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>Dreaming Again

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Almost ten years ago Jack Dann and Janeen Webb announced that they were going to compile an anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction, called Dreaming Down-Under. It was an invitation only anthology, but I figured I had nothing to lose so I approached them with a story, which was accepted. Dreaming Down-Under went on to be reprinted in two paperback volumes and win World Best Fantasy.

Last year Jack emailed those authors who had appeared in DDU to say that they were compiling a new anthology to be called Dreaming Again and asked us to submit. I’d been at a convention room party where we got into a discussion about religion and this triggered the idea for a story I called Purgatgory. The premise was that religious fervour was a viral infection which affected brain function and only about 10% of people were immune to it. This was the story accepted for Dreaming Again.

Jack said: When Janeen Webb and I edited Dreaming Down-Under, we had no idea that it would make such and impact, and it’s been exciting doing the sequel Dreaming Again, after a lapse of ten years. It’s been a joy to showcase the talent we have in Australia. The reviews of Dreaming Again have been (so far!) fabulous. Good news, Dreaming Again has gone into a second printing.

Purgatory was an ‘idea’ story. To make this kind of story work I needed strong characters. The narrator, a research scientist is motivated not by ambition or a craving for fame, but by love. Here are the first few paragraphs.

I loved long weekends. Not because I took time off, but because it meant the rest of my team left me alone to work without interruption. Not this long weekend. This time I was going to put my future on the line to prove our antiviral worked and I was going to break the Code of Research Ethics by administering it to my partner, Nathan.

I’d come in early Saturday morning to combine the antiviral with a primitive head-cold virus that I’d synthesized, modifying it to create the perfect carrying agent for my antiviral. The head-cold was designed to strike rapidly and be highly contagious. Dating from last century, I doubted anyone would have immunity.

And I was going to infect Nathan against his will. I felt only a twinge of guilt.

And from there it gets out of her control …

>Characterisation – 2

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Now that I have made a near miraculous recovery from the dreaded man-flu, I feel able to totter to the keyboard. In my last blog, I promised to develop the discussion on how to create an interesting POV character. We have given our heroes some quirks and inconsistencies to make them rounded and interesting characters.

The next most important thing is that the audience need to identify and sympathise with the characters. They must demonstrate admirable traits that readers aspire to emulate. This does not mean that heroes have to be plaster-saints, Heaven forbid. Nobody is more boring than a saint. A hero may have, should have, faults but they must not be mean, petty or bullying.

For example, consider a classic fantasy hero such as Conan the Barbarian. In one story, Conan is betrayed by a beautiful but treacherous wench and thrown into a dungeon. Naturally he escapes and returns to the wench’s flat to seek revenge. On the stairs, he bumps into her new boyfriend. Both men go for their swords and Conan casually slays the boyfriend. Then he finds the wench and punishes her by dunking her in a cess pit.

Howard depicts Conan as strong, fearless, ruthless and deadly. He kills an armed man who stands in his way without a qualm. The woman is the one who betrayed him but he uses his superior strength to humiliate her, not hurt her. Conan is a thief and a killer but he will always step between a woman and mortal danger. The little boy in all men would like to be like Conan and the vamp in all women would like to seduce him. None of us are anything like Conan but we identify with him.

Heroes need a challenge that tests them to the limit. This can be a problem if you make your heroes too powerful. Devising a plot that challenges a superman is unbelievably difficult – kryptonite anyone?

>Becoming a Writer

>When people ask “How long have you been writing?” I’m stumped. There are too many answers.

It happened in stages, not all at once. I did not spring forth with “WRITER” stamped on my brow.

Some of the essential ingredients (in my case):

Imagination. There was never a time when I did not make up stories. It’s how I got to sleep at night when my brain was too busy. I’d tell myself a story, act it out in my mind (sometimes playing all the parts) and somewhere I’d fall asleep. I still do that, though now it’s usually part of something I’m writing.

Reading. I read voraciously from an early age, and learned most of what I know about grammar and sentence structure from reading fiction, from Jane Austen to Roger Zelazny. Lots of non-fiction, too. Curiosity is very helpful for someone who needs to make up whole worlds.

Decision. Dave mentioned this in his post on Monday. There is a moment of decision which for many writers happens when one reads a book and thinks, “I can write better than this.” That happened for me. I don’t remember the book I was reading (it wasn’t memorable), but I do remember the moment and it was indeed a turning point for me.

Technical Tools. In high school I decided to write a Star Trek novel. It was Unspeakably Bad, but it was a gift to my future, because in the process I taught myself how to type. I improved on this skill in college when I got a part-time job typing technical stuff and thereby learned to use a word processor.

Other Writers. I moved in with a writer friend who needed a roommate. She talked me into joining her critique group. I wrote a story and showed it to them. It was Unspeakably Bad, but they were kind and encouraging to me, and I started writing more stuff. The writers in this group also introduced me to other professional writers in the area, great contacts for a fledgling career.

I’ve had good luck with critique groups, mostly. It’s extremely helpful to have knowledgeable first readers, and it’s also important stay connected with one’s peers in the industry. They’re the support group that every writer needs at the inevitable moment when the writer must be told, “No, you’re not crazy.”

Education. I learned about the publishing industry. The critique group pointed me in the right direction for submitting my work to professional markets. I read books and magazines about how to get published (not so much how to write). Later on I attended professional workshops, which also focused mainly on the industry and how it works. Invaluable.

Sales. After writing and mailing out a lot of short stories, some of which were Unspeakably Bad, I began to sell a few. One was bought by a magazine editor who later became my teacher and mentor in workshops for professional writers. Another was bought by an anthology editor who asked if I had anything else he could look at, and eventually bought a novel from me, my first book sale.

Mistakes. Oh, yes, the painful part. Everyone screws up some time or another, and I’ve made my share of boners. You learn from them, and go on. (Maybe that editor will someday forgive me for the late-night phone call…oops!)

The Most Crucial, Super-Secret Ingredient for Becoming a Successful Writer. Anticlimactic, I know, but in the final accounting the most essential part of writing is simply writing, as much and as often as possible. I’ve done that for as long as I’ve known how. Not always with the intention of becoming published—that came later on—but always telling stories. I do it every day. Here’s a great post by Barbara Bretton about the importance of writing on a regular basis.

A writer is never finished practicing and honing her craft. There’s always room for improvement, and always another story to tell.

Pati Nagle

>All is not lost, grammar-wise

>I love this post from Andy Borowitz. Of the many blog pieces that have gone viral, I hope everyone who love language sees this. The Palin takeoff is priceless:

In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.
Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tic, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.
But Mr. Obama’s decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.
According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it “alienating” to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.
“Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement,” says Mr. Logsdon. “If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist.”
The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, “Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate — we get it, stop showing off.”
The president-elect’s stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
“Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can’t really do there, I think needing to do that isn’t tapping into what Americans are needing also,” she said.

Andy Borowitz is a comedian and writer whose work appears in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and at his award-winning humor site, BorowitzReport.com.

And now I shall go and write a few sentences complete with subject and predicate and, one hopes, a minimum of adverbs!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


>When life is too much with us

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Some years ago I had an email from someone who had just met me at a con. I don’t remember what they wanted to know, but it was something very minor and I answered immediately.
Some minutes later I got back an effusive answer thanking me for taking the time out of my busy writing life to answer this email. I don’t remember the exact words, either, but it was obvious that this fan pictured me siting there, typing away furiously while my secretary… I don’t know… also typed furiously. Or perhaps booked a cruise for me. Or something. (Never having had a secretary, I’m at a loss to imagine anything for him – this is MY fantasy! – to do other than wear tight pants and bring me tea.)
The truth was that the first message had arrived after I’d dropped the kids off at school and before I did the breakfast dishes and the cat boxes. In addition to writing – which I do every day whether it needs it or not. I was going to say except Christmas, but barring illness I write on Christmas too – my schedule that day included giving the kitchen floor a really good scrubbing and finding a winter coat for my younger son who had outgrown his.
It was an odd glimpse into how the writing life differs seen from outside and from inside. (Though I must confess to some trouble imagining Terry Pratchett doing Litter Box Duty. Just as I’m sure he spent years doing it, even if he might have household help now.)
Recently I was talking to a fan who told me that this was actually good, that it enriched the writer to have a real life. It is probably true. I know it has changed me – made me grow in some way – to have the experience of raising the boys, dirty diapers and all. (Not to imply people who don’t raise children aren’t adults, but it is one of those life-altering experiences. There are others, like marrying, or taking on a challenging career or even a serious illness, or a move across country.)
However, I must confess there are days when I wake up and I wish I had one of those lives where I don’t have anything to do but write. And perhaps I have a secretary to bring me tea or coffee.
But life being what it is, and life being too much with us, I’m trying to separate my writing time from my non-writing time. Which is very hard when I work at home – a place where I also have a myriad other duties, like laundry, breakfast dishes, and severely underpetted cats. (Just ask them.)
Of course, sometimes finding yourself in the kitchen rotating the cat means that you are scared of what you’re writing. Other times it means that the cat needed rotating. (I don’t know. One of ours needs SOMETHING. He’s got into pixie sticks. He has a secret stash of them somewhere – no, seriously. Perhaps he needs valium. Or kittie detox.)
It’s all too easy to get your writing time squeezed out by “life happens” even when you’re really, really, really trying to write. Your characters can scream loudly, but they scream only in your head. Your kids, on the other hand, or even your friends going through a crisis, or your pet being ill… all of those things impose upon your in a much more immediate way.
More creative authors than I have created concrete block buildings where they lock themselves to write. It’s not going to work for me. Kids and cats will get into untold mischief if I’m not around… (Havelock likely will progress from pixie sticks to chocolate.)
So – for this week – the experiment is to try to separate writing and non writing. I’m going to try to do my news-reading and other such computer-work at another machine.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

>Writers on Show

>One of the scariest things that happens when you first get published is …

No, it’s not the realization that your book will be out there on the bookshop shelves, all on its own, just waiting for someone to pick it up and buy it. Although that is scary enough.

It’s having to promote your books and yourself. I don’t know about you, but I’m happiest pottering around the house, hiding in the backroom huddled over the computer, writing glorious fantasy adventures in my trackie daks (for those who don’t know Australian slang, trackie daks are track pants).

Put a keyboard in front of me and I’m eloquent, funny even. But put me on a panel and ask me to be spontaneously funny … that must be one of the lower levels of hell.

When I sold my first fantasy trilogy nearly 10 years ago, I was confronted with the horrible discovery that my publishers were going to launch my book by flying me to Sydney to do radio interviews, panels workshops and visit bookstores.

In desperation I joined Toastmasters where they helped me overcome my initial fear of speaking in public. But nothing can prepare you for a live radio interview via the ‘phone, where you can’t see the interviewer’s face to pick up clues. And nothing can prepare you for that first workshop where you have to guide creative novices, drawing ideas from them. Here’s a tip for appearing on panels at writers festivals and conventions. If you jam up and can’t think of an answer, turn to the writer next to you and say, ‘What do you think?’

I’ve been doing this for 8 years now and I can go onto a panel cold and think on my feet but I have tripped over those feet on occasions. One time I was telling a joke to illustrate a point, when I forgot the punch line. I could see the punchline coming and knew I’d gone blank. It was horrible. Truly cringe worthy. Luckily, no one but me remembers. And that’s what you have to keep in mind. You might recall every slip you’ve made in public but others won’t.

As long as you are genuine you’ll make a connection with your audience and that’s what’s important.

Cheers, Rowena

>Where to now, dear Henery?

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So what do I write?
An amazingly high proportion of writers started at this point: (book in hand, eyes raised to heaven.) “This is a best-seller? I could write better than this.”
And thus we plunge forth. Most of us take — instead of said piece of TBAR (throw book across room) Drekk that inspired us to do better — as a model a book which we’ve loved and would desperately like to write like the author of.

And herein lies a grim lesson to think about. The piece of Drekk almost certainly got there for a reason. The reason could be that the author is married to the publisher. Or that the editor absolutely loved it, and has pushed the boat out. As has been repeatedly proved, you can promote anything once. Send the author on tours, wine and dine booksellers, go for a vast laydown, book dumps at the counter, advertising and coverage in the media… it will be a best-seller no matter how bad it is. If the book is not actual bum-fodder, the author — having now established a name — will enjoy some/great subsequent success too. Of course we all know opposite extremes too. Books we’ve read and thought: why is this person NOT a multi-million selling best-seller? And we’re not always wrong either, as the example of the great Terry Pratchett illustrates perfectly. He did find a small-press publisher at IIRC 17 and sold some quite brilliant books… and was ignored for many years. I’ve read some of his original works – CARPET PEOPLE, DARK SIDE OF THE SUN, STRATA. The sheer genius of the man shines through. I guess it took 20 years to penetrate publishing, by which time most of us would have given up and gone home. There is of course a third possibility… one man’s Drekk is another man’s diamonds.

Sales numbers are rather like democracy — a mess but better than all the alternatives available right now. Just don’t expect it to reflect reality and you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately it is the mess that you as a new author have to deal with.

Now the standard bits of advice as to what you should write usually go “go with your heart.” or “write about what you know about.”

Muckin’ wonderful advice. I have a BIG wide heart, and actually I know a lot about a whole mountain of stuff. I’m sure I’m not alone.

So: dear Henery, where to from here…?
If I knew the answer, I’d use it myself. I have very strong ideas (which I am sure real stats –corrected for marketing, distribution cover etc. instead of raw figures — would bear out.) about what readers want.

But publishers? What is going to make them buy, and what is going to make them put in money to promote the book?

A couple of things — If you arrive with a large readership, or personal fame… and bizarrely look right and fit the profile, for certain parts of the industry…(look at literary writers).

You also have to consider what they have bought -even the book you thought was Drekk. And remember that in micro-trend sense this WAY behind the curve – about 3 years from when the idea was bought. So don’t slavishly follow the trend.

Finally here is a piece of advice I got from Misty Lackey. I paraphrase: “They always say they’re looking for something new. But what they really want is new old.”
Think about it.
Dave Freer