A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (untitled) (2017/18?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
Find Wild Thing with Google

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Writing: from Idea to Page

From 13th to 17th April, 2017, I visited Perth for the first time and attended SwanCon 42. SwanCon is Australia's longest running speculative fiction convention, and this was its 42nd year, with a theme of honouring the work of Douglas Adams. They had wonderful guests of honour, and a huge range of panels and activities — generally about four talks on at the same time across the day from 10am 11pm or later, along with four or more activities running in parallel, from board games, to live action role-playing to console gaming to children's and other activities.

(Michael Troughton and Sean Williams holding up the SwanCon costume party sign, with Alan Baxter keeping an eye on the effervescent crowd.)

SwanCon 42 was held at the Metro Hotel, Perth, doing a heroic job supporting the convention (and feeding a large crowd several times a day). The hotel strained at the seams, but in my view they can be proud of the job they did.

I must say I was also impressed by the dedication of the organising committee, and their ability to fix things and cope when things unexpectedly went wrong.

This is just a short piece to record and share some notes I made as homework for one of the two planned panels I was on. It's a companion piece to a related panel focussed on publishing (and hence, is over on A Toe in the Ocean of Books). (I just intended to type up my notes, but saw they'd be a bit too cryptic if I did literally just that.)

The topic of the panel discussion (organised by Michael Cogan), was "Writing: from Idea to Page":

"Have you had a story in your head for ages you want to tell the world but not sure where to begin? Join our panellists who have been there and done that. Gain some tips and ideas on how to get your story idea down onto paper."

My most excellent fellow panellists were Satima Flavell, Glenda Larke, and Meg Caddy.

I think that collectively we provided good information. Please understand this is not a record of what we all said, but merely some notes I made beforehand as a memory jogger. Some of these points were made by other panellists independently, in their own words. Because we had only an hour and there was a lot of ground to cover, only some of these notes were covered in the talk.

So, in no particular order, these are my notes:

Look for the heart of your story — what is the key thing that is the essence that's driving you to write the story? What is it that is special and unique about your story that's pushing you to bring it to life in other people's minds?

For the above navel-gazing, there are a few ways of looking at your story, through the lens of words, that may help you. They'll help you most if you do it once you've got a good feel for what you want to do; but you can do it at any stage of the writing process. And it's simply to try writing the blurb (the short description designed to tell them readers just enough to intrigue them — maybe 100-200 words); and/or to write down "the elevator pitch" for the story (what you could say in one breath while to someone who asks "What's your story about?"); and the theme of the story (what is it exploring?). I'd add you can also try to create the "tag line" for your story (what might appear on the front cover if it was produced as a book).

People often talk about plotters vs "pantsers", or people who outline and meticulously plan vs those who fly by the seat of their pants and just write and see what happens. Use whatever works for you. You can also mix and match. I'm mostly a "pantser", but I've found that a sketchy outline (just bullet points) often provides a useful anchoring framework that I can work within or ignore as I see fit. You can use one method for the whole story, or different methods for different parts or at different times. E.g. I tend to use outlines when I need to solve some complex plot issue, or work out how on Earth the character could get into, or out of, some tricky situation.

That kind of leads me to the beautiful piece of luck that writing can help you write… When we create stories, we use three parts of our minds: the rational part, the unconscious, and our memory. Now, imagine trying to construct an entire novel in your head: working it all out and then just sitting down and start typing it up. Crazy, right? But you can paralyse your creative writing by trying to do that same kind of thing for much shorter things than a novel. It might be just a scene, or even just a piece of description.

Sure, spend some thought and try to work things out in your head: it's far faster and less effort than writing it down. But if you find you're not getting anywhere, or going around in loops, then just sit down and start writing.

You write stuff down so you don't spend 90% or 99% of your mental capacity just remembering everything. The blank page is not your enemy, it's your friend. It's an external part of your memory that can hold your thoughts and ideas effortlessly to free the rest of your mind to work on everything else that will go into your story. So, write stuff down that will be or may be useful: ideas of all sorts, bits of the story, sections of dialogue, possible bits of plot, a cool situation or setting… whatever you like. Once it's written down on your "external memory surface", it won't be distracting you at inopportune times saying "Don't forget me!"

And here's a related secret: once an idea is written down, you've basically put some very well-behaved modelling clay down that's ready and willing for you to shape it and improve it. It doesn't have to be anywhere near perfect when you write it down. There's an excellent quote from Terry Pratchett: "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story."

Read a lot. Write.

Always be looking for ways to improve what you write. Read about writing; read advice from others (Google searches will tend to find you stuff that is popular with other people); get reviews from other writers. But most of all, write.

Writing is a very learnable skill: you learn it by writing, while consciously trying to improve. (I don't mind literally all the time: that would be distracting and unhelpful when you're "in the flow" and creating!) But be open to learning new stuff, and finding weaknesses in your own work. It's very learnable, but it's also one of those skills that requires thousands of hours of practice.

Know your characters. Know your world. You can learn about them by writing down whatever you dream up for them! Don't write this stuff down thinking it needs to go into your story: it doesn't. It's so that you, the author, gains a deeper understanding of some of the key things in your story. For your characters, the personality is more important than their appearance. So make sure you pose yourself some fun questions about them that will give you a deeper understanding of what drives them. What music do they like? What food? What clothes do they love or hate? What do they spend money on? What piece of clothing would they put on first in the morning? What thing did they love most as a child?

Likewise, pose yourself some suitable (and helpful) questions regarding the setting.

Write these things down in some kind of background notes file. Use enough organisation so that you don't lose them, so you can find them if you need to remind yourself of them later. Write them down: it will help you remember, and it's more practice in writing.

Look for a writer's group and participate. But bail out and find another or form your own if you're not getting what you need from the group. I highly recommend the

Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror — reviews by other writers are the DNA of the site/community, and the site itself is wonderfully powerful and helpful in sharing and reviewing among the members. It costs US$50/year, which is super cheap for what you'll get from it (because 99% of the value comes from the members themselves writing and receiving reviews), and you can even try it for a month for free. I feel sorry for other genres that they don't have a site as good as this available to them.

Accept criticism and try to learn from it — if you sense it's been given honestly, i.e. with good intentions. But keep in mind that no piece of writing will please everybody. Just because one person doesn't like or ‘get' what you're saying, is not a reason to change it. But if two people tell you that a specific thing didn't work for them, it probably means there's something odd there. But if they tell you how to fix it, they're probably wrong: only you can know how to alter that piece to avoid that reaction. (Paraphrasing Neil Gaiman, I think.)

On the subject of improving your writing, go back to some of the stories you love. Actively study them and try to work out why. The consider whether something like that would be something you'd like to do, and start practising doing it.

Look for your own writing style — every writer has their own distinct style. ‘Different' can be good. But to get a feel for how other writers work, and the range of literary devices that are available for you to use as you see fit, try some exercises of writing a something in the style of an author you admire. Something reasonably short, just so you get a feel for how that technique works. Stretch your writing muscles.

Less is often more. If you can express something in fewer words, without changing the feeling or the meaning, then those words will have greater impact. (I think of poetry as like distilled alcohol: it's strings of words that have been super-concentrated so they pack a powerful punch.) Pretend you have a word budget: you kind of do. The reader will appreciate you using only the words you need to achieve the effect you want. Omit details which the reader can fill in for themselves.

Trust your readers' intelligence. You don't need to spell everything out for them. They will enjoy figuring stuff out and piecing things together for themselves. Don't spoon feed them, or lead them buy the nose. Leave them room to exercise their own imagination, too.

If you write something odd, readers (especially if you're little known), are likely to think "Oh, look, there's a mistake." and be thrown out of the story. So, when you are doing something deliberately odd, make sure you also provide some subtle hint, some indication, that lets the reader know that you know it was odd. Then they won't think "Mistake", they'll think "Ooh, weird, what's going on here, I must read on."

It's less effort to learn the writing craft by writing short stories, simply because when you find problems in your writing style and go back to fix them, there's proportionately less to fix. But if you are not interested in writing short stories, or don't like them, then don't!

Do have a go at writing poetry. It's hard! But valuable. Learn about poetic devices, too. Sometimes they're useful to use in prose, a little.

Keep a pen and pencil beside your bed in case you have a great idea as you're falling asleep or waking up. Write it down. Ideally, with some light on, even if it's just enough to make sure your sentences don't run over the top of each other.

Think about flow. I see books as made from lots of interleaving flows operating across a range of levels. At the bottom level are the words of a sentence, which give you both the flow of the sounds but also a flow of meaning, and emotion. The rise and fall of these flows lead to a rhythm in each. Very similarly, when the sentences are showing a dialogue, or just letting us see the flow of ideas inside someone's head, the ideas should usually flow smoothly, each one connecting somehow to the next. Until, of course, you signal that that thread has stopped. Mostly, these flows will connect smoothly: but you can get a lot of impact from jarring or breaking the flow, provided you have done it consciously for that purpose.

The next level up are paragraphs, and then pages, and scenes, and chapters, and the whole book, or books. There are flows in pace, in density of writing, in emotion, in intensity, … any sort of quality you want to imbue in your story. Gradually learn to be aware of these flows.

You do need to vary the rhythm. Monotony gets boring pretty quickly. But don't just vary the rhythm randomly: be aware of the flows, and build and release the rhythms to create the effects you want in your story. This applies across all the levels.

Unlike literary fiction, other stories must have a plot, not just a story. (A story = "this happens, then this, and this". A plot = "this happens, and because of that, this happens, and that leads to this.)

Trust your unconscious. You can set it working on a creative problem by thinking about your problem, feeding in or refreshing your mind by consciously going over the information relevant, that may include all the requirements that the solution must satisfy. Consciously be aware that you're doling this to feed the raw data to your unconscious so it can get to work on the problem. Then do something else that will distract your conscious mind. And every now and then, do a little revisit to the problem so to keep things bubbling along. Sooner or later, the solution will pop into your head.

None of these are rules. Even if they are, if you know you're breaking a rule, but you're doing so for a good reason, then that's almost always going to be fine.

So there are lots of things to learn about writing, but it is a very learnable skill. But the work you put into learning about writing should be small compared to just writing your stories. You learn writing mainly by doing it. Don't think that you have to learn everything before you can "start to write". Just write.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Free and discount ebook giveaway

This is just a very short note to let you know I'm participating in a three day free and discount book promotion with a whole bunch of other Indie authors. The Support for Indie Authors-organised bargains (within GoodReads) consists of over 100 books, covering literary, young adult, and seven genres. Here's a detailed breakdown:
  • 20 sci-fi
  • 40 fantasy
  • 20 romance
  • 12 mystery & suspense
  • 8 horror
  • 15 LGBTQ
  • 15 literary
  • 15 humour
  • 8 young adult
  • The promotion started at midnight (PDT) on March 31st (so that was 6pm AEST, or 7am UTC). It ends on April 2nd.

    I've made Wild Thing free for all three days (actually, a bit more: both before and after). Unfortunately, because Harsh Lessons's Kindle Select Term ends (rolls over) on March 31st, the best I can manage is to make it free on the 1st and 3rd days: Amazon have no way of pre-allocating free days in the next term, nor can they set the price to free on the current day, even if you do it at the start of that day.

    The purpose of the promotion very much aligns with what I think is the key issue for authors working outside the traditional publishing environment: being discovered by readers. It also helps readers discover books they've never heard of. And who knows, some of those writers in the promotion might become your next favourite author! So I'd encourage you to have a browse of the titles available over there at the Support for Indie Authors event.

    Various writers there have been working hard creating promotional images for the event and sharing them for all the participants to use. C.B. organised a Thunderclap; Christina McMullen organised the event and put together the event site, and all the authors helped with promoting and discounting their books. One member, Missy Sheldrake, even made a couple of promo videos you might like to check out, and uploaded them to Youtube here and here!

    I'll be back at work on Shadow Hunt from April 1st, having received an interim critique of the 1st 200 pages from Dave at ThEditors.com on Friday night. (He said it's looking pretty good so far.)

    (I'll post this same article over on my other blog.)

    Monday, 27 March 2017

    March 2017 news

    This is a very brief update on what I'm up to.

    I've teamed up with a bunch of other authors from Support for Indie Authors (not the talented Aussie singer/songwriter, Sia!) of Goodreads) who will be running a large free-or-discount book promotion event from March 31st - April 2nd. The site will go live on midnight of Mar 31st at VM's Spring Attack, when a big bunch of books will appear.

    In other news, on Sunday March 26th I uploaded a draft of Shadow Hunt to Amazon, to make it available for pre-order on April 30th. Dave is still working through his final critique, but felt that April 30th sounded a reasonably manageable date for me. But I will be busy between now and then!

    Right now, I'm basically doing some marketing type stuff, as well as doing what I can to get Shadow Hunt ready for publication, while waiting for Dave's final critique. Jon Marshall has kindly acted as a Beta reader (x2), and said the book is noticeably better after my revisions following Dave's critique of Jan 11th. But Jon had some notes/comments, which I'll be working through this week.

    I will also be attending Swancon 42, April 13th—17th, the speculative fiction convention in Perth (Western Australia). It'll be my first visit there. I think the flight is over four hours — it's a big country!

    In the meantime, I've made myself a little list of all the things I need to do between now and the end of April. My dream is that I'll have the ebook ready before that, and will be able to publish earlier. And that I'll be able to use the last week or two of April to prepare and get the printed books ready, once again via IngramSpark.

    I also have several blog articles that I plan to write (both here and on A Toe in the Ocean of Books): including a Q&A article from some good questions from my first fan.

    Excelsior!

    Wednesday, 15 February 2017

    Shadow Hunt blurb

    Blurb writing is so hard! It's definitely an art, and one I struggle with. Each time I craft a version I'm happy with, and ask friends and other writers and colleagues to review it, I always get valuable feedback, pointing out problems I hadn't seen.

    I've received lots of useful feedback for this and my other blurbs. As a result, I feel I'm slowly learning how to write a blurb. Below are some of the comments I've had, that highlight problems to keep an eye out for. Mostly these comments have been for different versions of a blurb — although sometimes the comments have been for the same version, but from different people! (The highlighted item is the critical point.)

    • It wasn't until the end of the blurb that I discovered the MC was a young woman.
    • This blurb won't make much sense to someone who hasn't read the previous books.
    • This blurb says too much about what has gone before, and not enough about this story.
    • I don't get a sense of what the story is.
    • The final paragraph implies there's some choice the MC has to make — but you've given us no information regarding what that choice is about.
    • There's not much of the personality of the MC coming through.
    • You're using too many hedging constructions like "this, but that" or "although one thing, also another".
    • You're trying to say too much; what's the heart of the story?
    • You're giving away too much: just give us hints about what happens. Show us enough to make us ask questions. Intrigue us.
    • It's too long.
    • It's too short.

    So it's definitely an art. I've also heard it said that a blurb typically goes through hundreds (or even a thousand) revisions, in traditional publishing. I think mine go through about a hundred or two. The blurb for Shadow Hunt has probably been reviewed about fifty times by others, and about seventy times by me, so far. This time I really think I have something that's good: close to good enough for the back cover, at last? Then again, I also thought that three times before.

    One worthwhile thing I did recently was posting the blurb on facebook, and asking people what they thought of it. From that, I received lots of critically valuable feedback. (I'd received similar feedback on Friday night from some friends, but I didn't understand the why behind it, then.)

    The key realisation for me was that when I read a blurb, I want to know only the bare minimum to decide if I want to read the story or not. The only blurbs I read in their entirety are those by authors I don't love. For authors I know I enjoy reading, I read only enough of the blurb to get a general sense of the story and the MC; and for a series I love, I read the blurb after the book, not before.

    This means that for series, I think it's important for the blurb to say as little as you can: most readers will have read the earlier books. Other readers will probably sample bits inside the book to decide if they want to read it, or read reviews to get a better idea of what to expect.

    Anyway, here is my new version of the blurb. Is it good enough?

    Blurb for vol 3 of The Leeth Dossier, Shadow Hunt. (The tag-line is: "She thought she was hunting it"). It's 108 words long. (2017/2/28.)



    Leeth:  Experimental subject.  Government assassin.

    Threat to all humanity.

    2062, 26 years after magic unexpectedly returned to our world. In the Dumps outside New Francisco, eighteen-year-old Leeth is on the run.  She doesn’t regret sacrificing her future to save her friend, but both the ruthless covert agency she worked for and her controlling uncle want her back.

    Despite the loneliness and hardships, Leeth is relishing her freedom, and is still determined to honor the promises she’s made.

    But thanks to an insane mage’s tampering with meta-magical Archetypes, a uniquely altered killer is hunting her.  And in this case, what she doesn’t know can doom her — then everyone else.





    Progress

    I should give a brief status report. I've spent most of Monday and Tuesday working on the blurb, in preparation for Wednesday night's meet-up by the Marrickville Writers Corner, and following the feedback I received (thanks to everyone who reviewed it). On Monday I basically had a day off; much of Tuesday was devoted to family stuff; and Wednesday included the next step in the Solar Panel and Malfunctioning Battery saga. So my progress through Dave's extremely valuable critique has slowed: I don't think I'll complete it until E/Feb at the earliest; more likely, March 7th.

    As of Wednesday evening I was on p35 of 142pp of the 2nd half of the MS with Dave's annotations, which puts me on p238 of 491pp of the full, revised MS. I'm in the 100pp Fist Fest arc of the story, trying to cut the 30pp or so that Dave recommends, to fix the pacing. I also have a few new chapters to write. And then I need to polish all the new bits, then need to find a slot with Dave for him to re-review it, and then work through that critique (hopefully, much easier). So trying publish it E/March sounds impossible. But I'm still going to try!

    I tweet my progress each day, if anyone wants to closely track where I'm up to. Sharing that information also helps spur on. So I'm sorry if this revised schedule will disappoint people, but on the other hand, I'm confident you'd all want me to produce the best book I can.

    Now: back to the 'writing board'!


    Older versions of the blurb.

    2017/2/25, 110 words long.

    Leeth:  Experimental subject.  Government assassin.

    Threat to all humanity.

    2062, 26 years after magic unexpectedly returned to our world. In the Dumps outside New Francisco, eighteen-year-old Leeth is on the run.  She doesn’t regret sacrificing her future to save her friend, but both the ruthless covert agency she worked for, and her controlling uncle, want her back.

    Despite the loneliness and hardships, Leeth is relishing her freedom, and is still determined to honor the promises she’s made.

    But thanks to an insane mage’s tampering with meta-magical Archetypes, a uniquely altered killer is hunting her.  And in this case, what she doesn’t know can doom her — and after her, everyone else.

    2017/2/19, 91 words long.



    Leeth:  Experimental subject.  Government assassin.

    Threat to all humanity.

    2061, 25 years after magic unexpectedly returned to our world.  In the Dumps outside New Francisco, eighteen-year-old Leeth is on the run.  She doesn't regret sacrificing her future to save her friend, but the ruthless covert agency she worked for, and her controlling uncle, want her back.

    Despite the loneliness and hardships, Leeth is relishing her freedom.  She is also determined to honor all the promises she's made.

    But what she doesn't know, may do something much worse than kill her.

    2017/2/18, 163 words long.



    Leeth: Experimental subject. Government assassin.
    Threat to all humanity.


    It's 2061, 25 years after magic unexpectedly returned to our world. In the Dumps that fringe New Francisco, Leeth is on the run. She doesn't regret sacrificing her future to save her friend, but the covert government agency that's been training her as their assassin wants her back.

    As does her uncle, who still believes he owns her.

    Despite the loneliness and hardships, Leeth is relishing her freedom. She is also working out how to honor her promise to release Godsson from the Institute for Paranormal Dysfunction — unaware the insane mage sees her as the key component needed to 'correct' human nature. His meta-magical construct, a shadow bonded to a ruthless killer, continues to hunt her. And is closing in.

    When Leeth sets out to hunt her magical opposite, unknowing, the stage is set — for an ending worse than anyone knows.

    Unless one girl's spirit can prove strong enough to forge her own Path.




    And the feedback on the above was pretty consistent and uniform: although several people liked it, several others commented that it was still saying much too much, and greatly chopped back everything at the point where it starts talking seriously about this book. And also shortening the contextual paragraph ("2061..."). Sandra Wigzell noted "Those that have read book 1 and 2 will know the premise of where you are going.. less words more mystery" and "in another analogy... stop being a stripper and now dress like a Nun...".

    I had trouble with these shortened descriptions, in that none of them indicated the major plot arc. A few people commented that I had revealed too much (plot twists), until I realised they could not have meant plot twists (because I hadn't; and because every blurb in every series I sampled — about 10 — did indicate the major arc). But I myself don't read blurbs of series I like and authors I trust, because they give away too much. They don't give away plot twists, they give away the plot arcs. And I trust the author enough to assume they'll follow the plot arcs they've laid down previously, and I prefer to be surprised.

    That said, the blurbs I sampled all varied in how much of the arc they revealed: some were very vague (and I would not mind reading them before reading the book, if I had taken the chance), but some were pretty clear (and I'm glad I read the blurb only after I finished reading the book).

    So I think what everyone was really saying was that they want to know the bare minimum about what's happening in the book: just hints and clues, if that.

    My brother Matthew wrote: "I like Zen paintings. I love minimalism. People who distil a perfect moment with their media to its essence leave me in awe of their ability" and "giving advice is not easy. I just tell you what's in my heart and what I like."


    2017/2/17, 199 words long:


    Leeth: Experimental subject. Government assassin.
    Threat to all humanity.


    Sacrificing her future to save her friend is a decision Leeth refuses to regret. Now eighteen, she has escaped the covert government agency training her as their assassin. Hunted by her former colleagues, yet still desperate to belong, she is learning to survive in the society of outcasts bordering New Francisco. Hardship and loneliness bring freedom — and Leeth is relishing it. But darker agendas are at work.

    The manipulative Doctor Harmon still believes he owns her: Leeth must best him if she's to take control of her life. Deciding to involve her friend Marcie, however, may have unexpected consequences.

    Leeth also needs to learn to trust more wisely. Bound by her promise to release Godsson from the Institute for Paranormal Dysfunction, she remains unaware the insane mage sees her as the key component needed to ‘correct' human nature. His meta-magical construct, a shadow bonded to a ruthless killer, continues to hunt her. And is closing in.

    When Leeth sets out to hunt her magical opposite, unknowing, the stage is set — for an ending worse than anyone knows.

    Unless one girl's spirit can prove strong enough to forge her own Path.



    Monday, 6 February 2017

    Shadow Hunt cover designed!

    I posted a quick status report over on my other blog, yesterday (A Toe in the Ocean of Books), focused on the procedural side of things. Here I'll just give an update on the writing side.

    Today I finalised (I hope!) the blurb, and Mirella de Santana finished her cover design, being very patient as usual with my fussiness. I love her work, and I hope you will too. Here’s the new cover:

    Blurb writing is tricky – it’s been through numerous revisions, including input from friends, other writers at the very supportive Marrickville Writers Group, and my editor Dave at TheEditors.com. Here it is:

    Leeth:  Experimental subject.  Government assassin.

    Humanity's doom?

     

    Desperate to belong, but hunted by her former colleagues, Leeth is now learning to survive in the society of outcasts bordering New Francisco. And despite hardship and loneliness, she is relishing her new-found freedom. But other agendas remain at work. The manipulative Doctor Harmon still believes he can control her; still believes she belongs to him. Only by dealing with him can she take control of her life.

    But Leeth has greater, hidden enemies who wish to use her. Godsson, the insane mage, sees her as the key ingredient in his plan to ‘correct’ human nature. His meta-magical construct, bonded to a ruthless killer, continues to hunt her. And it is closing in.

     

    The stage has been set – for an ending worse than anyone knows.

    Unless an eighteen-year-old girl’s spirit can prove strong enough to forge her own Path, instead.


    Following Dave’s detailed critique of the 1st half of the MS, and feedback from my beta reader (Jon Marshall – thanks for spotting some significant problems!) right now I’m working on polishing my changes while waiting for the detailed crit of the 2nd half. Then it will be full steam ahead. I’m also in the process of booking things to visit Swancon 42 in Perth, April 2017.

    I’ll need to decide the publication date for the ebook version, soon, and upload the draft MS to Amazon. I’m thinking March 15 – if I manage to complete it before then, I’m sure people won’t complain! It’s funny how each book seems to bring its own challenges and new things to learn. Or maybe Leeth is just intrinsically challenging! And Harmon, too, in his own way. I think my next post here will be from a Q&A session with an interested reader from overseas (my first fan contact!). He said he was happy to share our discussion (that largely focused in on the relationship between Leeth and Harmon), so after the book is ready, I’ll condense that into a post. Unless I find I need a break to preserve my sanity, and manage to make time before then.

    Monday, 31 October 2016

    Where Ideas Come From

    (Image from Andrés Nieto Porras)

    I was daydreaming recently about what I'd say if I sat one day on an author panel, and someone asked the classic question.  But I've thought about it enough, and followed perhaps enough interesting research, and been lucky enough, to maybe partly answer the question.

    A stupidly arrogant claim, eh?

    The short, half answer, is: the same place dreams come from.

    One clue was a fascinating documentary some years ago which mentioned an (Italian? French?) researcher's idea that the same mechanism the brain uses to form dreams is at the root of our consciousness itself, and our thought processes.

    Another clue is our ability to create mental models of other people - what they're thinking, how they'll react, how they're feeling - and the discovery of mirror neurones, that let us experience the pain or joy of other people, as if whatever is happening to them is also happening to us.  That all ties up with our ability to form social groups, and through that, to survive.  The evolutionary pressure that drove that development is very clear.  So our ability to construct models of other people, good enough to allow us to hold imaginary conversations with them, is another large piece of the puzzle: we really are very adept at creating hypothetical situations, populating them with imaginary or "real" people, and then letting them act and react with each other in our minds.  That's a big part of the answer.

    Another equally big part is our hyper-developed ability to see patterns; patterns in all the bits and pieces of things that make up our mental landscapes — whether they're simple geometrical shapes or complex sets of actions with causes and effects.  Our brains are hungry to find patterns, to predict the future or to make sense of the world around us. Again, this developed because the ability to read a warning sign, evolutionarily speaking, has very much been a matter of literal life and death.  For individuals, tribes, or whole societies.  So we're also great at making connections between apparently disjoint things: whether it's an apple falling from a tree, or a dream of two snakes coiling together.

    Another really powerful element in our idea creation arsenal is our unconscious. I've blogged previously about the Unconscious Thought Theory, but it's worth recapping here.  Unlike our conscious mind, which is great at managing sequential lines of thought and performing logical manipulations, our brains also provide with "an" unconscious, with something like fifty separate and independent "mental processing units", that can all access all our memories and whatever it is our brains use to represent parts of thoughts (facts, idea complexes), and then form new connections.

    Fifty streams of thought that are all able to match and measure and compare and select and create.

    This forming of connections, I suspect, is how we construct those structures in our brains that represent our ideas.

    So as well as our logical minds, we also have this powerful parallel processing thinking engine at our disposal.  I've been happily and very productively using UTT since I learned of it in 2014, to solve problems and generate ideas.  So I know that for me, at least, it works. Very effectively.

    And if that's not enough, to this "most complex thing in the universe" (the human brain and mind), we have perhaps mankind's greatest invention: words, and language.  The ability to write stuff down.  When you think of it, written language is "just" the capturing of ideas in a static, black and white, two dimensional form. Frozen in time: visible for anyone to see, however far away in space or time they may be from the original writer.  Which is pretty amazing.

    But for a writer, the written word becomes in a real sense an extension of the brain. Once written down, the burden of having and holding the thought has been transferred out of our brain and offloaded to an outside memory screen, sitting there for us to read at a glance and add back into the melting pot of our thoughts.  It frees up the mind to generate the next thought, the next piece of the idea, and holds it in a stable form that won't collapse if we're interrupted, or lost if we're distracted.

    And the final piece of the puzzle, I think, is each person's "mental wealth": the Aladdin's cave of memories, experiences, sights, sounds, music, pictures, ideas, feelings, facts, tales, people, hopes, …. in our heads. I don't know the limits of the storage capacity of our brains, but I do know it's huge.  And the more good and rich and interesting stuff we store away in our treasure troves, the more building blocks we have for new ideas, new stories, new inventions.

    So with all that thinking capacity at our command, and all that rich source of stuff from which to create new ones, I think the question of where our ideas comes from starts to seem a lot less surprising.

    It comes from the most fundamental part of what makes us human, and from all we've seen and done.  Humans are imagination engines, naturally generating ideas like the sun generates warmth.

    It's what we do.

    Sunday, 9 October 2016

    Women Who Kick Ass

    This is a homage to the fictional role models (viragos?) who helped lead to Leeth's creation.

    While women have always been seen as influential ("behind every great man is a woman"), most human societies in recorded history have been male-led, if not outright male-dominated. Even in the above quote, the woman's position is behind the man. And while the average man is physically stronger than the average woman, that seems a pretty sorry justification for an unequal sharing of power. Thankfully, in the long run brain and heart are far more important to humanity than brawn. So as our societies evolve and improve, our innate sense of fairness puts a steady, shaping pressure that heads us in the direction of equality. (Fingers crossed!)

    Anyway, enough philosophy. This piece is meant to be about the fictional characters who inspired me: role models who helped shape Leeth, and of whom I sometimes wondered "How would Leeth get on with X?" So, here's the list, in the order they spring to mind (and probably the significance of their influence):

    Key Influences

    Modesty Blaise — if you haven't read all Peter O'Donnell's novels about Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin... you're missing out, big time. Those stories have everything, including a lot of heart.

    Leela of the Sevateem (Louise Jameson alongside Tom Baker's classic Doctor Who)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Angel_Alita">Battle Angel Alita aka ("Gunnm" in the Japanese)

    Buffy (we don't even need to add "the vampire slayer" these days, do we?). The original film was an influence — and although the series was better, it was a little late to be a big influence. :-)

    Leeloo of (Fifth Element)

    Leeth... and magic?

    Leeth was pretty much fully-formed by 1992: both who she was and her personality were already determined before all the fictional characters who came later than that. (As my friend Jon Marshall pointed out: Leeth has been in existence for more years than her fictional age.)

    It was kind of weird, in a way: when Leeth was born, strong female characters in fiction were both rare and considered odd. Even in my original MS, Harmon chose the Huntress as the Archetype to try to activate through Leeth's Unfolding, because it would result in a perceptible shift in society. And strangely enough, while I wrote and polished, society did indeed shift around me, just as Harmon had hoped in his future society. Writers are dreamers: I know I was just tapping into a change that was already under way; there was no cause and effect. Words only work their magic on our society if they're read, not from the pure act of writing! But still, it seemed a nicely weird coincidence.

    Sensitised by Leeth's existence, and wanting to do the best I could for her, I read lots of books in the genres I like, with strong female characters. And there are some truly wonderful women who have burst into life in our imaginations. Although they had much less influence on Leeth than the earlier few, I still want to give a kind of "shout out" to these later women of courage.

    More women who kick ass

    Commander Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell's Section 9.

    Joel Shepherd's series about Commander Sandy Kresnov. As I've long thought, by another weird coincidence, Crossover, the 1st novel in that series was one of the ten finalists alongside my own early MS — then titled "Leeth" — in the 1998 George Turner contest.

    Lilith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet.

    Joanne Walker of C E Murphy's The Walker Papers.

    Diana Rowland's demon-summoning cop Kara Gillian.

    The irrepressible Tinker of Wen Spencer's Elfhome series (aka "the Godzilla of Pittsburgh" — quite a rep, for a teenage girl!)

    Maxine Kiss (in Marjorie M Liu's Hunter Kiss series.) Incidenatlly, how's this for a fantastic opening line — which the series goes on to equal and exceed! — "When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.")

    Elissa Megan Powers, "Emp", (Adam Warren's subversive and deeper-than-it-looks superheroine comic series, Empowered).

    Wonder Woman, as re-imagined by George Perez in the late 80s.

    Patricia Briggs's Mercedes Thompson.

    Joanne Baldwin of Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series.

    Eugenie Markham, Richelle Mead's Dark Swan series.

    Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue in Kristin Cashore's absolutely brilliant related books, that began with Graceling.

    Agent Lila Black in Justina Robson's intriguing Quantum Gravity series.

    Honor Harrington in David Weber's hard military sci-fi series.

    Valkyrie Cain in Derek Landy's hugely fun Skulduggery Pleasant series.

    Jane Yellowrock in Faith Hunter's Skinwalker series.

    Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake (of the eponymous series).

    Rachel Morgan (Kim Harrison's Hollows series).

    Agatha Heterodyne (Phil & Kaja Foglio's brilliant Girl Genius series of graphic novels).

    So, what's the attraction?

    Why am I so drawn to the idea of a strong woman, as an author? There's probably a raft of reasons.

    For a writer, a female protagonist provides a rich vein of emotional openness to explore. Men are expected to be "strong", and in our society showing emotion has for centuries been taken as a sign of weakness: a vulnerability. (Although that's finally changing!) In contrast, women were allowed, even expected, to let their emotions show. Or maybe they've simply been generally wiser, or tougher: willing to expose that side of themselves because of all it brings in return? (Countering the irony of Simon and Garfunkel's "If I'd never loved, I never would have cried".)

    But whatever the reason, while for all these characters, their prowess and general ability to kick ass is empowering and heartening, it's their spirit that I find far more engaging. These are people who don't back down, who don't give in, who keep on fighting, no matter the odds. They never say die.

    And it's that indomitable spirit which is their true strength.

    PS

    If you have thoughts about any of this, or would like to nominate other inspiring, kick-ass female protagonists, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!