Susan Tarr Q+A | The Writers’ Cooperative

Great to see an NZer getting books out there!

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Source: Susan Tarr Q+A | The Writers’ Cooperative

Author Pic Susan TarrTwitter When the rollercoaster stops (Small)What’s the story behind your latest book, When the ROLLER COASTER Stops ?

My daughter was diagnosed with Grade 4 cancer. Whilst dealing with my own emotions, I found myself intrigued with how she handled it, how her friends handled it, and how some didn’t handle it all. There is no right or wrong way. Each person’s emotional makeup is individually wrought and their reaction is their reaction. I wrote about all of this so each character has genuine life within this story. And this story is written with humour, too, because even in the darkest times, there is humour.

What motivated you to become an author?

Living so far from my family in New Zealand, I wrote long letters and detailed my little family’s day to day experiences in Kenya. When I was youthfully ignorant, I had sailed the Indian Ocean…

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Writing: The Blind Learning Curve

Fiction writing especially is generally considered hard. Well at least very hard to ‘master’ as a hobby its fairly straightforward to pen a tale, but when one comes to wanting some publishing or other forms of success things suddenly get very challenging.

I’m going to try and answer the question of why this is today with a slightly odd approach.

You see writing is hardly alone in being difficult, I mean there are dozens, hundreds of all sorts of activities which could be considered even harder, more competitive, requiring more expertise, but I honestly think there is something uniquely painful about trying to be a published/’acclaimed by more than your kind family and friends’ writer.

My theory for at least one of the sources of this is the nature of writing’s learning curve. As I mentioned above many, many activities are hard to learn. Music for example. Music is very similar to writing, there are matters of technique to grasp that if you fail on you simply will not produce good music, and then there is a whole raft of theory and rules that are really important to understand, including when to break them, however exactly how to do so being extremely subjective.

However where music and writing differ is in feedback. Or perhaps more appropriately the nature of feedback. If you play an instrument feedback is almost instantaneous. If you pick up a guitar an flub a few notes you know about it (P.S. people can be delusionally arrogant about music just the same as writing but it tends to be less common outside teenage years in my opinion). Equally with music you see and enjoy your own progress as it happens. There is no waiting for submission responses, beta-reader feedback or wondering if that line about true love was too cheesy.

My ultimate point that as a writer there is a steep learning curve, a mountain that we tend to climb in the dark. It’s really hard to know if we’ve got things ‘right’ and perhaps more importantly awkward to sit there with something that is most probably ‘wrong’ but not have a source of feedback to tell us to.

Not only does this make learning hard, it also leads to a sort of avoidance of real feedback, kind of like not going to the Doctor in case you get told you’re sick. I think we all know that feedback is an important part of learning, while at the same feeling anxious about where on the learning curve we might be sitting at that moment. This isn’t to say that writers are all neurotic egotists, more to point out that it’s human nature not to like uncertainty especially in regards to our own standing.

While we hope that we’re nearing the top of the curve it’s painful to be shown clearly what our failings are and sometimes its easier not to know.

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Just a short thesis on one of the many challenges of writing, what do you think?

What other ways is writing hard to master, what unique trials does being a ‘serious’ writer bring?

10 Fantasy Clichés and Ideas to Change Them

On Fantasy Cliches by Gabrielle Massman

Write for the King

Walk into any book store, and you will find shelves and shelves of fantasy books. But the same clichés run through most of them, and many are so predictable that you only have to read the back cover to guess the entire plot. Now, while I don’t suggest getting rid of every fantasy clichés in your novel (if you do, your novel might not be considered fantasy any more 😉 ), maybe you can have fun putting your own twist on a couple of these age old clichés. So here is a list of 10 of the most popular fantasy clichés and suggestions to inspire you to change or twist the clichés to make unique, interesting novel ideas.

And while, of course, not all fantasy books include these clichés, many of them do. Now there is nothing wrong with a classic fantasy story, sometimes it is fun to let your imagination take over…

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Associate Editor Interview: Craig Leyenaar @ Gollancz

Awesome Interview taken by Ed McDonald

Ed McDonald

Victor-gollancz-logoThrough the process of moving Blackwing from unedited pile of words to publishable manuscript, the Gollancz team have been brilliant and supportive every step of the way. In this month’s guest interview, I talk to my brilliant associate editor Craig Leyenaar, one of three editors to work with me on the book.

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On Writing: Censorship, Sensitivity and Appropriation

I’d like to preface this post by saying that these are big topics. Huge topics. I don’t believe my opinion is the be all end all of the subjects, or even covering the majority of the issues. But I do think when it comes to crazy complex subjects that the best path is to talk about it, discuss openly, stew on it a while, discuss again and not stop discussing.

So what am I talking about exactly here?

Well there have been a few discussions floating around recently about books and publishing which are getting pretty heated and controversial in some sectors, the subjects being:

And I just wanted to add some words to spark some thought, not to necessarily solve anything, but at least to put something out there on these controversial areas.

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Let’s start with censorship. Like all the topics this issue has a large quantity of worms just waiting for the can to be popped, but I’m just going to try and keep it simple and throw a few thoughts around.

On the one extreme censorship is usually associated with ideas like the graphic on your left, 1984, and people with power generally being all around douches. On the more benevolent side censorship is considered an appropriate way to protect, particularly vulnerable people, from harm.

So where the heck is the line?

In the example linked about U.S. schools are looking at teaching students about a Huckleberry Finn novel with the word ‘Nigger’ replaced by the word ‘Slave.’ This presents a pretty tricky question of suitable censorship. One might ask whether it’s worth kicking up much of a fuss, after all the N word is a considerably offensive term, and I’m pretty confident that the last thing anyone wants in 2017 is more racial tension.

On the other hand there is a risk of softening a message that is actually acting in favour of confronting the harm that the censorship also aims to prevent. The article I read strongly argued that Huckleberry Finn is an anti-slavery novel and to minimize the language used minimizes the wrong that was done to many African Americans.

I wish had all the answers to such a tricky situation, but I merely have two points for consideration. The first being that whatever the censorship its important to have a clear idea of exactly why something is being censored in the first place and keep working with that, not that I support any rational, but rather that clarity of intent is needed to make an ethical decision.

Which brings me to my next (odd) point: I think there is a major difference between replacing and blank censoring. I can still remember reading Catcher in the Rye and seeing that a few F bombs were replaced by —– in some editions. To be honest it made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, but it highlighted that to replace words can mislead people to the original intent, whereas blanking words simply leaves a gap that people can understand is there and try to work around if they choose.  (It’s a bit like the difference between a politician straight up lying to you, versus claiming something is classified.) Not that I have a right to make an opinion on the Huck Finn issue as a non US citizen and hardly an expert on the book, but I’m gently suggesting that a blanked line doesn’t shove an offensive term in student’s faces but it also it pretty obvious what is being said to an astute reader thus not diminishing the books message/power as much as a replaced word.

And that’s just one example of controversial censorship, I think I have to move on for the purposes of actually finishing this blog today, but I get the feeling I’ll be coming back to this topic in the future.

Onto diversity and Sensitivity editing

Diversity has long been a controversial topic in fiction. The issue of ‘white washing’ has been frequently raised for MCU movies like Doctor Strange, and series like Iron Fist. The fantasy genre often seems plagued by accusations of all the ‘good guys’ being white,

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I think diversity is about being able to multiple truths like “I agree with this sentiment but its tacky AF

while other non-Caucasian cultures are either depicted as primitive and/or bad-guys or worse other cultures are supplanted by literal different races such as dwarfs, elves, hobbits or orcs.

Which seems to be where sensitivity editing comes in. Well to be more specific when authors try to be diverse but don’t want to resort to stereotype, depict something wrong, or generally offend a minority group, apparently sensitivity editing is where it’s at. I confess to having mixed feelings about the subject.

On the one had it makes complete sense to grab a beta-reader with lived experience of something to get first-hand experience and a genuine response from a book. After all resorting to stereotype and assumption are not good practices for an author.

I do worry about people who claim to charge for the privilege however. In the same way I don’t speak for middle-class white guys, just because someone belongs to a group doesn’t mean they can rule out offending others of said group. There is also something ironically offensive about the whole thing “let’s check with one of them to make sure we don’t say anything too upsetting”. I’m probably exaggerating with the last point, but something about this whole idea rubs me up the wrong way, I think I have a somewhat natural selection streak where I want authors to simply be sensitive themselves or allow themselves to be insensitive and let communities suss it out themselves.

This probably draws together the trickiest parts of censorship and sensitivity to the awkward question:

Is is better to have potentially offensive material out there, to hold a mirror up to society, to raise the difficult questions of prejudice and insensitivity OR is it better to protect vulnerable people and be sensitive in fiction?

With that totally easy to answer question I want to live hesitantly into the final topic: cultural appropriation.

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The controversial side of me wants to say that writers are getting somewhat mixed messages these days: be diverse, but do it sensitively and don’t offend anyone, and for the love of Mike DO NOT culturally appropriate!

 

Cultural appropriation is a tricky one because as a hetero-sexual, middle-class white male I’m kind of positioned to be the most oblivious to the topic and the issues it raises. I’m not even sure how to explain or describe the topic fully other than to say it’s a wide ranging concern that touches on tourism, the music industry, sports and of course fiction. The concern being a powerful or dominant culture essentially taking aspects of a more vulnerable culture for its own or exploiting it. It’s a highly controversial topic to say the least, and I think part of that stems from it’s complexity. I’m going to try and stay on the topic of fiction, partly just to keep my head straight on the matter and partly to prevent this post getting any longer.

The article I linked to described a slammed opinion piece that suggested that writers should simply continue to write what they ‘don’t know’ and that to stretch into other cultures was an appropriate action for fiction writers and basically poo pooed the need for anything like authenticity.

While I found the opinion somewhat tone-deaf it also raised a heck of a lot of questions. Such as:

  • What comes first – diversity or avoiding cultural appropriation?
  • What are the limits of appropriation?
  • What is the actual goal of criticizing cultural appropriation, a more sensitive publishing scene, authors only publishing within their ‘rights’ or a more diverse publishing population?

I think many people would agree (or if not love to discuss why not) that the idea that writers must stick to their own is rather abhorrent, but probably also agree that there are certain flavours of fiction that handle culture rather poorly. My problem is where are the lines? Some of the sensitivity being presented seems more like counter-oppression as opposed to working towards a better world. Maybe its the cynic in me but I can’t quite help but wonder if the real problem is less of an ethical one and more of an opportunistic one, from both sides of the debate.

As I began this post I mostly just wanted to throw ideas out there, all these topics are complex and ever-changing so I more just wanted to prompt thought and discussion than settle anything.

Would love to hear other’s thoughts!

 

Fantasy Mistakes sure to sink your epic

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Please, please click this link

 

So anyone following my twitter feed or reviews won’t have to be Sherlock to discover what book prompted these post, however I don’t want to overkill criticism of this novel while still offering a few insights and cautions for fans of the fantasy genre.

Anachronism:

This mouthful of a term refers to features being out of place for a time-period. Now technically most epic fantasy exists in worlds apart from our own, so its only an assumption that fantasy worlds should be somewhat similar to medieval history. However I think it’s fair to say that keeping modern parlance out of fantasy prose is a good idea. Words and phrases like:

  • finance
  • Gave me the chills
  • yeah right

Sit very awkward in a swords and sorcery novel.

Not that all the language should be Forsooth, thee and thou or unnecessarily archaic, just that an author should have a keen eye for words that jolt the reader out of their fictional world.

Also it’s not just dialogue that needs attention, issues like characters knowing first aid (i.e. checking pulses) doesn’t fit with fantasy (usually)

Magic:

Magic is a highly controversial part of fantasy. Most authors want to include it, but truth be told as dangerous as spellcraft is in the word, its equally as dangerous to good stories. Fun as it is magic often creates risks of lazy plotting, where tension is resolved by a convenient spell rather than a character making a tough choice. Magic systems can also side-track the plot as rather than characters pursuing any sort of real character arc they start to fulfill the mythological needs of the world.

The same can be said of fantasy creatures, while incredibly fun there is a huge risk that introducing monsters and mayhem will turn a story into a D&D session rather than a good tale.

Plotting

People assume that fantasy plots are easy.

They are not.

The challenge is creating a decent world threatening setting, which somehow links to and develops a more character focused tale. Lord of the Rings, is a great example. I fear that many authors simply jump to the world shattering endangerment aspect without considering the character of the people they will throw into their tale. The problem being that we’re all seen dark lords, zombies, Gods, everyone really threatening to destroy the known world, and it’s not much engaging on it’s own.

That’s all.

What fantasy tropes do you like/love?

Any examples of excellent (or terrible) fantasy to share?

How to keep psychologically healthy as a writer

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Writing is not traditionally linked with great mental health (at least not in the Gothic era of writing). That’s not to say we’re all raving loons, but it would be fair to say that writing fiction tend to bring a considerable amount of mental strain, unless you are one of those blessed people who is able to simply enjoy the process (in which case you don’t need me)

On the plus side this does allow me to dive into two of my favourite subjects at once!

I’m going to discuss why I think writing does tend to drag on the soul, a few specific times I think aspiring writers especially struggle with, and tend talk about some tips for dealing with it all.

So why do I think writing is associated with this?:

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First of all I better mention that I don’t think that all writers are on the verge of breakdown, nor do I mean to belittle genuine distress as a mere creative funk linked with fiction. But I do think that writing has some risks. In no particular order…

Serious writing is a long-haul effort.

Between writing, editing, rewriting, querying/submissions, promoting waiting realizing that your current work doesn’t ‘work’ writing is more than a marathon. Writing is a multi-year tramp with unclear trails, no huts and destinations unknown. That’s not to say that writing is all horrible, after all I kind of would like to gallivant around with no destination, rather to point out that like any long term project it takes energy and it will be draining which brings me to a related point.

There isn’t a tonne of reward for writing.

Now I feel like all of these statements need caveats and ‘here me out’ type statements. Writing has some amazing rewards, it can be really fun to produce words when people do like your stuff it rocks and getting acceptances and whatnot is awesome. But on the flip-side we all know rejection is an inevitable part of the journey. And often the time taken to get to some of those good feelings is interspersed with long periods of nothing more than the battle with our own motivation/procrastination.

Writing is very personal for us, yet impersonal for everyone else.

That’s not saying the world is full of meanies. The world is in fact full of hopeful writers, and the truth is as a reader when I pick up other people’s work I rarely have any idea of how much heart and soul when into the work fro the author. To the reader a story is just words, words that may well spark an amazing experience, it’s just exclusive from the personal experience of the author. It’s grueling to put work out there, and there is no feelings buffer to keep us protected from other’s responses.

Now there are probably dozens of other reasons that writing can be hard on our heads, but I just wanted to present a few times that I think writing really challenges aspiring authors before actually trying to help rather than describe said torture.

In my experience the most painful times for aspiring writers are:

  • Finishing the first (ever) novel draft: you’d think we’d be filled with joy and achievement after hitting this milestone, and I’m sure some lucky songbirds are. However for many writers this is where one of the deeper despairs hit. I think it has something to do with realizations – realizing that the story probably isn’t going to make you rich, that whatever the next steps (rewrites, new project) are they are going to be effort-full
  • Seeing your idea already done. A whole post could be devoted to talking about this topic so I won’t dive into how to handle this, just pointing out that to many writers ideas are precious and to see them already presented is considerably heart-breaking
  • Getting a first critique, criticism or negative reaction. Do I really need to explain.
  • Finally looking back over a brief break from writing and realizing you’ve been on a 12 month+ hiatus.

I’m sure these aren’t universal but I have a hunch other writers will know what I’m talking about.

Enough of all that, what about the psychology stuff that I’m supposed to be spouting?!?

Alright in no particular order I am going to throw some less writerly and more pro advice your way, just remember this is general stuff not intended as personal or specific psychological advice. To keep that brain healthy:

Don’t put life on hold.

I hear many people considering quitting work, shutting down friends and generally making sacrifices in other areas for writing. You can’t always avoid compromising if you want to advance your writing, but never put other parts of your life on hold for it. To be resilient you need multiple sources to draw strength from. I’m not saying you need be a superhuman achieving high in every aspect, but as mentioned above writing is long haul job and you’re going to want something else in your life to enjoy along the way.

Be compassionate with yourself.  

Let’s face it, we all want a Rowling like universe, or a Tolkien like legacy, or the reputation of GRR Martin (wow I am way too into fantasy). However sometimes our dreams backfire by making us feel inadequate when we don’t reach them. If you do find yourself beating yourself up for not hitting a best-seller list yet, try to change your perspective from one of ‘why haven’t I got there yet?’ to ‘How can I support myself to continue my journey?’

And finally my favourite piece of advice, which is going to take a bit of convincing:

Acknowledge that your words aren’t you, or and extension of you and accept that they are just words on a page that you put there.

This might sound like anathema to some (“But my writing is my everything!”). I’m not saying don’t have feelings about your writing and the process, but also realize that words are just that. For example I’m quite tired writing this post and I daresay there will be some gobbledygook somewhere among the post. So while I feel like passionate about the subject and genuinely want to connect with folk on the topic, I also accept that ultimately what people get is just words, and those words may contain errors, not exactly communicate what I expected or have unintended effects.

So when Joe Bloggs1983 comments that he thinks this is the worst piece of work he’s read since anything, I’d be annoyed that maybe my words didn’t work out, but I wouldn’t wonder if maybe I was also the worst thing since anything.

I could probably pontificate on this topic forever, however it’s important to consider that a post on maintaining psychological health should actually support said health but not dragging readers through an endless article, to round off it would be great to hear from you!

What parts of writing do you find hurt your brain the most?

Any tips you use to keep healthy and well?

Any clarifications needed on the above points?

Keep well team!

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