CCSP Story Notes (Part 2): “What Amanda Wants”

[This the second in a series of four posts concerning my soon to be published Twelve Planets collection, Caution: Contains Small Parts. No spoilers, I promise!]

In my previous post, I made a remark about how the slow and careful nature of my writing process usually results in my “first” draft really being a “near-to-final” draft. I’ve been telling people that for a while and, while it’s not exactly disingenuous, it does leave a lot out of the picture. I don’t sit down at my writing laptop every day, or even every week. In fact, I’ve given myself six months off for the first half of this year to accommodate buying a house, moving towns, and all that encompasses. I used to beat myself up if I let too many days, let alone weeks, slip by without putting some words. Surely, I’m not a real writer if I’m not a regular writer? Right?

Wrong. So very wrong.

My Friend the AsusIt’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that the majority of my creative process — of my writing process — happens in my head, off the page, in the wings, never to be seen by anyone. I mull over sources of inspiration, letting some slip away, keeping others around for further examination, carrying all the pieces around in my pockets until I know which ones fit together. I tease out character and tone and narrative, seek out the various paths to a story until I find what feels like the right one to take. I do this before I start putting words down, I do this for the whole time — days, weeks, months, years — that a story or novel is “live” in my head. For the most part, I stopped jotting down notes for story ideas over a decade ago, favouring instead a more Darwinian approach, believing the best ideas are the ones that stick around, that keep coming back and prodding me into eventually working on them. The physical writing, the actual of sitting down with my laptop and typing? Sometimes that feels more like record-keeping.

So really, I write and rewrite and rewrite the fuck again just like every other writer I know. I just don’t do all of it — or even most of it — on the page. If I stall on a scene, I don’t take the oft-quoted advice to write through it. Instead, I stop, step away from the laptop and think through it. (Not even always consciously.) I don’t work out the story on the page. I don’t work out character on the page. All that stuff happens in my head. (Not even always consciously.) On the page is where I finally capture what I have corralled in my head and make it sing. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises and serendipities and sharp-turns almost every time I sit down with My Friend the Asus — I simply incorporate these into thinking about what comes next. (Not even, say it with me, always consciously.)

Which is all by way of saying, it’s extremely rare that I have to significantly edit a story on a structural level. I’ve done all that heavy lifting well in advance and by the time I have finished — unless I have severely misstepped along the way, usually by ignoring the annoying Fix-It Voice in the back of my head — it’s usually all done bar the shouting. The stories that I don’t know how to fix, that won’t work out in my head no matter what I do with them, those I usually don’t finish. Darwinism, see?

And then we have the peculiar creature called “What Amanda Wants”.

This is a longish story, a novella depending on whose word-count rules you follow, and the title was the first thing the came to me. Which is odd, as titles are often the last thing to fall into place — and sometimes, naming a story is like pulling teeth. But I started with “What Amanda Wants” and quickly knew precisely what that meant, and what shape the story should have. Which is also odd, as it usually takes me a while to feel my way into something new.

I worked on the story solidly for about a month over March/April 2007. I wanted to try out a traditional first-person past-tense “story-teller” voice — not something I’m known for — combined with a second narrative technique which would give the piece a sharper emotional edge. The two voices needed to at once complement and push against each other to provide tension and cohesion. The only problem was that I wasn’t feeling the conventional narrative, and I wasn’t sure whether it was me or the unfamiliarity of the voice I was using.

I finished the story and subbed it to my crit group in May with mixed results. Everybody pretty much had a problem with “What Amanda Wants” — but they were pretty much all different problems. The character was unsympathetic. The mystery wasn’t engaging. The reactions weren’t realistic. Sigh. The story seemed fundamentally broken and I couldn’t see a clear path to repair it right then. I decided to file the crit notes and put “What Amanda Wants” (Draft One) aside for a while. There were other things I needed to work on.

It was around a year later, in mid 2008, that I finally came back to my broken novella. The problem, I decided, was one of emotional tone. For various necessary reasons, I had kept Helen, the primary narrator, somewhat emotionally neutral. It wasn’t working. So I rewrote certain scenes and significantly pared back the formality in her tone. I gave her more emotion, less control. I let the cracks show.

Second time around, my crit group still had mixed reactions. Just … opposite ones. Some people liked the changes but had fresh quibbles, others preferred the story the way they remembered it. I now had so many different opinions on this story, I was finding it difficult to sort wheat from chaff. Crit groups can be like that sometimes. While feedback from clever, creative people can be utterly invaluable, you do need to keep a steady keel and recognise what advice is useful for the story and what should be allowed to float on by.

I made some tweaks here and there and tentatively sent the story out to one of the few markets I could find at the time which would accept its length. It bounced back with an encouraging rejection — this one isn’t for us, please  feel free to send another — and so I put it aside again. Time is perspective, I told myself. One day I’ll figure out how to fix this troublesome thing. Besides, novella markets were few and far between and I had nowhere to submit it to anyway.

Then in early 2010, as readers of this series will know, I sold “What Amanda Wants” as part of my proposed Twelve Planets collection. Alisa loved it. Re-reading the novella 18 months later, I still wasn’t sure about the ending.

Luckily, in October of that year I was booked into a writing retreat with a fine group of people up at Noosa. Unluckily, it proved to be one of the worst weeks of my life. I had an horrendous dose of the flu, complete with infected eardrums and bonus conjunctivitis. I have never been so sick. Ever. But I managed to drag myself out of bed and into a group crit session with “What Amanda Wants” and afterwards managed to stay conscious for my lengthy debrief with Rob Shearman — who in turn managed to ignore the weeping, seeping shell-shocked zombie sitting opposite him, and provide a razor-sharp critique.

In Draft Three, I ended up changing one small but significant detail about the ending of “What Amanda Wants”. It’s a subtle tweak, one of emphasis and tone more than plot, but one that neatly excised a particular line I’d always had trouble with. I thought it needed to be in there, providing an explanation of sorts. Rob Shearman, essentially, told me not to be so bloody cautious. He was right. “What Amanda Wants” is not a cautious story; it doesn’t deserve a cautious ending — and it certainly doesn’t have one now.

Thanks to everyone, and I mean everyone, who had any input into this story along the way and kept me questioning. All the voices helped — including my internal Fix-It Voice, which I stubbornly ignored for much of the writing, and which I fear will be insufferably smug for a long time to come. It always knows. Always.

Dresden DollsRandom Trivia: Back in 2007, the titular character in the novella went by the name of Amanda Palmer. Who was the singer/keyboardist in a then little-known band called the Dresden Dolls who I loved. A harmless little in-joke with myself and anyone else who happened to know the Dolls, with no other real relevance to the story. These days, there probably wouldn’t be too many readers of this blog who aren’t at least peripherally aware of Amanda Fucking Palmer and, while keeping the name would have had some resonance for various reasons, it would have no longer been appropriate for the character. So now she’s called Amanda Fisher, the name change happening somewhere between Drafts One and Two, for reasons which may become apparent when you read the story or may not, and it won’t make a significant difference either way. But at least now you’ll know who her namesake really is. 🙂



CCSP Story Notes (Part 1): “Horn”

[This the first in a series of four posts concerning my soon to be published Twelve Planets collection, Caution: Contains Small Parts. No spoilers, I promise!]

I’ve decided to organise these posts in chronological order of when the stories themselves were actually written, which isn’t precisely the order in which they will appear in the collection. It makes more sense to me to do it this way, to tell the story of how the entire collection came into being. Which is possibly also the story of how and why I write fiction. Which isn’t something I generally talk a lot about in public. My fiction, that is. Other people’s fiction I can wax lyrical about for hours … but my own work? It feels a bit weird, possibly self-indulgent. But, if you’re happy to indulge me for a while, then let’s begin. With unicorns.

Way back in 2005, my friend and fellow author Andrew Macrae — who is coincidentally about to publish a mind-bending novel called Trucksong through TPP later this year — told me about a strange little idea for an anthology he and Keith Stevenson were planning to edit and publish together. Filtered through a spec fic lens and thematically concerned with ideas of masculinity, it was going to be called, quite simply, Cock. Interesting, I told him, once I stopped laughing. Andy thought I should submit something and I was keen to do so. I was also running on empty after spending the last year or so at the helm of the Continuum 3 convention — the one with Neil Gaiman, Poppy Brite and Robin Hobb as guests; it was kinda huge, logistically — and was trying to get my fledgling dayjob business back on track. I hadn’t written for a while.

cock anthologyBut I had a vague idea about unicorns and their role in fantasy fiction and horns. What horns might symbolise and what purpose they would likely serve if unicorns were a real animal. I started writing, got about two scenes in and stopped dead. Literally, no words would come. I had no idea what the next scene should be, or what the shape of the story even looked like. My idea, I decided, was just a bit of wank. Which was, I guess, kinda appropriate. Anyway, I shelved the file under “Unfinished/Scrap” and forgot about it. The next year, cOck: adventures in masculinity was published by Coeur de Lion, the small press Andrew and Keith started, and launched at Continuum 4 amid a flurry of “hey, will you sign my cock” jokes. It’s a slim volume, but packs a mean punch — with no less than two Paul Haines’ stories contained within its glossy black covers — and I highly recommend it. Yeah, I kicked myself a little for not finishing that damn story but, what can you do? It didn’t want to be written.

Then. It didn’t want to be written then.

Fast forward a handful of years to early 2009. I’m at a writing retreat down on Phillip Island with some members of my crit group. I’m meant to be working on my current novel-in-progress, which will turn out to be Perfections, which will have a bumpy road to publication but which will eventually win a couple of awards, and which I will nevertheless be unable to look at without some small measure of resentment bubbling in my gullet. I don’t know any of that yet. All I know is that, after three days, I have had enough of the Stupid Stubborn Novel. It hates me. I’m pretty sure I hate it as well. At this point, if I was at home, I’d probably jump on the internet for a while, or do some Productive Procrastination with my business, or watch something, or pick up a book. But I’m on retreat. No internet, no business, no tv, no books. And everyone else is tapping busily away on their laptops. So I start to go through files on my laptop, opening old ones and skimming for salvage. There’s this file called “Horn”. Oh yeah, I think, the bit of unicorn wank. I start to read those old words, start to habitually tweak them a little, get to the end and … just keep going. By the end of the day, the last day of retreat, I have another two scenes down and a solid, luminous chart in my head of where the story is going and how it will probably get there.

I finish it that week, locking myself away each evening to eke out the words. As a writer, I’m slow, I’m careful. My first draft is edited and tweaked constantly as I progress and thus it’s also usually the next-to-final draft, apart from some polishing. I’ve never been a blurt-it-all-out-and-worry-about-making-it-pretty-later writer. (This will change. The speed, at least. Not the lack of blurting.)

horn by peter ballFinally, after a gap of many years, the story called “Horn” is done. I’m very pleased. This is the work I should have submitted to cOck. Damn. I send it off to a Big Name Fantasy Market instead. About a week later, maybe more, Twelfth Planet Press announce they will be publishing an original novella by Peter Ball. It has a vicious, disturbing unicorn as a key plot point. It’s also called Horn. Double damn. Soon after this news, Big Name Fantasy Market offers my “Horn” a speedy rejection, something along the lines of liking the writing but not being interested in a story about a bestselling fantasy author. Fine, I think, IF THAT’S ALL YOU RECKON MY STORY IS ABOUT. (Oh yeah, I can do miffed prima donna with the best of them.) Anyway — triple damn. I shelve the story, deciding that the field might not be ready for two icky unicorn works under the same title in quick succession. Plus, maybe mine’s a bit of wank after all — it’s one of my stories where I attempt Interesting Things. Much later, I buy and read Peter Ball’s Horn. It’s great, a hardboiled fairy romp. It’s nothing like my story. Still. For some reason, although I submit it to my crit group for flensing, I don’t send it out again. I’m worried about the title. Change the title, I’m told, it doesn’t matter.

I don’t want to change the title. It does matter. The story remains unsubmitted.

In March 2010, Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press invites me to submit to this series she’s planning to publish. Twelve collections. Twelve Australian authors. Twelve Planets. It sounds fantastic. I have to be a part of it. But I don’t have the four pieces required to submit. (I’m slow, remember, I’m careful.) I have, however, literally just finished a new story with which I’m very pleased, and I have a novella hanging about which I think might be a little broken but not irreparable, and I have … “Horn”. Okay, why the hell not? As I say to Alisa, if anyone if going to publishing another violent unicorn story called “Horn”, then maybe it should be TPP. I send all three, promising a fourth in due course — ha! but we shall get to that in a later post — and the collection is accepted.

“So,” Alisa says to me a couple of years later while we’re finalising things for promotion on the website. “We’re really calling it ‘Horn’ then?”

“Yep,” I say. “I think we are.”

I like “Horn”. The title, and the story. It is about a bestselling fantasy author, though that’s the least interesting fact I can tell you. There’s unicorns (and violence and phallic symbols). There’s explorations of masculinity (and betrayal, and sacrifice, and loss.) If I had finished it back in 2005, it might have found a place in cOck but it wouldn’t have been this version of “Horn” because I couldn’t have written it then. I simply wasn’t good enough a writer to wrangle the words for what needed to be said. And now it fits so well within Caution: Contains Small Parts that I can’t imagine it elsewhere.

Occasionally, time really does make all the difference.


Caution: Contains Small Parts – A Cover and a Launch!

Caution Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermottVery exciting news today! My Twelve Planets collection is finally done, dusted and off to the printers. It’s called Caution: Contains Small Parts and will feature two short stories and two novellas. As she has done with the rest of the series, Amanda Rainey has produced a brilliant cover that manages to capture the feel of the whole collection, while specifically illustrating the titular story. I love it so much!

The collection will be launched at Continuum 9 in Melbourne, so if you’ll be at the convention, please come along and help me celebrate :

When: 6pm – Sunday, 9 June 2013

Where: Continuum 9 @ Ether – lower level, 285 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne (check con program for the room)

Naturally, if you can’t make it to the launch, you can always purchase the book direct from Twelfth Planet Press. It’s available right now for individual pre-order or as part of the Twelve Planets subscription. I cannot recommend this series more highly and am delighted to note that Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan both just won Aurealis Awards for stories in their particular volumes.

As part of the lead up to the launch, I’m planning a series of “Story Notes” type posts in which I’ll talk about each of the four pieces in the collection. These will mostly focus on the background to the stories, with anecdotal discussion of inspiration, process, and so on — no actual spoilers, I promise!  They’ll go up every few days over the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

Caution: Contains Small Parts is an intimate, unsettling collection from award-winning author Kirstyn McDermott.

A creepy wooden dog that refuses to play dead.

A gifted crisis counsellor and the mysterious, melancholy girl she cannot seem to reach.

A once-successful fantasy author whose life has become a horror story – now with added unicorns.

An isolated woman whose obsession with sex dolls takes a harrowing, unexpected turn.

Four stories that will haunt you long after their final pages are turned.


Aurealis Awards: Farewell Sydney, Hello Canberra!

Aurealis Award 2012News travels at light speed around the interwebs these days, so this post is most definitely old hat by now. But as I keep this blog as much for my own memory banks as for anything else these days, I’m very pleased to report that Perfections won the 2012 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel over the weekend. (Edgar’s not part of the trophy — he just likes getting his photo taken.) It was a wonderful night, filled with good friends, good wine and good cheer, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who played a part in bringing Perfections to publication. Not least of all my beloved, Jason Nahrung, who fed me chocolate by the family-size block and put up with almost never seeing me for the last month of writing. (You want to feel ambivalence in its purest form? Try winning an award for which your husband was also nominated and thus didn’t win. A most curious emotional state indeed.) The novel and I are still not really talking to each other — she tried to kill me, I tried to kill her; it’s a thing — but we can probably stand to be in the same room as one another now. With our backs pressed firmly to the wall, of course.

SpecFaction did a brilliant job of organising and hosting the Aurealis Awards in Sydney over the past three years and I’m sure it’s with a mixture of both sadness and relief that they pass the baton — the Conflux convention team will be bringing the Awards to Canberra from next year, with the ceremony tipped to be held in March. Cat Sparks was buzzing about with camera in hand and captured some wonderful images of the night, while Sean Wright has storyfied the Twitter feed.

The full list of winners are below. Congratulations to everyone, but especially to the indomitable and debonair Margo Lanagan who carried away no less than FOUR Aurealis Awards on the night — two for Sea Hearts and two for stories from Cracklescape, her Twelve Planets collection. An extraordinary achievement indeed and not one that will be easily — if ever — matched!

Aurealis Awards Winners 2012

Brotherband: The Hunters by John Flanagan(Random House)

Little Elephants by Graeme Base (Penguin)

‘The Wisdom of the Ants’ by Thoraiya Dyer (Clarkesworld)

(Joint winners)
Dead, Actually by Kaz Delaney (Allen and Unwin)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen and Unwin)

Blue by Pat Grant (Giramondo)

That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote by KJ Bishop (self-published)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Six edited by Jonathan Strahan (Night Shade Books)

‘Sky’ by Kaaron Warren (Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press)

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott (Xoum)

‘Bajazzle’ by Margo Lanagan (Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press)

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen and Unwin)

‘Significant Dust’ by Margo Lanagan (Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press)

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (HarperCollins)

Kate Eltham

Laura Goodin


The Writer and the Critic: Episode 28

The latest episode of our podcast is now available for direct download and streaming from the website or via subscription from iTunes. Feedback is most welcome!

What a difference a month makes! Since the last episode, your host Ian Mond and his lovely wife, Jules, have brought a little baby girl into the world. Welcome, Sophie Zara! As revealed at the beginning of this episode, Ian seems in be in two minds as to whether or not that news is in fact overshadowed by The Writer and the Critic winning their second Ditmar Award at Conflux in April! Ian sang a made-up song. Kirstyn McDermott pulled producer-rank and refused to include it in the podcast. Pander to the Mond, she does not. But here’s a picture of the shiny (the award, not the daughter):

2013 Ditmar Award

The books up for discussion this month are Feed by M.T. Anderson (beginning around 11:40),  as recommended by Kirstyn, and Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (48:30) which Ian chose.  Reviews of the Joyce novel by Charlie Jane Anderson at io9 and Ben Godby at Strange Horizons are both mentioned. The usual spoilers abound — including analysis of the endings — so listener be very much aware.

Feed and Some Kind of Fairy Tale

If you have skipped ahead, please come back around the 1:25:45 mark for some final remarks and announcements.

Next month, The Writer and the Critic will again be recording in front of a live audience as part of Continuum 9, Melbourne’s annual speculative fiction and pop culture convention, and Ian and Kirstyn are delighted to announce that NK Jemisin, will be a special guest on the podcast. For her recommendations, Nora has chosen A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin and the graphic novel Saga (Volume 1 only) by Brian K.Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Read ahead and join in the spoilerific fun — and if you’ll be in Melbourne on 8th June, please come along and be a part of our live audience.