Characters

Earthsea revisited and visited anew

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April 1, 2014

I mentioned a while back that I was embarking on a reread of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It was, in fact, only a part reread. There are six Earthsea books, that Le Guin likes to refer to as either the Earthsea Cycle, or the two Earthsea trilogies. Until now I’d only read the first trilogy. (There are also two short stories in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, but I’m not including those. I’ve got that collection and will get around to it at some point.)

Earthsea 300x174 Earthsea revisited and visited anewI came across the first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore – when I was 10 or 11 years old. I devoured them and absolutely adored them. They bent my tiny mind and I read them over and over again. I had no idea there were more books in the series (back then, there weren’t). The next trilogy – Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind – came out much later. The first trilogy was published in 1968, 1971 and 1972. The second in 1990, 2001 and 2001, respectively. Having loved the first trilogy so much, it’s amazing it took me this long to get around to the second, but there you go. So I recently reread the first three and then went on to the “new” three.

Even though I’d read them so many times, it’s been a long time since I last read the original trilogy. I was desperately hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a disappointment. Within a few pages, my fears were quashed and I was back in Earthsea and remembering just why I loved it so much. The writing is beautiful, so poetic and lyrical, evoking such a fantastic sense of place and character. Yet it’s also tight and spare, no flowering dissertations on every aspect of the story. These are 200 or 300 page novels that could easily be 500 page novels if Le Guin was prone to the “big fat fantasy” style so common today. But she’s not and it’s one of the things I like so much about these books. They’re perfectly sized stories, perfectly written. And the tales themselves are just as enchanting now I’m in my 40s as they were before I hit my teens. I can’t wait until my son is old enough to read them.

So then I was set to embark on the second trilogy for the first time. Would these disappoint? Could I be as charmed by a revisit to those classic novels? Well, yes, I could. In all honestly, I think I enjoyed the first of the new three, Tehanu, more than the others. But the set of six as a whole does a wonderful job of telling a huge story. Especially as Tales From Earthsea is a collection of short stories and novellas, all designed to fill in history and backstory of the bigger arc, yet all wonderful stories in their own right.

One of the most interesting things for me was an afterword by Le Guin in the last book, where she talks about the time spent writing these six novels and how she thinks it’s finished now, but never say never. Perhaps the most interesting part of that for me was that she didn’t really recognise the theme of the whole series until she was writing the last book. She realised what she was fundamentally writing about when she’d finished, not when she started. She began telling stories she was compelled to tell and let the underlying theme of her work worry about itself. I think that’s a great lesson for writers – don’t stress about what you’re trying to do or trying to say, as then you might focus too much on the message and lose the magic. Just tell your stories, and trust that whatever thematic form is squirming in your subconscious will find its way out over time.

Either way, I loved my return to Earthsea and it still stands as one of my favourite series of all time. Six wonderful books that I’m sure I’ll visit again and again.

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Jason Nahrung

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September 27, 2013

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post and Martin Livings wrote me this great post. Now I have a little something from Jason Nahrung:

When art and circumstance collide.

It was back in 2011 when I’d been to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria about the Secessionist movement — Gustav Klimt is probably the most famous of them. But it was a painting by Oskar Kokoschka, of a Count Verona, and the enigmatic personality of seamstress and muse Emilie Floge that really got under my skin.

Lo, the very next day, an email arrived announcing a new anthology, Tales from the Bell Club (KnightWatch Press, 2012), looking for stories set in a time period that included the Secessionists. A little more research about Verona and the group, and ‘The Kiss’ was born, incorporating Emilie and Gustav and Oskar, a tuberculosis clinic and a cult led by another enigmatic figure, the Comte de St Germain (under one of his nom de plumes).

One of those wonderful moments when arts and circumstances collided, and I got to be an Austrian suffragette of the early 1900s.

Thanks to Amazon’s Look Inside feature, you can read (and buy) the end product here.

This is the Verona painting:

verona web Great Inspiration   guest post from Jason Nahrung

And here’s Emilie:

emilie web 240x300 Great Inspiration   guest post from Jason Nahrung

Jason Nahrung is a Ballarat-based writer and editor. His latest novel is Blood and Dust, an outback vampire adventure melding Mad Max and Anne Rice. www.jasonnahrung.com

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Thoraiya Dyer

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September 23, 2013

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post:

Inspirational things – The Empire Trilogy by Feist and Wurts

daughter 183x300 Great Inspiration   guest post from Thoraiya DyerDaughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts, was published in 1987.

I didn’t read it until 1992. That year, the third book in the series came out; I saw my mother actually go without food so that she could buy the book and find out the fate of Mara, Lady of the Acoma.

Meanwhile, I was just starting high school. Daughter of the Empire had a turreted, cathedral-looking castle and a blonde with a broadsword on the cover. Yet the first line was: “The priest struck the gong.” I’d sure never seen a gong in a cathedral.

I hadn’t heard of whitewashing in 1992 but soon lost myself in a story devoid of blondes. There were no turrets. There weren’t even any broadswords. The fascinating tale of a teenage girl inheriting the leadership of a once-mighty feudal family and battling with her wits to keep from being crushed by her rivals kept me absolutely riveted to the very last page.

Along the way there were honour-bound Tsurani warriors that sounded suspiciously like samurai. Grey warriors that might have been ronin. There were wood-framed palaces with paper screens instead of solid walls. There were spies who did not brawl like James Bond but infiltrated like ninjas.

Later, I discovered that Feist and Wurts had used Korea and Ancient Rome as their inspiration, but by then, barking up the wrong tree, I’d already delved into all things Japanese.

I took Japanese for my language elective that year. When Mum asked if I wanted to do netball or soccer, I told her I wanted to do karate. I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and The Book of Five Rings. I set my alarm for 3am to get up and watch inappropriately classified and poorly dubbed anime while drinking green tea. Pre-internet, I sent physical letters to the Japanese pen pal I later met on my first amazing trip to Japan.

I learned enough about this other culture that when older Australians with hangovers from World War II told me that the Japanese were a cruel and inhuman race, I could set them straight in no uncertain terms.

The cultural diversity to be found in today’s SFF is an absolute joy to me but I’ll never forget where I found it first. The vivid fantasy world of the fictional Empire was not Japan, not Korea and not Ancient Rome. Some might argue, today, that the borrowed elements of it were not Feist’s or Wurts’ to borrow, but what they did, while they were borrowing it, was wave it in my young, impressionable face and say, “Look! How incredibly cool is this? People can live lives that are completely different to yours, so different that you’ll never be able to look at your own culture the same way again, and yet just as rich, just as dangerous, just as colourful, just as gut-wrenching, just as meaningful and just as true.”

I’ll owe them a debt forever, because of that.

I’ve borrowed many places and people in my short fiction that didn’t belong to me. I’ve set stories in Nepal, Scotland, the Caribbean and New South Wales pre-colonisation. I’ve written Spaniards and South Americans, Quakers and Christian Saints.

When I make mistakes, I’m very sorry for it, I feel inadequacy and terrible remorse, but I hope that for every person offended by my ignorance, five more will be inspired to go to the source, to museums or the internet, to film, art, fiction or non-fiction made or written by people who are of that culture or to meet and speak with those people, and become immersed, drinking up all the detail I could not give them, because all I was really doing, all I was trying to do, was shout out to my readers, “Look! How incredibly cool is this?”

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian writer who lives online at http://www.thoraiyadyer.com . Her four-story collection, Asymmetry, is available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Asymmetry-Twelve-Planets-ebook/dp/B00BWWK94W ), Wizard’s Tower (http://www.wizardstowerbooks.com/products/asymmetry-thoraiya-dyer ) or direct from Twelfth Planet Press (http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/paperbacks/asymmetry ). The naginata, or Japanese halberd, a women’s weapon of feudal times, features in one of the stories.

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On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers by Ian McHugh

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April 15, 2013

Ian McHugh is a fellow member of the CSFG and we were having a discussing on the mailing list the other day about this strange thing Ian had discovered in terms of word frequency in fiction. So I asked him if he’d consider writing up his findings and guest posting here for me. After all, that saves me having to write up what he found and it’s his baby anyway. He was foolish kind enough to agree. So, many thanks to Ian and hopefully you guys might find some of this quite interesting.

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers

by Ian McHugh (ianmchugh.wordpress.com)

A few weeks ago, fellow CSFG member Phill Berrie wrote a post about word frequency analysis, a tool he uses in his work as an editor. In his post, Phill included a link to a free online word frequency analyser. Plug the text of your story in and it spits out:

  • the total word count of the story
  • how many different unique words you’ve used (a, few, weeks, ago, etc)
  • and how many times you’ve used them (a=36, few=5, weeks=2, ago=2)

Since I had set aside that weekend for working on the final draft of my novel, I decided instead (see “advanced procrastination”, above) to plug a few of my stories into the online analyser and see what the results were. After plugging all of my stories into the analyser, it told me a bunch of stuff that I already pretty well knew:

  • I’m using less adjectives and adverbs than I used to.
  • I have developed a habit of overusing the word as to join two clauses in a sentence.
  • I somehow don’t write stories between 3,000 and 4,000 words long. Like, ever.

What it also showed, that I hadn’t realised before, was that the number of different unique words that I use has fallen by about 20-25% since I first started writing. For stories over 6,000 words, my number of unique words per thousand has dropped from up near 300 to under 230.

So, why?

I had a couple of hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1
My vocabulary is shrinking. No, seriously. I had to look up synonyms for theory to find hypothesis. Then I had to look up like to find synonym. I was very hard on my brain in my late teens and early twenties – like, “I can’t really remember 1991 to 1994″ kind of hard on my brain. I flunked out of art school because I was too stoned and drunk. Art school. That’s like flunking out of rock’n’roll for doing too much cocaine, only less cool. These days when I’m speaking, I often lose my words in mid-sentence. Maybe I’m using less words because I’m losing my words?

Hypothesis #2
Or, given that I’m using less adjectives and adverbs in my stories, maybe I’m just cutting out the crap?

So I wondered what the unique word counts would be for writers operating at a higher level than me. I just happened to have a softcopy of Kaaron Warren’s first short story collection, The Grinding House, so I plugged a few of Kaaron’s old stories into the analyser. Casting about, I also had a softcopy of a longish Lucius Shepard story from Issue 1 of Crowded Magazine. In both cases, I found that the unique word counts were down around 200 per 1,000 words.

Interesting!

Then I went to Tor.com and grabbed a few stories by authors who I immediately recognised as famous, award-winners, working novelists etc, and plugged those in. There was a wider range, but most of the unique word counts were still at or below the low end of my own stories.

So, does this mean that better writers use less words, but use them better? It’s an appealing idea. Had I cracked the secret code to being a better writer?

Yeah, no.

Nice idea, but it holds water about as well as… as one of them thingies that you wash lettuce in… like a bowl, but with holes in it… eh, nevermind.

When I threw a wider net (this was still my novel-editing weekend, mind you – advanced procrastination, remember) and looked at a larger sample of stories from online SFWA pro-markets (including more stories from Tor.com and stories from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons) the unique word counts were all over the place. Including from some of the same authors I’d looked at in the first sample. So much so that it’s not even meaningful to talk about any kind of mean or median.

If anything, many of them were opposite to where my stories have been headed, with unique word counts above my high early average.

So where does this leave me? Back at Hypothesis #1? Was Kaaron also hard on her brain in her youth?

Is there maybe some superficial similarity between my writing style and Kaaron’s writing style? Or at least, Kaaron Warren circa 1994 to 2003? Hell, I’d take that, any day.

Colander!

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that my writing style really is like Kaaron’s in any way you’d notice, but if I have lifted something from her work and incorporated it into my own, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. The Grinding House was a book that made a big impression on me in the early part of my writing career. (Kaaron still uses a quote from my review of it.)

Similarly, if there’s any single story that most influenced me as a new writer, it was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry Quiet War”. Because of that story, I wrote ““Bitter Dreams”, which is probably still my best story, and have kept on writing Westerns since then. “A Dry Quiet War” has a unique word count under 200 per thousand words.

Shepard was another early influence. While he does write elaborate fantasy stories (the Dragon Graiule tales, for example), he’s also written knuckle-dragging, hairy-backed manly stories for Playboy, with protagonists who are terse like the love-child of Clint Eastwood and Conan the Barbarian.

Maybe there’s a clue there. I tend to write in a close third-person or, occasionally, first-person point of view. A lot of my recent stories have featured protagonists who are in some way “simple” – mentally simple, children, from simple socio-cultural settings, or just plain terse. It follows that, with a close point-of-view, the narrative voice for a simple character should also be simple.

Simple character = simple language = lower unique word count.

And a lot of my more complex and elaborate stories are ones with higher unique word counts.

That seems like one of those revelations that’s bleeding obvious once you see it. “Well, of course I knew that!” I think there’s a lesson there, though, in terms of writing consciously for your character’s voice.

And another thing I found? One of the sweet spots for story length for (at least the) SFWA pro markets (I looked at) seems to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words long.

Sigh.

Another sweet spot seems to be between 5,000 and 6,000 words – in which range my stories have, overall, been noticeably less successful than they have over 6,000 words or under 3,000.

Well, I guess if nothing else I found out what I need to work on.

And I did also write/edit nearly 10,000 words of the final draft of my novel that weekend.

Advanced procrastination.

Speaking of which: You should be writing! So go find your character’s voice, and get back to work!

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Emma Newman and Between Two Thorns

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February 21, 2013

If you’re a regular here, the name Emma Newman probably rings some bells. It should, because she’s a mighty talented person and I’ve talked about her a bit. I was lucky enough to be asked by her publisher to pre-review and blurb her short fiction collection, From Dark Places. You can see that review here. I was also happy to host one of her Split Worlds stories here last year.

Well, now the Split Worlds has expanded into the first of a series of novels, published by Angry Robot Books, called Between Two Thorns. And the reason I’m talking about it now is because there’s a sweet little pre-order special offer happening.

Between Two Thorns is an urban fantasy novel. Here’s the blurb:

Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.

The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.

There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.

But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

Sound interesting? Well, here’s the offer:

Pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns for a chance to win a great prize!

BetweenTwoThorns COVER1 e1355137730189 Emma Newman and Between Two ThornsPre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns and you’ll be entered into a prize draw. If you win, you’ll have a character named after you in All Is Fair – the third Split Worlds novel (released October 2013) – and a special mention at the end of the book.

You have to admit, that’s a pretty cool prize.

How to Enter

Pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite retailer (if you pre-order from Forbidden Planet you’ll get a signed copy).

If you order from Forbidden Planet or robottradingcompany.com (for ebooks) you don’t need to do anything else – Angry Robot will take care of your entry for you. If you pre-order from anywhere else you’ll need to email a copy of your order confirmation to: thorns AT angryrobotbooks.com and they’ll assign a number to you.

Here are links to all the places you can pre-order:

Forbidden Planet (signed paperback) http://forbiddenplanet.com/97907-between-two-thorns/

Angry Robot Trading company – for DRM-free ebook http://www.robottradingcompany.com/between-two-thorns-emma-newman.html

Amazon (paperback) UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Split-World/dp/0857663194/

US http://www.amazon.com/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/dp/0857663208/

The Book depository (Worldwide free postage)

UK Edition http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/9780857663191

US Edition (bigger) http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Between-Two-Thorns-Emma-Newman/9780857663207

There are two UK launches and an international one using the magic of telephone conferencing. All the details are here: http://www.enewman.co.uk/real-world-adventures/between-two-thorns-launches-prizes-and-parties

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Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

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February 12, 2013

I’m very happy today to be presenting a guest post by up and coming writer, Leife Shallcross. An online discussion a little while ago raised some very interesting points about gender roles in SF, and Leife’s observations were quite telling. So I asked her to write it up for a post here and she very graciously obliged.

Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

I was having a discussion with some writerly friends a while ago about female leads in spec fic films. The conversation was started by an article that was arguing for a female protagonist in the next Star Wars movie, to be made by Disney some time soon. It was pretty interesting, and had some good points.

Star Wars Logo Art Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesNaturally, though, this broadened out to a discussion of the nature of female characters in spec fic films generally. Are there enough of them? Are there enough leads? And are they genuinely well-rounded, complex human beings?

I’ll put myself out there and say I’m in the camp that thinks the answer to those questions is no.

But I will qualify it, by saying that I’m the mother of an 8 year-old boy and a 10 year-old girl, and the vast majority of the movies I’ve seen in the last 10 years have been kid’s movies, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. (And, let’s face it, with Disney at the helm, this is what we are going to have to expect for Star Wars.)

And before you groan, and lose interest in what sounds like it’s going to be another feminist mummy rant, I’m also going to talk about why I think this comes down to one thing: lazy writing.

If you take the Pixar films, for example. A quick look on Wikipedia gives you a fairly comprehensive list of films they’ve produced, starting with Toy Story in 1995.

1995.

…And the first movie they produced with a female protagonist came out in…?

2012.

Now, I’m gonna pick on Pixar here, but boy they make it easy. It’s not that they can’t write good female characters. Dory (Finding Nemo), Jessie (Toy Story 2), Mrs Incredible and Violet Incredible (The Incredibles), to name just a handful. So why don’t they do more of it?

Why did Mike & Sully (Monsters Inc) both have to be male? Why would making one of them female not have worked? What about Up? It really would have made little difference to the story whether the kid, Russell, had been a boy or a girl. You could make arguments around Mike & Sully representing the classic blokes’ working relationship, or Carl (the old guy in Up) seeing himself in Russell, but I don’t think either of those examples could not have been managed by finding equally satisfying alternatives through good, clever scriptwriting, had they chosen to swap the gender of one of the characters.

This points to one of the things that the article on Star Wars argued, which is that film makers tend to view male characters as having generic appeal, and female characters as only appealing to women and girls.

In my opinion, this a view that needs to be challenged and proved false.

And in case you thought Monsters Inc and Up were the exceptions, here’s a random sample:

photo of buzz lightyear and woody from toy story Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesToy Story (the original): not a single girl in the gang. Every single female character could only be described as tertiary, at best. There’s a bunch of the supporting character toys that could have been presented as female – the money pig, the dinosaur, the slinky dog, the penguin. But no.

Finding Nemo: Dory, an awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters in the movie to female ones (19:6). Not even one fishaholic shark, and would that have been so hard?

Cars: Do I even need to start?

Ratatouille: This one’s great. One female role with a name (there’s also one female ‘dining patron’), out of a total of 19 roles.

Even Brave. Their flagship female protagonist film. Count the ratio of female to male characters (4 including a castle maid, to 14). You might also want to look at the female to male ‘extras’. It’s a wonder the human race has managed to survive.

And just to be fair, let’s look at Dreamworks:

How to Train Your Dragon: Astrid, awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters to female ones (10:3).

Rise of the Guardians: The tooth fairy. Cute and funny, but, oh look, all the rest of the guardians are… male. Token. There’s a couple of female kids (including the interesting, different and kinda awesome Cupcake), but the one the protagonist connects with in order to save the world is, you guessed it, a boy.

I could point to the Disney princesses and *wince* Barbie for a bunch of female protagonists, but these are movies marketed at girls, not generically, like the ones I’ve named above.

MV5BMzgwODk3ODA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU3NjQ0Nw@@. V1 SY317 CR00214317  Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesThe fact is, with a little, a VERY little, extra effort in character development, the ratio of male to female protagonists, supporting characters and extras could more closely reflect the fact the human race is approximately half-half. And when a movie studio is as influential as Pixar or Dreamworks, this is actually something they could reasonably achieve.

But, you might say, what about the thing you mentioned earlier? Mike and Sully representing the blokey working relationship trope, or about Carl in Up seeing himself in Russell? Well, these are movies for kids. They don’t know about blokey workmates, or that adults are often inspired by children they see themselves in.

The messages you give your kids repeatedly in childhood will shape their expectations of the world as adults.

I’ll go back to my core argument, though, which is that, in my opinion, stories which involve a disproportionate number of male characters and token females (or film studios that churn out an aggregate disproportionate number of male to female characters, including protagonists), are going to be the result of lazy character development.

Generally, having a diverse range of characters (including—hey!—even the genderqueer!) makes for increased interest in the dynamics between the characters. Which usually makes for more interesting stories.

And just might have the spin-off of making the world a more tolerant, egalitarian place.

20121102 132312 Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesLeife Shallcross lives in Canberra with her husband and children. She fits in her writing around looking after the kids, an almost full-time job in the public service and playing the fiddle (badly). She is fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and frequently weaves elements of these into her writing. She’s also the current secretary of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Her second published story will appear in Next, edited by Robert Porteous and Simon Petrie, to be launched at Conflux 9 in April 2013.
She blogs occasionally at leifeshallcross.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @leioss.

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Chuck Wendig on ThrillerCast

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December 17, 2012

thrillercastlogo2 Chuck Wendig on ThrillerCastIt’s been a while since I posted about a new episode of ThrillerCast, which is a bit slack of me really. In case you’re new here, ThrillerCast is the podcast I co-host with action/adventure author, David Wood. It’s all kinds of chat about anything thriller and genre fiction related, with stuff for readers and writers. In the latest episode, I have a chat with the potty-mouthed paragon of awesome penmonkey advice, Chuck Wendig. You can find the episode here.

In recent episodes, we’ve talked about all kinds of writer-related stuff and had great chats with the likes of Greig Beck, Thomas Greanias, Rich Steeves and many more. Have a stroll through the archives or, even better, subscribe via iTunes.

And if you’re a fan, please drop by iTunes to leave us a rating or review, and tell your friends. If you’re unsure, why not let our two existing iTunes reviews speak for themselves:

Thrillercast is seriously good writer talk. (Five-star review)

by Lynda Washington

David Wood is American writer of action adventure. Alan Baxter is an English writer of dark fantasy/horror with a pronounced Aussie accent. Both are serious students and practitioners of their art, and they share generously with the listener. I’m a serious student, too, though not a practitioner. My judgment is trustworthy. If you want to strengthen your understanding of writing and the writer’s place in publishing, listen to these guys. They are intelligent and focused. The sound quality is good. The episodes never seem to go on longer than they should. No downside.

Great Podcast! (Five-star review)

by GregD65

David and Alan produce an ejoyable, intelligent, and always entertaining look at writing thrillers. Writers and readers of others genres should give a lsiten as well since the advice, interviews, and banter cross genres easily. My only complaint — frequency!!! I need MORE ThrillerCast!!!

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In conversation with Gillian Polack

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August 16, 2012

On reading women, reading about women, categories and curses.

Gillian Polack is a fine writer, a fine person and a good friend of mine. You may remember that I reviewed her novel, Life Through Cellophane, a while back. Sadly, the publisher of that book, Eneit Press, fell victim to the Red Group/Borders debacle and went under. It seemed that Gillian’s book went with it. But, a literary phoenix from the ashes of corporate foolishness, it has found new life with the Pan Macmillan ebook imprint, Momentum. Now called Ms Cellophane and with a cool new cover, the book is back.

I got to talking with Gillian about the book recently. She was particularly pleased with my original review when I said:

I must admit that I felt a bit weird reading it. It was like I was hiding out during a secret women’s business meeting, hearing about things I shouldn’t know.

Mirror 6e 225x300 In conversation with Gillian PolackOn hearing this, Gillian said, “It’s a good reaction. You read lots, and this is the only book that gives you that sense. I get a lot of female readers saying to me, “This is my life, I read this and am looking into a mirror.” It makes me wonder why you haven’t encountered other books that give you the same sense. What sort of boundaries are out there and what sorts of restrictions do they put on us without us knowing?”

Alan: I think it’s largely to do with the types of books I read. It’s not that I don’t read books by women. In fact, on checking Goodreads, recently I’ve read:

Felicity Dowker’s Bread & Circuses
Jo Anderton’s Debris and Suited
Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine
Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts
Joanna Penn’s Prophecy
Lisa L Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony

That’s just this year, which is a year where I haven’t read nearly as much as I usually do. But while these are excellent books by women, all with strong female protagonists and/or supporting characters, they’re not as much books about being a woman as yours is. So I wonder if I just don’t choose to read other books more like yours.

Gillian: My book was all about the type of invisibility that many women feel so yes, it wasn’t about a strong protagonist so much as about a very particular aspect of life. Can you pinpoint some of the things that made you feel as if you were entering a foreign universe – and maybe talk about how they differ from the approach you take to your own female characters?

Alan: I have a very simple, perhaps overly so, approach to writing female characters. I basically approach all characters as neither male or female, but simply as people. Of course, I will try to get inside my character’s heads and they’re all very individual people, but gender is only ever a small part of that, never a primary consideration.

Reading Cellophane, I felt as though I was getting an insight into the day-to-day miniutiae of being a woman. You do a good job of putting the reader in Elizabeth’s mind and it almost feels, to me at least, as though we shouldn’t be there. Of course, that’s a sign of great writing – feeling like we’re inside a character rather than simply watching from outside. And, equally, my male-ness is showing, simply because the process of reading your book came as such a surprise to me.

The best thing about it is that none of it was uncomfortable in any way – it was simply fascinating.

To go back to my own writing, I deliberately don’t try to make my female characters “feminine”. I use quotes there to indicate the insufficiency of the word. I don’t know what it’s like to be feminine. I know what it’s like to be around women. I’ve been married a long time and have many great female friends. I know what it’s like to interact with women and I know how they might respond to various situations. My author’s eye is always studying people and scenarios, subconsciously filing it away for later story use. All writers have to be great observers of the world around them. But I can never observe what it’s like to be a woman. Until reading Cellophane, that is. Because that’s something which gave me an insight I couldn’t get on my own. And while I read a lot of female authors – in fact, my favourite Australian spec-fic writers are all women! – I guess I don’t read very much stuff about women. So perhaps I need to know what I could read that would help me with that.

Of course, that also leads to a small problem. I hate “chick flicks”. I have little to no interest in reading books aimed at a purely female market. But Cellophane seemed to transcend that issue, so I guess I need advice on more books like yours!

Gillian: I don’t know where there are more books precisely like mine! There must be. Cellophane can’t be sui generis. I wrote it though, because I wanted to read books like it and I wanted the books to be speculative fiction. One of my publishers suggests that I’m like Anne Tyler, someone else suggests that the female-ness of my world is a bit like Alice Hoffmann, while Sophie Masson suggested that my first novel reminded her of A.S. Byatt. They’re all women writers who often put women in the centre of the story and are capable of working quite inwardly (though don’t always), so I’d start from them, I think, and work out. Ursula le Guin does the same inwards-out approach in Always Coming Home, but she’s more concerned with place and culture and change than with domestica.

There’s a lot of literary fiction written in a character’s head, where the internal view is key to the novel. There’s not, however, much speculative fiction that both takes this approach and focuses on the mundane. Kaaron Warren’s Slights does that, of course, but in such a different way! She wrote about someone quite terrifying and had me accepting, as a reader, that this was quite normal until we realised that this person we had accepted into our headspace was someone we wouldn’t ever want to meet. I really wanted to communicate the everydayness of lives and that these lives can be wonderful, and that magic doesn’t have to be the stuff of adventures and quests.

Alan: Slights is a great example of character, but you’re right, certainly not a particular example of womankind. More an example of arsehole-kind.

I think you hit it on the head when you say that you “wanted to communicate the everydayness of lives and that these lives can be wonderful, and that magic doesn’t have to be the stuff of adventures and quests.”

Is that something you’ll be exploring more? The street-level magic of the everyday wonder rather than the “big story” wonder? Will you write about Elizabeth again?

Gillian: I won’t write about Elizabeth again, but I will definitely be exploring the everyday wonder. In fact, I have a novel out there… It’s one of those hard-to-categorise novels, like Cellophane. Publishers are both loving it and not willing to publish it. This is a problem I face regularly, for there is no general sub-category for what I do, and so it’s hard to fit into a schedule. Personally, I can’t see what’s hard to categorise about a magic-wielding feminist divorced Jewish Sydneysider who is not speaking to her father. In fact, the short story that’s set after the time of the novel was published years ago (in ASIM), for short story markets are more flexible. It was listed as recommended on an international Year’s Best, and I have a recording of actor Bob Kuhn reading it, just waiting for the right moment to appear. People ask me about Judith, and I have to say, “Still no home.”

The cursed novel (The Art of Effective Dreaming – due to appear some time ago) is about dealing with the mundane world, how to escape it and what the implications are of such an escape, but of course, the novel is cursed (and contains dead morris dancers). It was supposed to appear several years ago, but the most extraordinary life events (hurricanes, earthquakes, computer failure, near death experiences) keep getting in the way. I find it rather ironic that a novel about an ordinary person should be doomed to adventures and not be seen, but right now, the story of the The Art of Effective Dreaming’s delays would make a rather good disaster novel.

Alan: Sounds like you need just the right small press for the Judith novel. I’m sure it’ll find a home eventually. I hope it does, because it sounds very cool.

And The Art Of Effective Dreaming will eventually see the light of day, right?

Gillian: From your mouth to God’s ear (to use a Jewish expression I did not in fact grow up with!). You want to read about the dead morris dancers… Actually, The Art of Effective Dreaming also gently takes the mickey out of quest novels, so I rather suspect you might like it. I hope you get to read it soon!

Alan: As far as I’m concerned, the only good Morris Dancer is a dead one, so yes, I’d love to read it.

As Gillian once said to me in an email: “One of the messages I wanted to get out there about my writing is that it’s not bad despite not fitting categories. So many people look for categories and assume that a novel is not readable, simply because they haven’t encountered its like before… for there is a public perception that there’s a gender divide and that women read men’s books but that men don’t read women’s. I’m beginning to think that it’s being reinforced through being assumed and would love to break it down.”

So get out there and have a read of Ms Cellophane. It might change your perceptions a little bit. It’s available now from Momentum.

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Judge Dredd: Countdown Sector 106

By
2
August 2, 2012

enterDreddHoriz1 300x231 Judge Dredd: Countdown Sector 106This is a new one for me and it seems very cool. Aussie voiceover artist and friend, Kevin Powe (@voiceover_au), put me onto this as he has the incredible honour of supplying the voice of Judge Dredd himself in this new gamebook for iOS. Dredd! It’s the first Dredd iOS gamebook and it comes from Tin Man Games. Here’s the official blurb:

Drokk! It’s an adventure game. It’s an interactive book. It’s an RPG. You are Judge Dredd, the toughest judge to patrol Mega-City One, a vast futuristic city, set in the 22nd Century!

Sector 106 of Mega-City One is short of senior Street Judges and only the most experienced Judges have been reassigned to fill this shortfall… foremost among them yourself, Dredd! What begins as a routine patrol arresting juves and skysurfers, turns into a race against time, as mysterious “Voices of Dredd” find their way into the hands of the local perps. Riding your Lawmaster bike and armed with your trusty Lawgiver, you must pit yourself against Sector 106′s brutal criminal underworld. Quick Dredd! The countdown has begun…

It’s basically an interactive story where you play the role of Dredd and choose your path. Remember the old “Choose your own adventure” books from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone? This is the modern incarnation of those. With voiceover by a local boy, no less. Sounds brilliant.

It looks like loads of fun – I’ll be checking it out. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased to see the current resurgence in Dredd and 2000AD. I read the comic throughout my teens and still read it to this day, and have a deep affinity with many of the characters. My friends and I have spent many hours playing the Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game as well. This iPhone app strikes me as a sweet little nostalgic revisit to those days. And the new mnovie looks like it’s a pretty solid homage to the original vibe of the comic stories, so I’m cautiously hopeful about that too.

You can learn more about the game here: http://gamebookadventures.com/gamebooks/judge-dredd-countdown-sector-106/

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Maintain the rage

By
8
June 25, 2012

I’ve noticed a funny thing over the past couple of weeks, and ended up becoming embroiled in it a little bit myself. The vast majority of reports I’ve read about Prometheus share my total incredulity at just how shit a film it is. Seriously, lots of people are quite rightly ranting about just how awful it is.

However, there are a lot of people out there who enjoyed it. I don’t really understand how anyone could enjoy such a flawed “story”, however pretty it looked, but there you go. It worked for them, so fair enough. Now here’s the funny thing: a lot of those people have started attacking those of us who hated it.

“Why can’t you leave us alone?” they ask.

“Why can’t you just let people like what they want to like?” they ask.

Well, you can like whatever you want. But I will be quite vocal about how I find that bloody weird and have no idea how a person finds enjoyment in it. Just like some people believe there’s a giant spirit daddy in the sky who cares about them. That kind of willful ignorance astounds me, but whatever floats your boat. Believe what you like.

However, just as it’s your right to claim enjoyment or belief in these things, it’s equally my right to exclaim my dislike of them and my astonishment that anyone could find them good/real/likeable, etc..

“It’s offensive,” people cry! “You shouldn’t offend people’s opinions.”

Why not? Their opinion offends me. Where’s the outcry about people offending me with their claim that Prometheus was a good film? (Well, actually, this is it, right here.) I find the film and its defenders offensive – not as people, but in that particular opinion. It doesn’t mean I hate everything about that person. The vast majority of these people are decent, intelligent, upstanding folk. But they have one particular view that I find nonsensical. If they’re allowed to freely state that view, why is it offensive for me to counter it?

You might have realised by now that I’m no fan of tolerance. Tolerance is a bollocks word, in my opinion (you’re free to disagree with me). Tolerance means tolerating something. Tolerating something means putting up with it, even though we disagree or don’t like it. It’s too often used as a shield against debate. We have to tolerate religious intrusions into secular life, for example, while we still speak out against them. We have to tolerate the idiocy of the lowest common denominator setting the bar for all of us. But tolerance is not the same as respect.

Yes, we’re all in this game of life together and we have to get along, so we do tolerate all those things and more, in as much as it’s everyone’s right to hold whatever view they choose and we can’t tell them to change. Nor can we force them to change, and people who use their view as an excuse to harm or oppress other people are fuckwits who are quite rightly villified. But “tolerance” doesn’t mean we have to agree. Nor does it mean we have to respect those views (and you don’t have to respect mine). It doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against them. Those people also have to tolerate our view too, which we can state as readily as they can.

Obviously, I believe in maintaining the rage (you’re free to believe otherwise and you’re free to tell me so). Without a righteous fury we’d be walked all over. It’s when people stand up and say, “Enough of this shit!” that things change.

I maintain my right to rage.

I maintain my right to expect quality.

I maintain my right to lament crappy stuff.

Let’s go back to the Prometheus thing, and the upset among people who enjoyed it. The upset is with the many being so vocal in lambasting it for being a terrible film. Sure, if you enjoyed it, that’s fine. But you enjoyed it despite all its flaws. You ignored the completely insane actions of the characters, the numerous plot holes, the completely nonsensical premise of the whole thing. You sat there and you enjoyed a $200 million senseless spectacle. Good for you. I’m glad you had a good time, I really am.

But I expect more – especially from someone with the credentials of Ridley Scott, playing in the well-loved Alien franchise. I can’t enjoy what was indeed a fantastic looking film when the characters are complete idiots. I can’t enjoy the incredible special effects when the “story” appears to have been vomited out by a drunken chimp. And I have every right to question the people who can enjoy it despite those things. I will defend to the death your right to your opinion, but I will still question it.

It’s not a character judgment. It’s not an insult to the core of your being. I’m not questioning your right to an opinion or your validity as a person. I’m questioning one particular position you maintain: How can you enjoy such a terrible story, regardless of how good it looks? And if your defence is simply, “Fuck it, I like to turn my brain off and enjoy a pretty movie” then okay. (But seriously, how do you do that!?)

However you do manage to enjoy it, don’t try to tell us it’s a good movie. Don’t try to tell us that the screwed up story and idiot characters don’t matter, or aren’t there. Don’t tell us we can’t lambast that shite and all who enjoy it for being a part of the problem. You’re still good people – we just disagree with you about this. We might disagree with you about other things too. Don’t get upset when we rage against the crap we endured while we expected something better. There’s far too much spectacle over substance in Hollywood, and I’m getting sick of it. Cut back a few dollars on the special effects budget and hire a good writer who will tell a kickass story. In the meantime, we’re going to be pissed off at the rubbish stories that keep getting peddled out.

It’s our right to rage against a terrible film and you have to tolerate that.

NB: I don’t claim to be a flawless, master storyteller, but I constantly strive to write good stories that make sense, with believable characters. If I write shit, I want you to tell me about it, so I can work on getting better.

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The website of author Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter, Author

Author of horror, dark fantasy & sci-fi. Kung Fu instructor. Personal Trainer. Motorcyclist. Dog lover. Gamer. Heavy metal fan. Britstralian. Zetetic.

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