Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

December 31, 2012

Review – Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett

One last review for 2012, and one last entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. This will be a quick one because it’s New Year’s Eve and I have to go see in 2013 by reading comics and falling asleep long before midnight. I’d blame this weakness on the kids, but frankly the annual turn of the calendar hasn’t exerted much pull on me for the last decade or so. Not being a fan of fireworks or getting drunk in public, NYE has sod-all to recommend it. Unlike the subject of this review, Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett.

Bluegrass Symphony is a collection of twelve short stories by Lisa L. Hannett, published by Ticonderoga Press. Though an Australian writer, Hannett has set her stories in unspecified parts of the US south. They are fantastic, exploring new takes on ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other things in a voice that seems (to my untrained ear) authentically Southern Gothic. These are beautiful stories, even the ugly ones – and a few of them are very dark indeed. In particular the chilling and repulsive vampires of “From the Teeth of Strange Children” touch not only on the horrific amorality of immortal blood drinkers but also the twisted sexuality of the vampire legend in ways I’ve not seen before.

These are all strong dark fantasy tales. Most are not as out and out horrific as “Teeth”, but they all have at least a tantalising undercurrent of darkness. The standouts are probably “Down the Hollow” in which a community’s grotesque fertility rite goes wrong, and the astonishing “The Short Go: a future in eight seconds”, which wraps together rodeo riding, minotaur hunting, divination and marriage rites together to amazing effect. It deservedly shared the Aurealis Award for Best Short Story this year with Paul Haines’ “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned”, and that was a breathtaking piece.

I’ve digressed, so let me mention one more story. The collection opens with a short, dreamlike piece called “Carousel”, without doubt my favourite in the book. It’s one of the shorter stories, a beautiful elegaic piece about a dying girl being comforted in her final moments by moths. It’s heartbreaking and funny and somewhat grotesque, and it has a lovely punchline. It sets the tone for the rest of Bluegrass Symphony wonderfully well.

December 30, 2012

Review – Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren

It’s late in the year, but not too late to add a couple more reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (coming soon: AWWC 2013. Seriously, get in on that action). I’ve long since “won” the challenge at the Franklin level by reading ten titles and reviewing at least six. More to the point of the exercise, though, I have won in the sense of learning about quite a few writers whose stories and names were unknown to me, among them Tansy Rayner Roberts, Deb Biancotti, Jo Anderton and the author of this collection, Kaaron Warren. And through the Challenge, there are plenty of others to follow up on come the new year.

Through Splintered Walls is a collection of three short stories and a novella by Kaaron Warren. This is the rusty orange-covered entry in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, each of which collects thematically-linked works from a female Australian writer. Kaaron Warren has planted her flag in the weird/dark/horror fantasy corner of the genre, and the four stories collected here are an impressive showcase of her range. The short stories “Mountain”, “Creek”, “Road” and the novella “Sky” are inspired by features of the Australian landscape, and there are hints of a faintly Lovecraftian indifference of the sunburnt country to its human inhabitants.

“Mountain” is the unsettling memoir of a woman whose life takes an unexpected turn following a supernatural encounter. A story about relinquishing and resuming control in one’s life and the consequences of both, a subtle sense of dread accretes at its core but “Mountain” is more an emotional drama than a supernatural one.

“Creek” is straight-out supernatural horror, featuring the chilling Quaking Women, as horrible as they are unmistakeably Australian. It’s sad and malign and probably my favourite of the collection. There’s an emotional gut-punch at the end of the story that’s all the more effective because I should have seen it coming and didn’t.

“Road” is a sweet little ghost story about one of Australia’s many “black spots”, referring to those notorious stretches of road where fatal accidents tend to happen, and why you might see one of those memorial wreaths laid out there.

“Sky”, the novella, is one of those horror stories that stays with you. It is a horrific, sprawling tale that begins with a tiny act of callous cruelty and becomes a clinical examination of the insidiousness of human malice – how it can begin, how it spreads and how it can become institutionalised. It asks bleak questions about humanity and finds the answers lacking, but it is a compelling read. And if ever a story has paid off on the promise of its opening passage with its closing sentence, it’s “Sky”. The ending is utterly sickening, but it earns the reader’s repulsion.

Through Splintered Walls was a complete success for me. Creepy, daring and provocative, the horror stemming from humanity unhinged as often as from the supernatural, each as nasty as the other.

December 29, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Filed under: wordsmithery — lexifab @ 11:41 pm

I thought that I might slip through the net of the latest meme doing the rounds of the writing community, seeing as I’m not a published author, self- or otherwise. But my buddies the Forgotten Planeteers, Dr Clam and Am&a, have leaped upon the technicality of my inclusion in the impending CSFG anthology to tag me in the online equivalent of a game of literary tiggy [1].

To be honest I didn’t really want to do it. It calls on me to answer ten questions about my current work in progress. I am notoriously shy about talking about my writing, especially the unfinished stuff. I’m not completely sure why – probably it’s equal parts not wanting to commit myself to finishing a project and not wanting to share my genius ideas. Both are bogus conceits, so I really have no excuse. I’m too far into this work not to see it through, and get it out into the world, so I should try get used to the idea that I might have to talk about it once in a while. If I declare my intentions here, I’m obliged to deliver them, right? Otherwise something on the internet would be wrong, and we can’t have that.

 

What is the working title of your next book?

It’s called “Ms Cole’s Arrangements”. I’m a terrible judge of what makes a good title, so I have no idea whether this one is brilliant or awful.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This early in my career I think that getting agency representation would be a bit like fitting out my study as a day surgery before I enroll in first year medicine. That said, I do plan to shop the finished manuscript around to publishers and try my luck. Not that I consider self-publishing to be in any way inferior, but for my first shot at getting into print it will be the backup plan.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I can’t remember exactly. I’ve been collecting ideas for my rural fantasy setting in the fictional town of New Salisbury for more than a decade. This one started life in a notebook that I almost certainly don’t have any more.

What genre does your book fall under?

Australian urban fantasy, to the extent that the term can be reasonably applied to regional towns away from the coastal population centres.

How long does it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

How long is a piece of – I mean, it’s a hard question to answer. The first draft of the novel took about eight months, I think, but before that it was a short story that I rewrote three times. I’m now working on a complete rewrite which I think will take about five or six months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t think of anything in particular. I think it’s informed by the approach that Stephen King took to worldbuilding in his early days with his Castle Rock novels, of finding the stories that speak to a particular place in the world and of piecing together that setting one story after another. There is a lot of Stephen King in my writer DNA, though this work is absent any graphic horror elements and is probably not going to be as good as, say, “The Dead Zone”. (My story’s not like “The Dead Zone” either, just to be clear).

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ah. I have vaguely cast a young Richard Roxburgh in the supporting role of Michael, but apart from that I’m not sure. If this were an Australian movie production it would be necessary to import a famous British or American actor in order to attract funding from overseas, in which case I would try to pick up veteran Spooks actor Rupert Penry-Jones for an unflattering but crucial minor character. I’ve got nothing for Nyssa and Rachel, the two leading ladies.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

A couple of things coincided to convince me to start writing regularly again after about twenty years of messing about and getting distracted. One was that I learned that a high school friend of mine, Andrea Höst, had started self-publishing novels (at an extremely boisterous rate, and very good ones, I might add), and it hit me like a good solid lump of wood to the forehead that other people might want to hear my stories too – but they’d only get the chance if I actually wrote them. It sounds absurd when I say it out loud (so to speak) but there it is. Apparently I needed that personal connection to remind me of what I want to be when I grow up. For the record, I categorically deny that I am insanely jealous of Andrea’s craft and dedication and that my writing career is wholly motivated by competitiveness and spite, and to prove it I recommend that you go and read all her books while you are waiting for mine to come out. (You’ll have time).

The other big push came when I became a big fan of US author Chuck Wendig, whose blog Terribleminds is a profanity-splashed treasure-house of fun, provocative and sometimes deranged writing advice. He periodically collects his whiskey-soaked, belligerent essays on writing and releases them as ebooks. I lapped those suckers up and still refer back to them if I’m stuck on a technical problem. They may not work for everyone (they sure as hell won’t work for anyone who gets offended by blue language and grotesque or suggestive imagery) but they speak to me just fine. And as cult gurus go, Chuck’s pretty laid back. His main dictum is “Finish your shit”, which is pretty hard advice to argue with.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, let’s see – it’s set in a place crawling with ghosts but it is not a ghost story. There are criminal bikers and drug dealers but it’s not a crime story. The whole setting is steeped in magic (sort of) but it’s mostly not about that either. It’s a fantasy about small towns and old feuds and…um, real estate? I dunno that I’ve quite grasped the essentials of this whole self-promotion thing.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When a small town real estate agent who skims good luck from her clients discovers that ghosts are a source of untapped power, she upsets the balance of power in a murderous secret feud involving her family.

 

At this point one would normally tag another writer or two to answer these questions, like a chain letter of self-promotion (“Don’t break the chain or nobody will ever read your novel about the chorus-dancing stegosaurus!”). I won’t do that, if only because I cannot think of a single person who might want to that has not already done so. If you have somehow not already been tapped on the shoulder and instructed to do so, please feel free to call for the ball in the comments below. I will pass it in accordance with the ancient rites and rituals.

 

[1] Yes, that’s what we called it when I was a kid in north Queensland. “Tag” sounds wrong to me, like something that they would say in America or – worse still – in the southern states… [2]

[2] To expand on the parochial vernacular of the Sunshine State: the game is “Tiggy”, not “tag”; the designated chasing player is not “it” but “in”; and the fleeing players are “got” rather than “tagged”. These are the crucial points of difference that distinguish the Queensland species of the game from other, inferior forms. [3]

[3] I have no idea why I felt compelled to explain any of this.

December 21, 2012

Next news

Filed under: news of the day,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:19 pm

For the two or three people I know who didn’t hear about it on Twitter today, the editors of this year’s Canberra Spec Fic Guild anthology “Next” have announced the table of contents – and my short story “Aisle Nine – Imported Goods” appears on it. And I am pretty freaking thrilled about it, let me tell you. I threw a few stories into the ring for various markets this year, in pursuit of my goal of getting an acceptance in 2012. Of them all, this is the one I most wanted to crack, so I am thoroughly chuffed that it’s my first sale.

The anthology will launch in April 2013 at Conflux 9 (aka NatCon 2013, the 52nd Australian Science Fiction Convention), to be held here in Canberra. Convenient! [1] If you’re anywhere near here, I’d love to have some moral support. Come along and watch me shuffle awkwardly up in front of a small gathering of polite onlookers! It’s possible I will be called upon to publicly apologise or something! That’s always fun!

I won’t say anything about the story itself, except to say that fans of my usual nihilistic cynicism may be slightly disappointed. Or not, possibly. Also, it began life as one of Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fiction challenges at terribleminds.com but overstepped the 1000 word limit. Never throw anything out, I always say… And thanks especially to Doctor Clam, who provided what were no doubt the decisive observations on an early draft of the story. [3]

[1] For me, at least. And a handful of other locals on the bill. [2]

[2] Not as many as you’d think for a Canberra-based anthology, mind you.

[3] Revisions are important. You’d think it would have taken me less than thirty years to figure that out.

December 17, 2012

Suspicious exhaustion

Filed under: fitter/happier — lexifab @ 12:06 pm

No updates for the last couple of weeks because I have spent as much of my spare time as possible on the novel. That hasn’t turned out to be as much time as I would like, but at least I haven’t been frittering it away on distractions.

The main thing that has eaten into my time has been sheer bloody exhaustion. To be fair, there’s been a few unusual events, the main one being three consecutive days of kids’ birthday parties (two of which were related to the Joey-son’s fifth) and most of the rest being semi-obligatory pre-Xmas socialising.

I also freely acknowledge that I am neither at the peak of physical fitness nor as young as I once was – but even so, I think there might be something abnormal going on here. Like, since when have I needed afternoon naps? And since when, having been denied an afternoon nap, have I felt obliged to be in bed by 9:30 at the latest?

In a vain and no doubt pointless effort to throw off the wearying shackles of time’s relentless march, I’m heading to the doctor for some tests to see if there’s anything deficient or in surplus or whatever. I’m not hopeful though. Iron deficiency is the obvious culprit, to which I am genetically predisposed. But every time I give blood, a sample is tested for iron content, and I haven’t been out of the preferred range for more than three years.

If that comes up normal, as I expect it will, and nothing more weird than that shows up, I may be forced to confront my frail mortality by exercising more and getting more sleep. Which is a pain in the arse, because I need that time to write trashy fantasy crime novels.

December 5, 2012

Writer achievement unlocked

Filed under: news of the day,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:36 pm

Back in May or so, I mentioned that one of my goals for 2012 was to finish a couple of short stories and shop them around to see if I could make a sale. Since then I’ve finished and submitted a handful of stories to various places. It’s not many stories, mind you – in the whole year I’ve finished about four and started another four or five. Those are on hold at the moment while I concentrate [1] on breaking the back of the novel rewrite.

But in the meantime some of my little birdies have flown out into the world to find a home. A couple are still hovering hopefully over likely nesting spots, while others have reported back that the world is a harsh and unloving place comprising mainly shotguns and rejections slips.

None of that matters. Today [2] I received notice that one of my stories has been accepted. In a paid market, no less, and quite a competitive one. I won’t share details yet because frankly I have no idea if I’m allowed to or not, and I’m sure as hell not going to jinx it. But yeah – I’m a publisher-author-in-waiting.

But God, as I understand it, never closes a door without opening a window and pushing you through it. (I dunno, I might not have all the details of that aphorism exactly right). No sooner did I finish reading that news and doing a little gleeful fistpump than I received another email telling me that a story I submitted for a competition was not successful. [3]

Yay – I get all the highs and lows of being an author (except for the world signing tour and the chronic alcoholism respectively) on the same day.

Way to bring balance to the Force, karma!

 

 

[1] I use the word with a certain detached irony
[2] Yesterday, really, but since I crashed last night without checking my email until this afternoon, it totally counts as today.
[3] In retrospect this is completely unsurprising. When I submitted it I thought its chances were pretty good, and I still think it’s a solid story, but since then I have gotten a better idea of how stiff the competition for fat short story prizes is. My little yarn is pretty good, but I don’t know that it’s “attracting national and overseas competitors” good. But that’s okay, I’m confident I can find a home for it. More confident than ever, really.

Review – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I think that due to website load issues, or possibly other reasons, the Australian Women Writers Challenge is formally over for 2012. They are currently running a mini-survey to measure its impact, so if you think it might have had one then I encourage you to go and check it out. I’ve already signed up for more of the same in 2013, both because I think it goes some way towards redressing imbalances in acknowledgment and celebration of Australian writers in public discussions and – much more importantly from a personal point of view – because by participating in the Challenge this year, I’ve discovered many Australian writers (men too) about whom I was previously wholly ignorant. In terms of expanding my awareness of the Australian speculative fiction scene, the AWWC has been an unparalleled success. But whether or not the Challenge is still going officially or not, I’m not done with it and intend to keep reading and reviewing right up until New Year’s Eve. All of which is a long-winded introduction to my review of And All the Stars.

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst [1] is a YA apocalypse-in-progress adventure set in modern-day Sydney. As the story opens, teenager Madeleine Cost’s plans to ditch school to conduct a portrait-sitting with her newly-famous cousin come to grief when a vast alien spike suddenly punches up from the earth. In the chaos that ensues in the shadow of the towering black spire, just one of many that have appeared around the world, Madeleine struggles to stay alive in a quarantine zone, gathers around herself a growing army of survivor and discovers unexpected side-effects of the disaster.

Post-apocalyptica seems to be a big thing in YA writing at the moment, but I think there’s an untapped vein of possibilities in telling stories about the collapse of civilisation as it happens. AAtS maintains a constant, narrow focus on Madeleine and her friends as they establish themselves, build relationships and make survival plans. The strange worldwide catastrophe looms as a mysterious background presence, which makes it all the more threatening when it intrudes on the survivors. Like any good YA adventure, the key here is the relationships: the growing friendships, the petty arguments, the buildup of trust – and coping in the aftermath of tragedy and betrayal. For all of its strong emotions, AAtS never steps over the line into angsty melodrama, which I for one appreciated.

And All the Stars is a not-quite-cosy catastrophe. The characters’ circumstances are dangerous and constrained, their fear of capture or worse is oppressive and justified, and their losses are keenly felt – but at the same time they have pretty good wifi and access to food and shelter. It makes for an odd – but not unbelievable – atmosphere, combining the tension and paranoia of survival in enemy occupied territory with a curiously larkish teenage high-spiritedness. Think ‘The Famous Five Go to Stalingrad’!

Probably the most impressive thing about AAtS is that it’s told and done in a single volume; the author has commendably resisted the urge to bloat the story out to a trilogy. The downside is that the resolution of the plot feels a bit rushed –  towards the end, the acceleration to the climax after a slow expository scene feels almost hasty. In terms of the characters and their relationships, though, the end comes at just the right time. That said, I would happily inhale a sequel with these characters.

 

[1] Hey look, I finally figured out how to do a frackin’ umlaut. It turns out there’s a whole extra hidden toolbar in the WordPress editing menu, including the ‘Insert custom character’ tool. At last, I can spell Andrea’s surname properly without looking like a massive nitwit.

 

December 3, 2012

Progress check – And that’s it for November

Filed under: wordsmithery — lexifab @ 12:05 am

It’s late and I’m tired, so just a quick couple of notes before I go to bed.

A quick summary of the novel progress since starting the rewrite at the beginning of November – after adding another 1300-odd words today, I’m going slower than I want to but still moving forward. So far I have not managed to completely unravel my outline with the substantial changes made to one of the three main characters, but I’m sure that sooner or later – probably sooner – I’ll hit the wall and need to revisit the plan. Other than that I’ve mostly stuck to what I thought I would write, so presumably the outline will hold up for a while yet.

I finished one of the two manuscripts I’m reading for critiquing purposes which will not free up a lot of time but may relieve me of a small measure of self-imposed guilt. It did take me an awfully long time to finish, so I hope I’ve managed to say something useful about it. (Clam: it’s yours. Expect to get a bundle of notes in nigh-obsolete physical format by the end of the week).

I don’t think I have mentioned that I have a couple of short stories out in the wild, hanging on possible acceptance. Both seem to have made it past the slush and first read-through rounds, so there are grounds for hope. I should know about one or both by the end of the year. If I’m successful then it means I will just scrape in my goal of getting my first sale in 2012. If not, well, I’m still a lot closer to that target than I was, right?

I have an idea for a short story that has been bothering me for a week or so. I’m bothered both because I don’t want to add anything else to my boatload of distractions from the novel and because I don’t know if I have the right skill set to pull it off. It’s a fairly sinister idea but I don’t really self-identify as a horror writer. I expect it’ll force me to at least attempt it before too long though. It’s too strong an idea to ignore and too nasty to turn my back on.

Progress check: 12,450/90,000

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