Fantasy writer. English teacher. For‑the-fun-of it photographer. Typography lover. Decaf drinker. This blog is about my journey as a writer—you’re welcome to come along for the ride.

Stuff I Read

Favourite authors

Orson Scott Card
Sherwood Smith
Robin Hobb
Shannon Hale
Brandon Sanderson
Guy Gavriel Kay

Writing Craft

Advanced Fiction Writing

Writing blogs

Juliette Wade, TalkToYouniverse
Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds (Warning: strong language) 

Publishing blogs

Jane Friedman
Kristin Lamb
Anne R. Allen

Word of the Week

unasinous (adj): Being equal to another in stupidity.

For quite a nice-sounding word, the meaning is rather amusing. Could obviously be applied in such areas as politics, reality television and profanity against the written word.


Language and names in fantasyland


It is not uncommon for someone to say, “Such-and-such book changed my life.” For someone who reads regularly, as I do, I suppose it is to be expected. However, I don’t know how many people could say that reading a fantasy novel influenced their choice of career. I’m sure many writers in the genre would make such a statement, but as yet I’m not actually a professional writer—I’m not published—and so saying that a fantasy novel influenced my choice to become an English teacher is perhaps a curiosity.

As I stated in one of my first blog entries, I love words. That love of words, and my curiosity about how language works, originated in my reading of Lord of the Rings. I was fascinated by the created languages of Tolkien’s world—Quenya and Sindarin—and I even went to the extremely nerdy length of hunting down an online course to learn Quenya. Unfortunately I lasted for about two lessons, and the reason was that I quickly realised that my knowledge of linguistic metalanguage was relatively limited. I knew the basics of grammar, but not much else. Yet my appetite had been whet, and it was not long after that I began my university studies in linguistics.

One of the most beneficial aspects of studying linguistics was gaining a knowledge of phonetics. It took most of a semester to re-orient my brain to think of English in terms of the discrete sounds rather than in letters or syllables. One incredibly useful application of this knowledge in my job is the ability to explain to my English-as-a-Second-Language students that Australian English has 44 sounds that are written using 26 letters. Although this doesn’t necessarily make learning English simpler, it certainly helps students to understand why English spelling can be so difficult, particularly the vowels. When you have 20 vowel sounds and five main letters with which to write them (six if you include ‘y’), it isn’t any wonder that students have difficulties. Yet I have seen that knowledge prove to be enormously helpful for many of my students.

What does this have to do with writing fantasy? A lot. One of the most enjoyable parts of world creation, for me, is coming up with names for my characters and places. One of the first and strongest impressions I get when reading a fantasy novel comes from the names. I find it very difficult to suspend disbelief if the names of characters or places don’t suit the setting of a book. Unusual names don’t bother me, but names that have inconsistent sounds or orthography (the spelling system of a language) jolt me out of the story.

I’m not sure why I am so sensitive to this area of worldbuilding; perhaps it is my linguistic training. Here is an analogy: if I made an acquaintance with someone in my home town who had lived in Australia all their life and had grown up with Australian parents, I would be more than a little surprised to discover that their name was Sato. It isn’t that I dislike the name, but simply that it is unexpected because such a name has its origins in an entirely different culture and language. And that is my point: when creating names for a fantasy world, it makes sense that such names would reflect the language of a particular culture the same way they do in the real world.

This may seem like a daunting task for some, especially those who have no background in linguistics and have no intention of obtaining one. However, there is one tool that I have found incredibly useful in the search to create names that have a consistent and linguistically sound basis: a website called Behind the Name.

The brilliant thing about this website is that it gives you the origin of the name and the language that it is derived from. For example, if you are looking for names that have a Hebrew flavour, you can simply go to the Hebrew section of the site and look at their list of male and female names with Hebrew origins. It is also incredibly useful that they have pages dedicated to ancient cultures, such as Ancient Roman or Greek, and also Mythological and Biblical names.

To give you an idea of how I settle on names for my characters, I’ll walk you through the process I’ve been using for my current collaborative project. It became apparent early on that the feel of the main culture we had created was akin to Spanish, with a dash of French thrown in (it helps that both of these languages come from the same Indo-European sub-family of languages, the Romance languages). In the original version of our story, I had already established that the main character’s name was Elyse, and I didn’t want to change that. Thus, in order to give the name a Spanish feel I added the the ending ‘–iana’ and came up with the full name ‘Elysiana bren Vitas’ (bren meaning ‘daughter of a noble house’ and Vitas being her House name, which is a modification of an Ancient Roman name).

For more minor characters, I used the database on the website to find Spanish names that fit my needs. One of my rules of thumb when choosing names is to try to ensure that all major characters have names starting with different letters, purely for the reader’s sake. I figure it is easier for a reader to distinguish between ‘Reynard’ and ‘Nacio’ than it is to try to remember which character is ‘Reynard’ and which is ‘Roland’. So the first thing I do is scan the names for the letters I haven’t used yet, and then look at the meanings of the names to see if there is anything that suits the type of character I am creating. On occasion I will find parts of names that I like, and then I will combine them into something new. For example, the name of my protagonist in my large solo project is Rayenna, a combination of the names ‘Reina’ and ‘Anna’ that together mean ‘queen of grace’.

One other aspect that I take into consideration is spelling. For a long time I had settled on particular spellings for the names of some of the characters in my stories. However, a few months ago I had the urge to regulate the spelling of the names in my solo work and come up with an orthography for the primary language, Alonïan. I took a leaf out of Tolkien’s book for this task and aimed for a system that would allow for the phonetic spelling of names, with an almost one-to-one correspondence between sounds and spelling. However, the difficulty with such a task is that the names still needed to be comprehensible for the reader, not using too many foreign marks or letters.

The result was a system where I devised a way to distinguish between short vowels, long vowels and diphthongs. Short vowels are represented the same way as in English, but long vowels are represented by adding an umlaut over the appropriate letter.

Here are some examples:

Short vowels: One of the main cultural groups in the story is the Menolkans. This name has three syllables, and three short vowels, and is pronounced meh-NOL-kuhn. Relatively simple, and probably the pronunciation that and English-speaking person might guess.

Long vowels: The main country in the novel is Alonïa. The original version of the name was Alonia (with no umlaut), but I wanted some way to show that the ‘i’ in the name was distinct from the ‘a’ (i.e. not pronounced together), and that the sound was the long vowel in ‘see’ rather than the short vowel in ‘hit’. Adding the umlaut was a way to signal to the reader that this was a long sound without changing the spelling too dramatically. Hence the name is written as ‘Alonïa’ and pronounced ‘al-o-NEE-uh’.

Diphthongs: These were a bit harder to regulate. I wanted a system that would be consistent, and so I decided to start with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as my inspiration. I looked at the way diphthongs were represented in IPA, and after some consideration it seemed logical to use the short vowels as a basis (as diphthongs are essentially a glide from one short vowel to another). Hence the vowel in the word ‘bay’ is represented as ‘ei’, as it is a glide from the sound ‘e’ in bed to ‘i’ in hit’.

This then caused a difficulty with some of my names, which had diphthongs followed by other vowels. For example, the name Rayenna. I had been writing the name like this for a long time, but if I followed the orthographic rules I had set out the name would be written as ‘Reienna’, which would be a mouthful for any normal English speaker (if they hadn’t read my pronunciation guide beforehand). The solution, once I thought of it, was simple. Because I had already established two main cultures and languages, I could posit that one had influenced the spelling of the other. Hence ‘Reienna’ became the traditional Alonïan spelling of the name, but under the influence of Menolkan culture the spelling had shifted to Reyenna (and in some situations Rayenna). Thus I could keep my original spelling, but the orthographically correct spelling was still valid. [Some may argue that this is cheating, but I argue that it is actually a reflection of the way spelling can shift in real-world languages.]

Why, might you ask, would anyone care? Well, it’s quite possible no one will care, and that if I ever get published only a small minority of people would ever bother reading a pronunciation guide. However, I am the kind of person who writes what I like to read, and I like reading pronunciation guides. If my attention to detail (even though it may feel frivolous to some) could cause another reader to decide they want to learn more about linguistics, then I will have done them the same service that Tolkien did me. And if no reader ever cares, then at least I had a darn good time fiddling with such useless nonsense.


Mapping love

I have always been fascinated by maps, particularly fantasy maps. When I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time, I pored over the maps in the appendices countless times, orienting myself as the Fellowship travelled through Middle Earth, imagining myself in Rivendell and Lothlorien and Rohan. Maps still contribute a large part to my enjoyment of a fantasy novel—when there is no map, I feel that loss keenly.

This loss is not only from an aesthetic viewpoint but also from a practical one. The lack of a map often makes it difficult to orient oneself in a new world. Directions and distances are difficult to get across through prose alone. Maps also give a sense of the scale of a world: often the edges of a map are as interesting as the content. When an entire world can be contained within a square, then nothing is left to the imagination. It is an interesting balance: I want to see a world on the page, and yet I don’t want to see too much. Give me enough to imagine myself there, but not so much that I can’t keep dreaming on my own.

When I write, one of the first things I do is start mapping. Over the years I have developed my own system for mapping, taking pieces from different maps and combining them into something that works for me. The mountains in many of my maps are an homage to Tolkien. The coastlines and hills are taken from Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series. I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory system for lettering. Now that I know much more about typography than I did a couple of years ago, I can’t stand the thought of using Papyrus on a map. I feel a little odd using any digital font at all, because it ruins the effect of “I stumbled into an archive and found an amazing hand-drawn map!” I know it’s fiction, and I know on the surface it seems ludicrous, but for suspension of disbelief to work I believe a map should look as if it originated in the world it depicts. So I’m experimenting with various hand-drawn fonts, trying to find something that I can draw consistently and well.

As much as I love hand-drawn maps, however, there is something to be said for technology. There are two pieces of software that I have used over the years that have proven invaluable. The first, demonstrated in the right-hand image above, is ProFantasy Software’s Fractal Terrains Pro. I stumbled across this gem a few years ago in my search for mapping software and immediately I fell in love. I actually used Fractal Terrains to completely re-image the maps of my world. The ability to view the fractal as a globe, complete with various map projections and topographical displays, was a revelation. It is the next best thing to using an inflatable beach ball and a permanent marker. Better, even, because I can look at versions that show climate, rainfall and temperature.

So Fractal Terrains has become the base for my mapping, but it only goes so far. That’s where good ol’ Photoshop comes in. I am lucky enough, as a teacher, to have access to a discounted version of this graphic design behemoth. I first started fiddling with Photoshop when I was in uni, using online tutorials to get my bearings amidst the often confusing sub-menus and libraries of filters and effects. Now, seven years later, I feel confident enough to navigate my way around Photoshop and use it to best effect for my maps.

One of the most crucial functions of Photoshop has been the ability to use layers. The ability to stack elements on a map, like stacking transparencies on top of each other, is now so essential to my mapping process that I couldn’t live without it. For example, when creating the little graphic above, I was able to simply hide all the layers of the map that contained names, export the image, and then turn them all back on.

Another feature of Photoshop that has proven very useful is the ability to convert an image to Black and White. Not grayscale, mind you—true black and white. Last week I decided I was going to (finally) convert my fractal terrains map into a hand-drawn version. The colour version of the map does look spectacular, but the image was much too dark to simply be converted to grayscale and then traced. Enter Black & White conversion: I was able to control the lightness level of each colour in the image so that the resulting image showed all the rivers, borders, towns and coastline at the perfect level of contrast to be traced. I was then able to use a friend’s lightbox to trace the map into my sketchbook. After that I spent a hand-cramping five hours drawing in the mountains and coastlines with felt tip markers of various widths.

Some people may shake their heads at such a frivolous use of a day. Drawing mountains on a map of a make-believe world? Well, yes. I figure there are much more fruitless ways to spend my time—such as watching television—so why not use it doing something fun? (Yes, my definition of fun is a bit whacked. I don’t care.) Even if you don’t like maps that much, you have to admit that they can look pretty darn beautiful. It’s probably about as close to becoming a visual artist as I’ll ever get, and I’m not about to apologise for hours spent pretending that I’m a cartographer.

I have also used Photoshop in the reverse process. The map for the collaborative project I am working on at the moment began as a hand-drawn sketch. It was then scanned and put into Photoshop, where I added colour and text. This was the result:

My next challenge will be creating a city map for one of the main locations in my world. City maps are not as common as kingdom maps in fantasy novels, but they can be just as fascinating. It will take a little research before I decide how to tackle that project, but I’m ready to go a-mapping. When I’ve made some progress, I might post the results on here.

If you have come across any particularly beautiful or interesting maps in your travels, I would love it if you could share the link here. One can never tire of looking at spectacular displays of cartography.


Multiple projects


Until the past few weeks I had forgotten how much time one actually has when away from work for six weeks. I certainly haven’t had a shortage of things to do—I’m not one who gets bored easily—but I have had the urge to write and some of my regular hobbies (photography, jewellery, puzzles) haven’t really been able to fill that gap.

Working on a collaborative project has been incredibly fun and engaging and I’m enjoying every minute of it. Yet there will always be times when your co-author is working on a chapter or scene and you don’t have anything pressing to work on. So in the past couple of days my dilemma has been: how can I keep my writing brain active but not get too distracted?

From my reading on the internet, it seems that many writers prefer to focus on one project at a time, although they may have other ideas on the back-burner while they focus on writing a manuscript. Some writers are able to write the manuscript for one project while doing the planning and outlining for another. I haven’t heard of any writers who say they work on multiple manuscripts at once, although I imagine they are out there. I don’t think I could manage the third option, with my head full of the characters for the current story, and the first isn’t really possible at the moment.

I have decided to try the second option: to continue writing my collaborative project, but at the same time begin planning and worldbuilding for another. I’m a little nervous about the thought, but also excited, because the project I want to start planning is something that has been growing in my mind now for ten years. It is the world I invested countless hours in during my university years, and I have a number of short stories that have branched out of that worldbuilding. My notes and maps, however, have become disjointed with the passage of years as things grew and changed far beyond my original plans.

So my first task is to start to put some order to the piles of notes and maps and stories I have collected along the way, and my hope is that the large project that has been simmering in the back of my mind for all that time will start to crystalise to the point where I can actually see the story from beginning to end.

It’s a little scary to think that the story I have been brewing for ten years might actually start to take shape soon. Scary-exciting, though. As is all writing, in a way. But I’m ready to dive in.


Powerful emotional experiences, or a semi-review of 'Tangled'


I intended to write a blog post before January 13th, but of course, best intentions don’t equate to words on a computer screen. It also doesn’t help that best intentions’ older brother, procrastination, likes to take advantage of the fact that I’m on holidays and feels perfectly entitled to walk into my house and make himself at home on my very comfortable couch.

I’m not sorry that I took a break, though. As much as I love writing, I think there are times when the brain needs a break from endlessly composing perfect sentences (I wish). Now that I’m back from my holiday, though, I’m ready to get back into routine. Well, as much of one as is possible when one isn’t working.

For the past few months I have been anticipating the release of Tangled, Disney’s new animated feature that is a re-telling of the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’. The trailers were enough to whet my appetite, and after reading a few positive reviews following the US release in November I was convinced that this was a film I would enjoy.

Since it’s release last Thursday in Australia, I’ve seen the film twice—once in 3D and once in 2D—and I loved it both times. The 3D version wasn’t distracting or over-the-top (thankfully), and the story was so good that I had no problems shelling out twice to see it. (Considering I saw each of the Lord of the Rings instalments… seven times each, twice is nothing. Yes, I’m not joking—I saw Return of the King twice on opening day. I’m still not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed about that.)

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed Tangled immensely. I’m not going to give a full review of the film here—there are plenty of decent reviews on the web already, Orson Scott Card’s being one of them—but I am going to segue into the topic that is kind of the point of this blog: writing.

I’m not exactly a stone-cold person, but I was surprised at myself for shedding a few tears while watching Tangled. And those tears—shed during each screening—made me marvel more than a little that an animated feature, whose characters were beautifully rendered but still not really life-like, could cause such a powerful emotional response in me. One of the scenes where I showed my soppiness involved no speaking at all: just a mother and father looking at each other, grieving over the loss of their child. The emotions portrayed by those pixels were so real and so human that I even feel a little misty-eyed just recalling it.

It makes me wonder, though, about exactly how a writer (or in this case, an animator) creates a powerful emotional experience. Randy Ingermanson, whose blog and e-zine I have been following now for almost a year, suggests that the point of writing fiction is about giving the reader a powerful emotional experience. In his book Writing Fiction for Dummies he says: ‘You do this by showing your PoV character having a powerful emotional experience and then convincing your reader that he or she is that character.’

At first glance, this explanation seemed a little too simple. Yet, as I reflected on my experience of watching Tangled I realised that he was exactly right: I cried in that moment because those characters cried, and because for those few moments I was those characters.

What is it that allows a reader to become so involved in a story that they not only enjoy the characters they are reading about, but they become them? I’m going to be honest enough to say that I’m not entirely sure. I’m pretty sure I’m a character-focused writer, and yet much of what I do when I write my characters still feels instinctive to me. I think it would take a lot of thought and deconstruction to figure out exactly what it is a writer does when they create a character that leaps off the page and connects with a reader. Perhaps one day I’ll give myself the time to sit and think that through—or else find someone else’s thoughts and have an ‘aha!’ moment and have all the hard work done for me.

In the meantime, though, I can hazard one guess about one of the ingredients of a powerful emotional experience: going through a powerful emotional experience yourself. That is, if I want a reader to connect with my characters and feel their emotions, then I have to connect with my characters and feel those emotions first.

Exactly how that happens is probably different for every writer. For me, it involves a mixture of visualisation—like watching a movie in my head from my character’s point of view—and instinct. Sometimes when I write I get the feeling that I am this character, that I’m standing in their shoes watching and feeling the same things they are. A little creepy perhaps, but I see it as an extension of the ability to empathise.

This is not to say that I hit the mark every time. Sometimes I fail miserably. So too in life. As much as I might try to see something from another person’s point of view, I don’t always get it right. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to empathise, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to experience and then pass on the emotions of my characters. If I could create the same emotion in a reader that I myself have experienced countless times reading the books I love, then the effort will have been worth it.

This is what stories are about, for me: spending time inside the experiences of others, understanding a little more about someone else’s life, and so understanding a little more about myself. (Because heaven knows, I often don’t understand myself at all.)

And if you haven’t seen Tangled yet, then do yourself a favour and get to your nearest cinema as soon as possible.



Resolutions-head-2010-12-31-20-04.jpg?fileId=10016812A wise friend said to me earlier in the year that, even though the workload that I took on was quite large (i.e. crazy), I would be able look back at the end of the year and see just how much I accomplished. Well, it’s the end of the year. Looking at the list of everything I’ve done, I feel a little amazed that I’m still mostly vertical. Here’s the list:

  • Started a Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing (7 subjects in the year, out of a possible 10)
  • Finished another course of study (that I started in 2001!)
  • (Re)-started my blog
  • Set up my website
  • Re-started work on a collaborative novel project, now well underway
  • Photographed a number of functions for friends
  • Created media for a number of special events, including video and print promotional materials
  • Read the usual amount of books—one every week or two
  • Adjusted to moving out of home
  • Quit drinking coffee
  • Slept and relaxed in the few hours left over

I’m sure there are a few more things I could add in to the mix, but I won’t. Mostly because I already sound like enough of a brag. Looking at that list, though, I am realise that the limits I sometimes place on myself aren’t so much about what I’m capable of as they are about what I think I’m capable of.

Next year my workload will be slightly less than this year, as will my study load. So what am I going to do with all those extra hours? I know how easy it is to waste time (I still manage to do plenty of that), but I don’t want to waste time next year. Here is a short list of some of the things I want to accomplish next year:

  • Finish the first draft and the revision of my current collaborative novel project
  • Start working again on my solo novel project—to expand my worldbuilding and plan the novel
  • Create the website that I’ve envisioned for a number of years now (the Fantasy Writer’s Library)

There are other smaller things on my list, but those feel big enough now that I won’t add anything else yet. The main thing is that I believe all three are those can be accomplished next year, which is a lot more than I thought myself capable of at this time last year. When I check back in at the same time next year, I hope to be able to say I have accomplished at least one of the above points, if not all of them.

New Years resolutions can grow old fast. I know that not many people stick to them. But I feel optimistic that my goals for this year will stick because I already have the processes in place for them to succeed. I just need to put in the hard work of getting them done. Writing them here will help to remind me what I’ve committed to, but it’s the time and energy during the year that will make the difference. If this year is any indicator, I have all the time and energy I need.

So bring on the new year. I’m ready for it.


eBook frustration


Last month I wrote about my happy discovery of eBooks, and how much I was enjoying purchasing digital versions of my favourite books. It is just so convenient to have one’s favourites on hand at any time—while waiting for someone in the car, waiting in the doctor’s office, waiting for the start of a movie.

My experience in the past week has taken some of the sheen off my eBook joy.

One of the reasons for my (relatively) late uptake of the eBook format was that, for a long time, there was no eBook reading device that particularly appealed to me. Amazon’s Kindle has only been available in Australia for a little over a year, and I didn’t really want to spend money on a device that was designed solely for eBook reading. Hence my interest in eBooks didn’t reach critical mass until I discovered that a number of apps were available for eBook reading on Apple’s iOS platform. I have an iPhone and will soon have an iPad, and they are the primary reason I am now very keen to read eBooks. I can enjoy the experience of reading a digital book on these devices, but each device is not limited to that use alone.

For a number of years now I have found that my book purchasing tends to happen online more often than not, primarily because the authors I want to read are not available on bookstore shelves in Australia. Amazon has been one of my favourite stores, particularly with the Australian dollar doing as well as it has this year. The beauty of the eBook format is that it is available anytime, anywhere, and at a low cost. No longer do I have to wait three or four weeks for my desired books to arrive.

I should have known that it was too good to be true.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been re-reading one of my favourite series, Inda by Sherwood Smith, in the eBook edition. I already own the entire series in hardcover—these are a minority in my collection of mainly paperback books—but I wanted to read them again and I didn’t want to have to lug around the huge hardcovers in my handbag. Oh, the miracle of having a book on my phone!

I had no difficulty purchasing the first three books (out of four in the series) from Amazon’s Kindle store. The price of each was incredibly reasonable, and with the exchange rate as low as it is I had no problem shelling out another $7 or $8 for eBook versions of something I already own. When I finished book three last night, I jumped onto the Kindle store to search for the last book (Treason’s Shore) and was disappointed to discover it wasn’t there. The book was only published late last year, so I thought that perhaps it hadn’t been released in eBook format yet.

To double-check, I did a search of the whole Amazon site for the book and discovered that yes, it is available in a Kindle version—it’s just not available to me here in Australia. Why the hell not?

This was not the first time I have come across this dilemma. I have searched for the eBooks of a number of my favourite authors in the past few weeks, and the two most common results of my searching are: 1) the book is not available in eBook format anywhere yet, in which case I tell myself I can wait patiently because everyone else is waiting too; or 2) the book is available in eBook format, but only if you live in the US. The message seems to be: Sorry, little plebs from that land down under—you can purchase the hard copy of the book and have it shipped to you, but you’re not allowed to purchase the eBook version.

Last night, when I was searching for Treasons’s Shore, my frustration reached boiling point. Why oh why was I unable to purchase the eBook version of a book that is part four in a series when I had no trouble purchasing the first three books from the same store? It seems ludicrous, and as a consumer it is just plain annoying. I felt so fratchy I wanted to throw my phone across the room.

So I did some internet searching to see if someone could explain to me why there are such restrictions on eBook content being delivered to Australian residents. The best explanation I could find was this article: The Smell of Books—Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander?. What it boils down to is that the publishing industry in Australia (and elsewhere) still hasn’t figured out how to licence eBooks in Australia. There are laws in place to protect the Australian publishing industry, which I understand and I don’t resent at all, but it also means that there are a lot of books that fall into the grey area of ‘not yet published as a printed book by an Australian publisher, but available in eBook format elsewhere’.

If there was a company in Australia that was publishing eBooks by international authors and making them available here (at a reasonable cost), I would purchase those books. (Actually, I did find Treason’s Shore available in one place in Australia—Borders online—but the eBook version cost $22 AUD. What kind of crazy price is that? The point of an eBook is that it’s cheaper than a paperback, not the same price.) But no such company exists (or no such large company exists that can compete with Amazon’s prices), and so it is highly frustrating that I can’t access an eBook version of something from an overseas company even though I can purchase a paperback version of exactly the same thing. I’m not causing the Australian industry to lose money because these books aren’t even available in Australia. I don’t understand why I should be denied the opportunity to pay good money for something I want to buy when it hurts no one, and allows the author to benefit from my purchase just as much as if I bought a paperback.

Yes, I understand that uptake of the eBook format by publishers is slow. I should probably just be patient. I predict that the market will eventually force these location restrictions to be removed, just as the digital music market has removed restrictions due to consumer demand. But knowing it will happen eventually doesn’t ameliorate my frustration now. I want to spend money on eBooks now, damn it, and it feels like I am being actively stopped from doing so just because of bloody red tape.

*end tantrum*

In all seriousness, though, I sincerely hope that the Australian government and the publishing industry will wake up to the potential of the digital revolution that is going on. I don’t want to resort to measures such as setting up an Amazon account with a US address, just so I can access their full database. That feels dishonest to me. So why won’t someone wise up and let us honest, eager Australian eBook buyers access the same books already available to so many others in the world?


Fantasy fiction—art or not?

Although I majored in Literary Studies at university, I often felt that my enjoyment of the fantasy genre was a nasty habit—something that I had to hide from the Establishment because it wasn’t suitable to talk about polite company. On the few occasions I did share my love of fantasy with someone, I was faced with the raised eyebrows of, ‘Oh, you’re one of those.’ Only once did I meet someone who raised their eyebrows with a look of, ‘Oh, you’re like me!’ This person was a kindred spirit during my university career. Although we were both majoring in Literary Studies, we felt like we knew where the Good Stuff was found, and we didn’t care what the literary types thought about our tastes.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t dislike my choice of major—in combination with studies in Linguistics, I know it gave me a firm grounding for teaching English—but the thing that always bothered me about studying Literature was the attendant attitude. It was never really articulated (and I am happy to admit that my perception may be wrong) but I sensed that the works we studied as ‘literature’ were seen to have more value than ‘popular fiction’. Fantasy was incapable of literary merit or being considered as ‘art’.

I still think about that attitude of superiority that surrounds literary fiction: as if writing that has gained this classification somehow has more value than any other type of writing. Yet my sensibilities as a reader (and a writer) revolt against the notion that writing that has gained a particular label is per se better than other categories of writing. I have read numerous works that fall into the category of fantasy and science fiction (i.e. speculative fiction) that have more ‘merit’ (in my humble estimation) than many of the works I was forced to read as part of my university study.

In one sense the discussion comes down to how one defines the terms ‘popular fiction’, ‘literary fiction’ and ‘art’. Here are the definitions I use when I think about the topic:

  • Popular fiction: fiction that fits into a specific genre (e.g. Romance, Western, Fantasy) [‘Genre fiction’, Wikipedia]; fiction that focuses on evoking emotion [Shelley Thacker Meinhardt]; fiction that focuses on narrative or plot; fiction written with the reader in mind.
  • Literary fiction: fiction that does not fit into a specific genre; fiction that focuses on psychological depth, character and style [‘Literary fiction’, Wikipedia]; fiction that focuses on ideas [Shelley Thacker Meinhardt]; fiction written with the critic in mind.
  • Art: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’ [New Oxford American Dictionary].

Of course, these definitions are not mutually exclusive: popular fiction can focus on characters or ideas just as well as literary can evoke emotion or focus on narrative. These definitions are just a starting point.

I’m not saying here that all popular fiction should be classified as art—that would be a ridiculous claim. What I am saying is that popular fiction should not be excluded from consideration as art. Many of the fantasy works that I love fulfil the definition of ‘art’ used above—works appreciated for their beauty or emotional power—just as well as the literary works I enjoy. (I freely acknowledge that there are many works of fantasy fiction that don’t fulfil the definition of art—but the same can be said for many works of literary fiction.)

I think one of the most interesting parts of the definitions given above relates to the intended audience. The primary audience of popular fiction is the reader, but the primary audience of literary fiction is the critic. Orson Scott Card’s essay ‘Fantasy and the Believing Reader’ discusses this difference at length.

I suggest that it this aspect of the dichotomy—the intended audience—that creates the greatest divide between popular fiction and literary fiction. There are examples of literary fiction that fit the category of ‘written primarily for readers’ (anything by Jane Austen, for example—although I suspect that, when written, Pride and Prejudice probably fit the category of ‘popular fiction’). However, I struggle to think of an example of popular fiction that is written primarily for critics.

Perhaps this is why popular fiction is disdained by critics: because it is not written for them, but for readers. And perhaps this is why I dislike the attitude of a critic: because my first experiences of the power of the written word were as a reader, not as a critic. (Which is, of course, the experience of every person—no one is born a critic. I hope.)

The difference between participatory reading and critical reading is exactly what Card talks about in his essay. Participatory reading seeks to involve the reader in the story; critical reading seeks to detach the reader from the story.

Some of the most powerful memories of my childhood and teen years revolve around the stories I read, in which I participated. The most memorable of these was The Lord of the Rings, which I read in my second-last year of high school. This reading experience was the start of my love of speculative fiction (and fantasy in particular). No other genre has given me that feeling of being fully immersed in the reading experience (I do believe other genres can create that sense of immersion; I just prefer fantasy). With every new book I read, I am seeking to fully participate in the story being told. (And it is my hope that, one day, my own writing will create that same feeling for other readers.)

If we classify art as ‘creative or imaginative works appreciated for their beauty or emotional power’, then works of either popular fiction or literary fiction can be considered art. The intended audience for a piece should not influence whether something is eligible to be judged as being beautiful or having emotional power.

Of course, just because something is classified as art doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. But I can still recognise that a piece of art has value, even if I don’t enjoy it myself. I hope—probably in vain, but I hope nonetheless—that one day the great works of fantasy fiction (and any popular genre, for that matter) will be able to stand beside great works of literary fiction as art that is valued for its beauty and emotional power, regardless of its intended audience.




As a writer, receiving feedback from other people about your writing can be both exhilarating and daunting. Exhilarating when someone reads your work and loves it and says, ‘Show me more!’ Daunting when someone pokes holes in your work and points out all the things you could or should do to improve.

The first time I shared my writing with someone other than my teacher or my parents was in an online writing community. It was nerve-wracking, showing my words to complete strangers and asking for their scrutiny. I was lucky enough to be in a community where the process for giving feedback was both honest and encouraging. Although my writing was at times raw, I never heard the words a writer dreads: ‘that was terrible’ or ‘make sure you find a day job because you definitely won’t make a career out of this’.

Every writer likes to have their bread buttered, to be told that their writing is fantastic or brilliant or perfect. Yes, there is probably a hint of ego-mania in all writers, penning words and then expecting people to read them, or even pay for them. Yet a writer’s life is not just about taking others’ time or energy or money—it’s about giving. Every word I write gives a little more of myself to those who read. The reading experiences that I cherish are those where the writer has given so much of himself or herself that I have absorbed that gift and it has changed who I am. Many a writer’s hope is to be able to give in the same way they have received.

Just like any craft, however, writing requires skill. Plenty of people speak of ‘one day writing a book’, but how many people actually do it? And how many people do it well? Research into mastery suggests that it takes at least ten years to attain a significant level of skill in any creative endeavour. Learning any skill obviously requires practice, but it also requires learning from others.

As much as I love to receive positive feedback from those I share my work with, I have slowly come to the realisation that the most valuable feedback is often that which points out weaknesses. One of the most valuable pieces of feedback I ever received was from an editor who looked over my writing as part of a community anthology project. The experience opened my eyes to the difference between good writing and clear writing. It wasn’t that my writing was bad—it was that it was padded with so many unnecessary words.

I can’t distil his advice into a few sentences because it was so specific to that piece of writing. Yet that copy edit did more for my writing than all the feedback I had received up to that point. It helped me to see my own writing more clearly and begin to pick up (most of) my errors along the way. I now use those skills every day, both in my work as an English teacher and as a writer.

The other lesson I have learned from receiving feedback is that no word is sacred. I used to hate deleting words; now, if it makes the writing clearer, those words will meet the delete key as swiftly and as hard as my fingers allow. Case in point: about a month ago I was working on a scene that played with multiple viewpoints, and after the feedback of an experienced writer I ended up deleting 900 words out of 3600. The improvement was so great that I wondered why I hadn’t seen the solution earlier.

But of course, that is why feedback is so helpful: because a different set of eyes will always be able to see something you can’t. That doesn’t mean you always need to agree with feedback, and it is important to make sure that you don’t let someone run over you with a steam roller. Yet the view through someone else’s glasses can help you understand your own glasses better, and to clear up any smudges that might be obscuring your own vision.

If you ever have the opportunity to receive feedback about your writing from others, I say embrace it. Yes, it could be painful, but it could also be the best thing that ever happened for your writing.

To all those who have been beta readers for me over the past weeks or months or years, I say thank you. Your eyes have seen my flaws and graciously showed me how to cover or remove them. And thank you for being willing—and eager!—to keep reading.


Reading or writing?


Over the years I have had a number of conversations with writers about their habits when they write. I have noticed two types of writers: those who continue reading other novels while they are in the midst of their writing, and those who cannot read anything else while they write.

I fall into the first category. I always have at least two or three books on the go, usually a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I am currently re-reading The Fox, part two of Sherwood Smith’s Inda series. I am also reading Pathfinder, the first in a new YA series by Orson Scott Card. It is my routine to read a chapter or two before I go to bed, as it helps me take my mind off what happened during the day and what I have to do tomorrow.

Rather than take my focus away from my current project, I find that reading in the same genre helps to focus my attention on my own writing. When I read quality writing by another author, it inspires me to aim for the same quality myself. When I read writing that is not good quality, I contemplate what it is that makes it so and use that as a reminder of what to avoid.

In the past I found reading and writing at the same time caused difficulties: I would constantly compare my own writing to the published author, and the comparison almost always left me feeling dejected. Perhaps it is an increased confidence in my own ability that has changed this, but I don’t think that is the only contributing factor. Part of it is that I am more actively working on building my skills in the craft of writing, and so I see my reading as an opportunity to learn what could make my writing better (or what could make it worse).

Some writers, I know, find that they cannot read within the same genre (or at all) while they are working on a project because it is either too distracting, or else the writing of another author influences their style too strongly. I understand this paradigm because I have been there myself. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way—there is simply the way that works best for each individual.

One element that I think has influenced the change in my reading and writing habits is the fact that I have started planning my writing rather than writing by the seat of my pants. When I was writing as a SOTP, I was easily influenced by whatever I was reading at the time. Now that I am using the Snowflake method, I find that it is much easier to stay focues my own writing goals and style even though I am reading other authors on a regular basis. I get the best of both worlds: I can read new authors and authors I already love, and I can develop my own craft at the same time.

What type of writer are you? Can you read and write at the same time, or only focus on one area? Are you a SOTP writer, an edit-as-you-go writer, a Snowflaker or an Outliner? (See my previous post, Knots and plots, for a full definition of each of these terms.) Please feel free to use the comments section of this post to tell me what kind of writer you are—I would love to know how you approach your writing.


Knots and plots

In the past, all of the writing I have done that has been of a significant length (5000+ words) has been written with little or no plan. I simply began with an idea or image and then started writing, letting the characters and situation go where it wanted. This led, more often than not, to writing myself into a corner and feeling as if I had no way to extricate myself. In spite of the amazing buzz that the initial burst of creativity would bring, after I passed a certain point I always felt myself hurtling toward that corner with no way to backpedal. I suspect this may be part of the reason why I stopped writing for a couple of years I was sick of feeling tied up in knots with no way of unravelling the mess.

This year has been a revelation for me. Early in the year I started seeking out sources of inspiration and writing advice on the internet, and I came across Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing website. I had read Randy’s article on The Snowflake Method a few years before and found it interesting, but I wasn t at the point where I was ready to put those ideas into place.

Reading the article again highlighted in my mind the power of planning. One area of writing that I have always found difficult is plot: it has never come as naturally to me as characterisation, and I think that my struggle with plotting contributed to contracting writers block on a number of occasions. It may be that this year I was in the right head-space, but Randy’s ideas about planning a novel turned a light on in my brain.

Not long after this I decided to purchase a copy of Writing Fiction for Dummies (co-authored by Ingermanson). In one section of the book he talks about different ways of approaching writing, outlining four main types: the Seat-of-the-Pants writer (SOTP), who writes straight through without editing; the Edit-as-you-go writer, who writes without a plan but then edits thoroughly along the way; the Snowflake writer, who has a general plan that may change along the way; and the Outline writer, who meticulously plans details before starting and adheres to the plan at every step.

Looking at these four approaches, I realised that I had been a SOTP for much of my writing life. Yet experience had shown me that it actually didn’t work, for me at least. As a teacher of senior English students, I feel like a broken record when I tell my students to plan their writing before they begin, and yet most of the time my words fall on deaf ears. When I realised that I hadn’t been practicing what I preached to my own students, I decided it was time to try a new approach.

When I took up the opportunity to work on a collaborative novel a few months ago, my co-author and I quickly realised that, for it to work, we had no choice but to plan significantly before we began writing (especially considering the fact that we live on opposite sides of the world!). This included developing much more detailed backgrounds for our characters, as well as coming up with an outline of all the main plot points in the story, from start to finish. I feel incredibly grateful that my co-author is much better than me at seeing the big picture, and so I have been able to work with someone who is brilliant at making sure all the plot dominoes just work. The process of going back and forth between the details and the big picture hasn’t always been easy, but the payoff has been incredible.

Incredible because, after having just finished the first two chapters of the novel (now sitting at 11,000 words) I realise that there is no knot in sight. Even as I was writing, I always had clear sense of where the story was going, and yet the outline was general enough that I didn’t feel restricted and the characters were still able to surprise me (in the best possible way).

We haven’t used every step of the Snowflake process, but we have taken the parts of it that worked for us and used them to create a solid skeleton to start building the story on. The thing that excites me the most is that I know, already, that I am not going to write myself into a place I can’t get out of. I may have to push through at some points writing really is hard work but I am not afraid of reaching those points because there is always the plan to fall back on. This approach to writing gives me the freedom to let my characters grow and develop in surprising ways, while making sure that the story is always headed toward a solid and satisfying conclusion.

When the time comes to focus again on my solo projects, I no longer have the nagging doubt that I will write myself into a corner. I know now what it will take for me to start the race and keep going to the end. And that thought is exhilarating.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every writer will work the same way. Plenty of successful writers have used each of the approaches outlined above. The important thing is to figure out what works for you. If, like me, you have struggled with your writing in the past, perhaps try a different approach for a time. Who knows? You might just write yourself a novel as a result.

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