Category Archives: Writing

Drown the Cat: Video Trailer

Are you ready, world?
My new and somewhat contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4, 2017. I chose to release the book on U.S. Independence Day because Drown the Cat is all about empowering writers to take back their freedom by questioning all the so-called “rules of writing”. Check out the awesome one-minute video trailer and turn it up!

If you like the sound of this, the click here to pre-order the Kindle version and have it delivered wirelessly on Independence Day! Print and other retailer links will follow on release date.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from the book in which I address what may be the most misunderstood writing rule of all:

Show, Don’t Tell

The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.

The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.

Remember when we talked about narrative distance in the interiority chapter, and I pretty much said, “screw pulling back the camera, keep the narrative distance tight”? Well, strong interiority will feel most like showing to the reader, and pulling back so that the reader’s not tight in the PoV character’s head anymore will feel more like telling.

When you read, as any editor does, a lot of newer writers’ novels, you’ll find they’re often puffy, too long by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of words, with stiff, awkward scenes that stand out in contrast to the faster, free-flowing sections.

One major reason for this is that the poor author has had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors that they’re terrified to summarize in narrative things which don’t need to be dramatized. So they go ahead and build a “live” scene around every particle of information or setting they think the reader may require.

This perceived need to dramatize everything can, among other things, result in pointless scenes where characters talk about things for no reason other than to avoid a narrative passage. The scene isn’t doing anything else, and the characters who were so alive earlier have turned strangely wooden. At its worst, you have the dreaded “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a scene in which characters tell one another things they already ought to know.

Don’t do this. Ditch these scenes mercilessly.

[…] There, now—that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? No need for dialogue or having it all happen onstage, you’d have been bored to distraction. Narrative summary in viewpoint works just fine.

I’ll say it once again. The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling.


My sincerest thanks are due to Allison Rose for her spectacular work on the book trailer


 

2 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, Writing

Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

I have a nonfiction book coming out this summer from Panverse.

Drown the Cat1 is a somewhat contrarian book on writing, and one that encapsulates my understanding of the craft and my core belief that being true to oneself is the single most important thing any writer or artist needs to do.

Drown the Cat is intended for all writers, especially intermediate-level ones, who already have some grasp of craft but want more. My goal is to help authors transcend formulaic, cookie-cutter fiction. If you want to understand the limitations of all the silly rules and dogma endlessly parroted in writing books and blogs all over the web, this book is for you.

Those who believe — as much of the publishing industry does today — that there’s a template and a formula which can be applied to a novel or screenplay to make it a bestseller, and are okay applying that rigorously to their work rather than trying to be unique and different and true to themselves…well, good luck to them: hell, they might even make money. But that method doesn’t suit me, not one bit. 

My own approach, refined over fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing, publishing, and mentoring newer authors, is to question all conventional wisdom on the subject. Because, frankly, most of it is bullshit. You do need to know the (few, useful) rules when you begin to write: but in order to become a good writer and produce work that goes beyond the ordinary, you have to see beyond the dogma. You have to put the work and the vision first, and not give a damn about the market. As multiple-Grammy winning Jazz great Branford Marsalis put it,

I don’t care who likes it or buys it. Because if you use that criterion, Mozart would never have written don Giovanni, Charlie Parker would never have played anything but swing music. There comes a point at which you have to stand up and say, this is what I have to do.

My purpose in Drown the Cat is to explore every aspect of the craft from character to critique, tone to theme, suspense to subplot, priming the pump to playing with time. I examine all these and much more from different angles and, occasionally, in greater depth than may be common2. In the process I  intend to raise questions and challenge assumptions at every turn. My point is that if you’re good enough and know what you’re about, you can do just about anything in your book. Literally. What matters is the reader experience: they, not your critique group, agent, or anyone else, are whom you should be writing for. And what readers want is very demonstrably different to what agents, publishers, and many writing book authors and writing bloggers think readers want, or every book published would be a bestseller.

So whether your interest lies in genre or literary fiction, my goal with Drown the Cat is to help you tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience; to bring out your unique vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. If my book goes even some small way to achieving that, we’ve succeeded.

Interested? To be informed of the release date and perhaps win a free copy (yes, there will be a free draw!) of Drown the Cat, please click here to sign up to my no-spam, guaranteed-privacy mailing list. You will not be deluged by mail, and only receive at most three or four emails a year.

Thanks, as always, for reading, friends. And please do share or link this post!

____________

1 For those unfamiliar with the reference, my title, Drown the Cat is a nod to the near-cult book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, which lays down rules and dogma thick as the ash that buried Pompeii. If you want to write a book with all the uniqueness of a supermarket war-porn thriller or a generic Hollywood summer mega-action movie, you’d better buy that instead of my book.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize my approach; indeed, Drown the Cat draws in part from thinking hard on the topic of questioning conventional wisdom, and includes, along with a great deal of entirely fresh content, some material previously published in different form here and elsewhere.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Writing

Breaking Writer’s Block

Since I’ve spent most of this year struggling with a difficult-to-write novel, I want to talk a bit about writer’s block.

Let me say right up front that I don’t believe there is such a thing in the sense most people apply the term. I think the popular image of writer’s block—and one that’s shared, unfortunately, by a good many writers—is that the muse has abandoned the author. Even taken as a metaphor, I don’t feel this is a helpful definition. Why? Because it’s disempowering. It makes the writer the victim of a mythical entity with superhuman gifts.

It’s natural for a writer who suddenly can’t make headway to panic. Unfortunately, not only is that likely to result in even greater paralysis and stress, but it’s distracting you from the real issue.

First off, a muse, which I believe is actually the writer’s subconscious, requires work on the part of the writer to nourish1. This work primarily takes the form of sitting down every day at the keyboard, whether or not you feel inspired, and typing something. In addition, the writer needs to be reading, getting out, exchanging ideas, experiencing life, and generally feeding their muse. If you sit around waiting to be inspired, you’re likely to have a very long wait, and any inspiration that does come is likely to be short-lived.

I think the well of creativity can temporarily run dry, especially after a long spell of intense work. If you really believe writing burnout is your problem, worrying isn’t going to help. Better to simply accept that you need to recharge. Go for long walks. Go on a reading binge. Travel. Have a torrid love affair. Try bungee jumping or Go-Kart racing. Or even simply allow yourself time to get bored. Just living and experiencing life will help far more than fretting or obsessing or trying to force something to come.

In my experience, writer’s block, especially with a work-in-progress, is always a signal from the subconscious that something isn’t working, and specifically that I don’t understand some specific aspect of what I’m trying to write. I always look for this first in character and ask myself if I have all my characters squarely in focus, whether I know them all as well as I should. Since I don’t plot much in the abstract but rather let my characters create the plot under pressure from a strong setup, the problem for me is almost always one of character…because if they aren’t moving and acting, the plot stops. If I don’t fully understand their goals and motivations and internal conflict, how can I write the next scene? I want to write about real people, not puppets. Digging deeper and earnestly into character can solve a lot of story issues and unblock you.

It’s also possible that the blocked writer is simply bored with their work. This happens. In this case one answer is to write an exciting scene even if it’s out of sequence: this can often get you engaged and moving again.  It that fails, try rethinking the story altogether and ask yourself if the idea will actually carry a novel, trilogy, etc. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, leave out the boring bits2. If they bore you, they’re likely to bore your reader too.

On a related note, it’s also worth asking yourself how much you care about the story, whether your heart is really in it. Newer writers in particular may find, on honest reflection, that they’re trying to write something they think will be popular rather than telling a story they really want to tell. You need to have passion about the work for it to really come alive.

Sometimes writer’s block can be a result of the writer’s own growth process. As we start learning our craft, our appreciation and admiration of others’ talents and the realization of how much we don’t know and still have to learn can amplify our self-doubt to the point where it becomes  a paralyzing wall of terror. This is something that makes or breaks writers, a demon that comes with the territory. When one finds oneself at this pass, it’s helpful to remember that every single one of the writers you read and admire also had to learn their craft and overcome these same terrors3. They say it takes a million words to learn your craft, and I believe there’s some truth in that. It’s also good to bear in mind the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

It’s also possible the writer may just be overwhelmed by life. Demands of work, money concerns, domestic discord, caring for aging parents, family illness, all consume time and bandwidth: by the end of the day you’re too fried to do even think, let alone write.

My advice in these cases is the same advice I give writers in every case: write daily, and first thing in the morning, before your head gets filled with junk and other people’s words, and the world begins to pull you every which way. Get up an hour or two earlier if you need to. Find the courage to say no to everything that’s not critical. Ditch TV for sure, go to bed earlier if you need to, and get your social media and online time under control. All these things can be huge time sinks.

I can hear the chorus now: “But how am I supposed to relax?” Nuts. If you want to write badly enough, you’ll push other things aside. Think how much more relaxed you’ll be when that damn novel you’re stuck on is done!

Fear of failure can be a factor, too. Writing is a hard, solitary business. You ask yourself if the possible returns—because, honestly, very few of us will ever make anything like a living off our writing—are worth the effort. Hell, you could be having fun: playing games, watching movies, partying with friends, learning some other skill. Instead, you’re stuck at your desk trying to pile up tens of thousands of words about made-up people which, in the end, nobody may give a damn about. Well, those doubts are real, and we all face them at some point, often more than once. My approach is to face them squarely, stare them down. It’s your decision, nobody else’s. You can choose to go forward or you can stop. So far, I’ve chosen to go forward4.

So how did I break through the obstacles with my own work-in-progress? Time wasn’t the issue in my case. I had that. The problem was a multifaceted one stemming in part from the odd way in which I write, in part from the conceit of the novel. The solution—and it took me months to dismantle, brick by brick, the wall I seemed to have pulled up against—lay in further character work, and pulling apart what seemed like an absolute tangle of character arcs into separate threads. I don’t plot in detail much, but because of the present-day, real-world settings and outrageous premise of the novel, I was forced to do far more intense tracking and actualization of my characters and the situations in which they found themselves than ever before. I set up spreadsheets to track character interactions, and spent more time listing each character’s foibles and peculiarities, down to star signs and unconscious conflicts.

I used Google Street View, too, a favourite tool of mine. Using this amazing tech to walk the streets your characters walk, to see their neighbours’ houses and the locations where bad things happen, can really help get the creative imagination flowing again and spur progress. You have to be in your novel, standing right by each character as you write about them, to forge ahead. When one is stuck, it’s often because—like Timothy Leary—you’re on the outside, looking in.

Even the above wasn’t enough. I had to dig deeper, more than I ever have, to really get to the core of what was the novel was about. The core plot conceit—an engineered coup and the complete collapse of the status quo in a major Western democracy—kept pushing the novel towards being a formulaic, testosterone-fueled yarn about the machinations of people in the halls of power, and the military: I didn’t want that, I wanted a visceral book about real, sympathetic, knowable people. It took that realization, and a concerted effort of will to repeatedly steer the focus back towards a group of ordinary Janes and Joes, people like you and I, faced with the meltdown of pretty much everything they know. I had to not only leave out the boring bits, I had to leave out everything that would prevent this from being my book. That meant sifting through the piled-up garbage and cookie-cutter tropes I’ve absorbed for years and disregarding all the accumulated BS from watching Hollywood and reading bestselers. To hell with Save the Cat. I’m gonna let it drown.

Finally, talk to people you trust. Your wife or husband, fellow writers, your ideal readers. Simply doing that, talking through the problems and fears, can bring fresh insights on what is really causing you to be stuck and help you move through it.

To conclude, then, I believe that writer’s block comes in many forms, and each is eminently capable of a cure. But it takes effort, intelligence, courage, and, most of all, determination to work through them. Writing is mostly about tenacity and will. The only one who can finish the work is you. And though your muse may feel like some fickle, external supernatural being, they’re not: they’re a part of you, the writer.

Writing is hard. But with courage , creativity, and sheer willpower, you can break through any block.

Have you experienced writer’s block? How did you get past it?

Notes

1 Both Stephen King and Damon Knight have written at some length about this

2 The actual quote is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

3Robert Silverberg, in “Science Fiction 101,” gives a wonderful, detailed account of his own struggle to master his craft

4I strongly disagree with all the writing coaches and bloggers who exhort and badger you to keep writing at all costs: I believe that knowing one has a choice and the freedom to stop if the cost–mental, emotional, or otherwise–becomes such that your life suffers is empowering, and I’m not going to take that away from you. You need to choose to keep writing, not do it to please me or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Print Design and Novel Openings: New Services for Writers

I’m pleased to announce two new services.

PROFESSIONAL PRINT DESIGN & FORMATTING

Starting with your doc or rtf file, I’ll work with you to professionally design and format your manuscript to realize your vision and make your book look the very best it can in the reader’s hands.

While it’s perfectly possible for an author to format their own book for print in MS Word, Scrivener, or other software, there are many areas in which a lack of experience and specialized knowledge will result in a product that looks just average; at worst, the book may end up looking amateurish or even unreadable.

Formatting for print is as much art as it is science. There are many decisions to be made, all of which will impact both the price and appearance of the finished book. Factors such as optimized interior margins, adjusting tracking and other parameters to eliminate widows and orphans, optimum leading, font selection and sizing for chapter titles, body text, page headers and footers, numeration, the choice and use of glyphs for page separators, determining ideal page count and how that impacts price, etc., are all things that strongly affect the finished result.

Drawing on my experience over several years and many book designs, I will design your book using Adobe’s InDesign software—the gold standard for book and magazine layout—and deliver your final file in PDF/X-1a:2001, the format preferred by Ingram, Amazon CreateSpace, and printers everywhere. Initial discussions, professional advice, and three rounds of representative sample pages (usually an entire chapter) are included in my fee. In addition to advising on design, I can also help you decide on front- and backmatter, copyright notices, acknowledgments, ToCs, dedications, and the like.

My fees for an average length novel (80,000-130,000 words) typically range between $300 and $400 depending on wordcount. Books which include several images or require unusual treatment may cost more. To get a firm quotation on your project, simply contact me and we’ll take it from there. I’m of course happy provide a sample of my work.

NOVEL OPENING ANALYSIS 1

Everyone knows that the opening pages of any work are critical. Given a reasonable baseline of quality, most readers will be generous, allowing the author perhaps a few dozen pages before deciding whether the book is for them or not. The reader opening  a book wants to enjoy the work and starts off on the author’s side. Still, small early mistakes can and will often make a reader put the book aside, perhaps for good.

First (aka slush) readers working for agents and publishers are another matter entirely: they’re actively looking for reasons to reject a manuscript so they can find the few diamonds in the mountain of coal that is the slush pile. Having compiled several anthologies and taken hundreds of story and novel submissions myself, I can assure you that any experienced first reader or editor can tell within a few paragraphs, and often just two or three sentences, whether the story is worth their time. The percentage pass rate of queries and submissions is typically in the very low single digits at best.

As an author who also lives on the other side of the editor’s desk, I can help analyze issues and glitches in those critical opening pages to ensure that your reader is hooked through your opening pages. This opening assessment service is similar to my Single Edit Solution (see Services page), but tailored specifically to making the beginning of your novel work.

My fee for this service is $125 for the first 5,000 words (approximately 20 double-spaced manuscript pages). I use Word’s native inline comments and Track Changes tools to mark up your pages; in addition you will receive a written “macro” giving an overview of the opening’s strengths and weaknesses. Simply contact me if this service is of interest to you.

_______

1 Please note that all writing critique is subjective, and other readers may feel differently. Do not use this service if you’re not comfortable with honest, constructive feedback. Use of this service does not imply or offer any guarantee of future acceptance or sales.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

Affordable Editing for Indie Authors

As indie publishing1 matures, the need for new editing approaches has become apparent, with some freelance editors changing their protocols to accommodate indie authors looking for affordable editing and copyediting.

In traditional publishing, the standard process has always involved several steps, with the ms. (manuscript) being returned to the author for revision and corrections between steps; this is one reason a trad pubbed book takes between a year and two from acceptance to release. These stages are typically:

Edit (general); line edit; copyedit; proofread. There may even be a major developmental edit before the general edit.

Since each of these steps requires a careful and complete read of the ms. as well as annotation, the traditional process quickly becomes expensive: a line or copyedit on a novel will easily take forty to fifty hours or more. It’s therefore obvious that the traditional sequence of editing tasks, costing upwards of $5,000 at a minimum, will be beyond the means of all but a very few indie authors and small presses.

And yet, most indie authors of even moderate experience are aware that the success of their book may well depend on it being properly edited and proofread: the days of just completing a novel and uploading it to Amazon full of errors and inconsistencies are (thankfully) long gone. For those who still do it, their book is likely to get awful reviews, if it gets any, and sink like a stone.

Before discussing solutions, let’s make sure we define our terms, because there’s a lot of confusion on what the various stages of editing are:

  • General Editing. Will address macro issues of the draft ms. like plot and character arcs, poor plot logic, passages and scenes that aren’t working well, stylistic issues, etc.  Sometimes referred to as substantive or developmental editing, a general edit is similar to a critique in that it reviews the ms. as a whole; unlike a critique, this edit provides more specific and detailed recommendations, and offers solutions to the problems identified.
  • Line Editing. A more detailed and intensive edit whose aim is to improve the flow, pacing, polish, and overall readability of the work. Line editing addresses, among much else, dialogue, style, grammar, tense, and syntax issues. Will typically include suggestions and examples for revising and rewording sentences paragraphs that need improvement.
  • Copyediting: The pre-final pass through a ms., copyediting looks at the fine detail, including punctuation, consistency, capitalization, formatting, and anything missed at the line editing stage. The copyeditor is also responsible for fact-checking.
  • Proofreading: strictly limited to checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, verb tense, and consistency in formatting. Proofreading is usually the final step before a document goes to print.

That’s the process in traditional publishing, and it’s still the way things are done in the big houses, although even they’re starting to cut corners for new and even some midlist authors whose books aren’t expected to become big hits.

As a freelancer, I’ve worked to come up with a solution that offers the best possible value for the indie author on a tight budget. My goal here is to catch and correct as much as possible on a single pass through the ms. as well as providing some remedy for new errors that might be introduced (it happens) when the author implements some of the suggested fixes turned up by my edit.

I call this one-pass edit the Single Edit Solution, and it comprises full line editing plus copyediting (see definitions above) as well as some limited general editing/developmental guidance where needed; examples of this would be a character behaving inconsistently, logical errors, flat scenes, continuity issues, etc.  In the case of novels, I include a provision for post-edit checking of up to 2,000 words of rewritten material at no additional cost. This last is aimed at solving the problem of new errors being introduced post-edit.

If you’re interested in knowing more, simply drop me a line at dariowriter (at-sign) gmail (dot) com. You can find my rates here, as well as references from current clients.

“I’m delighted at each opportunity to work with Dario Ciriello, who vastly improves my story and writing with every editing pass. He works with warmth and compassion to boot, supporting me as a writer and a person as we puzzle out thorny writing issues that would otherwise be demoralizing to tackle on my own. Dario has edited three of my novels so far, and I look forward to a long-term working relationship together.”

William Hertling, author of the highly-acclaimed 2016 tech thriller “Kill Process” and the hit “Avogadro Corp.” series of SF/tech thrillers.   http://www.williamhertling.com

Notes

1 For this purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to include self-published authors

Check out my guest post, “Breathe! The Copyeditor has your Back” at Fiction University

2 Comments

Filed under Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Aliette de Bodard

Aliette fullsize-crop

Photo: Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Recent works include The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz), a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2015), a novella set in the same universe as her Vietnamese space opera On a Red Station Drifting. She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for letting me interview you for Under the Covers. There’s a lot of wonderful, atmospheric darkness in your long fiction, both in the Obsidian and Blood series as well as in your recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the attraction of the dark for you?

AdB: I often say I’m not a horror fan–ironically, it’s not so much because the subject matter bores me, but because I’m very sensitive to it: on horror movie night you’ll find me hiding under the sofa. I think dark is an important thing in life, and I’m particularly struck by how the most innocuous situations can be a source of enormous creepiness. The House of Shattered Wings, in many ways, plays upon a familiar setting–Paris, where I’ve lived all my life–and turns it into a darker, more dangerous place.

DC: I find a very strong element of family and familial or clan relationships in your work. Why is this important to you?

AdB: I guess because family is important to me! There’s a tendency in Science Fiction, which I think comes from the “boys’ adventures” roots of the genre, to see family as a stricture that must be overcome in order to be truly free, or to go off on adventures. Often that becomes rather problematic: I was on a panel a few years ago on motherhood in SF, and most of the ones we could think of died very early within stories, or had already died before the stories started, with the exception of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cornelia in the Vorkosigan saga, who is just made of awesome.

Whereas for me, family is also a comfort: yes, it comes with strictures, with ties that are harder to cut, but it’s also a comfort, a support network, a link to the past, and many other things besides. And it’s not only the nuclear family, but also the extended ones including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…

DC: You work full-time as a systems engineer, you’re a fairly prolific writer, and you also have husband and a toddler. How do you manage it all? What suffers?

AdB: Currently? My sleep! It’s been rather hard to keep all the balls up in the air: I’d heard that the toddler stage was more difficult, but I hadn’t realised until it happened that toddlers were really a full-time job all on their own. It was fine until he became mobile, at which point all hell broke loose. (grins)  I try to do everything, but I also admit that there are going to be moments when I can’t, and when I need to drop some stuff and apologise for dropping so. With luck, it won’t be the really important, unmissable deadlines…

DC: What do you do for pleasure and relaxation?

AdB: I’m tempted to say “sleep” again! (laughs)  I read a lot, though a lot of this happens on my commute. I also like to cook: I have a “recipes” section on my website, and I enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. My last project was pizza dough, which was rather more involved than I foresaw: it turns out that I wasn’t kneading dough properly, and also that French flour is rather unsuitable for breadmaking purposes, but it took me a long time to work this out!

We also have a long-running tabletop roleplaying game with a bunch of friends, which is set in an SF universe; and we do regular board game sessions too.

DC: Which games do you enjoy?

AdB: I used to play video games fairly heavily, but sadly that didn’t survive the birth of my child. I tried several times to play games on my mobile, but they never seem to last for long. Now I do board games: current favorites are Shadow Hunters, which is a neat secret role/battle game that’s played in teams, and Mansions of Madness, a rather heavy Lovecraft board game that feels, at times, like a compressed roleplaying game where one player is trying to kill/drive mad/etc. all the other ones. I generally like big, fun games with a random element to spice things up, and also cooperative ones–teaming up with friends is a lot of fun.

DC: Your most recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings, was uniformly praised by critics but has brought mixed reviews from fans of your short fiction. The atmosphere is palpable, the focus tight, the characters and their relationships intense. My own guess—and I raved about this book—is that SF readers don’t easily adapt to or can’t appreciate what is essentially a Gothic novel in tone, albeit classifiable today as Dark or Urban Fantasy. Did you know you were taking a chance when you wrote this?

AdB: I’m very much aware that my novels are different from my short fiction, both in tone and in genre focus. I’m also very much aware that The House of Shattered Wings is overflowing with Gothic. Two big influences were 19th-Century French novels, and European-set manga and anime like Full Metal Alchemist, or Black Butler: I was fascinated, among other things, by the idea of taking what are, to me, quintessentially 19th-Century tropes and giving them a 21st-Century twist, overlaying themes of colonialism and post-apocalypse on my Parisian setting. There are common points with, say, the Xuya SF stories, but the shift is large enough that I expected people to blink; on the plus side, I also expected to gain new readers, and that seems to have worked.

I also knew it wasn’t the most commercial novel ever when I wrote it. However, my previous attempt to write commercial, an urban fantasy set in 21st-Century Paris, was such a dismal failure (lack of motivation on my part) I figured I’d at least go back to something fun to dig into, as far as I was concerned, and then see reader reactions, rather than try to engineer “commercial”.

DC: Do you think that publishers have trained SFF readers to expect fast-moving, formulaic novels, rather as Hollywood has done with SF and Fantasy movies?

AdB: For me, the notion of what is a novel, what constitutes a satisfying plot, etc., is something that is very context-specific. Methods of storytelling, for instance, are highly dependent on time period: the idea of a tight third person point of view, one such POV per scene, which has become a sort of golden standard for SFF novels, didn’t make much sense in, say, the 19th Century—where point of view was fluid and omniscient. They’re also highly dependent on place: a novel like Cao Xuequin and Gao E’s Dream of Red Mansions (China) is pretty different, in shape and in plot, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which roughly dates from the same time period.

As to whether that context, in turn, depends on what’s published…I think partly? Some of this is due to social/economical/political considerations: the nostalgic tone of Dream of Red Mansions, for instance, comes from the decline of the Qing dynasty at the time the novel was written; the long, rambling chapters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are here partly because the novel was published as a serial and he had to make wordcount for every episode. And some of it, in turn, is due to what people expect a novel to be—and this comes from published books. But to what extent I don’t know!

DC: What or whom do you enjoy reading?

AdB: Lots of people! In genre, recent stuff I’ve enjoyed has come from Yoon Ha Lee, Tricia Sullivan, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott…. I also read a lot of crime novels: I’m still working my way through the Louise Penny Armand Gamache series, which are great psychological mysteries set in Québec. And I have a weakness for historical fiction—I haven’t read a lot of straight historicals lately because I’ve been satisfied with historical fantasy, but I still reread Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles every few years.

DC: I’m intrigued that your short fiction is almost exclusively Science Fiction whereas your novels fall squarely into the Fantasy genre. Can you say why?

AdB: Mostly because the science fiction novel I want to write would require a lot of research and I have no time! I want to write a Xuya mosaic novel; this would require me to brush up on Vietnamese in order to read some books and websites, and I’ve been putting it off for obvious reasons! Also, I find writing fantasy at short lengths really hard: I tend to want to cram a lot of worldbuilding into my stories, and for some reason, this seems to be easier with SF than fantasy.

DC: Many of your short stories, such as Weight of a Blessing, and even your recent novel, revolve around war. Why?

AdB: I’m a child of war. For starters, I wouldn’t be here today if not for war and its aftermath. But, as a result of this, I grew up always very much aware of the costs and consequences—of how bloody and painful and destructive the aftermath always is, often for years and decades after the war ceases; of how conflict impacts people who aren’t necessarily soldiers but are caught in the whirlwind regardless. And I guess a lot of it makes its way into my fiction.

DC: You live in Paris, which has seen two horrific terrorist incidents in the last year. Are you optimistic about the medium-term future and our ability to address the root causes of humanity’s current predicament, or are we looking at decades of turmoil?

AdB: I am not feeling very optimistic currently, I must say…. More and more, I’m wondering if, in Europe at least, we haven’t reached the failure mode of democracy: hard, long-term unpopular decisions need to be made to reform societies, but the politicians who make them are only elected for short periods of time and are therefore unlikely to do things that, short-term, are perceived as having negative impact.

We live, too, in an age of unprecedented information available, which is both a great success and a great failing: knowledge is no longer the province of the elite and can no longer be denied to people. But it is also tempting for everyone to think of themselves as experts, with costly results. See, for instance, the rise of the anti-vaccination movements, fueled partly by people ignoring medical consensus, and partly by the lack of memory–we have had herd immunity for so long that people, by and large, don’t remember what it was to die of polio or whooping cough.

DC: There’s been a lot progress in the field of Deep Learning systems. What’s your stance on AI? Are we going to see anything like self-aware systems anytime soon?

AdB: Algorithms and robotics have both made huge amounts of progress in past years, definitely–watching the explosion of the field has been very satisfying for me personally. Yeah, I’m a geek and I program stuff for a living! (laughs)

I don’t know if we’re going to see self-aware systems soon, though. Part of the issue, for me, is that the definition of “self-aware” is highly specific to us humans. I worked in Computer Vision for a while; and the fascinating thing, for me, was realising that there were a number of tasks that humans found trivial–like pattern recognition–that were extremely hard for computers. Conversely, a number of things we find really hard are easy for computers–like detecting a red balloon in a large, overcrowded swimming pool. This is because of the way they encode and process things, which is very different from our eyes’ and brain’s way of doing things! So for me, an AI would also be very different from us.

It would develop independence and a sort of conscience, but might well be going on a totally different path to us, probably with a notion of “self-awareness” that we wouldn’t even be able to apprehend. It’d genuinely be like talking to something alien, with a totally different base through which to filter reality, and totally different ideas and biases…but kind of totally cool, too.

DC: Do you think a Vingean Singularity, true AI, would be a good or bad thing for humanity?

AdB: Probably an interesting thing, but we would probably end up with something that had little interest in us–which could actually be a good or a bad thing depending on what it gets up to!

DC: You love to cook and also blog about cooking. What do you enjoy about it?

AdB: First off, I love good food, so obviously that’s a huge factor. The other thing is that I enjoy finding out how things work and doing things myself, two very important things when tackling recipes: I’m the kind of cook who always goes “what if” and tends to run live experiments, modifying recipes on the spot, sometimes much to my husband’s sorrow when I have a bit of a heavy hand with the chilies! I find there’s something really satisfying about preparing food: the gratification is instant, at least compared to novels when I have to wait for feedback for weeks and months, whereas with cooking I know within a couple of hours; and it’s also a nice break from my more intellectual activities.

DC: What’s your next writing project?

AdB: I’m currently writing The House of Binding Thorns, a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings which is still set in post-magical war Paris, but focuses on a different part–the House of Hawthorn, for those who’ve read the book. It should be, like its predecessor, standalone, though of course characters from The House of Shattered Wings will be making a comeback. It’s basically more Gothicness, more political and magical intrigues, and a lot more Vietnamese dragons, and it’s slated for a Summer 2017 release.

I’m aware that’s a long way off. For the impatient reader, there are also a number of short stories set in the universe of The House of Shattered Wings: see http://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/dominion-of-the-fallen/ for more details)

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for taking this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

AdB: Buy my books? (laughs) More seriously, my website http://www.aliettedebodard.com has short fiction, articles, and recipes in addition to semi-hemi-regular bloggage, so if any of these happen to be your thing…

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Aliette? Let us know with a comment!

Read my own review of The House of Shattered Wings (vol. I of Dominion of the Fallen)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with, award-winning , bestselling romantic suspense and thriller author LORETH ANNE WHITE, live right here on Saturday April 2!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

1 Comment

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Sara Alexi

Sara -smSara Alexi is the bestselling author of the hugely successful Greek Village Series, a collection of stories centered on a small Greek village and its inhabitants.

Sara was born in Oxford, England. She has travelled widely and now splits her time between her home in England and a tiny rural village in the Peloponnese, where she is renovating a ruined stone farmhouse.

Sara began writing later in life. In school, English lessons were a time of confusion, and books indecipherable hieroglyphics. Dyslexia was not well understood then and no support was available.

Despite her dyslexia Sara qualified as a psychotherapist and ran her own practice for years. Her artistic nature was, at that time, confined to painting, and she exhibited widely.

When, during a casual conversation with a client, Sara discovered that Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen were all dyslexic, her perspective changed: the world of fiction opened to her and she has been a prolific writer ever since.

Each of the sixteen books in the Greek Village Series has hit an Amazon #1 spot. With sales totaling two-thirds of a million copies, this collection of tales provides a keenly observed, compassionate insight into the Greek people and culture, and the human condition in general.

DC: Sara, thanks so much for doing this interview. It’s very kind of you, and I hope our readers will find it fascinating.

You’re a psychotherapist by training. How does that factor into your writing?

SA: It factors not just into my writing but into the way I think now. Everything tends to go through this process of analysis, which I’m sure has really helped the books along because I can’t write about a character without making everything fit that personality, and sometimes I find that the character actually says, “you know, this plot you have planned, this character couldn’t actually do that.” (laughs) “It would be outside of their comfort zone, so let’s guide it in a way that works.”

So I think it’s a strong influence. But also my interest in human beings generally, I think that drives my writing even more strongly, so when I see something I feel is unfair to people, then I have to speak out. The combination of the two is what drives my writing.

DC: With the village as the constant, the anchor for your many characters, your work digs deeply into the nature of love and friendship, into the past and memory, and into the complex web of connections between individuals. Do you think people are essentially good, that there’s more light than darkness in the world?

SA: I absolutely think that people are good. I think all people are good. I think the only time that people are ever bad is if you push enough buttons hard enough that it forces them to do something to protect themselves. Part of the reason why I want to write these books is to make everybody realize that we’re all fantastic. (laughs) Even the ones that look grim, even they’re fantastic!

DC: I know you’re a big fan of both the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. These are writers of dark, often melancholy works, and yet you’re an optimist. I find that intriguing.

SA: I think that Hardy and particularly the Brontë sisters both have real insight into human nature. Wuthering Heights is just a classic example of a woman that can’t decide between her dark and light side, and I think it’s done quite subtly. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, and the more you read it, the more that subtlety comes through. And I think being able to see into characters like that, that’s what I really enjoy reading. I like Anthony Trollope—he’s another one who has a really god understanding of what makes people tick and why they interact with people the way they do. And he tends to delve into the dark side of human nature.

DC: He also wrote enormously long works.

SA: Yes. He also went into long series. Like The Barchester Chronicles, he took one set place and worked his way out from that. And I honestly think that—like me—he was just indulging himself. (laughs)

DC: You divide your time between Greece and England: which is your true home now? One, both, or neither?

SA: Oh my goodness, that’s so hard! Sometimes when I’m in Greece I miss parts of England; when I’m in England I always miss Greece. It’s a really tricky dilemma that I’m stuck with, I think. I’m just going to have to come to terms with it.

DC: So is it Gin and Tonic or Ouzo on the rocks with a splash?

SA: When in Greece it’s Ouzo not on the rocks…when in England it’s nothing, really. It’s a different atmosphere in England—as you know, you’re British. It’s got that drive, everybody’s going somewhere busily, whereas in Greece it’s much more reflective.

DC: Chance events figure very prominently in your books and storylines. Has chance played a large part in your life?

SA: I don’t think there’s any such thing as an accident. I think that chance is what makes all our lives happen. We all think we’re on a course, we all think we’re going somewhere, and then suddenly something might happen that takes us to another country. You might meet somebody, for example who takes us to a different country. We think we’re guiding our destinies, but I actually think it’s the interactions between people that decide the direction in which we go.

So the chance meetings—are they chance? Do we create that chance? I think we absorb much more than we think, and we create events that we don’t even know we’re creating. So you find the people that you need. Therefore are they chance meetings, or have you organized your life slightly so that you’ll meet the person that you need to meet? Or do you in fact take out of the people what you need, and therefore it’s not chance at all. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, it does. I’m wondering if it varies from individual to individual. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the more open you are to things happening, the more things will happen to you, and the more good things will happen to you.

SA: I think everyone is open without realizing they’re doing it. I think we all just react to what comes into our lives; we all put out what we think we need, but I don’t think we all put out what will get us help in return. A lot of people give out vibes that get them what they don’t need, but it keeps them in the same position that feels comfortable.

DC: And when it comes to acting on what happens…Schopenhaeur said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Do you think we really have free will or do our emotions and desires ultimately rule our decisions?

SA: I haven’t met many people who have such control over their emotions that they can make their own decisions. We think our emotions are under our control but they’re not, so they play a big part in making our decisions for us. I think over time you can drive a path that’ll make you take more and more positive steps…I think all human beings are trying to seek a place where they’re at their happiest and healthiest. Some can do it more quickly than others.

DC: What do you most love about the Greek people?

SA: (laughs) Ah! Where do we start? I think the Greeks are a passionate people, which I admire. They are very—they have two sides to them: a side that is very passionate and very humanitarian, and very loving; and they have a side that is very definitely about their own satisfaction and their own position in life. So they have this kind of dichotomy going on all the time—but it never fights, because what’s happens in the moment is the nicest thin, the thing that counts. And it’s that carpe diem, that seizing the day, they all do it! (laughs) And it gives a lightness to life, a pleasure to life.

DC: Spontaneity, then.

SA: It’s a spontaneity that’s based around really enjoying life; rather than striving for a future event that will make life better, they’re enjoying life in the moment.

DC: I know that you grew up dyslexic in a time where the condition was less well understood than today, and that made reading hard for you for some time. Still, you’re well-read in the literary classics and have written no less than sixteen novels in just five years. You wrote your first book, The Illegal Gardener, in just six weeks. Did you see your dyslexia as a challenge to overcome, and how did you go about that?

SA: Yes, it was rather odd. As if something came along that was bigger than my dyslexia. The dyslexia was very confusing for me. School was just time where I used to look around the class and couldn’t understand why everybody else just wasn’t as puzzled as me. But dyslexic people find coping mechanisms, and you find ways around questions and around things that other people don’t, and it gives you a slightly different view on life: you can look in through the back doors, while other people just look straight on.

But what happened in Greece was suddenly meeting face-to-face with this illegal gardener and seeing that his situation was so much worse than mine. I was in the middle of having to pack up to leave Greece because the economy was bad, and woe is me! I’m leaving my beautiful house! And all the rest of it…and there was this man on his hands and knees pulling up weeds. And I went out just to say, “Do you want a glass of water? Are you all right?” and I got talking to him.

He’d left Pakistan, he had a baby he’d never seen, and he had no notion of when he was ever going to get back there. And I suddenly thought—and this way before the current migrant crisis—I realized this man’s position was totally unknown, nobody was speaking out for them, nobody was doing anything for them. Some days he got paid, others he’d work and the person wouldn’t bother to pay him. It was always a question of whether he had enough to eat, and he had no way of raising the money to go home.

So at that point, my need to give this man a voice became bigger than my dyslexia. And then I just wrote. A lot of it was goobledygook, but going back over it I saw where it didn’t quite make sense; and my first editor is really good at understanding what I’m trying to say and unscrambling it, so he helped a lot. All credit to him.

DC: You had a rental business in Greece which tanked when the Greek economic crisis blew up in 2011 or so. You took to writing novels—something you’d never done before—as a way to make a living, and against all odds succeeded with your very first book, and self-publishing at that. Did you know when you set out just how slim the chances of success were?

SA: (laughs) If I had , I would never have started! I published my first book on my fiftieth birthday, and it just felt like a milestone, an achievement…halfway through, having every intention to live to be a hundred, you see? (laughs) And I thought, if I sell just one book, I would be delighted. But then—unbelievable success with that first book, beyond all hope. Even if I’d had a dream, it wouldn’t have been as big a success as it was. I’ve been tremendously lucky.

DC: You’re also very prolific.

SA: As were talking earlier about whether chance plays a role in our lives…. In Greece, as a woman, and a woman who doesn’t speak very good Greek, I didn’t have a voice, people didn’t listen to me. Neither gender listened to me: the women tended to think I must be rather stupid, and the men would just ignore me. There was even one occasion where I had some builders around and I was explaining to them in Greek what I’d like to have done, and one of them looked at the other and said, in Greek, in front of me, “Who is this?” and the other said, “Just call her the wife,” and walked off and ignored me. And they waited till my husband came home and asked him what I wanted, which was exactly what I said.

So it’s this not having a voice that meant, when I started writing, I had seven years of not having a voice, so it’s just all come out in book form.

DC: You published your first book in the Greek Village series, The Illegal Gardener, in 2012 and have since released fifteen more. As an indie author, you’re also responsible for all the production, marketing, etc. But you still find time to travel, and are very active on social media. How do you manage it all? Are you very disciplined?

SA: I think the word is driven rather than disciplined. Having finally found a way to have a voice, and that I can overcome dyslexia, the rest of it just feels like the right thing to be doing; it fits my nature, my character. Social media is invaluable to me. Exchanging voices with my readers is just incredible, because as you know, writing is such an isolating, solitary process, so if you can online and chat with some of the people who have read your books, you suddenly remember why you’re doing it, that the end result is going to make lots of people happy—it’s amazing motivation, a wonderful thing! And I go back to writing thinking, oh yeah, this person’s going to enjoy this, this person’s going to enjoy that…and I find myself putting things in that I know are going to titillate specific readers. (both laugh)

DC: What do you do for relaxation and diversion?

SA: That’s a good question. I do like thrashing my husband at tavli—Greek backgammon—which I do quite well, and I walk. I really enjoy walking—walking and talking, really—because I walk until I find someone and then I talk to them, and that tends to just fill me up with new ideas, I get interested in their character….so yeah, just pootling about life when I’m not writing.

DC: Your muse is a generous one. Very few adult novel series get into double digits, yet The Greek Village series now numbers sixteen books. In the latest, you’ve brought back Aaman, a much-loved early character, and also introduced a new setting.  Do you see yourself continuing this series, or do you have an end in sight?

SA: I did wonder if the end was in sight, and when I hesitantly made that move to write about England in Saving Septic Cyril, although it’s been well-reviewed—the reviews have been mindblowing; I don’t think it’s received anything less than five stars yet, which is very touching and I’m very grateful to everyone who reviewed it—I definitely got the feeling it all wanted to remain in the village. But the nice thing about that is I really do live in that village, and there really are lots of characters that are fascinating, and I really could write forever about it.

But what I do have a plan for is to write a series about one of the characters in the village. There’s a lady called Stella who owns the local eatery, and I think she might decide that she wants to travel a bit. And I think that she’ll travel to some very interesting places, and of course I’ll have to do some personal research on where she goes! (laughs) So the idea is to go to a country, write a book about her having an adventure in that country, maybe keeping a blog so it feels very real for the readers, and then moving on to another country.

DC: Your book sales total two-thirds of a million, and each of your books has been an Amazon #1 bestseller. I know you’ve been approached by television companies in both Germany and Canada. Are we going to see the  Greek Village Series on TV anytime soon?

SA: I find the whole process absolutely baffling. They’ve both been talking to me for quite a while, one for much longer than the other. and the whole process is completely incomprehensible. I have been told that you have to be extremely patient, that these things do take a while. So my attitude is, if it happens, it’ll be lovely; if it doesn’t, I don’t mind. I get the feeling that at some point it probably will happen, but at what point, I don’t know.

DC: Tell me about your Ghurka1 novel.

SA: Ah! The Ghurka novel that never happened. I’d gone to see a friend of mine who was working as a lawyer out in Nepal, and his job was to process the Ghurkas to see if they had a right to live in England because they’d served in the British army, so he had a very in-depth knowledge of the whole situation with Ghurkas. I met a couple of Ghurkas and heard their tales, and my response was the same I’d had to the illegal gardener, Aaman, the Pakistani; and I really wanted to write their tale.

So when I came back to England, I started making enquiries because what I really needed to do was talk to the Ghurka women…because although Ghurkas are allowed to have more than one wife, they’re only allowed to bring one wife back to England. So right there was this heartbreaking story, because he has to choose not only the wife but also the children—which children does he bring? Do the children of one wife deserve to come to England more than the children of another wife? Are the children of one wife more intelligent and so would benefit more, but he loves another wife?

So this whole complex dynamic was just fascinating. However, the Ghurka ladies are very…private is the word, and not very interested in discussing any much at all. And, due respect to them, it’s their lives and I’m not going to pry where I’m not wanted, so that came to a bit of a halt because I couldn’t really find anybody who’d talk to me about it and I wouldn’t want to make it up—it would have to be something I’d talked to someone about and understood firsthand. So unfortunately, not one that’s happened yet!

DC: Is there anything you can talk about that’s out there on the horizon as a possible?

SA: There’s another idea that I’d love to do, though I don’t know how well it would be received. I’d like to write a series based on people that have reached a crisis point in their lives and had some sort of breakdown, and how each of them managed to recover, and in what way, and what it took to get them to a better place. And that would all be based around a garden. Because I’ve touched on this and visited people in mental asylums —there aren’t many left in England, it’s all “care in the community” now—but back when I began as a psychotherapist I did used to visit people in them; and there were communities in there, and the community had an occupational therapy center, and they had a garden, and each person would find their way of healing themselves. And I thought it would be a beautiful setting: a lovely garden somewhere where people would meet other people and interact and find a way to get to a better place. So I have that in the back of my mind somewhere.

DC: The garden is of course also a great metaphor.

SA: Absolutely. I think that’s why the first book was so well-received, because it contained that metaphor as well as character. Everything grew in that book.

DC: Sara, thanks so very much for spending this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

SA: It all sounds a bit cheesy when you say it like this…but I honestly would like to say that without the readers who write to me and without the people on Facebook talking to me, and all of them supporting me to such a degree…. I can’t begin to tell you how much they support me—they write to me constantly, they encourage me, they write reviews…they’re amazing, absolutely amazing! So really the only thing I’d like to do is say a massive thank you to those people. There’s lots of them now, and I love every one of them!

1 Ghurkas are a Hindu people who took over Nepal in the 18th century. Many became soldiers and fought in the British or Indian army.

LINKS:

Website  http://saraalexi.com

Facebook  http://facebook.com/authorsaraalexi

Sara’s Amazon Author Page  http://amazon.co.uk/Sara-Alexi/e/B008M6D60K

Did you enjoy this interview with Sara? Let us know with a comment!

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with multiple award-winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author Aliette de Bodard, live right here on Saturday March 26!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

12 Comments

Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing