Being Different

I’ve always felt out-of-step, different. I never quite fit in, never quite feel at home.

This is not an uncommon feeling among writers or among those who read science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it’s not uncommon in general.

Maybe nobody fits in, when you get down to it.

Though I have to say, thinking back to high school, that some people always seemed to be very comfortable with the way things were.

They were striving to be homecoming queen, not questioning whether homecoming queen was an important thing to be.

I should note that my difference wasn’t obvious on the surface. I’m a Texas Anglo, with roots going back to before Texas became a state. Most Anglo Texans who share that kind of ancestry look a lot like me. And I can still talk Texan when I need to.

Some of my difference was defined by politics. I went to a segregated high school in a small Texas town where they taught us — in the 1960s — that the Civil War was fought between us and them.

My parents held liberal views. They deplored racial segregation and Jim Crow, had Black and Mexican-American friends, voted for the most liberal candidates they could find, all that despite being descended from people who fought for the Confederacy.

Some of it was that I never felt comfortable in the limited roles available for women. I was never good at girly stuff.

My mother was a journalist who kept working even after the men came back from World War II. And my father was a big fan of strong women.

Some of it was religion. I was brought up Episcopalian in a town founded by conservative Quakers and also influenced by Southern Baptists. The local schools refused to hold dances, so we held them in the Episcopal Church.

Because of my family, I learned to navigate in a racist, misogynist, fundamentalist religion-centric world without losing my values. That is, I learned how to be different and still fit in when I needed to.

It wasn’t always easy, but I didn’t realize until fairly recently the amount of privilege I had from being white and Christian with deep Texas roots. My high school dating life was pretty much non-existent, but nobody was going to call the cops on me even though I was loud and outspoken.

I had room to be different and I’m glad of it. Continue reading “Being Different”

Ugly Baby

This post was written several years ago and published elsewhere.

A book is like a child: grubby, ill-behaved, beautiful, beloved.  Often all those things at the same time.  You finish a book and send it off into the world with the fervent hope that strangers will be kind.  Editors will not only recognize your baby’s beauty and charm, but will see past that unfortunate haircut and the scabs on her knees, and will want to teach it manners and perhaps pay for the braces and ballet lessons that will allow your child to be as loved by The World as she is by her parents.

Sick of this metaphor yet?  The thing is, even the best parent artist has blind spots.  For that reason, you rely on editors.  And art directors.  And book designers and proof-readers and on and on.  But even those folks can get, um, blinded by their own involvement.  The result can be a bad edit, a horrible cover, a well-intentioned marketing effort that appears to be aimed at an audience from Mars. Continue reading “Ugly Baby”

How to avoid Gillian at Chicon – a guide to prevent perplexity

Normal life is slowly (maybe) returning, for quite different grades of normal to those any of us expected. I may never be able to attend a big crowded event again. Fortunately, this means that it’s very easy to avoid me at events. You can go where I cannot. You can get a cuppa while attending virtually. You can train your computer system to obliterate me while listening and enjoying all other panellists, speakers. I admit, I have not worked out how to do this latter, but there must be an app for it, somewhere.

Worldcon is coming. In Chicago, where I cannot go, due to COVID. Also on our computers, where I am definitely going and where I am on the program and… you need to know how to avoid me.

I’ll do a new post when the final, final program is announced (this week sometime, I believe) but you need an interim post, because this coming week is not full of time for posts. I would like to return to warning people of my incipient presence somewhere. How can you know how to avoid me if you don’t know where I am?

This is most of my program. I think avoiding me will be fun this time round, a computer-assisted minuet.

The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad
I agree with the title, but not with the reason for it. Of course you should avoid me. I will make waves. Grumpy waves. I’m a middle-aged Medievalist, so any waves I make are grumpy and my time to make that joke is almost over, which makes me grumpier. In the context, I might even make my toilet joke. I want to say “my notorious toilet joke” but that would be giving it too much credit. Find a gizmo that hides my face and reduces my voice to nothing, and enjoy the panel. The other panellists are definitely worth hearing.
Virtual Jewish Fan Gathering
I’m co-hosting a fan gathering. I don’t know if I’m the non-American Jew in this, or the Orthodox, or…
I’m Modern Australian Orthodox, for those who wonder why I don’t act like a Chassid. I am not Chassidic, my childhood was religious, but also full of science.
If you want to come to this gathering and make me invisible without even letting me know who you are, find someone who has read The Green Children Help Out or The Wizardry of Jewish Women or The Time of the Ghosts (the novels with the highest Jewish content). Ask them to chat with me (chat function FTW!) about my writing. I will immerse myself in the world of Jewish superheroes or the world of Jewish fairies and everyone else will have a fine time.
Virtual Table Talk – Gillian Polack
This is a simple “Avoid Gillian” one. Don’t come. I can talk to myself about fairy tale retellings, the Middle Ages (France and England especially), enthohistory, my fiction, Jewishness in fiction, my research, cultural brickwork, my fiction-to-appear-in-print-soon, my world developing, Australia, new kitchens and more.
Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays
My suggestion for this panel is that you reclaim it through Alternate Gillians. It’s too good to miss, otherwise. How does one create an Alternate Gillian? Whenever I say something, you, twist what I say until it makes you laugh aloud. For instance, if I say, “My background for this panel lies in historiography adulterated with ethnohistory” you replace the ‘historiography’; with ‘haemophilia’ and in your mind make that part of an explanation for our world where vampires died out through developing haemophilia more acutely than any human can.
Your reward is the other panellists, and I become your fiction for the day.
Australian Speculative Fiction
Two perfectly excellent Australian writers (both award-winning, I believe)… and me. The approach I suggested for Reclaiming History would also work for this. Replace ‘Australian’ with ‘Aslanian’ and turn my comments into analysis of Narnia. If I talk about lost civilisations (I am prone to this) then invent your own. If I talk about German academics and their interest in Australian SFF, then take yourself to a university website and read the blog about Australian SFF whenever I speak.
Virtual Reading – Gillian Polack
This is another skip-by-not-attending one. I’m tossing up between reading from my Other Covenants story and my next novel. If you skip it, you don’t have to find out if my coin landed on heads, tails, or spun so strangely I had to read a bit from each.
Fairy Tales and Folklore in Urban Fantasy
You don’t want to miss this panel. One reason (just one, of the several) is Frances Hardynge. She’s one of the best fairytale/folklore using writers around, worldwide. I should know – this is one of my academic interests. And the other two panelists are also worth many detours to hear. Many. You’ll have to be creative then, in avoiding me. Stick a picture of a malevolent fairy over my bit of your computer screen. Hear my voice as the garbled sound heard through a mound, with no fairy door to provide clarity. You’ll be fine.
The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction
Use your avoidance of me in this panel to create the perfect dinner party. Invite all the best people (the remainder of the panel, for instance, because they’re worth meeting as well as listening to) and use all the foodstuffs I can’t eat. Fish and pork, seafood and nuts. If you feel vindictive, let me know the menu and invite me to enjoy it. That’ll help you get even with me for being on this otherwise-wonderful panel and making you miss some of it.
Or you could ask me to describe the making of portable soup and use those minutes to take a refreshing nap.

Good and Bad Books

I’ve been following (via Twitter) some of the testimony in the antitrust case the US Department of Justice brought against the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

I confess I haven’t followed it in detail because (a) I’m opposed to mergers of big publishing houses (and other large corporations) in general, so I don’t need to read much about it to know what I think, and (b) I know enough about antitrust law to know it’s painful to read about even though it’s important.

I may go back and catch up, though, just to get a feeling for how well DOJ is doing. Over the years US antitrust enforcement has become very weak, so even though it’s pretty clear that these companies shouldn’t merge, it’s by no means certain that they’ll be stopped.

Even if I catch up, though, I’m not going to write about antitrust issues, because I only do that if someone is paying me big bucks. (I used to have to edit antitrust class action stories in my day job and let me tell you, I earned my money and then some those days.)

One thing that really got me from reading Twitter was the realization that lumping writers together as one category makes almost no sense.

I think there are three things that most writers have in common:

  1. They want to write.
  2. They want to be read.
  3. They want to get paid.

There are exceptions even to those three categories, but those three things are true of most of us.

But when it comes to what we want to write and even what we’re willing to write to make money, writers are arranged along a long spectrum.

There is a world of difference between a journalist who writes best-selling self help books and someone writing, say, experimental fiction. Continue reading “Good and Bad Books”

Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice

Dear Auntie Deborah…


I wrote a story using another person’s characters, even though they said not to. Can I publish it since their book isn’t copyrighted?

If the author has published their story in any form, it’s copyrighted. That, however, is beside the point. It’s just plain unethical to do what you suggest. It’s a great way to make enemies in your genre and create a horrible reputation that will haunt your career, assuming you still have one after such a bonehead move.

Create your own characters. Write your own stories. Treat your colleagues and their work the way you would like to be treated. Pursue your career with integrity and generosity.

 

Are self-published books inferior to professionally published books?

It all depends.

Not that long ago, self-published or vanity press books were assumed to be of inferior quality, that is to say, unpublishable by “real” (traditional) publishers. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom.

Today, however, many self-published books go through the same rigorous editing and quality standards as traditionally published books. Some genres, like romance, are especially friendly toward self-pubbed projects.

With modern publishing technology (ebooks, POD printing), there are many reasons why a pro-level author might want to self-publish, including:

  • Niche projects, like memoirs or family histories.
  • Series that were dropped by trad publishers but that have an enthusiastic fan following.
  • Well-written books that don’t fit into the NY “best-seller” model.
  • OP (out-of-print, rights reverted to author) backlist.
  • Great books that straddle genres or otherwise confuse traditional marketing/sales departments.

That said, many self-published books are dreadful. They aren’t good enough to attract the interest of an agent or publisher to begin with, they aren’t professionally edited or proofread, the covers are amateurish, and so on. The challenge for the reader is to sort out those books that are truly a wonderful reading experience.

Does reaching a certain number of reviews increase your indie sales?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Theories abound, usually to line the pockets of the “experts.” “Gaming” the Amazon system is a losing proposition. What might have been true 2 years or 6 months or last week no longer works — because thousands of self-published authors have tried it, thereby flooding the system with meaningless tweaks.

If you want to increase your sales, write a great book. Publicize it. Get stellar reviews on Publishers Weekly and the like. Write an even better book. Rinse and repeat. Even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, but you’ll have the satisfaction of writing really good books.

My first attempt at a novel is a New Adult Romance novel using the Three Act Structure and I’m floundering. Help!

I’ve been writing professionally for over 35 years and this is what works for me: I noodle around until the story catches fire. Then I have some idea of: the hook, one or two plot points/reversals, the big climax, and the emotional tone of the ending. Sometimes I fall in love with the characters and they run away with the story. If I’m selling on proposal, I use that much to generate a synopsis. If it’s on-spec, I dive in. As long as I feel as if I’m flying or surfing the story, I keep on. I use things like structural analysis only if I feel stuck.

The thing is, and always has been for me (12+ trad pub novels, 60+ short stories, plus collections and non-fic), I go where the creative joy is. Anything else is a boring slog.

All this said, I write fantasy and science fiction, where fluid structures are appreciated. Romance is much more formulaic. Consider that your muse might be leading you to write a love story, not a by-the-numbers romance. Always, always listen to your heart. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice”

Interesting times again

I’m late today. I’m so late today that it’s lunchtime tomorrow in my part of Australia.

My excuse is a very interesting 24 hours. How can so many things go wrong in that time? I shall save you from a list, but the most visually dramatic was when I shattered half a dozen glasses, a small stack of bowls, and maybe a couple of other things. The count is approximate, because dealing with a lounge room full of shattered glass was more important than seeing what was left. Only two things I really cared about are gone. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this post is short because I still have to pick up pieces from most of the things that went wrong. I’ve sorted two, and the glass is almost cleared into a bag, waiting for someone to help me farewell it. The rubbish bins in my block of flats are not made for someone with my particular incapacities. At times like this, I feel aggrieved about it!

I will read something to improve my day, but it won’t be a calming book. I am re-reading Peadar Ó Guilín’s duology (The Call, The Invasion). They’re such good books that I would re-read them even if it wasn’t work-related. I’m in the happy position that doing a close re-read will advance my research and remind me that the last 24 hours has been interesting, but is nothing on children being kidnapped by otherworldly beings and, if they survive, returning… changed. Nothing like apocalyptic YA books for reminding me that life is really not that bad.

Information Overload

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
― Carl Sagan

A lot of writers I know do research, by which they mean (I think they mean) they have an idea for their book or story and go look for materials relevant to that.

I do some of that when I need to make sure my story isn’t full of howlers.

But my own actual research forays when I’m writing fiction are pretty specific: Do I have that date right? Is there any science that supports this flight of fancy? I generally do this after I’ve started writing and found something I need to know more about.

I get the impression that a lot of novelists I know go down much deeper rabbit holes doing this kind of research than I do.

I do get obsessed with subjects or with author, but this obsession is rarely related to research for a particular story or book. It has to do more with coming across an idea or an approach that strikes me as fascinating, regardless of whether I have any practical use for it.

Most of the time, I read widely (or as I put it in a recent senryu, wildly) because I’m interested in an immense variety of things, including things I don’t know interest me until I stumble across them.

My biggest FOMO is of not discovering something I want to know about. Carl Sagan put it more elegantly in the quote at the beginning of this post.

But I also read widely/wildly because this is the backbone of my writing. I don’t know in advance what I need to know.

Continue reading “Information Overload”

Critical I

Once I got reading under my belt, I couldn’t do enough of it–books, stories, cereal boxes, comic books. I gobbled up story like I was starving for it, initially uncritically, but fairly soon starting to think about why stories worked/didn’t work for me. In this I had a partner: my brother Clem. He and I amassed a comic book collection of perhaps 2000 well-worn, repeatedly read comics–most, but not all of them DC (the home of Superman and Batman). Clem and I haunted the smoke shop at the corner, where the new comics came in every… I think it was Tuesday… and conspired over which one of us would buy which. We took them home and read the them and then we talked over them. Clem, a far better artist than I will ever be, led the way in discussing the art. One of our favorite riding-on-the-subway games was to identify people who looked like they were drawn by specific artists. Continue reading “Critical I”

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.