My Next Big Thing

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First appeared on The Great Raven

I have been tapped to do The Next Big Thing by George Ivanoff, quite late in the piece, which means that nearly everyone I have tapped myself has already done it or is busy. It’s meant to be a chain, so if any writer reading this would like to do it, get in touch. You do have to have a web site, because effectively it’s like doing an interview on your own site. However, if you’d rather do it on my site I would be happy to host you.

Below are the questions George sent me.

1) What is the [working] title of your next book?

The working title is The Sword And The Wolf, but I’m not good at titles. That said, when I did a writers’ workshop with it, the publisher from Tor thought the title was fine!

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a prequel to Wolfborn. I felt that the story of Etienne and his friends, Armand, Sylvie, Jeanne and the werewolf knight, Geraint, was told, but there were some lesser characters in the novel whose stories I believed needed expanding. I fell in love with King Luiz, who mostly appears as a sort of deus ex machina near the end of Wolfborn, but turned out to be a likeable person and I wondered about his teenage years. And there was a lesser baddie who also took my interest, so he is worked in too. The universe is the same, but it’s set during an interregnum when the king had been killed in battle and his heir had gone missing. Yes, there’s an Arthurian flavour to it.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

YA fantasy. It has werewolves in it, but it’s a mediaeval fantasy, not the standard urban fantasy.

4)What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m still thinking about it. Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones, would be about the right age now for the role of my heroine, Lysette, and has the right style. Her mentor Amrys, the former court wizard who got locked in a tree by his last apprentice and missed the young prince’s growing up, needs to be someone fortyish, as he was frozen in time. He’s not an ancient man with a long beard, he’s more like Mary Stewart’s Merlin. Maybe Hugo Weaving.:-)

5) What’s the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Teen werewolf girl lets a wizard out of a tree and finds herself caught up in the search for a lost prince – a very cute lost prince! 🙂

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

I don’t do self-published. Agents? Over the years I have had to represent myself, because any agent I approached either had full books or didn’t bother to reply, even to an inquiry letter( I never sent them a manuscript unsolicited). Publishers know me now, so usually at least read the MS, even if they say no. That said, any agent reading this is welcome to contact me! ;-). Otherwise I will first offer it to publishers I have dealt with before. Then, if no luck, I will try others.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

My first draft is not finished. And it’s taken ages! Still, I’m around 60,000 words in.

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

I don’t think it’s exactly like anything I’ve read. The closest, though, would be a cross between Tamora Pierce’s WolfSpeaker and Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My previous novel was full of aristocrats, even if they did have to live wild. I thought I’d see what life might be like for a peasant werewolf who managed to avoid being lynched.

10) What else might pique the reader’s interest?

Oh, lots of adventure, a little romance, prehistoric animals, humour. There’s not enough humour in YA fantasy novels in my opinion. If you’re curious, check this out: Sue Bursztynski Reads Her Fiction – it’s me reading from the manuscript on YouTube.

Thanks, George, for inviting me!

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Slushing for ASIM

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A reworked post that first appeared on The Great Raven some years ago

I read slush for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (aka ASIM). I look at submissions as a reader, not as an editor, by asking myself, “What would I want to read in a magazine?”

People ask me why I do it, given how many of the submissions are truly awful. The answer? It’s because I’m an optimist and always hope that the next story I open is going to be wonderful. And I have still not found more than a handful of wonderful stories in all the years I have been slushing. Some are good, or very good. But very rarely do I come across one that moves me deeply, or touches me, or makes me laugh for all the right reasons.

Still, you never know – the next one, maybe…

Meanwhile, here are some things I love about slushing and far more that are pet hates. Hopefully, someone thinking of submitting may be reading this and it will perhaps give them food for thought. We do buy good or very good stories, after all; it’s too much to expect that every piece is going to be a potential Ditmar or Hugo winner. There is a blurb on the web site about “what we’re not looking for right now” but there are still people not reading it before sending us their works of genius. Maybe a surf for markets might find this.

Things I Love About Slush Reading:

1. Every now and then, there is a truly wonderful story to read (see above)

2. More often there is a good or very good story and it might even be the next one you open.

3. Once in a while, a story I got in Round 1 slush (we have two rounds – the second is “refined”) wins an award and I know I chose well. Of course, I didn’t select it for the magazine, because I haven’t edited an issue yet, unless you count #38, which I finished off, with a lot of help. But I know I helped the story get into the slushpool, where it was chosen by someone else. (The slushpool is where we keep the stories that are considered good enough to be published).

Things That Cheese Me Off When I Am Slushing:

1. Non-spec-fic stories that I just know came from some mainstream writing student who has simply fired off the piece to every single market on the list supplied by the writing teacher, whether it’s appropriate or not, in hopes that one of them will take it. Oh, and the fact that these stories have been multiple submitted in the first place.

Come on, guys, didn’t your teachers ever tell you to check your market? I bet they did tell you how much publishers loathe multiple submissions. Okay, there are times when multi-subbing is justified. I’ve never done it myself, but I know the frustration of waiting six months and sending inquiry letters only to get the thing back, finally, squashed and not reusable, with a printed slip.

But this is not a problem with ASIM. The very most you will ever wait to hear from us is two months and that’s only if your story made it into the slushpool. Otherwise, you’ll get a reply in a matter of a few days – by email, so you don’t have to buy reply postage (and there are plenty of publishers who still want their submissions by snail mail, but if they do you can print out again). And you get it with helpful comments.

Of course, you know all this if you’ve bothered to check us out. Also, I repeat, we are a speculative fiction magazine. Don’t send us your mainstream fiction. We won’t buy it.

And if you must multiple submit, keep it for markets that you know take six months to get back to you. But be aware that the day may come when two magazines want your story. What do you tell the one you’re withdrawing from?

We have had occasions when we have taken a story and started editing it, only to have it withdrawn because the multi-subbing author got a better offer elsewhere. That affects the editor, who now has to find another story of around the same length and theme, to keep the balance. It also may affect you, because publishers know each other and word will get around that you’re unreliable.

2. Stories that are full of mistakes in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation. I see red when I get a story that can’t even punctuate dialogue correctly. I’m thinking of the ones like this: “Blah blah.” Said Michael. I get those around one in three submissions.

I reject them automatically, only allowing a couple of mistakes in case they’re typos. If you think I’m nitpicking, I’d like to point out that editing is not about fixing your errors, it’s about making a good story look its best. If you don’t care enough about your work to check it or have a friend check it, I don’t care enough about it to finish reading it, let alone pass it on to the next round.

3. One-joke stories that go for several thousand words. Even if it’s a shaggy dog story, you shouldn’t telegraph the fact. It should be a good story that suddenly hits you over the head with an unexpected punchline.

4. Stories that assume you know what the author is talking about, but which only make sense if you come from the same country. I’m sorry to say that the worst offenders in this category – at least in the slush I have read – are Americans. We certainly see a lot of US films and we get a lot of American fiction too, but in the end, a story that has them rolling in the aisles in New York may not make a lot of sense in Sydney or Auckland or London. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your culture with others, but remember you are writing for an international market and don’t assume we know what the joke is.

5. 20,000-word stories which should have been about a quarter the length. Sometimes a story has to be long, but most of the novellas I have slushed are just self-indulgent, written by someone who hasn’t edited. Bear in mind, too, that while we have occasionally published stories of this length, they have been brilliant. Each issue of ASIM has a fiction “budget” of 40,000 words. If your story is going to take up half of that, it has to be something about which the editor is passionate. After all, how would you like to buy a magazine which had one very long story you hated? A story that took up half the issue?

6. Cutesy themes that are the entire point of the story (see above, one-joke stories). It can be short. It can be very short – as long as the punchline suggests there is more. For example, the famous world’s-shortest SF/horror story. “The last man in the world sat alone at home. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.” Think about it.

7. Really good stories that are let down by their endings. When a story has kept me gripped right up till the last page, then suddenly ends illogically, I say, “Huh?” I leave it overnight just in case, but thinking about it, I usually realise that there are other bits of illogic in the story. Before you submit, put the thing away for a few days and re-read. If you still love it, then send it off.

You may find the same thing I would have found if I had read it, and have time to fix it before this grumpy old slusher rejects it!

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Researching A Book: Writing Crime Time

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A slightly edited version of a post first published on The Great Raven.

Having been reading and enjoying the History Girls blog for some time, I thought perhaps I might do a History Girls-type post here, about how I researched a book I wrote, and perhaps when you’ve read it you might like to check out the sample chapter I have on my book blog, The Great Raven. It’s the story of the April Fool’s Day bungled robbery, of which more later.

About four years ago, I decided to take a term off from school, on long service leave. I had no special plans, except a bit of travel and some writing of articles and short fiction. I was just about to start my nice long break when I received an email from Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing. I had written some short fiction for Paul before, but he knew I had written a lot of non-fiction(in fact, I’d recently completed an article about forensic science for the NSW School Magazine, at their request.)

Paul explained that his partner Meredith Costain had done a book called Fifty Famous Australians and he had an idea for a book on fifty infamous Australians. Would I be interested in writing it?

Is the Pope a Catholic?

When you write non-fiction for children, you have to be prepared to write about anything, and I had been doing that. Sometimes I suggested the topic; more often I was commissioned. I love writing about something unfamiliar, because I learn something new.

I did know a little bit about crime, due to my forensics article, and all the Underbelly gangland stuff in the newspapers. I’d read about it over the years. Who hasn’t heard of Ned Kelly? And then there was the gruesome story of the Batavia, mutiny and murder.

But there was a lot to do here, not merely the fifty, but a whole lot of snippets for “Did You Know?” boxes. I prepared a long list of possible entries and visited my publisher to be briefed and discuss. This was a book for children. As such, it had to be written carefully so that there wouldn’t be anything too detailed in the descriptions of the crimes. I knew that, Paul didn’t have to tell me. At the same time, this was a history of crime, children Iove gruesome and I was adamant that this was not going to be a book to help with homework. Potentially it could help with homework, but it was for entertainment. Anything called Fifty Infamous Australians would sound like homework material. In the end, I didn’t come up with the title Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, that was my publisher Paul Collins, but at least it didn’t imply homework!

There had to be a mixture of men and women, grim and humorous, scary and quirky and a vague historical timeline. I would start with the Batavia incident, when a Dutch ship was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in the seventeenth century and while the captain was gone for help, members of the crew mutinied and murdered passengers and anyone who wouldn’t join them.

In the end, though, I wrote the entries in no special order, deciding to sort them later. I knew a book on Australian crime without Ned Kelly would be like a history of women in science without Marie Curie, but I also learned that there was a Kelly brother, James, who lived to a ripe old age as a pillar of the community. And with the other bushrangers there was a lady called Mary Ann Bugg, the wife of Captain Thunderbolt, who was brave and strong and who kept them alive in the bush. I devoured books about Australian crime, from the Batavia to the present day. I read the newspapers for contemporary crime stories, including those I could use for the “Did You Know?” boxes.

Australia is rich in crime stories, the only problem being how to choose among them. There were some who,like Ned Kelly, couldn’t be left out. Paul requested some and I duly researched them.

Because I understand how history writing works, I made sure that each of my entries had at least two, preferably more, sources. I remember one Internet source about the Hoddle Street massacre was suspiciously sympathetic to the murderer, for example. Likewise, there were articles protesting the innocence of one of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire bombers and those declaring the innocence of Martin Bryant, the Port Arthur killer. I had to be careful to get it right. Even newspapers vary in their reporting of the same story, and one book I read, by two respected crime historians, declared that Carl Williams left school at the age of eleven! (It was Year 11 at high school) A typo, for sure, but if you don’t check it, you can end up with egg on your face.

I’d written a stack of stories about serial killers and murderous baby farmers and my poor editor was groaning at the horror of it all, when I decided it was time to get into the humorous or at least quirky. I appealed to my friends for suggestions. My friend Chris Wheat, a workmate and fellow YA novelist, told me about the April Fools’ Day robbery, when two would-be thieves, Donna Hayes and Benjamin Jorgensen, attempted to rob the Cuckoo restaurant in the Dandenongs, and escaped with a bag of stale bread rolls.

Thank heavens for the Internet! I went to the Google News archive and found a stack of articles about the robbery. In the course of the stuff up he accidentally shot her. The newspapers couldn’t agree on where she had been injured, so I mentioned them all, saying the papers had found the incident amusing and some had said this, others that. There are times when you have to make a decision; this wasn’t one of them. In any case, you can read all about it in that chapter mentioned above.

Around this time, I also asked Kerry Greenwood, author of lots of crime fiction, if she could suggest something that wasn’t serial killer grim. What she suggested was a murder, but a quirky one. It was, she said, every crime writer’s nightmare: the story of Snowy Rowles, who, in the 1920s, was working with novelist Arthur Upfield on the Rabbit-proof Fence(even in those days most writers had day jobs). He used an idea proposed for a perfect murder in one of Upfield’s novels and very nearly got away with it! In the event, he was caught, bits of the novel were published alongside the newspaper stories and the author suddenly found himself a bestseller, but that’s a story for another post.

I travelled to Central Australia during all this and, one night, met a lovely grey nomad couple in a pub. Over dinner, I told them about my book and about Caroline Grills, the arsenic-and-old-lace poisoner who killed relatives with afternoon tea treats in the 1950s, whom I was currently researching.

“Oh, Caroline Grills? I knew her,” the wife said casually, adding, “She was such a sweet woman!” She had been a nurse at Long Bay Jail, where Grills spent her last years. What more could a history researcher ask for? Even if I doubted she could be described as sweet, it did tell me how she appeared to others, if she could make herself liked even by the prison staff, who knew what she had done.

My final chapter was about Tony Mokbel. Paul had asked me to do a chapter on him and I was wondering how I could do this when I went out for coffee and opened a newspaper to find a large spread on his escape from Australia, which was a wonderfully quirky and funny story in its own right, without needing any major background. I had my final chapter!

There were other humorous stories, too many to recount here, but I loved the stories of con artist Murray Beresford Roberts, of the Russian librarian who hijacked a helicopter to spring her boyfriend from jail and then was caught out because of some overdue video library loans and “Dumb and Dumber”, the two Australians working in the US who robbed a bank wearing their work IDs and escaped using their staff passes on ski lifts and Mary Wade, the child convict who robbed another child of her underwear in the toilets and became a pillar of the community here, the mother of about twenty children and the ancestress of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It’s amazing how many of these stories were in the papers while I was researching, even the Mary Wade one. And recently, one of our Year 9 students asked me if I had anything in the library about Mary Wade. Proudly, I pulled my book off the shelves. She used it in researching her history presentation and commented that it was the example of how anyone could raise themselves here if they wanted.

The book was published in 2009, but I’m still fascinated by crime and read every crime article I can find in the papers, including things that happened to some of my villains after the book came out.

You never know when it will come in handy!

A Saturday Arvo With SCBWI

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Yesterday afternoon I went to Di Mattina’s, a restaurant in Lygon Street, Carlton, where there was a meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in the fiction room upstairs. It was only my third meeting, because for quite a while, either I had a clash or they were holding meetings somewhere on the Mornington Peninsula, just too far to travel by public transport.

I met some people I know through email, Twitter or just having read their books. Edel Wignell was there. I first met her years ago when I won my first Mary Grant Bruce Award, when I shared a table with her and her husband at the awards party. Errol Broome was there too – we’ve met at ASA events, back when the Australian Society of Authors had a group for children’s writers. Gabrielle Wang, the author of A Ghost In My Suitcase and other terrific books, was there – we meet a lot and she told me she was putting up one of my students’ creative responses to her novel. She did that last year too, when two of my students interviewed her.

Actually, it was interesting to see that most of the room was filled with women. There are male writers for children, but not as many and the ones you see at these meetings are usually illustrators or editors. It was a bit like going to a school library conference, where you get the same number differences.

There were two speakers. One was a lady who has started running a bookshop in Williamstown after twenty-five years in teaching. She explained how they choose the books for the shop, how they have “paper products”(?) as well because you can’t sell just books and why they don’t have too many author events.

The highlight, though, was listening to Margaret Clark, the author of literally hundreds of books. Margaret is a very funny lady, who had the audience laughing all the way through. She showed us some of the stuff she had written as a child, when she entered writing competitions. Her first “rejection” was when she didn’t win the competition to meet the Queen of England during her 1954 visit to Australia. She doesn’t seem to have had too many rejection slips since then, although a book she wrote for the Aussie Bites series didn’t get into print when the series was scrapped. Her family don’t read her books, which were first written on typewriters in the days before computers – some in the days before whiteout!

She admitted that her “Lee Striker” series of horror novels(there were twenty-six!) were written under a pen name so they could be placed next to R.L.Stine’s books on the bookshop shelves. I had heard that, but she confirmed it. It didn’t work, anyway. She says she had to keep explaining to children on school visits that she was “Lee Striker” when they were disappointed not to meet this author. Whatever the reason it didn’t work, the later books had “Margaret Clark writing as Lee Striker” on the covers because she had plenty of fans under her own name.

Her two serious books, Care Factor Zero and Back On TrackDiary Of A Street Kid were both based on her experiences while working with troubled teens in alcohol and drug counselling. One girl who was about to jump off a roof then threatened her with a rusty nail when she came down.

It was a good afternoon altogether and nice to meet so many great writers. I admit I go to those meetings not entirely as a writer but as a fan. It’s so exciting to meet people whose books I’ve loved over a cup of tea and a cake!

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A Bit Of A Brag – Nice Review!

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There have been some nice reviews of Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, a collection of SF and fantasy fiction in which I had a story. The latest is on a blog called Fantastical Librarian and very nice it is too. I don’t do a lot of adult fiction- mostly I write for teens and children – but I was invited to submit something for this. The title is the theme. It was very vague, but I assumed, from the writing brief, was that you had to suggest how something started.

My choice was the Trojan War. Queen Helen of Sparta was married to the man of her choice, Menelaus, but because so many kings and princes wanted to marry her, the deal was that those who hadn’t been chosen had to defend the one who was. The idea was to stop them fighting each other over her – but in the end, it meant that they all had to go to war for her when she ran off with Prince Paris of Troy! There were so many things you could do with this. I found myself using the version that said she hadn’t run off at all and they were fighting for a woman made of cloud by the gods, while she was in Egypt.

I love writing silly. In my novel there was a lot of silly, including a scene where a boy who has been bragging about all the girls he’s had and how good he is with them, is revealed to be nothing of the kind, by a unicorn… In this story, I played it all for laughs, making it as silly as I could.About half the story was told from Helen’s viewpoint and it almost wrote itself once I got going.

It’s great to be able to report that, so far, reviewers have liked it. 🙂

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Wolfborn: Celebration Of The US Release

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My novel Wolfborn arrived in the US on October 1. Since then, my publishers and I have been promoting. This morning, my interview and a giveaway has appeared here, on I Am A Reader Not A Writer, a famous book blog which runs a lot of giveaways and book promotions. In this case, there’s going to be a giveaway within the US only because my publishers are doing the posting – and the whole point, of course, is to celebrate the US release. 🙂

Why not check it out, even if you’re not in the US? The interview is hopefully fun, anyway.

It almost feels like the book has just come out, all over again. Hopefully, the sales will be good!

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Wise Words About Submitting Stories

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Here’s a link to a very good post I found on the web site of Australian speculative fiction writer Alan Baxter.

Alan points out how important it is to keep submitting your writing; if you’ve done all the right things – polished it up, had others read it, taken advice of the occasional rejection that gives you a personal letter – and you believe in it, sooner or later it will probably sell. He quotes from a fellow writer who recently sold a story after nineteen rejections.

Alan does admit to an embarrassing mistake when he submitted a werewolf detective story to what turned out to be a soft porn magazine.

You really do need to check your markets. This I know from the slush that arrives in my in box every week, not to mention regular review requests for ebooks and adult books when my review blog policy says I don’t review anything I can’t put on my school library shelves after I’ve read it.

I think the reason some people don’t check their markets is because they aren’t sending their stories or review requests to one market at a time, but to a long list they got from their creative writing teacher or from a review blog directory, in hopes that someone on the list will get back to them and save them the time it might take to check which ones might actually buy their story or review their book. Not nice. Someone has to read that, even if they don’t reply. Please don’t do it.

If you’re a young writer, don’t tell the publisher how old you are. Either your book is publishable or it’s not. Sarah Berryman of HarperCollins says that Alexandra Adornetto, who was very young when she submitted her first book, sold it because she submitted professionally and the book was publishable, not because she was fourteen.

Everyone gets rejections. I think I’ve had enough to wallpaper a room. You just have to keep trying, and if you get a personal letter, take notice of the suggestions made. A personal letter usually means they liked it, even if they couldn’t take it. There’s no point in getting upset. Just think about what the reader said, see if it makes sense to you and rewrite. I’ve done this many times.

I remember doing a workshop at a convention once,with Bjo Trimble, a writer, handcrafter and many other things and one thing she said stuck in my head:”Treasure your rejection slips. They prove you’re a writer. Only writers get rejection slips.”

By that standard, I’m many times a writer. 😉