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.

————

*          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.

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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!

——-

*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!

——

* 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. 🙂

Mini review – City of Blades

City of Blades

I’ve been under a self-imposed ban on recreational reading for several months now, while I was using all my free time to finish the revisions on my MS. But when that wrapped up a week or so ago (freedom! blessed, blessed freedom!) the first thing I did was get on the ole Kindle and read a book I’ve been gnawing my arm off waiting to read since it tantalisingly downloaded itself earlier in the year.

It’s a tough gig, writing a follow up to an amazing book. Robert Bennett hasn’t previously delved into series so I’m guessing it was an interesting experience for him. City of Stairs  (you can read my review of it from last year here) was so different and so brilliant, it was going to be hard to match.

City of Blades didn’t match City of Stairs. I’d say it exceeded.

I just finished it this evening and my partner, watching a movie, turned around to ask me what the weird noise I just made was. Well, how do you describe the weird little sigh of loss and satisfaction when you finish something great?*  RJB is nailing unique worldbuilding; fresh magic; part crime/mystery/spy thriller, part fantasy mashup; compelling plots; and character – jesus, the characters.  I actually let out a small shriek of delight when I got a few pages in and realised the main character this time round was going to be General Mulaghesh. Bad-ass, brilliant, one-armed Mulaghesh. I LOVE HER. I LOVE HER WITH EVERY FIBRE OF MY BEING.**  The more obvious  choice with the sequel would have been to continue to follow Shara or even fan-favourite Sigrud on the next stage of the journey, but I’m so pleased he didn’t do that. Mulaghesh was the right person to tell this part of the story, and she is fucking awesome in any case.

This is only a short review, because it’s late but I want to get something up because otherwise I may not get around to it, and you should review books you like, you guys, and especially books you love, not just to  make other people read it and thus force the world into your image gently encourage others to enjoy excellent things, but also because it really really helps those authors you love to afford the fingerless gloves that will keep their joints working at keyboards over the long bitter winter. So anyway, quick blurb – Mulaghesh has retired to a backwater, but now-Prime Minister Shara pulls her (with something between persuasion and force?) into one last mission, investigating a strange substance found in the continental city of Voortyashtan: “ass-end of the universe, armpit of the world”. There she finds her old commanding officer, who brings back memories she’s been burying for decades, a missing person, magic that shouldn’t work but does, local tensions, grisly murders . . . a whole heap of shit, basically. Which is all very exciting and clever and tense, and should satisfy any reader looking for action and intrigue. But character wise, it’s more personal and wrenching than City of Stairs, which in the end is probably why I loved it more – I felt that I knew Mulaghesh in a way that I didn’t know Shara. Perhaps she’s too unpolished to hold us at arm’s length the way Shara could.

And you already know because you read his other stuff that RJB will do more than tell you a great story. He’ll also explore uncomfortable themes that sometimes get glossed over in epic fantasy (or indeed in our own modern world). In Stairs he said some things about colonisation and clashes of culture and religion; in Blades it is about violence and war and death and what it means to be a soldier, and forgiveness and weariness and long battles with no end in sight. At times it hurt to read. It is a sadder, less hopeful book than its predecessor. But in my view, it’s a better one.

So anyway, get out there and read it. This is an author to watch closely, my friends.

—–

* Don’t say I’m the only one who gives the book a little hug when they’re done. I know you other book huggers are out there. Don’t be ashamed! Come into the light! It’s warm and we have pizza!

** I am now suddenly thinking that I love her like I love DI Steel in the Stuart MacBride Scottish crime novels and realising that if there was just a genre called grumpy tough blunt older women own everybody all the time, I would read the hell out of it.

 

Long absences and red pens

I’ve been very quiet here lately, which is slack but also for a good reason: I’ve been working on the edits requested by my agent, and they’ve been, well, let’s just say ‘challenging’.

To give you an idea, here’s what happened when I accidentally looked at the marked up manuscript at 10% zoom:

Julieedits

Eep. That’s a sobering picture.

But wait! That’s nothing! Here’s how it looks now, with those changes accepted and my additional ones marked up:

Post structural edits

If you’re thinking wait but that’s worse, you’ve got a solid point. Can’t fault you there. It isn’t pretty.

I’ve always liked editing. But I have to say, I’m so sick of this book now, I’ve started using sarcastic voices in my head when thinking about the characters. Ugh, go ahead, Jov, moan about something else. Oh, sure, Kalina, you would say that.

I think that might mean it’s nearly done.

Anyway, if all goes to plan, I should be fit for company again in 2 weeks time, so I will be back to writing useless tips and rants for your (possible) entertainment. Until then,since I’ve been offering no new content, here is a puppy to cheer you up.

CbH8yJsUEAAB2gi

 

Ciao!

On fiction out of its time

My son Loony is 4 and moved this year into preferring chapter books for his bedtime stories. We have been working through the Enid Blyton books my partner and I both adored as children – so far the series we have done have been the Faraway Tree, the Wishing Chair, the Children of Cherry Tree Farm and Mr Galliano’s Circus. Mostly these have been the copies of the book from the 70s/80s that belonged to me or my siblings but one or two have been my mother’s from the 50s.

I love sharing these books with my boys, and they hold up, to varying degrees – I loved the Cherry Tree/Willow farm books to bits but in hindsight they’re basically just long lessons about English animals and plants;* the Faraway Tree ones are way more exciting than I remembered, and Mr Galliano is still top notch, with solid plots and genuine heart. If you’ve ever tried rereading books from this era, though, you’ll know what I mean when I say they need a bit of… mid-reading editing.

By this I mean that you need parenting ninja skills to spot troublesome bits of text moments before they come out of your mouth, and adjust without your kid noticing (the 80s versions are better than the 50s because they’ve mostly had the racism cut out, at least, but they’re still sexist as all hell). Some are easy – OK, that pixie is called…’Cheeky’. And those dogs are ‘Barky’ and ‘Tigger’, no worries – others require a bit more effort, like swapping some of the more fun adventure roles and better dialogue between the boys and girls, and removing references to girls needing to learn to sew and clean because they are girls. It keeps me on my toes when I’m reading.

But we’ve just hit the Famous Five. The whole ‘George wants to be ‘as good as’ a boy’ part of the story can’t really be insta-edited out of the story as we read. Instead, I had a talk to Loony about what those parts of the book were going to be about. He thought it was completely hysterical that that people ever thought boys and girls couldn’t like anything they wanted or be good at the same things.** This was actually a crazy concept to him. And I was frantically thinking ahead and then consulting Sister the Younger*** about what bigger parts of the books might need adjusting – would Anne be constantly too afraid to go on the adventures, and prefer to ‘play house’ and cuddle her dolls than to go with the others? Is that OK because she’s the youngest, and might just be scared because she’s only 9 fucking years old and her parents routinely abandoned her for weeks at a time to thwart bands of criminals, survive kidnap attempts, travel 100km on a bicycle carrying a picnic with enough food to feed six times the population of the Dorset town she will save from the nefarious plans of the local smugglers?

Anyway, because I had forgotten to plan ahead and borrow the hard copies from my parents, I’d bought Five on a Treasure Island on my kindle and I realised as I was reading that it was already edited. The first warning sign was the kids calling their parents ‘mum and dad’. Surely it had been ‘Mother’ and ‘Daddy’ before? We googled and found that this new version has been super sanitised. Apparently there’s this whole controversial movement and the new versions are all adjusted not just to remove the casual racism (which I am appreciative of) and the overt sexism (I don’t think the line ‘as good as a boy’ will be appearing in the kindle version) – but also to modernise the dialogue and make it more relatable to today’s kids. Barney can’t just work occasionally at the docks anymore – he has to go to school. I assume there aren’t servants (no sign of a cook at Kirrin cottage yet, but I can’t remember if they had one in the original version of book 1 since George’s family was supposed to be struggling pre finding the ingots J). The kids don’t even wear jerseys and go bathing, they have jumpers and swim. This sort of stuff makes me a little less comfortable.

I mean, yes, I’m definitely adjusting the books for my boys. I don’t want anything I tell them, even through fiction, to lead them to think that boys aren’t supposed to cry or be afraid or that girls are the ones who clean up after you, or indeed that being brave and loyal and kind and generous and honest aren’t all 10,000 times more important than, and completely independent from, your gender.**** And absolutely, I won’t have racial slurs finding their way even innocently into my kids’ vocabulary, no matter how accurate they were for dialogue in the time period. But there comes a point where you have to say, look, these books were written in a particular time period, about a particular kind of family, and back then kids MIGHT have just been sent away to a farm after they’d been ill, and mightn’t have gone to school. Some kids didn’t have reliable adult care. And FFS, they’re set in 1950s England, I don’t care if my boys have to learn some new words for things – frocks and jerseys and bathing costumes won’t hurt them or anyone else.

What do you guys think? How far should you go to modernise a book that’s very clearly stuck in a particular time period? Should it be left up to parents to perform verbal acrobatics to make sure Bessie gets as much of the action up the Faraway Tree as Jo? And for books they’ll read to themselves, do we trust them to understand for themselves that people treat each other differently now than they did 70 years ago?


* Graph of my long term memory

pie graph

** Disclaimer: Loony has so far had basically none of his beautiful natural worldview pounded out of him by socialisation yet, so it would not occur to him that some people might even in our current day and age think he was odd for having pink as his favourite colour.

*** I can’t be arsed drawing a graph of what I see Sister the Younger’s long term memory looking like, but let’s just say there is a fucking massive wedge devoted to ‘the plot of every novel she has read since age 5, including entire paragraphs of dialogue from Enid Blyton books’

**** To be fair to Enid, some of the time the casual sexism seems almost forced in. Yes, when she has a group of boys and girls she’ll allocate the housework to the girls and have the boys be baffled with their obsession with dolls. But in general, and particularly when she wrote JUST about girls (as in the school stories), Enid’s young women (unless she was cruelly satirising American girls) were all concerned with being genuine, hard-working, sporty, adventurous, kind, generous, loyal, stoic types. With enormous appetites.