Monsters

Spoilers for The Shape of Water.


(And highly unrelated pictures, because I’m hazy on copyright law for movie stills.)

Last night, I saw The Shape of Water, which recently won an Oscar and (more importantly in my world) has been talked up by The Mary Sue.

I walked into the movie saying to Chris, “I have no idea why a movie about fish sex just won Best Picture.”

I walked out saying the same thing. I still don’t get it.

The Shape of Water is a fantastic movie. No doubt about that. So I watched a brilliantly written and acted speculative fiction movie and… the more I think about it, the less I like it.

I certainly do appreciate that this is a movie for and about freaks: a fishman, a mute orphan, a black woman (possibly an atheist), an older gay man, and a Russian scientist. (The villain is an oh so heterosexual white man.) It’s also really cool that the film doesn’t suffer from the “male gaze” problem that so many films do (there’s a “normal” sex scene which made the audience audibly horrified, and sexy scenes with Eliza and the fish man focus on her pleasure via her delighted smile). Guillermo del Toro was very careful to give the fish man a lean, muscular body (and especially butt) for female audience members to appreciate (seriously; he consulted regularly with his wife and others) but there aren’t any lingering shots of the fish man either. It is, in short, not a film that’s all about being sexy to the audience.

However, the movie makes it abundantly clear that yes, Eliza (the main character) and the fish man definitely have sex. In her extremely interesting video on Monster Boyfriends, Linday Ellis says The Shape of Water finally took the monster movie “where scores have women  had wanted it to go for decades”.

I am just not one of those women. I’m a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. Surely my imagination and empathy aren’t letting me down right here in my favourite genre?

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I really like Lindsay Ellis’s take that “Beauty and the Beast” stories are a way for women to talk about their anxiety—and hope—when facing the daunting spectre of arranged marriage. I’ve spoken to quite a few Indonesian people who are in happy arranged marriages and it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years (and that I’m not necessarily opposed to… except of course that it gives men even more power than they already have, with the inevitable awful results in way too many cases).

Elliss’s video has changed my view of the entire “Beauty and the Beast” concept, except of course that (a) Most of the audience is NOT facing arranged marriage, so there’s clearly something else at play (b) The idea of a super-virtuous female changing a bad man into a good man is so awful. First because that’s a classic inverse of famous abuser lines (“I love you, but sometimes you just make me so angry I can’t help it.”), secondly because it relies on fundamental personality change for a relationship to work, which is both patronising (don’t ever go into a relationship thinking you can mould someone to your specifications) and dangerous (false hope and false reality, both of which aren’t healthy).

I DO think that a healthy relationship improves people, but in a mutual and mutually beneficial way. I like a romance where people are partners, and I hate a relationship where someone (pretty much always the woman in a hetero pairing) is the parental figure—either disrespecting their partner, doing more than their fair share of the work, or constantly nurturing someone who doesn’t nurture them back. (This is a topic very close to home as my husband has inattentive ADD, which causes a lot of behaviour that appears childish in a grown man. Luckily-?-my own anxiety and bad health causes a lot of childish-like behaviour in me, too.)

The adjacent idea of “Men will do anything for a pretty woman” is also super problematic. It’s linked to rape culture as well as the infantilising of men (which then links to men not doing their share of household chores, which isn’t good for anyone). I do understand the appeal of that idea. I like the idea of women being powerful, even if only because they own a pair of boobs.

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Ellis’s video also talks about King Kong and other movies, and the shift from hatred of monsters to sympathy. She says that, overall, monsters tend to represent the anxieties of whatever time they’re written in.

Which brings us to King Kong. Unfortunately, any kind of primate tends to represent (unconsciously or otherwise) black people, and it’s no coincidence that the darkest/hairiest monsters tend to be paired with the whitest possible females (Sally Hawkins is incredibly white, and her fish man is dark—another problematic element of The Shape of Water). King Kong isn’t a romance (or is it?) but a story of how a white woman is more powerful than a black man (and/or monster). Which is appealing, even to me, but also deeply messed up as I explained above.

On reflection, I think the romantic “monster” of modern books/movies is all about the “bad boy” thing. (Or, in some cases, a case of “Us freaks have finally found each other” crossed with “OUR romance is special and unique”. Both of which I’m actually fine with.)

I have a really close friend who I respect deeply (and who is an adult, mother, and wife) who loves both Twilight and Beauty and the Beast. Both of us are married to very stable, reliable men. Her life is quite stable and responsible and adult-like because her husband has a stabilising influence (it’s not boring; they can do really cool things with their whole family because they actually do planning and budgeting and stuff); my life is risky and chaotic and exciting because I know my husband will be there when I fail. So I think that might be at the heart of things. The bad boy appeals because he is exciting; ditto monsters. To me the bad boy has no appeal because I am already wild and destructive and risky. I am the monster, so I don’t look for those qualities in a partner.

Yep, I think that’s it. Okay! I feel better about monster movies now.

So what about the movie?

First, let’s talk masturbation. The Mary Sue web site loved the fact that Eliza’s life was perfectly content—she didn’t need a man (amphibious or otherwise). She was sexually satisfied by pleasuring herself, and her daily routine was exactly what she wanted it to be. When I watched the movie I wasn’t sure what the purpose of showing Eliza’s masturbation was—why have a masturbation scene, when it clearly wasn’t to titillate the audience?

I think a lot of it was just to say, “Yes, this is set in the 60s, but people were sexually active then too”, so that it felt more natural for her to have a sexual relationship with someone (the fish man, in this case) that she hasn’t known very long.

And I think it was also to hint that Eliza wasn’t necessarily entirely human herself. She was a foundling discovered by a river, with what looked like knife slashes on her neck that later turn into/turn out to be gills. She masturbates in water because she’s part fish person herself. (The fish man is clearly very comfortable mating with a human, so it’s entirely possible fish people have been interbreeding with humans.)

So that’s fine. I found it slightly jarring that Eliza’s face is quite old for a romantic lead (why, she’s over forty! Which is lovely) but her body is VERY young. Not a wrinkle, freckle, sag, or blemish.

Eh, I’m probably just jealous.

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I mentioned earlier that the film is all about freaks, which is lovely. (A mute woman, a gay man, etc.) But I hated hated hated that the gay man’s crush was on a twenty-something. The actors are about forty years different in age, and the crush was framed in the film as sweet and life-affirming and charming. I just found it creepy. I would have found it creepy in any much older person crushing on a much younger person, but so much homophobia is based on the idea that homophobia = pedophilia, and although that’s nonsense, having a huge age gap like that in a film is really unhelpful.

I was surprised and disappointed at how little time was spent developing the relationship between Eliza and the fish man. To me, you get to know someone and have a deep connection with them, then you have sex. In the movie, the fish man learns how to say “egg” and “music” and… that’s it. It’s clear that time is passing and there’s more to their growing friendship that we the audience don’t see, but they never actually have a conversation. Couldn’t we have a scene where Eliza and the fish man actually talk to each other? It doesn’t even need to be in words (or in sign language, or whatever). Although having said that, how about they learn one another’s names? Or invent names for each other?

It just didn’t seem to me as if there was much more to the relationship than a bit of sex and a rescue (which is noble and exciting, but doesn’t make a relationship). Clearly the movie portrays sex AS communication/connection.

Okay, fine. Sorta.

It also disturbed me very much that the fish man was child-like in some ways. That’s never not going to make me hate a romantic pairing. I’m fine with someone having fun and being silly, but I’m not okay with someone having the intelligence of a child and then having sex.

Much is made of the fish man’s intelligence, but he doesn’t behave like an intelligent adult. He behaves like an intelligent child.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.

And I have one more big problem with the movie (an issue linked to the slightly-off choice of a speaking woman actress for a mute character—when it would be so much better to use a mute actress). I feel like the movie contradicts itself. Eliza appears content from the beginning of the movie (in her rather ordinary life), and she has two excellent friends who don’t see her as a mute woman but as a person.

But then she gives an impassioned speech about how the fish man is happy to see her, and doesn’t see her as incomplete.

Sure, that’s nice. But she already has at least two friends who don’t see her as incomplete either. She’s doing just fine. So what is that speech doing there? There are so many other things she could have spoken passionately about at that exact moment.

Then, in a scene that a lot of people love, she is sitting across the table from the fish man knowing she soon has to let him go, and she sings to him and has an imagined dance sequence with him (much like the TV she loves to watch). So she longs to talk—and sing. Fair enough.

Except… she was so content until then. So it’s as if the fish man brings out her unhappiness, making her life and sense of self seem poor and shabby when they were fine before. No relationship should make you feel worse about yourself or your disabilities (a passing moment of wistfulness, sure—but not an iconic movie scene, weighted with meaning).

I would have been so much happier if her impassioned speech was about something—anything—else. The character is so much more than her disability, yet the movie treats her muteness as her most important character trait in the two most emotional scenes. I hate that.

Maybe the masturbation was all bout Eliza longing desperately for a romantic relationship—the one thing her life lacks most (other than a nicer apartment and job, two things that apparently never bother her). But a romance is so much more than sex. In my opinion.

 

And, finally, the body horror of the bad guy’s injured fingers is a total cliche, in my opinion, and something rather unworthy of a film that treats a fish man as beautiful and a mute woman as the hero. Yeah, I get that the bad guy is… well… bad. So does that mean everyone with a physical deformity is bad, too? So muteness is fine but physical disability = evil?

I really wanted to like this film, and there are so many wonderful and original things about it. But I don’t have a thing for monsters, I don’t think adult-child romances are ever cute, and I don’t think being mute is the most interesting (or the most tragic) thing about Eliza.

A little piracy

Last weekend I ran a stall at CanCon for three days. It’s Canberra’s biggest board game gathering, and this was the 40th year.

 

I wore corsets! It was so exciting! And there was a T-Rex. I’ve already booked the exact same stall location for January 2019.

I also wore my pretty pretty princess outfit:

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I didn’t actually take a proper camera. Most of these photos were taken on my kindle (NOT recommended, but awfully handy at times).

I’m uncommonly proud that I wore my hair three different ways over the three days. I’m often too tired to brush it before leaving the house.

My new and improved post-surgery body held up pretty well, although I was as careful as I could be while still staffing the stall. I rested a lot today, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent injury to myself (I had a lot of ominous blisters and aches and suchlike, but luckily I have a lot of hospital-grade bandages which I used with great care, changing them every day). My wheelchair was handy because it made me feel comfortable sitting down (otherwise I’d feel rude), and because the armrests help support my back.

I sold a massive amount of books, and let a lot of people know about the free pirate ball happening on Saturday 17 February. My daughter also celebrated her 6th birthday on Saturday morning with a dress-up pool party (while my fellow author, Annabelle Lee, manned the stall at CanCon). Two of the younger siblings of her friends are BFFs with my son, so I took one of my favourite sets of photos ever:

These three boys are just as adorable in real life as they look in the pictures.

On the last day of CanCon I received the full set of illustrations for The Monster Apprentice! Tash Turgoose does photorealistic pencils and I’ve been dying to see her work. Here are three small versions of some important characters: Captain Sol, an evil pirate; the heroine, Dance, coming face to face with a heest monster; and Ransom, who. . . well, you’ll have to read the books to find out.

 

You can immediately see that the fantasy world of Rahana was inspired by Indonesia. And that asking to have Tash Turgoose illustrate the books was a genius move on my part. I saw her book, Makeshift Galaxy, and I’ve been in awe ever since.

Why YES, she is one of the authors (and writers for that matter) for Murder in the Mail. Incidentally, I’m already taking pre-orders for Murder in the Mail. Details in the forum here.

The Monster Apprentice will be launched at the pirate ball on Saturday 17 February. It’s Book 1 of the Heest Trilogy, which is suitable for 10-14 year olds (and also people like me, that just like a great story). It’s likely there are more Rahana stories to come after this trilogy, too.

Sandy Fussell is one of my absolute favourite children’s authors (I own the entire Samurai Kids series), so I asked her for a cover quote for The Monster Apprentice. She gave me a selection! Here’s one:

  • The Monster’s Apprentice will transport you somewhere wonderful, unlike any world you’ve imagined. Caught between terrifying Heest monsters and murderous pirates, with only her name for a weapon, Dance must defend the ice island of Luar and its people.

She also said “I wish I had Felicity’s imagination” which is simply ludicrous. If you read any of her books, you’ll know why.

But I don’t mind a little flattery. I am a writer, after all.

And here’s the final trailer for The Monster Apprentice, for the three humans who haven’t seen it yet.

https://www.youtube.com/my_videos?o=U

 

My 2017: No wonder I need a lie down

What an epic year. I spent over 15 years of my life writing novels that nobody would touch, and now that it’s started to rain it’s pouring (which is a wonderful thing).

I spent vast amounts of time on the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” app (Google Play and iOS). It’s a story hub for serial interactive tales and it has over a million downloads of the free sample sections. The three stories so far are:

“And The Sun Went Out”

A near-future scifi which I co-wrote with KG Tan and Alyce Potter. It had 60 updates over 15 months, and clocked in at just over 600,000 words (longer than “War and Peace”). Each read-through is about 150,000 words.

“And Their Souls Were Eaten”

I wrote all of this one (edited by Phill Berrie and KG Tan), set in the same steampunk universe as my Antipodean Queen novels, but with a completely distinct magical problem (and taking place in Europe). The finished tale is 400,000 words long, and after that I had a nice lie down.

“And Their Heroes Were Lost”

Phill Berrie is writing, and KG and I are editing (oh how the tables are turned, hey Phill?) This is also sci-fi, but I don’t want to give away any more than that! Phill is still working on this story, and his fans are clamouring for each new update.

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I also wrote, edited, and published the novel “Antipodean Queen 2: Silver and Stone“, and will be finishing that trilogy in 2018 with “Antipodean Queen 3: Iron Lights” (that’s right: the title has changed since Book 2 was published).

AND my actually-rather-good pirate fantasy trilogy for kids (like Narnia, but with pirates) that I wrote many years ago has been accepted for publication and shall begin release with a free pirate mini-ball (live music, prizes, costumes, and everything!!) on Saturday February 17th.

“The Monster Apprentice” is the first book. And it’ll be illustrated, too! Plus (shh don’t tell) one of my very very very favourite Aussie authors is going to read it and give me a cover quote!

And I have three other very exciting projects coming out in 2018! One I can’t talk about yet, one will be published on the premium label at Choice of Games (they pay VERY well for books that make the premium grade), and one is called “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” and is a murder mystery told entirely through postcards, letters, objects, and art. That link is to the shiny new forum where readers will be able to talk to one another about who they think is the killer, and how much they love all the art I chose!

2017 was a great year for my writing, and 2018 is going to be even better.

I is happy.

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Things are looking up.

Sad, Bad, Mad: Cat Person

The New York Times published a short story, “Cat Person” and people have gone a bit nuts over it. Including me.

Minor things first:

*Trigger warning: This article might bring up traumatic memories for some people.

*Cats are awesome and cat people are awesome. Cats are not the point of the story. (But some of us will lie awake wondering about them all the same. Are they real? Am I? Are you?)

*The cats are definitely not real. I’m sure of it now. Cats feign disinterest but would definitely come to investigate the smells of a new person in their territory. Which means Robert’s creepiness factor just went up to eleven. Fake cats? That’s bonkers.

*There’s a fascinating interview with the author here.

*Yeah, that excessive close-up photo that goes with the story is super gross. I have to put my hand up to my screen to block it out whenever it comes up.

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#fixedit

*Also, the story gets really into fat-shaming Robert, which is cheap and gross and suggests immaturity on the part of the writer (as well as, of course, the character). The writing clearly mocks the viewpoint character for her various delusions, but Margot’s disgust at Robert’s extra weight is written about non-critically. It’s about as deep as having an evil ugly witch who is baaaad.

*Yes, gay folks are most welcome to have a “Lol, you poor sad heteros!” moment. Because although a lot of the story does apply to anyone attempting to negotiate dating, the deepest, scariest level of the story is absolutely about what women face when dating men.

*A lot of men feel disturbed and defensive about the story, or simply feel that it’s stupid. Although all art is subjective, most of the men that dislike the story are missing that deep, scary level of the tale. I’ll address the valid points of negative male reactions later.

*It is deeply saddening for speculative fiction lovers that no one in the story turns out to be even slightly feline. Agreed.

*The main characters’ names, Margot and Robert, make me think of Margot Robbie. This is never a bad thing.

Summary (including spoilers)

Margot meets a guy who is pretty average but witty in text form. They eventually have a kind-of date with very bad sex and then Margot texts him (technically her room-mate texts him) to end things, and he calls her a whore.

The deep, scary bit that hurts to think about

There is an underlying tension to the story that a straight female reader (or anyone in a non-male body who has dated a man) has a visceral response to: While on the surface the relationship is mundane (and in the thoughts of the main character it varies as she judges and re-judges the situation), the third layer is the knowledge that Robert has the physical power to rape or kill Margot at virtually any time (and could probably get away with it too).

Women

live

with

this

knowledge

every

day.

Here’s the worst part, the part the story doesn’t even touch on: When a women is a victim of violence, it is almost always at the hands of someone she knows. Someone she trusts. Someone she isn’t afraid of; not any more. Should I live in fear of Chris, my Chris, father of my kids and love of my life?

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Of course not!

Except, statistically, yes.

Women live in a world where half the people we know are bigger and stronger than us. We are taught from birth to be careful. Don’t go to certain places after dark. Don’t go to certain places at all. Carry mace. Keep your eyes open. Don’t wear certain clothes. Don’t drink too much. Learn self-defence. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.

Then at the same time we’re taught how to survive in the living world: Be nice. Don’t say ‘no’. Flirt. Wear heels and makeup. Marry a breadwinner. Have a private bank account. Don’t have a shrill voice. Don’t complain. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t be loud. Don’t be unlikable. Don’t get angry. Don’t cry in public. Don’t show weakness. Don’t drop your guard.

I am an innocent, partly because I choose to be and largely because my privilege allows me to be. I am white; I grew up thinking I was straight; until recently I was able-bodied.

One of my fictional characters (in a deleted novel) leaves her shoes above the high tide line of a beach while she wanders along the water. Her friend asks if she’s concerned about them getting stolen, and she admits that sometimes they are in fact stolen, but she’d rather have to buy new shoes sometimes than to constantly worry about her possessions.

At a certain point, women have to accept that we might get murdered—and then we befriend men anyway.

I met a man online who lives in Adelaide (I live in Canberra). We got to know one another online (as much as anyone can). Daniel visited Canberra, and we began dating. Then it was my turn to visit Adelaide. He picked me up from the airport and drove me back to his house.

Like a lot of Australian cities, Adelaide has sections of well-established bushland, many of them bisecting the city itself. Daniel and I had already joked about how one of us was most likely an axe-murderer, and as we passed through an unlit section of what appeared to be virgin bushland I felt my heart beat faster.

I didn’t rehearse in my head how to throw myself out of the car, or carefully recollect exactly where my phone was in case I needed to call the police. Instead I tried very hard to pretend I wasn’t afraid. Because when it comes to priorities, men’s feelings almost always come above women’s safety.

Now, spoiler alert, I wasn’t murdered. So I was arguably right to be polite. But that knee-jerk reaction to Be Nice At All Costs isn’t just manners—it’s another type of fear. What if Daniel had noticed and been offended that I’d thought such a thing of him, even just for a moment? What if he’d been so offended that he threw me out of the car, or punched me? That instinct to Be Nice—Or Else is hugely powerful and damaging. That right there is the reason women are frozen in terror when a man masturbates in front of them. He’s already crossed so many boundaries that trying to get away might just be the catalyst that leads to him doing so much more. It also applies to so, so many other awful situations: getting groped, getting overlooked for a deserved promotion, getting interrupted mid-sentence. Women’s default setting is less powerful, and the imbalance gets wider in a thousand different interactions every day. Because men don’t want to give up power, and they push back against women who try to change things.

It’s difficult for men to understand what it’s like from the other side of the gender divide. It’s not a fun think to think about. Quite often, a man will suddenly have a light turn on in their head when they have a daughter: Suddenly they understand the terrifying vulnerability of women from a position where it matters to them.

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I asked my mother once if she was scared of being raped. “I used to be,” she said, “then I had daughters. So now I’m afraid of my daughters being raped.”

I hesitated to include a picture of my daughter in this article. You all know why. Yet I didn’t pause for even a second when including a picture of my son. Of course not.

Back to the story. . .

The story plays with the conventions of three different genres, keeping the reader guessing since those genres have very different endings.

One is a romance. I felt myself give that little ‘Aww’ smile as certain beats were hit: The cute meet over Red Vines; the nearly-missed-it moment when the girl doesn’t really know why she gave the boy her number; the tension at silly misunderstandings. Margot gives Robert several chances, and for all her flaws I admire her for that. That genre always ends with a critical romantic moment (a wedding, or meeting the parents, or a first kiss) that indicates that the pair will live happily ever after.

As it turns out, this is not a romance.

The second genre is comedy; there is clearly a slightly dark, wry, self-deprecating humour as Margot’s expectations and opinions about Robert shift and change from moment to moment, only to be ultimately let down by the reality. This layer of the story is expertly done, highlighting the self-delusions and awkwardness of dating in a way that made millions of readers say, “That is the truest story I’ve ever read.” The comedy genre climaxes (oh, lolz) with the awkward horror of the sex scene.

The third genre is horror. When it becomes clear that it’s not a romance, the reader is left not knowing if this is a comedy or a cautionary tale. The horror genre ends with violence, usually with a sense that the protagonist has somehow brought it on herself by her foolish decisions. Margot risks her safety by giving Robert a chance—doubly so by going to his house, and any sexually active female (fictional or otherwise) is guilty for the purposes of fictional denouement. A story is sometimes sympathetic to the sexually active heroine, but it will still kill her for putting out. Stories understand, consciously or otherwise, that sex is dangerous for women and not so much for men.

But refusing sex, as Margot wishes she could do? That’s even more dangerous. Because the last thing you want to do is make a man angry. She’s very conscious of the need to soothe and console Robert (before, during, and after their ‘date’) and is sufficiently aware of her own vulnerability that she finds herself unable to figure out how to break up with Robert, even though she knows she must do it.

Is she promiscuous for sleeping with a man she doesn’t want to? Or is she a victim, unable to extract herself safely from a threat? Or is Robert a victim, lead on and discarded by a powerful (better educated, more attractive) woman?

In my opinion, only one of the above interpretations is a ‘yes’ according to the story—but it’s written well enough that the other questions are allowed to be asked.

Angry men on the internet

There’s a twitter handle set up just to repost men’s reactions to the story, mainly because a lot of men don’t understand the fear Margot feels, and/or they relate to Robert as the victim but feel he is portrayed as a monster.

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Margot is not a good person. Nor is she a bad person. She is vain, certainly. She lets her imagination run away with her as she tries to figure out what kind of person Robert really is. She flirts at work (an activity that is harmless, but could hypothetically lead to mildly hurt feelings).

This article is getting ridiculously long, so I’ll be brief: Yes, being a man (especially a straight white man) is the lowest difficulty setting in this game we call life (as written about by straight white male John Scalzi, here, including several follow-ups, one of which is  here). And, as John Scalzi and others have stated loudly and repeatedly, that definitely does not not not mean that the lives of straight white men aren’t hard or don’t suck. Life has times of suckitude for everyone, and many lives just suck from beginning to end, and it hurts to be in a sucky place and feel like others are telling you:

  1. Stop whining. My sucky place is suckier than your sucky place.
  2. Give some of the tiny scraps you have away to others.
  3. A lot of what is bad in the world is the fault of you and people like you.

All those three things are true of me and my privilege as well. My methods of coping are:

  1. Trying not to compare my pain to anyone else. That never ends well.
  2. Giving away a little (money, time, and mental energy) when I can, and trying to be aware of barriers that other people face and I don’t. This also means consciously supporting minorities when I can, and continuing to learn painful truths for the rest of my life. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.
  3. Pretty much the only way to deal with this is #2.

Is Robert a baddie?

I. . . I wasn’t sure, but then I reread the story.

The first hint of a red flag is when Robert steps back from Margot’s very mild flirtation “as though to make her lean toward him, try a little harder”. If someone stepped back from me, I would assume they were not into me and nothing more. It probably wouldn’t even be a conscious thought on my part. It’s unclear if Margot is interpreting him this way or if the story is. It’s a very very subtle form of negging.

He calls her ‘Concession-stand girl’ which is either cute or insulting. Could go either way.

He plays it a bit cool with texting, letting her choose whether to keep texting or not. That’s more of a positive sign than negative, and their sharp humour is the one real connection they have. Another good sign.

He kisses her on the forehead “as if she was something precious” which charms Margot but also suggests fetishisation of the big man/little woman dynamic. In both directions.

The silly scenario they play out via their cats involves jealousy and tension. Is that because Robert is the jealous or possessive type?

He sends a heart-eyed smiley at the mention of her parents, which is a good sign.

Then he acts strange and cold after spring break. A red flag on its own, and even more so when it turns out he is jealous of an entirely fictional potential ex (although it certainly shows that he and Margot have imaginative portrayals of one another in common).

It takes longer than it should for him to stop being unpleasant and weird, and it also seems he’s trying to impress her due to feeling insecure about her higher education and youth.

(There are plenty of red flags about Margot, too—particularly the way his grouchy behaviour makes her feel honoured by his vulnerability. That kind of attitude puts her at high risk of an abusive relationship.)

When she begins to cry during the humiliating ID incident, he kisses her for the first time—like her, he is emboldened by vulnerability, even or especially as a flaw. This is a two-way red flag. Vulnerability is good, certainly, but both Margot and Robert are genuinely turned on by it. It’s not intimacy they crave, but power. That’s messed up.

I’ll stop there rather than pick apart the story line by line. Men who hate the story see Margot as more powerful: She is young and beautiful; she is the viewpoint character; she is more educated than Robert.

But is the risk of rejection as bad as the risk of being murdered?

Of course not.

But. . . is the 90% certainty of being rejected as bad as the .001% likelihood of being murdered?

I don’t know.

There are two more points worth making. First, Robert is 34 and Margot is 20. Once again, that gives Robert power. It’s also a big red flag. (Margot guessed he was in his mid-twenties and was off by a decade so this one’s all on him.) There are loads of thirty-something single women, so why isn’t Robert dating one of them? At best it suggests he prefers younger, prettier woman. Given the rest of the story, it strongly suggests he likes all the power he can get—needs it, because he is so insecure he doesn’t stand up straight.

The age difference could be just coincidence (after all, Robert doesn’t realise she can’t get into a carded bar, and is horrified she might be a virgin) except then Robert appears in the same student bar that he earlier mocked. What is he doing there? There are three possible answers. If one is extremely charitable, one could argue he has decided to study (why not? He’s smart—except it’s clearly in the middle of the semester, so no). It’s far more likely he’s looking for a new twenty-something to hook up with. Or, worse, he is looking for Margot. Either way, this is the moment we know for certain that something is definitely truly off about Robert, and while the Secret Service-style exit of Margot and her friends is needlessly dramatic, she is also genuinely afraid. And at this point, that is not being dramatic. Her friends know it, and they know what all women know: there is safety in numbers. That is the only safety women can draw on.

One of my friends was attacked at a bar because her friend was too drunk to protect her. I feel disgust at the men, but I have a burning fury at the woman who abandoned my friend.

Women protect each other. That is the law. That is how we survive.

Here’s an interesting fact: not all that many people are attracted to me. (That’s not the interesting bit.) Of the dozen or so people that ever confessed attraction to me, three were more than a decade older than me.

One of those men I never knew well. The other two both have a very clear pattern of dating younger women. One prefers women who are sexually inexperienced (not necessarily virgins, but women who lack the confidence of a past healthy romantic relationship they can use to spot his patterns of abuse). The other’s self-esteem is strongly based on being helpful, so he tends to be attracted to people who are needy in some way (usually mentally ill, or those who have been abused, or both). When I dated him, I found myself acting depressed and unhappy when actually I felt fine. It took me a very long time to figure out that I was unconsciously adapting to what he wanted in a relationship.

So again, you have older men grasping for power of various kinds over a younger woman. (Dating suuuuuuucks!)

There’s one final red flag about Robert: When they spot one another in public later he sends Margot a series of texts. They start friendly and then get harsher and more jealous, ending with the final word: “Whore.”

It is a punch of an ending, revealing the true character of the man who seemed harmless and sweet.

But (say male readers) it’s just a word.

Robert insults Margot with time-honoured sexism, condemning her as the baddie with a blithe unawareness of the irony of condemning her sex act when he was there and participating at the time. He condemns her sexual activity, when it was her fear of his anger that caused her to have that sex at all. (No, it wasn’t assault. . . but it wasn’t an empowered choice either.)

The story ends there, but does it?

In real life, would Margot ever feel safe on campus again? He literally knows where she lives, not to mention where she works and where she eats and drinks.

He is angry. The beast of legend, the monster Margot had sex to pacify, has awoken.

Margot could never possibly know if his anger was “harmlessly” spent by insulting her via text, or if he will begin/continue to stalk her. Or if he’ll get drunk one night, three months from now, and break into her dorm and shoot her.

No woman ever quite knows. She only knows that if he wants to hurt her, he can.

Murder in the Mail

I wrote a guest post here about how I fell in love with steampunk. And it’s part of a series by a bunch of steampunky types.

I’m working on a new story called “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” which will be released by Publisher Obscura, Odyssey’s imprint for “beautiful and unusual novelty and gift books by Australian and New Zealand authors and artists”.

The fundamental concept is that it’s a cozy murder mystery that is told entirely through letters, postcards, objects, and art prints—all of which are physically posted to the reader through the mail. There are seven writers altogether (one for each character, including the victim) and six artists (five from Canberra, one from Obscura who lives in Brisbane). The story runs for about eight weeks, and I chose (or in some cases commissioned) art that was both beautiful AND something that helped tell the story.

Yes, some vital clues are hidden inside the artwork itself!

The objects are also clues about the murder (or other secrets), and chosen to be small enough to post but also to engage the senses—hearing, smell, touch, and even taste. Obviously the art is somewhat visual.

I’m deliriously excited about this project, which will probably come together bit by bit over the next 6-12 months.

Here’s one of the pictures that will be in the story (as a physical A4 print):

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This is one of the pieces of art from the story, which means everyone who buys the story gets a high-quality print of this (and seven other pieces in a range of materials). In real life, the photographer is Adam Lee. His website is here.

Update: The tentative release date is August/September 2018, and before then we’ll run a Kickstarter (which will have lots of fun & unique items, and will increase the advance given to all the contributors). And there will be a forum for people to talk murder, mystery, and art. Stay tuned!

Update: The story is well and truly up and running, with the main details here.

There are also Magic in the Mail stories!

What I earned this year

Full-time writers in Australia have an average income of around $12,000 (I know, yikes). In Canberra, which has a lot of good public service jobs, the average income is around $52,000.

I just did my taxes, and worked out that I earned just under $20,000 last financial year while working full-time. 100% of that came from writing (the vast majority from interactive fiction). So depending on one’s perspective, that’s either really impressively awesome, or shockingly awful.

If I was healthy and single and childless, I could probably survive on $20,000 a year. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve lived on the edge before. (I once spent $5/week on food for several months—but that was certainly not sustainable, even for a young and healthy person during friendly weather.) On the other hand, if I’d been babysitting for the same number of hours I spent writing, I’d have earned at least twice as much.

So, again, whether it’s awesomely good or awesomely bad is a matter of perspective.

It should be noted that I’m not healthy, or single, or childless. I keep a complicated house running fairly smoothly, and I look after two little people (and, in some respects, Chris—he is my carer in many ways, and I am his in some ways too). I am overwhelmingly not a healthy person, and some days I barely function at all.

So. $20,000. It’s both a huge and a tiny amount, and it’s $20,000 more than I earned for most of my writing career. Plus I can say “writing career” without sarcastic quotes these days.

It’s in my nature to always push myself for more. I’m sure that if I earned $100,000 last financial year I’d be looking for ways to earn more, or work less, or something. A lot of creative people look at others and think, “Wow. If my career was where theirs is, I’d be so satisfied!” I definitely remember specifically aiming for the impossible amount of $20,000/year at some point—a point at which $20,000 was as laughable as $100,000 is now.

I also have a book published—two, in fact, and at least four more on the way. I’m so famous that people seek me out at conferences, waiting for my latest book. I get fan mail quite often. I get people—quite a few people—saying “This is the best story I’ve ever read”. I even get actual reputable game companies emailing me to offer me work (I have two REALLY COOL projects on the go at the moment that I can’t talk about). My income doesn’t even cover our mortgage (or the medical expenses of this year), but why should it? I’m the closest thing to a stay at home parent our household has, so I’m doing a bunch of important and often difficult work before I earn a cent.

Have I convinced you that I’m not just messing around with this writing thing (after more than twenty years of devoting myself to the craft)? More importantly, have I convinced myself? Maybe a little bit. Certainly it’s time to pause and celebrate how far I’ve come, and to shift some of my pile of insecurities into the “irrational” pile.

So, yay. Much yay. And I suspect this financial year will be even better!

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Artist’s impression of a life of leisure.

Procrastination Technique #452: Reviews

I’ve written about reviews before, and I’m always fascinated, whether the review is positive or. . . not so much.

The Tin Man Games app “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” (including the second story, my steampunk fantasy, “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”) has just under a hundred reviews (mostly just stars) on itunes and has just passed 600 reviews on Android.

Android apps have a cool feature where they say how many people have installed an app, and this app, our app, has been installed over 50,000 times! It boggles my mind that so many people are reading words that I write, and it makes me evil laugh when I read the desperate pleas of addicted readers hanging out for their weekly story fix:

Mario Zalout wrote:

Love it It’s hard for me to find games like this. I constantly crave the story, wanting more. However, I’ve caught up with And Their Souls Were Eaten about 3 times, and I always hate the break I have to take in between. And The Sun Went Out helps with that though, and since I know it’s considerably longer I work at it whenever Souls needs an update.

Theresa Budd wrote:

Great game but… This is a really great game but I wish they would update the bear version. I was having so much fun playing it and now I’ve got as far as can but they need to update it so I can finish the story please.

Zachery Fitzpatrick wrote:

You’ll love the story …..untill you get a nice distance in…. then the book shuts itself on your fingers and then throws itself into a fire and tells you wait for a update.

Trevor Veltema wrote:

So good Honestly the best game I’ve played, I was on it from 12am to 7 am, it’s very addicting

Johannes Haler wrote:

UPDATE MORE PLEASE The story And The Sun Went Out is easily one of THE best stories I’ve ever read. The plot about how the sun disappesring and stuff is just amazing! Please, I’ve reached the part where update is needed and I NEED MORE! Thank you Tin Man Games, for making reading fun, and making one of the best books I’ve read!

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There’s a whole sub-group who are angry that you have to pay (or watch ads) to read the whole story. Since I know exactly how much I earn (hint: not an enormous amount), I’m not entirely sympathetic to these:

Alper Can Buyuk wrote:

Ad-fest So you need “choice-tickets” to make decisions and progress the story. The only way to get these is either purchasing them, or buying a pass which allows you to progress through the app. The other option is watching a 30 second ad for a measly 3 tickets, completely breaking the immersion. Shouldn’t be a free app in the first place if this is the way the devs are gonna go about it.

Franz Airyl Sapit wrote:

TOO PRICEY. NOT WORTH IT. In my local currency, two Story Pass (needed to play this,”pay to play”) of this game is worth as much as Dragon Age Origins, a PC game. Imagine that.

Kaneki Ken wrote:

Money-grubbing morons. Whoever is the developer(s) of this game is seriously an annoying one. Not only do you deem it, unfavourable to have a narrator. To continue the story, you force us to give you money? How cheap is that of a practice! You don’t deserve money of you’re too lazy to have a voice actor!

In their defence, ebooks are sold in a much simpler system. There’s a big yellow button that says “free sample” and it’s easy to understand that the free sample is specifically designed to suck you into buying the book. These story apps are exactly the same thing, but app stores list them as “free, with in-app purchases” which isn’t deliberately misleading but it feels like it is.

Sadly, there are sometimes bugs and those reviews are always awful. The only up side is that bug-fixing horrors are someone else’s job to fix. Yay?

I love it when reviewers give useful information (and even more when they rebut the “I don’t want to pay/watch ads” reviewers).

DERPING Dubstep wrote:

Worth the read Don’t expect this to be an adventure game with managing inventory and fight enemies. If your looking for that you better off getting something else but don’t let that deter you from this experience. Like it is described by the developers the story is really choice based. I noticed how different the story was when i looked at the screen shots and compared it to mine, i was surprised. (And their souls were eaten seems really interesting hope we get an update soon)

Kat Hargis:

Amazing Currently reading The Sun Went Out- and the story is compelling and leaves me craving more. It is definitely worth to purchase the Story Tickets pass or whatever it’s called. Not only does it support the creative geniuses behind the story, but it also keeps me satisfied with long reads rather than short ones. Compared to other choice-based novels, this one is probably my top pick, beating even TellTale games. Once again, definitely worth that I initially spent. Looking forward to the updates on the story!

krazykidfox wrote:

Fantastic I’ve read both stories up to date. They’re both fantastic, and I’m eagerly waiting for more content. Pick this game up, hands down. While yes, you do have to either watch ads or buy tickets to progress through the stories, it’s honestly a very fair and generous system that stands out from all of the Free-To-Pay mobile games out there. Props to you, devs. Get this, you won’t be let down.

I don’t have a name wrote:

Awesome (Currently reading “And The Sun Went Out”)Intriguing, mysterious, smart and a bit dangerous. I love the fact that, although the choices you have are both natural and logical and not extremely different from each other, any choice you make has a huge impact on the story, changing it in major but still subtle ways. The only downside, in my opinion is the fact that you can’t redo a choice. You have the option to start the whole story from the beginning but I don’t want to repeat everything just for one mistake

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I really love that people are passionate about the stories!

The first story has been running over 14 months and is well over 500,000 words altogether (although each read-through would be about 100,000 words – the length of a regular book). 

The person known as “I don’t have a name” is going to love the stuff that happens towards the end of the first story, when literally hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices have the power to save the world. . . or doom it forever.

The final final final piece of the story will be released roughly on Christmas Day. If you want to read the whole story from beginning to end—possibly several times, so you get different experiences—then this is your moment to jump on board!!

Conflux 2016

Conflux is Canberra’s speculative fiction conference. It happens every year on the October long weekend (even when that means starting in September, like in 2016 and 2017).

Each year features guests of honour from around Australia and the world; panels on a variety of topics (including deliciously blatant fanfests); workshops; book launches; pitching sessions; a dealer room; and opportunities to hang out with like-minded people (some of whom happen to be authors with varying degrees of fame). A few people do cosplay, which is always fun.

The reason I’m able to handle conferences when I can barely handle dropping my kids at school is simple: adrenaline. I’m generally moderately with it as long as I feel like I’m performing.

In 2014 TJ was a teensy baby and I had a sudden thought: I hadn’t finished a full original novel since Louisette was born in 2012. Had I lost the knack?

At around the same time I noticed there were five possible pitching sessions at Conflux: A large publisher, three smaller publishers, and an agent. I decided to pitch to every single one with a different book. That meant writing a brand new book in a couple of months (which I pitched to the agent, so I had time to edit it before any publishers saw it). That book is “Flight of Fancy.”

Satalyte accepted my pirate young adult fantasy novel “Stormhunter”. For various reasons it hasn’t been published yet, but it’s going to be published eventually. I love doing pitching sessions with publishers, because they’re always nice people and they like meeting authors.

In 2015 I pitched “Flight of Fancy” and “Heart of Brass”. Odyssey Books ultimately accepted “Heart of Brass”, which meant that this year I FINALLY had a book to actually sell to people!

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This year at Conflux I ran an interactive fiction workshop (lots of writers attend the conference every year), assisted with several panels (especially the steampunk ones), actually attended one session (very rare for me, since I get sore sitting in chairs without masses of adrenaline helping me out), and spent hours hanging out in the dealer room (mostly on the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) table rather than the Odyssey table, because there were four other Odyssey people there and it was crowded). The familiar tension of, “Why am I talking on a panel when I don’t even have a novel published?” was gone (it’s worth pointing out that I haven’t gotten any smarter or more interesting than last year – panellists should be readers, but their writing life is almost always irrelevant), and I enjoyed the new tension of, “I’m absolutely trying to sell my book here”.

Our family car died suddenly the day before Conflux, so travel was complicated (especially with the uncharacteristically vicious weather), which complicated matters. My interview on interactive fiction at the local ABC 666 radio station was an unexpected bonus.

It was definitely fun chilling out with friends (Odyssey, Satalyte, CSFG, and others) and I think I recognised about 60% of the people. Conflux is my “home” conference, and the CSFG (which runs it) is a truly excellent group of people.

I enjoyed taking stupid pictures of my book, too.

 

This year people walked past the bar/restaurant on the way to the conference, so there was plenty of hanging out over food/drinks which was really excellent too.

This Saturday I’ll be at the Book Expo in Parramatta (Sydney), which I’ve never been to before. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like!

Dancing, Duelling, Delicious: The official book launch for HEART OF BRASS

You know what’s cool? Nurofen tablets are sugar coated.

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HEART OF BRASS had her official Book Launch yesterday as part of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival, an absolutely huge event. I was written about (with a cover image) in Canberra Weekly magazine (96,000 readers!) and in the Canberra Times, as well as various other places.

The launch took place in the National Library of Australia (pictured behind the kids and I), in the Ferguson Room. The Ferguson Room overlooks the foyer of the National Library, which gives it a grand air and means one can watch guests coming in. That was particularly fun for me, since I’d encouraged steampunk/historical garb and was well rewarded for my efforts. My kids loved it too. Louisette got to talk into the microphone before anyone else showed up, and she imitated my own test speech by saying, “I wrote a book”—which in her case is quite true (if you haven’t read “The Adventures of Pirate Captain Louisette”, just scroll down a couple of entries).

 

I’m usually a very confident public speaker, but I was intensely nervous (enough to have patches of time when I was breathing funny) before this event, even though I was rationally confident it would go well.

The best and most important thing is people.

I was very lucky in that regard. The Ferguson Room is meant to seat forty people, which is rather a lot for a debut author—but within a day of setting up the facebook page (and SMSing and emailing various people to invite them personally), I knew I had at least twenty people. The phrase “book launch” is haunted by the horrifying spectre of a desperately awkward room of four people sitting in a sea of chairs and wishing fervently that they were elsewhere (none more miserably than the author). By the time the big day rolled around I was slightly nervous that the room would be unpleasantly crowded or that we’d run out of books for people to buy (what wonderful issues to have!) I estimated 50-60 guests beforehand, and I was exactly on the money. Someone had added a few more chairs to the room, which was useful. We sold a very healthy number of books without selling out altogether (my publisher and I both had extra stashes of books just in case). I would have liked to sell more, but this means that the National Library bookshop still has copies on the shelf (excellent promotion in itself).

50-60 people is a lot. That’s a larger number than any event I’ve hosted before (with the exception of my wedding), and it was in a location I didn’t know well.

I get panicky in new places. The National Library as a whole is somewhere I’ve been to many times, and I visited the room before the launch to get a sense of the space, but the technical equipment was new on the day. It all worked well (strange but true), including the book trailer and the dancing music. I really enjoyed the location and I wish I could start over so I could have that confidence from the beginning. Bring on Book 2!

Robbie Matthews is a friend, a writer, and a generally charming and funny person who’s well known to the Canberra writing community. He was MC at my wedding, and I was very pleased with myself for thinking of him again for the launch (especially as it prevented me from haranguing other authors who I don’t know as well).

At my wedding reception one of the tables was “the minion table”—full of people who’d helped decorate, give lifts, take photos, etc. As MC Robbie was on that table and he made friends. Then he made a highly memorable speech about the wide range of colourful threats I’d made to all my sweet innocent minions in order to let them know what would happen if they didn’t do their assigned jobs. I vividly recollect how impressed I was at the time that I’d subconsciously tailored original threats to each person.

As the book launch drew closer I wondered what Robbie would say about me, since I hadn’t threatened anybody this time. He got up and explained how we’d met: We did Live Action Role Playing (LARPing is like a play where all the players have a general character and plot outline and then improvise to amuse one another), and I was his fictional daughter. “By the end,” Robbie explained, “she was wearing my spine as a necklace.”

Oh yeah… I’d forgotten about that. (To be fair, my character was under a lot of stress at the time.) One may draw one’s own conclusions about my general mental health…

A lot of book launches are introduced by the writer’s publisher. It’s a very neat way to do things, but I always felt it was a bit sad since the author and publisher are the people who are the most desperate to sell the book. Having Robbie meant that we had a disinterested party recommending the book (which he read before the launch). That made me feel much less like a grasping novice.

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I realised belatedly that the reason I was so nervous was that I was, in the most literal sense of the phrase, “selling something” (and to an audience that was trapped for the duration, too). It’s impossible for a writer to truly know if a book is good or not (although being published certainly helps) and that’s why I always find book launch speeches so horrifying. I acquitted myself well enough, I think.

I’d described the launch to Louisette in advance, and she said she wanted to help with my speech, so when I got up I summoned her as well. She is an adorable child and was adorably serious about the entire process—but she stood bravely (by herself, because I needed to stay near the podium microphone). She was very pleased afterwards with her own courage. Hopefully this will lead her to be a confident public speaker, rather than turn her into a full-time writer (creative jobs have a high personal cost that I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

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Clothing is tricky while I’m still waiting for my stomach muscles to be put back together (not helped by weird sensory overstimulation stuff that tends to give me panic attacks if I wear new clothes), but I’d had an idea (on Friday) to adjust a favourite skirt, and that very much improved things for me.

My other main panic was that I’d simply forget to bring something essential. I started putting things in the car last Thursday, and although there were certain things I meant to do and didn’t, all the important pieces (such as a copy of the book to give away to the best costume, and having my kindle prepped on the podium for my reading) were in place.

This was all very much complicated by the fact that I’d gotten overenthusiastic and decided to write and run a Live Action Role Play game inside Questacon after the launch. But that’ll need its own entry 🙂

The tea duelling and catering was complicated by the fact that no outside food was allowed, and no food was allowed in the room. That meant paying a huge sum to the cafe (which reserved tables for us and did a great job from beginning to end) and having biscuits that were fresh and delicious but not the right kind for duelling. Although the cafe staff were excellent and the location classy, the lack of ability to bring in a pack of plain dry biscuits was annoying. Still, it was entertaining and it looks great in pictures (useful for media coverage, which is useful for selling books, which is the point). And even though we under-catered, most people were so distracted by the duelling that they didn’t eat or drink at all.

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The waltzing was a huge highlight. I had one couple primed to lead the way, and Louisette is an enthusiastic amateur. I figured I’d waltz with Louisette while my dancers hopefully lured a couple or two to join them over the course of the piece.

Actually, I danced with Chris the second the music started, and several other couples willingly took to the floor in an instant. The space was perfect (everyone moved the chairs back); roomy enough to dance without feeling either crowded or lonely.

It’s been a long time since Chris and I waltzed, and it was a lovely moment for both of us. I found out later that one of the other people dancing was stepping out (invited by a nearby acquaintance because Canberra is like that) for the first time since major surgery, and it made her realise she might be healthy enough to dance regularly again soon.

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Adrenalin does wonders in carrying my wreck of a body through things (in fact that’s probably part of why I do things like this—for a while, I feel normal). My muscles were freaking out last night as the adrenalin wore off, and today I’m weirdly sore in a dozen places (hence the nurofen). Luckily I’m not involved in the rest of the Canberra Writers Festival so I don’t need to do anything more strenuous than writing and napping for the rest of the day.

I still can’t quite believe how many people came.

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The launch was as close to perfect as it could be. The festival, venue, and volunteers were all top notch. Ultimately I wouldn’t change a thing.

Deadlines

I love deadlines.

That’s not sarcasm. The writing life consists largely of sitting alone in a room (or worse, sitting in the same room as young kids who I desperately hope are sufficiently distracted by the blaring TV) scowling at a screen as I invent worlds and people that absolutely no-one cares about except myself. Deadlines give me a sense of urgency and excitement that is sometimes sorely lacking. When a deadline is approaching I feel stressed, but (unless something else comes up and sends me hurtling over the edge) it also gives the sense that someone is waiting for that piece of writing – and that it matters.

Whether writing “matters” or not is a can of snakes that I won’t get into today. But, I do like deadlines.

At the moment I have four and a half deadlines coming up in the next month. Wheeeee!

One is for a novel submission that I promised someone I’d send in September (ish); two are for interactive fiction contests that are ending soon; and the other one and a half are for collaborative interactive fiction pieces (one of which I’m running, and the other of which I’m mostly acting as cheerleader while also writing a significant section).

Before I stumbled across the glorious cornucopia of interactive fiction (think “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories but better), I was going to make 2015 the year that I wrote a novel slowly. It would be an experiment in writing against my usual nature, and perhaps discovering that my writing was much better if I was less manic about it. Then I found interactive fiction, and by the end of September my total IF word count will be around the 150,000 mark (two large pieces, two medium, and two collaborations). So I’m not exactly writing slowly, particularly since that’s roughly three times my usual annual output.

A funny side effect happened due to the fact that when Choice of Games – absolutely my favourite IF engine and company (and they pay well too) – is considering taking on a project for its premier label, they require a detailed outline first. Those outlines always run over 5000 words, including loads of choices and their consequences. To put that in perspective, the last book I wrote was based on a story told to me by my then 2-year old. I did some googling, scrawled a map and a chapter outline (maybe 200 words) and was writing the book within three days. I finished it a few weeks later.

But the interactive piece I’m working on most at the moment – a fantastical pirate adventure called SCARLET SAILS – has a proper Choice of Games outline. And because I was waiting to hear back about a different project, I had to let it sit for a long time – which also meant I could discuss the basic plot with some intelligent people and discover major plot issues BEFORE I’d written a 50,000-word novel. So interactive fiction distracted me from slow writing, then brought me back to it.

The other interesting side effect of IF is that suddenly I’m collaborating. I’ve done that exactly once before, when I wrote a one-page play in high school. It barely counts as collaborating, since my (undying, I’m sure) prose wasn’t edited in any way except by the nature of performance. (I do remember one friend saying, “So I’m playing God? Mm’kay.” which was most definitely a positive comment on my casting choices.) I write because I LIKE sitting alone in a room inventing worlds and people out of nothing… and I like being the international expert and ultimate authority on every single aspect of my work. Like my actor friend, what I really want is God-like powers and unquestioning obedience.

But I also love a deadline. (I may have mentioned that.) So when someone on the IF forums at Choice of Games suggested some kind of game-writing jam, I leapt at the chance. I specifically said that I thought collaborations were a bad idea, and so naturally a few days after that I volunteered to lead what ended up being a cheesy 50s-style space adventure collaboration (and then someone asked me to whip their multi-genre bookshop collaboration into shape, and I gleefully did so).

And it is so. much. fun. It helps that everyone involved seems to have figured out that I will work very very hard to earn ultimate power, and so they say things like, “Go ahead and edit my bit however you like” which I’m pretty sure means I just became a benevolent dictator (and I LOVE it).

I will of course post an easy-to-play link here when the game is ready. It’s turning out surprisingly well (and the editor is fantastic). But here’s the front cover just to tease you.

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Credit for the space background: http://palnk.deviantart.com

Supanova Sydney

Oh, wow. All the wows.

It got me when I found out Nathan Fillion would be there.

It got me when I found out Dr Karl would be there.

It got me when I saw a pack of medieval cosplayers, with enormous weapons, at Sydney Central.

It got me when I asked at Central how to get to Olympic Park, and the guy said, “For Supanova, you go to… ”

It got me when a fairy and a sith lord recognised each other from online photos, and started chatting on the train.

It got me when I saw the line: a thousand strong when I arrived on a weekday, moving quickly due to clever organisation, and more entertaining to watch than a marching band.

It got me when I saw faces coming out of a man’s chest.

It got me when I saw two people riding dinosaurs.

It got me when the automatic announcement said that weapons check-in was next to first aid.

It got me when I saw Weta Workshop’s Gollum-with-his-fish.

It got me when I couldn’t actually see the other end of the dealer room.

It got me when I saw the Tardis.

It got me when a pint-sized Wonder Woman got to meet a perfect Queen Elsa.

It got me when I ran into Keri Arthur, and Tracy M. Joyce, and Kevin J. Anderson, and Donna Maree Hanson.

It got me when the pink Deadpools started dancing.

It got me when a lady who custom-makes corsets for Gallery Serpentine said she’d love to host an event for my book in Melbourne.

It got me when male Loki bowed to female Loki.

It got me when I saw the weapons booths.

It got me in Artist Alley.

It got me when I saw Kaylee in overalls.

It got me when I saw Kaylee in That Dress from “Shindig”, sweeping the floor as she came.

It got me when Darth Vader and Queen Elsa wandered by, chatting.

It got me when John Jarratt hung out in the booth across from mine (my booth is 133 with Satalyte Publishing).

It got me when my publisher wandered off with the intern and left me to run the booth solo.

It got me when I bought a drink and they called me “Jack Sparrow”.

Oh, Supanova, how I love thee.

Saturday begins in an hour and a half! It’s super cheap to just show up!!

 

Tally Ho! etc

TJ’s year of daily photos is done and dusted, and I have a real live book coming out in 2016. So what happens to the blog now?

I expect to blunder about a bit this year as I find my blogerly voice once more. I know a few things:

Reading over my book reviews from back in the day made me realise they were pretty good, and I should do more. If you have a young adult fantasy novel coming out (that doesn’t have graphic or violent sex), email me at fellissimo at hotmail dot com – but be warned, I can be harsh. I prefer books on kindle, so providing a review copy is nice and cheap.

As I might have mentioned, I have a real live book coming out. That means there’ll be blog stuff about pirates, writing stuff, and conference stuff.

The kids are likely to pop up every so often, because kids. Also I’ll write about whatever’s in my head, as always – mental illness, basic human rights for refugees, sweet delicious chocolate, and so on.

And there’s another big twist in my writing career soon to be announced. . . stay tuned!

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and discarded Louise Curtis as my primary writing name. I’ll now use Felicity Banks – since that is, in fact, my name. Also, it’s easier to spell. So my blog is now felicitybanks.wordpress.com.

My twitter is @FBanksBooks

Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/FelicityBanksBooks

Pitch Me A Pitch

Conflux is Canberra’s annual speculative fiction conference. I’m there most years, one way or another – wandering around in garb (see pic at right), going to sessions, leading sessions (!), and of course pitching.

Pitching is when writers get five or ten minutes one-on-one with a publisher or agent to try to convince them to read their novel. Usually the writers are required to send in their first three chapters, synopsis, and bio beforehand (so those who want to pitch can be whittled down into a reasonable number, and sometimes so that the publisher/agent gets an idea of the book beforehand).

The first time I ever pitched was in New Zealand – I literally flew to New Zealand for that ten minutes (then the exact same publisher came to Conflux the next year!) The worst pitch I ever did was to someone who had read the first chapters and thought the entire book was all a dream because there were pirates in it, and pirates are apparently all imaginary (what the. . . ?!)

Quite a few people who let writers pitch novels to them will read all the opening chapters they’re offered during the pitch (including, luckily, the one in New Zealand). Others will pick one beforehand, and read only that one. Still others are genuinely making up their minds in the moment.

This year, no-one read our opening chapters, so I didn’t have my usual advantage (a LOT of beginning writers are truly terrible, so among unpublished authors my writing usually looks pretty good). Without quite naming anyone, here’s what pitching was like this year (I literally pitched a book to everyone – got a bit excited after being too sick to write for so long due to pregnancy).

Pitch # 1: An Agent

I pitched my newest book (YA fantasy, “Flight of Fancy”) to her, on the basis that if she was shocked that it actually wasn’t polished enough to send, at least I hadn’t looked unprofessional directly to a publisher. In truth, I used her as motivation to finish the book – and she was extremely useful for that!

I’d actually never pitched to an agent before. In Australia, agents aren’t essential to the publishing process. Also, they are just as hard-working and underpaid as publishers, and tend not to take risks. Some Australians only use an agent AFTER receiving an offer for publication (so the agent can look at the contract and negotiate terms), and I may well end up using her for that some day.

She was extremely friendly (a common phenomenon in pitches) and after I described the plot she said how much she loved fantasy’s ability to talk about real-life problems such as mental illness in a different way. That is also one of my favourite things about fantasy, and I felt like we really connected. She was more than happy to look at “Flight of Fancy” when it’s ready, and I blurted out a bit about my steampunk YA novel because it’s ready to go and seems really well suited to her – but it’s already done the rounds of quite a few publishers (which is bad for agents, because publishers won’t look at something twice). She said slushpile rejections are fine, so I should send it to her with a detailed submission history.

I finished the post-TJ edit of the YA steampunk that day, and sent it to her. I’m quite excited by the idea of having an agent in my corner, but she said up front she takes ages to read things. . . so we’ll just see. I’ll send her “Flight of Fancy” late this year – probably before she finishes the YA steampunk.

Still, that’s two “yes” answers from one pitch – a good start!

One of the most interesting things about that pitch was that she said most publishers are dead-set against anything labelled “steampunk” (as my daughter would say, “NOOOO!!!! WHYYYYYYY?????????”). Readers still like it, so steampunk sells as “gaslight fantasy”, “Victorian paranormal”, “Urban fantasy”, “Alternate history” etc.

She also said about “Flight of Fancy” – “Can you make it a bit longer?” Which I can – especially when there’s so much editing to do. Hopefully an extra 5000 words qualifies as “a bit” (when I emailed her the YA steampunk I asked if it was).

Pitch #2

This was the pitch that was the most important to me, because the publisher (what I call a “medium” publisher because they’re certainly not one of Australia’s six biggest publishers, but I’ve read several of their authors) really likes Australian female fiction and “things other publishers wouldn’t dare take on”. My YA steampunk has a female protagonist (like most of my books), is set in Australia, and has a major character who turns out to be gay.

The person was unusual in her manner – thoughtful rather than friendly (not that she was UNfriendly, but she wasn’t going out of her way to put me at ease – and I could tell she wasn’t going to read the book just to be nice, which was scary at the time).

When I explained the plot of the book her face lit up. It turned out she doesn’t usually like steampunk (despite the fact it was specifically mentioned online as something this publisher will accept!) because of the upper-class stuff – but because my series is all about dismantling the so-called superiority of the higher classes, it sounded great. Could I please send it to her? (Yes – but not until December, because it happens to be in a contest-type thing and I can’t send it elsewhere until the results are announced. She understood perfectly.)

That was a close-run thing, and all the more satisfying as a result. It’ll be interesting to see how she likes it when she reads it.

Pitch # 3

This was a large publisher – or at least, large enough that any writer would have heard of them. It was a slightly-awkward pitch because the actual person listening to pitches represents the adult fantasy section, and I was pitching my YA steampunk novel (I called it “YA alternate history” based on the agent’s advice – and it seemed to work).

This was another publisher who was making up her mind as she went along. She was very friendly, and even stopped to chat to us outside afterwards (brave, since she’d said no to at least one person in the room).

I was very clear it was a young adult book. . . but she said it sounded so good she hoped to be able to keep it for the adult department. This was a huge and pleasant surprise (I’ve actually had VERY slow responses from that exact publisher in the past, so I didn’t expect enthusiasm at all). It’ll be interesting to see if she is still enthusiastic when I actually send it to her (in December, because of that contest – again, she understood the situation perfectly and didn’t mind at all).

Pitch # 4

This publisher is small – I recognise the name of one of their authors, but haven’t read his books – and has an incredibly enthusiastic vibe, so I felt very confident they’d just say yes to everyone who pitched. I met several of the staff in the dealer’s room the previous day, so that gave me a bit of a sense of them too.

Being aware that small publishers tend not to pay advances (unfortunately, most books make a LOSS for most publishers – they’re kept afloat by the rare successes – but a small publisher can’t take financial risks like that), I chose a book that has been rejected very thoroughly in a lot of places.

It was a pretty friendly pitch, and they gave me a card and said to send them the whole thing. There were two unusual things – first, there was a second person in the room. To this day, I don’t know what her position in the company is (and I promptly forgot her name in the general nervousness, so I can’t even google her). Secondly, they asked, “Why are you pitching this book to us instead of someone else?” Instead of saying, “Well, everyone on Earth other than you has already rejected it” I chose the other honest reply – that they’re a vibrant, exciting, fast-moving publisher, and it seemed like fun. And of course mentioned that I’d written a book since TJ was born, and can produce books pretty quick if required. And that the YA fantasy book I was pitching was the first in a trilogy (which was written, but needed to be re-written), that was linked by the setting to a kids’ trilogy which is entirely finished and polished (I didn’t even realise until later that they also publish kids’ books).

Oh! The other unusual thing: At their book launch the previous night, the publisher had been chatting to someone and told them to come pitch their book (I met her in the waiting room, and declared that we’d be their children’s line). So, like I said, enthusiastic.

They requested the full manuscript. I hadn’t looked at it for a long time, so I gave it an extremely hasty edit and emailed it to them about midnight that very night (since I’d said how cool it was that they were fast-moving, it seemed wrong to not send it on the day). I was very pleasantly surprised by how good my book is after all this time – perhaps I shouldn’t have been, because a lot of the people who rejected it gave me great advice on fixing it, and I took it all.

Pitch # 5

Another medium publisher – and another person I’d met in the dealer’s room.

She also asked, “Why this publisher?” and I gave what amounted to a general “why a medium publisher?” answer – that is, they’re willing to take risks (with unusual writing, I mean) and they tend to like stuff set in Australia. The book I was pitching was a YA realist novel (set among a group of geeks), mainly because it was the best book that wasn’t earmarked for anyone else, or actually sitting on someone’s desk waiting for a reply.

It was actually HER first time pitching, which was funny to me (having spent much of my day in a room of deeply nervous writers). She gave me a piece of paper with instructions on how to send the first three chapters – ie she was clearly going to read everyone’s opening chapters. Which suits me fine. It was a relief NOT to send the whole book, because I’ve done two manic edits in the last week – plus a bunch of manic writing lately on “Flight of Fancy” – so all I had to do was check over the first three chapters and send it.

In the email, I made it clear that I usually write YA fantasy, so if the writing seems good but the book doesn’t suit them, I’d very happily send them something else (once it’s free). I’m not sure I made the right choice of novel, but I’m still grateful that she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

The book is so unusual that there may not ever be a publisher who likes it – I suppose it deserves one last chance at publication before I give up on it. The manuscript assessor I hired adored it, and I think the opening won $75 in a contest, too. But neither of those means much when it comes to publication.

All in all, an extremely exciting weekend. It’s fun to be back in the saddle writing-wise, and sad to realise that I’ve been excited so many times before, and never got a publishing contract out of it.

My lack of health is frightening at the moment. I can write, but almost everything else is hazardous or impossible. It would be nice if life was like fiction – if you work hard enough, follow your dreams, and have a desperate need to succeed – you will.

But I’ll keep working on my health, and hopefully I’ll be able to do some properly paid work early next year. In the meantime, at least I can write.

Triumph

A couple of nights ago, I finished a novel. This is hardly. . . er. . . novel, since I’ve now written fourteen altogether (Gee Crikey Willikers, Etc) – and that’s only the ones I’ve finished.

Last year I tried the Mirena contraceptive, hoping it’d help solve some of the health issues left over from pregnancy #1. Instead it made things epically, spectacularly (but temporarily) worse. It took longer to remove than usual, and during those horrid months I had to take sick leave because the Mirena made me so depressed (and sick, but I could almost handle that). Desperate to find a way out of the pit, I started a novel.

The Mirena was removed, and I felt it was better to get on with pregnancy #2 than to sit around being unhealthy and miserable for longer. We conceived more or less instantly (scroll down for pics of the results…) which was great, but meant I had maybe a fortnight before the nausea etc completely took over my life. I did Christmas shopping, took extra shifts at work, visited friends like I was about to go on holidays, and so on. Although I’d hoped to finish the novel, it didn’t happen. Once that fortnight passed, I knew it would likely never be finished. It was 33,000 words long (more than halfway through a young adult first draft), and was by no means the worst novel I’ve ever attempted. So that was a shame.

Fast forward to this year. TJ is here and although he’s super easy in most ways, it’s been a long time since he’s settled during the day except in my arms. So I’m rooted in place for around twelve hours a day (even when CJ comes home, because he can’t hold TJ while doing the dishes), and watching the effect of yet more neglect on Louisette (who’s had a very sick mum for a year now) is heartbreaking.

Since Louisette was born, I’m largely mentally healthy – except when physical problems persist more than a couple of weeks. Which would be fine if my health was average, but it’s only been three and a half months since the last (and, thankfully, final) pregnancy, and it’ll be another nine months before the hormones finish leaving my system – then who knows how long to fully recover after that, but definitely years for weight alone (I was in the healthy weight range when we began trying to conceive the first time). So this time around I have post-partum depression. Awesome. And a MASSIVE debt due to pregnancy illness. Oh, and right now I have bronchitis for the THIRD time since having kids – and it’s no coincidence that each time followed a few weeks of gentle, controlled weight loss. I can’t win. (It’s awfully early to be deliberately losing weight post-partum, but I weigh so much now that it’s a serious issue all by itself.)

It’s really hard to imagine life even a few weeks from now, when things will likely be utterly different on the TJ front. I work hard to remember how quickly babies change, and that the worst is over, and that there is an outside world.

Once again I turned to writing, because I feel awful about my parenting at the moment, and I needed the other side of myself to take me out of the crapness.

Long story short, I wrote a novel. I wrote it in a month, from concept to (first-draft) completion – a large chunk of that WITH a baby on my lap and a toddler on the whine, often causing me to write one-handed, stopping and starting as the baby stirred or the toddler made a new demand. Or I had to stop for another painful bout of coughing.

It always takes courage to write a book, and after the first one the hardest book is the one you write when so, so many other books have been so, so rejected. It takes a special kind of courage as a parent – and, let’s face it, as a mother in particular because that’s how our world tends to work – because you need to actually convince yourself from moment to moment that writing for an hour a day (or however much) is more important than sleep, or playing with the kids, or cleaning, or seeing another doctor, or having an adult conversation.

That’s something I do believe, which is an extraordinary thing. After all these years, I still believe in my writing more than virtually anything else.

I really, really hope I’m not wrong.

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Louisette tells a story

I’m reading a paperback version of “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente because it’s the second book in a trilogy and only the first and third are available on my sweet, sweet kindle.

Louisette picked it up today and looked at the picture on the front (featuring the young female heroine), then when I offered to read it to her she said no, she’d read it to me. I realised at once what was about to happen: I was about to hear her invent a story for the first time!!!

She flipped through the pages and said, “The girl is talking.”

And that was that – her rather accurate guess at what the book contained.

A couple of minutes later I asked her to read the book again, and tell me what happened.

“The girl is in a house,” she said.
“What does she do next?” I asked.
“Walk.”
“Then what happens?”
“She see a man.”
“Oh! And then what happens?”
“Cake!”

That is truly the end of every good story in Louisette’s world at present. I’m delighted to have been there for her first story.

In other news, at dinner we were discussing the pork on her plate (I told her it came from pigs and she said that no, it came from her – she also “corrected” me on left and right today, and informed me that my song choices were wrong) and she said, “A long long time ago Daddy live on a farm with lots of sheep and a horse.” Not only is this a wonderful long sentence, but it is absolutely factually correct (at least as far as *I* know): CJ grew up on a sheep farm (and yes there was a horse too, at some stage – Louisette has seen the photos).

Speaking of dinner, here she is making a village out of zucchini and carrot slices (she made a tower first, then changed her design). Note the consistency of construction. I can truthfully say if anyone asks that Louisette loves her vegetables.

And the winner is. . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . not me!

D’oh!

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve been this close to publication, and it most likely won’t be the last (although I hope it’ll be the last time I get this close and don’t get published). Text Publishing was kind enough to tell the shortlisted entrants the final result well before the party last night, and I decided to attend anyway.

I arrived in Melbourne as the sun set. . .

 

 

. . . and left the following morning.

 

 

The party happened at the Carlton Hotel (which, sidebar, is not a hotel – as I discovered the day after I thought I’d booked a room there. By sheer good luck, my ACTUAL hotel – Rydges on Exhibition Street – was a five minute walk away). The function room was up many many stairs, and reminded me uncannily of a Russian brothel I once stumbled into while holidaying in Beijing (true story). The walls were mirrored, but the mirrors were almost obscured by  masses of floor-to-ceiling pink leopard spots. A few feature walls were coated liberally in extremely dusty plastic plants of the wide-leaved tropical variety – which were also jammed into nooks and crannies around doorways and among ceiling paraphernalia. Oh, and there was a life-size model of an elephant’s head attached to one wall. Because why not? It all felt rather trippy and imaginary.

I met a LOT of authors, most (or possibly all) of the Text publishing staff, lots of teachers or people who work in the reading biz, and a married couple who own a large chain of bookstores (which, incidentally, are doing very well thanks very much). I had a suspicion going in that Text Publishing as a whole might be a little too literary for my books – people do tend to be either into literary work or into genre work, which I find peculiar. Unfortunately that turned out to be very true: although they’re open to fantasy and have certainly published some, not a single person on staff really loves fantasy. I spent quite a bit of time talking to “the fantasy person” – who actually flinched when I said the phrase “fantasy geek”. She gave me some really excellent editorial comments which could easily take six months to fix (the good kind of “Arg!” in my world).

I do happen to have one rather experimental non-fantasy book that I think would be perfect for Text, so I’ll be sending that off to them within days. I also took advantage of the moment to ask for a job – but they do everything (including slush reading and gallery proofing) in-house and on actual physical paper. So that’s a shame.

And then, as the party began to wind down and I realised I’d met everyone in the room except for two people. . .  I met Andy Griffiths. Yes, that Andy Griffiths. Very cool!

I’m home again now, blurry with excitement and sleeplessness, and very pleased to be seeing these blue eyes again after a twenty-four hour gap.

 

I’m too tired to post the usual month of Louisette photos today – I’ll do that tomorrow.

I also had a great time talking to last year’s Text Prize winner Myke Bartlett, and having him sign an advance copy of his book for me. I’ll be reviewing it here on Friday next week.

Self-Publishing

I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing one of my books online, and I’d welcome your thoughts. It needs to be one that is good, but has been rejected by at least six publishers (sadly, that still gives me a choice of book). Realistically, self-publishing is just a new kind of slushpile, with an even smaller statistical chance of success. Still, I may as well try something new – it’s not like I don’t have an online presence!

This is why it will cost readers more than ninety-nine cents.