I do love an adventure story. I love them even more when they feature two people adventuring together. They don’t have to be two human people – just two beings having mutual adventures is very much my jam. It’s the main appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories for me, and it’s the reason I was so delighted to have a story accepted into Clan Destine Press’s And Then… anthology last year.
Volume One of the anthology was published in December 2016. It contains my story, ‘Virgin Soil‘, a tale of gold rush shenanigans, dark magic, monsters and a shapeshifting man/rat.
My delight has grown exponentially by seeing my name in the Table of Contents alongside so many writers I admire. There I am, nestled between Peter M Ball and Dan Rabarts, whose story here, ‘Tipuna Tapu’, has just won the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction in the 2016 AHWA Australian Shadows Awards! I couldn’t be happier.
Although linked as adventure stories featuring dynamic duos, all written by Australasian authors, the settings and themes of the fiction in And Then… are otherwise a gorgeous sprawl across time and genre. Historical, contemporary, fantastical and futuristic in turns, in all kinds of locales, And Then… is a sparkling hoard of treasure.
A few of my favourite gems:
I loved the gritty noir feel of both Jason Nahrung’s ‘The Mermaid Club’ and Peter M Ball’s ‘Deadbeat’. Jason Franks ‘Exli and the Dragon’, with one protagonist essentially a sentient pillow, is witty and surprising, and displays Franks’s characteristic energy and originality. Lucy Sussex takes us to the jungle in ‘Batgirl in Borneo’, and is as always wry, clever and thoughtful. The collection is rounded out with Tansy Rayner Roberts’ ‘Death at the Dragon Circus’, a story of teeth and ways of flying, but also fondness and the search for a place to be yourself.
Each story in this anthology could easily be the launching pad for a series, and I’d happily spend more time with all these adventurers and the worlds they inhabit. Perhaps we can encourage the writers to do just that!
In the meantime, there’s And Then… Volume 1, with volume 2 to come, and all these worlds of adventure to explore.
Buy And Then… Volume 1
- And Then…: The Great Big Book of Adventure Tales Volume 1 (Clan Destine Press)
- And Then…: The Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales, Vol I (Amazon.com)
- And Then…: The Great Big Book of Adventure Tales Volume 1 (Amazon UK)
It’s only November, I know, but Christmas is coming anyway, with all the inevitability of sunrise, vampires in fiction, and a writer’s need for either coffee or wine (or both).
Speaking of writer’s needs, here’s a really neat gift idea for the writer in your life. Whether they’ve got thirty books under their sparkly belt or they’re still experimenting with style, form and pen name, you can’t go wrong with an inspirational journal.
And oh look, here’s one that Clan Destine Press prepared earlier!
The Journal of Infinite Possibility is a gorgeous little journal indeed. For a start, it’s full of pages waiting to be filled!
Mind you, the creators of this journal are writers and artists themselves and well know the terrifying tyranny of the blank page. That’s why the pages here aren’t exactly blank.
Instead, every page of The Journal of Infinite Possibility contains a picture, a quote, a prompt. Places to doodle when the words aren’t wording, images to colour in when doodles aren’t even doodling.
Actually, there’s plenty of space here for artists as well as writers, or for those scarily talented people who do both! They’ll certainly be inspired by the gorgeous covers and corner illustrations by Sarah Pain, Ashlea Bechaz, Vicky Pratt, Loraine Cooper and Ran Valerhon! (Two of that august list have created covers for my books with Clan Destine!)
A few of the pages are shown in part here so you can see how gorgeous this whole package is. The only real danger is that the writer who gets this won’t want to ink up the pretty pages. But ink it up, folks! Make it messy and crazy and bursting to full with your own ideas sparked by these words and pictures and blank spaces just begging to be decorated with words, lines, lists, scrawls, sketches and the seeds of something bigger.
What the hell. Don’t get it for some other writer. Get it for yourself.
It’s what I’ve done.
If you’ve come here from one of my other blogs, you’re aware that I’m trying to streamline all my social media (of which I have way too much) so that I can spend less time on social media admin and more time on writing the very many writing projects I have lined up like ducks at a shooting gallery. Or like tequila shots at the bar. (Either way, it’s going to be messy.)
So welcome to the new-look Mortal Words blog, where I will write about the usual writing/reading/Melbourne/travel/as-the-whim-takes-me stuff – and to which I will add posts on music, Kitty & Cadaver related projects, stuff related to romance and erotica (which I also write) and more stuff-as-the-whim-takes-me. I may also repost some of the posts from the other two blogs here, for consistency and linking purposes and the like.
The first bit of housekeeping news to share is that my publisher, Clan Destine Press, and I are in the process of changing the name under which I publish my romance fiction from NM Harris back to the full, real me – Narrelle M Harris. Apart from the extra social media work generated by the split, we figured that since I usually write very action-oriented plots for my romance and erotica, it’s not really that different from my usual work (except raunchier in parts).
We’re also talking about getting some of my out-of-print work tidied up and more easily available too. I’ll announce those when the details are worked out.
Speaking of my erotic romance stories – two have been released so far this year! The second story in the Talbott and Burns Mysteries, about the two-man Scooby gang of Elliot Talbott and his boyfriend Jack Burns was released in February. A Paying Client sees the lads investigating possible witchiness on behalf of their first-ever paying client, a housewife from Reservoir. Naturally, things don’t run at all smoothly.
In May, Birds of a Feather was released – the first of the Hammer and Tongue series about Alice, an engineer, and her linguist girlfriend Nerida.
There will be more stories for both series in due course, and more for my sexy spy couple, Philip Marsden and Martine Dubois (including one set in Canada in the wilderness!).
I also had a short story, The Birthday Present, published in the Queermance 2 anthology, (last year, Late Bloomer was published in the first Queermance anthology). The anthology was published in partnership with the second Queermance Festival, held in Melbourne in February 2015.
(You can find buy links for all of those stories and my other books on the Shop page!)
I’m waiting on feedback before completing the final draft of my first erotic romance novel, Ravenfall – paranormal action adventure with vampires, precognitive dreamers, a fox spirit and a spate of murders. That one features James Sharpe, vampire, and Gabriel Dare, an artist.
I’m also absolutely delighted that my pitch for a Holmes/Watson canon-era romance adventure set in Australia was accepted by new Holmesian imprint, Improbable Press – because queer readings of Holmes are not at all new, but a publisher for those kinds of stories is. The Adventure of the Colonial Boy will come out in 2016. Now to write it! If you want to keep track of that, and the other books being released (starting with The Six Secret Loves of Sherlock Holmes by Atlin Merrick, launching in October) you can Like the Improbable Press Facebook page. IP will run a variety of competitions, too.
In Short Story news – my story Show and Tell will appear in a digital anthology, Encounters, later this year. I’ve also been writing short stories to submit to other anthologies, including Clan Destine’s And Then… due out next year. I’ll post as and when (I hope) those are accepted!
Alongside all of these projects, I have notes for more books (including a third book in the Gary and Lissa vampire series – I haven’t forgotten! – and a second book in the Kitty and Cadaver series).
Kitty and Cadaver itself is with an agent, but I am slowly working on scoring the melodies for the songs used in the book, and looking to collaborate with musicians to arrange, perform and record them. Already Ann Poore has done a lovely version of Gretel’s Lullaby on the harp. Those who were at Continuum 11 last weekend saw (and bought) the beautiful jewellery that was created from broken musical instruments, too.
Not content with writing books, short stories and music – I’ve also been experimenting with design at Redbubble. I have a range of designs available, some of which include song lyrics, or personal mottos, or text relating to the romance writing (the Adventurous Hearts line).
And finally, I recently spent a few days in the Wimmera region of Victoria, visiting libraries and talking about Growing Up Reading or doing writing workshops on Killer Opening Sentences. But that’s a post for another time.
It’s entirely possible that you love this book. It’s entirely possible that you will buy it, hard cover, hot off the stands, read it and tell everyone you love it, etc etc etc.
It’s also entirely possible that you won’t like it much. That it’s not really your genre, not your cup of tea, not what you love in a book.
But you love that person, or like that person, and you want to be supportive somehow.
Here are some tips on how to support the writers you love, and the books they write (which you may also love).
Buy the book
This is one of the first, best things you can do. Support your writing friend by putting your money where your mouth is. Buy the paperback, or buy the ebook (or buy both). And if it’s not really your thing? Psst. You don’t really have to read it.
I mean, yes, of course, read it. Books are written to be read, and the writer in your life hopes you’ll read it, and hopes you’ll love it, or like it, or at least not hate it. But if it’s really not your thing, you’re at least helping to boost the signal. It’s still worth something.
I can’t afford to buy the book; and it’s not my kind of book; and isn’t buying it and not reading it a bit shifty?
Well, yes, there are reasons both financial and personal that can bar you from buying your friend’s book. But there’s a really cool standby technique for this:
Get your library to buy the book!
If you lack funds, or bookshelf space, there’s a cool thing you can do that will support that writer with sales (and therefore income) and still give you a chance to read the book (or not read it, as the case may be).
GO TO YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY AND REQUEST IT.
In fact, I’ve just done that with The Day They Met. (Despite the fact I already have the e-book and have the paperback coming!)
I went to my local library, found out how to request books, then I logged in and I asked for that book! I used all the necessary details I could find on Amazon (Full title, publisher, publication date, ISBN etc) and put that in the system and said HIT ME UP WITH THIS AWESOME SHERLOCK HOLMES BOOK, IT’S WHAT MY TAXES PAY FOR BABY, GIMME GIMME GIMME. Only in more formal language.
You can even do this if you already own the book, because it’s a great way to help people who do not know and love your friend to be exposed to their work. This can be especially important if their book is not your cup of tea – people who really love that lapsang souchong stuff are out there this minute, scouring libraries for their delicious beverage of choice!! HELP THEM FIND IT!!
Hell, if you can, go to your siblings’ libraries, your parents’ library, your school or uni, GO TO ALL THE LIBRARIES AND ASK THEM TO GET IT IN FOR YOU.
This sells books for publishers and authors. This exposes books you love to wider audiences who may not hear of it otherwise but might see it on the shelf or in a search.
Feedback Do’s and Don’ts
Of course your writer friend would love to know that you loved the book but… yeah, sometimes you don’t. What to do?
Well, don’t lie. Dishonesty isn’t a great thing, and it’s a downhill road for a friendship. (Especially when you might feel you’re expected to support your gushing with quote from favourite bits.
(And here’s a word of advice for writers – don’t ask people what they thought of the book. If they love you but they don’t love your book, it puts both of you in an awkward position. Here is the only occasion on which Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is an acceptable policy.)
However, you can say how proud you are of your friend, or comment on how great they must feel. Comment on the effort if not the words in question.
And for goodness’s sake, if you spot an error in the text, a typo or a factual error in the final published work, DON’T SAY ANYTHING.
There will be plenty of people who have no emotional investment in the personal relationship who won’t hesitate to bring those things up. The thing to remember is that you are supporting a friend here, and errors that have slipped through the editing and proofreading and all those things to be in the final product are there for keeps now. The book has been published. It’s too late to fix them. You can’t recall the entire print run to fix a bloody typo! Leave it to those whose job it is to review and critique to do that. Chances are your writer has already seen that goddamned typo on page 47 and is praying like billy-o that no-one else has noticed. Don’t be the one to burst their hapless bubble.
If, on the other hand, you really really loved the book, and you have honest to god things to say about it – by all means, give some encouraging feedback or, better yet – write a review. On Amazon, Goodreads, on your blog, whatever site is selling the book. Reviews help people who are, once more, looking for their particular literary beverage, find that book and decide whether or not to buy it. You don’t have to write a long analysis, though if you feel it’s in you, go for it.
(I should add here that there are many books I’ve loved but not reviewed because my time is finite, so lack of feedback on my part is not necessarily lack of literary love. Just lack of literal time.)
Support means you get new work by writers you love!
And whether or not you know the writer, if you love a book, support it. Spruik it and review it and share the love, because the noise-to-signal ratio out there is high, and every little boost helps. Very few of the thousands of writers out there make a living out of writing fiction. Help a few of them at least make enough to buy a celebratory cupcake.
More importantly, good reviews and good sales will encourage them to write another book, and encourage publishers to publish it as well, so you can enjoy a new book by the writer you love! EVERYBODY WINS!
In short – support every writer whose books you love. Especially new writers, those out there for the very first time.
SPREAD THE WORD.
SPREAD THE LOVE.
Some hot recommendations
These are books by people I know, and like and love – and whose books I do, in fact, love. I’ve bought said books in paperback and in ebook form (and in both when they’re available sometimes). I’ve reviewed them on Amazon and Goodreads (or this blog) and I’ve asked my local library to get copies in. And now here I am, spreading the word and spreading the love.
And remember my motto – I may be biased, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong!
- The Day They Met by Wendy C Fries – 50 short stories on alternative ways Sherlock Holmes and John Watson may have met. Each and every story a gem, and many that had me laughing madly on the tram to work.
- Mind the Gap by Tim Richards – a fantasy action-adventure with Egyptology, dreamscapes and trains. Snappy pacing, real serial-adventure with cliffhangers stuff and engaging characters.
- Nil By Mouth by LynC – one man’s experience of an alien invasion of earth. Thoughtful, unexpected, human, compassionate, horrifying and deeply humane in turns.
- The Devil’s Mixtape by Mary Borsellino – Part horror story, part declaration of love for non-conformists, especially those who embrace being outside the norm.
- f2m: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, the story of a transgendered boy learning how to be true to himself.
Take this opportunity to support the writers you love and tell me your hot recommendations!
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
First of all, I tender my apologies for the length of time between blog posts. The last few months have been fraught not only with a lot of work, but with a lot of family drama that has swallowed up my writing energy even when I had the time.
At the risk of sounding like an appalling human being… at least all of the drama will someday be worth the pain when it gets mulched, ferments and comes back out somewhere and in some form in a story.
Because that’s part of what writers do. It’s not the only thing we do, of course. We don’t only make stories from our own experiences. Our own joy and our own pain. No. Sometimes we make stories out of the pain and joy that we observe in others too.
We sound awful, don’t we?
But part of what it is for me to be human (I can’t speak for anyone else) is making sense of my world, both observed and experienced, through my words. I tell stories to explore the universe in which I’m immersed, and this ship of flesh and bone in which I navigate that universe.
My writing is filled with the things I’ve learned, or am curious about, or am hopelessly ignorant about but hope to become less so, as I burrow into motivation, unpack detail, peer at the nuances of my own reactions and guess at the motivation and reactions of others.
I do sometimes put people directly into stories but mostly, I dismember myself and others to build characters and situations. I make a great big soup out of my life and splash select parts of it onto the page to tell stories to myself first, and later to others, about the enormous, complex beauty and terror that being human can be.
I know already of something that happened last week that will find a way into my stories.
Walking along a hospital corridor with my youngest brother as we accompanied my ill mother into an operating theatre to have her broken hip repaired, we were filled with anxiety and grief, because the surgery was risky but the only option.
But we were haunted down that corridor by the clacking of my mother’s false teeth in a plastic box, which I promised her I’d keep in my pocket so they wouldn’t get lost. It was like we were being followed by a ghost right out of a schlocky Victorian-era horror novel.
In one of the most emotionally intense moments of our lives, we kept giggling – because life is filled with tragedy but also absurdity, and often at the same time.
(Oh, and spoiler alert: My mother came through the operation and is getting stronger every day. She also got her teeth back.)
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
A lot of writers listen to a particular set of songs while writing a specific book. It helps to set the mood while writing and can sometimes influence a little of what’s going on.
With Marianne de Pierres’ new book Peacemaker out soon, I asked her to share the playlist she listened to while writing.
The soundtracks that authors compile while writing novels are often quite revealing: better, at times, than an interview. Thanks to Spotify, you can now hear PEACEMAKER soundtrack in all its quaint glory. My dad would approve!
Wild, Wild West – The Escape Club
Riders on the Storm – The Doors
Timber – Pitbull/Kesha
Rawhide – Frankie Laine
Harlan County Line – Dane Alvin
Bad Things – Jace Everett
Saving Grace – Everlast
They Call the Wind Mariah – Paint Your Wagon
There’s a Coach Coming In – Paint Your Wagon
Counting Stars – OneRepublic
Royals – Lorde
Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
- Peacemaker will be released as an e-book on 29 April 2014. Check out Angry Robot for links and the print book release dates!
- Read Marianne’s post on writing Peacemaker the book versus Peacemaker the comic book at my Kitty and Cadaver blog.
Do you listen to music when you write? What playlists have you got for your books?
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
Christmas is 12 days away, which ought to prompt me to some kind of ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ doggerel, but honestly. I like you all too much to subject you to such dire yuletide whims. (I did once rewrite The Night Before Christmas, with our cat Petra in the leading role, and if my doggerel amnesty fails, I’ll subject you to that at a later date.)
The organised amongst you will have completed your Christmas shopping, while the rest of us are in the process of staring, aghast, at the calendar and wailing OH MY GOD, NO, I’M NOT READY, I’M NOT READY, I WILL NEVER BE READY!
I can’t do much to help you with that, I’m afraid, except offer a few suggestions of what you might get for the writer in your life. It breaks down into two categories: time and stuff.
If the writer in your life is anything like me, the thing they need most of is time. Time to write. Time to plan. Time to just sit and think and think and think in an attempt to sort out that plot point that simply will not resolve itself in five minute snatches of contemplation over a cup of tea. If the writer in your life is a parent, and has a lot of household responsibilities as well, a little alone time for thinking is especially precious.
Some years ago, my dear friend Jehni and I arranged to take our mutual dear friend, Yvon, away for a weekend for her birthday. We went to a farm stay, a long way away from shops, cinemas or any other distractions. Meals were included, and we could look at the cows until they came home, if that was our desire. I think we puzzled the host family a little by essentially just bedding down in the guest section of the house and writing for three days. Yvon, who normally supported her husband’s business in the office as well as taking care of the home and feeding the family, had three clear days in which she didn’t even have to do the dishes. She wrote up a storm. Jehni and I weren’t too slack either.
Okay, so maybe this Christmas it’s not possible to give your writer honey three clear days without other responsibilities, but you can find other ways to gift them time. Perhaps you can offer a standing arrangement one night a week that you make dinner, do the chores and the running around, all those things, while they lock the door to their office and get five straight hours of writing done. Maybe you can take on breakfast duties and give them an extra half hour every morning. Perhaps you can come up with the cash and the time to send them off on a writer’s retreat after all.
Talk to them first, of course, to find out how best to arrange such time so that they can make the most of it. You’ll probably come up with some other useful ways to help your cherished writer find more time for their craft. It may seem intangible, but the results will be words on pages, and a happier honey.
It’s possible, however, that the writer in your life is already managing their time well, or that it really isn’t possible to gift them extra time in some way. Never fear – there is always fabulous writerly STUFF to be had!
The Sentence First shop sells T-shirts and cups based on wordplay, including the delicious “Inventing words is squingulously efflumberant”.
The Literary Gift Company has always been a favourite, too, with its quotable chocolate bars, word-related jewellery, and even author-themed gifts (here’s an amusing collection of items related to Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen. The Literary Ties are pretty neat too.
Of course, there are also the stationery standbys, like Smiggle, Kikki K and Typo. Those are good if you’re worried that an online purchase won’t reach you in time, as there are plenty of Real World™ stores to find.
So good luck with your shopping, and with your writing – and whatever the festive season brings (and however you celebrate it, or not) let your new year bring you inspiration, free WiFi and all the right words in the right order.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
The fabulous Marianne de Pierres (who also writes under Marianne Delacourt) has a new book coming out with Angry Robot books in May 2014. As a teaser, the publisher is releasing the cover art today.
Look at the pretty, created by Joey Hi Fi.
The book, first in a series, combines, SF, westerns, crime and the paranormal in an Australian setting, and is based on the graphic novel by Marianne and Brigitte Sutherland (which also inspired the cover art).
What more could an Aussie reader ask for?
Apart from it to be May 2014 already.
You can read more at Marianne’s Peacemaker site.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
As you are probably well aware, this year is the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who. The City of Melbourne, bless it, is full of the Spirit of Geekness with this and has been running a great program of related events: one of which was a writing workshop I ran at the lovely Southbank Library called Doctor Who and Building Believable Fantasy Worlds.
We had an entertaining discussion in part about how a show that was previously notorious for its wobbly sets, sometimes bombastic performances and shonky SFX was considered engaging and even believable enough that it kept viewers coming back year after year; that it regularly attracted new viewers; that even for the period where it didn’t exist as a TV show, it had books and audio adventures that filled those gaps with great aplomb.
The responses partly cited the ideas behind Doctor Who, but mostly, the workshop attendees talked about the characters, both lead and support, that populated the regularly changing worlds.
That led me in turn to talk about one of the show’s great writers, from whom I learned so much about writing supporting characters.
I of course refer to Robert Holmes.
Holmes was a genius at writing supporting characters that were bright and engaging people in their own right. He understood that to engage people in a story, you need not only lead characters you care about, but for those characters to live in a world filled with other fully realised people. Even if the latter only got a fraction of the screentime.
His supporting characters were not only there as plot devices, to force certain things to occur or to advise the Doctor or one of his companions of key exposition. They made the worlds the Doctor visited more real by making their societies real, and by having lives that extended beyond the story we saw. So many of them demonstrably had lives before we saw them and, if they were lucky enough to survive the episodes, would clearly have lives beyond it, too.
Take Robert Holmes’s Carnival of Monsters, which is essentially a story about a customs dispute. It contains three blue-skinned government employees who could easily have been identical cyphers but instead had discussions and arguments about government policy, the possibility of a worker’s revolt and the different attitudes members of a society might have about those social and political conditions in which they lived. They added texture to a world we never really saw, showing that it was not a homogenous civilisation with only a single viewpoint on how to live – just like the world we live in.
Carnival also contains two travelling entertainers who seem quite affable and fun, but who have an illegal device that treats sentient beings as zoo animals, and treats both them and the actual animals with less respect and care than in most zoos. They are quite nice people doing quite a terrible thing, without much thought. That ambiguity (good people doing terrible things; terrible people doing good things) immediately provides an engaging story-telling concept, a dichotomy that is used so well in more recent shows like Dexter, Being Human and Breaking Bad.
Robert Holmes also wrote The Ribos Operation, the first story in the Key to Time arc with Tom Baker’s Doctor and the first Romana. It contains a scene that is wholly unnecessary to the plot but is also one of the most moving scenes in the series.
The young, fresh-faced conman Unstoffe is fleeing from a guard and is hidden by a homeless man in rags – Binro the Heretic. Binro was ridiculed and exiled for daring to believe the little lights in the sky were not ice crystals, but the lights from other suns, and that those suns might harbour other worlds and other beings. His hands are gnarled, he lived in squalor and he is treated badly by the guard and others he meets. From him, we learn about this planet’s history, but in a very personal way.
When he tells Unstoffe his theory, instead of being ridiculed, Binro is met with kindness. Unstoffe actually tells him that those worlds and people exist; that one day, people will turn to each other and say ‘Binro was right’. Binro, tears in his eyes, commits to helping Unstoffe escape. When later he puts himself between Unstoffe and harm, it’s especially moving because those two characters, in so few scenes, have a bond borne of kindness and hope. It’s absolutely unnecessary to the main story we are seeing, but it’s one of the things that makes the story matter, and work so well.
Similarly, the vile and cruel Graff Vynda-K shows his only spark of true humanity near the end, when his old friend and brother-in-arms, Sholakh, is crushed beneath falling rock. For the only time, Graff doesn’t care about the precious stone he’s spent all this time killing and scheming to get. He only cares that his friend is dying, and when Sholakh breathes his last, Graff bends to kiss the closed eyes of his only friend. For that moment, I have sympathy for an otherwise shallow and hateful man. Quite an achievement. Again, it doesn’t contribute to the plot, but it does contribute to that story being memorable and emotionally affecting.
Robert Holmes wrote some of my favourite Doctor Who stories from the Patrick Troughton to the Colin Baker eras, including the The Time Warrior, The Pyramids of Mars, The Sun Makers and The Caves of Androzani.
Classic Doctor Who of course had many terrific writers, including Chris Boucher (The Robots of Death) and Terry Nation (Genesis of the Daleks) but Holmes was always the standout for me.
As a writer, he clearly demonstrated the power of telling memorable stories through creating strong, fully realised supporting characters.Through lively rather than merely expositionary dialogue, these characters help to build pictures and demonstrate elements of the wider world they inhabit, creating texture and emotional connection. Although they often serve to advance plot and give the lead characters interesting opportunities for interaction, these characters are not there solely to act as plot devices, obstacles or drivers of events: they are people, real and whole, with concerns, personalities, relationships and opinions that go beyond their function in the story.
These are lessons I try to remember in my own work, to make the worlds I build more real by making sure that everyone we meet in the story is a whole person, through whom the reader learns about the society as well as the protagonists – and perhaps the reader will care for their fates, too.
Other Doctor Who posts:
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a fantasy novelist who shares a pair of typing fingers with crime novelist Livia Day. Livia’s first murder mystery, A Trifle Dead, will be released from Twelfth Planet Press on 28 March 2013.
Tansy’s recent releases include Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, the three books of the Creature Court trilogy. Her first novel, Splashdance Silver, was recently re-issued as an e-book.
With so much going on for Tansy and her alter ego, I thought it was high time I asked her a few searching questions. She repaid me with very thorough answers!
The Shattered City is a terrific book, telling a whole story yet still functioning as the middle book of a trilogy. You said to me you’d set a challenge to yourself to overcome the ‘Middle novel problem’. How do you define that problem, and how did you go about meeting it?
I think there are two sides to the middle novel problem – one is that narrative: the middle act in a three act structure is the one that has to hold everything together, and in the case of epic fantasy, that’s a really long time to keep everyone entertained while you move all the pieces into place for the big finale. What you don’t want is your reader to think of the middle book as being the interval they had to sit through in order to reach the second half.
The second and perhaps more dramatic problem is one of reader perception – fantasy readers are pretty worn down and cynical these days, and the middle novel of a fantasy trilogy has acquired a poor reputation, I think unfairly. If the middle novel is soggy or boring or has characters running around in circles for no good reason, then that’s the fault of the author and to some extent the trilogy – it doesn’t mean that middle books everywhere are unnecessary!
I rather like the middle book of a trilogy because it tends to be the one with the most character development, and more room to breathe because the readers know who everyone is now, and aren’t yet all tensed and psyched up for everyone to start being killed off. Which means, of course, that as an author, I can happily screw with their expectations.
In my own case, the secret was in fact to originally plan a four book series, agree to let it be a trilogy instead, and write two books worth of plot into the middle book. This meant paring down a lot of stuff, building up new characters, and sadly resisting the urge to kill off a beloved character as a cliffhanger to a volume. In retrospect, it meant that the middle volume had to be the tightest, and work the hardest, which is actually what I should have been striving for anyway.
After all that, though, Sarah Rees Brennan’s definition of the trilogy is one I now wave at people who suggest middle books are a waste of time. “Book 1 – Set up. Book 2 – Make Out. Book 3 – Defeat Evil.
If you’ll pardon the pun, the concept of Velody being a dressmaker is interwoven through the whole of the Creature Court stories. It’s not just her job, it’s fundamental to who she is and her approach to life, and that sense of creating new things permeates the politics and relationships we see. It is also, though, a catalyst for some pretty destructive plot elements. I suppose I’m asking if you’re a dressmaker and, either way, how that concept got woven into plotting the series.
I’m so not a dressmaker!
I love fabrics and textile arts, and I’ve always been fascinated by them. I’m a quilter and I love to play with the pretties. But my secret downfall is measuring. I sew like I cook (and like I write!) – madly, and without measure. Which means trying to make an actual garment that fits an actual specific shape is totally beyond me.
I have however spent my life surrounded by artists and creative people, and I am well aware that whatever your artistic obsession is, that’s how you see the world. So it was important to me that Velody’s Point of View voice would be wrapped up in her sewing terminology. I did need a friend to read the books over for clanger mistakes, though – and among other things, to make sure Velody could do what she actually needed to be capable of doing, I did shift the industrial level of the world just a tad, to let her have an early Singer sewing machine.
I knew Velody was a dressmaker before I knew what her name was, so it is an integral part of the story, but the most important thing to me was that she was a professional craftswoman, someone who was a practical producer of things, because of the conflict between that life and the insanely frivolous, beautifully dressed Creature Court. Sure, they save the world on a regular basis, but that’s their only contribution to society – in other ways, they’re quite parasitic.
Velody had to have a real job, because one of the essential questions of the book was – how can you save the world and hold down a real job at the same time? I wanted a woman as protagonist who had responsibilities, and valued what she did in the daylight, and had to weigh that up with what she could achieve during the battles of the nox. Not all superheroes are Batman – some have to pay the rent! And the contrast between Velody and Ashiol, who drops every responsibility he’s ever been given, never hurts for money, and constantly lets the people he loves down, because of that single justification that he’s busy saving the world.
Heroing is so often unpaid work in fantasy worlds, to the point where heroes who want to be paid are seen as unworthy of the role, and I wanted to write a fantasy which addressed how problematic that is from a privilege/class/gender point of view. Not that I’m preachy about it, I hope!
Frankly, one of the questions I want to ask is: “How do you manage to be so very, very awesome as a plotter?” but that’s a rubbish question. I still want to ask it, though. Do you do huge, 10,000 word story treatments, like PG Wodehouse used to do with his own convoluted plots? What is the secret of your success?
Thank you for the compliment! I work really hard on my plots, it’s not a magical talent that comes naturally to me. I tend to work fairly free form, with only a general idea where I am going, but a quite clear idea where I want to end up. Mostly I allow my plots to grow out of characters rather than the other way around, because I find characters more interesting.
I also try and stop and check in from time to time, to make sure I’m going in the right direction, and to run the story so far past other eyes to make sure I’m not majorly stuffing up.
I did call upon a spreadsheet or two for this one, but that was mostly to keep track of character history rather than plot threads – there’s a complex back story and the hierarchy of the Creature Court meant I had to know the history of servitude and alliance that each character had been through – the fact that Mars was Livilla’s courtesi once and is now her equal and ally is important to how they behave towards each other, as is the uncomfortable, complex relationship between Ashiol, Garnet and Poet (which you’ll see more of in the third book!). There are a couple of characters not alive for the entirety of the trilogy who are vital to how my sweeties interact with each other now.
But as for plotting forward… I’m actually a terrible leaper rather than a looker. I know the feel of what I’m going for, and I grope wildly towards it. More than once, I get it wrong, and have to recover fast.
I will admit that when I was writing the third book, I was still building the finale, and in many cases I only knew about particular events days or hours before writing them. Other parts had been planned out from the beginning. But I am a big believer in the idea that if you know the past of your characters in great detail, then their future will unfold with integrity.
Do you have any preferences for a fantasy casting of the novels? I like Johnny Depp for Poet, myself.
I want to say he’s too old, but Johnny Depp, of course, is never too old. You’d definitely need someone with his great capacity for being weird, scary and innocent all at the same time. I have a fondness for the actor who played young Octavian in HBO’s Rome series – I think he could pull off the part, in a few years, which is at least as long as it would take to get something like this off the ground as a production. If not, grab him from a few years ago via. time travel and he can do the flashback scenes.
After seeing all those beautiful stills of the Great Gatsby, I would accept Carey Mulligan as Delphine in a heartbeat. Joel Edgerton or Dan Spielman as Macready. Now I’m just totally rifling through old Secret Life of Us casting…
Nicholas Hoult is too pretty for nearly everything he is in, so I’m sure we could find room for him somewhere.
When it comes to my central protagonists, though, Ashiol and Velody, I can’t cast them at all. I know how they look in my head, but couldn’t match them to anyone real.
Your new crime novel, A Trifle Dead, comes out through Twelfth Planet Press later this month, under the pen name Livia Day. It’s set in Hobart and features a pastry chef named Tabitha Darling. Is this a kind of theme of yours? Elevating domestic skills to literary greatness? What is it about the domestic arts you find so appealing?
Partly it’s a fantasy for me – I will never cook as well as Tabitha nor sew as well as Velody. But I do value the domestic arts highly. The combination of practicality with aesthetic pleasure is fascinating – there’s a narrative there, and it’s something I find excellent to make stories out of. Tabitha doesn’t just cook – she uses food to soothe people, and butter them up, and tease them. She even withholds food on some occasions, which proves she is a little bit evil.
I wanted to show what a good detective she would make through her other life – and her other life is about social skills and food. You learn a lot from Tabitha about her work and her attention to detail – that’s there in how she dresses, as well, and organises parties, and is the social centre of her friendships.
But I also think that the domestic arts are not valued as highly as they should be in our society, particularly in our history. There’s that whole bullshit gender idea that something women do is lesser somehow, that it’s compromised, despite the fact that female artists often have less to work with from a resources point of view. As a social historian, I think it’s brilliant that women have often used domestic arts as a foil or a cover for other freedoms.
For instance the whole thing about patchwork being invented out of frugality and the saving of every scrap of fabric, is an insanely beautiful con job that the women of colonial America played on their men – sure, fabric was scarce, but it’s ridiculous to believe that the beautiful quilts they made were the most efficient use of their time. They used the cover of frugality and housewifely virtue to gather in female social groups, to share information and gossip, to entertain each other, and to make beautiful art that also had a significant social value as well as practical use.
And maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe that’s my immense Western 21st century ignorant privilege speaking, that I even think that. But the narrative seems so clear to me – a combination of pretty things and practical function can’t help but tell a story.
Also, my heroines are always more stylish than me. That’s definitely a theme.
This book is set in Hobart: what about Hobart makes it an appealing locale for the story?
Pretty much that I know Hobart inside and out, plus that’s where Tabitha lives, which makes it convenient. It was never a conscious choice.
Having said that, if I had been going out of my way to pick a location for a murder mystery that was going to be on trend in 2013, Hobart would have been a genius choice. Our media is exploding right now with the artistic and tourist boom in Tasmania, and it’s a very creatively exciting place right now.
We’ve been a forgotten corner of the country for a long time, off on our little island, but over the last few years, Tasmania has become a Destination with a capital D. When I first started writing about Tabitha and her world, I remember an earlier version of the manuscript being rejected by an industry professional who couldn’t comprehend my Tasmania at all – she had visited the place once I guess, and was so wrapped up in the narrative of us as a ghostly colonial throwback, all old fashioned sweet shops and “an almost biting sense of cold” that she could not accept a book which showed Hobart as being vibrant and bright and, you know, occasionally had a bit of sunshine.
AS I WRITE THIS WE ARE IN A HEAT WAVE BY THE WAY.
So yes, it’s rather lovely that the Australian narrative about Tasmania has changed and continues to change, just in time for this book to be released. Because the idea that books can’t be set here without being full of sad people and grey skies makes me want to beat my head on a sandstone brick.
Your first novel, Splashdance Silver, has just been reprinted. How do you feel you’ve developed as a writer since you won the George Turner Prize with that book? Do you have any advice for your younger self? Does your younger self have any advice for your current self?
Fifteen years, can you believe it? My first novel was published nearly fifteen years ago (the anniversary is in September this year).
I know that I’ve developed a lot as a writer since then because I have had the charming and alarming experience of proofing the books for e-release (Splashdance is available now at Wizards Tower, Weightless Books and via Kindle, the rest are to follow shortly). Aargh! I also learned that my publisher really had stopped caring about me by book 2 because oh my goodness, the errors that made it through to the printed version, they make my head hurt…
My advice to my younger self would simply be not to get ahead of yourself. Selling those books was a brilliant moment of my writing career, but it was not the gateway to a consistent or easy career and there were a few painful bumps and jolts along the way. Then again, if I’d told my younger self that it would be another decade before she had another year of Real Full Time Income from writing, then it probably wouldn’t have good consequences for either of us!
I would like to tell her to get more manuscripts under her belt before having children because OMG what did you do with your time before then?
I’m not sure if that younger self has much useful to offer me in return (though I would totally take any free babysitting she’s offering) but I’m glad her books are back in print. Every now and then I get an email, or meet someone who genuinely loved those books and it’s so nice to hear because I have a tendency to put down my early work, and I shouldn’t. You have to own your history, all of it, and those books were a really important stepping stone for me.
Coming back to them, I still love the characters and the world, even if I would write them differently now. It’s quite fun to think back to where I was when I wrote them, and what I was bouncing off. It’s not until the third book (written more recently) that it really felt like they were MINE, though, rather than that faraway twenty-year-old
What’s coming up next for Tansy and/or Livia?
Livia has to finish the second Cafe La Femme book and get it to the publishers by May, which is exciting. I do love me a deadline. Tansy, meanwhile, is writing a lot of shorter pieces right now, while gearing up for the Next Big Fantasy Series. I have stories due to appear in anthologies such as One Small Step (Fablecroft), Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe (Lethe Press) and Glitter and Mayhem. I’m also working on a bunch of non fiction commissions and will be announcing a new online creative writing course later in the year.
Plus, WORLD FANTASY OMG! I’m going to Brighton in October, and ridiculously excited about it.
Check out Tansy’s blog at http://tansyrr.com/, and follow her on Twitter as @tansyrr. You can hear her talking about the publishing industry on the Galactic Suburbia podcast, and about Doctor Who on the Verity! podcast.
- Get A Trifle Dead by Livia Day, available from 28 March, from Twelfth Planet Press
- Get Splashdance Silver by Tansy Rayner Roberts for Kindle or Weightless Books
- Get Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts and other books by Tansy Rayner Roberts on Amazon.com