Her Words and Worlds (with Book Giveaway!)

Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott

The wonderful and always eloquent Stephanie Gunn has embarked upon an ambitious personal project she calls Her Words and Worlds, wherein she chooses a female author and endeavours not only to read her entire published bibliography — in chronological order — but to write a lengthy and considered review of the body of work at the end of it all.  It’s a brilliant idea which I’m sure which lead to some fascinating overviews and I’m looking forward following her along on her journey.

And, of course, I was delighted and honoured when Stephanie chose me to be first cab off the rank.  She provides very insightful commentary about my work over the years, and I have to admit that the some of the questions she asked me in her follow-up interview really kicked my brain into a higher gear. It was a strange — but very rewarding — experience to be asked reflect upon my own work in such a way and make explicit a lot of ideas and intentions which have always enjoyed a fairly nebulous existence inside my head. Hmm, thoughtful writer is thoughtful.

To top it all off, Stephanie is giving away a copy of my debut novel, Madigan Mine, which I’ll be more than happy to personally sign for the lucky winner. For a chance to win, all you need to do is visit the Her Words and Worlds page and leave a comment. Entries close this Sunday, 7th August.

Here’s a quick taste of what Stephanie can do with a scalpel:

McDermott’s work tends towards the dark and the feminine.  Several themes wind their way through her body of work, including that of the seductress, of romantic obsession, of blood and sex and death.  Many pieces also deal with the nature of art and the artist; these pieces are arguably amongst the strongest of McDermott’s body of work and culminate (thus far) in her debut novel, Madigan Mine.

The next author up for dissection is the frightfully talented Angela Slatter. As a massive admirer of Angela’s short fiction, I await the new installment of Her Words and Worlds with a heightened sense of antici . . . pation.

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Don’t Scare the Children?

Last week I finished a short story which proved very different from anything else I’ve done.  It was written for a children’s anthology of ghosts stories with the target reader age range of 10-13 years. It was the first time I’ve ever written for such a young age group and so I spent quite a lot of time thinking about subject matter, language and tone. I considered The Graveyard Book and noted how Neil Gaiman was able to get away with some really, really awful subject matter by employing both judicious language and a tone that makes the reader — regardless of their age — feel very safe. I also tried to recall the types of stories I loved to read when I was that age and kept coming back to two primary emotional elements: fear and wonder. (Nothing much has changed.)

I had a character in mind — who I loved — and a vague of idea of how her story would unfold, and generally that’s all I need before I start actually putting words on screen. So I started and was promptly met with a near constant series of roadblocks and dead ends. Most of these related to content. There were plot elements and complexities I had to abandon due to lack of space, resulting in character dynamics that needed to be recalibrated. There was also a poignant climactic scene which I regretfully set aside because it necessitated the body of an eleven year old being found buried in her own back yard — and there is simply no way for an eleven year old girl to be found buried in her own backyard without A Very Bad Thing having happened to put her there.

(Normally, Very Bad Things are my stock in trade. But this time I wasn’t writing that kind of story — I was trying for quirky and optimistic — and the prospective weight of A Very Bad Thing was causing a fatal imbalance in the narrative, so the envisaged scene was never written. I’m sure it will find its way into another tale somewhere along the line.)

The ending itself took ages to find. I wasted a couple of frustrating hours one evening writing and deleting — and rewriting and redeleting — before realising that I’d already stumbled across the finish line a few paragraphs before and all I was doing was trying to manufacture an unnecessary coda. And the reason it took me so long to see this was that the ending was a happy one. I have a natural distrust of happy endings. They very often don’t feel right to me. They don’t feel genuine. They lack resonance. But this ending was right for this story, even if it wasn’t the kind of story I usually write. So I trusted it and tightened the narrative in a few places to provide better support and . . . I think it works well.

It’s not a particularly scary story, because ghosts don’t have to be scary, but it has fear and it has wonder. And it has a happy ending. (Stranger things have happened.) Best of all, I’ve heard back from the editor and he loves it. There’ll be some tweaks to make in copy editing — a couple of minor points that I need to be less subtle about, exposition wise — but it’s basically living and breathing on its own. Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and writing for kids is definitely something I’d like to do again if I get the opportunity.

But for now, it’s back wrestling with Novel the Second.

Against Professionalism, Craft and Story

Over at Booklife, author and editor Nick Mamatas has written a thought-provoking series of three posts concerning certain aspects of writing (or being a writer) that tend to get bandied around a lot these days. Since I’ve got no time to make words of my own here today, may I humbly suggest you wander over there and read Nick’s instead. I agree with roughly 91.732% of them.

Against Professionalism:

It’s all rather nightmarish: don’t complain about rejection letters or reviews, don’t talk about editors and agents on Twitter or your blog, wear khakis and not blue jeans to conferences and bring plenty of business cards, keep away from politics except for the fannishly correct (and legitimate) concerns about diversity in publications in your public utterances. This advice is the new currency in the community of aspiring writers because it’s easy to give and easy to follow. What’s hard is writing.

Against Craft:

“Craft” today is not a counter to the Romantic vision of an artistic elite chosen by the Divine, it is a quasi-proletarian flinch often designed to protect one’s work from being compared to art, thus protecting it (and one’s ego) from its near-inevitable failure to stack up to the idea of art as a superlative.

Against Story:

What do people want? “A good story.” How do we know? People can barely say anything else. When editors describe the sort of material they’re looking to acquire, they want “a good story.” Readers are always on the hunt for “a good story.” Good stories are also useful for shutting down a variety of discussions. Are there not enough women being published, or people of color? Who cares who the author is, so long as he or she writes a good story? Can writers do different things with their stories—create new points of view, structure words on the page differently, work to achieve certain effects not easily accessible with more common presentations? Why bother—a good story is the only important thing.

A final set of questions . . .

The final installment of the Book Lover’s Club competition questions. Thanks to everyone for their interesting and though-provoking contributions!

Firstly, from Diane Ayres: I would like to ask Kirstyn where she got her inspiration for this book, and whether she bases her characters and story lines on real people and real situations or they come from her own imagination?

I honestly can’t remember specifically what inspired me to write Madigan Mine. I know the idea started as the germ for a short story and rapidly metastasised, leaving me with a fledging novel that ended up bearing little resemblance to the original story idea (which would have ended about where the novel begins).  This is often how it works. An idea will mutate, join with other ideas, become something different. Usually in my head before I even begin to put fingers to keyboard, but sometimes in the writing of it as well.

I very rarely use real people for the basis of characters, although I will sometimes borrow traits or personality quirks if they suit. My characters become very real people in their own right, as I have usually spent months or years thinking about them before I start writing about them. Real situations, on the other hands, are very often the basis for storylines — although, by the time the story is finished, the resemblance to anything which might have occurred in real life can be almost gone. That’s the difference between the spark of an idea, the flash of inspiration as it were, and actually creating a work of fiction. Things change. The unexpected happens. The story you think you have turns out to be something else entirely. An idea might come from a real person, a real situation, but then imagination takes over. And that’s what keeps me coming back to the keyboard each day.

Heather Luedi would like to know: Was this style of writing what you always wanted to do? I have heard some authors say that they just seem to be able to do this type of writing but love a different genre altogether.

I read widely and always have done. (Well, once I got over the Ponies! fetish I had as a kid, that is.) I tend to lean towards what is termed “speculative fiction” and my subject matter/themes/stories of preference are usually on the darker side. This carries over to my writing. There is lot of stuff that I read that I won’t ever probably write, because my imagination doesn’t seem to take me in those directions, but I don’t have a great yearning to write anything other than the stories that come to me. That said, I am constantly inspired by the writing of others and there is very little that I read that I don’t find myself learning something from. And there are lots of books that I love and kinda wish I had written — but of course, if I had, then they wouldn’t be those books at all, they’d be something else entirely.

And finally, from Sharni Luedi: I was wondering if you would ever do other forms of writing like young adult books for example and i was also wondering if you are a planner or whether you just allow your characters to go where they want?

I love young adult fiction and read a lot of it. It’s a very exciting corner of the literary world right now with some brilliant authors producing some truly astounding books — Liar by Justine Larbalestier, to name but one recent example. Every time I get the beginning of an idea for a young adult story, however, it morphs into something not so much. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. Perhaps one day I’ll find a idea that sticks. 🙂

The idea of planning out a novel is very appealing to me. So appealing, in fact, that last year I bought a whole bunch of different coloured post-it notes with the notion of plotting out my current work on the blank wall of the spare room. Yeah, I still have all those post-it notes. Planning just doesn’t work out for me. Once I have the characters and the beginning of the story and a vague sort of idea of where it’s heading, that’s when I start to write. And I don’t stop until it’s finished or it fails. I don’t know if it’s about letting my characters go where they want as much as letting the story follow it’s own lead. Probably it’s both. A complicated dance between character and story that takes place between my head and my hands. It can be very daunting sometimes — all that unknown, uncharted terrain out there in front of me — which is why sometimes I wish I was a planner, but it’s also an exciting way to work. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a scene and thinking, “Wow, I had no idea I was going to write that today!”

If you’re on Facebook,  please take a minute check out Book Lover’s Club — a site dedicated to the discussion of books of all genres, for book-lovers right across the globe.

Questions again . . .

Part three of the Book Lover’s Club competition questions.

Loony Lihn asked: Is she proud of her book? Because I bet people get this thrill when someone compliments something they’ve made/written. And also, are you glad you chose to follow this storyline or did you think one of your other ideas would have made a better story?

In a word: YES. I am very proud of Madigan Mine. Sure, there are still minor things I would probably change — they tell you never to read your work once it’s published, and they’re right! — but overall I love the book and I’m extremely pleased with the finished result. And yes, I am always thrilled when someone tells me they like it as well. Especially when it’s someone I don’t even know. Because, you know, only my friends would bother to tell me they like my work, and that’s just because they’re being nice, and blah de blah. Stupid inner critic. 🙂

In answer to your second question, I write the ideas that are ready to be written, and write them until they are either finished or stop working for some reason. Madigan Mine never stopped working, so it wasn’t really a matter of choice. I don’t get too many ideas for novel-length works (I’m a short story writer at heart, and probably always will be), so once I knew the idea for Madigan Mine could be a novel and started to write it, that was really it. I know a lot of writers have a backlog of novel ideas but I’m not of that tribe. I have the novel I’m working on and, if I’m lucky, the novel I will probably work on next if it percolates enough in the meantime. Short stories, though, sheesh. I have waaaaaay too many of those knocking around in my brain.

Juliet Ramone would like to know: You have a masterly command of the art of creating depth of mood and feelings that are simultaneously negative and dark yet illicit great energy and light. Every sentence, every word, every grammatical point appears deliberate and highly polished and yet it conjures raw emotions. What are the processes involved in producing this duality of language? Is it simply an innate ability (if so, I’m jealous), or do you produce copious drafts?

This is a really difficult question to answer. My use of language feels innate, but really it comes from a lifetime of reading and absorbing the words and sentence structures of other writers. Sometimes consciously, especially these days when I find it quite hard to turn off the inner-writer and “lose” myself in a book, but mostly unconsciously I suspect. It feels like I have developed an “ear” for language in the same way a musician has an ear for music. Although I’m tone deaf and can’t sing or play a note, I will often use words that “sound” right — literally, the sounds the words make when read aloud, their flow, their rhythm, the way they fit together, the beats between them. All the while maintaining syntax and meaning, of course. I’m not sure I’ve really answered what you were asking, but I’m also not sure I can do any better than that!

In terms of drafts, I don’t go through too many as a rule. With my short fiction, there is usually just the single full-length draft and then — providing there are no major plot-holes or structural issues — a couple rounds of polishing. With novel-length manuscripts, there are necessarily more “drafts” floating around, as there is more editing required to get to the publication stage. Novels are bigger, more complicated beasts, and are somewhat impossible to hold in your head all at once so more problems get through to the first full draft. But I should stress that I am a very slow writer. I revise and re-write as I go, so my “first” finished draft might be closer to another writer’s fourth or fifth. Everyone approaches the craft in a different manner. I’m a tortoise in the initial writing, but a fricken caffeine-fuel hare in the edit stage. 🙂

And from Janice Channer: I would like to ask Kirstyn when her writing career took off? Was being an author always something she dreamed of as a child, and who or what inspired her into writing?

I’m not sure my writing career has really “taken off” yet but the publication of my first novel, Madigan Mine, has certainly stepped it up to a new level. Having a novel out there means more people have access to my work, which is fantastic. As much as I love writing short fiction, and as proud as I am of the stories I have had published over the years, it is usually very hard for people to find them.

I’ve wanted to write for almost as long as I can remember. I was quite a solitary child and always made up stories to entertain myself, and sometimes my sisters. And I was an incurable bookworm, reading books far above my age group once I soon exhausted the ones meant for girls like me. Once I realised that books are written by people, once I made that connection, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. For this I blame my mother, who let me read anything I damn well wanted and let me dream anything I damn well dared.

If you’re on Facebook,  please take a minute check out Book Lover’s Club — a site dedicated to the discussion of books of all genres, for book-lovers right across the globe.

Questions, so many questions . . .

Book Lover's Club

The competition that Book Lover’s Club ran on Facebook last week has ended and I’ve both chosen a winner and answered her question over on Facebook. There were so many excellent entries and it was a difficult decision to make. So much so that I’ve decided to answer all ten questions that were asked here on my blog. I’ll post a new question and answer every few days over the next couple of weeks.

Let’s start with the winner, Karen Chisholm, who asked the following:

I’d love to know how Kirstyn feels about her own characters . . . do they stay with her / nag at her with more stories to tell?

I love my characters. All of them, even the not-so-nice ones. I think writers almost have to love their characters in order to create them, and to make them feel real enough that readers care about what happens to them. Bear in mind that “love” doesn’t necessarily mean “like” or “approve of”! But you need to understand them as people, and usually to know a lot more about their background, personality and motives than you necessarily reveal on paper.

Madigan is one of my favourite characters, possibly because I lived with her inside my head for a very long time. I talked to her, asked her opinions of things, though about how she would react to certain people, situations, obstacles or opportunities. So it was really hard — and remains difficult — to put her aside and work on something new. In a sense, she is still there inside my head, making the occasional comment, but mostly just sulking about being ignored in favour of the new kids. I might, and it’s a very small “might”, write about her again some day but at the moment I have no real plans.

I have had characters pop up in my writing more than once, usually playing minor roles in stories which are not their own. Once I find a character’s real story, and tell it, that will usually be it for them. (Unless, of course, I need them for another bit part somewhere or other along the line.) There are too many other stories and other characters to write about. Too many voices demanding to be heard. I do miss most of them, when their story is finished. I don’t think I would want it any other way.

If you’re on Facebook,  please take a minute check out Book Lover’s Club — a site dedicated to the discussion of books of all genres, for book-lovers right across the globe.