And what stops you reading…?

Justine Larbalestier over at her LJ asked a similar question the other day, actually in relation to killing off animals and whether that puts readers off…and if not, then what does?

I actually wrote the post on killing a cat to see if it would get a reaction. Nada. Maybe people were just too polite to tell me what they really thought. Or maybe they looked at the title and didn’t read it! (It was absolutely true, I hasten to add. And I deliberately didn’t mention that I am a cat person who is immeasurably distressed by stray cats in trouble, etc. However, I am also a very pragmatic farmer’s daughter, so accidently killing a cat that had unhappily chosen to sleep in the engine of my car was, to me, more messy than traumatic.)

But back to the topic of this post. What stops you in your tracks when reading? I mean what actual subject matter, rather than poor writing and stale imagery, poor characterisation, overwriting, incorrect facts – all things which put me off every time.

Do sex scenes bore you to tears, as they do me (mostly)? Or is it a torture scene that will make you chuck the book across the room? Too much graphic violence? Killing off a child? Weepy deadbed scenes? Dream sequences that you the reader think are real only to have the character wake up? (Geez, I hate that one.)

What started YOU reading?

One of my friends just typed a tale on a message board – smoking with rage – of an overheard conversation in an Australian shop. It went something like this:

Child, picking up children’s book, priced at $2 from bargain table: “Mum, can I have this?”
Mother: “No, dear. Wouldn’t you rather have lollies?”

Now there’s a child being told pretty early on what to value and what not to buy. Will she learn the lesson, do you think, or persist – and become a reader? We’ll never know.

So my question is: why do YOU read? Because your parents valued reading? Bought you books? Or was it something you had to discover on your own?

In the farmhouse I grew up in, books were valued by my mother. My father rarely read anything but the newspaper, and he usually fell asleep reading that in the evenings. My mother, on the other hand, love reading, loved books. For many years – cut off from libraries and bookshops on a remote country farm – she belonged to a book club and ordered mail-order books. Her books shelves were stuffed with things like the complete plays of Bernard Shaw, and the literary novels of Australia of the twenties and thirties.

As a child then, I had a role model. I was read to at bedtime – all those Australian classics. Better still, I had an older brother (8 years older) and a sister (7 years older), so I benefited from whatever they had. When my sister started university at 17, I was only 10 – and I read pretty much everything she brought home from the university library. Kids books? Hardly. I was reading all the classics – mostly European authors. I don’t recall reading much American literature (except Little Women and Poe) until I hit university myself. And oh, yes, I think there was a copy of Anne of Green Gables, but my sister and I were most unimpressed by that one.

There were no libraries where we lived. In school, there was was one cupboard of books per classroom, and we were allowed to take one book per week (which I inevitably read in an hour or two on the first day). If the teachers’ aim was to make books seem desirable, rare objects, then they succeeded.

Oddly enough, I rarely read science fiction or fantasy. My mother was not fond of that sort of thing (“too much like nightmares” was how she described fantasy!), although odd books did come my way: James Hilton’s Shangri-la; some Jules Verne and Rider Haggard.

I found out just two days after my mother’s death – when I was in Australia for her funeral – that my first book had been accepted for publication. To this day, I grieve that she never knew…she would have been proud.

One way to kill a cat…

This morning when I came downstairs, the first thing I saw was one of the cats – inadvertantly locked out last night – spreadeagled against the wirescreen of a window, resembling a pinned insect in a museum collection, if you discount the feline glare. Now being outside all night is no great hardship at this time of the year in Virginia, but she had a sour expression on her face that would have curdled milkless coffee. When I opened the door, she stalked in without a glance. Typical bloody cat. You gotta love ’em.

And for some reason that reminded me of the time I killed a cat. Very thoroughly, as a matter of fact. I ripped its head off. And being a cat, its revenge was sweet…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am an animal lover. I may be a birdwatcher, but I don’t normally go around like a demented vampire dismembering felines. Let a cat turn its pleading gaze on me, and I am putty in its paws.

I was birdwatching in a remote fishing village on a mangrove coast in Malaysia at the time. The place is a thriving tourist complex now, but back in those days it was at the end of a long, lonely road through an endless oilpalm estate: a few ramshackle fishermen’s houses, a jetty, a wharf piled high with cockle cages, and the house of a wildlife officer. The real attraction was a population of two species of the world’s rarest storks.
I was with three friends, and we left the car in the compound of the ranger while we hired a fishing vessel – actually a rowboat with an engine – and spend the day poking around the tidal creeks of the mangroves. At dusk, we returned to the car, hot, tired and sweaty, looking forward to reaching the nearest town some thirty kms away, where we could get a shower, a seafood meal to die for and a bed for the night. The wildlife ranger had closed up the office and decamped (can’t say I blamed him – the nightlife consisted of watching synchronised fireflies which probably gets tedious after a year or two), so we piled into the car and I turned on the engine. Which gave a noise like an expiring whale, and that was that.
One of my friends piled out and took a look under the vehicle. He popped up again a moment later with a strange expression on his face. ‘Your car,’ he enunciated clearly, ‘is bleeding.’
‘Bleeding what?’ I asked innocently.
‘Bleeding blood,’ he said, and gave me what is generally called a speaking look.
I got out and took a glance under the car. There was a pool of something looking rather like an oil leak, only the oil was red and sticky. That was when I looked around for the ranger’s cat. No sign of it. We opened up the engine – and there was the headless feline, decapitated by the fanbelt. Which of course was broken. The disembodied head grinned up at us from the engine mounting.
Never kill a cat. They always get their revenge. It was 6 p.m. and we were in the middle of nowhere. The sole vehicle leaving for civilisation was an old truck…ever tried hitching a ride in a lorry loaded to the brim with wet, loose cockles? Especially when there are four of you and only two extra places in the cab? Any idea what cockles smell like, en masse?
And then, once we reached the nearest town of note, all garages were closed. Ever tried finding someone who will open up their establishment to four very smelly individuals (two of them dripping wet), after dark, in a small country town? Can anyone tell me, where does everybody go in small towns at nightfall?
We managed – eventually – (using a number of phone calls and a very Malaysian system of family connections which finally ended up at the car repair shop of an obliging man who was a friend of a friend of my friends’s uncle’s second cousin) to get a new fan belt and the loan of a car. Then a long drive back to my disabled vehicle. A long repair job by torchlight under the reproachful gaze of another couple of cats that had appeared out of nowhere. Another drive through a lonely estate. Never did get dinner. Bed at 4 a.m. to dream about vengeful cats without heads.
And I have never eaten a cockle since…

Another review coming…and a different kind of perfect moment

I hear that there will be a review of the Heart of the Mirage in the Brisbane Courier-Mail this weekend. Fingers crossed it will be a good one.

My grandson and I are pals at last. It’s taken a week!! We are going to set up a live computer link when I go home so that he doesn’t forget me again…

And today, when we went to a plant nursery to choose some flowers for planting, while I was looking at some Exotic Impatiens, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird came and fed on the flowers, then hovered a bare foot or so away. Eyeball to eyeball. Ah. To a birdwatcher from a non-hummingbird part of the world, that was a pretty good moment. To add to the pleasure, several pairs of Purple Finches were nesting in the plant shed (at least, that’s what I assumed they were, although I didn’t have my binoculars with me), with the males warbling their hearts out. Perfect.

I am actually a bit frustrated, I will admit – my telescope and bins have gone to Austria to be cleaned and serviced, and I am doing without. I have thus gone cold turkey on birdwatching, and that is incredibly tough, especially when there are all these exciting things about.

Second review…

There’s a lovely review of Heart of the Mirage up on the site of the speciality Galaxy Bookstore in Sydney (can’t wait to visit in one day). The book is their selected “fave rave” new title for this month. I think this is the best review I’ve ever had anywhere.

Larke has granted the reader a near-perfect escape into a breathtaking adventure. Heart of the Mirage is so real, your pulse will race and your breath catch…

The review ends with this:

To my mind, Larke’s self-assurance, insight and guts – much in the traditon of Robin Hobb, Carol Berg and even Elizabeth Moon – firmly places her on the list as one of the very best Australian writers of fantasy fiction.

Moments don’t get much better than this.

A first review…and why aren’t kangaroos invisible?

Lucy Sussex has written a very short review of Heart of the Mirage for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, appearing yesterday (Sunday). I am tickled pink to be in The Age and to have a writer as talented as Lucy say nice things! The review ended with: For those jaded with genre fantasy, Larke provides fare that is fresh, strange and intriguing.

There have been some interesting comments added to my last blog entry on the difficulties of language of a period, and Gillian had some words of wisdom over on her blog. I liked the comment Karen (author of Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology) made about some things being invisible, no matter what world you are writing about – cows and horses are fine, but the moment you mention something like kangaroos, you’re doomed. You’ve made the place Australia, and nothing is going budge the reader out of that slot.

I think this is one reason why fantasy seems sometimes to be so much the same in setting: oak trees are fine (“invisible”) and so are wolves and generic bears and wild boars and the north being colder than the south. None of those things grates on the reader. Include kangaroos or armadilloes or giraffes and all of a sudden you are no longer in a land called “Cavalaria” or “M’grith”. Have your hero fight a battle with a savage tiger during a hunt, and you’ve got to be in India. Have your heroine watch the toucans in the tree outside her castle and you’ll have your reader shaking their heads in despair. You have placed them somewhere real and not at all fantastical in the way they expected.

The challenge is to provide a setting that is different, yet doesn’t carry a load of baggage with it. The aim must always be not to jerk the reader out of your world and into his/her own.

Getting the language of the period and place right…

One of the toughest things about writing is getting the language right. I don’t mean style or the order of words – I mean the actual vocabulary.

You work hard to draw your reader into your world, to have them believe in it, and each time you use an inappropriate word, you fling him or her back into the present. The moment someone is jerked out of their belief in your setting and period, you – the writer – have to struggle to regain their trust.

Some things are obvious. You can’t have a man living in a medieval world say “Ok”. But lots of other choices are more subtle. Can you have him say, “Run that by me one more time?” (Not in my book, you can’t. The phrase just sounds too modern.) Can you have someone in your made-up, pre-industrial fantasy world use the word “teenager”? Or does that sound too modern? Can the healer refer to a heart attack? Or a stroke? Or is he more likely to say apoplexy? Did Roman ladies wear “make-up” or is the word cosmetics better? I have just annoyed a reader by using the word “minutes” in a society that uses only sundials to tell the time. Appropriate or not? Not to that reader – it jerked her out of her sense of place, and that’s enough to have me think I shan’t do it again.

And then there’s those foreign words which we use all the time – but are they appropriate? Can you say “deja vu” in your world? What about “run amok”? “An Oedipus complex”? Or “spartan”?

Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

Settling in

They drive on the wrong side of the road, turn off their taps – sorry, faucets – the wrong way, and the light switches are upside down…

And spring in this corner of Virginia (Charlottesville) is just gorgeous. I believe the town has been voted the best place to live in US for several years now, and I can see why. It really is lovely. I have been here before, but not quite at this time of the year. The dogwoods and cherry trees and azaleas are in blossom, the trees are all in full leaf (eat your heart out, all you people in more northerly climes), the days are short-sleeved Tshirt warm and the nights nippy. What more could one ask?

I am working on the third book of The Mirage Makers: The Song of the Shiver Barrens.

Feedback trickles in…

Heart of the Mirage” hit the bestseller list at Sydney’s Galaxy bookstore last week, which was lovely to see. I believe some Dymock’s stores are also listing it as a bestseller. Many thanks to all those customers who had faith in my writing!

Emails and message board posts are all positive so far…seems I have been responsible for miscellaneous ills including sleepless nights spent sitting up reading, getting back from work late and getting into trouble with the boss, and – with two people at least – the necessity of taking a cold shower. (I was unaware the book was that sexy, as I do not tend to be particularly, er, graphic!)

I was pondering the need for feedback yesterday, after receiving a lovely email from someone over in Nevada, who was desperate for reassurance on the ending of the Isles of Glory trilogy as the third book is not yet out in the States! That email made my day.

For years I wrote and wrote with no feedback at all. Writing was just to fulfil my own need to create. The joy was in the act, not in the feedback. Most of my work I never showed to anyone. My first published book, Havenstar, was seen by no one at all before I sent it off to my agent. It was not even read by a member of my family, let alone a more critical commentator. Same with the next, The Aware.

But those days are gone, and I find myself desperate for feedback, both before and after publication. Beta readers have become very important in my writing life, and I wonder how on earth I ever did without their input prior to sending the book off to the publisher. And reader input has become a joy. I love to know what impact I have had, if any; I want to know what worked and even more – I want to know what didn’t. If there is anything that is boring or sub standard or confusing, I want to know it so that I can prevent a similar mistake elsewhere. Writing is a continuum of learning. I even take reviews as opportunities to think more deeply about my work and how to improve it. I would hate to be one of those writers about whom everyone says: “Oh, she never wrote anything as good as her first book...”

Here in Virginia

Ah, how I hate plane travel, economy class. I can’t even use my laptop because there isn’t enough room to open the top to see the screen. I started from home at 5.30 a.m. and arrived at NY’s Newark airport at 8.30 p.m. of the same day – but the day was already 27 hours long before the sun decided to set…

Fortunately I stayed overnight in New Jersey – then a day’s drive to Charlottesville. My grandson is still ignoring me even though the resident dog and cats have decided I’m harmless! More when I have decided that the sun is actually up at the right time and it must be me that wrongly wired…