Some awesome Writers’ Perks have had me smiling recently. A writer’s life is not all “stare at the keyboard until blood spurts from your eyes”, to paraphrase Hemingway. Sometimes you get to meet readers and interact with real people!
Writers’ Perk #1
In October, I spoke with three groups of young artists about the magic of writing, creating rounded characters, and my book How to Survive Your Magical Family. Creation is its own kind of magic, right? Before you write the story or paint the picture, that little piece of wonder doesn’t exist.
This was part of the awesome painting competition organised by my local art school Art Academica. What fun!
Writers’ Perk #2
Also in October, I attended a book launch for Fleetwalkerby Judith Michael. It was so much fun to meet other writers and Judith’s fans, friends and family. A great day was had by all!
Writers’ Perks #3
And on the last Friday in October, I attended the Founders & Benefactors Dinner at St Hilda’s College at the University of Melbourne, along with my fellow writing team member Louise Zedda-Sampson. It was a fabulous night where we met some amazing people and made connections to will go a long way towards setting the tone for our big project: Communitas-the first 60 years of St Hilda’s.
The lure of the ocean and a love of speculative fiction combine in the works of Australian author Rebecca Fraser. But these are not this writer’s only strengths. I recently read and reviewed Rebecca’s book of short stories Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract for Aurealis magazine, using words like:
“Fraser’s insight and eye for detail imbue every story, and her imaginative scope encompasses a prodigious variety of settings and characters. Keep this little book of horrors close.”
Going forward with the idea of an inspiring 2021, I recently asked Rebecca to contribute to my blog with a reflection about what inspires her writing, and – you guessed it – a bonus FREE EXTRACT! Read on…
Inspired by Life
REBECCA: Thanks so much for having me on you blog, Clare. I always love reading answers to this question! For me, inspiration is usually drawn from multiple sources. Sometimes it’s a snatch of overhead conversation (I’m a dreadful eavesdropper, but aren’t all writers?), that inspires the kernel of a story. An article or news item might trigger inspiration, or sometimes a random sequence of words strike me as an intriguing story title. I often glean glimpses and glimmers of inciting incidents or thought-provoking situations from random sources, and little building blocks of plot and setting start to form a framework. The characters always seem to come later.
I walk a lot too—for physical and mental exercise. There are some lovely walks that surround my home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, and when it’s just me alone with my thoughts, immersed in nature, this is usually when the threads of a story come together, or when I get resolution to a plot point that might have been proving problematic.
As far as what I find inspiring on a personal level, it’s often drawn from deep wells where people have thrown off the cloak of repression or revolted against the abuse of power and privilege and marginalisation, sometimes at enormous sacrifice and cost. It’s people at their best versus people at their worst—the human condition is a perennial source of fascination to me. Courage, retribution, and comeuppance often find a place within my stories.
I chose this piece as the events, characters, and setting are a fusion of my love for the ocean and my love of speculative fiction. Much of my work carries a nautical theme or features a coastal setting, so it was a pleasure to write in familiar territory.
I also wanted to tackle issues and themes that are relevant to today’s youth, and thirteen-year-old Curtis Creed proved a worthy vehicle to use for this. The book highlights several themes: the acceptance of great loss, the differing effect grief can have on family members, courage in the face of adversity, self-worth, self-belief, self-acceptance, and respect for our environment.
It’s set in Queensland, in the fictional coastal township of Midnight Cove. I’m a former Queensland girl, so I feel like I’ve walked the shoreline of Midnight Cove many times, and delved deep into the hidden world of rockpools. Perhaps, like Curtis, I should have delved deeper … who knows what I might have found? 😊
EXTRACT from Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean
Curtis Creed stood at the water’s edge. Come back to me, the ocean sighed. Come back to me. But he couldn’t. Not today. Not ever.
He squinted against the afternoon sun and focused on the line-up of surfers gathered out past the second break. Even though they were far offshore, Curtis’ trained eye was able to pick out their various techniques—weight transfers, body positions, timing. It was second nature. If you weren’t in the surf yourself then you were watching other surfers; scrutinising their moves, checking out their styles.
He’d stood at the shoreline for so long his feet had become anchored, buried ankle-deep in the sand with the ebb and pull of the tide. Out among the breakers, a surfer powered down the face of a beautifully formed wave before disappearing into the pipeline. Remember that feeling? the ocean breathed. Remember? Of course he remembered, but he couldn’t return to the surf. He just couldn’t.
Instead the school holidays dragged along—lonesome days spent wandering the shoreline of Midnight Cove or sitting high up on The Bluff, watching others chase waves. Sometimes, when the surf was really pumping, his sense of loss and failure was so suffocating it was easier to avoid the beach altogether.
Thwack. A wad of wet sand hit Curtis hard in the back, right between his shoulders. His buried feet caused him to lose balance and he pitched forward. He flung his arms out to steady himself too late, and landed in the water on all fours.
“Whatcha doing, Shark Crumb? Looking out for sharks?” The hated nickname. Loud guffaws. It was Dylan and his moronic mates. Why couldn’t his brother just leave him alone?
“Yeah, Shark Crumb. Seen any sharks lately?”
“Better get out of the water, Shark Crumb. They’ll smell your fear.”
Curtis stood up. His board shorts and the front of his singlet were soaked. He turned to face his tormentors. Dylan was flanked by Blake and Jordo, two of his mates from high school. They were fresh from the surf with wetsuits pulled down around their waists. Water dripped from their hair and trickled down their torsos. The boys had pressed their surfboards into the wet sand, where they stood upright like silent sentinels.
Then Curtis noticed Dylan was using their father’s surfboard and anger boiled inside him like lava in a volcano. The thruster stood between Blake and Jordo’s boards, a falcon between two pigeons. It was handcrafted for speed and could cut down the face of a wave like no other. Dimples of wax glinted from its surface, wax that remained from another time, applied in dawn’s first light by their father’s hand. The image sliced Curtis’ heart as cleanly as the board’s fin cut through water.
“Why have you got Dad’s board?” He was screaming now. He couldn’t help it. Didn’t care.
“What’s it to you? You never use it.” Dylan folded his arms across his chest.
“That’s not the point.” Curtis took a step closer to Dylan. “Dad left it to me. To me.” His voice was shaking now. Blake and Jordo circled like a pair of seagulls, cawing out the familiar taunt Shark Crumb, but Curtis barely heard them.
A tendon in Dylan’s neck began to pulse. He shaped up to Curtis so closely he could see the peppering of blackheads across Dylan’s nose. “Dad never would’ve left it to you if he knew you were going to turn into such a pussy.”
Before he’d even thought about what he was doing, Curtis punched Dylan in the face as hard as he could. The swing harnessed every ounce of his rage and the punch landed with a clap. Dylan fell backwards. His eyes widened with surprise then quickly clouded with danger. A droplet of blood fell from his nose and made a coin-sized stain on the wet sand.
It was time to go. Curtis turned and pelted off down the beach. Behind him he could hear Blake and Jordo give chase, but he knew he could outrun them. The stupid nickname rang out behind him, but as the distance grew the voices became fainter until they were eventually torn away by the ocean breeze.
He ran without looking back. His breath hitched in his chest. A ball of embers burned the back of his throat, but still he ran. Tears stung his eyes, but he also felt a thrill of exhilaration. He’d hit Dylan before, of course, and received his fair share back. Heck, they were brothers. They’d grown up with horse bites, birthday punches, Chinese burns, and the dreaded typewriter. But he’d never all out hauled off and decked him. It had felt good, but the brief rush of exhilaration was quickly replaced by terror at the thought what awaited him when he returned home. Especially as he’d managed to floor Dylan in front of his mates. His brother would no doubt have all kinds of retribution in store.
He decided to delay for as long as he could. As he rounded the southernmost end of Midnight Cove he slowed to a jog. Here the long stretch of beach gave way to a rocky shoreline heavily strewn with ancient lava boulders and rock pools. The rock shelf—a labyrinth of stones and shallows—skirted the great cliffs that rose to form Midnight Bluff, the town’s highest point.
The ocean’s teeth had gnashed the cliffs for thousands of years carving an alien landscape of rock face and rivulets. The rock pools closest to the sandy beach made safe watery playgrounds for children to explore with buckets and spades. Further round the headland, however, access was difficult and discouraged. The gentle waves that undulated through the bay had nowhere to go when they met land here, and they boomed and crashed over the rocks. The boulders were larger and denser, filled with ankle-breaking crevices and rock pools that were deceptively deeper than their beach-hugging counterparts. They filled and drained with the tide’s highs and lows.
Curtis knew Dylan wouldn’t follow him here. It wasn’t just the difficulty of access that would stop him, there were too many memories.
Curtis ignored his aching fist as he jumped gazelle-like from boulder to boulder. The ocean’s salt-tinged air whipped and whistled and he ventured deeper into the network of rock pools until the beach was completely out of sight.
Oh my goodness, that’s an exciting extract! Thank you so much, Rebecca, for sharing it with us today.
You can find Rebecca’s work at the links below. Enjoy 😉
FAITH SAYS: Inspiration for a book is a funny thing. As a writer, it’s probably the question you’re asked the most – where do you get your ideas? The truth is, the ideas are everywhere, just waiting for you to grasp them.
Sometimes, an idea comes from little more than a few off-hand words, a comment in a voice that you know would work great in a character. It’s not necessarily, even a real voice, just one that seems to enter my head from nowhere.
At other times, inspiration can be as simple as the beauty of my surroundings. Quite a number of my books are based on a fictional village called Ballycove. It’s a place that doesn’t exist, and yet it very much does. It’s a mish-mash of all the best of the rugged coastline that runs from west County Sligo to the far reaches of County Mayo, here in the west of Ireland. Local readers will often tell me they recognise various landmarks. At the same time, many locals could pick up my books and not have the foggiest that they are actually living in some part of the story.
I think that’s the magic of inspiration – it’s very personal. Where you and I see beauty or the nugget of a story can be poles apart. It’s also why there are so many books and all so different.
They say that there are only ten different plots. Fewer depending on who you believe. But the same plot in different hands becomes a completely different book and none the less satisfying for that, if the writer is worth their salt.
It is set in Ballycove, a windswept corner of the west of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way stretches along the west coast of Ireland, from Cork at its tip to Donegal at its head. It’s a symphony of small villages, unspoilt beaches, crashing waves and green fields. It’s truly breath taking, no less in winter when we’re blown away by gales than it is in summer when the sun shines and it feels as if the heavens have opened up before you.
And then there are the people. My books are all character driven. In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, it is Lucy, Jo and Elizabeth who are steering the story. We meet each of them in their own moment of need. Each of them faces their own personal crises, some of which can be resolved. Others are out of their hands. But in life, it’s not always about how you fix things – it’s about how you cope with them.
What we’ve all learned, if we’re lucky enough to have a solid network around us, is that there is no problem that can’t be made to feel smaller if you can laugh at it. And there is no-one better to help you put things in perspective than another woman.
The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a story about friendship. It’s about reaching out not because you have to, but because you can. It’s about the therapeutic benefits of laughter and kindness and the fact that every problem is halved once it’s shared.
After the year we’ve all put in, I think it’s exactly the sort of book I would like to pick up and read this weekend. It’s been described as ‘joyful, life-affirming and inspirational‘ and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?
The cold burns against my skin, numbing it instantly. I wade out, warily knowing that the icy water stabbing against my legs is an inevitable part of this. A bitter blanket weaving about my body welcoming me, a dear friend; I plunge violently in, gasping, salt water teasing my lips. I feel the small jagged stones beneath my feet. And then, I’m in. My arms and legs cut automatically through the water, until the cold has eaten from the outside in and there is nothing to do but surrender to the vastness and in it know that I am somehow suspended safe and all is well. I turn on my back for delicious blissful moments before I must go back to the shore and take up my life where I left off before … From Jo’s Journa
Mid May and to Elizabeth, the night felt almost balmy. The cove was just half a mile along the beach. Elizabeth knew she’d come here again, even if she wouldn’t have admitted it to herself. When she did, she stood for a few moments. This was where Jo came to swim every single night. Like her window washing every Thursday afternoon, Jo was a woman of routine, albeit to the beat of her own drum. Each evening when all the other women in Ballycove settled down to fall asleep before the television, Jo pulled out an old shopping bag with a threadbare towel and a comb that once belonged to her mother. She walked along this beach until she came to just this spot and then she stripped down to her faded swimsuit and swam energetically for at least ten minutes in the biting waves.
Elizabeth stood for a long while, a little transfixed with the recollections and ghosts that played along in her memory. She had come down here often when they were children, but she hadn’t swum for years.
‘I thought it was you,’ Jo’s familiar voice called out from behind her. ‘What brings you down here tonight?’ She dropped her bag on the ground.
‘Oh, just out for a bit of a ramble,’ Elizabeth said easily, regretting now that she’d come here to impose on what was Jo’s own form of meditation.
‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure I have your constitution for the cold.’ She laughed at this for a moment, and then she remembered as Jo shed layer after layer of clothes that she was nowhere near as strong and robust as Elizabeth had always assumed. Rather, beneath the layers, she had shrunk into a sparrow of a woman with stick-like arms and legs, and not very much more in between.
‘You’re missing out – that’s all I’ll say.’ And then she was picking her way down towards the waves and Elizabeth was left to think about the fact that she had spent her life sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t where she wanted to finish out the rest of her days.
There was something about today. Something Elizabeth couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if it was the start of a new chapter. The water ahead seemed suddenly so inviting. She really wasn’t sure that she was in full command of her actions or her senses as she began to throw off her clothes, but soon, she was running with the energy of an excited child, shrieking with an abandon she’d never known before, naked as the day she was born, she ran into the water.
It was exhilarating, a baptism of biting cold that felt as if it might chew her up in no time. It rattled her nerve endings, sending an extravagant swell of emotion through her. It was initiation, as if she was being culled of her old staid life, and suddenly, this unbearable cold became part of her, a wholly new sensation, freeing her from the life she’d lived until now. This was liberating. It was overwhelming. A cascading of emotion welled within her, the salty cold now insulating her from any pain, rather, for the first time, it felt as if all of those fears and secrets could reside as one within her and the biting sea was powerful enough to hold her in equilibrium. Finally she was free.
This moment was her whole life, all rolled up – past, present, future – but mainly, she was here and now and she’d never felt so alive. She dived beneath the water feeling the freedom of it while shocked with the cold, but she filled with immeasurable warmth. It was madness, passionate, wonderful living perfection. She lay on her back, squinting off towards where she knew the horizon sat. She swam out further, far beyond her own depth to where Jo was lying on her back, gazing up at the fading light.
‘You did it,’ Jo murmured as they treaded the freezing water together.
‘It’s bloody cold here,’ Elizabeth said unnecessarily.
‘It is that, but don’t you feel alive? I feel the same thing every day I come here. It anchors me in a place that’s mine within the vastness.’
‘Okay.’ Elizabeth wasn’t sure what she meant. She just knew that here, in the sable saltiness of the ocean, she felt as if she could do anything – nothing could faze her at this moment.
‘I wonder what Eric would say now?’ Jo smiled and suddenly they were both laughing their heads off like lunatics. For once, he’d have been completely lost for words. The notion that his respectable wife would be out swimming in the altogether in the moonlight; it might very well have been enough to shock him into sobriety.
The beach was completely empty, apart from a few circling gulls who probably thought they were wholly mad. Elizabeth laughed again; perhaps they were right – maybe she had finally tipped over into a state of happy lunacy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in far too long, she felt what it was to be truly blissful.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Faith. More power to you!
In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?
*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.
How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE
I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.
*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.
As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.
Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.
*We do (read reviews of our books)
I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?
Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:
Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
This post is Part One: choosing a book*
*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.
First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.
Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.
*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!
You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!
Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.
Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.
Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.
PART ONE SUMMARY:
So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!
Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?
English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.
Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.
Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?
Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.
A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?
I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…
Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.
I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.
How do you feel about reviews?
Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.
Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?
The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.
Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
When I was 17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.
Did you always plan to write historic fiction?
No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.
Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done.
True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!
Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean-American writer of science fiction and science fantasy. YHL has a B.A. in math (maths to those of us in Australia) from Cornell University and an M.A. in math (yes, maths) education from Stanford University. Yoon loves to explore mathematics for story ideas. His fiction has appeared in several revered sci-fi & fantasy (SFF) publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, and his stories have been chosen several times for “The Year’s Best…” anthologies.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to review Yoon’s fabulous book, Hexarchate Stories, an instalment in his much-loved Machineries of Empire series. I introduced my review with this sentence:
Prepare to be amazed and captivated by this collection of science fiction delights…
Imagine my pleasure when Yoon agreed to be interviewed for the Last Word of the Week!
Welcome, Yoon, and thank you for speaking with me today. You’ve been widely published and have quite a name in SFF circles. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
YOON: There is a lot of writing advice out there. Realize that every writer is different, and that advice that works for one person may not work for another. There’s often no harm in trying something to see if it works for you, but if the advice doesn’t work, there’s likely nothing wrong with you. It’s intended for a different kind of writer, that’s all. Take what works and discard what doesn’t.
That’s very reassuring. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
First I make tea. Then I sit down to write, except my tortoiseshell cat, Cloud, jumps up and blocks the keyboard. I pet her until she decides that she’s had enough worship and wanders off. Only then do I get started. Really, worshipping a cat is one of the most pleasant ways to brainstorm anyway. She interrupts me at intervals for more petting, which is a great way for me to take typing breaks!
I think I need another blog series called ‘authors and their feline muses’! How much research is involved in your writing?
It depends on the story! In a sense I’m constantly researching, because I keep an eye out for ideas and interesting facts as I read or browse the internet or listen to conversations. Some stories are mostly invention, so they don’t require me to research anything specific. On the other hand, my forthcoming novel Phoenix Extravagant is set in a fantasy version of Korea during the Japanese occupation, and its protagonist is a painter, so I spent six months reading everything I could get my hands on about Korean archaeology and art history. Spoiler: it’s hard to find much on those topics in English; I am indebted to my mom for helping me find books!
Ah, a secret research assistant. Excellent! How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
First, I go to my husband and whine at him, usually with the words, “Joe, my novel is brokedy.” Then I make him take me to a cafe, where I explain why my story isn’t working (and probably the other patrons are giving us weird looks because we’re talking about nanomachines or undead generals or whatever). He brainstorms with me and comes up with a solution. I ask him to type it up and email it to me. I read the email. Then I ignore his suggestions and do something completely different. Strange as this method sounds, it works!
I must try it! I can’t get my husband to read my books until they arrive in paperback form. How you get feedback about your story before it’s published?
I have a trusted group of friends whom I ask to beta read for me. There’s usually a few people willing to volunteer at any given point in time. Some of them are writers, some of them aren’t. Every beta reader has different strengths and weaknesses, so I try to get a few different viewpoints. For example, my husband is a physicist, so he’s great at finding logic holes. Character arcs, not so much.
Good plan. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Right now I’m working on a science fantasy short story for the Silk & Steel anthology. I’m a novice fencer attending the Red Stick School of Fencing in Baton Rouge, so there will be dueling! My duelist character is going to be much more competent than I am–what else is wish-fulfillment for?
I’m currently under contract for a sequel to my kids’ Korean mythology space opera, Dragon Pearl, so I’m excited to be working on that after the short story’s done. I love space opera so it’s going to be fun returning to that genre. That’s due in October. And after that, who knows?
That’s quite a program! And you’re the third SFF author I’ve met who also fences… What’s your favourite genre to read?
I have two right now–nonfiction and tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). The world is full of weird and fascinating facts; my shelves have books on linguistics, military history, music theory, and other delights. As for the RPGs, I’m a gamer with an interest in game design, so I love looking both at older settings like TSR’s Planescape (a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) as well as indie RPGs like Monsterhearts 2 or Tiny Frontiers.
Are you planning to write any graphic novels?
I’d love to give it a go; I’ve experimented with one- and three-panel gag strips in the past. My current project, sort of in the nature of a warm-up, is a 22-page comic adaptation of my short story “The Battle of Candle Arc,” originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lee_10_12/). I have a script, thumbnails, and color test, so the next step will be to do the pencils. Trying to make a story work in a visual format is extremely interesting. I’m personally looking forward to drawing exploding starships because, please, don’t we all?
What would be a dream come true for you?
This is a very long shot, but I would be thrilled if someone made an animated TV adaptation of Ninefox Gambitor even all of Machineries of Empire. I suspect that doing it as live-action would be cost-prohibitive because of all the “magical” special effects and space battles, but maybe animation would ameliorate that? It’s nice to dream, anyway!
A wonderful dream – I’d love to see that! Thank you so much for the chat. You’re an inspiration.
Mark Newman is an award-winning writer from the UK, who is a master of the intense and difficult art of the short story. In this interview, Mark shares his perspective on reading and writing and how he tested his writing through entering – and succeeding in – writing competitions.
Welcome, Mark, it’s great to talk with you. I first heard about you because we share a publisher, but I now know that you have a substantial CV as a writer of awesome short stories, and that you’ve been winning accolades for a while now. Let’s talk about how you got to be the writer you are.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Mark:The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis. I loved the whole Narnia series, and still go back to them every two or three years just for that hit of nostalgia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, of course, a classic, but I always loved The Magician’s Nephew for that first glimpse of the White Witch in Charn, the rings and the pools between worlds and the attics that ran between the houses. All kids ever want to do is find secret places. I don’t really think that feeling ever leaves you.
And that sense of possibilities in hidden spaces – I agree. You seem to be quite productive – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I wish I did. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m not really a routine person, though I see the sense in them. I just wait for sentences and ideas to drop through the ether, write them down until there is enough there to make a story out of, spread them out in the right order and fill in the gaps. It’s a wonder I ever write anything, to be honest.
Ah, the magical ether. Stories are a kind of wonder, even to the writer. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Getting shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was pretty amazing. Seeing your face on a TV screen and blurb about your story scrolling through alongside other amazing writers was surreal. The Costa Book Awards was a weird experience – I don’t really belong in the same room as Dame Diana Rigg! It’s nice to get shortlisted for a competition that is judged by other writers as the Costa is, and the Retreat West competitions that I did so well in at the start of my writing, it really makes you feel you are doing something right.
Yes, winning is so affirming. I hope you took selfies at that awards night! Is writers block a thing for you?
Absolutely. I’m paralysed by the blank page and the blank gaps between the good ideas and good sentences. I wish writing felt like a good thing but it often feels like pulling teeth. The satisfaction comes when you read back something that works, but it’s often a long road getting there. But, it’s writing, isn’t it. It’s not brain surgery, I can’t really complain, I don’t have to do it.
It is often difficult, and we don’t have to do it, but then again we don’t seem able to stop! Those ideas still fall out of the ether, I find. On another tack, what do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
We all have favourite books that have awful covers but it doesn’t really affect how we feel about the book. It’s the words inside that really matter, but a cover for a new author is super important. We’ve all picked up books because we like the covers and passed by covers we don’t like. I was asked for my opinions about the cover for My Fence is Electricbut, unlike some novel ideas I have where I have quite strong ideas for covers, I didn’t really have any thoughts about what I wanted. My publisher, Michelle Lovi, designed it and sent it to me and I was so scared opening up the file, but I absolutely loved it. Simple and beautiful – hearts and barbed wire, sums it all up perfectly!
Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
I went to see Alison Moore speak at Loughborough Library in Leicestershire (UK). I had wanted to be an author for nearly 20 years and had written numerous starts to novels and then been unable to progress. She detailed her route to publication and spoke about the importance of writing short stories and entering competitions for her to find out if she was heading in the right direction. She got an agent early on from doing this as well and it all spread out for her from there. She andSusan Hill are my all-time favourite authors so I listen to anything they have to say! The first short story I wrote was highly commended in a competition and I was approached by an agent from one of the biggest literary agencies in London. Nothing came of that (apart from some great advice) but it gave me the confidence to keep going.
That’s a great story, thank you. What kind of reader would like your book?
Short story fans. People who love Susan Hill and Alison Moore. As I said, I’m a big fan of theirs and I think it shows! Same kind of mood.
Is it easy for readers to find your book?
Not at the moment. The global pandemic situation has resulted in my launch event and follow-up events being cancelled and distribution problems mean it’s been hard to get a paperback copy of my book in the UK. It can’t be helped, it is what it is. My book hardly matters against what is going on. The eBook version is easy to get and The Book Depository have copies in stock at the moment. And I have a box full in my front room so if you live in the UK contact me on Twitter if you want to pay through PayPal and I’ll send you one!
Tricky times indeed – I hope things improve for all of us soon. Is your local bookstore thriving?
My nearest local bookstore is Kibworth Books in Leicestershire (UK) and it’s nine miles away. I’d be there all the time if I lived in Kibworth or drove. It certainly seems to be thriving though and long may it continue.
More power to bookshops! Thanks so much for speaking to me today, Mark. Congratulations on My Fence is Electric, and all the best with your writing.
For me, emotional health is something that needs attention during the pandemic arrangements. We’re fortunate here in Australia to be comparatively low in infection rate, with few deaths and relatively relaxed restrictions. That doesn’t mean that world-changing times aren’t tough to deal with, from social distancing and home schooling to serious economic consequences for many people.
I’ve whittled my thoughts down to the three top considerations that support my emotional balance: flexibility, empathy, and creativity. Today I’m going to unpack just one of these a little in case something is useful for you too. You may have your own go-to places that give you comfort and strength. I’d love to hear your tips!
Disclaimer: despite my excessive education, I am not a psychologist. These tips are from lived experience – age and the school of trial and error – plus a few years of studying psychology, communication, management and history…
Clare’s Flexible Thinking Tips
This year, we are all travelling in a vehicle that hasn’t yet been fully described, let alone having a user’s manual. That makes it even more important to be flexible. Rules change more often than I find comfortable, and that can increase my anxiety. Without certainty about what will happen next, it’s easy to become stuck in my thinking.
Stuck thinking increases anxiety – you know that feeling when your usual chair in the lecture theatre is already taken? – while flexible thinking entertains the possibility of difference without stress.
You may have heard my long-time mantra: I can’t do everything, but I can always do something. These days, many of my usual activities and routines are no longer possible or are radically changed. I try to cultivate a flexible mindset to help deal with the frustration and sadness about what we’ve lost. Here are four strategies I have used lately to promote and strengthen my flexible thinking.
I hope you can share some others to build my store of healthy thinking habits.
Ask what if?
This is a regular trick of writers: what if someone ordered a coffee and found a tiny poodle in their cup? That’s OK for stories, but for everyday we need different what ifs. I use this these days with cooking ingredients (what if I use peanut butter in this cake instead of marmalade?), household chores (what if I don’t iron anything?), desk work (what if I turn off emails until after lunch OMG!!!), exercise (what if I walk anti-clockwise around the block today?). What if we have our main meal in the middle of the day? What if we eat on the verandah? What if I read a story to the dog? What if I move that painting into the other room? I like the way this activity changes up my mind set.
Say there might be another way.
And then look for it. Of course, this depends on the task that you are tackling. In writing, I sometimes get out of a stuck place by leaving a large blank space and creating a “final” sentence, and later trying to make the two ends meet. Putting a task aside and doing something different for a while helps too. It’s also helpful to ask for a second opinion when something isn’t working out right – another brain will probably have another mindset. I also like to think about the past and the future – history and possibility – by wondering how this task was done in the old days, or how it might be tackled next century, or on another planet (yep, too much imagination!).
Take a breath and think what’s the worst that could happen?
This can seem a dangerous ploy, but often I find myself stressing about something that, in the bigger scheme of things, just isn’t all that important. My sense of perspective can get seriously askew when I’m trying to do something that needs concentration and keep getting interrupted (EG: self-imposed writing deadline + barking dog). Breathe IN-2-3-4, HOLD-2, OUT-2-3-4, HOLD-2. I do that a couple of times. That gives me space to recalibrate. In my example, the worst that could happen is that I miss my home-made deadline. The best that could happen is that I actually get a new storyline out of the situation: hmm, busy writer ignores barking dog and misses the moment when the zombie breaks down the door…
Weird, I know. This is related to the ‘what if?’ strategy, but uses a physical cue to change up my mindset. It’s kind of like playing a prank on myself so I get jolted out of my usual thinking rut. I have often used this trick in the past to mix up my routine thoughts on purpose. For example, I used to deliberately choose the longest queue in any circumstance, telling myself to use the time for taking notice of where I was, the people around me, and the mood of the place – all useful exercises for writers at any time, and quite good mindfulness exercises for anyone. These days I avoid queues completely, so I try other things like putting my phone at the other end of the house, taking the long route anywhere, reading and writing in unusual places like the garage or the back garden, and changing my furniture around. I do that quite a lot, actually! Last week, I turned my desk 180% so that I now face the door not the window. Is it better? I wouldn’t have thought so, but for the first time since the pandemic was declared, I wrote two new pieces of fiction. Was it the desk move that sparked me? Just maybe!
And I can’t wait to change my desk back again. 🙂
I hope some of these crazy ideas make sense and are helpful. In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands. Next week, Last Word will return with another author Q&A. See you then.
Josh is an author, poet, musician, music journalist, teacher, voice actor and event manager, and a very entertaining interviewee. His CV includes being almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly dying of a collapsed lung in the Nepalese Himalayas, and once fending off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India. He has an unnatural fondness for scrabble and an irrational dislike of frangipanis.
Naturally enough, Josh’s answers to my questions are particularly amazing, and this interview reflects his clever sense of the absurd and the precious. Josh is a wordsmith worth noting, because you will never look at the printed page in quite the same way.
You probably won’t be able to, because there’s every chance it will self-detonate before your very eyes. Either that or turn into a not-very-helpful imp.
Great to meet you, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of 19½ Spells. And thanks for reading some of them on your website here – that’s great! Can you tell me why is writing important to you?
Josh:Ani DiFranco once said “I was a terrible waitress, so I started to write songs.” I think I feel the same way, except I write stories instead of songs and instead of being bad at hospitality I was bad at (insert many different jobs here).
Ah, that means you really are a writer. Great. What was your favourite book as a child?
In a language that only you can speak, no doubt. That one had me reaching for Wikipedia: ‘an illustrated codex written in an unknown writing system’! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Yes, if you read everything I’ve ever written you’ll find I’ve encoded the secret to eternal life using a secret cypher that can only be understood once you’ve posted really nice reviews on goodreads and recommended my books to all your friends.
That sounds like a good plan! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
“This is the best book I’ve ever read, but it should have had Dr Who in it.”
That’s the way I feel about most books, truly. Why are you the perfect person to write your books?
Because everyone else who has tried has descended into madness and now spends their days rocking back and forth, murmuring about eldritch horrors and the heinous price of printer refill cartridges.
Or the scarcity of flour and toilet rolls, possibly. What would be a dream come true for you?
Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girlwon the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girltells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.
Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.
My review of Stone Girlis forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!
Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?
Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.
Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.
I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.
Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?
I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.
Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?
I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.
Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.
Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.
Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.
Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.
That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.
Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.
However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.
Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.
Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.
And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.
Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.
Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂