Sunday, May 29, 2011

Evil Editor flashback

Back in 2006, I sent my fledgling query letter for Song of Scarabaeus to Evil Editor, who snarkily savaged it. This is a free service provided by the sheer graciousness of the Evil One, for anyone who dares approach. Evil Editor just chose my query as the first in his new Classics line, and reposted it here. It's been almost five years since the original post - I've since got an agent, sold two books, had two nice award nominations, not to mention the baby, moving countries, and MCP's writing career taking off as well.

You'll notice there were three books planned at that time: Song 0f Scarabaeus (then called Scarabaeus), Children of Scarabaeus, and Soul of Scarabaeus. I amalgamated the second and third story ideas into one book, once I'd decided the series would be a duology, and wanted to call it Soul of Scarabaeus, but my editor thought Soul was too similar to Song. I'd felt compelled to name the books in an alphabetically chronological (or is that chronologically alphabetical?) manner so they'd appear in the correct order in a search engine. That's the editor in me being all anal retentive. Oh well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gritty sci-fi movies... with women!

Book Chick City is having a Women in Science Fiction Week and I'm guest blogging there today about a few sci-fi movies I love that feature not only women, but my other favorite thing - grit. Head on over there and comment to let me know what sci-fi movies have stuck with you over the years. I'm always interested in hearing about movies other than the usual blockbusters, although I'm a sucker for those too.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Excerpt and giveaway on RomCon

The RomCon blog has an excerpt of Children of Scarabaeus today, along with a brief intro by me and a giveaway. Head over there to check it out. (You know how hard it is to pick such a short excerpt that makes sense on its own and doesn't give away too much?) (Well, it's hard.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2010 Aurealis Awards

Just got back from Sydney's Aurealis Awards - a very impressive event! Even MCP dressed up and he doesn't do that except for job interviews and his wedding. Caught up with some old friends from my Aurealis magazine days. Lost in my nominated category, best SF novel, but to the very worthy Marianne de Pierres who won for Transformation Space. It's the fourth in a series, so the first thing I did when I got home was order the first couple in the series. I have a space in my reading schedule coming up soon... Judging from a comment in her acceptance speech, I think she was as chuffed as I was that it was an all-girl finalist line-up for Best SF novel. How often does that happen?

MCP has a thing or two to say about our other Sydney adventures. I will say we had a great view from our sixth-floor hotel room, met some new and interesting people at the after-event party, and I even had the chance to give away my books to a couple of ladies at Sydney airport (who, like us, were caught up in the drama of a cancelled flight) (hi to Sharon and Robyn!). All in all, a lovely weekend...

...but I'm so glad to be back home again with my baby.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another giveaway

Over the Edge interviewed me and is giving away two copies of Children of Scarabaeus. So, would I go forward or backward in time? (Duh!) Read all about it here.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How big is Finn, anyway?

Finn is about two meters tall, for the record.

On a related note, much genre fiction these days is written in first person or close third person. In this point of view, the character, not the author, is the narrator. It's as if the POV character sat down after the events unfolded and wrote what happened, as she experienced it, using either "I" as the main character, or describing herself as a "she". This narrator knows that others are going to read the story - in fact, she's writing for a presumed audience.

Which makes me think about why someone writing for others would write a dramatic account of their very exciting life hunting vampires or saving the galaxy or whatever... and include graphic sex scenes.

In certain contexts these scenes strike me as misplaced. Don't they belong in the narrator's diary, where no one else will ever see them? I know why writers include them. I'm just not sure why the narrator would include them.

Again, I'm talking here only about first person and close third person narratives, where the character is the narrator. If the narrator is someone else (that is, some unspecified author who knows what happened and may have been privy to certain characters' thoughts), there's no particular reason not to include details about the sex, if he's so inclined. He's the narrator, he's in charge, and he doesn't need the characters' permission to write their story or describe the ins and outs of how they make love.

So, back to our character-as-narrator. We've all come across the POV character who describes herself as gorgeous or witty. (Advice to writers pretending to be characters narrating their own story: probably best not to do that.) I find it a bit irksome. I'm more inclined to believe that she, rather than some other writer, is the narrator of the story if someone else tells her she's gorgeous, and if she demonstrates wit in her prose.

And by the same token, I'm more likely to believe she's the narrator of the story if she shows a little restraint with the sex scenes. In real life there might be people who don't care that everyone knows who they slept with and how good it was and even what positions were assumed and who came first and how often. If that's the kind of person our fictional narrator is, then fine.

But for most fictional narrators I've come across (just like most of us for real), making all this public would be very much out of character. Even if we don't keep the whos and wheres and whens private (and most of us do even that), we don't write and publish the hows. Especially not five times, fifteen pages each, covering every microsecond of every encounter and describing every last tab A and slot B.

I'm not suggesting that authors tone things down to a more realistic narration, writing only what that character would actually write given that she supposedly knows others will read it. This is a case of where we suspend disbelief. While it's unlikely anyone would actually write their autobiography that way, we choose to ignore that little fact because we want to read every juicy detail, dammit. We are especially lenient, I think, when the genre is romance - that is, when the relationship is the main point of the story. A character who sits down to write the story of the Love of Her Life might be forgiven for expending 700 words on her orgasm.

When I was writing Children of Scarabaeus (which *SPOILER ALERT* has a couple of sex scenes, if you didn't know by now), I thought a lot about how Edie, the only POV character, would write about what happened. The story is third person but we never leave her head - either she wrote that book with herself as a character, or she told her story to someone else who faithfully recorded it. She was aware that it would be read (not by you, but by readers from her own time and possibly even Finn). Given her personality, what would she tell her readers and what would she keep private? And would she really dish the dirt on how BIG Finn is?

I don't think so.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Understanding understatement

I was listening to an old recording in the car today: Maybe by Thom Pace, the theme song for 70s TV show The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. There's a You Tube version here (if you can handle the beard and lip-syncing).

Have a listen, and then listen to Firefly's theme song (written by Joss Whedon, performed by Sonny Rhodes) which you probably already know because how could you not?

The fugitive who finds sanctuary in nature. The captain of a starship who'll do anything just to "keep her in the sky." Separated by seven centuries, their core emotions are perfectly captured in these two simple songs.

What I love about both these pieces is the emotional punch they pack while being both musically and lyrically so minimalist. When it comes to deep-seated feelings, give me understatement over histrionics any time. It's something I appreciate in lyrics, in acting, in books, in art, and because I'm British (at least, that's my excuse) in life.

In writing, I think I gravitate toward that mode naturally - I write characters who don't give long speeches about their feelings and who don't fly off the handle or declare undying love at the drop of a hat. There are exceptions, because drama requires highs and lows and a good mix of personalities. Cat Lancer tends to say what she thinks even if it gets her into trouble. Haller has his little temper tantrums. Liv Natesa's infamous poise can be shattered. But even these characters don't barge through every page screaming "Here I am, and here's what I'm currently feeling!"

Understatement is of course most effective when emotions are running the hottest. Love, lust, anger, grief - for me, scenes that show characters struggling to hold in these feelings (because they fear the consequences, or because public displays are unacceptable, or because they're trained to be that way, and many other reasons) are more powerful than big splashes of overt expression. Holding it inside also builds tension - for the character and for the reader - and that has other interesting consequences. When will the character finally break loose (if ever)? What does all that suppressed emotion do to a person (if anything)? Most importantly, how will those emotions find their way out? Because it's bound to happen. I'm reminded of Colin Firth's Darcy, as uptight and controlled as they come. He's enjoying a quiet, humorous moment with Elizabeth at the piano when his aunt's overpowering voice from across the room ruins the mood: "What are you talking of? ... I must have my share in the conversation!" He doesn't lose his cool and burst open with all that suppressed upper class frustration. But the way he rolls his eyes... You know exactly what he thinks of her intrusion. Better still, he thinks that way because Elizabeth Bennet is in his life and in his sights. Last week it might not have bothered him at all.

And for the reader, or viewer - as I learned in a screenwriting class a long time ago - the fewer tears a character sheds on screen, the more tears the audience sheds. If the reader knows from other clues what the character is feeling but the character reins it in, all that pent-up emotion has to find another outlet... it's released via the reader instead.

And now for the problem in all this: I'm not so sure that the majority of readers would agree with me. I'm not sure the majority of people in life are like this. Depending on their tastes and culture and gender, a lot of people evidently like to watch movies exploding with anger and violence, and soap operas drenched in melodramatic acting. A lot of people like to watch out-of-control displays of emotion in "real life" too - see Springer, Dr Phil, and any number of reality shows.

How far this translates to reading, where there are no additional clues from actors (whether talented or overwrought), I don't know. I like to think the reader should work just a little bit to extract emotion from the page, instead of having it handed to her on a platter by characters who act out (or describe) every last gram of what they're feeling. I think it makes the experience interactive.

And that's what happens when I listen to the two simple songs mentioned earlier. Because the lyrics are understated, the onus is on me to feel the emotions inferred by them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cover blurbs - where do they come from?

With a baby-addled brain these days it's sometimes hard to come up with blog ideas, so once again I'm cribbing an idea from agent Kristin Nelson's Pubrants. This week she's posted about blurbs - those words of praise from other writers that you see on the cover of a novel.

This can certainly be a tricky area, with successful authors wanting to help new authors while at the same time not wanting to be inundated with requests they can't handle. I have no insights there but my advice to new writers is to have faith in your work and bite the bullet - just go ahead and ask. 

Firstly, ask your agent or publisher for contacts. They can approach their own clients and authors who may enjoy your book and will agree to blurb it. Kristin asked her client, successful SFR author Linnea Sinclair, on my behalf to read Song of Scarabaeus. Fortunately for me, Linnea was not only hugely gracious and agreed to read the book, but she gave me a fantastic cover blurb as well. Eos put it on the front of the book.

As my release date approached, the publicist at HarperCollins set me up with Borders' sci-fi blog Babel Clash. As luck would have it, Eos's bestselling fantasy author Robin Hobb had the same release date as me, so we were paired up for a discussion on the blog. HarperCollins sent us each other's books (hers was Dragon Haven, the sequel to the evocative Dragon Keeper - love those dragons!) and she emailed my editor with some thoughts on the book. We asked her if we could turn her email into a blurb, and she agreed. This came too late for the cover, of course, but was used in publicity material for the book.

I wrote to a couple of authors myself, completely out of the blue - they had no idea who this debut SF writer was asking them to read her book! As Kristin recommends, make the request personal - these should obviously be authors whose work you're familiar with, and who write a similar genre. In addition, think carefully about your wording: I didn't ask the authors to "please blurb my book." I asked them if they possibly had time to read it, and if they enjoyed it to consider blurbing it.

These authors could not, in the end, blurb the book due to their own deadlines. I told them I understood and that was that.

I did have one other contact of my own, but it was never planned that way. Years ago I joined the online critique group A call went out on behalf of a published author who had just converted her classic novel to ebook format, and she wanted proofreaders. With no idea who the author was, I volunteered my services - I was, after all, a book editor, and thought my skills would be useful. 

The author turned out to be Vonda N. McIntyre and the book was the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Dreamsnake.This was one of those serendipitous moments that life sometimes throws your way. Dreamsnake, along with Vonda's other novels and short stories, had had a huge influence on me in the 80s. This was the author who made me realize that science fiction didn't have to be space battles and high-tech widgets and talking heads (I'd been reading 50s and 60s short story collections and really didn't know that anything else existed). Her books had talented female protagonists and quieter stories, and I loved them.

I (and several others, to my knowledge) did the proofreading work for Vonda and she thanked me, and that was that.

But a year or so later, I wrote to Vonda, reminded her who I was, and asked her if she would read the book I'd just sold to Eos. And, if she liked it, to please consider blurbing it. I have no idea whether or not she'd have done so anyway without the prior connection, but I don't think it hurt. She did agree to read it and gave me a lovely blurb that Eos used on the back cover of Song and the front cover of Children of Scarabaeus.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

“But that's not fair!”

Using the word morality in fiction is dangerous -- it conjures up images of high horses and religious dictates, which aren't really things we want in our fiction.

To me the word means just one thing: fairness.

Life, as they say, isn't fair, but that's not an excuse for people to not be fair. In fiction, protagonists who prioritize fairness are people I want to root for. Those are the characters I find appealing and the stories I'm interested in following.

A character might not know what's fair or she might be misled about what's fair -- she might have wrong or incomplete information, for example. She might have to revise her opinion about what's fair along the way. But to be appealing to me as a reader (or author), a character wants to do the right thing. If her world is small, she might only be concerned with doing the right thing for those in her immediate environment. As her knowledge of the universe grows, her priorities shift and she gains a wider sense of what "fair" can mean.

She has to be fair to herself, too, which may be how she avoids becoming overly self-righteous or self-sacrificing. We expect our heroes to make sacrifices, of course, even sacrificing their lives if it's "worth it", but only when they're backed into a corner with no options.

"But that's not fair!" -- it's the eternal whine of children all over the world, but sometimes those children have a point. A character who considers what's fair, and is concerned with making things fair, is far more appealing to me than a character driven by selfish or petty motivations, including righteous revenge.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Author copies are here!

I finally got my big box of author copies of Children of Scarabaeus this week, so I'll be sending out signed copies to the people who have won them over the past month or so...

... assuming they survive Babyzilla.

An octogenarian

This weekend was my dad's 80th birthday. We four children put together a little booklet with 80 things in it -- our childhood memories of him (like the huge bonfires he built every year on Guy Fawkes Night), his pearls of wisdom ("Never leave a wingnut in the gutter";  "Hamsters don't go to heaven"), and his little quirks (such as his obsession with logging every penny and cent spent on petrol, and charting the fuel efficiency of his vehicles over the years).

He's a retired chemical engineer, able to build and fix anything. In fact he spent yesterday afternoon re-engineering croquet hoops with a blow torch and sander so the grandchildren could play a game when they came over for his party. He's put up more shelving and cup hooks for us than any man should have to in a lifetime. He dug up and leveled our entire quarter-acre lawn at the house in England. I do not know why, but I'm sure his engineer brain drove him to it.

The above photo of the half-completed job was taken (in the late 70s) from the roof, which he was wont to climb on occasion to fix the tiling. No small task on a three-storey home. He climbed all the way up on a very long, narrow, scary ladder.

He's also an artist, lately expressed through photography, but he sculpted and painted when he was younger. When my sister, at a very young age, painted a face on the bathroom chair, he had to be angry, of course, but took a photo of it for posterity.

I dedicated my first book to him because of his willingness to answer any question -- a child's curiosity and a parent's patient indulgence help imaginations to grow. If he didn't know the answer, he took a stab anyway using logic (working it out from first principles) and common sense (drawing on his vast engineering knowledge).

He's had a huge influence on my life, which becomes more and more apparent to me as I get older.

Happy birthday, daddy!

Me and my dad, on a beach in England with "Black Cindy"