The birth of a short story

Seeing my name on the 2016 Aurealis shortlist a couple of weeks ago was pretty bloody thrilling. There is a writing goal I’ve had my eye on ever since the moment when I first held a copy of Winds of Change – the anthology in which my first-ever published story appeared – in my hot little hands.

What made the nomination even sweeter was seeing how many of my really good writing buddies were on that list with me. The Australian Speculative Fiction community is pretty small and (in my experience anyway) a really collegiate, supportive bunch of people. I know a fair few people on that list now. But, among all the nominees I know and admire, it was very satisfying seeing how many of my fellow Canberra writers and members of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild appeared on the list:

  • Ian McHugh (nom for Best Science Fiction Short with The Baby Eaters in Asimov’s)
  • T R Napper (nom for Best Horror Short with The Flame Trees in Asimov’s)
  • Dave Versace (nom for Best Fantasy Short with The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat in Aurealis)
  • Shauna O’Meara (nom for Best YA Short for No One Here Is Going To Save You in In Your Face)
  • Kaaron Warren (noms for Best Horror and Best Sci Fi Short for 68 Days in Tomorrow’s Cthulu and Best Horror Novel for The Grief Hole)
  • Simon Petrie (nom for Best Sci Fi Novella for All the Colours of the Tomato in Dimension 6).

Echoing these sentiments, my mate Tim (aka T R Napper) tweeted:

Which got me thinking about the important role my writing community has played in getting Pretty Jennie Greenteeth this far. In fact, in getting all of my stories published.

Just looking at Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, I found out about Belladonna Publishing and the anthologies they were producing through my writing group. Someone (I think it was Dave Versace) pointed me at their submissions call for their Black Apples anthology, which they knew was right up my alley. I didn’t end up getting a story into that anthology (damn), but I was instantly on it when Belladonna put their next call out. That willingness to share information about opportunities is something invaluable about my writing crowd, the CSFG. Especially to a rank rookie writer who had no idea who was who or what was anything. And not only did they help me figure out where in the industry I needed to be sending my submissions, but they also helped me figure out how to submit.

Start at the top. Work your way down. You’re never going to know what level you’re writing to if you don’t start at the top.

 – Ian McHugh

^^That’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Submit to the best markets first. Where do you want most to be published? Go there first. You just won’t know if your piece was good enough for them if you don’t send it.

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Ian McHugh & Tim Napper, celebrating Aurealis noms

Then there’s the frank and fearless feedback offered by the CSFG critiquing circles. I’ve had my work critiqued by almost everyone on the list of nominees above. In fact, these guys are basically my go-to peeps outside the organised critiquing circle, especially when a deadline is looming, or I just want to sit & talk through a piece and really hash out the issues. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth went through CSFG’s short story critiquing circle. I got some really useful feedback on it, including, from memory, advice on dealing with a continuity issue, comment on a difficult-to-pronounce name and warning flags on cliches. But a good critiquing partner will also tell you where you’re going right. We’re all suckers for metaphorical pats on the head in this business, but damn it feels good when someone whose work you admire says they like your story. (Thank you Dave Versace and Tim Napper in this case.)

Then there’s what happens after your story gets published (if your luck is in & you get that far.) Tim Napper, in particular, is fairly tireless in his commitment to spruiking stories by Australian authors that he rates well. He regularly posts about good Australian fiction he’s read and he put this great post up recently with his recommendations on Australian stories that came out in 2016 that are eligible for the Ditmar awards (these are Australia’s fan-voted genre awards, the Aurealis awards are the juried awards). Even if you’re not necessarily eligible to vote in the Ditmars, it is worth checking out his list, because he’s recommended some fantastic fiction. (If you are eligible, you should get your skates on and vote – noms close tonight, 19 March, 11.59pm AEDST: list of eligible works, online voting form.) Full disclosure: he’s recommended one of mine, Breathing (Aurealis #95). But I am far and away the junior partner on that list, so I have no hesitation in adding my voice to his exhortations to read the others’ work.

I’m far from the first to point out writing can be a lonely business. And trying to judge for yourself whether your piece of fiction needs more work or is ready to send out into the world is a tricksy business. Finding your writing community, the right writing community for you, is a gift of incalculable worth. And it can make bringing your stories out into the world just that little bit easier.

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Touchstones: Mirren Hogan

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited Mirren Hogan, author of Crimson Fire and upcoming releases Night Witches and Nightmares Rise, to guest blog about one of her touchstones. I asked her a few questions, and here’s what she had to say. 

Thanks for coming along, Mirren! What is your touchstone?

I was raised to be a strong, independent (but flawed) woman, so I’ve always enjoyed writing about strong, independent, yet flawed women. The world is full of books and movies about damsels, or ‘perfect’ women. The real world, however, is a different reality altogether. A great many women are capable of saving themselves, or being resilient if they can’t. It’s also full of women who struggle with daily life, but even if it’s buried deep, they have strength, and voices which deserve to be heard.

I’d like to think I write characters (male and female), that people can relate to, that speaks to them and lets them know they’re not alone.

When did this first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

When I was in school, a teacher once said to my mother that I’d make a great boy, because I was so assertive. Needless to say, my mother was not impressed. Imagine, if you will, the kind of society in which a teacher thinks that, and then goes so far as to articulate it. This was the early 80s and things have changed since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this kind of thinking repeated now.

So I’d say I got it from my mother. She kicks butt on a daily basis.

Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?

I was never one to pay much attention to binary gender stereotypes, even as a kid. I liked cars and trains, I played with dolls, I wore shorts and skirts (mostly the former). My earliest screen crush was Princess Leia (with Han Solo not far behind). I’ve never been all that interested in the damsel (King Kong was more interesting than Fay Wray). I think being immersed in a culture of Star Wars and Star Trek, and Pern, in which the women were ‘ahead of their time’, I’ve just grown up thinking women are badasses.

The older I get, the more I realise this isn’t everyone’s perception of the world, I guess I want it known – this is mine, take it or leave it, be empowered, be your own hero.

How has this idea of the strong-but-flawed woman inspired your writing?

In two ways: firstly, my women are usually tough, independent, sassy, smart, the works. Secondly, my male characters tend to hold back more than I think they would if I thought women didn’t kick ass. They know the women can save themselves, but they’re they’re to help, in case they can’t. And often the woman does the saving.

How is this touchstone reflected in your other work as a writer and editor?

It embodies the anthologies I’ve put together or am working on. Like a Girl and Like a Woman are both reflections of the belief that woman and girls can be anything and do anything they put their minds to.

How has your relationship with your touchstone, or the way you’ve drawn inspiration from it, changed over time?

I’d say that my female characters are stronger now than how I used to write them, but I’m not sure how accurate that is. Even my earlier woman, like Tabia from Crimson Fire is a tough young woman, even in her most vulnerable moments. Is she as tough as Nadia from Night Witches? Well Nadia dropped bombs on Nazis, that’s hard to top!

Night Witches

Nadia Valinsky is a young female pilot and university education student from Moscow. When the Germans invade the Soviet Union in 1941, she wants to fight to defend her country. In October of 1941 Marina Raskova, a famous female aviator, asks for volunteers, Nadia signs up. She is accepted for an interview and offered a place in the training regiment as a navigator.

Following rigorous training at Engles Air Force base, Nadia is assigned to the Night Bomber regiment. She and her crew fly multiple missions on the front lines and are regularly under fire from anti-aircraft guns. The Germans give them the nickname Night Witches, because of the sound their aircraft make as they sweep overhead.

The Night Witches flew in planes made from canvas and balsawood. For the majority of the war, they had no radios, or parachutes. The latter was considered to take up too much space needed to carry bombs. Of three women’s regiments, theirs was the only one who consisted entirely of women through the duration of the war.

They lived together, fought together and died together.

You can buy Night Witches at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Mirren Hogan lives in NSW Australia with her husband, two daughters, dog, cat, rabbits and countless birds. She has a Bachelor of Arts (English/ history), a Graduate Diploma of Arts (writing) and a couple of degrees in education. She writes fantasy, urban fantasy and science fiction. Her debut novel —Crimson Fire— was released in October 2016, with more to come. These include a trilogy co-authored by Erin Yoshikawa. She’s also had several short stories published and has co-edited two charity anthologies; for breast cancer research and Plan Australia.

You can find Mirren on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MirrenHogan or catch up with her at her official website: mirrenhogan.com.

 

Giveaway goodies!

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Look what arrived in the mail today! Five shiny, brand new copies of Strange Little Girls ready to wing their way on to their new owners on 5 April!

Have you entered? If you won one, what would you want me to write in it?

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Strange Little Girls by Camilla Bruce

Strange Little Girls

by Camilla Bruce

Giveaway ends April 05, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Strange Little Giveaway

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Strange Little Girls by Camilla Bruce

Strange Little Girls

by Camilla Bruce

Giveaway ends April 05, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

This Goodreads giveaway opens today! I’ve got 5 copies for Australian readers to sign & put personalised messages in.

(If you’re not in Aus, never fear. Liv & Camilla at Belladonna tell me they have plans for you later in the year…)

Giveaway!

I’m a bit excited! Liv & Camilla at Belladonna Publishing have kindly donated 5 copies of Strange Little Girls for me to give away to 5 lucky Australian readers on Goodreads in celebration of Pretty Jennie Greenteeth’s Aurealis nomination.

I’ll sign all the copies & include a personalised message for the winners.

(If you’re not in Aus, don’t worry, I think there are more giveaways in the pipeline. And the ebook is going to go on special for a limited time, so check back & I’ll post links when it does.)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Strange Little Girls by Camilla Bruce

Strange Little Girls

by Camilla Bruce

Giveaway ends April 05, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Achievement unlocked: Aurealis Award nomination

HAPPY MONDAY!

No, I’m serious.

The short lists for the 2016 Aurealis Awards went up today and OMG I’M ON IT!!!

My creepy, nasty, strange little story Pretty Jennie Greenteeth from Belladonna Publishing’s Strange Little Girls has been nominated in the YA category!

And because these things are always better shared, I’ve got so many good friends on the short list with me, I’m hard put to count them all. So particular congrats to Shauna O’Meara, Dave Versace, Ian McHugh, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Kaaron Warren, Tim Napper, Tehani Wessely, Thoraiya Dyer, Simon Petrie, Angela Slatter, Alan Baxter, Sam Murray and Lisa Hannett – and everyone else on the list!

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Awesome words: Alternative Facts

Alternative Facts:

  1. A lie.
  2. A lie expressed for political expediency.
  3. A lie about a lie.

(My definitions.)

This phrase is awesome (I don’t mean that in a positive, upbeat kinda way) for its abject insidiousness. It is awesome because the very phrase “alternative facts” is a perfect example of what it embodies. If you call something out as being a lie, falsehood or untruth, you are making a statement of fact. If you call something an alternative fact, you are engaging in a lie about a lie. It is pure, self-perpetuating genius.

Just to drive home why this whole alternative facts thing is an exercise in evil, this phrase is now inextricably wound up in connotations of lying for political expediency. Let’s look at the events that rocketed this phrase to notoriety.

  1. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer lied (made false/inaccurate/misleading statements, whatevs, you split the hairs) about attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
  2. When challenged about this at a press conference, Trump’s campaign strategist Kellyanne Conway characterised these statements as “alternative facts”.

What is striking about this incident is that the alternative facts were not tendered for any meaningful reason. I’m sorry to be so crass, but this really was just a one-sided political pissing contest, a mine-is-bigger-than-yours schoolyard tossing competition. The implications it has respecting this administration’s capacity for being up front and honest with the American people and the rest of the world on any issues of actual import are freaking huge.

The other consequence of Conway making out like alternative facts are an actual Thing, is the broader effect it has on the culture of political discourse in the US.

This from the Wikipedia page on alternative facts, about the discussion of Conway’s use of the term and the criticism she subsequently received for it:

The magazine [American Thinker] asserted that the phrase “alternative facts” was in common use in law and that it was known to most lawyers, including Conway, with her George Washington University Law School degree. After giving examples of non-legal uses of the phrase “alternative facts”, the article contended that when Chuck Todd upbraided Kellyanne Conway with the claim that “alternative facts are not facts; they’re falsehoods”, he was not only wrong, but “propagating an ignorance born out of lazy and shallow thinking”.

Wait, what? So a journalist challenging a government spokesperson on what was a pretty blatant and easily provable falsehood was somehow “propagating an ignorance born out of lazy and shallow thinking”? WTAF?

I mean, whoah. Now we are talking a lie defended by a lie defended by a lie. It’s like a whole recursive onion-thing, where each layer is just wrapped in a new, bigger, thicker, stickier, more repulsive layer of lies. This is orders of magnitude above mere political spin.

And you know what? That onion thing is a comprehensively documented consequence of lying: that you have to keep lying to perpetuate the original lie. That’s what makes phrases like alternative facts such powerful, dangerous things. They are just the start of a self-perpetuating process that has the capacity to do incalculable harm.

 

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To get the t-shirt, click on the pic.

Touchstones: Sapsorrow’s Dress

 

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The Night Goddess Dress, by Alice Corsets

So. That dress. *Sigh* Midnight blue and sparkling with stars like the night sky. Why did I flip out over a dress? Why that dress? Where did it come from?

I first encountered it in Sapsorrow; episode 7 of season one of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which starred the late, great John Hurt as the eponymous Storyteller. Sapsorrow is an adaptation of the story Catskin from the Brothers Grimm (which is part of a group of similar tales, such as Donkeyskin), in which the dress also makes an appearance. It’s a bit of a Cinderella tale, but so very much more tragic and disturbing.

Before I marry anyone I must have three dresses: one must be of gold, like the sun; another must be of shining silver, like the moon; and a third must be dazzling as the stars.

Catskin, from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm

(Based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor  and Marian Edwardes)

That is Catskin speaking to her widowed father, the King, who has determined that he can only remarry if he finds a woman as beautiful as his dead queen. Sadly for Catskin, he determines she fits the bill. At first she tries to deter him with demands for those marvellous, impossible dresses. But when he produces them, against all her expectations, she flees, disguised in a strange and filthy robe of cat skins, from which she adopts her new name, and taking the dresses with her. Later she uses them to help her win the heart of a prince by appearing and disappearing, Cinderella style, at a grand ball.

Of the three dresses, it is the third one, “sparkling with stars” (Sapsorrow’s words), that captured my imagination. Why? Well, the simple answer is that I’ve always, always loved the night sky. That’s another thing that frequently stops my breath with its beauty.

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I think it might be the perfect union of fantastical and scientific beauty. I could probably write a whole other blog post, or maybe even a thesis, on exactly why. But suffice to say, for me, it simultaneously embodies both the ultimate reaches of human scientific endeavour and the very essence of magic at work. And nothing fires my imagination like these two things.

Plus, night is beautiful, but it’s also dark and uncertain. It has depth and secrets. Things, both real and imagined, walk abroad in the dark that dare not show themselves in the day. Night is interesting.

Ok. That’s the stars. But why a dress?

Clothes are hugely significant in traditional tales. People use them to adopt new identities and transform themselves all the time. It’s all a bit Clark Kent really. Princes dress up as pig-herders, cats wear boots, servant girls force their mistresses to swap clothes with them, and the rags that a little old lady is wearing might just be disguising a fairy with awesome cosmic powers. The dress, however, connotes a very particular type of transformation. For a start, it’s specifically a female transformation. I’m very much open to being corrected on this, but, while I can think of a few traditional tales that involve men being dressed in women’s clothes, and a few where men are transformed by clothes, I can’t think of any that involve a ballgown. (Fairy tales generally conform to very conservative gender norms – which is an awful lot of fun to mess around with as a writer, but that’s a whole other story.) I have a pretty strong interest in fairy tales (and other traditional tales) as women’s stories, as well, so I find this very female symbol of transformation fascinating.

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That ballgown or “Cinderella” moment, where the heroine is revealed in a spectacular ballgown and is suddenly seen in a new light, is incredibly potent. So much so it has been transplanted into a bunch of other stories. Just off the top of my head, Disney has re-used it in at least two other fairy tale adaptations: in Beauty and the Beast the famous dance scene represents the first time the two titular characters acknowledge their romantic feelings (and give the viewer hope the curse will be broken), and in Sleeping Beauty, the moment when Prince Phillip, and then his father, see Aurora in her gown (which the fairies have made for her for her birthday as a symbol of her attaining womanhood), is the moment they recognise her for the princess she is. You’ll note, too, that this ballgown moment is inextricably linked with romantic fulfillment as well. Which is an incredibly enticing and satisfying story hook (even while it carries a host of problems with it).

What do I mean by problems? Well, in many ways, the whole idea of a Cinderella moment is anti-feminist. These kinds of dresses invariably centre on unrealistic and unhealthy female body types (not to mention a very narrow definition of femininity). Lily James famously had to go on some god-awful liquid diet in order to be able to fit into the dress she is twirling around in above, and even without that particular modern twist, corsets and voluminous skirts are hardly hardly the stuff of female emancipation. But… (and I am not arguing that all those arguments are invalid), dresses of this nature are simultaneously a symbol of power and status. After all, Cinderella’s dress transforms her from a drudge into a worthy partner for a prince. (It does kinda stick in my craw that her transformation is contingent on the prince finding her an attractive prospect, but we’ll come to that.)

In a pre-industrial age, clothes were expensive. Spectacular clothes were serious investments. By way of example, there was a famous scandal in 1781 when Lady Worsley left her baronet husband and fled with her lover, Captain Charles Bisset, into the night. Amidst the ensuing social fracas, her husband steadfastly refused to turn over to her the contents of her wardrobe. In Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Lady in Red on this notorious episode, she describes Lady Worsley’s collection of some twenty-four gowns, including two court dresses, and all the various hats, gloves, ruffles, muffs, aprons and a hundred other accessories, as being valued in modern terms at over £15 million. With her glamorous wardrobe at her disposal, Lady Worsley would have been able to make her way in at least some society circles and cut quite a dash, even as an object of scandal. Without it, she was little better than a pauper. So her vengeful husband hung onto it.

Another historical figure with a documented history of legendary gowns is Queen Elizabeth I. Her wardrobe was an overt statement of the power and wealth she commanded. Today those gowns, documented in royal portraits and described in awed tones in diplomatic letters, have an almost mythic status, owing to the understanding that none of them had survived. Which meant when rumours surfaced a couple of years ago that a tiny little church in Hertfordshire possessed a Tudor altar cloth that might once have been part of one of those dresses, everyone got very excited.

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Such sumptuous items as the incredible gowns worn by the Tudor nobility were never just thrown out when their original owner tired of them. They were commonly handed to valued servants or repurposed into other items. It’s now believed that the Queen gave the gown pictured in the “Rainbow Portrait” to the left to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Blanche Parry, who, in turn, gave it to her parish church, where it was recycled into an altar cloth.

What I find interesting about this story is how potent this dress is as a symbol of the Queen and her power. So much so that the local stories of the little church in Hertfordshire persisted, over centuries, in the claim that the altar cloth was connected to Queen Elizabeth, even though no historical documentation remains. (You can click on the portrait to go to the article published on the Smithsonian.com in January that explains why they’re pretty sure it actually was the Queen’s. The altar cloth is now being held at Hampton Court Palace, where it will go on display once restorations are done.)

So back to Sapsorrow/Catskin and her strange wardrobe. In this story, the dresses are much more than just a mechanism to engineer an advantageous marriage. They are, in fact, a symbol of Catskin’s power to make her own decisions and direct her life. In the first instance they give her the capacity to put off the disastrous marriage to her abusive father. It’s interesting to note that in the Catskin tale there’s no fairy godmother or ghostly angelic mother to assist the heroine by producing dresses magically, either. The dresses have come into existence by Catskin’s own contrivance, and if the details on how she carries them away with her are a little hazy (in a nutshell, so goes the tale), it is she that makes the decision to break them out and deploy them in the pursuit of her prince. This is a tale of a woman who chooses what she will wear and when she will wear it. She chooses the direction she wants her life to take and she takes active steps to achieve her goals.

So there you go. That’s why the idea of this dress has stuck with me for so long. It’s a thing of beauty, with links to all the magic and wonder and romanticism that come with the fairy tale transformation it symbolises. But it’s not just a pretty thing, and it’s not just about being pretty. The night sky dress of my imagination also speaks of tragedy and pain, and stories that are deeper and richer than the stereotype. It speaks of self-determination and a willingness to grapple with the terrors. It symbolises female ingenuity and the desire to look further and go beyond what’s known and comfortable to find something precious and worth the search.

I don’t think it’s any accident Alisa Perova called her creation the Night Goddess dress. It’s not just a dress for a princess.

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Edmund Dulac, Night, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Apocalypse Triptych on sale!

A very quick post because…

Ebook Sale: All Three Books in The Apocalypse Triptych on Sale on Kindle!

All three books in The Apocalypse Triptych are currently marked down to $2.99 (£1.99) each on Kindle. The promotion will run Feb. 6-13.

  • THE END IS NIGH: USUK
  • THE END IS NOW: USUK
  • THE END HAS COME: USUK

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During the duration of the promotion, the ebook editions will be exclusively available on Kindle, though of course they are also available in trade paperback. Now’s a great time to pick up the whole series if you haven’t already!