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Writing process

Why are our characters always eating?

Come to our house, you won’t get a feast like this. Sadly.

Is it just me, or are purple book covers a thing right now?

I think it’s only because I haven’t noticed them before, but ever since Stars Beyond came out, all I see are books with predominantly purple covers. I can remember when talking cover colours for Linesman, we said we’d like it to have some blue in it, for every science fiction novel at the time seemed to have red or orange covers.

Looking at the covers coming up, I’m predicting brown will be the new purple.

It’s all about food

We’re currently editing a scene in our new novel where the protagonist’s uncle serves hard-to-eat food to embarrass one of his guests.

Food is a constant in our novels (along with drinking). From Ean’s dinners with rulers and the military, to Rossi’s less-social dinner with Janni Naidan, all the way down to Sale’s sandwiches in the linesman’s survival pack. From Jacque’s spicy flatbread to garfungi soup. So much so that you’d sometimes think that food—and drink—is all we think about.

You might also think that based on our novels we lovingly prepare gastronomic masterpieces every night for dinner. Not so. Once, before some close friends retired and moved to the country, they used to come around for dinner every month and we’d scour the magazines to find something new and experimental (but that looked good) to cook. But that was then, and we haven’t brought out the good dinner service since they moved away.

Those dinners were legendary, by the way. We experimented, and while most meals were successful, some went down in history as monumental flops. We all still joke about the infamous Mars Bar dessert, which was so hard we couldn’t even cut it with a knife. I don’t recall if any of us ate it. I think we would have broken our teeth.

But experiments notwithstanding, most of our dinners are of the “what’s for dinner” variety five minutes before we have to prepare it. It often turns out to be salad and a meat, or meat and potatoes and peas (important standby in anyone’s pantry). Or pasta. Tuna and noodles (tuna in oil and whatever pasta is in the cupboard) is a favourite. Tuna is another cupboard staple.

As for going out to dine, how to get home afterwards is always more important than how good the food is. The restaurant needs to be close.

So although we write a lot about food, but we don’t always think about it.

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Writing process

Hugo nominations are open

The CoNZealand email that popped into my mailbox last week mentioned that Hugo nominations were open.

I can only nominate stories I have read and liked. Here are some novels I am thinking of nominating.

The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons. This is one of those books I picked up, read a bit, flicked to the end, read the end, went back to read the middle, moved on to read a bit more that I hadn’t read, and so on. I didn’t read it in sequential order, but despite that, enjoyed it.

Kihrin is an orphan who grew up on storybook tales of long-lost princes and grand quests, but when he is claimed against his will as the long-lost son of a treasonous prince, Kihrin finds that being a long-lost prince isn’t what the storybooks promised.

Finder by Suzanne Palmer. We were interviewed recently by Paul Semel and he asked us to recommend some space opera that we’d read recently and liked. This was one of them.

Fergus Ferguson goes to out into the far reaches of human-inhabited space to repossess a spaceship and gets caught up in a civil war.

Another story we recommended in the interview was Michael Mammay’s Spaceside, book two in his stories about Carl Butler.

Former colonel Carl Butler is now a civilian and he’s asked by his company to investigate a breach in a competitor’s computer network.

I also read and enjoyed Jackson Ford’s The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind. It’s set in modern-day LA. I suppose you’d call it an urban fantasy. Or would that be science fiction set in today’s world?

Tegan Frost can move things with her mind. So far as she knows, she’s the only person who can, so when a body turns up murdered using powers like hers, she’s the logical suspect. She has 22 hours to clear her name.

Looking through Goodreads’ list of 2020 Hugo-eligible novels, I see that T. Kingfisher’s Minor Mage is nominated. This is a story about a 12 year-old boy, and I know Ursula Vernon, who writes as T. Kingfisher, said editors considered it too black for a children’s novel, but technically it is a middle grade story. To me, anyway. If it is eligible, in any category, I will nominate it. This is definitely a book worth reading.

Oliver is twelve, and a very minor mage (he knows three spells), but while his mother is away the villagers ‘encourage’ him to take a journey to bring back the rain.

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Writing process

The Untamed

It’s hot

It’s super-muggy here. We’ve just had a massive hailstorm (hail as big as golf balls) but the temperature didn’t drop so now it’s so muggy, and even the big hailstones are gone. The hail was so loud the first few landing on the roof sounded like gunshots. As more arrived it that changed to continuous popping, more like New Year’s eve fireworks.

If we’d had any peaches left on our tree they would have been ruined. Sadly, it never gets that far nowadays. The possums and/or cockatoos finished those off a while ago. Little beasts wait until things are ripe and juicy, then strip the tree overnight.

Publication day

Stars Beyond is published on Tuesday. We hope you enjoy it.

The Untamed

Before Christmas I started watching I binge-watched the fantasy c-drama The Untamed.

“You have to watch this show,” I told Sherylyn. “You have to.”

When we recommend books (and tv shows) to each other, there are degrees of recommendation. Mostly it’s, “This book is okay. I think you’ll like it.”

“You have to watch,” translates to “I love, love, love this show, and you will too.”

It’s a zombie story about greed, ambition, and revenge. It’s heart, though, is a story about brothers. About family and friends, and supporting each other, even if the person you are supporting doesn’t know that you are.

It’s all about the characters and they are awesome.

It’s based on a fantasy called Mo Dao Zu Shi (The Grand Master of Demonic Cultivation) written by Mo Xiang Ton Xiu.

I appreciated the story both as a reader (or viewer, in this case)—loved the characters—and as a writer. It’s well plotted and it slowly gives out information (conniving and emotionally manipulating, but in a good way) via flashbacks that totally changes how the viewer interprets an earlier scene. It’s so clever, and you don’t feel manipulated. Not like stories where a point-of-view character knows something but holds it back from the reader. In this case you usually find out more via a flashback, often from a different point-of-view character. There were a couple of times where I totally changed my view of a particular scene (and hence opinion of someone) as a result.

The first couple of episodes were confusing. So much so that I’m going to quote directly from something @TriviaLove tweeted on 17 January 2020.

Yes, the first few episodes are confusing, but like any good story, you get sucked in. You have to watch and wait for it to make sense. By episode five you are hooked.

They show that same scene again in episode 33, only with a lot more detail. By then you know what went before. As @TriviaLove says:

Later, I went back and watched those first few episodes. (Let’s be honest, I rewatched the whole thing, no mean feat given it’s 50 episodes.) They made a lot more sense, and I picked up so many things on the rewatch.

Come for the exotic fantasy, stay for the characters.

p.s. Sherylyn watched it, too, and she’s now rewatching.

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Writing process

Money as a stereotype

Today I paid cash for a notebook to write in. It’s the first time in six months I have paid cash for anything.  Tap and go is a boon for me. I no longer have to worry about finding an ATM, or always having to check if I’ve been to a bank before I go out with friends for coffee. 

I think there will always be a place for cash, but I think we are heading toward a mainly cashless society.  I think it’s inevitable. For most people not having to carry cash makes things easier. Over the last week, for example, I purchased online one item in US dollars, and one in Euro online, not to mention spent lots of money in local stores in Australian dollars. All on the same card, without having to do anything except either hand the card over, or provide the card number.

That’s a lot simpler than it would have been a generation ago, where for local purchases I would have required cash, while overseas purchase would require a cheque or money order in the currency I purchased the item.

At the same time, it’s becoming more difficult to get cash when you need it. Even ATMs are less common than they used to be.

Here in the modern world we think we’re the first to come up with a cashless/credit society, but we’re not.  The Mesopotamians and Harappans (Indus civilisation), for example, used clay tablets as a form of credit.  One might say there’s nothing new under the sun.

Many science fiction writers use a credit system for money in their stories. We did, in both the Linesman and Stars Uncharted series.  We called them credits. Original, huh?

It wasn’t until we were working out the monetary system for the story we are currently writing—a fantasy—that that I realised just how much of a stereotype credits are.  I mean, we’ll go to the trouble of creating money for a fantasy world—sure we’ll often use gold and silver, but not just ‘gold’ and ‘silver’—but all we use in science fiction is ‘credits’.

“A thousand platinum bars,” Viggo said.

A thousand!  He moistened his lips with his tongue. “A thousand platinum?” …

“Bars,” Viggo said, as if he wouldn’t know the difference between bars and pieces.

S. K. Dunstall

Credits, for us, are a lazy way of writing.  In the fantasy above I know exactly how many pieces a loaf of bread costs (two), but I have no idea how much the equivalent costs in credit. Surely, there are some basic things you should know about your society, like how much it costs to buy food to live on.  And I do have an idea of this, sort of, but it doesn’t translate to the page. You, the reader, don’t even know if credits can be fractions of a whole (for example, 2.2 credits) or only integer (22 credits).  Or maybe they’re like Vietnamese dong. Last time I looked there were around 23,000 dong for one US dollar.

So, next time we create a science fiction world (outside of the Linesman or Stars Uncharted universes), we’ll know exactly what our money system is, and how it works. And we’ll try not to use credits.

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Writing process

I have internet

I didn’t plan such a long blog silence, but I mucked up on the internet connections here and New Zealand, and refused to pay shipboard prices for more internet. Not only that, I forgot to download many of the books I planned to read onto my iPad.

Arrgh.

I have internet back now, and it feels good. We’ll be back to our regular Sunday blogs soon.

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Writing process

One month to go

Only one month to the day Stars Beyond is published.

We’re starting to get nervous.

For those of you who have book money to spend after Christmas, we can recommend a good book. Lots of fun, adventure in space. Great characters. Why not give it a try.

The book is out on 20 January.

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Writing process

Sydney

Flew into Sydney this morning to start our cruise. The sky was still hazy, but nowhere near as bad as it was a week ago.  Last week the harbour bridge was obscured with thick, black smoke.  This week you can see the bridge, even though the sky still looks smoggy.

As a result, the setting sun was a beautiful orange-yellow.  Photos never do it justice, but here’s what it looked like.

Sitting up so high on the ship, you can see how beautiful some of the older architecture in Sydney is.

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Writing process

Walking to New Zealand

The view from a ship gym.

Next week it’s cruise time.

If you read this blog you’ll know that both Sherylyn and I enjoy cruising. There’s something about being on the water that is magic. Not having to cook or clean is nice, too.

I love New Zealand. We cruised there last year, and we’re going back mid-year to WorldCon. We weren’t planning on going there again at Christmas, we planned to cruise the Aegean, or reposition from Southampton or Seattle to Sydney.  

But the New Zealand cruise was cheap, and the time was good, and we’re both really looking forward to it.

Last trip we did everything Lord of the Rings. This year we‘re doing nature. Particularly nature of a volcanic origin, because here in Australia our land is geologically stable, relatively speaking, and has been for a long time. New Zealand, however, is on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Show me some geysers and hot springs, please.

Anyway, we picked out a tour that’s going to take us into the area we want. It has a three kilometre ‘moderate’ walk.

“I don’t think you realise how unfit I am,” I said to Sherlyn, who goes to Zumba twice a week.

“You’re not that bad,” she said. “We used to walk a lot.”

That was a long time ago now, and I haven’t done any real exercise for twelve months. Life right now is work, home, dinner, sleep, and get up the next day and do it all over again. I don’t even take the stairs at work any more as I have a dodgy knee.

Around the same time, my work had one of those get fit initiatives where you join a team and count the number of steps you do each day.

“I’m in,” I said. It was perfect timing to get fit for the cruise.

I struggled. Not because I had to walk—although that was hard—but because my dodgy knee decided to play up. It was agony.

It still is.

Sherylyn has ordered some walker’s sticks for me. If I take some weight off the knee it helps (it would help even more if I lost some weight) but I’m still not as fit or as fast as I’d like to be.

Hence I have decided to walk to New Zealand.

Not all the way, of course, because there’s so much to do on board, but those of you who have been on ships might know that two prime forward viewing areas of the ship are taken up by the beauty salon and the gym.

One thing I do enjoy on a ship is the treadmill. There’s the ocean in front of you, and not much else. It’s a perfect place to dream.

All I want by the end of it is to be able to walk three kilometres in reasonable time.

As for the knee, we’ll see how that is on the day.

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Writing process

The Shreader

The Shreader crew.
I’m feeling bad because I didn’t write down the names of the people doing the Shreader, and I can only name three of them. From left to right–Kim Wilkins, author, Sue Wright, editor and publisher, and Justine Barker, agent. I can’t put a name to the the convenor, sorry, but he read the manuscripts. If anyone can identify him, let me know in the comments.

Another GenreCon has been and gone. It was a lot of fun, with some stand-out sessions.

The conference was two weeks after Sherylyn and I ran an editing session down here in Melbourne, and some sessions particularly made an impact because I was still thinking about the course.

The Shreader

One session I want to talk about is the Shreader, where ten brave souls submitted the first two pages of their manuscript to an author, an agent and an editor, and they decided whether they’d read more or pass (shred).

It takes courage to put yourself out in public like that, even when you’re a published author with an editor and an agent behind you. For newbies, who don’t even have that experience behind them, it can be a raw experience.  It’s one I’d recommend, however, if you think you can take it.

As newbie writers we put our work out there and want praise. What we need, however, is constructive feedback. We also need the ability to listen to that feedback, the thick skin that comes from experience of being critiqued. It allows us to dissociate ourselves from the work being considered—mostly, anyway.

The Shreader is a harsh way to get this feedback, but it’s real life, and if you can face something like the Shreader and get value out of it, you’re levelling up as a writer. Good on you.

My two cents

The writing was good in all samples, but only four made it past the shredder.

You got a hint of how different stories appeal to different people, with those on the stage who liked fantasy showing more interest in the fantasy offerings, and—I think it was the agent, who specialised in children’s and young adult fiction—showing more interest in a story that was likely to be young adult. I found this myself, as I listened. Whilst the samples were all well-written there was only that caught my interest enough to want to read more.

It’s like picking up books in a library. I borrow roughly one in ten of those I read the blurb on.

I would say that for me many of stories felt as if they started too early. They also contained a lot of backstory. One of the things we touched on in the course we ran two weeks earlier was infodumps, so I was still very aware of how much backstory slows down the narrative, particularly in the first few pages, where you’re trying to capture the reader’s attention.

Resonating with Theme

The other session was Rob Porteous’ Resonating with Theme.

In this session, Rob talked about his years of judging the Aurealis awards. I’m working from memory here, because I didn’t write it down, but Rob said that the stories he judged were mostly well written, and 80% of them started off with a great idea. However, few of them carried through on the promise of the story.

It came immediately after The Shreader, and the two sessions seemed to cover a theme. Not Rob’s theme, which was about putting a theme into your story, but a thread of how you can write well, and have great ideas but still not be quite there.

When it is there, however, that’s when the magic happens.

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Writing process

A wasted Halloween opportunity

I went to see the ophthalmologist today, got another injection in my eye.  It sounds worse than it is. Modern medicine is wonderful.  Except for a few hours discomfort while the pupil dilation goes down (from the tests they run prior) and a slightly aching eyeball for a day, it’s quite painless, really.

The results, however, can be spectacular.  Sometimes the eye gets very, very, bloodshot. 

It’s not the injection that causes this, but that sometimes the needle breaks a blood vessel on the surface of the eye and it bleeds. Your eyeball is red for up to two weeks afterwards.

Other times you can’t even tell an injection has been done.

The thing is, I can’t see it.  Other people can. They’ll be talking to you, look you in the eye, and say things like, “Are you all right?” or “Oh my god, what happened to your eye?”

I’m going to have to change my appointments, however.

Here in Australia we never used to celebrate Halloween, but lately it’s become a thing, and some houses go all out.  I’m missing an opportunity .

Imagine if I get my eye done just before Halloween.  My eye is red.  Maybe I’ll put a patch over the other eye, then tie a torch to a magnifying glass, and hold it up to my face when I answer the door. Is that scary enough?