Writing in the tradition of….

Yesterday I was preparing material for a total revamp of my website, and as I ran through a slew of past reviews, I was amazed to see how many compared aspects of my writing to other writers, all much better known. An embarrassment of riches, in fact.

I remember the very first time this happened. Not a reviewer, but the editor of a sff imprint in the UK who read a couple of my books and turned them down, told my agent my writing reminded her of Sherri Tepper. Being a lover of much of Ms Tepper’s work (although as far as I know, not a copycat!), I thought that was an enormous compliment. But note -– I was rejected.

So I learned a lesson: one should take such compliments as pretty meaningless.

My second lesson down that road was when the editor of my first book compared me, in a press release I think, to Ursula LeGuin. A reviewer then shot back -– quite rightly too – with something along the lines of, Hey this is an enjoyable book, but LeGuin? You’’ve got to be kidding!‘’ Which was nicely deflating to any pretensions my ego might have considered developing.

Oddly enough, two other reviewers have mentioned my work in the same breath as LeGuin, but I think that was simply because my first trilogy was set in an archipelago. So there you are, if you want to be compared to the master of fantasy writing, use a string of islands as a setting!

Another author I seem to bring to mind (3 reviews) is Lois McMaster Bujold. That is apparently because of my strong female characters. Stephen Donaldson has cropped up twice, once from that that same first editor (a really over-optimistic fellow, I think), and the second comparing the emotional torture I subjected my hero to as being something Donaldson would be proud of. I liked that comparison, I must admit.

Other writers who have been mentioned are Mercedes Lackey (strong heroines again), and (one I just love) my books being ‘written with self-assurance, insight and guts – much tradition of Robin Hobb, Carol Berg and even Elizabeth Moon.’ (If ever I meet the gentleman who wrote that, I shall buy him dinner at the very least.)

Now if only all that was true. I suspect, though, that I just write like me.

What I am looking forward to is the day that someone says, ‘New author Aloysius Muddlesworthy has written a book in the tradition of Glenda Larke…’”

Then I will know that I have really made it!!

What’s the hardest part of a novel to write?

The action scenes? The dialogues? The beginning? Climax?

Nope, none of the above. It’s those horrible dull bits. Because you’ve got to write them so they aren’t dull.

It’s the bits that, if you leave them out, readers are going to ask: “But how did he get to town when the last scene was back on the farm?” or “But how did she know that the boy was named Martin, when we haven’t read a scene where she was told?

They are the necessary bits that explain the grounding of your plot, yet are intrinsically dull in their explanation. You don’t really want to have to explain, “Well, first he walked to the main road, then he hitched a ride with the farmer down the road who just happened to be going into town to buy some chicken feed even though it wasn’t market day.” Or, “She went to the dressmaker’s, and while she was there, this woman called Annie came in, and she happened to mention in a passing conversation with the dressmaker that John’s son was her gardener and his name was Martin.

Leave out the explanation, and you’ll get creamed by your readers; put it in and you’ll bore them the tears. They are the hardest bits to write!

A Day in the Land of the Surreal…

After four days of teeth-grinding frustration trying to make an online booking to New York, I made a second attempt at a local travel agent – the only one in my area registered for the ongoing MAS cheap travel fair.

I walked in and was utterly delighted to find that this time, yes, they could give me the dates I wanted at a price I thought was brilliant, considering what else I had been offered. I didn’t even think about it. “I’ll take it,” I said. I couldn’t believe my luck. Huh. I might have known it was too good to be true. When it comes to getting to New York cheap, I am jinxed. Or maybe I should reword that: I am a jinx.

Immediately after I said “I’ll take it” – words with far reaching consequences when uttered by the magically jinxed – every piece of electronic equipment in the agency blew up. That was, need I say, before my purchase was entered into the system.

I kid you not. The lights went out. Computers, monitors, fax machines and printers all went “PHHHUTTT!!” and smoke poured out of everything. I left before anyone found out I was to blame.

I decided to take Liz’s advice, and off I went to the central railway station where there is a MAS office. I decided to avoid the KL traffic horror by catching the commuter train. So I stuffed my copy of The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl into my bag and off I went.

I sat on the station and watched several trains going the other way on the other side of the tracks – but nothing going to KL. The electronic sign above my head uttered a continuous stream of make-believe : (train due in 6 minutes …5 …4 …3 …2 …1 …30 …) Finally, just when it seemed no more people could fit on the platform, a train did appear. On the other side of the tracks, but going to KL. It horned. A hundred or so people exchanged glances and wondered whether we were supposed to cross the overhead bridge and risk getting on to a train going north on the southbound line…

Anyway, there we all are on a train, going the right way but on the wrong tracks, packed in like brown rice in a vacuum pack – when it becomes increasingly obvious that the aircon is not working. And there’s no way to open any windows. It is just past midday in the tropics. And I am reading a book that vividly describes various ways of being murdered a la Dante’s Inferno. Talk about surreal.

It is two hours later by the time I finally arrive at my turn at the MAS desk. And was there any sign of that cheap seat the travel agent had mentioned? Nope, of course not. In the end I was just so tired of wasting so much time on this whole booking thingy, that I bought a ticket (supposedly bargain price) which was just $RM 52.00 cheaper than the regular economy MAS fare. At least the computers didn’t blow up.

I am going to New York. Well, to Virginia actually. To see the little guy above. And I refuse to think how much I am paying to do so…I am sure he will be worth it.

Bird Flu in Malaysia – guess where?

The first cases of the bird flu have been found in Kuala Lumpur among domestic chickens. That’s right, not in wild birds.

One wonders why wild birds always seem to take the rap, when there is still no evidence to show that the spread is caused by migration and the pattern of spread doesn’t really seem to follow migration routes all that closely. Wild birds appear to be more victims than anything else. After all – would you embark on a 5,000 mile journey, without the benefit of an airplane, if you had the flu?

Perhaps migration plays a part, but I am more inclined to think people have an even bigger role. There has been suspicion that this particular outbreak in KL might have originated in the smuggling of cockfighting birds from Thailand.

What really struck me about this outbreak was the elderly man – and remember, this guy lives in the city, not some remote kampung – who was quoted in this morning’s The Star newspaper as saying :
“My chickens died and it never occurred to me that they could have been killed by disease. I thought someone was poisoning them.”
The first of his birds died back in January…

Even with all the publicity given to bird flu, still the message doesn’t get through. Still people (not, of course, necessarily the gentleman just quoted) think it’s all right to smuggle in birds from another country where people have died. I am reminded of the Nipah virus in pigs, where exactly the same thing happened and people died in Malacca as a result of the illegal movement of diseased animals.

The problem is not birds; it’s people.

If you want to know more about bird flu,
there will be a free public talk

NOTE: You can’t get the flu from looking at birds!

Place: Tanjung Tuan
Why: to watch the migration of raptors and other fun stuff.
Date: 4th and 5th of March
Time: daylight hours, especially btween 10.30 am and 3 p.m.
Place: the beachfront of the Ilham Resort,
near the entrance to the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve and Lighthouse

Cost: Free

Watching the World’s Greatest Journey

In the middle of the nineteenth century, my great-grandparents set sail from England and Ireland, seeking a better life in Australia. They had no guarantees that they would ever arrive, let alone ever go back again.

Photo by Lim Kim Chye & Yian

Every year millions of birds make a journey that is even more dangerous and uncertain. They aren’t driven by despair or hope, as my ancestors probably were, but by instinct — and they have even less chance than my great grandparents had of making it safely. Some estimates say that fifty percent of migratory birds on their first round trip don’t get back again to the place where they are born.

Poverty made my ancestors take the risk; migratory birds don’t really have a choice. From the moment of birth they are programmed to take that journey repeatedly. So why has nature inserted a programme so inherently risky into their genes? It’s fairly obvious why they leave their birthplace — it gets too darn cold and food resources vanish. But why, once they are enjoying the balminess of tropical forests, do they go north again? It doesn’t get cold here, the food doesn’t suddenly disappear; why not stay, nest, and forget about that dangerous trip back?

The individual bird, of course, doesn’t have a choice. His instincts tell him to get going and he goes…but nature does things for a reason. In this case, the abundance of nutritious, high-protein food in the short summers of the north makes the journey worth the risk. If he stayed here, he would be in competition with the locals — who would be feeding hungry youngsters too.

The simple truth, then, is that for the species as a whole, the benefits outweigh the risks, and the kids profit. Probably my ancestors thought along the same lines, although in more personal terms. (Risk-taking worked for them, I’m happy to say!)

Over the next couple of weeks you are going to see me writing a lot on this subject – because our local Raptor Watch is coming around again, organised by the Malaysian Nature Society.

If you are in Malaysia, make a date to be in at Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) on the 4th and/or 5th March down in Malacca (Melaka), just south of Port Dickson. Look this website for more info: www.raptorwatch.org

Or watch this space.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Fame…

When I started down the road to being a published author, there were times I wanted it so bad it was a physical ache. I would carefully calculate exactly how long before I could expect to hear back from the publisher/agent I had sent a manuscript to, and then wait by the letter box. Back in those days, all I wanted was to be published. That was all. That would be the pinnacle. After that, everything would be a sparkle in my eye.

Ha. Then I got published. And I found out it wasn’t all I wanted. I wanted to be other things as well: a commercial success, to be sought after. I wanted to be receiving paeans of praise from my peers. I wanted loads of wonderful reviews. I wanted the moon…

Photo: Giving a reading at Worldcon Glasgow 2005

I was lucky; for a while there, it seemed that I might actually get it. Reviews of Havenstar (my first book) were excellent. STARBURST magazine gave it a 10/10 rating. It got on to bestseller lists. And then it vanished from sight and the bubble popped.

And here’s the uncomfortable truth: getting published is the world’s greatest rush, but things often go downhill from there, not up! It was another five years before I had another book published and I never have got back into the UK market. I’ve sold to Australia, USA, Germany and Russia, but not to the UK. And that’s another lesson the naïve writer learns : there’s not much that is logical in the business of publishing.

After that first heady publication, after you have recovered from the choked-up joy of holding that shiny new book with your name on the cover, you start to worry yourself sick (or at least I do) about things like: will people like the book? Will it sell? Will it earn out? Will it get reviewed? Will I get another contract? Am I going to get writer’s block? Will I finish that next book in time to meet the deadline? Will the next book be as good? What about the one after that? Will it get nominated for the Aurealis shortlist? And if it does, then you start worrying: will it win?

(At this stage, any unpublished writer reading this is going to be thinking: what an ungrateful prat!)

Possibly it’s all part of the human condition to never be content. Or maybe it’s just megalomanic me.

Some of what we worry about has validity. Writers do get dropped. Or publishing imprints do fold (see what happened to my Havenstar just when it started to fly). Books do fail to sell – even the good ones.

And maybe, just maybe – because I will never be content, my writing will get better and better as time goes by. That’s the theory, anyway.

Havenstar makes money…

…the only trouble is that it is not making money for me!

On Amazon.co.uk the secondhand price is now a whopping big 163.07 pounds sterling for one copy. (Are they mad?) Never mind, someone has it on sale for a much cheaper at 33.32 . Not happy with those prices? Pop over to Amazon.com. You can get one for $US101.

For those not in the know – Havenstar was published (under my married name) in 1999 by an sff imprint for Virgin that quickly went under, just as my book was hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon. The day it hit 81 on the top 100 list, it became unavailable as the publisher had already remaindered it. I, alas, had only two copies myself. Although I had emailed the publisher, asking to buy 100 copies, they never answered. (I guess everyone had already abandoned the sinking ship.)

Another author who has suffered a similar fate is Marcus Herniman . His Arrandin trilogy was published by Earthlight, which has also ceased publication. Book One is selling for 58 pounds upwards.

In the publishing industry such stories are common enough and you’ve just got to pick yourself up and carry on…but, oh boy, how I wish there was a law that gave me a slice of the secondhand cake.

A tribute to Dennis Yong’s Big Bird Year

Now I know a lot of people, including Malaysians, are going to look at that title and wonder what the hell I am going on about now. But there will also be a lot of people out there – from all corners of the world – who will instantly know the name Dennis Yong. He is, in his field, famous. Dennis is the consumate birdwatcher and knows more about Malaysian birds than any person alive. He is one half of a bird guiding tour company located in Kuala Lumpur (Kingfisher Tours), but he is much more than that – he is an environmentalist and the best field naturalist we have. He can tell you about everything from bears to ants to freshwater fish (another passion of his).

Going out into the rainforest with Dennis is always a fascinating learning experience. And I am always reluctant to turn in for the night on a camping trip if Dennis is there – the sitting around and yarning after a day’s work is all part of that learning. When it comes to birding and understanding the ecology of the rainforest and other tropical habitats, he has been my mentor.

And it’s been such a fun ride at the same time. I have so many memories:
Dennis spending the night in the car with two unwashed local forest guides when sun bears raided the camp kitchen; Dennis showing me my first pitta, way back when, by calling the bird in; me pulling a huge thorn out of his scalp after a peat swamp foray; us discussing whether we could really put a bottle of french wine on the expensive account when we were working for one of the world’s most exclusive (and expensive) island getaways; us getting eaten alive by sandflies one night down on that mangrove project; Dennis driving a fourwheel drive across a bridge that was more holes than boards – while I got out and walked…

So what is his Big Bird Year all about?

Malaysia has 742 birds on its national list (of which Dennis was one of the compilers.) And in 2006, he is going to try and see them all. Well, as many as possible. Why?

Well, it’s a bit like climbers and the mountains: because they are there. But it’s more than that too; it’s publicity for our avifauna and ecotourism – and how they are worthy of conservation effort. It’s a way of finding out just how easy or difficult it is to see Malaysian birds. It will provide a benchmark for the state of birds in the country. (See here for further details and updates.)

And I wish – like Tory Petersen and James Fisher back in the 1950s – he’d write a book about his Big Bird Year afterwards, but knowing Dennis and his dislike of tying himself down to a desk to do anything as prosaic as writing, I doubt it.

Good luck, Dennis. And I hope we meet up out there in the field this year as you bird you way towards 742…

Photos: Dennis and self in the field, taken by Lim Kim Chye

MAS Travel Fair – how to pay more than usual!

I feel as though I just escaped a scam.

I went along to my local travel agent to book a ticket to New York under the current travel fair cheap ticket week. Luckily for me, before I went, I checked how much a cheapest normal economy fare would be, booked on a normal day outside of the travel fair.

There are three levels of tickets on cheap offer at the travel fair. The “L” fare to NY is indeed cheap. If you could get it, you’d save something like $RM 922. Not bad. The catch is that there are very few flights where that fare is offered (and I wouldn’t mind betting only a few seats on each of those very few flights.) Unhappily, none of the dates suited me.

But never mind, there are two other levels of “cheap” tickets on offer for the duration of the fair.

But – caveat emptor – on the NY route at least, these other levels of so-called “cheap” fares are MORE expensive than the normal lowest level of economy fare.

The girl in the travel agency was taken aback when I pointed this out to her. She went to double check, and came back baffled. It really was so. So beware. Cheap travel fairs can be a way to pay more. Malaysia Boleh!

What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

We all know that feeling. You start reading a book, even perhaps a best seller, and after a few pages you think to yourself, ‘How on earth did this ever get into print? I could do better!’

When you’re unpublished, it seems unfair that someone who peppers their prose with exclamation marks and clichés, or poor grammar and clunky sentences, can find a publisher. And when you are published, it seems just as unfair that the author of that same shoddy writing gets millions while you worry about whether you’ll earn out the modest advance you got.

So how come a book like that gets published in the first place? And once published, how come it sells millions? Is it luck?

No, of course not, but it sure helps to be in the right place at the right time for the right person. And the only way you ensure that is by getting your book – the best work you can write – out there to as many people as possible. I am an object lesson when it comes to this.

My first novel was accepted by an agent just after I turned forty-five. It should have been earlier – after all, I was only seven or eight when I decided I was going to be a writer. Well, authoress was the word I used, I believe! So what the hell took me so long? I did write. I even finished books. A number of them. But I never got anywhere with them. Why not?

Because the sheer dogged determination was not there. I was too caught up in all the paraphernalia of everyday life, earning a living, raising kids…you know the story. But in this business you make your own luck by stubborn persistence, and without that drive, my books weren’t out there being seen by enough people. In effect, I wasn’t making my own luck.

Then the kids grew older and my husband took a job in Vienna, Austria. We moved into a smaller house where the housework could be done in one tenth the time and there was no wildlife sharing our living space necessitating constant cleaning (people who live in the tropics will know what I mean!). I had no full-time job so I had time to write; we weren’t earning third world salaries any more and so I had the cash to sent out a manuscript repeatedly. I got serious. I changed my luck.

That poorly written work by the now bestselling author I mentioned above? That may not have appealed to 99% of the publisher and agents who saw it originally – but it hit the right person at the right time, someone for whom the story resonated, or who realised it would resonate with the reading public. Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t like it either.

We have to accept that sometimes good writing doesn’t sell, whereas a good story can sometimes survive poor writing. It’s annoying to those who take care to craft good novels, but hey, this is a business as well as a creative art, and we have to live with it. And the best advice remains: make your own luck.

Be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch as well as a good craftsman.