Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions

It’s been an exciting couple of months. Back in mid-August, Auntie Deborah and her household fled from the wildfires descending upon their small California town. After a month staying first with friends and then in a hotel, she and her people and all four cats returned home to a herculean clean-up job. Actually, the cats did not contribute, except in a profusion of shed fur. Order and cleanliness are gradually emerging, along with a return to writing her own work and advising younger writers.
~~~~
Dear Auntie Deborah,
How can a literary agent tell from the first ten pages whether they want to represent a book?

Auntie Deborah: Most agents can tell from the first paragraph if they want to continue reading. Agents have read thousands of manuscripts by the time they’re in the pro league and they, like magazine editors who plough through mountains of slush, can spot right away if the author has the command of fictional techniques and language that are the bare minimum for a publishable story. It doesn’t matter what comes after that first paragraph if the author has failed to engage and intrigue, with every indication that if the reader places themself in the author’s hands, as it were, the experience will be reliably satisfying.
Dear Auntie Deborah,
Is it okay to write when I’m upset and not feeling like myself, or should I wait until I’ve calmed down?
Auntie Deborah: What makes you think that when you are “emotional, upset, or worried” you are not yourself? Passion is as much a part of writing as intellect. Let it all out on paper! Give yourself something intense and uncensored to then revise and mine for purest gold.

I am now revising a novel I drafted while caring for my best friend in the final weeks of her life. At the time, it was pure escape, a place to put all my strongest, most painful emotions. Only afterward did I see the amazing heart of the piece. It’s required several rounds of being taken apart and put back together the way fiction needs to be structured. This last round follows a long discussion with my agent, who is very excited about it. (As a note, I’ve been publishing fiction for over 35 years, with 15 novels and umpteen short stories, so I have experience with this <g>)

Dear Auntie Deborah:
Why do people advise me not to address an editor as “Dear Sir”?

Auntie Deborah: I strongly advise you not to address an editor as “sir.” The primary reason is the likelihood that the editor is a woman. In 2016, 78% of editors were women. (All 3 editors at my publisher are women.) Do you want to begin your letter with the assumption that an editor must be male?

Instead, say, “Dear editor.” Better yet, address your letter to the specific editor to whom you are submitting. (“Dear Ms. Jones” — not Miss or Mrs!) You should know this as part of researching your markets. Some publishers have a first or slush reader, usually anonymous, in which case, “Dear editor” or “Dear publisher” would be fine.

 

Dear Auntie Deborah,
What do I do when my main character simply won’t fit the scenario of the plot?

Auntie Deborah: You have a choice: let the character tell their authentic story, or promise to do that in order to keep the character quiet and happy, and stick another, more appropriate character in the current story. The fact that your character is talking back to you is an excellent sign, by the way. I’d go with that. You might discover you are an author who prefers character-driven stories, and this is a great place to start. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions”

How Not to Win an Award

Each month, I ask my patrons what they’d like for their new essay. They vote. This month the vote was split, and I chose the one I wanted to write about, because no-one was asking me and I had stories to tell. You’ve seen the announcement here – that I won a prize for one of my novels. A not-unimportant prize. It struck me as odd that only my patrons want to know why I wrote this novel. Or maybe the oddness is that people are curious, but have not asked. Either way, I wrote that essay and it will go out tomorrow or Thursday.

The story of the novel may be cool, but I thought you’d like the story of what happened on the night of the award ceremony. It was the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting year.

The Ditmars are the Australian equivalent of the Hugos – awards for writing and art and criticism and more voted by SF fans. My novel was one of the finalists for best novel. I assumed I wasn’t going to win because I could see no reason why I should. I was fully expecting Eugen Bacon to win, in fact, so I didn’t worry too much about the award itself. My brain pushed all deep thought and lists of debts owed to the side, although I did wonder when the announcement would be made.

I only heard about the award ceremony three hours before, and that was a form invitation that all the finalists received. It was already Rosh Hashanah. My New Year.

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t even have kept the computer on. Work was out of the question and for me, that award ceremony was work. It took me a while to puzzle this out. I did it on Facebook with many contributions from friends. I discovered then that a lot of people go to award ceremonies for fun. I don’t. I love it when people I care for get recognition, but I find the ceremonies themselves hard work. Speaking to a big audience about a topic I love, however, that’s fun.

I finally puzzled my way through the whole problem, sent an email to my publisher, and sent an apology to the organisers. The only reason it took me that long was that I was dealing with medical issues all that week. I had to decide through a haze and it was not comfortable physically or emotionally. My mother was happy with my decision, which was the big thing. I couldn’t tell her about it until afterwards, however. Three hours is not a long time.

When the three hours were nearly up, I was spending my new year with two of my close friends. Yaritji Green, in the middle of our chat, asked me if I knew someone and I told her they were on the Ditmar committee. I asked her if that meant she was at the online ceremony. Not only was Yaritji at the online ceremony, but she was willing to stand in for me if needed. 

She asked me for some dot points, in case. I didn’t take the need seriously, for that whole day had turned improbable three hours before. I told her “This was an impossible work and the award is in an impossible year and it’s impossible for Gillian to be here cos it’s Rosh Hashanah.” I tried to think about it more but, “I have heaps of things I would say, but I can’t think of them tonight. My brain is outside work zone.”

She asked me about the nomination and I explained, “I had my heart stuff then wrote that novel the following October/November, BTW, so it’s very appropriate that you’re (as a doctor) my sub.” (I’ve cleaned up the impossible typing – everything looked impossible at that moment.) “I cogitated on the conditions for the novel for 20 days in hospital, then while I was recovering, then when I found myself with no paid work because the uni was leading up to sacking me and then splurged and I wrote it very quickly. You don’t need to say any of this – I’m just remembering that this was the first time I sorted out HOW to turn garbage into fertiliser. Fruitcake was the first flower in my new garden.”

My mind didn’t have much time to dwell on the irony in what I’d explained to Yaritji. In fact, the moment I finished typing it, I sent it and two words arrived from Yaritji.

You won,” she typed.

She had been speaking on my behalf while I was trying to get my mind around why it was impossible to think lucidly about this novel. My immediate reaction to “You won” was “Wait…what!!!” Yaritji knows me very well and sent me a picture of her computer, with the announcement writ large on the screen.

That’s the end.That’s how it happened. I suspect I won’t believe I actually won until I see a trophy.

 

Living in small spaces during big times

Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…

I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.

I break iso once every six weeks, on average.

Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.

I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.

I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.

That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.

I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.

Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.

I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.

My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.

I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)

I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.

My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.

Making fertiliser

The other day I noticed that I wasn’t the only person who was tired. We’re all emotionally exhausted. If life were the same as it usually is, this is when we’d take time off and maybe even go on holiday.

I wrote those sentences then my thoughts led me into talking about how holidays are affected even for those who can still take them and I realised… one of the reasons we’re so tired is because there’s no escape form the pandemic. I’m in iso. As long as I am in iso, I’m safe. It should be simple, really. I should be shut off from the emotional fatigue. But it isn’t. And I’m not.

This is the moment I need to call forth my promise to myself.

Life has been challenging for me for a few years now, and I told myself that if I was going to continue to have garbage thrown at me, I was going to turn it into fertiliser and grow the best garden. When I remember this, the exhaustion takes a step back. Let me make some fertiliser right now.

I like lists of ten, so I’m going to list ten things that make life that much easier when one is Gillian in a pandemic.

1. Soft material. I use an amazingly soft blanket to snuggle in, and every time I do this I fight the long time alone.

2. Basic dance exercise. Keeps my body capable, even when I can’t go outside for weeks on end and things hurt. Also means I can fling my arms around flambuoyantly.

3. Chocolate. I don’t need to explain chocolate.

4. Other peoples’ stories. Books and TV and streaming services – when things get too much I can dig a hole in someone else’s world and only emerge when I want to. I choose to call this fairy tale groundhogging, for I found a Cinderella film last night and it took me right back to the days when there were solutions to problems. Now… not so many solutions, but I’m still allowed to dream.

5. World building. I finished writing a novel and the next one is a while off for I have to build a world. This gives me so many excuses to delve into intellectual places I normally don’t have enough time for. Six months I have, to delve. Maybe a year. To imagine a different world. Then I find a few people in that world and I write about them, but this deep level of world building is such a good place to be. I have a giant piece of paper on the back of the door, I have two notebooks… and this time I’m auctioning off place names to raise money for SF fans to meet each other. The geography of my three new countries will give a bunch of people what the world building does me: a feeling of being in contact with others at a time when… we aren’t so much.

6. Cooking. Today I intend to cook enough curries to last me one meal a day until after the weekend. Cooing calms me right down. I also talk to myself. When I’m in the middle of a novel, I might talk to my characters or argue with my plot. While other writers pen more drafts… I cook.

7. Online conferences. I can turn the vision off (so no-one sees me in my PJs) and listen to academics talk about their fascinating research while I do those stretches and gentle exercise and fling my arms around. A university professor says something that changes my own research or is important to my writing, so I stop in the middle of a paper and race to my desk and take notes. Free online academic conferences are the best form of academic training or updating for writers. I can break down stereotypes and I can learn how coin hoards change the way we see a place and its coinage and I can be reminded of the Welsh triads. Right now my world building is dominated by what I recently learned about Celtic Law because the experts in that law were handily on my computer.

8. The capacity to lose my temper without hurting anyone. Let’s face it, to only see two or three people in real life over a period of months is not an emotionally good place to be in. Chronic illness and iso leave me ready to snap when someone tells me off for being ill, or who thinks it’s a privilege to be single and of my age and alone. I lose my temper to myself, privately, then turned the garbage into fertiliser and asked everyone to think about chatting with me on Zoom. And now I have friends around me from a distance and I’d love to say I never lost my temper directly at anyone in achieving this, I’d love it if that side of things was very private… but I only lost that temper once in anyone else’s presence. Things are not easy for any of us. We often only see the good things in the lives of others because it’s so important to get through things. Having space to lose my temper and to curse the world and to move past it and regain civilisation is a lovely luxury.

9. I own the shell of an emu egg. It looks like a large, speckled avocado, but it’s an emu egg and it’s mine. My next dream is cook with the other parts of an emu egg, but that’s harder to achieve. Another dream is to paint emu eggs, but I’m not good at painting and the egg shells are not cheap. Painting is easier to achieve in the US, where emus are farmed. My egg comes from an emu that was never constrained and constricted and (given emus) quite possibly bullied children. I was bullied by emus as a child. And now I have an egg.

10. I can take moments to ponder the important questions. My important question at this precise moment is whether other places have birds that bully in the way emus do. We also have cassowaries, but I’ve never met one because they’re far more dangerous than emus. And we have magpies that swoop. It’s swooping season right now, in fact, and I’m safe inside and cannot be got. I wish I could see a person on a bike, with a mask to protect from COVID-19 and a helmet studded with spines to protect against magpies. In fact, I wish I had a picture and could make postcards with funny comments.

This post was brought to you by a way-too-early swooping season and by an emu’s egg.