GUFF all the way to Helsinki

In which I would love to persuade you to throw a vote my way in the GUFF race, and help me get to the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) next year…

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What’s GUFF?

GUFF is the Get-Up&Over (or Get Under)-Fan-Fund, an extremely cool fund which sends a southern hemisphere fan to European conventions, and a European fan to southern hemisphere conventions, on alternating years. It’s run by fans for fans. The trip across the world can be a tricky and expensive one, but it’s so amazing to get people together from the other side of the globe to eat, drink, and enjoy all things SFF together.

Last year the fund sent Jukka Halme to Contact in Brisbane and the year before, Gillian Polack to Loncon – during which she got to (and I cannot emphasise the importance of this enough) HUG DAVID TENNANT. Oh, and do some other SFFish stuff sure sure but seriously, there is photographic evidence of her with the tenth Doctor so I assume all her life goals are now complete.* The GUFF delegate often gets to go to several conventions in the region in the time they have. It’s a wonderful chance to get out from behind our computers and meet each other. This year, it’s a northbound race with the winner getting to go to Worldcon in Helsinki in August. I’m really excited to see that Helsinki is shaping up to be a truly international, welcoming Worldcon, and a genuine chance for fans from around the globe to interact.

So how does this work? Well, you SFF fans out there have voting rights – so you get to decide which one of the nominees for the year gets to go. Anyone active in fandom is eligible to vote on payment of a small contribution to the Fund (which is partly how it pays for the trip): GBP6, EUR7, AUD10, NZD10 (or the equivalent in other currencies) to the fund. You can find voting instructions and details about the preferential counting system and such here on the official race page.

So hello, I’m nominated to go! If you’ve read this far you may be pondering whether the prospect of sending me (or one of the other candidates**) to Finland is worth forking out a tenner or so. I mean, it totally is, because FINLAND. WORLDCON. How brilliant is that? Ahem. More seriously, voting and donating is a really cool thing to do, because you’re helping keep the fund alive and active. And it’s a great fund. A waggy dog of a fund. It helps bring our geographically disparate communities together in our shared love of the genre, and in 2016 (which is a murderous shithole of a year, let’s face it) I know I feel pretty warmly toward doing things that make me feel good about community and positivity. So maybe you’re doing OK and you’ve been to a lot of cons and you’d like to pay forward toward someone else’s great experience. Maybe you’ve never been to a con and you’d really like to – this time round you might be a generous awesome person helping send someone on the trip of a lifetime; next time, perhaps you’ll put yourself up for nomination and do a bit of lifetime-memory-creating of your own. Or maybe you just want a say on who turns up in Finland and tries not to make a goose of themselves. Whatever the reason, if you’re intending to vote you’re very clearly a cool, sexy, intelligent person with really good hair.

Now, why should you vote for me?

If you haven’t hung out here or on my social media before, my bio page will tell you a bit about me. (It’s only a small proportion lies. I really did want to be a zookeeper.) And there is a short pitch we all wrote which you’ll find on the ballot paper here.

But, some elaboration. My pitch on the ballot was only allowed to be 100 words and you know I bled to write anything that short (I’ve probably cracked 100 on footnotes alone in this blog post) and yet still, mine is the only one containing dumb jokes, which probably tells you something. I will not pretend I am not the least experienced of the candidates, all of whom have lots of convention-related creds that I lack. What I am is dumb and silly and I will represent Australian fandom by way of being dumb and silly around sophisticated European fans, and bribing people with Tim Tams. (Speaking of bribes: Timtams for anyone finding me at Helsinki! Forget clothing changes, my suitcase will be stuffed with chocolate goodness.)

To further expand on my little pitch, no I’m not kidding about the Princess Bride, and if you’ve never tried the 3 TimTams in a minute challenge, no it’s not easy, no, seriously, I can see you there thinking it’s 3 biscuits and a whole minute, how hard can it be? Well it can be bloody impossible is what it can be.

First one: easy, down treat, 10 seconds, 15 max.

Second: huh, hey, you know, my mouth’s starting to feel a bit rich and gluggy, haha, no worries, still stacks of time, just work up a bit more saliva and there it goes, still have 25 seconds left, no probl—

Third: WTF WHY IS MY MOUTH MADE OF SOLID RICH DOOM-CRUMB I CAN’T SWALLOW JESUS JESUS WHY IS THIS HAPPENING

Time’s up.

OK I got a bit sidetracked again. Hmm, reasons to vote for me. Hey maybe you’re going and you want to meet up! I would love to meet you! I only went to my first convention – Supernova – a few years ago, so I’m basically a convention baby. But I’ve got at least 3 next year and I’ll hope to squish in a couple more. Sidebar: UK/European peeps, tell me about what else is happening in the general temporal vicinity of Worldcon, as I’d hate to get all the way over there and only manage one. I should say, I’m going to find the money to go to Helsinki regardless, so whether or not I am the GUFF delegate I will be there to hang out with you and have a drink or a chocolate of your choice!

The main reason I would love to be the GUFF delegate is that I really do love other people, and other fans specifically, but… I’m also pretty shy. My main fear is getting all the way over there and then being too nervous to introduce myself to anyone and basically just smearing my back against the perimeter walls all week.*** When I was persuading myself to apply for this opportunity it was with half an eye on tricking/forcing myself into having an actual role and accompanying responsibilities so that I couldn’t just lurk. Once I’ve overcome that initial barrier I never shut up, so give me a job and I’m fine. So, yanno, I’ll be there either way, but unless you’re really fond of walls you’ve got a much better shot of interacting with me if I’m in delegate mode. J

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re willing to put in a vote you are cool and sexy and awesome, but if you’re willing to vote for me you’re just objectively even better, and songs will be sung in your honour one day.

In all seriousness, thank you for reading this far. Spending money, even a small sum, to send someone you may never even have met to another country is a really generous and kind thing to do. I would love you to vote but if you can’t or don’t want to, no worries at all. You’re rad just the way you are. 🙂

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*  Naturally if you know Gillian you know she has many more ambitious goals than this but she is also cleverer and more accomplished than me and I can’t think any bigger than David Tennant, OK?

** To the extent that I’m here persuading you I will be upfront in saying I have a strong preference for it being me.

*** Anyone doubting my sincerity on this point should ask how I did at the opening mixer for Hardcopy, the professional development program I did in 2014. It was at an art gallery and I literally pretended to study art for a frankly ridiculous amount of time because I was too shy to insert myself into any of the little groups that had formed.

Killing your darling Gilmore Girls

gilmore

The following are my spoilery thoughts on Gilmore Girls, with a segue into the old writing chestnut about killing your darlings.

 

 

Spoilers…

 

 

…spoilers…

 

…I warned you, I really did…

 

Spoilers….

 

…Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the new 4 parter (either because you’re going to make a snide comment about not caring about Gilmore Girls or because you’ll get mad that I spoiled – either way, youuuuuu shall not paaaaaaassssss)

 

—-

I have lots of thoughts. I loved parts of it, disliked others, enjoyed the range of characters they managed to fit in, couldn’t stop assessing how weird it was that some people looked exactly the same (Lane!) and others unrecognisable (Miss Patty? Is that really you?). It was really funny in places, a bit cringey in others, and hit a lot of good emotional notes.

My main thought, if I could distill it into one thing, was that Amy Sherman-Palladino shone when faced with entirely new material to work with (eg handling the fallout from Richard’s death on Emily and Lorelai), and struggled when she was trying to cram her intended ending from 10 years ago into this new work. Clearly, she had wanted to end the original GG with a just-finished-college Rory pregnant to a Christopher-like weak rich boy, coming full circle. But she really made a bunch of mistakes trying to force that ending in 10 years late.

Rory had made her mistakes over the course of the original series, but the whoppers we were most invested in, the seasons-long dramatic arcs, were:

  1. her relationship with Dean – including the initial bad treatment and eventual affair, and
  2. her falling in with Logan of the Life and Death Brigade* spoiled rich boys crowd, quitting Yale, etc.

This new season basically asked us to believe that despite all the fallout from those mistakes, she…just super casually repeated them 10 years later, because she had inexplicably regressed dramatically in maturity by age 32? She’s like Benjamin Button for emotional health? Still kicking around near her teenage boyfriends like there are no other options in the world? That would be OK if it was a character we didn’t get shown for 7 seasons as being essentially mature, grounded and emotionally intelligent, and capable of correctly diagnosing Lorelai’s problems with relationships. She’s now cheating on her boyfriend casually and without regard, treating him like forgettable dirt? (Yes, yes, I know we weren’t given a chance to see Paul/Peter as an actual human, only a joke, so we could laugh at everyone forgetting him, but still. Is Rory really that person?**) She’s having an affair with an engaged guy, without any consideration of his fiancee at all? Lorelai is essentially fine with both these things, despite how she reacted last time almost identical things happened? WOT? No. This stuff might have made sense in the context of an ASP s7, but they were hard to swallow as a 10-years-later prospect.

Likewise, though to a lesser extent, I would have been a lot happier with the Lorelai/Luke arc had it taken place in a fictional s 7. It was a bit odd to think they couldn’t have got things resolved with finality over 10 freaking years… but I’ll forgive that one because the revival never truly painted their relationship as being on the rocks, just poorly defined, and at least it led to a really nice emotional ending and a great speech from Luke that redeemed episode 4 after the Life and Death horror. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Lorelai, at least, would still be struggling with her relationships, because the show always made a point of her screwing up and sabotaging herself and others over and over and over, so while I would prefer that she had grown emotionally, I can believe that she wasn’t there yet.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ gets used a lot, but to me where it resonates most is when you have an idea, or a line, or a scene, or a character – something, something that was great and powerful and moving or funny or super clever and you adore it, but when you actually finish the creative work, it doesn’t … fit anymore. But you LOVE IT. You know, either subconsciously or with klaxonesque clarity, that it doesn’t fit. But you are still in love with the feeling you had when you first devised it and you cannot bring yourself to take it out of the story. The GG revival was like seeing this play out right in front of me. Of course ASP is a wonderful writer who has made fantastic characters I still want to watch 16 years later. She is still funny, clever, and emotionally resonant. But she had an idea of what she wanted to do at the end of the original GG, and she loved it, and she was going to MAKE IT HAPPEN NO MATTER WHAT. She’d told people her magic last 4 words. It was her baby, her darling.

And she should have killed it.

The ideas didn’t belong any more. It’s like the end of How I Met Your Mother. (Do I have to say spoilers now? It’s pretty old. But still – SPOILERS SPOILERS ROTTEN MEAT AHEAD I don’t know why you would be watching an old sitcom now but just in case, SPOILERS be ahead, me hearties!) The writers had an idea back in s2 about the premise of the show, and it was clever, and it would have worked brilliantly if it had been a 3 or so season show, but the show was successful and it kept going and the characters grew and developed and moved on, and so when they forced that ending in in the final episode, it pissed people off, because it made mockery of all of the work they’d done in the other seasons. Don’t invest us in the sincerity of a relationship over the course of several years and literally devote an entire season to the wedding of those people then chuck it out in a couple of minute epilogue so you can put one of the people with someone else. Don’t show us over time how two people aren’t in fact right for each other for real and genuine reasons of incompatibility but then try to schmaltz us into a last minute happily ever after with no build up. No matter how great the idea started out, if the creative work has outgrown it, or moved somewhere else, you have to move with it no matter how much it hurts to drop it. It might hurt like tearing off a bandaid where the scab grew over the plaster, but it’s better than walking around with a foul half-bandaid permanently part of your skin.

So: don’t make Rory a dumb teenager at 32 when she was barely one at 18. Don’t spend 7 years teaching viewers to value the relationships and characters defined by loyalty and trustworthiness not pretty blond faces and fancy houses and throwing money at problems to paper over weak character, then ask us to believe that Rory was still charmed by the latter a decade later. We won’t buy it, and you’re better than that.

Like I said before, when given entirely new angles to work, the writing was spot on. The funeral and the circle of Lorelai’s stories about her father in ep 1 vs ep 4 were perfection. Emily’s recovery arc: the giant painting, wearing jeans and giving away dining room chairs, giving no fucks to the DAR, the entire family of miscellaneous-language-speaking staff taking over the Gilmore household, and Emily’s lovely last scenes. Rory dealing with the realities of the job market instead of being given a dumb fake super successful career (things aren’t easy for younguns these days, even Ivy Leaguers with loads of advantages). Every second Paris was on screen. The ideas are still there, and when she wasn’t constrained by the ghost of the season she never wrote, ASP was awesome. I’m not sure whether or not to be hopeful that the combination of the ending and Jess’s last scene iindicates there may be more coming (or perhaps we were just meant to visualise a future where Rory makes better choices?) In some ways it would be a real risk, because this revival was largely successful, despite the giant rant above, and was deeply satisfying in some aspects. Continuing it might be a mistake that would ruin the semi finality of some of the storylines. On the other hand, I still really enjoyed it, still adore the show, and would of course watch the hell out of new episodes.

TL;DR: kill your darlings doesn’t mean take out the best bits of your stuff that you love the most. It only means that you should be willing to listen to other people – or your own subconscious –when they don’t fit the work.

Now go watch GG and tell me all the cameos I missed. Sis the Younger had to point out Ann (who?) from Arrested Development, so I’m sure there were more.
——

* UGH. Jesus. The fucking Life and Death Brigade. Did they have to make the special? Really? They weren’t charming in their 20s and I just wanted to punch every one of them for every second of screen time in their 30s. I get 45 seconds of Melissa McCarthy but I have to sit through what felt like about 20 solid minutes of entitled narcissists dressing stupidly and loving themselves so hard I’m surprised they didn’t cause an injury, and being self-important and buying shit and being obnoxious to people? In 2016 are we still supposed to find rich white boys who contribute nothing to society but believe they’re entitled to everything funny and charming? It would have been OK if they’d been presented as a critique (as the series of blended-together blond rich boy Tristan/Logan/Christophers sometimes was in the original) but they weren’t – instead Rory gave them more affection than almost anyone else in the special.

** I am aware that one argument is that, indeed, Rory IS that person, she has always been that person, she’s a spoiled rich girl with a ridiculous crowd of doting admirers helping her every step of the way and handing her every opportunity. Yes, she treated some boys poorly as a teenager/young adult, and let herself be treated poorly in turn. Yes, she failed to respect other people’s relationships at times. She was definitely sometimes self centered. So you could read 32 year old Rory as presented as being the natural consequence of teenage Rory Girl Wonder. BUT… I don’t actually feel that way about her, though I can see why some would, and I don’t think the show really wanted to present her in that way. I think her mistakes were presented as those of a young person who was otherwise emotionally healthy and empathetic making some bad choices and getting stuck in some bad messes that took a long time to sort out. I believe that we were meant to think she would make better choices going forward.

iFAQs Pt 1: aka my agent is chiller than me

I’ve been asked a bunch of questions since announcing my book deal a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d try to answer some of the common ones here. I would hesitate to call them FAQs since that implies a level of regularity of interest that I am yet lacking, so I’m going with infrequently asked questions, iFAQs, for now.

First one up – how did I get The News, what was it like?

If you love being in a constant state of anxiety, leaving your phone by the bed so you can check your emails as soon as you wake up, the author’s life might just be for you. I knew my book had interest from an editor I admired at a dream label, but things can still fall over at any stage, so I was trying not to get my hopes up. This meant waking up periodically during the night and trying to convince myself not to check my phone … but it’s RIGHT THERE, how could it hurt, I’m awake anyway, etc … (I guess this is less stressful when you’re not battling timezones, though it’s probably better for my productivity in my day job).

So one thing I learned on the day my phone had that precious precious email on it was that my agent is more chill than me.

I get a notification screen on my phone when I’ve received an email from someone on my VIP list. It has the sender, the subject line, and maybe the first line and a bit of the email text. You can usually get a sense of what kind of news you’re getting from that. This is what greeted me on that fateful morning when I woke up at stupid-o’clock and immediately reached over to my phone:

email-from-jc

My heart sank. Good news doesn’t usually start with a ‘so’, and if it’s an offer surely it starts with HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT WE GOT AN OFFER YOU’RE GONNA BE A TOR AUTHOR AND ALL YOUR DREAMZ IS COMING TRUE BABY? No, I thought, this is probably not great news. But like a bandaid, right offffffff, is my motto with scary/exciting emails, so I clicked right away. To find, of course, that the sentence went on with ‘and I’m pleased to say we have an offer…’

But check that preview again.

email-from-jc-close-up

OBSERVE THAT PERIOD.

No exclamation point. It’s not a reply to anything, it’s a fresh email, so she typed that subject line in. She CHOSE that period. Not an exclamation mark, which I’d argue is warranted in the circumstances. Not the more traditional choice of no punctuation at all.

I see two options here.

Option 1: Julie is literally the coolest person possible. She typed that while casually sipping tea. “Oh, I must mention that only-barely-interesting news to Sam, perhaps she will be interested, I mean obviously I wouldn’t say excited or anything so coarse, but interest may be piqued. There may be piquedge. Now, first with the pleasantries, then on line 3 I’ll mention…’

Option 2: she is trolling me, and she is a stone cold mother at it. In this version she’s downing whisky and laughing under her breath as she deliberately adds that period. ‘Haha she’s going to be so flattened by that full stop,’ the cruel genius crows as she slams back another Old Fashioned.

I hope one day to learn which one it is.

Anyway, moral to the story: I am not cool, I was super pumped, I woke everyone up, I sent my siblings annoying prank texts trying unsuccessfully to troll them (no-one was fooled), and it’s very good for my career that I have a professional person representing me who will not reply to communications with a screaming-face-emoji. Thank you Julie. Damn you, and thank you.

My best boring story

happy-penguin

My brother in law has this great story. His friends had a little lad – about 7 – who was really shy, nervous about going in public, hated talking to strangers or doing anything independently. He had trouble making friends at school and he didn’t show any interest in sports or music or anything else his parents had tried. But he was given a copy of the film Happy Feet and he LOVED it. Became completely obsessed with it. So when his parents suggested they go to Melbourne Zoo for his birthday and he agreed, even though it would mean crowds and big spaces and such, they were thrilled.

On the day he was so chatty and excited, and they’d never seen him so animated as when he was watching the penguins at the zoo. Success! Right near the end of the day he needed to use the bathroom and announced for the first time ever that he wanted to do it by himself. His parents were so pleased that he was relaxed in public and showing signs of independence that they sent him off happily. But he came back soaking wet, silent, and unwilling to explain what happened. A little embarrassed and worried, they checked the bathroom to see if he’d caused some kind of flood, but it seemed OK so they assumed he’d just turned on the tap too hard and given himself a fright. Still, all in all, a successful day.

On the way home from the zoo, though, they heard a strange noise and their son was still acting strange and refusing to answer questions. When they heard it again they pulled over and checked his backpack and found . . . a wee penguin. Turned out he’d leapt into the penguin enclosure and nabbed one to take home.

Incredibly mortified, the parents had to return the poor little bird to the zoo (but the zookeepers were very understanding and no-one got in any trouble).

Now, this story is not true.* It’s on Snopes. But I can see why it gets repeated, because it’s fun, it’s outrageous but not outside the realms of reality – the penguin enclosure at my local zoo only has a 3 foot high wall, and penguins are neither terribly shy nor at all aggressive, so it seems POSSIBLE, but unexpected. Great story.

This story I’m about to tell? It’s not that good. It’s a boring story.

So: I wrote a book. I sat on it, gave it some time and space, like you’re meant to, then I edited it. Then I gave it to beta readers. In the meantime, I researched the hell out of everything you need to know about querying. I read the entire Query Shark archives. Every entry on every agent or publisher blog that I could find. Dudes, I spent a LOT of time on the internet, I’m not going to lie. My parents would not approve of how much screen time I was getting during this period.** I revised again after feedback. I started tentatively drafting a query.***

I was pretty prepared. But because I am nothing if not an anxious perfectionist, I still didn’t think I was quite ready. No-one truly independent had seen my work. Maybe I was terrible and just didn’t realise it – a clueless idiot thinking I knew more than I did? My local Writers’ Centre was launching a professional development program designed for novelists who had a completed draft but had not yet published (It’s called Hardcopy, and it’s brilliant, and only getting better each year – you should check it out if you’re suffering from the writerly affliction) so that seemed like a good option. A chance to reduce the risk further and learn more about the industry.

That program took the better part of a year, during which I kept improving the manuscript and reading more and more. By the time I got to actually sending out my first query, I was ludicrously over-prepared. I had spreadsheets, people. God, the spreadsheets. My spreadsheets would make you weep. I had folders of documents sorted by country (I intended to query Australian, UK and US agents) containing every variation of query letter, partial and synopsis I thought I could be asked for. I haunted Querytracker and Absolute Write and followed every agent and editor I could on twitter. I could probably have quoted the answer Janet Reid had given to pretty much any question you’d want to ask an agent.

I knew the rules. I knew what to expect. I had a strategy, I had a pragmatic attitude, I knew I would get a lot of rejections and I would not take them personally. I would not do anything dumb.

So, I queried. And I got requests – partials and fulls, some even from pie-in-the-sky top agents – and rejections too. I followed instructions and didn’t get my hopes up too much and kept querying, and updating my spreadsheet (and keeping my phone by my bed so I could check emails first thing in the morning, like a crazy person). And then, as is the nature of publishing, the slow process suddenly got fast when I got an offer, then another, then another, and had to make a really tough choice in a very short time. All of a sudden I had my agent, the wonderful Julie Crisp. Yippee!

Then edits, edits, more edits. Eventually my little MS went on submission with publishers on both sides of the pond, and I got to practise patience again as the process is totally out of your hands. (Yes, I felt a bit lost without my spreadsheets). Then, this happened: super ridiculously exciting press release.

Diana Gill at Tor US bought my book.

MY BOOOOOOOK!

Two books, in fact: the Poison Wars, starting with City of Lies in the first half of 2018. Not sure how I can adequately convey how exciting this is in the context of my dry, boring story, but it’s basically the dream of my entire life, something I always wanted but didn’t really REALLY think would actually ever happen. Diana is a fabulous editor and I am ridiculously privileged to be working with her. Tor puts out one of the most impressive SFF lineups there is. I am, to put it the way my 5 year old would, happy infinity to the power of infinity.

The reason I’m telling this story like this is that I’ve read plenty of publishing stories which are remarkable. Serendipitous. Based on factors unavailable to most people (a huge social media following. Knowing someone in the industry. Winning a noteworthy competition, or attending Clarion West). Or just wild outliers of success: debut authors getting million dollar advances. Bidding wars. Books getting snapped up after only a week of querying.**** These stories are great, but they’re also too easy to use to create barriers for yourself – reasons why you can’t do something or won’t succeed at something. It’s easy to think I can’t do that or only once I do this other (very difficult) thing first.

Sometimes, what you need to hear is a boring story. Do the work, don’t be an idiot, follow instructions, and that crazy improbable dream starts being more realistic. If this weird dumb frustrating awesome industry is what you want to be a part of, YOU CAN DO IT. You don’t need to know anybody. You don’t need a degree in creative writing. You don’t need to attend a fancy workshop or meet your agent or editor at a convention. You don’t need 10,000 followers on twitter or to be famous or to do something shocking and different in your query letter or have published a dozen short stories or indeed to have done anything except write a good book. You can be pulled from the slushpile and achieve your dream.

I did it, and you can too.

Now go hug a penguin and have a bloody great day. I sure am.

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*          Yes, apparently my brother-in-law is a shameless liar, but since I’m now literally launching a 100% lie-based career I can only applaud him.

**        Sorry Mum, the ole one hour on, 3 hours off rule has been smashed.

***      By tentatively drafting, I mean working and reworking relentlessly for weeks, just without any expectation that I would get to the final product yet.

****    I mean, these things are fine – great – if you have them! They can definitely help. if you can get into and afford to go to a workshop, by all means do. If you like and are good at short stories, that’s a great way to get into pro markets. If George Martin is your uncle, exploit the hell out of that connection.

More reading adventures

Version 2

It’s butt-numbingly cold tonight. I’ve been sitting in one place for too long; I have to make a little cave with my hands and puff hot air in it to thaw my stupid cold nose every few minutes, and the bits of me that are facing up are all iced over. I could stand up and make a tea, but then I’d lose the precious heat in my last remaining warm body parts. Basically I’m sacrificing the right side of my body for the left. Frankly, rightie’s had it too good for too long anyway.* Also, my legs are so sore from training last night that the effort it would take to stand (and worse, sit down again) to make a cuppa or at least reach the wine bottle 3 feet away (why didn’t I train my lazy hounds to fetch my wine?) is not worth it.

But the beauty of a cold winter evening is in curling up in your onesie [Tigger pictured above, as Book Week here and the boys are currently obsessed with Winne the Pooh – Loony repeatedly borrows the complete AA Milne collection from his school library and hauls it home] – and getting some reading done. Alternatively, if you’re reading from the other side of the world, it’s summer! Perfect weather for relaxing on a hammock and getting some reading done! You know what, all weather is good reading weather.

I’ve had a lovely little gorge on books over the last couple of months, finally getting a chance to catch up on some I’d waited a long time to read. Thought I would pop up some reviews of a few. I’ve been procrastinating on finishing this blog post for AGES because I started it soon after the first half of my 2014 recommendations and then got sidetracked and then sidetracked some more and then it had been a long time and I looked slack so thought maybe it was better not to draw attention to it at all by finishing it, then I felt guilty and started it again, then got sidetracked, then finished one of the books I was going to write about and felt reinvigorated, then got sidetracked… etc. But as I’m trapped here on the couch until K gets home and can make the tea, I might as well knuckle down and finish.**

I recommended some books in various categories in an earlier post, and I’m naturally assuming you spent the intervening months ploughing through the last bunch (as well you should have), you’ll be ready for some more. Here are a couple, albeit less than I intended, because this always takes longer than I expect and really, it’s getting embarrassing, so I’m leaving it here. I may add some more in days to come!

Non-fiction

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden

The Princess Bride is my favourite movie. It’s my favourite movie not just because it’s funny, fun (not the same thing), earnest and full of heart but also beautifully tongue-in-cheek, full of brilliant, quotable dialogue, gorgeously put together and acted and, unlike many other great 80s films, not dated. I mean, it’s basically perfect. But it’s more than that; it’s also because it is wound so tightly and positively into my childhood memories that it carries all the warmth of those years along with it.

I first saw the movie on my 8th birthday. We didn’t own a VCR yet but we rented one for a week while on holiday at the Gold Coast and as a birthday treat I got to choose a movie; my older brother suggested TPB and as I would, and did, literally sniff compost if he told me to, I happily agreed. It had a pretty much perfect first screening: we were on a great holiday, having a VCR and choosing a movie was a rare treat, and we all watched it together and everyone loved it. The following summer – or maybe the one after, I don’t know, but we owned a VCR then – one of Bro the Elder’s best mates who owned the movie lent it to me. I think I watched it every day (or close to it) over those school holidays. Then when it came on TV we recorded it*** and I had that tape and kept rewatching it until my last VCR finally chewed its last tape and I had to get it on DVD. For great swaths of my teenage years, maybe even into my 20s, I could have recited the entire movie from start to finish*****. I can still do the key scenes –maybe, at a pinch, I could still manage most of the film. I’ve never stopped loving it. If you admit to me you haven’t seen it I will drop whatever we are doing and make you watch it straightaway. If you don’t love it, I will not even do you the courtesy of hiding how much that has lowered my estimation of you.

There was no movie I was looking forward to showing my sons more. [I just did this, and they loved it. THANK SANTA.]

(Strangely, this is perhaps my only exception to the ‘book is better than the movie’ rule. Maybe because I had so thoroughly absorbed the movie over the course of many years before I ever read the book, I never felt for its more cynical, sharper origin-text what I feel for the movie.)

So with all that as background, reading Cary Elwes’ account of the making of TPB is like…I feel like there must be a word to express the warm fuzzies you get by finding that the pieces that made up one of your favourite things, the undersides of the rocks, are just as suffused with joy as the finished product. Is there one? Perhaps in German.

Everyone involved in the making of the film seems to share such positive memories of the experience and each other that it just makes the whole thing even more enjoyable. It’s full of fun anecdotes, cast antics, hidden injuries, accidental knock-outs and fires, and cool stories about the hard work that fed into amazing scenes like Inigo and Wesley’s beautiful sword fight. I won’t give examples and spoil it, but if you love this movie at all (and I know you do), you should read this and bask. It’ll leave you feeling warm and happy and it’ll increase the delight you take next time you watch the movie.

Crime/suspense

Afterwards – Rosmund Lupton

I read and adored ‘Sister’ a few years ago, but on advice from my own sister held off on reading her next book, Afterwards, on the basis that the style is very similar and it might lose impact reading two in close succession. I’m glad I did wait, because it is a very distinctive style and the gap meant it felt fresh again. Both stories are told in the form of a narrator speaking to another character; this one from the perspective of a badly injured woman observing, disembodied, her friends and family dealing with a tragic accident/crime – a little like The Lovely Bones, in that it is sort of a mystery/crime plot, sort of supernatural (the conceit of the narrator being a ghost-like presence is the only supernatural aspect) but at least equally a story about family, told from a loving but absent narrator.

I really enjoyed this for many of the same reasons that I loved Sister. The mystery/whodunit aspect is masterful, particularly in the last third of the book as the reveals play out – every time I thought I had the answer the rug would get pulled out from under me again. It also has some nuanced and insightful things to say about relationships, especially parenthood, and independence, which are rare for their ultimate optimism. (I get exhausted with all the stories exploring relationships cleverly but with a cynical eye, finding the ways that we fail, as people, to love each other properly).

On the other hand, it gets a giant thumbs down all the same for making me cry on an aeroplane, which is an extremely embarrassing place to cry (at home, the arrangement is that if either of us are crying at a book/TV show, the crier looks firmly downward, masks it with a sneeze or nose blow, and the other pretends not to notice. On an aeroplane, this is awkward. Yes, please, I would like that drink. No, there’s nothing wrong. *stares steadfastly at attendant’s shoulder until they move on*) I think I may have mentioned that since parenthood I am stupidly over-sensitive to parenting related tension – I find it really, really stressful now to read about or watch children or their parents in danger or worse. [Sidebar: I’m also looking at you, A Monster Calls, which is totally off topic, but also  an excellent story but a bad choice for people who don’t want this particular stress].

Ultimately, while the style might be offputting to some, and the supernatural aspect likely a difficult thing to swallow for ordinary thriller/crime readers who don’t venture into the speculative fiction or SFF pool, this is a clever, engaging story and one well worth your time.

Spec fic/dystopia

Watershed – Jane Abbott

I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Jane Abbott, so I got to read Watershed before it came out.  And what a beautiful, gut-wrenching read it was – fast paced and intriguing, alternately depressing and hopeful.

The novel tells twin stories: one following Sarah as a (nearish) future Australia turns into a harsh, desperate dystopia and she and her family adapt and survive; the other years later, following her grandson Jem as an adult forced into a brutal livelihood. In many ways the converging stories are emotional and psychological opposites, connecting in unexpected ways.

I should note that it’s not a book for the easily shocked – it is regularly and extremely violent, and there’s plenty of swearing and sex if those sorts of things bother you. It is also pretty grim in tone, so factor in your emotions and general optimism being crushed.

Abbott’s use of language is alternately rich and blunt, stripped-bare and descriptive, but always evocative. Through this dystopia she critiques not only the environmental vandalism leading to her apocalyptic-dry continent but the social and economic realities driving it, and the nature of humans. It is a clever, tense, gritty novel, and an impressive debut. Highly recommended.

SFF

These are going to be pretty short cos I’ve read a bunch of great ones recently and I don’t want to leave them out because I ranted for too long about how great and underrated Kate Elliot is, so, here are some mini reviews of a broad range of SFF-type books I’ve read over the past few months.

The Traitor [Baru Cormorant] – Seth Dickinson

Ohhhhh, this was a goodun. I’d looked forward to it because it had some great pre-release buzz from people whose opinions I respect. The premise: a clever bureaucrat/accountant infiltrates the massive organisation which crushed her homeland and TAKES THEM DOWN THROUGH AUDITING. Maybe because I trained as an accountant and know and love several of them, but by god, who wouldn’t want to read that. I’m not even joking. I mean, it’s a long-game revenge novel (one of my favourite stories) based on subtlety, and cleverness, but also numbers and records! Fantasy does not, largely, recognise bureaucracy, let alone make it the main structure for a story and the source of mystery, suspense, conflict and tension, so the sheer freshness of this premise made me excited to read it.

I did love this book, but not for the reasons I thought I would. Revenge plots tend to have a dark backstory but the actual story usually has some fun, some hijinks, and ultimately positive resolution. Not necessarily lighthearted, but at least imbued with a kind of heisty satisfaction. Baru is not this story. It is clever, definitely, and surprising, but you should be prepared for it to also be really, really, gut-wrenching. It’s beautifully written, the setting is brilliant (god, the setting is SO different and fresh for fantasy!), the characters – and particularly their relationships – are deeply nuanced, but this is a solar plexus punch of a book that follows no comfortable, familiar formula. One of the best SFF I’d read in ages, and far and away the most impressive debut.

Black Wolves – Kate Elliot

Out late last year but I only just got to it, Black Wolves is the start of a new trilogy. Beginning in a kingdom in its early stages, the story quickly jumps forward several decades and 2 generations, and explores the politics of colonisation, conflicting cultures, power structures and family. I love intelligent, political fantasy, and this fits the bill. When you combine it with original settings, challenges to assumptions often ingrained in fantasy (eg the reverence with which hereditary rulership is generally treated) and a network of scout-sheriffs flying with GIANT EAGLES you’re sure to satisfy me.

The viewpoint characters range in age, gender and experience: an old spy/soldier brought out of retirement; the king’s aunt, head of the Marshals (aforementioned eagle flying contingent, who are something like grown-up Valdemar Heralds), and three young people of wildly different backgrounds who are forced to adapt to – or just survive – lifestyle upheaval. The plot is clever and complex, the world immersive (does anyone worldbuild better than this?) and the characters and their motivations deeply thought through and executed. It’s particularly notable how much agency the female characters have in Elliot’s worlds. Women in this world are demonstrably driving change – that is, women (including but not limited to the three main female POV characters) have unapologetic power and agency (including sexual agency) even though all are in very different social structures (some quite segregated). I’m seeing this more and more in modern SFF, and it is great. But here’s an author who’s been doing it for decades, often without much acknowledgment.

I mentioned above that Kate Elliot is underrated. I didn’t realise how much until relatively recently, because to me she had always been one of the giants – she writes big, fat, epic-in-every-sense fantasy, it was part of every SFF selection at every bookshop, and I always rated her enormously. But I’ve been amazed since taking a more active part in fandom over the last few years how rarely she is included in recommended reading lists, or shows up in awards, or is given the credit I think she’s due. Why, people? She is the biz.

Masque – WR Gingell

In a completely different vein, Masque was a decidedly light-hearted and easy read. A fun fairytale mashed up with a murder mystery in a high society setting, Masque follows Lady Isabella Farrah, Ambassador’s daughter, as she sticks her not-inconsiderably-nosy self into a murder investigation. The ‘Beast’ of the story is the permanently masked Commander of the Watch (who suffers from an uncomfortable family curse). However, although the banter and good-naturedly antagonistic relationship between Belle and her Beast is a highlight of the novel, it’s not the focus; rather, the story follows the murder, the dark magic involved, and the political ramifications, so it’s not strictly a retelling.

I found this charming and a lot of fun. The world-building, while light-touch in fantasy terms, reveals an interesting world I’d enjoy revisiting (some might complain that it is too light, but I think it suits the tone of the book, which would not have borne too much time being wasted on setting). Isabella has a strong, distinctive voice, and is both very clever and unwilling to take shit, but also unashamed of her femininity (women can like dresses and pretty hair and perfume and still be a Strong Female Character™, who’d have thunk?). The minor characters are also entertaining, particularly Isabella’s young maidservants, and the dialogue excellent. Probably my only complaint was that while I enjoyed the characters, even with Isabella’s occasionally frustrating fussiness, as readers we are kept at too firm a distance to truly understand and engage the characters. For example, although the murder victim in the opening pages is described as being an old friend of hers, we readers don’t get much of sense of grief or anger at his death from Isabella. It kept me from getting as invested as I might otherwise have been.

For mystery/crime readers the clues might make guessing the villain fractionally too easy – Isabella is otherwise presented as being so switched on and good at reading people that I felt frustrated with her missing the murderer for so long when it seemed obvious to me. On the other hand, it’s actually a bit of commentary about her being rather too sure that she knows how to read and manipulate people, ie her strength and her weakness, which is quite clever, so OK I’m reversing my position on this, and it’s fine. :). Anyway, all things considered, a very well presented and enjoyable read.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

And another change of pace here- the Lives of Tao is Wes Chu’s debut, a few years old now, that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while (he’s a blast on Twitter).

The novel begins with the death of a Bondesque secret agent at the hands of a trusted ally; but he’s no ordinary agent but rather the host of Tao, an alien symbiont who lives within him. Tao, an ancient being who has inhabited many historical figures, is forced to find a new host in a hurry, and ends up in an out of shape IT worker, Roen Tan. The story follows Roen/Tao as they try together to turn him into secret agent material before Tao’s enemies find him.

The premise of the story is a lot of fun, and reminded me strongly of a much-beloved TV show, Chuck: both feature socially awkward main characters who, after the death of a competent spy, end up with powerful material in their head and a hyper confident female handler to whip them into shape. It’s an idea with a lot of potential.

The book has a lot of things going for it. The pace is mostly good, it’s often funny, the action is great, martial arts are not lazily described or expressed (as a long term martial artist, I really appreciate a book which understands and acknowledges the difference in styles and how fighters can find a match to the right one for them) and the development of series potential well thought through. In technical terms the prose is easy to read, if sometimes clunky, but it’s a first book, so I imagine this is probably ironed out in later ones.

My major gripes were with the emotional arcs of the story. Tthere is a storyline about Roen’s lack of investment in Tao’s quest which felt like it should have been a serious peak of the book, but completely fizzled. Likewise, while his relationships with Tao is well done and highly enjoyable (their back and forth conversations in his head are a highlight of the book), this only serves to contrast with the ones with the women, which are underdeveloped. One female character (the ‘Sarah’, if you’re a Chuck-watcher) is given a kind of ‘mysterious competent female on a pedestal’ treatment, and Roen’s workplace love interest gets minimal page-time and basically no personality at all. I also grew increasingly frustrated with Roen’s man-boy personality. This is not a complaint about the writing, because I know he accurately reflects a real personality type, who really do think about life and women in this way, but it grated on me. Essentially, I like a good flawed hero as much as anyone, but Roen lacks the kind of genuine warmth and earnest charm that makes Chuck endearing as a ‘hopeless nerd’ sort of character. At one point, during which a prospective father in law gives a nauseating speech to Roen about men growing more appealing as they age (like fine wine, ugh) while women hit their peak between 20-30, and this speech is presented as being wise and not revolting, I did make a loud angry groan and put the book down to complain for a while to … well, no-one, actually, because I was sitting alone on the beach at the time, but the hermit crab on the ground probably enjoyed my dark muttering.

Anyway, complaints aside, I finished and enjoyed the book overall, and will read more – I’m just hopeful that the kinks in the story and the writing improve substantially in the later books, because he’s obviously got a great eye (fingers?) for action and entertaining concepts.

OK, that’s gotta do it for now. Happy reading everyone!

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*Except, it is only fair to say, for right thumb, who puts in all the spacebar work and yet has to share credit with lazy leftie who just sits there, laughing it up and hovering over the bar. The shiny smooth patch on the RHS is proof you’re living a lie, leftie!

** Knuckle down, in this context, means check twitter, read the news & a few blogs, send a couple of texts, play a game of scramble, check twitter again… I’m thirty six years old, you’d think I could get a grip by now, but apparently it’s just been 36 years of practising being a bloody idiot so actually I’m just really good at it now.

*** 80s/90s problems: when you record your favourite movie, carefully cutting out the ads, but then have a meltdown when it suddenly stops recording and starts rewinding during the Pit of Despair bit because SOMEONE DIDN’T REWIND THE TAPE BEFOREHAND***** and then you miss 5 minutes of the movie while it rewinds and then for literally the next ten years you have to watch said favourite movie by watching, rewinding, watching some more and then fast forwarding to the start again for next time.

**** Me, possibly.

*****Minus the five minutes that I never mastered because my bloody tape was missing them

Tips for waiting patiently

003Waiting sucks. Oh, I know, patience builds character, blah blah, I think we’ve all got enough character haven’t we? I am not a patient person. The best I can do is simulate external patience and distract the hell out of my internal self so I don’t reveal my lack of character to the world at large.

In honour of this, I give you ten ways to pass the time while you’re waiting on something*.

1. Make plans

Set up a new diary or planner to better achieve your goals. You’ll be so busy looking forward you won’t have time to worry about the past.

2. Help someone else out

Volunteer to do something for someone else. Helping others is not only a great thing to do as a human, it also makes you feel useful and valued, which is a good counter to anxiety.

3. Try a new hobby or learn a new skill.

Salsa! Microwave cooking for one! Ninja-science-crimefighting! You’ll soon be so frustrated at your fresh incompetence you’ll forget you were impatient about that other thing.

4. Be useful

Household chores are a good way of distracting yourself. I just defrosted and cleaned my fridge and it’s FUCKING SPARKLING now and there’s no longer a scary frozen lump the size of my child’s skull stuck to the back, and I didn’t think about anything else but ‘what the hell is that sludgy green soggy-paper-like-thing at the core of the Lump of Doom’ for a good hour.

5. Get moving!

Taking up a new physical activity is a great way to stop obsessing. And the acid from the vomit after you do a few dozen burpees will burn away that anxiety!

6. Treat yo’self

You’ve earned that entire chocolate cake after all those burpees.

7. Get some inner peace on!

Meditation or some shit like that, idk.

8. Get crafty!

Make a voodoo doll representing your most unpleasant acquaintance and then brutally annoy the doll in as many ways as possible, eg:

  • put dishgloves on it where the inside is full of cold soapy water
  • call it repeatedly asking it to commit to a regular payment plan to a charity – DO NOT allow it to make a single one off donation
  • sand down one leg of each of its chairs and tables so that the furniture always rocks slightly
  • stack its miniature dishwasher inefficiently
  • yank its earbuds out suddenly when it’s listening to a podcast.

9. Troubles shared are troubles halved!

Call your whiniest friend and listen to them bitch pointlessly about some minor inconvenience for a few hours, and your troubles will melt away by comparison.

10. Make soup from the bones of your enemies

It’s nutritious and satisfying.

Follow these easy tips and time will just fly by!

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* Long term, dudes. This won’t help you in the doctor’s waiting room. Just read a book or play on your phone for half an hour, jeez, kids these days, etc

Being edited (and sent out into the big wide world)

My wonderful agent, Julie Crisp, just did a great blog post on the process of editing a client’s MS (mine!) and sending it out on submission. As you may know, she was the commissioning editor for UK Tor in her former life, so she’s likely more editorial than a lot of agents out there, but the article is a great read about editing in general, giving insight into how the process works for the author, the agent and the publishers. You can find it here.

Go read it if you’d like to know what happens after you get an agent, or whether agents get nervous too! Oh, and it includes an extract of my wee project (blurb and the first page) if you’re interested in that. 🙂