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My Next Big Thing

Hi, everyone. As you know, I’ve recently been part of the writerly chain of blogs where a succession of writers get to talk about their  next work in progress — The Next Big Thing. Each writer answers a standard set of questions about their latest work.

My turn came on the 28th November. I thought I might as well repost my questions and answers.

Here is my Q&A discussing my current Work in Progress, Urban Fantasy Distant Shore. I hope you enjoy it.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Distant Shore.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

You know, I’m just not exactly sure about that. Like a lot of things I write, it grew organically.

I have always been fascinated by New York and I took the opportunity of visiting Lunacon in New York in 2009 to do a bit of research for an Urban Fantasy set there. I guess that collided with an interest in my own Irish ancestry.

Somewhere in there the core idea of the twins with complementary powers emerged from the depths to help coalesce the plot.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Urban Fantasy. 4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Wow. That’s something I have never considered. Have to think about that one. I’ll update the page when I get a lightning bolt:)

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In Distant Shore, twin Adepts of the McNally clan —  one from New York and another from Brisbane — must unite to fight an evil born more than a century before in the wild chaos of Manhattan’s Five Points.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Mnnn. Let me consult my crystal ball. Ah! Published by an obscure Martian small print. They have a great distribution on the Jovian moons, and a good blog following as well.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m about one quarter through the first draft. Oh Writer Gods, give me wings!

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The book would probably appeal to readers of novels such as Neil Gaimon’s American Gods, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld or the novels of Charles de Lint.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My agent Mike Kabongo challenged me to write an Urban Fantasy after the success of Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness trilogy (which was also set in New York), particularly contrasting the Australian and American points of view. Seemed like a good enough reason to me. I have always liked Urban Fantasy, but have (until now) written mainly in the Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Genres.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Here is a little excerpt from the synopsis. . .

In each generation twins are born to two branches of the McNally clan — in New York and Brisbane. Inexplicably, one twin from each city always dies at birth.

The surviving New York twins always start out as a shining lights — great sportsmen, easygoing and loved – revelling in their power. Yet each generation they lose control, spiralling into crime and a violent death.

The Brisbane twins become aware of the realm of the Other. They are haunted by what they see and are driven to fight the dark, despite their lack of strength.

On each distant shore, both surviving twins are plagued by a sense of incompleteness. Jeb, the taciturn police psychologist from Brisbane, and Joey, the energetic football jock studying at Columbia. Each is unaware of their gifts.

At the start of Distant Shore, the power of the McNally Adepts has passed to a new generation. . .

Next Wedneday, the torch passese to another set of writers, some of whom you may recongise!

 Dave Freer, Jane Domogala, Amanda Green, Kate Paulk and Sara Hoyt.
Have you been drawn into the Next Big Thing web yet?

Just When You Thought

it couldn’t get any worse, this hits the news.

Here we have one of the major traditional publishers joining up with known scam artists to run a self-publishing scam under its own alleged imprint. I’d ask if they’re that desperate for money, but I already know the answer. These people, after screwing the reading public in the name of ideological purity and their authors in the name of something else, are now looking for more people to screw over.

Having seen the kinds of things they put in their contracts, and a level of failure to meet contractual obligations that would send anyone else down the s-bend with attack lawyers hounding them all the way, the industry appears to be bent on suicide in search of easy money. The obvious answer: cut your costs by moving out of the expensive real estate, buy things that match with public tastes, push ebooks for all they’re worth because the marginal cost of each copy sold is damn near zero (meaning that once costs of editing (which largely doesn’t happen anymore), copyediting (ditto), advertising (excuse me while I laugh hysterically at the thought that anyone outside the tiny handful who don’t need it get any of this), and media creation (much cheaper for ebook since no paper is needed) are covered it’s damn near all profit, since the storage cost might perhaps work out to a few cents per book per year. If that.) and move to a print on demand model for hard copy, bring the accounting into the 20th century (the poor dears are still somewhere in the 19th century at best. We mustn’t ask too much of them).

Of course, the obvious answer is anything but from inside the rotten tree of traditional publishing, or they’d be doing it. Instead they’re poisoning their own wells, then they’ll wonder why they continue to languish. The authors in their clutches have been conditioned to believe that all good flows from the font of trad publishing, so there won’t be mass revolt from that front. After all, until recently authors were trapped in the business equivalent of an abusive marriage. They had nowhere else to go because all the options were equally abusive, and trying to expose the rot or take the whole shabby setup through RICO proceedings (which, frankly, would not be difficult) would end their chances of someone other than their nearest and dearest seeing their books.

I doubt that anything will change: the industry will keep flailing around unable to work out why no-one wants their tripe until it implodes. The rest of us will go around the thrashing corpse via independent publishers or self publishing.

Please reset your sarcasmometers, because I probably just blew them out. I’d use a sarcasm font if WordPress provided one, but then, I doubt anyone really wants to read stabby red letters bleeding onto a black background. Not for any length of time. It hurts the eyes.

In other news, the Next Big Thing is Next Big Thinging along. Chris M. will post his in a week, and he’s tagged me, Amanda, Sarah, and Dave Freer (so it’s a very Mad Geniusy Big Thing). I have two volunteers to be tagged, and I need a few more, so if you don’t want to comment on the sad state of the industry, please volunteer yourself as a tag-ee so I can Next Big Thing you when my week happens.

The Unwritten Genius

Most of us want to write smart characters – of course.  This wasn’t always so.  The worship of the mind has to date from no further back than about a hundred years, perhaps two hundred.  Why?  Because before that the advantages intellect conferred were mixed.  Yes, if you were of a class and in a position to use your mind to advantage, it could be very useful.  Even at the level of skilled tradesman, finding a better way to do things would make it easier for you to make a living, and therefore confer an advantage.

But if you were a farmer, and your greatest advantage was to know how to work the soil in the way your ancestors had worked it, then really… what good would great intellect do?

So our tendency to want people to be “smart” comes from the time of the industrial revolution, just about.  And it influences the characters we want to write and read about.

Part of my issue when writing the Musketeer Mysteries, for instance, was that while Porthos was a perfectly good character for Dumas – people enjoyed his stupid utterances – I simply couldn’t write a stupid character.  It didn’t have the feel of comedy, it had the feel of piling on.  Plus the structure of the books required me to be in his head about ¼ of the time, and I didn’t know how to convey that.

And if right now you’re going “Sarah, you write Dyce.  You know how to write dumb characters,” please pause and think, because you just hit upon one of the more difficult things about writing intelligent characters.

We all want to – of course we do – but … how do you do it?  How do you convey intelligence?

It’s harder than you think.  First, we don’t all perceive intelligence in the same manner.  We don’t all perceive levels of intelligence in the same way.

Being – mumble – somewhere on the intelligence scale, I’ve long since realized that I perceive people at my own level as “smart.”  I perceive people below me as “dumb” – even people who demonstrably aren’t, btw, by their professional or economic achievements.  I perceive people above me as… well… it depends.  Most of the time I perceive them as confusing.

We took my younger son to be tested by a psychologist when he was 11, because he wasn’t doing well in school, and when my husband and I tried to determine whether it was because he lacked the capacity or because he was uninterested, we couldn’t ANSWER.  Turned out he’s at least one standard deviation above us, and probably more (at that point they’re estimating.)  But to us, it often presented as “he’s bafflingly dumb.”

This is because smart people often have to work through things that are perfectly obvious to those who don’t try to overthink it.  Say, in a completely outrageous example, you come across a dead bug.  Should you eat it?  Normal human beings go “Ew.”  My son would be quite capable of sitting there in earnest debate with himself.  “On the one hand, it’s a good source of protein.”  “On the other hand, I don’t know how it died.”  “On the third hand, some tribes in Africa eat bugs, so it must have some benefits.”  “On the fourth hand, it could be carrying micro-organisms that would give me the cockroach’s revenge.”

Not that he ever ate bugs (not even when the Natural History Museum baked them into cookies) but you know what I mean.  Sometimes he did things that were obviously and mind-bogglingly dumb to us not because he was stupid but because he overthought it.

If you go back and read the Dyce books, you’ll find that her stupidity is in fact of that stamp.  I have no interest in defending the character – she’s a completely insane woman and writing her means I have to go insane for however long it takes to write the book.  However, her stupidity is of the kind that overthinks everything and comes up with insane justifications for the things she does.  A stupid people would never think of doing half as crazy stuff.  (The Dyce books: Dipped, Stripped and Dead; A French Polished Murder; A Fatal Stain.)

But it’s not even that.  It’s that people are smart in different ways.  My younger son is a certified genius.  Supposedly one in a thousand people are as smart as he is (and most aren’t as functional.)  You can – and do – see this if you trip into one of the ways in which he’s smart.  For instance, he’s supernaturally good with puzzles and, by extension, math and scientific enquiry.  He’s also very good at seeing the solution to visual/spatial issues.

However, the words that come flying out of his mouth can be…  For instance, once, at the dinner table, he informed us that if he should pre-decease us, he wanted to be crucified.  You could see the rest of our – very verbal – family, looking up and staring at him wondering what the heck he meant.  Finally our older son said, “Uh, okay, but it will freak out the neighbors.”  To which #2 son said, “I’m not saying to burn me at home.  You can take it to a crematorium.”  At which point we nodded and went “Oh!  You mean cremated.”  “Yeah, same thing,” the one who slays the English language said, while continuing to eat.

People who don’t know Monsieur de Malaprop is actually smart, might be excused for thinking he’s dumber than the rocks.

So, we come to the same issue.  We perceive characters as smart who are smart in the way we are.  Meaning, for instance, that if you write a smart and bookish character, with a breadth of reading and a taste for the classics, I’ll probably perceive them as… perfectly normal.

My favorite Heyer book is Venetia.  I always thought of her and Demerel, the love interest, as perfectly normal, pleasant people, the kind of people I’d like to hang out with.  It never occurred to me they were smart until I read someone’s review of the book calling them “Heyer’s most brilliant characters.”  Then I could sort of see that they talked to each other in quotes and by implication a lot.  BUT that’s what my friends and I do, so that’s not smart.  That’s normal.

Take another example: my older son read one of my – published in Analog – short stories, which I had printed to self-publish.  He frowned at it a little, then asked me why the character didn’t do one thing – at the very beginning – which made the story irrelevant.  I had no answer.  What is more, this was accepted and published by, arguably, the most “rational” magazine in the field, and the editors never spotted it.

Why not?  Simple.  See, the problem I was concentrating on was a technological one.  Since that’s Analog’s bread and butter, they were right there along with me, and they missed the very simple habit that younger people than us have, which would have made the story unnecessary.  (It just means I have to dispose of that in the second paragraph.  Not impossible, but as printed that story is fatally flawed, and several smart people failed to see it.)

This is apropos of the fact that I got a crit-fan letter on Darkship Thieves – I’ve seen the same comment from reviewers (not many of them, mind, and it usually means “I don’t agree with the characters”) – saying that if Thena and her friends are supposed to be so intelligent, why are they so dumb?  I have no idea WHY this reader thought they were dumb – except maybe for not seeing the grand design at a glance, in which case the reader forgot that reading a book is different from living a set of circumstances, and that we tend to accept what we heard as children at face value – and (even if it puzzled me for all of two minutes) it didn’t really worry me.

I can see engineering people, or other abstract-thinking people thinking that Thena is dumb.  She is not a particularly “Grand design” or “abstract thinking” – she is frankly intellectually incurious (though she gets better in book two, mostly, I think, because Kit IS intellectually curious and she lives with him) and what she does to machinery she does instinctively and without much thought.

That is a result of how she was raised, which was by having her mind ignored.  To be blunt, her father couldn’t care less what she thought or how she developed intellectually.

Does that make her stupid?  Well, she’s very smart at the one thing she had to know how to do: survive.

While Thena and her cohort are supposed to be smart (one gets an idea that this is more by default) even smart people have to be taught.  Left untutored, they will develop only what interests them or what they need to know.  A genius in a tribe that lives by digging up grubs in the deepest forest, might find a better twig for the bugs, but it is unlikely he will quote Shakespeare, unless supernatural events are involved.

So, how do you write smart characters?

As best you can, and in the awareness you can’t please everyone.

Some rules of thumb:

1-      Make the character smart in the way the character needs to be smart, and in a way that makes sense with his/her background.

2-      Explain why what the character is doing is smart.  This is tricksy, because you can’t simply say “the character is doing this because he’s so smart.”  When I was a young writer, knee high to an epigram, I thought that just showing the characters doing stuff that is CLEARLY above the normal run of the human mind would make them seem “Smart” – no.  Like trying to evaluate the intelligence of someone who outstrips your  IQ, it seems it only makes them seem baffling and not a little crazy.  Right now, the best technique I know is to show the character’s reasoning.  It’s what Heinlein used.  Seems to work okay (with exception like the letter writer. 😉 )

3-      If absolutely necessary, have the characters around the character react to him/her as though he/she were something out of the ordinary.  “Oh, Oog found curved stick works better on termites.  Oog so smart.”  Try not to overdo this.  It’s not realistic.  I bet you even Leonardo DaVinci had friends who periodically said, “Leonard, you ignorant slut—”


4-      Remember even an amazing genius can be the dumbest of his group.  In a book, that person is going to come across as dumb, and if you don’t want that effect, you’ll give them some special ability the others don’t have.


And that’s about it.  Some people will still think your characters are too dumb to live.  Some of those people will be so smart that ALL characters are too dumb to live.  However, most of them will simply be upset you don’t cater to their particular prejudice/set of ideas of what constitutes smart.  Let them go.  In writing as in everything else, you can’t please everyone.

The only other caveat I’d ad is that sometimes characters will be very smart in a way you don’t expect, and you won’t realize it till you’re half way through the book, when you go “OMG, that’s why this has been such a pain.  The characters are brainiacs.”  With this, as in much else, go with the flow.  Unless you really need the characters to be dumber than dirt (and then it’s possible your plot is dumb) just  write the characters as they are.  And don’t worry about it.  I’ve had characters who don’t let me pick their name, their eye color or their profession.  So I’ve grown resigned to not picking their IQ as well.

I’ve found some of the characters who annoy me the most, or some of the characters whom people most perceive as dumb — Dyce — are also the ones that do best.  So I can always console myself by depositing the checks and having them clear.  Let that also be your fate.

Open Floor Tuesday

After reading Dave’s post yesterday, it sounds like his last few days are pretty much like my own. I’m going to throw the floor open today for you guys to discuss all things publishing related because I’m waiting only long enough for the doctor’s office to open so I can go in and see him. Long story short, I have a shoulder that doesn’t want to stay in socket and that plays havoc for typing. I’ll be back later today and will try to get a real post up. In the meantime, the floor is yours.


I’m not too sure on length of tonight’s post, as I have a very sore, swollen left hand (got it trapped between a boat-trailer and the ute (AKA ‘truck’) thinking I was faster than I am. I then went to sea, and caught this little 8 and a half pound fellow, and just after seven pound brother who closed his feeding claw around the hand, and explained to me in no uncertain terms that I had broken it. Anyway, he is Christmas dinner, shrimp on the barbie for his, and my, pains. Needless to say today the words have flowed quite freely and I have been alternating between chicken pecking and holding the hand up and getting too impatient and just typing. Hand is complaining a bit. Sooky thing that it and I are.

We, and our writing, are products of this sort of mixture of experience and ourselves. But it struck me today when I was dealing with a mixture of modern setting, Celtic legend and largely invented aboriginal heritage (the island’s original aboriginal settlers died out after the the Bass strait flooded, leaving the islands* as the real ‘Terra Nullius’ of Australia until the first sealers arrived – many of them from the islands worlds of Scotland and Ireland. They took Aboriginal women mostly from Tasmania to be their wives (some even by marriage, which was quite something in those days) that so much fantasy (and some sf) anyway is a melange. Like a good trifle or Eton Mess (do you know what that is?) it is a mixture of things which, together, produce something different which, unlikely as it may seem when you look at the ingredients, when you put it together well, is better than separate elements. Sometimes these are things that logic says will not go together (Balsamic vinegar and strawberries – which, um, works) and others are more natural partners. The more experienced cook does know what he can mix… well, mostly. Some of my meals and some of my stories just didn’t work. However when you have craftsmen like Roger Zelazny and his melange of Indian mythology and sf, mix modern western characters and ideas and something total different – culture or mythology, the outcome is richer and deeper than either.

My hand is sore now, so it’s your turn. Think of some melanges – and how you could turn that to your own work.

*The Furneaux group – which in my own melange I use the the Tasmanian aboriginal belief that these were the ‘blessed isles’ or abode of the dead. – they could see them from Tasmania, mountains and hills, verdant and rising out of the sea. Unreachable, and without any sign of smoke. No hearth-fires meant no living people.

Next Big Thing Is Coming

I’ve recently been roped into a writerly blog chain called the Next Big Thing. It involves writers doing a Q&A about their latest work in progress, then tagging five other writers at the bottom of their post. The Q&A posts from those writers, then appears exactly one week later and so on. . .

It’s reached quite a few corners of the web already, which is not surprising. I’m not quite sure where it all started, but I do know that the number of writers involved must be pretty impressive by now.

The thing is exponential.

So the first week you would have one writer, the one who started it: 1

Next week you have: 1+5

Week three you have: 1+ 52

And onward until at week ‘n’ you have: 1 + 5(n-1)

So at week 11 (assuming all writers are unique), that’s 9,765,626 writers! Assuming writers are 1% of the population (7,000,000), the supply of keyboard-tappers is already tapped out!

Now, I’m not usually into chain emails etc. When I get one of those, ‘Pass this on to five people to make your wish come true/establish world peace/save the world – but if you don’t you will die a horrible death’ – I usually hit the delete button straight away.

But this writerly blog chain serves a positive function, allowing people to talk about their latest WIP and raises a bit of attention. It is also fascinating to see how the thing progresses through networks of writers.

When I was first approached I have to admit to being pretty confused about how it all worked. Initially I thought it was just a series of reciprocal arrangements where you each posted a Q&A of the other writer. This led me to be tagged twice (oops). Oh, well. The blog police have not burst down the doors yet.

All the Next Big Thing posts go up on Wednesdays each week. Mine will appear on my chrismcmahons web blog on Wednesday 28th November. I’ll be talking about my latest and greates – Urban Fantasy Distant Shore.

Some of the other MGC members have been nice enough to agree to be my tagged authors. It’s going to fascinating to see who they tag!

Has this reached your writer’s nest yet? Does anyone know where this thing started?

Coming back from Burnout for Thanksgiving

The thing about burnout is you don’t really get how bad it is until you start to recover, even if you know you’re burned out. It’s one of those things that’s harder to see from the inside.

I’m realizing now that I was seriously, severely burned out, and now that I’ve had a smidge over two weeks doing only what I absolutely had to do, I’m starting to get myself back. Of course, me being me this means I also got a story shell, a character, and a crapload of backstory dumped on me and now it’s making me write it. It’s… different. (Who am I kidding? I’m chronically incapable of doing anything that isn’t different).

I knew I was burned out, of course. I could see that. What I didn’t realize was how bad it was – I’d thought I’d come back after a few days of doing nothing. The few days turned into a week, then two. Then the story itch started up and I did some cleaning that wasn’t strictly necessary. (Yes, the two are related). If nothing gets in the way I might even managed to get the much delayed house organization somewhere further on than it is now as well as making some writing progress.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone hold their breath though – this stage of recovery is fragile and can easily crash back.
In any case, I have plenty to be thankful for this turkey holiday – I have a new job to go to, which, despite the hellacious commute (the drive is an hour in regular traffic, and I’m reliably informed the road becomes a glorified parking lot in peak time) looks like a much closer fit to my skills and interests than the old one. I’ll have a better paycheck, and not all of the difference will go to taxes and fuel/train fares.  By driving to the train and taking the train in, I’ll give myself about 90 minutes each day to read, relax or whatever as part of the commute. The 17.5 year old fluffball cat (she’s part persian, part siamese, and part who the hell knows) just spent a while reminding me that I should be thankful for the matchless joy of her company. Since all she has to do is flash her big blue eyes at me and I melt, she doesn’t have too much trouble keeping me in line.
Whether I should be thankful for this is another matter:

I thought the worst day of my life was the day I learned my parents had been killed running a Mantzi blockade: I was wrong.

Waking up on Skillar’s flyer docks with the kind of headache you only get after someone’s been using something blunt on your head, and the smell of rancid magic strong enough that I nearly heaved right then wasn’t a good start. Realizing that at least three of Fat Mikay’s boys were arguing over which one got first rights to me put the day at worst-ever right there.

I risked opening my eyes a little.

I didn’t recognize the goons, but Fat Mikay ran the flyer docks on Skillar and the only laborers here were his ‘boys’. Paid thugs who might, if you greased their callused palms enough, get your cargo moved without pilferage or breakage. Mostly what they did was extortion.

They had their backs to me, which was a start. I couldn’t hear anyone else around, and I didn’t expect to. You don’t disturb Mikay’s boys when they’re bickering over the spoils.

Unless you happen to be the spoils.

I climbed to my feet, slowly. My head pounded, but at least I wasn’t quite so nauseous with my nose a bit further from the magic-soaked wood of the docks. Damn thing glowed an unhealthy green at night, there was so much spoiled magic here, and with the Mantzi prohibition on active magic use, hiring a wizard to clean it up wasn’t going to happen.

Not that the Mantzi officially possessed Skillar, but you didn’t want to be caught doing anything they banned – just about everything – if they happened to be patrolling. The other powers arguing over this useless backwater Realm were more reasonable about things. The other powers were mostly run by people.

Mikay’s boys looked like they were about to lay into each other with their shovels – must have drawn a livestock transport, although the edges on those things would cut anything soft – so I figured I’d give them a little help. The state I was in, I wasn’t going to be able to run away, which meant taking the thugs down before they could start amusing themselves.

There are times when being a scrawny little female is a disadvantage.

Whoever waylaid me hadn’t bothered to search me. I guess the motherless spawn of a Mantzi figured I’d be out until one of Mikay’s boys had me safely trussed up somewhere. Lucky I’ve got a hard head. I still had my knives, too.

With a bit of luck, I might get out of here intact enough to figure out who’d come after me and why.

I drew my knives and crept towards the nearest of the thugs. Pity I didn’t dare try to move fast in case I tripped over my own feet. My pounding head and unhappy gut meant balance was a bit on the shaky side.

One of the thugs got a solid hit on his partner with the flat of his shovel. Partner folded to the ground without a word.

Good. That made it two on one. Still ugly but better than three on one.

The air around me crackled with magic, twisting my perceptions inside out and sideways for a moment. I had to stop and catch my breath. I hate Mantzi force suppressors.

A voice, cool, uninflected. “All units surrender or be terminated.”

Crap. Thing just got worse. Mantzi.

I let my knives slide back into their sheathes and slowly raised my hands. With Mantzi, it was probably ‘surrender and be terminated’, but alive with maybe a chance beat definitely dead.

Mikay’s boys didn’t agree. The damn fools attacked. Two thugs with shovels against what my blurry vision told me was a full Mantzi troop: twenty five drones and at least one elite. The drones didn’t speak. They didn’t have mouths.

They did have force suppressors and flamesticks. It was over for Mikay’s boys in a flare of screams and fire.

I had to clench my teeth to keep from losing my stomach. Burning thug is not a smell I want to remember.

The sound of metal-clad boots on wood, and a blurred shape stood in front of me. Cold metal hands gripped my face, tilting my head up, presumably so my captor could scan it properly.

I was glad I couldn’t see clearly. Those dead, all-black eyes in the silvery metal face are beyond creepy.

“This is the one.”


“Prepare the unit for containment.”

I was in it deep, that was for sure. What did the Mantzian Puppet-Master want with me?

The force suppressor bolt was turned stronger this time. Reality twisted around me, and turned into pain, then, mercifully, everything faded out.

Happy Thanksgiving to all American readers and happy whatever takes your fancy to everyone else.