Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Heart Of Fire looks at life and death… and things that make us what we are by J Damask

Today I hand over my blog to the wonderful J Damask, author of the Jan Xu Adventures that I had the privilege of working with many years ago when I was still editing for Lyrical Press. This month, J Damask is celebrating the long-awaited continuation of her Jan Xu stories, Heart of Fire.

Heart Of Fire has had an exciting journey. Third book of the Jan Xu Adventures series, it was first accepted by Masque Books and then later by Fox Spirit Books. Its publishing journey is parallel to its gradual transformation from concept to story.  It has been a journey of ups and downs.

Writing the book took a lot from me. I explored issues that impacted my life: Buddhism, Chinese traditions and customs, and death. I wanted to explore the cycle of life and death as part of the story. It is an urban fantasy novel, but it also weaves in things that matter to us, to our hearts and identities as human beings. The songs that sing to us might just be universal in the end: love, family, trust and compassion.

In this third novel of the series, Jan is confronted with more trouble. She rescues a foreign wolf, setting off a series of events and incidents that affect her health, her family and her pack. Throw in the machinations of Chinese vampires and the Western drakes – and Jan has to fight for her life, literally.

The book starts with the celebration of the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, one of the festivals I love as a Chinese girl growing up in Singapore.  I have always enjoyed the eating, the feasting, the variety of food, and (when I was a little girl) the red packets filled with money. Now, since I am married, I have to give the red packets to children. There are families getting together to have the reunion dinner and share stories while they eat. My own memories consist of going to my grandparents’ and playing with my cousins. The same goes with Jan and her large pack-family. Family, in her case, is the bonding factor that keeps her going.

Life is then followed by the grim reality of death. Someone in Jan’s family suddenly dies and she grieves deeply. How does she deal with the pain of loss? This is where I weave in Buddhism. My father is Buddhist and I grew up listening to his chanting at nights.  The mantra I use in the novel is om mani padme hum, the “jewel in the lotus”.
But, of course, there will be action in the novel. The political and manipulative drakes begin to assert a stronger influence in the story. Familiar characters will also appear, causing no small amount of head ache for Jan and her pack, testing her leadership and straining the ties in her family.

Heart Of Fire can be purchased from:
Amazon UK, Amazon US, Spacewitch

J. Damask (Joyce Chng) lives in Singapore. Heart Of Fire is the third book of the Jan Xu Adventures series. She blog at A Wolf’s Tale and tweets at @jolantru

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Goodbye, my precioouuusssssss...

Wearing the editor hat doesn’t necessarily guarantee that my writing is perfect once I don the author hat. Granted, I am the first to admit that I am an anally retentive fruitbat have wicked self-editing skills and I catch *most* gremlins. But my writing is filled with unicorns and rainbows *does* need work. Problem is, I’m often so close to my own story that I can’t see the obvious issues with, say, characterisation or pacing.

Case in point…

A few months ago I got a request for a revise and resubmit (R&R) from a prominent publisher of quality LGBT fiction. I read the letter. Saw the editor in question mention that she hated destroying authors hopes on Twitter knew she meant me and that I suck donkey bollocks, then promptly did *absolutely nothing* about the manuscript for half a year.

I went through a whole range of responses, shock, denial, despair… and now, eventually, acceptance. And contemplated throwing myself off the top of the Absa Building in Cape Town's Foreshore.

This week I opened that R&R letter and agreed with absolutely everything that editor said.

I’ve heard some authors whinge and moan about losing their artistic integrity, and that’s all fine and well. Keep your words. Hell, you might just step into Anne Rice’s shoes one day, and that’s absolutely fine. For you. After being convinced that I totally suck donkey bollocks spending time to let that manuscript lie fallow (which I totally advise to any author who’s serious about his or her craft), I’ve got the necessary distance to objectively consider that editor’s opinion.

When I look back at my older writing, it’s not bad. Not by a long shot if I consider some of the documents I’ve encountered in the slush pile. But too many times in the past I’ve suffered because I’ve been precious about my words and unwilling to make drastic changes. If I look at some of the authors who’ve really pushed boundaries, they’re the ones who often revise until they’re ready to jump off a high place. Again and again.

They will cry, and whine, and moan, but they’ll revise. And, guess what? They eventually get those contracts with the publishers of their choice.

Not that I’m slamming self-publishing, but I’d like to point out that when an author publishes his or her own work, there’s a real danger that an author will believe that they poop rainbows will not be hard enough on their own words, that they’ll indulge themselves and turn out a substandard work.

Granted, there’s place under the sun for loads of different novels, be it easy-reading animal stories to fairytale romance or eloquent litfic. Thank fuck it’s not a cookie cutter process. And readers have vastly different tastes.

But there are some stories that can only become better if an author is willing to put the work through the crucible; be honest about why your precious words suck.

This week marks my return to The Jackal, my post-Z m/m thriller. I have thrown away a second draft (yes, this is actually the second R&R for this story) and I’m starting fresh. I am scared and thrilled and dying to get started, and you know what? I’m looking at it this way. None of those 95k-odd words of the second version were wasted, because I’ve laid the groundwork for a compelling setting filled with diverse characters.

And there were some very odd words there.

Except now I can zoom out and focus on how I can make the story and the characterisation so much more powerful. And hey, maybe even play with deepening themes.

So, thank you to the wicked editor out there who wasn’t afraid to tell me where The Jackal is broken. I’m going in with scalpel blades, and even if this ends up being an out-and-out rejection eventually, for whatever reason, I’ll have learnt something from the process and had an amazing time playing in that world.

I am not precious about my words anymore. That is all.

Dawn's Bright Talons is going to be available in print within the next week or so. If you know not of what I speak, then get your posterior over to the Goodreads page and go have squizz.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

War Stories: New Military Science Fiction with Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

I like Twitter. A lot. I've made some really schweet connections via social media, and running into editor Andrew Liptak via Twitter when he was finalising the War Stories: New Military Science Fiction anthology with co-editor Jaym Gates was one of those strokes of good fortune. Andrew and I chatted a bit, I turned the idea over of writing military SF with my own spin on it... And I figured out my story, "Only the Void and the Stars Between". I was, of course, totally stoked when they offered.

So, to share in the happiness and bubbles of the recent release of this fabulous collection of short fiction, I've invited Andrew and Jaym over for a little Q&A to look a little deeper into what went into this book.

Welcome, Andrew and Jaym!

What is it that you love the most about the military SF genre? Understandably it's quite a specialised niche in the genre, so what were some of the characteristics you were looking for in the stories that you selected for inclusion?

Andrew: I've been drawn to it for years because I've been fascinated by military history for a long time. I don't mean that in a way that I'm necessarily pro or anti war: it's a human behavior that's reprehensible, but sometimes necessary. Military SF is sort of the same thing: it's an interesting way to examine the morality of conflict.

What I personally enjoy is the idea of people making decisions while caught up in these major conflicts, and where we get to see how technology aids or hinders us, and how often, the role of the soldier's story changes very little from war to war (historically and in fiction.)

Jaym: I love the sort of pressure cooker of any fiction dealing with large-scale conflict. There are so many elements that most people either don't know, or don't stop to consider, and so we were aiming to bring some of those to light.

You've also aimed for diversity in the anthology. Can you give us a few examples of some of the contrasting stories and focuses? 

Andrew: Well, we wanted to explore some of the non-US voices here, because conflict appears throughout the world, and people approach it differently. One great example was Rich Larson's story, "Ghost Girl", which blends some elements from Africa with a style of warfare that really doesn't mesh with how we see it in the US. Here, I really got the sense that we have a historical background that the US doesn't share, which I found fascinating to read.

Jaym: One of the things I love most about this collection is that we have several stories that probably wouldn't count as military science fiction by normal standards. Thoraiya Dyer's story is about two female snipers – both with very distinct goals and drives – and the political and social currents surrounding them in a far-future Beirut. Mark Jacobsen's main character is a woman who used peaceful means to protest war, and, after her son is killed by the occupying forces, she uses that peaceful activism to draw attention to their plight in a very vivid, horrifying way. Ken Liu's main character struggles with the ethics of war – is it better to sacrifice one, or risk losing many?

At the same time, we have James Sutter and Maurice Broaddus with full-on combat stories, and Janine Spendlove's heartbreaking look at what rescue pilots have to deal with. Taken as a whole, I think we were able to bring together a very cohesive – if necessarily quick – look at the issues that are so very relevant today.

What are some of the challenges contemporary authors face in the SF genre – especially in the face of so many changes in technology? (There is always a fear, in my opinion, that writing can date easily.)

Andrew: Specifically with military SF, it's trying to imagine how war will happen with contemporary blinders. Starship Troopers is a Korean War novel. The Forever War is a Vietnam novel. Embedded is an Afghanistan war novel, and so on. The trick to imagining future war is to understand that it'll be completely different from any past experiences we've had with war – all the while, soldiers caught up in it hold the same role as they have for thousands of years.

Jaym: We've been working on this for just about 2 years now, and in that time, there have been tremendous leaps. Several of our stories have been requested by governmental, private, and corporate interests for use in dealing with current and extremely near-future military concerns. In ten years, we may be in a society where those stories are absolutely obsolete – something that SF frequently struggles with.

However, I don't believe that all work should always be completely technologically relevant for all of the future. Sometimes it's enough for a story to be highly relevant for a year, if it changes technology or society in an important way.

And, to be honest, it is bloody terrifying to think that we've published stories that are are being used in considerations potentially involving the life and death of other people. When you're writing, be very mindful that fiction can be absolutely transformative, for good or ill, so consider your words!

For those who're planning on writing SF for the first time, what sort of tropes do you feel they should be aware of (and avoid)? What are some of the tropes that you see the most often, and what would you like to see more of?

Andrew: Again, with military SF, I think that the big trope to be aware of is how war is seen from other sides – it's predominantly seen as a sort of conquest or colonization mechanism, and a certain enthusiasm or unawareness of this comes across as championing such actions. It's also good to realize that military SF (or military actions in general) aren't inherently a liberal or conservative issue.

Jaym: PTSD is a huge one. Veterans get treated badly by media as a general rule. PTSD is portrayed as an aggressive, violent, reactionary mental illness, when it is more likely to cause extreme depression and introversion. The stigma of PTSD damages the support and recovery of people who are already fighting an uphill battle.

The glory of combat is another. It's not glorious to go to war. It's awful. And even if you make it through unscathed, you've lived with a certain stress and uncertainty that changes your perspective a great deal.

Purchase War Stories on Amazon, Kobo or Nook

Thursday, October 9, 2014

This Day with Tiah Beautement

I recently had the opportunity to have a sneak preview of Tiah Beautement's novel, This Day, before its launch at Open Book here in Cape Town, and while it's not my usual fodder when it comes to literary tastes, I was nonetheless immersed in the story. Of course I had to have her over to chat about her novel, and some of its imagery. So, a big welcome to Tiah!

What struck me about the story was the authenticity of your voice, and the sensitivity when approaching the topic of a child's accidental death, as well as depression. Care to elaborate? 

I listen to people. I’m terrible with names, but I’ll remember certain aspects of a person: foods they dislike, if they have pets, what makes them laugh, what drives them bonkers. I hear what they thought and felt. Science can tell you facts and theories backed up with research. That’s useful for writing, too. But to understand opinions and emotion, one has to listen to why people feel they way they do. Debating why a person prefers the yellow necklace over the blue one, is rediculous, unless they are forcing you to wear it. Listen to why that person likes yellow, even if you do not. I don’t believe in taking over a peron’s personal experience for my work. That story is their own. However, when I’m getting into a new character’s head, the thoughts and feelings are traced to having emapthy of the tales that naturally are told through living life.

Which means my own life, too, contributes towards the narrative. Depression runs in my family and has afflicted more than one member. I have also found myself grappling more than once with it. These experiences are not This Day, but they did feed into it.

In dealing with her husband's depression, as well as her own grief, Ella has become isolated. Would you say that she's in a way responsible for her own loneliness, or is she in her own way not coping with the situation?

Ella’s story highlights a tendency in this modern age to demand that those who struggle have an obligation to put on a brave face for the benefit of us, for society. It is, somehow, unsporting to still be not cured of an illness, still be grieving for a lost loved one, still be struggling to sleep after a horrific event. If, after some societally proscribed time, a person fails to plaster on a big smile and report that she is fine – just be positive – she will be shunned. There will be whispers of how she is just not coping well, whilst she is quietly overlooked on the guest list for the next braai. ‘She’s such a downer.’

This allergic reaction to life’s realities – that aspects of living stink – further isolate the very people who need help. It is as if we – the collective we – are afraid we might catch the so-called bad luck.

The theme of water runs throughout the story: both life-giving, a vast, hostile environment, and deadly. What are your own feelings in regard to this?

My fascination with water started as a child, both the science of it (thanks grandpa!) and the joy. I grew up in a small sea-side town of about 3 000 people, and oh, how I loved playing in the icy-cold Pacific. But living in an area known for sneaker waves, undertow and a treacherous bar (where boats cross from the river into the open sea) there was respect for water’s power. And when somebody dies in a small town, there is a personal connection. You might not be acquainted yourself, but you’ll know a person who was friends with the deceased.

But in the case of This Day, the theme of water can mostly be blamed on what was occurring while I tried to write the book. Mossel Bay had only recently emerged from a drought when my health started its rocky slide. I went from being hyperaware of saving every drop – quick showers, no baths! – to doing physiotherapy in a pool most days of the week. Water was a key part in my being able to physically finish the story, and I was using it lavishly.

Can you share some of your own experiences in the creative process behind This Day?

Misery loves company? The story was written during a very challenging part of my life. I was in a lot of pain and losing functionality. For a while, nobody knew what was wrong with me. Life is so interesting, and I’ve embraced many activities and hobbies. So! Much! To! Do! But it became clear that I needed to make choices.  Doors were shutting fast. What did I really want to do with my smaller world? I wanted to be there for my children. I wanted to write. Yet the stories I had wanted to write didn’t no longer appealed. I manage much better these days, but during the time I wrote This Day, every word was accompanied by hurt. That kind of pain…you become selfish. Focused. What sort of story is worth this much shit? Ella is everything I envied – financial independence and brilliant health – and I made her life stink. Then I cheered for her, word by word, as she picked herself up and tried again.

The story itself is open-ended, as all life situations are. Ella realises that she can only live day by day, according to the tides of life. The acceptance of her innate loneliness is perhaps the most heart-wrenching – that she can't get her son (and husband) back. This picture is perhaps bleak, but can you share some of your own thoughts with regard to this?

I adore Ella and Bart. I got them through another day. The rest? I have hope, but tempered. The Bart-from-before will never be again. But that’s as it should be – because the Ella-from-before is gone, too. People evolve, even while seemingly staying the same. This is also true of storytelling.

For those that can’t find This Day at their local book store, it can be bought online via Kalahari, Loot, Exclus!ves or contact Modjaji directly. Coming soon is Amazon (paper and Kindle) and other ebook formats.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen #review #horror

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen

My first encounter with Arthur Machen’s writing was in a (now) quaint selection of classic horror, and from my meanderings in the interwebz, his name just keeps cropping up. He’s considered one of the grandpappies of authentically modern horror, and knowing what I do about HP Lovecraft, it’s clear Machen had a huge influence on the man.

Those who’re into their esoteric vibe will also recognise Machen in connection to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn courtesy of AE Waite – the two were buddies. Also, the Great Beast himself was quite the fan of Machen, among others. (Though apparently Machen didn’t think much of Mr Crowley.)

Since I’m on a trip of digging deeper into the source material for so much of our modern genre fiction, Machen has been top of my TBR list for a while now, and I’m really glad that I’ve finally had the opportunity to read The Great God Pan.

For those of you not in the know, Project Gutenberg is a valuable resource as a digital library, and this is where you can go pick up your copy of The Great God Pan for free. If you’re feeling especially benevolent, do consider donating to this worthy organisation that strives to keep public domain works available.

The Great God Pan is a novella that has been described as fitting into the decadent horror genre of the late 1800s, and there’s quite a bit going on here. First off, Machen’s love of the natural world and its beauty shines through the prose. His descriptions are vivid – deft without being heavy handed. Also to consider is the theme of the content which in present times might be construed as being misogynistic. One must bear in mind that a story shouldn’t be judged through a contemporary lens, especially if one considers that the concept of a sexually liberated woman during the Victorian era could only have been viewed quite literally as the Devil’s handmaiden by many.

The underlying theme is clear: Man cannot comprehend the full magnificence that is nature, and to do so will drive him completely mad. In the novella, three men are left to untangle the threads of a mystery when scientific experiment goes wrong. An enigmatic young woman is taken advantage of by a doctor, and this cruel procedure gives rise to a great force that enthrals men and leads them to suicidal despair.

An alchemy of spirit made flesh takes place, for which our rational Victorian gentlemen are ill prepared. Machen touches on the concept of divinely inspired ecstasy at the heart of ancient pagan practices long forgotten – and our inability in modern times to come to terms with these primal aspects of our natures.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks #review

Title: Wolf Tickets
Author: Ray Banks
Publisher: Blasted Heath, 2012

From time to time I make a foray into a genre I don’t ordinarily dip into, and this is one of those occasions. Wolf Tickets is a short, fast read wherein we get to know two real lowlives and, as the book’s description suggests – all-round scoundrels.

Sean Farrell is not the sort of guy you’d invite over for tea. His steel-capped boots are often put to use for their intended purpose. When his girlfriend runs off with his money and his favourite jacket, he’s pissed off and bent on getting his stuff back.

Cobb, on the other hand, seems well satisfied with his dingy life. Ex-army, he’s ill-suited to civilian life and indeed any form of legal occupation, and he prefers to spend his days drinking and shoplifting.

From the outset, these two don’t seem like the type that’d even get on, but they’ve got a history together and they’re tight, despite not having seen each other for years. Neither is all that successful in their criminal lifestyle but there’s a kind of disturbing charm in how they go about trying to find the missing Nora who’s got the money.

The setting Ray Banks dumps us into is the seamy underbelly of the UK, and I can safely say that there is not a single likeable character in this story. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the ride.

Wolf Tickets is violent and bloody. Things get ugly, very quickly, yet there is an undercurrent of dark, dark humour in how Farrell and Cobb interact with each other and other folks who cross their path.

I don’t have much to compare this with except for the type of stories presented by Irvine Welsh. Only I find myself liking Banks a helluva lot more than Welsh.

Using broad brush strokes, Banks paints a suitably grimy, vivid and awful world, and I could easily visualise the people and places – and suspect this story would make a most excellent film too.

There you have it – my opinion. I’m not au fait with noir as a genre on a whole, but really enjoyed this little excursion.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Burning ... with Joan De La Haye

This isn't Joan De La Haye's first time here, and it's most certainly not her last. She's a fellow South African author who's been around for a while now, and is known most notably for her horror. Today she's subjecting herself to a little Q&A here at my spot, as we look at her latest release, Burning. Welcome, Joan!

Firstly, I love the cover. Did you have a hand in its design? Can you share a little bit about what choices went into its creation? 

Thanks! I also love the cover. It was designed by Dave Johnson, who also did the cover for Shadows. Dave is one of those artists who actually reads the book first and then comes up with a few concepts that Adele Wearing, my publisher, and I get to choose from. He gives us loads of different options and all of them tend to be amazing, which makes choosing incredibly difficult. If Adele and I have trouble making a decision we get him to wade into the conversation. His input always seems to make perfect sense and makes the decision process somewhat easier. But what is great, is that I get to make the final pick.

With Burning we’d whittled it down to two choices. The one with the tarot card - the lovers, which was the final cover. The other had a ceremonial dagger and was far darker. In the end we all felt that the burning tarot card was just more representative of the book and the story.
I think we made the right choice. It’s a stunning image and makes for a wonderful cover.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your witches operate? What do you love about writing witches? 

What’s not to love about witches? Witches are awesome and under-utilised in horror fiction. The witches in my story are not the all-powerful ones you often see in fiction. These are your run-of-the-mill kitchen witches and wicca practitioners who dabble with forces they can’t control and get their fingers burnt, quite literally.

Who is Marcie Grove? Was she always a witch? Is this something she had to have a talent for?

Marcie Grove is a nurse and a witch searching for more profound magical experience. She wants to experience true power and goes looking for it within the pages of an old magical text. She’s also lonely and horny which, let’s face it, often leads to very bad decisions. She wasn’t always a witch; she found wicca and witchcraft later in her life. She’s not a powerful magical being. She isn’t supernatural in any shape of form. She’s just a normal woman dabbling with magic.

Were there any scenes that were particularly tricky to write? 

Yes! The sex scenes. I always find sex scenes difficult to write. I never know how graphic to go or where to gloss over things. I also think finding a balance with sex scenes is difficult. You don’t want it just to be a blow-by-blow description or one of those badly written sex scenes where you can see that the author was uncomfortable writing it, or one of those overly romanticised sex scenes which make you want to throw up just a little bit.

What are some of the underlying themes in your story? 

I think the themes at the heart of the story are sexuality, obsession, and addiction.

The coven surrounded the altar. The flames from the tiki torches flickered in the breeze. The circle had been cast and the quarters called. Ghosts began to gather at the edge of the circle. Sandra's Shaman with dreadlocks down his back stood beside Raven, who held the ancient tomb open at the requisite ritual. Marianne, the midwife, stood in front of Marcie, holding her knees apart. Greg stood next to the altar holding Marcie’s hand while another contraction wrenched her insides. A scream erupted from her core. It was all wrong. This was not how her vision had looked. The Shaman had not been there and Greg had been outside the circle. Marianne had not been there to help her give birth. It was all terribly wrong.
What if it wasn’t all wrong? A voice at the back of her mind penetrated through the pain. What if this was how it was supposed to be? What if the vision was just one alternative future she had seen? What if this was right? What if this was the only way she and the baby would survive? Hope flooded through her. She grabbed onto the feeling with both hands. It was like nectar to a person dying of thirst in the desert. But the feeling of hope dwindled with another contraction that made her feel as though her body was splitting in two.
Blood flooded the altar.

Author Bio:
Joan De La Haye writes horror and some very twisted thrillers. She invariably wakes up in the middle of the night, because she’s figured out yet another freaky

way to mess with her already screwed up characters.
Joan is interested in some seriously weird stuff. That’s probably also one of the reasons she writes horror.
Joan is deep, dark and seriously twisted and so is her writing.

Buy Burning on Amazon Kindle and Amazon print.