Author interview: Sharon M. Johnston, speculative fiction author

This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re celebrating the arrival of two new bloggers with round-robin interviews, so you can learn more about each of us — new bloggers and old. 

Today I’m interviewing Sharon M. Johnston, who has been with Aussie Owned since it started four years ago. Welcome, Sharon!

Sharon JohnstonI often think of you as the networking guru of the Aussie Owned team. What advice would you give a new writer trying to figure out where to start?

Ahhh! *blushes*

I think one of the keys to networking is paying it forward. Jump online, connect with influences, cool people and peers, and when one of them asks for help or you see a need that you can fill, put your hand up. For me it all started on a site called Inkpop (now defunct) where you reviewed WIPs. That’s where I met Wendy Higgins, who invited me to be part of YAtopia. Then I saw Pitch Madness needed a new blog host and I offered Brenda Drake the use of YAtopia. And it just keep rolling from there.

You also mentor in a number of pitching contests. If you could recommend one contest — or one type of contest — which would it be and why?

By far my favourite pitch contest is Pitch Wars. It’s got a great reputation with agents; has a better success rate than querying; creates strong communities of writers with the mentors, mentees and applicants; and the mentor works on the WHOLE manuscript. There are not many contests that do this.

OpenHeart_seriesThe first two books in your Open Heart series, Divided and Shattered, have hit the shelves after a fairly tumultuous beginning. How would you describe the series? And what can you tell us about book three?

The series is definitely a labour of love, and had a rollercoaster ride with unprofessional publishing peeps before finding a home with City Owl Press. The series focuses on love and what it means to be human, all wrapped up with some sci-fi and fantasy fun. The first book focused on Mishca’s journey to finding out about her origins, while book two saw Mishca understand that her family may not be traditional but that it is nevertheless important, and delved more into Ryder’s past. Book three reveals to readers the truth about Nerissa, and sees Ryder reunite with his mother and Mishca succumb to her dark side. (Cass: AAAAH! Need!) In each book I reveal more to the readers about the cast of characters and what makes them the people they are.

You’ve posted on the blog before about having OCD and anxiety. Given the push for #ownvoices works in the writing community, is this something you have considered incorporating into a work of fiction? Why?

I have definitely considered writing an OCD project, especially to break down some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings around the condition. I’m very open with people about my mental health as I believe by me being honest about it with people it will demystify some of the misconceptions around mental illness. If I don’t want to have mental health treated as a stigma, it has to start with me.

Tell us about your current project.

I’m working on and off on three projects. The first one is a speculative fiction set in Brisbane around a clan of warriors responsible for delivering karma. The second is a rewrite of a far future sci-fi called Dirty Rainbow. And the third is the latest book in the Open Heart series — I need to talk to the police about what happens in a raid so I can move forward with it.

Either/or questions

Plotter or pantser? Pantser

Speculative fiction or contemporary? Speculative fiction

Dogs or cats? Cats

Coffee or tea? Neither — chai latte

Chocolate or ice cream? Both, smooshed together and covered in caramel (I think I have a problem!)

About Sharon

After growing up listening to her father reading fables and folklore, it’s no surprise Sharon loves stories. As soon as she could read, her nose was firmly in a book. She loves reading, listening to audio books and writing.

She has a gorgeous husband and two wonderful boys. Well-known for her fantastic taste in shoes, Sharon has actually been stalked by women wanting to know where she got her high heels from. She also has a love of fur-babies – cats and guinea pigs, specifically.

Blog | Facebook | Twitter

sharon-and-cass

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who one time got to help launch Sharon’s paperback, Shattered. Which was especially exciting as she (Cass) didn’t faint while public speaking. Not even once!

 

My top three romance likes and dislikes

Aussie_Vday Pink

This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re talking all things loooooove. I don’t read much pure romance but I do enjoy romantic subplots in other genres, so this got me to thinking about what romantic plotlines I love … and which ones set my teeth on edge.

Loves

Characters who are friends first. There’s no doubt that the sizzling attraction of lust-at-first-sight is a thing (and is totally hot), but I love the slow build of a relationship that turns from friendship to romance. Traditionally this is written as one person realising before the other. Then awkwardness often ensues. But still, I like the basic idea — probably because it feeds into my own experiences.

The realistically developed romance. This is tied into the point above, but it applies regardless of whether there’s an existing friendship. I’m not saying that sometimes people don’t jump straight into the sack together (that’s basically a new adult trope!), but I like it when the development of the underlying feelings happens over a period of time.

Diversity in relationships. The more LGBTIQ+ plotlines I read, the more I adore them. I don’t know what that says about my own tastes, exactly — but it’s someting awesome, for sure! 😉

Loathes

Insta-love. I know I said I like lust-at-first-sight, but love-at-first-sight? No. Nuh uh. I’ve very occasionally seen it done well, but only in instances where some supernatural element — reincarnation, say — is at play. I get really grouchy when two sensible-seeming characters decide that they are destined to be together forever after one date. Ugh.

Plots that rely on characters not communicating. I hate it when characters don’t speak their mind when everything suggests that they should, including their own personality. I once threw a book against a wall because the husband commented that his wife must really like the father of the baby she just had, and she said yes (trying to be coy and meaning it was him). He assumed she’d had an affair, because his question was in the third person. And she didn’t correct him, even though he was standing right there. (I still get mad about that.)

Broody, unpleasant love interests. You know the trope: he is a prick to her, either because he’s caught up in his own thing or he’s “trying to drive her away for her own good”. I HATE THAT AS A PLOTLINE. It’s so patronising! I’d prefer to see a man* who is willing to fess up about whatever the problem is and let the female lead decide what she’s willing to tolerate. Even worse are books where the man is “fixed” by the woman tolerating his BS until he gets over it. Ugh.

* I realise this sounds sexist, and I don’t mean it to be. I simply can’t recall ever seeing the roles reversed, with the woman driving the man away for his own good. If I read a book with that storyline, I’m sure I’d hate that too! I’m an equal-rights hater of patronising, cranky characters.

Obviously this list is highly subjective. I’d love to hear what you think, regardless of whether you agree or disagree!

Cassandra Page is a writer of speculative fiction. You can find details of her books here.

Cassandra Page

Beginning where the story starts

To celebrate the new year, most of this month’s posts will have a theme of “new beginnings”. 

One bit of advice you’ll often hear from agents and various other bookish folks — such as editors and competition judges — is to make sure your book starts in the right place. People are time-poor and there are a lot of competing entertainments, more than there were when I was a wee lass. Smart phones! Augmented reality! Reality-cooking-soap-TV shows! You need to hook the reader from the outset, draw them into the story. Start where the story actually stars, with the inciting event — not beforehand.

I’m basically giving you that same message, but thought I’d do it with song an example.

The inciting event — the first big, life-changing incident that triggers the plot — in my first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, happens at a Halloween party. That event is in the first chapter of the novel, and always was … but the first draft of that chapter started with Isla and her cousin Sarah receiving the party invitation and sorting out costumes. I’m still fond of that scene, because it sets up the relationship between the two characters, and Sarah is a lot of fun to write. But it wasn’t the best place. Isla thinking about whether she had time to get her homework done before the party wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that hooked the reader.

In my defence, it was my first novel, and I learned by making the mistake. :p

The fact my opening sucked bugged me all through drafting the book, so after I’d finished and taken the time to get a bit of distance from the writing, I went back again. (The distance is crucial. As I said, I was fond of the costume-choosing scene, which meant I needed to take the time to see it for what it was.) I cut the first part, and started the scene instead with the two girls and Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, arriving at the party. Fixed it!

Yeah, nah.

That was the version of the book I started querying. I entered it in PitchWars at the end of 2012, and the feedback I got from mentors really shook me. I was still starting in the wrong place, dammit! Again, I was still taking time to establish the characters. I had Sarah and Isla giggle over an old school crush. Dance. I thought I was setting the scene, but it was still slow.

I went back and amputated even more from the scene. By this point I’d probably removed around 2000 words (sob). Now it starts with Isla, at the party, meeting Dominic — her eventual boyfriend — and getting invited to participate in a séance. Sarah doesn’t even appear until the end of the chapter.

If you’re getting told your book starts too slowly, have a look at what you’re trying to show the reader in your opening scene. For example, say you start with your character jogging, thinking about their life (apparently this is a very common beginning, as is staring into a mirror). You want the reader to see upfront that your main character is a physical creature who has problems that need pondering. Instead, why not start with the manifestation of the problems. You can always have the character jog later, or mention the athletics trophies being knocked to the ground during the zombie attack — that sort of thing.

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, such as if your character is doing a marathon and they rupture their Achilles tendon on the first page or get hit by a car, because the rest of the story is about their healing journey.

I’d like to think I’ve learned this lesson now. I’ve started (and finished; OMG!) five other novels, and all of them have a much quicker beginning to the plot. But I learned it the hard way. Avoid my mistake, grasshopper!

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer. Her first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, is currently free in ebook format at all good (and some dubious) ebook retailers. You know, if you want to find out what happens next. 😉

Note: the featured image at the top of this post is from Shutterstock.

Cassandra Page

My top five YA reads of 2016

We’re almost at the end of 2016. It’s so close I can almost smell the beach and taste the Christmas pavlova. That means it’s time for summer reading (or winter reading, if the northern hemisphere is how you roll). So here are five of my five-star reads* from 2016**.

I’ve linked to my full review for each book if you want to investigate further. Just click on the book name in each heading.

* YA reads. And excluding books by Aussie Owned and Read bloggers. Because if I don’t narrow the category down I’ll never get the list down to five.

** I read them in 2016. They may have come out sooner than that! ***

*** Am I using too many footnotes?

‘Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ by Louise Gornall

I already blogged about this one during my post on must-read diverse books (and I could have also included the other book from that post, tbh) — but since my tastes usually run to speculative fiction, I thought I’d better include a serious contemporary for those of you that prefer your books to be unflinching, in-your-face and supernatural-free. Under Rose-Tainted Skies tells the story of a teen struggling with agoraphobia and anxiety, and it’s so engaging and heartbreaking and real.

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl’ by Melissa Keil

Cinnamon Girl is another contemporary that I loved but, where Rose is heartbreaking, Cinnamon Girl is geeky and funny and sweet. It addresses the common teen panic about the future — that “what do I do now I’ve finished school and all my friends are moving away” theme — through the mechanism of a small town and the end of the world. (It is contemporary, I swear.) Melissa Keil is a wonderful Melbourne writer and I want to be like her when I grow up. I just wish she’d been writing when I was a teen.

‘Gemina’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina is the sequel to NYT bestseller Illuminae, the groundbreaking YA sci-fi by notorious Melbourne crimefighting duo a pair of talented Melbourne* writers. It’s groundbreaking because it is presented in a “found footage” way: instant message and radio transcripts, emails, security camera footage, hand-drawn illustrations. If Illuminae is space zombies meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gemina is a mash-up of space terrorists and space, um, aliens. Like, aliens from the movie Aliens. (This isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the blurb, btw.) You really need to read both books to get a full appreciation for the story, though. Have at it!

* What is it about Melbourne, you guys?

‘Winter’ by Marissa Meyer

Winter is the fourth (or fifth if you count the novella Fairest) in the Lunar Chronicles, one of the cleverest fairytale reimaginings I’ve ever read.This series is the queen of fairy tale retellings. But not the evil queen. (Okay, maybe slightly evil.) It’s set on an alternate Earth and is a little bit sci-fi — by way of example, Cinder, the Cinderella character, is a cyborg with a detachable foot instead of an ill-fitting glass slipper. If you want a series with a fairy tale feel, some kissing and an actual, honest to goodness “they all lived happily ever after” (because it’s a fairy tale retelling and that’s obligatory), I highly recommend this entire series! But, again, start at the beginning.

‘Every Move’ by Ellie Marney

I read both Every Word (#2) and Every Move (#3) this year, after reading the first book in this Sherlock-inspired trilogy last year. All three books in the series are fast-paced, with a murder mystery, some forensic science, some heated kissing and some moments that left me reeling. The characters, James Mycroft and Rachel Watts, are one of my new favourite young adult couples. I love how realistic and awkward they are with one another. The other thing I adored was how Aussie the characters are; Ellie Marney is from Victoria (but not from Melbourne — ha!).

So, there you have it. My top five YA non-AOR reads of 2016. What are yours?

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who has a YA urban fantasy available free, and an adult urban fantasy currently on sale for $0.99. Because if you can’t shamelessly self-promote at Christmas, when can you do it?

Cassandra Page

Four ways to see your writing anew

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Drafting a novel is like hiking through a huge forest. Your approach to the impending journey may vary: some of us come up with a detailed map, set their feet on the path and power on through, while others see the edge of the trees, think “let’s see what’s in there”, and wander in. Most of us have approaches somewhere in the middle: we might know where we want to end up, but not have a specific path in mind. Almost all of us get distracted by things along the way; sometimes the distractions turn out to be just that, while other times they are a valuable addition to your journey.

But there’s an idiom that also applies to a writer who is in the middle of or has just finished drafting a novel.

I can’t see the forest for the trees.

Whether you love your work or hate it, when you type THE END, you are not seeing it clearly. Everything from being able to discern the dead wood — those scenes, characters or chapters that don’t move the story forward — to spotting typos is harder. You don’t have the altitude. You’re still in the trees.

So here are four ways to see your work differently. To get a Google maps perspective on your forest.

1. DO SOMETHING ELSE

This is the first and most important, which is why I gave it shouty caps. If you can possibly avoid it, don’t jump straight back into editing. Give the manuscript a few weeks to stew. Read a book (or five). Write something else. Go on holiday. Spend some time with the loved ones you’ve been neglecting. You’ve written a novel, which is a thing to be proud of. Celebrate, but not by re-reading it.

This point should be applied in conjunction with one or more of the other suggestions, below. The only exception is if you’re up against a hard deadline that doesn’t give you the luxury of time. I’m not talking about a pitching contest you want to enter — there will always be more pitching contests — but something with legal ramifications, like a contractual requirement.

2. Read it in hard copy

Speaking of trees (sorry about that, forests of the world)… This is my favoured approach. I wish I could get the necessary distance while still reading my words on a screen, but that’s the place where I drafted it, and I just can’t. On paper I can see misspelled or misused words, tracts of exposition — they all leap out at me. Usually I do a dirty word search before I hit print and make those amendments to the soft copy. Then I sit down with a pen and have at it.

This does have the drawback that I have to enter my edits onto the soft copy afterwards. It’s tedious but, for me, worth it.

3. Change the appearance of the words

If you draft in Arial, try looking at your manuscript in Times New Roman. Or Comic Sans MS, if that’s what floats your boat — just remember to change it back before you submit it to any agents or publishing houses. I know some people who actually format their book and read it on their Kindle, to try and put themselves into the role of a reader rather than the author.

As an aside, I do this with all my blog posts. I write them in Word, do one proofread in the WordPress data entry screen, and then do a final check in the blog preview screen.

4. Read it aloud

Obviously this is better for picking up line edit problems — passive sentences, overused words, that sort of thing — rather than structural problems. Although if you get bored reading a scene maybe that’s a sign the scene could go. There are also text-to-speech programs that you could use if you don’t want to read your 150,000-word opus aloud for fear of never being able to speak again. (And, um, if that’s your first novel I also recommend reconsidering the length…)

I’m tempted to add a fifth point here that says “see point one”, but I won’t. You get the idea.

Do you have other tricks that you use to let you see your words afresh?

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author and professional editor who has almost finished drafting her sixth novel and is itching to get stuck into the edits. 

Cassandra Page

Review: ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman

coraline

The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….

In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.

The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.

Only it’s different.

At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

Neil Gaiman is a strange author to me in some ways. I love his scripts, and his Sandman graphic novels, and those of his other books that I’ve read. But I haven’t read that many of them — and I don’t exactly know why. So when I saw Coraline at my local second-hand bookstore, I snapped it up. (The cover above is the cover of the version I own. There are prettier covers, but it does capture the weirdness pretty well.)

And no, I haven’t seen the movie either. Although now I kind of want to.

I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction yet. But this has got to be one of the best, surely.

I love Neil Gaiman’s wry humour. It’s — dare I say it — terribly British. I love how clever Coraline is, and how even when she’s scared she manages to be brave. As she said, “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.” Wise little girl.

Apparently Gaiman wrote this book for his five-year-old daughter. So either his daughter is also very brave or he’s trying to give her lots of opportunities to learn, because this is a scary-ass book. At the point where Coraline’s other mother offered to sew button eyes onto her as a mark of her acceptance into their creepy family, my own eyes bugged out a little.

There weren’t any plot twists I didn’t see coming. But this is middle grade fiction, which means the twists tend to be a little more clearly telegraphed than they would be in a book for adults. Nothing wrong with that.

There was one thing lacking from the book. Gaiman didn’t often touch on how Coraline was feeling. When she first discovered her parents were missing, it took her a full 24 hours to cry about it. This is partly because her parents are a little remote and she’s used to fending for herself, but I think it was partly a stylistic choice Gaiman made — not to wallow, or let Coraline wallow, in her emotions. Maybe he did it because the content of the story is nightmare-inducing, and if he’d described the taste of fear in the back of her throat, the shaking of her hands, it suddenly wouldn’t have been middle grade anymore?

Or maybe that’s just his style. Like I said, I haven’t read that many of his books. (Stardust was quite similar in that regard, now that I think about it.) Either way, although I noticed the lack of emotion, the extra distance that imposed wasn’t enough that I couldn’t follow or enjoy the story.

If you’re looking for a creepy Halloween read, then I’d suggest Coraline. Who needs to sleep, anyway?

AOaR_4star (3)(and a half)

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who would love to write books half as creepy as Coraline. It’s good to have goals!

Cassandra Page

Top Five Bookish Gifts for Blokes

Although Father’s Day is over for another year, at least in Australia, there are always other gift-giving occasions on the horizon. So here are some ideas for gifts for the bookish man in your life — be that your father, husband, brother or son.

Or, you know, these gifts could be for yourself, whether or not you’re a bloke. Because self-love is important and the notion of gendered gifts is a bit last-century anyway. 😉

Bookends

I’ve blogged about awesome bookends before, but that was a couple of years ago, and even if you’ve bought all of them by now surely you need more, right? Check out this little beauty by Fred & Friends. It’s called “The End”, which is pretty much perfect. Run, little bookend guy, run!

theendbookend

Available from Fred & Friends

Bookwear for work

Or maybe the person you’re buying for doesn’t need bookends because they’ve filled up all their bookshelves with (quite rightly) books. How about a bookish accessory, something to wear in the office? This tie from Alynn would definitely impress the boss. At least, it would impress me if I were the boss!

Ex Libris tie

Available from Alynn

Bookwear for play

Maybe the man in your life hates ties, or works with heavy machinery where a tie would be a workplace health and safety risk. If that’s the case, how about this adorable “Storytellers” T-shirt by vector artist Maxim Cyr, available from Threadless? Look at all the little books? There’s a Harry Potter, and a Charlotte’s Web, and aaaaah!

storytellers-t-shirt

Available from Threadless

Bookish accessories

Or maybe he has (or you have!) enough T-shirts — though I say shenanigans to that — but has an iDevice or some other brand of tablet or phone that currently has a really boooooring case. You can totally fix that! This particular example, by Customize Me on Etsy, is for an iPad Mini, but the store also has options for other brands of phone etc.

Available from Etsy

Available from Etsy

BOOKS!

Because what a bookworm needs is more books, am I right? That being said, I know it’s hard to buy books for bookworms, because you can never be sure that they won’t already own what you’re buying. In that case, why not get a book voucher. It might sound boring, but to a bookworm, a voucher for a bricks and mortar bookstore is the equivalent of a bag of money for a child in a lolly shop. Seriously. They will love you for it!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shopping. For the man in my life. Yes, that’s right.

*shifty eyes*

*flees*

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author who is currently single. So she’ll have to keep all these bookish purchases for herself. What a pity!

Cassandra Page