High, low, everywhere we go

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Here’s a perfect demonstration of the highs and lows of a writing life:

In the same week of receiving confirmation that my short story would be published in the upcoming CSFG anthology, A Hand of Knaves, I’ve also had my historical fantasy novel rejected.

The publishers requested the full manuscript, on the basis of my unsolicited submission, so I sent it off and kept my fingers crossed for three months. Uncomfortable.

Alas! They said they liked it. But they did not love it.

There’s nothing to be done except take comfort from their comment that the main character was ‘likeable, engaging and well-rounded’, pull on my big girl writey-pants, and (like all wordsmiths practised in the dark arts of rejectomancy) get back to work. 

Five for silver – stand and deliver!

magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.

Our local magpie horde come demanding treats, and in the best knavish style I’d like to ask you to stand and deliver … or, that is, to kindly request your support to help publish a new Australian science-fiction and fantasy anthology.

This year the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild* is publishing an anthology featuring rogues and scoundrels: A Hand of Knaves. Authors will be paid for their stories (the editors Chris Large and Leife Shallcross are probably finalising their selection from the submitted stories as I type**) but the CSFG wants to pay the authors, editors and artists more***.

To which end – crowdfunding!

There’s only SIX DAYS LEFT of the Hand of Knaves crowdfunding campaign.

If you follow that link to Indiegogo, you can support the anthology, and receive in return all sorts of benefits: art cards, books, acknowledgment in the anthology, a character named after you, or for those of you who write –  a structural edit or short story critique.

And, of course, you also get that delicious warm inner glow from directly supporting the arts. Mmmm.

Please share the link with anyone you know who is interested in Australian writers and writing – especially spec fiction, which is fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or any combination of them, and remember you only have until the 10th of January to support these delightful knaves.

 

* Disclaimer the first: I’m the vice-president of the CSFG.

**Disclaimer the second: Yes, I did submit stories to the anthology. No, I don’t know if my knaves have been chosen for inclusion.

*** Wondering about amounts? CSFG is a not-for-profit writing group, and most of the money made from selling previous anthologies goes to funding the next ones. The basic budget will pay authors at a rate of about 1 cent per word for a 5000 word story. I know! Story words are worth more than that! Professional industry rates for short stories are around 6 cents a word. Hence the crowdfunding, so thanks for any support you can give.

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The fruits of others’ labours

wisteria vines at Wanna Wanna

I love gardens. I like immersing myself in their sensory delights in different seasons. I like wandering around and admiring all the hard work that’s gone into creating a magnificent living sculpture. I like the quirky touches and the serendipitous pairings of plants and the way that you can turn a corner and find something new and beautiful.

But, I am a haphazard gardener, at best.

Which is why I adore open gardens. The generosity of people who share their lovely gardens with lazy sods like me (and, of course, other dedicated gardeners) just amazes me. I’ve seen newts in a garden in Edinburgh and ridden a mini train in a garden in south-east Queensland, and always been delighted by some element of each garden I’ve seen.

I joined Open Gardens Canberra not long after I moved here, and it’s currently the spring season for open gardens. Of course, the city has Floriade each year, which is a kind of huge open garden, but last weekend I visited two very different and very beautiful gardens.

Both were inspirational from a writing point of view.

The first was Wanna Wanna, at Carwoola, out near Captain’s Flat. This is an historic homestead with a glorious traditional garden – those are the twisted branches, in the image above, of the wisteria walk to the tennis court. I’m working on a story with a character who has inherited a much-loved, old garden, and Wanna Wanna was exactly what I needed to see… and smell, and touch, and enjoy.

Every garden ‘room’ brought fresh delights, but most intriguing was the literal room of the restored slab hut, which dates from 1859. I was fortunate enough to chat with one of the current owners, who explained some of what they’d done to turn the hut where the Taylor family raised nine children in the middle of the 19th century, into delightful guest accommodation – for two.

Not far away in distance, but a world apart in garden design, was Tour Rouge.

the tower and loggia of Tour RougeHere is the red tower which gives the property its name, attached to the loggia – an al fresco entertainment space which would inspire anyone to throw lavish parties just to show it off. Their online galleries show this amazing garden in all its glory.

the tower room at Tour RougeFor me, I could have spent the whole day – in fact quite a large number of days – tucked away in the gorgeous room at the top of the tower. What an absolutely perfect spot for writing!

So, a thousand thanks to Mike and Lybbie Hillman at Wanna Wanna, and to Danice and Rob Duffield of Tour Rouge, and to all the other gardeners who take part in open gardens.

Your hard work and generosity is very much appreciated.

And in the coming weekends, thanks to Open Gardens Canberra, I have more gardens to look forward to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time for a confession

landscape of rooflines
Earlier this year, my son was the State winner for the ACT and NSW in the 2017 Somerset National Novella Writing Competition.

For those of you who said you’d like to read his novella, here it is, on the Somerset site: The Confession of Father Cosimo by William Pieper.

It’s the tale of a 16th Century Jesuit priest, who travels to the small village of Montello del Lanzigo for two reasons, and discovers that the right thing to do isn’t always clear.

Read and enjoy, and if you know any school-aged writers, you can pass on the details of how to enter the 2018 competition (with a deadline of 1 December 2017) via that first link.

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Weyrd and wonderful: Corpselight by Angela Slatter

Corpselight by Angela Slatter and other objects

Sirens and Kitsune and Norns, oh my!

I swear, the capital of the Sunshine State has never looked better than it does in this fabulous urban fantasy crime thriller.

Back in the day, when I was working for the Gold Coast Libraries and reviewing books on their blog, I waxed a little bit fangirl about Trent Jamieson’s Business of Death trilogy, in part because that wonderful series is set in my home town of Brisbane.

So imagine my delight, last year, to read Angela Slatter’s Vigil, which has harpies on the Kargaroo Point cliffs, Norns in the West End, and so much more. It’s a glorious, dark tale full of myth, monsters and a very nasty vintage. You should definitely read it.

Needless to say I was looking forward to the sequel.

Corpselight delivered all it promised, and then some. It walks the fascinating line that the best urban fantasy always teeters on, showing a hidden underworld of magic sliding along with the mundane and recognisable real world. An insurance investigation sounds ordinary enough, but when the claim comes under “Unusual Happenstance” and involves supernatural mud inundation its rather more intriguing – and dangerous.

I’ve been reading a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold lately, and like some of her books, Corpselight considers motherhood from a number of different, and often dark, angles. It’s not always sunshine and butterflies in Brisneyland, of course, and it makes for gripping reading.

I’m looking forward to Conflux 13, at the end of the month, because Angela Slatter will be there – and I might just have to wax a little bit fangirl to her.

BTW – I wrote a post about brephophagists, the word for people who eats babies. It doesn’t come up much in conversation. The Creative Commons image, by Andrew Bossi, is of the baby-eating statue in Bern, Switzerland. As far as fabulous backstories for characters go, Verity Fassbinder (the heroine of Corpselight) has a cracker: her thankfully departed dad was a Kinderflesser – a child butcher – catering to Brisbane’s Weyrd communities more disgusting dining tastes. Nasty and, for dark urban fantasy, absolutely pitch perfect.

 

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Boxed up joy for Book Week

It’s Book Week according to the Children’s Book Council of Australian and my social media feeds, which are full of adorable photos of kids dressed up as their favourite fictional characters. I’ve noticed a proliferation of commercially available costumes this year – mostly Disney, DC and Marvel trademarked apparel, with the occassional “classic” movie-styled character included, such as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Is this new, I wonder, the marketing awareness of Book Week? Or have I been the amazing Captain Oblivious for the last couple of years? Anyway…

I’m not going to get all grumpy and whiny about how watching a movie is not the same as reading the book. We all know it. Anything which gets kids reading, though – even if it’s *shudder* princesses – is a good thing. So rock the frocks, boys and girls, or the lycra, and then read the book. All the books.

In the spirit of Book Week, and of using movies, comics, and TV shows as a gateway to a lifelong love of reading, here’s a sight guaranteed to gladden the heart of book lovers, librarians, and Whovian geeks alike.

This beautiful book box is in a quiet street in my neighbouring suburb. The front door opens to reveal a treasure trove of books, free for the taking, to suit the tastes of children, teens and adults. Oh, yeah! I love book boxes so much.

So from my happy place, I say happy book week, everyone – read, enjoy, and share the book love.

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Micro fiction*: On Valas Rock the Seals Cry

seascape off Phillip Island Victoria

The sea was all he had and if he couldn’t escape it, he’d die.

Callan hated the sea, and the life it forced on him. He hated the house which crouched by the shingle, caught between rock and water. It was no pearl, of smooth layers built by that friction, only damp and dank as a cave. He hated the land behind it – all brackish pools and stunted grass, and far in the distance a line of trees which taunted him.

Most of all, he hated the roar of Valas Rock. It voiced its pain across half a mile of cold sea, as the waves broke on it, and the seals cried, and the gulls screamed, wheeling overhead.

Callan woke each night, choking on salt spray. He lay in the dark, thinking about the death at his side and listening to the rock’s cry and the tide of his brothers’ sleep-drenched breaths. He didn’t fit there. His family fished, until the sea took them. She gave up her quicksilver harvest, but netted their lives in return. He wouldn’t pay the tithe, as his grandfather had done, and his uncle. He wouldn’t go out in the boats.

“What do we do with him?” his mother asked.
“He’s no use to anyone,” said his father. “Like one shoe, when the other’s lost.”
Her answer had been tears. Did she think, as Callan did, of the other shoe? Mhara, who had slipped from the womb at his heels, gasped for air, and died.

His sister, Mhara, who waited beside him in the dark.

He wandered among the sedge, moving closer to the dark trees, willing them to make sense. Each day he resolved to walk to the trees and keep on walking. Each night found him on the shingle, staring at the sea. What would happen if he left? Would Mhara remain? Would he always be alone?

On the last night of his sixteenth year, the sea lay quiet, like a whipped dog. A mist rose, moaned, and swelled with a sound both soft and unbearably sweet. Did it call wilful girls to swim to Valas Rock and take on fur – which they later shed so they might dance in the moonlight for the Sea Queens?

At Callan’s shoulder the air sighed. Did they call to his sister’s ghost? Had Mhara kept him by the sea, so she might hear the song and leave him? Was it Mhara who urged him to the boats, and Mhara who sped them across the black water, so he wouldn’t think on what he did?

Valas Rock basked silent in the moonlight. He clambered over its broad back, to crouch by its crescent of sand. A cold touch caressed his shoulder, then nothing stood behind him.

Alone, he shivered.

The seal girls danced at the edge of the water. They were luminous and beautiful, with unbound hair and lithe naked bodies, sinuous as kelp. Their fur skins lay on the sand, discarded where the girls had stepped from them. Callan inched towards the nearest pelt. It was softer than anything he’d held, and warm to his touch.

He tucked it inside his shirt, feeling the delicious weight of it above his belt. The fur caressed his bare skin. It was fair exchange, wasn’t it? He gave his sister’s ghost, and in return he’d take a seal girl. Then he wouldn’t be alone. He’d go away from the hated sea, past the dark trees, and take the girl with him. Callan studied each of them, willing the dance to end so he might discover whose fur he held.

***
The Sea Queens breached, water streaming over their majestic forms. Rona raised her arms to welcome them from the deep. They rolled and leapt. Flukes slapped the surf and barnacled tails flashed in the moonlight. Their whistling song praised the dance, and called the selkies to slip into their skins and join them in the water.

Rona ran towards her fur, but it was gone. She turned and turned again, frantic. The others splashed and leapt – back to the inky depths without her.

A young man stood, from the shadow of the rocks, and held out his arms. Rona’s gaze travelled from his smug grin to the lump in his shirt. She whirled to the sea, and a cry tore from her. His arms came around her, and he clamped a hand across her mouth.

“You’re mine now, my beauty,” he whispered against her ear.

But the sea was everything, and without it she’d die.

 

* Ah, selkies! I love them so. I wrote this piece for the recent Gamma.Con micro science fiction story competition. It had to be under 800 words and sci-fi or fantasy. I didn’t make the shortlist of ten (you can read them here), but I was happy with my tale – even if my heart hurts for poor Rona.

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On the shoulders of giants

With our awards for speaking about being on the shouldrs of giantsLast year, I wrote about winning the ACT Rostrum New Speaker of the Year award with my speech on the topic of Silence. I was delighted when, this year, my son entered the new speaker competition and won the award.

It did, however, mean that we had to speak in competition last night, on the topic of On the shoulders of giants. Well a picture’s worth a thousand words – and there’s the outcome: William took home the New Speaker award, and I took the plate for the 2017 Speaker of the Year.

If you’d like to read the 1000+ words I delivered on the topic – about how reading fiction lifts us to the shoulders of giants because stories are awesome and the human brain is amazing – here they are:

Let me tell you about a giant.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.”

It was so lovely it made them happy, but when the giant returned after a seven-year absence, he was not happy to find them there.

“’What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘anyone can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’

So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

He was a very selfish Giant.”

It’s easy enough to be selfish – our own things are ours, whether they are gardens or books or ideas. But to stand on the shoulders of giants means we must share ideas, because it is the knowledge and understanding gained by those who have gone before us, which lifts us to the level of a giant’s shoulders and allows us to see further, and clearer, than we otherwise would.

The story I began to tell you, The Selfish Giant, is one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I thought, in speaking on the subject of being on the shoulders of giants, I would begin with a literal giant, written by a literary giant, to consider how the metaphorical giant of the great body of literature raises us up, so we can see further, and understand how to be better human beings.

I have read The Selfish Giant many times – and each time, even though I know the fate of the giant, it reduces me to tears.

How can Oscar Wilde, dead for almost 117 years, make me cry?

I know I’ll find the giant under his shroud of blossoms, at the end.

How can any story or poem, especially the ones I am familiar with, make me cry? I know that love will end, friends will betray, lives will be lost. I know that the dog will die.

It’s no surprise.

If we come right down to it, all of these stories are just strangely shaped black squiggles on a white page. What gives them such power?

We usually speak about seeing further from the shoulders of giants in relation to science. And science can help us understand the power of reading fiction. Research into the human brain says we’re primed for language, but not for reading.

So, it’s a slow process, the initial decoding of the letter shapes, and the sounds, progressing to recognising whole words, and the brain making the connection between the spoken word and the written one. But, if you’re lucky enough not to struggle with reading, if you ‘get it’ and become a fluent reader, with a good vocabulary, something extraordinary happens in your brain.

Your eyes see squiggles, but your brain comprehends not just the word, but the meaning, sometimes the multiple meanings, and the implications, and the images and the ideas.

You fall.

You are immersed in the story.

Your perception literally changes – MRI studies indicate that the parts of the brain used for spatial placement and physical activity are activated when you read – in other words, you know you are sitting on the couch with a book, but at the same time your brain perceives that you are in the drawing room at Longbourn, that you are on the battlements of Minas Tirith, that you are being chased in the dark on your way home from your school’s Halloween pageant.

So the act of reading about something stimulates the same neurological regions as doing that thing. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Think about the things that you will never do, would never be able to do, whether it is catch the golden snitch so your Quidditch team can win, or fight yourself free of slavers on a brig off the coast of Scotland with the assistance of a Jacobite rebel, and realise that reading lets your brain feel as if it has done those things.

Reading puts you in another person’s shoes. It lets you perceive the world through the eyes of someone who is not like you. To feel what they feel. Not just figuratively – science tells us this is happening at a biological level.

You might be thinking, so what?

What difference does that make?

That gift, that opportunity for empathy, is the moment where you are lifted, beyond yourself, and put on the giant’s shoulder.

Theory of mind is a psychology term for being able to understand that you have beliefs, desires and intentions, and that others also have them, and that theirs’ may be different to your own. Someone with a strong theory of mind has greater empathy, and is more compassionate, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more tolerant of diversity. It’s someone who can see over the walls that we build around ourselves – the selfish walls that we think will protect what is ours, but which only lead to misery.

Reading fiction develops your theory of mind. Fiction gives you greater empathy because it lets you see the world through another’s eyes.

Yes, it can make you cry – but it’s worth it.

I am not, and I will never be, a man, a king, and a hero.

But when I read the words Tennyson’s gave Ulysses:

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, I do know him – I understand his longing, his melancholy, and his frustration.

I will never be a 19th century Russian landowner, but how can I read Tolstoy’s description of Levin looking at Kitty, in Anna Karenina, and not be affected by his love: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

I am not a selfish giant. Oscar Wilde’s tale cautions us against selfishness, against walling ourselves off from others. We only have to look around us, at the world today, to see the danger of building walls – the danger of being selfish, and having no empathy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jane Smiley, described the job and ambition of a writer as being to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.

By sharing their theories, writers allow us to go beyond our personal walls – to use the books we read to build a ladder to reach the shoulders of giants. With them, we can develop a theory of mind from many different viewpoints – male and female, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

Oscar Wilde also said we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Reading helps us develop our understanding of others, our empathy for them. It helps us be less selfish. Reading lets us climb out of that gutter, and onto the shoulders of giants.

And as a passionate reader, I tell you, it’s from the shoulders of giants that you get the very best view of the stars.

Get away from the water

Get away from the water: writing and the subconscious and frogs

Last night, my pleasant dream segued into nightmare.

It started with family and friends, relaxing by a garden pond, enjoying afternoon tea. Then, something moved beneath the ripples. I looked closer. Closer.

And there were … bad things in the water.

Deathly-pallid, slimy things, writhing and flapping. Skimming beneath the surface and edging towards the shallows, as the water spread wider, and it became apparent that to get past it, we would have to go through it. *

Look, knock yourself out with some dream analysis – I don’t mind.

But I’m pretty sure I know where this slimy slice of subconscious was coming from.

I was whining yesterday that I have too many stories jostling for room in my head. I’m 66,500 words into my fifth manuscript, and trying to finish the first draft. I had my fourth manuscript critiqued by the talented local spec. fic. crit group last month, and I’m itching to get back to the next edit of that. I’m working on my critique of another member’s novel for this month, which requires focused reading. And I don’t write a lot of short stories, but I’ve currently got two rumbling around, bullying my brain and demanding to be done.

I made the foolish mistake of saying I should tie a toad to my head to extract the stories (it’s a medieval cure for headache), and then sit the slimy little sucker on a keyboard so it could type the tales up for me. And wouldn’t that make a great story?

It’s only a short hop, skip, and a splash, and I’ve got baleful, unblinking eyes peering at me through dark, rippling water.

So, enough analysis – I’d better get to work before the water rises any higher.

*Don’t worry, Sophie – I know you made it out. Megan, Alex and Gaia, sorry … but we weren’t going under without a fight, I’m sure of it.