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Archive for December, 2008

the search for bigger pictures

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 28, 2008

So where do you get your ideas from? This is the question most guaranteed to set a dedicated author’s eyes rolling. I mean, duh, creative people pluck them out of everywhere, don’t you know: the aether, their hair, their arses, their dreams, the TV, the headlines, other people’s work. Ideas are, after all, the easy part of fiction. It’s how you parse and render them that makes a difference, yeah?

Actually, I’m starting to think it’s a very good question. If ideas are so plush and plentiful, how come there’s so much tedious fiction out there? Why are slush piles choking with the same old, same old? It can’t be because people can’t write – everybody writes these days. Everybody blogs, word-processes, chats, emails, texts. Everybody has all the tools they need to be a writer and getting published is about as difficult as falling off a log so long as you’re not too fussed about a publication’s provenance, credentials and readership.

We’ve all heard that old adage ‘write what you know’. Well, that’s a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you’re just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren’t that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don’t know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.

Which is pretty much what the last three years have been all about for me. Not intentionally, mind you. There was never a cunning plan aimed at improving the quality of my prose. I didn’t perceive great gaps in my imagination. I just knew what I knew, wrote what I wrote, dug what I dug, etc. Some of my output was deemed worthy of publication, but I wouldn’t have said there was anything special about any of it.

And then I changed jobs. I found myself working for a small educational publisher, producing eighteen books a year on an assortment of health and social justice topics. Eighteen serves of research and production: lather, rinse, repeat. Going over and over the text in preparation for publication, the intel contained rattling around in the backroom of my psyche, groaning and churning away like a big old machine. Things I thought I knew, things I know I’d rather forget. Multiple versions of the same stories, source documents, white papers, green papers, opinions and statistics. Sites, both reputable and outré, trawled for content, the duds, mutants and miscreants briefly squeezed, then tossed back over the side. Ten years as a media monitor never educated me quite like this because electronic media morphs into one almighty jabbering voice. These books feature many and multiple mouthpieces. Headlines are advertisements. They’re selling something, be it gossip, news or a state of mind. Behind the headline is where the trail often begins.

The internet is a vast and plentiful ocean resplendent with tall ships and betentacled horrors. Search terms fed through Google Advanced bring up many a seceded realm ruled by Pirate Kings and Voudoun priestesses; buried treasure nestled amongst Commonwealth fact-sheets and intergovernmental reports. There is no gatekeeper because there is no gate. Only peepholes, millions of them peering inwards at the boiling tide. Oh my god, it’s full of stars is right, my friend. I challenge you not to find something worth writing about in there.

When I look at a timeline of my own published work, I see a distinct correlation between the point at which my stories took a turn for the interesting and the date I began my day job. It’s a linear timeline, so perhaps it could be argued that my writing simply improved with practise. I, however, see more than coincidence. The press I work for publishes dark titles: Juvenile Crime, Indigenous Disadvantage, Child Poverty, Consumerism, Resilience and Coping Skills, Natural Disasters, Amphetamine Use, etc. We did a book on Happiness and Life Satisfaction once. Couldn’t sell it. Nobody wants to know about the good stuff.

All this murk has been seeping into my head. The food I eat is farmed with suffering, my clothes manufactured in sweatshops, my chocolate harvested by child slaves; I wipe my arse on old growth forests; I eat the dead flesh of tortured and mistreated animals. My lifestyle is unsustainable, my carbon footprint the size of a Yeti’s. Indigenous countrymen live in third world poverty; Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be murdered than myself. Forty-five per cent of Australia’s 100,000 homeless are children. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, I know about all of this. I read it in the paper and heard it on the news. But do you feel it? Does it change you? Does it all stay embedded in your head? Each time you learn one of these facts, do you attempt to adjust your life accordingly in a pathetic and pointless attempt to make it better? Do these issues coagulate and ferment? Does anything become of them, or do they pass undigested through your memory like intellectual psyllum husks? Do you now write dark fantasy and horror when once you wrote about… stuff? ‘Cos I do.

Something to think about, maybe.

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Angry Women, leather, and paranormal romance

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 17, 2008

Lilith Saintcrow has written a brilliant column over here about paranormal fantasy – AKA angry chicks in leather.

She addresses some really interesting issues of feminism and perceptions of gender in literature, and talks about how liberating it is to have a genre where female anger and violence is acceptable, not to mention empowering. I particularly liked her comparisons to the male detective heroes of noir.

My first response to the column was wow – she’s talking about Parrish Plessis! Marianne’s first SF series has so many elements of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, despite being science fiction, and it’s really nice to see someone discussing this genre of female noir heroes without getting hung up on the trappings (vampires, werewolves, etc.)

But it also hit home because I wrote my own paranormal/noir heroine for the first time this year. It’s a genre I’ve been drawn to since I discovered Laurell K Hamilton in my teens, and I was lured in by anthology guidelines (the antho in question is currently being shopped around publishers). Enter Nancy Napoleon – guardian of the harbour in Hobart. Determined not to use vampires or werewolves, and trying to create a paranormal romance version of my water-surrounded city, I turned to other forms of mythology, using kraken, sirens and kelpies as my sources for dark magic.

What I didn’t expect was how much this story would throw up my inner literary prejudices about gender roles. My heroines have generally speaking always been fairly femme – definitely on the girly side of feminine. Even down to things like – long hair, or wearing skirts, etc. This is only one aspect of femininity, and yet I kept repeating myself. I never thought of myself as someone who writes women who fit into traditional gender roles, but I hadn’t realised how one sided my literary women had been until I started getting to know Nancy.

There were no female archetypes in my head when I was constructing her. Nancy was the private detective character, the noir hero, a damaged and battered former warrior dealing with the fact that she isn’t as fast or as good as she used to be. She is Spenser, Marlowe, Spade. She never felt less than female to me, and yet I was constantly having to stop and think, to make sure she was coded as hero and not heroine. She was a professional first, and gender second. A woman, but very ungirly.

A lot of fantasy fiction is influenced by historical and mythological source material, and that means some very old-fashioned attitudes toward gender often get thrown up and recycled. Many writers attempt to subvert these archetypes, but before long the subverted versions themselves become cliched – we’ve seen a lot of plucky princesses who manage somehow to not get eaten by the dragon, girls who reject traditional roles to don armour, Red Riding Hoods who turn out to be a danger to the wolf, etc. Where do we go from there?

The really cool thing about paranormal romance and urban fantasy is that those traditional archetypes just aren’t there – we have far more freedom to present women and gender roles with a contemporary voice. And as Lilith Saintcrow says in her column, this is a genre where women can be very powerful. I like to think that, as paranormal romance becomes more popular (hard to see right now how it could be more popular), the new archetypes from these stories will influence those of more traditional fantasy.

My new trilogy-in-progress, The Creature Court, is at least partly an attempt to mix the two different kinds of fantasy fiction together, with story elements from paranormal romance blending into otherworld fantasy. I am trying for a fantasy world which has an early twentieth century feel – elements of Edwardiana, of the Roaring Twenties, and of Blitz London, mixed in with a whole lot of trappings from Ancient Rome. I’m hoping that this experiment means I don’t get caught up too much in the more old fashioned gender roles of fantasy fiction, and get to play with a bit more variety. So far it feels like it’s working, but I’ll let you know in a year and a half!

Lilith Saintcrow followed up her column with a response to the more narrow-minded comments she received after her column, elaborating particularly on the main difference between the recent wave of cool female characters in paranormal romance/urban fantasy, and the “long tradition of violent women in literature.” It’s also worth a read.

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Guilty Secrets

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 17, 2008

As I need a break from a certain novella writing project – which, in my mind, has highlighted some of my problems as a writer, I thought I’d write about them here.

I’m not a very methodical writer – which makes writing about my “method” very difficult, because I don’t really have one, and whatever it is seems to change from project to project.

My approach to writing often seems so messy that really doesn’t make sense. I don’t tend to plan, just throw words on a page (or the screen, or both, I’ve even written on my arm) until I have enough of them to start cutting away and shaping a story. I don’t even tend to write in a linear fashion. It’s a scene here, a fragment there. It’s all very frustrating. Until I reach a point where the story appears, or some sort of cohesive theme, and then, well, it gets much easier.

I’m much happier editing a story – even though that can seem at times like chewing used gum.

Sometimes though a story will come full form and all A-Z, and I’ll think, hey, that’s how it’s done. I really wish that would happen more often.

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Angry Women (and vampires)

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 16, 2008

Lilith Saintcrow has written a brilliant column over here about paranormal fantasy – AKA angry chicks in leather.

She addresses some really interesting issues of feminism and perceptions of gender in literature, and talks about how liberating it is to have a genre where female anger and violence is acceptable, not to mention empowering. I particularly liked her comparisons to the male detective heroes of noir.

My first response to the column was wow – she’s talking about Parrish Plessis! Marianne’s first SF series has so many elements of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, despite being science fiction, and it’s really nice to see someone discussing this genre of female noir heroes without getting hung up on the trappings (vampires, werewolves, etc.)

But it also hit home because I wrote my own paranormal/noir heroine for the first time this year. It’s a genre I’ve been drawn to since I discovered Laurell K Hamilton in my teens, and I was lured in by anthology guidelines (the antho in question is currently being shopped around publishers). Enter Nancy Napoleon – guardian of the harbour in Hobart. Determined not to use vampires or werewolves, and trying to create a paranormal romance version of my water-surrounded city, I turned to other forms of mythology, using kraken, sirens and kelpies as my sources for dark magic.

What I didn’t expect was how much this story would throw up my inner literary prejudices about gender roles. My heroines have generally speaking always been fairly femme – definitely on the girly side of feminine. Even down to things like – long hair, or wearing skirts, etc. I rarely write women who fit into traditional gender roles, but I hadn’t realised how one sided my literary women had been until I started getting to know Nancy.

There were no female archetypes in my head when I was constructing her. Nancy was the private detective character, the noir hero, a damaged and battered former warrior dealing with the fact that she isn’t as fast or as good as she used to be. She is Spenser, Marlowe, Spade. She never felt less than female to me, and yet I was constantly having to stop and think, to make sure she was coded as hero and not heroine. She was a professional first, and gender second. A woman, but very ungirly.

But then we come to my hero. The interesting thing about paranormal romance as a genre of ‘angry, capable women’ is the romantic foils they are offered. Anita Blake has – well, a harem, but the two most significant men in her life are Jean Claude, the suave and seductive vampire who offers her everything (but implicitly threatens to take away her autonomy) and Richard, the cranky werewolf who hates his inner monster so much that he can never truly embrace or accept hers. Both men are very (very VERY) Alpha, and Anita spends much of her time battling their love so that she can stay true to who she is as a person. Later in the books, her multiple relationships with other men allow her to keep these two Greatest Threats at bay.

But paranormal romance/urban fantasy writers deal with the Man Issue in different ways – there is the bad man/monster (homme fatale?) who acts as a seducer, foil, helper or antagonist – Parrish’s Daac, Buffy’s Angel and Spike, Anita’s Jean-Claude and Richard. The heroine’s strength is emphasised by pairing her with a man who is even darker and more powerful than she is – or appears to be, though ultimately for the sake of her character, she has to be able to beat him on several levels when it comes to the crunch. Sadly, as with the serial antagonist who loses cool points every time the hero beats him, the longer a paranormal series continues, and the more often we see the heroine win out in strength over her other half, the less impressive he seems. Which of course is why Buffy and Angel had that use by date… and why the tension went out of the Anita/Jean-Claude relationship about eight books ago.

Then there’s the man who starts out an obvious subordinate rather than equal to the tough, powerful heroine – Anita Blake has a bunch of these on retainer, such as were-leopard Nathaniel, who is feminised in several ways, including insanely long hair, and a deeply passive personality. Buffy had Riley, the soldier boy who tried to be her equal but ultimately couldn’t compete – and couldn’t deal with the fact that she was a stronger and more important warrior than he was. It’s rare to see a relationship like this in paranormal romance that isn’t presented as flawed or a failure or some kind – hard to capture the reader’s imagination if the bloke doesn’t seem worthy of the heroine.

One of my favourite (and rarely seen) dynamics for the romance in paranormal romance is the warrior and the geek – where the romantic lead has skill/expertise in such a wildly different field that he can support the heroine without appearing weak or overly subordinate. The best example of this I can think of is a lesser known paranormal romance TV series, Dark Angel, in which the heroine Max was a genetically engineered super soldier, and her partner in URST was Logan, a cyber journalist confined to a wheelchair.

The trick to my mind is to bring the romance (or let’s face it, the sex) without taking away from your heroine protagonist’s power. That’s harder than it looks. Just about every romance archetype we have in literature hits some kind of feminist trigger. And of course, you can only subvert traditions so far before the subversion itself leads to problems. If your heroine’s romantic lead is too dominant, you risk reclassifying her as damsel or a victim, and if he is too submissive, the story can lose tension, or your heroine can appear predatory or worse, as a figure of male fantasy. (for some reason I’m reminded of the famous image of Emma Peel from the “Touch of Brimstone” episode of the Avengers – this character always looked sexy, confident and powerful in whatever she was wearing, and yet she looks distinctly uncomfortable done up as a bondage queen, and it always annoys me when

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Authors reach out to new readers

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 16, 2008

We write because we love it. But we also we write because we have the ideal reader in our heads who ‘gets’ our stories/books. But how do we reach readers?

We ROR writers are all readers who love the speculative fiction genre, so we recommend books to each other and our friends. But that’s only going to go so far. To reach a larger audience we’ve created Ripping Ozzie Reads.

http://www.ripping-ozzie-reads.com

Drop by and visit.

Cheers, Rowena

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first-time blogging

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 14, 2008

Hi!

I admit it, I’m a blogging virgin. I’ve been a member of the ROR group for several years now, though I wasn’t there at the start. It’s great to be part of a critique group of professionals, especially critiquing whole novels at a time.

I’ve had 14 books published and you’d think I’d know more by now – but it doesn’t seem to work like that. There’s always more to learn. I think the best way to learn it is from other people who’re dealing with the same problems.

This is just a mini-blog because I’m not sure whether it’ll turn up as posted!

Cheers
Richard

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Junk

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 13, 2008

Have you ever had one of those days, where you work flat out from the moment you get up and when you go to bed, your life is more complicated than when you got up?

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Free Delivery

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 12, 2008

My Aurealis Award Shortlisted Story “Delivery” is now online at Cosmos, so you can experience it free. It’s the only skiffy story I wrote last year, and it’s got cool spaceships, science*, and everything. Check it out.

*pseudo and not so pseudo – I cribbed my storks off an article I’d come across in New Scientist.

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Hey

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 10, 2008

I’m the badly behaved one of the ROR group. I’m also the one they turn to when they want to be fed properly.

This is going to be a challenge for me. Though I already keep an electronic journal elsewhere, I do so as a means of making myself set up a record for my children. When they’re older, I’d like them to be able to look back and have some chance of understanding who their father was when they were small, and what they meant to me. I don’t keep a journal well on my own, so I decided I’d do it online, in front of an audience. It’s working, so far.

The thing is, I generally don’t talk about my writing. I talk about many other things. Certainly, I sometimes touch on current projects, but the deeper stuff, like motivations and insights and processes — no. I grew up in Far North Queensland. Up there, the rule of thumb was: the people who talked a lot about stuff weren’t the ones actually doing it. I find it difficult to talk much about what I’m writing.

I have enough trouble with three children and a rural GP wife in just finding time to write. I can’t afford to jinx the magic, to screw up the strange journey that starts inside my head and winds up in print, somewhere. So I write, and I edit, and when I’m done, maybe then I can talk.

I’ll try, though. I promised Rowena, and she’s spooky.

In the meantime: I live in north-east Tasmania. I have three small children, a wife who deals with the medical issues of a decent-sized community, fifty acres on a beautiful hillside with a view to the ocean, a mad dog, two odd cats, fruit trees, gardens, and space in which to move. I teach ju-jitsu, I practice Iaido, I handle the cooking, the shopping, and most of the maintenance on the house and property, and I spend a lot of time dealing with the kids, all three of whom are intelligent, energetic, and frequently unconfined.

I’d like more time on my own to write, but this isn’t the time of my life where I get that. So I do what I can.

Okay, I’m out of here. Right now, I’m writing an alphabet book for my daughter, whom I refer to online as “The Mighty Mau-Mau” for complex reasons. The Mau-Mau is inordinately fond of giant monsters — Daikaiju. She thinks Godzilla is the greatest thing in the history of cinema. Obviously, I’m writing an alphabet of Giant Monsters for her Christmas present…

… anybody know any decent giant monsters beginning with W, U or L?

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Tansy, Haunted By Three Janes

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 9, 2008

I’m currently putting together my acquittal form for the Arts Tasmania grant I received this year, to write a gothic Tasmanian history YA called “Three Janes and a Haunting.” As well as filling out forms to talk about the successes and failures of my project, I also need to clean up the manuscript itself, before sending it to Arts Tas (and um also to my new agent, *dances*). I’m shocked to discover that it’s actually quite good.

Bear with me, I’ll try not to be obnoxious.

This was one of the most painful books I have ever struggled to write. It seemed all bright and shiny when I put in my application for the grant – a bit of Tasmanian history, a bit of a ghost story, a plucky heroine, it would be fun! But I hadn’t thought through the part where this was the first new novel-length work I was writing since the hiatus I had gone through, thanks to having a baby and bringing my PhD thesis to a torturous close.

Since then I had completed a work in progress (Power and Majesty, to be released in 2010 by HarperCollins Voyager) and rewritten an earlier manuscript (Cafe La Femme, to be released by Pulp Fiction Press in 2009), but nothing new. I was expecting the rush and excitement of writing something new, and instead I had to drag out every sentence, every chapter, knowing it had to be at least drafted by the middle of the year because I had other writing commitments.

As my friend Kaia reminded me yesterday, I whined a lot.

I did everything I could to make the manuscript more interesting. The historical part was flagging? I added a modern storyline. Writing went slow? I jazzed it up with reported IM conversations, quotes from student essays and a cute boy with floppy hair. Still, it was hard work, everything took two or three times longer than it should have, and it annoyed me.

The rotten thing about being a professional writer is that you can write more and better in one great day than you can in two weeks of slog. But you have to do the slog, because you might not get that great day, and waiting around for it is a marvellous way to fail to write a book. “Three Janes” had no great days.

Then there was the revelation syndrome that took over the manuscript. After writing half a novel in which lots of mysterious strangers keep secrets from the heroine, I discovered to my horror that every time I sat down to write, one of my mysterious strangers would make some grand revelation that would completely contradict everything that had gone before. Once this happens half a dozen times, believe me, the manuscript is… let’s just say mess is a kind way to put it. I was swamped and lost, three quarters of the way in, and I saw no way out.

And then I had a miracle. Kaia (yes, there’s a reason she still remembers the whining) asked to read the manuscript. I was shocked at the thought of anyone seeing the big stupid broken mess I had created but finally I sent it to her. She read it in less than 24 hours. She made lists. Now, you need to know this about Kaia – she makes lists like Leonardo Da Vinci invented clever things. Her lists are works of art. Chapter by chapter, she went through my broken, battered semi-novel, asking pertinent questions, listing actions and events, and showing me every tiny flaw, in one big magnifying glass. And with that one act of gratuitous editorial kindness, she saved my book.

I finally had one of those great days – not so much for the writing, but for the plotting, when I figured out how to bring in a touch of Ancient Roman history to balance the rather alien Tasmanian. I figured out, step by step, how to fix the book, and I finally got it written. Even on the days when no inspiration was coming, I had those precious lists to work through, the annoyingly incisive questions that pointed out every hole in the story, and I not only repaired them, I rebuilt the whole book from the ground up.

Several months later, I’m rereading, tidying up the manuscript (now retitled 10 Random Facts about Lady Jane Franklin), and I think it’s actually good. It may be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever written, and it’s alarming to have written a twisted, comedic and mostly frivolous ghost story about Lady Jane Franklin in the same year that Richard Flanagan has wowed the literary world with his take on that particular lady (I’ll just hide in my corner, shall I?). But I rather love my characters and the strange things I have done with them. I’m hoping it will find a publisher and an audience because… well, yes. It wasn’t fun to write, but it reads like it was (hee, don’t tell anyone), and I think it represents a major turning point for me as a writer.

Which only goes to show, you never can tell.

(and later that year I co-wrote a draft for a different novel that was so much fun I wrote more words in a month than I had in half a year on Three Janes… but that’s another story)

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