The Writer and the Critic: Episode 29

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!

Recorded in front of a live audience at Continuum 9 in Melbourne, this episode of The Writer and the Critic features special guest N.K. Jemisin alongside your usual hosts, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond. The first part of the podcast is spent chatting — spoiler-free! — about the first book in Nora’s latest duology, The Killing Moon (Book One of the Dreamblood), which Ian has read and heartily recommends. Kirstyn also mentions the awesome Guest of Honour speech which Nora gave at the convention, and Nora in turn references an important article by Samuel R. Delany on “Racism and Science Fiction” — first published in 1998 and sadly still very much relevant in 2013.

N K Jemisin

Nora has chosen both books up for discussion this month and — listeners beware — spoilers do abound from this point on. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin is thrown onto the slab first (starting around 20:20) followed by the graphic novel Saga (Volume 1 only) by Brian K.Vaughan and Fiona Staples (1:00:45). Arachnophobes should also beware — there is extensive discussion of spiders living in laundries as well as their subsequent hairy-legged demise. Kirstyn is very sad about this. She might even get a bit teary.

A Madness of Angels and Saga

If you’ve skipped ahead to avoid spoilers, or perhaps spiders, please come back around 1:25:35 for some final remarks, including a new Twitterr-related discovery made by Ian and some basic lessons in the Australian vernacular.

Next month, the two books up for critique will be Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall (recommended by Kirstyn) and Light by M. John Harrison (Ian’s pick). Read ahead and join in the spoilerific fun!

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CCSP Story Notes (Part 4): “The Home for Broken Dolls”

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

So, remember back when I submitted my three stories for Twelve Planets and promised Alisa that she’d have the fourth in due course?

Yeah, about that.

Having sold the collection, I pitched Alisa the idea for the fourth story at WorldCon in August 2010, just to make sure she thought it would be a good fit before I started work in earnest. It was an idea that had been will-o-wisping around the less-travelled alleys of my brain for a couple of years — less an idea than the spark of something I knew I wanted to write about in some way. I thought I’d figured out exactly how only a few weeks before.

“Have you heard of Real Dolls?” I remember asking Alisa.

The expression on her face was inscrutable. I couldn’t tell if she hadn’t heard of Real Dolls, or if she had but wasn’t looking forward to hearing my idea involving them, or if she was simply waiting patiently for me to continue. If you don’t know Alisa well, and I didn’t back then, she pulls off inscrutable with aplomb. I’m sure she’d be a formidable poker player. (And if you haven’t heard of Real Dolls, or their ilk, you can look them up yourself. Google is very helpful. No, I’m not going to link.) In any case, I babbled somewhat about real dolls and my story idea for which I still had little more than the title — always a good sign — and the concept. Alisa asked a couple of questions then told me to go away and write it. Excellent, I thought, I’ll have this to her by the end of the year. Early 2011, tops.

Yeah, about that.

Real DollI went away but didn’t start to write. Instead I dove headfirst down a rabbit-hole of research which proved both labyrinthine and bottomless, and from which I did not emerge for another twelve months or more. Normally, I like the research aspect of writing, I really do. Normally, I’m efficient and targeted. I go in, grab what I need in just enough detail to add texture, depth and verisimilitude, and get right back out again. Not so in this case. I bought books, downloaded documentaries, and perused more websites than I care to think about. I drilled down through 50+ pages on Google searches, chasing links. I followed tangents away from the core of my story on the flimsiest pretext. And I bent the ears of way too many indulgent friends and acquaintances with revelations of some of the skeeviest stuff I turned up. In short, I became obsessed with my research … which, when you consider that “The Home for Broken Dolls” is itself concerned with sex doll obsession, starts to get kinda meta. I did stop short at buying a second-hand Real Doll. But only just.

Finally, after one too many jokes from my husband about all the porn sites that would be racked up in my browser history, I pulled myself away. Or, at least, I started to write the story. The research continued almost until the end. At one point, after searching for a particular kind of website which I knew had to be out there, but really hoped was not, I stumbled across a gallery of images that had me sitting in furious, horrified, validated tears on my office floor. It was enough. It was too much. My head was full and I needed to sort through it all and decide exactly what did and didn’t belong in the story.

Story? Try novella, Kirstyn.

I wrote “The Home for Broken Dolls” in fits and starts over a period of twelve months. I kept having to put it aside for various reasons — a novel to copyedit, a promised short story to turn in, a novel to proof, various personal concerns — and in my head it kept getting larger. The word count for the Twelve Planets collections was meant to be capped at 40,000 words. I’d already turned in well over 20,000 with the other three stories. Luckily, Kaaron Warren had included a massive novella — “Sky” — in her collection, which definitely saw it exceeding the cap, so I hoped I could get away with a little extra as well. Still, I wanted to keep the final novella below 20,000. It’s the first time I have ever hit the word count wall with such unmitigated force.

After I’d written around 8,000 words and realised I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through the story, I panicked a little. I couldn’t finish “The Home for Broken Dolls” inside the word count. I had no ideas — and no real time — to write something else to finish the collection. I was screwed. Worse, I’d screwed my publisher who, by that point, had been exceedingly patient with me. I panicked a lot. Then I picked myself up, sat myself down and stripped those 8,000 back as brutally as I could, removing every single word I could get away with and have the thing still make sense. Which became SOP for writing the rest of the novella. I’d write a scene one session, then pare it right back the next time before allowing myself to continue the narrative. At 15,000 words I faced up to the fact that there was a whole third element that wasn’t going to make it into the novella. Which meant, I had no ending. Screwed, screwed, screwed.

Panic. Pick self up. Sit self down. Fix it. Fix it now.

And so, because I’m a fucking grown up writer, I did. I worked out a new path to the ending, a perfect ending for what the novella had become, and I got there. I sent it to Alisa just after New Year’s 2013. She was on her honeymoon and I told her not to read it until she got home. It wasn’t a honeymoon story. Later on, she thanked me.

“The Home for Broken Dolls” is still the most recent thing I have written, what with the six months sabbatical I’m currently enjoying. I have a lot of ideas working over in my head right now, but haven’t committed words to screen just yet. It will be interesting to see what my natural style has evolved into once I start at the end of this month. I don’t think it will be as pared back as the writing in this novella, but I don’t think it will go back to being what it used to be either. One thing about such sparse writing: it gives you nowhere to hide. Which is exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. I’m keenly interested to see what people make of “The Home for Broken Dolls”, both because it’s new and because it’s a piece of which I’m particularly proud. I love this novella, I love Jane and I love my fierce, beautiful dolls. It was worth every bit of research I did — even the bits I didn’t end up using.

Yet. The bits I didn’t end up using yet. I say that because, six months later, this story is still very much live in my head. The dolls haven’t gone away, haven’t faded as is usually the case once I’ve finished a piece and am on to thinking about Next Things. Maybe this means I’m not done with them, or they’re not done with me. Same difference. “The Home for Broken Dolls” was a short story that became a novella … but what it really wanted to be all along was a novel.

Yeah, I see myself saying one day, about that.

Caution Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermottMy Twelve Planets collection, Caution: Contains Small Parts, will be launched by Talie Helene 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.

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CCSP Story Notes (Part 3): “Caution: Contains Small Parts”

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

There’s not a lot I can say about “Caution: Contains Small Parts” (the story) without giving the game away. If there is an explicit theme to my Twelve Planets volume, it would be that all the pieces are very much concerned with haunted people. They’re not all ghost stories — which is merely one kind of haunting — but “Caution” definitely belongs to that ilk. A couple of years ago, I went through a ghost story patch: lots of ideas filtering through my brain, a few of the better ones written into stories. A well-established trope of Gothic horror, ghosts remain rich and full of resonance for me — as both a reader and a writer — and there seems no end to the variety of ways in which we can imagine, interpret and interrogate them. They are, quite literally, the past pushing into the present, refusing to sit down and shut up, reminding us of everything we drag along behind us as we live our lives … and as we end them. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading really good, intelligent, emotive ghost stories. Ever. And if a particularly good idea drifts across my internal creative landscape, you better believe I’m going to grab it with both hands and do my very best to pin it down.

The idea for “Caution” was one of those. It took me a few months to work out the precise mechanics the story needed — who was being haunted, and why, and for what reason. It was tricky, getting the balance right and making sure of … well, stuff I can’t talk about without the dreaded spoilers. Suffice to say, once you read the story, you’ll most likely appreciate the sensitivities involved. Unlike “Horn” and “What Amanda Wants”, this story was written very quickly once I had the mechanics in place. A week or so of near consecutive evening sit-downs with My Friend the Asus and it was finished. Each night, as I lay in bed with the lights out waiting for sleep to find me, I would plan out what needed to happen in the next scene, and then the next evening I would write that scene. I didn’t get stuck once. Unexpected textual turns threw no curve balls; instead they added depth to the narrative in that spectacular way that makes every writer wonder at some point, “Where the hell did that even come from?”

Sometimes, stories are blessed in that way.

I offered it up to my crit group once it was done, tidied up some copy edits following their suggestions, and then, just as I was considering where to submit it for publication, the Twelve Planets invitation from Alisa dropped into my inbox.

Sometimes, stories are blessed in that way too. 🙂

Toy DogRandom Trivia: I like to ground my stories in the real world, often to to point of obsessive googling and online mapping to get the smallest details right. For me it’s a necessary part of integrating the non-realist element that most of my work includes, and making it as believable as everything else. For “Caution: Contains Small Parts”, I knew I wanted a wooden pull-along dog as the mysterious toy that my protagonist, Tim, is sent at the beginning of the story. I did a quick search on eBay for “wooden toy dog” just to see exactly how they were made and one of the first listings that popped up was perfect — old and battered and kinda creepy looking. I wish I’d downloaded and kept the image from eBay now, but at the time I didn’t think of it, just went back to my story and wrote up a description. Hell, I wish I’d bid on the thing! The photo here is fairly close except that there’s no bell on the tail and this dog just looks too damn cheerful. Oh, and the eyes. The eyes on the eBay dog looked vacant and infinitely knowing all at the same time. Definitely creepy and, as I wrote in my story, I did wonder what kind of person would buy a kid a toy like that. Or what kind of kid would want one …

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