It took a little while to get my head around the possibility of more novels in the world of The Pale. A whole series of post-apocalyptic fiction? But hey! The world was all there, the characters created, and a trajectory beckoned. Plus the world always needs more books with talking animals.
All I needed to do was pick up where I left off, right?
It’s not that easy. Something I found quite testing was to check and re-check my built world, to ensure the consistency of both stories. Remember that I’d invented a highly-detailed setting, with too many characters, too many places, too much that was too clever by half (including an over-clever calendar)? Well, thanks to me being such a smarty-pants, there was too much in my head. I had to match the published version of my world, not the one teeming in my brain.
Hmm, did I mention this particular detail before? I kept asking.
I told myself: probably not.
Can I include it? I thought: Yes, but…
Can I do without it? Answer: YES!
The thing about world-building
It so happens that I know a lot more about the back-stories of the characters than will ever be published.
And that’s the way it should be. I am the iceberg. The published work is the best fraction of it.
Readers really only want to know what’s happening NOW.
They want ACTION. And they want EMOTION. They want RESOLUTION.*
*Beware generalisations. Some readers like the long way round a story
Readers don’t want to know about the hours I devoted to googling baby names as I tried to make my cast diverse and interesting. They don’t want to know about my failed attempts at tracing maps of Tasmania and putting Pale-style names in tricky terrain. And they especially don’t want to hear me arguing with myself about just how evil I can make the villain without turning science fiction into horror.
Stage 7: A Plan for Book 2
Take one ambitious time frame, add a thriving cast, lots of conflict and then make the world explode. Or at least cause the ground to shake.
I’m a pantser by nature, but I needed a plan. More, I needed – for the first time in my fiction writing – to create lists and signposts. I discovered that writing a series is like writing a thesis: there is more material than you can keep in your head at one time. You MUST be organised.
A character listwas easy enough, and here it is. I also asked for it to be included in the printed book, because many readers like to refer back as they’re reading.
A map! Fortunately, I have very talented people in my family – they’re so creative, this lot! – and @bernardjmaher listened carefully, coped with my scribbled diagrams, and voila! a map.
Stage 8: Writing Book 2
The deadline was good for me: six months to the first draft – remember that the first novel took several years to gestate.
I wrote and wrote and wrote. My method is to write a lot, and then edit, edit, edit. Then I add, subtract, rearrange and polish.
Characters from offstage demanded to be heard – for example, Helm, the lost tribesman. He’d always been there as Feather’s missing father, but he insisted that he had a much bigger part to play. More talking animals wanted to be heard, and many of the villains began to flex their muscles. Dystopia is like that!
Back and forth with editing. It was so much better this time around. I was more relaxed about strangers’ eyes on my imagined world, and more confident in my choices. I mus say that working with Odyssey Books has been amazing – truly life-changing.
Amazingly, within a year of launching The Pale, I was back at Readings Carlton, surrounded by well-wishers, thrilled to introduce my new book to the world.
I’m very proud of these books and still very much in love with them.
But how did this love affair with talking animal stories begin?
Today I’m letting you into the ten hidden stages behind the Chronicles.
Stage 1: An Idea
Ideas comes from everywhere. I can’t stop them.
This one began with a dream in 2014. We were shut inside a gated compound while outside, crying babies were dying from exposure. We couldn’t get out, but my dog Dinny (an ancient and beloved German Shepherd) snuck out and carried the two babies into safety.
From small kernels of inspiration, a big story grew.
Dogs had to feature!
Stage 2: A Short Story
The story of the babies left to die Outside was too good to lose, especially during the height of the worldwide refugee crisis. The wise and compassionate canini Mashtuk and Zelie, the heartless humachines, and fully-human Hector appeared in my head. I wrote them into a story and submitted it to progressive journal Overland. My first ever short story acceptance!
If you’ve read The Pale, you might like to see where it started.
Stage 3: A Novel
After the story was published, an indie publisher contacted me because my Overland bio said that I was writing a novel about these characters.
I hadn’t started, but I immediately began. Ideas came too fast and the novel grew too long, but I submitted it within six months.
Stage 4: A Rejection
Sadly, The Pale Version 01 didn’t make the grade. The novel was BLOATED with too many characters and dozens of subplots, and falling over itself with over-complex world building.
While the feedback was positive, the novel needed severe editing.
Stage 5: An Acceptance
More time passed. I took a good hard look at my manuscript and pruned a few thousand words. Some of the off-cuts were old favourites: names for every (and I mean every) minor character, a newly invented calendar based on the many seasons recognised in indigenous cultures, and a subplot involving flashbacks to the time before the Great Cataclysm…
Then I sent the new manuscript to my dear, dear beta readers. Their ultra-valuable feedback (thank you – you know who you are!) resulted in more tidying…and THEN
Oh, my. Having a novel published was a lifelong dream come true.
I fell onto a steep learning curve. Working with fiction editors challenged me, but I could see that every discussion, every point, made my work better. A wonderful cover artist sent me concepts, and I jumped with delight on the one with the city and the canini – of course, it’s Mashtuk!
I’ve talked about launching here, and I can still remember the wonderful feeling. The Pale sold some copies. Readers contacted me and asked about the characters and what happened next? The characters gambolled around in my head.
And the publisher said: is there a sequel?
Next week, I’ll explain how I got from a single dream to a three-novel series … and perhaps a set of short stories in genesis.
Darren Kasenkow is an Australian author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction to bring together thematic elements ranging from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense.
Darren’s also recently finished a collaboration with bestselling author V.E. Patton on a new adventure series ‘Beneath A Burning Heart’.
I’m excited to host Darren on my blog today. Welcome!
Tell us a bit about what inspires you.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! (You’re welcome and flattery will get you everywhere.)
Ever since I can remember, books have been important tools that have helped me to explore my place in this strange, mystifying universe. When I started writing, I instantly found it to be a magical way of feeling a greater connection with both my imagination and the world around me, and I haven’t looked back since!
I love exploring themes that are centred around the eternal battle between good and evil, whether that battle exists deep in our own heart or across the four corners of the Earth, and I really do believe that with every page I write (as dark as those pages might be!) I learn a little more about who I am.
Ah, the everlasting contest between good and evil – a never-ending inspiration for stories. That’s what makes your books so good!
We are very fortunate – Darren is sharing a sneak preview of
Godless–The Hallucigenia Project Book 2)
Let’s dive in!
The Hallucigenia Project
Book Two: Godless
The crystal walls of the cave beckoned with an electric blue promise of eternity just beyond the glistening frozen surface. A single floodlight was the only pitiful source of warmth beneath the machine carved dome, while beyond the shadows there came from the ice soft symphonies of gentle crazing and cracking.
It wasn’t a big cave. About the size of large bedroom, it held a small wooden desk with a rusted bar stool for a chair, a large chest locked tight with two padlocks, and a scattering of makeshift weightlifting equipment slapped together with wood, various discarded engine parts and buckets of frozen water. With an endless night and harrowing, heart breaking Antarctic winds howling back on the surface, it was a treasured place of retreat. At least, it was for Leon Bzovsky.
The Quantum Physicist wasn’t interested in working out for the moment though. No, for amid the dark and crushing events that had descended upon the remote South Pole it was time for the little ritual that kept his haunting urges at bay. They would rise eventually, but to do so now would be unwise.
“Come now friend,” he whispered softly with his rolling accent, “this is much fresher than the last.”
The Emperor penguin wobbled a little closer to the floodlight where Leon was perched on his knees with a small piece of meat resting in his open hand. It pecked at a corner of the offering and then stared up at the host through tiny black eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Leon asked with a hint of frustration. “It’s only a little ink. Nothing there that can hurt you, but beneath the colours there awaits life.”
The penguin pecked one last time but seemed decided on skipping this particular meal. To assure his friend no disrespect was intended it nestled against Leon’s thigh and gently closed its eyes, content for now in the knowledge there would come another offering in the near future. So, with a shrug of his solid shoulders and a soft tsk tsk tsk, Leon brought the flesh to his mouth and bit down hard. Certainly this was a little fresher than the last, but as the tissue and fat warmed against his tongue there was a distinct bitterness that bordered on being unpleasant.
“Yes,” he mumbled while stroking the penguin’s head, “I see what you mean.”
The silent, vacuum-like ambience of the cavern was suddenly violated by three loud thumps against the makeshift entrance door. Leon quickly swallowed the barely chewed lump and turned his head in frustration. His moment of treasured solitude, it seemed, had come to an end.
With a sharp scraping sound accompanied with falling chunks of ice, the door pushed open and in an instant the harrowing screams of the winds rushed the cave walls. A tall, hulking figure stepped through and then pulled back his hood with thick, snow covered gloves. Leon wasn’t surprised to see that it was Salvador, one half of the remaining security division and a seasoned survivalist from Finland. He was, however, suddenly curious at expression the towering man brought with him, for it was one he hadn’t seen before.
It was an expression of fear.
Leon patted his special friend one last time and rose tall. Already the winds were turning the conditions in his retreat dangerous, and yet the door remained open.
“It seems even at a time like this I cannot enjoy a little time alone,” he remarked while zipping up his jacket.
“We come to the remote edge of the world and still you want more?” Salvador asked with a hint of pity. “Walk one mile in any direction and you’ll have your peace soon enough.”
“Perhaps, but it’s not peace I seek.”
Salvador studied the physicist for a moment, then pushed back thick blonde hair when a wind gust threw it across his eyes.
“You’re wanted back inside,” he announced. “There’s something you need to see.”
Leon nodded his understanding then slipped the thermal hood over his head, lifted cold wool across his face until only his eyes were visible, and mounted a headlamp that was fastened tight around his ears. Behind him the penguin scurried to the nest that had been chipped into the far wall as if performing a ballet for the visitor, and then Leon pushed on thick gloves, reached down, and returned the cave to a state of darkness.
Together they stepped into the endless night. By the glow of the headlamps the relentless hurricane winds seemed truly alive, with glittering tendrils forming shapes like flecked serpent tails that whipped and thrashed in the pursuit of pure destruction. It felt like a barrage of hammers punching hard into their bodies and pressing tight against their bones, making each step in the thick snow a battle of physical tenacity and determination.
In the distance the lights of the station were barely visible, but it was all that was needed to guide them through the frozen nightmare and promise enough that their flesh would be warmed again soon. They would need to move quickly though. With conditions as bad as they could get, it wouldn’t take long for their eyes to become glass marbles ready to shatter at the slightest stumble.
A vague shape emerged from the darkness on the left, and with it the distinct sound of hard clanging metal that joined the symphony of screams and wails of the unseen and unknowable. Instinctively they both pierced through the night with headlamps to illuminate the rusted outline of two large shipping containers that had been welded together. Leon cursed beneath his thermal protection at the shadowed sight of one of the doors lashing to and fro as if it were a metal wing of a broken beast determined to fly, the groaning hinges shaking and rattling in preparation of defeat, and diverted a heavy step towards it.
“Leave it!” Salvador shouted against the wind. “The dead are immune to the cold and besides, there’s no time.”
Oh my goodness! Penguins, blizzard conditions and something (someone?) dead in a shipping container?! Please hurry with the rest of the story, Darren!
Alice McVeigh uses the pen name Spaulding Taylor when she writes science fiction. She may have two names, but she has many more roles than that. She’s a ghostwriter, an editor, a performer , and a musician.
Alice is with me today to talk about what inspires her creative output. She is also sharing an extract from her book Last Star Standing (I love that title!) which is a dystopian sci-fi thriller!
What Inspires Alice
ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:
Basically, I was lucky enough to get a Booker-prize-winning agent when I was still pretty young, along with a two-book contract with Orion (now part of Hachette). These novels sold very well, but not well enough for Orion, who rejected my third.
I then entered a period of real depression, retreating into ghost writing and cello-playing (my only degree is in cello performance, oddly enough!)… But fiction, eventually, pulled me back, and Unbound released my Kirkus-starred speculative thriller only a couple of months ago.
What inspired me? A meditation, which I mention in the interview. It was a crazy experience, having a character come and tap me on the shoulder! – But I’m very grateful all the same…
Thanks Alice, that’s so interesting. It’s not often a character accosts a writer, but it’s worth following up when it does happen.
Ravene, the alien King’s heir, was Aiden’s lover a decade earlier.
Aiden, along with Bully and the gromeline, is in the King’s encampment, on the mission to assassinate the King. Aiden is telling the story.
But Aiden is currently in the body of a hideous Tester, a bull-like humanoid alien. He’s taken aback when Ravene notices him in this guise and insists that he accompany her, alone, to her quarters.
Excerpt from Last Star Standing
Ravene shifted into a sitting position and flinched. She spoke almost to herself, as if I was too stupid to understand. ‘You’re ugly, of course, but then, you’re all ugly. But there’s something different about you. You remind me of someone I first knew years ago.’
Might not have been me, of course. Always sought-after, Ravene. The legs, mostly. She turned her head, reminding me that her profile was tops, as well.
She continued, ‘He was human. Good-looking – not stunningly good-looking, but still handsome – well-built, clever, amusing. Tenten was his name, you might have heard of him? He was only recently executed.’
So the King had lied even to Ravene, his favourite child and acknowledged heir.
As some answer seemed expected, I rasped, ‘A known rebel. A known traitor, lady.’
‘A traitor to us, perhaps, but utterly true to his own people. You must realise, hircht, that I am part-human? My siblings constantly remind creatures of this, in hopes that I might be discounted in the succession.’
I knew all this, of course. Whether most testers would have, I hadn’t a clue. I stood in the approved tester pose: staunch, wooden, dull.
Ugly too, I bet.
‘Perhaps that’s why I remember him so warmly. Of course, he was impulsive, stubborn, in some ways difficult, but his humanness somehow spoke to me. I’ve never since—’ She lapsed back into thoughtfulness, while I kept wondering why the hell she was telling me this.
‘He had such feeling! Everything with Aiden was always so wonderfully in the moment! There was a time, I remember, we were on a balcony—’
Oh God, I remembered that too. Almost fell off the bloody thing.
I shifted uneasily as she said, almost dreamily, ‘And then, and then, another time – we were on a picnic with other students. It was autumn in the overland and somehow one could still sense it, even deep below – perhaps some movement in the air, some atmosphere, some sense of leaves being trodden, decaying, into the dark earth… The picnic was in one of those kycnm fields with false-rainbowed skies and grass that never smells right. Aiden and I drifted away from the others. We had been dancing – did I mention the music? – but why on earth am I telling you this?’
But beneath both my hammering hearts I was still bewitched. That rainbow-textured sky, that music, that day… Sternly, I attempted to think of Bully, of Pavlina, of any bloody thing, just to break the spell.
This didn’t work. Instead, I was also caught up in remembering.
Ravene, casting her gaze backwards in the Academy corridor. Ravene waiting in the disabled loo, hair already rapturously dishevelled. Ravene winning the badminton tournament, with that perfected eye. Ravene sliding her palm into my pocket in the refectory… I tried to remember Petra, but she lacked vitality, in comparison. It was as if Ravene had tossed diaphanous silks over everything that wasn’t ourselves – young and handsome, young and full of hope, young and full of glory, the way the young are.
She sighed, stirred, and continued. ‘We left the others, just the two of us. We – oh, I don’t suppose you understand for one single second what I’m talking about! – but luckily, you’re far too stupid to understand. At any rate, we left the others under that great canopy of false sky. And above it there was a crack, and through it – like a gift – a slice of real sky. And he took me, just there, under that—’
She had been gazing into the distance. She glanced over at me and wriggled discontentedly. ‘What an apish expression you all have!’
As for me, I was still trying to look like the dimmest tester going. As much as I was feeling glad about anything, I was glad that I had shoved Bully out with the gromeline.
‘Lady, just tell me what to do,’ I growled, as politely as I was able. ‘Command me. A drink, a pundling, an attendant—’
She half-rose on her elbow, staring at me. Both of my hearts stopped.
BOTH MY HEARTS STOPPED!
What a place to finish. If you’d like to read more, you can find Alice’s work at the following links. Thank you so much Alice for speaking with me today on Last Word of the Week: 2021 Inspirations Edition.
Veronica Strachan spent most of her childhood lost in a good book. She spent most of her adult life lost in a good job as a nurse, midwife, CEO, coach, and facilitator (amongst other things).
After years of encouraging others to follow their dreams, she remembered what she wanted to be when she grew up. Five years later she has six published books: a memoir, a workbook/journal, and a children’s picture book series illustrated by her daughter, Cassi.
As V.E. Patton, Veronica has written a fantasy and a novelette. She is co-founder of Australian Book Lovers and co-hosts their podcast.
In keeping with my theme of 2021, I asked Veronica about her inspirations.
Veronica: Thank you for the lovely opportunity to contribute to your blog.
What inspires me?
Such succulent bait to my chronically overactive curiosity and imagination. Reel me in!
‘Learning’ in all its forms inspires me. But, let’s keep it to what inspires my writing life…
Age attenuated the urgency of making a living and bringing up children. So, having given myself permission to make writing my next best thing – as it had been my first thing during childhood – inspiration began coming from all points of the compass, the clock, and life.
I see a person frowning into their phone – what’s their backstory? A cat staring superciliously at its human slave – character for a villain. Autumn leaves skittering across chilled black dirt – setting. An anecdote from a friend – plot twist. Heated exchange in a shop queue – dialogue. Flick of a fringe or straightening of a cap – character trait. A quiet walk: still air and sunshine are the soil, imagination is the seed, inspiration bursts forth – a new stand-alone science fiction story about genetic engineering.
No, perhaps a trilogy with a second trilogy to follow!
I jog home to scribble down some notes. Most of all, I’m inspired by people: my husband, children, friends, and clients. Whether I’m coaching an individual, facilitating a room full of clinicians or chatting with a friend over a cuppa, I see potential in everyone, hope for a better future, be it this minute, this month, or this life. All food for putting words on a page.
Breathing While Drowning was inspired by my daughter, Jacqueline Bree, who died at four years old. Twenty-years later as I wanted to creatively write, I had her voice in my head encouraging me to write our story. I transcribed journals I wrote to Jacqui in the short years she was alive and for several years after as I struggled through grief. And I was inspired by myself. Perhaps an odd thing to say, but reading back over what that younger me had done, lived and felt, I was so grateful for how she’d held our life together – not always well, but hold it together she did. And ever so slowly, she opened herself to healing from the life and love around her.
Ochre Dragon was inspired by every science fiction and fantasy book I’d ever read, every utopian or dystopian world I’d ever escaped to and the absolute dearth of female protagonists over fifty! So, inspired by every clever and courageous woman I’d met, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Middle-aged woman battles her own demons, all the villains, and saves the universe – or does she?
My oldest sister, Mary inspired my picture book series: The Adventures of Chickabella. Mary died two years ago from breast cancer, a dearly loved and respected kindergarten teacher, leaving five young grandchildren to miss her reading stories to them. Mary was the oral story-teller in our family, every moment was history, and every moment a memory. She taught as easily and effortlessly as breathing. My eldest daughter Cassi created the beautiful illustrations for her Aunty.
Here we meet middle-aged project manager Ali just after she’s been attacked in her office!
If the assassin stops to kill her, then I can escape. Ali felt sick at being so gutless. Indecision kept her frozen to the spot, expecting a scream at any moment. With her eyes glued to the door, rainbow sparkles began to crowd her vision.
A trilling female voice hooted with laughter in Ali’s head. She clutched her temples. You should SO run. Impossibly, the voice sliced through her brain like a hot knife.
She’s not who you think she is. She’d definitely run if the shoe was on the other foot.
‘Who’s there?’ Ali rasped, fear drying her mouth.
Come on. Did you see what I did there? Shoe on the other foot. You’re only wearing one shoe. SHOE-ON-THE-OTHER-FOOT. Surely that’s worth a groan at least.
‘Who is it? Come out now. This is not funny. We’re in a Code Black,’ Ali couldn’t imagine how the voice was in her head.
You know who I am Ali Morrow. That is who you’re calling yourself in this incarnation, isn’t it Alinta? Invisible, anonymous Proji and Cataloguer Extraordinaire.
The voice continued in a huffy tone. And that was very funny by the way. I’ve been practising my comedy routines while I waited for you to come to your senses.
Ali swivelled, searching the foyer for the owner of the voice.
We don’t have time for theatrics. We’re close to the century congruence. It’s me. Jiemba. I’m through. I’m back. We needed a life-threatening event so I could break through this ridiculous nightmare you call existence.
Ali’s gift flashed a picture of a cranky red dragon in her mind. Dragon. Mammoth body, sinuous neck, enormous frilled head, covered in scales, dragon. Dark red threads charged around her gift like lit fuses, blasting holes and breaking connections in her mind’s tapestry.
The dragon sat on its massive haunches in the chaos and bared a set of sharp, glistening fangs. It tilted and lowered its head so that Ali got a glimpse of one enormous eye peering at her – from inside her head. Apart from the vertical obsidian pupil, the dragon’s eye was like a gigantic opal. The eye drank in light, leaving the smattering of sparkling rainbow flecks a brilliant counterpoint.
Ali shook her head, her heart hammering a ragged tattoo. She must be going mad. The old woman had told her to remember Jiemba. Something about her shadow seemed out of sync and Ali glanced down to see that it had transformed into the shape of an enormous dragon, its head crowned with curled horns.
She dragged her gaze past outstretched wings, taloned forelimbs, and a lashing spiked tail. Its hind legs and enormous feet joined at her very real single shod pair. Her mind threatened to explode.
‘No. Absolutely not. There are no such things as dragons.’ She barely realised she’d spoken aloud and closed her eyes as an offended huff sounded in her head.
There certainly are such things. And you and I are one. So let’s get outta here. The voice turned a little plaintive. I wanna go Home.
Ali squeezed her eyes tighter.
Aren’t you even a little bit glad to see me? I was only kidding about the breakfast thing. I haven’t eaten a human in ages. At least a couple of hours. Kidding. I’m just kidding. I only eat the bad ones. Kidding again, Well, no actually. That bit is true.
Ali put her hands over her ears. ‘Not real. Not real. Not real,’ she chanted.
Jiemba sulked in the background, mumbling about humour and bad gigs. All of which only upped Ali’s panic level. A noise had her whirling as her office door opened and Sophie strolled out, the epitome of composure.
She looks more like a bloody manager than me, all cool and graceful. Ali did not qualify for cool or graceful just now.
‘Nothing there but shadows and an over-active imagination. Come on, come and see.’ Sophie beckoned her closer.
How can she be braver than me? I’ve got at least a quarter-century on her, and she’s just an addi.
I could’ve helped you with that. I have enough courage for both of us. And then some.
Sophie’s not hearing the voice.
Well, she wouldn’t, would she. I’m only in your head.
Ali gulped, swallowing the bile that fear had driven to her throat.
Ugh, that burns. I am so heading to that stress session tonight.
Sophie beckoned again, her lifted eyebrow questioning Ali’s hesitation.
Ali approached, limping in her single high heel, and peeked past Sophie’s smile. Nothing. No one. She stepped into the small room, getting a whiff of Sophie’s citrus perfume and nothing else. She edged past the upended chair, bent and looked under the desk and then over to the floor beside the window.
Nope, no ninja assassin. No silver thingies.
Her body sagged. She ran her fingers through her hair, gathering the soft escapees and tucking them behind her ears.
‘What about the conference room? Did you check in there?’ Ali asked.
Sophie nodded. ‘Nothing.’
‘Jeez, I must look like an idiot.’
Sophie patted her shoulder sympathetically.
Can’t disagree with you there, Jiemba chuckled.
‘Ali, you’ve been working like a fiend to get this report out. You’re exhausted. And you don’t eat well. Is it any wonder you’re jumping at shadows? Go and save your work and I’ll make you a cuppa for the trip home. Time we both left anyway. Federation won’t love us if we file for burn out.’
Sophie marched off and Ali listened to her confident clip, clip, clip across the tiles to the kitchen. The sound of the boiling kettle seemed so prosaic to her overwrought senses.
She realised she was standing forlornly in the middle of her office, adrenaline still churning her gut. She took a long, slow, deep breath, remembering her stress relief classes and glanced around.
‘Right, nothing to see. You’re ridiculously busy, so stressed that even in the daytime you’re imagining wandering wild women and nefarious ninja assassins.’
Seriously, why the hell would ninja assassins want to kill me? It’s not like I’m anyone important. I’m nothing. I know I’m good at my job, but jeez.
You forgot a dragon talking in your head. Jiemba sounded snarky. Ali ignored her.
Wow! All that and DRAGONS! Thank you so much Veronica, for being my guest tioday.
Fi Phillips is a fantasy author living in North Wales with her family and a pooch called Bailey. Writing about magical possibilities is her passion.
Her debut novel, Haven Wakes, was released in 2019 by Burning Chair Publishing and the second instalment in The Haven Chronicles is due to be released later this year.
When she isn’t ‘authoring’, Fi works as a freelance copywriter. Fi tells me how inspiring she fins the potential in that space where imagination meets science.
Fi Phillips: Fantasy with a touch of Science
I’m a fantasy author. I love all things magical – from people with spell-casting powers, to mythical creatures, to artefacts that can do the most marvellous things. If there’s magic involved, let me at it.
But here’s the thing. I also love reading about scientific developments. I’ll give you an example – robots. There’s a whole world of robots out there, right now. Some are the kind of robots I remember from childhood viewing, like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, clumsy and cumbersome and unlikely to outrun or even outwalk you in a chase. Others are altogether more advanced and scarily relevant to the world we live in. You just have to look at the progress that Boston Dynamics has made to realise that. And then, there are the robots which are currently floating around and being useful, like the Astrobees (no, that isn’t a kids TV programme – they really exist) on the International Space Station.
My favourite fantasy novels and films are those that have a mixture of fantasy and science, stories like Sheri S Tepper’s The True Game series or the Nicholas Cage film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s why my debut novel, Haven Wakes, includes all of that – magic and robots and plenty of future-tech that is being developed as we speak (read?).
Inspiration for me is the place where imagination and science meet.
“Mind yourself.” Steve pulled Hartley aside as a small robot struggled down the centre of the pavement, pulled equally ahead and back by the four dogs it held the leads to.
“Is that normal?” said Hartley.
“Of course. That’s the kind of job robots do. Walk the dog. Serve in a shop. Clean up.”
“So what do people do?”
“Everything else, I suppose,” said Steve. “Or nothing.”
“Sounds peculiar to me,” said Hartley, still watching the robot as it untangled one of its limbs from the dogs’ leads. “Where’s the fun in having a dog and not walking it?”
The retail and eateries district that the department store sat in was a grid of mismatched shop fronts. The stores were split into three main types.
There were the older stores, like Sebastian Green and Sons with their faux-old pillars and marble-floored entrances, that attempted to mimic old world prestige. They sold the type of item that needed to be seen before purchase. It was also the kind of item that only the richest could afford, from rhodium jewellery to the latest solar sports car and the rarest of plants.
Dotted in between the shop fronts were the pick-up pods that varied in size depending on exactly what you were collecting. The largest pick-up pod that Steve had ever seen was one that supplied cars. Scan your identity from your wrap-phone, the door opens, and away you go.
“Surely that isn’t edible?” Hartley pressed his face against the window of an eatery, the third type of store in the district.
A conveyor belt of food-filled glass plates travelled around the eatery counter. At one end of the belt, waiter robots recovered the plates to serve to the waiting customers. At the other, the nozzles of the 3D food printer moved speedily around each plate, forming the pre-ordered food.
“That’s the advantage of synthetic food,” said Steve. “You can form it into any shape you want, and it’s fast.”
“Ludicrous,” said Hartley, shaking his head as he stepped back from the window. “There’s not enough on one of those plates to touch the sides.”
Oh, I love that! Especially the part about why you would have dogs but let the robot walk them! And 3D printed food. Wow. More please.
Steve Harrison writes witty, clever, profound and tender stories about life. Mostly these stories are encased inside an innovative plot that involves speculative fiction and turning the world upside down. Earlier this year, I reviewed Steve’s new novel Blurred Vision (a YA sci-fi adventure story featuring Polly Hart) for Aurealis Magazine, and I used words like witty and action-packed. But my favourite quote from my review is this:
Every parent knows how it feels to look at their teenager and not quite recognise them. An interstellar lookalike is a hilarious explanation.
I’m so pleased that Steve has dropped in for a chat today.
Hi, Steve, lovely to meet you. Can you tell me why is writing important to you?
Steve: Writing simply keeps me sane by providing an escape from reality. It’s a bit like meditating.
Yes, an inner journey to another place. What would readers never guess about you?
They might be surprised to hear I partnered a young unknown actor called Hugh Jackman in the chorus of an amateur musical production of Paint Your Wagon in 1989. I made him look and sound so good he went on to be a star!
That’s a great fact to pop into your bio! What’s the first book you bought for yourself?
I hardly read before I was 16, just compulsory books at school, but at that age my family migrated to New Zealand from the UK and a 30 hour flight without screens or electronic devices in those days made the trip a horrifying prospect. So I bought The Exorcist, which got me hooked on reading.
Nothing like a few hours of terror to grab a reader, hey? You’re not the first author to tell me that you were not a dedicated reader as a youngster – I think it’s a trend, and shows that you don’t need to be the nerdy kid to become a writer. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I consider all writing advice to be opinion, so I’ll give my thoughts about what I wish I had known starting out. There are no short cuts and writers should test all writing advice/opinion by trying to prove it wrong. Finding out what does and doesn’t work for you, and especially why, is incredibly time consuming but invaluable (in my opinion!). My theory is that the best writers are the ones who have made the most mistakes, so avoiding them isn’t a good idea.
Oh, that’s really good to hear. I’m knee deep in mistakes of my old stories! Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
I had a close friend many years ago who reacted to my intention to write a novel by saying, “you will never write a book.” We lost contact by the time I started writing, but the insensitive and definite way he made that statement constantly rankled – it still does – and inspired me. I’d thank him if I saw him, but I still don’t like what he did.
That obviously hurt. I hope he sees your success from afar, and it makes sense that you’re no longer in contact.
How much research is involved in your writing?
Very little at first. My general knowledge is pretty good (and I have a head for useless knowledge, too) and I like to write using what I think I know about a subject. This prevents facts getting in the way of my first draft and spoiling my ideas. I find it easier to amend a story I have already written than sabotage it in my head by researching before I write.
I think that’s especially important for speculative fiction. The creative mind needs some free-wheeling away from Wikipedia, though like you I sometimes have to throw in a few catch-up stitches to make a plot stick together. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
I never have any plot holes. OK, I wish I never had any plot holes. If I can’t fix them as much as I would like and have to leave them there, I try to write the scenes with absolute conviction and certainty and hope they won’t be questioned!
Great idea, I must try it. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I plan to finish the sequel to BLURRED VISION, titled OUT OF SIGHT, and start on the third book, FUZZY LOGIC. I am currently preparing a proposal for a TV series adaptation of my first novel, TIMESTORM, a time travel adventure, including the script for the pilot episode and a series ‘bible,’ which I will pitch to production companies. I also hope to sign with a US or UK literary agent for my contemporary New York-set crime thriller, OVERKILL.
I’m so glad to hear that there will be more Polly Hart stories. And you write in more than one genre, I see?
My two published novels have been time travel and science fiction, but I don’t have a preference. I have written a crime thriller and lots of different genres when screenwriting, including a family animated feature. I also have a WIP novel about a man going through a mid-life crisis. I get an idea for a story first and the genre is secondary. I like to describe myself as a genre-fluid writer…
I think that’s the way to go, if you are writing from story ideas and not trying to write to a specific market. It’s a much more organic approach, and besides, stories have been told since long before genre labels were invented. Thank you so much for chatting with me today!
Steve’s books are available in ebook from all major booksellers (see the buy links on Steve’s website). The paperback versions can be ordered from bookshops or online from Elsewhen Press. Australian orders are printed in, and posted from, Melbourne.
Michelle Saftich writes engaging stories whenever she puts pen to paper – er, fingers to keyboard. Her historical novels ring very true, and the first,Port of No Return, was inspired by the experiences of her father’s family who fled northern Italy at the end of World War II, as the region was invaded by Tito’s Yugoslavian forces. The sequel, Wanderers No More, continues to follow the family’s journey, beginning with their arrival in Australia in 1950. Both these novels are highly rated.
More recently, Michelle has released The Hatch, a science fiction novel which I have recently read and reviewed (here). In The Hatch, all Michelle’s trademark insights into human nature, family interactions, and political machinations are transported thrillingly into deep space.
I’m so thrilled to speak with Michelle today on Last Word of the Week.
Thanks for talking with me, Michelle. You have three books out now – what are your thoughts on novel writing?
Michelle: It’s no small undertaking. A novel takes a long time to write. I know I’ll be with the story and its characters for at least a couple of years. For me, it helps having stories and characters that are close to my heart and that I feel have something to say or show. It’s about love, creativity and discipline.
What are the challenges of being a writer?
Finding enough time. Working almost full-time in a communications job and being married and raising two boys, with an abundance of pets, there’s so little time free for writing. Every spare minute goes into it. I write in the car in carparks or sitting on the floor of foyers, waiting to pick up my boys from extracurricular activities. I edit or write next pages in my mind on the train going to work, where I scribble down notes to myself as reminders. When I finally set aside a whole Sunday afternoon to write, the joy as I lift the lid on my laptop can’t be described. It is bliss. It is coming home. It’s time to be me and to create. I can’t imagine a life without writing.
And yet, it is not easy. There are other challenges. Marketing. Reviews. Solitude, and the need for a lot of it during the writing process. Self-criticism. Doubt. Fear. Redrafts. Rewriting. Then finally the sadness when it’s done and there are characters to farewell, characters who won’t say another word. Then it’s time to put them out there, like birth. And like a parent, the writer gets to watch how they take those first steps in the hands of others. That’s the hardest for me. Releasing.
It sounds very difficult when you put it like that. I find it very sad when my characters no longer interrupt my dreams saying “And another thing I want to do or say is…” Given all that, why write?
There are times when I wonder why I do it. Why write? Why tie up so much time in bringing to life a story? The answer is simple, I love it. I love creating with words, using my imagination, challenging myself. I first knew I wanted to write at age six. At age 15, I was starting to try my hand at novels. Always writing. Weekends mostly.
You have written in different genres, which is something I do too. What’s that like for you?
When I wrote my first two published historical fiction novels, Port of No ReturnandWanderers No More, I was drawing upon family history, my heritage and the mysteries surrounding my father’s place of birth. I wanted to know more and found it enjoyable to research what happened to not only my father and his family, but to all those forced to flee their Italian cities in the north-east of the country after World War II. I was shining a light on a little-known part of history and my motivation was strong and somewhat personal.
My third published sci fi novel, The Hatch, is very different from the first two, though some themes are similar. I still have written about the prospect of having to leave all you know behind for another place, though in The Hatch readers are taken off planet and forward into an imagined future, rather than into a researched past.
With the historical fiction novels, I tried staying true to historical events, while bringing in fictional elements to help tie it all together and to present a flowing narrative.
With sci-fi, I was fully in my imagination, speculating on a future Earth and what human aspects we would migrate with us if we were to settle on other planets.
And you have managed that brilliantly. Thank you so much for sharing with me today.
Carleton Chinner writes near-future space opera. He is the author of the Cities of the Moon series—The Hills of Mare Imbrium, and Plato Crater. He also reviews new releases of predominantly science fiction for the Aussie Speculative Fiction Review where he enjoys reading stories that explore what science means to humanity. Carleton is known to enjoy solid science and will grumble at stories where fires burn in a vacuum or scuba divers spend hours underwater without needing decompression. I detect a healthy dose of scepticism in a writer with no need to suspend disbelief.
Welcome, Carleton, and thanks for joining me on Last Word of the Week. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Carleton: I’m more a storyteller than a writer. I guess that comes with the territory when you spend your childhood on an African farm where old Xhosa women spin marvellous tales of river serpents and white-painted, clay-clad women who return from the dead. I absorbed the craft of stories from these Xhosa ladies: the pull of suspense, the impact of vivid imagery, and the all-important need to suspend disbelief. There was no book learning, but learning nonetheless, in the deep organic sense of stories told in voice and rhythm. Learning in the way of things told and remembered.
That’s the best description of storytelling I’ve encountered! Lucky you. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Just one scene? If I had to choose it would be a scene from my second book, Plato Crater, where two characters who cannot be together meet as remotely piloted droids in an uninhabited lunar crater. Circumstances mean there is no way they will get together soon, but they still find a way to share a kiss under the endless stars.
I love this scene because it captures an idea that is quite central to my writing; no matter how whizzbang the future technology is, people will still be people with human needs and desires.
That’s really romantic, especially for droids! If I told one of your characters that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Brother Jonas is a monk in a collection of short stories I am writing who may be something other than human. It would be great fun to tell him he was imaginary. I suspect it would lead him to deep introspection about who we are and what makes us real.
Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
I’ve always been drawn to descriptions of our first interactions with aliens that cast light on who we are as humans. One of the first books I read like this was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land where a child raised by Martians comes to Earth and has to comprehend human culture. Heinlein’s description of laughter as a human response to the suffering of another had me sit back and go “Whoa! I never thought of it like that.”
I’m a big fan of China Miéville’s creative worldbuilding, but his Embassytown stands head and shoulders above the rest with its twin-brained aliens who get high on language, in a world where hyperspace is like travelling on the sea complete with seasickness and sharks.
More recently, I’ve been reading Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series which is packed with a diverse array of ideas about race, sexuality, violence, and even body modification.
Wonderful books in that list! Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Don’t be afraid of rejection. Just write! Tell the stories you want to tell.
I wasted so much time wondering if I should write instead of just getting on and writing.
Good point! What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Planning for the GenreCon * conference in November is taking up a lot of my writing time right now. It’s hard work, but worth it. GenreCon is going to be great.
When I’m not busy with that I’m working on a new technothriller about how Australia implements a reputation system like the new Chinese system.
*Genrecon will be a three-day feast of genre held in Brisbane from Nov 22, 2019, with fantastic speakers and panels.
Oooh, that sounds interesting! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
An oldie, but I would love to be Phillip Linx from Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx stories as he explores crazy worlds in the Humanx Commonwealth. More importantly I’d be Flinx for his pet Alaspinian mini-dragon Pip. How cool would it be to have your own dragon?
Super cool! Thank you for sharing with me today, Carleton, and all the best with Genrecon.
Hannah Lynn, author and genre hopper – and therefore very much one of my tribe – published her first book, Amendments (a dark, dystopian speculative fiction novel) in 2015. Hannah has since written The Afterlife of Walter Augustus (a contemporary fiction novel with a paramormal twist) which won the 2018 Kindle Storyteller Award. Hannah also writes the delightfully funny and poignant Peas and Carrots series. I’m thrilled to host Hannah on today’s episode of Last Word of the Week, and also to find such a great body of work to add to my TBR pile.
LWOTW: Hello, Hannah, lovely to meet you. Can us about when you first realised that you are a writer?
Hannah: I have always been someone who writes. At school I was writing silly limericks when I should have been working in lessons, and I spent a long time writing short stories and stories for children before embarking on novels. I don’t think there’s ever been a point when I realised I was a writer as such though. It has simply always been a part of me.
You seem a natural born writer. Do you rely more on dreams, imagination, or planning?
A combination of planning and imagination. I need to know where I’m going to, otherwise I lose my focus and drift, but often my stories and characters takes twists and turns that I really didn’t see coming.
Characters as strong and rounded as yours have minds of their own, I’m sure! What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
The highlight has definitely been winning the Kindle Storyteller Award. It was total unexpected and was such an amazing event. That would take some topping!
Yes, congratulations on that! Fabulous. What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
Getting all my ideas down on paper. I love writing, so the more I get to do it, the happier I am.
That’s great to hear. If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Keep reading, and keep going!
And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
Definitely a strong minded, independent woman. Perhaps Lady Door from Neverwhere.
I love Lady Door! Great choice. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Hannah, and more power to your pen. Keyboard, I mean 🙂