Weekend Writing Prompt

“I know it’s your birthday, but what kind of present is that supposed to be?”

“It’s from my dad. You know he always sends the good stuff.”

” Fine, but you’re the one who has to feed it. “

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Author Interview – Simon Petrie

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You might remember that back in August 2017 I told you about a space mystery than I really enjoyed. Now I have a follow up post about the author, Simon Petrie. I asked him about the story, set on one of Saturn’s moons, about his main character, and about his writing process.

Simon, where did you get the inspiration for this story?

I’ve written quite a lot of SF stories set on Titan; Matters Arising is the tenth and also the longest. I’ve always been interested in the mixture of SF and mystery, and I fancied the idea of making one of my Titan stories a mystery. Matters Arising was the result. It started, I suppose, with the image of a person deliberately breaching their own spacesuit, and then I needed to answer for myself the question of why someone might feel compelled to do such a thing. Once I had that answer, the story almost wrote itself.
I’m not always kind to my characters, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in giving a character an imaginative death. The idea of someone dying from a ruptured spacesuit is, I suppose, one of SF’s tropes, but such events in fiction usually dwell on the fatal and grotesque effects of exposure to vacuum. A ‘spacesuit containment failure’ on Titan, with its thick, cold, poisonous atmosphere, would be quite a different kind of horrible death, and I wanted to write that.

Where did you get the title of the story and the name – Guerline Scarfe – for your detective?

The title, Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body, suggested itself as the sort of dry, longwinded title that a bureaucrat would use to disguise something unpleasant. In my mind’s eye, it was the title Guerline gave to her report on the incident. And it has at least a double meaning in the context of the story – I’m always a sucker for a double meaning, so once I’d realised that, the title was fixed.
Guerline Scarfe’s name fell together somewhat haphazardly. I collect names – both first names and family names – that seem interesting and somewhat unusual, and try to find intriguing combinations. In this case, I had her surname sorted well before her first name. I actually wrote the first draft with a very different first name for her, but then decided it was too similar to the name of the main character in another Titan story; and since I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t meet this other character in a new story, I figured I should change her name before it was set in stone.

This story is set in the solar system. If you had a chance, would you travel in space? Would you live in space?

I’d quite like to live in space, in a colony on the Moon or an asteroid or on Titan, but I’m actually not mad keen about travelling through space – even if I passed the physical for spaceflight (which I suspect I wouldn’t), there’s a lot that can go wrong with rocketry and I’m a somewhat anxious traveller. I’m still profoundly envious of those who do get to spend time in space, even if (at the moment) that seems to mean only low Earth orbit.
(And, while still Earthbound, I console myself with the thought that zero-gravity plumbing is not for the faint of heart.)

How long do you think it will be until we send humans off our planet again? What country do you think will do it first?

I’m pretty useless at predictions like this, but I think it’ll be between ten and fifteen years before we see humans on the Moon again. As to who manages it, my three guesses would be India, China, or a corporation like SpaceX.

How long have you been writing? Is this your first book finished?

I’ve been writing fiction seriously for eleven years now, but there had also been spells of writing quite a long way further back than that. Matters Arising isn’t my first book, but it’s the first of my books that’s only one story – I have a couple of SF short story collections out (Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album), as well as a novella double (Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester). All of those are out through Peggy Bright Books, but a lot of my short fiction has appeared in various magazines or websites before that.

What’s been your biggest writing challenge? How did you overcome it or deal with it?

My biggest writing challenge has been finishing a novel, and I haven’t yet overcome that. I’ve written several novellas and lots of short stories, and my written work is getting longer. Matters Arising is my longest story yet, and its follow-up is looking to be longer than that.
Of writing challenges I have met, most of it has been a matter of having confidence in my ability to write, and learning from feedback – whether from my longsuffering editor, Edwina Harvey, or from my colleagues in the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, who provide awesome (constructive) criticism.

What writers do you look to for inspiration?

I suppose for Matters Arising, my main inspirations would be Kim Stanley Robinson, whose ‘Mars’ trilogy pretty much sets the benchmark for solar-system-based SF, and writers like Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven who pioneered the SF/detective subgenre. (I’m really looking forward to Alastair Reynolds’ new SF/detective novel, too, which is due out in a couple of months.) But I’m trying to absorb some of the techniques of Scandinavian crime writers, who I’ve been reading a lot of lately; and other SF writers that have influenced me at one time or another are Douglas Adams (as well as my ‘serious’ stuff, I also write a fair bit of humorous SF, and I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a strong influence there), Iain M Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Amy Thompson.

What’s your favorite space movie?

I would’ve been ten or eleven when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has a perplexing storyline but incredibly realistic space scenes; I enjoyed the original Star Wars; I’m a fan of the first two Alien movies; I was quite impressed by Gravity; and I quite liked The Martian (though I think the book is better than the movie). I don’t think I could pick a favourite out of those.

Will there be more in this series? What are you working on right now?

Yes, there’s definitely more in the ‘Guerline Scarfe’ series, and the next one (which is called A Reappraisal of the Circumstances Resulting in Death) should be out around the middle of 2018. Other than that, there are a couple of Titan short stories I’m trying to finish off, a new ‘Gordon Mamon’ (humorous space-elevator mystery) story, and a novella about human colonisation of an interstellar cloud. There’s no shortage of things to write, it’s just a matter of organising myself …

What would you like readers to take from this story?

That human nature doesn’t change in a different environment, although the consequences might be different.

What advice would you give writers?

Know when to break the rules.
Read widely across different genres, and read deeply in the genre you want to write in.
Write what you want to, not what you think publishers want.
Find a writers’ group, and learn to recognise and accept constructive criticism.
Try to learn from rejection, and don’t get discouraged.

How can readers best stay in touch with you?

I’m pretty backward when it comes to social media, so probably the best way is to use the ‘contact’ page on my WordPress site.

Nano Prep #2

This is for all of you who are planning to write a book next month. It can be daunting to get started. Here’s an exercise I came up with to get you started thinking about your story.

  • What is your story about, in one sentence?
  • What is your story about, in one paragraph?
  • What is your story about, in one page?
  • Who is your main character? (more on this at a later date)
  • What genre is this book?
  • What is the setting? Date, place?
  • What is your intended audience?
  • What is the theme of your book? More here.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that I wanted to write a story about a couple trying to have a baby. My sentence description might be, “A couple in their thirties face a series of challenges trying to have a child of their own.” That sounds a little weak. Maybe I could change it into “A couple in their thirties must overcome a series of challenges in trying to conceive a child of their own.”

That’s better, but I could still expand on it some. Is my main character the man or the woman? Or is it a same sex couple?  So my sentence might read, “A woman and her partner must overcome a series of challenges in trying to conceive their own biological child.”

I could expand more on that, discuss what the challenges are, or maybe what kind of book this is, but that’s a place to start.

Then I need to discuss the genre. Is this science fiction or contemporary fiction? It’s probably not fantasy, horror, or mystery. Let’s go with plain contemporary fiction.

That helps me narrow done the setting. It’s present day. I’m most familiar with the US, and since I want to write about some cutting edge reproductive technology, a big city would be a good place to start. Maybe New York City.

And it’s pretty obvious that this would be geared to an adult audience.

But theme – that might take some thought. There are lots of way I could take this story. But let’s say that I want my readers to see that a challenge like this uncovers a lot of secrets in a relationship, that I want to describe a relationship that isn’t quite the way it seems on the surface. So my theme might be “Challenges uncover who we really are.” I may not be phrasing it just right, but that’s the general idea. Obviously, it will become more clear as I write it. But I hope you can see how this is done.

Now I could go back and rewrite my one sentence, moving on to a paragraph and then a page that details what my story is about. All this can be done now, before you really start to work in November.

Hope that helps! Good luck to you writers! Next time we’ll work on character.

Writer Wednesday

I wanted to do something fun for today’s post, so I thought I would highlight 5 authors I discovered this year. These are not necessarily first time authors, just authors that are new to me. All the author profiles here were taken from GoodReads.

  1. Selina Siak Chin Yoke – Of Malaysian-Chinese heritage, Selina Siak Chin Yoke (石清玉) grew up listening to family stories and ancient legends. She always knew that one day, she would write. After an eclectic life as a physicist, banker and trader in London, the heavens intervened. In 2009 Chin Yoke was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering, she decided not to delay her dream of writing any longer. Her first novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds (The Malayan Series, #1), was published on November 1, 2016 and made an immediate emotional connection with readers. It debuted as an Amazon best-seller in historical fiction, was named by Goodreads as one of the 6 best books of November 2016 and has been compared to the work of Pearl S. Buck and Amy Tan.

  2. Melanie Cellier grew up on a staple diet of books, books and more books. And although she got older she never stopped loving children’s and young adult novels. She always wanted to write one herself but it took three careers and three different continents before she actually managed it. She now feels incredibly fortunate to spend her time writing from her home in Canberra, Australia where they don’t have a beach but they do have kangaroos hopping down the streets. Her staple diet hasn’t changed much, although she’s added choc mint Rooibos tea and Chicken Crimpies to the list. She is currently working on The Four Kingdoms, a series of YA fairy tale retellings.
  3. Karen Charlton writes historical mystery and is also the author of a nonfiction genealogy book, ‘Seeking Our Eagle.’ She has published short stories and numerous articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines. An English graduate and ex-teacher, Karen has led writing workshops and has spoken at a series of literary events across the North of England, where she lives. Karen now writes full-time and is currently working on the third Detective Lavender Mystery for Thomas & Mercer. A stalwart of the village pub quiz and a member of a winning team on the BBC quiz show ‘Eggheads’, Karen also enjoys the theatre, and she won a Yorkshire Tourist Board award for her Murder Mystery Weekends.
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. He is the author of the 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. His book Between the World and Me, released in 2015, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2015. He is a prolific writer, but I read his graphic novel Black Panther.
  5. Unlike so many writers, Susan Crandall did not emerge from the womb with a pen and paper in hand and a fully formed story in her mind. Instead, she was born with an incredible love for books. This must be genetic, because her father and now her son, both hated school, but are somehow addicted to books. For much of her young life, even those exhausting years when her children were young and Susan worked in her previous profession (yes, the rumor is true, she was a dental hygienist) she was an avid reader. Susan has always been fascinated with words – those of you who catch yourself reading the dictionary when you cracked it open to look up mesopelagic you just might have a writer hiding inside you, too. She wrote Whistling Past the Graveyard.

3 Kinds of Feedback

I had my writer’s group last night and I’m still thinking over all the feedback I got. I love how a good critique can make you excited about your book all over again. Anyway, it’s my first time meeting with this group and I noticed something. I’ve decided there are three different types of feedback.

The first is the action-oriented. These folks notice what the character is doing all the time. How are they moving? Where are they in relation to stuff around them? Does your character suddenly have three hands – holding a knife in one hand, a gun in another, and a phone in the other other hand? They notice whether what you’re saying makes physical sense. This is really valuable, because some readers do this too – they put themselves in the book as they read. If your stuff doesn’t make physical sense, these readers will notice. I’m not great at this, so I really appreciate when someone else points this out. It can prevent some embarrassing moments!

The next is detail-oriented. These folks notice every word, every sentence, every punctuation mark. Do you have typos? Did you accidentally type a word twice? Did you use the wrong verb tense? This stuff can be fixed, of course, by a copy editor, but it’s nice to have a heads up before you get that far. (If you get that far.) These are the sort of mistakes that readers notice and wonder why you didn’t have an editor. I’m pretty good at this, but no one is perfect at spotting their own misteaks – err, mistakes.

The last is big-picture-oriented. This is where I generally fall. Do I like the main character? Is the setting well thought out? Am I emotionally invested in the story? This is what I notice as a reader, and it’s what I notice when I critique as well. If this doesn’t work, then I don’t care about how great the action is or if the copy editing is perfect. If I don’t care about the characters, if I can’t imagine the setting, if your plot doesn’t make sense, then I won’t enjoy it. Period.

If you are a writer and you don’t currently belong to a writer’s group, I really recommend that you look for one. Live and in person is best, but online works too. You need someone who tells you what works AND what doesn’t. If they’re just going to tell you everything is great, they aren’t really helping you. And if they tell you everything sucks, you’re just going to give up. Find someone who can give it to you straight but not make you want to hit the delete button.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

shamrockHappy St. Paddy’s Day! I’m not Irish, even a little bit, but today is a great day to celebrate the contribution of the Irish to literature. In honor of the saint, here’s my list of 7 Great Irish Writers. (List is by no means comprehensive, just a few I wanted to mention.)

7 Great Irish Writers

  1. Oscar Wilde – honestly, can you mention Irish writers without mentioning him? I doubt it. Start with The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that makes his claims to brilliance justified.
  2. Bram Stoker – Dracula is one of the most iconic figures in all literature and film, and we owe it all to this guy.
  3. C. S. Lewis – Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Narnia. But I *LOVE, LOVE, LOVE* The Screwtape Letters. Like, so much. So just read that one.
  4. Eoin Colfer – Have you read Artemis Fowl? IMO the series declines a bit, but the first one is wildly imaginative and funny.
  5. Samuel Beckett – Have you read Waiting for Godot? Even better, have you seen it? So funny, and yet so much more than funny. It’s full of meaning too.
  6. Emma Donoghue – Famous for the searing Room. She has a new one out too, but I haven’t read it yet.
  7. Eugene O’Neill – As an Irish-American, I still think he belongs on this list. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is my favorite of his works.

A lot of plays on here, I notice. Perhaps the Irish tradition calls for theater? I know there are also a lot of Irish poets, but I’m afraid I’m not really into poetry. I’m more of a genre reader. Anyhow, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!