blog follower, has kindly stepped in to fill the breach with the first ever Cackling Scribe guest post.

Many thanks, David! I shall now leave you in his capable hands while I go and get another VB....

1 A game played in short bursts between long ad-breaks.


2 A type of beer. Brewed in Victoria, but actually quite nice.


----

First of all, thanks to Peter for the opportunity to post here. My name is David Douglas. I write a travel & photo blog, and have just self-published my first fantasy novel, Demon’s Bane. PDF sample available here or check out where to buy here.

Every fantasy writer must be James Cameron. We have a lower budget, we lack CGI unless you count WYSIWYG on the word processor screen, and we don’t even have colors (much less 3D) to capture our reader’s imagination. But we start from the same place as Cameron did with Avatar: building a world in our minds, which must captivate the reader and bring him or her to a faraway land.

How to create a new environment? We can either start with what we know and modify it, or research something we know little about. For my first book, I just started thinking and let the world flow out (and later, the words). So quite a lot of it is based on my own North American culture, with a bit of European flair thrown in (as I’ve lived in Germany for five years now). When I moved into new areas I didn’t understand, I researched with Google and Wikipedia to keep my facts straight.

Take the setting, for example. The tale starts off in a deciduous, temperate forest, much like where I grew up in the eastern US. There are chapters where the characters are sailing, and a lot of terms were familiar (I learned to sail on the River Charles as a teenager). I had to do a bit of research there, however. In the following sections, the characters travel through prairies where I never lived (more research). In cities, my European experience came into play: almost every big city here has an “old town” area that dates from medieval times. A few still even have the city wall surrounding them, and there are many (sometimes crumbling) castles the likes of which most Americans have only seen in movies. My weekend tourism here has greatly improved the descriptions of the cities my characters encounter.

What about the characters themselves? North Americans hardly think about it, but players in the books we read generally follow the same social conventions we do. We shake hands, clap each other on the shoulders, or give a bear hug to an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Many Europeans give the two-kisses-on-the-cheek as hello, which we might also recognize. But Asian cultures are more likely to bow in greeting... when was the last time you saw that in a novel that wasn’t set in the Far East?

Treatment of women is another sticky subject. I’m all for fairness, and that shows in my novel (where women can be clan leaders, and are treated equally). But throughout history, the fairer sex was not often in a position of power. Even today, many cultures treat women in a way I find offensive (including most of the Middle East). It’s fascinating to see how writers address this in their novels; Westerners often have to use their imagination (or do research) to come up with a subordinate-female culture. Slavery and indentured servitude are also themes that fantasy writers can consider when writing about a less-civilized, ancient society. Even though they are (thankfully) far from our realities, they add a lot of depth and realism to a fantasy world.

One interesting cultural (and linguistic) aspect in my book is a character who likes idioms and expressions, but always gets them mixed up. I’m suspecting that Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis would also get the references (a bird in the hand... rocks in your head... the bigger they are, the harder they fall...). However, non-native speakers would understand these just about as well as I get the German idioms. Courtesy of a friend’s quotes-post: “The middle of nowhere” becomes “There, where the foxes say good night to each other.” And “Don’t get carried away!” becomes “Leave the church in the village.” I can only imagine what Asian sayings might be like, after I bought a magnet in Hong Kong that says “You are my love, my angle [angel?], don’t treat me like potato!”

In my next book, I plan to add an Asian flair, as the characters will be on a new continent with strange customs. It won’t be based on any one Asian culture, but on what I’ve learned from various trips to the Far East (China, Malaysia, Taiwan...). I have a feeling I’ll have to do a lot more research than I did for Demon’s Bane... but there will still be some western style mixed in. That’s what fantasy is all about: whatever we dream up can become real on the page! Just make it interesting and consistent, and each new world can be as compelling as Cameron’s Pandora.

To those who are writers, good luck! Do you have any interesting cultural tips you’d like to share from your own writing experiences?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Driving Without Headlights - Revisited

I recently mentioned that I was starting my next novel - The Weight of Souls - without using any kind of outline and without stopping to review or edit as I went. This approach is completely new for me, and I was deeply cynical as to whether it would work. Nonetheless, I thought I'd give it a go.

In the end, I reached about 31,000 words before giving up. In my mind, the story had descended into a twisting morass of plot-ends, shallow characters and repetitive action. I was all set to write a blog post confirming that, for me, the non-outline approach doesn't work, and I now needed to start over from scratch. Presuming, that is, I ever had the heart to return to The Weight of Souls.

Then, a funny thing happened. A bit over a week ago, I sat down late one evening and decided to read through the 31K words I had written. I was fully expecting to cringe at every turn, and perhaps find myself unable to reach the end before giving up in disgust. Instead, to my utter amazement, I thought what I had written was quite good - very much worthy of first draft status. Yes, the characters are shallow and need a lot of fleshing out, as does the description, environment, and the overall back-story. But the plot works well, and most importantly, the voice and feel that I had hoped would come across appears to do so.

The next day, I got stuck back into it. As I write this, I'm sitting at 41,000 words, and aiming to finish the draft by New Years. That means I'm writing something close to 2,500 words a day, but I now feel encouraged that this approach can indeed work, and I'm not totally wasting my time.

I can now see the advantages of using this method, and I think I'll stick with it for the time being - provided the final result for this novel is what I would have hoped.

I'm enjoying it enormously. Even better, it's helping take my mind off my continuing wait for news of Ping-Ling. The manuscript has now been sitting in a publisher's office (at least, I hope that's where it is and it didn't get lost in the mail) for approaching 12 weeks, and I no longer have any fingernails left. Any distraction is very welcome.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Move Over, Byron!

A little while ago, I subjected you all to a dose of my poetry, namely my entry in the Mentors, Muses and Monsters contest.

A rival I doth spy, with my little eye

It turns out I was one of the finalists, so please check out all the winning entries as they're posted over the next week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

'Twas One of Those Evenings....

The weekend started off well. The weather was great, and I managed to get stuck into painting our new room in preparation for child number 3 due early next year. Then, at 6ish, I got a phone call from a friend asking why we hadn't arrived at their house for dinner yet. I insisted, in a definite tone, that she was mistaken, and it was scheduled for next Saturday. Alas, the evidence was there in the pixels of an email (which I obviously hadn't read very clearly), and I had no choice but to admit that I am, in fact, a bit of a dunce.

Then, just before bed, I checked my email in case there were any other social events I had forgotten. No social events, just one from ASIM, telling me my short story sub (which I wrote about last post) failed at the first stage. Apparently the reader didn't like the ending. Bugger.

Nobody should receive a rejection email on a Saturday night. It should be banned by law. There should be a narrow window of time established, say between 8.13 and 8.15 Monday morning, when rejection emails are allowed to be sent. Outside of that, you send one, you get a hefty fine. Maybe even thumb-screws.

So, there you go. No wonderful catch up with friends, no story in ASIM. Thankfully, I'm happy to report I got the room painted. At least the ceiling. Walls are due next week.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Vision Most Clear

Today, I submitted my first ever short story for publication. I sent it to a rather cool looking online magazine called Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. They have a delightfully transparent submissions process, where the author is kept up to date as to where their story is in the slush pile. They identify three stages: Stage 1 means submission received, stage 2 means it's at the second reader, and stage 3 means it's been judged as good enough for the magazine, but needs and editor to pick it up. When you send your sub, you get a tracking number, and the number and stage are kept up to date on a website. How good is that!

The story is called A Vision Most Clear. It's slightly different, perhaps a bit quirky, but I like it. Will they like it too? I'll keep you posted!

And, as the great poet said, if you never give it a go, you'll never ever know.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Who the Hell is Willard Price?

Contestitis Chronicus has struck again. This time, the aim is to write some kind of tribute to an author who postively/negatively influenced our desire to become writers. The first (actually the second) name that came to mind was the late and great Willard Price, whose books I used to devour in my early teenage years. Here is my off-the-cuff attempt at (what is probably extremely bad) poetry.

Lots of fun to write. If you feel the urge to give me any helpful comments, please do so! I don't need to submit this until mid December.


While working b'ind the counter of my local Borders store,
A customer of youthful age approached me to implore,
That I should share my wisdom on which new book he might buy,
Ideally, without vampires, ghosts, or broomsticks in the sky.

Delightedly, I gave a grin and bid him walk this way,
Towards the tiny scrap of paranormal-free YA,
And reaching for the titles, I drew out something nice,
A ripping-yarn adventure tale, by author, Willard Price.

He screwed his stud-pierced nose at me, and stared like I was mad,
Then uttered words that stung me, worse than any slap I'd had,
“Who the hell is Willard Price?” he gave a mocking cry,
And I fought hard, against the urge, to poke him in the eye.

“You’ve never heard of Willard Price?” I kept my tone polite,
“It’s gripping, thrilling, heads above this modern YA shite,
Willard takes you places so exotic, far away,
'Twas he who made me want to write, and so I do, this day”.

“Well good for you,” the youth looked bored, his heart no longer in it,
“I write too, I text at nearly 50 words per minute.
But maybe I should simply listen, to my friends' harangues,
And buy that new release about the fairy with the fangs.”

And as he left, I sadly slipped the book back in its place,
There to wait for someone new, to set their heart to race,
Who the hell is Willard Price? The modern youngsters say,
But they don’t write them, like they used to, back in Willard’s day.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Am I the Only One Who Notices This Kind of Thing?



This is on the ground floor of our building. It's truly beautiful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Seven Weeks

That's how long it's been since I posted the Ghost of Ping-Ling. Several authors whose blogs I follow have recommended that the best thing to do in this situation is forget it and get on with life, pretend you never even sent it in the first place. This is very sensible advice. I would go so far as to rank it alongside "eat lots of brussel-sprouts" and "always remember to floss".

I have tried to keep busy. I've written 35,000 words of my next project, edited a short story, drawn about eight sketches, watched ten movies, even managed to read a novel and a half. But I can't help thinking about my manuscript. Has anyone read it? Is it sitting, covered in a layer of dust, on a shelf somewhere? Is it in a brief-case on its way to a meeting? Was there some sort of horrible mail mix up, and it's currently propping up a wonky desk in a government office in Liberia?

Who knows? Wherever it is, the waiting is very tough, and this whole thing about forgetting it and getting on with life is not as easy at it seems.

I will never complain about the query system again. The query system is like having a bandaid ripped off. It's not pleasant, but at least it's fast.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Driving Without Headlights

Since I finished GPL, I've plunged into my next project, an adult fantasy called The Weight of Souls. My aim has been to finish the first draft by the end of the year, giving me a target of 1000 words a day between now and then. As of tonight, I'm sitting at 23,000 words, a bit under where I need to be seeing as I ended up taking a couple of (desperately needed) weeks off.

My approach to writing this draft has been similar to that advocated by NaNoWriMo, as well as most of the authors whose blogs I follow. I call it the "Driving Without Headlights" approach. The aim is to sit down and write, with only a minimal outline and just a cursory idea of where the story is going to end up. You never go back and revise, and you don't stop to read what you've written. You keep ploughing on until you reach the end of the first draft, at which point you sink your teeth into what will almost definitely be an enormous amount of revision, if not a near-total rewrite.

The philosophy behind this approach, I think, is that too many people get bogged down in editing or preparation, and end up never getting the book finished or, sometimes, even started. Characters and situations also have a bad habit of doing their own thing, bouncing off each other in such a way as to make any planning and outlining null and void. I can testify to this, because I've seen it happen in everything I've written, and it's certainly happening in my current work in progress.

It's the first time I've used this approach, and I see it as an experiment as much as an exercise in producing another novel. At the moment, I'm not convinced it's the best way to write a book. Sure, using this approach will help you get the draft finished. Sure, it will avoid wasting time planning something that's unlikely to go in the expected direction anyway. But I'm wondering whether the end result will be little more than an elaborate outline that took several months to write and, when you sit down to do the editing, will only have to be replaced by a 'proper' draft. I've even seen authors refer to this first, pell-mell draft as "draft 0", knowing it won't be good enough to be graced with a number "1".

At times, when I'm writing the Weight of Souls, I'm totally clueless as to where it's going or what's supposed to be happening, though I have a string of loosely associated ideas in my mind for what I want to occur. Because I'm not reading back over it, I'm worried that, when I do, I'll shake my head at the absolute morass of dead ends and dragging narrative, loosely cobbled together with the ragged remnants of what once seemed such a good idea, and I'll have to start over totally.

Of course, I could be wrong, and I'll end up being pleasantly surprised. It's definitely an experiment worth carrying out, if only to find out whether this style works (or doesn't work) for me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nathan Bransford's Comp Update

Nathan Bransford announced the winners of his first-paragraph competition this morning. I didn't make it, but the standard of the ten finalists is simply stunning, so I bow before Nathan's judgment.1

I hope he has another one soon. I'm keen to try again!







1 Grovelling? I have no idea what you mean.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cloudy Wordy Thingy

This seems to be a bit of a craze at the moment, and it's very cool so I thought I would jump aboard with a word-cloud of this blog.



No surprises that "book" gets the biggest mention. And I probably shouldn't be too shocked that, on a writer's blog, the word "wine" comes up larger than "write".

Image courtesy of wordle.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Be Thankful for the Gatekeepers

Here is a recurring nightmare. If you're an aspiring author and this doesn't give you cold shivers, you should take your own pulse. You may, in fact, be dead.

It’s happened. The phone-call you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. Your book is being published! And not just one; you're offered an advance on two more. It’s more money than you ever imagined; apparently, there is much excitement about your manuscript, and expectations are high.

You tell your friends, your acquaintances, your neighbours, anyone who will listen. People around you get bored with your constant jabbering about your book, but you don’t care. You’ve reached the unattainable. You have arrived.

The launch comes. It’s a big deal, you've invited as many people as you could think of. Artwork from the book is draped about the hall, red wine is flowing, a pile of brand-new novels stands guard next to a chirping cash-register. As you sit and sign copy after copy, your face flushed from wine and the heat of the occasion, you reflect that life couldn’t possibly get any better than this.

The next day, you start checking the review pages on all the sites you can think of. You check them five times a day, in between writing book 2 in the series. Nothing. Why can’t people read faster than this? Finally, a review. Your fingers tremble as you click the link to read it. Not good. Whoever this person is, they didn’t really get your book at all. Their review cuts like a knife, but you shake your head and force yourself to get over it. It’s only one person’s viewpoint, after all.

The days pass, and you find yourself ringing a few friends who have the book, on the pretence of idle chit-chat or a discussion about an upcoming social event. They say nothing about the novel and, in the end, you come right out and ask. After a moment’s silence, they say “Yeah, it was really good. I really enjoyed it.” But it sounds forced, awkward, and they seem keen to get you off the phone.

More reviews, each as negative as the last. Words begin to make regular appearances – “trite”, “mediocre”, “unoriginal”. Who are these people with such a damning view? Did they read your book or just the back cover? You tell yourself not to worry, it's a bad patch. The positive reviews will come soon. But they don’t. Three stars out of five is the best you get, and that’s from someone who gives five to almost everything. There’s a tone of mockery and laughter about the reviews, and a constant refrain rings like a bell in your ears: “How on earth did this get published?”

Meetings with your publisher are less than encouraging. She reassures you that sometimes books take a while to get moving, and that many great novels started off this badly. You ask for specific examples, but she simply plays with her pen and purses her lips. As time passes, she is more open. Sales are worrying. Sales are very worrying. At this rate, it looks as though you won’t earn back even a tenth of your advance.

The crunch. A meeting is called with your publisher and a very stern-faced company CEO. The talk is direct and brief. The company will not be publishing the second or third book in the series. The title has not lived up to expectations. The market has made its view abundantly clear.

Now, you don’t mention the book to anybody. Your greatest hope is that they will forget. You’ve tried to publish again, a different genre altogether, without mentioning your previous publication history. But it’s always the same. “You’re the author of that book, aren’t you?”, and the conversation is over.

And, in those bitter moments, when you sit and stare at the unopened box of books on the floor of your study, your mind always comes back to one thing. Why did that publisher tell you it was good enough? Why did she tell you that you were ready? Why did she open the door to failure and humiliation rather than snapping it shut with a quick form-letter rejection? Even you know, now, that your book is utter rubbish. You've learned so much in the interim, you're certain you could write a best-seller. All you need is a chance, a chance that will never come, because you only get one.

And yours, my friend, is gone.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Contestitis Obsessivitis

So, Nathan Bransford has a bit of time on his hands and has decided to hold another competition. I had to deliberate for all of two and a half seconds before I decided to enter, competition junky that I am. This time, entrants must submit the first paragraph of a work-in-progress, to be judged initially by Nathan and then voted upon by readers of his blog.

At last count, there were nearly 700 entries, and three days to go. Why does he do this to himself?

Anyway, here is my esteemed entry, the first paragraph from the wonderful and noble work of literature entitled: "The Book That Currently Has No Title But I Hope To Come Up With A Good One Soon."

Arkansy De-Crisp Lechampion had a recurring nightmare in which he found himself fully-clothed in a public place. He would wake in a cold-sweat and sprint about his cave, knocking into cauldrons and tables and banging into the stuffed and beautifully posed sabre-toothed rapscallion, the very one he had defeated the previous summer using nothing but a fish scaling knife and an onion on a string. The usual method, of course, but Arkansy was nothing if not old-fashioned.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Silence of the Blog

It has been a bit quiet here lately, mainly because I've been frantically trying to edit and finish the Ghost of Ping-Ling.

It's finally done! This morning, I padded down to my local post-office and handed the manuscript to a rather bored looking man behind the counter. Then I walked out and stood blinking up at a great ball of fire in the sky. They say it's called "the Sun".

To commemorate the Great Posting, I even took some photos (OK, they're not the actual posting "event", but close enough).





Those with extremely good eyesight will pick up that it is heading to Omnibus Books, a division of Scholastic here in Oz. Likely to be its first destination of many.

How do I feel? A very strange mix of emotions. Partly relieved and glad to have passed such a milestone and to be able to get into a new project. Partly as deflated as a balloon from last Saturday's party. And partly panicky that I might have got all my pages mixed up, one of my sons might have stuck something nasty in the envelope when my back was turned, or maybe if I'd only spent a few more weeks brushing up on this and that I'd have given myself a much better chance of getting it published.

Either way, that's it. The Ghost of Ping-Ling is off to fend for himself. God speed, young Dillen, fare you well.

As I was cleaning up some of my paperwork, I realised what a monumental undertaking writing a book can be (as if I needed a reminder). This inspired me to take another photo.



This shot contains two laptops, seven drafts, two notebooks, a bunch of reference books, and some rough working notes. It doesn't contain hard copies of the hundred or so drafts and attempts I never printed. It also doesn't contain several cases of red wine.

Did someone say red wine? I'm outta here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Readings...

OK, I just finished reading a book.

When I return to my body, I might be able to write something coherent and vaguely intelligent about it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Center to Investigate Evidence of Non-Paranormal Young-Adult Books

A new $100M Center for the Study of Non-Paranormal Books (CSNPB) is to be established in Orlando, Florida. The center aims to bring together years of research into the proposed existence of non-supernatural themed books in YA sections of the world's bookstores.

CSNPB Director, Dr. Steve Wilson, said it was high time for the establishment of the center. "We've known for a long time that there's more to the average bookshop than meets the eye. Over the years, too many people have reported sightings of non-paranormal books. It's time they were taken seriously. This center aims to bring these reports together and provide a resource for further study of this fascinating phenomenon."

Sceptics are understandably amused.

"How many years have people been prattling on about the supposed existence of these books?" declared Martha Ball, President of Science in Bookstores. "I'll tell you - since the time of Wuthering Heights. Where's the evidence, huh? You go into any bookstore, any time of the day or night, walk into the YA section and find me a non-paranormal book. Until that happens, I say phooey!"

Dr. Wilson remains unfazed by contrary views. "Look, only last week, a young man in Delaware saw a non-paranormal in his local bookshop. He even took a photo."

When contacted by the press, Patrick Plunkey, of Newark, was initially reluctant to talk about his encounter, claiming he was still too 'spooked'. Eventually, he was persuaded to tell his tale.

"I was, like, in the shop, looking for a present for my kid sister, and I was standing in front of the shelf. Then I saw it. About third row down on the left, between Twilight and Touch the Dark. A book about pirates. I couldn't believe it! It was just there, looking at me. I even snapped a photo with my phone. It's kinda blurry, like, 'cos my hand was shaking so bad."


Is this grainy image evidence of non-paranormal writing activity?


Experts from the newly formed CSNPB have studied the photo, using the latest digital image enhancement software, and are convinced of its authenticity.

Explained Dr. Wilson: "Look, you can clearly see the spine, if you hold the photo at this angle and kind of squint your eyes. It's definitely a book about pirates. No question."

After the supposed sighting, remote cameras and image sensing technology were stationed throughout the store in the hope of capturing a better image of the non-paranormal book. "It's kinda creepy, you know?" commented Bill Blunk, a member of the research team. "You're sitting there in the dead of night, deep in the YA section, and you get this prickling sensation in the back of your neck, like someone's watching you. Then you turn around and realise it's the life size cardboard cutout of Robert Pattinson."

Efforts to capture further images proved fruitless, and after a week the study was called off.

"It's a complete joke!" said Martha Ball, when asked about the photo. "Look, I accept that it might be a book about pirates. But even if it is, if you look at it really closely, the guy leaping over the gangplank with his cutlass up, about to hack into the enemy? He has fangs. Oh, and he's sooooooooooooo cute, too."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Letters and Emails

I received an email from Nathan Bransford this morning (he says, casually). Apparently, the General Manager of a big literary agency here in Australia has asked permission to read the hobbit query letter in her presentation at an upcoming writer's conference in New Zealand.

My response was one of the following, see if you can guess which:

A) No. I like to keep these things private, go away and never speak to me again.

B) Who cares? Let 'em read whatever they like.

C) Absolutely, positively yes, and would you mind telling them I'm about to start submitting queries for my manuscript to agents here in Australia?

I'm not normally someone who pushes themselves forward, but I'm fast learning to make the most of every wonderful opportunity. Even if it only gives my query letter an extra ten seconds reading time, it's worth it!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Knowing When to Give Up

When is it time to give up on a book and move on to something else? This is a question I think about a lot, particularly as my current project has been going on for more than eight years, and is still not ready for submission.

It's not an easy question to answer, and the water is further muddied by the mix of advice out there in internet land. A recurring theme is that you should never get caught up on "The Book" - the single work that drains years of your time and will probably never venture beyond your own bookshelf. On the other hand, there's also plenty of advice about how to self-edit, how to improve a book to increase its chances of publication, and how you should never, ever, ever give up.

According to popular legend, Jo Rowling spent several years trying to get Harry Potter published. I wonder what would have happened if, after a year or so, she'd decided it was time to move on, put Harry in a box beneath the bed, and gone off to write a story about a girl with a crush on a vampire, or something like that.

In the end, I have no answer to this dilemma, other than to say I think there is wisdom in both sides of the argument, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between (otherwise known as a 'cop-out'). For myself, I currently have one other book bubbling around in my head, and it's something I'm excited about and I'm desperate to get in to. But I've decided to do one last pass on Ghost of Ping-Ling, hopefully finish it in the next few weeks, then feed it to the machine. After that, I can get my teeth into something new in the six-months or so before I hear something.

What about you? I'd be really interested to hear other people's wisdom on this subject - don't be shy!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Return of the Hobbit

When I was in primary school, I entered a short-story competition with a science-fiction tale I had written. Later, one of the teachers told me the judges thought the story was pretty good, but they couldn't make it the winner because it wasn't sufficiently "Australian" in theme.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I had an interesting thought (it happens, now and again). If Tolkien had been born here in Oz, would he have had to change his work to make it more acceptable to local publishers?

And so, to continue the Hobbit theme, here is a slightly "Ozzified" version of Tolkien's great work. And, a warning, it contains some authentically Australian swearing....

Chapter 1 - A Random Booze-Up.

In a shed at the back there lived a hobbit. Not a daggy shed – with bits of iron sticking up everywhere, undies on the washing line and a rusty Monaro out the back. Nor yet, some posh bugger’s palace, with a satellite dish and a pool and five cars parked on the street. It was a hobbit’s shed, and that meant bonza.

It had a fly-screen door with one of those gas tubes at the top, to stop it banging, and a beaut set of coloured danglers to keep the flies away. The door opened to a kitchen with a corker flower pattern of orange lino, a few deck-chairs, and a beer fridge – the hobbit had a lot of bludger mates. The shed went quite a way back, taking up a fair old slice of Yobbiton – as everyone called it, mainly because of all the Housing-Trust yobbos that lived there. There were no other rooms, no leaving the kitchen for the hobbit: the telly was on the bench, the sangers in the esky, the dunny a quick nip out to Fred McKenzie’s fruit-tree. The hobbit was on a good lurk.

By a bit of ripper luck, the hobbit was sitting outside in a deck-chair one day, drinking a tinnie, when Gandalf rocked up. Gandalf! You wouldn’t believe the goss I’ve heard about that old bugger – make your toenails curl. Shit hit the fan wherever he went, but it never seemed to stick. He’d been gone for a while - saving a princess from a fire-breathing, flesh-eating dragon, some said. Others said he was down the pub. Wherever he’d been, he was back.

He had an oil-stained flannel hat, a moth-eaten blue tank-top and a pair of steel-reinforced donga-boots, plus a cloud of flies that stuck to him like chewy on a blanket. He stank, too, worse than a drover’s jock-strap.

“G’day!” said Bilbo, and he was fair-dinkum. It was a beaut day, and the footy was on later.

Gandalf scratched noisily under his armpit and spat a big gold logie on the ground. “Whaddya mean, ‘G'day’? It is a bloody good day? It better be a bloody good day? It was a bloody good day until you came along?”

“Keep your hair on, grandpa.” Bilbo decided this old bloke was a wanker. He opened another VB, hoping he'd piss off.

Gandalf pulled a soggy looking rolly from behind his ear and stuck it in his gob. “Listen, Lofty, how ‘bout me and some mates roll round your place Wednesday for a few beers and some grub?” He lit his rolly and blew a big cloud of smoke nowhere in particular.

Bilbo threw an empty tin at the cat. “Whaddya reckon this is – bushweek?”

“Nah, nah, hear me out.” The ciggy waggled up and down in Gandalf's cakehole as he spoke. “There’s a bit of bizzo to discuss, something that might float your boat.”

“Bizzo? What kind of bizzo?” Bilbo wondered whether this old codger might be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

Gandalf cast a quick squiz over his shoulder. “You, me, a bunch of dwarfs, trolls, giant-spiders – and a bloody big pile of jewellery.”

"No thanks." Bilbo shook his head and grabbed another beer. “I hate Sydney.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gearing Up

I'm now starting to think towards finally finishing The Ghost of Ping-Ling and dumping it on the creaking treadmill that is the whole submission process. My aim is to post all remaining chapters on OWW, get as much feedback as I can, and send it off around early September.

I love the book - I love the way it's grown and developed from a scratchy, badly-written satire eight years ago to where it is today. The characters and the world have evolved beyond anything I ever expected, and I'm proud of what it has become. But I have to say, I won't be sorry to put it down and move on to something else. There comes a point where you shouldn't edit any more, you can't easily improve further, and you need to stand at the front gate waving your hanky while your baby goes out into the world. Otherwise, you risk it becoming "The Book", the one that chews up years and stops you ever doing anything else, and perhaps isn't going where you thought it would, anyway.

So - this leaves me thinking about where to send it. I did some early querying a few months back, just to test the waters and get a feel for the whole process. I can now say, I know exactly what a rejection letter looks like, in various flavours. I also know how not to write a query letter. Time well spent.

This time though, I've been looking at a local publisher, Omnibus, a division of Scholastic based right here in good-old Adelaide. They have a very different submissions approach, which I initially thought was only just this side of barking-mad, but now I think might actually make sense. To submit to Omnibus, you send your manuscript. That's it. There's no query, no synopsis, just a basic cover letter giving your details and what you want them to do with the manuscript if you're not successful (ie shred it, burn it, paper the walls with it etc.). The only down side is that their current turn-around time is four months, and they expect you not to submit to any other publisher in that time.

But, here's the thing. My presumption is that if your book stinks, you won't have to wait four months before they tell you. It usually takes a matter of minutes to work that out, and normally doesn't require a reader going past the first few pages. I would have thought that if they hold on to your book for the full four months, things are looking up. Especially since, according to their website, they like to get several different people reading the submissions.

Of course, I could be totally wrong, and end up waiting four months to be told that actually, my manuscript stinks. And several people said so.

Either way, once I do get around to making the submission, this will be an absolute first for me. It will be the only time I've submitted a manuscript and dreaded getting a quick response.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Hobbit Post

A couple of times in the last few months, Nathan Bransford (an agent in the US - see his link on the right) has held a competition for people to submit articles to be posted on his blog. Initially, this was to cover a gap while he went away for a week, but the whole thing worked so well he decided to hold the competition again. On a whim, I thought I might submit a post I wrote way back in May - a pretend agent letter from a fictitious agent to JRR Tolkien, rejecting his submission for the Hobbit. I woke up on Saturday morning to find Nathan had selected the article, and all being well, it will appear on his blog on Thursday (late in the evening our time). Please check it out - as well as the other guest blog articles that will be running all this week - if they're as good as they were last time, we're in for a fun ride!


Professor Tolkien is said to have used the agent's letter to light his pipe.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wording For Today

Here's a short passage from a book I'm reading at the moment - Sabriel, by Garth Nix, arguably one of the greatest fantasy authors alive today.

A small figure was busy climbing over the gate, nimbly avoiding the spikes that were supposed to stop such activities. She dropped the last few feet and started running, her pigtails flying, shoes clacking on the bricks. Her head was down to gain momentum, but as cruising speed was established, she looked up, saw Sabriel and the dead rabbit, and screamed.

... here's another, this one from a bloke called Tolkien ...

A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly; and Bilbo up in a bush, with his clothes and his skin torn, not daring to move for fear they should hear him.

... and a third, from a lady named Jo ...

Harry tried to turn back towards the gryffindor goal posts; he had half a mind to ask Wood to call time out - and then he realised that his broom was completely out of his control. He couldn't turn it. He couldn't direct it at all. It was zig-zagging through the air and every now and then making violent swishing movements which almost unseated him. Lee was still commentating.

To get these quotes, I stood up and grabbed three books from my shelf, then flipped to random pages until I found what I wanted. It didn't take long, maybe twenty seconds.

Why?

Recently, I've noticed a pattern in some of the reviews I've been reading on OWW. Someone, somewhere, has put it in people's heads that words ending in "ing" (technically known as present-participles) should be avoided at all costs, and that any sentence featuring the word "was" is automatically passive.

Now, I'm certainly no expert, but I don't need to be. All I need to do is point to the above three quotes. By my count, there's a total of 13 "ing" words, and 5 clauses with the word "was", just in this little selection, the one that took me all of 20 seconds to find.

Here's my understanding, and the quotes above back me up. No word is, in itself, bad. Every word in the English language is there to be used, nothing should be avoided. What should be avoided is overuse - where a word rattles around so frequently it becomes an irritation, a buzzing in the reader's ear. That doesn't just relate to "was", or words that end in "ing" - any word can be overused, and most writers have their pets (mine is "just").

Present-participles are used to express parallel, as opposed to sequential, action. "John picked up the book, looked around, then scratched his head." is sequential. It contains no "ing" words, but if you ask me, it's artificial and stilted. "John picked up the book, looking around and scratching his head." is parallel, three actions are happening together at the same time. In my opinion, the sentence is more alive, more natural. To discourage the use of such helpful verbs, simply because they end in "ing", is (as a teacher of mine used to say) really rather silly.

As for "was" - I think part of the problem is a general misunderstanding of the definition of a "passive" sentence. In a passive sentence, the subject has something "done to it", rather than the subject itself doing the action. Example - "The book was read by John." The subject (the book) has something done to it (it is read by John). Therefore the subject (the book) is "passive" - it just sits there and allows itself to be read. "John read the book." Here, the subject of the sentence (John) is performing the action (reading the book), the subject is therefore "active" - and so is the sentence.

Note (and I think that herein lies the confusion) that the passive version contains the word "was", whereas the active version does not. But it's not the presence or absence of "was" that makes the difference - it's who is acting and who is being acted upon. A sentence can feature the word "was" and still be perfectly active - as in: "A small figure was busy climbing the gate" or "It was zig-zagging through the air".

I don't normally clutter up these blog-posts with writing advice, simply because I don't feel qualified to give any. But I think this is a good encouragement for us to be wary of what we hear, and to think carefully before taking on board advice that could well be deeply flawed. There's nothing worse than a writer becoming hamstrung - their natural style restricted by a fear of using "forbidden" words. Writing is hard enough as it is.

So, if in doubt, go to the greats. Pick up the books on your shelf and see how the so-called rules you have heard stack up. With the likes of Garth, John and Jo on your side, you can hardly go wrong.

Update - I sat down tonight to read more of Sabriel, and this is the first sentence that greeted me.

Gray mist coiling upwards, twining around him like a clinging vine, gripping arms and legs, immobilising, strangling, merciless.

I am resting my case.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Musings.

I wrote this a little while ago on my personal blog. In response to the article by Sean Williams, which I posted yesterday, I thought it was appropriate to share it here. It's not, I hope, me feeling sorry for myself. It's more an expression of feeling, otherwise known as a good vent.

It's funny, being a nobody in this writing business. You grovel to authors to get them to read your stuff, then wait endlessly while your manuscript gathers dust on their shelves. You grab every opportunity to post comments on agent's blogs, no matter the subject, hoping they might somehow notice you amongst the throng. You write a blog that only two or three people read, trying desperately to come up with intelligent, witty and relevant posts in case some agent or publisher happens to pass by. You battle just to get half an hour of writing time, and often, when you do, you feel guilty thinking about what else you should be doing. Then, all too often, by the time you fire up the laptop, it's so late at night you're too tired to be productive, and you give up, instead of writing something that's not your best. And, worst of all, you just don't know. You don't know whether it will ever happen, because you don't know if you have, or ever will have, what it takes. Sure, a few people have said they like your book, but are they trying to make you happy? Would they say the same thing about anything that fell into their laps? You don't know, and you can't know. Only time will tell.

But still you do it. Still you battle away, because you love it, and it's in your veins, and you're going to keep plugging away and moving forward inch by inch until something finally gives. Most of all, you do it because of that nagging voice - the one that whispers incessantly in your ear, telling you that failure is not even worth comparing to the tragedy of not trying at all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Something Tough To Chew On.

Sean Williams is an aussie author of fantasy and sci-fi. I saw him speak once at a friend's book launch, and I follow his blog pretty closely, but I've never actually read any of his books (they're on my list, well and truly).

Early this week, in response to the death of Charles Brown, Sean wrote a post about the best writing advice he had ever received, which happened to come from Charles. Ever since I read it, it's been rattling around in my head, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Thanks to Sean, and many thanks to Charles. Rest in Peace.

Original post can be found here.

The best advice I ever received was from a guy called Charles Brown. He edits a magazine called LOCUS, which all the world's SF& F writers read to find out what's happening in the field. He's a big deal, in other words, and he came to talk to a bunch of new writers who'd won prizes in something called the Writers of the Future Contest.

I was among them. This was over fifteen years ago now, when I'd already decided to try to be a writer, but hadn't written any novels yet, or made much money at all. I was just hammering away at it because there was nothing else I wanted to do badly enough. The thought of spending most of my life doing something I hated, like being a doctor or a lawyer, was just unbearable.

Anyway, Charles sat us down and congratulated us on our success. It was pretty cool, he said; we should be proud of getting this far because not many people do. Of every hundred people who want to write, only one goes on to do something about it, to actually try writing something.

If you take a hundred of those people who actually do something about it, whether it's write a few poems or the beginning of a novel, only one in that hundred actually finishes anything.

And if you take a hundred of those finishers, only one of them will actually sell their work professionally.

If you add up all the zeroes, that means that just one wannabe writer in a million will sell or win an award for their story, poem or novel. So sitting around that table of prize-winners really was something to be proud of.

But that wasn't the end of it. If you take a hundred people who have sold a something they wrote, how many of them are likely to ever make a career out of writing? That is, how many will take that one sale and turn it into a regular income on which they can support themselves indefinitely?

Just one.

Well, I looked around the table. There were around twenty of us in the room, and we were all high on that the thought that we were real writers now. All our stories were going to win prizes, and all our novels would be bestsellers.

It doesn't work like that, Charlie said. If the odds are one in a hundred, then the chances were that none of us in that room were going to get anywhere. Oh, we might sell a few more stories, here and there. Maybe a novel, if we were lucky. But earn enough to make a living from it? Unlikely.

It would be better, he said, if we gave up right now. Saved ourselves the years of hardship and heartbreak. Put all that wasted energy into a career that would actually make money, and spare our families and loved ones all that frustration and anger when we didn't ultimately get anywhere. How many zeroes are we up to now? For every one hundred million people who dream of being a writer, there's just one who reaps the rewards. What makes you think you're going to be that one?

I listened to him and thought, "He's making perfect sense. Everything he says is true. It makes me feel sick inside to admit it, but I am crazy for thinking I might get anywhere. I know the odds are stacked against me, and only either pride or stupidity--or both--has got me this far. The bubble is bound to pop eventually, as it will for ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight other wannabe writers. And one lucky one will go on, not knowing just how lucky they are. Curse them."

It took me the rest of Charles's speech to realise that, although he was absolutely right, it didn't change a thing. Not one thing. The odds were still awful; I was an idiot for even trying. But if I didn't love it enough to keep doing it anyway, then I would never get anywhere, no matter how much I tried. I would be that one in one hundred million if I had to sweat blood to do it. I would prove Charles Brown absolutely right by doing the exact opposite of what he told me to do.

And I did.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life in General

At the moment we're in mid-winter. Thankfully, I don't live in Moscow, or any of the other places in the world that get *really* cold in winter. Here, it's just wet and cold, not snowy and freezing. Most days of the week I catch the bus to work, then drive the (newly recovered but still stinking of tobacco) laser from the bus/train station to my home. On friday I did this, in the pitch black, pulling into my driveway to the sound or rain beating against the windshield and wind gusting through the trees. I got out of the car, grabbed my pack and my umbrella, went to the door and - after a struggle with the keys - managed to get it open.

And I'm greeted by light, warmth, the smell of cooking, and - best of all - my two little sons, sitting on their bikes in the doorway, waiting for me. They both have plastic yellow helmets on their heads, and Pip has made them pretend mail-bags to hang about their chests. They're postmen today, it would seem.

As I open the door and walk through, they shriek with delight, and ask me how my day was, and ask me if I got wet, and ask if I rang the doorbell, and tell me they have letters for me.

And I know for sure that life doesn't get any better than this.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Things You Learn

The main character in Ghost of Ping-Ling is named Dillen Applebee. He was called Dillen Applebee even before I started the book in 2001. I love that name, it conjures up a certain rustic simplicity, a wholesomeness, and most importantly, a sense of being absolutely ordinary.

BUT, I am now informed by my American friends on OWW that "Applebees" is a large chain over in that part of the world, selling pancakes or coffee or something (I can't remember exactly what). After the third reviewer told me the name had thrown them straight out of the narrative, I decided it had to go - as difficult a decision as that was.

So, Dillen Applebee is Dillen Applebee no more. After much exhaustive thought, and much scribbling and scratching out, I finally came up with a name that I think carries that same sense of homeliness and simplicity. I'm happy with it - I think it'll do nicely.

From now on, he shall be called Dillen McDonald.

Friday, July 3, 2009

More Short, Fast, Horrific Stories

Anyone with a good memory will recall that a few weeks ago I entered the Australian Horror Writer's Association Flash and Short Story Competition (I wrote about it here). I wrote a story in about an hour, posted it on OWW, made some changes in response to feedback, discovered the competition, and sent my submission with about twenty minutes remaining before the deadline.

Well, yesterday they announced the results, and this will probably suprise you as much as it shocked me, but .................... I didn't win!!

Not a sausage. Not even the complementary box of out-of-date sultanas they promised the runners up.

Really though, I didn't expect to win, and if I had, I wouldn't have thought very much of the standard of the competition. But the experience was invaluable, and now I'm keen to look out for other competitions that might be in the offing. Writing short stories is a great way to have a break from editing an 80,000 word novel, especially if the story is in a different genre than what I'm used to (like horror, for example). It's also a terrific way of polishing up skills.

I'm not about to give up on the story I submitted. With some work it should be in much better shape to submit to future competitions, maybe even the same one next time it comes round. Watch this space.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Death is a Funny Kind of Thing

I was never really into Michael Jackson. Even when I was a teenager in the 80's and Thriller was all the rage, I couldn't see why people made such a fuss of him. Then there were the accusations of child abuse. He was cleared by the courts, but that kind of stink never leaves, not really. From what I could see, the media and the public in general were pretty well sitting back with bated breath, desperate to see his next act of craziness.

Then he died. All of a sudden he's great again - back to the heady Thriller days when he could do no wrong and he was the best dancer, most talented musician, biggest genius ever produced - all over again.

Now, I'm all in favour of not speaking ill of the dead. And I think it's great that in death people tend to remember the good things and forget the bad. But I can't help feel that there's just the *tinyest* bit of hypocrisy here. Those same papers that happily ran that dreadful police-mug shot, and the images of him dangling his baby over the balcony, and all the stories about his infamous sleepovers, over and over and over again - now they're filled with countless and gushing tributes.

Whatever sells papers. But to me, it stinks.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Manuscript Assessment Services Revisited

In my first ever post, which feels like it was written a million years ago but was actually written in February, I lamented the fact that I was waiting for a professional assessment of the Ghost of Ping-Ling, and my wait seemed to be going on forever. It did finally come, about four weeks after I wrote that post. Was it worth it? At the time I thought it was. The assessor made some helpful comments and I acted on them, and I think the book is better for it. But now I think I could have achieved the same result without spending anything like the money I did, and in a fraction of the time.

If you pay to have someone assess your manuscript, it costs approximately $500 for 80,000 words. For that you get a 10-20 page report, detailing everything from plot holes to weaknesses in dialogue, character, grammar etc. You get ONE person's opinion, and they may or may not understand/appreciate/like the genre/style of what you have written.

Looking back over my assessor's report, there were some good and helpful things, like I said. But there was a heck of a lot of bumf as well. Many comments were made that were plainly subjective, objections were raised that demonstrated that the manuscript had not been read with particular care, and occasionally things were said that were so left-field I still don't understand the point that was being made. In fact, there was nothing helpful mentioned that wasn't also identified by friends who read and made comments - and their comments were free (except for bribes like bottles of wine etc).

Another interesting thing: the assessment service I used advertised that if a manuscript was considered "publishable" they would include a letter of recommendation to be passed on to agents and publishers. Of course, now that I read publishers and agents blogs, I discover such letters make not the slightest difference, and get thrown out along with the envelope they came in.

End result? In my (humble) opinion, these assessment services are a complete waste of time and money. It's far better to trust the opinion of friends, and to use online crit-groups like Online Writer's Workshop, which costs hardly anything and exposes your work to lots of informed readers, not just one.

You live and learn. What a difference five months can make.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Return of the Car

Anyone who read my entry of a month ago will know I had my car stolen around that time - the good old, rusty Laser which had been my companion on the road for many a smog-filled year. Well, yesterday evening we got a call from the police. The car had turned up, and now, as I type, it is once again happily dripping oil in our driveway. Am I happy about this? Well - I'm happy the idiot who stole it got arrested. I haven't felt very charitable towards them, particularly each evening when instead of spending time with my boys I've been freezing my bum off at a bus terminal. But on the other hand - we had a nice, generous insurance payout due this week, and now it looks like we'll get the car instead. It also stinks of cigarette smoke, and I'm yet to check what's under the seats or in the glove-box (the police told me to wear "strong gardening gloves" - very comforting).

Ah well - the long and the short of it is I'm really no worse off than before - and if all I have to complain about is a car that smells of cigarettes, perhaps I have nothing to complain about at all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stop Critting and Enjoy! (For Goodness Sake)

As much as I love OWW, it's a hard habit to break.

World Shaker is a hoot - it's my first foray into "Steampunk", and I'm engrossed by the setting, the characters, and the plot. I just can't stop critting it! I read it and I think "oh, you should use this word here" or "wouldn't it be better if you'd put this event here" or "the pace seems to be grinding a bit here". Then I have to thump myself hard on the forehead with said book (thankfully, it's not that big) to remind myself I'm supposed to be enjoying, not reviewing.

*Deep Breath*

It's not like there's much to crit. Here's a man who knows how to write. Take this example: "The main blast of Gillabeth's anger had passed, leaving only small gusts of contempt". If I wrote that line, I'd have it framed.

I don't normally go for the Dickensian, florid type language I've read in a few recent YA novels; there's a sense in which the authors are so in love with their own style and world that the story takes a back seat. This book has the balance right - an exciting, involving story coupled with humerous, rich language. Quite a gem!

Thankfully, Richard Harland is 22 years my senior. Plenty of time to catch up (cough).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Hook in Action

How is it that I can write a thousand words of a novel without too much effort, yet a single paragraph of perhaps 50 is causing me no end of grief? I know the answer already - that single paragraph is the most important one in the entire story; it's the very first one, otherwise known as the "hook", the one readers (not to mention agents) look at and decide if they want to give you any more of their valuable reading time or drop you back in the book-bin.

Several minutes ago I experienced the hook in action. Having heard about a new release by fellow Adelaidean, Richard Harland - World Shaker - I thought I'd trundle along to Borders in my lunchtime and check it out. It took a little while to find it in the Vampires R Us section (otherwise known as Young Adult's Fiction), but I finally did. I opened to the first page, read the first paragraph, and Richard Harland leaped out, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, dragged me forcibly to the counter and made me buy his book. Well - perhaps not literally, but he may as well have done. Chalk up one sale for Borders, courtesy of an extremely well written opening paragraph.



Will this help me develop my own hook? Not so much - Richard's style is Richard's style, not mine. Will it motivate me to continue scratching away until I find that hook? Absolutely definitely positively. Reading something like that just reinforces the importance of those first few words, and makes me even more determined to get it right, however long it takes.

All I need to do now is tear myself away from reading World Shaker.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Like Sands in the Hourglass

Finding time to write. It's the subject of countless author blogs, because it bothers the heads of countless authors - particularly those who hold down normal, non-writing type jobs (ie, most of them).

It's been a problem for me too. Last year it wasn't so bad - somehow I managed to squeeze in a few hours each evening before bed, even managing to bang out an 80,000 word novel in around six months. This year, I've found there simply aren't enough hours in the day. Possibly that's because our boys are sleeping a lot better, so my wife is going to bed later. It could also be something to do with the fact I'm writing one book, editing a second book, and critting on OWW, all at the same time. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised I feel as though there aren't enough hours in the day.

I've read the advice on countless blogs, and while some of it is helpful, some of it just doesn't suit me. The idea of getting up at 5am to get a few hours in before work makes me shudder. I can only imagine the quality of work I'd come out with at that hour of the day. At the same time, the evening is sometimes not good for me - by that time I'm tired and frazzled and ready for bed. But evening is all I have, so that's what I use, and more often than not I can produce something useful before climbing beneath the sheets.

I did read one useful thing, I can't even remember where it was. Somebody suggested you should always set a target of 1000 words a day. It's not much, but if you stick to it, the first draft of that 80,000 word book takes less than three months. Lately I've been trying to stick to that, and so far I've got 6000 words of Weight of Souls down. It takes me anywhere from half hour to two hours to write 1000 words, depending on my state of mind, my flow of ideas, and my level of motivation, but most times it's achievable. If I can stick with it, I might have a first draft ready by August.

Of course then I have to edit it, and judging from Ghost of Ping-Ling, that's much harder than writing it in the first place!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Short, Fast, Horrific Stories

Last time I wrote a short story was year six at school, which was cough-mumble-choke years ago. Then I read on an author blog that writing short stories is a great way to hone skills, and also gives the chance to enter one of the many competitions about the place. So, on Saturday night I was watching TV, and I got hit by a bolt of inspiration. I grabbed the new lap top and before I went to bed I'd managed to bang out something resembling a 1000 word story, set in a lift and called ... (drumroll) ... The Lift. It's horror (the genre, not the quality - though that's probably up for debate), which is a big leap from my normal comfortable stomping ground of YA fantasy.

Having scratched out the first draft, I put it on OWW before I went to bed. I mainly wanted to know if the ending was obvious, and the good thing about being in a different timezone to most of the OWW contributors is I can go to bed and wake up with crits in the in-tray. Sure enough, there were two, and they were both helpful and encouraging. One of them mentioned something called "Flash", and from the context it sounded like a competition. On further investigation I discovered the Australian Horror Writers Association and their annual short story competition. Closing date for submissions - midnight last night.

So, last night was feverish editing and rewriting, resulting in an 11.30 pm submission. I don't have any hopes at all - I know I was submitting a half-cocked entry, but the only thing I had to lose was the admission fee, the princely sum of $5. What I gain is experience, which, in this whole writing business, is the name of the game.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Laser Bolts

On Friday I looked out my office window and noticed a bank of dark clouds rolling in over the hills. Seeing as I'd ridden my bike that day, I thought I might sneak off at 4.45 to try and get to my car before the rain came (note of explanation, most days of the week I drive to a quiet street near the city and ride my bike the rest of the way, saving parking fees and giving me at least a modicum of exercise). I trudged downstairs with my backpack and two heavy bags of market shopping, which I placed as carefully as I could on each handlebar. Then I set off on a slightly wobbly journey to my car, about fifteen minutes away. I could smell the rain by that stage, and the light was fading fast, but I was pretty confident I'd get to the car in time.

I was *sort of* right. As I turned the corner the first drops came. No matter, in seconds I would have the bike thrown in the back of the old laser, and I'd be driving off, listening to the rain flick specks of rust off the roof.

Problem was, there was no car. Just a damp piece of road where I parked that morning.

There's nothing quite like that sick feeling. Strangely, I found myself riding in a loop around the local streets, thinking I might have parked in a different spot without realising it. In the end I had to admit the sorry truth. Somebody had actually been silly enough to steal the laser. It had finally happened.

At this point the deluge hit. I found myself wobbling up the main road, sheets of rain making halos around the headlights in front, water dripping from my shopping, my helmet and my nose. I tried to ring Pip but she must have been away from her phone, and I didn't want to keep trying because the phone got very wet very quickly, and I thought this probably wouldn't do it a lot of good.

Finally I got through to her, and she picked me up from a nearby shopping centre. After reporting it to the police we went home and I checked the insurance. Thankfully it was covered for theft.

As a kind of creepy afterthought - this morning when I came into work I had one of those spam emails where the subject line is generated by a computer. It came from the UK, and it said "Your car's under arrest".

*twilight zone music*

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Some Thursday Fun

Dear Mr. Tolkien,

Thank you for submitting a query for your children's novel, "The Hobbit". I regret to inform you that while the proposal shows merit, this agency may not be the best fit for your work.

If I might venture some feedback, your query letter needs to be improved if future submissions are to be met with success. Although well written, with some of the strongest grammar this agency has ever seen, your outline of the dilemma facing the main protagonist failed to engage me on an emotional level. You also spent far too much time talking about your professorship and expertise in Norse mythology and foreign languages. What has that got to do with anything? Tell me about your book!

On to the sample pages you supplied. From what I can see, most of your first chapter is taken up with back-story concerning "hobbits" and their unusual living arrangements. Indeed - by the end of this first chapter, the story still hasn't started. Might I suggest commencing at a different point in the narrative? Your best bet would be to open with Bilbo in the grip of the Trolls, and gradually, as the tale progresses, present the back-story of how he came to be there. This will grab your young reader's attention from the start, enticing them to read further while moving the story along at a much quicker pace.

As for the main protagonist - is it likely that children will relate to a fifty-something man with hairy feet who lives in a pit? Might I suggest making Bilbo younger and perhaps a tad less hairy? How about having him as a young tear-away living in his parent's attic, perhaps escaping one night by tying his bed-sheets together, that sort of thing. This demonstration of a rebellious attitude and a desire for personal empowerment will far better capture the imagination of a young reader than a middle-aged man running off without a pocket-handkerchief. Trust me.

This might be a good place to mention the apparent gender imbalance in the work. There would appear to be just a slight deficiency of female characters in the story. To put this another way, there are none - zilch - zero. There are men with hairy feet, men with long beards, men with pipes, men who can see in the dark - there are even men who can turn into bears. There are men of every size, shape and smoking habit imaginable, but the closest you come to a female character is the inclusion of several slightly effeminate elves. This just won't cut it in today's publishing world. If you want to attract a female audience, you must include strong female role-models. My suggestion would be to make the wizard a woman. Gandalina has a nice ring to it. But lose the beard.

A final comment - the conclusion of your story is far from satisfactory. Having brought Bilbo across miles of uncharted wilderness and ever-present danger, someone else kills the dragon! I can already hear the wails of your young readers, devastated at such a radical deviation from accepted norms of children's literature. I for one will not subject them to such a trial.

I wish you all the very best for your future submissions. Remember, publication is a highly subjective business, and one person's trash may indeed be another person's gold.

Yours Sincerely,

Herbert T. Agent.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

OWW

I've now been using Online Writer's Workshop for a week, and I have to report - I love it. This is exactly what I've needed, and the benefits are flowing thick and fast.

So far I've only posted the first chapter of Ghost, and I've had five reviews - all very positive and all extremely helpful. All five readers "get" what I'm trying to do with the story and the world, which was one of my main concerns. They've also commented favourably on the plot, so I'm feeling a lot more confident about the direction this latest draft is taking.

Hopefully by the end of the week I can have chapter 2 and 3 posted too - but I'm giving them both substantial rewrites, not only to fit in with the new direction of the first chapter, but also to sharpen up the style a little, and make the story a bit more focused.

I've also enjoyed reading other people's submissions and writing a few reviews. Generally the quality is really good, and now and again I've struck an absolute gold nugget - chapters of books that will almost certainly end up in print. To have people of that calibre read my own stuff and make comments is very valuable.

I'd really like to start posting chapters of Weight of Souls too, but it's far from ready. I haven't done much on it in the last week, but I think it's at the 5000 word mark. On the bus last week I read over it (on my spanking new laptop) and I absolutely loved it - the relationship between the two main characters has gelled in a way I didn't expect, and I'm starting to feel like it may go somewhere. I still only have a vague notion of the overall plot, and it feels strange to be writing without a clear outline, but it never hurts to try something new.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Endeavour Runs Aground ..... Again.

In an earlier post I excitedly reported I had signed up for a voyage aboard the Endeavour Replica - following in the steps of my hero, the great Jimmy Cook. Alas, yesterday I received a letter to say that all voyages for the year have been cancelled. It would appear the economic situation has reduced the number of keen sailors to a trickle - and I'll have to put my dreams of following Cook on hold for at least another year.

There is light at the end of the shipwreck. The trip was to be my 40th birthday present - and now that the (hefty) deposit is coming back to me, I had the opportunity to choose something else. So .... I thought long and hard (for about thirty seconds) and decided to get a laptop. Some of the keys on my last one are so worn the letters are almost gone - and it has more food in it than our fridge. Definitely time for a replacement.

So, last night I trundled along to the local Officeworks and picked up a Dell, which happens to be four times as powerful as our current desktop, has a new version of Word, and has Vista - which I notice has all kinds of new funky error messages when it crashes. Progress.

It's not as good as the sea breeze in your face, but at least I'll be a bit more portable with my writing.

I foresee it will get good use.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Happy Happy Joy

Today I discovered the Online Writer's Workshop. I think Deborah Kalin mentioned it in her blog at some point in the distant past, but I'd filed it away in some obscure draw in my brain, and only decided this afternoon to google it and see what it had to offer.

Really glad I did. People post manuscript excerpts to the site and critique each other, you can't post your own work until you critique four others (unless you're a brand new member, then you get a freebee) so people are fairly keen to write reviews. If the submissions I looked at are any indication the standards are very high - it's not a fan-fiction type thing.

So, this evening I posted chapter 1 of Ghost, with one of the ideas for a plot change I'd been chewing over. It's great if I can add this kind of review alongside the valuable feedback I've had from friends - every comment helps. I guess it's also a good thing that the reviewers don't know you from Adam's left foot - they can say whatever they like (and probably will).

I just need to make sure I don't spend half my workday logged on, something I could easily have done today.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Productivity

This morning I've been working on three separate books. I'm certain that in the world of writer's advice this is listed as a bad idea, but there you go. In my mind it's better than the state of dormancy I've found myself in these last few weeks, trying to work out what to do with that pesky Ghost of Ping-Ling.

Speaking of which, on Thursday I decided to bite the bullet and send off a few queries. I already had a query letter ready, and it didn't take long to finish off the synopsis I've been tinkering with for the last few months. By Thursday night I'd fired off five queries to some of the US based agents whose blogs I follow.

How confident did I feel? Not very. The fog that's descended since the assessor's report has drained a lot of my confidence, especially as I've (to date) been unable to come up with a solution to the problems identified that I'm actually happy with. The manuscript I queried was the same that I sent to the assessor, and if the plot problems identified were genuine the agents were certain to pick them up pretty quickly.

By Saturday morning I had received three 'thanks but no thanks' form rejection letters. I printed them out and put them in a folder, something I read somewhere is the right thing to do with rejection letters (short of sticking them up on your wall). How do I feel about this? Well, I would be a bare faced liar if I said it didn't disappoint me, particularly as a couple of the agents were the ones I felt most confident with. But by the same token, it's given me a totally different perspective on the querying process. I've been reading countless agent's and publisher's blogs for months now, and I considered that I was becoming quite an expert on the concept of a query letter. But when you actually sit down and write one and send it off, then get a rejection, it makes you just that much keener to read the advice yet again, and work out whether there's anything you missed. I think that's why I sent off the queries, I needed to taste the experience for real - and I certainly did.

So, now I'm writing three books at once, in between receiving form rejection letters. What are these three books? The first is (of course) the Ghost of Ping-Ling. I'm trying yet another angle on the plot, and so far it hasn't made me throw my hands in the air and swear, which to me is a real positive. I intend to keep tinkering with it until it falls into place, although I don't think I'm going to pour quite as much time into it as I have done over the last few months, at least not for a while.

The second books is called the Weight of Souls. I had the idea for it in my head for about six months, but I wasn't sure it would work. In the last few days I've written nearly five thousand words, and I have to confess I'm surprised at the way it has flowed, and how the idea seems to work really well. I'm only a chapter or so into it, so it could yet fall into a deep ditch, but for the moment I'm happy beavering away and seeing what happens. The other thing that's different about this book is it's an adult fantasy, which I haven't attempted to write before.

The third book has no name at this time, but its one of my older stories that predates the Ghost of Ping-Ling. I haven't spent so much time writing the book itself, but I've spent a lot of time world-building as well as thinking about the characters and the plot, and this morning I wrote the first 100 words.

All in all, it's busy, and it's exciting, and it's challenging, and whether anything comes out of it or not, I'm loving every moment.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Querying Vs. Britain's Got Talent

Seeing as I don't live in a cave, I've now heard of Susan Boyle. I've even watched her audition on YouTube, and enjoyed a tingling sensation watching her blow away the rather smug looking judges (not to mention the two muppets behind the curtain, who make the guys on our local version look almost intelligent).

Having seen only two BGT auditions, Paul Potts and Susan Boyle, I decided to try and dig up some of the less successful audition clips that I knew must be floating around in the ether. It didn't take long to find this, and it is truly a thing of beauty....




As funny as this is, my hat goes off to that guy for having the balls to appear in front of so many people. Even if I had the ability to make butterflies come out of my bottom I don't think I'd ever have the guts to go on stage like that.

Seeing as I'm sending off queries for my manuscript right now, I also couldn't help noticing the similarities between BGT and the querying process. On the show a performer steps out into the lights with exactly one minute to impress the judges. They start their act, desperately hoping to impress, knowing the longer they can keep the judges watching the better. But when the judge has had enough, the buzzer goes, and the performer walks off with their head in their hands.

Then you have an email query. You write your pitch, hoping to dazzle, and hoping the agent will read the whole thing and not give up part way through. If they read the first sentence and hate it you're finished. There's no buzzer, just a simple click and the sending of a form-letter rejection. But if they get to the end and like it - well, then it's just a simple matter of getting them to like your book.

And after it all, if you're really lucky, you end up as the literary equivalent of Susan Boyle, rather than the unfortunate man in the video above.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yes, I'm Still Alive and Scribbling

It's been over a month since I had the report back from the assessor, and I now have several directories on three separate computers (not to mention a USB stick) filled with drafts, rewrites, attempts and ideas, trying to incorporate the main suggestions she made. Each time I go off in a certain direction I get disillusioned, try something else, then inevitably the process repeats itself and I either backtrack or take yet another path.

(pauses for breath).

So, at the moment I'm seriously considering dropping all these attempts and pitching the book as it is, with just the simpler suggestions addressed. Either that or I seriously fear I'll be at the end of the year and still in the same position. In the meantime, I may well start on a completely different book, the idea for which has been rattling around in my head these last few weeks and growing like a snowball rolling down a hill (hopefully not the type that hit a building at the bottom and explode in a white fluffy shower of nothing).

How do the Stephanie Meyers and the Jo Rowlings of the world manage to just blurt it all out onto the page with such apparent ease? Could it be that they never sent their books off to be professionally assessed?

I can see it now - "sorry Jo, your book has promise but the whole baby on a doorstep thing had been done to death, we suggest a total rewrite..."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

No Wonder Book Sales Are Bad

I just went into Borders on my lunch break to get hold of Kristin Cashore's book, Graceling. I finally found it, in trade paperback form, for $36. $36!!!! Are they kidding? I would *at a pinch* pay that for a large hardback, but never for a trade paperback.

Usually I wait until their email vouchers come out - sometimes they offer %50 discount. Until they do that again, Graceling will have to wait.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Inkpot Article on Asian Fantasy

Read an interesting article posted on Inkpot about the wonderful fantasy themes to be found in Asian legend, and why more western authors don't make use of them. Once more my heart skipped a beat.

I agree with some items in the article. Fantasy has too often drawn on European pseudo-mediaeval themes while ignoring the other 95% of the world's mythology. That's the main reason I started writing a book based on Chinese and Japanese legend.

Some things in the article I'm not so sure about. It seems to suggest authors should use Asian myth complete, without attempting to 'westernise' it or 'water it down'. In my opinion, this rarely works. To do that is to present a story that is more a showcase of Asian mythology, rather than an entertaining story. The Kapas might be defeated by getting them to bow, but once you've done that - where do you go next? Good fantasy (imho), takes existing themes and ideas and moulds them into an exciting and suspenseful story, without worrying about the purity of the underlying source. Could this be why Asian style fantasy has often failed in the western market?

I'm loving that this debate is starting to raise its head in literary blogs. It's making me feel pretty happy to have an Asian themed fantasy nearly ready to submit. Of course it's no guarantee of success, but it puts me in a better situation than if I'd spent the last two years writing a book about Vampires.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It Makes Your Blood Run Cold

It's the would-be author's nightmare. You walk into a bookshop and make for the new release's section. There's a new book, interesting title, glossy cover. You pick it up and read the back cover blurb - and your skin crawls.

Someone has written your book.

Oh yes, it might be different in many ways, but the essence of the story, the feel of the characters and the setting is nearly identical to the one you've spent years slaving away at. There goes any faint hope you ever had of getting the damn thing published.

Thankfully, to date, this nightmare hasn't come true for me - though on a few occasions it's been close. Each time I saw a book with a title and cover evocative of my own, but when I read the blurb I saw (to my great relief) that it was nothing like mine. Phew.

But this morning, as I was reading the excellent blog Editorial Ass (odd name, I know) I saw this...



And I read this....

If the cover image of a fearless Chinese heroine reminds readers of such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that’s intentional; the story inside will, too. First-time novelist Pon has a screenwriter’s talent for producing a sweeping saga, and in this, the first of two books set in ancient China, 17-year-old Ai Ling faces demons, monsters, and gods as she tries to fulfill her destiny. Frightened after a local man tries to blackmail her into marriage, Ai Ling resolves to journey to the emperor’s palace where her missing father was last seen. Along the way, she meets the handsome Chen Yong, who is of mixed parentage and on a quest to find answers to questions about his family that have haunted him his whole life. (In the story’s prologue, readers get hints about his origins.) As in most martial-arts movies, the story sometimes takes a back seat to the action, but Pon doesn’t stint when it comes to her characters. Ai Ling is a clever and determined heroine, Chen’s younger brother is a witty teen whose girl-crazy ways transcend the centuries, and even the monsters have dimension. Pon’s writing, both fluid and exhilarating, shines whether she’s describing a dinner delicacy or what it feels like to stab an evil spirit in the gut. There’s a bit of sex here, including a near rape, but it’s all integral to a saga that spins and slashes as its heroine tries to find her way home.

And afterwards, although I could see straight away the characters and the story are different, I felt a little bit ill.

Ancient China, 17 year old protagonist, demons, gods and monsters - oh my!

But then.... I realised something. In my reading of countless agent's blogs I've noticed a theme - everyone is totally sick of Vampire novels, and everyone is looking for something new. If Silver Phoenix is a big hit, perhaps the way will be open for books set in a similar style and feel, and maybe it won't be such a disaster that somebody has beaten me to it.

I really hope so - in the meantime, what a roller coaster ride this writing business is turning out to be.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dilemmas

I'm still wading through that quicksand, trying to fix plot holes in the book. It seems that whenever I fix one I open up three more - not exactly the type of progress I was looking for.

But there's another dilemma I'm facing as well - trying to find my (insert dramatic music) 'Writer's Voice'.

Because of the nature of my work, I'm able to spend large blocks of time during the day reading blogs written by authors, publishers and agents. I've noticed this whole idea of 'voice' coming up again and again. An agent will say that what sold them on a manuscript was not its technical correctness, its originality or even style - what sold them was the author's 'voice'. When I read the examples given I can see exactly what they mean, though it would be next to impossible to define what constitues a voice and what doesn't (a bit like trying to explain what 'red' is - you can't, except by pointing to examples of it).

Trouble is, I think it's difficult for an author to hear their own writing voice - not until they've been detached from their work for long enough to build up a distance. With the amount of trouble I've had rewriting the first chapter of Ghost, I now have this distance from the other fifteen chapters, because it's been so long since I looked at them.

And I'm not quite sure I like what I see.....

The writing is technically good, it flows well, descriptions are vivid but don't draw attention to themselves. Problem is, I'm not sure I like the voice.

This last year I've been battling with the book, fixing bits, rewriting other sections, re-reading and re-working and trying to get it right. In the process I think I've grown enormously as a writer, and I think I've taken great leaps towards finding my own unique style. The down side of that is as I look at the work I've spent so long doing I feel as though I'm now in a situation where I can do it a lot better.

So - this is my new dilemma. Do I completely rewrite Ghost, do I completely abandon Ghost and move onto something else, or do I try and fix the plot difficulties with Ghost and accept that perhaps the style and feel of it isn't what it would be if I were to write it from scratch now?

My gut feeling is the latter option. If I can get the book to the point where the plot is a lot tighter, and if I can fix some of the other minor things the assessor identified, I should have something that is at least worthy of querying to agents. Even if it goes nowhere, the whole rigormorole of writing a synopsis and a query letter will be really valuable experience.

Problem is, fixing these plot holes is not easy, and if I'm not 100% committed to it that quicksand just gets even deeper and wider.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Still Wading

That quicksand is pretty wide...

I'm slowly getting a clearer picture of what I want to do with the book, but it really is a bit like pulling teeth.

In the meantime, for anyone interested, here is a photo of a drawing I did of Hallegat in 1986. The drawing is on the wall of what was then the Wargamer's Club rooms in Woomera - currently being demolished (thankyou Heather Cleland, and thankyou Facebook).

The (partly obscured) dwarf in the drawing is Gusgad, who appeared in Green Gem but by the time Ghost came around had wandered off. I'm desperately hoping he'll come back some day soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Quicksand Ahead

Well, I think at the time I wrote my last entry I was full of optimism that it wouldn't be too difficult to make necessary changes to the manuscript.

It didn't take long for my optimism to fall into a great dark hole.

I tried the idea about Hallegat stealing the map - but somehow it didn't quite work for me. At the time I thought it would, but it felt like one of those dud fireworks that goes fizz instead of bang. So I tried a few other things, and similarly they weren't quite right. So now I'm thinking about putting the whole thing on the shelf for a few months and working on something else - to give me a clearer mind when I come back to it again.

There's plenty of other stuff boiling away in my mind, enough to keep me reasonably occupied until then. Although there's still hope that tomorrow I'll have a eureka moment and things will fall into place.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Machinations and Motivations

So I've now started working my way through the assessor's comments - and officially starting draft 6 of a book that probably won't be called The Ghost of Ping-Ling. I first picked that name as a temporary, working title - but it stuck with me. But I've had too many comments from people saying they didn't understand it, and the assessor said the connection was weak - so I think it will go. I already have a few other title ideas floating around my head, I'll have to see which one bubbles to the surface.

The first task I've taken on in this draft is adding more strength to Dillen's motivation to seek after the mana-lord. This has actually turned out to be much tougher than I thought. In the very first draft a god appears to Dillen and tells him to seek the mana-lord, but that was gone by the time I got to draft 3. I toyed briefly with the idea of resurrecting that, and wrote a few different versions - in one a god comes overtly to the temple and tells Dillen to seek Hallegat, in the second the god speaks to Dillen in a dream. I didn't like either. I wanted to keep the involvement of the gods as a more subtle, background thing - something that may or may not be present. I also tried a version (which is now getting close to the original drafts of Green Gem) where Hallegat comes to the temple looking for a map, and asks Dillen to accompany him on the journey - but Dillen refuses, then the temple burns down - was it Dillen, or did Hallegat set the fire? I kind of liked that, but it had a couple of problems - Dillen would never allow Hallegat to have a map from the temple, seeing as they're all rare and valuable, and he also wouldn't knowingly lead the puk-do straight to the mana-lord, simply so he can join him on the quest (a problem that was present in draft 5, which Margaret pointed out).

So, I thought of something else, and I've been kicking it around in my head all day, wondering if it might work. In this version, Hallegat turns up in Ping-Ling looking for a map of the western province - he doesn't know the area at all, and maps of the west are hard to come by. He comes to the temple and asks Dillen if he can look at one, and Dillen (a little reluctantly) agrees. But when Hallegat asks if he can borrow the map, things get a little heated. Dillen refuses point blank, but he should have known better than to stand in the way of a mana-lord on a mission. When he regains consciousness Hallegat is gone, and so is the map.

Dillen calls together the priest and the magistrate and tells them what has happened. Kaji insists that Dillen must follow Hallegat and retrieve the map - that the contents of the temple are Dillen's responsibility and he must give up his life if necessary to make amends for his failure. The magistrate is more reluctant to condemn Dillen to such a fate, but in the end has no choice but to agree.

So Dillen's quest to find the mana-lord is a quest to find and retrieve a stolen map. That's why Dillen has no qualms about leading the puk-do straight to Hallegat - it's his own fault for stealing. I suspect that may work well - although usually I can only work it out when I start writing, which I'll hopefully do tonight.